Saturday, October 25, 2008

Social Darwinist Rats Leave Ship - Dog bits Man

We have probably expressed the opinion in the past – LI is nothing if not copiously opinionated – that James Buchan is the best writer on money who we have ever read. Not the best theorist, mind – he doesn’t try to compete in the heavy lifting department - but the best essayist. We missed his review of Neill Ferguson’s new book in praise of lucre, when it came out last week. That was a mistake.

Now, the truth is we have a sneaking liking for Ferguson, bloody imperialist and Thatcherite that he is. His history of the British Empire, which makes a stout attempt to defend that worldwide pillage on the premise that it was made on behalf of civilization – with the pillagers blindly creating a better world as they thought they were creating their own fortunes - makes the best case for colonialism that can currently be made. In the end, of course, it suffers from that foundational problem which Jesus, a carpenter and thus eminently familiar with construction specs, once pointed: a house built on sand cannot stand. Similarly, while the benefit to the UK of destroying the Indian textile industry, dispossessing the Amerindian nations, selling massive amounts of opium to the Chinese, exporting 6 million Africans into slavery and all the rest of it might be argued for, it is difficult to see why three cheers should emanate from the victims. Victims are stubborn like that.

Buchan notices that Ferguson’s new book, The Ascent of Money, is not very good until it reaches the nineteenth century… ah, but such a swift summary makes a sober porridge of Buchan’s acerbic prose, which has to be quoted for itself:

“Ferguson's reputation is so high that if he were a stock one would short him. The very title of his book, The Ascent of Money, is a screaming sell signal, like the shoe-shine boys trading stock tips at the door to Grand Central Station in New York in 1929. In fairness, Ferguson recognises that and his pages are hot with proof-stage tyre-marks, as he goes into violent reverse to escape from under collapsing arguments. None the less, his book is very readable indeed and the television series for which it is a sort of trailer, will, I am sure, be even better.

Ferguson believes money was invented to record and discharge debts, and he passes rather quickly on to the rise of banking in the Middle Ages, the issue by governments of annuities and other bonds, the origins of insurance and the establishment of joint-stock companies. As with all economist-historians, Ferguson's soul is at war with itself. History tells him there is such a thing as history. Economics tells him there is none, for everything is always and ever subject to unvarying laws (which just happened not to be discovered till the other day).

The result is that the book is not very interesting until it approaches our times. No philologer, Ferguson assumes pecunia means money in the sense that money means money. His account of the rococo Scottish financier John Law and his Banque Royale of 1719-20, based on no source older than 1969 and none in French, shows absolutely no feeling whatever for the character of his great countryman or the manners and laws of the French regency.

Yet Ferguson really understands the Rothschilds, and the 19th century in general, and he writes a long and marvellous chapter on the growth of house ownership as a civic right and the rise of mortgage finance. It was the depression itself that created the home-owning ideology and the credit institutions to pay for it, such as the Federal National Mortgage Association or Fanny Mae (which has just had to be rescued).”

As Buchan drily notes, Ferguson, in one of those sentences in which (as often happens with him) the historian is ambushed by the pundit, assures the reader that : "The only species that is now close to extinction in the developed world is the state-owned bank." This, of course, is “the precise reverse of observable reality.”

Which, of course, is where Ferguson ends up, much of the time. In a funny, violent tyre reversing in today's Guardian interview with him, he has just backed out of his support for the invasion of Iraq. And even gives the heave ho to John McCain, who he was advising this spring. However, since Ferguson believes ardently in the Social Darwinist gospel of the struggle for existence, it is perhaps not unexpected that he'd put a knife today in the positions he espoused yesterday. He is not going down, if he can help it, on anybody's ship.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Irrevocability: hope of mankind (Nemesis again)

LI has been considering Chamfort in the light of Herder’s Nemesis not simply because Chamfort is another late Enlightenment writer, but because both Herder and Chamfort would seem, by their intellectual silhouettes, to be the kind who would go easily into the anti-revolutionary column. Herder with his doubts about the enlightenment “man”; Chamfort with his ferocious pessimism.

Yet neither were reactionaries. Herder never renounced the revolution, but retired from all comment upon it after the Terror. And Chamfort…

Well, Chamfort threw himself, body and soul, into the revolution. He impoverished himself, he wrote speeches for Mirabeau and Tallyrand, he, it is said, suggested the title for Sieyes critical pamphlet (Qu' est-ce que le Tiers-Etat? Tout. Qu'a-t-il? Rien) which neatly summarizes what, actually, all modern political revolutions are about – the struggle between what is really All – the working class – and its false political position – what does it have? Nothing.

A title that is echoed in one of Chamfort’s maxims:

“Me, all; the rest, none: thus it is with despotism, aristocracy, and their partisans. Me, this is an other; an other, this is me: thus it is with the popular regime and its partisans. After this, decide yourself.”

That Chamfort the pessimist, Chamfort the executioner of the Enlightenment smile of reason, was also Chamfort the revolutionary, Chamfort the anti-monarchist, this became the paradox that stuck in the throats of the reactionary writers in the 19th century, up to and including Nietzsche. They took comfort in the lineaments of a monstrous Chamfort conjured up by his sotie, his double, the charming salon reactionary Antoine de Rivarol, who, before the revolution, ran in the same circles as Chamfort, wrote for the same journals, cultivated the same leisurely cynicism. Afterwards, in exile, he became Chamfort’s most bitter critic, and it is from his pen that flowed the rumors and scandals about Chamfort that created his reputation in the 19th century as a sell out of the philosophes, a nihilists, a revanchist who, not content with the epigram, picked up the guillotine at the first opportunity. But Rivarol was not the only one of Chamfort's companions to be shocked: Chamfort seemed to especially burn the anti-revolutionary crowd, who saw in him one of themselves. He was the philosophe who went ultra. Into the bushes. Unlike Tallyrand, whose motives seemed transparent – greed – Chamfort seemed to have reached his conclusions coherently; he seemed to have thought they unfolded from his dethronement of God and his corrosive view of man. There was, in the reactionary view, a pit even under cynicism, and Chamfort was its guardian devil. Thus, among the conspiracy minded among them (and the exiles from the French revolution were massively inclined to theories of conspiracy – De Quincey rightly compared their visions to that of an opium smokers) Chamfort must be accounted for as a kind of intellectual criminal master mind. After all, it was Chamfort who came up with the slogan that smelled of blood and jacquerie: War on the castles! Peace to the huts! (Guerre aux chateaux! Paix aux chaumieres!) under which, in effect, the countryside of France seemed to be reorganized. In 1810, Marmontel, an old litterateur, publishes his memoirs and includes an anecdote about Chamfort – long dead, of course, by 1810, another victim of the Terror. I’ll quote from Pellison’s biography:

‘The passage is curious – we have to cite it. When Marmontel objected to Chamfort’s reform projects, [saying] that the better part of the nation will not let any attack be carried through on the laws of the country and the fundamental principles of monarchy, he (Chamfort) agreed that, in its foyes, in its counting houses, in its workshops, a good part of the stay at hom citizens would find perhaps that the projects bold enough to trouble their repose and their enjoyments. But, if they disapprove, that will not, he said, be but timidly and quietly, and one has in had to impose upon them that determined class which has nothing to lose in the change and believes it sees much to gain. In order to organize them into a mob, one has the most powerful motives, famine, hunger, money, alarms and terrors, and the delirium to blaze a path and the rage by which one will strike upon all minds. You have not heard among the bourgeois but the eloquent speakers. Know that all your tribune orators are nothing in comparison with Demosthenes at a quid per head who, in the cabarets, in the public places, on the quais announce the ravages, the arsons, the sacked villages, flooded with blood, the plots to starve Paris. I call those gentlement the eloquent ones. Money principally and the hope of pillage are omnipotent among the people. We are going to make a test of Faubourg Saint-Antoine. And you won’t believe how little it costs the Duc D’Orleans [The rival of King Louis XVI] to have the manufactury of honest Reveillon sacked, which was the living of one hundred families. Mirabeau has gaily upheld the idea that with a thousand Louis D’or one can create quite a pretty insurrection.”

Thus spake Chamfort, the Goldfinger of his time. Evil keeps a book, and ticks off in it just what he will do: destroy the living of a hundred innocents, spread rumors, dethrone culture. Did Chamfort really put the fear of God into Marmontel? The conversation is recorded years after one of the major participants committed a very bloody suicide, so we don’t know what Chamfort did. We don’t know whether this was mockery. The note about the Duc D’Orleans sounds, at least, significantly false, the sort of crackpot notion that all the reactionaries loved. But the more fundamental falsity at the bottom of this is Marmontel's sense that Chamfort is betraying a pact. The pact, unspoken, unwritten, was that those who “came from the people”, the intellectuals, and adhered to the aristocracy even while savaging the superstitions that held back the nation, could never go back to the people. Hence, the place of the Duc D'Orleans -surely Chamfort must be operating on behalf of some powerful figure. The reactionaries had a hard time accepting that a revolution is not a fronde. As Chamfort wrote:

“All who emerge from the class of the people are armed against it to oppress it, from the militia man, the mercant become the secretary to the king, the preacher who comes from a village to preach submission to arbitrary authority, the historian son of a bourgeois, etc. These are Cadmus’ soldiers: the first armed turn against their brother and jump on them.”

Chamfort is one of Cadmus’s soldiers who, to the surprise of all, turns not against his brothers, but strikes at Cadmus the King. There was a part of him that did accept the bitterest consequences of the revolution:

“In the moment that God created the world, the movement of chaos must have made one find the chaos more disorganized than when he rested in the midst of it in its peaceful state. Likewise, among us, the the embarrasment of a society reorganizing itself having to appear as an excess of disorder.”

This is what makes Chamfort stand apart – his notion of the irrevocable is not a nostalgia for what is lost, not a view of the present as an obstacle in our way, but expresses instead the hope that the irrevocable will bury the past, expressed in a language that brings the revolution and Genesis together.


“And now, being received as a member of the amiable family whose portraits we have sketched in the foregoing pages, it became naturally Rebecca's duty to make herself, as she said, agreeable to her benefactors, and to gain their confidence to the utmost of her power. Who can but admire this quality of gratitude in an unprotected orphan; and, if there entered some degree of selfishness into her calculations, who can say but that her prudence was perfectly justifiable? "I am alone in the world," said the friendless girl. "I have nothing to look for but what my own labour can bring me; and while that little pink-faced chit Amelia, with not half my sense, has ten thousand pounds and an establishment secure, poor Rebecca (and my figure is far better than hers) has only herself and her own wits to trust to. Well, let us see if my wits cannot provide me with an honourable maintenance, and if some day or the other I cannot show Miss Amelia my real superiority over her. Not that I dislike poor Amelia: who can dislike such a harmless, good-natured creature?--only it will be a fine day when I can take my place above her in the world, as why, indeed, should I not?" Thus it was that our little romantic friend formed visions of the future for herself.”

LI does not find it shocking that Sarah Palin’s handlers bought her a campaign wardrobe worth $150,000.
Becky Sharp was aware from the moment she set foot in Vanity Fair, or rather, in the household of old Pitt Crawley, that the rules were made for her, here. She began under several disadvantages, and if they had had it back in 1812, she would have come in second in the Miss Alaska contest, too. But Becky knew she had a good figure and the wits to know who to please, who to tease and who to crush.

“With Mr. Crawley Miss Sharp was respectful and obedient. She used to consult him on passages of French which she could not understand, though her mother was a Frenchwoman, and which he would construe to her satisfaction: and, besides giving her his aid in profane literature, he was kind enough to select for her books of a more serious tendency, and address to her much of his conversation. She admired, beyond measure, his speech at the Quashimaboo-Aid Society; took an interest in his pamphlet on malt: was often affected, even to tears, by his discourses of an evening, and would say--"Oh, thank you, sir," with a sigh, and a look up to heaven, that made him occasionally condescend to shake hands with her.”

The newspapers and Slate are just fascinated with the wardrobe. For one thing, it gives newspaper people a chance to play the the bluntnosed working journalist, Walter Matthau in the Front Page, as though they were down to a few undershirts in the apartments they rent - so of the people! So we have Marc Fisher of the WAPO writing:

“I've never been to any of the stores listed in Sarah Palin's shopping spree, so the idea that it's possible to spend $5,000 on a dress, $75,000 at Neiman Marcus and $4,716 on hair and makeup is kind of mind-boggling, especially by someone who who portrays herself as being "just like you." But I'm also startled to read about the $1,500 that Barack Obama spent on a suit and the $528 that John McCain spent on his Ferragamo shoes. I don't expect these folks to shop at Payless, but these extravagances are so far at the other end of the scale as to represent nothing but disdain for the people they claim to understand and represent.”

The idea that Marc Fisher has never been to Neiman Marcus is something I find equally as mindboggling. Or Saks. Has the guy been to NYC? Underneath that astonishment that you can spend $5,000 on a dress, we spy Tartuffe, in the aw shucks, captain American mode.

Becky’s foothold in Vanity Fair comes from a vain old man. Becky knows how to follow a rule with vain old men: feed the amour-propre.

Instead of Marc Fisher, we’d urge LI readers to turn to Roland Barthes. In an article in Annales, vol. 12, 1957, Barthes sketched out a theory of the system of clothing that later served as the basis for his book on the fashion system. We’ve been interested in fashion since having worked, this summer, copyediting captions for the Autumn fashion issue of Texas Monthly. That was merely sticking our petit orteil into the vast ocean of la mode, so to speak, but we are not immune to the frisson of retifism, the poetry of the silhouette, and the scented non-sense of the barkers of hip. We understand the divide here: for fashion is all about a certain aura in which the dollar operates as paraphilia, while to those outside the aura, the dollar is, depressingly, only a dollar, a cipher that accumulates to create another cipher.

Barthes’ idea was that he could use the classic Saussurian pattern – parole, or speech act, vs. langage, or the language system – to analyse clothing choice, or habillement, vs. fashion, or coutume.

“The oppositiong costume/habillement can besides only serve the sociological point of view: in strongly characterizing costume as an institution and in spearated that institution from the concrete and individual acts by which, so to speak, it is realized, we are lead to research and to disengage the social components of costume: age groups, sex, class, degree of culture, locales, as much as clothing remains an empirical fact, essentially submitted to a phenomenological approach: the degree of disorder or dirtiness of a vestment being worn, for example, is a fact of clothing, and has not sociological value, save if the disorder and the dirtiness function as intentional signs … and inversely, a fact which takes up apparently less space, like the differential mark of the vestment of married women and young girls in such and such a socity, is a fact of costume: it has a strong social value.

The fact of clothing is constitued by the personal mode that the wearer adopts (or badly adopts)…
The fact of costume is the proper object of sociological or historical research…

Facts of costume and facts of clothing can seem sometimes to coincide, but it isn’t difficult in each case to re-establish the distinction. The squareness of the shoulders, for example, is a fact of clothing when it corresponds exactly to the anatomy of the wearer, but it is a fact of costume when its dimension is prescribed by the group in the name of facsion. It is evident that there is, between clothing and costume, an incessant movement, a dialectical exchange that one could define a propos langue and parole as a true praxis.”

“Your India muslin and your pink silk, dearest Amelia, are said to become me very well. They are a good deal worn now; but, you know, we poor girls can't afford des fraiches toilettes. Happy, happy you! who have but to drive to St. James's Street, and a dear mother who will give you any thing you ask. Farewell, dearest girl,
Your affectionate Rebecca.

P.S.--I wish you could have seen the faces of the Miss Blackbrooks (Admiral Blackbrook's daughters, my dear), fine young ladies, with dresses from London, when Captain Rawdon selected poor me for a partner!”

Taking Barthes division as a starting point, we can immediately see that the 150,000 dollars is a hotpoint because it crosses the wires, so to speak – habillement, which is “proper” to the hockey mom, is crossed with coutume, which costs a bundle and comes from the female mysteries that are beyond Marc Jacob’s ken. To LI, though, the comedy here begins with the notion that the hocky mom is only clothed in clothes. There is a comic soundtrack, made no doubt by a flute, playing whenever Sarah Palin is around – clothing and costume gets all confused. For, before ideology or party, Palin stands for becoming suddenly famous – for celebrity in its purest state is sudden. It is in this way that I understand her frequent lapses into incoherence – they don’t denote a mind that doesn’t think, but one that is thinking all the time of being famous. And there is nothing more trivial, to celebrity, than meaning.

“And so--guiltless very likely--she was writhing and pushing onward towards what they call "a position in society," and the servants were pointing at her as lost and ruined. So you see Molly, the housemaid, of a morning, watching a spider in the doorpost lay his thread and laboriously crawl up it, until, tired of the sport, she raises her broom and sweeps away the thread and the artificer.”

It is not so much Sarah Palin who is the comedian here, but the “C” level press corps, writing the script. Sarah Palin didn’t direct the buying of the clothes, any more than Cate Blanchett would supervise the design of clothing for some movie she was starring in. In Palin’s case, the movie was high concept. It was hockey mom. Nobody, of course, knows what that means. That is the genius of it. Like Dog Detective. Like any mutt that results from crossing one film with another – Gone with the Wind meeting the Exorcist, perhaps. Of all the money the McCain campaign has wasted, they got good value, at least, for the Palin costume. She wears them well – the reds! The boots! To which she has contributed the signature glasses.
So, Sarah Palin has been cast to play Sarah Palin in the role of a hockey mom, with clothes from Nieman Marcus. If only this were all the movie. But, like many a high concept production, the film has only one gimmick to milk over and over again. The gimmick overshadows logic, motivation, and sense. Logic crumbles before FX, but the FX look used, second hand. The McCain campaign movie is a straight to video product. What I wonder is: what Palin will get out of it. I’m bettin’ on her.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Election thoughts

I have quoted this passage from Merezhovsky on Gogol before – but the current election season makes this seem all too relevant:

“Everyone can perceive evil in great violations of the moral law, in rare and unusual misdeeds, in the staggering climaxes of tragedies. Gogl was the first to detect invisible evil, most terrible and enduring, not in tragegy, but in the absence of everything tragic; not in power, but in impotence; not in insane extremes, but in all-too-sensible moderation; not in acuity and profundity, but in inanity and planarity, in the banality of all human feelings and thoughts; not in the gratest things, but in the smallest.” –58

This, of course, describes the American election year to a t.

When, in the holy years of democracy, the revolutionary period from 1776-1793, the election in its modern form was created, the inventors had high hopes. The election was to be the poetry of the people, the highest expression of their choice. And what was their choice? Their choice was to be of their rulers, who would be chosen not as choice was made among court factions – where bribery, family blood lines, and charisma held sway, and the choice was made by the sovereign – but rather, as the will of the people would dictate.

The people’s will is foe to the reactionary and the conservative – who took a long time to understand that the election, far from being the beast unleashed, operated institutionally to skew the popular will righwards. That is, to skew the popular will to the most banal choice. Elections, it turned out, would not be about “ideas” or policies, but about what was and was not out of bounds. What was taboo, or what could be made taboo. The all-too-sensible moderation of the pundits and the devil would preside as the judge of all that was electable. And woe betide the candidate who did not make the first move, which consists of being scandalized by his or her opponent. Rival scandals are what is at issue. And other issues are drowned, or given the once over by an establishment which lives off of denying tragedy – all the unconscious buffoons of the platitudinous.

LI early this spring scoped out this election. What was obvious by March was that the economy was going to fall on its face in the fall – although even LI, ever the dupe of street corner apocalypses, didn’t imagine the zona would blow so hard. This counted out the GOP candidate – or at least made his victory unlikely. Of the Democratic candidates, it was obvious that Hilary Clinton would benefit most from a bleak economy. Since Hilary Clinton has been a consistent warmonger, this was not good news for LI. Luckily, Barak Obama ran a genius campaign – we live close enough to his upset of Clinton not to fully appreciate it. And, LI thought, Obama is essentially a peacemaker. It is how he rose, it is who he is. He would garner fewer votes than Hilary, but he would win.

Well, we still think that Obama is a campaign genius, and we still think he will win, but the election has been disheartening.

Our issue, more than anything else, has been peace. Fuck the idea that middle class Americans are running up against their credit card limits – we are much more interested in the idea that the U.S. won’t be pimping mass murder in Iraq. And, earlier this year, when Obama went to Afghanistan and Iraq, we thought he got it. He got, that is, that the Dems can no longer allow the Republicans to own our foreign policy.

For a long time, the Democratic strategy has been to play possum on foreign policy. A craven me-too-ism, with some progressive dressikng thrown in, has been at the center of Democratic foreign policy views. The D.C.-centric, Truman-esque wing of the party, which has no support among the grassroots, but a powerful army of pundit platitudinists, is the very pivot of foreign policy thinking. The platitudinists, with their usual inability to distinguish cause and effect, moan that the American people distrust the Dems because they are too soft. Of course, the root of the distrust of the Dems on foreign policy is the Vietnam war, which Johnson conducted partly because he didn’t want the Republicans to think he was soft.

Myself, I thought, in spring, that Obama was tempted, oh so tempted, to lay down a few truths. This was when he visited Iraq and Afghanistan. This was when his timetable was accepted by Maliki and swallowed, with grumbling, by the Bush administration.

The truths, of course, are outside the bounds of the sayable. For instance, one of the truths is that the U.S. has been far from the central actor in its own occupation of Iraq. Rather, in the first stage of the war, the Saudis made their move, financing the Sunni insurgency and supplying the bulk of the foreign jihadis. What were the Saudis fighting against? It was a step in the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia – just as Pakistan’s nuclear capacity was a step in the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with the Saudi’s paying for the nuclear weapon research. During the second stage of the fight, what the Saudi’s were fighting against came to pass: the hardline Iranian Shi’ite party came to power. The Da’wa party, which has come out on top of the coalition, was forged under Khomeini, and made its mark as Hezbollah’s consistent ally – Hezbollah even conducted a kidnapping campaign in Beirut in the eighties with the goal of freeing the Da’wa thirty, captured in Kuwait. It was on account of that kidnapping campaign that the Reagan administration opened a surreptitious channel to Iran.

These facts are as plain as day to anybody who actually lives in the Middle East, and are the most remote exotica to Americans, who have been systematically buffered from reality by the platitudinarians – although this might well give that later group too much credit for rationality. In truth, the D.C. centered elites really do think they are running the world.

Now, a foreign policy that is in complete disconnect from reality is much like a neurosis – it needs a talking cure. And I thought Obama was just the doctor to deliver one. But no – he calculated, evidently, that this would cost him too much, and entangle him with the cherished delusions of the elite. Instead, Obama has brilliantly campaigned on being scandalized – he has turned a campaign that McCain hoped would concentrate on Obama’s various transgressions into a campaign about the campaign. Liberals are all in an uproar about McCain’s rallies, and Palin’s rhetoric. In other words, this is another election about nothing. Or, rather, an election about inanity and planarity. The devil has won the round.

Nevertheless, we are going to vote tomorrow for Obama. And we are happy to do so.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

the executioner's melancholy

“… writing, on the contrary, is always rooted in a beyond of language, it develops like a seed and not like a line, it manifests an essence and threatens with a secret, it is a counter-communication, it intimidates. We will find in all writing the ambiguity of an object which is at the same time language and coercitation: there is, at the bottom of writing, a “circumstance” that is foreign to language, there is something like the glance of an intention that is already no longer that of langauge. This glance can very well be a passion for language, as in literary writing; it can also be the threat of a penality, as in political writing: writing is then charged to join in a single dash the reality of acts and the ideality of ends.” – Barthes, The Degree Zero of Writing

(…l'écriture, au contraire, est toujours enracinée dans un au-delà du langage, elle se développe comme un germe et non comme une ligne, elle manifeste une essence et menace d'un secret, elle est une contre-communication, elle intimide. On trouvera donc dans toute écriture l'ambiguïté d'un objet qui est à la fois langage et coercition : il y a, au fond de l'écriture, une « circonstance » étrangère au langage, il y a comme le regard d'une intention qui n'est déjà plus celle du langage. Ce regard peut très bien être une passion du langage, comme dans l'écriture littéraire; il peut être aussi la menace d'une pénalité, comme dans les écritures politiques : l'écriture est alors chargée de joindre d'un seul trait la réalité des actes et l'idéalité des fins)

The common approach to Chamfort’s ‘maxims’ and “anecdotes” has been to consider them as a philosophy – and to eventually dismiss them as a philosophy. Pellison, his nineteenth century biographer, remarks on the similarity of temperaments that seems to exist between Chamfort and Schopenhauer. But Chamfort was, Pellison concedes, not a systematic thinker.

The notion that a philosopher must work within a ‘system’, which figured largely in the 19th century, still has an influence on the definition of philosophy – in fact, the teaching of philosophy often comes down to a puppetshow of conflicting systems – if you claim x, you are a critical realist, and if you claim y, you are a nominalist. Etc.

Barthes was concerned with another system – the system of ecriture. This has a lot more relevance to Chamfort. Chamfort wrote his “Products” out of a reaction to, a consciousness of, the writerly function. That function – which, as with all middleman positions, has an unearthly relation to the basic one of pandering – is both under attack in the Maxims – from the beginning, the very idea of the maxim is ridiculed as the idea of a mediocre mind – and, inevitably, chosen as Chamfort’s instrument. What other instrument is there? But the notion of maxim, of a rule, if only a rule of thumb in the Repulic of Thumbs, puts us on the track of Chamfort’s sense that his writing was political. It is to this that the reflection tends; political scandal is the whole point of the anecdotes he carefully amassed. When his listeners at Mme Helvetius came away from his conversation with the sad sense of being present at an execution, it was no accident.

So, what was this politics?

Because Chamfort was intentionally freeing up his writing from the literary – and thus the systematic – it is easy to quote him, but hard to point to one passage or another that would provide the key to him. It is this very freedom that “intimidates”, to use Barthes term. But to threaten politically implies an order that can be violated, a standard from which one can judge. And there are many passages from the Maxims that hint at this order – that, as it were, give us the mythic foundation for the series of sacrifices, of executions, that space themselves in both the Maxims and the Anecdotes.

This passage from the first section of the Maxims, for instance.

‘I have often noticed in my reading that the first movement of those who have performed some heroic action, who have surrendered to some generous impression, who have saved the unfortunate, run some great risk and procured some great advantage – be it for the public or for some particulars – I have, I say, noted that the first movement has been to refuse the compensation one offered them. This sentiment is discovered in the heart of the most vile men and the last class of people. What is this moral instinct that teaches men without education that the compensation for these actions is in the heart of he who has done them? It seems that in paying ourselves for them, they have taken this from us. [Il semble qu’en nous les payant on nous les ote]” OC 1812, 2:28

The insistence of the writen, here, is caught in that repetition of “I have often remarked” – its way of pointing to the superfluity of the oral, the way, in the economy of speaking, repetition serves to organize a series that is continually disappearing, going beyond the attention of the listener, which is strictly not needed in writing (for after all, the reader has merely to glance back) and that appears there nevertheless to ‘glance beyond’ the written object, to connote the theater of conversation. But the major economic instance, here, is of course the gift – or the sacrifice. The gift – the heroic act, the generous impulse - initiates an internal circuit in which the outward gift (the true gift) is compensated by an inward gift (which is marked, already, as a compensation). But it is a circuit that is taken from us when we impose upon it another economy – that of payment.

This is, of course, a very Rousseau-like stance. However, it joins Rousseau to a moralist theme – of self satisfaction. Or at least of self compensation. As in Rousseau, nature is identified with a primary process – with spontaneity. The secondary process is that of payment. Chamfort does not, here, reflect on the connecting link of compensation – that there must be compensation of some kind is assumed.

The executioner’s melancholy arises from the perception that the rupture between the regimes of compensation has corrupted us in such a way that there is no going back. It is an irrevocable movement.

“Society is not, as is commonly believed, the development of nature, but rather its decomposition and entire remaking. It is a second edifice, built with the ruins of the first. We rediscover the debris with a pleasure mixed with surprise. It is this which occasions the naïve expression of a natural sentiment which escapes in society. It even happens that it pleases more, if the person from whom it escapes is a rank more elevated, that is to say, farther from nature. It charms in a king, because a king is in the opposed extremity. It is a fragment of ancient doric or corinthian architecture in a crude and modern edifice.”

Scrounger’s Ball day 2


LI got a few contributions yesterday, but we are far from our goal. This is our week to pick the pockets of our readers: please contribute via the paypal button!

Monday, October 20, 2008


Chamfort was not his real last name. In fact, it is still not certain whether his name was really Sébastien-Roch Nicolas, son of a Clermont grocer, or whether he was the bastard child of a Clermont canon. Sébastien-Roch-Nicolas Chamfort, like many another Enlightenment demi-sage, came up through the ranks from a seemingly engulfing provincial obscurity by inventing himself in a different milieu.

His success as a writer falls in the period of the 1770s. He earned money from a hit play; he wrote for enlightened journals; he found an aristocratic patron. And he enjoyed eating, drinking, talking and fucking. He mingled with some of the big names, wrote a catty little verse about Candide, received a letter of praise from Rousseau. His life, although he didn’t know it then, was falling into a pattern of anecdotes. For instance, on the subject of making love, his biographer Pellison recounts that a woman told him, once, “this curious thing. I don’t love smart men in love – they are watching themselves parade on by.” [impossible to capture the phrase, ils se regardent passer- ‘they are people watching themselves’ might be a better translation]. A remark that sticks with Chamfort, and that he records, later.

He was a good looking young man. Another biographer, Arnaud, records that he was the lover of an actress, Mlle. Guimard, “famous for the perfection of her bosom and who did her makeup each day before the portrait that Fragonard had painted of her.” [xiii]

But already, at twenty five, Chamfort’s life had changed much for the worse. Famously. As Remy Gormount wrote: “Chamfort’s secret, why use periphrases that don’t trick anybody, is in the syphilis that tormented him for a period of thirty years, during the time first of his greatest genital activity, and the second, and then in the third, the more discrete but more conscientious and refined period.” His looks fell away. He recovered, but with a disfigured face. Much like Mirabeau – to whom he has a strange, doppelganger relationship – Chamfort had experienced the down side of the libertine moeurs in his body, and he didn’t like it. An anecdote – how they trail our man, how they dog him like devils – from Abbé Morellet, a habitue of the Madam Helvetius’ salon, where Chamfort was a faithful attendee:

“I saw him, he said, in the society of Saurin and Mme Helvetius… this happened to me twenty times at Auteuil that, after having heard him for two hours in the morning recounting anecdote after anecdote and making epigram after epigram with an inexhaustible talent, I would leave with my soul as saddened as if I was leaving the spectacle of an execution. And Mme. Helvetius, who had much more indulgence than I do for that kind of wit, after having amused herself for hours listening to his malignity, after having smiled at each ‘hit’, told me, after he had parted: Father, have you ever seen anything as tiring as the conversation of Chamfort? Do you know that it makes me blue for the entire day? And this is true.”

For between 1780 and 1788 – the decade in which Herder is inspired by his discovery of Nemesis – Chamfort ‘retires’ from the circles of the intellectuals and the long stays as a house guest at the estates of the nobility. He was in his forties. It is now that he leaves behind poetry and the theater and begins writing down his epigrams and anecdotes. He has a sense that this will make a book, and calls the project – in one of those flashes of mordant wit that depressed Mme Helvetius – Produits de la civilisation perfectionnée.

This is one of Chamfort’s maxims:

“Hope is only a charlatan who ceaselessly tricks us. And, for me, only after I’ve lost it does happiness begin. I would gladly place over the gate of paradise the verse that Dante put over that of hell: Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.

a scrounger's plea

Patrons of LI!

I was so hoping to avoid my usual scrounger’s week this year – the week in which I beg for contributions to maintain LI as a viable blog. But, after floating through this year in a shimmer of good luck, Nemesis, the Devil and little baby Jesus all spotted me crawling about on the earth whistling a happy tune, and intervened to throw a little shit into my life, financially speaking. Last Thursday, my decade old computer gave up the ghost. I went to have it repaired at a computer shop stocked with used computers, and under the suave ministrations of the pirate at the counter, was pursuaded to purchase a better computer from that golden year, 2004. Mistake! It turns out I was dealing with the computer shop of horrors, a veritable den of lemons. Things have changed in ten years. Computer shops used to be run by computer geeks – a band of mostly young men obsessed with the ins and outs of the machine. A band who had switched off their Oedipal affection for the mother and switched on their Oedipal affection for the motherboard. No longer, alas. Computers have sunk to the level of automobiles, and computer shops are now run by the kind of people who used to wear the gray grease stained work suits and the gimme caps, the people who used to say, looks like the transmission. That’s gonna cost ya!

The upshot of which is that I had many adventures with the lemon that I, in all innocence, purchased, all of them of the bad medecine kind – and finally, late Saturday afternoon, I extracted a workable computer from the shop of horrors and hightailed for home with it.

Thus, my plea: Please contribute to LI – via the handy Pay Pal button – if you have ten plus buckos and are feeling in the generous mood. I’ll beg and plead some more this week, and hopefully round up enough to pay for LI's computer. And you, lucky reader, will benefit too, from the infinite verbiage that will pour off the keyboards. Thanks!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Nemesis and the pursuit of happiness

I want somethin different, I want somethin

Oh no, honey, not for ten dollars…

In Herder’s essay, the beauty of Nemesis is an aspect of her indifference –or is it that here indifference is an aspect of her beauty?

It was, of course, one of the less discussed problems with founding a society on happiness, or the pursuit of happiness. It isn’t self-evident that everyone is happy about the happiness of others. The chthonic Nemesis, the frightening Nemesis, is always in pursuit of the happiness of others. The evil eye is buried beneath the tolerant society, the society in which all interests busily converge, drawn by invisible threads. The chthonic Nemesis can be pictured with one foot on the neck of some iconic image of Superbia. For the exceeding happiness of one pulls at the others. The threads fray. In a Borges short story which is in the form of a report about some jungle community, the explorer remarks that the inhabitants all cover their mouths when eating, since to be seen eating is immodest. Immodesty, nakedness, is a continually reinvented thing in this world, with many aspects, many codes – and where nakedness exists, Nemesis exists. The older aspect of the goddess, the ugly aspect, must be appeased somehow. Often, this takes the form of crushing the happiness of children. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, there was a fashion for doing just that in Victorian England. And the happiness of children still has the power to evoke a peculiar social anger. But that anger is directed at other instances of happiness, too: the happiness of foreigners, strangers, other races, the happiness of women. It is a blithe and altogether too hasty assumption that happiness is socially reconciling, a binding force.

Which brings us to the beautiful and indifferent Nemesis, the judge. For here, Herder correctly sees, is a great triumph of civilization. In that indifference, there melts away the desire to crush the happiness of others. But it holds back, too, from sweet fusion with the mass, that other form of social cohesion. It coldly dislikes the even temporary erasure of the line separating the self from others in such fusion.

Herder’s two aspects of Nemesis preside over the castles and dungeons of Sade. It is always a question of Nemesis for Sade’s fuckers, all of them born under the sign of superbia.

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 ...