Friday, December 25, 2009

Marx, Gogol and the principle of the ludicrous

Marx, in the Holzdiebstahl articles, allows himself to speak of the “poorer” class - ärmere Klasse – which, for those of us who’ve done our time on the Marx job, followed the old man’s routines, read the letters, tapped the secondary literature, written our reports, know the drill – is an indication that we are in the early stages of the man’s career here, in this text. The Marx of 1860 knows that the class of the poor misconceives class – which describes levels within the system of production, not something as contingent as income. The class of workers may be poor, but their class status is defined by what they do. Meanwhile, as those covering the classical and neoclassical economists know, the poor remain fixed as a primary economic unit in their schemes and dreams, in crude opposition to the ‘rich’. For class has dissolved as an organizing property among the economists, and economic units are determined outside of their place in the system of production – outside of their productive function, which enters in terms of a labor market. The labor market is a marvelous thing, a beast as fabulous as any reported by Pliny. The labor market, of course, then gives us a throwback sociology, which gives us these things – the poor, the rich – as a sort of hybrid of magic and statistics. In the neo-classical world, the rich face the poor, in the first instance, without mediation, and then, in the second instance, in an interface mediated by the state, that ‘redistributes’ money from the rich to the poor. This is the fairy tale, this is the leitmotif, this is how it is told on all holiday occasions. And thus, so much is allowed to the second of Polanyi’s double movement – that is, the movement that pulls against and curbs the social excesses of the pure market system. The state, here, functions solely to take care of the welfare of the poor. On the other hand, the first movement is ignored – in which the state redistributes, indeed, makes possible, the welfare of the rich. The state is the dead machine that creates its live doctor Frankenstein – that is, private property itself. A process that accompanies capitalism down to the present day, where private property can now be had in the genes of a virus; we cut up the planet’s atmosphere and apportion it out. And so property emerges where no property was – and so accustomed are we to this phenomenon that we do not even think about or see it.

Thus, even at this point in his life, Marx – without his essential tools of class and the system of commodities – understood that this ‘side of the economy is, as it were, being twisted out of shape by the application of categories that do not reflect the dynamic axis of the economic system – in fact, seem as though they were designed to obscure it. The law is no longer written on stone tablets, but jimmied into place by those who control the legislative activity. All of which rather disturbs the high abstractions of the philosophy of law taught to Marx in Berlin. And – as the articles on wood theft show - the greatest of these misprisioning category-makers and voluntary blindspots turns out to be the divide between the private and the public spheres, which is ideally true, and practically a sham.

Yet, as I’ve pointed out, at this point in his career Marx is still working with these categories, still looking at socialism with the eyes of a lawyer – or rather, a philosopher of law. There is an old and oft told tale about how all of that works out, which skips over the Rheinisher Landtag and puts Marx in a capsule with Hegel, where they struggle for dominance. And who am I to object? The tale is all well and good and philosophisch like a hardon – but we should remember that Marx isn’t, actually, in a capsule, nor is he simple a figure in the history of philosophy, with its Mount Rushmore like heads. Neither the law nor justice jumped out of Hegel’s encyclopedia. The law was something any peasant, any Josef K., could bump into in the midst of life, in a wood. The legal approach to property, Marx will find out, is one-sided – insufficient. It is only when this insufficience gets too big for its britches and goes around presenting itself as the totality that we fall into mystification.

Marx already touches on parts of that mystification in these articles – but I feel irresistibly impelled, by every imp in my bloodstream, to sample some Gogol here, who had a knack, a supernatural knack, for dramatizing muddle. In the 9th chapter of Dead Souls, as we watch two women devise, between them, a story about Chichikov’s plan to elope with the governor’s daughter for which they haven’t a shred of evidence or even a thought that proceeded their confab – as this beautiful error is hatched in their gossip, and the two women become more and more descriptions of themselves – the agreeable lady and the lady who is agreeable in all aspects – Gogol pops his head out to make a rather astonishing case that this is the equivalent of what happens when the historian – shall we even say, the universal historian? – conjectures a story into the world:

“That both ladies finally believed beyond any doubt something which had originally been pure conjecture is not in the least unusual. We, intelligent people though we call ourselves, behave in an almost identical fashion, as witness our scholarly deliberations. At first the scholar proceeds in the most furtive manner, beginning cautiously, with the most diffident of questions: ‘Is it not perhaps from there? Could not such-and-such a country perhaps derive its name from that remote spot?” Or: Does this document perhaps not belong to another, later period?” Or: “When we say this nation, do we not perhaps mean that nation there?” He promptly cites various writers of antiquity and the moment he detects any hint of something – or imagines such a hint – he breaks into a trot and, growing bolder by the minute, now discouses as an equal with the writers of antiquity, asking them questions, and even answering on their behalf, entirely forgetting that he began with a timid hypothesis; it already seems to him that he can see it, the truth, that it is perfectly clear--- and his deliberation is concluded with the words: “So that’s how it was, that is how such-and-such a nation should be understood, that’s the angle from which this should be viewed!”

To so radically equate gossip with historical philosophy leads us, surely, to Marx – if only because Gogol, too, is responding to the ‘historical school’ that derives from Herder, Schiller and Schelling; and because Marx, like Gogol, has an eye for the principle of the ludicrous. There are two ludicrous themes in the wood theft articles. One consists in how, exactly, law is re-creating the status of the private property holder in the face of his history – “for no legislation abrogates the legal privileges of property, but it only strips it of its adventurous character and imparts to it a bourgeois character”. There is certainly an undertone in this description, which makes the normalization of feudal law into a cynical play, a game of dress down and dress up, of stripping the adventurer and imparting to him the burger’s placid certainties, that reminds us of Gogol’s Insprector General – and may have been meant by Marx to refer to Beaumarchais. No undertone of comedy is ever insignificant in Marx. Our second ludicrous theme consists in the parallel Marx draws between the modal status of the windfallen wood and of the poor. The wood that by custom is gathered in the forest – wood that is scattered, strewn - is cut off from the organic tree, and thus becomes philosophically unnecessary and organically dead. Meanwhile the gleaners, the poor are also cut off, in as much as their customary rights are contingent [zufaellige] concessions, and thus their very existence, insofar as it is based on these customs, is outside of justice [Recht] – which puts it in Robin Hood’s realm, apart, accidental. In fact, in a beautiful phrase, Marx claims that the custom [Gewohnheit] or usages of the poor are the “anticipation of a legal right.” The spirit of Benjamin, the angel of history Benjamin so fiercely invoked, floats over this idea that the little tradition, the shared usages of the peasants, anticipates the moment of their legal recognition in the future. That anticipation is, of course, the revolution.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

dead wood, dead souls

Its very hard to find anything in Gogol, right up to the meaning; Gogol somehow shrinks from your touch, wriggles away. He hides, and when you finally find him it won’t be right, it won’t be him: it isn’t that you have found him, but that he thrust himself out where you didn’t expect him, where there was no place for your ideas of him, where he wasn’t yesterday. That Gogol is no longer where you remember him; this one is not where you expect him. – “Being Burried Alive, or Gogol in 1973 – Andrei Bitov

On the one hand, it is a mere coincidence that, as Marx was writing about windfallen wood in 1842, in Russia, a novel named Dead Souls was passed by Nicholas I’s censors and published. On the other hand, no Gnostic historican can afford to turn up his nose at mere coincidence – for are we not the slaves of intersignes? And surely this must be an intersigne, an exchange happening in the basement below universal history, where all the dealers in codexes are busy cutting them up and mashing them back together.

To look at windfallen wood from the aspect of whether it can be defined as private property, Marx claims, tells us a lot about what private property is defined as. The same can be said for buying dead souls – souls that exist on an equality with live ones on the tax rolls. What Chichikov has figured out (and was born to figure out – in Chapter XI, Gogol’s portrait of the birth and schooling of a rational choicer certainly shows us this much) – is what we now know in various other forms – the credit default swap, the leveraged buyout, etc. Which is that in capitalism, the nominal, given the right circumstances, easily triumphs over the substantial. One buys a company making real things – like mattresses – with debt itself. All of these brilliant financial innovations were not dreamt of in Nicholas I’s Russia; and yet, buying dead souls in order to take out a loan from the government to buy a substantial estate – Chichikov’s general plan – touched on the very essence of financialization. Touch on its intersection with the forces of life and death – which is why in the town of N. (a town Gogol describes in his notes as pure emptiness), a stout middle aged man, looking neither handsome nor ugly, having no real distinguishing trait about him, could, in the course of his business, eventually be mistaken by the townspeople for the Antichrist – that is, Napoleon – himself.

Meanwhile, in Köln, Marx is writing about dead wood and live ownership.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

where does private property come from, Dad?

Wood theft, according to the two scholars who have studied it in the German context (Blasius and Mooser) was one of the central crimes against property in the 19th century, from the 1830s to the 1860s – over about a generation. Marx’s five articles about the laws concerning wood theft are not, then, about an eccentric issue. And, as much as wood “theft” is an issue in the history of crime, it is also an issue in the creation of property –which is how it opened Marx’s eyes, as much as they were opened in his classes in property law at the University of Berlin. It is here that we find Marx dealing with the kind of enclosures that were central to Polanyi theory of the Great Transformation. Private property was not, on this account, merely guarded by the state – the still reigning liberal myth. Rather, it was through the state that private property was defined. To separate the state from the private sphere is to move from historic fact to ideological myth. Why that myth is important is another matter. What Marx saw happening was important in the way he came to see understand class, rather than remaining with Stand – a word that is hard to translate. Status, station, estate – those are the English equivalents.

In 1858, in the preface to the Contribution to a Critique of Political Economics, Marx wrote: “My major was jurisprudence, that I nonetheless only took up as a subordinate discipline near philosophy and history. In 1842-1843, as the editor of the "Rheinischen Zeitung", I was embarrassed for the first time to have to discuss so called material interests. The Rheinische Landtag’s treatment of Wood theft and the parceling out of land properties, which opened up an official polemic between Herr von Schaper, at that time the president of Rhein province, and the Rheinischen Zeitung over the situation of the grapegrowers, debates finally about free trade and tarrifs, gave me a first occasion to deal with economic questions. On the other hand the good will to go further into this further made up for a lot of special expertise, and a weak philosophically colored echo of French socialism and communism could be heard in the Rheinischen Zeitung.”

Marx, at this point, did not have a systematic understanding of property relations as an economic system, nor did he understand how that system had generated a fundamental change in the composition of society – a change, so to speak, from status to contract, from custom to free labor - but rather, he had a legal/ethnological view of the rules governing property that he used to criticize the state government’s abolition of customary rights – Gewohnheitrecht.

Monday, December 21, 2009

one-sided world

…der Verstand ist nicht nur einseitig, sondern es ist sein wesentliches Geschäft, die Welt einseitig zu machen, eine große und bewunderungswürdige Arbeit, denn nur die Einseitigkeit formiert und reißt das Besondere aus dem unorganischen Schleim des Ganzen. – Marx

“…Understanding is not only one-sided, but it is its essential business to make the world one-sided, a great and marvelous labor, because only one-sidedness forms and rips the particular out of the inorganic slime of the whole.”

James C. Scott begins Seeing Like the State with an emblematic story, a parable of one-sidedness, concerning the rise of scientific forestry. That rise occurred in the late eighteenth century, when the Prussian state intervened in the assessment, preservation, and reproduction of forest properties, all in order to create a more efficient natural resource. The German forestry service cleared out many features of the ‘old’ chaotic forests – the ‘weed’ species, the unnecessary ground cover, the poaching birds, animals and humans. Fire, too, is a poacher, and must be prevented. Even age forests – much more useful for lumber, much less volatile in terms of calculating yield – were groomed in their place. The description of the forest consisting of the same species, standing in disciplined ranks, row on row of trees, is eerily like the disciplined classroom or jail described in Foucault’s Surveiller et Punir. However, Scott considers this not so much a regime of the vision as the reading eye – the eyeball attached to understanding. This, in Scott’s terms, is what it means to make the woods – that place of darkness and gloom in which Little Red Riding Hoods encounter deceitful wolves – into a place of legibility.

Unfortunately, what happened over a century was that this monoculture produced row upon row of vulnerable, sickly trees. After the first, healthy generation had used up the ‘accumulated capital’ of soil nutrients laid down by hundreds of years of undisciplined forest growth and death, the next generation of trees were excessively prone to insect and fungal infestation, wind damage, and starved, splintery and miserable growth – at least in human terms, where it was all dollar signs and lumber.

In the nineteenth century, however, the German service had been seen as a model, and was adopted by the forestry service in the U.S. and the British service in India. The British even imported a German forester to make sense of India’s tree growth. To chase Mowgli out of the jungle, and put the stamp of the one-sided on what grew and creeped there. But in the twentieth century, where the forestry rules had been followed, the result was Waldsterben – forest death. Even now, that ominous poacher, the forest fire, is stalking the drought stricken forests of the American West – which are being eaten up, at any rate, by a boring beetle whose larva now survive the winters in the Rockies, thanks to the fact that the winter have not been as cold for the past thirty years. One side is flipping to the other side.

“The metaphorical value of this brief account of scientific production forestry is that it illustrates the dangers of dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of relations and processes in
order to isolate a single element of instrumental value. The instrument, the knife, that carved out the new, rudimentary forest was the razorsharp interest in the production of a single commodity. Everything that
interfered with the efficient production of the key commodity was implacably eliminated. Everything that seemed unrelated to efficient production was ignored. Having come to see the forest as a commodity, scientific forestry set about refashioning it as a commodity machine. Utilitarian simplification in the forest was an effective way of maximizing wood production in the short and intermediate term. Ultimately, however, its emphasis on yield and paper profits, its relatively short time horizon, and, above all, the vast array of consequences it had resolutely bracketed came back to haunt it.”

In a note, Scott glancingly references Karl Marx’s five articles about the changing forest laws instituted by the provincial government based in Cologne. Mehring crediting those article with a great advance in Marx’s life – he claimed that in them, for the first time, Marx attempts a class analysis.

I want to take a break from the artificial paradise of drugs. The next five or six posts will be about trees.


My sister blog, News from the Zona, just won third place in the 3 Quarks Political Blog contest. All my heteronyms are happy.

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