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“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, February 27, 2015

the tourist's world of contemporary liberalism

Tourist guides never advise tourists to go to working factories. Tourist guides avoid, as well, pointing out the wonders and spectacle of doctors’ and insurance offices, tire and brake repair places, janitorial supply warehouses, and loading docks. In other words, the world, seen through a tour book, is a world in which the sphere of production is shut out, and the sphere of circulation is severely abridged. The people who do work in the tourist’s country, who prepare food and bring it to the tourists table, who check the tourist into the hotel and change the sheets on the bed, who sell t shirts on the beach or post cards at the museum shop, are indeed working hard, to please the tourist. But the massive mechanism behind these people is simply assumed by the tourist. The tourist isn’t there to see it. If in fact the tourist comes into contact with this world – say in a car wreck, or because the tourist becomes ill – this is not part of the vacation. It is the part one subtracts from the vacation.
What, then, are we to make of this tourist world? A couple of things. Except for shows dealing with cops and criminals, it is a fair picture of the world television shows. Television used to show the blue collar world, but mainly that world has dried up, Nielson-wise. The other thing is that it is a fairly good take on the world of the contemporary liberal.  Up through the eighties, the old fashioned liberal – reporter, judge, politician, academic – used to have some very serious political connection with the working class. But as the unions diminished both as a moral force and a physical presence, those connection became nominal. The world of production and circulation is out there, but if you map the outrages and causes of the liberal onto it, you will find very large gaps, incredible gaps relative to what liberalism used to be. For instance, in my lifetime, there have been two extended periods of decline in black household wealth – during the Reagan years, and since 2007. The decline since 2007 is unbelievable: according to Pew Research, while median white household net worth is at 141,900 dollars, for black households, it is 11,000 dollars. In 1983, the figures were 100,000 dollars and  10,000 dollars.
In tourist America, however, this just hasn’t happened. In the sixties, liberals from RFK to the writers at The New Republic would have been all over this. But, in our post-deluge world, it is a tourist unfriendly fact. Tourist unfriendly facts only get to emerge as facts if they become excitingly voyeuristic – if we can stick a crime in there someplace. Who was the black actor who said that 90 percent of the time his job offers were to play criminals?
I think the effort to make this a tourist world is seriously chipping at the moment. But I fear that the liberal literati are not seeing it.  

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

confessions of a gnostic

The gospel version was: “in the beginning was the word.” That is a very attractive idea for the intellectual, the creature of formulas, chalkboards, debates, science, and all that stuff. The word gets a big advantage, heritage-wise, and can lord it over the rest of creation.
However, as we know, the Gospel of John touches on gnostic heresy. It is the most philosophical of the gospels. In Genesis, the star turn is taken by the creation of the heavens and the earth – not by the instrument God uses. Whereas there is a variant within gnostic belief (gnostic gathering together the mixed cosmic schemes of the first to third century A.D.) that I have some sympathy with. This variant took a dim view of the heavens and the earth. In a sense, in this view,  “in the beginning was the mistake.” The mistake was, precisely, to begin. And the reason that mistake was made was the subject of the colorful mythologies that we can extract from obscure texts by Origen and Iraneaus, who were always slagging Gnostic groups with delightful descriptions. For those with the kind of pre-disposition for it – those Blakeans among us – the heresies listed in Iraneaus or Origen are objects of revery. What if we lived in a culture where we believed that the seven heavens were guarded by seven totemic beasts?
(1) Michael the lion-like, (2) Suriel the bull-like, (3) Raphael
the serpent-like, (4) Gabriel the eagle-like, (5) Thautabaoth the bearlike,
(6) Erathaoth the dog-like, and (7) Thartharaoth (Celsus: Thaphabaoth) or Onoel the donkey-like. Tuomas Rasimus, 18.
Onoel the Donkey-like is an entity I wouldn’t mind praying to. Donkeys are the most spiritual of animals. They have long been the philosophers friend. Giordano Bruni was especially fond of his donkey, and wrote a sort of spoof, an ass fest. Would that there were more of these.
It is no longer the case that the gnostics are simply obscure bogeymen of obscure theologians.  We know more, now, than we’ve known in 1500 years about them, or about the scattered heresies that have been categorized as Gnostic, due to the Nag Hammadi Library and other manuscript discoveries.
That almost all the heresies the early church fathers discuss are now called gnostic shows a very interesting interchange between the two terms, as though any deviation from Christian orthodoxy must become gnostic. Heresy is derived not from the Greek word for error, but from the word for choice: haireo. A heresy is perseverance in choice - which opposes it to perseverence in faith.  It has long been the reigning idea among heavy thinking conservatives that liberalism, and indeed, modernity itself, is a form of heresy - or gnosticism. Eric Voegelin  was the most famous proponent of this idea, and it allowed him to label both Marx and Nietzsche and the modernist everyman as gnostic. You can tell a gnostic, to make Voegelin sound a bit like J.Edgar Hoover on Communism, by the way he cuts off questions. Voegelin has a peculiar notion of what cutting off questions means. Because Voegelin wants to say that there is, at the foundation of society, a transcendence that he gets all mushy about in the usual philosophical way (At the opening of the soul—that is the metaphor Berg son uses to de scribe the event—the order of being be comes visible even to its ground and origin in the beyond, in the Platonic epekeina, in which the soul participates as it suffers and achieves its opening), he is making a claim. But it is made in the weird way that we get there from the  possibility  opened up by questioning whether man is just a part of nature, whether, that is, the social order does reflect something transcendent. Possibility is magically transmuted into a claim by way of the question: interrogation becomes assertion, and assertion becomes opening. Well, two can play at that game, and one wonders why we couldn’t open up the possibility that this isn’t so by questioning whether transcendence makes sense, opening up the possibilty of a world in which transcendence doesn't make sense. In Voegelin’s view, I guess, you can go up the staircase but not down it.

Voegelin might nevertheless be right that there is somethng distinctly gnostic about modernity. Voegelin’s notion is that the very notion of alienation is the clue that the gnostic hunter should be looking for, since for the gnostics, matter is the primal sin, and man is forced to live as matter and among matter like a prisoner.

But given the alchemy of questioning, this prison, for the modern gnostic, must be  a form of self-deception that does not actually ultimately fool the self, which has the power to question and can, as aforesaid, open itself wide.

Voegelin then draws up a model of self-deception or intellectual swindling in three moments:
“On the surface lies the deception it self. It could be self-deception; and very often it is, when the speculation of a creative thinker has cultur­ally degenerated and become the dogma of a mass move ment. But when the phenom non is apprehended at its point of origin, as in Marx or Nietzsche, deeper than the deception itself will be found the awareness of it. The thinker does not lose control of himself: the libido domi­nandi turns on its own work and wishes to master the deception as well. This gnostic turning back on itself corresponds spiritually, as we have said, to the philosophic conversion, the pe­riagoge in the Platonic sense. However, the gnostic movement of the spirit does not lead to the erotic open ing of the soul, but rather to the deepest reach of  persistence in the deception, where revolt against God is revealed to be its motive and purpose.”

There is definitely something to this, if we grant that deception is involved, here, rather than deflation of the grander claims of Platonism or Christianity – or any order footed, supposedly, in the transcendent. But I think that at a deeper level, it is this notion that the beginning was an irrevocable mistake with which we have to deal that makes up the real gnostic insight, and the base of gnostic reflection, and for this reason  I think we have to ultimately reject the idea that the majordomos of modern thought are gnostic.. Voegelin's rather heavy handed attempt to turn orthodoxy into paradox and heresy into orthodoxy is a common move on the right - Chesterton did a similar thing. In as much as heresy goes back to the notion of choice, however, I think the paradox can't be sustained, and the opening of the soul will always result in a credo, rather than the vigorous life of questioning. The latter is what the modern gnostic is, actually, much more about than his opponent, who will call the omni-questioner, the true gnostic, a nihilist.

Monday, February 23, 2015

he do the police in several voices - Kristen Ross's police conception of history

Kristin Ross, in her excellent book, May 68 and its afterlives, begins with a meditation on what she calls the police conception of history, riffing off Jacques ranciere. She begins in this way because she has noted a strong tendency in the 1990s to dismiss 1968 as a failed revolution. Nothing happened, is the refrain.

Nothing happened.” In a recent text, Jacques Ranciere uses that phrase—only in the present tense: “Nothing is happening”—to represent the functioning of what, broadly speaking,he calls “the police.”

Police intervention in public space is less about interpellating demonstrators
than it is about dispersing them. The police are not the law that
interpellates the individual (the “hey, you there” of Louis Althusser)
unless we confuse the law with religious subjection. The police are
above all a certitude about what is there, or rather, about what is not
there: “Move along, there’s nothing to see.” The police say there is
nothing to see, nothing happening, nothing to be done but to keep moving,
circulating; they say that the space of circulation is nothing but the
space of circulation. Politics consists in transforming that space of circulation
into the space of the manifestation of a subject: be it the people,
workers, citizens. It consists in refiguring that space, what there is to do there, what there is to see, or to name. It is a dispute about the division
of what is perceptible to the senses.

Ive been giving this some thought in relation to the coverage about the Greek crisis. Fridays agreement was immediately greeted by an overwhelming chorus of nothing happened in the press. The Greeks, poor dumb bastards, tried to turn the agreement in something that would end their economic depression although no, it is never phrased that way. Would try to welsh on their debt that is the preferred meaning. Since Europe has gotten bored with unemployment figures not seen since the end of World War II, it isnt an issue.

Still, the rush to say, nothing happened, seems exactly the kind of thing Ranciere is talking about. Indeed, something did happen the Greeks were able to hammer down the primary surplus required by the Germans or, to do pretend talk, by the Troika. This is, as far as  can see, the first time one of the collapsed periphery nations Ireland, Portugal, Spain came away with a concession. One would think that there was something to see, there.

But, as if Wolfgang Schaubles Id were dictating all the stories from Bloomberg to the Guardian, from Le Monde to Liberation the story was essentially that the Greeks failed, and that there was nothing to see.

The police fate awaiting mass movements has now become routinized in public response. If there is nothing to see, if the police win every time, then the fight beccomes futile, or becomes a spectacle. It is one of the unconscious vices of the critical school, of negative dialectics, that it can assist the police endeavor, or make it seem like, at most, the important thing is to resist.
Maybe the important thing, however, is to win. Maybe a negativity disconnected from any sense of victory quickly becomes a myth-machine.

Maybe I am claiming that this is possible, not that this is always and everywhere what is happening.

Something is happening, however. Dont move on. Watch. At the very least, watch.

Friday, February 20, 2015

the scar

“Then” is the shape of time, or at least of time for birds, beasts, and bacteria, and for all the other monuments of DNA as well. In the world of nuclear particles, ‘then’ is a wicket through which one can pass one way and then another and both simultaneously, or so the equations tell us.
“Then” is also, by a heavy coincidence, a logical function. Here it does not give us a temporal, but a seemingly atemporal sequence. Such is the magic of words, however, that we are always tempted to take the atemporal world of the variables of logic and confound it with the temporal world in which we find ourselves. We are always tempted to see logic in history, to see the temporal as the pattern of the temporal.
Yet is logic so blind to temporality? Do we require some second order of reasoning to reconcile the one to the other?
That is, perhaps, the task that falls to dialectic. It is a shady task – Kant for instance placed dialectic in the slum of philosophy, where the hucksters, grifters and sophists ply their wares.
Dialectic is not the royal road to truth, on this view, but is the path of pins – to borrow a trope from that most philosophic of tales, Little Red Riding Hood.
If we want to come to grips with substitution, the dark power of our time, we must begin with these imperfectly aligned domains. A certain kind of philosophy takes it for granted that the task is to align them perfectly. Another approach is to take their imperfect alignment as a great philosophical fact – perhaps the great philosophical fact, and draw the consequences. The consequences, according to this school, lay everywhere around us. Like the fallen body of the giant in Finnegan’s wake, the parts form our parts, and we can go endlessly through the semiosphere, from newspaper stories to the towering summas of culture, and continually feel this imperfect alignment, this intellectual scar.

I’m inclined to the second view.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Economics as science (sigh) again

Economists, as a rule, are highly defensive about being "scientists". By this, they don't mean that they are part of the general social sciences set - a subset of sociology, in fact. No, they mean that they are like physics.
They aren't at all like physics, of course, starting at the ground level. While physicists can start with atoms because atoms are entirely defined by mass and motion, economics has no equivalent. Individuals are not simply defined by mass and motion. Economists have attempted to define them as the atoms of economics, but the arguments for this range from poor to unbelievable. This is even conceded, and got over by pretending that the motion of the individual is wholly defined by the desire to get more. 
Since the very meaning of getting more is not really definable without the system of values defining more, there's really no atomic level to work up from. 
But economists still somehow consider that, since they do hard mathematical work, they must be scientists. And since, at a certain point as undergraduates, they read Friedman's methodological paper about prediction, that science is defined by predicting things. 
So, lately, we've had a round of economists bitching that non-experts are pitching into macro-economics. It started with Scott Sumner here, went to Noah Smith there, and now I'm going to talk about it.

I get tired of the idea that science is entirely defined by the ability to predict things, which is like defining a car as the ability to go 70 miles per hour. Many other things than cars possess this ability, from hurricanes to peregrine falcons. But it is into the prediction hole that the whole incredibly badly formed debate around economics turns. Did economists predict the 2008 downturn or not? and then we are off to the races. 
But I'll bite on this for at least a second and ask what I think are more pertinent questions. 
-- what economist in the seventies or eighties predicted that the medium American wage would effectively stagnate for the next thirty or more years? 
-Which predicted that household debt would begin to equal household wealth for the medium household? 
-Who predicted that, even with the advent of IRAs, mutual funds, and 401ks, the shape of the ownership of all financial instruments would essentially remain the same in 2014 as it was in 1979? 
- Who predicted that the last American trade surplus would be in 1976?
My questions are all invidious. They are all about trends. The prediction biz, as defined by economists, is a pretty narrow thing about particular events. The local downfall, the inflation figure for the next quarter. But it is long term  long term trends, which are the meat and drink of the prediction biz of the natural sciences. The prediction of the course of a single atom isn't in it. The trend, going back billions of years, is. 
What seems evident to me is that economics, as a branch of sociology, can produce ideal models of various economies (not just capitalist ones) and capture broad trends within them. But it isn't very good, even so, at predicting long term trends at any middle distance - and as for up close, no way. Marx's prediction of the inevitable fall of the rate of profit, founded on classical economics, is a good instance of the use of trends - the ideal model of capitalism he constructed would seem to require it. One can see how the physical limitations inhering on labor time would even make it, at some point, true. But it has turned out to be only a factor, and a reversible one, in capitalist business cycles. Or perhaps I should say, a factor with varying weight.  

The creeps

It is hard to predict the political result of the EU's attempt to crush democracy in Greece. The big Creeps, as one could call the austerity group, would welcome a solution a l'egypte, with a complacent military government. And perhaps they will get their wish. But it might be that the anti-creep forces in Spain, Italy, Ireland and even France will be charged by the evident anti-democratic animus that now rules in Europe. Usually, when a movement is crushed, its moment goes out. When the soviets sent tanks into Prague, that effectively ended any chance for any future socialism with a human face. The equivalent, the sending of debt collectors to Athens to make sure the level of starvation is just so, might crush the notion of EU with a human face. My hope, of course, is a mobilization of movements that will drive the incumbent parties out of office all over Europe. But, alas, I'd bet against it. If the creeps - faux socialists in France and Spain and the UK, the faux democrats in the Northern countries - succeed, their overthrow will probably be from the right. It is a rather ghastly prospect.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

on hiding

Hiding, as Aristotle might say, is said of two different class of actions. One class is uniquely aboout hinding oneself. The other group is about hiding other things, which can include other people, or, more often, semi-people: the stuffed Mickey Mouse, the stuffed ant-eater, the plastic giraffe.
Adam is now old enough to recognize that we cut down the wildernesses, lay the railroads, plot the land, pave the roads, and build the houses in order to create congeries of hiding places. His two favorite places are in the space between the wall and the refrigerator, in the kitchen, and pappa’s closet, a storage area next to our real closet that has been carved into the wall space about three feet above the floor. The latter has a real negative, in that to hide there, Adam has to ask to be lifted up to it. This broadly signals that one is hiding. On the plus side, it it s perfect cubby, with an odd interior angle to it – this storage space was definitely a Los Angeles after thought – and a door – oh heaven – the closing of which you can impress upon your parent is a very important matter that has to be seen to right now. The door has several advantages. For one, the cubby becomes all dark. Dark is the color of hiding, For another thing, the world outside the hiding place becomes another sort of hiding place. This accomplishes, in a semi-quasi way, the second class of hiding. 
Once established in one’s hiding place, one faces a choice: either signal that one is hiding – which creates a game – or not. Adam is not quite old enough for the second, more contemplative form of hiding. The latter kind of hiding was once my favorite type, because it allowed for either spying or contemplating the world, the sky, a tree, a bird, a book, or some errant ramification of the usual scene. Spying, of course, requires a particular kind of hidey hole, or sometimes just quiet trailing, with the ocassional sudden ducking behind a bush or a tree to avoid detection. In reality, it was the ducking that one spied for – otherwise, it got rather dull. 
Adam’s version is to crack open the door. Sometimes, he finds, as he expects, his mom or dad standing there. Sometimes, though, they are hiding, or at least doing something else. Usually Adam can’t hold out and says something like Adam’s here, or I see you.
The kitchen hiding place is more of a getaway. The kitchen was forbidden territory. But, just as those settlers who cleared the wilderness drifted into territory forbidden to them by the state or native powers regardless, so, too, Adam has so often disobeyed the law of staying out of the kitchen that the powers that be have given up. So far, he has not completely wedged himself into the space between the wall and the fridge, but he’s come close. After a while, he’ll withdraw and just sit in front of the passage. Here is where he takes loot – from some disgusting object he has illicitly taken from the garbage can he is not supposed to look into to an odd fragment broken from some toy. I’m not sure what he does, communing with these things, but I think it has to do with inventing science.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

who killed cock robin

When I grew up in the suburbs, the nights, at least during the school season, were quiet. You’d hear, outside the window, in your bed, maybe the slur of a car leaving or entering a driveway. No voices. In the summer, when the nights were long and people were out in their lawn chairs, then there’d be voices.
In the city, this changed. When I lived in a dubious section of New Haven, there were days when very threatening loud people would be going down the street. In Austin, in the parking lot that was right beneath the window of my cheap efficiency, sometimes there would be fights, or the sound of broken glass. Also, since the highway was near by, the sound of traffic. Not very insistent. In Paris, we can hear the sounds of cafes, sometimes singing. Singing! Cafes! Paris! This is real.
Here in Santa Monica, there is the perpetual late night hobo drama – someone is always pissed off, screaming, exhausted by a life without shelter. There are people parking in the street, the sound of doors closing. On weekends, there’s the sound of groups going to bars, talking, laughing. For the last six months, next door, they have been tearing down the old pet store and erecting a glassy office for Charles Schwab. This has meant a lot of heavy machinery starting up at six in the morning, and weird sounds in the evening, as though some late night crewe was out there. Before they tore down the pet store, its parking lot was another hobo junction. It is right below Adam’s window. Adam got an earful of fuck! Shit! And all the commonplace filler words  that make up the excited conversation of people who are semi-inebriated, whether they are out on the street or twenty something frat boys.
When we go back to Paris, Adam will hear the café songs. And the ocassional drunk.
What I can’t remember hearing, but must have, is bird song. Two nights ago, we heard, marvelously, the chirping of some song birds up to eleven at night. I am hearing a bird singing right now. Now, I know, intellectually, that we are living in the age of who killed cock Robin – the petrochemical insecticide age, the age of vast environmental distruction, the end of the Holocene, that is forcing song birds to the wall. I am not sure that Adam will know those songs when he is my age. When I was a boy, our subdivision was not completely built out. There was still a small pond and a marsh near us. We put up a purple martin house and the martins came. Blue jays were plentiful. Robins, warblers, wrens, chickadees, cardinals, grosbeaks, swallows. I know things are quieter now. The Audubon society published a survey taken from a massive scan of birder notes over forty years – starting in 1967 – and they found this:
“Since 1967 the average population of the common birds in steepest decline has fallen by 68 percent; some individual species nose-dived as much as 80 percent. All 20 birds on the national Common Birds in Decline list lost at least half their populations in just four decades.
As we usher out the Holocene and humanity continues to take its century long spree on the planet, we are probably talking about passenger pigeon time for the bobwhite and the meadowlark and the lark.

So, enjoy the birdsong now.  We killed cock robin…