Thursday, July 30, 2009


"I don't understand the meaning of dispatching police forces and security agents to surround those who want to mourn," said Karoubi. "Neda was an innocent girl who was not even active politically," said one mourner. "I'm relieved to see Mousavi here. He's a brave guy who has showed that he's not going to step back and is with his own people. He is our real president." - Guardian

Someone is coming,
someone is coming,
someone who in his heart is with us,
in his breathing is with us,
in his voice is with us,

someone whose coming
can't be stopped
and handcuffed and thrown in jail,
someone who's been born
under Yahya's old clothes,
and day by day
grows bigger and bigger,
someone from the rain,
from the sound of rain splashing,
from among the whispering petunias.
someone is coming from the sky
at Tupkhaneh Square
on the night of the fireworks
to spread out the table cloth
and divide up the bread
and pass out the Pepsi
and divide up Melli Park
and pass out the whooping cough syrup
and pass out the slips on registration day
and give everybody hospital
waiting room numbers
and distribute the rubber boots
and pass out Fardin movie tickets
and give away Sayyed Javad's
daughter's dresses
and give away whatever doesn't sell
and even give us our share.
I've had a dream.
- From Someone who is not like anyone by Forough Farrokhzad, trans. by Michael Hilman

Dead Horses

I have always had a soft spot for Frederick Engels. In spite of the man’s obvious gifts, he will forever be the annotation to his friend Marx: the follower, the supporter, the man on whom Marx depended, the man whose own writings are folded into Marx’s. It was his fate to be a part of another man’s gigantic whole.

But the part speaks. In fact, Engels wrote well. He thought not only in terms of the categories Marx so laboriously forged, but also in terms of the philosophy he studied in his youth – thus the odd flotsam of natural philosophy that float to the surface of his works from the 1880s, like the Dialectic of Nature, works that have been viewed, alternately, as embarrassing anachronisms or illuminations of … Marx.

I was reading Keith Thomas’ Man and the Natural world last night. Thomas quotes a passage from Engels that I had to look up, so I did this morning. It is from the Dialectic of Nature:

“Comparison with animals proves that this explanation of the origin of language from and in the process of labour is the only correct one. The little that even the most highly- developed animals need to communicate to one another can be communicated even without the aid of articulate speech. In a state of nature, no animal feels its inability to speak or to understand human speech. It is quite different when it has been tamed by man. The dog and the horse, by association with man, have developed such a good ear for articulate speech that they easily learn to understand any language within the range of their circle of ideas. Moreover they have acquired the capacity for feelings, such as affection for man, gratitude, etc., which were previously foreign to them. Anyone who has had much to do with such animals will hardly be able to escape the conviction that there are plenty of cases where they now feel their inability to speak is a defect, although, unfortunately, it can no longer be remedied owing to their vocal organs being specialised in a definite direction.”

The idea that dogs and cats feel their inability to speak strikes me as so marvelously mysterious, such an odd and overlooked insertion into the vast Gulf Stream of Marxism, that surely it should be pointed to and pondered. This was written in the same decade that another philosopher actually heard a horse speak, in Turin. The horse, it seems, contained the spirit of Richard Wagner. The philosopher, of course, is Friedrich Nietzsche.

Tocqueville speaks of the historians task as a ‘descent into the tomb” – and among those things that stir in the tomb of the nineteenth century, and have no correspondent in our own lives, is the heavy reliance of the whole of urban civilization on the horse. In fact, that use of the horse goes on well up through the 20th century, with the greatest mobilization of horses in any war occurring, as a matter of fact, in WWII. In Ice Horses, one of Malaparte’s semi-fictional accounts of the war from the Axis side in his book, Kaput, he reports on going with a group of soldiers to Lake Ladoga, in Finland, in the spring of 1943, to chop out of the ice a thousand horses frozen there after escaping from a fire in a battle in 1942.

“The lake looked like a vast sheet of white marble on which rested hundreds and hundreds of horses’ heads. They appeared to have been chopped off cleanly with an axe. Only the heads stuck out of the crust of ice. And they were all facing the shore. The white flame of terror still burnt in their wide-open eyes. Close to the shore a tangle of wildly rearing horses rose from the prison of ice.”

Such are not the scenes of affection between man and his close circle of beasts that Engels was thinking about. And in fact, when scientists go on about “intelligence” – by which, of course, they mean, as the Greeks once meant, logos, human intelligence – they tend to downgrade the pussy cat and the lapdog in favor of the porpoise and the sperm whale. At the same time, who can deny the good ear of the dog, cat, or horse? An ear that is not shared by the human, who guesses at barks and meows and whinnies. Although, to be fair, this odd communicative couple of pet and petowner does seems to transcend the merely lexical, and speak to one another heart to heart. But it is not just of pets that Engels is speaking, but of his day to day experience of horses. The horse in the city was to Engels, naturally, what the car in the city is to us. Although I suspect the horse will return as the cities burn down and we discover that our massive betrayal of the atmosphere, our offering to the heavens of four hundred million years of organic matter, creates an unbearable world in which our children’s children will die, shaking their fist at this generation of world class vipers.

Elisabeth de Fontenay calls attention, in her essay on Philanthropia and the animal in the Greco-Roman world, to a passage in Plutarch’s life of Cato in which Plutarch ponders a duty that is not a duty – the duty towards the beast. A thing that is without law, and yet not without love – and towards which we express either our humanity by going beyond the law, or our inhumanity by adhering strictly to the letter of the law.

“Yet certainly, in my judgment, it marks an over-rigid temper for a man to take the work out of his servants as out of brute beasts, turning them off and selling them in their old age, and thinking there ought to be no further commerce between man and man than whilst there arises some profit by it. We see that kindness or humanity has a larger field than bare justice to exercise itself in; law and justice we cannot, in the nature of things, employ on others than men; but we may extend our goodness and charity even to irrational creatures; and such acts flow from a gentle nature, as water from an abundant spring. It is doubtless the part of a kind-natured man to keep even worn-out horses and dogs, and not only take care of them when they are foals and whelps, but also when they are grown old. The Athenians, when they built their Hecatompedon, turned those mules loose to feed freely which they had observed to have done the hardest labour. One of these (they say) came once of itself to offer its service, and ran along with, nay, and went before, the teams which drew the wagons up to the acropolis, as if it would incite and encourage them to draw more stoutly; upon which there passed a vote that the creature should be kept at the public charge even till it died. The graves of Cimon's horses, which thrice won the Olympian races, are yet to be seen close by his own monument. Old Xanthippus, too (amongst many others who buried the dogs they had bred up), entombed his which swam after his galley to Salamis, when the people fled from Athens, on the top of a cliff, which they call the Dog's Tomb to this day. Nor are we to use living creatures like old shoes or dishes and throw them away when they are worn out or broken with service; but if it were for nothing else, but by way of study and practice in humanity, a man ought always to prehabituate himself in these things to be of a kind and sweet disposition. As to myself, I would not so much as sell my draught ox on the account of his age, much less for a small piece of money sell a poor old man, and so chase him, as it were, from his own country, by turning him not only out of the place where he has lived a long while, but also out of the manner of living he has been accustomed to, and that more especially when he would be as useless to the buyer as to the seller. Yet Cato for all this glories that he left that very horse in Spain which he used in the wars when he was consul, only because he would not put the public to the charge of his freight. Whether these acts are to be ascribed to the greatness or pettiness of his spirit, let every one argue as they please.”

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Baker on the Kindle

I’ve always loved Nicholson Baker’s feel for the object-ness of reading. He has a hunter’s sensitivity for detritus and marginalia, as though he were advancing through a cluestrewn landscape towards some primal scene in which the object becomes sense. Thus, his essays on the library index card, or the holocaust of old newspapers (which are being microfilmed and torn up) appeal in the way Freud’s case studies appeal, with the sideglance, the thing hardly said at all, the dream, followed up by an exacting, exacerbated consciousness towards the moment of recovery. In Baker’s case, it is the recovery of the whole sensual range of the first, magical reading experience – which, in the life of a reader, has the same status as the first sexual experience. Baker fastens this curious gaze upon the other minutia of the world as well – upon bobby pins and the sprockets of filmstrips, for instance. He seems to be aiming at making visible that vertiginous shift between the visible and the readable, making literature out of the impossible capture of the world by literature.

Plus, he is a curious kind of Luddite. He is not a Luddite who wants to abolish technology. He is a Luddite who is overwhelmed by the beauty – the gigantic waste of beauty – wrought by past technology. The total product of the everyday created by media – which surrounds us as the shell surrounds an oyster, our unconscious product in which we move and filter – fascinates him.

Given the writer he is, he had to be fascinated by Kindle. The resulting New Yorker article is the only Kindle article I’ve read all the way through.

Since I read a great deal on the Internet, I have failed to understand the hullabaloo over an ersatz book. For instance: I’m reading, at the moment, Foucault’s essay, Ceci n’est pas un pipe. I’m reading it in the Dits et écrits I, which I downloaded from Scribd, where it exists in a limbo of legality. In many ways I prefer to read it on the screen – I can change size of the type, for instance. As I don’t have any reading glasses – I lost my prescription reading glasses in December – I like to read with bigger type. Admittedly, the light of the screen is a smallscale, constant shock to my retina; on the other hand, I can read through my regular glasses if I make the print big enough.

But more than that – I can cut and paste. I can take a passage in French, paste it to another screen, and translate it. And in so doing I get into the very entrails of the prose, as if I were not simply a reader, but a sibyl.

And that is of course not all. I can take a word, phrase, or theme and search Google Books for it. And if, as often happens, someone wrote about it before 1922, I can download whole texts. And if, as often happens, someone wrote about it after 1979, I can often read excerpts of texts. Or I can go to and see if this evokes any echo in that rather bizarre collection of digitalized media. And the finds in archive org, that convocation of American and Canadian libraries spiced up by the million book project and other oddball enthusiasms, has allowed me to find many things that I’d have to go to a university library to find. By diligently searching for it, I was able to find Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen in And again, I am able to cut and paste, although from a reader document, which is a different kind of experience.

In Baker’s essay, he quotes many approving comments about Kindle. Some of them are from my companeros, the public library crowd. All library patrons have to deal with the fact that books are eaten over, sneezed on, left out in the rain, subject to a baby’s tearing hands, or the vandal’s scissors. Books tend to come off the glue that holds them to the spine. I just finished, for instance, The Grotesque, Patrick McGrath’s novel, and I inflicted on it a few bent page corners, which I smoothed out – but they leave their mark. I go through this book and it is not pure wilderness – others have visibly gone through before me. Nobody has spilled anything on it, but it has a loose feel, as though it is reaching its limit of openability. And then of course there is the library look of the book. It has a transparent plastic jacket over the book cover, and a ribbon runs across the bottom saying Austin Public Library. It is not a book I have bought. Reading it in a public place means that anybody can see I have not done the American thing and bought the book, nor am I a student. There is a light stigma on the library book user – it is as if we bear a slight family resemblance to the trash diver.

One thing Baker misses in his article, here, when talking of Kindle’s great success among romance readers:

“E-romances don’t fully explain the Kindle’s success—and the kind of devotion that it inspires. To find out more, I went to Freeport, Maine, to talk to Eileen Messina, the manager of the British-imports store just across from L. L. Bean. Messina, a thoughtful, intelligent woman in her thirties, has all kinds of things on her Kindle, including “Anna Karenina,” Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore,” books by Dan Simmons and Abraham Verghese, and the comic novel “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” She is so happy with it that she has volunteered, along with about a hundred others, to show it off to prospective purchasers, as part of Amazon’s “See a Kindle in Your City” promotion. Her Kindle was in her purse; she’d crocheted a cover for it out of green yarn. In the past, she said, she’d taken books out of the library, but some of them smelled of smoke—a Kindle book is a smoke-free environment.”

Messina is being discrete. Those of us who have worked at used book stores know the distinct, awful smell of romance paperbacks, a heavy, depressing mixture of perfumes and cigarette smoke. More than any other genre, romance novels are bought and traded en masse. They receive an amazing amount of circulation – more than is given to, say, that old two volume set of Husserl’s Logische Untersuchungen that has been in a corner in the Philosophy and Esoterica section forever. This volatility greatly increases the chance that the Harlequin will, like a dust speck in the sky, gradually accumulate around itself a miasmatic cloud of extraneous materials. The life cycle of the Harlequin would have made an excellent plot line for one of those Enlightenment philosopher-pornographers, who would trace the experience of a flea, or a sofa. Except of course that the seductions might be much more downbeat – especially in comparison to the seductions contained in the books themselves.

Monday, July 27, 2009

a Thought from Adorno

“Vice President – Advice to intellectuals: -don’t let yourself be represented. The fungibility of employments and humans and the belief derived from this, everyone must do everything, proves to be a chain around our feet within presently existing conditions. The egalitarian idea of representability is a fraud, if it is not supported by a principle of the ability to impeach and the responsibility before the rank and file. He is the most powerful who has to do the littlest possible himself, and can burden to the greatest extent possible those in whose name he functions and whose benefits he pockets. It seems like collectivism and is in reality only amour propre, one proves to be an exceptional laborer by the ability to manage others. In material production, of course, representation is materially instantiated. The quantification of the labor process tendentially degrades the difference between that done by the general director and that done by the man taking care of the gasoline station. It is a pitiful ideologiccal belief that there is more intelligence, experience, even education needed to run a trust under current conditions than to read a manometer. But as this ideology is stubbornly clung to in material production, the mind submits to the opposite fact. Thus the univeritas literarum is thrown by this doctrine to the dogs, to the equality of all in the Republic of Science, since everyone is not simply put in charge of everyone else, but also is supposed to be enabled to do just as well what everyone else does. Representability subjects the mind to this same procedure as things are submitted to exchange. The incommensurable is excluded.” (My translation)

This is a nice bit from Minima Moralia. It gets to the difference between our present feudalism, with the position of the wealthy supported by the fires of the incredibly rancid populism of a middle management class in the throes of its own obsolescence, and the feudalism of the past. Aspirational equality disguises the inequality of economic circumstances; while the politics within organizations is all about exhausting the energy for and interest in politics.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Gaia is a gambler

In “Paleontology”, one of the essays in The bad demiurge, Emile Cioran writes with his customary relish for the philosophically macabre of a tour of a natural history museum which impressed him with its display of skeletons:

“There is no place that puts the whole fact of the past in your face better. The possibility seems inconceivable or crazy. One has the impression there that the flesh is eclipsed from the beginning, that it could have never existed, that we can exclude the possibility that it was nailed to these bones so solemn, so imbued with themselves. It appears like an imposture, a trick, like a disguise that didn’t cover anything. And wasn’t it just that? And if it still is valueless, how does it succeed in inspiring either repulsion or terror in me? I’ve always felt a predilection for those obsessed by its nullity, and who made a great clamor about it: Baudelaire, Swift, the Buddha… It, so evident, is however an anomaly; the more one considers it, the more one turns away with disgust, and, weighing all these things, one gravitates towards the mineral, one petrifies oneself. Just to support the view of it or the idea, more is required than courage: it is cynicism that one needs. We deceive ourselves about its nature when we call it, with a Father of the Church, nocturnal; that also does it too much honor; it is neither strange nor shadowy, it is perishable to the point of indecency, to the point of madness, it is not only the seat of illnesses but is an illness itself, an incurable nothingness, a fiction degenerated into a calamity.” [My very free translation]

It is too bad Peter Ward seems not to be the type to read philosophers – this would make an excellent epitaph for his book, the Media Hypothesis.

I’m reviewing Ward’s book and another for the Austin Statesman. It is one of those cases in which I have to kick against the pricks, here – the pricks of the newspaper style. For the Medea Hypothesis is one of those rare books that, utterly wrong in itself, suggests, in spite of the the author’s rigorously missed opportunities, a truly interesting theory. The theory, as I was telling my friend, Mr. T. in NYC, of Gaia the Gambler.

Gaia as a theory of the earth as a whole, living system (an insight that now hides itself under several other names – Earth systems science, geophysiology – in order not to bear the cross of New Age enthusiasm) stems from a radical insight. This insight sounds like a truism. For the earth or any planet to be habitable, it has to be made habitable. If, for instance, we humans colonized the moon, we would have to make the moon habitable for us humans. We would have to devise some way of maintaining a breathable atmosphere and a consistently liveable temperature. We would have to protect ourselves from the noxiousness of the Moon’s atmosphere, and other unexpected Lunar features.

Gaia theory began, at first, with this insight and postulated the earth as one unified living system. The earth is not only inhabited, but it has been inhabited by the same kind of life form, one based on DNA, for 3.5 billion years. Uninteruptedly. Thus, the Gaian notion was that during this span of time, living organisms created negative feedbacks to balance the temperature, to reduce the salinity of the oceans, to enclose noxious chemicals, etc.

Building the structure of Gaia on negative feedbacks now seems wrong. Peter Ward’s book is built on the opposite idea, which he calls the medea hypothesis. The hypothesis is that life is suicidal. Ward is an expert in mass extinctions, and he seems, like Kurz in The Heart of Darkness, obsessed with the horror, the horror of paleontology.

He is so obsessed that he doesn’t see that he can’t possibly be right. For one thing, he wrote the book. For another, I read it. Neither of those things would have been possible if a true Medea event had happened on this earth.

He goes wrong in two ways, both of them very, very instructive for replacing the original, one system Gaian model. First, Ward doesn’t seem to understand his own hypothesis. As in bowling, there is a world of difference between a strike and a split. A strike knocks out all nine pins. A true Medea event would have interrupted the line of DNA life. It would have brought it to a close. Looking back, we would have seen that life had to start all over again (forgive the intentionalist language, which posits ‘life’ as an agent. All this means is that the primal soup in which we think the DNA/RNA system was set up would have had to commence all over again, after a true Medea event, in order for us to explain our own existence here.) Second, Ward doesn’t understand the essential principle of the Gaia hypothesis. It is that the planetary measure of the success of an inhabited planet is inhabitability. Ward comes up with a metric for the success of ‘life’ – a very different, and very irrelevant, issue. His two measures are biomass and bio-diversity. Now, to return to my bowling image for a moment, what a missed Medea event is about is not the diminishment of biomass or bio-diversity per se – although these may always accompany it. What it is about is knocking out habitats.

And if one begins to think in terms of habitats, then it becomes clear what is wrong with Gaia theory. It is not that the earth is one system, under a homeostasis created by the bio-sphere. It is, rather, that the earth is one system composed of a modular network of habitats.

Ward, rightly, points out that within a closed system, live forms will use up resources and die as the result of their own wastes. On a perfectly blank planet, one would expect to see life die out for just this reason. So, how does ‘life’ get around this problem?

The answer is in the missed Medean events. Many of them – for instance, the release of oxygen in the atmosphere – had definite biotic drivers. And the changes wrought were such that they extinguished many, many life-forms – perhaps as many as ninety percent during the period of extreme cold called snowball earth. But it isn’t the life forms that count here, it is the habitats. The evolution of the system seems to have been towards the one design that could ‘trick’ the limitations of living on one planet, which would be to create a patchwork of habitations. These habitations are semi-closed to each other insofar as the living forms that have colonized one might well die on another. But at no point do they all die – because they are various enough that planetary ‘switches’ from one dominant regime to another do not switch to a regime that is good for none. This hugely important point cries out, like a ghost, in Ward’s book; he ignores it, intent on knocking down Gaia, a concept and name that obviously irritates the hell out of him.

That there would be a patchwork of habitats makes much more sense of the fact that life, (and as far as we know, any life) is subject to natural selection. This means that there is always some noxious habitat on the edge of a dominant habitat that is being colonized by some life form. If there were no evolution, there’d be no patchwork of habitats; and if there was no patchwork of habitats, there’d be no Gaia.

Although I have not seen this particular model in the literature that I have hastily been reviewing, I predict that Gaia’s future is in understanding the modularity of the living system. This makes Gaia much less a mother, and much more a hedger. Gaia is a gambler.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Kill the poor

IT spotted an excellent quote yesterday. It was from a report on the state of education in the UK:

“Milburn's findings will be controversial in some parts of government, reawakening divisions over how to present a planned election crusade to reduce class divides. It will be seen as reinforcing the argument from John Denham, the new communities secretary, earlier this month that Labour must not become merely a party of the poor.'”

In the Cold War culture, there was a tendency on both the right and among the New Left to transform the Marxism into something it had never been: a philosophy agitating for the ‘poor’. You can see this transformation operating systematically in Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution. Arendt pretty much leaves Marx's sociology and economics on the cutting floor, and consistently substitutes the term ‘poor’ for the the term 'working class'. She does this to the point, almost, of absurdity. For instance:

“The idea that poverty should help men to break the shackles of oppression, because the poor have nothing to lose but their chains, has become so familiar through Marx’s teachings that we are tempted to forget that it was unheard of prior to the actual course of the French Revolution.”

Of course, Marx never appealed to the poor to break their chains, because such a statement would be absurd. He appealed to the workers of the world. He appealed to the working class, the proletariat. He appealed to them partly because, unlike the poor, an amorphous social class and condition, the working class is united by a common social element: they work. Thus, they can, for instance, stop work – strike. Marx did not just think that exploitation kept the working class poor; he felt that it kept the bourgeoisie rich – that the workers produced the wealth that the rich appropriated. Of course, this relationship is obliterated by the use of the word poor. By such means, Marxism becomes a sort of rabid Christianity.

It would be unfair to say that Arendt doesn’t see this point in part – she does speak of how, through the Marxist gaze, poverty is revealed as an social artifice, rather than a product of natural scarcity. But she doesn’t say that, through the Marxist gaze, the wealthy are revealed not as the creators of wealth, but the beneficiaries of wealth created by others. So curiously averse was Arendt to the class categories that Marx used that she just can’t get herself to write them down. Hence, the transition from proletariat to poor, as if these were synonymous categories.

As it happened, this switch is at the heart of Cold War capitalist ideology. It was a happy invention, since not only could the New Left become a moral force – on its long march to creating a generation of jowly moral entrepreneurs, pundits, who can, for instance, deploy their righteousness as they did in 2003 to browbeat anybody opposed to the invasion of Iraq as enablers of the little Hitler himself, Saddam H. – but it set the terms for state social insurance as a question of helping “the least fortunate.” Thus, that social insurance massively supports and sustains the middle class, which would collapse without it, shifted its markers in time for the financialization of capitalism - that structure that depended on the influx of money from pensions, mutual funds, and the whole panoply of tax exempt investment schemes to float the equities market. Thus, we had to privatize social security. Thus, we had to come down hard and stern on “middle class entitlement”, a sort of corrupt milking of the state by people who could easily ‘make it on their own.’ By making social insurance all about the poor, one could then present these “entitlements’ as somehow leaching off the poor, or even taking from them – the poor poor! Which, rhetorically, is a more successful strategy than saying that they are taking from the rich – a truth devoutly to be hidden.

It took almost seventy years to build up a system in which social insurance of various kinds was able to produce a robust middle class. It has taken some thirty years to debauch it, and the result, predictably, is that the middle class is collapsing. This, of course, is a disaster for which we can ascribe, in the UK, an architect – Nu Labour. To read the warm stream of piss that flows, now, on command out of the mouths of Nu Labour drudges – see here and here – is to feel that Nu Labour should play to its strengths, and rename itself the water sports party. That, at least, would make its upcoming, well deserved annihilation more fun.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

sunday thoughts on the secret crime

Unfortunately for my blogs, and fortunately for my landlord, lately I've been overwhelmed with editing work so that I have neither the time nor the brain cells to hatch any coherent prose on my own. This is too bad, as on Limited Inc I am in the midst of trying to do a delicate and complicated reading of Rousseau. Which, given the heat, the work, financial panic, my usual summer libido, constant thirst, and the inability to end a day without feeling like I am leaving my stitching undone, is as hard to do as it would be to whistle a tune from Don Giovanni in the midst of a brass band undertaking Lynyrd Skinner's greatest hits.

Since this was the great week for the banks, the week of triumph for the Bush-Obama regime's policy of encouraging peculation on the national scale for the scaliest oligarchs, I wanted to pound a few points home to my own corvine satisfaction (that crow like delight in plucking out the eyes of the dead, the dead being, in this case, democracy and justice in the cracked republic of America). After all, what is the point of watching the fall of a great power from the inside if you can't crack some jokes about it? And since this was the week - this was the week! - in which we got not only bank reports, but a bevy of media stories about the "joblessness" of the recovery - stories in the true concern troll mode, setting us up for the next episode of our reality show nation, "Middle Class Survivor" - I really wanted to be the Lenny Bruce for this moment. It is so ripe and rich with promise! The Dems on the verge of suicide, nixing national health insurance once again so that they can run as the party of do nothing and bloated rhetoric against the GOP's classic do nothing and rabid rhetoric. The Obama approved war in Afghanistan ravaging the country for no good reason. The bankster fest. The ADS nation deep into Celebrity Death a day irrelevance.

We're all gonnnaaaa die!

Well, in the hustle and bustle, I have been reading bits of Hannah Arendt's On Revolution. I was fascinated by this passage, which seemed accidentally apposite the Bush-Obama policies at the Fed and the Treasury:

Politically, both Socrates and Machievelli were disturbed not by lying but by the problem of the hidden crime, that is, by the possibility of a criminal act witnessed by nobody and remaining unknown to all but its agent. In Plato's early Socratic Dialogues, where this question forms a recurring topic of discussion, it is always carefully added that the problem consists in an action 'unknown to men and gods.' The addition is crucial, because in this form, the question could not exist for Machievelli, whose whole so-called moral teachings presuppose the existence of a God who knows all and eventually will judge everybody. For Socrates, on the contrary, it was an authentic problem whether something that 'appeared' to no one except the agent did exist at all. The Socratic solution consisted in the extraordinary discovery that the agent and the onlooker, the one who does and the one to whom the action must appear in order to become real - the latter, in Greek terms, is the one who can say dokei moi, it appears to me, and then can form his doxa, his opinion, accordingly - were contained in the selfsame person."

Well, we know the name of that person: Behemoth. And we know that the secret crime is the systematic crime, which defines both revolution and reaction. The revolution of what one could call America's fourth republic, the republic of around 1956 to 1979, turned inside out the order of crime in this country, because that order was unjust. It was the order of apartheid. And, for a brief moment, the country lurched towards being a thing it had never been - a democracy. The reaction, swift in coming, long in staying, has systematically attacked that fearsome threat, the demos, with its own systematic reversals of law. Where the crime of the revolution was civil disobedience by the people, the crime of the reaction is institutional disobediance of the law - which pretty much describes the Treasury and the Fed from October of last year onward. Retroactively, the court system, which is in the forefront of reaction, will bless the numerous institutional crimes. A secret is kept best when it is kept in the open - a lesson from the Purloined Letter. The same is true about the crime that has debauched and degraded the American system. Call it the purloined nation.

We're all gonnnnnaaa die.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Let's rename the 4th: Oligarch's day! for this is what America is truly for

The news looks good in the Zona!

“Goldman posted the richest quarterly profit in its 140-year history and, to the envy of its rivals, announced that it had earmarked $11.4 billion so far this year to compensate its workers.

At that rate, Goldman employees could, on average, earn roughly $770,000 each this year — or nearly what they did at the height of the boom.”

Mr. and Mrs. America have something to be proud of, here. There has never been another epoch when the level of servility, the level of cowardice, the level of conformity, the level of child like dependence, the level of passivity, the level of sloth, the level of ignorance, the level of self-lobotomy matched today’s astonishing Zona generation in all its YouTube glory. These are the people who would trade their birthright for, say, tickets to some Michael Jackson funeral replay at a sports bar. These are the mighty fighters for freedom who, after having bled Iraq and being bled, figuratively, at home, have responded with all the gumption of your average garden slug. They are not going to take it any more! Their staging a general strike – no more extra spending at the mall!

It calls, does it not, for a sweet little Zona countdown! A chronology of how those lucky dogs at Goldman Sachs went up up up as employment went down down down.
So: Here’s a story of how heroes rushed in, at great sacrifice, to rescue America.
We knew this on September 28, 2008:

(from the NYT) “Because of an editing error, an article on Sunday about the financial problems of American International Group referred incorrectly to the timing and participants at meetings at the New York Federal Reserve between Saturday, Sept. 13, and Monday, Sept. 15. Although there were indeed meetings that weekend, there was also a separate meeting on Monday to discuss financial aid for A.I.G. Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, was the only Wall Street chief executive who attended the Monday meeting, not the only chief executive who attended weekend meetings. Also, Henry M. Paulson Jr., the Treasury secretary, did not lead or attend the Monday meeting. (Both Mr. Blankfein and Mr. Paulson did attend the weekend meetings.).”

We know now thiat Blankfein was doing this wholly, wholly out of the goodness of his heart. After AIG had to disclose who it transferred money to in those stressful days when the U.S. began stuffing the company with money, it turned out that AIG got 12.9 billion dollars. But did it want it? Did it need it? Not our patriotic heros!
This is from 21 March 2009:

“Hoping to reduce a swirl of speculation over its role in the bailout of the American International Group, Goldman Sachs reiterated Friday that its direct losses would have been minimal if A.I.G. had failed.
Goldman also described how, as early as July 2007, it began to have ''collateral disputes'' with A.I.G. as the companies disagreed on the value of the mortgage-backed securities that were the basis of multibillion-dollar contracts between them.
David A. Viniar, Goldman's chief financial officer, walked reporters through a thicket of numbers Friday in a conference call that the company held to ''clarify certain misperceptions'' about its positions with A.I.G.
While Mr. Viniar acknowledged that Goldman's relationship with A.I.G. raised what he called a complex set of issues, he was adamant that, because of the collateral Goldman held and hedging trades with third parties, it would not have been damaged directly if A.I.G. had been allowed to collapse.
Since September, the government has set aside more than $180 billion to support A.I.G., the Government Accountability Office reported.
A significant part of that money has flowed through A.I.G. to various trading counterparties, many of them large financial institutions, which A.I.G. at first refused to identify.
Under intense pressure from lawmakers, A.I.G. recently released a list of counterparties, and Goldman was among the largest, accepting $12.9 billion of the insurer's bailout money. For some, this raised questions about the government's motivations for not letting the insurance company go into bankruptcy protection.
Henry M. Paulson Jr., the Treasury secretary at the time of the first A.I.G. bailout, was Goldman's former chief executive.
Goldman has said all along that its exposure to A.I.G.'s troubles was immaterial because of outside hedges that would have protected it.”

Of course! Given the heady market at the time, awash with cash, surely GS would have done just fine if AIG had failed. They were simply trying to cure the hysteria of the Treasury secretary, a Goldman Alum, and the Fed in New York, with one of its governers heavily investing in Goldman stock at the time, by nobly accepting the 12.9 billion thrust upon them.
This is absolutely believable. Totally credible. They would totally have moved on over this petty 12.9 billion business. Their counterparties - reportedly slot machines in Las Vegas - would totally have paid off.

So as our Government was forking over the unnecessary 12.9 billion to Goldman, what was happening in God’s Own Country?

Well, the losers weren't doing so well.. A mere 500,000 jobs were shed in October, going to over 600,000 in November and over 700,000 in December – and it was obvious as heck that such terrible behavior on the part of the lazy couldn't be revwarded. We couldn't up the unemployment benefits when we had important money to hand over to important people. Who were going to use it for us. Because they care about us. Because all the little people out there deserve a really fine investment banking sector.

So - it is obvious when the unemployment soars that Wall Street will need loans – trillions of dollars in loans – to feel better about themselves. Which is what the Bush-Obama regimes did. For us, for all of us.

Meanwhile, let us not forget that Goldman Sachs was not only selflessly taking 12.9 billion dollars, but it was giving. It was giving the U.S. leadership:
From the NYT, Oct. 9, 2008.

“But much of the political and financial world was surprised to learn this week that the man was Neel T. Kashkari, 35, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker whom Mr. Paulson has tapped to oversee the $700 billion bailout effort as interim assistant secretary for financial stability.
Mr. Kashkari, who has only six years of experience in finance and government, said he knew he seemed young to be shouldering so much responsibility for the world's financial stability. But, he said, Mr. Paulson will oversee every step he takes.
''This project is Secretary Paulson's highest priority,'' Mr. Kashkari said in an interview on Wednesday. ''He is all over it. Our team is just executing his strategy.''
Even so, some experts question whether Mr. Kashkari is up to the job.”

That was so ridiculous and probably anti-semitic as well. He had all of six years and had surely, surely severed all loyalty to Goldman Sachs. He was the only man available for the job. How lucky we are.
And there were other heroes too. As we all know, the man who Paulson appointed to head AIG was made of the finest stuff:

“Edward M. Liddy, the dollar-a-year chief executive leading the American International Group since its bailout last fall, still owns a significant stake in GoldmanSachs, one of the insurer's trading partners that was made whole by the government bailout of A.I.G.
Mr. Liddy earned most of his holdings in Goldman, worth more than $3 million total, as compensation for serving on the bank's board and its audit committee until he stepped down in September to take the job at A.I.G. He moved to A.I.G. at the request of Henry M. Paulson Jr., then the Treasury secretary and a former Goldman director.
Details about his holdings were disclosed in Goldman's proxy statement and confirmed by an A.I.G. spokeswoman, who said they constituted ''a small percentage of his total net worth.'' Mr. Liddy had already owned some stock in Goldman Sachs before joining its board in 2003.
He has said that he considers his work at A.I.G. to be a public service, performed on behalf of the taxpayers, who ended up with nearly 80 percent of the insurance company. His goal is to dismantle the company and sell its operating units, using the proceeds to pay back the rescue loans. On Thursday, A.I.G. said it had sold its car insurance unit, 21st Century Insurance, to the Zurich Financial Services Group for $1.9 billion.” (17 April, 2009 NYT)

We can see, then, that Goldman Sachs is an example of Capitalism pursued the American way - like a metastasizing cancer in your lower intestine.

And thus find incomprehensible the haters. Like this, from 15 April, 2009 by William Cohan in the NYT:

“During yesterday's conference call, Guy Moszkowski, an analyst from Merrill Lynch, asked Mr. Viniar what role the $13 billion Goldman has collected from A.I.G. had on its first-quarter showing. But Mr. Viniar would have none of it: Profits ''related to A.I.G. in the first quarter rounded to zero.'' Hmm, how then did Goldman make so much money if that multibillion-dollar gift from you and me had nothing to do with it?
Part of the answer lies in a little sleight of hand. One consequence of Goldman's becoming a bank holding company last year was that it had to switch its fiscal year to the calendar year. Previously, Goldman's fiscal year had ended on Nov. 30. Now it ends Dec. 31.
As a result, December 2008 was not included in Goldman's rosy first-quarter 2009 numbers. In that month, Goldman lost a little more than $1 billion, after a $1 billion writedown related to ''non-investment-grade credit origination activities'' and a further $625 million related to commercial real estate loans and securities. All told, in the last seven months, Goldman has lost $1.5 billion. But that number didn't come up on Monday. How convenient.”

On a final note: asked to comment on the Goldman $$$$ yesterday, William K. Black noted what nobody seems to want to note for some reason - the fact that the Geithner doctrine has nailed in place this whole new way of treating recessions by bloating the plutocrats:

Goldman is the textbook case of “moral hazard.” It recognizes that both administrations have guaranteed that it will not be allowed to fail no matter how badly it is run. (Treasury Secretary Geithner, in a portion of a speech ignored by the media, twice used the phrase “capital insurance” to describe our new policy. The taxpayers no longer insure only depositors — we insure the shareholders, or more precisely, the senior officers.)

I would say: its your America. But let's get fucking real. We lost America a long, long time ago. This experiment in "hope" has ended in the endlessly demoralizing successes of a small, crippled group of oligarchs, who will not be stopped until they have eaten everything.

Monday, July 13, 2009

the French and the American revolutions: a comment

I was reading Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution last night, and was struck again by what a cold war intellectual she was. For instance: one of the great Cold War themes was that the French revolution was a sort of dress rehearsal for the Russian Revolution, and, in nuce, displayed all the aspects of modern totalitarianism. In contrast, the American revolution was the good revolution. It displayed the proper mix of a regard for property and liberty. In 1962, of all years – the year of the civil rights revolt in Mississippi – it would be hard to subscribe to this theme. But Arendt does:

“The direction of the American Revolution remained committed to the foundations of freedom and the establishment of lasting institutions, and to those who acted in this direction nothing was permitted that would have been outside the range of civil law. The direction of the French Revolution was deflected almost from its beginning from this course of foundation through the immediacy of suffering; it was determined by the exigencies of liberation not from tyranny but from necessity.”

This reads surprisingly like something from Thomas Mann’s Observations of a Non-Political Man – that same conservative German distaste for the French revolution, the same attachment to order no matter what the price. Of course, the order had moved – the German order proved vastly poisonous – but it had found its place in America for certain German thinkers – Strauss being one, Arendt being another. In order to create this myth of the good post-revolutionary order, they had to ignore post-revolutionary history. They had, in fact, to ignore American history, of the details of which they had a certain European contempt. It was a history of grand gestures they wanted – not the grinding, ordinary history of compromises around the great crime of slavery.

For in fact, of course, among the lasting institutions that was cast in stone in the Constitution and that was left out of the scope of the Declaration of Independence was slavery. To silently omit slavery from one’s reading of the American Revolutionn is to omit almost the entire history of what one could call America’s first Republic. And far from being a trade-off that guaranteed freedom, slavery, instead, became a constant encroachment on all measures the American government took, from the purchase of Louisiana to the Missouri compromise of 1820 to the further compromise of 1850 until, of course, the first American republic exploded in terrific bloodshed that dwarfed the terror. The French Revolution had its September massacres, the American civil war had its Andersonville. Whatever one says about the French Revolution, there was nothing comparable to the American civil war – one can’t really inflate the Vendee to that extent. And of course the Revolution abolished slavery in Saint Domingue, and then tried to reinstate it, and then was overthrown by the only successful slave revolt of modern times.

Arendt isn’t wholly blind to this fact. She devotes a short section of her lecture to the difference between the poverty against which the French Revolutionaries revolted and the slavery that was the “primordial crime upon which the fabric of American society rested.” Yet the lesson she takes from this, the historical lesson, is extremely obscure, and she claims that “Slavery was no more a part of the social question for Europeans than for Americans.” Thus is marginalized the complex colonial relationship between France and its richest colony; and thus is marginalized, too, the question of serfdom, with which the Revolution was, in its wider European sense, very engaged.

It amazes me that this reading of the trans-Atlantic revolutions has stood for so long, even as there has been a shift in the reading and teaching of American history so that there is a more ongoing, although still defective, reckoning with slavery and apartheid.

The deeper text, here, is that the government should keep away from the “suffering” of the people – and that a politician, like Robespierre, who advances that suffering as a justification for political action is a tyrant in the making. This internal limit on the government, in 1962, was very much the conservative position regarding civil rights and the demand for an expanded welfare system.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Acteon at Ann Taylor

For May

If I get the sugar
would you get me

If we were to resurrect Acteon, that Greek hunter torn to bits by his own dog for gazing upon Diana bathing nude in a stream, he would find the equivalent of his divine thrill not in strip joint America, but rather in women’s clothing boutique America. While I would be the last person to deny the thrill that comes from watching a woman undressing, whether in a bedroom or to the booming of Gimme Gimme over the sound system, it is no longer the unguarded moment – it is no longer the secret of the goddess, it is no longer worth being torn apart by your dogs in the heart of the forest, the hunter hunted, the vig on the male gaze. No, the secret of the goddess has migrated to women dressing. Acteon would better look for his kicks in Sachs Fifth Avenue, in By George, in any number of upscale boutiques in the midsized to supersized urban playlands of America.

I was first taught this lesson by my friend M., back in New Haven. New Haven, in those days, was Yale University, a few streets of affluence, and neighborhood after neighborhood of mythical violence. In actuality, there wasn’t that much violence, just a severe class difference – on the one hand, the scions of America’s wealth, on the other hand, the victims of America’s wealth, all neatly folded into six square miles. At this time, in the nineties, there was – as M. told me over and over – a gross and heartless lack of women’s clothing stores. Nevertheless, she would sometimes, when bored, make the round of what was there – the Laura Ashley to Ann Taylor circuit – and I would tag behind her. This was my first real experience of watching a woman buy clothes – and it was exhilarating. Of course, the real thing was happening in NYC, and when M. and I went there, the first thing we would hit would be clothing stores.

A woman’s clothing store survives on the atmosphere it creates. It does this through a proliferation of huge posters of very pretty people engaged in celebrity moments – laughing sexily at each other; through a color scheme that tends to skin complementary pastels; through a staff that, if they know their business, will make the customer feel, on some level, the need to prove herself to them; and through the music, which will always be as though piped from some marvelous club. It is, in a word, a very dramatic place, although the drama here might seem, at first, no different than any other store. I think that if there were a totally nude culture – by which I mean a culture in which there was no body ornament at all – a culture such as, to my knowledge, nobody has ever encountered – that this culture would have no drama, no ritual. Drama begins with the tattoo, the mask, the feather, the earring. With the beginning of drama, we have, as well, the beginning of stage fright – that marginal anxiety that accumulates as, day by day, year by year, one is looked at. Looks accumulate inside a person as a sort of jury. In response to this, there’s a utopian dream of going beyond these things. This is expressed, in philosophy, by the perennial anxiety about the human as object. In this philosophical dream, nudity is a mark of purity. To the pure, all things are pure. Acteon, in this utopia, would have seen nothing but what there was to see. In fact, what he saw was that there was no exit – that even the goddess wears her nudity. There’s doubleness all the way down.

Given the choice, I imagine Acteon would have chosen to live in the world where he saw more than there was to see, even if it meant ending up in the mouths of dogs in the end. I’m with Acteon here. And certainly I’m with the women’s clothing boutique designers, who don’t need Greek mythology to go about their business. You are immersed in the gaze – in some kind of gaze – the minute you enter a boutique. If the male gaze is defined as an objectifying one, than one might say that here is the very workshop of objectification. Myself, I find this vocabulary to be so out of synch with what happens in a boutique that it is absolutely distorting. For objectification implies, of course, a cool mastery, an absence of effect, and this is just what the classical male gaze is not capable of. The male gaze wants a strip tease, not an x ray. At the heart of objectification is, as I said, drama – the drama of making the object. We are the objects that make the objects, including the object that we will be, with the clothes that we wear – it is the moment in which the body is ornamented that we become both body and the body that we are making, both master and slave, both object and subject, and there’s not a gaze sharp enough or thin enough to get between those two things. We’ll never be naked again. The theater of dressing up in a boutique, usually to the most affectless techno sound possible, is the recapitulation of the happy fall, the original sin, that moment of becoming our own double – with clumsy fig leaves or the first clothing, which was manufactured by the first fashion designer, the Elohim: “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.”

Friday, July 10, 2009

writing in mockingbird

Cioran supposedly began to write in French in 43, 44. As he tells the story, he was in France, trying to translate Mallarme into Romanian, when he decided to break entirely with his native language. By this time Cioran had witnessed to the full the flame out of his early, fascist dreams, what his biographer, Zarifopol-Johnston calls “the lyrical virtues of totalitarianism.” In a sense, the renunciation of Romanian for French – a language which he claimed was “sclerotic” – was his repentance. Perhaps it is the kind of punishment only a writer can fully appreciate – to be sentenced to write in another language.

The beginning of History and Utopia is couched in terms of a letter Cioran writes some Romanian friend. The friend had asked how he could give up his language – he had intimated that it was a betrayal on the deepest level.

Cioran writes:

It would be undertaking the story of a nightmare to tell you the intimate history of my relationship with this borrowed idiom, with all those thought and rethought words, smoothed out, subtle to the point of non-existence, bent under the exactions of nuance, inexpressive by having expressed everything, frightening with precision, charged with discretion and modesty, discrete even in its vulgarity. How could you think a Scythian might accommodate himself to it, that he’d grasp the fine significance – and that he’d manipulate it scrupulously and with probity? There is not a single one of them that doesn’t give me vertigo with its extenuated elegance: no more trace of the earth, of blood, of the soul in them.” (470 – my translation)

Of course, the mention of blood and soil here is rather tricky, rather flirtatious- it is one of those innumerable moments in Cioran when the political unconscious comes to the surface and prances about like a naked clown. Still, I take it that this is a serious passage. Apparently Cioran was never entirely comfortable in French, as he was in German or Hungarian – his other second languages. He gargled his French. And yet, by a tremendous act of will, he wrote a French that was as pure as Chamfort’s.

“What consumption of coffee, cigarettes and dictionaries to write a barely correct phrase in this unapproachable language, too noble, too distinguished for my taste.”

Writing in neither French nor German but my own native American, I am, in one way, a Scythian at home in Scythia. The barbaric yawp that comes out of my mouth or, nowadays, flows out of the fingers typing this, should be one hundred percent made in America.

But a language can be pulled out from under your feet – oh, you can’t trust it, and certainly not the people who speak it. When I first resolved to be a writer, I too, consumed the cups of coffee and consulted, if not dictionaries, at least arbiters of what I took to be the best style. I read Johnson, Hazlitt and Ruskin for the music. I read Emerson, Thoreau and Twain for the tartness of an American speech starting to feel that it could punch its weight in the world. I read Hemingway and Faulkner and the minor New Yorker writers – Thurber, Leibling, Mitchell – in order to be able to shift to any tone I wanted.

And as I was stocking up on how to write, the audience was stocking up on how to speak in all the tones of inspirational books and get rich quick seminars. It was staring at cartoons and slowly unlearning how to read a newspaper. It was being deafened by bullshit, a historic avalanche of bullshit pouring out every second of every day from monitors placed everywhere, as though we’d been invaded by the aliens of some 50s movie, and the system worked, the mass mind was milked of every nuance, every complications, and its ideas were replaced with advertisements. It learned to believe everything at least once. It learned that it was selfish and that selfishness was good – which was a double lie, as it didn’t have enough self to be selfish, and what it called good was just the blind hope that everything didn’t cave in before the looting was over.

Such, of course, was the 00s, a decade that we all wear with extreme shame. Myself, I don’t have time or money to go to France and start over like Cioran. I take my cue from crows, grackles and mockingbirds, and write as though I were the last of my species – a bitter keening that sounds like a stand up comic’s routine.

ps - everybody seems to be seeing through me lately! My friend Chad said he liked the first part of this thing, but... and of course he is right. It is true that a writer better learn the clockwork of the masters. But then, too, he should read the comments sections of YouTube, fan fic fuck fiction, listen to street people slag each other off and the latest slang of sorority girls and in general have some sense of the direction to which that great beast, the language, is slouching. And then, for the piece de resistance, he should burn his taste down. Torch the motherfucker. Because writing - or at least that writing which aims to 'drain the last drop of slavery from one's blood' - is always a child of arson.

Monday, July 6, 2009

the problem of the second corpse

It is a triumph of Dante’s art that we remember the nine circles of hell without really puzzling over their essential irrelevance to their inhabitants. After all, if the inhabitants of the first circle are really being punished eternally, from their point of view, it matters not if they are in the second or the ninth circle. Instinctively we suppose that the nine circles must be distinguished by greater or lesser pain, but this isn’t true. Francesca and Paolo, in the second circle, suffer an equal quantity of pain as does Judas in the ninth circle: it is not the quantitative order of pain, but another order – that of the quality of the sins – that organizes the circles.

This is a reflection of a dilemma at the heart of retributive justice. The scale of retaliation is very easily overwhelmed by the human capacity to commit evil. I can be killed for killing one person; but I can’t then be revived and killed all over again for killing a second person. The extra corpse is secretly buried beneath all of justice’s physical and metaphysical structures.

One of the motives for moral absolutism is to find some way to mark out and retaliate against grades of fault. On the one hand, we would like to say that if a man kills, or puts in motion processes that kill, 40 million people, that such a person is more evil than a person who kills one person. On the other hand, justice has no way of expressing this – there is, so to speak, a market meltdown in retaliation. Dante had to accept this logic as well – once you have decreed eternal pain for Francesca and Paolo, you can vary the pain that separates them from a usurer or traitor, but the quantity of the punishment will be the same.

The moral absolutist complains any moral perspective but one that grounds good and evil in an absolute will collapse morality. But, in practical terms, the second corpse does the same thing for the absolutist. If the killing of the first corpse is absolutely bad, the killing of the second corpse, or n-times corpses, can only be as bad. Infinity times itself is infinity. Having axed the money lender, Raskolnikov becomes no better or worse by axing the maid.

Theologically, the dilemma of retaliation has driven the design of numerous afterlife narratives. One solution to the quantitative problem is reincarnation, so that, in a sense, we can revive Raskolnikov to die twice for his victims. In the next life, Raskolnikov might be born a money lender and have to face the axe himself. The problem is, of course, that such retaliation makes us wonder about our “original” murder. Perhaps Raskolnikov is just revenging a deed in the previous life lived by the moneylender. In which case, as an instrument of justice, it is hard to see why he should be retaliated against. One can imagine nemesis as being very clever in fatal symmetries: Raskolnikov can, perhaps, be reborn as the moneylender and the moneylender as practically another Raskolnikov. However, the couple seems unstuck from the absolute moral schema, as they slaughter each other in one life after the other. If we live in the circular world of the eternal return, it would be hard to see, even, what is the after and what is the before life justifying the slaughters.
Another way out of the dilemma of lex talionis is to decree that no killing at all is allowed, ever. No circumstance, here, justifies killing. Historically, the move of absolute pacifism has never caught on. The reason seems to be that unless it catches on universally, the pacifist seems to either be headed towards certain destruction at the hands of the non-pacifist or, what is worse, colluding with the non-pacifist in the destruction of others, insofar as the non-pacifist does not resist the killing. Isn’t it funny that the absolute ethic, extended into practical life, so quickly loses its appeal? And yet, it does have such appeal that many religious leaders have preached just such pacifism. And if the leaders were successful enough to create religions, than the church’s that follow them will inevitably twist the founder’s words and come up with dozens of creative ways to allow killing.

Defending moral relativism

I’ve been reading Hans-Georg Moeller’s The Holy Fool: the case for amorality. Moeller, whose notion of the holy fool comes from Daoism, defends a radical version of negative ethics, which arises, he says, from a “disgust with ethics and its failures.” Given such a viewpoint, you would think that Moeller would be sympathetic to moral relativism.

Yet, in the midst of arguing for amorality, Moeller is careful to say that he is not a moral relativist. It is as if moral relativism is in itself a kind of contagious failure. Myself, if I am anything, I’m a moral relativist, even though I rarely recognize moral relativism in the way it is usually constructed in philosophy. It is usually assumed that if you are a moral relativist, you cannot, for some reason, condemn people who exist in another moral perspective. This, to my mind, is very weird. If you are a moral relativist, why should you pledge yourself to a universalist notion of respecting other moral perspectives? In fact, such a pledge is one possible way of constructing a moral perspective, but not, of course, the only one. Moral relativism, as I understand it, derives its power from anthropological relativism – the refusal to assume that cultures sort themselves hierarchically in terms of some value. But the refusal to assume this sorting occurs, of course, within a discourse about culture. It occurs at the intellectual level in which one studies cultures. Within cultures as historical entities, it doesn’t exist at all. Historically, cultures are always sorting themselves both inside and outside – inside, by way of changes in the symbolic mediations of the members of the culture, and outside, by way of expansions, retreats, stances of neutrality, etc. The Spanish culture sorted itself out with the Mixteca-Aztec culture by trying to destroy the latter, for instance.

Similarly, the moral relativist could well believe that the perspective in which he or she exists should sort itself out with another perspective by destroying it. Meanwhile, internally, the moral perspective, insofar as one aspect of it is actual culture practices, is of course under tension as well. All the moral relativist has to claim is legitimacy with regard to the perspective he embraces. What the moral relativist gives up is the idea that he has access to an absolute perspective. If morality is a way of making us feel good about condemning people, then I have plenty of moral equipment for condemning, say, Hitler, without condemning Hitler absolutely. The demand for an absolute here seems to mean either one of two things. It is the demand that Hitler is not just evil, but really really evil – it is an intensifier. Or it is the demand that there be no moral perspective in which Hitler could justify himself. Of course, the latter is historically falsified – we know quite well that Nazis thought that they were morally justified, which is why they acted the way they did. So what is the absolute demand really for? I think it is for a justification of annulling, or killing, Nazis. But such justification could easily be constructed in one moral perspective without being constructed in all of them.

Obviously, my version of moral relativism isn’t that thing philosophers like to attack when they claim that moral relativism is saying morality is an individual taste. Or the “you believe x and I believe y” by which people agree to disagree. However, the motive for moral relativism does arise from things like agreeing to disagree, or holding a value as a taste. The moral relativist can doubt that morality is individualistic in the sense that it is unlikely any individual creates a morality, any more than any individual creates a language, but the underlying notion that there are different moral perspectives which, perhaps, don’t compete in some agreed upon way to win is the insight that first animates the thought that morality could be relative. In that sense, taste and differences about taste are the most powerful models for the liberal utopian immpulse - the impulse to construct a tolerant society. This liberalism undoubtedly nurtures contemporary moral relativism, even though most moral relativists keep their heads down - as it is one of those terms that is supposed to be damning.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

this is your captain

We are all still going down.

Bloomberg, in March, reported that the Bush-Obama plan was sailing along quite smoothly. In return for keeping our financial sector number one – and remember, at least one hundred thousand people make substantial money there – the government did the following:

"The U.S. government and the Federal Reserve have spent, lent or committed $12.8 trillion, an amount that approaches the value of everything produced in the country last year, to stem the longest recession since the 1930s.

New pledges from the Fed, the Treasury Department and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. include $1 trillion for the Public-Private Investment Program, designed to help investors buy distressed loans and other assets from U.S. banks. The money works out to $42,105 for every man, woman and child in the U.S. and 14 times the $899.8 billion of currency in circulation. The nation’s gross domestic product was $14.2 trillion in 2008.

President Barack Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner met with the chief executives of the nation’s 12 biggest banks on March 27 at the White House to enlist their support to thaw a 20-month freeze in bank lending.

“The president and Treasury Secretary Geithner have said they will do what it takes,” Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein said after the meeting. “If it is enough, that will be great. If it is not enough, they will have to do more.”

Commitments include a $500 billion line of credit to the FDIC from the government’s coffers that will enable the agency to guarantee as much as $2 trillion worth of debt for participants in the Term Asset-Backed Lending Facility and the Public-Private Investment Program. FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair warned that the insurance fund to protect customer deposits at U.S. banks could dry up because of bank failures.
The combined commitment has increased by 73 percent since November, when Bloomberg first estimated the funding, loans and guarantees at $7.4 trillion.”

As we can tell from the line about consumer deposits, this was really about Joe Public! That it had the affect of creating a little bubble for Joe Predator, the hedge funder, and all the guys at Goldman Sachs (we heart you, Lloyd Blankfein!) was an entirely happy accident. And my, what a spring they have had!

The happiness of the million dollar bonus set far outweighs any small misery caused by the destruction of the 4 million jobs since January. The deadweight, as we like to call them, may not have any insurance or any way to cover house payments or little things like that – but they are thrilled and electrified by our proud, proud financial sector, standing tall and giving itself big raises for the excellent job it has been doing.

But there is a fly, a stinking fly and a big one – in fact, it is as big as Manhattan! – in the ointment. Because it is fun to make money playing three card monte with the government. Who doesn’t see how glorious and fitting it is that the Fed loans you money at 2 percent in order for you to loan money to the government at 2.5 or 3 percent. So, so much better than just taking the money from the government by hand – that is just vulgar! It is what welfare mothers do! But as in a ship in which a big big hole has been punched, if the ship’s crew spends all its time making the first class passengers feel secure and tucked into their beds and do nothing about the hole, unfortunately, the first class passengers might well go down with the scum. Oh, it is so, so unfair.

And so that slight, ever so slight uptick in unemployment of one hundred thousand human products has started an uneasy stir. Could it be that the mercy and kindness lavished on the very sector which, in its search for high yield, fucked the globe, could it be that this is the wrong policy?

Of course not! The alternative would have been to turn that firehose of money on the populace, the people if you will, and let’s face it, these are folks who have never summered in the Hamptons! Still, the crazy lunatic left fringe who wrote that all the money in the world is not going to heal the financial sector, and that the Fed should have been making those below par loans to median income household, either through modalities set up in the present banking system or through a bank that was capitalized entirely by the government, are looking like they were right. In fact, they were so right that we aren’t ever going to talk about it – don’t look for any revisiting of Summers remark, this spring, that the “government” doesn’t know how to run a bank.

To sum up: the mangle of inequality is still eating Uncle Sam’s shorts. The astonishingly few people that almost all government activity is oriented to help – we are talking about the financial sector – have shown an amazing amount of political power and an amazing lack of intelligence. Larry Summers, who I said would be a disaster, has proven to be more than a disaster. There are even articles appearing now about how, uh, Summers ideas for making Harvard into the world’s most profitable hedge fund are now threatening Harvard’s very existence – ah, the man leaves a trail of pretty heavy corpses, at least. And we are heading into the second half of the year with NO driver of growth. The magicians have prayed to the idol of the market – a being that is as mythical as the aether – and believe, every one of them, that it is a self-correcting god. These are the words of people who have pickled their brains in the half truths of Econ 101, and pickled their lifestyles in rubbing elbows with the oligarchs.

Put your head on your knees. Put your head in your hands. Put your hands on your head. Put your hands on your hips. He he. This is your captain speaking. We are all going down … together.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

an overheated thesis about men and women

I always like going out with my friend S. Last night we went to dinner and then saw Public Enemy, which I enjoyed in parts, and in parts wished that the camera man had taken his anti-spasm pills before filming the big scenes. We did not go out to the cineplex to see nude descending a staircase, starring John Dillinger - and so I was not happy with the camera work that got so jiggly in the film’s big action scenes that in the shootout, it actually was almost impossible to follow how Dillinger escaped. We needed Weegee here, not Boccioni. We wanted to see a summer movie with a lot of Thompson machine guns in it, and we weren't entirely satisfied.

Anyway, over dinner before we saw the movie, we talked about men and women and history. I proposed an overheated thesis, which S. agreed with in part, or at least thought had some redeeming bits of plausibility. So I thought I’d write it down.

My thesis was that the Cold war male was cast into a situation of perpetual wars – WWII, the Korean War, the first war in Vietnam, Algeria, the second war in Vietnam, etc. – as well as having the nukes leaning over his shoulder. In that context, the cold war male was expected to be heroic and aggressive. And of course the target of aggression was the Cold War female. Now, in other generations in which war figures so heavily, destitution or sacrifice also figures. Yet one of the brilliant things about the capitalist-war machine is that war brings affluence. Given this, the aggressive cold war male’s status became tied to himself as both provider and cocksman. It is important to bring in, here, as a necessary supplementing social factor the fact that rise in the divorce rate in the post-war era was male-driven.

The result of these combinations was borne by the cold war woman and the cold war children. It was, I think, an amazing generational experience for the children to see how the marriage broke up and the provider, the heroic provider, didn’t provide. Not only was there a lack on the emotional level, but even on the promised level of affluence. These were the children of the deadbeats.

My idea is that this was devastating, on the unconscious level, to the imago of the male. Hence, the generation that was born at the end of the cold war and is having children now, both the males and the females, have to cope with the ruins of masculinity – for the father role has been thoroughly trashed. One way of coping is through a new image of passivity. However, as we all know from Freud, passivity is not the opposite of aggression.

On the social level, these are all factors in the great turning inward. It isn’t just that unions were battered to death, or the party system became so entangled with entrenched power that, in almost all the developed countries, there is no longer an organized opposition to entrenched power – it is also that the aggression, the heroic cast of the Cold war, which was oriented in so many ways to the world outside of the private sphere – as though the tips of those ICBMs were pressed up against the back of millions of heads – has now been so discredited that there’s a sense of exhaustion about public matters. Who would have predicted, in the early fifties, for instance, that the summer in which the American political establishment was gingerly debating the first step towards the socialization of medicine, that the public’s eyes would be riveted on a bunch of celebrity deaths? Or on anything that reminds one of cocooned private histories.
Obviously, I, a son of the cold war indeed, am ambiguous about the discrediting of the heroic male. There’s a definite dialectic loss there. And yet, who had it coming? Nemesis stalked the entire cocksman and coldwarsman culture, and saw how shallowly that hedonism was rooted, and how many crimes it accumulated, how much misery it shed. The strategy of hiding one’s head like a turtle, however, is not the answer.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Cutting out our tongues, and serving them up in a rich stew

I was going to devote this week on News from the Zona to news from Iraq, adopting, as I have done before, Titus Andronicus’ principle:

“Enter TITUS dressed like a Cook, LAVINIA veiled, Young LUCIUS, and others. TITUS places the dishes on the table
Welcome, my gracious lord; welcome, dread queen;
Welcome, ye warlike Goths; welcome, Lucius;
And welcome, all: although the cheer be poor,
'Twill fill your stomachs; please you eat of it.
Why art thou thus attired, Andronicus?
Because I would be sure to have all well,
To entertain your highness and your empress.”

Like Titus, I would like to busy myself cutting and dealing in pie – meat pie, boy pie, girl pie, the bloody pies of Iraq, which seemed, at one time, to so charm an American public that, with a cretinous smile and patriotic hearts bursting to revenge 9/11 on anybody but the, uh, perpetrators – who were away in safe havens in Pakistan to provide the cutest little threat that ever dumped money into a defense contractors hot little hand – this self same public, le peuple in all their glory, allowed itself to be led to the feast by a usurper and a fool, only to find – alas – that there was more in the cooking than could be well borne in the eating, and that the tongue grows weary of all those human all too human bones. But eat up! Eat up! There is always more meat pie.

Such was my purpose. But I am going to swerve from this rich, indigestible topic, and comment instead on news from the zona. In particular, on David Leonardt’s piece on the ‘miscalculation’ of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil – otherwise known as Obama’s economic advisors, Geithner, Romer and Summers.

“To make the case for a big stimulus package, they released their economic forecast for the next few years. Without the stimulus, they saw the unemployment rate — then 7.2 percent — rising above 8 percent in 2009 and peaking at 9 percent next year. With the stimulus, the advisers said, unemployment would probably peak at 8 percent late this year.

We now know that this forecast was terribly optimistic. The jobless rate has already reached 9.4 percent. On Thursday, the Labor Department will announce the latest number, for June, and forecasters are expecting it to rise further. In concrete terms, the difference between the situation that the Obama advisers predicted and the one that has come to pass is about 2.5 million jobs. It’s as if every worker in the city of Los Angeles received an unexpected layoff notice.”

Uh huh, as Li’l Kim might say at this point. It turns out that if you look at the glass from the top, it is full of sparkly water from the finest springs, and if you look at it from the bottom, the thing has been fucking dry for ages. The see no-s have concentrated on the great task they saw before them – to make sure that the richest level of Americans were as well off now as they were in 2007. And to this task they devoted the major portion of the government’s resources – not simply TARP, but the amazing Fed loan program – which has its equivalent in the Arabian nights tale of the hawker who bought tarnished pots for gold. And thus, and thus, my lords, was an opportunity squandered and the great squeeze put in its place. Did the treasury and the fed take the giant predatory financial sector companies and put them through the rigors of bankruptcy, such as befall the poor schmuck who gets behind on the Visa payments? They most definitely did not. Did they set up modalities in the vast and living banking system that allowed consumers to trade their own pots for gold – in other word, trading in old debts for new debts at the 2 percent rate? Oh no, for such deals smack of communism. Such deals are only meant for the Fed and its confederates, who need to be, what is the phrase? Oh, made liquid again. Yes, liquidity – the very sound has something of saliva in it, something silvery, something glittery, does it not?
And so the models, apparently, don’t understand:

“These models, which are also used by Wall Street and various research firms, do a decent job most of the time. But they are notoriously bad at forecasting turning points because they are based on an assumption that the recent past will more or less repeat itself.”

This is, of course, a smoothing out, a tidying up of why the models are bad – which has nothing to do with the recent past repeating itself and everything to do with the notion of market clearing. For the models are premised on that old hoax, the Dr. Moriarty of economics, known as the self-adjusting market. Ah, that dear old fiction, the market, which dances to the beat of an equilbrium while magically mounting higher and higher! The models, shall we say, are top down models, and find it frankly unscientific and pathetic that there should be any other. For why should the bugs have a say in the choice of the bug spray? This, and none other, is the beginning of Economics 101, taught to fresh faced predators everywhere. But my model, to which I am sticking in spite of the see no-s, is the mangle of inequality. A mangle that has enmeshed a greater and greater number of souls, as it was obvious it would not just to the Marxists among us, but also to those who have attentively studied Memlinc’s pictures of the Last Judgment.

Will't please you eat? will't please your
highness feed?
Why hast thou slain thine only daughter thus?
Not I; 'twas Chiron and Demetrius:
They ravish'd her, and cut away her tongue;
And they, 'twas they, that did her all this wrong.