Saturday, October 03, 2020

Dis-identification politics


To judge that a thing is bad is a philosophical task, but in the novel of real life, we more often judge that a person is bad. We more often think, that is, about how we don’t want to be or function like X, and create a negative figure out of that moment of negative choice. Those are the figures, in essence, that we compete with. And often, the badness of the figure becomes stronger than the reasons we hold an act or a function to be bad. Out of this comes snobbery and wounded dignity. The latter emerges from the moment in which we are squeezed between the figure that represents ‘how we don’t want to be’ and something that upsets our judgment about how we don’t want to be. I don’t want to be a liberal academic, or a poser, or a fan of country music, or a supporter of Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders, etc., etc. translates into a satisfying comparison that emphasizes why I am not like liberal academics, posers, fans of country music, supporters of Trump or Sanders or whoever. At least I am not like X: This is the moral stance of the contemporary hero.

Sketching out this aspect of moral life, it points to a problem in the way sociologists mapping out our positive identifications as primary. That’s an idealistic stance. Dis-identification is just as important.

It might seem like the logical endpoint of “how we don’t want to be” is enmity. But the fundamental situation of the self versus the enemy is in combat, and there is always something mortal about enemies. You wish your enemies dead. Your enemies wish you dead. Whereas dis-identification is more about edging away from people, and there’s a different fundamental situation that models it:  being surrounded by. Being surrounded by Republicans. Being surrounded by woke types. Being surrounded by lefties, righties, pinkos, rednecks, yahoos, jerkoffs, feminazis, dittoheads. Whatever. To be surrounded by cuts off the ability to edge away. Terrifyingly, to an outsider, one can be identified with the crowd of ‘how we don’t want to be.’

This is the great insight of the classical English comic writers. In French literature, the thousand meannesses of everyday life are treated as though they have a certain grandeur – think of Lisbeth’s revenge in Cousine Bette – since the French have a genius for enmity.  In English and to a certain extent the anglophone culture,   those meannesses are filtered through the comedy of wounded dignity or snobbery, since the English genius is for edging away. Dickens had a gift for showing the dis-identifying gesture, and his most famous autobiographical image, of David Copperfield in the blacking factory, combines the sense of being surrounded, the sense of being in the wrong crowd, and the crisis of identification with the intensity of some Anglo myth of origins.


Canetti, in Crowds and Power, investigates the powerful theme of the sudden, unwanted contact – in relation to the morphology of the crowd. Dis-indentification is related to the most primal form of politics, that which comes out of a stick or a club.


A branch which broke off in the hand was the origin of the stick. Enemies could be feded off with a stick and space made for the primitive creature who perhaps no more than resembled man. Seen from a tree, the stick was the weapon which lay nearest to hand. Man put his trust in it and has never abandoned it. It was a cudgel; sharpened it became a spear; bend and the ends tied together, a bow; skillfully cut, it made arrows. But through all these transformations it remained what it had been originally: an instrument to create distance, something which kept away from the touch and the grasp that they feared. In the same way that the upright human stance still retains a measure of grandeur, so, through all its transformations the stick has never wholly lost its magical quality; as scepter and sorcerer’s wand it has remained the attribute of two important forms of power.




Thursday, October 01, 2020

A day in the life in Paris


My brain is a “who’s who of the forgotten” – to cop a phrase used by the critic Alexandre Geffen to describe Nerval’s Les Illuminés. Nerval’s book was devoted to various of the neglected fanatics of literature. The idea of lives as being, as it were, volumes in the Library of Babel is a metaphor for the brain – and has been used by neurologists and biologists themselves. There is a sense in which it is libraries all the way down, from the neurons in our head to the chromosomes in that mysterious thing called the gene. There’s a case to be made that the library is the most important invention of culture after fire and agriculture, for the framework around the text – the clay tablet with the tax list in Sumer, the voter’s shard in Athens, as well as the papyrus texts that we recognize as books, etc. ­– gave us a sense that information can be organized, that disparate objects can be collected, arranged and consulted, forming a larger whole than the parts.
My who’s who would include my classmates throughout elementary and high school, most of whom I can’t recall. Yet their names and faces exist, or did exist, in my brain, and I have had experience that many things I think are forgotten pop out, suddenly, in my memory. “Memory” – we have a penchant for attributing positive affordances to the brain, and not negative ones: thus, no neurologist studies the “forgettery”. Forgetting is instead to be linked to memory as a failure, or a glitch.
Certainly as I have continued in existence (I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled) I know more things, and thus have more disparate objects to put in my memory, and forget more things. Vast amounts of things. The proportion between my memory and my forgettery leans heavily to the latter – for instance, almost all the childhood years. A disparity that is embodied in the parents’ memory – we raise and love a child at one, two, three, four, five, knowing vaguely that, like us, that child’s memory dump will later include most of those years. We don’t think about it, though -it is almost constitutionally repulsive to think about it. Yet, still, everyone at one time or another has a theory about forgetting.
My theories are heavily influenced by Freud. Freud after all came up with a systematic way to look at forgetting, via the mechanism of repression operationalized by the unconscious. Although to say that the unconscious operationalizes lends it an agency that is surely itself in question. Hmm. In any case, Freud’s theory has been endlessly debated. I think that the debate should be grounded in a less absolute sense of repression – that is, forgetting is determined by many factors, and the operationalization of forgetting, the particular forgetting styles, respond to one or another way these factors dominate. There is a case to be made that with all the sense data we take in – and this we is broad enough to encompass all the mammals and probably the fishes in the sea as well – much of it has to be shunted to the “wastebasket”. Again, this mechanism is a bit unclear – the intentionality is written into the instructions, yet I’m not sure how that is supposed to work. It is as if underneath the neurological image of the brain there is, indeed, a forgettery – which has, to be all Lacanian about it, a topological resemblance to Freud’s unconscious.
I was pondering the who’s who of the forgotten yesterday as I went out to buy a poulet roti at the butcher’s shop on Rue de Bretagne. As I came up Rue Charlot, I had one of those moments that the surrealists lived for: metaphors jumping to life in the city streets. There, on the sidewalk, in front of a photo shop, was a thousand or more snapshots, old family snapshots, in a box. You could take a handful if you wanted. Surely the box was meant for the garbage man. I looked through the snapshots, and they were absolutely dull: a baby in a crib, probably from the nineteen sixties, a wedding, a vacation. The dullness was all in the fact that these were not my memories, this was not my who’s who. Yet they were somebody’s. They were dead to me, and someday I will be dead in the same way, my who’s who all shut up. I didn’t take any of the pics, but continued on my way, with the vague feeling I’d been an intruder, there.

Monday, September 28, 2020

A good day to talk about taxes: reprising the problem with the liberal board game metaphor


the liberal myth of the economy as a board game

“Only through the forgetting of this primitive metaphor-world, only through the hardening and rigidifying of the primitive capacities of human fantasy that flowed out originally in a hot stream of images, only through the unbeatable belief, this sun, this window, this table is a truth in itself, in brief only through the fact that man forgets himself as a subject and really as an artfully creative subject, does he live with some rest, certainty and consequence. If he for one moment could escape out of the prison walls of this belief, immediately his self consciousness would be over and done with. Already it costs him some effort to admit to himself that the insect or the bird perceives a whole other world than humans, and that the question, which of both world perceptions is more correct is a completely senseless one, since here we have to measure with the standard of the correct perception, that is, a standard that is not at hand.” -Nietzsche

The metaphor-world of economics is never more entangled in its antinomies – like a crippled spider in its own web – than when it comes up against the odd question of the distribution of wealth. The neo-classic mainstream exists, in fact, in a world that it only recognizes as an irritant on the way to the utopian moment when the market absorbs all its children in a heavenly rapture – but if it were entirely blind to the fact that the state, that enemy of the good honest corporation and firm, plays a major role in economics, it would face the danger of being merely comic. The liberal solution to the endless differing of market heaven is that the state exists to create a “level playing field”. Mark Thoma, who runs the excellent blog, Economist’s View, just published an article on income inequality that contains a canonical version of this notion:

“I’ve never favored redistributive policies, except to correct distortions in the distribution of income resulting from market failure, political power, bequests and other impediments to fair competition and equal opportunity. I’ve always believed that the best approach is to level the playing field so that everyone has an equal chance. If we can do that – an ideal we are far from presently – then we should accept the outcome as fair. Furthermore, under this approach, people are rewarded according to their contributions, and economic growth is likely to be highest.
But increasingly I am of the view that even if we could level the domestic playing field, it still won’t solve our wage stagnation and inequality problems. Redistribution of income appears to be the only answer.”

I wrote a little response to this paragraph on Mark’s site.

“I've never understood the popularity of this belief in America. It seems a contradiction in terms. How can you "level" the playing field, and at the same time allow any unequal outcome? These are in direct contradiction with one another. Any 'playing field' in which one of the players gains a significant advantage will be vulnerable to that player using some part of his power or wealth to 'unlevel' the playing field to his advantage. There is no rule of any type, there is no power that will prevent this. The problem is thinking of the playing field as a sort of board game. You play monopoly and you accept the outcome as 'fair'. The problem of course is that in life, unlike monopoly, you don't fold up the board after the game is over and begin it all again - in other words, the economy isn't a series of discrete games that are iterated at zero.
Thus, the whole "equality of opportunity" ideology has never made sense. If it succeeds, it will dissolve itself as those who succeed most make sure that we do not go back to zero, and that our idolized 'competition' is limited to those in the lower ranks - for among the wealthiest or the most powerful, the competition is, precisely, to stifle and obstruct competition in as much as it injures wealth or power.
To not understand the latter fact is to understand nothing about the incentive for acquiring wealth or power. It is as if economists truly believe that billionaires are searching for the next billion to spend it on candy, instead of seeing them as political players building a very traditional structure of status that will allow them the greatest possible scope for exercizing power, including helping their allies and family and injuring their enemies.”

I am not satisfied that I have spelled out the structural dilemma here. In trying to build an economy with a non-interfering state that only guarantees that the ‘playing field’ is levelled, you are building, in reality, a massively interfering state. There is no point at which equality of opportunity will, as it were, work by itself. This is because the economy does not exist as a chain of discrete states – rather, what happens in time t influences what happens in time t1. The board game metaphor, however, exerts an uncanny influence over thought here. From Rousseau to Rawls, the idea of an original position has, unconsciously, created the idea that society is like a board game. That is, it has beginnings and ends; a whole and continuous game came be played on it; that game will reward people according to their contributions. And so on. Here, classical liberalism still has a grasp on the liberalism that broke with it to develop the social welfare state. Both liberalisms, for instance, can accept that the price of an apple is not ‘earned’ by the apple, but both bridle at thinking the price of a man – his compensation – is not ‘earned’ by the man. It must have some deeper moral implication.

As we have discovered, the liberal hope, in the sixties, that the social welfare system would so arrange the board game of society that equal opportunity is extended to all, and so dissolve – was based on the false premise that the players all recognize a sort of rule in which they would not use their success in making moves to change the rules of the game. But this is to fundamentally misunderstand the incentive in this ‘board game’ – success consists precisely in changing the rules in your favor. It does not consist in getting rewarded for one’s contribution to the aggregate welfare of the players of the game. The billionaire is of a different kind than the saint. And each, to use Spinoza’s phrase, must continue in their being in order to be at all.
The anti-liberalism of the last thirty or forty years is rooted in this liberal blindspot. On the one hand, the liberal allows his rhetoric to be taken hostage by a pro-forma anti-statism – surely we don’t want the corrupt state to reward the lazy and unscrupulous! Thus, social welfare is presented with a wholly utilitarian justification – it exists solely to help the industrious and the respectable. So the liberal concedes that the protector state is a second best arrangement – and slides easily into bemoaning middle class ‘entitlements’, as if surely the middle class should stand on its own. On the other hand, the state engineered by the liberals does keep growing – it keeps growing because the middle class desperately needs it to maintain their life styles, and it keeps growing because the wealthy use it as a reliable annex to acquire various monopoly powers and as a cheap insurance plan.

What the liberal seemingly can’t acknowledge is that a democratic republic, can only afford the ‘board game’ of private enterprise if the state uses its powers not simply to redistribute or to produce, but to limit – that is, to hedge in and countervail the vested influence of the wealthiest. Thus, the democratic state taxes not only to provide income to the state, or to redistribute money to the less ‘worthy’ – it also does so to materially weaken the wealthiest. Otherwise, the wealthiest will rather quickly take over the state and make a mockery of democracy.

Taxation is the guillotine by other means. Joseph de Maistre once wrote that the compact between god and the state is sealed by the blood shed by the hangman. Wrong about god, de Maistre was certainly right that all social contracts are sealed in blood. No democracy can survive if it forgets this fact.

Lawrence's Etruscans

  I re-read Women in Love a couple of years ago and thought, I’m out of patience with Lawrence. Then… Then, visiting my in-law in Montpellie...