Friday, January 13, 2012

smoke em if you got em: Svevo 3

The closer one comes to a material detail in a text, the more distant appears the division between symbol and fact. Symbol and fact are always found in one another's arms, like lovers, and it is not an easy task to separate one from the other. And the person who does attempt to separate them must put on an anerotic mood, and will always feel a bit like a prude, a busybody or a fool. Besides, just as he pries away the fact, undresses it and preps it for the  table of statistics, let him turn his back for only a moment - and it is irresistable, this turning of your back on the fact - and when he turns back the fact will have simply embraced another symbol, or worse, the same one.

For example, take the historic facts in the case of tobacco...

William Weaver’s translation of Zeno's Conscience begins by looking at Italo Svevo’s name – “(his real name): Ettore Schmitz. The first half is Italian and, significantly, it is the name of a Greek hero, not of a Catholic saint. The surname is German. Then consider the birthplace: Trieste, a city that has had many masters, from ancient Romans to Austrians to Italians. In 1861, when Ettore Schmitz was born there, Trieste was an Austrian city, a vital one, the great empire’s only seaport and a focus of trade between central Europe and the rest of the world.”

The split Weaver points to in Svevo’s very name is, if we look a little at the history of tobacco, echoed in Zeno’s habit.

A few subtending facts, then.

In December, 1847, Italian nationalists in Milan (which, like Venice, Trieste and other parts of Italy, were under Habsburg rule) decided to imitate the American tea party – just as the Americans boycotted tea to protest British rule, they would boycott tobacco to protest Austrian rule. Tobacco was chosen for good reason: the Austrian state exercized a monopoly on the sale of tobacco. Since the habit of smoking tobacco in cigar form had been “brought” into the German sphere by English soldiers during the Napoleonic war (such, at least, was the myth to which German writers on tobacco subscribed), the Austrian state, like the Prussian state, had reacted by regulating its use. But unlike the Prussian state, the Austrian didn’t only ban smoking in public in the capital – they also devised different regulatory regimes for different regions in the Empire. And they promoted the creation of large tobacco estates in Hungary, which became part of one of the largest industries in the Empire, from cultivation to curing to manufacture of snuff, pipe tobacco, and cigars. [See Wickett, Studien ueber das Österreich Tabakmonopol, 1897]

In Dalmatia, state control of tobacco production was relaxed – in accordance with the liberalization of this area of the Empire that had been inaugurated by Joseph II. Trieste was well known as an entry point for the tobacco smuggling trade. In 1830, when Stendhal was the French consul in Trieste, he had remarked upon the openness of the smuggling trade. The tobacco that came in was, most likely, of Egyptian origin.

In Milan, the Austrian state had no rules about smoking in public. The Milanese liberals, voting to boycott smoking, sparked a nationalist feeling in the populace. On the 2nd and the 3rd, there were disturbances in the street, as cigars were plucked from the mouths of passerbys and thrown into the road.

But who were these smoking passerbys? Here, contemporary accounts differ. According to a French history from 1857, the Austrian government, knowing that the boycott was coming, had distributed 30,000 cigars to the Austrian garrison in the city. Thus, the soldiery was ‘armed’ with smokes, and when the crowds attacked, they took this as a provocation to violence and reacted accordingly. According to a contemporary Italian historian (Giusseppi Ricciardi, 1850), the smoking soldiers were joined by smoking criminals, who had been released from the jails and given cigars by the Austrian authorities to add to the confusion. Like a trick cigar, the situation ludicrously exploded, with rioting that spread to other cities in Italy.

But in Berlin and Austria of that year, the public/private meaning of the cigar was reversed. The laws that were put in place after the Vienna congress had banned cigar smoking in public, and thus made cigar smoking a daring act – or at least an act of symbolic resistance. The progressive smoked cigars – “ a democratic symbol for rabble rousers and agitators’ – while the petit bourgeouis smoked pipes. As the revolution spread, in 1848, from Paris to Berlin and Vienna, one of the demands of the liberals was the freedom to smoke in public – shoulder to shoulder with the freedom of the press.

Against this background, there is not only a split in Schmitz’s pseudonym, Italo Svevo, but even in the meaning of the tobacco addiction that provides the connection in Zeno’s account of his life. Freedom, for the Italian patriots, came via giving up tobacco. Freedom for German patriots meant taking up tobacco. And freedom is at the heart of the habit that Zeno describes, the perpetually renewed freedom of giving up the smoking habit:

"I believe the taste of a cigarette is more intense when it’s your last. The others, too, have a special taste of their own, but less intense. The last one gains flavor from the feeling of victory over oneself and the hope of an imminent future of strength and health. The others have their importance because, in lighting them, you are proclaiming your freedom, while the future of strength and health remains, only moving off a bit."

  In Georges Bataille and Roger Caillois’s program for the College of Sociology, they wrote of ‘establishing points of coincidence between the fundamental obsessional tendencies of individual psychology and the directing structures that preside over social organisations and command revolutions.’ Surely we have landed upon one of those points.

And yet – not quite. For what Zeno smokes as a mature man are cigarettes. His brush with cigars, though, was his first brush with tobacco. His father was a cigar smoker (like, it should be remembered, the founder of the psychoanalysis that provides the framework for the story – Freud). His father had a habit of smoking half a cigar, then leaving the butt for later. Zeno had a habit of stealing and smoking those butts.

“My father left some half-smoked Virginia cigars around the house, perched on table edges and armoires. I believed this was how he threw them away, and I believe our old maidservant, Carina, did then fling them out. I carried them off and smoked them in secret. At the very moment I grabbed them I was overcome by a shudder of revulsion, knowing how sick they would make me. Then I smoked them until my brow was drenched in cold sweat and my stomach was in knots. It cannot be said that in my childhood I lacked energy.”

We have not yet reached the moment of the cigarette. However, it is as though Zeno had to wean himself from cigars in order to reach that moment himself.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Svevo's Zeno 2: the croupier's rake

The individualism of methodological individualism is a strange beast. On the one hand, it promises a robust defense of the individual as the ultimate level of social analysis. All collectives, go the doctrine, are composed of individual behaviors. There are no collective agents – like a pantomime horse, when you see a collective – a state, a firm, an organization – you are seeing the sheeting over the actors inside it. And yet, this defense of the individual is, at the same time, an emptying out of the individual. Whatever his or her beliefs, passions, or promises, in effect the content of the individual consists of an algorithm for calculating the maximization of his or her advantage. It is thus that the pantomime horse of capitalist organizations gets to its feet and proceeds to walk all over you. Hayek, who was a great believer in individualism, was conscious of this paradox and explains it in The Counterrevolution in Science.  It happens that those who are not entirely sold on individualism and those who emphasize ‘historicism’ – the interpretation of social action that does not hold that a universal maximizing principle is at the heart of it – are pretty much synonymous. This gives us the paradox that those who emphasize the collective level are also those who oppose the universalism of a conjectural history going back to Smith. Thus, historicists would dispute that, say, price or monopoly as categories developed in contemporary economics could be usefully imposed on social behavior in Egyptian society in 1400 B.C. - the example Hayek uses. 

But, according to Hayek: "What this contention overlooks is that “price” of “monopoly” are not names for definite “things”, fixed collections of physical attributes which we recognize by some of these attributes as members of the same class and whose further attributes we ascertain by observation; but that they are objects which can be defined only in terms of certain relatins between human beings and which cannot possess any attributes except those which follow from the relations by which they are defined. They can be recognized by us as prices or monopolies only because, and in so rar as, we can recognize these individual attitudes, and from these as elements compose the structural pattern which we call a price or a monopoly. Of course the ‘whole” situation, or even the “whole of the men who act, will greatly diiffer from place to place and from time to time. But it is solely our capacity to recognize the familiar elements from which the unique situation is made up which enables us to attach any meaning to the phenomena.” (66)

Hayek’s notion – which appeals, in the end, to an "us" who is above the wholes of the situation and the men involved – reflects a pattern of social meanings that capitalism introduced into Western Europe in the 19th century, and with which, especially, intellectuals caught up in the sphere of circulation wrestled: the seemingly unbridgeable difference between the individual as an accounting entity and an individual as an existential mystery. The latter is on the side of ‘experience’ – but the former rides mankind. Experience fills in the empty algorithmic unit – the economic individual – with matter that seems, well, beyond the bounds of his maximizing reason, or the reduction to individuals that is theoretically called for in analyzing economic action. The money in my pocket passed to me from some individual, truly, but the individuals involved in the chain that touched that money are all, with regards to me, rather empy and automatic – the man who put the money in the ATM machine, the woman who gave me change at the grocery store, the software engineer who designed paypal, the client who paid me – all are in my life to varying degrees, but their roles, the money, and myself seem to be bound together by arithematic more than intimacy. “The technical form of commerce creates a ralm of values that is more or less commpletely loosened from its subjective – personal substructure,” Simmel says (30)

It is in the conflict between the two aspects that is brought to bear on the discourse on freedom that was passed down from the ancien regime to the increasingly capitalist dissolution of the ancien regime in the  nineteenth century. “Commerce always strives – never fully unreal and never fully realized – towards a stage of development in which things determine their value through a self-acting mechanism – unmarked by the queion of how much subjective feeling this mechanism has taken into account as its precondition or as its matter.” (Simmel, 30)

These conflicting aspects of individualism are very much part of Svevo's novel, Zeno's Conscience - for the conscience is, too, both a peculiar personal thing and a sort of introjection of norms and rules that the individual was never consulted about. At one point Svevo’s narrator,  Zeno Costini, who, as the  heir of his father’s business, has nothing to do – by which we readers understand that he does not need to do anything to have money – insists on being given a job with his Olivi, the man to whom Zeno’s father entrusted the management of the business. Consequently, Zeno is instructed in accounting - or 'economics':

“Olivi’s son, an elegant, bespectacled young man, erudite in all the commercial sciences, took over my instruction, and I honestly can’t complain about him. He annoyed me a little with his economic science and his law of supply and demand, which seemed to me more self-evident than he would admit. But he showed a certain respect for me as the owner, and I was all the more grateful because he couldn’t possibly have learned that from his father. Respect for ownership must have been part of his economic science. He never scolded me for the mistakes I often made in posting entries; he simply ascribed them to ignorance and then gave me explanations that were really superfluous.
The trouble came when, what with looking at all those transactions, I began to feel like making some of my own. In the ledger, very clearly, I came to visualize my own pocket, and when I posted a sum under “debit” for our clients, instead of a pen, I seemed to hold in my hand a croupier’s rake, ready to collect the money scattered over the gaming table.” (166)

The croupier’s rake instead of the pen! – one seems magical, a wand that brings us back to the archaic, pre-capitalist world of treasure, while the other seems anything but magical, imprisoning us in double columns. The libido of the sphere of circulation flows into this image, which has urged itself upon theorists and clerks since the days of Law’s system.


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...