Sunday, June 30, 2019

The heat wave and nightlife poetics

Prostitutes, St. Denis, Marvin Newman

The heat wave here is broken. I got up this morning, went to the boulangerie on Rambuteau, and on the way back whistled, “We’re having a heat wave”:
“The temperature's rising, it isn't surprising,
She certainly can can-can”
Yesterday it got so hot in Paris that our local library closed. It got so hot that even my cleverness with our ventilator couldn’t hold the beast away from the penetralia of our apartment – and that, with the apartment having a uniquely shady location on a little sidepocket ruelle, with the trees blocking full sunlight and a terrace with plants. In other places, it was even hotter.
Of course, from the Austin, Texas point of view, it was a minor incident of cooling from the usual monthlong spate of 100+ days. But Austin Texas has a big natural pool in the center of it and many an a/c, central or units, to grind up the wattage and cool down the living space. Paris doesn’t.
But as I say, today I’m whistling “We’re having a heat wave”, which connects heat measured in centigrade or Fahrenheit with heat measured in booty and sexual desire. And that gets us to one of the great Parisian heat waves, in August 1983, which featured a bit of a prostitution riot.
“The frontiers of sex. The heat way has elevated the temperature of Parisians. Shootings, fist fights, heatstroke. Rue Saint-Denis, the prostitutes are on the warpath, with impunity… » - Le Monde, August 1, 1983.
Back in 1983, the Saint-Denis district was still the great streetwalker district. It was estimated that around 2000 prostitutes worked the area. There’s little left of that now: a few x rated video shops, a few extravagantly made up sex workers lounging outside them. Back then, though, it was a whole different story. In the U.S. too, there were urban areas, like the famous Combat Zone in Boston, that were officially or semi-officially recognized as red-light districts.
In Paris, the sex trade had a longer, semi-official history, which was marked, after WWII, by the closing up of the maisons closes, the brothels, which had until this point been licensed.
Of course, they did not disappear, nor did the sex workers. The same old mafia-networks with the same old tactics took over. Plus, of course, the seventies and eighties were a time of sexual activity on a scale that took in suburban households as well as avant-garde swingers, much to Norman Mailer’s disgust – see his review of Last Tango in Paris for the details.
All of which contextualizes the battle of “Babylone”, a club on Rue Marie-Stuart that was frequented by nightbirds: ... journalists, transvestites, partiers. It happened that the club held a sort of disco contest, in which its employees participated. This contest spawned a rumor that a sort of team of Brazilian prostitutes were entertaining there. And this aroused the women of St-Denis, who saw these Brazilians as, basically, scabs.
What happened was a classic urban fronde, something out of one of Robert Darnton’s histories. From Le Monde:
"This is what seems to have happened with the prostitutes of rue Saint-Denis on Sunday, July 17. The first time at 4 o’clock in the morning, dozens of them formed a troop on rue Saint-Denis for marching on rue Marie-Stuart in order to give a good lesson to the “Brazillian queers” who wanted to “scab us out.”
Last evening, same scenario. The hunt for the « Brazilians » began again. The anger of the prostitutes swelled again. Monday, almost two hundred of them, with their « protectors » and gorillas, armed with clubs, bicycle chains and iron bars again came up « Babylone » street, to the cries of : Death to the queers, death to the trannies. Anger gave way to hysteria. It felt like a lynch mob. One of the mob explained to a Babylone client that “one of the trannies had been trespassing on her territory” and that they were “looking for her to give her a correction”.
Of course, the cops, many of whom had been regularly paid off by the prostitutes, intervened “softly”. In the end, the trespasser wasn’t found, but the joint was wrecked enough to leave a message. And the heat wave eventually broke.
All of which is urban trivia of the type that is quickly submerged beneath the “important” events of the day.
However, for the psychogeographer and the gnostic historian, the battle of Babylone is as important as any other, since it marks the confluence of everyday routines and rituals, the streetwise, sub-historical passage of time. Daniel Tiffany, in Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance has argued that nightlife – in all its funk and dubious glamor – is connected to a poetic that branches off from the canonical and goes through Villon through Biggie Smalls, with its own set of hells and heavens. They are not Dante’s.
“Tavern talk thus captures in words the orphic subculture of nightlife. A public place providing cover for illicit and sometimes illegal activities, for the mingling of otherwise- stratified classes of persons (rich and poor, lawful and unlawful), the reality of the tavern, like its ragged speech, is fundamentally dissolute. Indeed, the actual existence of the tavern is called into question by the obscurity of its material conditions: its derelict address and graveyard hours; its nameless (or nicknamed) and promiscuous society. In this respect, the nightspot, like the figure of Anon, appears in the world under erasure, its disappearance betrayed by its own apparition. Nightlife, in the words of Siegfried Kracauer, may be understood as “the appearance of lost inwardness.””
Tiffany could, here, be talking about Babylone’s fate. After its appearance in Le Monde as the center of a battle in the center of a tropical heatwave, it disappears from history. Even closegrained accounts of the 70s and 80s in the Les Halles and St. Denis area, which pop up on invaluable websites on the Web, filled with the reminiscing of the old boys and girls of past Eldorados, do not commemorate it. Babylone is no more. And we have not even sat down by the waters and wept its transient moment of fame and shame.
Gee, gee! Her anatomy makes the mercury rise to 93!
Having a heatwave, a tropical heatwave, the way that she moves,
That thermometer proves that she certainly can...
(What's your name honey? Pablo).Certainly can..

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

where did capitalism come from?

From our Willettsmag essay: where did capitalism come from? See the mag for the full essay.

Mainstream economics is proud of its methodological individualism, but it doesn’t believe it. The individual, as the economists understand, does not spontaneously produce his acts. The man in an office, or behind a plow, or behind a gun, did not find his places by inventing his scene. The idea that the individual invents society is, evidently, an act that has never attributed to any individual. So the mainstream economist has come up with a wonderful concept saver: the individual, in their terms, is essentially a chooser. Goethe’s Faust cried out that in the beginning was the act – but the economist’s homo economicus counters that in the beginning was the choice. The cosmology of the preference wraps the societal world in a mystery – for one never seems to come to acts, only to choices. Every blade of wheat, every board of wood, every drop of ink, is not what it seems to be, but is instead an agglomeration of atomic choices. By some inexplicable accident, these choices also seem to be matter, and have weight and chemistry. The only thing that isn’t chosen is choice itself.
This is a rich cosmology, but not necessarily a believable one. So it is reinforced by the time honored method of scolding. If we don’t hold to individualism, all responsibility is lost, and anarchy and concentration camps are loosed upon the world. 
The origin of this cosmology is surely to be found in the period between around 1650 and 1789. And it did not arise among the peasant masses, yearning to profit maximize, but among a varied assortment of clerks and policymakers. Intellectuals in Edinburgh universities and ministers at Louis XVI’s court, as well as slave traders and sugar merchants were all starting to put it together. 
By the late twentieth century, the capitalist operation had become so dominant – at least among intellectuals – that historians could not believe the cosmos had ever been different. Thus, in the spirit of conquest, the historians went back to pre-capitalist societies and attempted to rescue them for capitalism. Thus, theorems of market equilibrium, or of public choice, are imposed as the real language of rationality that the peasants were, as it were, articulating in mime. 
My own sense is that the peasant economies were not irrational, nor are the rational capitalist economies non-peasant – the rational economic institutions are colonized by non-equilibrium, non-growth, non-maximizing kinds of behavior – or perhaps one should say that the latter kinds of behavior are colonized and exploited by extractive capitalism, suitably institutionalized –  and peasant economies surely involved calculations to some end, profit maximization and other capitalist traits. The question isn’t whether these traits existed, but how they became distributed and then became norms. When thinking through these grand categorical changes in the social economy, it is important to turn to contemporaries of the character shift and the vocabulary that it discovered and see how they interpreted what was going on.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

whose posterity is it?

My new article at Willetts

There’s a popular literary game, which consists of predicting which writers will “endure”. Whenever the waters of clickbait grow still and old, some webzine site will stir it up by playing this old game, asking what names among today’s writers will be counted in a hundred years. Heated arguments will break out: the question of whether the works of Stephan King will be recognized one hundred years from now as the greatest American fiction of our time will elicit heated comments, and there will surely be much knocking of the elites.
Nobody seems to predict that a writer that they don’t like will be recognized in one hundred years. Nor does anybody ask about the institutions that preserve for posterity the reputation of a writer. Instead, these predictions rely on a sort of amorphous popular will, with powers beyond any dreamt up by Rousseau. The general will will judge the quick and the dead. That’s the sense.
There are two issues here, actually. One is that the posterity of a work is a form of credentialling – that time awards a good quality seal to the lucky genius. Auden, beautifully, captures this, in my opinion, specious idea:
Time, that is intolerant
of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week,
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
Auden, In Memory of W.B.Yeats
Auden wrote that in 1939, and part of him knew that time and the Nazis were definitely not pardoning those who lived by language, but condemning them: hence the aborted careers of scores of poets, novelists, dramatists, essayists and the lot. Time may well condemn to very long, or even perpetual, obscurity those writings that have not stuck, in some way, to the usual institutions, or that emanated from condemned ethnicities or genders.
The other issue is projecting one’s own taste and time on the future. Here, we do have historical evidence, although it is never used by any of those who play the game. It is as if posterity hasn’t been there before us. But it has.
So, how should one go about making predictions about the endurance of written work?
Over the long term, my feeling is that the chance of a prediction being fulfilled, at least for the reasons one says it will be fulfilled, is vanishingly small. Remember, for the medievals, the important Latin poet after Virgil was Statius. Statius. Who even recognizes the name? Ovid, Lucretius, or Catullus just weren’t in the running. Lucretius did not have a very great posterity in the Roman world, and only came into European culture, really, when a manuscript of the Nature of Things was discovered in 1417 in Florence, according to Stephan Greenblatt. So over time, posterity is swallowed up in such unexpected events that we can’t guess. We need a more manageable time sequence to answer the question – we need relatively short term posterity. There needs to be at least certain structures that are generally continuous, as, for instance, an economic structure that is generally the same over time, and a structure of religious belief that is also coherent over time. Even so, there are unpredictable contingencies. The Library of Alexandria burned; Franz Kafka’s manuscripts didn’t, despite his dying request. So it goes. Statius, when all is said and done, had a good run – as good as Shakespeare’s. He’s gone now: even the Loeb Classical library is not all that enthusiastic about The Thebiad.
Given these conditions, we can still see patterns in, say, the last three hundred years. Starting in the 18th century, the literary nexus of publishers, the writers, and the audience started to take a modern shape. Writers could come from anywhere, but readers, and publishers, came mostly from the middle class. There was certainly room for the working class and the upper class, but writers that appealed to a working class audience had to eventually appeal to a middle class audience to endure. Aleida Assmann wrote an essay about this for Representations in 1996: Texts, Traces, Trash: The Changing Media of Cultural Memory . She points out that the mythology of glory, which Burckhardt traces to Dante, and the city state culture of Italy in the fourteenth century, was, for the writer, shaped by the idea of a group who would preserve it, and upon this group was projected contemporary attitudes: true posterity would consist of people like the friends of the poet, gentle people, highborn, with swift minds. It was an almost tactile sense of posterity, posterity with a face. The posterity of the poem was the posterity of the people who read and understood the poem, the educated audience. But in the eighteenth century, the semantic markers shifted. Assman quotes Swift’s preface to the Tale of the Tub to show that the circle was replaced by the seller — the face by the invisible hand, to be slightly anachronistic about it.
One new factor in the manufacture of posterity, in the twentieth century, has been the rise of educational institutions as transmitters of literature in the vulgar tongue. One has to take that into account, as well as the relatively rapid changes that tend to traverse the academy, which is very much a product of capitalism and has been, for the most part, absorbed in the mechanism of vocationalisation. That mechanism, of course, makes sense once we factor in the costs of higher education. In the Anglophone world, the bright Ph.D in English or Comparative Lit might owe as much as 100,000 dollars in student debt, and faces an absolutely pitiless job market. It is no exaggeration to say that the humanities in the U.S. were assassinated by the regime of tuition hikes and the withdrawal of public financing. Education for its own sake, culture for its own sake, it is fair to say, is no longer the major part of the academic mission, and when it is, its teachers feel a nagging guilt. This is because they are betraying their best students – and they know it.

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Capitalism, Socialism and the ethos of integrity

Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s instincts, at least, were close to theirs: Orwell, after all, wanted a law to make 20 mph the top speed limit in England, a pretty typical Red Tory gesture, gallantly futile. In England, the term would include Ruskin and Chesterton, and the spirit at least of William Morris. In France, you have Charles Peguy and Jacques Ellul. In German speaking countries, there are many more names to choose from – to mention four, Thomas Mann up to the late 20s, Karl Kraus, Georg Simmel and Max Weber.
The Red Tories, by inclination and conviction, were never systematizers. When Burke, in the Reflections, denounces “theorists and economists”, all the progressive planners, he spoke for the tribe. They form something more like a family resemblance than a party. They, too, are in revolt against capitalism, but not because it wounds their sense of equality – on the contrary, what it wounds is their sense of the just order, or the organic society. This comes out in their protest, all the way along the line, in honor something I’m going to call “integrity”. Against integrity, the sense of purposiveness and vocation in life, they saw arrayed two forces: capitalism, with its generation of alienation, its calculations that eat into the integrity of labor, seeing it only as another inter-substitutable commodity, and socialism. Socialism, from their perspective, is merely the bourgeois attitude for workers. The socialists basically want the workers to make more money – they don’t put in doubt the system of production that the workers are engaged in. Socialists are pro-industry.
From the economists viewpoint, whether a person works as a carpenter or sells bubble gum over the counter is a matter of indifference, the product of a labor “market”. Economists do recognize “human capital”, but like any capital, it is invested indifferently, and must be to be efficient. Maximizing profit on all fronts, such is the letter of the law for economists.
The Red Tories saw, as well as Marx, that this social maxim was in deathly struggle with the ethos of integrity.  Integrity, the desire to do the best job possible because of the thing itself, its value in the doing, no doubt stems, as an ethical value, from the artisan class in the early modern period. Or even before, in the ancient urbs. It is significant that the first socialist organizations in France and Britain were composed of a largely artisanal membership – because these people instinctively felt that they were being symbolically degraded under capital. It is also significant that Marx decided, early on, that these were definitely not the people who would lead the advance guard against capitalism. Thus, the complex struggles against anarchists and other non-scientific socialists.
A good and almost programmatic example of the Red Tory exaltation of integrity is found in Charles Peguy’s Money (1913) Peguy never has had much of a following in the Anglophone world. He was an often disagreeable Catholic. Notoriously, his feud with Jaures resulted in some disciple of Peguy’s assassinating the great socialist leader. Peguy was all in for the war against Germany. He volunteered, even at his absurdly advanced age, and was ground up like so many others.
Read the rest at Willetts.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Public opinion- a brief, gnostic history

P.S. is a 42-year-old man who has been affected by paranoid schizophrenia since the age of 20. At the onset of his psychosis, he was trying in various ways to compensate for his difficulties in getting in touch with other people. He had no secure ground to interpret the others’ intentions. He lacked the structure of the rules of social life and systematically set about searching for a well-grounded and natural style of behavior. For instance, he was busy with an ethological study of the “biological” (i.e., not artificial) foundation of others’ behaviors through a double observation of animal and human habits. The former was done through television documentaries, the latter via analyses of human interactions in public parks. An atrophy in his knowledge of the “rules of the game” led him to engage in intellectual investigations and to establish his own “know-how” for social interactions in a reflective way. – Giovanni Stranghellini, At issue: vulnerability to schizophrenia and lack of common sense (2000)


Consensus omnium, common sense and public opinion all exist as separate tracks through the intellectual history of the West – and each trail can be superimposed upon the other.
Early on, in Klaus Oehler’s definitive essay, Der Consensus Ominium als Kriterium der Wahrheit in der antiken Philosophie (1963), there is a quotation from Hesiod. The line quoted comes from the section of the poem devoted to “Days”, with its sometimes obscure reference to work, luck, gods and the days of the seasons.  The line, 760, goes: … and avoid the talk of men. For talk is mischievous, light, and easily raised, but it is hard to undo it. Talk is never completely lost, which has been in the mouths of the many. For talk is itself a God.” Talk, here, is not logos, but pheme – which, as Jenny Strauss Clay points out in Hesiod’s Cosmos, is the antithesis of kleos, that is to say, fame: “kleos is to be heard about, pheme is to be talked about.” This enduring couple still presides, in all their debased divinity, over the newspaper and the news and entertainment channels. They are structured by what is likely, or plausible. Only scandal breaks the dome of plausibility – it lets in air, it lets in horror, it lets in real life, that is, the margin that always escapes generalization.

The plausible as a category (whether epistemic or, what, ontic? From belief to the believable?) concerns the heart of Oehler’s theme. As he points out, Plato’s antipathetic stance regarding opinion – endoxe – is countered by Aristotle’s respect for it. “The positive value of general opinion is, as well, the ground for Aristotle’s preference for commonplaces [Stichwoerter]. It is said that in the peripatetic school, under his direction, a wideranging collection of commonplaces was made.” Furthermore: “… This preference of Aristotle … rested on the matter of fact that in commonplaces the infinitely rich experience of many races was documented in a unique way in brief and trenchant formulas, which is the way the Consensus omnium expressed itself.” [106]
One of the sources of Oehler’s interpretation of Aristotle comes from a fragment, preserved by a latter philosopher, Synesius of Cyrene, in a work boasting the comic title, “In praise of baldness”: “But how could it [common places] not be a [form of wisdom] concerning those things about which Aristotle says that when ancient philosophy was destroyed in the greatest cataclysms of men, the things left behind were preserved because of their conciseness and cleverness.” The mark of fire on the commonplace, the proverb – this is a rich image indeed, and has been the best friend of novelists since Don Quixote. In Bruegel’s painting, Flemish Proverbs, the metaphors contained in sayings are given literal pictorial space. The blind in Bruegel do lead the blind into a ditch. The painting is also known by another title: The World Reversed. The contrast between those two titles already speaks of an alienation from the common place – here we have the seed of what will later become critique in “modernity”.
If Aristotle’s notion of past cataclysms, in which the only fragments of science that survive are common places, is taken modally, that is, is taken to mean that the possibility exists that even the present order, or any order, can be destroyed in the same way, we have the steps leading to the Stoic notion of the eternal return of the same, and a strong tie between that idea and the proverb, or adage: the word in the mouth of all, which returns again and again.  The humanists of the Renaissance, with whom Bruegel associated, felt a strong kinship with the Stoics, in whom they saw the brilliant reflection of ancient wisdom and a certain dovetailing with Christian theology. The Stoics were, as well, an escape from the Aristotle of the schools – from which the humanists were in flight.  In Christian teaching, the apocalypse only happens once and for all: but that apocalypse is trailed by a history of fallen kingdoms, as given in the Old Testament.
Bakhtin, in  Rabelais and His World, borrows (although not literally – Bruegel is curiously unmentioned in Bakhtin’s work)  the Inverted World of Bruegel as a clue to what happens when a novelistic intelligence – one that can hear the Other in the speech of the other, endlessly and even in one’s own speech – comes into contact with the linguistic correlative of the carnivalesque: the coinages of the people in the marketplace, their proverbs, insults and swear words, where the Other in the speech of the other has become stony, bonelike – too explicative. In this regard, there is something metaphysically opportune about Aristotle’s view of the broken wisdom of the people emerging in a tract “in praise of baldness”. As Bakhtin points out, the carnival attaches to physiognomies, to noses, chins, Falstaffian bodies, big ears, etc. In the world of jokes, baldness has a definite place of honor.
It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – during the Baroque – that slang emerged in the books, became the tool of writers. Cant words and latin tags were part of the trove carried about by poor, lusting priests and perpetual students. This was the other side of the fragmented wisdom that had escaped the cataclysm. Daniel Tiffany has pointed out, in his marvelous book, Infidel Poetics: riddles nightlife substance, that slang and slum etymologically are themselves product of slang – slum entered into the language as a slang word denoting slang. Tiffany’s term, nightlife, points to the urban locale in which this culture was born. Peasant speech was simply, to the urban intellectual, unintelligible. Moliere’s Don Juan  made great fun of peasant French. Shakespeare’s clowns – from colonnus, to cultivate the soil – are distinguished by their speech patterns too, although Shakespeare was not into dialect humor like Moliere was, or Rabelais. When Dostoevsky was deported to Siberia for revolutionary activities, he began a notebook in his labor camp in which he wrote down the songs, catchphrases and proverbs of the other prisoners. Later, he used this material in his semi-fictious memoir, Notes from the House of the Dead.  Even Solzhenitsyn, no romantic admirer of thief culture, devoted some pages of the Gulag Archipelago to the poetics of thief’s cant. How could he not? It was Pushkin himself, the supreme instance for every Russian writer until recently, who used thieve’s cant in The Captain’s Daughter, thus creating another site, this one in language itself, of struggle between the legitimate and the illegitimate, between the authentic and the pretender, the real and the fake.
Cant is the ruses of reason elevated to a sub-language, caught in the mouths of rogues and meant to be obscure to all outside a certain sub-society. Yet in fulfilling the function of allowing members to communicate and obscuring communication with others, cant is only one of a species of jargons. There’s a parallel between thief’s cant and the jargon we are familiar with from academics, politicians, and all makers of “public opinion” – phrases that automatically pop up wherever dinner tables become arenas of political discussion – or even the discussion of entertainment.
But where does this conventional wisdom, with its language and conceptual limits, come from? Like rumor, popular opinion appears to be a mysterious social phenomenon, an epidemic of beliefs. Unlike rumor, though, public opinion  started out not as an oral phenomenon, not as what was being said in the supposed crowd, but as a written one. It grew into a semi-institution in correspondence with the growth of the bourgeoisie. Materially, that correspondence was about newspapers: not only what was written in newspapers, or pamphlets, but in the connection between the accelerated power of the printing press – the use of steam power, for instance, exponentially raising the ability of a newspaper press to produce sheets – and the written, the need to ride those blank sheets of paper, to fill them with words and pictures.   
Structurally, our thesis looks like this: the pair pheme/kleos presides over the objects of the news, the commonplace presides over the form. It is the style of the cliché, the proverb, the wisdom of mankind – the conventional wisdom of the moment. The duality of fame and infamy, expressed in cliché, is precisely the form of ‘betise’ that a certain school of modernist writers – Flaubert, Bloy, Peguy, Kraus, Tucholsky, Mencken, Orwell – took as their ultimate enemy, as the cataclysm under which wisdom, some essential relation to truth, was buried. In this way, public opinion became the weapon not of the slave uprising, but the slave catcher. For the latter, too, has his sayings. And he relies on the idea that consensus is better than truth – a substitute for it that allows for a slant that is rarely straightforward lying, but rather a means of clouding any method for finding out what the larger facts of the matter are, the air of the factual in which facts “live”.
See the rest of this article here: Willetts

Friday, May 24, 2019

Hatred of Paradise

The Dialectic of the Enlightenment was the first in a series of post-war books that variously attacked the Cold War consensus on both sides. I’d include, in that list, Galbraith’s Affluent Society and New Industrial State, Djilas’s New Class, Medvedev’s Let History Judge, and Foucault’s The Words and the Things (translated as The Order of Things) and Discipline and Punish. Not to speak of feminism (Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics) and the anti-colonial struggle (Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks). Intellectual history went into the streets for a historical moment in 1968, a moment that is preserved with marmoreal heaviness by many a museum hearted lefty prof. However, beyond the nostalgia of the ex hippies, there was a real core to that moment – which extended, actually, to the end of the Bretton Woods agreement and the first oil embargo. It created a cultural prototype that has gradually immersed in its presuppositions, for good and ill, a capitalist system that has ground the bones of proletarian culture into the service economy and removed all trace of the protest of labor from its 24 hour cultural industry.
These books are still with us. Interestingly, the best-selling intellectual books of the neo-liberal era have shunted aside criticism and critique, a la Alan Bloom, and have reverted to full court whiggism – an account of history in which the “West” is the best, and in which the author, and the happy billions in our globalized world, are sitting on top of the mountain, healthier, happier, and smarter than all the rest. Reaction has lost its ‘decline and fall’ vibe, and has arrayed itself in the raiments of progress. The Steven Pinkers and Yuval Hararis are definitely signs of the time, like a greek chorus in the dumb and dumber apocalypse. 
Now, the protest of labor has become simply the representation of labor itself – a thing so devotedly to be avoided, so obscene, that its very appearance has the air of accusation. The labor theory of value has fallen into disrepute not only among the economists, but among the workers themselves. At the same time, our culture has so maniacally and singlemindedly developed the libido of purchase that it has created something new and daring: the fetish has replaced the norm. Demand, now, is oriented to a great variable x – to the inconnu, the great white whale, the diabetic ghost of all the sugarplum fairies you ever cannibalistically devoured, to chewing anything and everything all day long (Black milk of daybreak/we drink it at evening/ we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night/ we drink and we drink), to filling the houses we can’t afford on the mortgages we can’t turn down with the finest high resolution tv screens ever to watch actors who portray people who never watch television – the dream being that life goes on somewhere, and that somebody will be arrested for it.
The genre of books we have listed in our first paragraph differs, in tone and purpose, from the pamphlets and bagatelles of the pre-war period – one has only to compare Wyndham Lewis’ The Art of Being Ruled, or Bataille’s writing for Acephale, with any of those books to mark the difference. The obvious difference is in the irony and distance that distinguish the authorial presence in the latter – even in Medvedev’s book, that carries a load of furious indignation from page to page. What made The Gulag Archipelago so interesting in purely literary terms was that it was a throwback to the pre-war style – Solzhenitsyn hated the cool affluent ironies with which the critics of the consensus dissolved, with experimental despair, the monster-system inside books, only to achieve status within the system outside the books, as much as any Stalinist. Adorno and Horkheimer understood before anybody that the conditions that had once made it possible to regard sincerity as a virtue had utterly vanished, up the chimneys of the crematoria: which is one way of interpreting Adorno’s famous remark that after Auschwitz, poetry was impossible. What holds all of the critics of the consensus together was a curious loathing of paradise — and an instinctive sense that the unmediated conjunction of paradise and hell in the twentieth century was a systems, thing, not a bug but a byproduct, or maybe even… the product itself? 

Potato peelers

Mom had a potato peeler. It was a beautiful little instrument, cheap, small, and visibly designed for its purpose. Form and function, here, are Siamese twins. It was visibly not a knife for spreading butter on toast, or slicing a steak. It had two curved blades, which were separated by a small gap. You sank the sides of the gap into a spud, scraped down, and the peel would arrange itself on the napkin or plate you’d set out to catch it. Mom was swift and decisive with the thing. There were seven people in the family, and it was a family that loved mashed potatoes, hash browns, French fries, and anything with that good tuber starch. So the peels would fly.
The preferred potato of that time was the big ass Idaho potato. They were surely developed in some Cold War plant science department at a land grant agriculture university. They had the look of bombs, of grenades. The tough look of truckers and factory workers, with a knotty, fat shape and brown skin, under which of course, after peeling, you’d find the very white skin.
I believe it was Picabia – or maybe Duchamp – who, in the heady cubist/futurist moment, took the potato peeler as the subject for a painting. It was a time when all the artists were moving the sublime out of nature and into industry. Those amazing mass-produced commodities! The urinal, or the biscuit, or even the advertisement for a urinal or a biscuit.
Yet it struck me, as I was boiling potatoes the other day, that you don’t see people using potato peelers anymore. The idea that the skin of the potato must come off has had its day. Sure, you wrestle the potato out of the earth, but that was always only an excuse to motivate the peeling. You washed the potato anyway – or at least I seem to remember Mom did. Leeks, now, you still have to wash carefully, fossick around and find the dirt. But most potatoes are not going to come to you with the clay still sticking to them.
Do my friends peel their potatoes? This is one of those too personal questions you don’t want to ask your friends. Otherwise you will collect puzzled looks and soon be known as Mr. Spud. But I assume that most of them have thrown away – or never bought – the potato peeler. Betty Crocker, like Tinkerbell, is dead; but unlike Tinkerbell, her fans are not calling her back. We don’t believe in her any more.
Interestingly, the culture of peeling potatoes leaked out of the domestic kitchen. In the old movies about World War II, there was something called “KP”, a punishment in which the soldier or sailor who’d done wrong was forced to go to the kitchen and peel potatoes. This puzzled me as a kid, since it struck me as just common sense that peeling potatoes was much less onerous and more fun than marching around with a heavy pack on your back. I’d definitely have volunteered for KP.
Is this little gap between my Mom and me a sign of the times, a measure of progress, or regress? Is the potato peel that goes into the mashed potatoes and the hash browns a marker of greater sophistication or simply laziness?
MANY ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,
protected from the circle of the moon
That pitches common things about. There stood
Amid the ornamental bronze and stone
An ancient image made of olive wood --
And gone are Phidias' famous ivories
And all the golden grasshoppers and bees.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Chickenshit Club accepts another member

There's a book about the Obama administration's failure to prosecute bankers and other wealthy people for crimes they committed in the runup to 2008 - and even for crimes like laundering money for the cocaine cartels, for which Wachovia bank was given a big fine rather than jailtime for the CEO. Jesse Eisinger wrote a book about it called the Chickenshit Club. Basically, the rationale was that punishing the institutions that committed and profited from crimes to the full extent of the law would threaten the existence of these institutions, which, it was further argued, would spread too much collateral damage. The exemplary instance was the punishment suffered by Arthur Anderson, which put that accounting firm out of business. Many 200 thou plus accountants spent weeks hunting for jobs, and many of them couldn't pay the docking fees at their yacht clubs.
Obama's Justice department swallowed the "chickenshit" method hook, line, and sinker. Take HSBC bank. Investigators found that it helped transfer funds from Saudi Arabia to Al Qaeda, that it laundered billions of dollars for the drug cartels in Mexico, etc, etc. Here's a story about what happened next (from the New Yorker):
"With four thousand offices in seventy countries and some forty million customers, HSBC is a sprawling organization. But, in the judgment of the Senate investigators, all this wrongdoing was too systemic to be a matter of mere negligence. Senator Carl Levin, who headed the investigation, declared, “This is something that people knew was going on at that bank.” Half a dozen HSBC executives were summoned to Capitol Hill for a ritual display of chastisement. Stuart Gulliver, the bank’s C.E.O., said that he was “profoundly sorry.” Another executive, who had been in charge of compliance, announced during his testimony that he would resign. Few observers would have described the banking sector as a hotbed of ethical compunction, but even by the jaundiced standards of the industry HSBC’s transgressions were extreme. Lanny Breuer, a senior official at the Department of Justice, promised that HSBC would be “held accountable.”
What Breuer delivered, however, was the sort of velvet accountability to which large banks have grown accustomed: no criminal charges were filed, and no executives or employees were prosecuted for trafficking in dirty money. Instead, HSBC pledged to clean up its institutional culture, and to pay a fine of nearly two billion dollars: a penalty that sounded hefty but was only the equivalent of four weeks’ profit for the bank. The U.S. criminal-justice system might be famously unyielding in its prosecution of retail drug crimes and terrorism, but a bank that facilitated such activity could get away with a rap on the knuckles. A headline in the Guardian tartly distilled the absurdity: “HSBC ‘Sorry’ for Aiding Mexican Drug Lords, Rogue States and Terrorists.”""
We are now seeing the "too big to jail" philosophy applied to Donald Trump. Nancy Pelosi, who has been very public with her disdain for the very idea of "impeaching" Trump, has explained that "Impeachment is one of the most divisive things that you can do, dividing a country," she said. "Unless you really have your case with great clarity for the American people."
Just as the operation of HSBC is just too vast and awe-inspiring to, like, stop, so, too, the taks of impeaching the president - well, it is divisive,is what it is.
Impunity is in the blood system of the political elite. They are not going back on the chickenshit system. It is their system, and they are proud of it.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

A plea for a citizen's tribunal on impunity

In Paris two months ago a feminist group went about and affixed stickers with female names to streets. This was more than about those streets that are named after people, and by people I mean 95 percent male, but also about the claim to the public space and how it has tended to be normatively male.
Are the street names going to change? I don’t know; I do know that this action was taken because they are never going to change – people in established positions, people in power are never going to change them – if there is no activity on the ground, from the ground, and in your face.
The division of political labor has the permanently pernicious effect that there is a political class – a circle which, as it were, runs both the discourse and the institutions of power. This effect is only partly off-set by “representative democracy”, especially when these democracies continue to generate judicial systems that are, basically, non and anti-democratic.
What has happened in the neoliberal era, as democracy from the street has been de-legitimated, is a slow, steady impunity creep that separates the powerful and wealthy from the rest in the sphere of justice. Not just rich crooks, but their minions, their protectors, the whole lot, are now less likely than ever to suffer the lot that is borne by the working class poor. It is from this point of view that I have been watching the discussion in the U.S. about whether or not to impeach Trump, look at his taxes, look at the Mueller report about him, get the Attorney General of the U.S. to testify before a Congressional committee, all that jazz, is being treated as a fun Washington thing. The political reporters will treat it all as a partisan butting head contest, with the main question being which butting head is going to be crowned the winner. In other words, elite shit. The winner doesn’t matter a damn.
Impunity is elite shit. It isn’t just Trump, it is the entire system, groaning under the privileges accorded to the most privileged and the jail sentences allotted to the least. Wachovia bank launders money for the cocaine cartels. Wachovia bank gets a fine, because, as Justice Department officials will tell you, we can’t do anything to disturb the fine economic activity of Wachovia bank. A small time African American dealer sells five caps of crack to an undercover cop. The dealer gets twenty years. The Justice Department doesn’t comment, because this is same old same old in every District Attorney territory in the U.S. And the wheel goes around, crushing us underneath it
So let’s put a stick in the wheel, shall we?
When the military junta in Argentina folded in 1983, President Alfonsin came to power, and started proceedings against certain members of the military high command who had participated in the Dirty War, as well as the leaders of the Monteneros (those who survived) for kidnappings and murders. However, the trials affected only a few. In 1986, the full stop law was enacted, the limited suits to those that would be enacted within 60 days of its passage, all others to be rendered null, and the due obedience law, in 1987, which halted the trials that had passed the full stop law. Then, when Menem was elected in 1989, he began issuing mass pardons, mostly for the military but some of them for the Montenero leadership (which, it must be said, has always been suspected of actually being led by agent provacateur, notably in the case of the leader, Mario Firminich – see Martin Edwin Andersen’s Dossier secreto for details).
Collectively, Alfonsin’s decrees were known as the impunity laws. In this way, the State covered up for the almost thirty thousand murders committed by the military junta.
Against this coverup, a civil rights organisation began to hold Tribunals against Impunity in Buenos Aires in 1990, with the aim of revealing as many facts as possible and shaming the state.
I’ve been thinking about this vis-à-vis the United States. It seems to me that we have been living through the era of Impunity, here: from the horrors committed in the name of fighting terror to the invasion of Iraq through the Obama directed drone war; from the unwillingness of the Justice department and the SEC to reign in or jail anyone for the financial meltdown of 2008 to the widespread fraud by the banks in the paperwork they have submitted to courts concerning mortgages; from the abolition of jury trial in the case of suits for damages to corporations to the Supreme Court’s increasing willingness to lend cover to any plutocratic attempt to buy elections and change laws in their favor. From, finally, the massive defiance of the Trump administration to recognize the Legislative branch as a co-equal, while being cheered on by the dysfunctional millionaire’s club known as the Senate.  On the cultural front, there is the impunity enjoyed by those in the media who have cheered along all these things, and who have never lost a dime for being not just wrong, but disastrously wrong; not just mistaken in their reporting or analysis, but being willing conduits of propaganda and lies. From their pumping up of Rogoff/Reinhart nonsense in the most recent Depression to the center-right logic of the editorial war against “entitlements” waged by the supposedly liberal press, we have an elite culture that collaborates with the predatory class because, well, it is owned by it.