Saturday, May 09, 2009

and the document was sweet in my mouth


Je le sais tellement que si monsieur le Comte en se mariant n'eût pas aboli ce droit honteux, jamais je ne t'eusse épousée dans ses domaines.


Hé bien! s'il l'a détruit, il s'en repent; et c'est de ta fiancée qu'il veut le racheter en secret aujourd'hui.

A nobleman renounces certain of his rights. Then he reasserts them, according to ancient documents which, he claims, gives him the right to the first night with the bride of his servants.

A man goes up a smoky mountain. He comes down with two stone tablets, upon which YHWH has, himself, written a pact – a covenant. The covenant, like the nobleman’s, makes requirements of YHWH’s servants that reach into the very depth of their private lives. The man is angered to see that the the people he left at the foot of the mountain are now dancing around an idol. This violates the first rule of the pact YHWH has made with his people - although since the people have not even seen the pact, one wonders how this covenant could be violated. The man dashes the stone tablets to the ground. And thus, he must return to YHWH to ask for the contract again. What is written on the stone tablets, exactly, is ambiguous, as the writer of Exodus and Deuteronomy gives conflicting accounts. It is as if there is some zone of blurring that prevents the contract from being read precisely.

A group of men and women live in the jungle. The physically stronger men are always attacking and killing the others, or capturing the women. The physically weaker men do what they can – curiously, they don’t form a pact among themselves as weaker men and ambush the strong. Instead, a pact is made with a strong man – the knowledge of pact making being, it seems, innate. Where is this pact? What tablet is it carved on? What does it say? We don’t ask this. Here, the zone of blurring is more in the nature of complete obscurity. It is a pact of gesture, apparently. There is no writing, but there is the pact. It is called a social contract.

A man sits at a table. Around him are gathered his twelve disciples. He takes a cup of wine, and says that this is his blood, and that they should drink it. He takes a loaf of bread, and he says this is his body, and that they should eat it.

Oh pacts, devil’s pacts, contracts, covenants, copies, mishnah! Where do you end, and where do I begin?

Up until the sixties, Freud was a constant reference in the social sciences. Yet, as early as 1920, Kroeber, in a review of a translation of Totem and Tabu in American Anthropologist, had pretty much torn the book apart, patiently demonstrating the out of date views (totemism as a function of exogamy), the misinterpretation of evidence – as Kroeber points out, Freud’s list of totems is cherrypicked and his list of the social functions accorded to it in the literature homogenized beyond what the evidence can bear, and the ahistorical scene setting (Freud’s appropriation of Darwin’s primal horde idea has no real geographic and temporal coordinates), and yet admitted that the book was too suggestive to be undermined completely by these errors. In 1939, Kroeber wrote a retrospective in which he claims that Freud had said he, Kroeber, had treated the book like one of Kipling’s Just so stories. In particular, Kroeber found the remarks on ambivalence and the remarks on mourning and anguish to be valuable, and in 1939 he made a very American distinction between what was fantasy in Freud – the killing of the father by the primal horde – and what was scientifically valuable – some form of the Oedipus complex. Already at that time, however, Malinowski had reformulated the OC to fit the Trobiand Islanders and their family configuration, so that the father substitute – the mother’s brother – played the role of the father. The Ortigues, in the sixties, published Oedipus in Africa in which they reported, from their clinical practice in Senegal, further modifications of the OC, refusing, at the same time, to generalize over all of Africa (the title of their book notwithstanding).

-- Freud himself thought that his two key books were Totem and Tabu and the Interpretation of Dreams – the latter being the founding text of the analysis of individual psychodynamics, the former being the founding text of collective psychodynamics. As Deleuze and Guattari observed, Freud’s work, like Marx, is a venture in universal history. But universal history in Freud's version plays itself out with a few twists. – one presaged by the romantic notion of “survivals”, bits of primitive lore and usage that still exist, in some modified form, within modernity. In Freud's version, the equation between the savage and the ancient Greek is enriched. New figures emerge, especially the threefold constellation of the child, the neurotic, and the primitive.

This leads, however, to further twists. For by Freud’s logic, there is a continual assault on the normal, which exists only as the result of a mythic catastrophe, or inversion: the slaying and eating of the father. His book, in the end, undermines the position of the norm by undermining the story of rationality. The story told by civilization about itself, or rather, by the civilized about civilization, which is a story that is not separate from civilization itself. Pacts and the bodies they form tend to merge, or tend, at least, to have erased boundaries that separate them one from the other.

In Totem and Tabu, the transposition of the savage to the place of the civilized is an explicit theme: there are a number of references to Kant’s categorical imperative, which is, in a sense, a pillar of the Enlightenment, as a tabu.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

the crusoe complex

Let’s begin with a news item far from Vienna, or the 17th century. This was the beginning of Justus Wolpers post on freakonomics today:

I was reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row last night, and I was really struck by how the following passage speaks to the forces behind our current economic predicament:

“It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “The things we admire in men — kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding, and feeling — are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest — sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self-interest — are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.”
The usual cheap shot after citing a literary figure would be to argue that modern economics can’t possibly grapple with such issues. But it can. The incentives that Steinbeck describes are the incentives described in standard economic models. Agency theory is almost entirely devoted to developing mechanisms to deal with the fact that private and social interests often diverge; information economics tells us a lot about when these incentives are active; and behavioral economics tells us how people balance the opposing forces Steinbeck identifies.”

To which the first response in the comments was this:

“The reason we’re caught in this “only greed and self-interest produces anything or can make people successful, but it leads to dishonesty and causes harm to others!” is that we don’t distinguish between fair, mutually beneficial self-interest and dishonest self-interest where the risk is in someone else’s hands, at someone else’s expense. All the benevolence in the world won’t do the work that a greedy businessman can do, but that greedy businessman needs to be risking his own assets.”

My response to this comment was to rub my eyes. Does anybody seriously believe that the greedy businessman hatched out of a moonegg? No, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker were all once children. They lived in families. They got fed by either benevolent or not so benevolent parents. They did not, mewling infants, earn their keep. In fact, the family of the greedy businessman was often there, throughout his early life, lending him their connections, showering him with their money. And though, from 20 to 30, he or she might have cut a great swathe and been a great swaggerer, it is more likely than not that the greedy businessman has a home, a spouse, kids.

The whole understructure of the economy is, and will always be, based on these communal, familial, emotional, ambivalent ties, and none other. Ties of love and hate, which precede all economic epiphenomena. I am stating mere platitudes here. And yet, of course, when you read the commonplaces of the economists, and those, like the commenter, who live in the world of commerce, you would come away with a quite different idea of life trajectories – it is as if they were all products of a harsh and brutal orphanage. They all have Crusoe-fied themselves in that this is the story they tell. It is a story that is contradicted at every step by who they are, what they do, where they came from. Retrospectively, they cast the autistic net of rational choice or some such folly over the life they came out of, but this is gossamer of the most spurious type, a spider web thrown over social phenomena to try to make it cohere with fantasy.

It is the fantasy of contracts and pacts that has been puzzling me. Amie rightly has pointed out to me how odd and unmotivated all this contracting seems - although the contracts always do seem to be followed by destruction of the contract. Christoph Haitzmann makes several contracts, or posts several bonds (for his body and soul) with the devil. And yet, since he keeps tearing them up, what, exactly, is their function? This multiplication of contracts is not confined to the satanic realm – indeed, the ten commandments, which are, besides being rules, a covenant – a bond, a contract – are written in stone by God’s own hand – and promptly broken in anger by Moses, who comes down from Sinai and catches his people dancing around a golden calf. Moses has to go to God again, and God graciously agrees to write the contract one more time.

The contractual view, the view which provides the grounds for believing that it is the greed of the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker which is at the base of our economic life – instead of the love and hates of those that raised all three in the oikos and will so continue, world without end, amen – is a view of a kill and a killing from a text, but what a funny text. A text that comes into view and disappears. That bi-locates. That is written, figuratively or literally, in blood.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Bely's scream


A poem, first. Blok’s The gray sky is still beautiful

And cold lights in the gray sky
Clothed the tsar’s Winter Palace
And the armored warrior in black won’t answer
Until dawn overtakes him

Then, reddening above the watery abyss
Let him lower his sword more gloomily,
To lie dead in a useless struggle
With the savage mob for an ancient fairy tale.

And a story. I found this in Mochulsky’s biography of Andrei Bely, which is, unfortunately, the only one in English.

In 1921, after Blok had died, and Bely was trying to get out of Russia, Bely gave a lecture that was supposed to be on Blok’s poetry. Maria Tsvetaeva was there. She wrote that in the middle of the lecture, Bely lost control and began to scream: “From starvation! From Starvation! Gout from starvation, instead of overeating!” and then he went on to his no doubt astonished audience:

‘ I have no room! I am the writer of the Russian land, and I don’t even have a stone on which to lay my head… I wrote Petersburg! I foresaw the downfall of tsarist Russia, I had a dream of the end of the tsar in 1905!… I cannot write! It’s a disgrace! I must stand in line to get my ration of fish! I want to write! But I also want to eat! I am not a spirit! For you I am not a spirit!.. But I am a proletarian… Lumpenproletariat. Because I am all in rags. Because they did away with Blok, and they want to do away with me. I will not permit it! I will scream until I am heard! A-a-a-a!…’

I will not permit it.
It was on ancient fairy tales, and their bloody destruction, that we have built this artificial paradise. And it will not last. It is dying in our bloodstreams as I write this. And in the sky, the tree branches, in the great migrations. So: what was it for? All this happiness.

I will scream until I am heard.

Monday, May 04, 2009

To fall into the hands of the lord is a fearful thing

The word comes, and like a misbegotten fetus, it tangles itself in its own feeding tubes and dies. The word comes, and it takes up its place in the midst of meaning that that primitive, the monkey handed mind, would so like to put down, make materialize, bring out of nothingness into somethingness – and yet those other words aren’t there, and the word lacks the mind’s private conversation.

I wrote this post yesterday evening, and I re-wrote it this morning. And I’m re-writing it again, against the curse on all violations of the law, first thought, best thought. The curse is one of a certain gloominess of aspect, a certain loss of freshness, a lack of the look of spontaneity.

My quotes from the little known Justus Moser have to be more connected to the trails we have danced or sneaked down. In particular, to the persistence, in these notes, of the theme of the closed economy. The peasant economy summarized by George Foster like this:
“In fact, it seems accurate to say that the average peasant sees little or no : relationship between work and production techniques on the one hand, and: the acquisition of wealth on the other. Rather, wealth is seen by villagers in the same light as land: present, circumscribed by absolute limits, and having no relationship to work. One works to eat, but not to create wealth.”

A leitmotif in this work is that the separation of the “old’ and the “new’ worlds, the pre-Columbian attitude in intellectual or cultural history, needs to be smashed. The opening up of the world, literally, dissolved one of the great defining features of peasant culture. The dissolution of peasant culture may well be the most important fundamental thing that happened in the last four hundred years, underneath every other feature of modernity.

Moser’s importance, in that story, is to express, in Enlightenment terms, a great tradition explanation for the closed social system that, in effect, is out of synch with the movement of the great tradition in his time. He was expressing, if you will, the way the great tradition had impressed itself upon the closed world. Even as that world was giving way – and certainly it was, certainly, as people like Charles Tilley have pointed out, capitalism of a primitive kind, with the centralizing features of factory life described by Marx, was already present in the countryside in France, England, Prussia – it was, of course, still dominant, and well able to interpret itself.

This is not of course the first time I’ve written about satanic pacts – they keep coming up. Just as the contract as a text object keeps coming up. When the peasants of the Cauca Valley in Colombia baptized their money with their children, or when Balzac’s Raphael makes his wish on the talisman made out of wild ass skin, they are, in a sense, giving us a sense of the life of the contract before the sharp differentiation of the written and the body. The text itself is part of the body – in the case of Haitzmann, the contract with the devil is written in, or signed in blood – if of course it was written at all. Freud claims that there was never a text object there to begin with. That the life of the name I sign on the thing that I sign should become my double is, perhaps, an image of the social contract (a contract like Haitzmann’s pact with the devil in that it is a mindforged thing) upon which we should reflect.

Okay, this is done. Now, onto what I wrote this morning.

Justus Moser wrote a number of fragments about serfdom. They are all oriented by the desire to show how the feudal structure began, for Moser was enough of a child of the enlightenment that he believed in the efficacy of the origin story. His editor sort of mashed them all together in his collected works, under the title, On Serfdom.

Moser begins by taking a defensive tone, writing that while all right thinking people now abhor feudalism, they fail to explain why it ever existed in the first place.

Moser explanation of the ancient institutions is advanced under the principle that a people shouldn’t be supposed to be simply stupid. This remark is directed against the predominate Voltairian tone concerning superstition taken by the philosophes – but Moser’s wording is startlingly similar to the remark in Wittgenstein’s notes on Frazer, made one hundred fifty years later:

“Already the idea of wanting to explain the practice – for instance, the killing of the priest king – seems to me to miss the mark. All that Frazer does is make it plausible to men who think as he does. It is very remarkable that all these practices are finally so to speak portrayed as stupidities.
But it will never be plausible that people did all this out of stupidity.”

Unlike Wittgenstein, however, Moeser doesn’t think that the practices are simply there, and the point is to describe them. They do have a rationale, and that rationale can be unlocked by means of a speculative reconstruction of the first feudal act, so to speak. Yet he ends up telling us a number of origin stories. The story that is most consistent with his point is one set at the beginning of the world. Abraham – “or whatever the name of the fellow was who owned the first large flock of sheep’” – allows his shepherds to herd their flocks with his while they tend the entire flock. The result is that the sheep of the shepherds fatten while Abraham’s sheep decline; the sheep of the shepherds flourish while Abraham’s sheep are seized by wolves; Abraham’s sheep sicken, the shepherds’ sheep do not. Finally, Abraham’s wife, making an Eve like appearance, said to him:”Husband, if we don’t change this, we will become poor, and our shepherds rich.” Abraham agrees. He not only forbids his shepherds to herd their sheep with his, he forbids them from owning sheep. ‘Everything that the servants produce should belong to me as Lord.”

Moser varies this story with other produce and other households, in all of which the paterfamilias must either prey upon the servants or be preyed upon. The dynamic of predation is the dynamic of hierarchy – every higher level demands of every lower level a certain symbolic disarmament of its ability to prey, until we reach the king’s position. Thus, to fall, in Moser’s schema, is to fall among wolves – you either keep your level or you expose yourself to attack and dismemberment.

Moser, like Freud, as we will see, justifies his theory by referring to ‘traces’, survivals: “From whence does it come then, that so many traces of serfdom are found in all states where the people live by means of agriculture?”

Now here, indeed, is father substitution in which ambivalence is inscribed in the system. The good father is a father at all due to the fact that he is a predator. Moser expressly compares the children of the paterfamilias to the servants. To fall, in this system, is a dreadful thing, and hard to see the end of.

And so we come to the de Certeau.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...