Saturday, September 17, 2011

Adventure revisted

A post constructed from two former posts. If you look up the sociological work done on adventure, you will soon find that there is little or none. Astonishingly, it seems to hold no interest, in itself, for the sociologist. With one exception – a classic essay by Simmel. When, otherwise, the subject comes up, the sociologist views adventure in the same spirit as the tourist agency: as a category in the leisure field, requiring a guide, hotel accomodations, showers at the end of it, cameras, and flights to and fro. This is all the more astonishing in that adventurers certainly have existed. Adventurers brought down the Inca empire. Adventurers founded the Jamestown colony. Legitimists called Napoleon an adventurer for good reason – the same thing could be said for Garibaldi. So why the lack of interest? Perhaps it is because adventure, from the serious social science point of view, seems to have the irritating ability to turn the monumental into the ludicrous: it is continually shaking hands with the Commandantore. And, for the social scientist, there is a line: the truth must, in the end, be serious. It simply can’t be ludicrous. That would be an insult to all the founding positivist family. The adventurer, the politician, the artist, the scholar/virtuoso – they are all types that appear in the Renaissance. They are related insofar as they all have complex and conflicting relationships with the system of patronage. Of them all, the adventurer is the hardest, perhaps, to grasp, since it is difficult to say just what his object is. The politician aims at power, the artist at art, the virtuoso at knowledge, and the adventurer at experience – yet that seems much too vast and vague an object (although why it is vaster and vaguer than knowledge or power is a good question). Michael Nerlich, a literary critic, observes in The Ideology of Adventure that adventure is first used as an economic term: "Godfrey's selection of examples of aventure in his Dictionnaire de l’ancienne langue francaise is, to be sure, one-sided, but it is of particular interest to us because his examples are almost exclusively of legal or economic meanings, with the first examples going all the way back to the late thirteenth century. Alongside the meaning of “output, earnings, income” ... the word aventure also occurs with the meaning of ‘catch, booty or harvest...” And later ... “Despite all the theories about ‘eventus, etc., I believe that this is the original meaning, sicne it is difficult to see why an ad-ventura would have had to be invented when eventus already covered the meaning.” Nechlin gives us this meaning with the note that it is controversial, and seems to infuriate some medievalists, who do not like the idea that the adventure of the knight on his quest is a thing of booty. In the same way, Kierkegaard strenuously objects to Moliere’s Dom Juan being endebted – dealing with money is, to Kierkegaard, a fall from the infinite adventure of seduction. Simmel’s essay on adventure begins by considering the “double-sidedness” of events in a life. On the one hand, events fall into a pattern in relationship to one another, so that one can talk of a life as a whole and mean a unified thing – on the other hand, events have their own center of gravity, and can be defined in terms of their own potential for pleasure or pain. To use an example not mentioned by Simmel, but getting at what he means: Famously, Kant had a regular habit of taking a certain stroll each day in Königsberg. It was famous as a regular habit – it was an example of some craving for order in Kant’s life, which some have read into his work. Now, one walk was, intentionally, much like the other – and yet, they all formed a distinct sub-system in Kant’s life of Kant’s walks. In ordinary life, we often talk about what we are “like”. If I lose, say, my wallet, I may say, I always leave it on the table. In so saying, I’m observing myself anthropologically – this is what the tribe of me is like. It has these rituals, these obsessions, these returning points. At the same time, there are rituals and obsessions I am not so aware of. Let us say I am a woman who continually falls in love with a certain type of man. He is surly, he has issues with his father, he is emotionally needy. How does her radar pick out these men? Of course, the exterior appearance – I like such and such a feature - is easy to account for, but not the similarity of temperament over lovers. Why does the same process happen over and over? In Hoffmann’s story, The Sandman – the story that Freud used as the template of the unheimlich, the uncanny – this automatism goes so far that the hero actually falls in love with an automaton, as if some interior routine evoked a counterpart in the world itself. Freud speaks of “fate” in the love life. Of course, fates preside over other things beside the destinies of our dicks and pussies. La Bruyere, for instance, outlines the characteristic of a man who is always losing things, bumping into people, misreading signs, mistaking his own house for somebody else's and somebody else's for his own. We might think that this state of confusion, in the extreme, is evidence of some pathological disturbance of the brain. However, there are a number of habits one "falls" into in one's life, resolves not to continue with, and still - falls into again. Simmel speaks of events and their meanings in themselves and in relationship to the whole of life. Which can also move in the other direction: “Events which, regarded in themselves, representing simply their own meaning, may be similar to each other, may be, according to their relationship to the whole of life, extremely divergent.” Simmel’s definition of adventure is on the basis of this relationship of the parts of life to the whole course of life: “When, of two experiences, each of which offer contents that are not so different from one another, one is felt as an adventure, and the other isn’t – so it is that thise difference of relationship to the whole of our live is that by which the one accrues this meaning that is denied to the other. And this is really the form of adventure on the most general level: that it falls out of the connections of life.” That falling out of the Zusammenhange – the “hanging together” of our life isn’t to be confused, according to Simmel, with all unusual events. One shouldn’t confuse the odd moment with the adventure. Rather, adventure stands against the whole grain of our life. There is a thread that spans our lives – Simmel uses a vocabulary that returns us to the “spinning” of the fates – and unifies it. Adventure follows a different course: While it falls out of the connections of our life, it falls – as will be gradually explained – at the same time, with this movement, back inot it, a foreign body [ein Fremdkörper]in our existence, which yet is somehow bound up with the center. The exterior part [Ausserhalb] is, if even on a great and unusual detour, a form of the inner part. [Innerhalb] As always in Simmel, there is a lot of sexy suggestion here, which clouds one’s questions – especially about the latent conflict between a thread spanning a life and a center. One recognizes the logic of the supplement here – an excess in affirming a proposition has the effect of making it less clear, rather than more clear. Simmel’s ‘proof’ of this theory about adventure is that, when we remember these mutations in our life, they seem dreamlike. Why would the memory set up an equivalence, as it were, between a dream and an adventure? Because it is responding to the logic of the exterior/interior binary. Dreams, which are so exterior to our waking life that we cannot see them as playing any causal role in that life, are so interior that we share them with nobody else. Introjected – Melanie Klein’s word – wasn’t available in 1912 for Simmel, but something similar is going on. “The more “adventurous” an adventure is, the more purely it satisfies its concept, the “dreamier” it becomes in our memory. And so far does it often distance itself from the central point of the I and the course of the whole of life consolidated around it, that it is easy to think of an adventure as if somebody else had experienced it.” These traits – which are expressed, Simmel says, in the sharpness of beginning and ending which defines the adventures in our life, as opposed to other episodes – make adventures an “island” in our life. These traits too call up another in the chain of signifiers that are suggested by the dream – that is, the artwork. Adventurers are like artists in that the adventure, like the artwork, lies both outside of and deep within the whole of a life. It lies outside of and deep within from the perspective of memory – while the perspective that unfolds during the course of the adventure is one of presentness – this is why the adventurer is deeply “unhistoric”. That present is neither caused by the past nor oriented towards the future. To illustrate this, Simmel uses the example of Casanova. What he says should be put in relationship to Moliere’s Dom Juan, who, as I have pointed out, was always proposing marriage – to propose marriage was his compulsion, as he explains it to Sganarelle, just as Alexander the Great’s was conquest. A reading of the play, like Kierkegaard’s, that regards the marriage mania as a mask for the real seduction underneath takes the conjunction of marriage and seduction too easily. This is Simmel on Casanova: “An extremely characteristic testimony to this [the lack of a sense of the future] is what Casanova, as can be seen in his memoirs, so oftin in the course of his erotic adventurous life seriously aimed at – to marry the woman of the momen he loved. By his disposition and way of life, there was nothing more contradictory, nothing more innerly and outerly unthinkable for Casanova. Casanova was not only a notable knower of men, but was maifestly a rare knower of himself; and though he was obliged to say that he couldn’t have held out in a marriage more than fourteen days, and that the most miserable consequences would inevitably attend this step – the intoxication of the moment so caught him up (by which I mean to lay more emphasis on the moment than the intoxication) that it swallowed up the future perspective, so to speak, hide and hair.”

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Totalization and me

There are a number of theories that account for and explain modernization. All tend to isolate modernization in opposition to the pre-modern, traditional or ‘natural’ social arrangements, and one can see why: to understand an object or process, one must isolate it, however artificially, in order to focus upon it and analyze it. However, the work of isolation and focus has often been reified and projected upon modernization itself, as though the old order – however one describes it – is simply swept away, as though the epistemologically clarifying gesture reflects the totalizing character of modernity. This is not to say that modernity doesn’t strive towards being the total social fact that characterizes all societies locked in the universal history of capitalism. The institutional circles of the law, money, and education, which Simmel – to an extent – saw in the Philosophy of money, or – to name three other less institutionally bound signifies - industrialization, politicization and science, which form another total complex, touch everyone – even the lost tribe, the isolato. Above all our heads is the Van Allen belt. Within our bloodstreams there is plentiful testimony to the artificial paradise we have produced. But within our dreams and our gossip there are other murkier currents, there are pre-modern reflexes. Superstition rules the stock market, and favors, turn taking, and oddly earmarked symbols are traded between workers in the most rational of office spaces, where the halogen lighting creates its uniform zones of visibility and computer screens are monitored and monitor all actors. The great and little traditions – to use James C.Scott’s categories – do battle, or uneasily lay down one next to the other, not only in peasant tilled fields, but in the traffic jam and the service economy. .

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...