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Showing posts from June 17, 2012

reading the classics

Calvino begins his essay, Why read the Classics, by defining them in terms of a characteristic phrase: “I am re-reading x” The classics are haunted, as it were, by re-reading. We re-read in the classroom to answer questions (a site Calvino, I think mistakenly, throws out of consideration – an awful lot of reading is tied to the classroom, and it often seems that when we re-read on our own, the ghost of a classroom desk trails behind us, with its pencil groove and its slight, metallic smell – mixed in my case with the smell of a brown bag and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in wax paper ). We re-read outside of the classroom because, a, we are defensive about not having read,and want to make it known that we, too, have already read, and b, (the meat of Calvino’s theme), even when reading the first time, the classic imposes it scale on us, one that suggests an infinity of re-readings. When reading a classic, we cannot “escape” its design. In this sense, the classic is the opposite

unproductive labour and literature

In 1790, 75 percent of the working population of Austria was involved with agriculture (David Good); this was true of  73 percent of the population of the U.S. at the time, and  approximately the same percentage in Prussia as well (Cambridge Economic History). In Europe as a whole, at the time of the French Revolution, when we look not only at the population that directly labored in the fields, but include those who depended directly on them, we get even more elevated figures: 90 percent, for instance, for France. The exceptions are Britain and Holland, with the percentage being as low it is estimated as 40 percent in Britain. These were the first economies to enduringly get past what the growth economists call “Malthusian limits” – that is, an agricultural sector that shrinks in population size while growing in productivity such that it can support a much larger non-agricultural population. The post-Malthusian world is the world of the artificial paradise, in which I, and everybody

Kill the poor

… It was during his Koln period that Marx, according to his own account, made one of his most important discoveries: that the sociological category, “the poor”, was vacuous. The poor were easily recognized in pre-capitalist economies: the beggars, the serfs, the slaves, they all exist under the sign of minus. They had less, and that quantitative fact defined their social existence. What Marx saw was that capitalist society was not just a matter of old wine in new bottles – the archaic poor were now free labor. Perhaps nothing so separates Marxism from religion as   this insight: in all the great monotheistic religions, poverty is viewed in feudal terms: the poor you will have always with you. But in capitalism, or modernity tout court , the poor continue to exist as a mystificatory category, usually in a binary with the rich. In fact, the real binary in society is capital and labor. The bourgeois economists, and even the non-scientific socialists, operate as though the archaic

Unproductive labor 1

The idea of unproductive labor is evidently rooted in the way wealth is regarded in the pre-capitalist mindset. This does not mean that at some point, the concept was unambiguous – on the contrary. The moral economy of the pre-capitalist era in Europe (by which I mean, simply, the domination of pre-capitalist economic ties, and not the absence of capitalist enterprise of one sort or another) was organized around an implicitly conflicted notion of temporal and intemporal glory. The royal or noble banquet was, at one and the same time, a symbol of the intemporal glory awaiting the believer in heaven and a display of pride and gluttony that would lead the sinner to hell. Underneath the sumptuary laws that came out of pagan as well as Christian jurisprudence was a strong sense of Fortuna – a sense that there was an equilibrium in the world of goods deriving from the fact that goods were limited by divine and physical law, and he who had a good in a sense took it from he who did not hav