Tuesday, June 30, 2009

who owns the copyright on the invasion of Iraq?

The war is over, the war is not over.

I received a book a few months ago that I have not yet had time to read: Savages and Scoundrels: the untold story of the American road to empire through Indian territory by Paul Vandevelder. It is a story all Americans know, really – how every treaty between an Indian nation and the U.S. was merely an instrument used to remove the Indians from the soil, to exterminate them or push them into uninhabitable territory, or to disperse them utterly within the American cosmos as though they had never been.

“Even in the 1830s, James Fenimore Cooper could see how this story would play out. By the end of Natty Bumpo’s life, in The Prairie, the famous frontiersman realizes that the freedoms he imagined, so beautifully symbolized by the vast and unfenced panorama of the American West, would inevitably be transformed into cruel illusions.”

Every American war has a strain of Cowboys and Indians in it. It was simply more so in the Iraq fiasco. The dialectic between the stated principles underlying the American mission (contravening reality with the sort of lunatic delight characteristic of the Bushites) and the mean, atrocious, measly way the war was managed for the profit of the few and the misery of the many (a misery resulting in two million refugees and half a million Iraqi deaths, as the valedictory articles in the papers will resolutely not inform us) from the Green zone was a speeded up version of past American exterminationist ventures, with its faux humanitarianism, its penchant for creating “reservations”, its denial of self interest in the midst of vast and shameless profit-seeking – this was the war that was.

To ‘celebrate’ the holiday – Maliki’s end of the war holiday – I went back to Limited Inc and tried to find some item in the midst of my mental morass to comment on. I hit on a curious theme that emerged in the first months of the occupation – the part played by that sinister company, SAIC. A San Diego company with no record of experience in Iraq, SAIC was the beneficiary of some astonishingly generous contracts. SAIC, for a while, even paid the Iraqi Council – in a deal in which the Bushites literally rented out the government of the country. SAIC controlled the first Iraqi tv station. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Not much attention is being paid to the renting out of Iraq to SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation)-- which is apparently the plan hatched by Paul Wolfowitz and Smilin' Jay Garner. Iraq has already been graced with a paramilitary group, flown out at Pentagon expense, to surround the eventual proconsul of Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi. Now the Pentagon is flying out a group of exiles to take over Smilin' Jay's ministries -- including the ever juicy Oil Ministry -- and they are paying them, for reasons unexpressed in the press releases, through SAIC -- an employee owned defense tech company. SAIC is run by one J. R. Beyster, who has worked, in the past, in Los Alamos. SAIC was last in the spotlight for buying the company that has the privilege of deciding who gets domain names on the Internet. At that time, a lot of paranoia was generated among the true net-cognescenti by the composition of the Board of Directors. Yes, here's a bunch of fun facts to know and tell: that board of directors has included former National Security Agency chief Bobby Inman, former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, and the former head of research and development for the Pentagon, Donald Hicks, ex-CIA Director Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense William Perry, and another ex-CIA Director John Deutch

Business 2.0, to its credit, has an article this month that explores the super-secretive SAIC -- although it is explored in the gung-ho spirit of geek patriotism. As long as they use neat technology to curtail our freedom, it is alright with Business 2.0.

Here are a few excerpts to make you confident that we are in good hands -- xray hands, the hands of Donald Rumsfeld and company:

SAIC is now the country's largest privately held infotech company, with 2002 revenues of $6.1 billion. About a third of SAIC's business is systems integration for other companies, such as Pfizer (PFE) and BP (BP), but its heart and soul is spy tech. Intelligence agencies don't list or rank their contractors. Intelligence sources, however, say SAIC was the NSA's top supplier last year and in the top five at the CIA. In addition to the high-powered data-mining software that helped nail Mohammed, SAIC makes undersea thermal imaging sensors for tracking submarines. It produces software that spy satellites use to map the earth and feed target data to precision munitions, including those that have been pounding Iraq. It's also a leader in the booming homeland security business: It builds gear that uses gamma rays to peer inside cargo containers and truck trailers. Adding to SAIC's covert aura, Beyster has hired an unusual number of former spies, law enforcement chiefs, and secret warriors. Some 5,000 employees -- roughly one-seventh of the workforce -- have security clearances. Beyster himself has one of the highest arrays of top-secret clearances of any civilian in the country. "We are a stealth company," says Keith Nightingale, a former Army special ops officer. "We're everywhere, but almost never seen."

My interest in SAIC was diverted by the downward turn of events in Iraq. Curious about how good the war was for SAIC, I searched the net and found a nice, juicy article on them by Donald Bartlett and James Steele, published in Vanity Fair in 2007. SAIC is proof that even a bad war can be very very sweet for investors

“SAIC maintains its headquarters in San Diego, but its center of gravity is in Washington, D.C. With a workforce of 44,000, it is the size of a full-fledged government agency—in fact, it is larger than the departments of Labor, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development combined. Its anonymous glass-and-steel Washington office—a gleaming corporate box like any other—lies in northern Virginia, not far from the headquarters of the C.I.A., whose byways it knows quite well. (More than half of SAIC's employees have security clearances.) SAIC has been awarded more individual government contracts than any other private company in America. The contracts number not in the dozens or scores or hundreds but in the thousands: SAIC currently holds some 9,000 activefederal contracts in all. More than a hundred of them are worth upwards of $10 million apiece. Two of them are worth more than $1 billion. The company's annual revenues, almost all of which come from the federal government, approached $8 billion in the 2006 fiscal year, and they are continuing to climb. SAIC's goal is to reach as much as $12 billion in revenues by 2008. As for the financial yardstick that really gets Wall Street's attention—profitability—SAIC beats the S&P 500 average. Last year ExxonMobil, the world's largest oil company, posted a return on revenue of 11 percent. For SAIC the figure was 11.9 percent. If "contract backlog" is any measure—that is, contracts negotiated and pending—the future seems assured. The backlog stands at $13.6 billion. That's one and a half times more than the backlog at KBR Inc., a subsidiary of the far better known government contractor once run by Vice President Dick Cheney, the Halliburton Company.”

At the time, I wondered why SAIC was the stealth company of choice for Iraq. As Steele and Bartlett make plain, the Iraq invasion was sort of a stepchild of SAIC. They financed propaganda for it, they rolled out their military analysts as early as 1998 to make the case for it, and once the invasion started, it was SAIC that organized the Iraqi “advisors”:

David] Kay [a former U.N. official associated with the first Gulf war] and others associated with SAIC hammered away at the threat posed by Iraq. Wayne Downing, a retired general and a close associate of Ahmad Chalabi, proselytized hard for an invasion of Iraq, stating that the Iraqis "are ready to take the war … overseas. They would use whatever means they have to attack us." In many of his appearances on network and cable television leading up to the war, Downing was identified simply as a "military analyst." It would have been just as accurate to note that he was a member of SAIC's board of directors and a company stockholder. (Downing was also the chief proponent of a weapons system called Metal Storm, capable of firing a million rounds of ammunition a minute; SAIC received $10 million from the Pentagon to develop prototypes, but in the last two years the Metal Storm company has lost millions.) In the run-up to the war, David Kay remained outspoken. He told NBC News in October of 2002, "I don't think it's possible to disarm Iraq as long as Saddam is in power and desires to maintain weapons of mass destruction."

On all these points Kay and Downing were buttressing the views of Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and others in the Bush administration. They were also echoing the assertions of Iraqi exiles living in the United States, who had been trying to overthrow Saddam Hussein for years. Many of those exiles—people like Khidhir Hamza, a onetime atomic-energy official in Iraq, who insisted that Saddam posed an imminent nuclear danger to the United States—would in time receive paychecks from SAIC. Although his evidence had long been discredited by weapons experts, Hamza was among about 150 Iraqi exiles designated by the Pentagon as members of the newly chartered Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council. The plan was that, once American troops secured Iraq, the I.R.D.C. recruits would move into influential positions in a rebuilt Iraqi government.

SAIC served as the paymaster for the Iraqi exiles under a $33 million government contract. It brought them all together in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, rented apartments for them, paid their living expenses, provided various support services, and, later, after the invasion and occupation, flew them to their jobs in the new, democratic Iraq. This SAIC operation reported to Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon, a key assistant to Rumsfeld, and one of the architects of the Iraq invasion and occupation. Feith's deputy was Christopher "Ryan" Henry, a former SAIC senior vice president.”

And so it goes. Matt Taibbi maintains that TARP was essentially a Goldman, Sachs operation, mounted by former Goldman Sachs employees to rescue Goldman Sachs butt. Throw in the SAIC influence on the war in Iraq, and you have an x-ray of power in the U.S. And, honey, that power ain’t exercized by the people. The human product are just supposed to watch tv and nod their heads.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

making fallujah into a video game

There seems to be nothing a philosopher flees from more than being called a moral relativist. A moral relativist, it appears, is somehow unable to condemn Nazism, murder, lying and other nasty things.

Of course, moral relativism is, outside of polemics, merely a description of our actual collective moral lives. There are few moral absolutists, and none of them designed the bombers or the terror bombing strategy employed with devastating effect against Germany in 1943-1945. The justification of this was that it was necessary to defeat the Nazis – that it was moral, that is, relative, to the greater goal of defeating Nazism. Moral absolutes, when in contact with the real world, quickly evaporate. Mirages in practice, they are seized by those with one agenda or another to lend a little gloss of highmindedness, and to maintain a systems of control. As it is impossible in the developed states to punish people who don’t swear unswerving belief in God, one needs a substitute in order to keep the hierarchical symbolic order going. Myself, I am a moral relativist – as I am pretty sure is true of my readers. I jusge my position on this by assessing my actions, not by assessing my arguments – since it isn’t very clear that the moment in which I sit down and make an argument is coincident with expressing what my ‘beliefs’ are. Why should it be?

That doesn’t mean there isn’t an argument for moral absolutism – there are plenty of them. For all but the few, however, they are made not to enforce an absolute – thou shalt never kill – but to justify instrumental evils – we have to kill x, y, and z in order to overthrow an evil system. To demand that a person condemn something – Auschwitz, the Gulag, etc. – as an absolute evil is simply part of a game of coercion, here, prodding us to fork out the tax dollars and the paranoia to support, say, nuclear weapons, or fire bombing, or whatever is on the menu. Lining up and piously denouncing moral relativism is, in fact, one of the ways moral relativism socially reproduces itself.

There is actually a Philosophers series on Peace – as I found out when trying vainly to look at the Peace and Change issue about Iraq – and there is a H-Net listserv that connects up the Peace and Change people. I was interested to read a review of a book about what philosophers had to say about “the war on terror’, but, alas, the first thing up is the piety of arguing that being against the war on terror is not moral relativism. Heavens no!

Meanwhile, back on earth, Newsweek carried an interesting article about the Battle of Fallujah. There is a video game company seeking to transform that battle into a video game. The article goes into the ins and outs of the hurt that might be experienced by the Marines or the parents of Marines in the recapitulation of the battle that you, the shooter at home, can alter as you craftily “cleanse” houses of insurgents. The most interesting things about the article is the quotes for Iraqis. That is, the fact that there isn’t a single quote from a single Iraqi. Fallujah, translated into a videogame, becomes a perfect patriotic stunt, in which the opposing “team”, being of course absolutely evil, doesn’t require any consultation.

“Peter Tamte was months away from completing his dream project--turning the largest urban battle of the Iraq War into a videogame--when it all seemed to fall apart. The 75 employees of one of his companies, Atomic Games, had worked on the endeavor for nearly four years. They'd toiled to make Six Days in Fallujah as realistic as possible, weaving in real war footage and interviews with Marines who had fought there. But now relatives of dead Marines were angry, and the game's distributor and partial underwriter had pulled out of Tamte's project. On May 26, he got on the phone to Tracy Miller, whose son was killed by a sniper in Fallujah, and tried to win her over by arguing that the game honors the Marines. Miller listened politely, but remained skeptical. "By making it something people play for fun, they are trivializing the battle," she told NEWSWEEK.

Tamte is not above triviality. A second company he runs, Destineer, makes games with titles like Indy 500 and Fantasy Aquarium. But the 41-year-old executive says he's now attempting something more serious: a documentary-style reconstruction that will be so true to the original battle, gamers will almost feel what it was like to fight in Fallujah in November 2004. At his studio in Raleigh, N.C., Tamte has been helped by dozens of Fallujah vets who have advised him on the smallest details, from the look of the town to the operation of the weapons. And he's staked the fate of his company on the success of the $20 million project. "If for some reason it doesn't work, we'll have to think about making some very significant changes to the studio," he says.

Can something as weighty and complex as war be conveyed by the same medium that produced Mario Brothers and Grand Theft Auto? Mostly, videogames are associated with mindless entertainment or gratuitous violence or both. For Tracy Miller and other skeptics, the idea that animated shooters can communicate the heroism and sacrifice of Fallujah is deeply misguided.”

Of course, it is hard not to get all relativistic here and point out that the insurgents that are cleansed – like dirt – from houses that they happen, often, to be living in, latter went over to the American side in the Anbar awakening and became heroes for the surge. But to point out that the Iraqis were involved in the Iraq occupation is to run into the brick wall of American projection. The video game – the idea of capturing the battle and turning it into the kind of thing the player can command – is almost too perfect, a symbol thrown up by the American libido that will, doubtless, be a huge success. And at the same time, Americans will gravely ponder the evil of shouting Death to America, which for some reason keeps going on in the Middle East. Who knows why.

ps - and on a totally different topic - check out my review in the Statesman today.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Getting off our butts for the Public Option

The Great Depression, for conservatives and their priests, the economists, poses a special problem, in that it calmly and casually blew up everything they had to say, every claim they ever made, about the political economy. For this reason, it has, over the years, been buried under a mass of country club myths that are circulated reverently in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal like holy relics of some perverse cult. And, say what you will about myth and history, when the myth is held by the people making the most money in a society, it will, sooner or later, penetrate the historian’s work.

It is in this way that the movements for economic justice that arose in the Great Depression have been relegated, for a long time, to the category of demagoguery. One of those movements is, as a matter of fact, of burning relevance to today’s health care crisis. It was started by a sixty year old physician in Long Beach, California, who noted that people over sixty five were severely affected by the Depression. Francis Townsend, the physician’s name, came up with a solution – a national 2 percent sales tax that would then be used to provide everybody in the U.S. over the age of sixty five with 200 dollars per month. And to give the money more effect, Townsend thought the money should come with the condition that it could not be saved – rather, it had to be entirely spent every month.

Townsend publicized his plan and soon found takers for it among America’s elderly. By 1934 there were 2,000,000 members of the Townsend clubs. Their influence was increased by the fact that, even back then, the elderly were reliable voters.

In 1934, Roosevelt realized that the first wave of programs had merely stymied further deterioration in the economy, which was at a historic low. But Roosevelt was being impeded in his actions by conservative Democratic senators. In a fireside chat, he said:

“It is true that the toes of some people are being stepped on and are going to be stepped on. But these toes belong to the comparative few who seek to gain position or riches or both by some shortcut which is harmful to the greater good.” And, as Ronald Edforth quotes the talk in his book on the New Deal, he continued: “A few timid people who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing,” he told his radio audience, “Sometimes they will call it Fascism, sometimes Communism, sometimes regimentation, sometimes Socialism. But in doing so, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and practical.”

Townsend’s plan was as simple, practical, and toestepping as one could possibly wish. It was the impetus, but not the model, for Roosevelt’s own plan. Roosevelt knew how to use pressure that was being applied upon him – a quality that I have seen glimmers of in Obama. True success in politics is having other people make you do what you want to do in the first place. Roosevelt told Francis Perkins, who chaired his committee of economic advisors: “We have to have it [pensions]. The Congress can’t stand the pressure of the Townsend plan unless we have a real old-age insurance system.”

Now, fastforward to our time and what do we see? A tour d’horizon shows how very much the party system has eaten up independent political movements, like that of the Townsend plan. And yet, from Social Security to Civil Rights, it is extra-party social movements that have driven real change. Which is why I am both delighted in the polls showing such strong support for the Public Option – the option of having the government put itself in the business of insuring health care, to put it at the simplest – and sad that the issue is so wholly engulfed in D.C. politics. Obama, of course, has come out for the public option, and presented an excellent defense of it last week at his press conference. We’ve seen a few senators fall in line – and not the senators you would think. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Arlen Spector have come out for the Public Option – for reasons that are, I think, related to the fact that even conservatives in the 1930s were on the losing side in the battle for old age pensions. The people who will derive the most benefit from the public option are a mass of pretty reliable voters, whose politics is not particularly liberal, but whose health has a liberal bent – it keeps going from bad to worse, and the medical bills have become surreal.

However, it is easy to see that if the politics of the public option are confined to a party led fight, the public option will lose. Townsend’s populist tactics can now be reproduced in the laboratory by even a mediocre lobbyist. The money is heavily against the public option, and the money will buy newspapers, the money will buy tv, and the money will buy its own popular movements. The money, at the moment, has had its credibility hurt – its own health care problem, viz, gambling the global economy on a completely stupid attempt to wrack up derivative wealth, had to be cured by the instant delivery of a trillion dollars in TARP and other aid, and of course the more than 2 trillion loaned at such reasonable, reasonable rates by the Fed. But the money is impervious to seemingly moral contradiction, because in the end there is no contradiction: the money wants money. Whether that comes from goldmining the treasury or getting up on its hind legs and talking about government inefficiency, quotas for medical care, and the evils of socialism – the money will simply do it. The money is pragmatism minus the edifying language.

We are in one of those curious moments in which the money is balanced against an intangible: which way will Obama jump? Clinton, who tried, with all his neo-liberal heart, to carve out a compromise to please the Money, ended up getting his ass kicked. For one thing, in 1993, Clinton just wasn’t that popular. Obama, on the other hand, is. Plus, we are still in a downturn. It has vicious proportions. Obama’s whole economic policy, so far, has been one of satisfying the money – hence, the Larry Summer’s back-to-2007 plan for the banks. Partly this is just a survival strategy – holding off the power of the money gave Obama some breathing room. But now is the time that will test our President’s soul. He truly does have to go beyond the party – he has to arouse an extra-party movement for this change. It is a change that will take from the predators – and, like social security, actually allow the predators to pounce and eat in the long term. But the predators are short term beasts. Live by the points, die by the points. There is no question that the financial sector, which has been the recipient of the most amazing bailout in history, thinks, a., that they deserved it, b., that it didn’t happen, and c., that it oppressed them. There is nothing like the whining of your 2 –5 million dollar bonus baby in some evil division at Citi.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A time to mourn, a time to applaud

“BACK when times were better and the newspaper industry wasn’t fighting for dear life, reporters at the Cleveland Plain Dealer would regularly grumble at the measly pay increases their union negotiated. Last month, when the union announced it had negotiated a 12% pay cut in exchange for a promise of no lay-offs, there was applause. “It took me aback,” says Harlan Spector, a medical reporter and one of the negotiators.” – The Economist, ‘The Quiet American”

The Zona, all goodthinking commentators have commentated, is receding. Alan Greenspan recently emerged like the preternatural cryogenic Randian vampire he is to celebrate equities – which, he crows, have pushed 12 trillion dollars back into play globally this year. Just think – from collapse to Dow 8500! There’s something seriously awry in the latest noises made by the plutocrats. One expects, and expects vainly, that brushes with death are life-changing; that the junkie, as per some tv soap, will give up his junk after he opens his eyes and finds he is in the hospital, attached to the blood machine, tearful family gathered round the bed.

But these junkies have attached the blood machine to the family members, and are enjoying the high which comes from pumping their blood into his arteries. It is True Blood time in these here States! And so it has come to pass that what Tim Duy suggested – and what I in my humbleness here and at LI suggested – is being realized in the minds of the vampiric. That is, the Bush-Obama policy has succeeded in convincing the financial sector that we can go back to the past. That we can revive the conditions of 2006-2007. It is a madness reminiscent of the Bushian “surge” in Iraq. At least the latter, underneath the usual bullying rhetoric, disguised a series of strategic surrenders that did, indeed, disentangle America’s occupying force from the land it occupied. But I find that the real condition of this country – Quiet America, as the Economist puts it – has been put to one side. We now get the boring news – another 600,000 job losses – all sotto voce and stuffed into the corners of the biz pages. The more exciting news – Goldman Sachs biggest payday ever! – gets the star turn.

Under the sign of the replay, the center will not hold – I hold this zona truth to be self evident.. America is teary eyed about the death of Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett Majors – but I can’t shed a single drop, somehow. My tears are falling for the death of Detroit; my tears of rage are falling at the new American ethos of being a good sport, being the quiet American, being the patsy at the end of the assembly line of spiritual and material death. The workers applaud their own economic descent, while the only angry voices are those being whipped up rightwing fringe, America’s perennial lyncher’s margin. We “understand” – oh, we so understand the “market”. You can’t do anything against the market. Except, of course, we have watched that particular lie explode before our eyes as it turned out that market forces, once they brush up against the rich, can be dealt with – trillions, it turns out, will be found with astonishing speed to deal with the market then.

This NYT Magazine article about the Detroit and the Black middle class – now, here’s a situation to mourn, for those looking to mourn.

“When we talk about what the end of the U.S. auto industry will mean to thousands of autoworkers, we tend to have a specific image of that worker in mind: He’s a conservative white Democrat who lives in suburban Detroit, hangs out in his local union hall, belongs to a bowling league and owns a hunting cabin in the Upper Peninsula. This is the iconic American autoworker. In fact, as much as a fifth of the industry’s work force is African-American.

The story of the rise of America’s black working and middle classes is inextricably bound up with that of Detroit and the Big Three. It is not a story with a simple upward trajectory. For a long time, blacks were relegated to the least desirable jobs in the plants and initially confined to a small ghetto on the East Side of the city. But slowly, haltingly, over the course of the 1950s and early ’60s, the plants became fully integrated and black workers spread across Detroit block by block, moving the city’s de facto color line as they went. “It wasn’t that long ago that Detroit was the home of the nation’s most affluent African-American population with the largest percentage of black homeowners and the highest comparative wages,” David Goldberg, an African-American Studies professor at Wayne State University, told me.”

Recently, I finished a review of Alyssa Katz’s book, Our Lot – a review which should be out in the Austin Statesman this Sunday. For the sake of length, I had to cut out a section about the historic background of our housing predicament. That background was all about the silent forces that created the racial wealth disparities, and created them not, conveniently, back in the bad old slave days, but back in the fifties and sixties – the seedtime for the American middle class. Here’s the cut paragraph:

“There are two background facts about housing in America in the postwar years that one should keep in mind when trying to understand how the liberal desire for equal housing opportunities converged with the conservative desire for an unregulated mortgage market. The first fact is that in the decades after World War II, the government, in the guise of the FHA, made Herculean efforts to provide credit for housing, and succeeded spectacularly, creating the vast suburban boom of the fifties and sixties. As Katz notes, the FHA preferences – dense residential patterns separated by zoning laws from commercial buildings of any sort – sank into the very genome of surburbia, creating a culture in which the car was a necessity, and the house was an island apart from the main. The second fact is that, up until the late sixties, the FHA put an equal effort into segregating neighborhoods. As Richard Moe and Carter Wilkie, urban historians, noted, “a single house occupied by a black family in an urban neighborhood, even one tucked away on an inconspicuous side street, was enough for the FHA to label a predominantly white neighborhood unfit for mortgage issuance.” [Making a place for a community, Thad Williamson, David Imbroscio, Gar Alperovitz, p.75] Thus, on the one hand, the government did all it could to encourage suburbs (where the standard dwelling was owned, not rented), and, on the other hand, the government acted to grossly underdevelop neighborhoods where blacks lived, which happened to be mostly urban neighborhoods.”

What I didn’t say – because it is a family paper – is that historians who have studied the FHA’s archives are astonished by the pure, systematic racism of the agency. One historian compared the rules compiled by the FHA to the Nuremberg laws. Recently, the Congress voted to "apologize" for slavery. Such morality! So why not apologize for the FHA's systematic racism? Ah, but at that point morality cuts closer to the bone, doesn't it. After all, two generations of white, middle class kids were raised in houses in the suburbs that were under neighborhood association rules that spelled out, specifically, the skin color that could be sold to.

ps - Oh, I just learned Matt Taibbi has a new report up in the Rolling Stone, which you can find here. You should never ever ever miss a single Taibbi article about the Zona.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Cross posted from LI

After Louis Napoleon had finally crushed any hope for revolution in France, Herzen published a letter – which he included as his fourteenth letter in the Letters from France and Italy – in which he draws some conclusions about the morphology of revolution. Some of his observations seem particularly applicable to Iran – which is no surprise. As Herzen observed, revolution no longer has a definite place, but, like a drop of mercury in a heated pan, jumps from one place to another. I found this passage pertinent – as pertinent as a knife in the heart:

“It has at last fallen into ruin, that decrepit world which survived its own self [this sounds much better in French: Il s’est enfin écroulé, ce monde décrepit qui s’était survècu a lui même] , which dissolved itself, which divided into two opposing principles, clever world, which at last came to lying and the confusion of all ideas, to pussilanimous concessions, which was arrested before impossible combinations. Everything that this world had reconstructed of the past, everything that it had painted freshly on varnished wood, all the productions of its old age second childhood – all this has fallen into ruin like a house of cards. There are no more confused reticences sustaining false hopes. The black night that one awaited has come – we advance with small steps towards the morning.”

Herzen’s vision was cleared by being in exile from one decrepit world – my vision is clouded by being part of a world that is in the midst of surviving itself as it faces the consequences of its own impossible economic combinations, its consumer society feudalism. But my eyes are clear enough to see that perception does not bring into being the nature of things. The U.S. establishment has settled it among themselves that the reformers were aiming at Americanizing Iran; for the U.S. establishment firmly believes in the Americanization of our enemies, while quietly supporting the non-Americanization of our friends. Thus, the outpouring for the demonstrators who have been killed in Teheran and Isfahan, and the turning away from the inhabitants of Gaza who, a mere six months ago, were treated to a terror war and died in their hundreds. In its search for comments from the “Arab” world, the New York Times published a Syrian activist, Rime Allaf, who spoke the obvious:

“Images like the distressing video immortalizing Neda Agha-Soltan as she lay dying in Tehran, inexplicably murdered, have also triggered conflicting emotions and sad questions on whether she died in vain. With so many people not actively espousing the position of any side, reluctant to shake a status quo, which, for all its problems, remains safer than the alternatives seen from Iraq to Afghanistan, the burden of experience is heavy. Dissent of any kind — even mild civil disobedience — has been brutally repressed throughout the Arab world replete with its own religious rulings, kangaroo courts and sham elections.
To add insult to injury, not only has people’s self-determination never received the backing of the international community, it has also been suppressed with the blessing of the world’s superpowers, eager to keep friendly regimes in power.
This is perhaps why Arab reactions to Iranians’ turmoil have been somewhat subdued. If the Iranians are so strongly supported in their quest for freedom, they wonder, why have Arabs’ own struggles been ignored, their own suffering been dismissed and their own Nedas been nameless? Why were Arabs’ own cries invoking God incessantly reported, in English, as calls to “Allah” in a perceived attempt to further alienate them, as if they believed in a different god, while Iranian cries of “Allahu akbar” have been correctly translated as “God is great” and repeated in unison by twitterers around the world?
With the wounds of Israel’s war on Gaza still open, many Arabs are particularly stunned that the indifference with which Palestinians deaths were received has turned into an international solidarity campaign for Iranians throwing rocks at their oppressors and shouting “we have become Palestine.”

Just as Americans look for Americanization to end the tv show dramas of other people’s history, the left looks everywhere, now, to see its own image. It is the narcissism of a corpse. The first question of a healthy political movement is – how do we support emancipation? The first question of a sick political movement is: what do we, as a movement, feel about supporting emancipation? My own answer to that is: fuck you. Those who have to enroll their immediate responses to the world in some baroque and pointless schemata have deadened the very nerve of politics.

Who can predict what happens next in Iran? We see the absolute dark, but it is not us, not LI, who must make the small steps towards morning. In relation to the U.S., we stand as we have always stood: abolish the sanction regime, recognize reality. This step should have been taken in 1990 – by not taking it, the U.S. has stripped itself of credibility and the instruments that could support those having to take the small steps. The demonstrations were a blow against the corruption of the current Iranian regime, but also a blow against the monstrous mechanism that keep blindly at work in the Middle East, spinning oil into blood.

Amie sent me a video and a poem by Forough Farrokhzad: The Wind will carry us. She suggested I link it, in honor of Neda. The link contains the words of the poem, which begins:

“In my small night, ah
the wind has a date with the leaves of the trees
in my small night there is agony of destruction
do you hear the darkness blowing?
I look upon this bliss as a stranger
I am addicted to my despair.”

How many have become addicted to despair! Me, something hollers within. How about me! However, I looked around and found, as well, a more streetwise ballad by Kiosk, Eshgh e Sorat. It is pretty fantastic. The video was made by Ahmad Kiorastami, who talks a bit about it here.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

To love the loveable

I spend a lot of time, on limited inc, showing the failure of the happiness culture – or at least its peculiarity. But I don’t spend a lot of time drawing in a positive program. If I did the latter, I guess my first principle, the first principle of cultural politics, would be: love the loveable. That means figuring out the proper objects for love – or hatred. One of those false objects of love, which seems so intensely to demand loving, is the state (and its multiple forms, the company, the left, the right, the free market, the party, etc.).

Today, I came across a beautiful instance of the perversion arising from loving the unlovable. In a review of books by Richard John Neuhaus, a rightwing phenomena who recently died, I came across a Neuhaus quote that is both outrageously funny and scarily monstrous: ‘When I meet God, I expect to meet him as an American.” My first thought was, well, honey, I wonder how that worked out for you. And my second thought was, my God. Here is a man, founder of First Things, whose career was spent advocating a dick Christianity, and he’d evidently forgotten to read the prophets and the gospel. If he had, he would have discovered that God dictates the terms of his meetings, even with world renowned rightwingers who have entrée into the White House!

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the comparison of Bushism and fascism. The evil was pressed in this country too well, two hundred years of slavery, a hundred of apartheid, for it to be some kind of import. But among the neo-cons, there is a more convincing case: these were Europe-facing men. And perhaps no phrase is so connotatively Nazi like. With a minor change, it could have been uttered by many a priest in the Nazified Lutheran church from 1933-1945.

Myself, I am a great believer in God’s infinite sense of the ludicrous, so I am sure he enjoyed meeting Richard John Neuhaus in all of his glory. And who knows – in a radiant moment, understanding what a creep’s life he lived, maybe Neuhaus achieved a certain redemption – the l’wa dropped from his back that he had carried all his life and beyond the grave.

Friday, June 19, 2009

in the bed

On the one hand, it is unpleasant, to the stomach, the eye, and the general proprioceptive system, to see Paul Wolfowitz attach himself to the movement in Iran – or attach himself anywhere to anything. While, in God’s great kingdom, one must remember that a parasitic worm finds another parasitic worm beautiful, and all are the center of their own heaven – still, from the human point of view, they are disgusting. Ditto with the Wolfowitz. That the Washington Post gave him an op ed space to ooze on about what Obama should do is par for the Post’s course – it is ooze central for reaction. That the Washington Post has joined Fox news as must miss journalism is one of the lessons of the Bush era. Admittedly, it is a little more fun – as it is a little more stupid. Fox News at least smartly aims a crafted message at a certain cult captivated audience. The Post exists as a sort of high school year book for power players in D.C. and a way for the Graham family to keep pressure so as to make sure that testing, testing, testing – which is their bread and butter from the Kaplan Test company – is and will continue to be government policy. The rest is dribs and drabs from the libido of aging warmongers.

On the other hand, one shouldn’t be deceived. The neocons were going to foment the idea that Moussavi is just as bad as Ahmadinejad in preparation for Moussavi’s win. There’s abundant evidence for that – they were not hiding their moves. Instead, they think they have hit the trifecta, since they can pretend support a movement dedicated to making the Iranian government live up to Iran’s constitutional system – while, of course, having ardently advocated overthrowing that system for the past twenty years. Bombs not ballots was the method preferred. This is more hokem, and will only catch the gulls.

Alas, I’ve not been able to follow events in Iran for Newsfromthezona. Instead, I’ve watched my ear bleed, and delighted in Lockian tricks having to do with hearing loss. Since Wednesday night, when my middle ear and eardrum became a grinding mass of pain, my life has been dedicated to worshipping my left ear. Or rather, understanding its godlike power. Last night, as I was shakily standing before the sink, washing dishes, I realized that I was hearing the sound of the water from the faucet both before and behind me. If I turned my right ear to the faucet, the sound was clearly – faucet, water, sound of water. If I turned my left ear to the faucet, though, I saw – faucet, water – but I heard – water falling behind me.

So, I wasn’t exactly doby sound equipped to watch movies. But I did watch Phillipe Garrel’s Je n’entends plus le guitare. In ideal cinematic space, the film should be run opposite La mere et la putain. Eustache’s film is a moment in my inner life – thus, I can’t call it a “favorite” film. (We’ve been well taught to think in these seedy, miserable, mean marketizing terms – favorite film, list of ten best films, etc. We become complicit, thereby, in our own ephemeralization, our own planned obsolescence.)

Garrel’s film follows a character – Gerard - who is something like the negative of Eustache’s Alexandre – silent where Alexandre is garrulous, a narcissist of disarray where Alexandre takes great pride in putting on an impression. But both have that devouring egotism, which eventually begins to eat them up. Gerard’s inner engine runs on the soixante-huitard ideas which are realized in his relationship to Marianne. Garrel’s relation to Nico is, perhaps, a necessary reference point to really understand the film – that relationship connects a lot of filmic dots, here. Marianne – high strung, blond, a lover of highs – is certainly a Nico stand-in. With that demand to be loved, to be told that she is loved – she is continually asking Gerard to describe how much he loves her, having evidently failed to understand the King Lear rule: the one who can tell you exactly how much he loves you is the one who doesn’t. In a conversation near the end of the film between Marianne and Gerard’s wife, Aline, Marianne sums up what she thinks their lives were about – and it is a summation that would please Alexandre and, I admit, me:

“-Was he happy with you?
-… but that was another epoch. … One didn’t need perhaps to be happy. One didn’t want it in any case.
-What then?
- To be a hero? To change life?”

Of course, the obvious objection is that being a hero is a sloppy and sometimes bloody business. To which Marianne might object that not being a hero simply hides the death by making it part of the life style – death-in-life.

I don’t want to suggest that Garrel’s film comes near the violence and nerve of Eustache’s film. That was another epoch. Gerard is never opened the way Alexandre is. Leaud, in La Mere et la putain, was in the very bloom of his considerable beauty. With his fine hair and this narrow eyes and the way he could make his face light up, he was a seducer. Gerard, on the other hand, is played by Benoît Régent, who is the type of man who looks best in middle age. He has a trick of not responding, of delaying his response, that gives him a different kind of seductiveness – the woman upon whom he has fastened his desires can, in his silences (in which he seems to be genuinely searching), think that she finds herself. By the end of the film, however, he gets much cruder. Marianne’s death seems to loosen his tongue, but what he has been searching the silence trying to say is quite, well, trivial – the usual middle aged stuff. He might be more himself after the death of his greatest love, but it is a lesser self.

Now I’m going to look for my eardrum, which seems to have slipped out of my ear. Yikes!

Monday, June 15, 2009


My fever broke today. I was on the phone with a client. Who I knew was going to call at 10:30. And who I knew I had to be up for. Last night, the (I hope) final stretch of this flue spread its wings and covered me. And I sank in the midst of sweaty sheets, aches, meninginal headache and eyeache, and visions that took me from one hell to another. The hells were very William Blake-ish, and they were interrupted, each time, by an awakening that would end in an unstoppable cough - one of those coughs gets out its shovel and digs into your throat - surely there's a treasure here somewhere!

Otherwise, I would have written today - well, I would have written a review that is now past due. And I would have written about Iran. Nothing earthshaking, just an affirmation of this blogs support for the reformers, for the democratic process, and against the gravediggers and ghouls who think that, because Ahmadinejad appeared in a photo op with Chavez, he is some kind of groovy third world leftist. Virtue by association - is that sweet or what?

Well, I think it stinks. There is only one question, really, which is: why, if Iran has developed a miracle vote counting machine that can go through 16 million paper ballots in two hours, they haven't put it on the world market?

This has little to do, and should have little to do, with American foreign policy. The U.S. should recognize Iran and pull down the sanctions regime. That has long been evident. But it does have to do with Iran's democracy. Like the U.S. democracy, with its longstanding legacy institutions that represent the power of slavery and apartheid (notably the Senate and the Electoral College), Iran's democracy is curbed by what the revolution left behind. I've always thought that, through a long, slow process, those structures will be changed. It disturbed me that Iranians I knew and respected felt the last election was boycottable - once you let a skunk sit on the throne, you won't get out the stink.

So, I'm hoping that the demonstrators in Teheran are not mindlessly and brutally massacred. And I wish them good luck in finding the answer to their question: where is their vote?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

don't forget the camel scrotem!

There are bankruptcy stories that are full of the blood and bones of children and workers, all ground up neatly, fairy tale wise, to be eaten by bondholders - and then there are fabulous bankruptcy stories in which the violence really is symbolic, and reaches into the very vacuum of our ersatz culture. The NYT story of the end of the Yellowstone club and the bankruptcy of its owners, Edra and Tim Blixseth (divorced) includes, in the inimitable po faced style of the Times, the following graf:

“Among examples of profligate spending Mr. Blixseth cites in the filing is a $90,000 party that Ms. Blixseth had at Porcupine Creek for more than 100 guests. Guests were invited to whack piñatas shaped like Mr. Blixseth and which contained chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. Voodoo dolls resembling Mr. Blixseth — complete with stickpins — were also on display. (Ms. Blixseth acknowledges that the party did indeed occur.)”

There is also this:
“Members say, mostly with fondness, that Ms. Blixseth’s aesthetics were more madam than monarch. Indeed, décor in some parts of the clubhouse almost smacked of Montana bordello. There, just as at Porcupine Creek, quality met kitsch, with Persian carpets and antiques rubbing up against huge marble statues and a couch covered in real zebra skin.
“I mix centuries together,” Ms. Blixseth acknowledges. She opens an ornate trinket cabinet to retrieve a brown, gourdlike object. “Do you know what this is? A camel scrotum! It holds water.”

Of course, this bankruptcy was made possible by your friends at Credit Suisse, who though Mr. (Toxic) Blixseth's ideas were worth about 400 million dollars. Luckily, in the great poker game between banks and the world central bankers, that money was no doubt taken care of by using state money. Because, after all, what is more important than a bank? It spreads money around so optimally. Ask any University of Chicago economist.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

engineering and poetry

Everybody knows Adorno’s famous phrase that there could be no more poetry after Auschwitz. But why did nobody ever say that there could be no more engineering after Auschwitz? After all, the camp produced methane gas, not alexandrines.

Of course, the reason is simple. We can’t do without the methane. Verses, in the popular mind, are for teenagers and losers. But underneath all the systems – socialist, fascist, communist – we need something to make the methane. We need something to make the engines. We need more roads. We need plastic, and we need low fat foods. We need hardware, and we need software. We need the cities, and we need the planes and bombs to bomb the cities. At this cold level, at the bottom of the artificial paradise, nobody is going to take giving up engineering seriously. It might lead to mass death, but who can imagine living without it? It is possible that the largest negative externality the planet has ever seen – the CO2 that, year by year, is bringing us close to the end of the Holocene – comes from engineering. But whether it is Auschwitz or global warming, we cannot question the engineering.

I’ve been reading Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire. It is a history that confronts one with Hitler’s most successful idea: a war state in which the population is shielded from war. This, at least, was the plan. Hitler saw the blockade of 1914-1918 as the key to the Allied victory, and the downfall of the Kaiser, and he did not want that repeated. Hitler’s great drive was to immunize the Germans. This drive even worked under the extermination camps – for dead people don’t eat. One of the great Nazi diktat in the 1940-1942 period was to keep the nutritional level of the population up, by all means necessary. This meant a vast program of expropriation in the East, and, to a lesser extent, in the West.

However, the Hitlerian system was hexed by its own striving for totality. Seeking both a racially pure German and a war state that would master Europe, Hitler’s machine inevitably began to seek out labor for the factories, and soon flooded Germany with more foreigners than it had ever held before. Having seized Poland and planned on making it a vast extension of the Reich, Hitler’s men soon found that Germans did not want to colonize the eastern front – which meant, of course, that the “subhuman” slav population of Greater Germany spiked up. In this political sense, Popper’s Open society is certainly right – the price of the triumph of a total social system is its rapid decay and defeat. The limits are crossed in a delirium, the limits aren’t even seen. But they are there, nonetheless. The engineering underneath just brings you closer and closer to them.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

of freaks and men

In a remarkable passage in Fallen Leaves, Rozanov describes the God’s relationship to the world in these terms:

Expansible matter embraces an unexpansible object, no mater how much larger it seems. It – is always “larger”. A boa constrictor as thick as an arm, at most as big as a leg at the knee, devours a small goat. This is the cause of many strange phenomena and of the appetite of the boa and the goat. Yes, it hurts a little, is tight, but – it worked… It is remarkable to put on a kid glove, how it lies there so narrow and ‘innocent’ in the store box. But when it’s put on, it forms a firm grip. The world gravitates metaphysically towards a “firm grip”. In a “firm grip”, God holds the world.”

As Olga Matich, who quotes this passage in Erotic Utopia, says, “the passage first depicts the expansion of a vagina, erection of a penis (even though it is called an ‘expandable object’).” Matich is being delicate – I can think of cruder terms for this metaphor.

Rozanov was a Russian decadent – and a fierce critic of the Russian decadents. He proclaimed himelf a philo-Semite, but this just meant that the took the anti-semitic stereotypes about Jews – including, especially and notoriously, the notion of blood offerings extracted from little Christian babies – and used them to effect an inversion of values. Matich quotes Bely’s portrait of Rozano: ‘his devious little eyes seemed to be brown morsels…[Rozanov cooked his ideas] which he would bake somewhere (in a sacred place), where he would produce the shameless bodily function of his shameless thought.” Bely did not like Rozanov, but as Matich points out, his portrait is accurate, down to the equivalency between excretion and thought – Rozanov himself emphasized that his writing was full of his sperm.

It is hard to know what attitude to take to a writer who strips himself with such gusto. Who is shameless.

Which brings me to the contemporary film director, Alexie Balabanov. My friend Masha thinks Balabanov is an extremely clever and extremely nasty film-maker. I had only seen Brother 1, which didn’t strike me as anything clever, although the nastiness – particularly the anti-semitism – was there. So I went and rented Of Freaks and Men. And I saw what Masha was talking about.

Of freaks and men is filmed in a golden sepia – as though the shots had been drenched in Catherine the Great’s amber room. But it is typical of Balabanov that this beauty is twisted – the collector’s fetish for sepia is mocked in this sepia, which never was nor will be. Collecting is what the film is about – briefly, a man in a turn of the century city (St. Petersburg, although the name is never mentioned in the film) runs a pornography operation that involves photographing the bare bottoms of women getting whipped or spanked. He has a sinister assistant, who delivers the postcards to two customers – one, the maid of a doctor who has married a blind woman and adopted a pair of Siamese twins, and the other to Liza, the daughter of a prosperous engineer. As it happens, the maid in the engineer’s house is both the lover of the engineer and the sister of the pornographer. The assistant is attracted by the freaks and the blind woman in the doctor’s house – he uses the latter as a model bottom, and kidnaps the children and photographs them nude in his basement studio. One of the twins he debauches with alcohol. Meanwhile, the maid shows the engineer, who has a heart problem, the photographs his supposedly innocent daughter has bought. This brings on a heart attack and death. The pornographer then moves into the engineer’s apartment and makes Leeza one of his models. For good measure, he throws in the freaks.

From one end to the other, this is a repulsive world, shot in beautiful sepia. If, indeed, some deity is putting its penis into the tight grip of this world’s cunt, you can be sure it is not the god of love. It is a gangster god, a thief god, a god who can conceive of love only in terms of terror and compulsion. And, indeed, the movie ends with Leeza making a brief fugue from her apartment, only to end up being spanked, once again, in a brothel.

We all know that shock is at the center of the modernist aesthetic. But repulsion is a modernist reaction, too. Not just in horror films. It’s ideological meaning is harder to penetrate. Masha, with good reason, sees Balabanov’s films as an extension of his ultra-right politics. It is the politics of Limonov, the writer turned nationalist. According to this reading, it is enough to show the decadence of the pre-revolutionary intellectuals to condemn them. But repulsion is an overdetermined reaction. Just as the assistant (a repulsively pale, completely bald man with spaces between his teeth, a sort of cleaned up Nosferatu, played by Viktor Sukhorukov) is fascinated by the freaks beyond any economic need or even apparent erotic function, so, too, Balabanov is much too fascinated with this world he has conjured up to condemn it crudely. Like Rozanov, he plays with his own disgust – and makes the viewer complicit. In fact, infects the viewer, which is of course the primal and fearful trait projected on pornography – that to watch is to be infected, to be possessed. This film has been compared especially with David Lynch. But Lynch is working in a culture in which camp has been a long established feature. Imagine a Lynch working in a culture in which camp had never existed, and you get close to the sensibility here.

Monday, June 8, 2009

the toad-eater elections

A few weeks ago I got into a dustup with someone on facebook, of all places, about the direction of a facebook group, the Non-Aligned leftists. Beyond the surface of our tactical differences, the deeper one was about the very purpose of a political group. To my mind, the “left” is nothing – the ends are everything. So, I thought that the presentation of a number of issues that the zona has made ultra-important – democratizing antique political entities, knocking down laws that cripple the internationalization of labor unions, a 35 hour week, creating a heavy regulatory regime to limit the speculative market, etc., need to be expressed on all occasions in the Anglo-sphere. My opponent, on the other hand, wanted to find common ground with ‘left” parties so that we would be good campaigners once election time rolled around – while, of course, asserting with gusto that we were going to overthrow the government and seize power from the street.

I must admit, I could give a flying fuck for that kind of babyshit.

And so the toadeater elections have rolled over Europe. The left, which now consists of a bought and paid for set of the political elite who want to “moderate’ neo-liberalism and a set who want to ‘seize power from the street” got entirely and predictably whipped. Instead of viewing the zona as the greatest opportunity to effect radical change in 50 years, the ‘left” has treated it like an annoyance. Just as the two spheres, “moderates” and ‘radicals”, were essential to disenfranchising opposition to the invasion of Iraq, they operate, now, with an evil synergy, to disarm the populace before the machinations of an astonishingly corrupt and vile right wing machine. The party of Berlusconi’s dick.

Berlusconi’s dick romped.

In the sad gray light of Napoleon’s downfall, William Hazlitt wrote a heartfelt essay about the decline of the literary tribe and the rise of the elite – seconded by its victims. The oddity of the poor and working class cheering on the rich and idle class he called toad-eating. He accurately described the way in which the press operates as a sort of projection machine, allowing the poor man to bask in the glory for which he pays with his skin, and the skins of his children.

Today, fat, comfortable, we watch the right work around the margins of the welfare state. They have been doing this long enough that the left’s only real tactic – which is to claim that the right will destroy the welfare state – rings as hollow as it should. In fact, that state is hooked up to the corporate machinery and has long, long been. The right has long ago learned how to use it to make the rich richer. And it is the left’s political destiny, imposed upon them by a political elite that came through the ranks by making sure that there was no untoward discussion of issues – my god, we have to leave that to the leaders and their committees! – is more of the same. So, the party of ditto and diddly squat, the party that righteously separates itself, in the name of all that is good in economics (a la Milton Friedman and Hayek), the Nu-Labour/PS/SPU slug’s orgy, goes down in wholly predictable defeat.

Yes, there's no protection for you from the vampires in the Central Banker’s state.

PS - fans of Infinite Thought should listen to NP on the BBC at 36:52, talking about Orwell. Although she didn't get a chance to say as much as she could have, alas.

Friday, June 5, 2009

economics - a few kicks against the pricks

If I were going to be aphoristically cruel, I’d call economics the science that can’t predict the future and can’t agree upon the past. In the Freakonomics column, my happy hunting ground for sophisms, Stephen Levitt worried that the state of macro-economics was in poor shape, especially as compared to the happy state of microeconomics. Matt Yglesias commented on the post, remarking that research programs in the sciences aren’t necessarily all captured by reductionist programs:

“But as a methodological matter, it seems deeply unsound. As a general principle for investigating the world, we normally deem it desirable, but not at all necessary, that researchers exploring a particular field of inquiry find ways to “reduce” what they’re doing to a lower level. To make that concrete, in the modern day we have achieved a decent understanding of how principles of chemistry are grounded in physics’ understanding of the behavior of atoms. But it’s just not the case that advances in chemistry were made by demanding that chemists ground all their models in subatomic physics. On the contrary, chemistry moved forward in the first instance by having chemists investigate issues in chemistry and see which models and theories held up. Similarly, though psychology is intertwined with the detailed study of the biology of the brain, it’s not deemed illegitimate to research psychological issues in the absence of a specific neurological theory.”

At this point, I’d object that we are confusing an epistemological issue with an ontological one: the division between micro and macro economics has nothing to do with the system of production per se, but is an epistemological convenience that allows economists to concentrate on certain special problems.

The comparison with chemistry is part of the bad habit of thinking that economics is some special human science. It isn’t. It is not a positive science, like chemistry or physics – it lacks a Baconian side. Economic experiments turn out to be things that are more likes sociology than particle physics. Now, it is true that economists love to make models, and they use masses of data in these models, and make the models out of mathematical relationships – but it is all a mimicry of physics. In reality, an economic model is just a poem. Now, a poem can burst open a human soul and pour the divine light of revelation on the world – but most poems don’t. Certain economists, like strong poets, have revealed the world – Smith, Marx, Veblen, Keynes, Polanyi. However, the light that streams from their models is not the same kind of light that streams from models in physics.

Mostly, though, the models reveal little or nothing. They are like the crossword puzzles IT likes so much. They merely plug in formulas, according to some outside cues (usually provided by ideology) and some internal connections (provided by the way the data is divided up). And once all the places are filled and the puzzle is done, the model is finished. But it is unlikely to do much to help us understand the economy – any more than the chance meeting of two words sharing a letter in a crossword puzzle – Georgics and borromean – will allow the puzzler to understand the language on some deeper level.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

boredom (crossposted at LimitedInc

When I look back on my life and try to understand why it has been such a failure, the key, I think, is in my inability to endure boredom. Or perhaps I should say my inability to endure boredom for the sake of making money. In this, I am spiritually one with the street people, the addicts, the semi-professional criminals – with all of those who never quite grew up, whose immaturity is caught in their throat. The difference is that, among the decayed Peter Pan gang, there is – as you will find out very quickly if you talk to them - an astonishing nostalgia for the larva days – high school pranks, days of honey in the suburban hive. I hate that shit, which bored me at the time, and bores me in memory still.

And yet, at the same time, I am enmeshed in activities that may seem, and probably are, boring to most of workaday America. And, to add to the problem of being bored in America, I find the culture of entertainment that has been foisted upon that workaday world – and eagerly adopted – to be, if not completely boring, at least boring enough that I know little about it. The TV, the pop movies, the celebrity culture – I can’t keep up because I can’t concentrate, I can’t remember what it is all about. And I can’t remember because I am not moved by it.

Which makes me want to start over again and ask whether my failure, here, is not so much that I fly from boredom, as that I am bored at the wrong time and by the wrong things. Add to this another confusion: although sometimes I will say, like anybody else, that such and such a thing is boring – and mean, like anybody else, that it is contemptible, that I would like to step on it, shit on it, spit on it, expel it – at other times I despise this kind of language. Boredom, I think – at these other times – is a kind of test, an exercise. It has a necessity, especially in relation to the ecstatic, the sublime, the interesting. To fly boredom in these cases is to fly the depths. To be unable to be bored is to be unable to be. All of which ties me into knots.

Kierkegaard, in the Concept of Dread (or Anguish), has a lot to say about boredom. In the fourth chapter, Kierkegaard asks what happened to the demons. Why do Christians no longer talk about the demons in 19th century Europe? Are they ashamed?

This is the starting point for Kierkegaard’s discussion of the demonic. He makes a two-fold approach to the demonic. One approach is to see it in terms of communication. Communication, for Kierkegaard, is ultimately about revelation, and revelation is ultimately about the divine. Every act of true revelation is divine. And revelation is at the heart of communication. Thus, every act of non-revelation is on the side of the devil, the ‘spirit of negation’. The demon is, ultimately, non-communicative – on the ethical level. In the German translation I take this from, the word is Verschlossene. However, what is the content of revelation, or communication? What is affirmed? The affirmed is, ultimately, the continuous. Continuity itself. The devil’s part, then, is the sudden – the Plotzlich, that which puts itself in opposition to the continuous.

Here we have to engage in some dialectical shenanigans, because if the divinely continuous is really to be continuous, it must contain the sudden. Revelation, after all, has its own suddenness. This gets us to boredom. Boredom is, Kierkegaard maintains, incommunicable – it expresses nothing. This is because its content is the Inhalflos – the content-less. The content of boredom is no content.

This polarity between the sudden and the continuous explains the boring core of entertainment, which relies on the sudden as its structuring principle. Myself, possessed by the l’wa of boredom, long for a continuum of suddenness – for the ultimate miracle, for nothing to become something.

Here’s a bit from K. I’m translating, remember, from the German.

“The demonic is the content-less, the boring. Since I have permitted myself to direct attention to the aesthetic problem by the mention of the sudden, in as much as evil lets itself be represented, I will now once more take up this question in order to explain what I’ve been saying. As soon as one gives speech to the demon and wants to represent him, the artist who is supposed to solve such a problem must be clear about his categories. He knows, that the demonic is essentially mimic; he cannot thus achieve the sudden, then this blocks the dialogic. Like a blunderer, he won’t try to pull off an effect by beating out many words, etc. – as if that gave us a true effect! He thus chooses correctly just the opposite, boredom. To the sudden there corresponds a kind of continuity as well, the immortality of boredom, a continuity in nothingness. .. Freedom takes its rest in continuity; the sudden figures not only the opposite, but as well the opposite of the “rest”, of which a person can give us a good impression who seems as if he were long dead and buried.”

The dead and buried person is the person, to my mind, who is selling his or her boredom for money. And using that money to buy plenty of nothing – suddenness in all its multiple forms and varieties. Myself, I am, of course, bored in the culture of the bored, but I fail to find my boredom, lightly transformed, entertaining.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

cioran and chamfort

Cioran and Chamfort

Last year, in Mexico, I read quite a bit of Cioran, and made notes – thinking that Cioran would make a perfect commenter on the happiness culture; or at least demonstrate the evolution of reactionary alienation from that culture.

I haven’t used all of those notes. So many notebooks of unused notes! It is my version of drying flower petals in a book – it leaves a faint scent, an impress of an intention that never quite realized its aim, and a stain on the page.

Cioran is often compared to Chamfort. Indeed, there is some uncanny sympathy between the two writers. Both threw themselves into violent revolutionary change. Cioran, in his youth, went to Germany and fell under the spell of Hitlerism. Coming back to Romania, he was a fellow traveler of the Iron Guard, Romania’s fascist party. Cioran seems to have always resented, as an almost personal affront, Romania’s insignificance. Although Cioran lived modestly, by choice, his whole life long, he lived immodestly, grandiosely, on the mental plane. And to think that the words he used, the concepts he formed, would be so wrapped within a minor language as to travel, merely, from Bucharest to Sibiu and back infuriated him.

Chamfort, too, lived a double life. In his body, he’d been a young Don Juan, until disease had suddenly made him ugly – like a Christmas tree from which all the ornaments were shaken. In his mind, he lived on the margins of the great Enlightenment system. He was capable of insights that were beyond Voltaire, or even Rousseau:

“A delicate philanthropist must reflect that there is, within the charitable gift, a material portion of which the idea must be disguised to the one who is the object of his charity. It is necessary, so to speak, that this idea be lost and enveloped in the sentiment that produces the gift; as, between two lovers, the idea of sexual pleasure is enveloped and ennobled in the charm of the love which gave it birth.”

Cioran, whose muse was dedicated to resentment, could not, perhaps, rise to such an insight. Here is where the two differ. Chamfort was well versed in the “charlatanery of the moralists” and the system that grew out of l’amour de soi. But he lived in a society in which the conditions that made vanity such an axis of social emotion were changing. He knew that. He dug under vanity. Cioran, on the other hand, witnessed a world in which vanity had turned to hate, and hate into the principle utopian impulse of his time: in the perfect society, one would crush and crush again the happiness of one’s enemies. Tertullian’s heaven – a heaven compounded of the cries of the damned – would be realized on earth. And in his long repentance and nostalgia for the crimes of his youth – which he recognized as crimes - he saw before the world only two options: terminal boredom, or terminal violence. Reluctantly, he opted for terminal boredom, but bleated out his complaints in book after book, like a beef cow under a dull knife.

To be continued.