“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, June 23, 2012

reading the classics

Calvino begins his essay, Why read the Classics, by defining them in terms of a characteristic phrase: “I am re-reading x” The classics are haunted, as it were, by re-reading. We re-read in the classroom to answer questions (a site Calvino, I think mistakenly, throws out of consideration – an awful lot of reading is tied to the classroom, and it often seems that when we re-read on our own, the ghost of a classroom desk trails behind us, with its pencil groove and its slight, metallic smell – mixed in my case with the smell of a brown bag and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in wax paper ). We re-read outside of the classroom because, a, we are defensive about not having read,and want to make it known that we, too, have already read, and b, (the meat of Calvino’s theme), even when reading the first time, the classic imposes it scale on us, one that suggests an infinity of re-readings. When reading a classic, we cannot “escape” its design. In this sense, the classic is the opposite of escapist literature. We read that to get “lost”, by which we mean ‘lost’ from our everyday routines, our ordinary world, the one outside the book. It isn’t that we do not get lost in the classics – but it is a different kind of lost. It is all about disorientation and fate. Freud, in his essay on the uncanny, tells a story about getting lost in Rome, and finding that, over and over again, he has taken the wrong roads, which keep leading him back to a doubtful neighborhood. A neighborhood, we assume, that is a redlight district. Thus, in one sense, from the perspective of the super-ego Freud is lost, but, from another, more chthonic perspective, that of the libido, he is following the line of his fate.

This is the lostness experienced inside the classic. We are uncomfortably aware of some  exterior intentionality that we have somehow swallowed – we are possessed.

Of course, the classics of high modernism show an acute awareness of the other kind of lostness. Leopold Bloom is a great admirer of Paul de Kock, a nineteenth century author of lubricious fare. And the lostness in the popular novel that is a rush – we read it all at once –is mimicked in prose that gushes with consciousness – in Ulysses, in To the Lighthouse, in Sound and the Fury, among others. And yet that enactment of being lost, carried away, is highly stylized – it is in fact just the kind of thing you don’t find in a popular novel. These moments are, as well, re-readable – in fact, if there are degrees in the infinity of re-reading in which the classic lives, they are even more re-readable than more conventional prose. 

Oddly, Calvino misses a trick by confining the notion of re-reading to the classic text and not comparing it to oral ones – for there are stories that we tell about ourselves that we seem to tell over and over again. Years and years ago, I visited Monterray, Mexico, with a friend. I have found myself telling the story of that visit to dozens of people since. I’m not sure why that story has stuck with me so much, but as I tell the story, it becomes more and more devoid of living memory and more and more full of intentionality – of rhetorical memory, if you will. I have other stories like that as well. I think most people have a canon of stories they tell about themselves – their own classics. But in contrast to the re-telling that these stories seem to compel, there is a certain shyness about telling the same story twice. We are frankly embarrassed to be caught telling the same story twice. It is boring. Or it shows some fatal lack of memory – one should remember that X person has already heard the story.

And this gives us another clue to the nature of classics: they are eerily unembarrassed. They are not embarrassed about incest, about patricide and matricide, about dimemberment, and rape, about suicide – all the stories tumble out. They are even not embarrassed about boredom.

This is what sets the contemporary taste on edge about the classics. There is nothing more dismissive than the phrase, “that’s boring.” In a sense, the fear of boredom and the fear of age are connected in the ordinary norms of our everyday life. Youth sticks in the windpipe of the middle aged, they can’t cough it up or swallow it. And boredom is especially something to be fled. In both cases, the organic reality – that we age, and that there are large necessary patches of boredom in our lives if we actually do anything – are subject to a repression that expresses itself in the aesthetic sphere – a sphere that we tend both to diminish (it is only entertainment) and present in social situations to the exclusion of anything else. In the classics, boredom is intended. This seems utterly mad  to those of us weaned on the entertainment industry’s quest to never, ever bore. Of course, that quest is itself mad – it dulls, and it excludes re-reading, which runs counter to surprise and sensation.  The intentional boredom in the classic doesn’t entail that we will always re-read the boring patches and be bored – it does entail that the possibility not only exists, but is embraced. In the Library of Babel, there are an infinite number of boring texts, and texts that are even more boring, interpreting these boring texts. A classic that bored completely would not be re-read – one that interested completely would not be re-read either, for it would tend to impose the kind of lostness that is foreign to the classic.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

unproductive labour and literature

In 1790, 75 percent of the working population of Austria was involved with agriculture (David Good); this was true of  73 percent of the population of the U.S. at the time, and  approximately the same percentage in Prussia as well (Cambridge Economic History). In Europe as a whole, at the time of the French Revolution, when we look not only at the population that directly labored in the fields, but include those who depended directly on them, we get even more elevated figures: 90 percent, for instance, for France. The exceptions are Britain and Holland, with the percentage being as low it is estimated as 40 percent in Britain. These were the first economies to enduringly get past what the growth economists call “Malthusian limits” – that is, an agricultural sector that shrinks in population size while growing in productivity such that it can support a much larger non-agricultural population. The post-Malthusian world is the world of the artificial paradise, in which I, and everybody I know, has lived all our lives – except when escaping in little pockets of fantasy, sleep, digestion, sex, the third life, and phobias.  It is hard to measure these pockets. But we can confidently say that in other places, the Malthusian world lingered on – in Galicia, or in Russia, or in China and India. And the breaking of the Malthusian limits was in many ways a huge trauma, involving starvation, the total breakdown of cultural constants, emigration, loneliness, and changes in the internal signaling structure of our bodies and emotions that we are still grappling with on a world wide scale.

In the post-Malthusian world, the productive and the unproductive took on different characteristics. It was no longer of a small merchant class, nobility, and an overwhelming peasantry. It was no longer Robin Hood’s world. Marx’s world was that of the nation on the forefront of industrialization – England – but even in Marx’s time, the elements that would subordinate the sphere of production to the sphere of circulation were in evidence.

As Murray Smith (1993) has pointed out, Marx’s comments about productive and unproductive labor in the second book of Capital don’t cohere, completely, with his comments in the Grundrisse. Smith usefully defines four forms of unproductive labor: Smith’s form, in which labor is paid for out of personal revenue, such as household labor; labor of the self-employed commodity producer; labor of the circulation worker; and what he calls “social-maintenance” labor.

Smith’s definitions are all derived from the social position of the laborer with regard to capital. Productive labor, then, is not about producing a material thing, but about producing surplus value. The salesman and the teacher can both be exploited, in this reading, when we look at their labor from the point of view of the total social product, but they are not exploited as productive labor is exploited. What is important is not to see these forms as fixed elements in the social picture, but rather as frontiers always susceptible to be changed in their location in the social whole. If we put the sphere of circulation at one end, as a constant parameter of non-productive labor, we cannot really make the same claim about other non-productive workers.

Edward Wolff puts it like this: “Unproductive activity affects the disposition of commodities
but creates neither use value nor exchange value. Productive labor creates surplus value; unproductive labor absorbs surplus value.” (1987)    

It is in the cruel intersection of these two sentences that I locate that lonely beast, the modern writer.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Kill the poor

It was during his Koln period that Marx, according to his own account, made one of his most important discoveries: that the sociological category, “the poor”, was vacuous. The poor were easily recognized in pre-capitalist economies: the beggars, the serfs, the slaves, they all exist under the sign of minus. They had less, and that quantitative fact defined their social existence. What Marx saw was that capitalist society was not just a matter of old wine in new bottles – the archaic poor were now free labor. Perhaps nothing so separates Marxism from religion as  this insight: in all the great monotheistic religions, poverty is viewed in feudal terms: the poor you will have always with you. But in capitalism, or modernity tout court, the poor continue to exist as a mystificatory category, usually in a binary with the rich. In fact, the real binary in society is capital and labor. The bourgeois economists, and even the non-scientific socialists, operate as though the archaic poor still exist. To help them, we need to develop a method of redistribution that is, in essence, charity – run by non-profits or run by the government, but still charity. But Marx saw this in very different terms. Labor produces the economic foundation of capitalism – value. In these terms, it is not a question of the poor being a qualitative or moral category – it is a question of the alienation of value, of surplus value, that circulates through the entire capitalist system and allows it to grow on its own, while at the same time making it vulnerable to crisis.

Baudelaire famously created a slogan for the 1848 revolution: Assommons les pauvres. Kill the poor! This seems on the surface to be the most radical and effective of  welfare schemes, for it would get rid of the poor once and for all. But Marx explains why it wouldn’t work: the poor describes an illformed social  category, a survival from the past. And on the other hand, to kill the working class would be to kill capitalism itself. What  Marx learned in the forests of Koln was that capitalism was as atheist as could be against property. Far from being founded on the defense of property, capitalism was quite comfortable with changing its definition to suit – capital. What was once a right of the “poor” – for instance, to glean windfallen branches – could be swept away with a penstroke when the large landowners so desired. What was once the very definition of property - to have the full usage of an item one buys - can suddenly be hedged round with limitations when we try, for instance, to copy it and upload it on the internet. We are suddenly deprived of the inalienable right to give our property - and this is named Intellectual Property, and a legal structure grows up around it in a heartbeat.  Property is not, then,  a constant element, but a fluid one, changing its meaning and effect with the system of production in place. To describe the poor as having little “property”, in other words, reified property, placed it outside the social, and disguised the social conflicts encoded in what property is.

Marx’s logical clarity, however, is a bit too bright even for many of his own followers, who are as prone to fall into the language of the struggle between the poor and the rich as anybody else. It is, after all, one of the richest images we have, an leads irresistibly to a one-sided discourse on equality.

Nevertheless, Marx did not take this to mean that all workers are “productive”.   

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Unproductive labor 1

The idea of unproductive labor is evidently rooted in the way wealth is regarded in the pre-capitalist mindset. This does not mean that at some point, the concept was unambiguous – on the contrary. The moral economy of the pre-capitalist era in Europe (by which I mean, simply, the domination of pre-capitalist economic ties, and not the absence of capitalist enterprise of one sort or another) was organized around an implicitly conflicted notion of temporal and intemporal glory. The royal or noble banquet was, at one and the same time, a symbol of the intemporal glory awaiting the believer in heaven and a display of pride and gluttony that would lead the sinner to hell. Underneath the sumptuary laws that came out of pagan as well as Christian jurisprudence was a strong sense of Fortuna – a sense that there was an equilibrium in the world of goods deriving from the fact that goods were limited by divine and physical law, and he who had a good in a sense took it from he who did not have the good.

In the 17th century, certain thinkers – Petty and Boisguilbert, for instance – and a certain class of merchants and projectors dissolved, theoretically and practically, essential elements in this  old pattern of thought. In so doing, they did not utterly reject it, but used parts of it in their own bold suggestions as to how to reform the business of the nation. This reform could not do without the idea that some activities were productive and some were unproductive –and indeed, to an extent, they were bound together. The noble who ate and drank and the peasant who toiled and spinned were part of one economic system, separated, from the point of view of commodities, by the fact that the noble added nothing to the food or drink while the peasant added its essential  ingredients. Into this mix, however, one had to add money – with which addition the duality of producer and unproducer became extremely confused.

Adam Smith, of course, developed the notion of unproductive labor in The Wealth of Nations, and was lauded for it by Malthus, who took the notion to be the cornerstone of the work. Another reader, however, Jean-Baptiste Say, disagreed absolutely, and urged the removal of the distinction entirely as one confusing a number of elements: a sort of cult of the material over the immaterial; an incoherence in extending the notion of exchange value to its universal scope within the economy; and a pernicious moral and legal effect on the beneficient speculator, who labors under the suspicion of parasitism when, in effect, he produces the framework of credit inside of which production can flourish.

Schumpeter tacitly awards Say points, and refers to the distinction between productive and unproductive labor as a “dusty museum piece” in his History of Economic Thought.  However, he adds that Marx pretty much grasped the important thing in Smith’s distinction, which was not that there is a difference between useful labor and non-useful labor – it is not that the cook for the noble is creating a non-useful pie for his aristocratic appetite – but rather that there are different value addeds:

“He [Smith] had no use, of course, for the physiocratic proposition that only labor employed in agriculture is productive any more than he had use for the 'mercantilist' proposition that only labor employed in export industries is. But pouring away the physiocrat wine, he retained the bottles and filled them with wine of his own: he defined labor as productive that 'adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed' (op. cit. p. 314) and exemplified this by the case of factory workers who, as he adds by way of explanation (ibid. p. 316), live on 'that part of the annual produce of the land and labour which replaces capital' (with a profit); and he defined labor as unproductive that does not add (exchange) value to anything and exemplified this by the labor of the menial servant and that 'of some of the most respectable orders in the society' such as the sovereign 'with all the officers both of justice and war who serve under him' and 'are maintained by part of the annual produce of the industry of other people.' “

Value is evidently the key to the distinction – but value here is defined by value for capital, and nothing else. This is the sense that Marx extracted from Smith – as Schumpeter says.

However, given this definition by way of a system in which production, for the sake of the analysis in Capital, is analyzed in distinction from circulation – which is analyzed in Book 2 – and then analyzed in, one might say, the real synthesis of the two – which is where Book 3 is going – this definition, to row back to where we were, has to be dialecticized (and lyed and dyed) before it becomes useful.