Saturday, May 12, 2012

Benjamin's shock

“The intentional correlate of living experience has not remained the same. In the nineteenth century it as “the adventure”.In our days it appears as Fate. In fate is hidden the concept of the ‘total living experience’ that is completely mortal. War is its unsurpassed prefiguration. (That I was born German, then I must die for it – the trauma of birth contains already the shock that is mortal. This coincidence defines Fate.”

“That which is “always the same thing” is not the event, but what is new in it, the shock that pertains to it.”

“Empathy comes about through a declic, a kind of gear shift. With it, the interior life erects a pendent to the shock of sense perception. (Empathy is alignment in the intimate sense).” [My own translations]

I take these three comments about shock from Benjamin’s Arcades book. Like so many of Benjamin’s sentences and phrases, they carry a systematic hint, although the system into which they would fit was never constructed. To that extent, they also carry a certain glamour, the glamour of fragments that indicate some fuller but lost revelation. Like the fragments of the pre-Socratic philosophers, one wants to remove the eclipse, find the complete transcript, read the denser text out of which they were seemingly scooped. But in Benjamin’s case, the fragment reproves the desire that everything can be told, that there be some total confession that correlates to the total systems that were in play as he wrote, that the denser text is anything other than an excuse fit for conformists by which is lulled to sleep our sense of an ongoing emergency. As we know, one of those total systems drove him to suicide. Which is another way of eternalizing the fragment.

The Arcades work does not develop the notion of shock the way it develops other themes, such as fashion. Yet, in a sense, it was at the center of these themes, for at the center of the project was Baudelaire, who, Benjamin claimed, based his aesthetic practice on shock. Or based his modernity, his modernism, on shock, and in so doing incorporated it into the genetic structure of modernism. That, as we have pointed out, shock comes up in different disciplines, and constitutes an image in different ways in modernity was to an extent oddly neglected in the Arcades work, which otherwise has a very shrewd dialectical-materialist take on lighting, clothing, urban planning, etc., all passages to the burrow, or rather, passages that make up the burrow of the poetry. 

In as much as Benjamin’s view of shock encodes an inability to decide between mechanical movement and animal stimulus, it bears the impress of a certain pre-modern disposition. That is, it bears the element of the invasion of haptic space by the first mass medias. It reflects the Productivist regime of the first half of the 19th, when life crossed with electricity and the crowd was the physical infrastructure of industry and the revolution. But if we take our cue from Tarde, shock, in the second half of the nineteenth century, is a second degree phenomenon. The crowd becomes merely one extension of the larger public (it is remembered as a sort of phantom limb), and that public receives its shock through the ever more penetrating environment of the visual and press medias. Shock emerges from mechanical collision into the regime of stimulus, which is the way it forms the modern moment, or present.  Shock was not only a poetic tool, but a tabloid style. The speed graphic camera of the 1930s, the blinding flare of which became an icon for the sensational story, the shocking event, is an exteriorization of the kind of shock that joined together the animal crowd and the sensation ‘seeking’ public (which is actually sought out, rather than seeking – this is the trick of the media), haptic space and the wired in multitude:

 “The flash does far more than merely aid in exposing the negative. Intruding into the cover provided by night or darkness, its scorching light transforms both the space and figures trapped in its glare. Subject matter is vignetted and figures and ground are flattened and abstracted. While flashed compositions have the stark look of a woodcut, it is the faces of the photographer’s subjects that are most affected by the bulb’s blaze. With skin flashed to white as if powdered, mouths locked into grimaces and eyes both black as troughs and glinting like glass, subjects suffer a loss of humanity: faces freeze into crystal masks and individuals metamorphose into freakish ghouls.” [Hauptman, 1998]

Weegee’s flashbulb is the equivalent of the rapid sketching, or caricature, in which Baudelaire saw the lineaments of heroism in modern life. Speed frozen – such is the temporal coordinate towards which the simultaneity of life under capitalism directed itself.

a little manifesto, maestro, if you please

It is a bright day out. The remodeling of our apartment is almost finished - thank God! And as I gaze about, I am thinking: isn't it time I issue a manifesto?
A man must occasionally issue a manifesto. Johnny Cash said that.
Or at least he might have. But he was too cool to say it out loud.
So  here it is:

It is a sure bet that the last thing a socialist government will do, coming into power, is institute socialism.
In the neo-liberal era, we have gotten used to socialism meaning a conservative defense of the social welfare system as it was constructed in the heroic post-war era. Partly this is due to the historic experience of the vast failure of actually existing socialism, as it actually rotted, in the Eastern Block and in China. In the end, the only optimistic and efficient economic organization in the Soviet Union was the informal world of thieves, and they naturally took over the corpse once Yeltsin pulled the trigger and put the system out of its misery.

In 1980, when socialism was more of a real option in the world (in one year, Mitterand would be elected on the promise to break with the logic of capitalism), Iring Fetscher, a German political philosopher, wrote an assessment of socialism’s learning curve, The Changing Goals of Socialism in the Twentieth Century, for  Social Research. In it, he proposed seven errors into which socialism had fallen in said century: total state control of the economy, humanist universalism, uncritical egalitarianism, scientific technical progressism, dogmatism in the philosophy of history, the truncated view of man, and the industrial proletariat as the only agent of social transformation – a good deskpounding list. In fact, each of those errors was to be infinitely explored by socialism’s undertakers in the next thirty some years. And give or take a jot here and there, it is hard to disagree with Fetscher on this.

However, the time for self-cutting socialism may be drawing to a close. Here at least are two suggestions to make a better socialism.

The first one is obvious. The idea of a central bank, a government run bank for bankers, has run into the stunning problem we all know – when inequality is growing, it adds to inequality; when credit bubbles are blowing, it adds to credit bubbles; when the economy is depressed, it adds to the depression.

This is not to say that there is no good function for a central bank. It is to say that there should certainly be two state run banks: one for the banks, one for the people. The latter needs to be set up on the largest scale. It needs to allow people, the 99 percent, to create accounts that are not immediately skimmed and dummied in the financial markets – tax free accounts for retirement, healthcare,  and education. And it needs to lend money. It needs to lend money at a rate 3 to 4 points below the rate set by the banks. The money that the state just flooded the upper 1 percent with is, frankly, evil money. The money that a state bank could continually set in motion among the 99 percent would be good money. It would immediately lower the debt burden that now comes with the consumer lifestyle in a radical way. In other words, it would produce an enormous social good.

The second suggestion is less orthodox, but does set a reasonable goal. Capitalism as it is presently constituted is, largely, corporate capitalism. For all the talk of free markets and such, what we are really dealing with in the world are large organisations that have accrued incredible “private” power – the equivalent of an aristocratic class.

However, these large organisations (and the militarized state) have generated the kind of telecommunications and logistics system that render them technically obsolete. Socialists should push to make that obsolescence a social reality by pushing for laws limiting the scale and scope of any for-profit private organisation. Myself, I think the metric should be employees. And I think the largest allowable private for profit organisation should be of about a thousand employees.

A change in scale of that sort would immediately change the economic picture. For one thing, this explosion of private companies would finally bring to the fore a reality about the corporation world, which is that sectors are formed as much by collaboration as by competition. It would be impossible to produce output at all, given the small scale of the private organisations, unless they formed alliances. Your average factory, or service organisation, would become a myriad of small organisations. While the pay structure wouldn’t be equal, the inequalities in position and compensation that would emerge with these small organisations would bump into the limit on scale and be modified without any state interference in the matter. The death of the corporation would also lead to the death of the convergence of investment and  speculation, which is the way that the financial markets work at present.

Of course, it is easy to imagine abuses and problems with scaling down the agents in the economic mix while retaining the same system of circulation – the same process by which commodities metamorphose into money and then back into commodities. Socialism would not have overturned capitalism, in this view, but would have achieve certain long term socialist goals without moving towards a vast, dangerous state bureaucracy.

Which would be sweet. And that should be the socialist goal: a sweeter world.  


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Singing the body electric

How does animal stimulus and mechanical motion hook up? The exploration of this question formed a good deal of the research program of nineteenth century psychology. The mediating element was electricity,  which operated as a discursive image more than as a physical object up until the neurological advances of the early twentieth century.
In a sense, what happened in the early Enlightenment was a kind of coincidence of programs in the sciences. As electricity and the physics of shock, or collision, became clearer, so, too, did at least one element in physiology: there were no animal spirits. The entire two thousand year old structure of humors and animal spirits collapsed in the 18th century, a Götterdämmerung not unlike the end of paganism – or, perhaps, a codicil to the end of paganism. The wood and river spirits that were exorcised by Christianity were followed by the spirits of the liver, the heart, and the lungs exorcised by physiology. The interior forest was vacated. Now, these spirits had done the work of explaining feeling not only for the learned, but for the peasant and the townsman as well. The history of this moment is an oddly foreshortened thing. It isn’t only a minor episode in the history of physiology and psychology. It is a history in the emotional customs of the West. The twilight of the animal spirits created a hole in the way people described, or thought about, feeling.

That such holes can happen is a controversial topic in the anthropology of emotions. Robert Levy, who did his fieldwork in Tahiti, wrote a series of essays and a book about Tahitian emotional customs that introduced the idea of hypocognition: “I have suggested that some sets of feelings are relatively "hypercognized," controlled, so to speak, by discrimination, whereas others are "hypercognized" and controlled by cultural invisibility or at least by difficulty of access to communication.” This rather confusing use hypercognized to indicate two forms of control is clarified by calling the latter hypocognition – that is, a non-alignment between the discursive resources of a culture and the raw feeling that individuals in the culture encounter in their circumstances – encounter as reactions, so to speak, to stimulus. In the case of Tahitians, Levy, famously, thought that sadness was underconceptualized in the Tahitian schema of feelings. Sadness was rather taken as a marker of illness. Interestingly, that Tahitian conception is increasingly paralleled with the contemporary, post-Prozac idea, among Americans, that sadness is always a form of ‘depression’. The emergence of ‘depression’ as a widespread synonym for sadness in the American emotional vocabulary seems to indicate some deeper change in the emotional conceptual schema. And it is especially noteworthy for indicating the porousness between ‘educated’ or ‘scientific’ feeling terms and concepts and folk psychology.

Levy’s work is often taken up in the battle between those who maintain that emotions are universal and those who maintain that they are cultural. However, it doesn’t necessarily indicate that emotions are cultural – rather, it indicates that raw feelings are represented in the emotional customs of a culture in ways that differ among cultures, and that can also change within a culture. Its salience as to the feelings themselves derives from the notion that knowing a feeling is a crucial part of the experience of feeling. It is crucial to the person who ‘has’ the feeling, and it operates, as well, on the feeling,  in as much as it can change the laters relations to other feelings the person has, or the person’s longer term judgments about his or her life.

The importance of mediating images and theories of feeling within a society is, then, obvious. To understand how electricity was first discovered, and understood, in physiological and psychological terms, we have to understand the hypocognitive moment of the early modern era. To do that would require an enormous data set of all references, in whatever genre (from doctor’s report to trial transcript to poem to letter) in which feelings are referenced. And one would also expect to find the co-existence of different schemas of emotional sense-making –  humoral psychology did not collapse evenly and among all social levels, but was retained and used and comes up again and again in ordinary folk psychology and (increasingly) dissident, or alternative (or crackpot) medicine.

Surrounded as I am by the universal artificial paradise, the isle of Synthetica, with a lifestyle founded on zero and one, plug and play, voltage and plastic, I have to make a truly stoic effort to wipe away the impressions of my environment in order to reach back to the moment –the genealogical instance – in which shock, electricity and animal magnetism came into play in Europe and America – in which, for certain groups, these became concepts-in-practice. It is against this background that one can go forward and ask questions about shock.

I sing the body electric – but is this Franklin’s electricity, or Mesmer’s magnetic fluid, generated in the nerves? Has it come from the laboratory, the theater, or the old woman who runs a surreptitious business as the street’s healer, fortune teller and abortionist? 

the no alternative crowd: more ludicrous than ever!

There is something comic about a politican standing up before God and man and free will and mouthing the phrase “no alternative”. Except in the case of Moses and the ten commandments (and even then the first draft was broken on the way down from the peak of Mount Sinai), no politician in history has ever mouthed anything, ever represented anything, except an alternative. No politician has ever produced the inevitable.  And so it is with the wrecking crew of Austerians in Europe.
            The no alternative line goes back to the end of history line in the nineties. In those days, with the wall down (which made Iggy Pop want to sing Louie Louie), oil prices low,and shock therapy turning a totalitarian communist state into a funloving mafia state, specializing in exporting prostitutes and oil, neoliberalism was celebrating its springtime. Its pamphleteer and poet,  Tom Friedman, came up with one of an image struck out of the poetry of the business inspirational racket (which is the only poetry acceptable under neo-liberalism): the golden straightjacket. Friedman was quite enthused about the triumph of democracy everywhere, as long as democracy didn’t go overboard and put power in the hands of the people. To prevent this, God gave us central bankers and Milton Friedman. Neo-liberalism, back then, advertised itself as so realistic that we all had to eat it every day and every night and never ever dream we had a choice. It dreamed of a world in which there was infinitely increasing returns on investment (oh, what joy to live in the Information age!) and the business cycle was road kill.  But road kill reanimated and pissed all over the New Economy in 2001. Still, for six years the pretense held that a credit system that endebted a population that engrossed none of the increase in productivity that they actually created could replace what used to be called, quaintly, a “raise”. Until the house turned out to be bankrupt, and the elites had to scurry about in 2008-2010, doing what they do: using the power of the government to prop up the power of capital. Or, in populist terms, the state chose to simply give the upper .01 percent throughout the developed world hundreds of billions of dollars. They did not chose to give the 99 percent money – no, the 99 percent were assured that they were making distant money, since their pension funds and other investments (which represented a pathetic substitute for the retirement that social democracy used to hold out)  would eke their way across the bleak landscape, as long as we could foreclose on the losers, lower those labor costs even more, and hike up the price of social goods.

Somehow, though, the no alternative world is looking shabbier every day. We owe so much money! In fact, tons of fake money are owed all the way around. But in this time of little faith, people are beginning to ask who they owe  the money to, and why. That is, why did the elite which led us into the no alternative cul de sac make the choices it did; and why the choices, when they all went to shit, had no effect on… the elite.

So Europe is still being forced to obey the policies designed by the leaders of the Free Democrats, the tres minority rightwing party in Germany, and the editorialists and columnists in FAZ, Der Welt, Le Monde, the Financial Times, the Economist, the New York Times, etc.,worry that the people are not reading correctly the bills from good old Mr.Moneybags. Aren’t they supposed to tug their forelocks or something?

But as the Golden straightjacket turns leaden, maybe it is time for the elites to look at other periods when the classical liberals said there was no alternative. 1848. 1870.  1917.

There are alternatives. Not only that, there are alternatives to our elites, God bless em. A point that, I hope, doesn’t have to be  reinforced through the historically repetitive means of peppering their butts with buckshot. 

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

collision versus shock

The afterlife of Robert Whytt is a comparatively muted thing. In James Buchan’s recent history of the Edinburgh Enlightenment, for instance, he is mentioned only in passing as the Professor of the Theory of Physic at Edinburgh’s University. Whytt does figure in more  specialized histories – for instance, Kurt Danziger devotes quite a bit of space to him in an article on the “pre-history’ of the notion of stimulated motion in animals. This is because Whytt branched off from the physiology that was dominated by Descartes’ idea of dualism, without adhering to the 18th century school of materialism. Danziger has corrected the notion, floated in the nineteenth century by T.H. Huxley, that the behavioralist school of psychology owes its rise to reducing Descartes two forms of behavior – one actuated by reason, the other by sheer mechanics – to the latter alone. Whytt, according to Danziger, did not want to make the rational soul responsible for what Descartes had called mechanical motions, but he did not want to return to Descartes’ simple dualism. Rather, Whytt wanted to carve out a third kind of thing – a living thing:

“The necessity which, for Whytt, governed the operation of the sentient principle, involved the preservation of the life and organic unity of the animal body. It was impossible to predict the effects of stimuli on organic response for mechanical, or for that matter, chemical considerations, becauseinterposed between the stimulus and the response was the sentient principle which ensured that the response was such as to preserve the integrity of the living system. The old dualism had recognized only two kinds of actions in the world: voluntary action, governed by reason, and physical action, governed by mechanism. Whytt now argued for the existence of a third kind, fundamentally distinct, type of actions represented by “motion from a stimulus”. To the rational and the mechanical determinants of action there was now added a third  set of determinants derived from the self-regulation of the living body.” (1983)


Philosophers, who are never happier than when working the aisles of the dictionary, may be tempted to call this vitalism. It is a large question in the philosophy of sciences whether, in fact, the third set of determinants in Whytt’s schema can be reduced to the second set. As well as whether the first set is not, really, an articulation of the third set.

            The problematic concerns me mainly because it gives us a sense of the confusions that will haunt the interpretation of “shock” as the three determinants lour in the background, sometimes merging, sometimes distinguished one from the other. Most commonly, collision and shock are often taken to refer exactly to the same thing, even as, in the entangled tale of shock, the total discourse in which the later category plays its role makes it impossible to identify shock and collision strictly. Shock as a thing felt, a human thing, operates as a category that traverses sociology, aesthetics and psychology, and is implicated in the two great psychological schools of the twentieth century – psychoanalysis and behavioralism. Both schools, of course, have lost their sway as psychology was annexed by the pharmaceutical companies, but both beat, still, within not only the folk psychology they so permeated, but also within a psychological literature that refuses to die, finding its place in pockets in academy, or outside the great neo-liberal sphere.



Monday, May 07, 2012

on the election of Hollande, 1

Nietzsche took a satiric pleasure in quoting one of the Church fathers, Tertullian, whose idea of the cosmos built by the God of Love included box seats in heaven for the saints to look down and savor the screams and tortures of the damned in hell. However, Tertullian had a point: as he might well have replied to Nietzsche, who can resist so holy a temptation?

The pale inheritors of the cosmos planned for love are surely the socialists. As a sometimes member of the flock of the left, I, like Tertullian, take delight in the screams of the vanquished when I can. Those screams have shifted venues from the abode of eternal darkness to the comments columns under news stories and opinion pieces. You can tell a pleasure that is corrupted by temptation from one that isn’t by the fact that the former is never pure: yes, you go to hear the screams of the vanquished partisans of the right, and before you know it you are getting angry, scandalized, and not at all in the mood of savoring a triumph . Because just as the damned are still damned, the rightwinger is still a rightwinger in defeat. I know this, but such is the folly of fallen human nature that I still went, this morning, to the comments section under the Guardians comment piece – What do you Think of the French Election?

At the moment, the abiding Rightwing yelp seems to be that socialism is for cretins. Real men know that reality is about realism, and realism is about European populations realizing they can’t borrow any more. They owe so much! So the only thing to do is to retire later in life, for less of a pension, while working for less. And of course giving up healthcare and education, or paying immensely more for it.

This is a curious kind of realism. It is a sort of gluesniffing realism. It consists of thinking that the height of unrealism is paying a factory worker more than 10 euros per hour, or paying a hedgefund manager less than a thousand euros per hour. It is the realism of fools – to parody a famous phrase.

Realism begins by looking at what is real in the world and asking how it got there and how it can continue. When one looks at a shadow financial system that has accumulated a nominal 400 trillion dollars in derivatives and options, one sees an affair that can’t continue. When one looks at an investing class that was literally flooded with money by world governments for two years, through loans that were pure gifts as well as pure gifts (worldwide, the amount is well over 16 trillion dollars), you see a structure that was righted at great cost, to benefit the few – which also can’t continue. And when you see a wealth hierarchy in which those who contribute, socially, little (upper management) in response to those who contribute, socially, nothing (investors), engross almost all, while those who contribute nearly all (workers) are rudely asked to live much worse lives – because they ‘owe’ the people the state broke its back bailing out – you are looking at one of those power machines that are doomed by a very simple reality that keeps emerging again and again in the last two hundred years. It is this: a majority can only be lead to denude itself of its stuff, its privileges, its rights, when it is tricked into thinking that some enemy lies in wait, victory over which requires that sacrifice.

Otherwise, to pluck the 99 percent, you need a con, you need the old three card monte.  That was the trick of the neo-liberal order – substitute expanded credit limits for expanded pay packages, and plug the assets of the wage class into investment modalities, thus weakening their sense of self interest. It was a good trick, but it has turned rotten.

The realism of the right at the moment is the old boy’s club realism. The natives may be restless, but give em a good drubbing and they will calm down. It wouldn’t be realistic to predict the date of the end of the old boy’s club. But it would be less realistic still to predict that it won’t end, sooner or later.  

Sunday, May 06, 2012

wanker moment 6: superfuckmeovereconomics

Out of my usual 00 motives – disgust with all mankind, disgust with myself, and just a teaspoonful of disgust for the 10 trillion living creatures on the ten billion planets throughout the cosmos – I wrote a parody on my site, Limited Inc (LI) February 19 2006 about profitmaking solutions to global warming. It went like this:

"money makin' ideas for the AEI to consider

Being broke at the moment, LI has been in search of a surefire source of revenue. And then it occurred to us: what kind of pro-active, pro-business response to global warming would warm the hearts of rightwing moneybags and bring in the checks?

Surely the thing to do is controlled volcanic management! We keep our cars, SUVs and coal generated plants going along at full carbon tilt, toss in a few atom bombs into the crater of some isolated volcano every year or so, and get the wonderfully cooling effect of pumping “sufficient amounts of ash into the air.” This package has everything: major manipulation of nature, atom bomb use, and a pro-carbon agenda. We are writing to the Scaife foundation for a grant right away! Happy days are here again!

From the Washington Post Q and A with Eugene Linden, author of Winds of Change:

Q: “As I've followed the global warming/climate change discussion, three historically based questions have always interested me. First, the drop in temperatures from the 1940s to the 1970s seems to contradict the correlation between human generated greenhouse gases and warming. Has this been adequately explained? Second, there was a significant warming period during the middle ages during which an agricultural colony was established in Greenland, but there was little or no human generated greenhouse gases at the time. Does this indicate that other factors besides human activity are the predominant causes of warming? Finally, proxies for temperature measures (i.e. ice cores, tree rings) have indicated that current temperatures are below long-term millennial temperature averages, and these long term trends track very closely to trends in solar activity. Does this indicate that current levels of solar activity are a more likely cause of current warming than greenhouse gases? Thank you for your consideration of my questions.

Eugene Linden: Since human greenhouse gas emissions only truly ramped up in the last century or so, it should be obvious that past warmings were the result of natural cycles (although one scholar argues that humans have had an impact through deforestation and agricultural going back thousands of years). Moreover, periodic coolings don't contradict the connection between GHG emissions and warming. For instance, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the early 90s put sufficient amounts of ash into the air to cool the planet the following year. Climate is one of the most complex systems on the planet, responding at any given time to countless pushes and pulls, but, on relatively short time frames, CO2 has tracked temperature as far back as we can reliably measure. It's one big variable that we can affect, and since we've upped it by 50%, temperatures have responded much the way climate scientists have expected. There will never be 100% certainty that the recent warming represents a response to human inputs, but the consensus is strikingly strong that it does. Moreover, it's the one thing we can do something about.

Finally, even if the current warming was entirely natural, it would still represent something that we should take very seriously. Natural climate change did in past civilizations, and we've seen the destructive potential of extreme weather just recently on the Gulf Coast.”

But then I thought:

Ah, fuck the think tank peanuts. LI is now thinking of the plot for the latest Michael Crichton novel – you know, our Rebel in Chief’s favorite expert on so called climate change. In this plot, St. Exxon (the first corporation ever to be beatified by the Vatican), trying, as usual, to save humanity, comes up with the volcano management idea. Evil environmentalists – the Osama bin Laden league for Deep Ecology – try, of course, to stop them. In the exciting last scene, Jesus Christ, played by Mel Gibson, machine guns the Laden-ites just as they are about to mess up St. Exxon’s scheme. Beautiful fadeout as Jesus turns to the CEO of Exxon – played by St. Peter – and says, in a choked up voice, “I just want my country… to love me… like I love it,” copping the finale to Rambo II – but also a wink and a nod to the idea, gaining increasing currency in the Red States, that Sly’s movie now has official gospel status.

A subplot involving St. Exxon falling deeply in M & A love with Chevron (who is pursued by a lustful, deceptive Chinee company, backed by some evil liability chasin’ lawyers) is, of course, de rigeur, since we need some nude accounting scenes – or at least nude flowsheet scenes. Hey, and to be all comme il faut and shit, how about a stand-in for you know who, toting a pellet gun loaded for bear, who tattoes cartoon images of the prophet on the buttocks of the aforementioned liability lawyers? We gotta think outside the box here, boys. Outside of the Hollywood mindset. Family values and like that. I’m going to pitch this plot to Seth."

Well, looking at this proposal, now, with an eagle eye, I can see a major flaw in it. It does have explosions. It would please the ever apoplectic male population, all pumped up on their Limbaugh brand Viagra and shit. But... it really needs to pump federal money into the South. This is, after all, pretty much the reason the U.S. exists any more -- find some reason to send another couple billion to a Peckerhead War Industry firm. I concede that, feeding the Dixie monkey wise, my simple proposal might not go over. But wait! What if we chose to explode volcanos in countries that aren't free? Couldn't we liberate them first? Which is invasion, which is moola-moola for those greasy kentucky fried fingers. And a lot of brown bodies, all torn to bits, occasionally flashed on the tv screen. Wow. A lyncherooni of an idea.

I'm seeing if Tom Delay is available for board membership of this thing.”

Little did I know that the geoengineering idea would pop up as the centerpiece of the ur piece of 00 trash, Freakonomics. Freakonomics was to the 00s what social Darwinism was to the Gilded Age – a piece of cuddly scientism cut out for the oligarch set and their multitudinous brownnosers in the press – an American press in which the economics section is invariably labeled “Business”, not “Labor”. On the principle of, who gives a fuck about labor? Freakonomics was, before anything else, boyish – in that aging boyish way that became the stylistic dominant of an era presided by an aging boy, a man whose greatest accomplishments had been cheerleading and owning a part of a baseball team. It was dreamt up by Steven Levitt, your typical freshwater motormouth, and a journalist, Stephen Dubner, who apparently turned the genius models of Levitt into a popular vernacular that could be licked up by middle managers. Freakonomics was an immediate hit in the intellectual blogosphere –in 2005, the book was the subject of a big fest at Crooked Timber, which the Crooked Timberites now look back on regretfully. It is easy to see why they liked it though – here’s a book that takes the principles of neo-classical economics seriously enough to use them as the magic key to understanding everything about life under capitalism – while assuming that capitalism is life. The idea that capitalism is life is, of course, bullshit. Capitalism is a certain distinct economic system, which has existed for a small moment in the course of human natural and written history. There are many, many matrixes of exchange that make up life, and to translate them all into terms that have to do with the artifices of mainstream economics is like translating Beethoven’s fifth into seal calls. I imagine a DJ could actually arrange bull seal snorts into something that roughly traced the melody of Beethoven’s fifth, but it would be a bold conman indeed who claimed that Beethoven’s fifth is, at bottom, about the mating habit of seals.

The Freaknomics team mounted a blog, which was represented for a while on the NYT site. The blog was a vast wreck of conservative ideology masquerading as hard economic fact. Well, this is what one would expect from a U. of Chi economist,  right? Still, sometimes the wankery went beyond the usual call of duty (less taxes! Freedom, freedom freedom!). There was, for instance, the promotion that inequality measures in America were neglecting the fact that you could buy cheaper tat at Wallmart now than ever before! There was the ongoing sexism, which crossed with the comic book nerd ethos to produce an unnerving obsession with prostitutes and porn stars. In their second book, for instance, the adorably cute authors ask the question, why aren’t more women prostitutes, because the adorably cute authors think that pussy is one of the world’s great commodities, which should be traded among those (men) who have money by women (non-nagging) who have the pussy. I think I’ve heard this conversation before, somewhere. Levitt’s humor has that 13 year old boy sexism to it that is, well, sad. I am sad that I have read it. This is a typical freakonomics post by Levitt in this vein:

“Of all the reasons anyone has ever had for getting breast implants, I’m guessing that no one ever thought of this one.
A body was recently found — a brutal murder in which the killer cut off the fingers of the victim and removed all her teeth in order to make identifying the body more difficult. One thing he hadn’t taken into account was that her breast implants would have serial numbers that would allow her to be positively identified.”
The very idea of breast implants is just a killer for our economist. Such is life, such is pathology, and such was the reactionary 00s.

Wankery on this level would, by itself, elevate Steven Levitt  and Stephen Dubner high into the wankery stratosphere. But it was their wink wink relationship with climate denialism, and their solution to global warming, as outlined in their second book and with monomaniacal fervor, on their blog, which earned them their true wankomoment. Unbelievably, what they offered up, after reiterating a few of the ripe tropes about global warming (scientists once thought that we had global cooling in the 70s! alarmists in the past worried about horse manure! Global warming is a leftist trifecta, since all the bad guys -  cars, the petro companies, suburbs – are also lefty bugabears!), this: an 18 mile high pipe to shoot sulphur into the atmosphere – basically, my manmade volcano recipe, minus the bombs.

The controversy about the Superfreakonomics books was marked a moment of change in mood, in the tone of the 00s. Contrarianism – the intellectual accompaniment to the evisceration of the middle class which provided the glee club noise – began to seem, well, not too much different from any other adventure of the right. Freakonomics had danced just close enough to the right left line that your Clintonoid liberal could hee haw along with our authors while thinking that they were engaged in serious but entertaining work – work that showed up certain liberal shibboleths. And who wouldn’t want to do that?  But in their book and subsequent posts, they showed that they weren’t only in tune with the Bushian Weltgeist, but were also willing to use Bushian logic, distort sources, and use the look over there strategy that was perfected, long ago, by the scientific krewe that developed the defense of the tobacco industry in the 50s and 60s.

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...