Friday, January 20, 2012

Lamartines (from an old post)

Last night, I went to a lecture about the supposed father of Amer-Indian studies in France. The woman who gave the lecture made one point clear in her first five minutes: Hamy was not and could never be called one of the founders of 'Americaniste" studies in France. It was all a hoax. Not an intended hoax, but one of those hoaxes that arise in the collective unconscious of an institution - in this case, the institutions of anthropology that dominated in fin de siecle France.
In my terminology, she had found a Lamartine.


Alphone de Lamartine, who knew Joseph de Maistre, described him, after he was dead, as being “large [d’une grande taille,], handsome and male of form and face.” Madame Swetchine, who also knew de Maistre, was taken aback by those lines: “M. de Lamartine says that he saw a lot of M. de Maistre. The number of those meetings makes it all the more surprising that his description of the man was misleading to such a degree. Not one touch was precise or faithful to the original. Count de Maistre was of middling size, and his features were irregular. There was nothing incisive in his eye, to which his short sightedness lent something lost in his gaze. This irregular, and not very brilliant face nevertheless had a majestic radiance.”

The witnesses summoned by the historians are all fed their lines by someone, usually the insatiable self, the vulgarian whose dirty fingers are even in our hot tears. Leaving fingerprints. Lamartine is the biggest goose of French literature, with his tedious lyrics and his lukewarm liberal politics. He is the very type of the sots from whom Baudelaire, later, begged in vain for a break to keep him from slipping into the abyss of want and madness. Madame Swetchine, bless her soul, did not reckon that there was a stye in Lamartine’s eye – his ego. The problem with history is that it is packed with Lamartines. The process is fucked, the jury is packed, the judge is limited by his caseload, his languages, his headache, his faulty hardons.

Any good carpenter knows a rotten two by four. Anyone with a nose for it knows a rotten fact. But we have to build with available materials.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

the nervous character: Zeno 4

The popular stories about the introduction of various forms of using tobacco are always about the military. It is said that the habit of cigarette smoking passed from the Spanish soldiers, who had learned it from Brazilians, to the French in the 1830s. However, there is another story that locates the re-invention of cigarettes in the 1850s wars between Russia and Turkey. A Turkish soldier, whose pipe was destroyed by a bullet, put tobacco in the paper from the envelop of a cartouche, and smoked it. [[Ferland, 2007] And still another claims that it was the French soldiers, arriving with paper and tobacco, who diffused the habit in Russia. These different stories could be sorted out by considering that the Brazilians and Spanish may well have used a corn leaf – which is how cigarettes were described as late as 1864 in G.A. Henrieck’s Du Tabac. There we read that cigarettes are rolled in paper “sans colle”. Indeed, this was the technical difficulty with cigarettes as a commodity: its fragility.

The military is mobile, and at the same time idle, which has some effect on the form of drug that is being used. Tolstoy’s letter to his aunt Tatiana Yergoloskaya in 1851-2, when he was garrisoned in the Cacausus, describe the garrison life very well.  Garrisons were foyers for all the products that kill time, from gambling to smoking to, in recent times, heroin and marijuana. Also for politics and literature.

Here’s Tolstoy as he starts to settle in the garrison life:
 "I was at Stariy Yurt. All the officers who were there did nothing but play and at rather high stakes. As it is impossible for us when living in camp not to see each other often, I have very often taken part in card-playing, and, notwithstanding the importunity I was subject to, I had stood firm for a month, but one day for fun I placed a small stake: I lost. I began again: I again lost. I was in bad luck; the passion for play had awakened, and in two days I had lost all the money I had and that which Nikolay had given me (about 250 rubles), and into the bargain 500 rubles for which I gave a promissory note payable in January, '52.”

Tolstoy, of course, was not a typical officer, and killed time by writing “Childhood” and reflecting on the world around him.  Lucien Leuwen, the hero of Stendhal’s novel, shares some traits with Tolstoy – notably, his wealth and connections and interior life. But Stendhal’s hero is engaged not in suppressing the Turkic speaking mountain people on the Russian frontier, but, or so he feared, the French speaking people on the class frontier in Nancy – as Stendhal sets his story just after the French army had suppressed various worker strikes in Metz. Still, the life of idleness represented by Stendhal – and the contrast with the ambitions of the hero – takes on a very similar tone.

If killing time in the garrison corresponded with the use of drugs, it was a different kind of time that corresponds to the popular image of cigarettes by 1900.  In a sense, this is the same problem of weight and mass that is discussed in the preface to “The Telegraph as a means of commerce” (1857) by Karl Gustav Knies, who compares the ‘commodities’ of things, persons, and “information” – Nachricht. Knies was one of the first economists to recognize that telegrams, by introducing a real time speed into the diffusion of information, had, as it were, given a premium to the light and speedy. To come to this conclusion, Knies had to frame for himself a sense of information that, at the time he wrote, was still lacking. Yet he knew that the Nachricht “is obviously one of the objects in which commerce between people is represented.” Information (or “report”), unlike thought, requires distance – and even if one presumes to have information from oneself, one is at least metaphorically putting oneself at a distance from oneself. More normally, though, communication goes from a sender to a distanced receiver. Knies points out that if we have certain information that seems timeless, or at least doesn’t lose value in being transported from the sender to the receiver, much of what we communicate has only a passing value – just as any other commodity has. In other words, there is a shelf-life for reports. At the same time, there is a double time frame, one in which the immediacy of the need to which information corresponds may not be the same for the sender and the receiver. These things are true about letters and oral communications – but with the telegraph, a whole news temporal order, and a whole shift in the social construction of ‘immediacy”, comes about on the mass scale.

In a word, the lightness and quickness of the telegraphic message presages a different tempo in the life of human beings, which calls out for a drug that is both speedy and that suspends speed. That was the cigarette. It needed, however, to be technically changed. The cigarette becomes the object of certain changes, in manufacture and marketing, that make it an exemplary product of the turn to consumer goods in the later nineteenth century. Famously, the development of the tobacco industry in Russia, in which a skilled group of cigarette rollers were trained to produce cigarettes to serve a mass market, jumpstarted the American cigarette industry, which took its real start when James Duke enticed a number of Eastern European Jewish cigarette rollers to move from New York to North Carolina to train a number of Southern factory workers. Duke could not find an entrance to the cigar industry, so he chose to enter the tobacco industry by enlarging the production and market for cigarettes. America was famously addicted to cigars and chewing tobacco for most of the nineteenth century: cigarettes were suspiciously European. Duke introduced mechanisation, a new packaging method (a hard paper box), and advertising. Although he never was able to take over the cigar industry, which was resistant to the kind of speeded up manufacture that suited cigarettes, he did establish a strangle hold on cigarettes by 1912.

These are all developments that made cigarettes a symbolic accessory for the changes in the tempo of life that was being felt by urban populations in the U.S. and Europe by 1900.

The characterological correlate of this tempo was: the neurotic.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

the new non-idle rich!

The NYT, which is caught between a love for the one percent that blooms in its style magazine and its business page and a political atmosphere in which the chummy relationship between liberalism and the one percent is coming apart, unrollsanother of its color pieces about the lifestyles of the rich. It features one Adam Katz in its first paragraph: “Adam Katz is happy to talk to reporters when he is promoting his business, a charter flight company based on Long Island called Talon Air.” So what did the Times reporters ask him?

Well, we are not far into the article when, breezing past the assets – “…an $8 million home, a family real estate company in Manhattan and his passion, 10-year-old Talon Air” … we are assured that, like so many of the 1 percent, Talon is a dynamo, a man who makes your average doublejob mom or dad seem like a slacker:

“”Still, they are not necessarily the idle rich. Mr. Katz, who sometimes commutes by amphibious plane and sometimes carries luggage for Talon Air passengers, likes to say he works “26/9.”
Of course, the NYT – as its Public Editor, Arthur Brisbane, recently put it – isn’t in the business of the “truth”. If a presidential candidate or a rich man says something, it is the Times policy to simply print it, and let he who has an hour to kill and Google find out if it is true or not. Such a comforting doctrine! Luckily, I am one of the idle non-rich, and having the time, I goodled Mr. Katz, and found that, in other interviews, Mr. 26/9 gives a different peek at his life. Especially revealing was his interview with OceanHome, which, you will be surprised to hear, does not contain any stories about CEO Katz manfully struggling to manipulate a hundred pound suitcase into his jet’s tight suitcase storage space.  He paints a different view of his time expenditure – for instance, in response to the question about what he did when he bought his current mansion in Nassau County: 
“After purchasing it in 2007, I did a $3.5 million gut renovation, rebuilding it as a six-bedroom smart house, using a Creston system for controlling everything from lighting, sound, and temperature control to operating any of the 20 flat-screen TVs that fold down from the ceilings. I added a movie theater, a solarium with a sunken hot tub, a customized gym, outdoor kitchens and fire pits, Jacuzzis, an infinity-edge pool, radiant heat terraces, and a dock for my 135-foot motoryacht and 47-foot Intrepid speed boat, with Ipe (Brazilian Walnut) steps leading to a private beach.”
You might think that all these accoutrements make it even sadder that he is spending 7 days a week away from home. But don’t cry! It turns out that he sometimes his working time is spent amid the solarium, Jacuzzis and pool: 

What do you love most about waterfront living?
I love the privacy of it all, and the views are always spectacular, particularly when the sun sets across Manhattan. Better yet, I can commute to the city via my speedboat in 15 minutes.
Is one particular room in the house used most?
For me, it’s the 2,000-square-foot master bedroom, mostly because of the water views and the comfort of relaxing near a wood-burning fireplace. And it’s where my home office is. Like I said before, because the house was built in the round, it really feels like you’re sleeping on a ship at sea.

Still, “easy living”, as Ocean Home labels the article on a man who works harder than any four man in the bottom 99 percent, doesn’t always elude our hero. For instance, asked about the worst element in living in a house facing the ocean, Katz said: “Cold temperatures and wind are pretty intolerable during the winter months, which is why we head down to the Bahamas and live and sail around on the yacht.” 

Life, on the whole, is hard for the 1 percent: “They work longer hours, being three times more likely than the 99 percent to work more than 50 hours a week, and are more likely to be self-employed,” according to unreferenced stats in the NYT article. But I like to think that the fifty hours of week does have its softer side. I imagine, for instance, there might even be tax write-offs involved with working and sailing that yacht around the Bahamas. But these are mysteries the 99 percent know not of.

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...