“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, June 19, 2015

inverted envy

In 1973, A.O. Hirschman, with his characteristic, concealing modesty (it covered up the fact that he was touching on big themes that economists liked to avoid), wrote an essay about envy and the egalitarian impulse in developing economies. For two decades, Hirschman had been at work as an economist and policy maker dealing with foreign aid and plans to elevate the poorer national economies into the league of the developed nations, as they were called back then. This was the era of multi-year plans and the fad for shrinking agriculture and favoring export industries, which often, paradoxically, called for putting barriers on imports. All of this, by now, has been swept away by the Washington Consensus and the aggressive syndicate of international institutions, multinationals, and neo-liberals.
In Hirschman’s time, third world countries were experiencing unprecedented growth. He observed that the profit from that growth largely accrued to the wealthy. What puzzled him was that this did not stimulate the kind of envy that was feared by the anti-communist establishment everywhere. Instead of revolution, for the most part, third world populations seemed patiently to be waiting. Hirschman devised a model to capture what one might call the dynamics of social envy. In this model, growth and the enrichment of the richest was tolerable as long as the larger population believed that the growth would eventually make themselves and their children richer. In other words, Hirschman believed that there was a larger tolerance for inequality than was reckoned with by the leftist agitator. This was puzzling if one took into account the work of George Foster, whose studies of peasant society in Mexico convinced him that traditional society is penetrated by what he called the “image of the limited good”. This means that the peasant views goods in terms of a zero-sum game, in which x’s possessions are viewed by y from the standpoint of scarcity – what x possesses, y does not possess. Like people in a lifeboat with limited rations, a careful watch is placed on the village populaton to make visible who has what. This is a situation in which savings is hidden, rather than invested.
What Foster calls the limited good, I would call nemesis. In my opinion, the great effect of the enlightenment and of the growing economies of the 19th century was to suppress nemesis – the social and human limit which demands respect in societies in which growth is sporadic and subject to decay. In such societies, time is cyclical; the myth of progress has no footing here.
I think Hirschman was right to tackle the theme of envy, but his model, it seems to me, lacks an important feature that one finds in success societies – societies, that is, where an ethos of success replaces the ethos of sacrifice. In the former, envy inevitably increases as the success of the wealthiest creates a larger and larger positional gap between the top and the rest. Here, however, an interesting, unconscious mechanism intervenes to protect the wealthiest. This mechanism inverts the direction of envy, the direction of the evil eye. Instead of the wealthiest being subject to the violence of envy, the poorest are subject to it.

This inversion of envy at first seems incredible. How could the poorest be an object of envy? However, anyone with ears to hear in America’s dining and living rooms, or in American work places, will here the tale of the high living poor. The poor don’t work. They luxuriate on welfare payments. The government only works for the poor. The Great slump was caused by the poor cheating the naïve banks who were forced by the government to give them mortgages they couldn’t pay. This story and variations of it are told over and over. We sometimes wonder over some savage custom, thinking, how could it be believed that, say, a woman who has a miscarriage causes drought – one of the thousands of such beliefs recorded in the Golden Bough? But the inversion of envy in success societies, the most pure of which is the US, should teach us that the unlikelihood of a belief, its grossly ridiculous nature when laid out in cold logic, is no bar to its being held true. Although newspaper sociologists like to insist on the hopeful, aspirational beliefs of Americans as the sort of national glue that keeps down radicalism, I would say that, more powerfully, it is the inverted envy, its manipulation and thousand and one uses (inverted envy is deeply associated with racism in America, for instance) that makes it very hard to achieve any kind of lasting social justice in the US 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Adam versus Derrida

In a bout of dubious scientific romanticism, Quine, in Word and Object, conjures up the beginning of language learning by positing an extra-linguistic anchor, a physical stimulus, to get us over the bridge from babble to the noun. Quine’s piece on the baby learning the word Mama takes the then fashionable behavioralism of Skinner and embeds it into theory of the onto-genesis of language:
“The operant act may be the random babbling of some thing like 'Mama' at some moment when, by coincidence, the mother's face is looming. The mother, pleased at being named, rewards this random act, and so in the future the ap­proach of the mother's face suc­ceeds as a stimulus for further utterances of 'Mama'. The child has learned an occasion sen­tence.”

Coincidence plays a hinge role here. The presentation of Mama’s face –its looming – makes this a bit more primitive than Mama pointing at her face, but the logic is the same: there is the extra-linguistic world, the presentation, the coincidence with utterance, and the occasion sentence. The set up here has been remarkably consistent in Western philosophy of language since Augustine’s De Magistro, in which Augustine instructs his illegitimate son on the semiotic constitution of language – words as signs – by reference to charades, the language of gesture of the deaf, mime, and mostly, the pointing finger. Adeodatus accepts the significance of signs, but then gets stuck on what we would call the social construction of reality: how does one ever get out of the world of signs?

Adeodatus: But even a wall, as our reasoning shoedd, cannot be shown without a pointing finger. The holding out of the finger is not the wall but the sign by means of which the wall is pointed out. So far as I can see there is nothing which can be shown without signs/
Augustine: Suppose I were to ask you what walking is, and you were to get up and do it, wouldn’t you be using the thing itself to show me, not words or any other signs?
Adeodatus:  Yes, of course. I am ashamed that I did not notice so obvious a fact.”
Adeodatus concedes, of course, too quickly, since it is not clear why you can’t use the thing in itself as a sign, just as it is unclear why Mama’s face is the thing in itself, and not already the sign, this is Mama.
Signs are a labyrinth. We are continually promised that the labyrinth has an exit, but we are continually deflected from its discovery once we’ve made our fatal entrance.
However, though the metaphysical divide between the word and the object in Quine is definitely arguable, Quine does, properly, take up the issue of divided reference as an issue that cannot be delayed until language is learned.

Another word for divided reference is wise-assery. The smart aleck, the wise ass, the joker – from my earliest memories, I was always like that. And I am amazed and pleased, most of the time, that Adam is also a mocker.

A couple of nights ago, Adam made up his first pun, when we showed him how to roll spagetti on a fork and he pronounced it a pasta-fier.

As well, he has found out how much fun it is to imitate himself. Sometimes, he will pretend cry and pretend tantrum for the fun of it. To, as Quine would put it, stress the context of stimulation in which he has been placed. Or, as I would put it, to both entertain and tease his parental units.

Teasing stretches a long way. It is rooted in the animal world – not only among humans, but among other social animals – and it goes all the way into literature, which is, at base, simply a long form of teasing. There are writers who must have been aggressive teasers when they were young – like Nabokov – and others who were, perhaps, more ambiguous about the phenomenon – like Kafka. Teasing isn’t a necessary derivative of sign using – I’m not sure anyone has ever caught an ant or a bee teasing, although perhaps we have just not looked hard enough – but sign using is certainly a prerequisite of teasing. I’m learning to enjoy this all over again with Adam.

Although … to give Augustine and Quine their due, when it comes to  distinguishing the sign from the thing, Adam seems more in their camp. Thus, when I ask Adam, once he has jumped up and down and laughed while seeing a superhero, if Adam is a superhero, he will invariably reply, no, Adam is Adam. Adam is always Adam. At least for now, he’s having no truck with deconstruction.