Saturday, August 02, 2014

the biography of a price

We live in an epoch in which objects have taken one of the attributes of kings - that is, they get biographies. The biography of the fork, the pencil, Wall Street – the transfer of the life story from the human to the inhuman has become quite fashionable, as though, since we all know about the pathetic fallacy, we are allowed to systematically commit it. I jest, ho ho – and in fact I have to admit that there is something life-like about these things and their passage through our lives. If they aren’t alive, they still have mana – a lifelike power. They become totems.
However, noone, so far as I know, has done a biography of a price. Ah, there’s a subject! One would first have to wrest it from the enormous mystifications of the economists, who know what a price must be without often looking at what a price is, and one would have to restore it to its true nature, its genesis, its type.
Scratch a price and you find an adventure. We’ve become accustomed to thinking that the adventure it encodes is determined by a thing called a “market” – and so mystery calls to mystery. The mystics of capitalism have shamelessly spoken of the “magic of the marketplace” – which serves as an alibi for our adventurer. In fact, all adventurers deal, at one point or another in their careers, with magic. From Raleigh to Cagliostro, from the average American politician to the Spanish conquistador, all have used magic to fill in the gaps, biographical and strategic. But the biographer’s strong suite is a counter-magic: a grasp of details. While the adventurer sheds one persona for another, one claim to effects at a distance for another, one spectacle for another, the biographer, that dogged leveler, reconnects the membra disjecta with a thousand and one facts, with fine filaments of cause, deliberation, association and purposes (a plural that covers serial disappointments, self-subversions and incompatibilities – for the biographer is not your rational expectations robot, explaining that all can be explained through a system that explains anything. A biographer who seeks to explain a life is a biographer who has gone mad).
The critic Harold Innes claimed that the story of modernization in the west is the story of the penetration of the price system. This is an insight that holds together a truth and a falsehood. Just as there are no solitary human individuals – every mother’s son or daughter of ‘em must be a mother’s son or daughter – so too, there is no single price. Price’s came into the world en masse, rather than as a single prototype – no caveman hammered out a price, held it up, and said, now what will this be goood for? But Innes’s insight is also false, in that it treats price system as something autonomous – it is as if, with the word system, we move from the puppet to the puppetmaster.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

realism again

A wonderful thing about taking care of a 21 month old that might not look, on its face, like a wonderful thing, is the amount of app-less time the child’s care forces upon you.
Adam, at some point a month ago, changed his sleeping pattern. The 9 month old that got to bed at 7 p.m. and slept until 6 or 7 a.m. stopped working like a sleep machine. Now, it is around 8 p.m. that he gets to bed, and we have to stay with him until his breathing takes on a certain open mouthed regularity and the sound of the pacifier being tasted, taken out of the mouth, and reinserted ceases. While this activity, or hopefully, inactivity, is going on, we lay in the bed next to his crib. If we get up too soon, if we misjudge the breathing and the routine with the pacifier, if we try to escape from the nursery and get back to making dinner or watching a video prematurely, Adam turns on the waterworks.
Last Monday, this is just what I was doing. I didn’t have a light on or a tablet near by. I didn’t have a book or a piece of paper. The only app I had was the high window in Adam’s room, which frames a random portion of the sky. Although this portion of the sky does its best, no doubt, to be interesting, it isn’t, very. However, it does have one good trick: it turns, as though bruised, from a lighter blue to a clotted bluish purple in the hour between 8 and 8:30. And I, lying app-less on the bed with my head propped on the pillow, am in a good position to confirm the progress of the evening, the regress of the sunlight.
At this moment that I’ve been laboriously budging us towards in this fudge of words, I was not so much thinking of the physics of light but about realism. Again.  
To return to the thread I was pulling in a previous post about realism: I think that it is a mistake to connect realism to the real, as its distingushing characteristic. Rather, it is the real through the lens of the plausible, the credible. What constitutes the plausible or credible, in a society, is closely connected with the whole question of credit in every sense – economic, sociological, epistemological. To see realism as a narrative form – or rather, to see realism as making up the  kind of world in which narratives of plausibility exist – helps us to disconnect it from a defining opposition with, say, idealism, or romanticism.  
I’m concerned with fiction – so I thought, lying app-less. Adam was still not snoring.
But I am not saying that this is the only characteristic, am I? Connected to it is the fact that in these narratives, the world is “full”. The authorial voice can represent that fullness – as it does in Balzac or in Dickens. Or the authorial voice can be removed, and the world be given as full, as in Flaubert. It is no wonder that, so often, the pursuit that traverses these words is that of the borrower by the creditor. Credit is everywhere – or so it represents itself.
 Against this realism there is another world of narratives that are shot threw with the plausible. One could say that they are parasitic on realism in so far as the implausible effect requires some sense of the codes of realism. In these narratives, the assumption of the fullness of the world and the creditworthyness of the narrator suddenly snaps in the readers head, like a pencil.
For instance, the pencil which, having written the account of the barber who accidentally cut off the nose of one of his customers and found it in a roll baked by his wife, decides to get rid of the culpable probosis by taking it to a bridge and throwing it in the Neva – only to be wrapped in a fog both physical and textual:
“Ivan Yakovlevich turned pale.. But at this point everything became so completely enveloped in mist it is really impossible to say what happened afterwards…”
But at this point Adam’s breathing became unmistakeable, and what happened afterwards to my meditation on realism is really impossible to say, since I can’t remember it. It was time to make dinner.


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