Saturday, May 05, 2007

Western man, don't you... come aroounnd....

“What madness says of itself is, for the thought and the poetry of the beginning of the 19th century, equally what the dream says in the disorder of its images: a truth of man, a very archaic and very near truth, very silent and very menacing: a truth under every truth, the closest to the birth of subjectivity, and the most distributed on the level of things; a truth that is the profound retreat of the individuality of man, and the inchoate from of the cosmos: What dreams, is the Spirit in the instant that it descends into matter, and it is the Matter in the instant that it lifts itself up to the Spirit. The dream is the revelation of the very essence of man, the most characteristic process, the most intimate of life.” - Foucault

There is little mention of the new world in Foucault’s book about madness. But I spy with my little eye a whole world of docking points, places where the savage connects to the madman. These figures operate in tandem, in the mysterious fields of the Western man, bronco buster and pissant – and they also operate, I’d say – taking a bold step – as sosies, parody doubles, of homo oeconomicus, that new species hatched upon the word by what Polanyi calls The Great Transformation. That transformation operated upon the European savage, be he the Galician serf watching Napoleon’s soldiers marching by or the Irish peasant crawling through the fields to find a place to dump his starving body, as it operated upon the New World savage – and sometimes, as in the ‘providential’ emptying out of Ireland and the ‘providential’ ‘vanishing’ of the Indian in the Midwest and South, with surprisingly similar results. The treadmill of production is already switched to the on position.

Memmie le blanc and the other feral children of the 18th century are curiosities of the boundary that also cuts across the treatment and definition of the mad. Which means that the discovery of the European savage, the feral child, changes its meaning and terms during the 18th century.

Jumpcutting, then, to the problem of languages that still brings up all the old circus figures, re that New Yorker article – what Duguld Stewart says about Adam Smith’s essay on the origin of language gives us a nice little peephole into the narrative that was given to Memmie’s life, and would be given to Kaspar Hauser’s – these creatures from the woods in whom conjecture was magically embodied in the village, transported to courts and ending up apprenticed to shoemakers or put in nunneries, to the great delight of the savant:

“When, in such a period of society as that in which we live,
we compare our intellectual acquirements, our opinions, manners,
and institutions, with those which prevail among rude tribes, it
cannot fail to occur to us as an interesting question, by what
gradual steps the transition has been made from the first simple
efforts of uncultivated nature, to a state of things so
wonderfully artificial and complicated. Whence has arisen that
systematical beauty which we admire in the structure of a
cultivated language; that analogy which runs through the mixture
of languages spoken by the most remote and unconnected nations;
and those peculiarities by which they are all distinguished from
each other? Whence the origin of the different sciences and of
the different arts; and by what chain has the mind been led from
their first rudiments to their last and most refined
improvements? Whence the astonishing fabric of the political
union; the fundamental principles which are common to all
governments; and the different forms which civilized society has
assumed in different ages of the world? On most of these subjects
very little information is to be expected from history; for long
before that stage of society when men begin to think of recording
their transactions, many of the most important steps of their
progress have been made. A few insulated facts may perhaps be
collected from the casual observations of travellers, who have
viewed the arrangements of rude nations; but nothing, it is
evident, can be obtained in this way, which approaches to a
regular and connected detail of human improvement.

In this want of direct evidence, we are under a necessity of
supplying the place of fact by conjecture; and when we are unable
to ascertain how men have actually conducted themselves upon
particular occasions, of considering in what manner they are
likely to have proceeded, from the principles of their nature,
and the circumstances of their external situation. In such
inquiries, the detached facts which travels and voyages afford
us, may frequently serve as land-marks to our speculations; and
sometimes our conclusions a priori, may tend to confirm the
credibility of facts, which, on a superficial view, appeared to
be doubtful or incredible.”

This may appear to be a remark relevant only to speculative histories and anthropology. However, what unfolded from the idea of conjectural history, as Stewart saw, was the whole theory of economics, which brought with it the notion that social action can be modeled, and that the models can be like models of other material events. The main thing about these conjectural histories is that the expert, representing us, is at one end. We are the goal.

Friday, May 04, 2007

IT'S HERE!!!!!!

Ladies and Gentlemen... the moment you have all been waiting for! An adventure beyond your wildest dreams! An adrenaline rush from start to finish, says Hustler's Financial Supplement! Revolutionized my view of the world - I'm resigning! says Treasury Secretary Paulsen. Can you just pay me back half of what I loaned you, says the translator's brother, D.!

It came from the depth of misty olde England - a monster beyond reckoning! A disembodied shape! Neo-classical economics - can anyone stop this fearsome beast from destroying the world! Find out the answer - buy the book!

adam smith and the Pirahã

Our last post was an accident. We were looking up a quote in Foucault to use to continue talking about our European savage thread, and found the Kugelmass post about the Scull review and remembered the controversy. We will be using Foucault again, because we are going to talk about – language!

Uh oh. That lost us most of our readership right there. The deal is this, however. Two weeks ago, there was an article, The Interpreter, by John Colapinto, about the language of a “hunter-gatherer tribe called the Pirahã” in the New Yorker. It was fascinating stuff. The tribe is in the news because a Chomskian named Everett, a well respected linguist, has defected. The Chomskian El Dorado is to construct the universal structures of language, and lately the sweet spot has been the notion of recursion:

“… a linguistic operation that consists of inserting one phrase
inside another of the same type, as when a speaker combines discrete
thoughts ("the man is walking down the street," "the man is wearing a
top hat") into a single sentence ("The man who is wearing a top hat is
walking down the street"). Noam Chomsky, the influential linguistic
theorist, has recently revised his theory of universal grammar, arguing
that recursion is the cornerstone of all languages, and is possible
because of a uniquely human cognitive ability.”

Everett claims that the Pirahã defy this universal law. His description – or rather, the description given in the article – is of a beautiful but bizarre tongue:

“Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense
with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle

And this is what he wrote in "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã" that set off a minor uproar:

“The article described the extreme simplicity of the tribe's living conditions and culture. The Pirahã, Everett wrote, have no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing, and no words for "all," "each," "every," "most," or "few"--terms of quantification believed by some linguists to be among the common building blocks of human cognition. Everett's most
explosive claim, however, was that Pirahã displays no evidence of recursion…”

Because I was following a chain of associations having to do with Memmie – vide my posts – this reminded me strongly of Adam Smith. Smith wrote an essay on the origin of language which has a claim to fame in excess of its content, or so claimed Dugald Stewart in a memoir about Smith in which he said that Smith worked out his method of conjectural history in the essay. Let’s set that aside for another post (Ive just written about this is the preface to Silja Graupe's Basho of Economics, by the way) – what surprised me about the Pirahã is the similarity to Smith’s ideat that language arose from antonomasia – that is, the using of a particular name for a general.

“Two savages,2 who had never been taught to speak, but had been bred up remote from the societies of men, would naturally begin to form that language by which they would endeavour to make their mutual wants intelligible to each other, by uttering certain sounds, whenever they meant to denote certain objects. Those objects only which were most familiar to them, and which they had most frequent occasion to mention, would have particular names assigned to them. The particular cave whose covering sheltered them from the weather, the particular tree whose fruit relieved their hunger, the particular fountain whose water allayed their thirst, would first be denominated by the words cave, tree, fountain, or by whatever other appellations they might think proper, in that primitive jargon, to mark them. Afterwards, when the more enlarged experience of these savages had led them to observe, and their necessary occasions obliged them to make mention of other caves, and other trees, and other fountains, they would naturally bestow, upon each of those new objects, the same name, by which they had been accustomed to express the similar object they were first acquainted with. The new objects had none of them any name of its own, but each of them exactly resembled another object, which had such an appellation. It was impossible that those savages could behold the new objects, without recollecting the old ones; and the name of the old ones, to which the new bore so close a resemblance. When they had occasion, therefore, to mention, or to point out to each other, any of the new objects, they would naturally utter the name of the correspondent old one, of which the idea could not fail, at that instant, to present itself to their memory in the strongest and liveliest manner. And thus, those words, which were originally the proper names of individuals, would each of them insensibly become the common name of a multitude. A child that is just learning to speak, calls every person who comes to the house its papa or its mama; and thus bestows upon the whole species those names which it had been taught to apply to two individuals. I have known a clown, who did not know the proper name of the river which ran by his own door. It was athe river, he said, and he never heard any other name for it. His experience, it seems, had not led him to observe any other river. The general word rivera, therefore, was, it is evident, in his acceptance of it, a proper name, signifying an individual object. If this person had been carried to another river, would he not readily have called it a river?”


There are questions that occur to the reader right away. One, of course, is the assumption that the Pirahã are primitive. This is the same assumption that encompasses so much writing about the Amazon Indians, even though we know that many groups actually fled into the jungle with the arrival of the Spanish and adapted their culture to a new kind of living, even as the spaces in the jungle for human population apparently opened up as the first Amazonian civilizations that the Spanish met disappeared – prey, no doubt, to diseases that were sweeping over the continent. And even though we know they adopted new technologies as things changed - as, for instance, bananas, an import from Africa, colonized the jungle. However, the Pirahã, according to Colapinto, have a deeper history with the Amazon, having arrived there between ten thousand and forty thousand years ago.

The isolation, the depth of time, the language - all seem to be parts of a story we might have already heard, once upon a time. Well, we will take this up again in another post

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Scull's fun and factoids: or Foucault in round one

A couple of months ago, Andrew Scull published a scathing review of Foucault’s The History of Madness, which is out in a new translation, in the TLS. At the time, this made a stir on some of the theory blogs, but LI didn’t pay much attention to that. Theory blogs love to trample extensively through the mire, but lately LI has wished for a change of mire – it is always zizek zizek zizek badiou French theorist zizek zizek zizek.

However, we did read this post on the valve about the whole thing by Joseph Kugelmass.

Kugelmass had the same reaction as most of the theory web, which was to defend Foucault by retreating to the notion that Foucault, after all, didn’t have to get his footnotes and facts right – that he was working with another set of criteria. The reason for this attitude was that Scull’s piece gave off the shimmer of expertise. Here, at last, Foucault's misstatements and tricks would be unmasked by a man who knows what he is talking about, an expert in the field. The takedown would be cool and professional, building to an earned indignation. LI’s first reading of the review was defensive too: Foucault, I wanted to say, was writing in Uppsala in the late fifties, and so didn’t have the latest resources. So he made do with what he had. Brave fellow.

I'm not an expert in medical health history. But I am something of an expert in reviewing. And from that experience, I knew that some things were a little too easy in the Scull review. And so LI started digging. The more we dug, the more we thought that, far from being the piece of an expert confronting bullshit with the fruit of empirical research, we were looking at something much more familiar, the half assed takedown. Face it, you are not going to take down a book so firmly entrenched in the canon in a four page review - but you can do some damage. Scull seemed to overreach from the beginning of the review, and when he reaches that section which should be razor sharp, a cutting away of all of Foucault's supports, revealing him to be a lilliputian fraud, a strange thing happens...

While the headline writer phrases Scull’s critique in terms of the fictions of Foucault, but a better headline would be the factions of Scull. His facts are, when not quite factual, often astonishingly – squishy.

There’s nothing more boring than fisking an article, so we will simply concentrate on that part of Scull’s review that deals with Bethlem Hospital - Bedlam - which is, after all, within the area of Scull's expertise. Here, at last, the reader should be able to take things on trust. This is the section dealing with Bethlem:

“Foucault alleges, for example, that the 1815–16 House of Commons inquiry into the state of England’s madhouses revealed that Bedlam (Bethlem) placed its inmates on public display every Sunday, and charged a penny a time for the privilege of viewing them to some 96,000 sightseers a year. In reality, the reports of the inquiry contain no such claims. This is not surprising: public visitation (which had not been confined to Sundays in any event) had been banned by Bethlem Royal Hospital’s governors in 1770, and even before then the tales of a fixed admission fee turn out to be apocryphal. Foucault is bedevilled by Bethlem’s history. He makes the remarkable claim that “From the day when Bethlem, the hospital for curative lunatics, was opened to hopeless cases in 1733, there was no longer any notable difference between the London hospital and the French Hôpital Général, or any other house of correction”. And he speaks of Bethlem’s “refurbishment” in 1676. In reality, it had moved in that year from its previous location in an old monastery in Bishopsgate to a grandiose new building in Moorfields designed by Robert Hooke.

Monasteries surface elsewhere in his account. We are told with a straight face that “it was in buildings that had previously been both convents and monasteries that the majority of the great asylums of England . . . were set up”. This is a bizarre notion. First, there were no “great asylums” set up in England in the classical age. Vast museums of madness did not emerge until the nineteenth century (when they were purpose-built using taxpayers’ funds). And second, only Bethlem, of all the asylums and madhouses that existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was ever housed in a former convent or monastery, and when it was, its peak patient population amounted to fewer than fifty inmates, hardly the vast throng conjured up by Foucault’s image of “grands asiles”.”

The first thing that should be said about these paragraphs is that they conceal a point Scull is conceding to Foucault. Almost all of Scull’s objections pinpoint p 191-193 of Histoire de la folie. Here’s the paragraph that is most strongly questioned:

“C'était sans doute une très vieille habitude du Moyen Age de montrer les insensés. Dans certains des Narrtürmer d'Allemagne, on avait établi des fenêtres grillagées qui permettaient d'observer de l'extérieur les fous qu'on y avait attachés. Ils formaient ainsi spectacle aux portes des cités. Le fait étrange, c'est que cette coutume n'ait pas disparu au moment où se refermaient les portes des asiles, mais qu'elle se soit au contraire développée, prenant à Paris et à Londres un caractère quasi institutionnel. En 1815 encore, s'il faut en croire un rapport présenté à la Chambre des Communes, l'hôpital de Bethléem montre les furieux pour un penny, tous les dimanches. Or le revenu annuel de ces visites s'élevait à près de 400 livres: ce qui suppose le chiffre étonnamment élevé de 96000 visites par an.”

The main thing is -- Scull agrees with Foucault. Up until the 1770s – well into the l’age classique – it was customary and quasi institutional to visit Bedlam.

The larger point about which Scull, following Roy Porter, does not agree is that the early modern era saw a great commitment of the mad. This is why the Olympic precision of “and when it was, its peak patient population amounted to fewer than fifty inmates” seems so devastating.

The problem is, of course, that it is also wrong.

Scull doesn’t give his source for that figure. However, we do have some interesting figures cited by Joseph Mortimer Granville in The Care and cure of the insane v. 2 (1877). In one of the reports to the 1815 select committee on madhouses which Scull seems to preen himself on, a Mr. Edward Wakefield, who made a humanitarian investigation, and was met and accompanied by the governor of the hospital, toured the male and female incurable wings and reported, “in the men’s wing were about 74 or 75 patients”. (289) This, of course, doesn’t include the population in the separate female wing, or the other parts of the hospital. The interesting Granville then cites a more in depth account of the hospital, made from the hospitals records in a paper by a Doctor John Webster, given in 1843, who writes that 22,897 insane patients were admitted to Bethlem hospital since 1683. In the twenty years between 1762 and 1782, for instance, 3945 patients were admitted, 1366 were cured, 560 died. Breaking it down, Webster writes that in 1750-51-52 462 were admitted, 145 were cured, 118 died. (304-305). So where does Scull get his 50 patient figure? Is it an average? If so, then it is, to say the least, bad scholarship not to say so. What year is he referring to?

In fact, Thomas Bowen, whose 1783 book is approvingly cited by Scull in his own book on the English Madhouse system, The Most Solitary of Afflictions, talks of a great influx of patients from all over the kingdom into Bedlam in the first years after its re-opening.

Scull knows to press on the Anglosphere fetishism for statistics – it gives a positivistic tang to the review, sets him up as the scientist versus the Gallic charlatan. But in truth, the scientist has no basis for his fifty figure.

Now, let’s deal with a few other Scull specials:

“Foucault alleges, for example, that the 1815–16 House of Commons inquiry into the state of England’s madhouses revealed that Bedlam (Bethlem) placed its inmates on public display every Sunday, and charged a penny a time for the privilege of viewing them to some 96,000 sightseers a year. In reality, the reports of the inquiry contain no such claims.”

This is Scull’s most genuine point. Even here, though, he twists things. Foucault writes of a report to the House of Commons, not a report from the House, and he writes “if we can believe it”. The real point here is that Foucault cites no source for this report. His source, Ned Ward, instead talks about the price paid by visitors to see the patients in Bedlam. Here Scull thinks he can score another hit:
“This is not surprising: public visitation (which had not been confined to Sundays in any event) had been banned by Bethlem Royal Hospital’s governors in 1770, and even before then the tales of a fixed admission fee turn out to be apocryphal.” I’m not sure what turn out to be apocryphal means. Scull’s own citing of Ned Ward’s article in the London Spy, which this seems to refer to, page 51 in his book, Most Solitary of Afflictions, refers to Porter’s book, Mind Forg’d manacles, for “skepticism about the authenticity of Ward’s Report.” Mind Forg’d Manacles was published in 1987 – some twenty six years after Histoire de la Folie was published. And is Scull even right?

This is from an essay in The World, published on June t, 1753, footnoted in an edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, describing a visit to Bedlam:
“It was Easter Week, when, to my great surprise I found a hundred people at least, who, having paid their twopence apiece, were suffered, unattended, to run rioting up and down the wards…” (1889)

Scull’s review, then, is, to say the least, not the most reliable account of Foucault’s “mistakes” even on a topic on which Scull is supposedly an expert. The more interesting question, however, is why Scull was instantly conceded to be right, and Foucault wrong? I think this might be on account of the general beating Continentalist are perceived to have received from Sokal and Bricmont. That perception is wholly based on the idea that Sokal is a hard scientist, a physicist. What Foucault did was make us question experts – and he appeared at a time when the advice of experts, from that given about the Vietnam war to the dangers of radiation, fell into disrepute. Unfortunately, knowledge by authority is a very powerful thing – in Weber’s triad of legitimations, tradition/authority is at the center. It is especially powerful when the authority figure bases his authority on reason – but then uses the authority qua authority to squash opposition. This is just what Scull did. The scurrying for the exits done by Foucaultist is a painful reminder that, on the whole, academics can be defined as those people who have been extraordinarily influenced, in their development, by the classroom. Thus, their rebellions are most easily quenched when a teacher figure comes through the door.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Mission accomplished

Everybody is publishing their memories, sweet memories, of the Mission Accomplished moment – that moment when President Backbone made us smile with our might, the righteousness of our cause, and, let’s face it, the genius and toughness of our leadership, warriors all. Here’s a clip from a CNN interview with Douglas Brinkley, a liberal historian whose talk was pretty much the standard Democratic party line as – to put it bluntly – they stupidly stared at the beginning of an occupation and thought, well, war’s over. These people were utterly vacuous. Utterly lacking in brains. As unable as the most ultra Bushites to put one “then” in front of another. They really believed that their would be no insurgency? They really believed it was all about marching to Baghdad? They really thought the U.S. was that powerful? They really were that unacquainted with the history of the last one hundred years? They really were that afraid to speak out? What a collection of pissants and fuckwads, as we like to say down here on the Farm. Never forget: we are ruled by meritocratic morons. They make up the “national dialogue.” And they don’t know shit from shinola.

In the end, President Backbone did not only represent the brainlessness, the frothiness, the raised on sugarness, of the apocalypse tending peckerwood crowd that yearns to make America a mix of the Taliban and Las Vegas, that wants Jesus to not only redeem and reanimate Anna Nicole Smith but to appear with her on one of their favorite shows and admit that the love child is really his – no, this represents the collective collapse of the whole rotton lobotomized governing class, those people who voice the most deadly stupidities in the smuggest tones as if they received their collective wisdom from Jehovah, instead of taking it out of their ass. Nurtured in the gated community and taking their upward trajectories as instances of natural law rather than the fruits of successful crime, they encase themselves in the iron armor of the platitudes they’ve used to suck up to the leaders they so admire to crawl from one policymaking post to another, and are rewarded for their supererogatory servility with a disproportionate share of the resources of the planet, thus choking the rest of us in their backwash. These people are leading us all into a black cultureless void, animated by orgasmic flashes of purposeless violence, and you can tell the left from the right because the left is ultra concerned about those violent video games.

Here’s the transcript.
“BRINKLEY: Oh, well, it was quite a dramatic day. I mean, from landing in the Viking jet onto the aircraft carrier, walking around with the kind of top gun uniform on, shaking hands with many of the thousands of troops, 5,000 people there, and then with the speech it really took a very campaign like tone. He claimed his credential, I think, last night, that he is a commander-in-chief. He joins the likes of a Lincoln or a Woodrow Wilson or his father as winning a war, albeit this is just one war in the war on terrorism.
And I think the key to the speech last night was his hammering really two times the connection between al Qaeda and September 11, that he hadn't forgotten. And the president clearly seeing the battle of Baghdad as -- linked to the battle of Afghanistan, being linked to 9/11. And I think that was the major point of last evening's speech. HEMMER: You know, it reminds us that this White House continues to see the entire -- well, let's say the entire four year term of this president wrapped up in a 9/11 world.
Do you see it the same way?
BRINKLEY: Absolutely. It's what triggered all of this. It's what's transformed his presidency, the thought that I will not forget. Remember the great moment when he picked up that bullhorn at the rubble of September 11 and you couldn't help but remembering the journey our country has gone through, a year long debate on Iraq, then finally on March 19th the president announcing to our country he committed our troops there. Last night was the bookend to that March 19th speech.
But it did not say fully that the war was over. If we'd completely announced it, then we would have to start dealing with international law on people that we're capturing there in that deck of cards, as it's being played out.
So it was, there was a bit of a hold back there in last night's speech. But it was a lot of patriotic fervor, mission accomplished behind him. He wants the American people and the world to realize that he had an objective, he went about it and he completed it.
HEMMER: Douglas, look ahead for us, if you could. I want you to look at a poll we took last night from a number of people who watched this speech and watched the events on board the Lincoln. This is what they say right now as to what should be given a higher priority now that Iraq is over in terms of combat -- the economy, 46 percent.
How difficult, how easy could this be for the White House to make this pivot?
BRINKLEY: Last night was the pivot. You had to claim that credential. You had to have that evening on the -- the symbolic night on the Lincoln. And now the administration is going to, of course, be continuing rebuilding Iraq, working on the road map to peace, the peace process in the Middle East. So foreign affairs is going to be a big part of what they have to do. But they're going to start putting the compassionate back in conservative.
We've seen that this president can be and is a hawk. The Bush doctrine is considered a very tough, tough doctrine in foreign affairs. The question now is can there be compassion at home? How are we going to work to rebuild our schools? What about Social Security? What about issues of unemployment? How are we going to get the economy going again?
He has to do more than tax cut proposals. He's going to have to show a kind of vigorous, new, really progressive agenda here at home.
HEMMER: Ten seconds left here, Douglas.
Where does this rate last night in terms of presidential moments? BRINKLEY: It's one of the memorable ones of his administration. I think it's a -- because of the first nature of it, the fact that he actually, for a brief moment, flew the plane in the sky when it landed on the aircraft carrier and then the memorable. Americans, anybody likes victory and he was able to declare it last night. It was a lot of good news. You know, we, a big term has been embedded journalists. He was an embedded president last night with our troops.
BRINKLEY: And that goes very well with the American people.
HEMMER: Well stated.”

Monday, April 30, 2007

a collector speaks.

Other people collect butterflies. A hobby that gets you outside, and puts you in scenes of great natural beauty, and sharpens your sense of microscopic differences.
LI’s hobby doesn’t come with such healthful after-effects. We like to collect leftists who preach far right policies, in the name of the left. These people can’t ask for the salt without assuring all and sundry that asking for the salt is a leftist value. No, an enlightenment value. No, a universal value, comrades!
Figaro – which, for those not in the know, is a conservative paper – published a simply beautiful specimen Friday. Just as the ardent collector, spotting a patch of vetch, is on the q vive for anthrocera purpuralis, the collector of these apostles of true, of core, of hardcore leftism knows to venture into areas like the Wall Street Journal Editorial page, or transcripts of the Hugh Hewitt program, to scoop up some really great specimens. As they feed in these areas, they become much less shy – even garrulous. One of their traits, then, is known as the Nick Cohen maneuver – as they advocate, say, small scale massacres of dusky mannikens on what C. Hitchens likes to call, with manly insouciance, the killing fields, they throw out truly piteous echoes about the ‘betrayal of the left’ By which they mean that somehow, behind their backs, so dastardly machinatins have merged together the stalinists and the islamofascists in a fight to collective agriculture under Shari'a law. So betrayed are these specimens that inevitably their incomes, and media appearances, go up and up. It is wonderful that unlike other subgroups - Satanists, vampires, Christian strippers, etc. - which are represented in the media (usually on afternoon talk shows, although is Jerry Springer still on?) by real members of the group, the subgroup of the left is never represented except by members who have hurt feelings about it. And who are continually addressing it.

These specimens do take out of that immersion in the left subgroup the idea that everything is about the left. Which adds of course to the comedy. What better place to address the comrades than from the columns of Figaro? With a program we can all get with: deregulating that market, invading this or that barbarous country, spending more money on those missiles. Etc. As anyone can tell, a lefty program par excellence. Those interested in evolutionary issues should notice that there is usually a path of development here, going through the Cuba stage, the Mao stage – essential, the Mao stage, for creating the tendency to grandiose statements about cultures about which the speaker evidently knows nothing – going through a nice bashing liberalism stage, and finally settling on a perpetual urging of free markets, free minds, and neo-imperialism as the true and onlie heritage of Marx’s good gray beard.

Our specimen today is called Alain Boyer. Figaro’s headline writer gave his piece an exquisitely ridiculous title: Si vous êtes vraiment de gauche, votez Sarkozy ! For those who don’t read French, the translation is: If you like escargot, you will just love my recipe for Feces Alexander! Boyer begins with an almost Berman-like seriousness (nobody does this thing better than Paul Berman) with a reference to those two outstanding beacons of the left – Max Weber and – oh, shades of Gluckman! – Raymond Aron. The point of invoking them is to gild, with academic jellies, a dismal cliche about the difficulty, o saints, of bringing about properly lefty ends if you don't compromise a little with the worst reactionary economic policies ever to bankrupt a country.

My beating heart! This is truly the golden age - when in my lifetime has effrontery so easily shaded into imbecility right before my very own peepers? I love it. My butterfly net is all aquiver.

Boyer rings some bells to come, to his own satisfaction and that of all the comrades in the hall, to these paragraphs ringing with that degree of absolute nonsense we've all grown used to in this country:

‘Without incentives, who will take risks? If a measure which “honors” social justice, from the 35 hour law to refusing to lower the percentage of taxes or protectionism is admittedly counter-productive from the point of view of the real promotion of that same value, we must renounce it.

Today, seeing the state of the country, we must have the courage to propose certain “liberal” reforms, incentive producing and negotiated with those who, as the CFDT, have decided to no longer consider politics in a democracy like a war, a zero sum conflict, but like a deliberation followed by compromise.”

Etc, etc. The end of the article paraphrases De Sade: “Français, encore une effort pour promouvoir les valeurs de gauche !” Translated, this reads: “wasn’t that tasty? and I had my maid write this whole fucking thing! I especially imported her from Morocco for that purpose, and presented to her my big bad incentive. Now I’m off to New York to have it translated for the WSJ!”

But let's see. I imagine translation first to the Guardian. We will see. The Blairists will just orgasm over this.

negative inspiration

Spirit enough to be bored — Whoever doesn’t have enough spirit to be able to find himself and his work boring is certainly not a spirit of the first rank, be it in the arts or sciences. A satirist who was, unusually, also a thinker, could add to this, taking a look at the world and history: God must not have had this spirit: he wanted to make and did make things, collectively, too interesting.” – Nietzsche, Human all too H.

LI is unsure about the jab at God at the end of this little saying, but every writer knows the moment that comes upon him like negative inspiration, when he detaches and to find himself and his work boring. That’s the moment that Bely cuts his masterpiece, Petersburg, by a third; that may be the moment when Rimbaud said fuck it, although I am too little devil or angel to venture there into that affair. However, I’ve been pondering the economist’s version of happiness – even Bartolini’s, critical as he is of the treadmill of production that has brought us wheel of fortune lifestyles. Economists are so fucking weird because they combine the most sophisticated mathematical models with psychological insights that would shame a ten year old. It is all about not only licking a lollypop, but doing it forever and ever, and getting everybody’s lollypop to lick. It is a gross and unrealistic view of happiness. I suspect economists are so enthusiastic about growth not so much because growth is a good in itself, but because it perpetually puts off the question: what is the system for? And, of course, even Marxist economists will edge out of the room once you start pondering the many dimensions of alienation. Economics is really not the dismal science, but the clubbish science – and in clubs, it doesn’t do to pose such questions. They are so easily answered by dinner, especially if dinner includes port.

Now, in LI’s youth, boredom was our mark of Cain – it was the boredom generated by capitalism that we were against. We tended to be big supporters of the situationists, without really having a vast or even a tiny little knowledge of them more than they pissed people off, and the autonomen, because we loved the autonomen boldness, the kicking ass, the taking over of buildings people weren't using, the contempt for the Polizei. This sounded like the shit to us, even though we heard overtones of peasant hut nostalgia in some of that wish that enterprise consist of holding hands and weaving or something, which made us wrinkle our nose. The via negativa, through pure abjection, sounded pretty good, too, theoretically. Put Bataille on the internal stereo system and see if “we’re so pretty, oh so pretty” comes out.

However, although it was quite the enemy, boredom was never really an issue. Which is why we were undoubtedly a cause of unmitigated boredom in others. It wasn’t until we began to take writing seriously, and tried to write fiction, that boredom became interesting, and we became aware of our own karmic debt to those we had bored and bored and bored.

A debt that would merely grow heavier (oh, the motherfucking links!) if we went too far into it. More interesting is that, perhaps out there on the edge a bit, our experience with boredom, the way it became a boundary, is pretty much standard, nothing unusual. L'enfant du siecle after all, god damn it. And it is now become that which we all must flee. Any dialectical witch should find that which we all must flee interesting indeed.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Creating unhappiness, creating growth

"Keep your electric eye on me, babe
put your raygun to my head..."

Continuing from our last post re Stefano Bartolini's paper.

Bartolini’s model connects work, happiness and savings by hypothesizing that growth is a matter of exploiting two negative externalities, of which he concentrates on two types: “positional ones, and those which reduce the availability of free goods as final or intermediate goods.” In essence, that the promise of the affluence which is supposed to have been brought about by greater labor productivity and, especially, the increase in human capital, has not been borne out for reasons that are germane to the system itself. The system generates both an image of happiness and a pandemic of unhappiness. Bartolini wants to know why the savings rate does not effect the quantity of labor, why, that is, the amount of time spent working keeps going up, and why the satisfaction with one’s life is unaffected by increases over a certain amount of wealth. The latter begs the question that Geddes asks the John Houston character, the millionaire, in Chinatown: what more can you eat? How much better can you dress?

“The capacity of the hypothesis that relative income matters to explain the empirical
anomalies of growth theory should be intuitive. Individuals are induced to work hard
and to accumulate much by positional competition. The fact that the position of
people with constant incomes worsens if others increase their incomes is a powerful
incentive for the former to be interested in money.6 But, a general increase in income which leaves the relative positions unchanged cannot improve general well-being. In an economy of this kind the well-being of everyone cannot improve by definition.

Hence the hypothesis of negative positional externalities is consistent with
explanation of the happiness paradox. Positional negative externalities may be the
tertium movens which explains the empirical anomalies of growth theory.”

In a footnote, Bartolini explains those positional goods:

“The main precursors of the idea that relative position matters are Veblen 1899/1934 and Hirsh 1976. According to Hirsh, well-being in the rich economies depends increasingly on positional goods. The clearest definition of pure positional good has been provided by Pagano 1999, according to whom consumption by an individual of a positive amount of a positional good involves the consumption of an equal negative amount by someone else. Examples of pure positional goods are power, status, prestige. This definition implies that increased consumption of a positional good by someone produces a negative externality on someone else.”

While the notion of positional competition and measurement of wealth relative to position is not new, Bartolini’s second negative externality is much less explored:

“According to this approach, the theoretical and empirical difficulties of growth theory are due to the fact that it fails to consider that well-being and productive capacity depend largely on goods that are not purchased in the market but are furnished by the social and natural environment. The growth process generates extensive negative externalities which reduce the capacity of the environment to furnish such goods. These negative externalities may be the tertium movens of growth given the capacity of the market to supply costly substitutes for the diminishing free goods. If agents can purchase substitutes for free resources they will react to the decline in their well-being or in their productive capacity by increasing their use of goods purchased in the market. Negative externalities force individuals have increasingly to rely on private goods in order to prevent a decline in their wellbeing or productive capacity. In this way they contribute to an increase in output. This feeds back into the negative externalities, giving rise to a further diminution in free goods to which agents react by increasing output, and so on.”

A simple example of this comes to mind: the cost of a highway. A highway presents an obstacle to travelers without cars of a rare type: it is as if the state had imported high mountains into an area. The traveler, to get around auto-intended roads, is strongly inclined to get an auto.

Now, here is the bit that has so much relevance to the current election in France – but as much relevance to the past seven years of the moronic inferno in the States.

“The idea behind GASP (Growth As Substitution Process) models is that one way to motivate people to accumulate money is to create a society in which increasingly less can be obtained for free; a society in which opportunities to acquire well-being in ways which do not pass through the market become increasingly scarce, and in which well-being can therefore only be purchased.

According to this approach, the theory of growth based on accumulation and
technical progress is unable to explain the paradox of happiness because it tells only part of the story of growth – the story, that is, in which goods are luxury goods for one generation, standard goods for the next, and absolute necessities for the one after that. The history of economic growth is obviously full of examples of this process. But the other side of this story is that of free goods which become scarce and costly ones for the next generation and luxury goods for the one after that. Urbanization is widely associated with phenomena of this kind. A world in which silence, clean air, swimming in clean seas or rivers, or pleasant strolls become the privilege of uncontaminated places and tropical paradises is a world which tends to spend considerable resources to evade the unliveable environments that it has constructed. The periodic mass migrations known as summer holidays that one observes in the rich countries, or the fact that tourism from the rich countries has become an important resource for many poor ones, may not be indicative of higher living standards but rather a response to a deterioration in the quality of life.”

And finally, my last quote from Bartolini – although this rich essay has a lot of things LI will mine later:

“… in GASP models, the inability of growth to improve happiness derives from
an institutional problem, and not a biological or cultural one. The price system does
not receive signals about the importance of fundamental needs which do not pass
through the market. Individuals are unable to control resources crucial for their
happiness. The fact that money does not buy happiness stems neither from biology nor from culture; money is unable to buy happiness amid a pattern of growth with
excessively high social and environmental costs.”

Now, if I were to criticize Bartolini, it would probably be on the happiness decline. I am not sure that he is right that happiness is on the decline, so much as the composition of happiness has changed in way that are disastrous for our human relationships. But that would be another story for another time.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...