Thursday, June 28, 2018

stalactites versus stalagmites at the end of history

There was a fad, in the eighties, for comparing the French Revolution unfavorably to the American Revolution. In that illwind of a decade, the reasoning was reliably coldwar-ish: the French Revolution led straight to the Gulag, whereas the American revolution led to: America!

In hindsight, and even then, one could see what was bogus about this judgment. For instance, its in your face racism. Black people simply didn’t count for the Francois Furet kind of historian. For another thing, the genocide necessary to create a white nation on the North American continent didn’t count. And finally, the judgment was really not about the Gulag, but about the great countervailing egalitarianism of the post-war years. It was that egalitarian that the cold war historians were particularly eager to dismantle.

Of course, this dismantling was never put so crudely. In fact, a synthesis between in-egalitarianism and egalitarianism was established, under the aegis of neo-liberalism. Here, the destruction of egalitarianism as a force in the political economy was coupled with egalitarianism as a civil matter. To put it in the class terms that were such a taboo in the Reagan-Thatcher-Mitterand years, the upper class – which was almost entirely white, but was also a compound of people with different sexual desires and genders – accepted a certain kind of feminism and a certain kind of gay rights; both denuded of their original, grass-roots connection with larger issues of class. This meant that feminism was reshaped to consist of “breaking the glass ceiling” for upper class women, and not at all of paying for housework, or extending socialized childcare to all reaches and pockets of society.
The civil egalitarianism borrowed the mythology of the civil rights movement, but – in a gesture of true cultural expropriation – did not borrow the color the skins involved. In 1960, in the U.S., there were almost no rich African-Americans. In 2015, according to a study produced by the Federal Reserve in St. Louis,  rich African Americans – defined as the upper one percent – made up a grand total of 1.7% of the whole.

The best model for the political economy – and the politics that has driven it - of the last forty years is that of a stalactite. Small drops have created a large pointy structure. When I was a kid, the idea was that we were in the midst of a stalagmite change – the drops were mounting from the bottom. The switch from one to the other has sort of defined my life, and billions of other lives.

This is worth thinking about when the next headline catastrophe announces itself: the union busting, rightwing Justice Kennedy resigning; children put in cages and left in the Texas heat; trillion dollar giveaways to the wealthy; the gutting of labor unions. It is trivial, but symbolically large, that the official opposition to rightwing plutocrats is very, very, very concerned that we all stay “civil”. The official opposition is almost surely in or connected to the upper 1 percent.

The overwhelming “feeling” of the last forty years has been one of “not being able to afford things.” For instance, medicare for all is a huge “budget-buster”. Which begs the question: how is it that in a society that is at least ten times as wealthy as it was in 1950, or 1960, when large social insurance scheme were put in place, we have run out of money? The answer is pretty simple: since then, the working class – in fact, every household that makes less than 250 thou a year – has run out of money. All the money is packed in the upper 10 percent, and in the upper 10 percent, it is packed in the upper 1 percent. The inequality is staggering: it is, really, ancien regime, as though the French Revolution had never happened. The experiment is running its course: a political economy in which the cultural expectation of egalitarianism are systematically attacked is one that will, eventually, have to take down even the mask of democratic practices. The idea that abortion rights are being threatened because one farty old man on the Court resigns shows a terrifying blindness to what has happened in state after state for twenty years. It is easier to get an abortion in Ireland than it is in, say, Texas or Mississippi. For working class women, abortion rights – not to speak of the vast vast array of healthcare rights – are a sort of ghost. They are dead, but they still haunt us.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Homo Economicus, perspectivism, and Blake

 I have two theses about modernity and economics. Here they are. The first is that there is a multiplicity of matrixes of exchange even within modernity – and that the seeming hegemony of the money matrix, to the extent that it even defines the economic as opposed to the non-economic, is a phenomena that has certainly penetrated other matrixes – such as the complex gift and barter relationships of family, friendship and alliance – without fundamentally ‘commoditizing’ them. In one sense, my whole thesis is that there is a dialectic structure that governs the degree to which the hegemony of money, as reflected in the character of homo economicus, can actually dispense with other matrixes, since its survival is threatened by its monopoly of all spaces of exchange. 
The other thesis is that rationality, as the economists define it, is linked to a realism that denies perspectives as anything other than representatives of ‘parts of reality’. Myself, I am a perspectivist of the ‘hard; variety – that is, I see no reason to put up with the idea that the parts of reality make up one reality. Reality, here, becomes a substitute for the God’s eye perspective – that point at which we can see the whole universe. Perspectivism denies that perspective can be constructed. It does not deny, it should be said, that certain processes might be shared among perspectives – say, a process for correlating statement and fact. Or even a process for ordering preferences. It simply denies that this formal characteristic has any substance. In other words, rationality within a perspective refers to the norms of the perspective, not to processes that transcend perspectives. Hard perspectivism contends that there is information in a given perspective – something that can be defined by simple axioms – that does not exist in other perspectives. In the clash of perspectives – which is the dynamic by which perspectives are made – this information can be completely lost – the way a passenger pigeon saw an oak tree no longer exists, for instance. I would not go so far as to say that 

different matrixes of exchange form completely different perspectives, but something similar might well hold – that is, that there is information in a barter exchange that can’t be transformed or translated into the money exchange. Etc. 

In other words, I want to build a theory about economics based on this phrase of Blake’s:
How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?

Monday, June 25, 2018

materialism and superstition

The positivist line in the history of the sciences can always be distinguished by one general assumption, which is that the present state of the sciences represents some kind of natural division of labor. In other words, the sciences as now constituted really do cut at the joints, so that we have clearcut, naturally founded divisions that are entailed by the subjects that the sciences study: astronomy is the result of studying the stars, economics is the result of studying exchange, psychology is the result of studying the mind, etc. Given this viewpoint, there is a certain teleology that organizes the whole narrative: astrology is the predecessor of astronomy, alchemy the predecessor of chemistry, etc.

Against this idea, the non-positivist looks at the sciences as defined by their social environment. Instead of looking at astrology as the study of the stars, it looks at astrology as a compound of the study of the stars, the study of the temperaments, and the study of governance. Instead of looking at alchemy as the study of the rocks or the molecules, it sees alchemy as operating as the study of treasure, the study of cryptography, the study of natural symbolism, etc. In other words, there is less joint here, and more tentacle.

The consequence of the non-positivist line is that we work outward from what the discipline said about itself at time x, and what was assumed about it at time x, instead of working inward from an exterior view about what we know, now, at time y, about the supposed contents of the science. The advantage of the first view is that we can catch in our net many, many connections that have been pruned away as the dominant episteme changed. And we become more aware that the conceptual oppositions that are assumed in positivism are products of a teleology rather than of an immersive reading of the sources.
Take, for instance, materialism.
It is often assumed that a great leap forward in the sciences occurred in the 17th and 18th century as a materialist program was organized to delimit and define acceptable explanations of natural phenomena. In opposition, there was a supernatural program that looked around to transcend the mere causal schema.

In fact, this view of the materialist program is very much a product of late nineteenth century positivism. The oppositions, in the eighteenth century, was much mushier than this. One of the problems that thinkers – the zemstvo, the intellectuals in the field, the doctors, lawyers, notaries, teachers, as well as writers – faced was that they grew up in a world of certain beliefs that seemed not to be absolutely unfounded. Their grandparents believed that certain people could, through sacrifice to the devil, transform themselves into beasts – and their parents definitely believed that certain people had the gift of finding water or treasure using a kind of cleft stick. They knew their parents, and some of them knew their grandparents, and they weren’t insane. They weren’t even stupid. So what was going on?

Materialism, far from opposing these beliefs, helped to explain them. Of course, certain superstitions were rejected – the belief in werewolves for instance or vampires required a very complex explanation, and usually the thought was: this is the delusion of ignorant peasants. But certain superstitions, properly understood, revealed a primitive grasp of material connections. Just as the sun’s gravity – that invisible force – explained the rotation of planets around it, so, too, astrology, properly considered, was all about cosmic forces that were material things, and could be discovered empirically.   

Or, to put a point on this: the demystification of superstition did not lead to the rejection of those things we might think of as “superstition”, but rather their re-enactment in other terms.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

the extempore monument

“It sounds a peculiarly Romantic theme—a man's genius goes into notes and extempores and sketches towards some classical monument, which in the end turns out to be superfluous.” – Eric Rhodes

This is from a review of a rather obscure work by Humphrey Jennings, a British filmmaker, one of the co-founders of Mass Observation, and poet: Pandaemonium: 1660-1886 The coming of the Machine as seen by contemporary observers. It was written, as it were, in the thirties, at the same time that Benjamin was collecting his notes for the Passages work. Although Jennings didn’t, I think, know Benjamin, they were both moved by a strong Marxist impulse to understand the formation of class structure under capitalism by creating a vast citational structure – bringing, as it were, the production of the imagination, its collective factory of images, connections, and types, to the surface.
I think Rhodes is right that this is a very romantic theme: in fact, one could think of it as a conjunction of Novalis’s notion of the ultimate Encyclopedia with the Marxist notion of a witness that would probe, to the very depths, the history of obscure. But the paradox in both cases is that the witness has to come from sources, and those sources were, inevitably, literate and emplaced in the structures of literature in the broadest sense – natural philosophy, the newspapers, poetry, medicine, etc. The romantic impulse is to find, at some moment, the perfect conjunction of the immediate and the mediate: a private language that can be publicly understood. But the bingo of all the old Marxist boys lies, forever, around the next book.
In the preface he intended to write for the book he never completed (like the Passages work, Pandaemonium was always in process), Jennings wrote:
“In this book I present the imaginative history of the Industrial Revolution. Neither the political history, nor the mechanical history, nor the social history nor the economic history, but the imaginative history.

I say 'present', not describe or analyse, because the Imagination is a function of man whose traces are more delicate to handle than the facts and events and ideas of which history is usually constructed. This function I believe is found active in the areas of the arts, of poetry and of religion – but is not necessarily confined to them or present in all their manifestations. I prefer not to try to define its hmits at the moment but to leave the reader to agree or not with the evidence which I shall place before him. I present it by means of what I call Images.”

This was one of the lovelier dreams of Modernism. Jennings, even, takes an image from Apollinaire that is cognate to Benjamin’s idea of the angel of history flying backwards: In a radio broadcast, he “spoke of Apollinaire who said that the poet must stand with his back to the future because he was unable to see it: it was in the past that he would discover who he was and how he had come to be.”

One day someone – me – should dig around the roots of Benjamin’s image of the angel of history flying backwards. An essay on the lines of Carlo Ginzburg’s investigation of the roots of the image of atrocity at a distance, summed up in the story of the Chinese mandarin in Balzac. For these roots are not dead, oh son (or daughter) of man.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...