Saturday, October 10, 2009

some notes for saturday

It is a point that is not often enough stressed that one of Marx and Engels co-editors on their newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, was a man named Ernst Dronke whose major claim to fame was as a chronicler of low-life and Polizei Geschichte. Marx’s well known affection for Balzac, whose police stories were one of great unifying threads in the Comedie Humaine, was matched in his real life, the period of his greatest political activity, by his own involvement in decrying the police tactics and the laws concerning certain “little things” – such as the laws against gathering wood for fuel in private forests passed by the Rheinische Landstag, against which Marx pointed his lance as early as 1842.

Without my expecting or planning it, it seems that the tree from the Chuangtze haunts the Human Limit.

I’ve been pondering in my off hours the way in which commodities – say in dead wood in the underbrush – not only get up and lead a secret life in the world of Capital, but, in so doing, evoke the organization of the police and the attempt to follow and control the most private of routines – for instance, the one that connects the cells in your brains to the distilled spirits in your stomach – which is, one might say, the political side of the secret life of commodities….

There’s been a recent controversy about happiness and militant dysphoria over at Ads Without Products to which I contributed my predictable pence. I liked it that the argument fingered the tropes I would have predicted in just the way I would have predicted, with everything centered around the inability to imagine that there could be any ideal but happiness, and at the same time leaving that massive signifier as blank as the eyes of any idol, any dug up statue, from any long sunk dynasty. One must infer the vision…

But to get back to the world of little things, especially the little things that get you drunk… or that in some way interfere with the state’s desire for the paradigm consciousness (which at that time was a nice cleared Lockean blank slate – land for the tilling, a property, and not common land debauched by vile liquids). Jessica Warner’s Craze is not only the history of that brief time in which gin was drunk in killing quantities, but of the attempt, by the state, to stop it. This involved using informers – not to betray a dissident religious or political sect, but to betray a consumer choice. While the state’s fight against smuggling had long used informers, I am going to tentatively claim that the act of 1736 which made it a crime to sell gin without an expensive license, intentionally available to few, introduced something new: a much more concentrated use of informers to control ordinary life. Here, indeed, was a contradiction in proto-capitalism: the elite – like Walpole – who depended on the money flowing in from the tax on spirits and the support of the great brewers were also confronted with a popular movement that lay outside of religion, politics, or ideology. Not of course that the movement didn’t develop an ad hoc ideology in its defense, one that caught hold of the theme of liberty. The gin acts, which go up to the 1750s, provoked riots. And they marked, Warner claims, a brief but telling victory of the urban obscure – artisans, maids, construction workers, etc – over the police powers of the establishment. She does not connect this with a revolt that happened later on, in America, sparked by, among other things, two of the little things, sugar and tea. However, as within, so without – the magic warrant for our inverted universal history seems to hold, here.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

I am become death

There is a beautiful passage in Logique du sens – a book that tugs at me as I think about intoxicants and the Mordspiel. And not only intoxicants – the little things that loom large for Schloezer move eerily between addiction and normality. In the biography of Thomas Beddoes, the radical doctor friend of Coleridge and Humphrey Davy, we read these thoughts from the great man, circa 1800:

“The use of salt as a condiment to meagre diet as to potatoes only he condemns upon the authority of Dr Darwin as injurious. He considers it as having a great share in inducing glandular relaxation and tending to the production of scrophula. Could opium he enquires be used as a substitute in minute quantities? He hesitates in recommending it for fear of its leading to the adoption of bad habits. It is probable however, he adds, that some seasoning for poor food which did not increase the production of sensorial power and at the same time promote the expenditure of this power might be found. Between the oriental spices and the garlick of the French there is great choice. An obstacle to the introduction of that seasoning which may have the best title to supplant salt may be apprehended in the prejudices and habits of the people but is this a reason why we should not immediately set about to ascertain which that best seasoning is? It cannot be adopted before it is known The seeds of benefit to the human race have generally been sown for ages before any fruit became ripe for gathering.”

The meager diet of the poor and how to create the necessary illusion that it stretched to fit the exigencies of the rulers – that is the question.

Not only for the rulers, but for the universal historian. For whom I interpose my translation of the 15th series, of singularities, from Deleuze:

“The two moments of sense, impassibility and genesis, neutrality and productivity, are not such that one could pass for the appearance of the other. The neutrality, the impassibility of the event, its indifference to the determinations of interior and exterior, of individual and collective, of the particular and the general, etc. are very much a constant without which the event would not possess an eternal truth and wouldn’t be distinguishable from its temporal effectuations. If the battle is not one example of an event among others, but the event in its essence, this is without doubt because it is effectuated in many ways at the same time, and that each participant can grasp it on a level of a different effectuation in its variable present: hence for the comparisons that have become classic between Stendhal, Hugo, Tolstoy such that they “see” the battle and make their heroes see it. But it is principally because the battle “flies above” [survole] its proper field, neutral by relation to all its temporal effectuations, neutral and impassible by relation to the winners and the defeated, by relation to the cowards and the braves, and even more terrible because of all of that, never present, always already to come and already passed, only being able to be grasped by the will that it inspires itself to the anonymous, the will that must be called “indifference” in a soldier wounded mortally, keeping himself there where the event is, and thus participating in its terrible impassibility. Where is the battle? It is on this account that the soldier sees himself flee when he flees, and leap when he leaps, determined to consider each temporal effectuation from the very eternal height of the event incarnate in it and, alas, in his proper flesh. Still, it taks a long conquest for the soldier to arrive at this moment beyond courage and cowardliness to that of the pure grasp of the event by a “voluntary intuition”, that is to say, by the will that makes him the event, distinct from all the other empirical intuitions that correspond to these effectuations.”

To fly above – survoler – doesn’t this sound like dissociation? It is common, in the lumbering reports of the sexologist and the tendentious anecdotes of the psychologist, to encounter the trope of the out of body experience during sex. Women, for instance, who feel the braces of the body slide away and, loosened, float above the couple on the bed in their embraces. Is this vision from the ceiling a vision of the event? What else could it be, in Deleuze’s terms. Above the bed or the battlefield, soldier or lover, it is at this high point that the neurotic, the traumatized, and the universal historian meet and – to the latter’s respectable horror – join. One might call this the moment of perverted solitude – for solitude will not be downed or drowned in the mingling of bodies. Funny that Deleuze does’t mention either the Iliad or the Bhagavad-gita at this point. Oppenheimer, watching the atom bomb bloom in the New Mexico desert, recalled, famously: “A few people laughed. A few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line form the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says: Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” [In Atomic Fragments: a daughter’s questions, 235]

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...