Saturday, November 01, 2008

Writing the Book of Love in Red Ink

“It took the Devil, that ancient ally of woman, her confidant from Paradise, it took the sorceress, this monster who does everything backwards, inversing the sacred world, to be occupied with woman, to crush under her feet their [the church’s] practices, and to care for her in spite of herself. The poor creature thought so little of herself! … She recoiled, blushed, meant to say nothing. The sorceress, adroit and malign, guessed and penetrated. At last she figured out how to make her speak, pulled her little secret out, vanquished her refusal, her hesitations of modesty and humility. Rather than submit to such a thing, she would have liked better almost to die. The barbarous sorceress made her live.”

Marguerite Duras once expressed, in an interview, her admiration for Michelet’s The Sorceress:

“Do you know the thesis by Michelet about witches? It's admirable. (By the way, I think, and many people
think, on the basis of letters and journals, that Michelet did not have a normal sex life-which is certainly in his favor.) He says that in the Middle Ages, when the lords went off to war or on the Crusades, when the women stayed alone for months at a time on the farms, in the middle of the fields, hungry and lonely, then
they simply started talking. To whatever was around them: trees, animals, forests, rivers. . . . Perhaps to break the boredom, to forget the hunger and the loneliness. The men burned them. That's how witches came into being. Men said, "They're in collusion with nature," and they burned them. That's how the reign of
witches began. I add, personally, that what they did, in effect, was punish those women because they turned a little away from them and became less available to them.”

LI is thinking about Michelet today because, as we are about to plunge into the topic of love, Michelet is a name which comes up – after all, Michelet wrote the book of Love (which has never been as popular as Stendhal’s) as part of his vast, Hugolian effort to combine human and natural history. For Michelet, the key link was woman –which, to feminists of another stripe than Duras, might not exactly be a thesis in his favor. Still, as opposed to Goethe’s eternal feminine, Michelet presented an image that was, at the base, quite startling – for Michelet, woman is supremely cyclical, just as history is, and just as nature is. In part, of course, Michelet meant cyclical in an abstract way – but in part, he was referring to menstruation. In a fascinating article, “Blood on: Michelet and Female blood”, Therese Moreau tried to show that there is a thin thread of menstrual blood running all through Michelet’s work. LI will discuss this in the next post.

Friday, October 31, 2008

coming attractions

LI is finished, for the moment, with the Nemesis thread. We are planning on a love and suicide thread next, starting with the Sorrows of Young Werther.


We’ve been slowly preparing an index of the posts that constitute our Human Limit thematalooza. When I finish it, I think I’ll download it to my geocities site and put a link to it – for those interested in the Great Work. Going back to 2006, I can see how certain threads silently converged, enter into the thing itself, spirits called out to, spirits that came, spirits that didn’t. It is back then that I stumbled upon what is still my methodological principle, my version of dialectical materialism, my very own Wicca Marxism: “Comment y arriva-t-on. Sans doute par l’effet si simple du grand principe satanique que tout doit se faire à rebours, exactement à l’envers de ce que fait le monde sacré.” From Michelet’s mouth to my ear. There are two great elaborations of this principle – one, Jehovah’s version, is that we see now as in a glass, darkly – and we know its avatars, up to Bloy and Kraus; the other is Lucifer’s version, or Little Red Riding Hood’s – for that was the wisdom she collected in the woods, that if you go down the path of pins, you will come back by the path of needles. Negative identity, don’t ya know. The satanic history of happiness begins with the inspiration that back and forth are hints that the path is not the same – and not because it is some fuckin’ river you can’t cross twice, but because twiceness is its disease, its spell. My abracadabra against the irresistible motion of history.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

All the money in the world

Bubbles are not, contrary to the new CW in the zona, all bad. Law’s system, some think, actually liquidated the immense debts left by Louis XIV and gave a massive impetus to the restructuring of French agriculture and artisanal industry.

But the Greenspan system seems to have expanded so fast and gotten to such size that it might well engulf all the gains made along the way and then some. A sign of this: the sinking of AIG. Here is a company that is burning its way through 120 billion dollars in 3 weeks time. In three weeks time, he repeated, trying to sound like the George Segal character in To Die For. From today’s story in the NYT:

“These accounting questions [that is, how much of a hole AIG was in because of its position as a counterparty] are of interest not only because taxpayers are footing the bill at A.I.G. but also because the post-mortems may point to a fundamental flaw in the Fed bailout: the money is buoying an insurer — and its trading partners — whose cash needs could easily exceed the existing government backstop if the housing sector continues to deteriorate.

Edward M. Liddy, the insurance executive brought in by the government to restructure A.I.G., has already said that although he does not want to seek more money from the Fed, he may have to do so.”

As I said in my vulture of doom post about the bailout, there is not enough money in all the world to successfully bail out the system. The managers of the great Popping sound (the sound of 100,000 hedge funder penises exploding all at once) have established a nice rhythm for the deathfuck: they come up with a solution and for a month, a relative calm prevails, and then another shoe drops. From last week to this week, the new idea is that the worst is behind us. So the markets go happily upward. But do we have any reason whatsoever to think that counterparties are now protected from the almost sure consequence of housing prices dipping another ten percent? I don’t think so. The write downs have been so many stabs in the dark. Meanwhile, every developed nation has put its government money on the line – a unique event! – to stop the oncoming tide of losing bets. All the money in the world, in other words, is on the line, because more than all the money in the world has been bet. Eventually, many of those bets will simply have to be canceled. Sorry charlie! And as the players don't even know they made the bets - charming megachurch x in San Diego, the school system in Xville, Minnesota, the Icelandic Tuna Fisherman's pension fund, and so on - this will not be happy. As every fan of cheap sadomasochistic entertainment knows, surrender is a long process, but game by game one gets to that final, liquid moment of mutual pain and cumming. It isn’t Wall Street, among the cheesy films of the eighties, that describes the current situation. It is 9 ½ weeks.

“Through spring and summer, the company said it was still gathering information about the swaps and tucked references of widening losses into the footnotes of its financial statements: $11.4 billion at the end of 2007, $20.6 billion at the end of March, $26 billion at the end of June. The company stressed that the losses were theoretical: no cash had actually gone out the door.

“If these aren’t cash losses, why are you having to put up collateral to the counterparties?” Mr. Vickrey asked in a recent interview. The fact that the insurer had to post collateral suggests that the counterparties thought A.I.G.’s swaps losses were greater than disclosed, he said. By midyear, the insurer had been forced to post collateral of $16.5 billion on the swaps.

Though the company has not disclosed how much collateral it has posted since then, its $447 billion portfolio of credit-default swaps could require far more if the economy continues to weaken. More federal assistance would then essentially flow through A.I.G. to counterparties.”

Answers to All Your Election Questions

LI has found the leftist reaction (for instance, here ) to Obama this election season a little… puzzling.

LI has no qualms about wanting Obama to be president than John McCain. If I made a checklist that included Iraq, Iran, unemployment benefits, dealing with the recession, health care, the environment, Obama would score a 100 against McCain. Hell, if I made the same checklist and contrasted Palin and McCain, Palin would score well above her erstwhile partner. Palin’s lack of experience – that is, her non-processing by the DC factory of conventional wisdom, is a point in her favor. Right, she does wear hick resentment like a uniform, but when she is on her own, making a choice, often her common sense wins out over her talking points. For instance, there’s the cute mistake she made a week ago, in denouncing Obama’s stated policy to talk with Iran without preconditions, when she explained herself by confusing “preconditions’ with “preparations” – coming out solidly against meeting Ahmadinejad without the latter. This was just used to laugh at her ignorance; but I laugh that she naturally locates herself in the Obama camp.

So, the uninteresting political question at the moment is who to vote for. The more interesting question is asking: how can one operate on the conditions of reality at the moment when reality takes a left turn?

Here, it is revealing to contrast the scene that will await Obama’s presidency with that which awaited Clinton’s. Clinton, too, was elected during a recession. But, in distinction from the recession of 2008-, the recession of 1991-1993 did not fundamentally alter the structure of neo-liberal hegemony. Quite the contrary. Stage two of that hegemony was launching at that very moment – the true explosion of the financial sector. Plus, there was the tech bubble – which came about due to the convergence of two things: the socialistic largesse that had allowed a generation of Americans to get relatively cheap secondary schooling at public colleges and universities in the seventies and, partly, in the eighties – and the Reagonomics that had made the U.S. the primary target for foreign investment among the nations of the world.

Given these two factors, Clinton, during the course of his administration, came to think that there was a space for a “left” Reagonomics, a progressive neo-liberalism.

I don’t think that is the situation at present. I am guessing that neo-liberalism has no more cards up its sleeves. And that means that the very structure of it is under assault at the moment.

As I pointed out in my mangle of equality post, neo-liberalism became the dominant policy paradigm in tandem with the expansion of the financial services sector because the latter allowed it political viability.

If I were to pinpoint the launch point for neo-liberalism, it would be 1974. Duncan Campbell-Smith’s review of a book on the history of mutual funds says it well:

The massive switch from defined-benefit pensions to defined-contribution pensions based on private plans, fully launched by 1974, helped turn mutuals into a household word: they accounted by 2006 for about half of all assets in individual retirement accounts.

This is a shift that should loom symbolically large in any account of the shift from the Keynesian golden years to the years of Reagan and Thatcher. There is a sad little myth that floats around lefty circles that explains the rightward tendency of voters who are working and middle class to be all about cultural, as opposed to economic, values. It is all, we are told, a trick of GOP smoke and mirrors, and if these folks knew their real interests (which are, absurdly, supposed to be separate from their cultural interests), they would never have voted for the nasty Republicans. As we said in the mangle of equality post, this explanation doesn’t hold water. There, we emphasized the free rider aspect of Republican voting. If I vote for x, who wants to lower taxes and gut medicare, I can be pretty sure that lowering taxes will happen, and gutting medicare won’t. Thus, I get to luxuriate in a symbolic vote against big government while continuing to enjoy the benefits of big government. And I get a tax break. However, free riding isn’t the whole story.

The whole story begins with the familiar basics – the crushing of labor’s bargaining power, the decline of household incomes, the extrusion of a second earner into the labor pool, etc. But into this story comes the financial sector, in two ways: first, of course, is the extension of credit as it has never been extended before. But the other part of the story is a story of investment. And here, there is a slight paradox. Let’s say x company does its best to curb the benefits going to its workforce: truckers, middle managers, secretaries, whatever. And let’s say this increases its return on investment, sending its stock price higher. Now, it is possible that the workforce so effected, being pretty much forced to invest and – as is usually the case – settling for investing in the company, benefit from that increase in stock price. Think of it as a sort of mad bet on your own impoverishment. If the bet is such that the margin you gain from the bet exceeds the margin of your immiseration, you’ve gained from the bet.

The system of such bets was, in fact, what made coddling investors a politically advantageous position. It made households accept a world in which, relative to the wealthy, they were falling behind.

The crazy logic of this – borrowing on the one hand, investing on the other – has been dealt a double blow by the zona. One should never bet that the neo-liberal order doesn’t have another trick up its sleeve, but LI is going to boldly suppose that it doesn’t. What does that mean?

We see two options. Either, households will have to rely on that rustiest of tools – organized labor bargaining power – to wrest a fairer share of productivity gains from the investors – or they are going to have to cheapen their living costs. The first option, although it dances like a sugarplum dressed like Vladimir Lenin in my head, is I think a no-go. The second option, however, would entail unimaginable social democratic gestures by the government, from taking over health care costs to lowering the costs of secondary education to getting involved in improving American infrastructure.

This, then, is how I see the conditions for liberal politics at the moment.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Less-than-Perfect Shame Machine

LI has been meditating on Ruwen Ogien’s article on “diffuse sanctions” for the past couple days. We have seen more and more in this article. Perhaps we should translate the entire thing. Maybe we should write to Ogien. Maybe he has been translated.

Ruwen’s comments on the “informal moral sphere”, which he uses interchangeably with the “domain of interaction”, helps us a great deal in thinking about one of the great puzzles of happiness – how did happiness ever become a collective passion? How did it happen that, in the eighteenth century, men and women started to dream of the happy community? And how could they ignore a social fact that stared them in the face every day – that often, the happiness of one person is the direct cause of the unhappiness of another person?

To get back to Ogien – Ogien begins with Durkheim’s notion that “sanctions” form a continuum. Whether the sanction is informal, such as being laughed at, or formal, such as being imprisoned, what (negative) sanctions necessarily entail is punishment. This isn’t to say that every legal breach is punished – only that, in theory, the state has to punish criminals. That is involved in the very notion of crime. A crime that encoded no punishment would not be a crime. A criminal could, on the other hand, be pardoned – but the pardon wouldn’t separate crime from punishment in general, but would plead some special instance. In other words, there is a necessary bond between crime and punishment.

Ogien, rather brilliantly, suggests that this is where Durkheim went wrong. Because the legal sanction includes this necessary relation, Durkheim assumes – as he must, if sanctions are simply a continuum – that informal moral sanctions also contain this necessary tie.

Ogien contends that they don’t. Rather, informal moral sanctions are synthetic. If the victim of some shamemaking gesture does not feel shame, does not manufacture within him or herself the appropriate sentiment, the informal sanction fails. Notice, this isn’t true of a crime – the punishment of the crime does not depend on the manufacture of any particular sentiment on the part of the criminal. There is an informal dimension to punishment – the notion that the criminal should repent. But this is separate from the punishment inherent in being judged a criminal.

Ogien casts a wider net for sanctions, which can include positive sanctions in the domain of interaction – praise, for instance.

Now, this is the thing about the informal moral sphere – the sanctions are always synthetic, and thus depend on a certain sentimental education. And that education can go awry – in fact, as nineteenth century psychology and twentieth century psychoanalysis teaches, possibly, it always goes awry. It is more than possible that praise, for instance, can bring up shame in the person so praised. Dostoevsky might have called this whim, Freud neurosis. And Herder would see, here, the ambiguous passage of Nemesis.

Ogien extends his point with an image: the difference between the state’s punishment machines and shame machines. I’ll end here, with an extensive quote from Ogien:

The blamer can count on the fact that this sarcasm will impose itself, but he will never be entirely certain of that. And this incertitude is not a matter of his lack of imagination, nor of the feebleness of the means he possesses. The best organized of police can’t ever guarantee the execution of a punishment if that punishment is shame. And the most satanic pedagogue would have a great deal of trouble to invent a machine to make shame or a dispositif capable of producing it with certainty.

Of course, we can’t say we are lacking in fertile imaginations that have conjured up modes (dispositifs) of diabolical punishments. Lichtenberg, Kafka, Foucault (among others) have given us frightening illustrations of our capacity for imagining the worst for our neighbors: but one shouldn’t think that this is a question of anything other than some horrible utopias. None of these modes could guarantee the effect produced, and this is rather happy.

It is precisely this incertitude in the relation between blame and punishment which gives diffuse sanctions their non-necessary character – synthetic, or casual. Between blame and diffuse punishment (all together: sarcastic remarks, laughs of the audience, shame of the victim, for instance), the relationship is only probable.

However, nothing forbids us from going further in the dissociation, and affirming that the relation between blame and diffuse punishment escapes all regularity and by the same way all possibility of causal analysis. If one wants to be convinced of this, it is sufficient to return to what Kant says of laughter and the difficulty of discovering means to excite it among rational men: “Voltaire said that heaven has given us two means to counterbalance the multiple pains of life: hope and sleep. He might have added laughter, if the means to excite it among reasonable people were easy to discover.”

The enigma of the causality of laughter is as deep as that of the causality of shame (or of every other form of moral sentiment – humiliation, indignation). And it is as difficult, it seems to me, to conceive of a good shame-making machine as one that is efficiently laugh-making. (600)

Two divas

LI has lagged the Brit news. And what news! First, the trumped up charges against her for driving without a license, taken to a jury trial – I’ll say it again, a jury trial – by an out of control LA D.A.’s office were eviscerated by the common sense of ten jurors, who, alas, couldn’t persuade the ringer. And then, quite rightly, there was the triumph of Ms. Spears for her Piece of Me video at the MTV awards – the scene of her moment of authenticity last year, when she decided to wander around and make the lipsynching plain, shed the burden of the Mickey Mouse club, of a decade of numbers that she could no longer tolerate – shades of Brecht in her mind - all of which initiated the crazy Brit meme in the press, the panic in the industry. So her return is good news for us Britneyologists, right? Well, the rule of thumb here is to remember that we see now as in a glass darkly. Years from now, Spears is going to look back at this “crazy” interval as her most creative year. As for her return…

Well, Womanizer. It is a return of sorts. Her controllers obviously scotched the more interesting song to her moron ex, childsnatcher, which I would have loved to see and which would have been fabulous Spears. Fuck. Britney begins naked, which made the news. Britney naked is a regular news standby. She does some good clothes and wigs, the trademark hair whipping, the song has a great beat and the chorus repeats womanizer enough to burn it lightly into the brain cells after repeated viewings.

It made me go back into the Spears video archive to try to figure out if they have ever let her have a voice. One of the excellent things about Piece of Me is that Spears voice, briefly, emerges. It even does in Gimme More. More naked than Brit in the sauna in Womanizer is the voice of Brit going It’s Britney, bitch. Without any adjustment! As her driver’s license tells us, this is a gal from Louisiana. A place I happen to have lived in. Northern Louisiana. Spears long ago lost that voice in the place you go to to you’re your voice – California – but, hopelessly, the true Britophile waits to hear just a hint of the real voice. My stint listening to Britney Spear’s hits past, I understood that … that her voice has become a very Aristotelian vacuum, which nature fears, and those paragons of anti-nature, music producers, love. Because it has no quality that would interfere with the voice that they want to create. Into the vacuum of her voice in Womanizer, they have layered and edited and created a voice that is even, at points, vaguely and jarringly British.

There is something magnetic, however, about Britney Spears acceptance of this kind of thing – she is so infinitely malleable that I think she might be prophetic, interplanetary, a figure from the future. Her voice has as smoothly slipped the bonds of biology and history as her face, hair and body did. There are no norms for Britney Spears.

… And on the other side of the Atlantic, Ysa Ferrer. Ysa’s new video, Faire l’amour, is taken from the imaginaire pur album, which I believe has now launched. And LI’s lucky French readers can catch her on tour, at the Nouvelle Eve on November 7 and 8. After Obama is elected!

Also, like Britney, Ysa is doing some nude stuff for this album – if you want to see YSA FERRER NUDE (always good for a few hits, that), check this out. I admit Ysa’s lovarium idea of a parallel universe is like a bad Arsan novel, but what can I say? it is also as irresistible as she is. Similarly, I can’t knock an album with Bi or Not to Bi, but I think it is unfortunate that Ysa chose on fait l’amour as the ‘bullet” for her tour. Frankly, it is not worthy of Ysa. Great beat, but the lyrics make me cringe. And the video – unlike the live videos released for To bi or not to bi – lack that charming mixture of silliness and cabaret. Compare this to this , (the handmotions to Made in Japan kill me. They just kill me). Plus, the Ysa of my dreams is always sloping into the arms of her athletically gay dancers, or being lifted up by them, or standing on them. As is proper for a manga girl. Now, I’m not going to knock the sequence with the makeup girl who powders her bosom, and who she later blurrily ‘makes love” to. But I’m a little disappointed in the tour's turnout vid.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Diffuse Sanctions

Jeanne Becu, known to history as Madame du Barry, was presented to Louis XV’s court on April 23, 1769. The king was sixty. His old mistress, Madame de Pompadour, was dead. Long before she died, she had become his procurer, along with his valet, finding an endless stream of girls for his majesty to have sex with. Oddly enough, given this history, Louis seemed to be enchanted and surprised by Jeanne’s sexual prowess. Who'd have thought the innocent with the girlish voice would know so many bed tricks? Jeanne herself was a former servant and window dresser. She’d caught the eye of a certain Jean du Barry, a minor nobleman and a major pimp. She was his ticket, the best thing he’d ever bet on.

The King’s highest official, Duc de Choiseul, cordially detested Jeanne – or rather, uncordially. That she was a peasant and that her mother was a servant made it impossible for him to like having to tolerate her presence at Versailles. More than that, though, he detested her pimp. Choiseul had met Jeanne before the king had encountered her. She’d come to his office to beg, on behalf of Jean du Barry, for the contracts supplying the government in its pacification of Corsica, a major source of graft. Choiseul, after the disaster of the Seven Years War, had been trying to stamp out graft, which, he correctly saw, was destroying the monarchy.

Given Choiseul’s disgust, his strategy was clear. Paris began to fill with anonymous pamphlets about Jeanne Becu. Choiseul had access to the police file on Jeanne, which was ample. A obscene song about her went the rounds, and was even sung at Versailles.

Choiseul overreached. The King was infatuated. Eventually, Jeanne won the tug of war. The Duc de Choiseul was exiled to his estate near Toulouse. Jeanne and her corrupt cronies had the ear of the King. Louis’ popularity plummeted even further. Du Barry prefigured Marie Antoinette - although the later couldn't stand the former, and had her put in a nunnery after the King her lover died.

Now, here’s the question. From the sociological point of view: what was the meaning of those libels, that song?

This question may seem at some distant disjuncture from our current thread about Nemesis. Bear with us.

In an excellent essay (Sanctions diffuses. Sarcasmes, rires, mépris)
in the Revue française de sociologie, (1990, Volume 31: 4), Ruwen Ogien goes back to a distinction between diffuse and organized social sanctions made by Durkheim in the Rules of Sociological Method, and goes forward to Goffman’s interactionism, to help us understand laughter as a social phenomenon.

Durkheim’s example of a diffuse sanction is, indeed, the laugh. “If, in dressing myself, I paid no attention to the usages followed in my country and class, the laughter that I would provoke, the distance at which I would be held, produces, even if in an attenuated manner, the same effects as a penalty (peine).

Ogien thinks that Durkheim’s notion is good, even if he doesn’t make enough of it himself. There is an informal moral economy, which Ogien thinks has some commonality with Goffman’s domain of interactions. In Durkheim’s view, the laugh and the prison are two degrees on the same continuum of the sanction. The diffuse sanction is applied without “the mediation of a constituted and defined body.” The organized one is applied by such bodies.

Ruwen writes:

“Thus, Durkheim’s diffuse sanctions circumscribe a system of rights and responsibilities distinct from the Law and Morality and permitting us to identify a quite specific name that we only have to name.”

Because we can make predictions about the informal moral sphere, we can operate on it. In fact, this is what Choiseul’s strategy depended on. Court societies – and fragments of court societies, such as the social circles described by Proust - are factories of the diffuse sanction. It is when the interaction becomes dense, heavy with hints and rules, that we see our three familiar figures, the adventurer, the politician, and the writer begin to merge.

Nemesis has a home outside the breast. It has a footing.

More on this in a later post.

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...