Saturday, July 19, 2008

homo sominex

One of those facts that makes the drinking man doubt the observant side of the human animal is the strange lag in the discovery that every healthy male sports an erection about every 90 minutes during the sleep cycle. And for y’all ladies out there, well, the vagina goes through a 90 minute cycle as well, tied to REM sleep, of dilation and moistening. Put your hands in the air like you just don’t care! While there are cave paintings of sleeping men with erections and there’s an Egyptian tomb painting of the same fascinating subject, science with a capital S only stumbled onto it in 1944, when it was reported by German doctors. This is all according to Paul Martin’s book on Sleep. That scientists were so late to the game is depressing news – where were the giants of Natural Philosophy back in the 17th century? Martin, hating Freud, hastens to say that the erections and vaginal dilation aren’t sexual in nature. He also says he’d like to buy a bridge in Brooklyn, if any of his readers happen to own one.

That the Nazis were studying sleepers in 1944 seems to surprise Martin, but those of us who’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow realize that WWII was more than a war, it was the world we come from, it was the egg opening, it was the hatching of our common psychotic global humanity, a synergy of endorphins. Our erections were wagging as the bombs were dropping. So of course, humans were guinea pigged on all levels, for all purposes, because this is how control happens, honey. Now, let me strap you back into your cot...

However, I am starting up this subject to link to the review of a book, Insomniac, by Gayle Greene that I received and didn’t review. I feel guilty about that. But when I told my editor I wanted to review two books on sleep problems, he looked at me as if I were nuts. And when I told him Sleepers Civil Rights were the next big next big thing (I get carried away, I foam at the mouth, I start sounding like Maldoror off his meds!), he changed the topic. I obviously had briefly lost that contact with reality. The synaptic distance had lengthened.

Well, the sleepless are truly in a different world from the slugabeds, the ones without the wired brain tap tap tapping Nevermore at the vital center somewhere back there in the brain. I have always loved IT for owning up to the insomnia that keeps her up (If your tired unblinking head/rivet the dark with linear sight...) especially as insomnia is one of those things it is difficult to be in solidarity with – for what does insomnia do but make you cranky, and what makes you crankier than somebody bitching about insomnia? Which is why the sleepless do not form a class. Oh, they might compare remedies, but only to diss each other’s favorites. Sleepless anonymous would be a (waking) nightmare.

Myself, as middle age has crept upon, I’ve encountered the old restless legs/cramped muscles problem that so many have solved simply by putting a bullet in their heads. Actually, it is the cramps that is the worst. The pain scares me – I’ve never been a fan of pain. Especially when my foot will suddenly cramp up. It will happen and then, for nights afterwards, the ghost of that cramp will hover over my foot. I’ll stare at the ghost. The ghost will stare at me. It is a hard thing in life when a man is afraid of his own foot.

I’ve been advised that the best thing is calcium (hence, got some calcium horsepills) and phosphorus (hence, I’m eating ever more bananas). So the nightly routine is sleeping pill, aspirin (on principle) horsepill of calcium. Last week I ran out of sleeping pills, and insouciantly decided to show the world and my foot that I could do without. So for four days I knew four a.m. intimately. And I developed a new syndrome, which I am sure is related to kanashibari, except that instead of feeling a being sitting on my chest, I would get this ghostly feeling. The hairs would rise on my body, like I was scared. And I would feel scared, briefly. Perhaps it was the ghost of my sleep that was visiting me, but really, that’s double dipping and no fair. So I went back to the pills.

This is from D.T. Max’s review of Insomniac:

Insomniac is, along the way, an alarming, uncomfortable portrayal of how researchers in the field fail the sufferers they are supposed to treat. Desperate for funds, bent over by insurance companies, whiplashed by the National Institutes of Health, researchers do not treat insomnia as it is actually experienced. If you cannot cure me, Greene seems to be saying, at least hear me. Don’t tell me how insomnia ought to be, but let me tell you how it really is. “What is missing from everything I read about insomnia is—the insomniacs,” she writes. And earlier she confides, “No doctor I ever saw showed the slightest curiosity about the cocktail of hormones, estrogen, progesterone, thyroid, that I ingest daily.” “This is a somewhat cranky book,” she writes. Indeed it is.
And with reason, as Greene makes clear. Certainly insomnia came early to her and has stayed for a long time. Greene was born wide awake. “There is no sleep in that baby,” her mother wrote to her father in 1944, in a I’ve tried (nearly) everything anyone has ever told me worked for them,” she writes, “and it’s taken me some strange ways: lathering myself in sesame oil, brewing a Chinese herbal tea so foul that my dog fled the kitchen when it steeped, concocting a magnesium supplement that hissed and spat like something out of Harry Potter.” On the pharmaceutical front she’s been equally active, sampling “valerian, kava kava, chamomile, skullcap, passionflower, homeopathic concoctions, L-tryptophan, 5-HTP, GABA, melatonin, Elavil, Zoloft, trazodone, tricyclics.” Add to this the benzodiazepines, “Librium, Valium, Xanax, Dalmane, Klonopin, Restoril, Halcion, and more Ativan than I care to remember or probably can remember, since the drug erodes memory.” Throw in Ambien and Sonata, and “in the bad old days” sedatives such as Nembutal, Seconal, and Miltown. Plus the over-the-counter remedies: Sominex, Nytol, Sleep-Eze. Not to mention other treatments, including meditation, acupuncture, and biofeedback. And on and on, poor soul. Nothing ever quieted her chattering brain.”
Bad old days? What the fuck? Oh please, what I’d not do for a Seconal. I have my own theory about the chattering brain, which is that if you wire it to chatter, it won’t turn off. If I had learned not to read in bed, if I could avoid the computer screen, if I wasn’t continually scribble scribble scribble, if at some point these had been my choices, I believe I’d sleep like my brothers tell me they do. But I took the road less traveled by – because I’m a complete idiot. Although, in fact, I’m not as cranky as Gayle Greene, who has a much deeper condition than I do. The pills work for me. By two, usually, I’m out like a baby.

Friday, July 18, 2008

what hell, what terror!

In our archives, somewhere, are buried the remains of a large essay we were planning on writing about John Law once upon a time. My, how a decade flies when you are having fun!

Antoine Murphy (a wonderfully Beckett sounding name) is your man for all things Law-ful. In his book on Law, he grasps the very central point of what Law called the systéme. Law had seen that the national economies of his day were held back by specie money. Specie money, like gold or silver coin, is, as it were, a self-valueing asset. Its weight and metallic content are, ideally, equal to the value on its face. Thus, the man who carries a gold coin carries a coin literally worth its weight in gold. When a kingdom needed to debase its money, it did so by stinting on the weight and composition of its coinage. Swift’s wrath against the brummagen coinage issued by William Wood, under license from the crown, and with the blessing of the assayer of the mint, Isaac Newton, was directed at the drain of real value that would occur when gold coins at a false weight were exchanged for true. Asset money was always a constraint on a kingdom since it depended on there being in circulation enough gold and silver to allow for the consistent issuance of money. Law correctly saw that this system would forever restrain commerce. Thus, as Murphy explains, Law introduced credit money. The worth of credit money depends on its position in the whole financial system. It is worth nothing in itself except the promise it carries on its face. With credit money, as Murphy points out, an “array of new monetary products (liabilities) ... can be created [from the credit-money system] and the range of loan products (assets) that can be produced.” (108)

When the regent took power after the death of Louis XIV, he was staring at a kingdom that had long been bankrupted to pay for Louis’ wars and projects. Law, a gambler and an outlaw from England (where he’d escaped imprisonment for murder at Newgate), had long been proposing a credit-money scheme to various kingdoms, including Scotland. The Regent, desperate for any expedient to lift the monarchy from ruin, agreed at last to Law’s schemes. I won’t bother with the details of the stages by which Law moved from running a bank to running a monopoly on trade – the Compagnie de l’orient, popularly known as the Mississippi company – to finally running a bank combined with a trade and tax monopoly (the collection of taxes were farmed out in France) with royal backing. And indeed, pumping credit money into France got the country going again. Instead of edging up against the artificial constraint of too little specie money, a stream of credit money re-inflated France’s commerce and reinvigorated the agricultural sector. Law calculated that France could stand a total of 3 billion livres in coinage – a calculation he based on its potential for trade, and its comparative size against England, which was estimated to have 1 billion livres in circulation.

Finally, Law tied credit money to an asset – land. Land had the advantage of not being portable, for one thing – unlike gold. And for another thing, land was, Law thought, the basis of wealth. Having been ceded the land of the Mississippi, Law’s company divided it up – in a sense. That is, one could buy shares of it. And those shares could be exchanged for his bank’s billet, which were supported by the tax farms, which paid off the King’s debt, which had been paid by a loan from the bank.

There are two obvious problems: one is, how do we control the issuing of credit money? it seems like there is a built in incentive to create, as Montesquieu claimed, imaginary money – or at least it was easier to debauch credit money. And the second problem was asset money. People could refuse to exchange credit money and demand asset money. And this would automatically make credit money of less value.

In 1719 and 1720, the Mississippi company “boomed” – meaning that credit money circulated and shares in the Mississippi company rose spectacularly in value. The company’s brokerage house on Quincampoix street became a famous scene of a sort of continual avarice riot. All classes thronged it, trading, going broke, becoming rich. But it was a very fragile structure, a bubble, and at the first sign of trouble, when the shares went down, there was a flight to asset money that devalued the credit money. Law attributed this to the plague that struck Marseilles in 1720 – the same plague Artaud wrote about in Theater and its Double. Artaud wrote about the social structure liquifying in the face of the plague, which was true in one sense. But that liquification was an old fashioned chaos. What was really liquifying the social structure was credit money, and here, the plague created a very conservative reaction. Doctors wanted asset money. So did the butcher, the baker, and the candlestickmaker. Which is when Law persuaded the Regent (who, along with his friends, had become extremely wealthy via Law’s system) to issue a decree banning, in effect, specie money. This was the beginning of the end – the use of force shook confidence in Law, and his enemies used this decree to spread rumors about the true purpose of the system.

Law was forced from his position as France’s Controller General – the position that Colbert held – and had to flee France in a carriage loaned to him by Mme de Prie, a woman who valued her favors. This one was meant to get rid of Law with the least possible difficulty. Mme de Prie had made a mint in the bubble, and in time became Louis XV’s mistress, where she used her influence to keep Law from being recalled to France.

I wonder if, as the carriage crossed the French border, where Law was stripped of his passport and pocket change, whether one could hear, on the wind, the words: “mes gages, mes gages, mes gages.” Or was it something altogether more grandiloquent that ushers in the culture of happiness?

Chi l'anima mi lacera?
Chi m'agita le viscere?
Che strazio, ohimè, che smania!
Che inferno, che terror!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

virtuous gamblers, virtuous atheists

The case is plain, you must put on a Sword, Kill a Beau or two, get into Newgate, be condemned to be hanged, break Prison, IF YOU CAN – remember that by the way – get over to some Strange Country, turn Stock-Jobber, set up a Mississippi Stock, bubble a Nation, and you may soon be a great man; if you would have but great good luck, according to an old English Maxim:

Dare once to be a Rogue upon record
And you may quickly hope to be a Lord.
[Defoe 1869,

189 in: Daniel Defoe his Life and recently discovered writings, I]

“ that may be, I have not read anywhere, since the fable of King Midas, still less seen, that anyone has the talent for converting to gold all that he touches; I don’t believe, as well, that M. Law is endowed with this virtue, but I think all his knowledge is but a shrewd game, a new and skillful move in the shell game, which puts the goods of Pierr in the pocket of Jean, and only enriches the one from despoiling the other; that sooner or later this will stop, the game will be seen through, an infinite number of gentlemen will be ruined, and I foresee all the difficulty, even the impossibility, of restitutions of that gain, and even more, who to restore gains of that sort; that I abhorred the goods of others, and I wouldn’t charge myself with it, even equivocally.” – Saint-Simon, Journal xvii

When Montesquieu came to Venice in the summer of 1728, he was on a long fact finding tour through Europe. He was 38. He was a celebrity for the Persian Letters, which he’d written at thirty; one of those letters, 142, had attacked John Law’s “system,” pretty much following the same line of thought as Saint Simon. It must have been written at some point close to February 1720, when Law made one of the boldest move in European economic history by having a decree published which practically prohibited specie currency – that is, gold coins. About which, we will write in another post. Montesquieu was a virtuoso – a dabbler in natural history – as well as a philosopher. As he toured Europe, he kept notes not only on the people and the gossip he heard, but on the mines he toured, the factories he was ushered into. Coming into Venice, for instance, he noted the number of estimated whores, 10,000, as a pertinent economic fact, as much as he later noted famous mirror works. Whores and disgraced men who had fled their native lands were, in Montesquieu’s opinion, the key symbols of the Venice of his time: not the doge, not the lions of St. Mark. In Montesquieu’s account, Venice was definitely going through dog years. No one came to the carnivals anymore, or attended the opera, which once drew foreigners to the city – at least, according to Montesquieu. He paints a picture of a city in full decay – a place in which the cathedrals smelled of the fats of the corrupting corpses in the catafalques.

Of the disgraced men that Montesquieu came to see, one of them was John Law, born of “Aeolus, the god of the winds”, and a “Caledonian nymph”, and come to the gambler’s paradise to die, the only person he loved, his wife/mistress, left behind in France and making due as the mistress of a nobleman. Montesquieu notes that he interviewed Law on the 29 August, 1728, but he doesn’t say where. One thinks of a palazzo, rented of course, moldy, cluttered with old bric a brac, the household overseen by a sinister looking valet wearing a shabby fez. Obviously, Montesquieu was looking for the inside story to the mystery of how, exactly, the “system” had been put into operation. Montesquieu’s interview has been used ever since as a crib to the scandals surrounding the Bubble but, as Law’s biographer, Antoin E. Murphy, notes, Montesquieu didn’t seem to understand what Law was trying to tell him about the system. Instead, he noted a lot of figures – and Law’s figures were amazing, a million here, a billion there, which were almost demonic numbers in the Europe of the time – while Law’s deeper explanation of what he was trying to do seemed to go over our philosophe’s head. I was thinking that this meeting would make a nice contrast with Sganarelle and Dom Juan’s talk in the forest, but that’s a prettier idea than the historic reality it is built on.

So: what is the convergence here between Law’s system and Bayle’s society of atheists? It has to do with the difference between general belief and particular belief. The belief about the meaning of the cosmos – a belief that gives us a variety of Gods – was, you remember, discounted by Bayle as a factor in particular human behaviors. At the same time, Bayle was bothered by, and wrote against, superstition. Tolerance and the war against superstition go hand in hand – not only in Bayle, but in Locke, and in the Enlightenment tradition. Similarly, Law tried to institute a sort of economic atheism. This creed disbelieved in gold and silver. That is, disbelieved that gold was special. Briefly, Law got the unbelievable chance to enforce his beliefs on the primary nation in Europe. There are those who think France actually recovered from the lugubrious Louis XIV and his endless, bankrupting wars because of Law. But in the popular culture, Law’s system became a byword for a mass delusion.

Well, I’ll go from there when I have time.

"I drive a Rolls Royce
Cause it's good for my voice..."

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

the society of atheists

In terms of science, the comets of 1680 was perhaps the most important ever to appear in the skies. The orbit of it was illustrated in Newton’s Principia of 1687. It was made the object of extensive observation by Royal Society astronomers, like Halley. And it gave rise to various and sundry reports of supernatural phenomena, from hens laying comet shaped eggs to rumors that the world was ending. Sara Schechner’s description of the comets (from Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology) is still impressively scary:

“In early November of 1680, a comet appeared before sunrise and was sighted heading toward the sun until the end of the month. In mid-December, another comet appeared in the evening sky, heading away from the sun. Its tail was immense, growing to be over seventy degrees long.”

In Mexico city, there were rumors about the resurrection of the dead and processions. Sigüenza y Góngora, the great Mexican humanist and official Cosmographer to New Spain, wrote a book, The Philosophical Manifesto Against Comets, Stripped of their Dominion over the Fearful, to counter-act popular fears about the comet (and three hundred seventeen years later, my friend Miruna Achim wrote her Ph.D dissertation on Sigüenza – and, as she might point out, that Schechner’s book shows no awareness of Sigüenza whatsoever hints at the provincial Eurocentrism that bedevils the history of science).

Pierre Bayle also wrote about the comet. Bayle, like Sigüenza, is writing against superstition as much as he is writing in a scientific manner about celestial phenomena. Thus, Bayle’s Diverse Thoughts on the Comet is more of a philosophical than an astronomical treatise. In it, Bayle devoted a long section on the morals and behavior which might be found in a society of atheists and produced a “paradox” that proved to be important in the history of the liberal tradition. Bayle choses to combat the common idea that an atheist moves from disbelief in God to lewdness, drunkenness and murder. In fact, Bayle thinks it is a mistake to think that atheists would be more prone to murder one another, or less prone to pride themselves on their honor, than Christians. In fact, Bayle claims, the difference between a society of atheists and a society of Christians would be of the same type, with the same variations, as the difference between two societies of Christians. Local customs would make for some differences, but in both, the norms would be as we would expect: a moral code would be followed, as well as a code of honor. His Christian interlocutor might say, “ it is a strange thing that an atheist might live virtuously, he would be a monster who surpassed the forces of nature” – But Bayle points to two pieces of evidence that show that the Christian has misunderstood the atheist. First, there are ancient virtuous sages who were atheists, or, like Epicure, conceived that God did not interfere in the course of the world, while at the same time there are plenty of Christian criminals, of whom the courts are full to overflowing. And second Bayle claims, from the accounts of travelers, that there really are societies of atheists, for instance in Brazil, who were no worse than societies of Christians. In fact, a good deal better.

Why is this? Bayle has several answers. For instance, voluptuaries, who are considered great deniers of God, are misunderstood, according to Bayle. You don’t run after blonds and brunettes, get drunk as often as possible, and seek to kill time with every kind of debauch and at the same time concern yourself with knowing if Descartes were right or wrong in his metaphysical proofs of God. Similarly, the atheists Bayle knows are as lean as Crassius, and spend their time studying, all the better to refute the proofs of the divinity. Beyond this admittedly comic fact lies a more serious one: man does not regulate his conduct by his opinions.

“I conceive that it is a very strange thing that a man may live morally who believes neither in paradise nor hell. But I always return to the fact that man is a certain creature who, with all his reason, does not always act in consequence of his beliefs. Christians have furnished us enough proofs of this.”

Others have too. Stoics act unstoically when they are in pain. Turks, who have a famous belief in fatality, flee danger. “They use their lights and their prudence much as we do.” There are Christians who believe in predestination, and those who don’t: “But in spite of this difference, they govern themselves, one another, in the same fashion, as for what concerns morals. If they differ in some way, this derives from the genius of the nation, and not the genius of the sect.” [427]

The great explanation, however, lies in the nature of opinion itself. General opinions, according to Bayle, don’t determine behavior. It is particular opinion – and, in particular, self interest – that does.

Vico, in his New Science, notes shrewdly that Bayle has been mislead by his travelers’ tales: those Brazilian Indians, for instance, did have a religion. Vico claims, in fact, that religion is a universal characteristic of human societies, and thus tells us something about the social bond itself. Of course, Vico has turned out to be right, insofar as explorers and priests simply refused to recognize the rituals and narratives of the peoples they encountered as religious. Although that discovery has made it clear that the whole notion that religion depends on an act of belief, as it seems to do in Christianity, or to a lesser extent in Judaism, is not universal to all religions.

But as interesting, to me, is Bayle’s notion that an atheist belief system might even be better, insofar as it would be a general belief in nothing. Thus, the general belief, which Bayle thinks doesn’t have an effect on human behavior in particular, would be supplemented. For, in actuality, Bayle’s belief about the indifference of the general belief system is not completely descriptive. By the very fact that he is writing against superstition, one can conclude that it is Bayle’s logical conclusion that human beings should not be determined in their behaviors by their general beliefs. Unfortunately, in reality, they seem to be.

This is, once again, one of those universals to be in which the seventeenth century is so rich. I think, however, Bayle’s idea is not only important in as much as it makes the case for tolerance of a sort, but also for advancing a notion of human beings as being both individual and vacant – except insofar as particular motives move them – which plays an important role in theorizing the capitalist market.

More about that later.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

nostalgia to karma - scattered notes

Nostalgia, that longing for a past that longing has created, is a trap that is hidden in the path of that philosophical critic – like LI – upon whom the contemporary lies like a nightmare on the brain of the living. A revenant, in fact. For such a critic, this nightmarish condition is recognized, justly, as the result of multiple framing conditions constructed over the course of the past. The contemporary is a synthesis, and it is the critic’s job to dissolve it into it composite parts, each the result of decision after decision, systematic shifts in production and attitude, a social psychology that represses its lost opportunities, and even individuals, singularities, karma. And once the critic has done his job, he thinks he’s found the key, the story, the narrative. But, in fact, he’s still entangled in the synthesis he has supposedly dissolve, he’s still unconsciously seeing the contemporary as the destination to which the past tends. Which is how it becomes easy to slip into the language of heroes versus villains. And, if the critic is a dreamer, as LI is, he approaches his task with the sigh, “if only,” on his lips. “If only” is the prologue to the utopian dream.

So it goes with the strange story I am putting together, that story of the happiness of the people, the happiness of the individual, the happiness of the system. In Milan, in 1796, the occupation government set up by Napoleon’s soldiers launched a contest for the best essay on the topic, “which form of free government is most conducive to the happiness of Italy?” I can see that this is a beautiful question. The beauty of it is buried, of course, under centuries of trivializing the terms, but – it is definitely a beautiful question.

... I’ve been following the adventurer because it is under the form of adventure that an individual could range the positional social structure in the early modern period. And because, unlike the artist or the politician, other creations of the early modern period, the adventurer never ceased to be a character type and only a character type. It never became a vocation. However, as a character type, it loaned itself to both artist and politician.

And at certain extraordinary moments, the adventurer became universal. In a sense, that is what a revolution is: the interval in which everyone, whether they want to be or not, is an adventurer.


I came across a wonderful description of a Neapolitan poet, Eleonora Fonseca Pimental, who supported the French when the French army took Naples and proclaimed a Republic in 1799. The French were extremely unpopular with the peasants, the aristocracy, and the lazzaroni. Pimental was aware of this, but believed that education was the answer – the people must be enlightened. Unfortunately for her, the counter-revolution, led by priests, retook Naples for the King. It was a bloodbath for the Jacobins and Republicans. According to Christopher Duggan’s history of Italy, The Force of Destiny, many of the intellectuals, the radicals, were rounded up and hung or decapitated. About Pimental he writes: She went to the scaffold on 20 August, her brown skirt tucked modestly around her legs, and uttering the words of Virgil: Forsam et haec olim meminisse juvabit – “Perhaps one day even these things will bring pleasure.” Oblivious to such erudition, the crowd cheered loudly as she hanged.” (23)

Karma is a royal family. Pimental was hung due largely to the actions of the King Ferdinand’s Queen, Caroline. Queen Caroline had, at one time, been a patron of culture, and of all things French, at the Court, to display opposition to her enemy, the King of Spain. Everything changed, changed utterly for her on October 16, 1793. That was the date of the death of her sister. Queen Caroline’s sister was a woman named Marie Antoinette.

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...