“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, April 16, 2011

notes on paris

So: I walk down rue Rambuteau past the Beaubourg to a Lebanese sandwich stand; I buy a chicken Shawarma to go; I notice, with pleasure, that they have put the fries inside the sandwich, like I like it; I pay for it and press on with my quest to find a bike stand, all the while eating my sandwich and feeling an immense satisfaction that I am walking, this morning, in Paris.

Heres’s the thing: I am, for once in my life, impressed with myself.

Here’s the other thing: I realize that this feeling is quite absurd. I have stuffed my mouth with sandwiches in other villes – in Santa Fe, Austin, New Haven, New Orleans, Atlanta. But Paris is different. The difference, no doubt, is due to the fact that I stuffed my head with literature and Paris since I discovered serious novels and masturbation, when I was 13. Or perhaps I discovered serious novels second. If I hadn’t read Pound, Baudelaire, Stein, Hemingway, Henry Miller, and Balzac, perhaps I wouldn’t feel the ordinary sights beat down upon me like emblems I have somehow re-discovered, emblems of the thing I tried to build up in myself, painfully and – after a while – more out of habit than of any intention. That thing – the cultivated man.

Perhaps if I was a certain type of singer and came to Austin, I would feel the same way, walking past Antones, as I do biking past the Hotel de Ville. And in Austin, I did feel a certain well being on a Saturday afternoon when I sat down with a book, or some editing work, in Whole Foods and drank my coffee and looked about me and almost feel in love with the health and wealth of my fellow Americans, stocking up all around me. I loved their air of ambition, sitting at the tables in that part of the store where we all came to eat lunch, - whether aspiring for serenity through Native American massage or aspiring for hits creating a website for some upscale sports shoes store. But really, for the most part of the past eleven years that I spent in Austin, I mainly felt that something had gone seriously wrong with me and the country, and much as I tried to love my aspiring neighbor, I fell into the bad habit of condemning him for the rape of Falluja in my heart. Me and the country were both going through a personality change that felt like a nervous breakdown. The Bush years scraped its fingernails on the blackboard 24/7, and I couldn’t get enough of it, couldn’t wait to poison myself with the next day’s headlines. I responded to all this with a piece of internal terrorism all my own: I blew my brain up. So the happy ambitious people bugged me, seriously. For the one thing they didn’t aspire to was getting the country back.

My own personal breakdown was compounded by the multiple ways I failed as a writer during the Jr. years. I failed, most notably, in the one critical test that any writer must pass: I failed to get anyone interested enough in my writing to pay me money to get more of it. Besides, that is, the freelance dribs and drabs. Samuel Johnson, who had the soul of a union boss, famously said that nobody but a blockhead ever wrote but for money. This is a pretty exact statement of the case. This doesn’t mean the blockhead writer is necessarily bad, but it does mean he or she is a blockhead. That was the group I fell into. I could even feel the block attached to my neck some days, and some months, whole months, I’d have a crick in my neck. Block heads are bad for the neck and back.

I can’t say I fled to Paris to escape the seasons of down and out. No, my life got better, and my head was freed, before Paris. This was because I fell in love and finally figured out – or, rather, some collective unconscious inside me, emanating from the dearest wishes of every cell, be it of toenail, spleen, or heart, figured out - how to be loved. To be loved may be a passive form of verb, but I can assure you it is existentially active. Don’t mistake the accidents of grammar for descriptions of the world – otherwise, you are so fucked.

But this is another story…

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

another 30 and we're done!

There is a crap statistic that is often passed around on the right about taxes, summed up in this headline form Heritage Foundation: “The Top 10 Percent of Income Earners Paid 71 Percent of Federal Income Tax.”
I am always tickled by this meme, because at the same time, when the Right isn’t thundering about taxes, they will also crow about the benefits of the American economy in the age of freemarket globalisation – among which is the enormous increase in wealth of the top ten percent. Or, as the right likes to put it, the normalization of the millionaire next door.

Put these two memes together and it becomes obvious that the wealthiest can pay 70 percent of the U.S. income tax without breaking a sweat. Their enormous engrossment of higher and higher percentages of the national wealth – the latest figures show that the top 1 percent control some 36 percent of the national wealth. This is a stat from the uber-right Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, the bottom 90 percent hold an astonishingly small 25 percent of the national wealth.

These stats should be carved into the liberal mind with a power drill. Because – alas! – the liberal mind keeps thinking that the bottom 90 percent is going to have to pay more taxes for, well, something – Medicare, social security, our wonderful war machine.

The usually level headed Digby quotes with approval a journalist who is proposing a ‘left’ alternative to the Ryan budget to get rid of the deficit. Special gold stars for those who notice what is wrong with this proposal:
“An equally extreme proposal on the left would balance the budget, first, by raising new taxes--on everybody and, most likely, with particular levies on carbon.”

This is simply nutty.

Here’s what an equally extreme proposal on the left would look like: lets balance the budget by raising taxes on the richest ten percent alone. Let’s raise those taxes so that they pay 100 percent of the income tax in America. Let’s drop the federal income tax load to all individuals in the bottom 90 percent to approximately zero.

That’s right, zero.

This would not dent the lifestyles of the rich and the famous. They would still be as rich as fuck. However, if you wanted to do one thing to create instant wealth in households all across America, that one thing would be simply getting rid of the delusion that taxes are like church tithes. They aren’t. America doesn’t need the widow’s mite. America needs the hedgefunder’s billion.

I find it puzzling that liberals have not figured out that the shift in the composition of wealth in this country gives them an extremely popular issue. Instead, liberals think of themselves as the spinach party. I say no in thunder. I say desserts for the masses. I say let us eat cake. Why raise taxes on everybody? There is no reason that the household making 50 thousand dollars should pay a penny more in taxes at any level - their taxes should be heading downward. If we are really going to all "benefit" from globalisation, the simplest way to do so is to redefine what it means to be rich. To be rich should mean not only engrossing an absurd amount of the national wealth, but paying all the national taxes, save for FICA. Every bit. The right has inadvertently shown the way, here. We have merely to follow.
But how about the Galtian thesis. They might move? I'd love it. Then we could get into serious wealth taxes on the assets they have in the U.S. But in fact they aren’t going to go anywhere. Wealth, we are assured, is extremely sneaky peteily fast. But as we all observed in the crisis, when the crunch came, the rich had nowhere to hide. If it wasn’t for Uncle Sam loaning the banks their little dribs and drabs of billions (adding up to 9 trillion loaned at 0.07 interest between 2008 and 2010), the rich would be out there doing real work, cleaning plates and putting the white stripes down the center of roads. When taxes on millionaires were at 90 percent in the Eisenhower era, there's no evidence that millionaires were buffaloing it to Batista’s Cuba and Ireland. They will moan, they will groan, they will find loopholes. Others who want the millions (and realize that when tax time is over, they still have millions) will take their place. Social mobility, quoi? Survival is to the fittest, and we do want to breed the finest, Galt-ian wealthy. Over time, they will buy enough politicians to lower their rates once again, and we will have to revisit this. Such is history.

Taxing the rich isn't complicated. Let's do it under the slogan: ANOTHER 30 AND WE’RE DONE!

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Nietzschian we

As I wrote in the last post, Nietzsche’s preface to Daybreak begins on a note of anaphoric ambiguity. Although the English translators have decided that the subterranean is a subterranean “man”, the German is not so inexorable – in fact, it seems to softly bore its way back to the animal, to the mole.

The mystery of the pronouns, here, is not confined to the first paragraph. To make my next move in uncovering the logic of the subterranean, I need to reference a few lateral ‘philological’ issues to show that the pronoun has a philosophical weight.

In one of the most famous essays in linguistics, Shifters, verbal categories, and the Russian verb, Roman Jakobson presented a schema of four reflexive relations between code – some particular symbolic form – and the message – some content or signification: 1) the message that refers to the message - which gives us all kinds of reported speech; 2) the code that refers to the code – which gives us proper names; 3) the message that refers to the code, which gives us “any elucidating interpretation of words or signs”; and finally 4) the code that refers to the message, which gives us the shifter.

The shifter is one of the most interesting and often written about category of code/message relations. This is because the code that refers to the message – the fact that a message is an act of enunciation – gives us, among other things, our persons. As Jakobson wrote, the mystery of how to define the “I”, which seems empty of any absolute reference, is solved when one sees that the reference is not to something the I represents outside of the enunciative situation, but must refer, instead, to the status of I as an indexical symbol. Jakobson remarks that the shifter has a special place in the onto-genesis of language: ‘The indexical symbols, and in particular the personal pronouns, which the Humboldtian tradition conveives of as the most elementary and primitive stratum of language, are, on the contrary, a complex category where code and message overlap. Therefore pronouns belong to the late acquisitions in child language and to the early losses in aphasia.” As Jakobson points out, the child often has to negotiate the use of I and you, and figure out how to substitute the I for his or her own name: “This attitude may persevere as an infantile survival. Thus Guy de Maupassant confessed that his name sounded quite strange to him when pronounced by himself.”

Roland Barthes saw that this childish insecurity was the mark of the writer. In an essay on Proust, Barthes remarks on the fact that Brichot, one of Proust’s characters, is reproached with using “I” too much in his articles on the war, and responds by changing the ”I”s to ‘ones”(ons)

“… the problem, for the writer, is not in fact to express or mask his “I’ (Brichot naively does not succeed in doing that and in fact, besides, has no desire to), but to shelter it, that is to say, at the same time, to protect it and lodge it.”

Taking up the thread from Jakobson’s comment about the enfant and the aphasic, Barthes includes in this low company the writer:

In the second degree, which is always that of literature, the writer facing the I is in the same situation as the infant or the aphasic, accordingly as he is a novelist or a critic. Like the child who says his proper name in speaking of himself, the novelist designates himself across an infinity of third persons, but this designation is not at all a disguise, a projection or a distance (the child is not disguising himself, nor is he dreaming or distancing himself); it is on the contrary an immediate operation, carried out in an open fashion, imperiously (nothing is clearer than the “ones” of Brichot), and of which the writer has need in order to speak of himself across a normal message (and no longer “straddling” it [via a shifter –R], fully issued from the code of others, in such a way that to write, far from referring to an expression of subjectivity, is on the contrary the very act which converts the indexical symbol (a bastard) into a pure sign. The third person is thus not a ruse of literature, but it is an act of institution preceding any other: to write is to decide to say ‘he” (and to be able to say it).”
The Nietzschean paradox is that Barthes’ “he”, burrowing towards the surface, does not know if it is a man or an old mole.

And this paradox is derivative of another textual trait: the Nietzschean “we’. Daybreak was finished by the end of 1881, while the preface to it was attached in 1886. During this period of time, Nietzsche developed an affection amounting to a mania for a certain kind of “we” in which he could, as Barthes writes, shelter. But what kind of shelter is this?

In the preface, for instance, there are the following we-s: wir Philosophen, wir Deutschen von heute, wir Pessimisten, wir Menschen des Gewissens, wir Immoralisten, wir Gottlosen von heute. This leads us to the beginning of the fifth section, which begins with a drumroll of we:

Zuletzt aber: wozu müßten wir das, was wir sind, was wir wollen und nicht wollen, so laut und mit solchem Eifer sagen? Sehen wir es kälter, ferner, klüger, höher an, sagen wir es, wie es unter uns gesagt werden darf, so heimlich, daß alle Welt es überhört, daß alle Welt uns überhört!

(But at last: why do we have to say, so loudly and with such eagerness, what we are, what we want and don’t want? Lets look at it colder, more distantly, more cleverly, at a greater height, lets say it as it must be said among ourselves, so stealthily, that all the world overhears it, that all the world overhears us!”

The first thing to point out about the Nietzschian we is that it is vatic – it prophesizes a place for the speaker among a certain community. The prophesy has been so completely fulfilled, since 1886, that one does not blink at Nietzsche including himself among the philosophers – or as in other texts, among the psychologists, or among the artists, etc. Of course, he was a professor of philology. What we don’t blink at betrays a certain hidden anachronism – we project Nietzsche’s future back upon Nietzsche’s present. In his “Dialogue concerning the fait divers”, Jean Paulhan points out that the trope of the hidden anachronism is one of the commonplaces of journalism - one of its more insidious traps:

M: In this regard, I read a very curious fait divers:

Noisy-le-Sec – The robber, Louis Verget, surprised by Mrs. Smith in the course of unpacking her establishment, strangled her. When Mrs. Smith breathed her last, the murderer finished stealing from her: he only found one hundred francs and a watch.

R.M. I only see the most ordinary, and sad things there.
M. Yes, everything is not in the pink in the life of a robber. But wait: I haven’t told you the headline: a murder for one hundred francs.
R.M. In fact, this is a singular headline.
M. It could be the most reasonable thing in the world: in being a murderer, Louis Verget only made one hundred francs (which is little).
R.M. Yes.
M. But isn’t it clear that this sense, which may be wise, is not the real sense.
R.M. I fear that it is not difficult to disengage the real sense. Grossly speaking, this is what I see: that it is more base and criminal to kill for 100 francs than for a million, I suppose.
M.Not perhaps more criminal, but certainly more disgusting. This makes our man a dirty brute.
R.M. But is he really such a brute?
M. Now we are getting there. If he had discovered a thousand francs, or ten thousand, do you think he would have left it?
R.M. No.
M: It is thus a question of the most implausible fantasy. Remark, however, that it seemed acceptable to our journalist, and without a doubt to his readers. Myself, I was caught.
R.M. We return to our illusions. It is enough that the adventure ends with the stealing of one hundred francs that we are naturally disposed – and nothing resists it with too much force – to admit that our murderer only had it in his head, from the beginning, to gain his one hundred francs.”[My translation, Paulhan, OC 2)

This slight but terrifying disconnect between what is before and after is among the things sheltered in the Nietzschian we. And it is also from that ‘intemporality’ that Nietzsche seems, in the preface as well as in many other texts, to oscillate between a slightly mocking claim to a community that, in truth, he was not a part of and a loneliness so lonely that he was dead in it – he was buried, he was a mole, he was gone down into the ground.