Saturday, December 22, 2007

Waiter, there's a wire in my soup!

That the brain is hardwired or softwired is one of those half truths that drives the wires in LI’s own brain haywire. The idea that the nerve is a wire goes back, as we have shown in various previous posts, to suggestions made by Newton, and taken up in the eighteenth century by people like Hartley. Although strictly, the metaphor then was more of a kind of string imparting pulses, or vibrations. Galvani’s experiments suggested that the nerve was the locus of animal electricity – it was like the wire coming out of a Leyden Jar.

Now, in truth, there is no wire that I meet up with in the course of my day to day encounters with electricity that is like a nerve. The string idea, of course, still exists in the notion of nerve ‘fibers’ – which is only to say that the way in which the nerve had to be modeled on artifices of human manufacture as it was understood goes deeply into the way nerves are talked about. On some level, we are all naturally Hollywood voodooists – we make little dolls and explain human beings on the basis of those little dolls.

However, though fibers are what one might call a built in metaphor – they have become parts of the way that nerves are described - wires are not – wires retain the status of an external model to which nerves are compared. Saletan’s recent racist article at Slate about how whites are smarter than blacks, the one in which he based his science on the work of two well known racists and then backed off, due to the fact that he, in the five minutes of omniscience that he’d given to the subject, had neglected to review any of the literature on the subject, provoked a huge and hugely stupid discussion of IQ and genes, with the assumption that genes are the thing we should look to to explain our mental life. Genes, we are assured, either hardwire or softwire our brains. In fact, our brains have been examined for a long, long time by neurology, and if we want to understand human intelligence – something that is much different than IQ, which is the result of a very early twentieth century textual invention called an IQ test – we should look to what the neurological sciences say. In other words – the underlying notion that genes determine the way the brain is ignore the fact that the way the brain is is highly and necessarily plastic; and that plasticity is expressed in the constitution of the neural network. We have wiring systems that primitively approximate this – routers in a telephone system can connect x’s call to y via one group of telephone wires or wireless transmissions or another. Selection, here, also primitively embodies something that happens in the selection of neural pathways, in that the number of calls can select out one route over another – that is, the router can use some algorithm to determine if too much use is being placed on one pathway and route a given call to another pathway.

But the whole router/wire thing, here, not only lags behind the complexity of the brain, but it leads us to misunderstand the basic distinction between nerves and wires: nerves are made of discrete nerve cells. The junction between them is a synapse, where chemical mediators bear the impulses. The image of the wire has been the basis for two historical misunderstandings in neurology. The first was the dispute between Ramon y Cajal and Golgi about the structure of the neuron – with Ramon y Cajal rightly understanding neural cells as discrete from one another, and Golgi holding onto an older, continuous hypothesis, with the nerves imagined as things like wires – and the second, as Valenstein, in his history of neurophysiology in the twentieth century, puts it, was the “war between the soup and the sparks” – with those who dismissed chemical receptors, or the “sparks’ group, unconsciously bending their model to the model of the wire, Newton’s vibrations translated into Galvani’s electricity. Of course, the soup won – but oddly enough, we don’t talk about hard soup and soft soup. Although, indeed, that would be a better metaphor – but it would make the body seem more like something whipped up in a kitchen than engineered by Edison. I needn’t go into the masculinist anxieties that such images conjure – we can see them all around us, can’t we?

In actual fact, the direction of influence is now going the other way – we are developing wire networks that are more souplike, so that we no longer speak of wires. But these archetypes of engineering still litter our ordinary discourse.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Age of Bosoms

LI finished watching Wojciech Has’ The Sargasso Manuscript last night. We had to watch it over two days – the movie, which came out in 1965, is a series of nested stories, framed by one master story recounting how Captain Alfonso van Worden traveled through Andalusia to Madrid. On the way, he was seduced by ghosts/genii/women/infidels at an abandoned inn. The seduction goes so far that van Worden semi-agrees to abjure Jesus Christ and follow the Prophet.

Interestingly, if you go to the Web and read about this movie, you’ll find a blur of factoids. Was it made in 1965, 1964 or 1966? Was it set in the 18th century or the 17th? Those who watch the movie more carefully and obsessively than I have discover strange loops in the film. In the Penguin translation of the book by Jan Potocki, it is reported that Potocki “is said to have fashioned a silver bullet himself out of the knob of his teapot (or the handle of a sugar-bowl bequeathed to him by his mother): he had it blessed by the chaplain of the castle, and then used it to blow out his brains in his library (or his bedroom), having written his own epitaph (or, according to other sources, drawn a caricature of himself).” Potocki and his book and the film seem to generate different stories of the same event by onlookers.

Be that as it may, the film has another significance. It was in the early seventies that the historiography of the eighteenth century took a different view of the age of reason, discovering that it was actually the Age of Bosoms. This discovery was first made, I believe, by various horror movie directors working at Hammer Studios. Certainly by the time Roman Polanski made the Fearless Vampire Killers, historians had discovered that the one commonality held by the many, many women serving drinks at Ye Olde Inns across the steppes and moors of Europe was their daring décolletage. Of course, some in this school adhered to the Long Age of Bosoms theory – that the age of Bosoms extended from the mid seventeenth or even sixteenth century all the way up to about the time Lady Frankenstein met Dracula. However, all of these directors pale in comparison to Has. The Spain of the 18th century had its problems, as we all know: a declining empire, the imperial ambitions of France and Britain, the iron grip of the Catholic Church. All that to the side, it was definitely in advance of the rest of the civilized world in terms of see through blouses and plunging necklines. The latter, apparently, was a veritable science. Physics only caught up with the precision of the 18th century Spanish countess’ neckline in 1905.

LI – ever helpful to man and beast – has diligently searched for the roots of the Age of Bosoms. Is it the paintings of Boucher? Is it an attempt to sneak tits under the guise of historical accuracy past the watchful eye of the movie censor? Going back to the authoritative Madeleine Delpierre’s Dress in France in the Eighteenth Century, it appears to have been an effect of the whaleboned bodice, a devilish contrivance that raised the bust and narrowed the waist and made it very very uncomfortable to bend. Twentieth century directors liked the effect of the bodice, but wanted it to look like a robe volante – which is how the Age of Bosoms was born, I hypothesize, circa 1963, in the mind of director Tony Richardson making Tom Jones.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Bad News in this Holiday Season

LI was going to write about the NYT piece about the vaunted return of Iraq’s refugees. This was floated a month ago as a definite sign that the surge was working, but – as was obvious from the illogic of the reports – it turned out to be another big lie. Some refugees are returning, especially Shi’ites, but in the main, the drivers are economic – these refugees, it turns out, are simply going to another station on the downhill slope. This story almost effected me, although as an American proud to support our troops, and helping freedom wind its way around the world, I immediately forgot it as soon as I read it:

“Afraah Kadhom’s family is among the uprooted. She is 36, and usually shrouded in a billowing black abaya, a symbol of mourning. Her father and four brothers were killed two years ago when gunmen broke through the doors to the family’s house in Huriya, a neighborhood in north central Baghdad, and methodically hunted the men down. One of her brother’s sons, Mustafa, cradled his father’s head as the man lay dying. Mustafa, who is 9 now and shy, is the oldest surviving male member of the family. “The man of our house,” Ms. Kadhom said.”

Oh well, what was that again? But then, then, black news came. Lauren Goldstein Crowe writes a helpful post on her blog in Portfolio about what to get for those multimillionaires on your Christmas list. This is a bitter problem for LI. We have six hundred bucks in the bank, and we had our heart set on buying a limo or something for a few of our multimillionaire friends when this pesky credit squeeze came up. Crowe quotes from a poll which shows, pretty conclusively, that multimillionaires want quality in their gifts:

“Product quality and value for money top the list, though quality is slightly less important -- mentioned by only 60 percent -- to the really, really rich (with assets over $3 million) than it was to the just a little rich (with assets less than $1 million), 78 percent of whom thought it mattered.” O percent ascribed to the phrase; it’s the thought that counts. Those rich!

So I was absorbing this information when Crowe moves on to a matter that eclipses any petty difficulty some Iraqi hussy might be having:

“WGSN, subscription only, reports today that in order to keep prices of European goods reasonable in the US, some producers have been switching materials. "At Saks Fifth Avenue, there has recently been some price resistance among customers for some European apparel, according to Saks Inc chief executive Stephen I Sadove, who said Saks was working more closely with suppliers who are either changing fabrics, absorbing costs or raising prices."

Sadly they don't say which brands are changing fabrics, but whoever you are keep in mind the short-term gain could well lead to a long-term devaluation of your brand.”

My heart literally fluttered. Are we talking polyester???? Surely our forefathers, and our brave statesmen of the last two decades, have not fought and bled for the system the fruits of which we all enjoy so abundantly today in order for our wives and daughters to find… ‘changed’ fabrics hanging at Saks! Sadly, as Ms. Crowe puts it, European fabrics are being withheld from our Successful people. This is the kind of thing that deeply touches each and every one of us in this holiday season. Remember the wealthy in your prayers tonight, quietly weeping in Westport, in Morristown, and in many other fine gated communities.

They say that I'm a clown making too much dirty sound

Every monkey like to be
in my place instead of me
cause I'm the king of bongo baby I'm the king of bongo

Karl Bücher is a not very well remembered economist. His ghost comes up, faintly, in the literature about Karl Polanyi. He was an economist of the ‘historical school’ back in the early twentieth century. The ‘historical school’ and the marginalists were pitted against each other, and each also pitted itself against Marx. Institutional economics owes the historical school – although it is commonly thought that the historicists were creamed when the marginalists began to produce groovy, mathematical models.

Bücher’s ghost also sometimes haunts … musicology. Of all things. This is because of a little book entitled Work and Rhythm. We all know about Taylor, and the making of work efficiency. Bücher, in 1894, worked along other lines. He listened to labor with that German metaphysician’s ear. He listened to the sound made by the shovel going into a sandpile. He listened to the smith hammering out hot iron. He listened to carpenters hammering, noticing how, if two carpenters are nailing near each other, they fall into a syncopated rhythm – the one striking a blow while the other’s hammer is raised to the midpoint, and then coming down and striking a blow. He noticed that a loom makes a sound. He thought about the muscular movements of non-skilled labor, and how they set up a sort of systole-diastole pattern.

Bücher thought that the spirit of music did not arise out of Dionysian ecstasy, but out of the tedium and rhythm of milling, hoeing, reaping. Although to speak of a ‘rising out of’ here is a bit of a mistake. Rather, the rhythms were intrinsic to the labor. If they were made into music, that music was not detached from work.

LI has been worried – is worried – that our contrast of the sweetness of life with the happiness culture is too nostalgic. But we need to highlight the reasons that alienation has stalked the happiness culture from the very beginning. One of those break points, we think, is the increasing disjunction between labor and rhythm. It has long been in my mind that I need to do a series of tremendous and tremendously boring posts about Marx, and how a millennial liberal such as myself, can read him, can still use him. At the center of our distorted picture of Marx is our translation of what Marx says about commodities into Weber-speak: commodities, for us, equals bundles of routines. There are advantages and disadvantages to our variation of Marx – one advantage, which we are willing to give up a lot for, is that the idea of routinization being at the center of industrial societies puts alienation back in the center of the critical study of capitalism. It is impossible to understand changes in the emotional customs wrought by modernization without having some good notion of alienation, not as an abstract thing, but operating to, for instance, create noisy work – in which all rhythms get muddied and shredded - and silent work – which has a sound profile we all know all too well. It is the clicking of many keys. I’m doing it now.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Blue Whale World

LI is looking at today’s NYT headlines – the Morgan Stanley losses, the recent EU Central bank decision to socialize the red ink of the wealthiest by throwing half a trillion dollars into the solvency crisis, the inevitable leak that the Bush White House, of course, had its hands all over the destruction of the CIA’s personal snuff n torture films – and we are trying and failing to see the big picture. We know, or we ought to know, that torture, bankruptcy, moral hazard as a governing style, and ill formed lies are what we should expect in societies that opt for transformative increases of inequality. It is no accident that the NSS-es of Latin America, when inequality had become intolerable in the 70s, became labs of death squads and jimmied up concentration camps – Argentina’s junta operating a torture chamber in a bank was not only another of Kafka’s nightmares from the Trial made real, but showed, once again, that the base of society is essentially poetic, made of symbols that are made of matter that are made of symbols...

I am, of course, on a perpetual hunt for the transmutations of matter and symbol in the newspaper. As I wrote in a post last week, unsustainable growth is a function of unsustainable inequality – the only way to keep the mass of people, who grow absolutely poorer if power over the limited amount of goods and services goes disproportionately to a small group of people, is to make sure there is a margin that would keep the mass relatively stable. That’s pretty much been our political life since the mid 80s in the U.S. The question has always been – when are we going to run into a wall? People like myself, who can’t stand the falsity, ugliness, injustice and claustrophobia of the money order are all too prone to see walls – for instance, the wall that seemed to loom up in 2002, as the tech bubble burst. One of the good things about Gregory Clark’s book, Farewell to Alms, is that he does make clear that we live in a Malthusian world – no matter what the new growth people think, you cannot, by taking thought, grow a cubit. That doesn’t mean that the earth cannot accommodate a lot of people – that doesn’t even mean that growth is bad – but it does mean that no system that we know of will allow human beings, who average less than two hundred pound each, to use up as much energy in a year as blue whales, who average 238,000 pounds each. At the moment, of course, Americans do – in effect, on today’s earth, there are around 300 million blue whales in the U.S. – about 500 million in Europe – maybe 50 million in China, etc., etc. I can’t imagine that the world is going to support 10 billion blue whales. Perhaps my mind isn’t sci fi enough.

Martin Wolf, the conservative economics columnist at the Financial Times, seems to be suffering through such a crisis of nerves, do to the distant sound of collapsing ponzi scheme in the financosphere, that he is becoming all Al Gore like. Or maybe he has been reading Gregory Clark, too:

“What is less widely understood is that they have also transformed politics. A zero-sum economy leads, inevitably, to repression at home and plunder abroad. In traditional agrarian societies the surpluses extracted from the vast majority of peasants supported the relatively luxurious lifestyles of military, bureaucratic and noble elites. The only way to increase the prosperity of an entire people was to steal from another one. Some peoples made almost a business out of such plunder: the Roman republic was one example; the nomads of the Eurasian steppes, who reached their apogee of success under Genghis Khan and his successors, were another. The European conquerors of the 16th to 18th centuries were, arguably, a third. In a world of stagnant living standards the gains of one group came at the expense of equal, if not still bigger, losses for others. This, then, was a world of savage repression and brutal predation.

The move to the positive-sum economy transformed all this fundamentally, albeit far more slowly than it might have done. It just took time for people to realise how much had changed. Democratic politics became increasingly workable because it was feasible for everybody to become steadily better off. People fight to keep what they have more fiercely than to obtain what they do not have. This is the “endowment effect”. So, in the new positive-sum world, elites were willing to tolerate the enfranchisement of the masses. The fact that they no longer depended on forced labour made this shift easier still. Consensual politics, and so democracy, became the political norm.”


“The age of the plunderer is past. Or is it? The biggest point about debates on climate change and energy supply is that they bring back the question of limits. If, for example, the entire planet emitted CO2 at the rate the US does today, global emissions would be almost five times greater. The same, roughly speaking, is true of energy use per head. This is why climate change and energy security are such geopolitically significant issues. For if there are limits to emissions, there may also be limits to growth. But if there are indeed limits to growth, the political underpinnings of our world fall apart. Intense distributional conflicts must then re-emerge – indeed, they are already emerging – within and among countries.”

Indeed – to quote Omar from The Wire. Socialist democracy might not be dead, after all, in spite of its End of History gravediggers.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

the bloody tree, the invisible hand

LI has been having trouble with this post, and in general with our posts on the pessimists. The reason is this: though the brunt of the pessimistic attack on the liberal system was, essentially, that the system made an unjustified and unjustifiable projection of a human mood – happiness – upon intentionally constructed social circumstances (in essence, what we have labeled the hedonic fallacy), the pessimists were by nature averse to system, and prone to launch into poetic arias about mythological pasts. Yet the nostalgia of the first counter-revolutionary generation – the generation that had actually existed under the ancien regime – is… not for the conditions of that existence. Maistre seems to long for the seventeenth century – or the sixteenth. Or the Spanish inquisition. Nietzsche sometimes seems to long for an Aryan never never epoch. I want to extract from this tradition one thing – the critique of the hedonic fallacy – but, as happens when you deal with literature, theme comes wrapped in the tentacles of connotation, and those tentacles wrap around the hardy interpreter. And the hardy interpreter begins to drown.

So that’s my complaint. This is what my post looks like so far.

In the beginning of 1789, Georg Lichtenberg noted down in his sketchbook the following thought: “Writing is splendid for awakening the sleeping system that is in every man, and each person who writes thus becomes healthier, for writing always awakens something that one didn’t clearly know beforehand, even if it lay within us.”

It turned out to be a good year for the sleeping system that lay within every man. Or systems – for the systems had been awakening for some time. If we were to take a crazy, Borgesian view of history as, primarily, the carrier of images, then we could shape this post, about Maistre, to a new view of the French revolution – as a sort of complicated delivery system that gets two Enlightenment images together – the invisible hand and the bloody tree. The tree of liberty that needs, according to Jefferson, to be watered with blood – the tree of liberty that was danced around by the revolutionaries – is appropriated, in 1797, by the counterrevolution, in the form of Considerations on France, Joseph de Maistre’s book. And another image, the image of the invisible hand, which is the presiding oneiric presence in Adam Smith’s work (see Emma Rothschild’s exemplary investigation of the invisible hand here as well as a number of posts at Praxis) migrates here, too. It comes together in the third chapter on the Violent Destruction of the human race (the dream we all dream of, pace Prince), the chapter, that is, on war and its place in a holy cosmos. The sleeping system that is in every man, at the time, was furnished with visions such as these:

“There is room to doubt that, besides, that violent destruction is, in general, as great an evil as is generally believed. At least, it is one of those evils that enters into the order of things where all is violent and against nature, and which produces compensations. Firstly, when the human soul has lost its ingenuity by its softness, incredulity and the gangrenous vices that follow the excess of civilization, it can only be re-tempered by blood. It is not easy, precisely, to explain why war produces different effects following different circumstances. What one sees clearly enough is that the human race can be considered like a tree that an invisible hand trims without stopping, and which often is all the better for this operation. In truth, if one touches the trunk, or chops off the head of the poplar, the tree can perish. But who knows what limits constrain the human tree?”

This image is enough to make me pause for a long time. It is easy to forget how the human tree is trimmed, so I’m going to put a picture her of one such trimming:

Maistre is such an odd and decisive writer – as Saint Breuve said, an inverse Voltaire – who seems, at time, to open himself up to a daemon of some kind. By all accounts, he was a kindly man who wrote lovingly to his daughter, and chatted to his friends, and tried to keep the King of Sardinia, who he served, from committing outrageous acts of petty tyranny. At the same time, he was penning books praising the Spanish inquisition, or praising the Pope to an extent that made even the pope uneasy enough to think Maistre might be sneaking a heresy by the Holy Seat.

The Considerations, as a whole, seems to operate on a sort of inversion principle. If Rousseau, in one of the holy texts of the revolution, said that everywhere men are born free, and yet everywhere men are in chains – Maistre begins the book by extolling the fact that men are in chains, and the end of the chain is held, at last, by the Lord. For the tree of libery, we have the tree of the human species, trimmed by an invisible hand. For the rights of man, we have Maitre claiming that man doesn’t exist – individual men exist. And yet this nominalist claim is never made to cohere with what one might call the prophetic dimension of Maistre’s work – that dimension that sees events, and not the men enmeshed in them, as the ultimate controllers of history. These events are miraculous – as Maistre says in the first chapter

That in the heart of winter, a man commands a tree, in front of a thousand witnesses, to bear fruit, and that the tree obeys – all the world will cry that this is a miracle, and bow before the magician. But the French revolution, and everything happening in Europe at this moment, is as miraculous, in its kind, as the instantaneous fructification of a tree in the month of January – yet, instead of admiring, men look away, or they engage in bad reasoning about it.”

Maistre’s theory of the miracle is tied to his theory of the event – a theory that precedes Hegel, but that forecasts some of the sheer grandeur of the Absolute spirit. Although the absolute spirit works with signs, not wonders – whereas Maistre’s divinity works with wonders and despises signs.

It is perhaps because history is a wonderworking phenomenon, outside of the scope of science, that Maistre always prefaces his most bold and bloody passages with a prognostic symbol – a decisive reference to an extra-European saying. LCC, in a comment a week ago on one of the posts in this series, pointed out that Maistre, as a Free Mason, looked partly to the Orient, or at least the Orient as it was codified in the Enlightenment, the Orient of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters and William Jones’ translations from the Sanskit. To leap ahead: the most striking thing about the St. Petersberg Evenings is Maistre’s theory of the supernatural function of the executioner – the framing story to which is a long quote from William Jones translation of the Book of Manu. That Hindoo scripture had a sort of privileged place for European intellectuals before there were good translations of the Vedas or of Buddhist texts. As is well known, Nietzsche praises it – although Nietzsche, apparently, never read it. But before Nietzsche, Maistre praised it and actually read it. The conclusion he draws from it is awe inspiring and repulsive: that we live in an order of universal punishment, and any effort to overturn those punishments is an effort to overturn that order, and must be ruthlessly crushed. In the case that it isn’t ruthlessly crushed, by a supernatural law, the new, merciful order will blindly make its way back to punishments, and install even worse ones, even more arbitrary ones, before it is done.

As I’ve pointed out in previous post, the third chapter begins with a reported saying of the King of Dahomey that the world is made for war Certainly Maistre thinks that the world is eminently and transcendentally made – and in this, he senses, correctly, that he has already been surpassed by the philosophes.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Pollan Today

Michael Pollan is the best writer at the moment working for the NYT. It is with a mixture of amazement and jealousy that I trip through Pollan’s articles – like the one in the Mag today. Who else moves so calmly and clearly from Confucius and Marx to the honey bee and the hog?

Biden's foreign policy: let's bet everything on authoritarianism!

  And watch it all slip away (Por fin se va acabar) Or leave a garden for your kids to play (Jamás van a alcanzar)  --- The Black Angels, El...