Friday, May 28, 2010

Our Humean rulers

The first time it struck me that the governing class in this country had embraced Hume's account of cause and effect was in the runup to the Iraq invasion. The military testified, out of their experience, that the occupation of a country the size of Iraq would certainly take 400 + thousand soldiers, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. This was immediately dismissed by the pro-war side, who had only contempt for the idea of cause and effect contained in this narrative. For them, cause and effect were simply constructed by custom, and thus infinitely subject to spin. Thus they set about designing and implementing an action (the cause) and pretended that no effect would occur - rather, we would find that Iraqis loved being invaded, that they would gladly pay us for the privilege of being invaded (which was, literally, what Wolfowitz told Congress) and that we could withdraw within three or four months. As these things didn't come to pass (along with many other things that didn't come to pass - flying horses, dancing sugarplumbs, and Santa Claus coming down the chimney), the elite decided the best policy was drift and obscure - drift along in the hope that something would happen, and obscure what was really happening.

The Murder of the Gulf of Mexico has the same structure. A progressive chattering class has let its mind drift to other things, hoping - for no good reason except the repetition of this by spokesmen in the news - that BP, which had caused the accident with no contingency plan, would whip one up in a heartbeat. Meanwhile, that the Obama administration simply let BP lie about the extent of the flow into the Gulf was part of the m.o. of - we can do nothing! A curious stance. In a world of hundreds of oil companies, many with deepsea experience, and with resources that allow us to buy up a trillion dollars of dirty 'securities' from the banks, we suddenly have neither a navy nor any other reserve of experience to call upon except that of BP, our hero.

The startling thing was that the same people who are ardent political junkies seemed to blank out the consequences of the spill. Cause, here, would simply lead to some spinnable opportunities. So we don't measure the outflow for 35 days, and even now have what is surely a lowball estimate - we don't call in the boats we have on hand and investigate the plumes blooming beneath the Gulf, one of which is spreading Mobile-ward - and we don't envision the effect of this, politically, when, say, Mobile doesn't have any uncontaminated fresh water. After all, cause can be followed, it appears, by anything - maybe Deepwater Horizon will start spewing out Hope you Can Believe in stickers.

I call this Humean, but probably one could analyse this better from the point of view of Piagetian child psychology. Our elites display the intellectual grasp of four year olds, since, after all, they spend their time immersed in atmospheres of entitlement and infantilization. It is interesting to watch the rot.

But sad for the Gulf.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

experiment three - crossposted

experiment three

My last post was not meant to show that Kierkegaard was directly influenced by the Mesmerists, or by the use of hypnosis, when he uses the term psychological experiment – although in fact, as he had taken psychology, he undoubtedly had read something about animal magnetism. But rather I wanted to show links here, chains, connections, intersignes, in which an eighteenth century scene of experiment/seduction is played out on a woman - Puysegur’s patient - who resists him, in the end, allowing him the fetish objects - shoe or bonnet - but nothing more. And I wanted the odd commonality of the fly swatter to stand out - passed from the patient's hand to C.C.'s, chasing after the revolutionary flies of Berlin.

Under the pressure of the observer's gaze, we watch the experiment as a situation under the control of the pseudonym slip out of his hands, and see it appear in Kierkegaard’s hands, where instead of an experiment applied by C.C. to his 'subjects', it is applied to the text itself - the text is an experiment about experiments. And so we have outlined the first problem, the problem of the first page, the problem of the title.

The problem – psychological? Textual? Scientific? then – such is the way of this slippery signifier – seems to slip at this moment, while we are adjusting our glasses, looking at the screen - where we read the text - out of Kierkegaard’s hands too - or out of his control. For what kind of control does our author behind the author have? Why is it that experiment and seduction, experiment and the female, keep finding each other? And not according to the protocols of the manipulated chance in which the experimenter excels, but according to the protocols of nemesis, of fate, of obsession, of luck, it seems. And the experimenter – who is he, and what are his standards? What are his ‘controls”? What is his institutional background?

The institutional background – science, art, religion – is not just a matter of existential stages. Constantine Constantinus, after all, appears so unattached to economic activity, and so, consequently, at leisure to collect cases, a situation that – perhaps – is the reason the young man in Repetition finds him odd – and later on, decides that he is mad. Until, of course, C.C. decides the young man is inexistent. If madness is lack of labor – or if madness is labor that is not socially recognized… And if madness creates situations that are, to the madman’s gaze, experiments, although not so recognized by any others in the social order...

Of course, it is true that this has also happened, in the twentieth century, within institutional psychology. The famous Milgram experiment, for instance, about which one can also ask about its double form – for the participants thought they were in one experiment when they were really in another. They thought they were seeing how much pain a subject could take, when they were really subjects testing how much they would obey an order.

Thus, C.C. is not entirely out of the range of experimenters, eccentric and fictional as he is, eccentric and fictional as they represent themselves. But surely we have seen this psychological experimenter/seducer before, and not as a premonition of our own actuality, but as a figure from the eighteenth century past – for the adventurer develops just such a cold aesthetic objectivity in order to be able to travel between classes and principalities. There is a transformation of types, here, a transubstatantiation – from Don Giovanni to Dupin. C.C. is, in fact, one of those figures that hover around the idea of the detective – that amateur of crime.

How a word will creep into a text. How a word will creep into my ear and down into my heart. All this creeping about.

In the Concept of Anxiety, the psychological observer is described as a sort of actor – or rope dancer. I’ll translate from the German text I have:

“Whoever is concerned in high style with psychology and psychological observation has to take on himself a general human suppleness that puts him in the position to shape his examples right away, and these then have a whole other power of proof, although they don’t possess the appearance of facticity. As the psychological observer must possess a more than rope dancerish nimbleness in order to throw himself imaginatively into people and be able to mimic their attitudes; as his silence in confidential moments must have something seductive and pleasant, so that the disclosed matter can find comfort in this fact, under this artfully brought about inconspicuousness and stillness, and creep out and to unburden itself as in a soliloquy: he must in his soul possess a poetic originality, in order to be able to form all at once, out of that which always presents itself all in pieces and irregularly to the individual, a totality and regularity.”

Two shadows seem to appear to us on the edge of this text. One is Freud – notice how this sketch, which seems to reach out to the psychoanalytic technique of Uebertragen, even denies personhood to the discloser, but instead speaks as though the disclosed were an Es, a thing within the person. The other shadow is given to us by a story that appeared in 1841 on the other side of the Atlantic:

“A certain set of highly ingenious resources are, with the Prefect, a sort of Procrustean bed, to which he forcibly adapts his designs. But he perpetually errs by being too deep or too shallow, for the matter in hand; and many a schoolboy is a better reasoner than he. I knew one about eight years of age, whose success at guessing in the game of 'even and odd' attracted universal admiration. This game is simple, and is played with marbles. One player holds in his hand a number of these toys, and demands of another whether that number is even or odd. If the guess is right, the guesser wins one; if wrong, he loses one. The boy to whom I allude won all the marbles of the school. Of course he had some principle of guessing; and this lay in mere observation and admeasurement of the astuteness of his opponents. For example, an arrant simpleton is his opponent, and, holding up his closed hand, asks, 'are they even or odd?' Our schoolboy replies, 'odd,' and loses; but upon the second trial he wins, for he then says to himself, 'the simpleton had them even upon the first trial, and his amount of cunning is just sufficient to make him have them odd upon the second; I will therefore guess odd;'—he guesses odd, and wins. Now, with a simpleton a degree above the first, he would have reasoned thus: 'This fellow finds that in the first instance I guessed odd, and, in the second, he will propose to himself, upon the first impulse, a simple variation from even to odd, as did the first simpleton; but then a second thought will suggest that this is too simple a variation, and finally he will decide upon putting it even as before. I will therefore guess even;'—he guesses even, and wins. Now this mode of reasoning in the schoolboy, whom his fellows termed 'lucky,'—what, in its last analysis, is it?"
"It is merely," I said, "an identification of the reasoner's intellect with that of his opponent."
"It is," said Dupin; "and, upon inquiring, of the boy by what means he effected the thorough identification in which his success consisted, I received answer as follows: 'When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.' This response of the schoolboy lies at the bottom of all the spurious profundity which has been attributed to Rochefoucault, to La Bougive, to Machiavelli, and to Campanella."

Carte de la retourne.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Brownie's back

I’m going to make a hazardous prediction: more than the economy, it is the murder of the Gulf of Mexico which will decide the elections of 2010.

In the broad sweep of history, or even the small vision of a mouse from a mousehole, American elections are a trivial and sickening event. Especially in balance with the incredible damage wrought by a sugar intoxicated, irresponsible, and servile population, in the throes of some regression to the feudal era by way of worship of the wealthy.

But however trivial the measuring instrument, the object is immense. The object here, of course, is the destruction of a 50 million year eco-system on a scale not scene in the Gulf region since a comet slammed into the coast of Yucatan 65 million years ago.

This is the size of the crime.

Obama took office and immediately disappointed his liberal supporters by, in general, continuing all the disastrous policies of the Bush years under the guise of ‘stability’ and the magic belief in the ‘free market’, in spite of the fact that the corruption, inefficiency, rent seeking, and ill effects of that market were naked for all to see. Still, his supporters – and I’d count myself as nominally one, since I will probably vote for him – swallowed every insult. So far, his strong card has been his calm, and his confidence. Those two things seemed to indicate that at least we were being ruled by a competent president.

The death of the Gulf, which is going to go on and on this summer and fall, will unwind this image.

Now, make no mistake. There are no solutions that are even close to being realized. The details of the capping process for Wednesday have, unsurprisingly, been kept under wraps, since, as has become clear, all these repairing moves are improvisations devised by people who never mapped out any disaster scenario. The press, in its infinite gullibility, likes to tell us that a new well is being drilled to relieve the old well, and that by August the gusher will be capped. What is lost in this discussion is that the new well is being drilled in the same deep water environment, with an even greater lack of safety provisions, in greater haste, by a company that still doesn’t understand how it blew up the Deepwater Horizon well. It is as if a drunk driver who crashed into your car now offered, whilst glugging a bottle of whiskey, to make amends by driving you home.

So – assuming, as I think is reasonable, that the current volume of flow into the Gulf is between 60 and 100, 000 barrels per day – we are speaking of a summer event that will burn itself even into the inane and addled mind of homo americanus, circa 2010.

At a certain point, the p.r. hallucinations will melt away. At a certain point, the giggly story about how BP is going to use dog hair and golf balls to plug the ‘leak’ will give way to stories about communities evacuating because their water source is contaminated. At a certain point, the dispersants poisoning the water will give way to vast rafts consisting of dead fish, dolphins, sea turtles and the like. At a certain point the humble, disposable Cajun fisherman ( an example of what the AEC would call “low use humans”, as they approved tests that shook fallout over poor southern Utah residents and other worthless scum) will give way to more suburban identifiable retired couples, looking in dismay as their beachfront property becomes a toxic dump.

Today one sensed a definite interior movement. Surely the White House knows that the interview with Admiral Allen, their point man in the Gulf, was a Brownie style disaster. Reading the transcript, one can even imagine the Admiral sitting there with a BP gimme cap on. Two parts stand out: once, when the Admiral claims that he can get “answers” from the BP CEO Tony Hayward – which avoids the problem of whether the answers are true or not, since they are almost certainly lies; the other part deserves to be quoted for pure farce:

“Allen compared the battle to contain the spill and its spreading slick to "fighting a multi-front war". He added that when the leak was finally sealed, the total amount of oil spilled would "probably start to approach" the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska, the worst U.S. oil spill. The tanker accident spilled 11 million gallons (41 million litres) of crude.”

This kind of lie takes one back to the good old Bush days – indeed, I think it has the ring of authentic Rumsfeldianism. There isn’t a scientist outside of BP who believes that the estimate of 5,000 barrels a day, which the press swallowed for almost two weeks, is even remotely true. What we saw there was a rare, televised bout of regulatory capture. It should be shown to classes on the topic. It was outrageous, it was pitiful, and it will do a lot of damage to Obama’s white house. More, I think, than they know.

Behind every great fortune, Balzac said, there is a great crime. He was speaking of the Napoleonic era – in our era we can say, there is a great environmental crime. This looks to be a world class crime. As there is no real leftist discourse in the U.S., it will be an event that nobody can talk about. But I can suggest some vocabulary: nationalization; seizure of assets; the nationalization of every deepwater drilling project from now on out; the cancellation of all deep water drilling projects until there are failsafe procedures; the investment, by the government, in that emergency capacity; and the entire overthrow of the corporate and oligarchic control of our political apparatus. And, for good measure, lets us throw in the words exploitation, surplus value, social costs, government organized and financed crash programs to develop alternative energy sources, and a regulatory apparatus to control and oversee, with intense and irritating attention, the petro giants. Take down the latter, or live in a world that smells and feels like a giant toilet.

Monday, May 3, 2010

America: tops in sycophancy again!

One of my favorite newsstory genres is the always tricky report about the pelf being swallowed by that cute class of mediocrities we so fondly call upper management. Compared to the American oligarchs, the French nobility even during its dimmest hours looks like an orb of intelligence. True, the French nobility inherited their wealth and never, during their lifetimes, did much of public benefit, besides hiring the right managers. But they had a code, they flung themselves into the problems of love, conversation, and enlightenment, and they did have the common sense to commit collective suicide during the early days of the French revolution.

But don’t expect 18th century radicalism from the newspapers, that school of sycophancy and conventional wisdom. They believe that our modern oligarchs have godlike powers. They “cut.” They “build”. If a company’s stock grows by 100 percent during the tenure of X, well surely it must be due to X! The logic, here, is behind that of the 18th century – more like the 12th century faith in the power of demons and saints. However, the newspapers draw the line at extending their indulgent romanticism – for instance, I have never read a business column that suggested cashiers should get to pocket 10 percent of their ‘revenue’. Why, there’s no correspondence between what the cashier does and the line that forms behind her!

We have to know when to be 12th century and when to be 21st century if we are going to keep our neo-feudalism going.

And so we come to a delightful story on the fortunes doled out to media CEOS. As you might expect, in tough times, we really have to tighten our belts. We have to fire. We have to cut back. And we have to --- well, give 50 percent more to our beloved CEO! Its fun, and it is only money.

“Top executives at the country’s largest media companies continued to reel in multimillion-dollar pay packages in 2009, a year of widespread cost-cutting throughout the industry. In several cases, the packages even increased from the year before.
At the top of the list is Leslie Moonves, chief executive of the CBS Corporation, whose pay package in 2009 totaled almost $43 million, more than twice what he made in 2008, according to an analysis by Equilar, anexecutive compensation research firm.
Not far behind was Viacom’s chief executive, Philippe P. Dauman, who was paid nearly $34 million, a 22 percent increase over 2008. Sumner M. Redstone, who controls CBS and Viacom, was paid more than $33 million from the two companies combined.”

These things are pleasing to the Lord – pull out your average economist and he could get starry eyed, explaining it all. The wonders of the system! The rewards accruing to the just! The only fly in the ointment is this dang deficit hanging over everyone – why, it might turn out that the government will start coming in and asking for .01% more from our superior class, which would be an injustice on the scale, as one conservative activist put it, of the Holocaust.

This genre of story always presents two sides: the side of the rich investors and the side of the rich management. The two sides that count in this fair principality.
But I am always impressed by the abject lyricism of the defenders of Big Wealth. And this article ends with a cherry for me!

But first, here’s the rich investor point of view, which is blasé:

“The media industry did rebound in 2009 after a particularly tough 2008, but for many companies that largely meant cutting expenses, including labor costs. Overall revenue declines remained commonplace, but in many cases profits rose.
At Viacom, revenue in 2009 declined 7 percent compared with the year before but the company’s profit rose to $1.6 billion, a 29 percent increase, not far off from Mr. Dauman’s 22 percent pay raise. CBS returned to profitability in 2009 — $227 million — after a huge write-down in 2008.
“Right now, the executive compensation is not what’s driving people to invest or not invest in these stocks,” said Rich Greenfield, a media analyst at BTIG in New York. “Shareholders are more focused on the underlying growth prospects of the companies than executive compensation.”

And here’s the cherry!

“Several analysts said the shifting marketplace and uncertainty surrounding the media business could actually contribute to the large payouts, making companies even more determined to hold on to people they see as gifted executives.
“When you have an industry going through so much tumult, it puts upward pressure on pay because so many people are moving around,” said Don Delves, the president of the Delves Group, a compensation consulting firm in Chicago. “People are looking around a lot, people are moving around and there’s a concern about losing talent.””

Oh that talent! Its so… delightful!