Friday, November 25, 2011

the naked and the busy: Rousseau2

In Kleist's essay, On the Marionette Theater, Kleist presents a dialogue between himself and a marionette master concerning theater and the relation of the marionette to the human actor. The master voices the idea that even human actors display their souls not in their voices but in the bodies and their movements.

"Just look at that girl who dances Daphne", he went on. "Pursued by Apollo, she turns to look at him. At this moment her soul appears to be in the small of her back. As she bends, she look as if she's going to break, like a naiad after the school of Bernini. Or take that young fellow who dances Paris when he's standing among the three goddesses and offering the apple to Venus. His soul is in fact located (and it's a frightful thing to see) in his elbow."

These examples are not neutral - they gather and explode in his next passage:

" Misconceptions like this are unavoidable," he said, " now that we've eaten of the tree of knowledge. But Paradise is locked and bolted, and the cherubim stands behind us. We have to go on and make the journey round the world to see if it is perhaps open somewhere at the back."

That methodological circumnavigation, in search of the back door to paradise, is how I intend to pursue this investigation of Rousseau - and in fact, ultimately, all investigations. A paradisial truth that comes by way of the serpent's path, that is what is going on here.

In that spirit, let's take up one of Rousseau's predecessors in the European tradition of imagining the other.

Gabriel Foigny was an underground man of the classical age – a drunk, a lech, an ex-priest. He fled from a monastery in France, where the bonds of chastity were evidently too tight for him, to the Protestant freedom of Geneva, in the 1660s. There he found a job as a teacher – his attempt to go on preaching under the new dispensation was discouraged when he appeared in church drunk – and married a low class slut who proceeded to cheat on him. Being an educated man, he turned his hand to the market for reading matter. First, he created playing cards of a kind, on which there were prayers – or perhaps Tarot signs. Then, in 1676, he published a manuscript he had been ‘given”, La Terre Ausrale. Later on, he admitted that he wrote it himself – by this time he was on the hop again, leaving behind a pregnant maidservant and a set of angry Genevan ministers. The TA is an account of a colonial Sinbad the sailor who ends up, after various adventures in Africa and Portugal, cast up on the Australian shore. Australia, here, is not to be confused with the continent of that name – it was more like More’s Utopia than Van Dieman’s discovery. The account of the naturals of Australia is accompanied by a dialogue between the protagonist and one of their sages. Through this sage, Foigny expressed, as Geoffrey Atkinson put it, his “open and secret revolt against society and its institutions.” [39]

Such a revolt, to be radical, must go back to the very root of society. That, of course, is paradise. Society begins in the annihilation of paradise, as readers of Genesis know. Or I should say, its annihilation for humans – for it is part of the magic of the story that the Garden of Eden is not abolished by the Lord. It exists, but it exists, now, outside of human existence. It is barred. Thus, no sentence in human history has had the effect of Adam’s communication to God that he and Eve are naked. For, as God immediately replies, “who told thee that thou wast naked?” It is one of those moments for which Joyce, in Finnegan’s Wake, devised his long sentence-words, dividing one Viconian epoch from another: “The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonneronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr”.

But if we go around the world, as Kleist’s dramaturge suggests, perhaps we can get in the back way. Foigny’s sage-sauvage is, as Atkinson writes, ‘filled with horror at the idea of wearing clothes”. He cannot be persuaded that clothing is an aid to morality – comparing the Europeans to “little children who no longer know an object as soon as it is covered with a veil.” [63] As without, so within. The colonial process – or the civilizing process – puts into relief superstition as its privileged target, while its subjects, the subjected, gaze with disbelief at the superstitions of the civilizers. Ultimately, what was this, for the Europeans, but the rejection of that peculiar moment in Genesis, when God, for once, stops being a politician or a magician – when he makes clothing of skin for his creatures. As he once made Adam of clay, the act of a worldmaker, so he now clothes them, the act of a colonizer – but colonizer in the most intimate sense. There is no more intimate act ever attributed to Yahweh than this: ‘Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skin, and clothed them.” As though Adam’s announcement made the seals fall from God’s eyes, too. The intimacy in this act is in its superfluity: after all, having condemned humans to labor – and the sexes to division of labor – there’s no reason that Adam and Eve could not have made their own clothes. What kind of divine necessity is on display, here? What kind of cosmic discomfort? We know that the Gods, other Gods, can be moved by human nakedness – can be stirred to desire. Per Ganymede, per Leda, per Daphne, per every metamorphosis, ever skin that goes on and every skin that comes off.

If we are to understand the world of the primitive man of Rousseau's Discours on Inequality, we have to look through the eye of the needle of the European man that Rousseau saw all around him - a man whose chief economic industry lay in making clothes or textiles. Nudity, which is characteristic of that early man, is also characteristic of a certain kind of leisure. And it is with this symbol that we may as well start.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

In which an Icelandic prole shocks a member of the 1 percent...

John Lancaster’s review of Michael Lewis’s book is as disastrous as, alas, Michael Lewis’s book. Lancaster is very impressed by nominal debt. He is very clueless about wealth inequality. And he is a classic upper class type. His first story is about an Icelandic waitress he meets in Rejkavik. Now, the first thing to notice about this meeting is that Lancaster is in Iceland. He apparently finds that harmless and decent, since he apparently finds his position in the top 1 percent worldwide just a fact of natural history. But this waitress! Why, during the boom, she tells him, she used to go and fly to Milan and shop.

Now, how often the waitress flew to Milan and shopped is anybody’s guess. After hearing from the serf, no doubt after being served his meal, Lancaster is all agog. The story is exactly worth what he paid to find out if it is true. Zero.

But given a mindset so blind to the system that puts the herring in his belly, Lancaster is all set up for Lewis’s book, which strings together stories of proles spending money they don’t have (shamefully!) and governments with the gall to, well, have the kind of social services that were agreed upon in the fifties.

Lewis’s book, of which I’ve only read the articles in Vanity Fair, is, alas, not one of Lewis’s more insightful outings. For instance, he takes his cues on California’s situation from Schwarzenegger. Not once, in the VF article, does Lewis show the least awareness that Schwarzenegger was elected against Gray Davis on a Bushian economics ticket of cutting taxes for the wealthy and businesses. Not once does Lewis show any awareness that Schwarzenegger accomplished this shabby feat by simply borrowing shitloads of money. Using Schwarzenegger as his guide to the California economic crisis is like being taught fire prevention by a pyromaniac.

As for Lancaster, the blind snobbery of his piece is equivalent to the ignorance with which it is loaded. Telling us that the world owes 195 trillion dollars is as meaningless as telling us that the world is rich because, in 2007, the world had accumulated 60 trillion dollars in derivatives.

The question that leaps to mind is: who does the world owe this money to?
And the answer is pretty simple: it is owed to a relatively small handful of investors. Worldwide, they compose perhaps 1 percent of the population – perhaps less. And guess what? They can be ripped off without any consequences. What Lancaster didn’t seem to notice in his dinner in Rekjavik is that the waitress didn’t really care. Why should she? Iceland didn’t back its banks. When the banks collapsed, according to Lancaster, they left debts the equivalent of 330,000 dollars for every Icelander. And, it turns out, those debts went to heaven. Big deal.

What is obviously needed at the moment world wide is a change in the disproportion between the wealth of the wealthiest and the rest. And this is a political question that will come when, as is likely, people wake up, like Icelanders, and realize: no, they don’t owe that money. Because they have the power simply to cancel the debt. Just as the governments have the money and have used the money to back the banks, because backing the banks was in the interest of the elites, the people can, and will, once the issue is represented, be backed by the government too. The U.S. government that loaned out 16 trillion dollars at 1 percent interest or below to hundreds of banks and hedge funds around the world could, actually, do the same thing to the people. It would be terrible, John Lancaster’s sherry would go down his throat the wrong way at just the thought of waitresses from Iceland shopping in Milan, but it is, you know, more than possible.

Solving all our problems before lunch (U.S. edition)

Okay, okay. It’s time to solve the deficit problem, in one paragraph. Here goes: restore Clinton’s tax rates, save for capital gains (raise it to 45 percent), and the marginal rate on top earners (those making 500 thousand or more), which should slide between 50 and 70 percent. Shrink defense expenditures in total to 100 billion dollars a year. Stir, wait a decade, bingo.

Of course, many would disagree with this course of action – including myself. I think EITC should be raised to 50,000 per year, thus pretty much knocking out the lower 50 percent from any income tax, and I think all corporate loopholes should be closed and the corporate income tax should remain the same. In the meantime, I think the U.S. should transform the post office into a post office bank, with which people could open up tax free savings accounts for retirement, education and health that would take the place of 401ks. And I think the money so generated could be used, for one thing, to buy U.S. T notes. In the end, we should work to take sovereign debt out of the hands of the private financial institutions.

Now that all this is clear, let’s discuss the real deficit we should be attacking. The political illuminati (as Marx called them) have created a vast hallucination, which goes like this: the social insurance system created in the developed economies in the 30s-60s are such that “we” are no longer able to afford them. The reality, however, is that “we” were much, much poorer in the 30s through the 60s. After generations of toil, after factoring in productivity gains and Solow’s residual, we find that we are infinitely richer than our grandparents or great grandparents. So how is it that we ended up poorer?

Here’s how we get to the real deficit, the equality deficit. In the last thirty years, the political illuminati have operated under the hallucination that the political structure set up to allow the social insurance system, which progressively shrank wealth inequality, could be ‘reformed’ by encouraging the kind of growth that increases wealth inequality by leaps and bounds. In fact, there is a reason that the Gilded Age and the New Deal are antithetical: in the former, ‘we’ do become relatively poorer – in relation to the national wealth – even if we become, in absolute terms, richer – although not much. Eventually, the equality deficit is going to kick in and that means it is going to kick out all the struts that have underpinned the middle class for the last sixty years. We’ve reached this point. Absurdly, “we” are told, in the country of Fortune 500 fortunes, that we are too poor to retire, to be educated, or to go to the doctor.

This is the story as told by our political illuminati, and it is a fairy tale. In reality, we are wealthy enough to work less (35 hours per week should be the legal norm), to retire well, and to luxuriate in universal health care and universal access to education up to and including college.

How do we obtain this ‘utopian’ vision? By looking at reality. Rather than contending with the mind-forged fantasies beloved by the pundits, we look at the society made by all, and we begin to repair the equality deficit. We operate, in other words, as free human beings. Marx, one hundred fifty years ago, called for the workers to break their chains. The chains, now, have long been broken. We have simply to walk out of them. And in so doing, we can start to pay attention to what is really important, such as reconstructing our technological infrastructure so it is green and Gaia friendly. And writing poetry, painting pictures, singing songs, dreaming involved dreams, making love, etc., etc.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Rousseau, the solitary: 1

Let’s jot down a highly speculative suggestion concerning the different angle of vision that separates Hume from Rousseau, and – more generally – separates the culture of Britain and its white colonies from the ‘Continent’.

The difference between Hume and Rousseau is found, textually, in the way each envisions the present in which they are writing. Hume, as we have seen, envisions that present as an endpoint along a line of intellectual and, in general, cultural progress, from which it is possible to look back and judge the past. Rousseau, on the other hand, does not see the present in terms of historical ‘success’ – and he does not see the past in terms of one unilateral progress. Famously, with Rousseau, the notion of rupture enters history. A historical region – say, the region encompassing ‘primitive man’ – can be described, outlined, and even phenomenologically analyzed – but the total social fact that counts, in that region, is not whether it tends towards the present. The present becomes a much more tricky thing, in Rousseau’s hands – much more malleable, much less describable under general terms.

The harried barbarian of Hume’s account of religion feels the steps of an invisible power through the events of his life and makes his limited speculations on what to do to manipulate that power. Hume’s middling class of man, his ideal avatar of common sense and sentiments, can look back from his present, holding Newton’s Principia in his hand, and see what the barbarian doesn’t: that the real invisible power is held by the designer of the universe, whose design has been revealed in the course of civilization to the scientist. The middling man, however, turns away from the monstrous discovery of the young Hume, which is that the invisible course of intellectual progress has not brought him any nearer to explaining cause itself.

Rousseau shares something of Hume’s idea of intellectual progress. As he makes clear in the Discourse on Inequality, human perfectability is not just a fact of history, but of natural history – it is what distinguishes the human animal. But Rousseau, much like Darwin later, tends to erase the teleological import of this idea.

Which leads us to another difference between Rousseau and Hume, and I think I can say, generalizing madly, between the cultural assumptions of their separate semiospheres: on the existential plane, where Hume sees the middling man – the individual – as the hero of the historical present, Rousseau sees the solitary.

Continuing this line of thought – the individual of individualism is necessarily heroic. And tends, necessarily, to be ‘self-made’. Even the dullest textbook of mainstream economics bears traces of the fairy dust of this mythic character. His self-madeness makes him much like Prajapati in the Golden Egg, a product of his own desire, his own father, son and mother.

The solitary of Rousseau’s more dire account of history is, on the other hand, anti-heroic, and his solitude is existentially conditioned by his break with myth. The Rousseau of the Confessions is not simply the progenitor of the anti-heros of the literature of solitude – the Raskolnikovs, Leverkuhns and Mersaults – but also marks a certain incoherence that will come to trouble all politics in that cultural semiotic. The self-made man is a political creature, whereas the solitary has a more difficult time inserting himself into the discourse of rights. The right to solitude is not founded on property. It is threatened by a society of unleashed individualism.

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...