“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, August 04, 2012

Parmenides and Red Riding Hood

An old post I've redone for clarity's sake

Marc Soriano on his book, Les contes de Perrault, culture savante et tradition populaire: “Ai-je mené mon enquête, ou mon enquête m'a-t-elle mené?”[Have I led my research, or has my research led me?]

Which  brings me to a familiar story. A man tells this tale in a poem: in a chariot balanced on bronze eight spoked wheels, with an iron axle, pulled by wise horses and led by celestial maidens, he comes to the portal of night and day and is there greeted by a goddess who cries out to him that he has left the beaten track of men.

The goddess then proceeds to tell him a cosmic secret. There are two ‘routes’ of inquiry: that of what is, and that of what is not.

Philosophers, enraptured by what is and what is not, have neglected the question that some more naïve inhabitant of roads, ways, trails, streets, pistes, sentiers, Wege, some vagabond, some pour lost soul, might ask – say a girl wearing a red hood, entering a forest and coming to two trails to her grandmother’s house. That question is – how is being, or non being, like a road? Or, if inquiry and being are so related as the chariot wheel is to the track – how is inquiry a road? Why this image?

Who leads the inquiry? I imagine this question coming from the girl, as she strips off the hood and throws it into the fire, and strips off her socks and throws them into the fire, and strips off her chemise and throws it into the fire, a magic fire that consumes instantly and ashlessly, and all the undergarments, strip he tells her, and her staring at the being on the bed of whom she has always had a presentiment. The being who wants to see all of her and never will, there will never be enough seeing, just as she has remarked on enough of him, seen him – his teeth, his ears, his hairiness. This couple, made of girl and wolf, sex and hunger. Both know trails, tracks, paths. One will return, one will not. Both know the pins and needles. One is the route of what is, one is the route of what is not and cannot be. Beware of the second route.

Not that this couple would have been in any position to read the fragments of Parmenides, which were first gathered together again – all the extant verses - in the West by G.G. Fuelleborn in 1795. [Nestor Luis Cordero, 10]

He was not a gentle wolf. Perrault wrenches this story from the forest and the tracks first laid down by man back to the court:
Mais hélas ! qui ne sait que ces Loups doucereux,
De tous les Loups sont les plus dangereux.

But the maidens that accompany our hero to the portals of night and day – the girl might have recognized them. Saintyvres, in a folkloric interpretation of Perrault, associates the chaperon rouge with the headdresses of the May queen: On the isle of Lesbos, on the eve of May day, the young girls gather flowers in the countryside and on returning home make crowns that they suspend over doors, and crown themselves: red flowers are mixed with wheat stalks, nettles and garlic. The garlic protects against the evil eye, the nettles prick the enemy who wants to enter into the house, the wheat attract riches and the red engenders gaiety.”

Of this couple, I am made. Of this route, I am puzzled. These routes, what leads, what follows. I have been thinking of addiction as a road, a path – of one among a type of path, in what is called path dependence. Here the path, forgotten by the philosophers, turns upon them – that so submissive thing, hardly a thing at all, on which angels, devils, beasts and mankind walk up and down. With the confidence that the way back is along the same path as the way forward. The goddess at the portal of day and night might seem, to the man honored by her instruction, to have made this point clear. Don’t worry about the quantification of the road. Of the route of the search, what counts is the search – not the route. You can go back anytime you want to.

Except in the poem, that ability to return is attributed by the goddess to herself. Slyly – she may be a gentle wolf: “Behold within your mind’s own deepening frame/those presences steadfastly fixed, yet all/removed from obviousnessn; for never shall/these beings dissolve their ineluctable hold/on Being, whether scattered manifold/across the cosmic all, or packed into/a rounded ball; for, where I start, thereto/shall I again return self-same.” I may assume that the “I” here is a shifter, and that I is I. But in the converse of mortals and gods, as we are reminded again and again in the ancient texts, it is the god’s great favor to use mortal words – and the gods have names for things in their own language.

To see the world in a grain of epsom salt...

To see a world in a grain of sand is, admittedly, a grand thing; to see it in a grain of Epsom salt is perhaps more to the purpose when seeking to understand the capillary relations between imperial trading companies, print culture, and the revamping of the notion of property that occurred in the 18th century as a mental prelude to the industrial revolution in the sphere of production.

The story of the first patented pharmaceutical method is crisply told in Adrian Johns’ history of intellectual property wars. Briefly, Nehemiah Grew, the secretary of the Royal Society, developed a process for extracting a mineral salt from the spring near Epsom. Formerly, the water there had been bottled for resale; this, however, was an unsatisfactory mode of distributing the health-giving waters, because the water spoiled quickly, primo, and secundo, the druggist was not averse to adding regular water to the bottle, adulterating the product. Grew, with the help of a “trusted operator” named  Thomas Tramel to extract the mineral salt, which could then be added to whatever liquid one wanted. The process differed from that of simple distillation – as it had to in order to preserve the healing power of the salt.

However, Grew’s attempt to exploit his scientific discovery came to nought. This was due to the enterprise of another pair of druggists, Francis and George Moult, who acted, in Johns’ terms, as pirates. Investigating Grew’s method, they decided that they could reproduce it. Soon they were producing more salt than Grew. They also had a firmer sense of the print culture than sheltered Grew. Instead of appealing to lumberous worthies from the Royal Society, they advertised and found local worthies in various towns to vouch for their product. They even sponsored a cherrypicked translation of Grew’s Latin treatise on the the salts. Grew took out a patent, but the Moults, undeterred, spread rumors about Grew’s originality. Grew then tried to sell them the patent, but they didn’t need it – the Moults, it appeared, didn’t spend money when they could simply eliminate the middleman – and so Grew sold the patent to one Josiah Peter, who wrote a book against the “counterfeit salt”. Johns rescues Peter’s book from oblivion, observing that it presents four arguments for medical patents that have since become classic: from invention, from public benefit, from public confidence – which increased the use of a product – and finally from national trade.

These arguments continue to be in play today. It is the first argument that interests me the most: the argument that invention must be conceived broadly.

“Peter conceded that virtually all inventions were “grounded upon some precedent Invention.”
Yet he insisted that in some cases the new device gave rise to whole new fields of knowledge or endeavor, and in such cases one could indeed speak of real creation. He cited as an example a proposition in Euclid’s Elements that had become the basis for land surveying; this proposition had certainly  rested on its predecessors, but that hardly invalidated its status as an invention with respect to the new discipline.”

Peter’s argument in the book concerning invention is rooted not in truth or fact alone- rather, it is truth governed by use. The field of knowledge is in this sense still a commons; what Peter claims, rather, is that a combination of novelty and utility underlies the broader sense of invention – to the point that Peter employs what seems, to the modern reader, to be a pleonasm: the term “new invention”.

Invention, in Peter’s terms, is not some product that comes ex nihilo from the inventor’s brain, but is part of a process of improvement – is, in a sense, the transmutation of an affordance, to use the lingo of modern design:

“There is hardly any Invention,of the greatest use, but what is grounded on some precedent Invention.The 41 proposition of the 1st of Euclid, which is the chief Rule for surveying of Lands,is but a Button shewed upon the Coat made up of several precedent Propositions. Which Propositions, are yet of no use at all in the measuring of Lands but this only. And this is an Invention of that great use, as it hath given the Name of Geometry, to the whole Science so called.

So Microscopes and Telescope, may be said to be Improvements grounded on a pair of Spectacles: yet allowed to betwo Inventions, as much more noble; as the discovery of new Heavens and a new Earth, is above the being enabled, to read a small lettered Book.” [Peter 19]

Which, indeed, does take us up to the cosmic peaks of the Blakean grain of sand. Blake, of course, wagered his grain against the whole Newtonian cosmodamonium. Grew, and Peter, were on the other side. I was about to say the winning side, but in retrospect who won is unclear – for Blake represents a disquiet in the artificial paradise that at the same time assumes it – Blake is revolutionary, not nostalgic. Meanwhile, in 1709, the  Great Chain of Being is visibly  passing  away in Peter’s text, and another chain, the chain of Utility, is being forged – but out of materials from the old chain, the old hierarchy.

Friday, August 03, 2012

tolstoy and pussy riot

The Most Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church issued a ruling in February, 1901, that read in part:

“In our days, God has permitted a false teacher to appear: Count Leo Tolstoy. A writer well known to the world, Russian by birth,and Orthodox by baptismand education, Count Tolstoy has been seduced by his intellectual pride; has insolently risen both against the Lord and his Christ and against his holy hermitage; and has publically, in the sight of all humankind, repudiated the Orthodox Mother Church which reared and educated him.” This was the Church’s notice that Tolstoy, for writing The Kingdom of God is within you, Resurrection and supporting a radical pacifism, was no longer a member of the Church.

In Resurrection, Tolstoy had parodied Pobedonostsev, the head of the Church in Moscow. After the novel came out, “Pobedonostsev personally visited TsarNikolai II to acquire his approval, which he obtained.” [A history of Russian Christianity, 202]

In 2010, the Church confirmed the excommunication:
“Leo Tolstoy’s excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901 can’t be overturned because the writer never publicly renounced his “tragic spiritual aberrations” a church official said.
“The decision of the Most Holy Governing Synod merely stated an accomplished fact,” said Archimandrate Tikhon Shevkunov, executive secretary of Patriarch Kirill’s council on culture. “Count Tolstoy excommunicated himself from the church, he broke with it entirely. He not only didn’t deny this, but emphasized it vigorously at every opportunity.”
Shevkunov was responding to an open letter to the patriarch from Sergei Stepashin, a former prime minister, on the occasion of the centenary of Tolstoy’s death on Nov. 20. Stepashin, as head of the Russian Book Union, asked the patriarch to explain the church’s position on Tolstoy and to make a “public display of compassion in some form.” – Bloomberg
Let’s remember, for a second, that this is a church that regards Czar Nicholas II – the man who ordered the anti-semitic pogroms of 1905, and who was responsible for the slaughter of millions during World War I – as a saintly martyr.

Tolstoy replied to the publication of the excommunication with a letter in which he displayed more art. Tolstoy’s genius for the direct comes out in his list of faults with the decree, among which is this:

… it is arbitrary, for it accuses only me of disbelief in all the points enumerated in the Edict ; whereas many, in fact almost all educated people, share that disbelief and have constantly expressed and still express it both in conversations, in lectures, in pamphlets and in books.
It is unfounded because it gives as a chief cause of its publication the great circulation of the false teaching wherewith I pervert the people — whereas I am well assured that hardly a hundred people can be found who share my views, and the circulation of my writings on religion, thanlcs to the Censor, is so insignificant that the majority of those who have read the Synod's Edict have not the least notion of what I may have written about religion — as is shown by the letters I have received.
It contains an obvious falsehood, for it says that efforts have been made by the Church to show me my errors, but that these efforts have been unsuccessful. Nothing of the kind ever took place.
It constitutes what in legal terminology is called a libel, for it contains assertions known to be false and tending to my hurt.
It is, finally, an incentive to evil feelings and deeds, for, as was to be expected, it evoked, in unenlightened and unreasoning people, anger and hatred against me, culminating in threats of murder expressed in letters I received. One writes : ^ Now thou hast been anathe- matized, and after death wilt go to everlasting torments, and wilt perish like a dog . . . anathema upon thee, old devil ... be damned.' Another blames the Government for not having, as yet, shut me up in a monastery, and fills his letter with abuse. A third writes : ' If the Government does not get rid of you, we will ourselves make you shut your mouth,' and the letter ends with curses. ' May you be destroyed — you blackguard !' writes a fourth ; ' I shall find means to do it . . . and then follows indecent abuse.”
Tolstoy wanted to destroy the superstitions with which he felt the relationship between God and man had become encrusted. He went to any lengths to make clear that this relationship was, pre-eminently, one of clearsightedness. Some of this most powerful writings are simply enumerations of uncomfortable facts: for instance, in his pamphlet on the assassination of King Umberto by an anarchist, he went out of his way to condemn killers – including King Umberto, whose army in Ethiopia was engaged precisely in killing. These are the kinds of things that make for social discomfort. To say, for instance, that George Bush is a much bigger killer than Osama bin Laden is simply a statistical truth. But to say, we can guarantee a controversy – as if truth had to be imbued with the proper apologetic before it can make its way to the surface, to the text or the tip of the tongue. Tolstoy spent his life trying to drain the apologetic from his speech. Alas, even this notion has been colonized and commercialized under the slogan of speaking “truth to power” – a phrase that banalizes the process down to a bumper sticker, and makes it a lie – a lie that the truth is somehow outside of power, and is being used for the most ideal of purposes by the blameless, or the victim.
All of which brings us to the Pussy Riot trial. I went with some friends to the Triannale at the Palais de Tokio the other day, and they were showing the video of the performance at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow for which the Pussy Riot women are now on trial. It was a fascinating performance, in the best punk tradition. It called out the Orthodox hierarchy for their wretched subservience to the Putin regime. And it used the words God and shit together, although my friend Masha, who watched it, said that the translation is inaccurate – the word shit is something more like excrement, the thing expulsed.
Tolstoy, with his 19th century sexism, would probably not have approved, and with his19th century positivism, he would have found invocations of the Virgin to be superstition and false. However, he would have recognized the spirit of Vera Zasulich, the woman who tried to assassinate the governor general of St. Petersburg in the 1870s – as well as the sublimation of that violence.
The Pussy Riot trial is, of course, a farce that is humiliating the Putin regime more than the supposed “criminals”. I think Putin has recognized this. But it is fascinating to see the old cogs still in motion, the old torture device of rigged trials and false piety still being used, as though it had never been put in the museum at all.
Destroy the machine!  

Thursday, August 02, 2012

copyright, occupation, colonization

In the Latin roots of occupation, two meanings apply. One has to do with holding a position – or employment – while the other has to do with capturing or holding a possession. For anyone who lived consciously through the 00s, occupation has an eerie pertinence, from the war in Iraq that colored the decade to the movement against Wall Street that ended it. Occupation was at the root of the moment – with all that it implies of violence sublimated by law.

Occupation, as it happens, colors one of the conceptual moments in the evolution of intellectual property law in the 18th century – laws that have grown ever more powerful in the great global fuckfest of capital.  For in trying to understand and incorporate intellectual property into the general law on property, occupation was considered, for a while, as a touchstone that would help transform the author or machinist’s claim to a monopoly privilege into an affair dignified by law. There was a moment in the 18th century in which mental products could be considered to be property to the extent that they were occupied by their creator: 

As  Blackstone wrote in his Commentaries, title to property could arise by Descent, Purchase, Escheat, Occupancy, Prescription, Forfeiture and Alienation.38 Echoing the Institutes of Justinian, it was also agreed that the primary way in which a person could acquire title to objects res nullius ( things which did not have or had never had an owner) was via `occupatio' or occupancy; that is, simply by taking possession or occupying them.39 Given this understanding of property, it is unsurprising
that the question of the way in which title to literary property could be acquired, if at all, initially turned on the issue of whether the Roman law doctrine of occupancy, which was said to underlie the foundation of title to property, could be applied to the production of books. (Sherman and Bentley, 21)

This moment in the codification of the copyright makes one dream a little. It attaches the original colonist’s claim of right to the oldest notion of literary creation, which is in-spiration – being possessed, or occupied, by a spirit. The term is all the stranger the more I turn it around in my mind – for just as the colonist “discovers” new land, so too must the writer or artist be considered not the creator so much as the discoverer of something that already exists – even if that existence is on level of Plato’s heaven, where the ideas exist by themselves alone. The colonist and the author squat, and by squatting have the right to trade.

To occupy a sentence, a poem, a story, leads logically and legally back to the sense, strongly testified to at various times by poets, that the verbal object as they put it on paper is a copy of something that isn’t on the paper, something prefigured. It is as though, in this moment of the history of intellectual property, we are taking the written as it seems to have been felt at the very beginning – as a magical entity – in order to give it the form of a rational commodity, one that can join the circuit of other commodities.

According to Sherman and Bentley, the uncanniness of the claim was recognized by the pamphleteers of the 18th century themselves, which is why occupancy eventually lost out as the foundation of intellectual property. But the argument is still interesting, with all its connotations in the world as the 18th century English establishment saw it – with its colonies, its slaves, its guilds, its incipient industrialization and mass wage labor:

In particular, the proponents of literary property suggested that `occupancy in the proper sense of the word, includes the principal source of literary property. The title by occupancy commences by the taking possession of a vacant subject; and the labour employed in the cultivation of it, confirms the title. Literary property falls precisely within this idea of occupancy'.43 While Francis Hargrave, barrister for Thomas Becket in the early stages of his litigation against Donaldson and author of the Influential  Argument in Defence of Literary Property, went so far as to assert that the author's title was stronger than simple occupancy would suggest, in the face of the incorporeal nature of mental labour these arguments were difficult to sustain. In particular, they offered no acceptable response to the retort: how could you occupy something which had no physical existence?

The lack of physical existence of the idea of the book, poem, sentence is, indeed, troubling in an economy of things, inserting a moment of an eventually intolerable ontological ambiguity. And thus, the argument shifted:

“The second response elicited by the Stationers and their supporters to the argument that ideas of the mind could not be seen as a species of property because they could not be occupied was to attempt to shift the basis of the argument. They did this by suggesting that occupancy was
not the only means by which title to property could be acquired.”

This shift was not one that entirely embraced novelty as a category coming under property; rather, the argument shifted to the Lockian one in which mental labor was the same kind of property as physical labor – we have, as it were, property in ourselves beyond our occupation of ourselves. And yet this property has certain peculiar distinctions: we can’t, under the Lockian reading, sell ourselves; we can only sell our labor. Our property also owns us.

There are a number of problems with applying these distinctions to intellectual property. While abstract physical labor is a property that can be sold through wages, abstract mental labor is not a matter of the time clock, but instead a matter of the product of mental labor. No worker on the assembly line claims his property in the car, but the author does claim his property in the book. In this sense, the laws of intellectual property go back to certain basic binaries in the culture of early modern capitalism: binaries that are overdetermined by logic and magic, the slur of whose infinite unraveling is traced in the law books and court cases. Invention and discovery, inspiration and occupation, possession and alienation,  these fierce abstractions come down to earth like gods in disguise and change the course of people’s lives. They can be met with at any crossroads.

And indeed, the law is a product of  the crossroads as much any other instituted and armed norm. The turn to a Lockian solution to the problem of commodifying inspiration was consistent with another and, I’d claim, related problem: the problem of imperialism. There is good reason that the metaphor of the discoverer of a new land was so often applied to the  author or projector of a new invention or entertainment. The problem facing the colonizers  in America, which was a problem that was never quite solved, even by the revolution, came down to the idea of a claim based on discovery. All titles tend towards this root act; and  yet, inconveniently, the discovered land always turned out to be populated already. The naturals were in the corner of the discoverer’s eye even as he planted the flag. The Lockian solution was the post facto eradication of them, which made for a blank slate landscape and a retrospectively designed history that transcended the outlier facts.  Similarly, the naturals are always there to bother author and inventor – there’s an ineradicable intertextuality within text or machine that haunts the originality justifying the claim to property.