Saturday, April 18, 2020

Sometimes,like today, I fail to feel

Sometimes, like today, I fail to feel
Sensibility, like my lost shadow's sister
follows me around all blank and peel
and I'm all what's up mister

from room to room, from closet to closet
a numbskull under the skin
which I display in the bathroom in close-up
-selfy with a death's head grin.
-Karen Chamisso

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

an anthropology of the 1 percent


Ethnographic field studies of peasants, hunter gatherers, farmers, powerful village men, etc. are common. Field studies of rich American families are less so.   Off hand, I can only think of George Marcus’s studies of  rich Texas families in Houston and Galveston, which was nevertheless full of insights.  Marcus uses a term that the muckrakers used – dynastic wealth. His view of wealth is still wedded, however, to the notion of the family, especially in terms of male heirs.
Myself, I think that we should look at modern wealth from the perspective of the “house”. This is akin to the dynastic perspective – we think of the “house” of Windsor, meaning, vaguely, parts of the extended family of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. A house his, on the one hand, a concrete building, and, on the other hand, a synecdoche for the entirety of the property. “Members” of the house can include servants, as well as the less endowed cousins, aunts, uncles and others who have some claim on the property.

In Marcus’s work on the rich, the invisibility of wealth is one of the great structuring themes. It is mostly the case with the non-wealthy that their visible environment, from car to apartment to house, is their real wealth. The asset of most Americans is a house – although many have a few stocks, the vast majority of stocks and other financial instruments is owned by the wealthy. These things are wealth, too, but they can’t be seen the way chattels can. Marcus proposes a parallel with the Kauli, a people in New Guinea:

“In talking about the people of the other world, the Kaluli use the term mama, which means shadow or reflection. When asked what the people of the unseen look like, Kaluli will point to a reflection in a pool or a mirror and say, "They are not like you or me. They are like that." In the same way, our human appearance stands as a reflection to them. This is not a "supernatural" world, for to the Kaluli, it is perfectly natural. Neither is it a "sacred world," for it is virtually coextensive with and exactly like the world the Kaluli inhabit, subject to the same forces of mortality .... In the unseen world, every man has a reflection in the form of a wild pig . . . that roams invisibly on the slopes of Mt. Bosavi. The man and his wild pig reflection live separate existences, but if something should happen to the wild pig, the man is also affected. If it is caught in a trap, he is disabled; if it is killed by hunters of the unseen, he dies.”

The Kaluli reference is not a mere affectation, but a way of making something intelligible that is beyond “inherited” wealth.  I have to quote Marcus at length, here:

  The dynastic fortunes that I have studied in Texas over the past few years are complex creations of various kinds of experts and of lineages of descendants two to four generations away from founding entrepreneurial ancestors. A dynasty is commonsensically a family, but after much experience with this form of social organization, I find that it is primarily a fortune instead. Concentrations of old wealth, however, have no one particular locus or materialization; in short, they have no presence. Rather, a fortune has multiple, simultaneous manifestations within a variety of interconnected but isolated social contexts that encompass the long-term fates and daily lives of literally hundreds of people. In initiating my research, I followed common sense and took the family-literal flesh-and-blood descendants, and particularly those who seemed to be leaders or in positions of authority-for the dynasty. I soon discovered in their here and now lives the profound influence of the equivalent of the unseen world among the Kaluli-the complex world of highly spec- ialized expertise that through an elaborate division of labor, not only structured the wealth but, also, created doppelganger facsimiles of the descendants-roughly similar to the Mt. Bosavi wild pig reflections of Kaluli persons-variously constituted as clients, beneficiaries of trusts, wealth shares in computerized strategies of investment, and accountants' files. While the unseen world is richly registered through sound and imagery in the here and now of the Kaluli, it distinctly is not among the descendants within dynastic families.

These houses, I propose, are what is at play, anthropologically, in the ownership of corporations. The idea of the stock market as a way of transferring ownership to more efficient managers is not born out by anything in our real economic experience. But these complex transfers of ownership as the politics of various houses – this makes much more sense. The great houses in medieval and early modern Europe were founded, above all, on a warrior ethos – they were seized in wars, they warred with each other, and they warred outside of Europe in crusades and, eventually, in the massive war against the indigenous peoples and culture of Africa, the Americas, and Asia.  



Sunday, April 12, 2020

a great debut novel


The list of great debut novels is short – although some of them are the greatest of novels. Don Quixote might be considered a debut in two ways – it is the debut of the modern novel, and a debut novel. There’s Dead Souls, the Pickwick Papers, Madam Bovary, Decline and Fall, The Sun Also Rises, V.
There’s also Chiendent, Queneau’s first novel, which has been translated as Barking Tree or Witchgrass. Americans are more familiar with crabgrass, which holds the same place in our lawn mythology as chiendent in France. The principle of the weed – of the invasion of an alien thing that is much like the real thing – in this case grass – but somehow not is a beautiful structural metaphor for what Queneau was doing. My own novel, Made a Few Mistakes, boosted one of Queneau’s brilliancies – the idea that falsehoods can take life and motive power, moving people to do absurd things under false premises. An idea that is put into a literally Cartesian framework in Chiendent, as a plain clerk, traveling in his usual routine in a metro from work to his half built suburban home, has an actual thought. That is, he notices something in a store window that he has walked past hundreds of times. In that moment, he begins to take on substance – which is noticed by a sort of flaneur, an authorial stand-in, who sees him literally becoming “rounder” . And as our clerk, named, sadly enough, Etienne Marcel – which happens to be the name of our own street, once it gets past Beaubourg, an existential coincidence I never dreamed would happen the first time I read this novel – continues to think, he continues to substantify, rather like an a Cartesian eucharist. A silhouette becomes a person.
The silhouette to person transformation would be a high concept gimmick save for the fact that the novel is also about an entire slice of Parisian life, from flaneurs to petty crooks, from anonymous letters and stalkers to Marcel’s odious step-son, Théo, a sort of Rimbaud gone to seed early. Queneau’s novel was published in 1935, under the impulse of his break with the surrealists and his reading of Ulysses. Ulysses was that rare novel that seeded others, much as punk bands formed from members of the audiences that watched the Sex Pistols. There’s Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer, Faulkner’s Sound and Fury, Doeblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Queneau – and this list is just off the top of my head.
Of them all, I think it was Queneau who thought hardest about how to construct a novel – and among this crew, he is the only one who saw how funny Joyce is. The French have a great sense of farce – unappreciated I think in the Anglo world, save for the Anglo appreciation of Molière – and Queneau is an expert farceur, without the sometimes heavy breathing, the Playboy jokiness, of Labiche. His coincidences hit because you don’t really see how these events are going to collide. Especially in as much as he views events like a mathematician – Queneau, like Musil, was a trained mathematician, a rarity among novelists or among fucking anything – I mean, how many math postgraduates do you know? So for Queneau, the distribution of coincidences is held to a rigorous schemata, the base of which is a sort of Cartesian algebra.
Descartes is known for having reduced geometry to algebra – or at least made that a program. His calcul géométrique would have made Descartes a famous figure in intellectual history outside of his Meditations and Discourse on Method. Similarly, the algebra of character positions, within the framework of the Parisian world of things in motion, produces a number of collisions which are prefigured by the “channels” or vectors involved – the circulation of traffic, of letters, of vacationers, of clients in bistros, etc. - but not totally determined from the point of view of any one character. This is the limit of thought, so to speak, which Etienne, as he substativizes, bumps into. Of that which one cannot calculate, one cannot think clearly. Hence, the opposition between the thought and the bump.
Farce is characteristically about sex and money. They are inherently farcical because they are the object of our most ardent calculations – and farce is nothing if not calculated – and yet in the world of farce, as in the real world, we often miscalculate. In fact, miscalculation is heir to farce’s premise, since sex and money are also wildcards, jokers in the pack.
Farce, it turns out, is an excellent way to approach the city. Queneau’s work – Chiendent, Pierrot mon ami, Loin de Rueil, le Dimanche de la vie, and Zazie dans le metro – is an extended study of Paris, from Parisian pronunciation to Parisian working class quarters to popular amusements – which is one of the great novelistic undertakings of the twentieth century to my mind. It has not been as influential as Celine, but it is as funny – when Celine is funny – and without the meanness that creeps into Celine as he became more of a monster.
So, for a good time - go out and read Queneau!

Biden's foreign policy: let's bet everything on authoritarianism!

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