“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, February 24, 2018

on sidewalks, cities and corruption

The French philosophes made a cult out of all things English, from Newton (whose science was taught to Voltaire by his lover, the Marquise du Châtelet), Locke, the school of psychology founded by Hartley, and the threefold division of powers as envisioned by Montesquieu. So it is not surprising that D’alembert and Diderot’s Encyclopedie is full of Anglophilia, even in the farther corners. For instance, in the entry entitled Trottoir, or sidewalk (which may have been added when the Encyclopedie was re-edited in 1825), we read this: “The city of London has been the one that most commodiously instituted the use of sidewalks. It owes this advantage to the almost entire reconstruction of the old part of the city that was consumed in the great fire of 1666. All the streets were retraced on a vast plan, all aligned and cut at right angles.”
This of course is a fantasy, a fanta-fact, but it floated before these dreamers who longed to be the Great Fire themselves, purging the old and crooked from the City.
In the meantime, in 1787, the administration of Paris, which was at that time headed up by Baron de Breteuil (the unfortunate who was named prime minister of France by Louis XVI a week before the storming of the Bastille), sent a letter discussing a new street template. In 1783, the administration of Paris had ruled that all streets should be 30 feet wide; but this created dissatisfaction. In new proposal before the city administration was to make all new streets 36 feet wide, with 6 feet on either side being reserved for sidewalks. That would make the vehicular area 24 feet wide. At no point in the discussion that is reproduced in L’etat de Paris en 1789 is there a discussion of what these widths referred to: the width of the standard carriage? The width of two people standing side by side on the sidewalk? This is probably related to the fact that standardization came in after the 18th century, with the rise of factories – at which point the street scheme of centuries was already in place.
The effect of these obscure discussions are with us today. I can walk down Rue Charlot, which is next to our apartment, and see exactly what the Baron de Breteuil was talking about – streets with a with of 36 feet, with two sidewalks taking up twelve of those feet. Of course, the new street provision was amended, ignored, or forgotten in the next hundred years. In all the industrialized countries, the advent of the automobile brought a new and more dangerous element into the mix of pedestrians and riders. But at no point, to my knowledge, did this lead to experiments about what would be the safest mix – how much for instance per lane would lead to minimizing accidents? How about standardizing exits and pass-throughs? And what size is optimum for pedestrian traffic flow on sidewalks?
In Paris, at least, sidewalks are plentiful (much more so than in Los Angeles, for instance), but they are crowded, bumpy, and imperfectly protected from intrusion by motorcyclists and others. The sidewalks are a part of contemporary life that is sort of hidden – while any Paris mook will know about Haussman, that famous cityscape arranger, it is the rarer urbanite who knows about the father of the Parisian sidewalk, le Comte de Chabrol, who was appointed by Napoleon as the administrator of Paris and began wracking up the “dallage” – pouring sidewalks – as part of his remit. George Sand, latter, accused him of corruption for favoring rock from Volvic – quarried, that is, from his own home territory. Pierre Estienne, in a history of Volvic, sums it up as follows:
Thus we understand the program of Chabrol-Volvic, prefect of the Seine from 1812 to 1830, for discovering other outputs for the stone – in this case, a Parisian clientel: it needed his influence, his power, to impose a stone which had neither the robustness nor the clear and war colors of Paris’s subsoil limestone. “it would have been more economic to pave paris with five france lengths of stone than bringing in the Volvic volcanic stone,” notes a skeptical contemporary. What to make of this sad stone which possesses a darkness that accentuates with age, which decays quickly with use, and should not form paving, much less sidewalks? Chabrol required a rare stubbornness in order to have his friends and most likely associates, the Brosson who were in Pont-du-Chateu, bring in the Volvic stone, cut it, deposit it on ships in the Allier that was almost unnavigable, and finally to have it carried on the canal de Briare up to Paris, and with the price of the rejects that one can only imagine, fill orders. In fact, up to 1830, F. Brusson had obtained the monopoly for supplying lava stone for the sidewalks of the capital, thanks to Chabrol’s protectrion; he even had a permanent sales office on the banks of the Saint-Martin canal.”
A city, as Balzac knew, is not just branded with corruption – corruption often literally drives the creation of the street and the sidewalk. Which in turn has unexpected consequences for the pace of the city, and its politics. I’m going to get to that topic next, I hope.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

colonial asymmetries


Back in the year 2002 – year of accursed memory – I remember reading a Guardian thoughtpiece by Ian McEwan about the impending invasion of Iraq. I don’t expect Middle Eastern expertise from Ian McEwan, but I do expect that heightened novelistic sense of epistemological consequences: the idea that other characters have ideas, which starts the the billiardwork of plots and counterplots and sensibility writ large. So I was rather astonished that McEwan began by dismissing the history of the West’s relationship to Saddam Hussein – the on again off again support – by insisting that a virtuous act in the present shouldn’t be weighed down by vicious acts in the past. What astonished me was the concentration on history solely as it was present in the consciousness of the British, American and European protestors. It was as if that history, which was lived experience by the Iraqis, didn’t count as something that might be present in their consciousness. They might actually have an opinion about the forces that were coming to occupy their land because of the vicious acts of a ruler who was able to afford those acts due to the past rulers of their present liberators. This is the kind of thinking that is rigorously excluded from the high tables of policy makers in the think tanks, which is why it should be the kind of thinking that novelists could contribute – in a sort of countertradition within the belly of the whale, the protest distilled from the collected works of Henry James, or Proust. The limits of the novelistic imagination, though, as is the case with the journalistic imagination, seem to have been etched by colonialism itself.  

As it happens, treating the colonized Other as a blank slate, or as an entity asymmetrical to the real “I”, is the very twin of colonialism, the imaginary that conditions its enactment. That asymmetry contributes not only to what happens on the frontier, but what happens in the Old country. To understand that the European peasant or bourgeois and the Huron shaman or arendiwane  were living on the same plane at the time of their encounter injures the vanity of the colonist’s descendants. This is why a certain anachronism creeps into reading sources. When John Wilkins, in 1641, repeats a “pretty story” of an Indian slave who treats writing on paper as a kind of magic, and views his master as a kind of God, the tone is belittling – and the modern reader tends to unconsciously correct the condescension without looking at the context. In Wilkins time, Britain was rife with stories of magic – of witchcraft, of shapeshifting, of familiars. The French court of Louis XIV was shaken in the 1690s by stories of “black magic”, satanic masses, and the sacrifice of living victims – all apparently supported by the belief system of those with the highest degree of education in France. The French missionaries in New France did combat the “magic” beliefs of the Huron (who called themselves the Wendet – our names and other names chase themselves thoughout history, and today deludes the bien pensant liberal into thinking that finding the correct euphemism settles the problem) in the name of an odd amalgam of natural philosophy and belief in demons. In fact, there was no scientific worldview at the time – and I seriously doubt that this has changed inordinately. Outside of the laboratory, the scientific worldview becomes merely instruction sheets for using tools, and fails to nourish a sensibility, because, how could it?

The great advantage of dualism is in allowing sweeping generalities – generalities in search of a “universal”, in the puffed up language of the scholars. The great advantage of dialectical thinking, that continual oscillation between monism and dualism, is that it allows fragments, subgroups, alternative forces, margins. Its great downfall is to want to wrap this all up, in the end, in a universal history. To embed an account of colonialism in the forces of, say, monetarization in Europe, the abolition of old laws pertaining to property and common rights, the agony of literacy, the overthrow of belief systems around the world, is a task that has not yet developed a method, or a sensibility. We keep getting there, and then getting forced back. And meanwhile, the politics of destruction moves forward faster.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

nineteenth century observations about the twenty first century


The difference between intentions and conditions is a tricky topic, one that philosophers dance around, taking different partners to the dance.

In the creaky old nineteenth century, they came up with the magic word “determine” and waved it over this business. So that they ground out phrases like, the economy determines history, or man determines his fate.
Yet what was determination? Was it cause? And if so, why not just substitute the term cause here? But that, it turns out, was a substitution too far. For determine meant something more like: produces the terms in which… And this leads us to a difference between simple causes and conditions. And this leads us to the making of distinctions, which is not an American specialty. Save for Henry James, Americans are not big on making distinctions, which has a sort of sissy feel. I can imagine the bumper sticker: only sissies make distinctions!

But to go back to something that isn’t dumb methodogical individualism. Let’s hypothesize that larger, institutionalized social forces, like the state, or businesses, or parties, operate in reality not to institute some rigid intention or goal (even if they do that too), but, ultimately, to produce the conditions that will make push forward the self-organizing of a set of goals. For instance, you want your Uber company to make a profit, but you also want to atomize the work force, which amplifies the opportunity to exploit that work force, and to that end you cover your Uber company in a self-employment vibe. Or even a self-entrepreneur vibe.
This might seem secondary. But in the long term, you won’t make a profit if the social conditions are against you. It is part and parcel, then, of your short term intention to make possible its reproduction through a series of short terms – all the way to infinity, so to speak. Thus, it always seems that institutions, like people, follow some intention, but it always also seems that their success depends on creating some condition that is beyond the particulars of that intention. 

In “A treatise on efficacy” Jullien compares the Western and Chinese notions of how states and enterprises operate. For instance, he considers Sun Tzu’s notion that the general, before battle, should “ban omens and dismiss all doubts.”

“The whole of this Chinese thought is prompted by a single concept: whatever happens “in any case” “cannot not happen” (once all the conditions are ascertained); in other words, it is “ineluctable”.

“This idea of the ineluctability of processes and so also of success for whoever is capable of profiting from it recurs constantly throughout all Chinese thinking. Even a thinker such as Mencius subscribes to this logic of consequentiality, despite the fact that he adopts a position altogether opposed to the theses of the strategists, since he considers that sovereignty depends not on the relation of forces and therefore the art of warfare, but on the sway exercised by morality. Or rather, morality is itself a force, and a particularly strong one, because it possesses great influence and uses this to effect, in a diffuse and discrete fashion. Be concerned for your people, Mencius tells the ruler, share your pleasures with them, and you will inevitably progressively come to rule over all other princes. That is because all peoples will desire to pass under your authority; they will open their doors to you and will be unable to resist you. Through violence, you will inevitably eventually come to grief, for the power at your disposal is limited and arouses rivalry.” 

Okay, now, this sounds closer to the 19th century, and its iron laws of determination. Here’s a good example of intention, conditions, and inelectability. In the 00s of mauvais reputation – after about 2005 – there was a moment when the deep thinkers in the establishment realized that Iraq was a disaster. It had created conditions that were ineluctably leading to events that were creating other conditions, none of them good from the U.S. perspective.

This moment, however, passed, like an angel overhead. Because what these deep thinkers did is – they called upon the miraculous. They would say, well, right now Iraq is a mess, but in six months we might have an American lovin’ democracy on our hands! And thus, they dickered with ineluctability, with determination, with conditions, by shutting their eyes. And they were very set on indeterminability. Nobody could predict. Prediction was impossible. And so on. It was as if I decided to build a birdhouse, but claimed loudly that I couldn’t predict, before I finished it, whether it would actually be a supersonic automobile. 
I look back at this moment because I think that not only were the deeper thinkers vastly, bigly, utterly fucked up, but I also think that the mindset of massive excuse-making produced a set of intellectual conditions in these here states. These conditions made it ever easier to make one’s entire career of falsified predictions and bogus analyses. The same conditions that allowed economists to predict in the 00s that we were in the “Age of Moderation” (when we were actually on the verge of the economic precipice), or that allowed the establishment in center-left parties to promote the conditions that would decimate the working class through “free trade” agreements without thinking that destroying their political base would eventually destroy their own political power.
The conditions that have created the great Unintelligence in the states – the Unintelligence that is embodied by Trump, a man of shit destiny  – will blindly keep operating until they are overthrown.