Saturday, October 07, 2006

killing a writer is easy

Anna Politkovskaya, RIP

Our criminal time has materialized itself in a vast hitman’s hand that slaps us and slaps us and slaps us. And we – we are still asleep. We’ll die asleep.

This news simply makes me sick.

From Mandelstam’s Tristia

The asphodel’s transparent
grey spring is a long way off.
Sand is rustling, really
the waves are breaking white.
But here, like Persephone, my soul
enters the sphere of no-weight
and there are no beautiful tanned
arms in the kingdom of the dead.

Why trust a boat
with a funeral urn’s weight,
and why make holidays of black roses
over amethyst water? My soul pulls there,
past Meganom’s misty cape,
where the black sail will come
from, after the funeral!
Quick black clouds run by unlit,
and under this windy moon
flocks of black roses go flying.
And, behind the cypress-stern
the bird of death and mourning-tears
drags itself,
a huge flag of memory.

And the fan of buried years
opens, rustling, toward the amulet,
where once, with a dark shuddering
it buried itself in the sand:
my soul pulls there
past Meganom’s misty cape
where the black sail will sail
from, after the funeral!

Friday, October 06, 2006

Es war einmal ein Fischer und seine Fru…

Well, LI has been on a tear this week.

1. First, we proposed that there is a dialectic in history, which can be seen in the divergence of form and substance over time – over, that is, human time. And that form goes ‘wild’ – that the form in which substance is presented can spread in unpredictable ways, capturing other seemingly unrelated issues and themes.
(When the fisherman went home to his wife in the pigsty, he told her how he had caught a great fish, and how it had told him it was an enchanted prince, and how, on hearing it speak, he had let it go again. ’Did not you ask it for anything?’ said the wife, ’we live very wretchedly here, in this nasty dirty pigsty; do go back and tell the fish we want a snug little cottage.’
The fisherman did not much like the business: however, he went to the seashore; and when he came back there the water looked all yellow and green. And he stood at the water’s edge, and said:
’O man of the sea!
Hearken to me!
My wife Ilsabill
Will have her own will,
And hath sent me to beg a boon of thee!’

Then the fish came swimming to him, and said, ’Well, what is her will? What does your wife want?’ ’Ah!’ said the fisherman, ’she says that when I had caught you, I ought to have asked you for something before I let you go; she does not like living any longer in the pigsty, and wants a snug little cottage.’ ’Go home, then,’ said the fish; ’she is in the cottage already!’ So the man went home, and saw his wife standing at the door of a nice trim little cottage. ’Come in, come in!’ said she; ’is not this much better than the filthy pigsty we had?’ )

2. Second, in the “choose a philosophy of history” game show, we chose, absurdly, Michelet over Marx – the satanic notion of playing things in reverse, which Michelet, romantically, imagines to be the essence of the witch, is for us the essence of freeing ourselves from the white magic of our times. Reversal, of course, is a big term in Hegel and Marx as well. Umschlag, the reversal of the negation caused by the negation of the negation into the positive, is one of those complex little twists Hegel throws into game. It became Marx’s favorite gesture – he was always inverting things. Like Michelet’s witch, Marx uses reversal to exorcize the white magic of the sacred – in his case, capitalism.

(The next morning when Dame Ilsabill awoke it was broad daylight, and she jogged the fisherman with her elbow, and said, ’Get up, husband, and bestir yourself, for we must be king of all the land.’ ’Wife, wife,’ said the man, ’why should we wish to be the king? I will not be king.’ ’Then I will,’ said she. ’But, wife,’ said the fisherman, ’how can you be king–the fish cannot make you a king?’ ’Husband,’ said she, ’say no more about it, but go and try! I will be king.’ So the man went away quite sorrowful to think that his wife should want to be king. This time the sea looked a dark grey colour, and was overspread with curling waves and the ridges of foam as he cried out:
’O man of the sea!
Hearken to me!
My wife Ilsabill
Will have her own will,
And hath sent me to beg a boon of thee!’

’Well, what would she have now?’ said the fish. ’Alas!’ said the poor man, ’my wife wants to be king.’ ’Go home,’ said the fish; ’she is king already.’)

3. Third, we returned to the question of the anxiety betrayed by recent shabby overthrow of our rights, first as human beings (the right not to be tortured) and then, as Americans (for those who are Americans), the rights protecting us from the grossest encroachments of tyrannical executive power. A child, picking its nose and flicking its boogers, would spend more thought on what it was doing than the pack of Gadarene swine in congress spent in thinking of the consequences of destroying our constitution. In the blogosphere, there was a lot of concentration about how many Dems voted with the swine. Actually, that makes no sense to us. Of course, a certain percentage of the Dems is anti-constitutional. Yes, fuck them righteously, but please – this is a pattern from forever. Usually, civil rights stuff is passed by a coalition of the majority of the Dems and a hefty minority of the GOP. As it was in 1964, so it shall and ever will be – or so the Conventional Wisdom held. The terrible thing is not that the Democratic party holds people who wipe their asses with the constitution, the terrible thing is that the hefty minority of the GOP has evaporated. LI has dreamed of a moderate GOP coming back, somehow. But even witches know that when you poke a man with a knife and he don’t respond and he don’t seem to be a-breathin’, he’s prob’ly ghastly dead. From the San Francisco convention of 1964, nominating Goldwater, to 2006, with the crowing of the Rebel-in-Chief, there’s been a death march inside the GOP. (So the fisherman went. But when he came to the shore the wind was raging and the sea was tossed up and down in boiling waves, and the ships were in trouble, and rolled fearfully upon the tops of the billows. In the middle of the heavens there was a little piece of blue sky, but towards the south all was red, as if a dreadful storm was rising. At this sight the fisherman was dreadfully frightened, and he trembled so that his knees knocked together: but still he went down near to the shore, and said:
’O man of the sea!
Hearken to me!
My wife Ilsabill
Will have her own will,
And hath sent me to beg a boon of thee!’

’What does she want now?’ said the fish. ’Ah!’ said the fisherman, ’my wife wants to be pope.’ ’Go home,’ said the fish; ’she is pope already.’)

However, we aren’t writing this thing to dwell on party politics. We are writing this thing to poke among the carrion in the battlefield, to reign curses down on the powers that be, and to cast spells.

To give LI’s gentle reader a larger picture of anxiety and desire, we quoted Silja Graupe’s analysis of the neo-classical paralogism – to achieve an economic theory centering on equilibrium, it was necessary to postulate a population moved by infinite greed. A peculiarity of theory that reflects a peculiarity of social fact. As the market becomes the site of social interaction, reversing its subordination to the social [the non-serviam of white magic], the theoretical becomes the form of the practical. Greed is no longer a moral description, or even a psychological one – it is simply a social function. It is simply how the white magic survives. Day after day of it, year after year of it, it creates changes on such a vast scale that one can’t even see them. (Then they went to bed: but Dame Ilsabill could not sleep all night for thinking what she should be next. At last, as she was dropping asleep, morning broke, and the sun rose. ’Ha!’ thought she, as she woke up and looked at it through the window, ’after all I cannot prevent the sun rising.’ At this thought she was very angry, and wakened her husband, and said, ’Husband, go to the fish and tell him I must be lord of the sun and moon.’ The fisherman was half asleep, but the thought frightened him so much that he started and fell out of bed. ’Alas, wife!’ said he, ’cannot you be easy with being pope?’ ’No,’ said she, ’I am very uneasy as long as the sun and moon rise without my leave. Go to the fish at once!’
Then the man went shivering with fear; and as he was going down to the shore a dreadful storm arose, so that the trees and the very rocks shook. And all the heavens became black with stormy clouds, and the lightnings played, and the thunders rolled; and you might have seen in the sea great black waves, swelling up like mountains with crowns of white foam upon their heads. And the fisherman crept towards the sea, and cried out, as well as he could:
’O man of the sea!
Hearken to me!
My wife Ilsabill
Will have her own will
And hath sent me to beg a boon of thee!’

’What does she want now?’ said the fish. ’Ah!’ said he, ’she wants to be lord of the sun and moon.’ ’Go home,’ said the fish, ’to your pigsty again.’
And there they live to this very day.)

Which brings us to the story of the fisherman and his ‘Fru’, which is not a tragic story at all. From a “Potte” – a pot, a pigsty – through the stages of secular and sacred power, back to the pigsty. When I was a younger man, all I would see was the servility in this story. An older man in a patchwork state, I can now read portents in it I didn’t see before. Yes, for America, that 'benign power', that new empire, that oh so wondrous enemy of all terrorism (after, of course, having won its greatest war -- WWII -- by the application of terrorism on a scale never seeen before) now wants to tell the moon and the stars how to run in their courses. But as both a younger man and an older man, I have instinctively realized that the market society makes all things comic, and the present shenanigans of our coup crewe is no exception to the rule.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

“But I hear the voice of nature which cries out against me.” – Montesquieu

LI is a bit gloomy. Our quote, by the way, is from Montesquieu’s chapter on the question of torture in the Spirit of the Laws.

Here’s a bit of a Q and A, posted by In these Times, with Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson about their book, Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights.

“What did you learn from getting so close to the “black sites” in Afghanistan?

"Nobody was talking about or thinking about this issue. The Afghans would say, “Why are you so concerned with such a small number of prisoners from other countries that have been dragged here?” The justice system in Afghanistan is ad hoc. There are warlords who have secret jails in their houses. The U.S. military runs a network of 20 different detention centers that is essentially secret. These are jails that are publicly acknowledged, but the Afghan officials cannot get into them, the United Nations cannot get into them, the human rights groups cannot get into them, so they effectively operate in secret. A vast network of jails is holding hundreds of people. Really, when you talk about secrecy and indefinite detention, the problem is bigger than most people realize.

"In the book you describe all of Afghanistan as a black site. What do you mean by that?

"We checked out this facility that we believe is run by DynCorp. Afghan and jail officials could not tell us what goes on in there. The local police chief could not tell us what goes on there. This facility takes up the better part of a square block. It is guarded by huge heavy bomb barriers and row after row of guards with M-16s. The rumor is that prisoners are being held there. The most we could get out of one guy was that it was a center for counterterrorist activity. When you encounter these detention centers that nobody can get into, you realize the whole country is sort of this black site.”

And finally, going back to a question that I have been prodding at: what is Bush and Co. so afraid of? Following the satanic method recommended in Michelet’s La Sorciere, you have to find the reverse of that question to answer it. Namely, what do Bush and Co. want?

Bush and Co. didn’t come from Mars. Like the rest of us, they are shut up in this big prison house of white magic, In a previous post, I listed helter skelter the sheer magnitude of the power and the glory accruing to the triumphant American governing class in this year of Dow 12,000. That was just to set up the question Jack Nicholson asks John Houston in Chinatown: how much better can you eat? How much better can you live? Trying to plumb the millionaire motive for committing any crime to become an even richer fuck. In the series of moves made to remove the Executive branch from any constraint, which has been crowned by the detainee law(crime), we are watching CEO behavior. The appetite for power has its genesis here very clearly in the appetite for wealth.

As it happens, Silja Graupe’s book, The Basho of Economics, which I translated, presents a pretty clear systematic answer to the question of what Bush and Co. want, if we put them in the context of the unconstrained free market system. Graupe finds the moment of excess in neo-classical economics, that halfway house between natural theology and science, that operates as both a justification of the system’s effort (a la Polanyi) to reverse the relationship between economics and society (making society subservient to the market) and a symbol of a dilemma endogenous to the science.

The latter symbolic dimension needs a preliminary remark. Graupe, following Minkowski, grounds her critique of neo-classical economics on the latter’s attempt to make itself a science by absorbing terms and models from physics.

Here’s a long quote:

“Following utility theory, an increase of the quantity of commodities is automatically followed by an increase of the utility levels. This assumption is partly hidden in the neoclassical postulate that the slope of the indifference curve must be negative. But it is formulated explicitly in the assumption of non-satiation (as Arrow and Hahn call it). It is “typically assumed, that more is better”. “The individual is never completely satisfied, but can, in principle, always think of an improvement through another bundle of commodities. Simplifying this, we assume a rule stating that an individual prefers to get more of all commodities.”

Economic theory can’t countenance satiation without giving up the analogy to physics. If it did, a bundle of commodities could be found, by which the preference of the individuals should come to rest of itself, without being externally constrained. Such a resting or equilibrium point is unthinkable in physics, since in the latter every mass point is thought of as moving forward infinitely so long as it is not limited in its freedom of movement by outside forces. While this idea may work with physical bodies, its translation to the economic context would imply the following: it would not only presume an unlimited space of commodities, but also an unlimited effort directed at a surplus of commodities. But how could one possibly explain such an unlimited effort? This question is not answered unambiguously in economics. Generally however one begins by saying that it implies an infinity of human needs. This becomes somewhat clearer given that the neoclassical utility theory is formulated as a maximization of the collective satisfaction of needs.” Yet such an explanation remains, in itself, without content so long as the concept of need is ambiguous. In the course of further interpretation is should become clear, that the effort to obtain more and more commodities can really only be interpreted as striving to obtain an infinite amount of money.”

I’ll spell out the implications of this – and the foundations of zombie society, where things are in the saddle and ride mankind – in another post.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

a speech by my favorite terrorist

Another day in cornpone coup country. The fisher king’s dick has failed to rise again in Iraq (although ten Gis died this weekend, or to put it in Bushspeech – ten commas were added to history) and the fisher king’s subs all pretending like they heard different things at that meeting in 2001 – instead of Al Qaeda, they kept hearing Alky? Da, (Rice thought it was just an answeri to a question about the President's character) and like that. And we discover, today, the only joyous thing to happen in the house of representatives since the impeachment of the prez - Representative Foley quietly masturbating and messaging (multi tasker that he is) while voting for another scandalous piece of sleazy legislation. The world is so upside down that it is Foley who is resigning. It should be the rest of congress. The country would be safer today if all of our reps concentrated on messaging their lolitas, rather than divvying up the spoils and digging the pit in which to bury our liberties.

In LI’s last, we told a few ripe old bedtime tales from American history, to get us to the point where we can address the strange death of the love of liberty in this country. To measure that death means understanding, dialectically, how oppression and liberty have wrassled each other and learnt tricks from each other.

But – I’m just not up to following the ins and outs of this story in this post.

Instead, here’s a little break: terrorist inspiration brought to you from my favorite material enemy of the country, John Brown. I just wrote a review of a book about Brown. It should be google-able. Anyway, in researching that review, I was quite impressed with this speech he made in court, post Harpers Ferry. He’d killed a few men – seen two of his sons die, and a son in law. He was going to be hanged. The slaves had not risen up formed a guerilla army, mores the pity, although there is some indication that way out here , although there is some indication that way out here in Texas, some slaves might have been inspired to give it a go. But he was still sure that his plan to spark a black uprising in the South (about which he hedges a bit, admittedly) was a good one. Here’s what he had to say, or at least the first part of it:

I have, may it please the court, a few words to say. In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted -- the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection. I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case)--had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends--either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class--and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.”

Brown's attack was financed, by the way, by good upstanding Northern businessmen - early Republican party adapters. How sad sad sad the trail from these upstanding liberal radicals to Bush's pioneers. Makes you want to weep.

Monday, October 02, 2006

satanic historiography

De telles contradictions apparentes n’embarrassaient guère un jeune artiste, de foi arreteé, mais candide, and sans calcul, sentant peu le peril d’être tendre pour l’ennemi. – Michelet, preface to L’histoire de France

(Such apparent contradictions hardly embarrass a young artist, with his closed, but candid and uncalculating creed, barely feeling the danger of being tenderhearted for the enemy.)

Comment y arriva-t-on. Sans doute par l’effet si simple du grand principe satanique que tout doit se faire à rebours, exactement à l’envers de ce que fait le monde sacré. – Michelet, La sorciere

Another truth: I said that Michelet is not concerned to describe the rites themselves; he deals rather with their destination, their effect (summoning the dead, curing the sick). This suggests that he makes little differentiation between rite and technique, a correspondence ethnology has adopted in its assertion that magical gestures are always sketches of a technology – Barthes on Michelet’s La sorciere.

In my last post, I sketched half of the history I promised – and even that history is simply another promise, the detour getting us back to the question: what is Bush and Co. so afraid of? Our first step is to draw a map of the peckerwood dialectic of Southern history. Our second step is to understand the reversals that have characterized the Republican party. The meeting of the twain is the goal. But remember, while the steps of all the players are dyed in the white magic of power; LI, taking the advice of Michelet’s witches, doesn’t just want to analyze – we want to vivisect this living history until it bleeds. Tout doit se faire à rebours – a rocknroll motto of resistance to the criminal state we woke up in this morning, a morning like any other, the state like any other.

Okay. In for a penny, in for a pound of flesh. The other half of the story I started with Peckerwood Dialectics concerns the theodicy of the Republican party. It is rather amazing to look at what happened to the Republicans. Here we have a party that, in 1868, is the closest thing America has ever had to a Jacobin party. And here we have a party that, by 1900, assumes its modern form as the political aspect of the corporation, the party of the chamber of commerce.

How we get from one point to the other is a puzzle. Again, as so often in American puzzles, the keys are race and money.

The party system was a surprise to the Founders. It wasn’t what they expected, even though it was obvious that it was coming. It wasn’t just the jealousies and powerhunger of personalities, although that is probably the way Adams and Jefferson looked at it – it was a natural outgrowth of a system that required some internal organization of the representatives and even of the executives. LI has never read a good account of why this should be so – why do the alliances between representatives, and the competition for posts, lead to the party system? In fact, in the fifty years from 1800 to 1850, the party system was obviously being forged in the states, and one of the key motifs around which parties coalesced was race. Race and xenophobia.

I’m not going to bore anyone with stories of the Know Nothing party. But here’s what interests me – the tension in the Republican party between, on the one side, the incipient Northern reformist culture – the prototype of contemporary liberalism, with its comfort with issues of identification (race and gender) and its discomfort with issues of class – and, on the other side, the business strata. To understand why the business class would migrate into the Republican party, you have to see how the issue of class and race operate – not, as liberal myth would have it, in happy tandem, resistance to racism and sympathy for the working class going hand in hand. Rather, the working class/immigrant faction was claimed, quite early, by the Democrats, and formed partly in open opposition to blacks. Racism so often acts as a unifying force in these here states, allowing opponents to forget about their differences in the face of their big hatred. But, as in a screwy game of Chinese checkers, it was just that mob of the immigrant kind, and the Democratic working man, that made the business class seek refuge in the Republican party –with reformers who were, themselves, not exactly pleased with working class lifestyle habits, from the way the kids were raised to the spread of Catholicism to the drinking. (Drinking – the trans fats of the 19th century!).

And here the black Other had a different function. As is pretty well known, the majority of the abolitionist crowd, while opposing slavery, did not exactly welcome the black man into a relationship of equality. In Kansas, for instance, the Freesoilers who fought the pro-slavery paramilitaries wanted no slaves – and no blacks, period. They wanted laws to keep any African American from living in Kansas.

Okay, I’ll return to this in my next post. Got to go to work.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

peckerwood dialectics

In my last post, I asked what Bush and Co. are afraid of. I think that is a good question, but instead of answering it head on, I am going to make a long detour in this post to talk about the dialectics of American history.

For the empiricist, substance and form denote intellectual abstractions, extrinsic to real events. But this won’t do for the philosophically minded historian, who is prodded, by his subject matter, into assuming the dialectical point of view by the fact that, logically, the externality presumed by the empiricist dissolves into the emptiness of the variable when looked at closely. In the empiricist version of history, ultimately, nothing happens. So, starting over, our dialectical historian begins by taking substance and form to be divergent – and possibly, even, antithetical.

So keeping that in mind, let’s think about our problem: how is it that a peculiarly Southern kind of tyranny has achieved success in the U.S. under the mask of the Republican party? This would have seemed beyond the wildest dreams of anybody looking to the future in, say, 1865. Which goes to show that dialectics are not the logic of history – logic, which is always chained to the truth table, doesn’t give us unpredictable outcomes.

Well, to find an explanation for our puzzle, we have to go to the issue that, still, seems to define the U.S. – slavery. We have two orthodox narratives of American history that are actually incompatible. In one of those narratives, the unfolding of American history is the unfolding of the spirit of democracy. Slavery, like the disenfranchisement of women and the poor, marks problems that the spirit eventually triumphed over. The other narrative is that slavery wasn’t an accident, but was an essential feature of the American republic from the beginning. So there is no identity, ever, between the essential structure of the U.S.A. and the democratic spirit.

I’m not declaring for one side or the other in this dispute. But I do want to point to a not often enough remarked upon effect of slavery before the Civil War in the South: the wholesale erosion of the Constitutional spirit. The kidnapping, assaults, and robbery of blacks, under the system of slavery, was defended aggressively by taking away the right to protest it even from those marked as free men under the constitution. Thus, in state after state in the South, laws (and grassroots vigilantism) restricted freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion – in fact, mounted a wholesale attack upon the Bill of Rights. Protesting slavery in any way became harder and harder. For instance, under Andrew Jackson, bills were considered to prohibit abolitionists from sending their writings to the South. Jackson, a slaveholder, actually simply went ahead and instructed postmasters to intercept this kind of mail on their own. This was the first assault on the democratic spirit. The second feature of the slave system was that it became profitable in the early nineteenth century only on a large scale. Large scale farming required a lot of land – vide Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. And so was born an expansionist, filibustering culture, one wedded to aggressiveness in foreign affairs. This, of course, was the opposite of the principle of democracy as laid down both by the writers of the constitution and by such 18th century thinkers as Paine. Democracy, by lifting restrictions on free trade, was supposed to place a strong limit on the state’s tendency to aggression.

And so was born a double tendency – on the one hand, the restriction of the Bill of Rights, and on the other hand, a foreign policy of extraordinary aggressiveness. The connection between the two? Racism.

To this consideration of the internal dynamics of Southern slaveholding culture, we have to add another factor: the protection of that culture within the Republic itself.

That third factor gave rise to the rhetoric of state’s rights, of course. State’s rights is an odd thing. on the one hand, it points to scaling the power of the government down – what you could call its libertarian tendency. This is its formal rhetorical nature. On the other hand, it functioned to shield local oppression. Supposedly a bulwark against majoritarian tyranny, it actually defended local majoritarian tyrannies. The rhetoric of state’s rights created a peculiar American tradition of defending oppression by invoking liberty. This is the American hypocrisy par excellence. By means of State’s rights, Southerners could defend a racist system with a non-racist vocabulary.

Now, incidentally, the State’s rights vocabulary, even pre-Civil War, never kept Southern politicians from invading State’s rights as long as they possessed the Federal power to do so. The fugitive slave law, among other things, abolished the custom of state’s rights about as completely as any Federalist could wish. This is symptomatic of the real role of state’s rights – the invocation of freedom to defend slavery – that would, when slavery collapsed, be resurrected to defend Jim Crow. Southern politicians take up and drop the rhetoric of defending freedom depending its function – when state’s rights is the best tool to defend oppression, they take it up; when the Federal government is enlisted to enforce oppression, they drop it. Recently, we have seen this with a lot of libertarians. As long as libertarianism means defending corporate power, they use anti-state rhetoric; when that power is used to promote gross encroachments on human rights in the service of an aggressive foreign policy, they quietly drop the anti-state rhetoric.

But – one of the things about forms is that they have a tendency, like genetically engineered plants, to escape into the wild. And so it is that the rhetoric of state’s rights, or the defense of a tie between freedom and the freedom of the minority, has colonized a thinking part of the public, who have seized on it to examine state power in all its forms.

Well, enough heavy weather for one post.

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...