Saturday, January 12, 2008

Hazlitt and the claims of the imagination

Both in Hazlitt’s essay, Reason and Imagination, and in the Spirit of the Age essay on Bentham, Hazlitt’s argument against utilitarianism proceeds on two levels.

The first level is, so to speak, a defense of the moral integrity of the person that rests on construing the imagination as having a major shaping role in creating the person. On this level, Hazlitt is not just defending the imagination as an instrument of practical reason, but he is making a larger, cultural claim against utilitarianism, which is that utilitarianism does a manifest harm to humans by diminishing their imaginative capacity. Philosophers are more used to the first line of argument than the second, if you take Hazlitt to be using the imagination to play a role similar to Hegel’s recognition. According to David Bromwich, in Hazlitt’s major and little read philosophical treatise, Essay on the Principles of Human Action, he ‘puts forward a single main thesis about the nature of action. It includes, however, distinct arguments on the limits of identity and the freedom of the imagination. The idea of a personal identityt that contiues from past to future is first shown to be an artifice – the past, says Hazlitt, is known thorugh memory, the present through consciousness. We are then asked to realize that we contemplate the future only with the help of imagination. It follows that someone else’s future is potentially as real to me as my own. Since imagination is not limited by identity, and identity itself is discontinuous, the two arguments can be shown to assist each other.”(p.18, Metaphysical Hazlitt)

It is Hazlitt’s cultural argument that, I think, gives us the more original, and even prophetic, insight. However, it is one that has been neglected or misunderstood by liberal moralists, who tend to transcribe this thesis, when they meet it, as meaning that art (which is where they take the imagination to be lodged) has some social use. But Hazlitt is not lodging the imagination in art alone – it is, rather, intrinsic to the very circle of the human. Thus, its squeezing, its distortion, by a utilitarian society is a mutilation on all persons.

It is easy not to see what Hazlitt is getting at here because his case doesn’t break along the usual fracture lines – the happiness of the greatest number vs. the universals of duty. Unlike Bentham, Hazlitt contends that the imagination inevitably intervenes on any calculation having to do with action, since the very basis of that calculation is the imaginative power that allows us to project ourselves into the future. It is thus more primary than the hedonic motive. On the other hand, unlike Kant, Hazlitt is not subscribing here to the early modern psychology that would neatly separate reason from the sensual. Kant, of course, has tried to purify his psychology of the moral terms that overlay the discourse of the affections in order to give us a pure opposition between sensual motive and the motive of reason, but the options still follow the mold of the older bias. And, indeed, that bias has not exhausted itself. The idea that the emotions and moods are ultimately reducible to pleasure and pain, to some pure animal state, is still alive in psychology – thus, happiness is a sort of cloud around a central pleasure, sadness a cloud around a central pain, and so on. In a sense, these are the masks of god – the god of pleasure assumes the mask of happiness, or enthusiasm, or excitement, the god of pain assumes the mask of anger, or of disappointment, and so on. But what shapes these masks, and what are they themselves made of?

All of which I will discuss in another post. The next post, though, will be about the second level of Hazlitt’s attack. Hazlitt’s set of examples when he attacks the utilitarians invariably stray to extra-European – to imperial – instances. The slave trade. India. And for good reason, since the utilitarians flourished in the imperial interface.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Tears again

It kills me. It kills me. In Don Delillo’s Underworld, he has Lenny Bruce giving a performance during the Cuban Missile crisis about JFK’s speech on TV, and he says:

"Kennedy makes an appearance in public and you hear people say, I saw his hair! Or, I saw his teeth! The spectacle's so dazzling they can't take it all in. I saw his hair! They're venerating the sacred relics while the guy's still alive."

And he punctuates his monologue with a “line he’s come to love: we’re all gonna die!”

That was back when superman first came to the supermarket. The monster was just being born back then, and it didn’t seem at all like a monster, it seemed like art: those Esquire writers, like Norman Mailer, going beyond the surface scrim of politics to contact with knowing fingers the Siamese twin tie between the larger than life personality and the larger life at large, the semiotic encoded in the statesman’s gestures, his suits, his dislike of hats… And so this new way of writing about politicos, writing about them as though they were characters in a novel, was born. Born just as the novel was dying out as a dominant aesthetic form – cut out the middleman, make your own in living breathing flesh and blood characters, hire consultants to do it, and then raise up a brood of commentors whose perceptions are as predictably shallow as their upbringing, a background in which was omitted all history, languages, nights of the soul, empathy, imagination, knowledge, and loose this whole dire bestiary on tv and in the papers as a permanent chorus, giving us ever thinner narratives, novels in which Superman gradually lost the irony and became an action movie figure, President Mission Accomplished, and in which now the emphasis was all on the hair, the cleavage, the tears – because this brood weaves novels that will never reflect the sad state of our prosperous days. These are the days when democracy is giving birth to feudalism, to syndromes ong thought to be long extinct – mercenary armies, torture, an executive claiming more divine rights than Charles I ever dreamed of. Accompanying it is the slugs orgy of outrage 24/7, the cretinorama by which all the information by which one could make an informed choice about anything – drugs, cars, toothpaste, politicians – is utterly waylaid in a maze. As our lords and masters intended it to be – make the world hazy and issue credit cards, that’s the plan.

The continuing ‘controversy’ about Hillary Clinton’s tears hurts so bad it is going to make my balls drop off. Nobody gives a flying fuck, except in TV toyland. Oh, it isn’t that sentimentality and mushiness should be off the radar as far as politics is concerned. I propose we do talk about it. I say, let’s talk about the worst, the bloodiest, the most malign sentimentality of them all, which is called toughness. It is the silence the boy substitutes for calling for his mommy. And soon it hardens delightfully over the tyke. Oh how they love toughness, the media Heathers, oh how it makes them cum cum cum all over their peashooters. Of course, the funny thing is that the toughness they sentimentalize about is projected on such amazing, bilious old physical wrecks like Fred Thompson or John McCain. On the other hand, the Ur-gesture of toughness – going into a convenience store and blow the head off the cashier, for instance – is all too yucky. Oh, that scares them so much that they desire even tougher men to lock those tough boys up. So it is tough and tougher, a simp’s progress down the road to the pit. And all that fucked up toughness is unmoored. It is part and parcel of the whole unmoored emotional landscape that has to float above the wasteland created by the corporation and the state, it’s a clip joint sentimentality designed to get men and women down down down on the totem pole to look up and admire, as their heroes, the men and women who systematically plunder them, who contrive their vulnerability, who pride themselves on gambling with the lives of the feebs’ and rubes’ children. They are tough, those who build, cell by carcinogenic cell, the environment of disaster into which we are collectively drifting.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Magic, zombies, the NH primary

Ah, the old dilemma. On the one hand, the Clintons represent the vilest D.C. shit imaginable – war, neo-liberalism, faux progressive politics that gets up in your ass and eats your intestine. And just as you are about to throw them out, they get attacked by – the even viler people. The media krewe of nitwits and combjobs who, over the last week, danced around like the high school students in Carrie, so happy that the wicked Hillary – she’s not a cheerleader girl at all! – was no longer in contention to be prom queen. The sheer overwhelming dreadful gross misogyny of it all made anybody with any heart want to strike them back, to slap those fat sleek faces until they were red. And so the 1998 white magic happens all over again. You can tell from who votes for the Clintons that it is a visceral class phenomena – that’s the sad part. It is the Blue collar belt that really always saves the Clintons bacon, not because the working class are stupid peckerwoods, but because they have a healthy animal instinct for the enemy. Although superficially they might nod along as the anchorman trills through his pack of lies, an instinct scratches. What is so sad is that, in these circumstances, the Clintons are really in the enemy camp. The enemy of my enemy is still my enemy. How fucked is that?

I was thinking, today, that someone really needs to start up the Adam Nagourney satire site again that went up in 2004 – this time, I think, as Jokeline, the popular comment thread name for Joe Klein – something that will throw as much shit as possible at the bastards. It is hard to think straight about politics when everything you hate is embodied every day on every channel and every newspaper – a smirking, brainless, sycophantic syndicate of toad eaters whose every gesture and remark is redolent of class privilege, ignorance, and such a remarkable lack of soul, such a vacuum of an interior life, such a cardboard sensibility for the normal drama of human existence that, that, that – I mean, it would shock a zombie how dead these people all are. All those stories about ‘natives’ fearing that photographs drain your soul are obviously scientifically right –for haven’t we watched TV drain the soul, down to the last drop, of those greedy talking heads that elbow their way in front of the camera? They exist solely to cretinize us – to make us stupider and stupider – on the magical principle of like drawing to like. As they draw the last bit of your soul out of fingertips, you can join them in a sort of vampire state of non-being.

So, somehow, that Clinton won – while I so ardently want Clinton to lose, to hear no more of Clinton, to see no more Clinton, somehow, somehow – this news made me smile.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Alien: coming to an economic sector near you!

LI has several posts on the drawing board. We have a post about Derrida and intercessors that is partly a reply to certain things LCC has said about my man Jack; we have to complete our sequence about Hazlitt; and most of all, we want to talk about Alexander Herzen. Piqued by this recent piece in More Intelligent Life about the Moscow Inszenierung of Tom Stoppard’s play in Moscow (and, by accident, doing a lot of editing recently on papers having to do with Russian intellectual life), we started reading Herzen. Long ago, I bought a paperback abridgement of Herzen’s autobiography, and somewhere in the mounds of paper on one of my desk it is probably hibernating, its little heart slowed to a death’s breath by day after day of non-reading.

But all of those fun things are so fuckin’ convoluted, dude! Taking forever to think out and then to write. Whereas I could just refer to this excellent little Financial Times piece by Stephen Roach. Now, at least I know one of my readers – I’m looking at you, Brian! – is as into depression prediction porn as I am. There’s a vast audience out there for those books with titles like: 1980s – Coming Depression! 1990s – Great Crash! 2000 – How the coming depression will change everything! Myself, I’ve even got depressed about this coming depression. The key word seems to be coming. It is always coming, but never arriving. Hey hey, I told you it was porn, didn’t I?

In actual fact, depression (recession is of the same genre of euphemisms as Defense department is for Department of War – it was coined in the fifties to make life seem more comfy) has long ago become a sectional thing, and the Keynesian economy (which undergirds the present neo-liberal order) has gotten very good at compartmentalizing it. The Rust Belt’s depressed – the Sun Belt’s booming. Finances sag, the power market surges. The political advantage of this from the standpoint of Mr. Moneybags, your softshoeing Monopoly card capitalist, is that depression never becomes a category around which political identification can take place. Divide and conquer and all that shit.

But though we don’t think of the totality, the totality thinks of us. And this is what Roach’s article does pretty well, laying out a schema that makes sense of some everduring features in our current economic landscape:

“The US has been the main culprit behind the destabilising global imbalances of recent years. America’s massive current account deficit absorbs about 75 per cent of the world’s surplus saving. Most believe that a weaker US dollar is the best cure for these imbalances. Yet a broad measure of the US dollar has dropped 23 per cent since February 2002 in real terms, with only minimal impact on America’s gaping external imbalance. Dollar bears argue that more currency depreciation is needed. Protectionists insist that China – which has the largest bilateral trade imbalance with the US – should bear a disproportionate share of the next downleg in the US dollar.

There is good reason to doubt this view. America’s current account deficit is due more to bubbles in asset prices than to a misaligned dollar. A resolution will require more of a correction in asset prices than a further depreciation of the dollar. At the core of the problem is one of the most insidious characteristics of an asset-dependent economy – a chronic shortfall in domestic saving. With America’s net national saving averaging a mere 1.4 per cent of national income over the past five years, the US has had to import surplus saving from abroad to keep growing. That means it must run massive current account and trade deficits to attract the foreign capital.

America’s aversion toward saving did not appear out of thin air. Waves of asset appreciation – first equities and, more recently, residential property – convinced citizens that a new era was at hand. Reinforced by a monstrous bubble of cheap credit, there was little perceived need to save the old-fashioned way – out of income. Assets became the preferred vehicle of choice.”

Now, there’s a little sour grapesianism going on here. Bubbles have a bad rep – and deservedly so, at least back in the Tulipomania past. Myself, I’m open to the question of whether we don’t have an affluent enough framework in which bubbles actually do a different kind of job, now – bubbles might be the thing that, in tandem with the sectoral depressions, keep the economy afloat. Much as I hate to say it, they’ve done a really good job at that. While a marginal old fart such as myself has long been among the people who are sat on by the people who are sat on by the people who are sat on in this economy, I’ve noticed much less disgruntlement among the masses about the general sitch. It might be that Roach is right – we can’t borrow any more, the bills come due, the walls of Jericho, NYC, Washingon D.C., Houston, L.A., Dallas, Atlanta and Miami fall, and we all come face to face with the face of capitalism, a picture of which I am including for your viewing pleasure here:

But forgive an old dodderer his doubts. I’ve heard this before. Maybe the years are just wearing away my resistance to being sat on. And of course Roach ends with an unjustified inference:

“It is going to be a very painful process to break the addiction to asset-led behaviour. No one wants recessions, asset deflation and rising unemployment. But this has always been the potential endgame of a bubble-prone US economy. The longer America puts off this reckoning, the steeper the ultimate price of adjustment.”

Monday, January 07, 2008

The General from Hope

You know, when President Backbone way back on January 2005 (Year of the Liberated Pig) made us all choke up as he celebrated the winds of freedom he’d helped waft over the Globe, we didn’t even know the half of it. Comrades on the Decent sites, who know a knight of the Weltgeist when they see it, knew that President Backbone was history’s way of bringing permanent revolution and a New Labour outlook to the benighted and dusky races of the world. They liked what they saw, and who could resist our impossibly handsome liberator, flak jacket in his left hand, big cock in his right hand? Which surely will be inscribed on the coins one day. One face Bush, the other face President Truman, cooking a girl scout on a grill. Because Truman was Man Tough! Just ask famous adult entertainment star Peter Beinert.

We were bedazzled too. So we jumped up and down for joy at this NYT headline: “In Musharraf’s Shadow, a New Hope for Pakistan Rises.” Hope is a strange thing – one might think that the Hope was arising among our Pakistani comrades, all liberated to fight al qaeda for us and shit. But a moment’s thought will demonstrate that the Weltgeist isn’t going to waste hope on the not yet mature Pakistanis. Our comrades there are still, in terms of liberation, a little like children. Children hope for baubles. They hope for ice cream. They don’t want to do their homework. Thus, I think we can safely discount children’s hopes, as cute as they are, in this struggle to achieve world socialism and an I.D. and thumbprint for all – no, this hope is arising in D.C., among serious people. And it has a name: another military dictatorship! Leading to freedom freedom freedom. The picture that accompanies this article is worth a thousand bullets, but the intro grafs are pretty good too:

“ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Over the last several months, a little-known, enigmatic Pakistani general has quietly raised hopes among American officials that he could emerge as a new force for stability in Pakistan, according to current and former government officials. But it remains too early to determine whether he can play a decisive role in the country.

In late November, the general, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, took command of Pakistan’s army when the country’s longtime military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, resigned as army chief and became a civilian president. At that time, General Kayani, a protégé of Mr. Musharraf’s, became one of Pakistan’s most powerful officials.

The Pakistani Army has dominated the country for decades and the army chief wields enormous influence. Over time, as General Kayani gains firmer control of the army, he is likely to become even more powerful than Mr. Musharraf himself.”

I get all swoony, myself, at someone being a “force for stability". So much nicer than someone being a potential military dictator. That is such a nasty word - it simply reeks of Chomskian moral equivalency. But force for stability! That's so New Economy. So the world is flat. It is Davos and everything nice. It evokes nostalgia: the interrogation methods of Guantanamo, the insider deals that accrue billions, the Swiss bank account, and – oh, very heaven – the ability to vend massive amounts of WMD, er, American military hardware to our comrade general.

Every once in a while, a voice breaks out of the chorus and you can hear, bravely and clearly, what American foreign policy is all about.

Now back to our regularly scheduled progam: 1001 reasons that Chavez is the New Hitler.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

happiness so far

I need to take a breather and survey the progress of my happiness thesis so far. Since starting on this project last June, I’ve floated certain approaches, had that feeling of brio about certain ideas that crashed and burned, and have had to chisel here and chisel there. And I’ve driven down many dead ends – the deadliest of which has been trying to make sense of the various psychologies of the emotions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Down these mean streets others have walked before me, each ending up with the distinct feeling of being separated from the main, lost among fathomless assumptions and philosophical anthropologies. William James, in the Principles of Psychology, wrote:

“The result of all this flux is that the merely descriptive literature of the emotions is one of the most tedious parts of psychology. And not only is it tedious, but you feel that its subdivisions are to a great extent either fictitious or unimportant, and that its pretences to accuracy are a sham. But unfortunately there is little psychological writing about the emotions which is not merely descriptive. As emotions are described in novels, they interest us, for we are made to share them. We have grown acquainted with the concrete objects and emergencies which call them forth, and any knowing touch of introspection which may grace the page meets with a quick and feeling response. Confessedly literary works of aphoristic philosophy also flash lights into our emotional life, and give us a fitful delight. But as far as "scientific psychology" of the emotions goes, I may have been surfeited by too much reading of classic works on the subject, but I should as lief read verbal descriptions of the shapes of the rocks on a New Hampshire farm as toil through them again. They give one nowhere a central point of view, or a deductive or generative principle. They distinguish and refine and specify in infinitum without ever getting on to another logical level. Whereas the beauty of all truly scientific work [p. 449] is to get to ever deeper levels. Is there no way out from this level of individual description in the case of the emotions?”

James is right about the lack of a central point of view. It is striking: there’s no central organizing principle from which a taxonomy could be deduced. A science that has not advanced to the point of taxonomical agreement is, indeed, a desert.

Twentieth century psychology has advance by, as it were, imposing a taxonomy from the outside in. Instead of a central point of view, there is something like a social contract among psychologists, who have produced their categories by committee. The result is a discipline that has found, at one time or another, almost every human behavior sick, or not sick; that has agreed to certain lawlike regularities – for instance, the ‘law’ that all human beings seek to maximize pleasure – compounded ad hoc out of amalgams of skewed cases; that employs mathematical seeming terms, like ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ to describe the ‘valence’ of emotions, which really derive from the conjunction of old folk psychology of sympathetic magic and the romantic science of trances, animal magnetism, analogies and universal fluids current at the turn of the nineteenth century, which have proved to be truly useless for putting emotions into a natural kinds ordering. In the twentieth century, without a doubt, success has come most often from chemistry and neurology. We might not understand why the chemistry of the brain produces the effects it does, but we often set up pretty reliable correspondences between effects and chemistry. That this is not a deep explanation, a causal one, is not necessarily a disbarring thing – Newton, after all, explicitly warned his readers against thinking that he was providing an explanation of gravity, he was simply describing its laws. For an explanation, all he could do was refer us to God.

Well, poking through psychology has shown me how much we still live in a shaman ruled society, in which ritual words are taken for wonders. Otherwise, my problem on this front is still to come up with a good explanation of how psychology, in the period of the Great Transformation, succeeded in spreading new emotional customs.

A happier path has been opened up through the reading of novels, essays, diaries and the like. There is an objection to this method: these writings, it is said, reflect the elite culture. The self interpretations of the peasant farmer or a Parisian seamstress are simply not going to emerge in a text-based research project about the emotions. To put it another way: the writers give us a false totality.

Now, I’m not in agreement with the dippy post-Marxist historians who think we can safely junk the class concept. But the compulsion to fit the writers into a reflection metaphoric, to see them functioning solely as apologists for a given system of privileges of class, race, gender, etc., simply ignores the historic reality of how the intellectual system operated. There’s a certain social science dumbness about the intellectual imagination – about the trajectory of the the writer, philosophe, poet, diary writer, doctor, alchemist, etc in the class structured system, even in the early modern era. These people often fall in the intermediate group – in a group defined by transactions between different classes, ethnicities, and genders. While it is true that the high bourgeoisie and the aristocrats are well represented among the writers in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the interesting thing is how many of these writers don’t come from an elite background. And often, when they do, they come slightly damaged – like Samuel Johnson’s friend, Richard Savage. This intermediate group formed one of the channels between all groups – this flashes out best when in stories of scandal, as for instance in the famous ‘Affair of Poisons’, when various noblemen and women in Louis XIV’s court got caught up in a police dragnet that came in the wake of the Marquise de Brinvilliers trial – the Marquise was convicted of poisoning her father, her brothers, and assorted others who got in her way. The police records of the subsequent investigation, which have been exhaustively combed by social scientists, reveal extensive if limited literacy among artisans and working class Parisians. Literacy is perhaps too small a word – I mean, lifestyles that are inflected by reading. The third life (the life after that of sleeping and waking) was already present at the grassroots in 1680.

So I would defend the scope of the testimony of the imagination. Since it is part of my thesis that the changes wrought in the positional market by the transformation from a feudal to a mercantile/capitalist system globally impacted our emotional norms, I rather need that testimony to have scope.

If we grant a class structure in which the classes were not opaque one to another, then I think what we have, from the writer’s position, is this: three themes of resistance to the oncoming happiness culture can be spotted in the 19th century. There was the resistance of the pessimists, which located itself, at least by sympathy, in the aristocratic sphere, and wove the aristocratic ideology while the class itself was dying; there was the resistance from the revolutionary writers, who, again at least by sympathy, located themselves in the popular level; and there was the resistance on the margins of bourgeois life, even by those who were the great ideologists of liberalism, like Mill and Tocqueville. I think this latter form of resistance flows into psychoanalysis at the beginning of the 20th century.

I am still at the hunch level on another aspect of this project: the idea of the hedonic fallacy. The hedonic fallacy projects an affectual state onto a subject that can’t “feel” it - be it a social arrangement or material circumstances. If one of Pavlov’s dogs could speak, he would probably define a bell as a thing that salivates when it makes a certain noise. This projection is very much tied to the utilitarian justification for capitalism – although it is important to remember that utilitarianism of a kind also migrated into socialist thought, and has played a decisive role there, for instance in the productivist regime instituted by Stalin.

So this is where I stand so far. Any suggestions at this point would be helpful!

Meanwhile, Dr. Jeep plays on...

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 ...