Saturday, June 19, 2021

There's no there, there - some thoughts about substitution


Anyone who reads continental philosophy or the philosophical essayists will soon be impressed by the almost obsessive mooning over the concept of absence.

This has no parallel in Anglophone philosophy – absence is at most treated as a simple description of a physical phenomenon. Jack doesn’t show up for the exam – he is absent. There is nothing here for the analytics (or post-analytics) to get moony about, or so they say.

Nevertheless, there is something strange about the absence of absence in Anglophone philosophy. The unexamined master-trope of that philosophy is substitution. Surely it if were examined, understanding substitution should encourage us to look at absence more closely.

Substitution implies that a place is preserved – in logical or physical or social space – that is filled with one or another variable. In a sense, the presence of the variable isn’t total, since it isn’t identical to the place. One can find another variable to put in that place.

The latest metaphor in the analytic tradition to designate this is “candidate”. A candidate – whether as an explanation or as a particular – is always being considered as the solution to some problem. Whether it is materialist accounts of cognitive states, theories of the reduction of the biological to the physical, etc., etc., the papers I edit in philosophy are built upon comparing one ‘candidate’ with another.

Although analytic philosophers go about closely peering at language with the fervor of a myopic seamstress threading a needle, they are curiously indifferent to their own use of language – so I have not read any account of how suddenly the candidate metaphor appeared in all the right journals. It is easy to see, though, that it is a metaphor that tells us something about how absence is thought of here. The implication is that the “place” where substitution takes or can take place is like an office. It is a position created by a political system. The politics may only be bureaucratic – it may be a position in a firm, in which the candidates compete against each other without seeing each other, before a hiring person or board. Or it may be a political system in which they compete against each other consciously, before a voting constituency. The main thing is that the competition is about filling the position. The binary in place is between the filled place and the empty place – or potentially empty place. These are pre-eminently relative states – the dialectic between them is deflected onto the system which determines them, and which has the power to simply get rid of the place – or multiply it.

The metaphysics of substitution writ large would tell us a great deal about the anthropology of  the capitalist era – or perhaps I should say industrialist era, by which I mean the era marked by the fact that the treadmill of production achieved a velocity that allowed societies to escape from the Malthusian trap. This was a perilous escape, indeed. If the notion of substitution – the notion that ultimately place is a placeholder, forever and ever – had not been so woven into the thought of the populace, it might never have happened. I believe that this weaving was achieved by literacy itself, or perhaps, a more modest claim, that the spread of literacy was the pre-condition to loosening the peasant grasp on the unique and the eternal – of the possession of land, of the relations between members of the family, of the relations between men in the polity, of the relation of the created to the creator. That chain of being, which was a chain indeed, the heaviest chain, was lifted, gradually, by the notion that all relations are between placeholders, rather than places. Place itself is nowhere. There’s no there, there, is the motto of capitalism, forever. Actually, I should say: it is the motto of all contenders for political-economic dominance in the modern era. Although, to appease the peasant spirit that inhabits all of us, this dissolution has been amply camouflaged.

To continue this thought: As every amateur of economics knows, given the usual fictions of perfect markets with zero transaction costs, there would be no need for money. Thus, the hired, petty visionaries of the capitalist system have devised a model of that system that does not distinguish money from barter – a most embarrassing situation.
Whether Marx did any better is a much disputed question. Keynes, on the other hand, does seem to have grasped the nature of money more fully than others. In the General Theory, he wrote that “the second differentia of money is that it has an elasticity of substitution equal, or nearly equal, to zero; which means that as the exchange value of money rises, there is no tendency to substitute some other factor for it; - except, perhaps, to some trifling extent, where the money-commodity is also used in manufacture or the arts. This follows from the peculiarity of money that is utility is solely derived from its exchange value, to that the two rise and fall pari passu, with the result that as the exchange value of money rises there is no motive or tendency, as in the case of rent-factors, to substitute some other factor for it.”
What this brilliantly points to is that money is the socially materialized form of the principle of substitution itself, and in this way, the money system does compete against the barter system. The latter, of course, is far from a primitive form of the economy – it is, in fact, in millionfold daily use in the U.S.A. Whenever a man says to a woman, I went to see x film with you, now you have to watch x tv show with me; whenever a child says to another child, I gave you half of my M and Ms, now you have to let me play with your game; etc., the barter system is alive and well. It is an adhoc system of socialization, and it is certainly as important as money. The competition between the money system and the barter system also goes on a millionfold daily. At a certain point, one ‘feels’ the threat of the money system to our identifying social acts of barter, which is why such rule of thumb adages about not loaning money to relatives and the like float on our breaths.
But more to my present purpose – the advent of the money system as one in which the substitution principle enters as the unsubstitutable moment was felt to have something alchemical or uncanny about it. This is captured in Faust the second part. And it was also a significant dimension in the discourse about Freedom that became so important in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. On the negative side, there is no substitute – no alternative – to the principle of subsitution. On the positive side, this frees us from the bondage of the various, infinite and intimate forms of the barter system. Simmel, in the Philosophy of Money, makes a crucial distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to”. He uses the example of a schoolboy who, graduating from the gymnasium, steps into the freedom of his college days – a freedom that is “quite empty and almost unbearable” – and so quickly throws himself into other activities, for instance student organizations, that enforce a whole new set of rules of behavior upon him – in contrast to a businessman, who works to receive freedom from a regulation because, once that regulation is dissolved, he can expand his business in a certain way – the “freedom to” is defined by expectations that will concretely materialize upon the moment of ‘liberation”, while the ‘freedom from” is defined by the lack of any clear expectation beyond the point of liberation.

“In brief, every act of liberation shows a specific proportion between the emphasis and extension of the overcome circumstance and that of the one gained.”

Introducing the principle of substitution as the universal rule of the economic sphere does create freedom from, but – as Simmel points out – it also creates a certain alienation - our modern sadness, from which we cannot get away. There's no substitute for substitution - and thus we are cracked a little. The other name for substitution when it is dominant is: the death drive. 


Friday, June 18, 2021

RIP Janet Malcolm

 Janet Malcolm - one of the four angels of the 70s and 80s, with Joan Didion, Renata Adler and Elizabeth Hardwick - is dead. Damn. One of the few essayists who I read on name only - if it was by Malcolm, I read it. The NYT remembers her for the line about how journalist's practice an immoral profession - that burns them up. Of course, in the age of neoliberal BigMedia, we see them more as minions of the billionaires. Still, we can honor her as being the founder of modern cancel culture. From the beginnning, the the big male poobah - in this case, Joe McGuiness - never got cancelled. The poobahs piped us into every neoliberal disaster, every foreign policy cul de sac, every moral panic, and they keep going.

But I didn't read her for her moral judgements so much as her unobtrusive, fascinating style - her rare ability to make the question into a narrative. God bless her.

This - this is is just greatness. I didn't always agree with Malcolm's conclusions, but I always concurred  with her ambiguities. 

When I did interviews for Publishers Weekly - and a few other places - I quickly found that the tape recorded transcript was rather like the overt level of the dream in Freud's theory. Although, unlike Freud, I was not aiming at the sublinguistic generalities of the latent level. Rather, I was looking for the mid-level, in which contextual clues are inobtrusively injected for the reader's comprehension. That's why I grew pretty discouraged with tape recording. Much better to scribble your pickup from the source on a sheet of paper. Your pickup was the story. Phone interviews I always found particularly difficult, because the pickup involved an embodied person, not just a voice. The most sinister interviewee I ever encountered, via phone, was Edward Teller, the Dr. Frankenstein who "invented" the hydrogen bomb. But I couldn't insert the sinisterness of his voice, couched in my ear, because it was a matter of vocables as much as signifiers. Anyway, wholeheartedly endorse this part of the essay: "The transcript is not a finished version, but a kind of rough draft of expression. As everyone who has studied transcripts of tape-recorded speech knows, we all seem to be extremely reluctant to come right out and say what we mean—thus the bizarre syntax, the hesitations, the circumlocutions, the repetitions, the contradictions, the lacunae in almost every non-sentence we speak.
The tape recorder has opened up a sort of underwater world of linguistic phenomena whose Cousteaus are as yet unknown to the general public. (A fascinating early contribution to this field of research is a paper forbiddingly entitled “Countertransference Examples of the Syntactic Expression of Warded-Off Contents” by Hartwig Dahl, Virginia Teller, Donald Moss, and Manuel Truhillo [Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 1978], which analyzes the verbatim speech of a psychoanalyst during a session and shows its strange syntax to be a form of covert bullying of the patient.) But this world is not the world of journalistic discourse."

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

corny Joyce


Yes, yes, yes I too have bought the lemon soap at Sweeny’s.

Bloomsday is corny – it is a corniness laid at the foot of the monument, Ulysses. I can say it: this is my "favorite" novel. In a consumerist gesture we’ve learn to do automatically, we make lists of favorites: favorite songs, favorite books, favorite tv shows. But within my soul, to get all gaudy about it, there’s a complaint: the favorite position pretends that consumption is possible. I have, on occasion, an inverse desire: to become the |favorite of." For instance, to become the favorite reader of Ulysses. A trickier thing altogether.
Corniness is one of the many aesthetic zones traversed in Ulysses, which is unashamed about the way potboiler novels try to get the reader hot and bothered. Fuck books, or at least wank lit. Paul de Kock figures as largely in the novel as Shakespeare. The officially censored Dublin of 1904 could allow de Kock, under the counter, with illustrations - which is, to a reader of 2021, almost quaint. Like the fetishized covers of paperbacks from the fifties that certain blogs specialize in. Dublin's was definitely not, as Joyce knew, a place with room for a subculture of Sade, for instance, as you found in Paris from Baudelaire onward. This was the pre-pornofied world, the world of multiple brothels and decorum in the parent's bedroom. But even Leopold and Molly Bloom knew that their dirty reading was also corny.
“Corny” – the word pops up in Sianne Ngai’s Theory of the Gimmick as she considers Henry James’ late style, which bears the marks of its delivered orality – its dictation – in a sort of turn to standup. Although, Ngai points out, this standup is delivered to an employee, who writes the thing down, or types it. Ngai is famous for considering aesthetic categories like cuteness, but I don’t believe she has more than brushed up against corniness.

According to the slang trackers, corny surfaced in the theater world – as so much slang does. It descended from ‘corn-fed”, another term for country bumpkin. We see, in this term, that old division between country and city: between a regime of sublimation which represses the “dirty” and elevates the sentimental, and a regime that represses the “sentimental” and elevates the ironic. Of course, the country/city division – which was once a demographic description – got muddied as the peasants came to the ville. And their descendants moved to the suburbs. In Dublin, in 1904, the emigration has not been to the Irish city, but to the English and American ones – as a sociological fact. But the players, here, are, if not natives to Dublin, anchored at least in city belief. Leopold and Molly Bloom are well aware of the theatrical contact zone – Molly, as it is often noted, displays her charms – her physique – and her voice in many a small Irish burg. And of course Bloom is a rootless cosmopolitan, to use the standard anti-Jewish platitude. Joyce brilliantly converges the Greek myth and modernity, given the way in which Odyssey deals with the outer areas. Thus, the cattle, the hoof and mouth, and ... corn.
Corn is not associated with Corny Kelleher – Corny as a nickname was common at that time, by the way – but with Shakespeare, who Stephen says is a “cornjobber” who horded corn in famine times. Corn, here, is not maize – but simply the majority grain, wheat or oats. However, even if corn doesn’t figure majorly in the book, corniness pervades the fantasies, the sentiment, the songs. Even Stephen Dedalus, trying desperately to break the grip of provincial Dublin, finds himself in the corniest story – the bankrupt, drunken father, the mother dying in rags, the brothers and sisters fighting to survive, and he himself unable to gain a distance that would, ideally, make these things images or epiphanies or anything but the tawdry and impossible call on his existence of flesh and his blood, indeed. Every family story is a vampire family story.
I love it that Joyce understood and used the corny in Ulysses, as well as every other device he could think of. Compound of sentiment and sentimentality, of country and city, suburban and sophisticate, the great and the little tradition – such is myself as candidate for favorite reader. But even if I am not, I will never get far from Ulysses, no matter where I run to. I make a point of reading it every five years or so, and each time I fall in love with it again.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

remote control


The channel changer was put on the market by Zenith in 1950 under the label “Lazybones” – an oddly moralizing kind of brand name. In the fifties, as home technology reshaped the house, the house became a refuge of laziness against the ideal of the grime and stress of the working life. That the cleaning of the home was itself labor was lost, as it has always been lost, under this advertising driven thematic. The union ticket worker never had it so good. The eight hour day was solid. The pay a little per month credit structure was solid. You could lounge in your lounger, you didn’t have to take the steps to the tv to change the channel. Such was the idea.

Remote control was in its infancy. It really found its legs when it changed from a sonic device to one using infrared technology, which was marketed in the eighties at the same time that cable tv started to make inroads on network tv.

Myself, I owned my last television set under the ancien regime in 1980. After that, I lost interest in TV. I skipped the 80s and the 90s. It wasn’t until around 2004 that I had another tv, by which time the entire infrastructure of tv had changed. And now I see tv shows on my computer, and we don’t have a tv proper.  

I have not been interested in network tv, or tv news of any sort, since 1980. But I loved the channel changer. When I stayed with my brothers, in Atlanta, I drove them crazy when I managed to get my hands on the channel changer, because the drift from one channel to another would fill me with a strange auteurist joy. There’s a funny story by James Thurber about an avant garde poet who found inspiration in breaking light bulbs, which made him a trying party guest. Similarly, I was a trying remote controller, which introduced the mashup, the American form of montage, to the public at large. I connect this time – the time when Reagan was in the house and MTV was spreading its brand of whiteness to the suburbs – with the high tide of French theory, where the mashup principle achieved philosophical dignity. From the white mythology to the rhizome, it was in tune with the second Cold War vibe. Theory has dispersed and gone off in different channels since then, as the mashup is now being done by Neo-lib nudgers, nudging us towards Weather death. Meanwhile, remote control is now everywhere in the parking lot, it has crawled into the HVAC and the computer and is a lot less fun for me. When we go to a hotel or rent a house through Airbnb and discover a television, the channel changing is less a flow of cuts that makes a crazy zigzag through the nights narrative and more a long slog as the channels never stop, and never get more interesting. Remote editing, for some reason, has never been on the boards for the masses, but surely that is a function that we would all like, and not just this here peapod descendent of the situationists.

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...