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Notes for a book I'll never write


Was ist „obstinat“? — Der kürzeste Weg ist nicht der

möglichst gerade, sondern der, bei welchem die günstigsten

Winde unsere Segel schwellen: so sagt die Lehre der Schifffahrer.

Ihr nicht zu folgen heisst obstinat sein: die Festigkeit des

Charakters ist da durch Dummheit verunreinigt.



First, the title: Character under Capitalism: some notes

The first section: character

The second: homo oeconomicus

The third: Marx’s buried notion of circulation

Eliminate: The fourth: Simmel’s sociology – the encircling institutions of modernity

The fifth: the clerks of literature

The sixth: simultaneity – the new and the end of the future

The seventh: the non-totality of totality, or the exchange matrix


Chapter 5


[In the clerks, I want to explore the aesthetic dimension, or effect, of the circulation sphere – how it shaped a certain style of alienation, of writing, and of living. The clerks are, as it were, at the very nerve ends of a social turn towards utility. The reaction to this turn is complex, but it does create a counter-literature in which existence is presented as precisely that which is not useful, and cannot be used. Yet that refusal of use and being used is bound within an economic sphere in which exchange value is the pre-eminent concern. This produces a double nostalgia –on the one hand, for production as a virtue, and on the other hand, for nature as a way out of the bind of utility.


However, clerk literature finds itself engaged with other systems of literature as well – below the ‘genres”, we find the typical literary situations of production and reception. And thus we find the media and education as the literary situations that differ from and have both competitive and collaborative relations with the clerical type.]


The scribe and the title


Almost all the titles are lost. That is, almost all the titles of the ancient Egyptian texts that we now possess are lost. “The title of the book, a summary of its contents, or the opening words, were at times written on the reverse side or at the outside of the scroll’s beginning, with the name of the author (“made by”) immediately after it. As scrolls generally lost their edges first, few titles have comedown to us. Fewer authors were identified..Sometimes, however, lists of titltes were written on the walls of temples or pyramids,though the books themselves have not survived. Small deeds and other documents at times were provided with titles. Onne book of the dead was entitled “Book of the Coming into the Day of Osiris Gathesehen, daughter of Mekheperre.” Long texts were sometimes divided by the chapter numbers, marked by ht, “house”.” (Leila Avrin, 91)


It has been a long time since Jacques Derrida published the chapters of On Grammatology concerning Rousseau and writing in Critique. Since that time, the phonocentric, logocentric paradigm in anthropology and archaeology has definitely shifted. The latest researchers on ancient Mesopotamia refer to a “cuneiform culture”, in which, contrary to the older school that saw writing as a tool captured by a scribal elite, literacy spread. Or a form of literacy, for  literacy as a uniform thing, a single kind of learned capacity, has been well and truly debunked, as archaeologists have made sense of the data they possess that show multiple forms of script and signs within script ‘domains’; they have also come to terms with such discoveries as that of Nippur and Isin, where the majority of houses so far excavated have turned up texts. Furthermore, archaeologists are now more interested in the evolution of  script types that went along with the evolution of materials on which the script could be impressed, scratched or painted, as cursive, a select number of syllobograms, and lighter materials that were easier to correct led to the invention of the personal  and business letter.


In the sixties and seventies, the Mesopotamian evidence suggested to some researchers, like Walter Ong and Jack Goody, that the invention of writing operated to change the very cognitive style of human beings. Goody’s essay on the list is The Domestication of the Savage Mind is still a tour de force survey of the effects of the text, although as he admits, his earlier notion of the text was too tied into the phonetic alphabet, which is seen as “easier” and more flexible to use, thus leading to the ability to “write down one’s thoughts.” This may actually be a property of the material one writes them down on and what one writes with – at least, the archaeologists coming after Goody have found that qualities he attributes to alphabetical writing are certainly present in pictographic or logographic systems.  


Here is the central claim, I think, Goody makes about lists:

“My concern here is to show that these written forms were not simply by-products of the interaction between writing and, say, the economy, filling some hitherto hidden “need”, but that they represented a significant change not only in the nature of transactions, but also in the ‘modes  of thought’ that accompanied them, at least if we interpret ‘modes of thought’in terms of the formal, cognitive and linguistic operations which this new technology of the intellect opened up.”


The idea, here, is not that writing itself changes modes of thought, but that writing devises do – hence, the importance of the list, or the written number. Marc Bloch, the most prominent opponent of Goody’s, has used his fieldwork in Madagascar to construct a case in which literacy, and in particular listing texts (for instance, genealogies) do not organize cultural “modes of thought”, but exist as regions within a largely oral culture. Bloch, in turn, has been attacked for the way he has elevated certain observations into generalities – that is, the way he has evolved what Clifford Geertz calls the “deep text.”


The title, I think, has not yet been enough looked at in this context – or Babel, depending on how you come down on the importance of ecriture. Certainly in oral contexts there are titles, but they seem, at least in my experience, to be very loose things. A typical titling episode would be x telling y to “tell that story about x” – with the title here being the “story about”. And in as much as this stimulus does hook onto a story, it does one of the works of calling a name – you call a name and the named thing comes. So too does the story. Interestingly, though, the “story about”, while it can tend towards a stereotypic norm (the story about the priest, the story about Mavis X, etc.) often varies in its composition. Similarly, titles can occur in oral speech that announce what is coming – not what has already been circulated. So, for instance, a person can be called into the office of his or her superior and the latter can say, I’ve called you in to talk about your tardiness (an example taken from my own life!). The monologue or dialogue that ensues has, vaguely, the title, “about X’s inability to get to work on time”. 


All of which is merely to say that oral speech does have self-labeling moments. Thus, when texts get titled, we are not speaking of a completely different communicative form from that which occurs in the oral quotidian. But I want to argue that the title is “freed” by the text, by ecriture. While it fulfills certain labeling functions, it also proceeds towards something as new, something resembling the name of a person, rather than the label of a person. When John Stuart Mill claimed that the proper name was a description, he was conflating label and name. And there is some warrant for that in names: the smith gets name Smith. But what Mill ignores, as a philosopher, is what is obvious to the sociologist: the name is enmeshed in what it means to be familiar with, to know, to love, to hate, etc. The name is not just used to label. Before children learn to use pronominal shifters, they often self-label – or so I have been assured by numerous mothers. Robert says, that chocolate is Robert’s, rather than that chocolate is mine,  because “Robert” is taken by the child to be an extension of himself in a way that “mine” – that code that refers to its message, to the tie between the individual word and the language system in which it is located – is not. “Mine” seems to be a communal dish which anyone can grab between their fingers and bite into  – “Robert’s” is a special snack reserved for Robert.


Textual devises don’t seem to have that same self-reflexivity. They seem to be labeling all the way down, so to speak. And yet if this is so, the title would simply be a label.


We know that this isn’t so. I would call this, the (en)titling instance, the moment in which the scribe enters into literature, in the broadest sense (visual, aural, scripted). The tradition that ascribes to the scribe a monopoly of power over the written meets, in this moment arising thieflike from within the devise itself, an inner movement that structurally breaks the monopoly.


The sign, the text and the title formed a devise so powerful that its counterpart, in the end, seemed to be the world itself. At first the physical world and the heavens, for the cuneiform cultures, were defined by the boundaries marked out by the gods – there was a world for the humans and a world for the gods,  the latter ruing the former. But both worlds came into focus as the counterparts of the text. From a very early point in the history of writing, written signs were compared to the world’s objects: the stars in the sky to the words on a writing surface, for instance.


So when we speak of the book of the world, we are speaking of the text’s relation to an object that is defined in relation to some magical first text. In Genesis 1:14, the relation between the world and the text is, as it were, sealed in the very act of creation: “And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.” What is created to be a sign is already on the way to being the book of the world. There is a long scholarly tradition in Germany, going from Curtius to Hans Blumenberg,  which has excavated the metaphor of this book, showing how it arose in the various worlds of the Mediterranean.  The metaphor has not only a great and irresistible charm for the scribes  – who copy and scribble - but possesses the baroque virtue that it inscribes itself within itself – for the book of the world holds the book in which the metaphor does its transformative work, which in turn holds the world, or at least the point of view that we, the scribes, have dubbed the world.  


The signs are there, as well, in the early modern era, where there is a question of the type of sign: is the book of the world composed of an alphabet (Francis Bacon’s favorite metaphor), or of hieroglyphs (John Dee’s preference) or of mathematical symbols (Galileo’s choice)? Galileo makes perhaps the most interesting use of the book of the world metaphor, incorporating it into the weave of natural philosophy just as the signs were incorporated into the creation story in Genesis, but with a certain twist: “I truly believe the book of philosophy to be that which stands perpetually open before our eyes, though since it is written in characters different from those of our alphabit it cannot be read by everyone; and the characters of such a book are triangles, squares, circles, spheres, cones, pyramids and other mathematical figures, most apt for such reading.”


Most apt indeed – so much so that the problem of why mathematics gives us such a model of the universe took a long time to present itself in the physics community. Eugen Wigner in 1960 finally gave definitive form to the problem of why mathematics is “most apt for such reading” in the physics community. Perhaps a lesser noted problem is the role that this metaphor played in making possible the presentation of the logic of substitution, which is unthinkable in a world that wasn’t considered “readable”.


The scribe, the merchant, the natural philosopher – these meet in the sort of triple fold in the early modern era, when an accounting mentality, a sense of nature as an alphabet, and the idea of research itself – experiment - met together, forming a character that floats into and out of various institutions: the church, the college, the countinghouse, the government agency, the courthouse.


The legibility of the world


There is another tradition that has taken up the theme of the book of the world from the other side – that is, ways of making the world more like a book, ways of making the human and natural landscape “legible”. The history of literacy also displays this two-sideness, as, historically, learning to read does not equal learning – a complication that has bedeviled historians since the sixties. But before I get to that long, intricate wallow in models, I’m goint to turn to writing the book of the world. It is a story – like so many of our folktales – of invisible hands. In this case, the hand of God is replaced by the hand of the engineer, the administrator, the bureaucrat.


…der Verstand ist nicht nur einseitig, sondern es ist sein wesentliches Geschäft, die Welt einseitig zu machen, eine große und bewunderungswürdige Arbeit, denn nur die Einseitigkeit formiert und reißt das Besondere aus dem unorganischen Schleim des Ganzen. – Marx

“…Understanding is not only one-sided, but it is its essential business to make the world one-sided, a great and marvelous labor, because only one-sidedness forms and rips the particular out of the inorganic slime of the whole.”

James C. Scott begins Seeing Like the State with an emblematic story, a parable of one-sidedness, concerning the rise of scientific forestry. That rise occurred in the late eighteenth century, when the Prussian state intervened in the assessment, preservation, and reproduction of forest properties, all in order to create a more efficient natural resource. The German forestry service cleared out many features of the ‘old’ chaotic forests – the ‘weed’ species, the unnecessary ground cover, the poaching birds, animals and humans. Fire, too, is a poacher, and must be prevented. Even age forests – much more useful for lumber, much less volatile in terms of calculating yield – were groomed in their place. The description of the forest consisting of the same species, standing in disciplined ranks, row on row of trees, is eerily like the disciplined classroom or jail described in Foucault’s Surveiller et Punir. However, Scott considers this not so much a regime of the vision as the reading eye – the eyeball attached to understanding. This, in Scott’s terms, is what it means to make the woods – that place of darkness and gloom in which Little Red Riding Hoods encounter deceitful wolves – into a place of legibility. The book of the world is not only a matter of reading what God has written, but a matter of writing what the businessman and the bureaucrat want to read.


“The production forests usually consists off one monoculture of a tree, followed by another monoculture from another tree species. Mixed planting in one area you will almost never see, except perhaps in the "picnic" forests.

The reason for this is simple. It's cheaper to first plant one tree species, then followed by another tree species somewhere else. As every forest has to be maintained and thinned from time to time, it's also cheaper to have the thinnings when all of the trees are of the same size. That's another good reason to keep trees from every species together, and not miles apart. Otherwise the foresters would have to thin a few trees in this area and then move onto the next area to thin a couple more. This is too time consuming and therefore too expensive.

If you visit a forest in your area, you will undoubtedly see (for example) a forest of Pine, followed by a forest of Oak and then a forest with Beech. These are all planted forests and many are planted so that they can be harvested for timber later on.

Since we at Robinia Invest are not in the business of making a nature reserve or planting trees so that people can have a nice picnic, sitting amongst the trees, we plant monocultures of Robinia and Paulownia. This way we can do the maintenance most effectively and at the lowest cost. All the trees are planted at the same time, so we can easily see when we have to start the thinning and when we can harvest the entire area.” – Robina invest web site

The great monocultured forests that “we can easily see”  produced row upon row of vulnerable, sickly trees. After the first, healthy generation had used up the ‘accumulated capital’ of soil nutrients laid down by hundreds of years of undisciplined forest growth and death, the next generation of trees were excessively prone to insect and fungal infestation, wind damage, and starved, splintery and miserable growth – at least in human terms, where it was all dollar signs and lumber. However, the corporate mind set has never gone back on the reading lesson, and is now developing a monoculture that penetrates into the very heart of the tree, using genetic modification to produce trees ready for one brand of insecticide (sold, conveniently enough, by the engineer of the trees), and with a modified lignin content. Trees need lignin to live out their whole lifespans; it operates as the connective tissue keeping the tree together. But in the onesided world of capitalism, lignin presents a cost to paper manufacturing. In a neat leap from the metaphor of legibility to the making of legible substances, paper companies want to harvest trees with less lignin, and have done the R and D to produce them. Since the tree no longer exists within the rhythm of the seed and the soil, but rather exists in the rhythm of the lab and the mill, the monoculture now reaches down into the genetic heart of the tree.

In the nineteenth century, the German forest service had been seen as a model, and was adopted by the forestry service in the U.S. and the British service in India. The British even imported a German forester to make sense of India’s tree growth. To chase Mowgli out of the jungle, and put the stamp of the one-sided on what grew and creeped there. Who wrote the book of the world? In part, the Agricultural and Interior Department did, in the West. Even now, that ominous poacher, the forest fire, is stalking the drought stricken forests of the Pacific and Southwestern states – as the boring beetle whose larva now survive the winters in the Rockies, thanks to the fact that the winter have not been as cold for the past thirty years, has been killing the great conifer forests all the way up to British Columbia. One side is flipping to the other side.

“The metaphorical value of this brief account of scientific production forestry is that it illustrates the dangers of dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of relations and processes in order to isolate a single element of instrumental value. The instrument, the knife, that carved out the new, rudimentary forest was the razorsharp interest in the production of a single commodity. Everything that interfered with the efficient production of the key commodity was implacably eliminated. Everything that seemed unrelated to efficient production was ignored. Having come to see the forest as a commodity, scientific forestry set about refashioning it as a commodity machine. Utilitarian simplification in the forest was an effective way of maximizing wood production in the short and intermediate term. Ultimately, however, its emphasis on yield and paper profits, its relatively short time horizon, and, above all, the vast array of consequences it had resolutely bracketed came back to haunt it.”


The Christian and secular books of the world stand in stark contrast to the Dao, as it is articulated in the classic Daoist texts.  There is no more radical reflection on uselessness than is found in Daoism. The notion of that being comes from nothingness and is secondary to it was one that the Daoists shared with Buddhists. But in the Buddhist system, the consequence of insight into nothing is compassion for all creatures and a teaching designed to produce an absolute liberation from the bonds of being. This is the opposite of the Daoist doctrine of inaction. The insight into the way does not lead us to compassion, but a certain type of perfection: perfect uselessness. This is the theme pounded over and over in the Chuang Tzu.


In the chapter entitled Heaven and Earth, Tzu-kung and his disciples encounter a farmer laboriously lugging pitchers of water to his field from a well. Stopping, Tzu-kung offers some friendly advice about a machine the farmer could use to do this work.


"It's a contraption made by shaping a piece of wood. The back end is heavy and the front end light and it raises the water as though it were pouring it out, so fast that it seems to boil right over! It's called a well sweep."


So far, we could be reading a story about a Yankee peddler. We could be reading any story about modernity.


“The gardener flushed with anger and then said with a laugh, "I've heard my teacher say, where there are machines, there are bound to be machine worries; where there are machine worries, there are bound to be machine hearts. With a machine heart in your breast, you've spoiled what was pure and simple; and without the pure and simple, the life of the spirit knows no rest. Where the life of the spirit knows no rest, the Way will cease to buoy you up. It's not that I don't know about your machine - I would be ashamed to use it!"


Here, too, as we know from hundreds of records of “savages” resisting civilization, we could also be reading a leave from a field report in development economics. But this is not development economics. It is a text that begins in praise of uselessness. Instead of taking the farmer’s words as evidence of his backwardness,  Tzu-kung takes them as a response pointing out,clearly, Tzu-kung’s own lack of enlightenment.


However, the reader is also involved in this text. He who has ears, let him hear – this is the fourth wall of the parable. The reader, then, seems to have gained his lesson in enlightenment rather cheaply in this staging of the sage and the peasant. So that the end of the story reaffirms the uncertainty of the lesson:


“When Tzu-kung got back to Lu, he reported the incident to Confucius. Confucius said, "He is one of those bogus practitioners of the arts of Mr. Chaos." He knows the first thing but doesn't understand the second. He looks after what is on the inside but doesn't look after what is on the outside. A man of true brightness and purity who can enter into simplicity, who can return to the primitive through inaction, give body to his inborn nature, and embrace his spirit, and in this way wander through the everyday world - if you had met one like that, you would have had real cause for astonishment.14 As for the arts of Mr. Chaos, you and I need not bother to find out about them."


The self-erasing dialectic of the useless, here, infects the very lesson in which it is taught. I will set this as a portal through which to view the formation of the “useful” character in Western capitalism.


A second and more famous story applies the paradox to the tree.


In the Human World chapter of the Chuang Tzu, there's a story upon which I've often reflected:

Carpenter Shih went to Ch'i and, when he got to Crooked Shaft, he saw a serrate oak standing by the village shrine. It was broad enough to shelter several thousand oxen and measured a hundred spans around, towering above the hills. The lowest branches were eighty feet from the ground, and a dozen or so of them could have been made into boats. There were so many sightseers that the place looked like a fair, but the carpenter didn't even glance around and went on his way without stopping. His apprentice stood staring for a long time and then ran after Carpenter Shih and said, "Since I first took up my ax and followed you, Master, I have never seen timber as beautiful as this. But you don't even bother to look, and go right on without stopping. Why is that?"
"Forget it - say no more!" said the carpenter. "It's a worthless tree! Make boats out of it and they'd sink; make coffins and they'd rot in no time; make vessels and they'd break at once. Use it for doors and it would sweat sap like pine; use it for posts and the worms would eat them up. It's not a timber tree - there's nothing it can be used for. That's how it got to be that old!"

After Carpenter Shih had returned home, the oak tree appeared to him in a dream and said, "What are you comparing me with? Are you comparing me with those useful trees? The cherry apple, the pear, the orange, the citron, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs - as soon as their fruit is ripe, they are torn apart and subjected to abuse. Their big limbs are broken off, their little limbs are yanked around. Their utility makes life miserable for them, and so they don't get to finish out the years Heaven gave them, but are cut off in mid-journey. They bring it on themselves - the pulling and tearing of the common mob. And it's the same way with all other things.
"As for me, I've been trying a long time to be of no use, and though I almost died, I've finally got it. This is of great use to me. If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large? Moreover you and I are both of us things. What's the point of this - things condemning things? You, a worthless man about to die-how do you know I'm a worthless tree?"

When Carpenter Shih woke up, he reported his dream. His apprentice said, "If it's so intent on being of no use, what's it doing there at the village shrine?" 15

"Shhh! Say no more! It's only resting there. If we carp and criticize, it will merely conclude that we don't understand it. Even if it weren't at the shrine, do you suppose it would be cut down? It protects itself in a different way from ordinary people. If you try to judge it by conventional standards, you'll be way off!"

Again, the assistant lends the needed needling to the larger point. To achieve uselessness, one must find a way of leaping over the larger point. And that leap is the extra-ordinary.


That the parable is in the human world is, of course, a conjunction that should suggest an idea – or at least the approaching ghost of an idea. An idea is perhaps too poor a thing, too head-bound, for a Daoist.

Every kind of paper is purchased by the "waste-men." One of these dealers said to me: "I've often in my time 'cleared out' a lawyer's office. I've bought old briefs, and other law papers, and 'forms' that weren't the regular forms then, and any d——d thing they had in my line. You'll excuse me, sir, but I couldn't help thinking what a lot of misery was caused, perhaps, by the cwts. of waste I've bought at such places. If my father hadn't got mixed up with law he wouldn't have been ruined, and his children wouldn't have had such a hard fight of it; so I hate law. All that happened when I was a child, and I never understood the rights or the wrongs of it, and don't like to think of people that's so foolish. I gave 1 1/2 d. a pound for all I bought at the lawyers, and done pretty well with it, but very likely that's the only good turn such paper ever did any one—unless it were the lawyers themselves." –Henry Mayhew, Of the street buyers of waste (paper), London Labour

Men no sooner discovered the discovered the admirable art of communicating their ideas by way of figures than it was necessary to chose the material for defining those characters. – Encyclopedie, entry under Papeterie

From the grammatological point of view, few sentences could sum up the logocentric ideology better than this one from Diderot’s  Encyclopedie. It is a history in two steps:  in one of which the “figures” are discovered, and in the other of which they find a substrate, a material upon which they could assume their secondary, visible existence. In this story, the material is already substituted –its existence is laid out under the sign of substitution - or of supplementation, or of sublimation. The true mark, the idea, exists before its fall into the world of paper – or papyrus, or clay tables, or vellum. 

In a Sumerian story, the invention of writing and the material for defining the characters are put in a closer narrative proximity – one in which that matter exists in a series of symbolically important materials that form the basis of what Jean Jacques Glassner calls a “duel”. The ur-form of the story is a competition between two magicians, one of whom transforms common objects into living beings, the other one of whom transforms common objects into superior living beings that eat the first magicians tricks – a stone becomes a snake, for instance, while the leaf of a tree becomes an eagle that eats the snake. A similar story of the duel of matter is told of Enmerkar, the ruler of a powerful state, and the Lord of Aratta, a distant state that Enmerkar wishes to gain tribute. Enmerkar sends messangers threatening Arrata. The first messenger threatens to have the goddess Inanna drown the city. The Lord of Aratta sent back a refusal, and a challenge: could Enmerkar send grain to the city in nets rather than sacks? Enmerkar does so, sending grains that sprout and provide a layer over the holes in the nets. The second time, Enmerkar sends his scepter, and the third time a garment. The forth time Enmerkar does something completely new, and without consulting the gods: he takes a lump of clay and he wrote upon it. The duel, here, comes to an end with the Lord of Aratta having to take hold of the clay tablet in order to read it. As in a children’s game, by touching the object, the Lord of Aratta signals his submission.

But this moment is less the conclusion of a magical  duel than the first unintended result of the letter – for Enmerkar was not originally intending to send a letter. Here’s how the passage is translated by Fabienne Huber Vulliet:

“His speech was substantial,and its contents extensive. The messenger, whose mouth was heavy, was not able to repeat it. Because the messenger, whose mouth was tired,was not able to repeat it, the lord of Kulaba patted some clay and wrote the message as if on a tablet. Formerly, the writing of messages on clay was not established. Now, under the sun and on that day, it was indeed so. The lord of Kulaba inscribed the massage like a tablet. It was just like that.”

The message and the clay, here, come together in a narrative about tricky objects – about metamorphosis – that is enfolded in another narrative about imperial power. From the point of view of the author of the lord of Kulaba, the signs and the tablet are two sides of one dated event (Now, under the sun and on that day…). There is a triangle here between the figures, the tablet, and the time – for that day is, in a sense, signed and becomes that day, the object of an act of deixis.

The heavy mouth, the portable clay – it is here that I want to plant land, survey, plant some stakes.