Friday, January 20, 2023

Orientation, nocturnal micturation, and all that Kant


Last night, I got up to urinate, a not uncommon urge working its sly way in  my sixty-five year old mechanism. I have travelled through our apartment all in the dark a million times. But this time I kept overshooting and bumping into things. The bookshelf, the door. There was no major pratfall – my footfalls to the bathroom and back were just off by the merest stroke of the compass. But I was reminded, as so  many of us are in the depths of our  nightwatches, of Kant.

Kant’s little writings are all too little known, except for the all too known What is Enlightenment. One of his most entertaining papers is entitled “What does it mean to orient oneself in thinking.” It was written to interfere in a dispute between Mendelssohn and Jacobi over the limits of reason and the rights of genius. Mendelssohn, in the course of this dispute, talks about being “oriented” by common sense, or healthy reason, and opts for a religious purified of enthusiasm, worshipping a rational God. Kant, with that driest of dry wits (the wit of the praying mantis as she devours her mate) likes the word orientation (and of course there is a little subdued play here with Mendelssohn as a man from the orient – a Jew). This is, of course, a joke in historically poor taste that Derrida references in his great essay, The White Mythology.

This is how Kant explains it:

“To orient oneself means, properly: out of a given world region (in the four of which we divide the horizon) to find the other, namely, the place of rising (sunrise). If I look at the sun in the heaven at this instant and know that it is noon, so I know how to find the south, west, north and east. But I need in support of this throughout the feeling of a difference in my own subject, namely, my right and left hands. I name it a feeling; because these two side show externally to the intuition [Anschauung – inner view] no marked difference. Without this capacity: in the description of a circle, without requiring any distinction of objects in it, to still distinguish the movement of the left to the right from the opposed direction, and through this to determine a difference in the position of the objects a priori, would not be something I knew how to do, if I did not set the West to the right or the left of the south point of the horizon, and so thus should complete the circle with the north and the east until I was again at the south. Thus I orient myself geographically by all objective data on the heavens, but only through a subjective base of difference (Unterschiedungsgrund); and if, in a day through some miracle all the constellations otherwise retaining the same shape and position relative to each other only took a different direction, that is, instead of eastwardly, going now westwardly, in the next starbright night no human eye would perceive the least change, and even the astronomer, if he simply relied on what he saw and not at the same time on what he felt, would be unavoidably disoriented.”

The disoriented astronomer – a new troping of the philosopher!

Kant always had a deep appreciation of the time reversable world of Newtonian physics. The notion of the sky played backwards or the earth going backwards is a gorgeous mindfall – one can go a long way down, thinking of that. Myself, last night, I merely bumped into the door. I hit my nose. However, I read once – in Heinz Pagels wonderful The Cosmic Code – an explanation of the Newtonian universe that has since haunted me.  Pagels imagines a film of smoke coming off a pipe. He imagines zeroing in on the smoke.

“At first we see only the microworld of the particles of air and smoke bouncing around and hitting each other. The particles all obey Newton’s laws of motion. If I were to run the projector backward, all the particles would reverse their motion on the screen. But qualitatively this motion is the same as before – it is just a mess of particles bouncing around. We cannot determine the direction of time from this microscopic view because Newton’s laws don’t distinguish the past from the future.”

Smoke smoke smoke. Well, I took my momentarily flattened nose back to bed and fell asleep. But to get back to Kant’s essay: Is there a bottom? That is, a godlike point, an anaesthetic point, from which I would be able to distinguish one direction of smoke from the other?

This is a subjective claim indeed, but not one often raised in philosophy. Partly because philosophers spend too little time marvelling over left and right. Kant, in this essay, uses the term subjective to mean something oddly material – inhabiting a body in space and time. But, as Kant knows, that body is built, partly, of directions that seem to have nothing to do with space and time as we commonly think of them, requiring an imaginary dimension in which we can transfer from left to right and right to left. This is the issue at the heart of the dispute between Leibniz and Newton about absolute vs. relative space. Which I’m not going into, except to note how Kant is building his notions

His next move is to expand this idea – and it is here that my nocturnal micturition, my bumped nose, and Pagel’s film all bump into each other – like something in the Marx Brothers. Because – wait for it! – Kant is about to try to exemplify a philosophical point with a practical joke! A rare philosophical instance  (if we put aside Descartes evil demon) in philosophy (and all the praying mantises go doo, da doo da doot da doot doo da doo da doo doot da doot):


“This geographic concept of the process of orientation I can now expand, understanding it thusly: in a given space in general, thus purely mathematically, to orient oneself. In darkness I orient myself in a well known room when I get hold of only a few objects, whose place I have registered in my memory. But here I am obviously helped in nothing by the specific affordances (Bestimmungsvermogen) of the place according to a subjective ground of distinction: then the objects, whose places I should have to find, I don’t see at all; and if someone, playing a joke on me, had put all the same objects in the same order one with another, but to the left where all had previously been to the right, so I would in a room where otherwise the walls were all the same, not be able to find myself. But so I orient myself now through the simple feeling of a difference between my two sides, the right and the left. Just that happens, when I in the nighttime on street otherwise familiar to me, in which I can now not distinguish between houses, go and appropriately wend my way.”

When I first read this, I couldn’t help it, I kept thinking about another disorienting prank in a story that begins:

“He lay on his armour-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections. From this height the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes.”

Luckily, when I woke up this morning, my nose was in its usual wonderful shape – as healthy as a donkey’s muzzle.

And now to work.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Kill kill kill kill kill the poor - from 2016


Kill kill kill kill kill the poor

One of my emphases in the little book I wrote on Marx some time ago was that Marx made the great leap towards what became Marxism in Cologne in 1842, when he became the editor of a newspaper there and did a few articles on a local controversy: the new legislative rules that eliminated the time honored custom of gathering sticks in forests owned by the great landholders. Marx at this time was a graduate of law school. He gets it that the legislature is creating something new here – a property – out of the denial of something old – a customary right. But it occurred to him that it was not enough to remain on the level of the law – for what was driving the legislative proces was not so much any legal confusion, or any unfolding of some previous logic in the legal code, a la Hegel, but instead, was a basic, extra-legal social force.
The custom of gathering fallen wood, as Marx came to see it, had its roots in another kind of social order. Marx latter on considered this social order as pre-capitalist, evidently defining it from the ‘stage’ that succeeds it. However, I think it is entirely within the Marxist spirit to define it differently, as the regime of the “image of the limited good”, a phrase coined by the anthropologist George Foster to describe the image of the world inherent to those who inhabit a social economy in which economic growth is not the norm. The norm, instead, for the peasants and their governors, is of rise and fall, in which prosperity can be expected to lead to superbia, or vanity, which in turn creates the condition for the fall. The image of the limited good is congruent with the iconography of nemesis, or justice, a blindfolded figure holding a scale in which our sins and accumulations are weighed.
In this world, it makes sense to talk about the poor. There is no sense that in this world, the laborer produces such wealth as will cause economic growth to be the primary fact of the social world. Marx, in Cologne, began to sense the meaning of this.
To put this another way: Marx made the very important discovery that “the poor”, as a socio-economic category, was vacuous. The poor were easily recognized in pre-capitalist economies: the beggars, the serfs, the slaves, they all exist under the sign of minus. They had less, and that quantitative fact defined their social existence. What Marx saw was that capitalist society was not just a matter of old wine in new bottles – the archaic poor were now free labor. Perhaps nothing so separates Marxism from religion as this insight: in all the great monotheistic religions, poverty is viewed in feudal terms: the poor you will have always with you. But in capitalism, or modernity tout court, the poor continue to exist as a mystificatory category, usually in a binary with the rich. In fact, the real binary in society is capital and labor. The bourgeois economists, and even the non-scientific socialists, operate as though the archaic poor still exist. To help them, we need to develop a method of redistribution that is, in essence, charity – run by non-profits or run by the government, but still charity. But Marx saw this in very different terms. Labor produces the economic foundation of capitalism – value. In these terms, it is not a question of the poor being a qualitative or moral category – it is a question of the alienation of value, of surplus value, that circulates through the entire capitalist system and allows it to grow on its own, while at the same time making it vulnerable to crisis.
Baudelaire famously created a slogan for the 1848 revolution: Assommons les pauvres. Kill the poor! This seems on the surface to be the most radical and effective of welfare schemes, for it would get rid of the poor once and for all. But Marx explains why it wouldn’t work: the poor describes an illformed social category, a survival from the past. To kill the working class would be to kill capitalism itself. What Marx learned in the forests of Koln was that capitalism was as atheist as could be against property. Far from being founded on the defense of property, capitalism was quite comfortable with changing its definition to suit – capital. What was once a right of the “poor” – for instance, to glean windfallen branches – could be swept away with a penstroke when the large landowners so desired. What was once the very definition of property - to have the full usage of an item one buys - can suddenly be hedged round with limitations when we try, for instance, to copy it and upload it on the internet. We are suddenly deprived of the inalienable right to give our property - and this is named Intellectual Property, and a legal structure grows up around it in a heartbeat. Property is not, then, a constant element, but a fluid one, changing its meaning and effect with the system of production in place. To describe the poor as having little “property”, in other words, reified property, placed it outside the social, and disguised the social conflicts encoded in what property is.
Marx’s logical clarity, however, is a bit too bright even for many of his own followers, who are as prone to fall into the language of the struggle between the poor and the rich as anybody else. It is, after all, one of the richest images we have, and leads irresistibly to a one-sided discourse on equality.
One of the great contradictions of neo-liberalism is that it retains the vocabulary of the image of the limited good – “the poor” – while promoting an image of infinite growth – that is, of capitalism, with the financial sector dominant. Vox had a headline during the Democratic primaries that I thought was an exemplary reflection of this contradiction. The article criticized Sanders’ positions on trade, and the headline went: If you're poor in another country, this is the scariest thing Bernie Sanders has said. Poor here is taken as a group to which “we” must be charitable. If the headline had read, If you are an underpaid laborer in another country… the argument would have been more honest, although I am not sure the headline writer thought that he or she was being dishonest. Marx is very firm that the reserve army of the unemployed and the underpaid in all sectors are the foundations of the wealth of nations. Neoliberalism certainly recognizes their function, but disguises its intents by transforming this into a mawkish morality play.
In a sense, that headline is the exact moral antithesis to another famous slogan: workers of the world unit, you have nothing to lose but your chains.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Plea for the ax murderer


There is a line in lit crit, which was cemented in mid twentieth century,  that the modernists invented the novel in which the anti-hero is the dark eminence, and true prince of our sensibilities. This, however, really isn’t the case. Greek myths, the Grimm’s fairytales, Daoist anecdotes are all seeded with mildly or strikingly dislikeable personages. Aristotle, in a sense, is asking a similar question in the Poetics about tragedy. We can admire Antigone, we can even admire Achilles, but we don’t – we are never intended to – befriend them. For Aristotle, plausibility is a sort of meta-rule of narrative production. Plausibility is not reality, but rather, reality as seen by a certain credentialed set. It inscribes class into the very heart of aesthetics. Plausibility is not just continuity and logistics, but it gives us our sense of what typifies a character – what they would do in character, what they are “like”. For we are all equipped with a social consciousness that tells us what characters, thrust upon us in a tv series or movie, are like. Or thrust upon us at a party, or in a restaurant, really.  This is not a neutral judgment about norms – it is an imposition of a certain class’s norms upon narrative.


And, always, the artist has squirmed under that imposition. The slave’s impulse – irony –counters the demands of plausibility even in fairy tales. When La Fontaine portrays the ant and the grasshopper, for instance, we know, from the point of view of plausibility, that the ant is right Mention, say, welfare at a dinner party in the suburbs and you will hear a chorus of ants. But La Fontaine surely makes the reader uncomfortable with this judgment. We see the cruelty of ants, and the beauty of the grasshoppers.


Plausibility and likeability get us to reflect on what these narratives do in the culture. And I think that this is what really happened with the novel in the 19th century in a Europe that was still largely peasant and ancient regime: the novel was a tool for encountering the Other. The Other outside the bourgeois norms, as orphan or ax murderer, as adulteress or unhappy wife. The Other that poured in in the great ages of discovery, the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries, the Other that moved outside the zones of the European elite’s sense of plausibility.  This is where the anti-hero collects within his unlikeability the collective unconsciousness, and opens up the dreamlike possibility that the plausibility-ruled reader is, perhaps, Other.


Other too.


The novel hymns what Foucault calls the experience-limit – the limit in which you test to see whether you are a human or a monster. How much of a monster can you be? And so far, in the sweep of the imperialist eras, the genocide, the famines, the wars, we find that often, dizzyingly, the likeable is the monstrous, systematically liquidating the dislikeable, which it has previously created in its anti-image. Its negative, that appallingly chilling word for the photographic process by which the original film shows the reverse of the colors or tones of the final photograph – black or darker for white or lighter, and so on. John Herschel, who coined the terms in a paper in 1840, wrote about them within the framework of an assumed theory of the original and the real: “To avoid much circumlocution, it may be allowed me to employ the terms positive and negative to express respectively pictures in which the lights and shades are as in nature, or as in the original model, and in which they are the opposite, i.e. light representing shade and shade light.” Nature and its substitute, the original model, produce, of course, a system of representation. In the novel, the original model is not only reversed in the negative character, but retrospectively shaken out of its originality. As in photography itself, the negative precedes, in time, the representation of the original model, the positive. Upon this complex of reverses, our canonical novel – and play, and movie, and ballad -rests.


Sunday, January 15, 2023

J.P. Hebel


When I was a kid, my folks – like W.G.Sebald’s grandfather – bought a “farmer’s almanac”. Or was it a purchase? Surely in the grocery store or the gas station it was thrown before the cashier and rung up with the soda pop, the ten gallons of gas, and the candy bar,, but I remember the almanac as an almost natural product that appeared on our low table in the living room, like fallen leaves appeared on the lawn  or dirt clods – the latter always good for a satisfying throw at a tree trunk, where it would leave behind a spot of clay – could be found in vacant lots.

I know this about Sebald’s dad because, in his essay on J.P. Hebel, Sebald mentions the Kemton Almanac. Since Hebel is the master almanac writer – comparable to Benjamin Franklin in America – this is as good a way as any to introduce Hebel to an anglophone audience. For German audiences, Hebel has been sat on by the 20th century greats – Benjamin (whose essay on Hebel is only five pages long in the Collected Writings), Heidegger (whose lecture on Hebel is compared, by Sebald, to other readings popular in the Nazi era, with their seriously distorting version of the Kalendergeschichten, or the Treasury of the Rheinland’s Household Friend, and Sebald himself, in the essay included in A place in the Country. For a writer  of such supreme surface simplicity to  survive this weight, there must be something elastic in the prose. Benjamin’s interpretation of the way Hebel wove space into time with a chronicler’s sense of montage has been taken up by all his modern commentators.

 Reinhard Kosseleck, in his essay Anachronism and Antiquity, analyzed how Albrecht Altdorfer, a sixteenth century painter, collaged together different temporal elements in his painting of the Alexanderschlacht. For instance, although the battle is depicted at its height, the count of the dead on the banners held by figures in the scene tell us how many were killed by the end of the battle. The battlefield is an exemplary instance of the event that is shot through with a certain hollowness, a lack of a center, at least in the experience of those who participate – see Fabrice at Waterloo in Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma. The where of the battle comes, in a sense, after the battle is over.

There are philosophers who claim that all events are like battles.

And this sense – transmuted from the unheimlich to the heimlich – is Hebel’s specialty.

Sebald gently chides Benjamin for trying to make Hebel a friend of sorts of the left – a fellow traveller of the ideals of the French revolution.  Sebald, writing in the neo-liberal eighties and nineties, sees Hebel, instead, as a friend of good governance, under the guidance of expert physiocrats guided by good kings. To make this case, Sebald isolates Hebel from such characters as Georg Foster, a circumnavigator of the globe and friend of the Revolution who Hebel surely read; and more, Sebald erases the whole background of ancien regime violence, as though the violence of the French revolution erupted on a peaceful Europe rather than one that had experienced two world wars between colonial powers (the war of Spanish succession and the seven years warp  and the rise of a militarized Prussia in wars that pitted Prussia against Austria and Russia. In the Seven Years war alone, about 700,000 people died. Hebel, in his most famous story, The Unexpected Reunion,  the body of a miner who was buried in an accident is dug up in the mines at Falun, and his now ancient fiancé sees his body, which gives Hebel the opportunity to create a virtuoso chronology that gives us an idea of history as a kind of geology:

“In the meantime the city of Lisbon in Portugal was destroyed by an earthquake, the Seven Years War came and went, the Emperor Francis I died, the Jesuits were dissolved, Poland was partitioned, the Empress Maria Theresa died, and Sturensee was executed, and America became independent, and the combined French and Spanish force failed to take Gibralter. The Turks cooped up General Stein in the Vetrane Cave in Hungary and Emperor Joseph died too. King Gustavus of Sweden conquered Russian Finland, the French Revolution came and the long war began, and the Emperor Leopold II too was buried. Napoleon defeated Prussia, the English bombarded Copenhagen, and the farmers sowed and reaped. The millers ground the corn, the blacksmiths hammered, and the miners dug for seams of metal in their workplace under the ground.”

Left out of this list were many things known to Hebel: the acceleration of the slave trade and the profits of the slavery that flowed to the great colonial powers, and the battle for the control of India between the English and the French. Sebald’s Hebel has read Simon Schama and is a friend of Malesherbes, but the real Hebel was much more oblique.

I am less concerned, though, with Hebel’s attitude towards the revolution than I am with the cross between a certain popularizing of enlightenment and the revival of a popular vernacular that found expression in collections of nursery and household tales. To me, this crossroads is epitomized by Charles Perrault, who on the one hand, famously, took the folktale out of the woods and into the boudoir (like La Fontaine), and on the other hand, authored an endless polemical treatise against the ancients and for the moderns.

Hebel speaks in a language, as a “friend of the house”, that would be familiar to the informants of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm – in particular, the daughter of an exiled Huguenot, from whom many of the most famous tales came. Hebel’s, too, are household tales. The news from the enlightenment, in his prose, takes on the air of a folktale. This is a crossed place, seemingly impossible if we hold enlightenment on the one hand to be the opposite of superstition on the other.

In 1703, Charles Perrault’s niece, Mademoisselle L’Heretier, published a book in London entitled La Tour ténébreuse et les jours lumineux, which contained a tale, Ricdin-Ricdon. R-R was a kind of demon or gnome, who offers to spin straw into gold for a girl whose mother had promised the king that she had that exact ability. This tale is better known from the Grimm brothers version, where Ricdin-Ricdon becomes Rumpelstiltskin.  Jack Zipes in his The Fairy Tale as Myth/the Myth as Fairy Tale devotes some space to the “spinning tales”, following his notion that spinning as a home industry suffered a sea change in the 18th century, from a place of honor to a sort of semi-comic activity performed by ugly old maids.

Hebel makes an extraordinary transposition from the spinning tale to Copernican cosmology in some of his calendar stories explaining to the small town and rural audience the findings of a science that is now, in 1808, more than two hundred years old. In his general remarks about the structure of the universe, Hebel intends to explain that the world is round, and that the sun does not move around the earth.

“Secondly, the earth turns itself around in 24 hours. In fact, imagine if from one point of the globe through its center to another opposed point a long spindle or axle was pulled. These two points we will name the poles. Thus around this axle the earth turns in 24 hours, not after the sun but against the sun, and if a long endless red thread came out, I will say, on the 21st of March from the sun and reached the earth, and at number it was knotted about a cherry tree or around a crucifix in a field, the globe would have pulled this thread all the way around itself in 24 hours, and so for each day.”

Imagine Rumpelstiltskin as a cosmological god, instead of an earth spirit. Although that crucifix… I’m assuming it is a tombstone. A symbol of death and resurrection, renewed in the Copernican order, and published in a Calendar. Hebel, whose writing is so Heimlich, always lands us in these unheimliche places.

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...