Friday, July 13, 2007

meditation on Infinite Thought's modernist porn

IT continues her interesting series on porno today. I’m not sure where she is going with this. She has consistently interrogated the money shot as the truth of cinematic porn, finding it even back in the days of vintage porn (filmed). One aspect that she has not explored, however, is one that seems obvious to me from a narrative level. To film a man and a woman or a man and several women or several men and a woman or several of either sex fucking is to have a narrative problem. How do you keep this interesting. Now, there is an interest we all feel in fucking (wasn’t it Jane Austin who said that it is a truth universally acknowledged that we all like to watch some dick and pussy action on whatever screen is handiest, given favoring circumstances?), but the interest in art divides neatly into two registers. There is the interest of the artist in the art, and the interest of the spectator or audience. And while it is hard to imagine an artist working without any sense of what interests an audience – what conventions, what tropes, what narrative arcs - the artist has to also look to the limitations and possibilities of his materials. Thus, for instance, mystery writers can mix up their mystery, they can vary the crime involved, they can make the narrator the ultimate perpetrator, they can be as careless of clues as, say, Raymond Chandler is, but one of the things one knows about mysteries is that they generally tend to murder and some solution because those have become convenient templates for the writer.

In cinematic porno, the question is: is the money shot that has become the solution to the fucking sequence a template that makes it easier to organize the film, or are we talking about a convention that the audience imposes on the film? How could we tell? My own instinct would be that the money shot, like the murder in a mystery, solves several interest problems with the least cost to the creator. So, in essence, I'm saying the presence of the money shot derives from the direction of the creator, not the audience. I'd say that, on the audience side, we have evidence that there is less interest in the money shot. That evidence has to do with the state of porno itself, a medium in which fast forward has become the constitutive principle that has, essentially, destroyed the old movie pornos – a technological effect that is even more dramatic than the effect of the sound track on film in the late twenties. What has been left gives the creator an orientation problem. To a certain extent, you could play your average vid porno backwards and it wouldn’t make any dramatic difference. While the rite of cock sucking and pussy licking, etc., is as predictable as the liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church, it exists to cover all the bases and to extend the time. Fucking, in other words, which used to be the endpoint of a fantasy, has now dispensed with the fantasy to the greatest extent possible. This means that, in a sense, pornos have accidentally converged on the minimalist mindset of one subgroup in modernism – which at various times threw off Victorian rhetoric, dispensed with figuration in painting, and dispensed with enduring materials in conceptual art. Although there are those who are sexually attached to the money shot, to my mind, the money shot is already archaic in the fast forward universe. It is a last desperate stab at giving fucking an orientation and drama. If it were simply cut out, would it be missed by the audience? I don’t know if anybody has made the experiment. I do think that it would be missed by the filmmaker and the players. Removing cum removes a dramatic anchor. Would that removal also destroy the premium experience of porn – the audience’s own money shot, the spurting end of viewer response?

My sense that the audience could get along without it has to do with the history of still image pornography. Which actually brings me back to the question of volupté and the epicurean tradition and the pictures of Pompeii. About which I will have more to say in another post.

PS - check out Alan's post on happiness, in reply to my attack on happiness triumphant, at his blog, Milinda's Questions.
Come on, just, tie me to the wall! – Hanin Elias

LI streamed the press conference via the Washington Post site this morning. My reaction to it comes in words can’t really be released from my tongue, because they are long words, in Hittite or something, leaden, chthonic, expressing a hatred and loathing that is older than I am for the creature whose oozing and gurgling at the podium embodied the wadded up effluvium of a million chamber of commerce assholes all shoved up and out one crusted old seamy lead pipe at the Veterans Disease and Fetch Fuck Festival in Tinytown, Applachia; it reminded me of nothing so much as the tune piped by ET spermatozoa colonizing a brain that had caught a fatal dose of athlete’s foot and was eating its syphilitic spinal chord for dinner.

This is my gift to my presidroid: a killer, a moron, a pool of drool.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


One of the funnier delusions that the D.C. elite like to perpetrate on the American people is that the Bush administration is genuinely fighting for democracy. To perpetrate this, the media has to segregate what the Bushies actually do in the world from what they do in David Broder’s head – and then, of course, report on what they do in David Broder’s head. So – the same administration that is putting money in the pockets of Pahlavi-connected Iranian dissenters, all in the name of democracy, hails as one of its great breakthroughs the new relationship with Libya, a dictatorship for thirty years that isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Libya has held in its jails, on the flimsiest of pretexts, a number of Bulgarian nurses that are under death penalty for spreading AIDS, which is Qaddafi’s way of pretending that AIDS doesn’t spread in Libya as it does in the rest of the world, via sex. That would be an admission too far – so why not line up some innocent Bulgarian women against a wall and shoot them?

Again, Libya has re-affirmed its commitment to murder these women. Tony Blair, that heartless bastard, made several journeys to Libya when he was P.M. – or was he P.M.S.? – and, in the light of his selfannointed position as the Lancelot of Democracy, Inc., talked seriously to Qadaffi – about selling him jet fighters. As we know, Blair’s commitment to the most democratic regimes in the region, like Libya, like Saudi Arabia, and his firm commitment to spread the Weapons of Mass Destruction that are approved by the West in order to line the pockets of his cronies is sterling, a characteristic that gets him raves in the American press, especially among the liberal hawk crowd – oh, if only Bush was as eloquent as Blair! Well, at least they share a mutual loathing for honesty, integrity and the sanctity of human life.

We are led, as always, by the lowest scum.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

the omissions are part of the text

Li is such the summer sluggard that we didn’t bother to connect our previous post to the posts on war. My point in claiming that routinization is a great and central historical fact, extremely difficult to understand – the object par excellence of historical fantasia – was to return to the logic of the state, war and debt in the emergence of the liberal state. If we ask ourselves what it means that 50% of Britain’s taxes were going into paying long term loans that financed past wars, we have to imagine that half of Britain’s taxes had no visible public effect at all. For the taxpayer, those taxes as good as disappeared. And when you get used to the state taking your money and providing zip in return, you begin to think that the state is basically a robber. In the case of Britain, work that could have been done by public investment – in land improvement, schooling, transportation – was either done poorly, then, by the state or by private forces.

This isn’t, of course, just true of early 19th century Britain. In the U.S., the incredible amount eaten up by the military from the Korean war on similarly “vanished”. At first, however, the way in which the military took from public investment in needed areas was not such a big hole, given the willingness of the government to consolidate New Deal programs and, in the sixties, complete the preliminaries of social democracy. But after the sixties, the taxes increasingly vanished. And of course, under Reagan, while the tax burden shifted decisively to the individual from the corporation and from the wealthy to the upper middle and middle, the money that was dispensed to the military increasingly lost its multiplier effect. The sedimentation of the expectations entailed by this massive and continuous robbery to pay for past wars and military outlays that were essentially useless – and of course there has been no use for almost all military technology developed after 1970, which is always developed to fight an imaginary menace with imaginary scenarios that, at most, move the gamer boys to creaming in their pants – has been to create a general collapse in confidence in public outlays – in the government – even as it postpones needed public investment. So the public sphere gets crappier, is run on a budget or used as an excuse for the legalized corruption of contracting, and the infra-structural and environmental needs – needs that can’t be met piecemeal, can’t be resolved by individual acts of good living – just go on being unmet.

James Galbraith has noticed this hole in the liberal brain – the brain that seems to have been put in formaldehyde under Clinton – in his review of two recent books: Consumed by Benjamin Barber and Deep Economy by Bill McKibbon. Galbraith aims a lot of nice, steel toed kicks at the first book. After quoting one of Barber’s over-ripe passages about the New England Puritans, to whom Barber attributes so many capitalist virtues it would make Schumpeter scoff, Galbraith writes:

“Nothing wrong with it, of course, apart from some things it leaves out, like witch hunts and King Philip’s War and the price controls that were a ubiquitous feature of economic regulation in Massachusetts Bay. … Also, I doubt Barber can document an economics of investment, as distinct from thrift, in colonial North America. Thrift is simply a matter of pinching pennies, but you don’t get investment before you have industry, which the colonists did not. Proto-Reaganauts, in short, they weren’t.

But Barber is determined that Paradise has been Lost, and on occasion he states this view without guile: “Once upon a time, in capitalism’s more creative and successful period, a productivist capitalism prospered by meeting the real needs of real people.” The problem is that this is not history. It is, rather, like all sentences that begin “Once upon a time,” the stage setting for a fairy tale, a rendition of truths for children. And this is curious, in a book that is, from soup to nuts, a critique of infantilization. Consumed is self-referential. It is, to some degree, an instance of the problem it describes. Barber serves up some of the longest sentences since Proust, yet underneath is largely a simple moral tale, an allegory not more complicated than, say, social Darwinism or Horatio Alger.”

I don’t totally agree with Galbraith about the total lack of investment – surely it was in ships, and spread into slavetrading and sugar hauling – but it certainly wasn’t in New England itself.

Galbraith’s main point is here, however:

“The question is, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to do anything about it? Almost fifty years ago, in The Affluent Society, my father wrote about this problem, which he defined as “private affluence and public squalor.” His solution was “social balance”: public goods, including schools and parks and libraries and higher culture. Liberalism stood for its own values. It stood against corporate dominance, business thinking, and commercial culture. And it was backed by the power of trade unions, of churches, and of the educational and scientific estate.
Barber offers no similar recourse. Everything he would do, he would do through markets, not against them or by bringing them under control. He speaks mainly of the “slow food” movement, of Hernando de Soto’s property-rights-for-the-poor and of the Grameen Bank’s micro-lending programs, each of these the projects of enlightened voluntarism, presupposing that markets can be as much a force for good in principle as they are presently a force for ill in practice. The democracy he would like to build lacks social or political organization; it isn’t about parties and agendas and laws and new government agencies tasked with meeting national needs. The New Deal and the Great Society are not Barber’s antecedents. He seeks merely the willed capacity to conduct one’s own life beyond the reach of mass culture, and offers the wishful thought that sensible people, each acting alone, will somehow manage to do just that. Good luck. Barber speaks of “capitalism triumphant,” and he proposes to leave it that way.”

Galbraith is reiterating the creed of all us misfit liberals. This is what liberalism finally figured out in the Keynesian decades. Unfortunately, liberals took a corrective episode – the great inflation of the seventies – as a conclusive finishing off of the mixed economy. The era of big government is dead and all that. The mystery of why people believe this is, I think, in part explained by the part war and its financing played even during the height of the Keynesian era. Of course, there are other factors.

Galbraith offers the same charge against McKibbon, even though he concedes that McKibbon’s is a much better book. And he concludes on a down note:

“This brings us back to the sphere that both McKibben and Barber largely ignore: public policy. The function of the government, in principle, is to foresee these dangers, and avert them. The powers of the government exist to permit the mobilization of resources required. And only government can hope to do the job.
This is bleak news not only in the present climate of thought, but also given the decay of the public sphere since at least 1981. Whatever government might have been (or seemed) capable of in the 1940s or the 1960s, it plainly is not capable of today. A government that cannot establish a functioning Homeland Security Department in half a decade, a government that is capable of creating the Coalition Provisional Authority or Bush’s FEMA, is no one’s idea of an effective instrument for climate planning. Plainly the destruction of government—the turning over of regulation to predators, military functions to mercenaries, the Justice Department to a vote-suppression racket, and the Supreme Court to fanatics—has been the price of tolerating the Bush coup of November 2000. Soon we will face the aftermath of all this, with the fate of the earth in the balance.”

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

the motor of history goes into the shop

The hardest thing to recover from the wrecks of history is the horizon of expectation that the actors presupposed. Those expectations, that imagined future, all black on black, was intrinsic to the routines and habits that made it the case that people accepted x and came to reject y. The historian can make it easier on him or herself by simply borrowing the economist’s toolkit. It doesn’t really explain expectation, but it gives you a nice labels that you can paste over the gaps – for instance, you can talk about marginal disutility and make a graph.

A more sophisticated stab at the mystery was made by Marx, who assumed class conflict. By assuming an intrinsic violence that exceeded exchange, he opened up history to ethnography. His followers often have a hard time with this – they have a tendency to revert to the economic models of the neo-classicals, with the difference that, for the Marxists, profit is a dirty word, and for the neo-classicals it isn’t. This kind of Marxist will tell you, with a knowing smirk, that everything that has happened in Iraq was planned, usually by some bigwigs, who are motivated purely by profit. Secret plans and the holy elevation of profit are the marks of this line of thought. Marx himself, thank God, was not given to such bogus analysis, since of course he realized that profit and loss has to be reconciled, in the end, with the realities of class conflict. Thus, in his analysis of how Louis Bonaparte became the emperor in France, he is very careful to underline the fact that the working class, which fought for the Republic, was fighting against its own interests, so to speak, insofar as the Republic was dominated by conservative business men, while the bourgeoisie, which did have an interest in preserving the Republic, went, to a man, to Louis Bonaparte’s side. Marx’s analysis – his journalism in general – confronted a fact that he tended to erase in the economic works – the lack of a truly homogeneous class. Actually, he thought that one could be created – that a working class consciousness could be forged that would draw together the entire working class. Briefly, such homogeneity has occurred, but never, it seems to me, because of class identification – instead, it is always about some collective threat. It is war, not the consciousness of one’s place in the system of production, that produces solidarity.

Whenever I read about art and commodification – quite a common topic around the theory blogosphere, hotly and obscurely debated – I always think no, no. As a subcategory of routine, art can say something about commodification as one economic and symbolic routine, but art is never going to be just about commodification, nor is its value about commodification. On the other hand, art is where expectation is most exposed, most vulnerable – although, given the gamelike limits of art, that exposure happens in “free time”. Which is why historians should pay attention to art. Art is about routines. Burroughs is right.

Monday, July 09, 2007

America: still number one!

"He is now so enthusiastic about the assignment of resurrecting NBC’s fortunes that he brings a small set of chimes along with him to meetings so he can play the three-note N-B-C jingle whenever a happy moment occurs." – NYT story about Ben Silverman, the newly appointed co-chairman of NBC’s entertainment operations.

Let it never be said that America lacks business self-helpiness. We fucking rule the world in business self-helpiness. And how do we do it? Oh, they’d like to answer that question in the capitals of the Axis of Evil. In Pyongyang, in Teheran, in Beijing, you can fucking bet your bongos, where they ponder: how is it that America became the biggest and the best? Yes, we know they buy the books: Tom Peters for Dummies in Farsi, Who Moved My Cheese in Korean – they import them, the intelligence services pore over them, they try to come up with that winning formula, that American flow. What they don’t understand, what they will never understand, is that a thing like carrying around a set of chimes to jingle out the NBC jingle when you’ve made a thrilling killa point as you talk with your team, and it is a team looking beyond petty compensations differentials – say when you’ve made the point that you have to walk to the edge of the box that you are thinking out of to gain points with that crushin’, cruising 20 something demo with sexier teh dumb comedy plus competing on the we want torture front with savvy stuff the bill of rights up your asshole, terrorist kind of rockemsockem coporama – that a thing like that comes bubbling all on its ownsome out of the homegrown American amygdala and you can’t counterfeit it, grow it in a tube, or steal the plans for it. Go ahead and try, fuckers! Meanwhile, we will just set here and listen to the heady music of the LI jingle, which gets us all inspired and shit to innovate, innovate and innovate.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Loot 2

LI’s post on loot was fortunate enough to attract some comments from P.M. Lawrence. We disagree about the reasons for the progress of empire, but Lawrence makes a strong case for viewing the different parts that came together in Great Britain between 1688 and 1789 as parts not of some general ‘program’ or the expressions of class interest, but as, in a sense, a concatenation of independent and contingent developments.

LI’s point is not to deny the place of contingency. However, we’d claim that accident and program are related to one so that elements advantageous to one sector of a society – say the income from the slave trade going to slave traders and their financiers and the plantation owners and their financiers and the merchants of the products produced by the plantations and their financiers - are built upon to maximize and prolong the sectorial advantage in the face of opposition from other sectors and unpredictable, contingent factors – shifts in the environment, or unexpected technological changes, or the like. However, this does not mean that the advance of a given sector eliminates unexpected outcomes on the larger, national level, since there are – as any development economist will tell you – numerous sectors in a nation, and their striving for advantage is not coordinate. Thus, for instance, the fact that Britain developed a system – the national debt – that sluffed the payment for war onto future generations by the use of long term loans meant that, by 1789, almost half of the tax collected by the government was being used to pay back these loans. In other words, the most taxed – the consumers, as there was no income tax – were paying for wars that benefited a changing but distinct establishment of merchants, plantation owners, financiers and the like. As a contingent part of this, public investment by the state in British infrastructure devolved to the private sector. This paradigm of heavy state investment in war and a paucity of state investment in infrastructure was not, I think, the result of liberal or whig ideology, but it did become a model for classical liberal ideology, with its principle that the state should be as small as possible, i.e. not invest in human capital, not invest in land improvement and the like, and leave that to the private sector. In the nineteenth century, the liberal dream was to apply the same idea to the state’s ‘security’ apparatus – that somehow the need for war would vanish in the face of increasing trade.

This, at least, would be my hypothesis about how war figured into the emergence of the liberal order.

The question of the war and loot is not just historical. In the 90s, some scholars around Paul Collier called into question the notion that civil wars are driven by grievance instead of gain. The incentive for Collier’s work was the outbreak of civil wars all over Africa that came after the end of the Cold War. In a much referenced essay, Doing Well out of War, Collier writes:

“The discourse on conflict tends to be dominated by group grievances beneath which inter-group hatreds lurk, often traced back through history. I have investigated statistically the global pattern of large-scale civil conflict since 1965, expecting to find a close relationship between measures of these hatreds and grievances and the incidence of conflict. Instead, I found that economic agendas appear to be central to understanding why civil wars get going. Conflicts are far more likely to be caused by economic opportunities than by grievance.”

To make his case, Collier first has to explain why it seems like civil conflicts stem from grievances.

“Narratives of grievance play much better with this community than narratives of greed. A narrative of grievance is not only much more functional externally, it is also more satisfying personally: rebel leaders may readily be persuaded by their own propaganda. Further, an accentuated sense of grievance may be functional internally for the rebel organization. The organization has to recruit: indeed, its success depends upon it. As the organization gets larger, the material benefits which it can offer its additional members is likely to diminish. By playing upon a sense of grievance, the organization may therefore be able to get additional recruits more cheaply. Hence, even where the rationale at the top of the organization is essentially greed, the actual discourse may be entirely dominated by grievance. I should emphasize that I do not mean to be cynical. I am not arguing that rebels necessary deceive either others or themselves in explaining their motivation in terms of grievance. Rather, I am simply arguing that since both greed-motivated and grievance-motivated rebel organisations will embed their behaviour in a narrative of grievance, the observation of that narrative provides no informational content to the researcher as to the true motivation for rebellion.”

Ho ho. Collier stumbles upon the old philosophical problem of intention, here, and rightly does what we all do to solve it: he looks around for actions, divided into those consistent with an economic or a grievance motive, to confirm intentions.

“I first describe the proxies which I use to capture the notion of an economic agenda. The
most important one is the importance of exports of primary commodities. I measure this
as the share of primary commodity exports in GDP. Primary commodity exports are
likely to be a good proxy for the availability of `lootable’ resources. We know that they
are by far the most heavily taxed component of GDP in developing countries, and the
reason for this is that they are the most easily taxed component. Primary commodity
production does not depend upon complex and delicate networks of information and
transactions as with manufacturing. It can also be highly profitable because it is based on
the exploitation of idiosyncratic natural endowments rather than the more competitive
level playing fields of manufacturing. Thus, production can survive predatory taxation.
Yet for export it is dependent upon long trade routes, usually originating from rural
locations. This makes it easy for an organised military force to impose predatory taxation
by targeting these trade routes. These factors apply equally to rebel organisations as to
governments. Rebels, too, can impose predatory taxation on primary commodities as long
as they can either interrupt some point in the trade route or menace an isolated, and
difficult to protect, point of production.”

Could what counts, here, in civil conflict be extrapolated to conflict between nations within a world system?

This is, I should say, just one part of Collier’s entire schema, which goes like this:

The two other economic proxies are: the proportion of available young men, and the cost of recruitment (“If young men face only the option of poverty they might be more inclined to join a rebellion than if they have better opportunities”), which is a function, in Collier’s model, of education – education creating, for him, a more extensive series of economic opportunities against which to measure violence.

The four factors of grievance are: religious and ethnic hatred; economic inequality; political rights; and government economic incompetence.

The double register of Collier’s economic/grievance factors do seem more indigenous to civil conflict than to conflict between nations. But the first, looting factor – now that interests LI. In inter-national disputes, what seems to happen is that the economic factor exist in contrast to the political factor - that is, the dispute becomes its own justification. Grievance – which has resurfaced as liberal interventionism – is subordinate to board positions, so to speak. Thus, if France “goes into” India, Britain, to ‘defend itself”, has to go into India. If Russia goes into Afghanistan, the U.S. has to counter Russia. Etc. A certain amount of moralizing will follow on the heels of the moves in the game, but it will never be very coordinate with those moves, and will lead to ceaseless confusion among the propagandists for and against the moves, who will always seem to be arguing about issues that aren’t quite relevant to the case.

Lawrence's Etruscans

  I re-read Women in Love a couple of years ago and thought, I’m out of patience with Lawrence. Then… Then, visiting my in-law in Montpellie...