Saturday, April 23, 2022

The city encyclopedia

  If it were possible to print every said in Paris about current affairs in the course of a single day, one would have to concede that it would make a very strange collection. What a pile of contradictions! The very idea is grotesque! – Sebastian Mercier.

The modern idea sometimes leans out at you from an old volume when you least expect it. This becomes a specialty of the modernist writer – Borges, for instance. I was leafing through the Tableau de Paris, Sebastian Mercier’s masterpiece of urban psychogeography, written in the 1780s and 90s, and I came upon this phrase, and I immediately thought of Ulysses, of Flaubert’s Bovard et Pecuchet, of Benjamin’s arcades.  Modernism is inseparable from modernization, and modernization is inseparable from the city. The city as laboratory and assembly line, the city as a hive of opinion and of the various media cultures – image, paper, entertainment and spectacle, etc. This is what James Scott calls the “Great Tradition” – in contrast with the countryside’s “Little Tradition”. Scott, from his ethnographic experience in Southeast Asia, saw how the Great Tradition sends its envoys into the country to destroy and utilize the Little Tradition. Of course, this is bubble gum like any binary: stretch it too much and it will pop right in front of your nose. Still, it has its conceptual uses.

As does that moment when the bubble bursts. Yuri Lotman, in his last book, Culture and Explosion, proposes “explosion” as a model of sudden cultural transition. In the introduction to the book, Peeter Torop, Lotman’s student,  makes an astute comment:

Those caught inside the processes are unable to escape from the space of the explosion, and as insiders are unable to notice all of the possible choices, all possibilities for the future. With the passage of

time, these choices will have been made, or then again left unmade through the suppression of the explosion, after which the post-explosive moment, that is the moment for describing the explosion, will be actualized. The chaos and diversity of communicative processes will become ordered in autocommunicative self-description.


I can’t resist thinking of the Cold War in these terms – that is, in terms of operators in the space of the explosion, which they could see but not, as it were, comprehend. To comprehend means having a grasp of the totality, which in the Cold War seemed to have fallen on the shoulders of geeks planning Mutually Assured Destruction. What kind of totality was that? The monumental aspect of it was all about targeting – targeting the cities and factories for planes and missiles, targeting “what is said” in the streets with movies, tv, newspapers and the many and various educational institutions. The novel was one of these institutions – it had its targets while serving, as well, as an instrument of registration. While the city was the necessary substrate of modernization, the system to which it gave rise was the literal destroyer of cities- which are all perched, now, on the edge of the abyss.

That conjunction of the abyss with the great encyclopedia of the city’s talk might have occurred to Mercier, in terms of the cult of ruins. Mercier was between the generation of Diderot (Mercier, too, was in attendance at an operation on a man born blind) and Volney – he was older than the latter by about 16 years. This, too, is a sort of prehension – modernity had its own antiquity, one further back than the Greeks and less classically finished, more savage.

Friday, April 22, 2022

I don't like Mondays


In 1969, Combat – a journal of the left – featured a commentary on the upcoming contest between Georges Pompidou. Alain Poher of the Democratic Center, and Jacques Duclos of the French Communist Party. Combat was unenthusiastic about all three candidates. In the event, Duclos took the greatest score ever achieved by a PCF candidate – 21 percent of the vote. And of course Pompidou won over Poher.
Combat, though, was against abstention, which was a choice discussed on the left. The commentary, by Jean Rous, extensively quotes Lenin, who wrote about the two views that must be taken by a communist in relation to elections in bourgeois republics. On the abstract level, Lenin wrote, the differences between two candidates such as Lloyd George and Winston Churchill in England are “denuded of all meaning” and derisory. But from the practical aspect, the view of the masses, these differences are of extreme importance. Thus, Lenin concluded, one should not abstain or boycott the vote unless all indications show one is on the eve of a revolution.
In 1969, the “sixth power”, revolution by the proletariat, was still an actual force. We are in a reactionary era where revolution has been reduced to a slogan for fashion design. This has made the communist view more and more abstract and less and less practical – as contact with the masses has thinned to the point of evanescence. Thus, communism – or Marxism, or eco-socialism, etc. – becomes a political fantasy, and as such can be indulged to the maximum without consultation with or consideration of the masses. This leads to the unexpected merger of dandyism and leftism.
I am so repulsed by Macron, in this election, that I figured I would abstain, no matter what Lenin had to say about the matter. But I’ve been persuaded that Le Pen is enough of a danger to make that option too risky. From the polls, I’d say Macron’s strategy – which has always been to have Le Pen as his opponent in the second round – has worked. It is a strategy that allows him to operate as if he has a mandate when, in fact, his politics is approved by a minority of the population – probably around the 28 percent he got in the first round. I expect Macron in the second part of his reign to be even shittier than he was as president for the last five years. His comic proposal that his swearing in coincide with a display of military might – a truly Jupiterian and Trumpian gesture – is exactly on tone.
From the practical point of view, we can hope for a large turnout in the legislatives to bridle the man. But the system is set up in such a way that he can proceed down the autocratic path he has set for himself – a sort of centrist Orban – and at the moment, I don’t see a lot of obstacles in his path.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

On leveling the playing field, a metaphor in economics

"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 - or ran, as it is now defunct - the excellent blog, Economist’s View, wrote 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'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.

My objection here should spell out the structural dilemma here. In trying to build an economy with a non-interfering state that only guarantees that the ‘playing field’ is levied, you are building, in reality, a massively interfering state. There is no point at which equality of opportunity will, as it wear, 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.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

The ultra right and the politics of gesture


Walter Benjamin begins his 1931 essay on German fascism with a quote from one of his favorite reactionary writers:

Léon Daudet, the son of Alphonse Daudet and himself an important writer, as well as a leader of France’s Royalist party, once gave a report in his Action Française on the Salon d’Automobile – a report that concluded, in perhaps somewhat different words, with the equation: L’automobile, c’est la guerre.”

I’ve looked around for Daudet’s article. I haven’t found it. However, I understand why Benjamin, a collector of lines – of those moments in which thought seems to be utterly transformed into its primal element shock, as though an oracle had spoken – remembered Daudet’s report. It casts a prescient light over the system of which the automobile was as impressive a product as, say, some fossil by which a palaeontologist maps, in shorthand, a geological epoch. The creature that left that fossil was at the convergence of conditions both sheerly geological and evolutionary; the automobile was at the convergence of conditions of production, changes wrought by the industrial system in the habits of the citizens of developed economies, and the underlying, subdued violence that existed as the cost for these changes and these lifestyles. Contrast Daudet’s sentence with the lines in Apollinaire’s Zone, which begins:

“À la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien
Bergère ô tour Eiffel le troupeau des ponts bêle ce matin
Tu en as assez de vivre dans l'antiquité grecque et romaine
Ici même les automobiles ont l'air d'être anciennes.”

(In the end you are tired of this ancient world
Shepherdess, o Eiffel Tower the troop of bridges bleats this morning
You are finished with living in greek and roman antiquity
Here even the automobiles have an ancient air).

Chasing the pessimistic/reactionary tradition through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century is a rather mixed experience. On the one hand, the reactionary writers are great deliverers of thunderbolts. On the other hand, when they actually make a case for themselves, the eternal return of the ancien regime would require, even in their own eyes, the same kind of massive upheaval of the social order which is exactly their constant accusation against liberalism. In Maistre’s case, the moment of the reactionary revolution is taken care of, in a bizarre way, by Napoleon. Maistre’s opinion that the Bourbons could not re-establish themselves is consistent with seeing Napoleon as fulfilling, unconsciously, the task of creating the social conditions in which the Bourbons can return. But of course, the return of the Bourbons, however sweet was the black terror of the reactionary years from 1815 to 1830, proved in the end to be a disappointment, the gravestone over the ancien regime rather than its glorious resurrection. Even in Maistre, the contrast between mealy mouthed piety and the continuous stream of contempt seems to be doing more than stylistic work – it seems to be a reflection of the politics of resentment, a politics that takes the failure of its goal for granted, and contents itself with an infinite hunt for scapegoats. Leon Daudet was, in a sense, the endpoint of this tradition – marked, more genially, by Chesterton and Belloc in Britain. Daudet’s most famous book, the Stupid Nineteenth Century, begins with a recounting of a quarrel Daudet had with his great friend, the antisemitic pamphleteer, Dumont, over a slap delivered by a rightwing parliamentarian to the head of the division, as Daudet puts it, of ‘sneaks’ during some session of the Chamber of Deputies. The face that received that slap was in its sixties, and Dumont disapproved – much to Daudet’s chagrin. Daudet was for slaps, for riots, for rallying rightwing collegians to storm surrealist openings and the like. In fact, the mixture of gesture and ink was, spiritually, close to the surrealists themselves, who did like a good riot or a resounding slap.

It is also close in spirit to the transformation of reactionary views into a kind of Punch and Judy show – it drains the politics from them in favor of the political gesture. The frustration of advocating for a total and unlikely change is relieved in a series of ever more violent tantrums. This direction of political action is typical of a reactionary program that existed in contradiction to the technoculture that it could only accept in terms of war. In terms, that is, of a systematic violence that would drain from politics anything but gesture, making politics into an endless series of heroic gestures – which is how the conservative revolutionaries gradually became fascists. It was a collusion of temperaments.

The turn to war counters the insistence, after the French Revolution, on the political goal of happiness, and it begins with Maistre. But why did the reactionary, pessimistic tradition turn to violence in the first place? The secret source of that turn is revealed by another French reactionary, Leon Bloy, who wrote an interesting section on the devil, in one of his baffling books, Le révélateur du globe: Christophe Colomb et sa béatification future. Bloy claims that Satan, the real Satan, doesn’t leer out at us from Dante, or from Faust:

“The notion of the devil is, of all modern things, the one that most lacks depth from having become literary. Certainly the demon of most poets wouldn’t even frighten children. I only know of one poetic Satan who is truly terrible. It is Baudelaire’s, precisely because he is sacrilege. All the others, including Dante’s, leave our souls tranquil and their threats make us shrug our shoulders, the slightly literary shoulders of the girls of the catechism of perseverance. But the true Satan which one know longer knows, the Satan of theology and of the mystic saints – the antagonist of the Woman and the tempter of Jesus – Christ – he is so monstrous that, if it were permitted to that monster to show himself as he is, in the supernatural nudity of non-love, the human race and animality entire would scream once and fall dead…

The greatest force of Satan is the Irrevocable. The word fatalism, invented by the pride of so-called philosophers among men, is only an obscure translation of this horrifying attribute of the Prince of the Wicked and the Emperor of the Captives. God gards for himself his Providence, his Justice, his Mercy, and above all, the Right of Grace which is like the seal where his omnipotent Sovereignty is imprinted. He thus keeps as well the Irrevocability of Joy and leaves to Satan the irrevocability of Despair.

What Bloy would have made of the Thatcherite, and now neoliberal motto: there is no alternative – is an exercise I leave to the reader.


Bloy a couple of pages later accords Satan such power over human history – particularly of the modern era – that the reader is forced to read that Irrevocability back into human history, particularly of the modern era. Unconsciously, the pessimists premises do homage to the scope and scale of the great transformation – the industrial system and the market society become, in this perspective, supernatural events. Or, to a non-Christian eye, natural events – events that have the force that natural things once had – the weather, the fertility of the land, the changes of season, those markers of peasant life, are all radically humanized in the industrial system, where the coordinates of time are defined in terms of business cycles, working days, and the brief ages of technological innovation – the age of steam, the age of the auto, etc.


Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Rhythm under oath: Python, the sage and the poet


I’ve always liked Alain, the French philosopher who published a chronicle of mini-essays, the Propos, ipn a Normandy journal. Apparently, as the publication of his diary showed, he was an anti-semite – which is surprising in as much as this was never part of his public record. Anti-semitism is the pornographic mag stash of the old French daddy intellectuals, alas. You discover it in their letters and journals, where they wank away at the subject.

 Still, his chronicles are full of apercu that I rather like. For instance, the distinctions he makes between the Pythie, or prophet, the sage, and the poet.

 The Pythie is a liminal figure, a beast-human, who says everything in the order of the instant – everything that comes through its head”

“… she forms a perfect receptor, expressing every instant, and far beyond our thing wisdom which always distinguishes and chooses. By a view of the same kind that we see in animals, and principally in birds, evidently carried here and there by the winds and the seasons. Instinct is always divine and divinatory. »

 The Sage is, on the opposite end, the emblem of choice and distinction.

 “The sage is completely other : he has sworn to be only what he wants to be. He chooses, which means he refuses. He refuses to be all, and to say all things at once. From whence such marvels as the pure succession of numbers, where the attentive person lets no event penetrate.”

 And finally, there is the middleman – the poet. If the Pythie howls and soughs and cheeps and says everything, while the sage says, I prefer not to, the poet attaches himself to an event – that of the body.

« Thus, here are the two extrêmes : and the poet is between them. He wants to be a universal receptor, but without losing his reason. This is why he rules himself, like the sage, and gives himself a law. But, inverting the savant, he rules himself in his own body. He gives himself a rhythm, of walking, of breathing, of the heart, in accord with the total moment: but it is a rhythm under oath.”


This, to me, is a rather beautiful way of putting figures on the chessboard. It is a passage comparable to Pessoa. Rhythm under oath! But of course, to take that oath – any oath, whether you are a pirate or an accountant - you must swear by some power outside of yourself.

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

  And watch it all slip away (Por fin se va acabar) Or leave a garden for your kids to play (Jamás van a alcanzar)  --- The Black Angels, El...