Friday, October 18, 2002



The Channel between the French and the English has marvelous metaphysical qualities: as ideas swim back and forth, they suffer a sea-change of sometimes monstrous proportions. French ideas, to the cold Anglo philosophe, at least since Burke, seem like so much congealed vichysoisse: repulsive, illogical, and smelly. Anglo ideas, to the fervent French, are either Blakean visions encoded in logical paradoxes (which is how Deleuze saw Lewis Carroll and Russell) or Benthamite panopiticons -- systems of cruelty diffused by way of capitalist reason, where every man carries to a butcher's market his own meat, and is consequently processed into slices.

Peter Conrad is, I believe, Australian. His review of Surya's book about George Bataille in the Observer is both sympathetic and incredulous. LI think he distorts Bataille, but he makes an arguable case. Conrad does contrive an utterly beautiful summary of Story of the Eye:

"The etchings made by Hans Bellmer in 1944 to illustrate Bataille's scabrous novel Story of the Eye concentrate on the two blind, gaping eyes between the splayed legs of women: sex is a surgical probe, an experimental invasion of the darkness and a foretaste of extinction. Bataille's heroine Simone removes the eye of a priest from its socket and, slicing through its ligaments, inserts it into her vagina. There it can scrutinise the matted jungle of our dreams."

Here's the passage in L'histoire itself:

"Ensuite je me levai et, en �cartant les cuisses de Simone, qui s'�tait couch�e sur le c�t�, je me trouvai en face de ce que, je me le figure ainsi, j'attendais depuis toujours de le m�me fa�on qu'une guillotine attend un cou � trancher. Il me semblait m�me que mes yeux sortaient de la t�te comme s'ils �taient �rectiles � force d'horreur; je vis exactement, dans le vagin velu de Simone, l'oeil bleu p�le de Marcelle qui me regardait en pleurant des larmes d'urine."

Which we won't translate.

He also, LI thinks, rather maliciously offers this view of Bataille's "political economy":

"Surya also fudges the issue of Bataille's affinity with fascism, which in his view concluded 'the decay of mankind' and definitively disproved the humanist faith in our lofty status. Bataille likened Auschwitz to the Pyramids or the Acropolis: it was a talisman of civilisation, a wonder of the modern world. He was equally elated by the instantaneous flattening of Hiroshima, which demonstrated man's capacity to terminate his own history and exterminate the earth itself."

The key words here: civilization, elation, humanist -- have, as Conrad must know, a different tone for Bataille than they have for the average Guardian reader. Although I'm unaware of the Bataillian comparison of Auschwitz and the Acropolis, I'm quite aware of the Part maudite, in which the theme of ritualized cruelty and civilization -- or social organization, which is what Bataille, founder (as Conrad does not reveal) of the College de sociologie, was getting at -- is explained in terms of the discord (and the consequent dialectic) between utility and sovereignty. Bataille's changing position on fascism -- from an early fascination to opposition -- is an arc common to a lot of European intellectuals of the twenties and thirties. The opposition to humanism was an opposition to the easy synthesis of calculation and affection, forged in bourgeois nineteenth century societies, and fatally undermined in WWI. Bataille did not believe that parlimentary democracy would endure because it could not sublimate in any grand symbolic way the violence which, for Bataille, was the suture at the heart of the social -- the trace of a dialectical failure, insofar as the dialectic is, indeed, Hegelian. That violence does have as its ultimate object nothing at all -- what Victor Turner calls the symbolic object, what Lacan (and Laurie Anderson) call x.

Of course, there are some howlers in the review -- you can't discuss philosophy in a forum like the Guardian without getting it through Guardian editors -- and newspaper editors are notoriously prone to make "sense" of philosophical arguments, destroying them in the process. Here's the big howler in this review:

"Being an earnest French philosopher, Surya is obliged to take such assertions seriously, and he sees in them 'the political formulation of a supreme morality'. I suspect that Bataille adopted extreme positions in a spirit of zany, cunning frivolity. As a surrealist, he understood the uses of effrontery, and he is probably best understood as a subversive intellectual comedian - a jester devoted, like Erasmus, to the praise of folly rather than sagacity. He met Henri Bergson on a trip to London, and prepared himself by reading his essay on comedy. Bergson treated laughter as our guide to the abyss, plumbing 'the depth of worlds' and chastising the sedate certitudes of morality; the absurd, extravagant foulness of Story of the Eye - its garrottings, its random couplings, its sacrilegious mockery - filled Bataille with an unholy merriment, a 'fulminating joy, bordering on naive folly'. Like the little boy in the poem, his primary purpose was to annoy."

Surely the sentence starting "Bergson treated laughter..." should read, "Bataille treated laughter..." Anybody who has read Bergson on laughter knows that he conceived it as, centrally, a form of mechanical mimicry, a category mistake, with the categories being life and mechanism. Bataille, on the other hand, called laughter a way of spitting out language itself, the reassertionof the primal, organic mouth over the sense-making tool it becomes in socialization.

Bataille was fascinated by a sort of line that he drew from the pole of the mouth to the pole of the anus. LI used to be fascinated by that line, too. We absorbed Bataille, at one time, into our very bloodstream. It wasn't, in retrospect, a good idea. Or so we have thought for a number of years. Lately, we have been nostalgic for our naughtier years. The peak of our Bataille infatuation probably came several years ago, when we were living in Atlanta, working at a bookstore, and involved with awoman (let's call her X) who was afflicted with bipolar depression and a husband. She came in after we'd been hired. We were sitting in the lunch room, when she and a rather chubby young man, her co-hire, came in and were introduced. She was scrawny, had graying hair, and lively eyes. I came to know and love that scrawniness, but she rang a lot of bells at first. I was the person who was in charge of the psychology books, and the erotica. At the mention of erotica, X came alive. She loved erotica. Well, so did LI. We've always loved erotica, porno, all the trawling through the bodies struggles, pores and marks and moans and disappointments and holes and hairs, all of it, all of it -- but we are no longer so discursive about this. At that time, Bataille's project -- the production of the sovereign human being, one who shucks off the merely human -- seemed absolutely right. X was into it, until X slashed her wrists, and the spiral went quickly down.

So... we have our own personal doubts about Bataille. The way a stockbroker from the eighties might have doubts about cocaine. To produce the strong effect of Bataille's rhetoric, we would need to quote extensively -- we admit that we haven't given up entirely Bataille's absurd project. Here's a passage we often think of:

"A un moment donn�, je suis all� � la fen�tre et je l'ai ouverte ... Dans la rue juste devant moi, il y avait une tr�s longue banderole noire ... Le vent avait � moiti� d�croch� la hampe : elle avait l'air de battre de l'aile. Elle ne tombait pas: elle claquait dans le vent avec un grand bruit � hauteur du toit: elle se d�roulait en prenant des formes tourment�es: comme un ruisseau d'encre qui aurait coul� dans les nuages. L'incident para�t �tranger � mon histoire, mais c' �tait pour moi comme si une poche d'encre s'ouvrait dans ma t�te et j' �tais s�r, ce jour-l�, de mourir sans tarder

Finally, here is a chronology of Bataille's life composed by Surya.

Thursday, October 17, 2002


Nietzsche's birthday (as well as that of one of his commentators, my friend Kathy Higgins) was yesterday. In his honor, here's a translation of one of his Dawn of Day numbers:

"The fearful eye - Nothing is more feared by artists, poets and writers than that eye which sees their petty deceits, and which by and by perceives how often they have stood on the border where the paths led either to innocent pleasure in itself or to the making of effects; which can write up the tab for them, when they have purchased too little with too much, knowing when they have sought to elevate and ornament, without themselves being elevated in the least; which penetrates the thought through all the disguises of their art as it first stood before them, perhaps as a shimmering figure of light, but perhaps, also, as a theft of the common-place, that they have had to extend, abbreviate, color, complicate, pepper, in order to make something of it - oh this eye, which spots in your works all your discomfort, your spying and greed, your imitation and excess (which is just envious mimicry), which knows your embarrassed blushes all too well, as it knows the art you employ to disguise these blushes, and to explain them away even to yourself!"

The evil eye of the critic -- dragging with it that vague,Volkish dread -- is naturally not liked. LI pictures it as one of those symbolist lithographs, an eye floating through space like a big, malign hot air balloon. Something Rops, or Moreau, might have drawn.

Those blushes (Schamrote) -- yes, we know those blushes. LI once wrote several large reviews for the Austin Chronicle. Large in the NYRB scale. They were on various topics -- cancer, the economy, the environment. And every time, some paragraph, some sentence, some word would stand out -- and we would feel intense shame. Because it would be a dumb sentence, the wrong word. Mostly this was our fault -- in the process of editing, we had let it pass.

But let's congratulate ourselves on one thing, shall we? We have not felt the blush that comes from presenting a dishonest argument. Unfortunately, Christopher Caldwell should be blushing this week for his column in the NYPress.

Caldwell is good, as we've said before. Somewhere before, you find the post. While Caldwell is a conservative, he is not dogmatic, or stupid. He is a briliant reader -- we read his book reviews with unmitigated respect. And LI has always assumed that Caldwell has that ineffable quality, intellectual integrity. But this column should bring on a major case of Nietzsche's Schamrote. A lot has been written about the Left's whiny response to 9/11, and how the Left is disconnected from basic human emotions of loyalty to the locale, etc. Well, in our opinion, the proposed war in Iraq has had an amazingly corrupting affect on the Right.

We mean something, well, very Nietzschian by intellectual integrity. The standard comes from science. You can be a pundit, you can be an economist, you can be a journalist, but the standard comes from a discourse that has organized itself around the proof process. That doesn't mean that pundits should experiment, or refuse the evidence of their sensibilities -- that qualitative evidence is what is most valuable about the propos, the opinion column. But opinion has standards. The pundit imagination, like any cognitive effort, should conform to a social duty. This duty is to imagine counter-factuals. Derived from this duty is the duty to understand the selective exhibition of evidence.

These are the first two grafs of Caldwell's column:

"In the days leading up to Thursday�s overwhelming House vote to let the President attack Iraq, consultant Bob Shrum and pollster Stanley Greenberg were sending a memo to Democratic candidates explaining how to handle the vote without getting burned. The stakes were high. Elections are three weeks off, and the public loves the President�s position on this one. If the U.S. has to go it alone against Saddam Hussein, the country will be in favor, by 46 percent to 29, according to a Harris poll. With an okay from the UN Security Council, support for the operation rises to 91-2.

"Shrum and Greenberg proposed to get their guys out of a pickle by having them take both sides of the Iraq issue. Peaceniks could avoid looking soft on Saddam by burying their objections beneath assurances of "support for the war on terrorism in general." But gung-ho warriors should also hedge their bets, since, according to Greenberg�s polling, "the down-the-line supporter of the President in Iraq actually runs significantly weaker than the proponent with reservations."

The public loves the President's position on this one? Caldwell isn't stupid. He knows that the Harris poll he is quoting is one of several polls, and that collectively they have pictured much more ambiguity than Caldwell allows for. He cherrypicked the most gung-ho poll to shore up his position -- for Caldwell does, indeed, love the President's position.

Meaning, LI thinks, the position that he assumes Bush has, which is going in and invading Iraq, rather than the position presented in the Cincinnati speech, which could plausibly be headlined in Europe as backing away from war.

It isn't that LI thinks the anti-war position is popular. Whether it is popular or not, it is our position. But the idea of an aroused populace, which is what Caldwell implies, is a mirage. Here's the latest Gallop poll:

"But the current results suggest a somewhat different scenario. According to the poll, Democrats enjoy an electoral advantage among those who care most deeply about the economy and those most concerned with the possibility of war with Iraq, suggesting that there may be a protest vote on both issues. Likely voters who cite Iraq as the most important issue, for example, oppose invading that country by a two-to-one margin, 66% to 33%. They also indicate they would vote for Democrats over Republicans by a 16-point margin, 56% to 40%. By contrast, among all likely voters, opinion on war with Iraq is evenly divided (47% favor invasion, 46% oppose), as is the vote for the two parties."

Now, Caldwell might think this Gallop poll is wrong. But no poll that I've seen, besides the Harris figures he quotes, would lead anyone to say the public loves the President's position on the war. And that variability of responses, those shifts, tells us that love is precisely the wrong word. The public loved the Afghan invasion. But it doesn't love the proposed Iraq invasion, even though it will support it.

That doesn't mean Caldwell couldn't have made a case from his own impressions that the war will be popular. Or that the Harris poll is necessarily wrong -- I could imagine arguments that would shore it up. But quoting it, as Caldwell does, without referring to the number of other polls that contradict it, is intellectually dishonest. It is the difference between political forecasting and political p.r. -- the latter of whcih consists of trying to make something popular by calling it popular. In the world of stock market speculation, this is known as the greater fool theory -- you buy a stock in order to sell it at a higher price by pumping it up, regardless of its fundamental value. Caldwell should be better than this. But Iraq has this corrupting effect on the right wing. Bad news when we do (and LI thinks we will) invade -- the same meretricious analyses, the same credibility gap opening between what is really happening and the propaganda at home. Vietnam really is looming on the horizon. And it is not going to be good for the Right, we think.

Tuesday, October 15, 2002


The journalist beat

For months, LI has been beating on a drum that is made out of the cyber-skin of James Glassman. The disintegration of the business press, which in the last week saw two more casualties -- Forbes ASAP and Upside -- has not prompted the kind of investigative fervor that is revved up by, say, the kidnapping of blond California tykes. Still, there's a lot to say about it, and we've been boringly, boringly on target about this issue. Well, in memes we trust -- Washington Monthly has an article about this topic by journalist Philip Longman. Longman begins in the self-critical mode, although it never reaches a properly Maoist depth. Here's a couple of grafs from the meat of the article:

"I was once proud of my profession and resentful of those who criticized it. For more than 20 years, I rode the great boom in business journalism that began in the early 1980s. I like to believe that at least some of my stories helped to enlighten readers and remedy wrongdoing. But today, I'm more likely to admit--at least on a bad day--that I spent my youth hustling Tyco shares to senior citizens.

Just as Americans put far too much faith in the integrity and intellectual prowess of stock analysts and other supposedly disinterested financial watchdogs during the boom, they also put far too much stock in business journalism, and have a right to be disappointed and angry. Like many of the industries we once covered, business journalists built their own bubble during the last decade. And now--as is appropriate for an industry that grew rich by dishing out so much bad advice and flabby reporting--business journalism is currently suffering the same financial fate as Wall Street and Silicon Valley. The Industry Standard --where reporters once took time off from chronicling the achievements of dot-com heroes to enjoy in-house massages and open-bar parties graced by belly dancers--is history, along with many other formerly high-riding business rags. And even the most venerable and established business publications are in trouble. The Wall Street Journal has suffered huge layoffs. Forbes, no longer profitable, is reducing staff and executive salaries, eliminating the 401(k) plan, and raising cash by auctioning off old man Forbes's various art collections. Business Week , which championed the "new economy" and in the late 1990s proclaimed an end to the business cycle, saw its advertising plunge from 6,000 pages in 2000 to 3,786 last year, and may finish 2002 with even fewer."

So far, so good. Alas, Longman, revving up for some fancy shooting, never takes a nice shot at a named target -- besides the obvious Cramer and Glassman. This is one way to cover your behind: criticize the bubble of biz journalism without naming the journalists. Worse, Longman apparently believes strongly in the Efficient markets theory. That this theory conflicts with the use of the term bubble, which he sensibly employs, doesn't seem to phase him:

"Few business journalists spend much time analyzing balance sheets. But even if they did, they wouldn't be of much help to folks trying to figure out how to invest their 401(k)s. This truth was forced on me when I set out to learn high finance (after years of writing about it) at Columbia Business School. Here I was, a 40-something guy on a fellowship for mid-career business journalists, surrounded by 20-something whiz kids who would shortly go off with their newly minted MBAs to dazzle Wall Street. And what was the first lesson our finance professor drove home? That even after spending two years and $60,000 at Columbia Business School, none of them would be able to outperform the markets except by sheer luck or inside information."

If Longman really believes his second sentence, than he can't really blame business journalists for the negligence alluded to in the first sentence. Oddly, he doesn't reflect on the contradiction. LI thinks that Longman is right, if he is floundering towards the proposition that business journalists should not think of their jobs as that of advising investors, as opposed to informing the public.

Still, the idea that an MBA won't be able to outperform the market over the long hall is, firstly, contradicted by some well known instances (among them Warren Buffett); and second, depends on breaking up the market into time segments, and elastic definitions of risk that are convenient to the EMH guys. In fact, Longman's discovery of this principal couldn't have been worse timed. During a down market, the pick and chose method of investment emerges as a competitive speculative tool in comparison with the idea of parking your money with a money fund and forgetting about it.

A good critique of EMH is this paper written by Andrew Smithers and Stephen Wright. The discrepency between bubble talk and EMH talk is revealed by what Smithers and Wright call the "extreme form" of EMH: that financial markets adjust immediately and perfectly to new information. Thus, the three hundred some point rise in the NYSE Friday represented a perfect adjustment of markets to new information. That information has to do with the fundamental prices of stocks. Well, although EMH detours around the problem of short term volatility, I buy Smithers and Wrights story about predictable regularities in the market that count against the premises of EMH. Smithers and Wright talk about one of them that we are getting acquainted with over the past two years: "...stock returns are negatively correlated to over the long term, so that periods of high stock returns are typically followed by periods of low returns." The EMH view, which has an ideological quotient that satisfies your average libertarian economist, is what the Longmans will always hear in their classes at Columbia. Joseph Stiglitz won the Nobel Prize, a couple of years ago, for showing that perfect efficiency would collapse the market. The market will always be incomplete, and the information distributed through it will always be assymetrical. Neither Stiglitz nor the experiments of behaviorial economists have made, or will make, a dent in the equilibrium model.
So, Longman should have thought a little bit before unsealing his astonishing revelations among the hotshot MBAs.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...