Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ganz normal

I am immersed, at the moment, in German history, because I am reading Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus.

Serenus Zeitblom – what a name! Mann loved these kinds of names – is writing the biography of a composer, his friend, Andreas Leverkühn. The writing begins in 1943 - and continues through the devastation of Germany from the air, and from the Soviet advance. At almost the beginning, Zeitblom admits that the spirit of his biography goes against his ‘conscience as a citizen:.

‘And yet there is something that some of us fear – at certain moments that seem criminal even to ourselves, whereas others fear it quite frankly and permanently – fear more than a German defeat, and that is a German victory. I hardly dare ask myself to which of these two persuasions I belong. Perhaps to a third, which yearns for defeat constantly and consciously, but with unrelenting agony of conscience. My wishes and hopes are compelled to resist the victory of German arms, because my friend’s work would be buried beneath it, covered with the curse of proscriptions and forgetfulness for perhaps a hundred years, thus missing its own age and receiving historical honor only in another.”

Zeitblom is too moderate to ask himself more general questions about that third category. And yet, who among us has not felt intimations of it during this ice age of reaction in which we live, cocooned in the ephemerally invulnerable systems erected since the beginning of the Cold War, feeding our intellects on our irritation and imaginary apocalypses? Imaginary, I say, for us – not for, say, your average Baghdad dweller. And of course, for those who have eyes to see, the minor apocalypse – to give it its true historical scale – of an American middle class that has been persuaded, in the age of Reagan, to cut its throat and think, while it is lapping up its own blood, that it is enjoying the very champagne of capitalism.

This has been in my mind as I have been watching Deutschland, bleiche Mutter (1980), by Helma Sanders-Brahms. This film was met with a barrage of criticism in West Germany when it was first released. Partly, this barrage was about the syndrome Sebald identified – the desire to forget the war, meaning, forget the bombing. That desire has notoriously turned about – unfortunately, the bombing is now being remembered as the great victimizaiton of the Germans. To forget or to remember are two sides of the same coin. The coin is called pathological normality. And Sanders-Brahms film is – sometimes unconsciously – a probe into that state. For one of the questions one wants answered about that bombing is: why was there no revolt against a state that had so evidently and plainly led the nation into the abyss?

The question naturally arises from the common perception that the Nazis succeeded because they produced prosperity. They quickly brought an end to Weimar’s economic collapse, and so became immensely popular. This, at least, is the story. If it is a good story, though, than the utter collapse of that prosperity, the systematic burning of German cities, the dumping of burgerliche Deutschtum literally on the ash heaps of their homes should have prompeted, by the same logic, the overthrow of the Nazi regime.

But this didn’t happen. In fact, the passivity, the acceptance of the bombing, seems to be of a piece with the acceptance of defeat, acceptance of the occupation, acceptance of the Adenauer regime – acceptance after acceptance. In a sense, what died in the allied bombing was the idea that there was a place for revolution in Europe. The velvet revolution was, of course, not one – it was the mere final collapse of governments who could no longer rule. It was no more a revolution than the collapse of the Habsburg empire was a revolution – it was a defeat.
No, I would say that the end of revolution as a European reality, at least in the twentieth century, was this lack-of-an-event that occurred in 1943-1945. The lesson of Nazi Germany was learned by both sides in the Cold War, who managed a double movement – prosperity on the one side and a managed and total vulnerability on the other. Myself, though, I’m more interested in the structure of this pathological normal state. This inability not to be normal.

In DBM, the narrative voice – Sanders-Brahms voice – introduces us to the meeting of Lene and Hans – her parents – at a dance in which Hans tells Lene that the only thing that matters to him is seeing her again. And she says: “Glucklich. Ganz normal. Nur es in diesem Zeit geschiet. In diesem Land.”

And that is the keynote of the war that comes – ganz normal. The bombing – ganz normal. Hans’s shooting of women ‘terrorists’ – ganz normal. The journey of Lene and her mother through a wasteland of burned out cities. Ganz normal. For Sanders-Brahms, the twist here is that women in Germany – while the men were away at the front –could take control of things. Of their lives – a control that was taken away from them after the war, in the Adenauer era. In a way, one feels that this is a sort of blind cul de sac – ignoring the substance of that control, that control of German women in Germany in 1943, holding onto the ganz normal. The film was received, and still has a reputation, as an expression of feminist film-making – but I don’t believe that the feminist theme is really separable from the theme of pathological normality.

In the middle of the film, Lene wanders with Hanna in a wood. At first it seems to be winter – then spring. Hitler dies, a voiceover samples the voice of Donitz’s surrender – and Lene begins to tell her daughter the story of the Robber Bridegroom, a story that was brought by French refugees to Germany – the old story of Bluebeard. A story that includes, in Lene’s version – a path to the bridegroom’s house of ashes, and an old woman sitting in the house who warns the bride – look around you, you are in a house of murderers!

Those who know the film will see that here, I am skewing my interpretation to the scenes depicting the war. The thread I am looking for here is not the feminist one, taken by most commenters on the film. Or: it relates that moment – all our hopeful moments, all the politically progressive moments that have made life so much better – to a war culture with which we must deal, or perish.

My definition of utopia: when the ganz normal is not a state of collaboration in an ongoing state sponsored crime.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

By the waters of babylon -the 00s

I notice that people are summarizing the decade. What was good about it? What was bad?

On a personal note, the aughts were without any doubt the worst decade of my life. I became permanently poor, I destroyed my social life, and I made the worst of all career choices – to become a freelance writer – just when that career, so gloriously begun in the Western world by Daniel Defoe, laid down and died. A better way of saying this is: my personal life died in the aughts. Even I don’t care about it any more. that is how dead it is.

So there was that. But on a larger level, there was the country I live in, America. I paid far more attention to politics than is good for one’s sanity over the last ten years. My conclusion about American as an enterprise is rather like Jeremiah’s about Israel: “And from the daughter of Zion all her beauty is departed: her princes are become like harts that find no pasture, and they are gone without strength before the pursuer.” America has always been half con game, but there was always something hopeful and naïve on the other side of the table. It now takes a huge act of faith to think that it isn’t all con game. And it is sheer ignorance to think that, at the moment, something good is being generated by a culture that, on the negative side, contributes a quarter of the human generated CO2 in the atmosphere. In cosmic bookkeeping terms, Jeremiah says it best: “Jerusalem hath grievously sinned; therefore she is removed: all that honoured her despise her, because they have seen her nakedness: yea, she sigheth, and turneth backward./
Her filthiness is in her skirts; she remembereth not her last end; therefore she came down wonderfully: she had no comforter.”

You can’t beat the prophets for a pithy summary.

For those who have eyes to see, parables of this comfortless state are all around. My favorite, at the moment, is a debate being waged on the eco blogs about jingle mail, to wit: should you feel guilty about walking out of your house and mortgage if you are underwater? According to Calculated Risk: “Nearly 10.7 million, or 23 percent, of all residential properties with mortgages were in negative equity as of September, 2009. An additional 2.3 million mortgages were approaching negative equity, meaning they had less than five percent equity. Together negative equity and near negative equity mortgages account for nearly 28 percent of all residential properties with a mortgage nationwide.” As has been observed by many, when businesses – say Morgan Stanley – find themselves saddled with underwater properties, the jingle is immediately in the mail. But often, householders go down with the house. Why? The answer Nietzsche gave was: slave morality. Nietzsche lived in primitive times! We now speak of asymmetrical norms. That means, what Morgan Stanley does is done as though a god did it. Mere mortals, however, should pay forwever, even unto their blood and bones. However, Nietzsche has found some new and unexpected advocates:

“Go ahead. Break the chains. Stop paying on your mortgage if you owe more than the house is worth. And most important: Don't feel guilty about it. Don't think you're doing something morally wrong.

That's the incendiary core message of a new academic paper by Brent T. White, a University of Arizona law school professor, titled "Underwater and Not Walking Away: Shame, Fear and the Social Management of the Housing Crisis."

White contends that far more of the estimated 15 million U.S. homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages should stiff their lenders and take a hike.

Doing so, he suggests, could save some of them hundreds of thousands of dollars that they "have no reasonable prospect of recouping" in the years ahead. Plus the penalties are nowhere near as painful or long-lasting as they might assume, he says.

"Homeowners should be walking away in droves," White said. "But they aren't. And it's not because the financial costs of foreclosure outweigh the benefits."

To the rightwing, that nest of demonic voice and the double bind, this is the advocacy of loosing the immoral tide. What? Homeowners operating guiltfree to stick it to the gods? I thought the best summation of the decade, from the rightwing point of view, was in the comment thread on Mark Thoma’s Economists view post, Should You Feel Guilty About Walking Away?

“If the deal was "too good to be true", as we see know, afterwards; why did so many of us accept it hook-line-and-sinker? If it were not for the fact that, like others, we thought we could make a quick-buck for little effort?”

The writer, of course, sees this as a wonderful argument to imprison people in their negative equity palaces. Myself, I see this as the final play of the dirty decade: first, the elite – the Bushes, the Greenspans, the press, the tv – proposes an ‘ownership society’ in which the Lion of poverty lies down with the lamb of self interest as the government does what it does best (seeking and finding meaningless wars to fight in perpetuity) and the householder does what he does best with "his money’ – takes those risks that makes capitalism so sexy. During this wash phase, the chatterers tell us that the housing market is no bubble, but a solid investment guaranteed to last forever. Then, in the second, drying phase, we get the ‘it was the fault of the suckers’ line – they knew the deal was ‘too good to be true’! We need to equip the gods with sharper forks, to pitch into the skins of these sinners who have now been revealed!

Myself, I think the demons, as always, can only operate if they are taken seriously. But if one sees them as the ludicrous beings they are, then one is free – at least of this misplaced guilt. But the larger aspect of too good to be true is, of course, the way the entire country operated in the aughts. My comment in Mark Thoma’s thread sums up what I think about the past ten years:

“You - I'm assuming this is Americans - have many things to feel guilty about. The invasion of Iraq, the decimation of Afghanistan, global warming. Everyone in this country should feel very guilty that so far, a good half a million or more Iraquis have died, and 2 million are refugees, on account of a ludicrous war we started.
But walking away from your house when it is underwater - there's no reason at all to feel guilty about that. The only bond between the people and the banksters is one of pure coercion.
Don't waste your guilt.”

In conclusion: I think we should go down to the waters of Babylon, look back at the horrorshow of the aughts, hang our harps on the willow trees, and weep.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

“But something happens to everyone”

It is after we get a little bit bigger and stop playing with LEGOS and building blocks that we accept as a fact that you can’t build a house out of doors and windows. Such a house is an absurdity! Even the least little hovel, even a tent with a mere flap for a door, should have an enclosed space beyond that flap; the whole point of the flap or door is to lead into the enclosed space. The whole point of a window is to break the monotonous grip of a room, its fist around you. But the room doesn’t exist for the window! That would be carrying the revolution too far.

And yet, even though this is the wisdom we absorb as surely as the hair starts to sprout on various parts of our bodies after we are children, still, when we start building an article, a story, a poem, a thesis, a dissertation, a novel, etc., how often do we find that the rule of doors and houses is damn difficult to follow. Indeed, there is a certain type of critic since Aristotle which likes to judge the house exclusively by the back door – does it open out onto good fortune and a marriage? Or does it open onto suicide, the daughter hanging by the rope in the tomb, the self-blinded, exiled king? Yes, that back door, the gentlemen of the press – and the producers in Hollywood – tend to hang around it.

As for me – oh, I’ve written for decades now. I’ve written since I was sixteen. True, the juvenilia is long trashed; the writing of the 80s is mostly lost, as is that of most of the nineties – my breadcrumbs, in which I had Hansel’s confidence that I could follow them back to all the projects I left behind me, have been eaten by indifference, lost boxes, weather, moves, and broken computers. Oh the world’s indifference – and my own! And yet, when I gather up the work that’s left, that I can get my hands on, what does it amount to?
Doors and windows.
In the writer’s world, this is the thing that drives one to suicide. Oh, besides the contingent things – sickness, poverty, a broken heart, the dimming of one’s wits. But I am speaking of suicide from vocational reasons – or perhaps I should say, suicide from within a vocation. Despair is what happens when one understands, fully, that the door is for the house, and the window is for the room – and yet one feels all too intensely the boredom of the room, of putting up the walls, of the work of kitchens and bedrooms. Yes, even if it is a burrow, the tedium of this jigsawed, continuous space.

That space can make me sick. And soon, very soon, after I embark upon a project, I have to fight the urge to put in another door or window. Glorious ingress, glorious egress, glorious panes of glass.
Yes, to punch out a space for a window that is high enough, commandingly high, so that I can jump out of it into the arms of a cremating eternity.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

tora bora remembered

I’ve been pleased to see Peter Bergen’s reassessment of the fuckup of Tora Bora, published in the New Republic, has had a small effect on the chattering class – it even gave Maureen Dowd a heart palpitation or two. The report itself is full of excuse speak for the officials involved, and does not dare venture into speculating that Osama's escape was the best thing ever to happen to Bush. It is all about Osama "slipping away," not being let slip. That would never, ever happen, of course. Thus, instead of including, for instance, information that would put Tora Bora in context - for instance, the notorious airlift of Taliban officials into Pakistan from Kunduz - Bergen's depiction of a Pakistan was on the U.S. side, at this time, is shall we say, dubious. Still, it picks up on one central fact - the American military response in the Afghan war sucked. This is in marked contrast to the snow job put into effect by the media at the time. In December 2001, you’ll remember, the chattering class was in ecstasies over our powerful and purposive president, Bush, and his team of Vulcans, who, in the cave paintings that have been excavated from time in a site near the Potomac River, are all depicted with giant hard phalluses. To understand how extraordinarily bad court society is in D.C., one has to read, say, Slate from that time – a goldmine of the conventional wisdom all dressed up like contrarianism.

Here, to get us into the spirit of the media, circa 2001, is the last graf of a Time magazine story from December 09, 2001, filled with fun factoids about the ‘craven’ Taliban and their inevitable defeat by the forces of good, aka the Americans. It ends with this kick-ass graf:

“Though the American commanders still counseled patience last week, they will not put up with inaction for long. Afghan forces told TIME they spotted U.S. and British commandos heading into the Tora Bora mountains last week, traveling in pairs, shouldering heavy supplies and carrying rifles. There were more soldiers on the way, backed by U.S. gunships, bombers and Predator drones, ready to pounce on their prey. It's a safe bet that if bin Laden is holed up in the snowdrifts of Tora Bora, with his hosts defeated and on the run, he still harbors hopes of making a great escape. It's a safer bet that the U.S. would love to see him try.”

Yeah, that Osama didn’t know who he was up against!

My Limited Inc. blog has long been on this beat. I’ll reprint here what I wrote on July 28, 2006:

I have nursed my own conspiracy theory about another incident in the “war on terror … ttt-terrorism… ttt-terrorists.” In fact, I am very surprised that this incident has attracted so little attention. Perhaps it is because the Lefty side that opposes Bush has such ambiguous feelings about the Afghanistan war that it doesn't want to investigate what it means to leave a terrorist group on tap. I’m talking, of course, about the battle of Tora Bora, and the escape of Bin Laden into Pakistan.

Here is an instance, I think, when incompetence and conspiracy are two faces of the same coin. What really happened at Tora Bora has been reported, as most of the fuck-ups of the non-war have been reported, long after it really happened. To disarm the news, simply delay it for enough years that people don’t care any more – that does seem to be the strategy of the Big Fix in D.C., and it certainly works on the journalists. None of them, so far, have taken the hint from Suskind about Bush’s meeting with the CIA in August, 2001 and deepened it, so we still don’t know have a complete sense of our unpreparedness due, almost uniquely, to the apathy of the reigning potentate.

Anyway, I recently came across Army Times reporter Sean Naylor’s account of the battle. According to Naylor, the incompetence factor (although he doesn’t put it so bluntly) can be laid at the feet of General “Kick me in the ass” Franks, who operated in our heroic Afghanistan war as a conduit for the senilities of Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld, of course, didn’t want the Afghanistan war to involve regular troops, on the theory that that is where the Russians went wrong. No, we’d used bombing and our super duper special forces – initial decisions that we are paying for today. Anyway, the American force that approached Tora Bora at the end of November, 2001 was extremely small, and depended on Afghan allies that were busy feuding with each other. According to Naylor, as the siege proceeded, the Air Force flew over the twenty mile passage between Tora Bora and Pakistan and recorded “hot spots” on their heat sensing equipment. Now, CENTCOM, unbelievably, had never considered the possibility that Al Qaeda’s forces could escape from Tora Bora – thus, there were no guards on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. But the hot spot data did provoke some consultation:

“The Generals in Kuwait recommend[ed] bombing the positions as soon as possible. But Franks [who, you will recall, bravely lead our heroic troops from a boat in Florida] and his staff did not see it like that. “They might be shepherds,” was Control Command’s attitude, according to two officers who sat in on the video-teleconferences in which the matter was discussed. At CFLCC that theory didn’t wash. The idea that scores of shepherds were tending to their flocks at 10,000 feet in the middle of winter was implausible.”

Implausible is a kindly word. Let’s recall what was happening back at the scene in Tora Bora. This is from the NYT Magazine’s rather thorough article about it in 2005:

“The American bombardment of Tora Bora, which had been going on for a month, yielded to saturation airstrikes on Nov. 30 in anticipation of the ground war. Hundreds of civilians died that weekend, along with a number of Afghan fighters, according to Hajji Zaman, who had already dispatched tribal elders from the region to plead with bin Laden's commanders to abandon Tora Bora.” – Mary Ann Weaver, NYT, 9/11/05

Recall, also, that at the time Franks was displaying this untoward shepherdophilia, the U.S. was accepting payment from the Northern alliance in captives gathered at random – the camel driver, the Avon salesman, the cab driver – and subjecting them to the waterboarding, beatings, and sometimes murder that they obviously richly deserved.

So if it wasn’t kindness that drove Franks, what could it be? Well, LI’s search for a theory would begin by asking who would gain an advantage by a stripped down force of Al Qaeda escaping to Pakistan. Hmm. Well, they would provide a ready reminder of “terror” if there were people in the military and in the White House who intended to use the 9/11 attack to provoke, for purely political reasons, further wars that would aggrandize their shaky political position and – oh joy – unleash the fruits of the war culture, giving the government an excuse to spend hundreds of billions of dollars, especially in the Red States, and sweetening the retirement of every general who went along.

The problem with this theory is that it implies that the White House is full of cretinous, treasonous creatures who would flush the interests of the country down the toilet if it gave them an extra meal or two at Signatures restaurant.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009


“Now he's got Paulie as a partner. Any problems, he goes to Paulie. Trouble with a bill, to Paulie. Trouble with cops, deliveries, Tommy... ...he calls Paulie. But now he has to pay Paulie... ...every week no matter what. "Business bad? Fuck you, pay me. Had a fire? Fuck you, pay me." "The place got hit by lightning? Fuck you, pay me." Also, Paulie could do anything. Like run up bills on the joint's credit. And why not? Nobody will pay for it anyway. Take deliveries at the front door and
sell it out the back at a discount. Take a 200 dollar case of booze and sell it for one hundred dollars.
It doesn't matter. It's all profit.”
– Goodfellas

The merger of good business practice and racketeering in the 00s was embodied by the private equity firm, which made the Mafia look like punks. Two hundred dollar cases of booze were nothing when you buy a company with money you borrowed with your potential purchase as capital, thus adding the company’s cost to you to the company’s total debt load, from which – because you have been so successful! – you paid yourself a management fee, and then appointed undertakers to break the balls of any of the employees who’d been there long enough to, say, get a pension, or to have an emotional stake in the company’s success – deadwood, in other words; then you sell off the parts of the company that are working, which earns the management company, those private equity sweethearts, another management fee; and finally lead the company into bankruptcy, thus screwing the banks and the investors, the latter of which had been sitting on the sidelines swallowing pap about the efficiencies brought to the company by the private equity junta. Having followed the fuck you – pay me! Business plan, the private equity partners have long moved on, although not before putting a proper legal distance between the business they picked apart and the consequences.

Mattress companies, shoe companies, if it lives and breaths, if it produced value, if it employed people and was the result of honesty, toil, and the identification of the employees – well then, it deserved, from the racketeering rational choice point of view, to be fucked.

That was the trade – the bright side was that it got the thumbs up from economists, politicians, everybody in the know, all the bright ones in our Bush-Obama culture. You know, the ones who have shoved so much shit down our throats that we have gotten to like it, that it just seems normal to wake up with that taste of plutocratic turds in our mouths, it is just who we are, it is just what living in the Do Tread on Me Nation we call home is all about.

That this was done to Readers Digest sorta figures. Symbols are attractors, and what better symbol for a brisk deathmarch through the valley of the shadow of fuck you than the magazine that, in its humble way, embodied conservative middle brow Cold War culture? The army jokes, the first person accounts of American heroism, the vocabulary builder, the Cold War rants about all the usual topics: drugs, Communism, delinquency. Plus the condensed books, Ultra-Moderne – much like Campbell’s Condensed soups, showing that the process of assembly line production could be applied to the novel. It was a sign of middle class tastelessness – of working for the Middle Brow man - to have bookshelves full of Readers Digest books – in my family, we certainly did. I eagerly went through those books when they came, laughed at the humor in uniform, built my vocabulary with the vocabulary builder, and learned the anti-Communist facts of life. Ronald Reagan’s biographers say that he was an earnest reader of the Digest, and he often quoted from it – which makes sense. In a sense, Reagan embodied the whole RD ethos.

Including the reversal of what you would expect a conservative company to do. Just as Reagan’s experience of the only business he ever knew – the movies – gave him a, to say the least, skewed notion of the relation between labor and business, Reader’s Digest evidently treated their employees, in the HQ in Chattaqua, NY, with the kind of princely beneficence that would have softened Karl Marx’s heart. The Sunday NYT story about the decline and fall of the magazine includes this anecdote about the owners, DeWitt and Lila Wallace:

Al Perruzza, now a senior vice president, recalls a dinner in the early ’70s at which Mr. Wallace rose, clanked a glass and announced that, effective Monday, everyone at Reader’s Digest would get a 10 percent raise. He sat for a moment, conferred with Mrs. Wallace and then stood up again.
“My lovely wife doesn’t think that’s enough,” he said. “So effective Monday, it’s 15 percent.”
He rose a third time and announced a cost-of-living increase.
“We had spent literally weeks preparing a budget,” Mr. Perruzza says with a grin. “I was sitting with the president of my division. The guy went ashen.”

As the NYT tells the story, Readers Digest, back then, was an incredible cash cow – much to the Wallace’s amazement. Having figured, when he began the business, that he could make as much as 5,000 dollars per year, DeWitt and his wife were rather stunned by how much they really did make:

“By 1929, circulation stood at 290,000 subscribers and brought in $900,000 a year — more than $11 million in inflation-adjusted dollars — according to “American Dreamers,” a book about the Wallaces. By the 40th anniversary of Reader’s Digest, Time tallied up the magazine’s achievements: 40 editions, in 13 languages and Braille, and the best-selling publication in Canada, Mexico, Spain, Sweden, Peru — and on and on. Total worldwide circulation was 23 million.”

So they did things like make their Chappaqua campus a nice place to work by hanging art on the wall: "Paintings by Picasso, Monet, Degas,Matisse, Renoir and van Gogh — museum-worthy décor was just another perk of working for a publishing phenomenon, one that sold millions of magazines and books a year, a readership rivaled only by the Bible. Although comparing sales of the scriptures to those ofReader’s Digest has always been unfair, because, as The New Yorker noted in 1945, “the Bible had a head start.””

That art, seen by the 3,000 employees and their family members, has now, of course, been stripped (“Take a 200 dollar case of booze and sell it for one hundred dollars. It doesn't matter. It's all profit.”). In the place of those paintings – o symbol calls to symbol, the worm that turned calls to the mindboggling serfs we are today! - we have this:
“…the walls are dominated by inexpensive prints and lots of corporate propaganda.
That’s right: corporate propaganda. Posters in the corridors of this mostly empty building trumpet something called the FACE plan, an acronym for fast, accountable, candid and engaged. One poster offers simplistic how-tos for running a meeting. (“Ensure that the right people are at the table.”) Another is headed with the words “Vision Statement” and uses lots of empty white space to underscore the point: “We will create the world’s largest multiplatform communities based on branded content.”
That mantra, and all the posters, are the brainchild of Mary Berner, the kinetic former president of Fairchild Publications who landed here with the backing of Ripplewood Holdings, the Manhattan private equity firm that orchestrated the debt-fueled takeover of Reader’s Digest.”

Our fast, accountable and engaged Mary, at a modest 125,000 a month, has surrounded herself with a coterie of “blondes” – as they are called by the stunned remnant of RD culture – to ‘reconfigur[e] the innards of the company’ – as NYT says, building up our biz vocabulary. Reconfigure – strip what isn’t nailed down, burn employees, create on-line presence.

It is a heartwarming story, this, the rescue of Readers Digest, with Ripplewood Partners throwing the company a big life preservers, made out of lead, after RD fell on hard times post-9/11. It wasn’t just that Readers Digest had been rendered rather useless by the internet. It was also that the Feds shut down RD’s sweepstakes. That killed the company with its base. It is one thing to have the condensed works of Taylor Caldwell on your shelves, but quite another not to have a shot at winning the sweepstakes. Underneath the idea of earning your money, we all long for the main chance. Ripplewood saw the bleeding, and stepped in to suck the creature dry.

“Ripplewood, led by Tim Collins, its chief executive, saw turnaround opportunities as well as a chance to roll up the fund’s own media properties, including Time Life Inc., the direct-marketing company that was formerly part of Time Warner. Ripplewood put in $275 million of its own money and had a bunch of partners, which included Rothschild Bank of Zurich and GoldenTree Asset Management of New York.
But the $2.4 billion deal piled so much debt onto Reader’s Digest’s balance sheet that it tripled the company’s interest payments, to $148 million a year. The Great Recession hurt ad sales, of course, and devastated sales of direct-marketed books. Instead of the single-digit percentage growth in revenue that Ripplewood was banking on, revenue declined.
In January, the company laid off 300 people, about 8 percent of its staff.
But even with those measures, the company did not, as Ms. Berner might put it, make its number. In August, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.”

And, finally, when there's nothing
1 left, when you can't borrow
another buck from the bank or buy
another case of booze, you bust
the joint out.



making rolls of toilet paper being kneaded into long rolls
with Sterno.


HENRY AND TOMMY shoving wads of Sterno paper into the
ceiling rafters.

You light a match.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

I won I won I won I sorta won I won something I placed...

Hooray! I placed third in this 3 Quarks contest! Thank you all! And a special thanks to the artist formerly known as Praxis, Mr. Duncan, for nominating me.
A round of drinks on me, uh, in spirit at least.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


On the night of December 31, we had suddenly enter into our room a troupe of maskers. One of them, dressed in white, held a scythe that he sharpened with a piece of wood. This one came right up to me and threatened me with the scythe, saying Christ willed my death. As much as the commencement of this farce seemed strange to me, the end of it was equally ridiculous. One was the devil, another was death, some were musicians, the rest were men and women who danced to the sound of the instruments. Death and the devil looked at each other, saying that all men would soon be in our power. We found very little to amuse us in this dance of the dead; we promptly gave death the wherewithal to drink to our health. As soon as we did so, the company bid us adieu. – Johann Georg Gmelin.

In Science, first hand, an odd, English language journal published by Akademika Koptyuga, there’s a fascinating article on the Gmellin-Mueller expedition to Siberia and the theme of alcohol by A. Elert, copiously illustrated with marvelous lubok – which are playing card sized woodcuts evidently produced for a mass audience.

The article is aptly summarized thus:

“This article will show our readers that the Russian people “took to the bottle” three centuries ago, which, however, did not prevent them from spreading over the vast area and building a most powerful empire in the world history. There is something wrong about it — too much passion in these talks about the “universal alcoholism” of Russians and too many extreme views. Our compatriots have long gotten used to treating vodka as something almost sacred, something exclusively Russian, but in the last fifteen years they have been able to compare. The comparison proves paradoxical — Europeans drink at least as much as we do but liquor is not a domineering feature of their national character.”

I’m not sure if it actually shows that Europeans drink at least as much, but it does show that the state did everything it could to promote drinking. One recalls Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism: “In a note to Molotov written in 1930, Stalin stressed the need to increase vodka production to pay for military expansion in view of the imminent danger of Polish attack. Within a few years, state vodka production had expanded to supply as much as a fifth of total state revenue; by the middle of the decade, vodka had become the most important commodity in state commercial stores.[44]

This was not new. Elert finds some amazing statistics from the Siberian expeditions of the 18th century. “According to regulations, a private of marine detachments was procured monthly with 16 charkas (cups) of vodka (a charka contained about 130 milliliters, that is privates were given about 68 milliliters of vodka daily) and 60 mugs of beer (a mug
contained about 1.625 liters, that is the average daily norm was 3.2 liters. “ Six pints of beer per day, plus a good sized vodka chaser.

The ethno-history of the psychoactive revolution – Courtwright’s name for the massive global trade in sugar, tobacco, coffee, tea, alcohol, opium, hashish, and then all the synthetics – which came in waves, from the 16th century up to this very moment – has been written either from the provincial perspective of crime, or the narratives of fiction. Epidemiology only gives us its statistical epidermis. Economics, of course, sees all commodities as ‘widgets’. Yet, stepping back, one notices a strange global pattern in which the state – the Imperialist state - operates as both pusher and cop. Not only did the slave labor that was massively enrolled to grow and refine these ‘necessary exotics’ decisively shape third world societies in the modern era, but the distribution of the psychoactives to indigenous populations served both as a buffer allowing for the acculturation of the harsh “free labor’ regime that succeeded slavery, and as an agent of moral disintegration to destroy rural idiocy – or nomadic idiocy, or the idiocy of island societies. Famously, North American Indian societies were demoralized by the alternatives of being marketed liquor and being ‘reservationed’ in order to protect them from liquor – among other things. The same thing has happened to the Australian aborigines, or the Papuans.

In a rather famous paper, ‘Alcohol and Ethnography’, Robin Room has claimed that anthropologists, who come from the ‘wet generation’ – the generation that, in reaction to the disastrous temperance experiment of the 10s and 20s, is ultra-cautious about the policy of alcohol control and inclined to see the social side of drinking – refuse to look at the epidemiological facts. However, he doesn’t extend his critique to all psychoactives. The sugar that has become a standard ingredient of processed foods has had a devastating effect, in terms of obesity and diabetes mellitus, on indigenous peoples around the world. Yet the epidemiological fact that this is happening has elicited little interest in the social forces that bring together sugar and the native – or natural, the old phrase from King James time. The naturals, the clowns, the marked down populations, the human product – the targets. Only an economics that is informed by ecology can really help us distinguish psychoactive commodities from others, and try to make sense of the history of modernity.

There is a nostalgic strain within anthropology that posits a twofold history of alcohol, in the first phase of which alcohol was controlled ritualistically. It was part of Bakhtin’s world of the carnival. But as the structures of ritual fell apart – as, in my vocabulary, ritual gave way to routine – the old controls on drunkenness were gone. The idea that drinking was, before, in a setting such that it would be controlled ‘naturally’ seems doubtful – one has simply to look at Gmelin’s description of Siberian villages to see that psychoactives have always possessed a chaotic force. But it may be true that old forms of demoralization – old forms in which demoralization was part of the entire life of the village – were supplanted by new forms that couldn’t be so controlled.
Because that world of routines is so defined by the division of labor, we don’t see other character types – it is as if they disappeared. It does seem to me that the drunk certainly has taken on certain characteristics of the holy fool, or yurodivya. One of the few papers that looks at drunks from the point of view of their social role – Philip Dennis’ The role of the drunk in a Oaxacan village (1976) notices the privilege accorded to the drunk.

IN AMILPAS, a village in the Valley of Oaxaca,2 a drunk wanders down the street, lurching from side to side and shouting insults at all he encounters. Little children run indoors, and people approaching from the other direction dodge off into side streets to avoid meeting him. Ordinary village street life ceases as he approaches and resumes after he has passed. Local residents seem to regard drunks as one of the hazards of village life, along with rabid dogs and loose oxen. There is a similar element of physical danger: if the drunk is armed, he may injure someone, and, in fact, most intra-village quarrels and homicides occur after drinking. My wife and I have vivid memories of dashing into our adobe house along with neighbors when bullets from a street drunk started zinging through the trees. We thought he was shooting at our Coleman lantern!

Drunks do present real physical danger, especially when armed with pistol or machete. However, the social danger represented by the drunk seems to be feared almost as much as the actual physical danger. The drunk does not have to observe the polite conventions which allow everyday life to go on in the village. Instead of a polite, "Good morning, how did you awaken?" he may greet a fellow citizen with an accusation of stealing from the village treasury, failing to repay an old loan, making someone ill (witcheraft), or some other kind of misbehavior. The visiting anthropologist quickly learns that drunks are likely to accuse him of nefarious purposes: being an evangelist, selling data to an enemy village, using villagers for his own gain. Like his informants, he learns to avoid drunks and situations where drunks are congregated. The drunk is likely to say things that were better left unsaid, to voice suspicions that are only suspicions, and by their nature are incapable of being either proved or disproved. He threatens to tear down the polite facade of ordinary social life in the village.”

And so we come to the character type on the very limit of the allowable, the one who exploits embarrassment, who turns shamelessness into an instrument of social power, facing a social power that has assiduously supplied him or her with the psychoactive means, the social power that manufactures the human product – here we face a contradiction worth pondering, no? “Death and the devil looked at each other…”

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thoughts about Adam Smith's spectator

In Part III, Chapter 1 of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith unfolds the theory of the ‘spectator’ that was soon take up, in Germany – by such thinkers as von Gentz, Smith’s translator, spy for the British, aid to Metternich, a factotum of reaction and yet, a romantic – and in Russia by Karamzin.

So, what is the moral role of the spectator and how does it relate to sympathy?

First, Smith posits a certain irreducible sociability that is natural to man.

“The principle by which we naturally either approve or disapprove of our own conduct, seems to be altogether the same with that by which we exercise the like judgments concerning the conduct of other people. We either approve or disapprove of the conduct of another man according as we feel that, when we bring his case home to ourselves, we either can or cannot entirely sympathize with the sentiments and motives which directed it.”

This is a rather odd way of going about looking at the origin of our moral sentiments – the question that occupies the chapter. Instead of an origin, we have, from the beginning, a circuit of projections, in which the need for a principle of approving or disapproving our conduct is assumed to be already in place. In fact, this principle and society are so bound together that without the latter, the former shatters:

“Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face.”

The mirror is the first moral technology – Smith continually refers to approbation and disapprobation as being formally the same kind of thing, whether it refers to the form of the body or the form of the action. Whether the former is pleasing or not (on what level and to what purpose he does not say - myself, the good freudian, I suspect that we could dive into the blank of sexual desire here and not come out for a long, long time) is a model for the way in which one decides whether an action is pleasing or not. The whole machinery of sympathy can’t get going until we can sympathize with ourselves – that is, in a sense, until we can identify ourselves with our image in the mirror.

The mirror, here, by a quite orthodox metamorphosis of tropes, becomes a theater, and the self a spectator; and Theater then becomes the courtroom, the chamber of judgment.

“We suppose ourselves the spectators of our own behaviour, and endeavour to imagine what effect it would, in this light, produce upon us. This is the only looking-glass by which we can, in some measure, with the eyes of other people, scrutinize the propriety of our own conduct. If in this view it pleases us, we are tolerably satisfied. We can be more indifferent about the applause, and, in some measure, despise the censure of the world. secure that, however misunderstood or misrepresented, we are the natural and proper objects of approbation. On the contrary, if we are doubtful about it, we are often, upon that very account, more anxious to gain their approbation, and, provided we have not already, as they say, shaken hands with infamy, we are altogether distracted at the thoughts of their censure, which then strikes us with double severity.
When I endeavour to examine my own conduct, when I endeavour to pass sentence upon it, and either to approve or condemn it, it is evident that, in all such cases, I divide myself, as it were, into two persons; and that I, the examiner and judge, represent a different character from that other I, the person whose conduct is examined into and judged of. The first is the spectator, whose sentiments with regard to my own conduct I endeavour to enter into, by placing myself in his situation, and by considering how it would appear to me, when seen from that particular point of view. The second is the agent, the person whom I properly call myself, and of whose conduct, under the character of a spectator, I was endeavouring to form some opinion.”

These links – the mirror, the theater, the courtroom – are not new. Shakespeare of course plays with these same tropes, and he gets it from a humanist tradition that goes back to the Roman moralists and to St. Paul. But one remembers that the Pauline tradition shows a proper mistrust of the glass into which one peers; and the stoic tradition used the metaphor of theater as one of the instruments by which the sage divests himself of the delusions he is surrounded with – to know that one is playing a part is an advance towards playing no part at all – for nature is the end, not the beginning, of culture. As in Epictetus’s Discourse:

“…remember that tragedies have their place among the rich and kings and tyrants, but no poor man fills a part in a tragedy except as one of the Chorus. Kings indeed commence with prosperity: “ornament the palace with garlands”: then about the third or fourth act they call out, “Oh Cithaeron, why didst thou receive me?” Slave where are the crowns, where the diadem? The guards help thee not at all. When then you approach any of these persons remember this that you are approaching a tragedian, not the actor but Oedipus himself.”

The Enlightenment philosophes inherited stoicism as the counter-ideology to Christianity, a hidden code developed by the humanists since the time of the Renaissance – and there was a great outcry when La Mettrie, for instance, attacked and mocked that code publicly. But in actual fact that code had been disgarded long before, by the libertines and their salon culture. Oedipus, in Smith’s view, will only find when he approaches himself that he himself is a spectator and an actor (and in deforming himself by tearing out his eyes, Oedipus performs the ultimate anti-social act under the terms of Smith’s moral sentiments – for what could be more morally suspect than to damage one’s face, that very model of the self, and to make it structurally impossible to gaze into the mirror? Nature is not an end, then, and we see in a glass now in order to learn sympathy – caritas – and not pride. Smash the mirror and one smashes society itself.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Politics as theater, theater as the mask of interest

“… he himself was known as the Moor or Old Nick on account of his dark complexion and sinister appearance.” – Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx, his life and environment.

The sinister appearance is, of course, Berlin’s own sly Cold War addition to the reasons given after Marx’s death, by Mehring and Liebknecht, for the nickname that had attached itself to Marx in his student days in Berlin – and one he was apparently fond of. In one of his last letters to Engels, he signs himself, “Old Mohr.” Mehring claimed that this was his nickname among his daughters and his wife. Jerrold Siegel, in Marx’s Fate, makes an intriguing argument that the nickname is overdetermined – referring as much to Karl Moor – the disenfranchised son in Schiller’s The Robbers, as to Marx’s skin color.

Marx as the Moor and Marx as Karl Moor the robber – it is as if the spirit of Marx future passes over the face of Marx past and present, as the Mohr and the Moor keep signifying, the perpetual alien in the midst of the great transformation – that opponent on the edges to imperial power – and the more fairy tale like robber chief, out of the peasant’s mouth. Remember, Schiller was, as well, Dmitri Karamazov’s poet – as well as the critic Grigori’ev, on whom Dmitri was partly modeled, the theorist who divided Russia into predator and prey, the alien aristocracy and the authentic Russian people.

The Old Mohr ‘s bent towards seeing politics in terms of theater was more than a favorite metaphor – or rather, one might well ask why it was a favorite metaphor. On Limited Inc, I have doggedly but intermittently pursued the notion of the adventurer – not a category resolvable into the division of labor, or of class, but one that traverses classes – as a ground form for the artist and the politician. Marx’s own sense of the theatricality of politicians – and his lack of a sense, at least until the 1870s, for politics as an institution distinct from class interest – is an important element in Marx’s political writings. Often, the enemy – Palmerston, for instance – is appreciated in literally theatrical terms:

“In the last weeks, "Punch" has fallen into the habit of masking Lord Palmerston as the clown of a puppetplay. This clown is a well known disturber of the peace by profession, a lover of drunken beatings, a hatcher of scandalous misunderstandings, a virtuoso of brawls, only at home in the midst of general confusion, that he directs, in which he throws the wife, child and finally even the police officer out the window, in order in the end, after much ado about nothing, he slips out of the noose himself, more or less unscathed and with teasing ‘concern’ about the course of the scandal.” – Marx, 1855, "Neue Oder-Zeitung, my translation.

Where would Marx have seen this puppetplay? Hampstead Heath, to which he and Jenny and the daughters would repair on Sunday outings, according to Wilhelm Liebknecht (who also called him Mohr). Marx, after all, came from a generation of German intellectuals who read their Wilhelm Meister, and knew that all the old gods were behind the puppet play.

In the fifties, Marx developed his greatest analysis of politics as theater in The fourteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Here, and in his articles for the New York Tribune, Marx sets forth his idea that politics is the expression of class interest. His theatrical metaphors always point to the fact that politics lacks any structure of its own. There are the players, and there is the audience. Aesthetics and politics melt together:

Men (Die Menschen) make their own history, but they don’t make it out of free pieces, nor under self chose circumstances, but rather under immediately found, given and inherited ones. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And when they seem busy overturning themselves and the things, in order to create what hasn’t yet been, even in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they fearfully conjure (beschwören) the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing their names, battle cries, costumes in order in these worthy garments and with these lent speeches to make new scenes of world history [neuen Weltgeschichtsszene] Thus, Luther donned the mask of Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in that of the Roman Republic and Empire, and the Revoluton of 1848 knew nothing better to do than here to parody 1789, there, the revolutionary tradition of 1793-1795. [My translation]

Similarly, when giving political advice, Marx does not think of parties – he thinks directly of worker’s associations. In his address to the Central committee of the Communist League [Bund] of 1850, Marx’s advice is given not in terms of parliamentary procedures, or in terms even of a party – though we might retrospectively suppose that the Bund was just that. Rather, this is the snare of the petty bourgeois democrats, who want to enroll the workers in “a party organization, in which general social-democratic phrases dominate, behind which their particular interests are hiding, and in which the specific demands of the proletariat for the sake of dear peace must not be brought forward. The outcome of such a union will be wholly to their benefit and wholly to the disadvantage of the proletariat.”

And so it is through theater that the true interest of the workers, in the political sphere, are lost – although it is also through theater that the fearful revolutionaries, who have appeared in spite of themselves on the world historical stage, give themselves the courage to act.

Certainly one could argue that Marx was right, in regard to the interests of the working class. But it is just on this point – the point of interest, the point of defining classes by their interest and politics as an instrument of interest – that we have a gap in the analysis. Why, exactly, is theater called for here? How is it possible, if politics is simply costume and masking, to ‘fool’ the audience? While Marx certainly has the fundamental elements in his hands in the 1850s, what he doesn’t have a comprehensive sense of interests yet. He has, instead, a strong, Machiavellian sense of politics as theater, and a growing sense of how the capitalistic economic system works. In order to gain an anthropological and sociological – rather than theatrical – sense of politics, he needs something more than the Enlightenment theory of mysterious superstitions, or the idea of religion as a palliative for pain – the opium of the people. He will have to root out from himself, in making his universal history, certain assumptions about interest – about benefits (Vorteile) and disadvantages (Nachteile). He will have to learn to measure on multiple scales.

Friday, December 11, 2009

ho ho!

Well, I've been an idiot. A couple of people told me I made the cut at 3 quarks, but I thought they were talking about Duncan's original nomination of me. But no - apparently this blog made the second cut. Hey hey! A round of tiaras, if you please.

At this point, we have to advice our readers that if we win, or place third or something, we will become swollen headed and arrogant, trample over the people who have helped us to the top, and in general act like Ann Baxter in All about Eve.

You've been warned.

more on climategate

I am fearfully and wonderfully made, the Psalmist wrote. The same thing can be said for any scientific theory. Far more convincing than the ‘fact’ that there is a scientific consensus on global warming is the fact that the literature on the measures and mechanisms of climate has become global itself over the last thirty years, and is in that stage in which numbers of models are thrown up to address the thousand and one anomalies suggested by the data flow. Climatology and its provinces – climate botany, mineralogy, hydrology, physics – is really a subordinate to earth system science. And we are watching its rich period, when multiple climate ‘objects’ are constructed. Although I am not happy with the common ‘construction’ word, with the implication of human agency and intention, for it doesn’t quite stretch far enough to tell us how these objects appear, often quite unexpectedly. I am fearfully and wonderfully made, but my runny nose isn’t – its an unexpected result of the making. And thus we may speak of all constructed objects with this precaution, which is that they tend to construct in turn.

Out of all that information, picking out a trend in global climate, if there is one, has been no mean task. One of the things that separates the denialist cult from the science of climatology has been the refusal to assess this vast amount of data in scientific terms – looking for links, explanations, tendencies. Rather, it is dealt with on the level of a political issue, period. This is why Easterly’s blog post was such an exercise in charlatanism, from the oozy intro of Crook to the foreshortened and ignorant reference to the Wegman committee to the completely comic ‘shock’ expressed by the idea that one group of scientists would try to suppress the views of another – comic because Easterly’s discipline, economics, is notorious for such things. I have no need to go into the Cowles commission – one merely has to point to the experience of Card and Krueger, economists whose data suggest that the minimum wage doesn’t cause unemployment, a sacred canon among the neo-classicals, and the backlash against the two. Here’s a taste of the rhetoric Krueger stirs up, from something called the Economics Policy Journal blog:

“Alan B. Krueger is co-author with David Card of Myth and Measurement . Somehow in this book, they manage to throw overboard the law of supply and demand, to reach the conclusion that "the claim, that a higher minimum wage cuts jobs, lacks support."

At one point, they report among a number of "main empirical findings" that (page 3):
Increases in the minimum wage also generate a "ripple effect", leading to pay raises for workers who previously earned wages above the minimum wage.
It is difficult to understand how Card and Krueger can even be considered economists with such beliefs. If one does not believe in the law of supply and demand for the labor market, can one believe in the law of supply and demand, at all, for any market?”

I can’t imagine, say, Chicago School economist John Cochrane disagreeing with that. If the empirical evidence goes against the theory, in economics – throw out the evidence.

However, basta, I have other fish to fry in this post. I want to show how the evidence for climate change – Global Warming, to give it the press name - relates to the general framework of climatology.

From a common sense perspective, the argument for global warming is not problematic. That is, we have every reason to expect that an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (for instance, CO2), in the absence of any organic or earth systems means to capture or recycle that increase, will have an effect on the atmosphere and ultimately on the globe proportionate to its chemical and energetic nature. The Superfreakonomics guys failed to understand this elementary fact, although they quote with approval the man who most clearly sketched it out, Ken Caldeira. Here’s a pertinent quote, from John O’Donnell, formerly of Princeton’s Plasma Physics lab, now a VP for a Solar energy company, reprising the Caldeira presentation regarding Carbon Dioxide:

…each molecule of CO2 released thermal energy when it was formed — that’s why we formed it. In the case of electricity generation, about 1/3 of its thermal energy went out a wire as electric power, the rest was released promptly as waste heat. But each molecule of CO2, during its subsequent lifetime in the atmosphere, traps 100,000 times more heat than was released during its formation.”

Thus, from a common sense view, CO2 would seem as likely to warm the earth as starting a fire in your fireplace is likely to warm your living room. Or, indeed, as the gasoline in your combustion engine is likely to run the car.

But the common sense view does not take in the great feedback system that takes that greenhouse gas, and others, out of the atmosphere. Throwing in a complex set of negative and positive feedbacks (the latter being things like, the more water warms, the less it can absorb CO2, and the former being things like, the more CO2, the richer the leafage of certain plants), common sense only gets us as far as a hypothesis. [For an overview of simulations of CO2 increases in the atmosphere, see Multicentury Changes to the Global Climate and Carbon Cycle: Results from a Coupled Climate and Carbon Cycle Model by G. BALA, K. CALDEIRA, A. MIRIN, AND M. WICKETT in Journal of Climate, November 2005.]

It is important to note, here, that the denialist case has to deal with the common sense framework, too. Either they have to show that the CO2 is somehow absorbed, or that its energetic effects are blunted, or that the capacity of the earth system is such that the increase in thermal energy is a wash.

Now, given this starting point, one wants to get a crude sense of the history of the system – the system of climate. In fact, we have only a very tiny sample of the earth’s climate to go on – good continuous records of air temperature don’t go back very far, at most, in some places in England and France, 200 or so years. Reconstructing the climate over the last 4 billion years is, then, a matter of a great deal of deductive work. One needs clues. One of those clues is, indeed, the mix of gases in the atmosphere, which is why ice cores from Greenland, the Arctic and Antarctica are so important to climatology. Here we bump into a fact that seems to be unappreciated in the popular discussion of global warming – when we quote the scientists about past climates, we are quoting theories that depend on our knowledge of the present climate system. In other words, assumptions about the effects of greenhouse gases are implicit in these past climate projections. Thus, we ‘know’ that there was a temperate spike in the Eocene – the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum – because we read the evidence with the same tools that are now being applied to the present climate. We’ve taken drillings from the ocean floor and analyzed them “through measurement of stable oxygen isotopes”. [Huber, McCleod, Wing, 198] And after the hypothesis of a massive and sudden increase in the temperature of the oceans, scientists looked around for causes and found evidence for a massive release of… a greenhouse gas. Methane. The gas that is trapped, by the way, in the tundra, which at the moment is, according to every reasonable ground temperature measurement, warming up considerably – in geological time, the warming is split second.

Thus, it looks like the denialist position not just go against the scientific ‘consensus’ – it must present a different picture of climate patterns in as much as those patterns are consistent with and read by our current climatology paradigm. It can get around this task by claiming that, a, the statistical models used to put together disparate weather data into trends is flawed, or b, by citing counter evidence that would show, for instance, that the CO2 is not having the effect that is being claimed for it.

You’ll note I’ve left out of account the whole anthrogenic vs. sunspot controversy. I leave it out because it is based on a misreading of the global warming claim. That claim is primarily about the increase in CO2 and its effects, and secondarily about the source of that increase. The climate can warm or cool without anthrogenic intervention. This has been picked up by denialists, curiously enough, as some superargument. Here we leave science per se, and enter the realms of social pathologies, where the argument is really about blame and honor. I love to blame my own self – one of my favorite things – but this counts for little in the controversy thus far.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

the existential issues in the global warming debate

I am thinking about climate denialism with relation to one of the great questions in sociology, which goes: “what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

Indeed. When I was in Atlanta for Thanksgiving, I had a discussion with Doug, my levelheaded brother, about global warming. Doug is – or at least, I hope he is going to be – the thermostat king of the Southeast. At the moment, he is making good money replacing thermostats at various heavy use sites, like hotels. Long may those day renters fiddle with their hot and cold!

And so, like my brother Dan, and unlike me, he strides about in the world, rubs shoulders with plenty of talk radio listeners, middle managers, the salt of the earth who have spent their allotted time building their precarious monuments to the self of houses, pickup trucks, entertainment centers, skill sets, marriages, kids. They are the main, and I am not part of the main. I am an island. I work alone, editing mostly academic papers, never really seeing my customers, and all my monuments to self have crumbled to the ground before my eyes.

Everybody has an edge. My edge is that I am a loser. But – because that, too, must be wiped away from the perceptive apparatus in order to see clearly - I defer to my bro in terms of his grasp of the social psychology of the American middle class.

So I asked him if one of my intuitions is right. I’ve long thought that the reason the great American middle (Southeast division, at least) is so convinced that the issue of global warming is fake is because that middle thinks that this is a sneaky way to blame it. The Americans fought communism because they felt the communists blamed them for their lifestyles – although at least the communists could be said to envy those lifestyles, and want to take them over and use them for their own obscure purposes. But to these people, the environmentalists are worse – they just want to destroy everything for the birds and the beasts. They aren’t even pro-human.

Doug did think that I was partly right. The people he talks to, the main, do feel like they are being blamed for global warming.

Paul Krugman’s blog, today, is about why global warming seems to turn up the crazy. Climate rage, he calls it. He has two explanations:

“First, environmentalism is the ultimate “Mommy party” issue. Real men punish evildoers; they don’t adjust their lifestyles to protect the planet. (Here’s some polling to that effect.)

Second, climate change runs up against the anti-intellectual streak in America.”

I think Krugman may have grasped surface aspects of the issue, but not the deep structure. That structure is existential. The blame is existential (you are condemned for your entire way of life) and the resentment is existential (you are condemning me for my entire way of life – and who are you?).

The science of climate change enters into the matrix of blame and counter-blame in America and makes an emotionally charged demand: that one take an objective look at the totality of American lifestyles. What this demand ignores is that objectivity is not emotionally neutral. On the contrary, objectivity touches on humanity’s greatest fear – the fear of being prey, of appearing without any excuse or mitigation in the hunter’s gunsight.

Thus, the pettiness and superstition that has become the vernacular of denialism is not, I think, simply about American “anti-intellectualism.” One of the things I have disliked from the very soles of my feet about the pro-science side of the climate change debate is the reliance on authority, instead of argument – the scientists have formed a ‘consensus’, so that answers the question. Climate gate shows that, as one would expect, a consensus is a political thing, which consists of infinite strategizing. Real anti-intellectualizing occurs only when intellectuals are treated as authorities to whom we, who have presumably gone through high school and can judge for ourselves, are supposed to bow down.

I see that appeal on the liberal blogs a lot – plus the disciplinary policing. And I think: this is bullshit. It donfuses respect with belief.

Any amateur – myself, for instance – should be able to grasp the objective issues of climatology, and judge for themselves the evidences for the climate change – which, while called global warming, doesn’t necessarily mean uniform warming in all places on Earth at all times. It seems to me that the climatologists have created a very impressive case – and they have done so not by moving from certainty to certainty (which would be prima facie evidence that something funny is going on), but by the stumbling, adjusting, adhoc-ery that is the real history of science, from germ theory to quantum physics. In my opinion, the image of consensus –by concealing the real work of science – actually undermines the case for climate change. It makes any discrepancy seem like a matter that discredits the whole, and makes the scientists seem like conspirators, “covering up’ things. In fact, discrepancies are to be expected. The models that climatologists use to project the sum of the earth’s weather not only go forward, into the future, but go back, into the past. But what are they made of? They are made out of information we have gathered from the relatively puny percentage of earth time where we have recorded temperatures – 150 years out of the Earth’s 4.5 billion. We build a structure that both projects and retrojects climate conditions. Our structure is shaky. And will probably so remain – science being about probabilities, not certainties. It is not, though, as shaky as, say, the market in derivatives.

So, let’s take up state of the art in dendrochronology in our next post.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Bill Easterly, denialist

“After the EPI gathering, Peter Dorman, an economist at Evergreen State College with a gentle, bearded air, related an e-mail exchange he once had with Hal Varian, a well-respected Berkeley economist who's moderately liberal but firmly committed to the neoclassical approach. Varian wrote to Dorman that there was no point in presenting "both sides" of the debate about trade, because one side--the view that benefits from unfettered trade are absolute--was like astronomy, while any other view was like astrology. "So I told him I didn't buy the traditional trade theory," Dorman said. "'Was I an astrologer?' And he said yes!" – Christopher Hayes, Nation.

After Chris Hayes’ article came out, there was approximately zero voices calling for Varian’s head because he was “suppressing” the other side of the trade debate. On the other hand, Climategate, the latest adventure in rightwing massaging of the news as rightwing coup, has already produced a scalp: Phil Jones, the head of the Climactic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, whose emails showed that he thought “one side – the global warming side – was absolute” enough to deny a venue to climate change denialists, has fallen on his sword.

Here's what happened: Russian hacks (paid by somebody) steal a cache of emails, which show that Jones worked hard to prevent the appearance of the opinion of two dissenting climate scientists in the IPCC report in 1999. And then there is this (from the Times (UK): “Phil Jones, talks about using a “trick” to “hide the decline”. At first reading, this easily translates as “deceiving [politicians, other scientists, everyone] into believing the world is warming when it is actually cooling”.
… Jones is talking about a line on a graph for the cover of a World Meteorological Organisation report, published in 2000, which shows the results of different attempts to reconstruct temperature over the past 1,000 years. The line represents one particular attempt, using tree-ring data for temperature. The method agrees with actual measurements before about 1960, but diverges from them after that — for reasons only partly understood, discussed in the literature."

The news as shock tactic has, by now, a familiar shape. After the rightwing bloggers and tv news people cycle a version of these events, it is time for the brigade of “serious” right wing personalities to show that, more in sorrow than in anger, they too are now coming to see the nefarious business of climatology for what it is. Bill Easterly, well known for his anti-foreign aid positions in economics (and not known at all for protesting at the “suppression” of anti-free trade positions in economics), mentions such well known climate scientists as Clive Crook and George Will as bringing sweetness and light to the subject. Here is how he introduces Crook:

“Clive Crook is such a calm, sensible, non-ideological voice, that if you ever get him really upset, you’re in deep trouble.”

Of course, that introduction is, to say the least, odd. Crook is far from non-ideological, unless by that we mean, committed to a neo-classical version of economic theory with a few neo-Keynsian highlights. More importantly, in those Homeric epithets, we read nothing about his contribution to climate science, or, really, to anything. Rather, Easterly is slyly leading the witness, so that we accept him as a moral entrepreneur.

And as this voice of calm, of course, Crook lashes out – why, the East Anglica suppression of dissent ‘stinks”.
And then we get this bit:

“One problem that Clive points out is that some climate scientists don’t know that much about statistics and show little interest in consulting statisticians even while they are basing their finding on statistical analysis. The Wegman report on the “Hockey Stick” controversy has this amazing summary:

It is important to note the isolation of the paleoclimate community; even though they rely heavily on statistical methods they do not seem to be interacting with the statistical community.

Once the real statisticians looked, one “Hockey Stick” result fell apart: the conclusion that the decade of the 1990s was the hottest decade of the millennium and that 1998 was the hottest year of the millennium cannot be supported by {the} analysis.”

Ah, that’s the spirit. Quote no real statistician whatsoever. Defame some members of the paleoclimate community, but don’t name any names there, either. Don’t reference any paper in which the ‘real statisticians’ looked at the numbers for the 1990s.

Don’t, for instance, reference this easily available account of an Academy of Science 2006 investigation, in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“This is not the first time Mann's work [the hockey stick] has been put to the test. In 2006, Texas A&M climatologist Gerry North was asked to lead an investigation for the National Academy of Sciences.

North worked with three statisticians and several high-ranking climate experts, picking through Mann's arguments and data. He said the panel came away with a few quibbles over Mann's methods and when they re-did it, the graph didn't have as dramatic an upward slant as the original hockey stick.
But overall, "we thought that qualitatively the paper got it right. The last 30 years were warmer than any 30-year period in the last 600 years and plausibly the last 1,000 years."

North said he did not agree with the way that some other researchers created a continuous graph of global temperatures over the last 1,000 years by combining the proxy data in the past with thermometer data in recent years.”

This information is available to Easterly. Because he is a tenured academic, he can shovel misleading information all day and all night on his blog, and nobody will “suppress” him. But we should emphasize again and again that Easterly could not name a single “real” statistician who has published any paper in any journal with the results he claims, or rather quotes our non-ideological puppy dog as claiming. Unfortunately, Easterly is one of the pr academics, so they will quote him as an expert as he carries water for a rightwing propaganda machine. That is who he is.

Now, if we want to actually ask ourselves what this controversy is about, we should do a little research. I did some. I went to factiva, Jstor and Ebsco. Relatively easy things to do. I know, researching for such as Easterly might be hard to do – that is why he has grad student factotums. I don’t even know if he has ever heard of JSTOR. He should check out the wonderful world of research some time, though. He might even bump into a “real” statistician.

I did. As has been pointed out, the problem climatologists face, at the moment, is not the fudging of the temperatures. It is the paucity of temperature readings. After all, climate change involves shifts not only in day peak temperatures, but ground temperatures, water temperatures, and night temperatures. We did not have satellites a hundred years ago. But paleoclimatologists have learned to use indirect clues. They use, for instance, the presence of fossil evidence of animals whose habitats they know about to map older regimes of climate. They use fossilized pollen to understand what flora flourished in this or that geographic zone. And they use tree rings.
Generally, when trees are growing under optimum conditions, the rings are farther apart – the growth is more robust – then when they are growing under sub-optimum conditions. Weather is a part of this. So, too, are insect infestations, or indirect results oif weather – for instance, a canopy of higher deciduous trees can shadow a conifer, which would produce suboptimum growth.

Thus, we are looking for a variety of factors. This is a classic problem – it pops up in, for instance, measuring inflation. If I broke into the emails exchanged between members of the Boskin commission, which re-wrote the measurement of inflation in the 1990s, I am almost positive I’d find reference to tricks. As Easterly probably knows, the word trick is often used for technique – the trick is to do such and such. So when we apply hedonics to products to estimate how much better they are, we are applying a trick. But in fact, even before the Boskin commission, inflation estimates are always full of tricks. We have to weight variables. So, too, we have to weight variables in the case of the evidence of climate change. Just as the inflation of the price of, say, housing might not indicate overall inflation, so, too, the record of tree rings does not straightforwardly indicate climate change.

This is so supersecret, so covered up in the climatology community that it has a special name - the divergence problem – and a whole issue of Climate Change, edited by Jan Esper and David Frank, two Swiss scientists, was devoted to the issue this June.

Those are good names to remember, because Esper, Frank, Wilson, Carrer, and Urbanati wrote a paper that is statistically heavy entitled Testing for tree-ring divergence in the European Alps. It has statistics that even a genius, a sheer calm non-ideological titan like Clive Crook might be impressed – might even utter a non-ideological sigh, as he summoned, via ESP, his “real” statistician. Who I suspect is his booky.

This team had an advantage in that the Swiss Alps is a pretty well recorded area for the last 150 years. The record shows, as one would expect, that since the end of what Brian Fagan calls the little ice age – in around 1850 – temperatures have been rising in this area. So, they looked at the tree ring record and asked whether it can be reconciled to the temperature reports. If it couldn’t, that would be bad news, of course – that would mean that our projection of tree ring records into the past was skewed.

I’ll simply quote the abstract, here: “Here, we present a network of 124 larch and
spruce sites across the European Alpine arc. Tree-ring width chronologies from 40 larch and 24 spruce sites were selected based on their correlation with early (1864–1933) instrumental temperatures to assess their ability of tracking recent (1934–2003) temperature variations. After the tree-ring series of both species were detrended in a manner that allows low-frequency variations to be preserved and scaled against summer temperatures, no unusual late 20th century DP is found. Independent tree-ring width and density evidence for unprecedented late 20th century temperatures with respect to the past millennium further reinforces our results.”

Now, there is nothing as exciting here as, say, a totally convincing, unreferenced superreal, indeed surreal statistician, who is just pounding away on the temperature record. But this is a humble, like, real reference to real scientists studying real evidence. This is generally a foreign and yucky thing to economists. We know that Easterly could not, if challenged, find a single credible source for saying that the temperatures of the 90s were not the hottest of the decade. He just can't, which is why he hides conflates criticism of Mannn's hockey stick model with the temperature record. Easterly's blog post is sheer charlatanism. To quote our ever non-ideological friend, Crook, Easterly “stinks.”

PS - for more about the Wegman committee, see this link. I was amused to see that the Wegman group spent some time making up a social network chart to show how climatologists were 'incestuous' - too closely linked to each other. Meanwhile, Wegman appointed two other people to investigate the global warming stats, one of whom was a former student. I must say, the right is nothing if not boldfaced.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Special pleading

Nicole at Rough Theory has a nice post up here about me. It helps me over a problem: on the one hand, I'd like to urge my readers to rush on over to 3 quarks and vote for me - on the other hand, that is a tacky gesture. But the hands don't have it - this is not either/or. In the sphere of rules, I have always believed, there are holidays. Which is the difference between me and the late Mr. Immanuel Kant, of Koenigsburg, Prussia. Also, there is the matter of the daily walk and the occasional powdered wig.

The deal is, Duncan nominated me for this post. I'm flattered, and, as you love me, so should you go to the 3 quarks site and vote for this blog.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Review of One Dimensional Woman

La mère en prescrira la lecture à sa fille… -The epigraph of Philosophe dans le boudoir.

There is a story about the French feminist, Pauline Roland, that goes like this. In 1848, a faction of the socialist saint simonians had gathered together in Broussac, a village about 13 miles from Nohant, under their leader, Pierre Leroux. George Sand, who lived in Nohant, had been the one to persuade Leroux to move the village after Leroux had been officially exiled from Paris as a radical. Leroux, in turn, invited Roland to live in Broussac and assume the duties of a teacher. At the time Roland was being financially crushed under the burden of supporting her three children by her own labors; she did this because she had no intention of letting the fathers of these children intervene in any way in their lives. Thus, she felt that they had no duty to provide for the children – on the contrary. Paternity, she proclaimed, was a superstitious imposition. Another superstitious imposition, the monarchy, fell in France in 1848, and elections were subsequently held in, among other places, Broussac. Roland went to the town hall and tried to cast a ballot for Leroux, only to be refused admission. The story goes that when the police took her in for her attempted vote, she told them that she was “Marie Antoinette” Roland.

I think there is something deep about this story. On the one hand, Pauline Roland was a socialist. After her stay in Broussac, she returned to Paris and was an active member of the workers’ association that briefly sprang up in that city. It was for this subversive activity (as well as for “feminism” and “moral degeneracy”) that she was tried under Louis Napoleon and exiled to Algeria. According to the memoirs of a member of the printers union, Bosson, Roland had shrewdly sized Louis Napoleon up and was scathing about the way some union leaders – notably Leroux – were still unclear about Louis Napoleon’s intentions on the evve of the coup d’etat in 1851: “Pierre Leroux made an incredulous smile, he told me: I know my little Louis, he is incapable! Pauline Roland who was a frail creature, a mere breath, jumped about like a lamb: Your little Louis! But I love a thousand times more the butcher Cavaignac [leader of the reaction] than your little Louis!” [see Paul Chauvet]

On the other hand, as she knew – and as feminist historians from Marie d’Agoult to Joan Landes have noticed – the status of women worsened during the time of the French Revolution. The Romantic revenge against the women of the eighteenth century was codified in Napoleonic law. The great melody of equality, which found its voice in Olympe de Gouges and Condorcet, had its head cut off – for not only did Gouges, among other ultra women, go to the guillotine, but the culture of the salons, in which women, as Landes put it, could be the ‘adjuncts’ of power, was targeted for destruction by the revolutionaries and, to an extent, by Napoleon (whose vulgarities regarding Madame de Stael would have been looked upon as extremely distasteful under the ancien regime). By an irony of circumstances, Roland’s final trial, staged by Leroux’s “little Louis”, was less about her subversive activities than her shocking behavior as a wanton woman and a mother – which was exactly how Hebert had stage managed the case against Marie Antoinette in 1793.

‘Marie Antoinette’ Roland names, I think, the tension between feminism and the left. In the seventies, some feminists tried to straddle that tension by identifying patriarchy with capitalism. However, I can’t see this as anything other than a tactic of conceptual desperation, and certainly not a logical conclusion drawn from history.

The tension between a left that subsumes the historical female difference to reproduction (in keeping with a logic that can only see systems of production) and a feminism that often collaborates in its own narrowing to a series of consumer choice runs all the way through Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman, which begins by asking: “Where have all the interesting women gone?” The book is in the fine tradition of the political pamphlet, which takes its first duty to be flinging some extreme truths in the face of the public. For in the pamphleteer’s soul, the truth is always and forever extreme. It is a genre that Power excels at.

The book is both a plea for a useable past and a summing up of the dreadful uses made of feminism in the 00s: the bad faith feminism that provided the cynical grounds for our neo-colonialist adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, shoulder to shoulder, of course, with Saudi Arabia, that paragon of women’s rights; or the extension of feminism to mean, anything connected with a powerful woman, however dubious her politics or economics; or the Sex and the City feminism that normalized the independent woman as a consumer of gourmet chocolates and a really really fun person who happens to be oh so charmingly for equal rights for women.

Right off the bat, I am predisposed to favor this book. It is not only that I am a fan of Nina Power’s blog, Infinite Thought. It is that I am an intellectual thief of that site. Her site, in many ways, taught me how to write my own blog. When I first starting reading Power, I had started my blog already. But I didn’t know how what tone exactly to take. Was I going to write small essays? Make a link machine for friends? Use it as my diary? Power was one of the first bloggers I read who had figured out the genre, at least to my satisfaction, and I took many of the things I wanted to do for most of this decade from Power’s stylistic suggestions. She had Djed the mix of the theoretical, the personal, and the colloquial that I knew, immediately, was what you could do with a blog. Later, her use of montage like use of shock or mock images, a la John Heartsfeld, was something I decided to slavishly imitate. I was a blogger with an unknown tropism, and Infinite Thought was my sun.

In particular, Power figured out how to lower the ego of the blog. Many blogs – and mine included – are long arias of me, which can get tedious over time. Power, however, uses language as something that she can stumble over, transforming egotism into slapstick. This isn’t British self effacement, but a sort of juggler’s fumble. All of those funny “erms” and curve ball rhetorical questions in her blog posts have a function. It is through these techniques that she establishes an intimacy with the reader – for the fumble is a hand outstretched. It is a contact. It is a gesture that reminds us of the author’s sovereign right to touch. Benjamin, in his essay on Leskov, speaks of the tactile moment in the story, when the storyteller touches the listener, puts his hand on the listener’s shoulder. That self-interruption, that way of making the language something that actually comes off the tongue and is thus heir to a death no word itself could feel, is an extremely subtle move in the internet world – it is a quick, golden flash – and you have to look for it - for mostly, on the internet, every intimacy has been mimicked to death, and the storyteller’s touch turns out to be the cold, cancerous hand of corporate speak, poking you in the eye.

Thus, I read One Dimensional Woman, Power’s first book, against her already pretty formidable output. Although the book sometimes jumps around “like a lamb”, betraying its blog origins, the extended meditation on pornography, sexpol utopias, and the contrast between radical feminism and what Power calls the current attitude of “deflationary acceptance” – the era of normalized feminism – is a continuous piece of cultural criticism of a pretty high order. I am extremely sympathetic to her viewpoint – I believe Power is advocating for the sociability of pleasure, or what used to be called “volupté.” Thus, she mostly avoids the pitfalls of the sterile opposition between pornography and erotica – and, though it may seem like an oxymoron, she calls for something like a Habermasian pornography (I never, ever thought I would put those two things together! The universe truly is the Library of Babel, and everything will eventually conjoin with everything else). This is a strength of her materialist and productionist viewpoint. The weakness, however, is that, while she does explore the history of dirty movies and the 80s drive, by some feminists, to ban them, she doesn’t explore the larger history of feminist strategies and the persistent fissure that exists between the left and feminism. McKinnon and Dworkin, after all, were by no means the first feminists to turn the movement into a fight against a social ‘vice’. Feminists in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in the Anglosphere – and even in Mexico – were allies, for instance, of the temperance movement. They crusaded against child labor, and against prostitution. Against the lineaments of gratified desire, feminism has always adduced the social fact of systematic violence – of drunken husbands beating wives, of the degradation, illness, and early death endemic to the prostitute’s trade, or – in the case of pornography – of the purported link with rape. Jane Gallup has suggested that feminism is divided between bad girl and good girl feminisms. One can question whether even irony can rescue that division from an infantilizing logic to which it reduces the feminist dialectic, but it does, at least, provide us with a sense of how feminism is divided on the question of the sociability of pleasure. In a sense, the normalization of feminism in the 00s, against which Power directs her polemic, is a normalization of a kind of bad girl feminism. For what is the solution to male drunkards beating their wives? Woman friendly alcohol. Woman friendly cigarettes, woman friendly porn, woman friendly products and services – by a strange dialectical twist, the bad girl alliance with the lineaments of gratified desire has driven this feminism into an advocacy of the female subject as an equal consumer.

Here, I wish Power had been a little more panoramic in her vision of feminism – and had not dealt simply with the movement as though it had sprung up almost exclusively in the late 1960s.

Yet this might be asking to much from a book that is intentionally as short as a bullet. What I really want to say, watching Power aimi for the heart of the era of normalized feminism, is: Shoot Nina! Shoot!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

baudelaire - a displaced post

I don’t love Lacan.
Derrida wrote an essay entitled For Love of Lacan. It was a reconciling essay, one of his frequent gestures of tendresse that are so in contrast with the guerrilla essays, like Limited Inc. Or a certain famous consideration of the postman of truth, starring Shem the Pissman and Shaun the post-postman. A folly and a frolic, that one. Derrida always had a surprisingly strong sense of solidarity with the community he wrote in, which is why his ethics exists under the sign of friendship. Which is one of the many reasons that I do love Derrida.

But I don’t love Lacan. And, in fact, I have rather despaired about a certain Lacanian vocabulary that has taken the place of a philosophical anthropology among left-leaning theorists. I know where it comes from, and I recognize that there was a historical and rhetorical necessity for some way of speaking of, say, the subject and the Other – but I feel in my bones that this moment has passed. Instead, the Lacanian vocabulary has become mechanical, ill motivated, unexamined, from the petit objet a to the notion that the unconscious is structured like a language – which I have a strong desire, a death wish, to bring down, as Samson brought down the temple of the Philistines.

As I am trying to interpret Baudelaire – and so release a certain image of the poet, let it unfold a destiny in my gnostic history of happiness – my thoughts keep turning to the other ‘addict’ – his semblable, his frere, E.A. Poe. Whose story, The facts in the case of M. Valdemar, is, according to an interview Derrida once gave, the silent third that accompanied the themes in Derrida’s first major text, on Husserl’s Essay on Geometry.

Poe is another transatlantic figure, a bi-locator born. And he figures in the story of Derrida and Lacan, who met for the first time in Baltimore:

“Thus, setting out again [je repars], when I met Lacan in Baltimore for the first time, in 1966, and when we were presented to each other by René Girard, his first word was, with a friendly smile: “So, we had to wait until we came here, in a foreign country, in order to meet!” And I remark here perhaps because of the problem of destiny-errance which awaits us and perhaps because of the name of death of Baltimore [bal de mort] (Baltimore, dance or trance and terror), Baltimore is also the city of Poe of whose grave I searched in vain in those days, but could in any case visit his house (I went to Poe’s place [chez Poe] in 1966, I remark here perhaps because of the name of death of Baltimore that the two unique times we met and we had spoken a little one with the other, it was a question of death between us and firstly in the mouth of Lacan. In Baltimore, for instance, he spoke to me of the way he thought he would be read after his death, and in particular, by me.”

PS- I am putting this post here, not at Limited Inc, where it belongs. I think I'll redo it for LI.