“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

Friday, November 18, 2011

scandal in the U.S. and France

While America has the Kardashian divorce, which brings together so many American traditions – a little Horatio Alger, a little Daisy Miller, a little Debbie does Dallas – France, too, is hosting a scandal that brings together those two great French things: psychoanalysis and grammar. I’m talking, of course, of the wonderful libel trial going on right now that pits one of Lacan’s daughter, Judith Miller, against Elizabeth Elisabeth Roudinesco. Miller is suing over a paragraph in Roudinesco’s Lacan, envers et contre tout (Seuil, 2011) (and Roudinesco is countersuing Miller). The paragraph goes like this:

:
« Lacan mourut sous un faux nom, le 9 septembre 1981, à la clinique Hartmann des suites d’un cancer du colon qu’il n’avait jamais voulu soigner. Bien qu’il eût émis le vœu de finir ses jours en Italie, à Rome ou à Venise, et qu’il eût souhaité des funérailles catholiques, il fut enterré sans cérémonie et dans l’intimité au cimetière de Guitrancourt. »
Or: “Lacan died under a false name on September 9, 1981, at the Hartmenn clinic due to the effects of a colon cancer that he never wanted to treat. Although he had emited the wish to finish his days in Italy, in Rome or in Venise, and he would have wished for a catholic funeral, he was buried without ceremony in the intimacy of the Guitrancourt cemetery.”

My translation is to the French what a mut is to a pure breed greyhound – but such is the fate of translation. In any case, the day of the hearing was packed. All the Lacanians were there. And of course, the whole case came down to how to interpret qu’il eût souhaité… The lawyers fell into a controversy about this that must have brought all those in the courtroom back to their school days – for what kind of verb tense are we talking about here? Maitre Kierjman, in a brilliant summary of the evidence of the case, appealed to the heart and soul of all present by plunging into this issue:

« Le plus-que-parfait du subjonctif marque généralement une proposition à valeur conditionnelle. Son emploi est dicté par la conjonction « bien que » (« bien qu’il eût souhaité »), qui introduit une proposition dite « concessive » qui peut être lue comme ayant valeur indicative ou conventionnelle. Mais, ce qui doit être souligné ici, c’est la concordance des temps et le fait que le plus-que-parfait vient marquer une action révolue et antérieure à celle de la proposition principale »

Well, that settles that! However, Assoulline’s numerous commenters (his article received a Kardashianistic 325 responses) plunged as Frenchly as possible in disputing this interpretation:

“Débat grammatical qui rappelle « Le barbier de Séville » mais Me Kiejman possède moins bien sa langue que Beaumarchais. « Bien que » introduit une concession, c’est à dire une opposition, pas une condition (confusion avec le conditionnel passé 2 ?). D’autre part il s’agit dans le choix du temps, « eût souhaité » et non pas » souhaitât », de logique et non de concordance des temps : « souhaitât » eût marqué (valeur conditionnelle) une simultanéité impossible puisqu’on l’enterrait à ce moment là.”

For those who’ve fought their way through the French conditional and subjunctive, having only English – the language of servants! - as their guide, it is good news that the French themselves have a hard time understanding how they are using it.

Kierjman also told the jury that he had consulted Poe’s Purloined Letter and Lacan’s essay on it in composing her defense. Miller is of course defending herself like an Antigone who just happened to defy her brother’s wishes – or did she know those wishes better than Roudinesco? The Millerian faction is claiming that Roudinesco is suffering from the delusion that she is somehow related to Lacan – maybe the true daughter! – which, such is the work of the unconscious in the courtroom, was symbolized by Kierjman’s slip when he called his client « Mme Lacan”.

I predict that this case will be of the kind that Freud called Interminable analysis.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The nature in the Natural History of Religion: 4


Within the circles of the New Learning in the 17th century, a relatively new word was bandied about to take the place of what their ancestors would have called paganism or idolatry: polytheism. (Schmidt, 1985). When, in 1639, Edward Herbert sat down to write De Religione Gentilium, translated as ‘The antient religion of the gentiles” by a Mr. W. Lewis in 1705, he used “polytheism” to broaden the humanist notion of non-Christian religions. Herbert, who may not have been a deist himself, was certainly looked as a precursor by eighteenth century deists, who adopted his history of religion. It went like this: in the beginning, men worshipped one supreme God – the thought of whom was written on their hearts – but they had an unclear view of the difference between the universe and the creator of the universe. Over time, priests and then ‘imposters’ arose, who exploited the people’s awe before the sky, the sun, the moon and the stars to make these the objects of adoration. Always, of course, the people had a notion of the one Supreme God, but as these objects were adored, they gradually acquired the status of sub-gods, of separate intelligences.

The deists of the 18th century thus were rooted in the kind of thinking that, at least partly, John Locke tried to destroy: the kind of thinking that goes back to innate ideas. However, the deists used a rhetoric that was peculiarly suited to the 18th century views of the philosophes, with their emphasis on the adoration of one God, rather than the multiple cults to saints, the virgin, and the criminal who claimed to be God’s son in long ago Judea.

Hume was inclined to see Locke’s side of things, as far as the roots of our knowledge go; and he was also inclined to take the Presbyterian side in constructing the history of religion. Calvin, who used the word idolatry, poured scorn on the idea that the first humans were monotheists. If, as Scripture shows, they were filled with lust, disobedient, and murderers at the slightest provocation, why should we credit them with the virtue of worshipping the one true God?

Thus, in one way, Hume’s Natural History of Religion – which may seem to the modern reader to be a blow against Christianity – can as well be read a conservative counter-blow to deist nonsense, inserted into Hume’s larger project of clarifying the sources of our knowledge.

But this is a text that is definitely over-determined. Calvin’s view of history was essentially static – notwithstanding the extra-historical event of Christ’s birth and death. Hume’s was not. As he makes clear from the beginning, he fully accepts the enlightenment view of progress, and in fact, in a twist, he uses the deists language to describe it: from our current spiritual knowledge, derived from understanding that the perfect design of the universe implies a perfect designer, we can establish a footing in scientific reality, so to speak, by which to go back and survey the history that led up to us – us middling men, us common sense clerks, us the enlightened. It is with religion as it is with the other human arts and sciences: “ We may as reasonably imagine that men inhabited palaces before huts or cottages, or studied geometry before agriculture, as assert that the Deity appeared to them a pure spirit, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, before he was apprehended to be a powerful, though limited being, with human passions and appetites, limbs and organs.” (4)

Hume doesn’t just aim to reverse the order that the deists establish: putting polytheism before monotheism. He also wants to account for religion itself. Thus, the historical problem becomes a psychological and metaphysical one – as it was for Herbert as well. Having eliminated the idea that the barbarous, necessitous animal, man, had the innate idea of God inscribed on his heart, Hume next looks at the seemingly empirical explanation: that man looked around at the heavens, the earth, the sky, the moon and the stars, and was so overawed by their splendor that he elevated them to the status of Gods. Herbert’s argument was that the religion of the pagans could not be understood outside of the symbols that formed, as it were, a language underneath the language of the cults. The symbols were necessitated by the great fact that the supreme God was invisible: invisibility is a great motive force and determinant of religion in Herbert as well as Hume. Herbert attached himself to the ancient explanation that the sun was worshipped at first as the natural symbol of the great invisible power, and then, gradually, in a sort of eclipse of the symbolic function, as the God himself.

Hume disputes that this could possibly be the case, as it would entail a sense of metaphor and, beyond that, of generalities that the vulgar could not have had, or could not have been interested in. Their leisure and work was all, in Hume’s view, taken up by local matters, not the framing of general hypotheses. Out of this view comes, perhaps, the most interesting and influential idea in the Natural History. Instead of deist’s insistence on awe – the philosophical sensation – Hume insists on the mediation of the passions:

“We may conclude, therefore, that in all nations which have embraced polytheism, the first idea of religion arose not from a contemplation of the works of nature, but from a concern with regard to the events of life, and from the incessant hopes and fears which actuate the human mind.”

Tossing out contemplation is consistent with tossing out indolence of a certain type. For Hume, the round of little life for the mass is a total thing. And yet, outside of the Natural History, he certainly recognizes that contemplation or awe arises in ordinary life. In a letter to a friend about the time in which he is composing the Natural History, Hume promotes a now forgotten Scottish poet named Wilkie (Hume was always a great promoter of Scots literature, against the ‘criticklings’ of London) and relates the following anecdote:

“You know he is a farmer’s son, in the neighbourhood of this town, where there are a great number of pigeon-houses. The farmers are very much infested with the pigeons, and Wilkie’s father planted him often as a scarecrow (an office for which is well qualified) in the midst of his fields of wheat. It is in this situation that he confessed he first conceived the design of his epic poem, and even executed part of it. He carried out his Homer with him, together with a table, and pen and ink, and a great rusty gun. He composed and wrote two or three lines, till a flock of pigeons settled in the field, then rose up, ran towards them, and fired at them; returned again to his former station and added a rhyme or two more, till he met with a fresh interruption.”

It is a humorous image. In the movie Jude, which is taken from Jude the Obscure, Michael Winterbottom creates a harsher version of a boy being employed as a scarecrow – put out in long, lonely fields with a noisemaker. The boy is Jude, who we know will fight, in vain, against the class rigidity of Victorian England to have himself accepted as a scholar. Hume’s friend, however, is already the son of a farmer and on his way to the ministry. Still, the image and its uses are striking.

Yet in the Natural History, Hume sticks to the idea that the vulgar, its mind still mostly too blank, or two written over by the common business of life, to produce any epic concept, produces an epic concept – God – only, as it were, by accident. Out of the intersection of the local forces of nature (which give us not the serene sense of design, but a bumpy sense of chance and change, wrapped around the continuities of season, sunrise and sunset), man produces supernatural powers: “But what passion shall we here have recourse to, for explaining an effect of such mighty consequence? Not speculative curiosity surely, or the pure love of truth. That motive is too refined for such gross apprehensions; and would lead men into apprehensions of the whole frame of nature; a subject too large and comprehensive for their narrow capacities. No passions, therefore, can be supposed to work upon such barbarians but the ordinary affections of human life; the anxious concern for happiness, the dread of future misery, the terror of death, the thirst of revenge, the appetite for food and other necessities.”

Nature, then, is read through the constituents of human life. Out of feeling, we project – a magic word, not used by Hume but surely signaled, here – upon the storm anger, and upon the sunlight mercy.

John Farrell, in Freud’s Paranoid Quest: psychoanalysis and modern suspicion, has noticed that Hume’s epistemology seems to tie in very well with Freud’s notion of projection.

“Such ‘projections’ of the empirical subject onto the data of experience are, for Freud, a normal, unavoidable part of life: “For when we refer causes of certain sensations ot the external world, instead of looking for them, as in other cases, within, this normal proceeding is projection.” Or, as Hume would have it, ‘If we believe, that fire warms, or water refreshes, ‘tis only because it costs us too much pains to think otherwise.”

Interestingly, this edifice depends for its credibility upon a class distinction – between the barbarian and the man who has reached the shore of civilization. Hume’s very tone, in the Natural History, tells us that he is such a man. But he is also the man who, younger, found himself unable to reach that shore at all as he contemplated the notion of cause, and saw the world fall apart in his mind as he could not comprehend nor justify it through reason. What holds the two figures together, I think, is that common sense is returned to – and in that return, is made the subject of a certain irony that makes it hard to know, in the end, how to take Hume’s paen to the designer of a universe in which things fit so perfectly. It is more than a paen – it is our footing in the reality of the present that allows us to go back and reconstruct the past. If there is no spiritual progress, that reconstruction is epistemologically equal to the constructs of the past, and even, dare one say it, to those made up by the barbarian scarecrow in the wheatfield, the child abandoned by a class system that, to him, looks like barbarity in its final state, the parts all neatly designed to exclude thought and crush all passions that are not of use to it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Larry Summers and Inequality

Felix Salmon wrote a very thoughtful account of the Larry Summers/Paul Krugman debate that occurred in Toronto on earlier this week. The account made me wonder, for the thousandth time, about Larry Summers – genius or cretin?

Here’s the passage that made me press my vote for the latter:

Summers also tried to defend inequality, at least in part, by saying that “suppose the United States had 30 more people like Steve Jobs” — that, he said, would be a good thing even as it increased inequality. “So we do need to recognize that a component of this inequality is the other side of successful entrepreneurship; that is surely something we want to encourage.” This might have been received better had Summers not earlier praised America, while pointing to Bremmer, as “the only country in the world where you can raise your first $100 million before you buy your first suit and tie”.
Bremmer is undoubtedly a rich and successful entrepreneur — and one who never wears a tie, to boot — but he’s making money entirely from the 0.1%, and at heart Eurasia Group’s business model is one which does better as the ultra-rich get richer. In the context of a debate about how to rescue the economy for the other 99% of us, it doesn’t much help to point to One Percenters like Jobs and Bremmer who have managed to do well for themselves in an otherwise stagnant economy.”
Salmon’s problem with Summers claim doesn’t seem, well, systematic enough, but at least it touches on the randomness of Summers’ claim. In fact, the Steve Jobs example falls squarely in the realm of pundit science, in which one uses some random example that has a sentimental hold on the audience to make a general point that is wholly lacking in other empirical support.
Summers notion that we would not have technological innovation, or at least diffusion, is really a matter that has been researched. In fact, it can be investigated in a number of ways. We can ask whether wealth inequality is really, throughout history, the only driver of innovation. We can ask if other kinds of inequality will work as well – for instance, being honored for merit. We can ask if inequality is even necessary – for instance, does a kind of non-monetary, non-honorific ideal also work to induce technological breakthrough. And we can ask, more narrowly, whether there is a metric by which we can measure business innovation and compare periods when there was less wealth inequality and periods when there were more as to groundbreaking technological breakthroughs.
If we want to have a coarse measure of the technology/inequality relation, we could look to eras where inequality was lessening and eras were it was increasing in the 20th century and ask if the eras of inequality increase correspond to technology breakthroughs. I think Summers would be disappointed: the major technology breakthroughs of the twentieth century, in chemicals, communication, medicine, computing, and agriculture all cluster in the 30s to 70s period. Well, to be fair, not all – transportation and radio were certainly transformed in the high inequality twenties. But the roots of the technologies in play were certainly due to state intervention and progressive programs in the 10s – the American car industry, for instance, was birthed by an almost prohibitive tariff congress let fall on foreign automobiles.
What you do find in the high inequality periods is a more intense diffusion of innovation. This, it must be said, seems to have come to an end, in America, in the 2000s, which was a dead zone in terms of major innovation. Whether a lesser inequality would have impeded the diffusion of technological products is an interesting question. Certainly, to an extent, the chance for profit – and hence, for some inequality – has helped inject innovations into the mainstream of so
Penicillin – its discovery, diffusion and patenting – is a classic case of the question of money vs. the social ideal. As is well known, neither Fleming, who discovered penicillin, nor Ernest Chain or Howard Florey, the Oxford chemists who re-discovered Fleming’s work in 1940, wanted to patent the drug. They couldn’t even see that it was the kind of thing that was patentable. The myth is that when penicillin was taken to America, Americans had a much different sentiment, and stole penicillin from the British. In a paper surveying this history, however, Robert Bud (2008) shows that the Americans were very hesitant about allowing private companies to patent materials or processes for which public research money had been granted.
“In the USA, similarly, the benefits of publicly-funded research were reviewed. A three
volume study of federal regulations was published in 1946 with a view to standardizing the
diverse regulations which had emerged across the public sector.56 Some agencies allowed exclusive
licenses to private contractors – essentially assigning them the patents, others permitted only
non-exclusive licenses. The report came down firmly on the side of the latter. Research funded
from federal funds was kept in the public domain. It was not as if the turbulent wartime years had
never been. The number of university owned patents increased from a handful during the 1930s
to about a 100 in 1950, but they did not keep multiplying, and did not exceed 150 until the end of
the 1960s.57 Penicillin development had disrupted the old world, rather than leading directly to
the new.
Even US pharmaceutical companies experienced the fruits of ambivalence about patenting.
In the 1950s the price of penicillin collapsed as new entrants piled into the industry, whose product
had not been patented. However there was a determination that the newer antibiotics, such as
the tetracyclines, should be much more closely controlled by US patents and their price was kept
from collapse. During the late 1950s the patent and profit mindedness of the industry was challenged
by both the Federal Trade Commission and the Senate as prewar concerns were brought
to bear on the newly booming pharmaceutical industry. Campaigners who in the 1930s had seen
patenting as a cause of the Great Depression continued their struggles through the 1950s, particularly
deploying Senate support.58 Gradually, however, the emphasis moved from a concern with
patents to anxieties about safety. Although the outcome would be the strengthening of the Food
and Drug Administration as the guardian of the public interest, the right to patent was untouched.”

This story, rather than some random reference to St. Steven Jobs, has much more relevance to the question of the benefits of inequality. And it completely fails to validate Summers idea that if a man can’t be a billionaire, well technology will grind to a halt and our skyscrapers will fall.
Like so much of what Summers utters, his argument is bogus from the get go. But he continues to wow the rubes, including the ones at 1200 Pennsylvania Ave.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A more portable occupy wall street?

Occupy Wall Street seems to have adapted the tactic of the 30s Hoovervilles, and to have evoked a response from the governing class in the U.S. that is identical, almost to the letter, to that of Hoover to the veterans in D.C. But there is another tactic that the protestors in Hoover’s time did not possess: that “real time” link that comes with the web. Watching the police beat up Berkeley students and professors in the videos (such as here) means that the lies of the media can almost immediately be found out by the interested cybernaut.
The question is, how much does the interested cybernaut count?

I have been reflecting, from this apartment in Paris, about the difficult winter that lies ahead for these American troops, these soldiers of the 99 percent. My suggestion is that the Occupy movement become temporarily portable. That is, it will switch between on-site occupations and media occupations. I don’t really believe that the movement will die because the establishment press, having failed at mockery, is now trying to tabloid the movement to death, with fake concerns about violence and drug use. The tabloiding will, however, cause the support for OWS to fall in the polls. It is at this point that ever new tactics have to be used to fight back. To my mind, the teach in and ‘hearings’ may be the best method. The OWS can and should issue ‘subpoenas’ to, say, those who received golden parachutes from Bank of America and those who were just laid off with the usual kurtness to investigate unemployment in America, and how it works. Would the golden parachuters come?Of course not. But it would be easy to represent them – any grad economics student could fill in their place. By such devises, the ows people can really take the debate out of the hands of the establishment media.

The occupation movement, so far, has been brilliant at bringing imagination back to the political process. Un autre effort, messieurs et madams, si vous voulez etre libre!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Marie Antoinette's neoliberalism

The story of the economic crisis in Europe, as in the Anglosphere, is actually simple at the root. Two pages into Maurizio Franzini’s article, Why Europe Needs a Policy on Inequality, the reader trips over this paragraph:

“The proportion of the European workforce with a labour compensation per hour (wages plus social contributions) declining in real terms was 16.5% in the years 1996-1999 and 33% in 2003-2006. Moreover, 48% of the workforce during 1996-1999 and 61% during 2003-2006 saw their labour compensation per hour growing, on average, less than their labour productivity per hour. In the latter period, 23% of the workforce faced declining compensation with increasing labour productivity in their industry.”

There is a specter haunting the developed countries – the specter of the increase of exploitation. Wages are continuing to fall below the increase in productivity, and this means (sound the trumpets, please): you get one of those garden variety shortfalls of demand, and oversupply of goods, that so puzzles your elite capitalist type. He scratches his head, and then he dreams up his solution to the problem: why not reward the rich even more money, and take away the package of compensation (in the form of public goods) from the rest of the population? Somehow, a solution in which the elites engross even more of the collective wealth goes over well with the elites. They start writing grave articles about it. And sometimes they just throw together a mishmash of contradictions and claim that it is a program for the ages – thus, the current fad for expansionary contraction, which, like virgin births and perpetual motion machines, is proof that the verbal is triumphantly infinite, while the material is sadly limited to what can actually happen.

The poetic origin of the expansionary contraction comes from that mythical phrase of Marie Antoinette’s, let them eat cake. The EU bureaucrats have iced that phrase nicely with econo-speak, but strip off the icing and it’s the same old cake.

Here’s another passage from Franzini that should poke a hole in the American myth of Europe as a land of socialist equality:

“According to one study inequality in the EU is quite high but lower than in the USA: the Gini index is (with reference to data around 2000) 0.33 in the EU25, while it
was 0.37 in USA.

A more recent estimate based on a different methodology and on more recent data (2005) concludes that inequality in Europe is significantly higher, and not uch different from that of the USA: the EU-wide Gini coefficient is 0.369, not very far from the US level of
0.372.”

When people refer to Gini coefficients, it loses the great mass of people. But it actually does give us a way of thinking back through our recent cycle of exploitation. And interesting experiment in this vein was made by Stephen Adair, a professor in Connecticut. He took the Census’s Gini coefficient, that is, the measure of inequality, and he adjusted it back to its former levels in Connecticut and played the tape of inequality, so to speak, forward.

First, some back data: “Between 1970 and 2010, every state in the U.S. experienced an increase in inequality, but non greater than Connecticut, which went from the 36th most unequal state to the 2nd most unequal.”

Adair keeps the size of the income pool the same in one scenario, but adjusts the Gini coefficient down to the 1970 level. In Scenario b, he projects a neo-liberal distribution pattern by growing the size of the income pool, and retaining current levels of inequality. This is what he gets in Scenario A:

“…. a Connecticut in which the overall size of the income pool is the same, while hundreds of thousands of people experience significant upward mobility. This upward mobility is “achieved” by lowering the average value of those making over $200,000 from $387,650 to $235,000. It is not mathematically possible to keep the average household income the same and reduce the Gini to .337 without lowering this value. Scenario A illustrates a zero-sum game in which a decline in the incomes of the richest 8 percent “pay” for upward mobility for others.”

Here’s the neo-liberal scenario:

”Scenario B … maintains the Gini coefficient of 2010, but imagines a 10 percent increase in income levels by raising the household mean income to just over $102,290. Given the current distribution nearly half of the new income went to the top 10 percent, such the average income of households making over $200,000 went from $387,650 to $440,400.

Scenario B yields small increases in the number of households in each category above $45,000 and some small decreases in the lower income categories. There are, however, significantly greater reductions in the low income categories in Scenario A than in B, and greater increases in most of the upper income categories. .

Well over ninety percent of households in Connecticut would be more likely to experience an improved economic condition by returning to the rates of inequality in 1970 with no economic growth than they would with a 10 percent overall increase in the income pool with no change in the degree of inequality.”

We are drifting towards the wreck of the plutocracy. Scenario B is not going to happen – rather, we are going to have an overall shrinkage of the income pool, and an overall increase in inequality, given current tendencies. It is over, in the EU and the U.S., in the UK and Canada, with the fiction that we can join together a gilded age economy and a New Deal social welfare system. The plutocrats are fighting for the former, and nobody is fighting for the latter.