Saturday, May 02, 2015


It seems to jerk a certain chain with the right whenever it is discovered that the cop who kills or maims the black person is black too. The point made is that this is, then, a priori not a racist act.
There is a larger point here, a truth that is in real conflict with the conservative vision of America – for surely it is not only a racist act. The militarization of the police, and their elbow room to do illegal acts and acts of brutality, is not simply racist. It is also the effect of the way in which domestic affairs in America, since the Nixon era, have been framed in military terms – for instance, the War on Crime. It is also the effect of class. The overwhelming number of victims of police brutality are in the bottom of the income and wealth brackets. And the African-American population has long been on the bottom of the pole, statistically, with regard to wealth and income. It is a fact that nobody cares about in the United States that the Great Recession struck black households harder than anybody else. Pew Research had this to say in 2014:
“The wealth of white households was 13 times the median wealth of black households in 2013, compared with eight times the wealth in 2010, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances. Likewise, the wealth of white households is now more than 10 times the wealth of Hispanic households, compared with nine times the wealth in 2010.
The current gap between blacks and whites has reached its highest point since 1989, when whites had 17 times the wealth of black households. The current white-to-Hispanic wealth ratio has reached a level not seen since 2001.
1989 – twenty years of painful progress wiped out. Do we want to talk about this every day? No,  we don’t want to talk about this every day.  We will not talk about this on a boat, we will not talk about this with a goat, we will not talk about this on the tv news and we sure as hell won’t talk about this in the halls of Congress.
Clearing out the underbrush, then, we still have the fact that three of the cops charged in Freddie Gray’s death are black.
Here, I think we should turn to the indispensible Charlotte Linde and her ethnographic study of an insurance company. In explaining how the insurance company tells a story about itself, Linde made the point that the persistance of the company depends upon “drafting” people into that story: this she called  “narrative induction.”
 The title of her article is:  “The acquisition of a speaker by a story: how history becomes memory and identity.”
Narrative induction properly locates story as part of a process of initiation (which, being a “native” thing, or occult, failed to qualify for the verbal place held by identify with). Linde, in this paper, is obviously moving from her concern with stories people tell about themselves – the point of which is to say something significant about the self, and not the world – to stories people tell about the world. Those stories often are about experiences not one’s own. They are non-participant narratives.

Linde divides the NPN process– as she calls it – into three bits: how a person comes to take on someone else’s story; how a person comes to tell their own story in a way shaped by the stories of others; and how that story is heard by others as an instance of a normative pattern.

This is all about how the police work. Police departments lean on their members to become police, to identify as police, to see their enemies as the police define their enemies, to define their friends as the police define their friend. As Linde points out, most of the work on this kind of thing has been done in religious studies. Specifically, the study of metanoia, conversion stories. But there’s metanoia and then there’s metanoia. There’s St. Paul on the way to Damascas, and there’s Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, on the way to the relative wealth of a Toyota Car Dealership, owned by his father-in-law. That’s why Linde, not having access to St. Paul, opted to study the trainees of a major American insurance company in the Midwest. Linde is interested in class issues. In particular, stories of occupational choice. In her Life Stories book, she presented some evidence that professionals present their occupational choice stories in terms of some vocation or calling, while working class speakers present it, more often, in terms of accident or need for money. Philosophy professors rarely will say, for instance, well, I needed a steady paycheck, looked at the job security of tenure, loved the idea of travel and vacation time, so I went into philosophy. They will give a story rooted in their view of themselves as emotional/cognitive critters.
Police work, in America, has often served as a transitional profession, over generations, from working class to white collar. Since police unions successfully raised the benefits and pay of police forces in the eighties in cities around the country, the benefits are sometimes comparable to that of a middle manager. However, it is very much the case that, like philosophy professors, many a cop will say that they always wanted to be a cop – not that, all things considered, driving a truck paid less than being a policeman. There’s a strong vocational charisma, here.  Blue doesn’t erase black and white, but the kind of white that the police represent – that formed the police consciousness, so to speak – is a legacy that the integration of police departments has not negated – merely modified.

The right has never recognized racism as a structure – in the same way that it has refused to recognize class as a structure. Alas, the latter has now become mainstream: as the countervailing power of labor unions  has dwindled, there is little sense, even among supposedly lefty academics, of class or for class. There’s been a large blindness about the class based imaginary that makes it hard to understand class conflict when it rears back and punches you in the face. In Freddy Gray’s case, you have a trifecta of racism, class conflict, and the militarizaton – or should I call it the death squadization? – of the cops.  

Thursday, April 30, 2015

goddamn it: we exist!

There are sounds that torture our animal souls beyond endurance, as is discovered by children the first time they scratch a blackboard. The car alarm, untended, in the city night makes the surrounding apartment dwellers dream of firearms and blasting not only the car, but the owner. Then there is the classic crying and screaming of the baby or toddler on the plane flight. It is an amazing fact of natural history that the lungs and vocal chords, otherwise so undeveloped, could raise such mature decibels of sound, and for so long! I once shared a trans-atlantic flight with a two year old girl, six or seven row back, who was evidently sick, in some kind of pain, and able to scream ceaselessly for about two hours. Her parents couldn’t calm her. I would put that girl, at that moment, up against the lead singer of Metallica for sheer volume any time. Yet, being a parent myself, I had no appreciation for the guy in back of us who kept suggesting that she should be stuffed in the bathroom – I dreamed of stuffing him in the bathroom, dousing his head in that weird aluminum vortex of a Boeing toilet, flushing him into the ocean.  
However, our animal nature’s are as keenly attuned – or at least I find mine is, and I don’t think this is special with me – with a perhaps evolutionarily attuned sense for another variety of sound, one that gives us a rare and complex pleasure…
A story: every week day, around 5:10 p.m., I walk the three blocks to the Y pre-school where we keep Adam.  I always leave in a bit of a disgruntled state, since I suddenly realize, around 4:30, that I have a ton of things to do that I now don’t have time to do. But as I approach the school, I always have this moment – not the best moment of the day, not every day, but always in my top five – which comes about simply because I stroll past the wall of the outside playground that abuts the sidewalk. I can always hear inside that wall the sounds of the children, who  I know are strewn about the slides, the plastic car, the plastic castle, the swings, the area in front of the small basketball hoop, and in circles around the teachers, and who are chirupping, screaming, talking, shrieking with joy (their running in the wobble of the voice), laughing and weeping over some crisis. The whole din always seems to touch some spring within me: I feel an affective state we do not have a noun for. It is something like hope without an object.
Kant, of course, is the great without-an-object man. For Kant, beauty was disinterested. Art of any type is fundamentally purposive but without a purpose, a use. We have lost our way if we are thinking of what use we can put beauty too – how we can photoshop it, for instance, to sell a product. We have lost our way to what the aesthetic is about. Well, we can dicker with Kant here – in fact, all of our culture dickers with Kant here – but the feeling of hope I am describing is something like this purposiveness without a purpose. I hope, but I don’t hope for the future. There’s no moral conclusion to my hope, like  hope that we will all someday hold hands and sing. It is a feeling of great expectation without thinking that anything much is going to happen. I know that I’ll pick up Adam, get his stuff, the empties from lunch, go to the store with him, go home. The end, as Adam says, turning the last page of a picture book. These things do overlap, perhaps, my feeling – if I Venn diagramed it out, there’d be the minor expectation of the routine with Adam overlapping the hope without an object, surely.
But that unoverlapped part, it seems to me that the hope is just this: that we exist.

Goddamn it. We exist.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

competition three

Sorry, I am under the gun on other projects. Writing this in fragments

If I take a turn and throw a dart at a dartboard and then someone else takes a turn and throws a dart at the dartboard, we don’t say that the darts competed – we say that the players competed. Competition, here, is rooted in games played by humans – its old, situated meaning. It is not projected onto nature, or that part of nature which is constituted by an artifact of  a plastc stick  with a metal point at one end and little fins on the other end. Nor would we say that the dartboard competed with the darts.
Yet competition, as we all know, has long overflowed the agone. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the game has long been recognized as a prototype for other, “serious” kinds of social activity.
We automatically associate competition in nature with Darwinian evolution. That model of competition, as Marx saw, owes a lot to the classical economists. Marx meant this as a criticism of the whole theory of Darwinism, as though a model taken from a temporary form of social practice was inherently falsifying when applied to natural science.  Engels, more sympathetic to Darwin, tried the same trick by applying dialectical materialism to natural history, although without really delivering himself of some serious, systematic book. Marx of course forgot his own huge debt to the  classical economists as wel, which showed, at the very least, that a systematic reference is not an act of allegiance or an unconscious surrender to ideology. In any case, Marx’s notion has been taken up by intellectual historians to the point where it has become a truism – as Stephen Jay Gould put it, “Darwin grafted Adam Smith onto nature”. However, as Trevor Pearce has tried to show, the idea of competition in nature between “species” is backgrounded by more than the Scots philosophers. He points out that the idea of competition relies on the larger notion implied in Darwin’s famous phrase in the  Origins: “all organic beings are striving, it may be said, to seize on each place in the economy of nature.”  It is within this framework that we speak of the “competition” of, say, the quagga mussel  which has “invaded” the Great Lakes econsystem and outcompeted another invasive, the tiger mussel.  
Pearce, while acknowledging the influence of Malthus on Darwin, claims that not enough is made of the influence of other natural philosophers, and in particular, Linnaeus. When Linnaeus wrote of the oeconomy of nature, he did not have in mind incipient capitalism. He had in mind a notion that was connected to the great chain of being and the metaphor of the household – and ultimately, of the court. 

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...