Saturday, February 14, 2009

The myth of the noble European

It is, of course, much too late in the day to call back the myth of the myth of the noble savage.

Curiously, attacking the myth of the noble savage seems to be a sport that every generation of historians engage in. Yet, the sport is curiously foreshortened, on the principle of the White magic: As without, so NOT within. The White magic is so powerful that the historians who operate within this principle seemingly are unaware of it – unaware that they are taking as a norm a certain view of European “civilization” which, in actuality, was a rare thing in 16th and 17th century Europe. In fact, it might not be a thing at all.

Some progress here has been made. As Terry Ellingson has pointed out, the term noble did not originally mean “morally elevated” when applied to the Indians. The first appearance of the phrase “noble savage” in English occurs early in the 17th century, in a translation of Marc Lescarbot’s account of French Canada. Why did Lescarbot call the Indians he met noble? Because they hunted, a privilege legally reserved, with some exceptions, to the nobility.

“Upon this privilege is formed the right of hunting, the noblest of all rights that be in the use of man, seeing that God is the author of it. And therefore no marvel if Kings and their nobility have reserved it unto them, by a well-concluding reason that, if they command unto men, with far better reason may they command unto beasts…

Hunting, then, having been granted unto man by a heavenly privilege, the savages through all the West Indies do exercise themselves therein without distinction of persons, not having that fair order established in these parts whereby some are born for the government of the people and the defense of the country, others for the exercising of arts and the tillage of the ground, in such sort that by a fair economy everyone liveth in safety. [Quote Ellingson, 2001: 23]

However, among the mass of accounts of the savage (accounts that are invaluable as records of the first encounter, which were subsequently – and anachronistically - criticized from a latter vantage point, by which time disease, warfare, trade and technology had done their work), there soon appeared a divide, at least among the French. The main French writers were Jesuits, and as an early twentieth century historian, Gilbert Chinard, remarked, the Jesuits were torn between the Christian imperative to depict heathen monsters, and a classical training that allowed them to spot the eerie congruities between classical Mediterranean civilizations and the Indian peoples. Et ego in arcadia was alive beneath the cassock. Hence, a dualism in the representation of the savage.

This, then, is one layer of the myth. Another layer – a layer that has to do with our principle, and the building of the myth of the myth of the noble savage – involves movements which were happening on both sides of the Atlantic at the same time. Take, for instance, the privatization of women.

Jesuits settled among the Montagnais-Naskapi people in the 1650s and 1660s, and left descriptions of this tribe of Algonquin speaking hunter gatherers who they encountered on the banks of the St. Lawrence river. These reports are summed up by Karen Anderson as follows:

In the early years of their contact with the Jesuits, Montagnais-Naskapi men and women were reported to have had an equal right to free choice in marriage and divorce and to initiate sex or to reject a suitor. Both men and women controlled their own work, and the Jesuits remarked that both knew just what they were supposed to do:”Neither meddles with the other.” Women decided when to move camps. The choice of plans, of undertakings, of plans, of journeys, of winterings,” the Jesuit missionary Paul Le Jeune reported, “lies in nearly every instance in the hands of the housewife.” Men left the arrangements of household affairs to the women, who distributed both their own and their husband’s produce without any interference. “I have never seen my host,” Le Jeune commented, “ask a giddy young women that he had with him what became of the provisions, although they were disappearing very fast.” “Women,” he further remarked, “have great power… A man may promise you something and if he does not keep his promise, he thinks himself sufficiently excused if he tells you that his wife did not wish him to do it.”

All this was soon to change with the Jesuits’ plan to convert the Montagnais-Naskapi to Christianity and to turn them into settled agriculturalists and, ultimately, French citizens.”
[Anderson, Commodity Exchange and Subordination: Montagnais-Naskapi and Huron Women, 1600-1650 Karen Anderson, Signs, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 48-62]

If we look at a history of women in, say, England during the same period, one finds the same process at work. Alice Clarke, in her seminal The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (1919) records the complex process by which women were both forced out of trades and traditional routines in agriculture and urban areas, while at the same time laborers in agriculture and urban trades were being squeezed. This resulted in the inevitable disjunction between the necessity to work – for women – and the image that working outside of the home was shameful – for women.

Thus, where Allan records an increase in the brutality to which women of the Montagnais-Naskapi were subjected (a social fact that rides in tandem with the special resistance of Indian women in the St. Lawrence valley to Christianity - contra the myth of Christian missionaries coming in on humanizing missions, women saw very well that the death of the beliefs of the culture was the end of life as they knew it), Clarke records the expulsion of poor women from the social body in England:

“No one doubted that it was somebody's duty to care for the poor, but arrangements for relief were strictly parochial and the fear of incurring unlimited future responsibilities led English parishioners to strange lengths of cruelty and callousness. The fact that a woman was soon to have a baby, instead of appealing to their chivalry, seemed to them the best
reason for turning her out of her house and driving her from the village, even when a hedge was her only refuge.

The once lusty young woman who had formerly done a hard day's work with the men at harvesting was broken by this life. It is said of an army that it fights upon its stomach. These women faced the grim battle of life, laden with the heavy burden of childbearing,
seldom knowing what it meant to have enough to eat. Is it surprising that courage often
failed and they sank into the spiritless, dismal ranks of miserable beings met in the pages of Quarter Sessions Records, who are constantly being forwarded from one parish to another.

Such women, enfeebled in mind and body, could not hope to earn more than the twopence a day and their food which is assessed as the maximum rate for women
workers in the hay harvest. On the contrary, judging from the account books of the period, they often received only one penny a day for their labour. Significant of their feebleness is the Norfolk assessment which reads, " Women and such impotent persons
that weed corne, or other such like Labourers 2d with meate and drinke, 6d without." 1 Such wages may have sufficed for the infirm and old, but they meant starvation for the woman with a young family depending on her for food. And what chance of health and
virtue existed for the children of these enfeebled starving women?” [89]

Once your eyes are opened by black magic to the communication of within and without, one notices a continuity of movements in the Transatlantic communities. This isn’t to say that the movements were entirely in synch. For instance, George Eisen has picked up accounts of sports, among the Indians, that indicate a sense of fair play still lacking among the English.

“A difference between the European and American style of sporting was readily emphasized by all observers. Sports and games were vigorous and violent affairs among the Indians as well as among the English. Nevertheless, English sports, not yet pervaded by the concept of fair play, were often rough and tumble pastimes in which a wide range of activities bordering on foul play were permitted. Contests of the Indians were conducted in an atmosphere of correctness and mutual respect. Cheating was almost unknown among them. One may compare the contemporary English and French sporting scene with the observation of Father Lalemant. In witnessing a Huron feast, the Jesuit wrote that, "everything was done with such moderation and reserve that - at least, in watching them - one could never have thought that he was in the midst of an assemblage of Barbarians, - so much respect did they pay to one another, even while contending for the victory" (Thwaites 1896-1901:23:221-223). For English spectators, the Indian football was perhaps the most familiar pursuit. The chroniclers repeatedly noted the fact that the English style of the game was violent and sometimes unfair. Spelman's, Strachey's, and Williams' testimonies clearly indicated this fact. Henry Spelman, a member of Captain Smith's expedition to Powhaton's country wrote that the Indians "never fight nor pull one another doune" (Spelman 1872:114). Strachey, the first Secretary of Virginia, also presented a curious comparison between the American and European codes of conduct in the course of the game: "they never strike up one another's heeles, as we do, not accompting that praiseworthie to purchase a goale by such an advantage" (Strachey 1849:84). In 1686, Dunton observed a football game in Agawam. He, too, elaborated on the difference: "Neither were they to apt to trip one anothers heels and quarrel, as I have seen 'em in England" (Dunton 1966:285). A contemporary of Strachey, William Wood, made valuable observations on football as played by the Indians of Massachusetts. His work, New Englands Prospect, is an account of Indian life as the author saw it between 1629 and 1633. "Before they come to this sport, [football] ," wrote the observant Puritan, "they paint themselves, even as when they goe to warre, in pollicie to prevent future mischiefe, because no man should know him that moved his patience or accidentally hurt his person, taking away the occasion of studying revenge.”

[George Eisen, Voyageurs, Black-Robes, Saints, and Indians Ethnohistory, , Vol. 24, No. 3 (Summer, 1977), pp. 191-205]

To return, then, to Sade. I have presented Sade so far from Klossowski’s viewpoint. Klossowski sees the system of counter-generality in Sade; what he doesn’t see, or what he mutes, is the Voltairian irony. It is that irony that takes the Christian, rather than the libertine, interpretation of other cultures – or rather, to return to the duality spotted by Chinard, Sade takes the image of the heathen as a monster as his template, even though he was well aware that there was another image – in fact, an image that exists in libertine literature, which made extensive use of ethnography. Here, Sade is not the systematist – instead, he is the traditional enlightenment philosophe. The strategy of the philosophe, from the Persian letters to Voltaire, is to take a normal case – the case for pious belief, for instance - and presses it to the most extreme of conclusions. If God kills his son, isn’t it permitted for human fathers to do the same? If God descended on the Virgin Mary and impregnated her, doesn’t that allow sex outside of wedlock – indeed, doesn’t it allow rape? The system of counter-generality is utopian and messianic; the nuances of irony are cautionary, ambiguous, and novelistic.

But what is this libertine tradition of ethnography? Which takes us back to the Baron Lahontan. As one commentator puts it, Lahontan was Dom Juan in America.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

editorial changes

As some of my readers have remarked, LI’s posts lately are a lot more dense. There is a reason for that. For the past year and a half, I’ve been using this site to do a sort of research note experiment. Usually, when you are researching a book, you type up your notes in various computer folders. But I thought it would be interesting to do this in the open, on a blog. Among other posts, The Human Limit posts would show the way research happens in real time. The principle was really the same as in those 24/7 webcams showing hot hot hot sorority girls dressing, undressing and living the vida loca with dildoes – just, you know, everyday life. Same with my research notes.

THL is not meant to be a philosophy text or a regular history. It is ‘an unofficial view of being’ – to use Wallace Steven’s definition of poetry. I’ve laid down almost all the themes I need, and now I have to start tying them together.

But I’ve decided that this will require a little more order on this blog. Which means that the current affairs commentary has to go. I am finding it too annoying, wading through my always irritated and futile remarks on the oligarchy and their wars, heists, and shiftlessness, looking for this or that thread. So I’ve decided to put them on another blog, called News from the Zona. At the moment, it is little more than template. I’ll have to fill it up eventually with links and stuff.

So, got it? If you want to read the exciting adventures of Baron Lahonte among the Huron, stay tuned on this channel. If you want to read a buncha raven like croakings about our doomed system, go to News from the Zona.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

As Without, So Within

A history could be written in the time honored manner of horror movies, which take old characters and pit them against each other: Dracula vs. Frankenstein, Godzilla vs. the blob. This episode could be called anti-christ vs. the universal, with both corners suitably decked out in lowrent F/X. Would the philosopher-villain, arising from his unmarked grave among the roots of great oaks – if, indeed, they scattered acorns on his plot as he requested– have found a place at last in B movie limbo? He would, at least, have recognized that the mad scientist was none other than the philosophical fucker, lightly transposed, but still dreaming an outsider cosmology, a metaphysical explanation for every horror. It was the beta ray accident that awoke the dead, Gidget!

The history of the human limit – that is, the history of its erasure - obeys a formula that transforms the old alchemist’s principle, as above, so below, into the principle of universal history – as without, so within. That is, the European encounter with the savages and the barbarians catalyzed the consciousness of savages and barbarians within Europe itself. The savage evokes the peasant, the slave the serf. Universal history, which proceeds by experiments – the plantation, the factory, free trade, representative government, the reservation, the labor camp, etc. – is coded from the beginning to separate the without and the within, even as every discovery produces this two fold effect. The compromise solution was to posit a homunculus within. The ideal Western man.

Sade, however, takes the experiments as narratives, fables, that can be applied, devastatingly, within. On the fair white bourgeois bosom, he applies the slavemaster’s branding iron. As we have pointed out, the ethnographic accounts of tortures and strange customs in the seventeenth century led to an estrangement from the ancients, who could be seen, more and more clearly, in terms of shamans and tribes, and then to a renewal of myth, as the romantics embraced the new barbarous classicism. Sade definitely figures in this history. Klossowski is an excellent guide to the combination of strategies which makes up the Sadeian totality – that self devouring whole. But he misses, we think, the exchanges of the without and the within. The Iroquois and the Kongo.

Klossowski’s work on Sade is a precursot to his work on Nietzsche. In both writers, Klossowski grasps the work done by the notion of the differed totality, or the eternal return of the same. It is this that, within universal history, pushes back against the satisfaction of the modern, that fatal symptom of vulgarity. Marx saw the moment of vulgarity as one of the poles of the modern, in which the determinants are satisfaction and dissatisfaction (thus creating, within the sphere of capitalism, a shadow economy, which delimits the culture of happiness). Neither of those poles is sufficient, for Marx – and thus the revolutionary, or at least the critic of the modern political economy, must oscillate between them, or find some way to exit them entirely. However, it is not so easy to get out of the Artificial Paradise.

Justine’s sorrow was to find this out the hard way.

But to return to Klossowski. Using repetition as a key helps him understand the puzzle of Sade. That puzzle is simple: on the one hand, Sade has staked all pleasure on transgression. On the other hand, a world in which the norms are knocked down – a world in which transgression wins – would seem to be a world without pleasure.

Sade needs a strategy to hold these two things apart. That strategy is outrage.

“If Sade had sought (given that he would have ever been concerned with such a thing) a positive conceptual formulation of perversion, he would have passed alongside of the enigma he sets up; he would have intellectualized the phenomenon of sadism properly so-called. The motive for this is more obscure and forms the nodus of the sadean experience. This motive is outrage, where what is outraged is maintained to serve as a support for transgression.”

We are thus led inevitably to the problem of repetition – for if the point is not, by way of outrage, to overthrow the norms that make for transgression, then outrage has to be become a sort of strategic constant that the mad professor/philosopher-villain manages to make not quite powerful enough to shake the social structure, but still powerful enough to satisfy the desire for staging the transgression. Our monster accepts the terms of the game in order to play the game – the endless repetition of further b movie plots, of an endless “versus”:

“Transgression (outrage) seems absurd and puerile where it does not succeed in resolving itself into a state of affairs where it would no longer be necessary. But it belongs to the nature of transgression that it never be able to find such a state. Transgression is then something other than the pure explosion of energy accumulated by means of an obstacle. Transgression is an incessant recuperation of the possible itself-where the existing state of affairs has eliminated that possible from another form of existence. The possible in what does not exist can never be anything but possible; for if the act were to recuperate this possible as a new form of existence, it would have to transgress it in turn. The possible then eliminated would have to be recuperated yet again. What the act of transgression recuperates from the possible in what does not exist is its own possibility of transgressing what exists.

“Transgression remains a necessity in Sade's experience independent of the interpretation he gives of it. It is not only because it is given as a testimony of atheism that transgression must not and never can find a state in which it could be resolved; the energy must constantly be sur- passed in order to verify its level. It falls below the level reached as soon as it no longer meets an obstacle. A transgression must engender another transgression. But if it is thus reiterated, in Sade it reiterates itself in principle only through one same act. This very act can never be transgressed; its image is each time represented as though it had never been carried out.”

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

venus' booty

Montesquieu, on his travels through Italy, toured the Uffizi in Florence. He made copious notes, which were published in 1892. He was impressed by the statue known as the Medici Venus, about which he wrote:

Her front side is small, neither too flat nor too round. Her eyes, neither too deep, nor too little, well curved. A head, small. Cheeks, fresh and firm. The part which joins the ear, admirable. The ear, mediocre and well turned. The mouth, big enough for it to be proportionate to the lips. The neck, which is gradually enlarged from the head to the shoulders, and which appears flexible. Beautiful shoulders, but less large than a man’s. Her arms, round and which join to the arm [sic – probably meant hand] by degrees. They have the appearance of firm flesh. Her hands, long and as though made of flesh. Tits, separated, not too low, nor too high. Thighs, admirable: they are elevated a bit from the mons pubis and then diminish little by little to the knee. Her foreleg is admirable: you would think it was flesh. A little more high than the cheeks, you see a little dimple pressing on the back bone, as if from which they are given birth. One knows her attitude – she has a hand upon her tits and the other on her private part, and squats just the littlest bit, as though to hide herself as well as she can in the state she is in. “

After this, he goes through two other Venuses to return to his favorite:

Returning to the Medici Venus – how it serves as a rule, and how what is like it in its proportions is admirable, and what departs from it is bad, one can hardly describe it to much and remark on it.

Behind, just above the cheeks, there is, on each side, two small dimples, and one in the middle, which comes from the back bone; then two small eminences: and at last, the curve down which goes under the coccyx. The cheeks are round, and, on each side of them, there is a little dimple in order to mark their roundness. The cheeks, lower down, make a short curve, and when they are reunited with the thighs, there is a new, little bump. Then, a little hardly noticeable dimple for a new small bump.”

Jacques Guicharnaud has noted that Sade, too, made his tour of Italy, for almost a year, from 1775 to 1776. He too visits the Uffizi. Later, he lends his experience to Juliette and friends. Guicharnaud remarks on the coincidence between Montesquieu and Sade – although of course Montesquieu’s journal had not been published at that time. But the point isn’t the influence but the contrast.

When the heroine, accompanied by Sbrigani and their suite, stops in front of “that superb morsel,” she is gripped by the “sweetest emotin,” and remarks: “it is said that a Greek blazed with passion for a statue… I admit it, I might have imitatied him near that one. The the statue is hardly described at all. Juliette merely points out, very flatly, “the gracious cuves of the bosom and gthe buttocks…

Still in the Uffizi, in front of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Montesquieu remarks “An admirable Venus; she is lying down naked; you think you’re seeing flesh and the body itself.” Taken literally, this notation is chaste. But before the same painting Juliette gives many more details, without being verbose, and her description leads to an act: when Sbrigani mentioned that “this Venus looked incredibly like Raimonde,” one of their friends, Juliette, in a blaze of passion, “pressed a fiery kiss to the roselike mouth” of the young woman.

To go on with the parallel between these two forms of tourism – or art criticism -: the few works chosen by Juliette are always sources of erotic reactions. Whereas before an ancient Priapus, Montesquieu proves brief and objective, Juliette immediately considers the possibilities – and impossibilities – of the same statue.” (Jacques Guicharnaud,The Wreathed Columns of St. Peter's, Yale French Studies, No. 35, (1965), 31)

Although Sade’s image is of the coldest of the aristocrats, this description is of an extreme vulgarity – Marx’s vulgarity of the modern in all its glory. It resembles Montesquieu less than the famous visit of Gervaise’s wedding party to the Louvre in L’assommoir:

M. Madinier kept quiet in order to manage his effect. He went straight to Ruben’s Kermesse. There, he said nothing, but contented himself with nodding at the canvas and rolling his eyes gaily. The ladies, when they had their noses up into it, uttered little moans; then turned away, very red. The men held them back, jokingly, looking for particularly dirty details.
-- Look-it this!, repeated Boche, this is worth the cost of admission. And here’s one who is puking, and here’s one who is watering the dandylions. And here’s one, o, this one – well, they are a proper lot, they are.

Kant, when he codified the enlightement response to the art work, was drawing on a repertoire which, in part, Sade must have known. Surely Sade was aware of poor old Wincklemann, robbed and murdered by the boy he’d picked up to fuck, all alone in the port of Trieste – it was such a Sadian nuance. But Sade was not interested in art, in any real sense. He could not understand an object that was fundamantally unassimilable to a use. And this is a key to one of Sade’s peculiarities – his invention of the fastforward. True, in the history of porn, the fastforward had to wait for the invention of video and the channel changer. But the temporal foundation of it is already there in Sade. For Montesquieu, the description of the Medici Venus (so eerily reminiscent of advertisements for slaves – or an advertisement for the Venus Hottentot, although she came along long after Montequieu was dead) – is about allowing the object, in the time of the observation, to become what it is, to announce itself, to be seen and more than seen. This time, in turn, served the enlighenment system of the senses. In that system, touch is fundamental. Sight, especially the sight of a sculpture, is in a separate, derivative sense domain. The slow, lubricious stroll around the statue is rooted in the libertine code that allows for a nature without God, but also without man. A nature, that is, removed from the use of men. Of course, one can shift this by some small degree and arrive at the slave holder, and by another degree, at Don Juan.

Sade, however, is not on that channel. He is, at least here, a fast forward libertine, for whom the object is becoming generic, and must have a use. Use will reduce the Greek statue and the Titian to a joke or a proxy for sex. This is Sade’s own vulgarity, prefiguring the bourgeois moment of satisfaction that, really, there is nothing in art. It is either a pinup or a moneymaker. Or – a form of vulgarity perhaps more common in the U..S. - it gives pride to some ethnic group, some gender position; it is critical, it resists, it has a proper political content.

We too hastily identify Sade’s orgies with the Dionysian. But his fast forwards betray him. Calasso points out that Dionysos, unlike the other gods, ‘doesn’t descend on women like a predator, clutch them to his chest, then suddenly let go and disappear. He is constantly in the process of seducing them, because the life forces came together in him. The juice of the vine is his, and likewise the many juices of life. “Sovereign of all that is moist.’ Dionysos himself is liquid, a stream that surrounds us. “Mad for the women,” Nonnus, the last poet to celebrate the god, frequently writes. And with Christian malice Clement of Alexandria speaks of Dionysos as choiropsales, ‘the one who touces the vulva.” The one whose fingers could make it vibrate like the strings of the lyre.” [Calasso, 14]

Monday, February 09, 2009


Klossowski, in the essay on the “philosopher-villain” that begins Sade, my neighbor, uses Sade’s own mocking division between the philosophers in his “own” works, who are decent people, and the philosophers in Justine, where, in an ‘inexcusable clumsiness that was bound to set the author at loggerheads with wise men and fools alike,” “all the philosophical characters in this novel are villains to the core.”

In a sense, what Sade is doing is employing the Russellian distinction between types, here – the philosopher-villains exist in quoted space. In one’s own work, where the citational melts away, the philosophers are decent – as decent as any lab worker who operates on the human product, as they used to say at the AEC when feeding selected American detritus – the poor, the non-white – bits of plutonium.

I remarked last time on Magris’ notion that transgression is embodied in the Nazi bureaucrat and the leader, which I think is a typical argument against Bataille’s notion of transgression. The argument that is mounted against Bataille ignores the opposition to power encoded in it, or claims that the opposition, being circumstantial, falls away from the generality claimed by the transgressor. Opposition is hypocrisy. Resistance is resentment. After all, if one supposes that all ideas and systems strive for power - and didn't Bataille claim not only to be a Nietzschian critic, but, in a sense, to be Nietzsche - than that opposition stands revealed as a hypocritical strategem, thrown away when the transgressor gains power and can do as he wants. Otherwise, it would seem, we are talking about organized futility – as we approach sovereignty, the institutional bonds all dissolve that give sovereignty meaning. Foucault, whose essay on the experience-limit touched that logic, began to backtrack in the seventies, for Magris like reasons – in fact, by becoming popular, transgression was actually lowering the real level of transgression in society.

I like Klossowski’s explanation of the Sadeian strategy, which is based on counter-generality. I like it because it goes so nicely with how the human limit was erased, on the theoretical level, by universal-making – making, for instance, universal history. Making universal emotions. Making universal subjects. Making a universal system of production in which universalized labor leads to infinite substitutability among the workers.

Sade, according to Klossowski, saw how he could game this enlightenment program:

“The peculiarly human act of writing presupposes a generality that a singular case claims to join, and by belonging to this generality claims to come to understand itself. Sade as a singular case conceives his art of writing as verifying such belongingness. The medium of generality in Sade’s time is the logically structured language of the classical tradition: in its structure this language reproduces and reconstitutes in the field of communicative gestures the normative structure of the human race in individuals…

With this principle of the normative generality of the human race in mind, Sade sets out to establish a countergenerality that would obtain for the specificity of perversions, making exchange between singular cases of perversion possible. These, in the existing normative generality, are defined by the absense of logical structure. Thus is conceived Sade’s notion of integral monstrosity. Sade takes this countergenerality, valid for the specificity of perversion, to be already implicit in the existing generality. For he thinks that the atheism proclaimed by normative reason, in the name of man’s freedom and sovereignty, is destined to reverse the existing generality into this countergenerality. Atheism, the supreme act of normative reason, is thus destined to establish the reign of the total absence of norms.” [Sade, my neighbor, trans. by Alphonso Lingis, 14-15]

Sade, then, is rejecting – or perhaps I should say, creating an antithesis - to one of the fundamental enlightenment discoveries – Bayle’s notion that the society of atheists would be every bit as moral as the society of believers. That is, Bayle took it to be a truth about human beings that belief and action are, in practice, forever divided. To believe we should love our neighbor as ourself, and to roust out our neighbor from her house and roast her, as a witch, on the nearest tarred pole, were not anthropologically contradictory things. To believe that the universe came together at random, and to denounce witch burning, were also not anthropologically contradictory things. By which I mean that Bayle did not come to this conclusion by going outward from a logical analysis of belief, but by suspending any analysis of belief and looking at what people said and did.

The image of the moral society of atheists was an immense shock in a culture that had sacralized belief. It runs through the enlightenment like pain ran through the princess after she’d spent the night sleeping on the pea. Tolerance, Mandeville’s cynicism, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, they all come out of the methodological imperative of beginning first with what people did and said, and suspending belief. But, until one gets used to it, this is a highly unnatural stance to take. It seemed to eat away at any belief, since after all, what function did it have?

On the one hand, the space opened up by tolerance made possible the social notion of happiness – for it was intolerance of belief, more than anything else, that had acted the role of nemesis in European culture and in the global conquests of that Europe. On the other hand, it was felt as a sort of numbing of a once vital organ.

Ps – in some ways, the gothic horrors of Sade are too infernal, too brightly lit by the Christianity that follows his every step like a shadow. One could extract another logical line, from the dissolution of all norms to poshlost’ – the world of banality. Magris, in a sense, goes wrong by not putting in this vital step. Contra Hannah Arendt, Eichman’s evil is not something that accidentally arises from banality – banality is the original and primal form of evil in the world. We follow Gogol here, per Merezhovsky. Instead of Juliette, the Petty Demon. From which I take this wonderful extract – Peredonov, the “hero”, a schoolteacher, has just come home to his mistress, Varvara, who he calls his cousin. He’s promised to marry her, but is suspicious that she won’t come through on her end of the bargain, which is to make him an inspector. Besides, Peredenov is suspicious that she is poisoning him. He is also suspicious, every time he hears someone laugh in front of him, that they are laughing at him. And, to finish up this summary of his qualities, he prefers not to think, but believes anything he is told. So Peredenov naturally decides to torment Varvara by making her believe he has been over at the next door neighbors, paying court to their daughter, Marta:

She's covered with freckles," said Varvara, spitefully.
" And she's got a mouth that stretches from ear to ear. You might as well sew up her mouth, like a frog's."
"Anyway, she's handsomer than you," said Peredonov."I think I'll take her and marry her."
" You dare marry her," shouted Varvara, reddening and trembling with rage, "and I'll burn her eyes out with vitriol !"
"I'd like to spit on you," said Peredonov, quite calmly.
"Just try it !" said Varvara.
"Well, I will," answered Peredonov.
He rose, and with a sluggish and indifferent expression, spat in her face.
"Pig !"said Varvara, as quietly as if his spitting on her had refreshed her. And she began to wipe her facewith a table napkin. Peredonov was silent. Latterly he had been more brusque with her than usual. And evenin the beginning he had never been particularly gentlewith her. Encouraged by his silence, she repeated more loudly :
"Pig ! You are a pig !"

This joyful scene is interrupted by the entrance of a friend, Volodin. Drinks and jam tarts are served. And then:

“Suddenly Peredonov splashed the dregs of his coffee cup on the wall-paper. Volodin goggled his sheepish eyes, and gazed in astonishment. The wall-paper was soiled and torn. Volodin asked:
" What are you doing to your wall-paper ?"
Peredonov and Varvara laughed.
"It's to spite the landlady," said Varvara. " We're leaving soon. Only don't you chatter."
"Splendid !' shouted Volodin, and joined in the laughter.
Peredonov walked up to the wall and began to wipe the soles of his boots on it. Volodin followed his example.
Peredonov said :
" We always dirty the walls after every meal, so that they'll remember us when we've gone !"
" What a mess you've made !' exclaimed Volodin,delightedly.
" Won't Irishka be surprised," said Varvara, with a dry, malicious laugh.
And all three, standing before the wall, began to spit at it, to tear the paper, and to smear it with their boots. Afterwards, tired but pleased, they ceased.

Peredonov bent down and picked up the cat, a fat, white, ugly beast. He began to torment the animal, pulling its ears, and tail, and then shook it by the neck. Volodin laughed gleefully and suggested other methods of tormenting the animal.
"Ardalyon Borisitch, blow into his eyes ! Brush his fur backwards !"
The cat snarled, and tried to get away, but dared not show its claws. It was always thrashed for scratching. At last this amusement palled on Peredonov and he let the cat go.”

Sunday, February 08, 2009

And I got an A + in Macro and Onanism!

The attack on the stimulus plan is unsurprising, coming as it does from the usual redoubts of the gated community wealthy – the NYT business page, Rush Limbaugh, the Democratic and Republican parties.

The plan is one wing of the Obama schizophrenia. On the one hand, we are given a stimulus supposedly big enough to combat a recession that will last at least the year. On the other hand, we are given a bank plan tacitly premised on the idea that the financial section will be returning to its old glory any day now, thanks to the splendor of the self-adjusting market.

The little thread that ties these things together is the housing market. It is as if the media sphere decided to throw Marx a surprise party: in his honor, they are demonstrating just what commodity fetishism means. The housing market has been curiously disembedded it real location in the world of social labor, and transported into the never land of econospeak and graphs. In the never land, there is never and there will never be any mention of the one overriding fact about the housing market, which is that houses are actually bought by people.

As I have pointed out again and again, like an erotomaniac compulsively returning to the habit of masturbating in public when released from his straight jacket, this is what happens when inequality reaches a tipping point. The half baked neo-liberal theory upon which the American economy has stood for three decades supposes that certain social goods (retirement, healthcare, education, etc.) can be ultimately provided for in the private sphere. How is this accomplished? By making the average household not only a unit of production, but also a source of investment. Thus, X and Y, the double wage-earners in the household, will enjoy a progressively better lifestyle even if their combined earnings stagnate or advance slowly, because they will have socked away money in their 401(k)s and IRAs and they will have invested in an asset, a house, that will bring them a healthy return even as they live in it. It is a bubble gum vision of the good life, worthy less of the American Economic Journal than Teen Beat magazine.

The flaw, of course, is that income counts. It counts so much that if you freeze it or slow down its increase in order to feed the wealthy (who, after all, are investors like all of us! It is the solidarity of capital, here, one for all, or – getting real, heh heh heh – all for one), who, pray tell, are X and Y going to sell their asset to? Another X and Y, in basically the same circumstances? Any child can tell you that no matter how often two poor shits sells a commodity back and forth to each other at higher and higher prices, which they borrow, the end result is not going to be that each gets infocommercial wealthy – it is going to be that each gets financially broken. The commodity didn’t do that. What did that has been doing that for a long time. It is called your Government. Plus your private sector. Check it out. Open your eyes. The Fed has openly tried to batter the bargaining position of labor for years. The commerce department, for decades, has held seminars for businesses about how they can move to labor cheap locales. The industrial policy of the U.S. government – which claims it has no industrial policy – has been directed, for years, at keeping incomes down and credit lines at high interest open.

The houses are just the cargo in the zona.

This story is not complex. Any junkie can rehearse that narrative arc.

Thus, it rather breaks my heart to see how the debate on the stimulus, among the liberal bloggers and pundits, so quickly turned into a debate about who could make smarter references to the economist’s abracadabra. This is what happens when your liberal pundicrats were brought up on debating and going to a good college. Matters of fact get entangled with the meritocrats favorite thing: taking a test. Having been malformed by an educational system that identifies thinking with test scores, the meritocrats, in Pavlovian synch, all salivated when the right attacked with “economics”, and they are busy having fun chasing fallacies off the cliff in some distant part of the world. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will be gained by showing that Krugman is right and Fama is wrong. Or rather, much will be lost. For instance, the opportunity to point out that the “economist’s” standard model of the U.S. economy is a fantasy that hasn’t been true since 1929. That, in fact, if full employment really meant full employment by the private sector, the Great Depression never ended – for the private sector can not and will not and will never employ even 85 percent of the employable population in any developed state, and in the U.S. in particular, is doing good when it employs 80 percent of the population. “Fiscal policy” isn’t some newfangled government toy, but the structure that has held up the American economy for seventy years. It is crazy to talk about “crowding out”, or “Ricardian equivalence”, before understanding the composition of the target economy. An economic theory that technically disallows the economic reality all around us for the last sixty years is, well, did I mention public masturbation already?

What needs to be done will be done too late. Cut the juice to the banks. Capitalize a national back for reindustrialization, and one to extend consumer credit at @ 7 points higher than the Fed loans money to banks. Pump money into the states. Massive command and control interventions by the government to coordinate at least two major changes in the national economy – the energy sector and transportation. Politics, in other words – politics should play the major role in our economy at the moment. Not “the market”, god help us.


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