Saturday, December 01, 2001

Michael Thomas' column in the NYO, which is a jackdaw's nest of various bright and shiny objects (not that Limited Inc, in the nest of our own iridescent preening, objects) includes a little attack on Homi Bhabha. It flows from reporting that the Harvard football team beat the Yale football team (sports news of trifling importance) to this graf:

"That very same morning, The New York Times practically gasped with orgasmic excitement in reporting at length on another Harvard triumph: the appointment to a tenured professorship of one Homi K. Bhabha, a well-known spouter of multiculturist twaddle, bunkum and flapdoodle, formerly of the (it figures!) University of Chicago. This is an appointment that henceforth obliges us to capitalize the "cant" in "Cantabrigian." I have had my eye on this Bhabha for some time now, since I encountered him by chance on that invaluable Web site, Arts & Letters Daily (, and his stuff has to be read to be believed. He makes Derrida and Foucault sound like Orwell. Do you remember the ridiculous diction affected by the late Alec Guinness in the role of Professor Godbole in A Passage to India? Mr. Bhabha to the life! And now Godbole�s back, and Harvard�s got him!"

Now, Limited Inc has no love of jargon. But the idea that Foucault and Derrida are fonts of jargon, which seems set in stone among a newspaper commentariat whose contact with de la Grammatologie or Surveiller et Punir was limited to that sophmore class with the skinny Marxist prof, seems comic to us. The fact is, these guys only know the Frenchies by way of the jargony that were quoted about 1981 in New Criterion and have been recycled ever since. But this doesn�t mean we think Bhabha is on that level. No, reading this man, one is reminded less of Derrida and more of Faith Popcorn, or Tom Peters � basically, he aims at telling the tales of the tribe in the approved manner of the tribe. The tribe, of course, of lefty academics who are, at heart, simple souls, but are as ashamed of that simplicity as Adam and Eve were of their nudity when God made the housecall. So Bhabha�s usual course is to intro in ineffable Timespeak (an idiolect parodied to a t by Robert Coover in The Public Burning) and proceed in a confusing, affectless theory-speak, in which there�s no outside world, no test for whether an idea is good or bad, but only a high sensitivity to whether it is politically right or left. Here's a fragment from Bhabha's snoozer, Nation and Narration:

�Nations, like narratives, lose their origins in the myths of time and only fully realize their horizons in the mind's eye. Such an image of the nation - or narration - might seem impossibly romantic and excessively metaphorical, but it is from those traditions of political thought and literary language that the nation emerges as a powerful historical idea in the west. An idea whose cultural compulsion lies in the impossible unity of the nation as a symbolic force. This is not to deny the attempt by nationalist discourses persistently to produce the idea of the nation as a continuous narrative of national progress, the narcissism of self-generation, the primeval present of the Volk. Nor have such political ideas been definitively superseded by those new realities of internationalism, multi-nationalism, or even 'late capitalism', once we acknowledge that the rhetoric of these global terms is most often underwritten in that grim prose of power that each nation can wield within its own sphere of influence. What I want to emphasize in that large and liminal. image of the nation with which I began is a particular ambivalence that haunts the idea of the nation, the language of those who write of it and the lives of those who live it. It is an ambivalence that emerges from a growing awareness that, despite the certainty with which historians speak of the 'origins' of nation as a sign of the 'modernity' of society, the cultural temporality of the nation inscribes a much more transitional social reality.�
And so on. The nations like unspecified narratives (narratives, in this world, don�t really exist, they are simply all ineffably one, all immersed in the cosmic cum of just being that magical word, narrative) losing their origins in the myths of time is so close to National Geographic, circa 1959, having them lose their origins in the mists of time, that I wonder if there isn�t some homophonic thing goin down, here � if Dr. Freud is in the house, please call. But after we lift ourselves out of these myths of time (hmm, I wonder if he is talking about the castration of Chronos, here? Otherwise, I have no clue as to what myths of time these are, or why they are myths, or how myths aren�t narratives tout court, or whether the narrative of national progress is the same as that myth of national regress by which, for instance, 19th century German nationalists sought to unify the Reich as a competitor to France and Britain (but here, of course, I�m indulging in the myth and the mist of history -- aberrant factism is banned, as we know, from the Island of Laputa)), we make the long climb through narcissism and liminality to the vecu � the lives, ah yes, of those who are living �it� � the it of course being language, or ambivalence, or the liminal image, or something. But we are with those living Volk ourselves, we are united with them, in Homi Bhabha�s world.
In the room the women come and go/talking of Michaelangelo, after all.

Thursday, November 29, 2001


"...headlong themselves they threw
Down from the verge of Heaven: eternal wrauth 865
Burnt after them to the bottomless pit.
�Hell heard the unsufferable noise; Hell saw
Heaven ruining from Heaven, and would have fled
Affrighted; but strict Fate had cast too deep
Her dark foundations, and too fast had bound. 870
Nine days they fell; confounded Chaos roared,
And felt tenfold confusion in their fall
Through his wild Anarchy; so huge a rout
Incumbered him with ruin. Hell at last,
Yawning, received them whole, and on them closed� 875
Hell, their fit habitation, fraught with fire
Unquenchable, the house of woe and pain.
Disburdened Heaven rejoiced, and soon repaired
Her mural breach, returning whence it rowled."

Which is how John Milton described the fall of Enron. Less cosmically, the NYT describes the tenfold confusion in Houston in this way:

"Enron's swift collapse left the prospects of 21,000 employees in doubt and wiped out what was left of the holdings of stock investors, including some big mutual funds, as shares that sold for $90 in August 2000 crashed to close yesterday at 61 cents. It roiled the Treasury market and tarnished the standing of the big New York banks that both advised on the deal and poured their own cash into the company. And it left in tatters the reputation of Enron's chief executive, Kenneth L. Lay, a confidant and campaign backer of President George W. Bush.

The Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said they had monitored Enron's impact on the financial and energy markets yesterday; officials who would comment said they saw no dangerous ripple effect."

CNN commentator Mike Sivy has already drawn the Lessons of Enron -- although a year ago the teaching and the prophets and the very constellations in the sky were differently disposed. Here's Sivy's sense of the fall:

"First, let's just take a moment of silence to register the sheer scale of the Enron disaster. $85 to 65 cents in less than a year. That's like something from a television sitcom. Even more incredible, there were a fair number of analysts recommending the stock even after it was down 95 percent. One poor fellow actually downgraded the stock from "strong buy" to "hold" on Wednesday. And top mutual fund companies, such as Janus, were major shareholders as recently as the end of the third quarter."

Well, at Limited Inc we are mere peasants, but we still wonder how, given that we are seeing the largest bankruptcy in history -- one that is being aggravated by the inability of Satan, or in this case Ken Lay, to bend his knee to that great divinity, arithmatic - we wonder how that disaster concords with the Treasury department, the Federal Reserve, and the FERC conclusion that the market will soon repair her mural breach, and we'll all be able to turn our lonely eyes to Saddam Hussein or similar villains while driving our SUVs to the mall for Christmas. Hmm. Something seems out of focus in this picture. Are these the same guys who're investigating the anthrax letters?

We are reminded of the doings of 1901. A hundred years ago, James Hill discovered that his company, the Northern Pacific Railroad, was being bought out from under him by his deadly rival, Edward Harriman. Hill's ally, J.P. Morgan, directed a counter-strategy, but the share of stock available, by the time battle was joined, was not great. Now, the battle attracted a lot of short sellers, who pledged, as short sellers do, to sell stock they didn't yet possess. They were betting, of course, that Northern Pacific Stock would go down, do that they could make a handy profit on the spread between the price they sold for and the price they bought for. But here's what happened. The price, on May 9, went up. It opened at 320, then it went up to 700, then 1000. Shorts were ruined, of course, and having to liquidate their other assets, other stocks fell sharply. At the end of the day, Northern Pacific fell 675 from its high when the brokers basically stopped the battle between Harriman and Hill and put some stock on the block. The panic in the markets, caused by, basically, a shark fight, stimulated public revulsion of a kind that made regulation of the market politically possible.

As for what will happen now that Enron lies in ruins, and commentators near and far assure us that there was nothing wrong with the model ("energy de-regulation now, energy de-regulation forever" is the motto of these stalwarts), well it depends on whether anybody is paying attention as our gov picks gingerly through the bones.

Wednesday, November 28, 2001


Clash of civilizations -- the continuing saga.
An article about an exorcism turned bad in New Zealand gives us a little Weegee snap of the sometimes dark alleys of the Christian faith. In this instance, a Korean pastor bounced on one of the members of his congregation while she was held down by other members of his congregation. He grabbed her neck, he roughhoused her, she cried out. He went after that devil inside her body with his faith's customary singlemindedness, but he ended up killing the poor woman. At first the minister though that her spirit had merely gone to heaven for a brief respite, a strictly R & R stay. When her body turned black, he explained that this was just God's way of renewing her. But God's ways aren't man's, and the pastor was duly reported to the police, who took him in on a murder charge.

A sad story all the way around, but enlivened a bit by expert testimony from another exorcist (the intersection of the courtroom and expertise produces, the most enchanting monsters of reason):

"Longtime evangelist Wilfred Subritsky, who has written books on casting out demons and who has done thousands of deliverances, told the jury that it was only necessary to lightly place hands on a possessed person for him or her to be touched by the Holy Spirit.

Under no circumstances would he try to physically force a demon from a person."

Such are the disputes between the high doctors of the church.

Tuesday, November 27, 2001


Limited Inc is no fan of either John Rawls or Ronald Dworkin. Philosophers who produce casuistry which reads like memos from Kafka's Castle, are, in our eyes, under grave suspicion of boring without a licence. Unless they are doing something completely original -- you know, like exploring the ontology of holes. But in the conservative City Journal there is an attack on the dull duo that is below par even by the debased standards of the Manhattan Institute (the foundation, darling, that puts out the journal). In an article by John Kekes, we are forced, at a certain point, to feel some lukewarm solidarity with the pair. Dull they may be, but they don't deserved to be sniped at by a moron. Not that Kekes is a moron, of course -- for all we know he might put on his pants one leg at a time like anybody else. But judging by the quality of this article, he probably tries to put them on three legs at a time, and trips into the dresser in the process.

Here's how Kekes makes his overall point in 1 and one half astonishing grafs:

"After all, a just government ought to treat everyone with equal consideration, and, they assert, doing so requires legislation aimed at the equalization of property. This economic egalitarianism goes far beyond the uncontroversial claim that people should have equal political and legal rights. Economic egalitarianism requires depriving the 86 percent of citizens who live above the poverty level of a substantial portion of their legally owned property in order to give it to the 14 percent who live below it.

The impassioned egalitarian rhetoric that asserts this supposed obligation cows many people into acquiescence. But no such obligation exists, and the appeal to it is absurd, because it requires the equalization of the property of rapists and their victims, welfare cheats and taxpayers, spendthrifts and savers. No reasonable person can believe that we are obliged to treat the moral and immoral, the prudent and imprudent, the law-abiding and the criminal with equal consideration. While we may have an obligation to help those who are poor through no fault of their own, it is absurd to suppose that if, as a result of bad choices, people find themselves below the poverty level, then it becomes the obligation of the government to help them by confiscating a considerable portion of the property of everyone else."

Now, anybody who has read Rawls justification of welfare, which is about minimum standards of bien-etre, knows that Kekes is not just caricaturing Rawls, but living on another planet. Only such a lunar habitation would explain finding "impassioned egalitarian rhetoric' in A theory of Justice. It is as impassioned as an accountant's christmas card -- ask any poor philosophy student. Even his percentages seem screwy. Why would 86 percent of citizens above the poverty level have to be deprived of a "substantial portion of their property" in order to equalize the amount held by the 14 percent below it -- that would only be true if the 14 percent below it were enormously below it, and if the 86 percent, who were equidistant from the 14 percent, held an amount of wealth that was, coincidentally, both substantially part of their collected wealth, and equal to the sum which the 14 percent would have to possess in order to be equal to the 86 percent. Of course, that is absurd to begin with. We could repair Kekes argument slightly if we were given corollary figures to decide this issue (as in some sum for the total wealth in the system, some sums for how that wealth is really divided up, etc) but what is the point? Since Kekes ignores the fact that the 86 percent and the 14 percent cover, inter alia, enormous internal differences in wealth, what we have, here, is a veritable aria of nonsense. Limited Inc only hopes that Kekes limits the intellectual damage he does to the confines of academia, and doesn't seek a job in the world of, say, business; although if he must, we'd recommend the accounts received department at Enron -- he'd be a perfect Enron man, where the motto is: math illiteracy no bar to advancement! Of course, this is besides the main point, which is that there is nothing in Rawls or Dworkin that envisions that kind of transfer of wealth. It is one thing to make a case for a reductio ad absurdam - that, in other words, the logic Rawls or Dworkin is using would lead us down the old slippery slope to Kekes conclusion; it is another thing to start with ad absurdam and freefall like a mad parachutist. Kekes, though, is only compounding an unfortunately common error among the "impassioned" rhetoricians of the right. We are reminded of Plato's early dialogue, Euthydemus, in which Socrates engages with two brothers, Euthydemos and Dionysodorus, who've just learned "philosophy" - that is, they've learned how to play with the connotations and denotations of words. Actually, in the almost Beckettian comedy of this dialogue, we find Kekes' spiritual lumpen ancestors -- people who simply can't think. An unfortunate handicap for a thinker. When Euthydemus proves that not only is he not Dionysodorus' brother, but that Socrates has no father, we come upon an uncannily familiar logic, one applied everyday by the George Wills, the John Kekes, and the Weekly Standards of this world:

What, replied Dionysodorus in a moment; am I the brother of
Thereupon I said, Please not to interrupt, my good friend, or
prevent Euthydemus from proving to me that I know the good to be
unjust; such a lesson you might at least allow me to learn.
You are running away, Socrates, said Dionysodorus, and refusing to
No wonder, I said, for I am not a match for one of you, and a
fortiori I must run away from two. I am no Heracles; and even Heracles
could not fight against the Hydra, who was a she-Sophist, and had
the wit to shoot up many new heads when one of them was cut off;
especially when he saw a second monster of a sea-crab, who was also
a Sophist, and appeared to have newly arrived from a sea-voyage,
bearing down upon him from the left, opening his mouth and biting.
When the monster was growing troublesome he called Iolaus, his nephew,
to his help, who ably succoured him; but if my Iolaus, who is my
brother Patrocles [the statuary], were to come, he would only make a
bad business worse.
And now that you have delivered yourself of this strain, said
Dionysodorus, will you inform me whether Iolaus was the nephew of
Heracles any more than he is yours?
I suppose that I had best answer you, Dionysodorus, I said, for
you will insist on asking that I pretty well know-out of envy, in
order to prevent me from learning the wisdom of Euthydemus.
Then answer me, he said.
Well then, I said, I can only reply that Iolaus was not my nephew at
all, but the nephew of Heracles; and his father was not my brother
Patrocles, but Iphicles, who has a name rather like his, and was the
brother of Heracles.
And is Patrocles, he said, your brother?
Yes, I said, he is my half-brother, the son of my mother, but not of
my father.
Then he is and is not your brother.
Not by the same father, my good man, I said, for Chaeredemus was his
father, and mine was Sophroniscus.
And was Sophroniscus a father, and Chaeredemus also?
Yes, I said; the former was my father, and the latter his.
Then, he said, Chaeredemus is not a father.
He is not my father, I said.
But can a father be other than a father? or are you the same as a
I certainly do not think that I am a stone, I said, though I am
afraid that you may prove me to be one.
Are you not other than a stone?
I am.
And being other than a stone, you are not a stone; and being other
than gold, you are not gold?
Very true.
And so Chaeredemus, he said, being other than a father, is not a
I suppose that he is not a father, I replied.
For if, said Euthydemus, taking up the argument, Chaeredemus is a
father, then Sophroniscus, being other than a father, is not a father;
and you, Socrates, are without a father."

Ah, I can only imagine the young Kekes nodding vigorously to this, and noting in the margin: Socrat. has no father! Interesting!!!! Must note - perhaps a virgin b.?

Monday, November 26, 2001

Death tolls. Why does Limited Inc circle this rebarbative topic again and again, like the Biblical canine slinking back to its biblical dejecta? Simple answer, honey, is: it is history � yours and mine, for ever and ever, world without end, amen.

As I said in yesterday�s post, the historians of the Soviet Empire (file under evil) have a disconcerting habit of flaming each other about death toll numbers. How many died in the de-kulakization of the early 30s? Robert Conquests figures are holy writ to the National Review crowd, while the Nation crowd views them as insufferable puffery, fixing the death accounting books. (The same ideological divide, but a differently distributed disposition to skepticism, presides over the number of Sanction dead in Iraq.) The vested interest in increasing death toll numbers is in contrast to the usual political positions taken by the people who brandish the numbers. The larger the number, the greater the ideological difference between the accuser and the particular criminal regime. The deconstructionist in me can�t resist pointing to a sort of hostile mimicry instituted by this habit. It is as if, in order to memorialize a mass killing, the eulogists need to kill a greater number, if only figuratively. The same economic motive operates among the killers, as we know from records of the GPU and the SS. The greater the number of victims, the greater the productivity.

I�ve submitted a proposal to write about this for a more remunerative publication, so I am not going to get into it here � no use throwing pearls before swine (not you, gentle reader � Limited Inc is speaking figuratively). But the war of numbers among the historians is reminiscent of other number wars � for instance, in the estimation of demonstration crowds. I�m tempted to allude, extensively, to the master thinker of crowd symbols, Elias Canetti. But in perusing his book, Crowds and Power, I came upon a section on the increasing crowd, but not the increasing crowd of the dead. That the dead don�t fuck is one of the laws of a nature, even among the myths. But that they can increase � that we are prepared to increase them statistically, if not by the discovery of individual cases � is a modern phenomenon that must have its roots in one of Canetti�s crowd symbols.

Sunday, November 25, 2001

Limited inc is quite familiar (as, I assume, hypocrite lecteur, you are too) with mass murder as a background phenomenon. After all, we all grew up in a world where the weaponry stored underground in Arkansas and the Ukraine would be more than sufficient to wipe the whole breed of Yahoos from the earth; along, probably, with many other breeds -- chihuahas, siamese cats, etc. This knowledge was, properly, bystander knowledge -- to use Karl Krauss' distinction between Dasein and Dabei-sein. The era, in other words, of Black magic.

But Limited Inc has not had the honor of personal, sensual acquaintance with mass murder. No rifle butt aimed for the lower back propelled us into a pit at Babi Yar; no NKVD boot landed on our ms in a cramped Moscow apartment. We never had to swallow our teeth, or our feces, in a basement in the Lubyanka prison, as did Meyerhold, the great theater director, before he confessed; never had to confront our formerly friendly neighbors in some Rwanda ville, neighbors armed with machetes and ready for a go with the daughter, wife, and even, shockingly, our own most precious carcass. We have the privilege of not even having to care too much about these things, and of course we exercise it, in the same way we turn switches on or off and buy our French roast coffee beans at Whole Foods. No big deal.

Which brings us, by an intellectual detour, to Aileen Kelly's essay on Stalinism, murder and time in the current NYRB.

Kelly is part of an often abused scholarly tribe, along with Sheila Fitzgerald and a few others, who study Stalinism as a phenomenon apart from what Koestler and Robert Conquest said about it. I'm going to get to that in my next post. But I wanted to share two grafs that will point you to this article.

"Brooks cites one revealing anecdote on what it was like for the ordinary Soviet citizen to live in a utopian temporality. The German Communist Wolfgang Leonhard, who grew up in Moscow, describes his confusion when in 1935 he and his mother sought to replace their outdated 1924 map of Moscow and discovered that the new map contained all the improvements destined to be completed by 1945: "We used to take both town plans with us on our walks from then on�one showing what Moscow had looked like ten years before, and the other showing what it would look like ten years hence." As Brooks says, "what had vanished or, more exactly, become compressed between two dream worlds was the present."

And this irresistible graf:

"We can still only speculate on Stalin's motives and the wider pressures that led to the orgy of violence. Yet Lewis Siegelbaum's analysis of letters from ordinary citizens shows that very many did not question the policy of repression itself, ascribing "excesses" in this respect only to particular individuals: a common suspicion was that "enemies of the people" had wormed their way into the NKVD and, by arresting loyal Communists, were attempting to undermine Soviet power. Substantial numbers of the Party elite seem to have seen the Terror as a necessary defensive operation. Those who (we may assume) did not, such as the veteran Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin, were forced to use the official rhetoric. In a letter to Stalin which he hoped would save him from execution after his trial in 1938, he protests his innocence of the charges against him, but writes that "there is something great and bold about the political idea of a general purge...[which] encompasses 1) the guilty; 2) persons under suspicion; and 3) persons potentially under suspicion.""

The synthetic progressive

I have been searching for a term to encompass one of the great features of capitalism – the non-necessary synthesis. I guess I will call it ...