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Monday, December 15, 2014

conceptual zippers

Guilty reading
Lets face it: the innocent reader who spots the blue pants on the boy holding the balloon in the picture and associates the “C” with cookie monster was filed away long ago. It exists, thinly, in the brain's filing system, although to dive in an find it is a task that would make Proust blanch. We guilty readers come, now, with a certain hodgepodge sophistication to the fragment or the treatise, or even to the letter “C” – which may remind us more of Wallace Stevens than Sesame Street. We take our theories to our books, and are eager to apply readings, now “political”, now “hermeneutic”, now “neo-darwinian”, and so on.
Myself, I’ve always like the promise of dialectical materialism, although not often its results. The idea of looking at texts not in the idea-system, head talking to head, but in terms of both historical conditions and of the text’s own long interiority – that’s the ticket. Oh that interiority! To be a writer, I think, means that one exists like a bat in a dark cave that is slowly filling up with the echos of the signals one has emitted, revealing surfaces that must eventually and imperfectly be translated into data subserviant to the detailing eye – although the writer, in his heart, always remains a creature of radar, of the sonogram.
What’s dialectical about all of this? What, except the continual stomping back and forth and the interminable difference. One can trick oneself, here, easily, into thinking that the difference can be reduced to two sides, two tracks, like the two tracks of a zipper – and that with a little conceptual zipper and a little force the two tracks will fit tightly together as one. Conceptual zippers are the most tempting things in the world, and the trick with them is not to believe them too much. The dialectical, here, for me, is ideally stripped of the absolute and has learned the humility of stripped things, naked things. The world is not all zippers, or even mostly zippers. The zipper is not all the case is.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

More reflections on what Nietzsche was up to

To the second edition of The Gay Science, published in 1887, Nietzsche added a fifth book entitled, with that mock boastfulness to which he was prone (and which has added that bellicose aura to his posthumous reputation – beloved by post-structuralist and white supremicist prison gangs alike!), We fearless ones. The end, sort of, of We fearless ones  comes with a dreamy little number  342, entitled “The great health”. Healthiness as a concept that encompasses every part of the self, instead of describing a state of bodily equilibrium, a healthiness that becomes a means to an end instead of an assumption about the everyday – this is what the perpetually sick author dreams of. His dream, though, is of a  likeminded community – this we is, as all we’s are, political. Here Nietzsche is both a child of the century, which was discovering health not as a sort of balance among animal spirits but as a fragile norm that few were able to achieve – and a sign of the coming century, when health really does get interpreted as an intention, so that our sicknesses are somehow, unconsciously, willed.

The great health, however, while has its roots not in physiology, or at least not in physiology alone, but in experience. This is an immense and interesting shift. To be fearless, in Nietzsche’s terminology, is to be an adventuerer – and the first adventure is through one’s own experience. In that instance, experience is transformed into something adventure-worthy. This connection  leads Nietzsche through one of the dithyrambic, labyrinthine arguments in which he specializes, where association and implication become interjoined, and all the rabbits are pulled from all the magician’s hats. The adventurers - the “we”, here – catch a glimpse, due to our health, of an as yet “unexplored land” which overflows with the “beautiful, the alien, the the questionable, the fearful and the divine”  - a glimpse that creates total existential discontent, since it seems that this is the place we are seeking. This place is also an ideal, but not an ideal of the sacred or the good or the just, but an ideal of play, - and here we go back to the great health, for this health belongs to the naïve and curiously innocent spirit who plays with the values that the people have erected, who enjoys a well-being and well-willing that appears inhuman in contemporary terms. These terms seal what is good, true, and real into a package with what is serious – the serious being defined by being ‘unplayable’. But the spirit that Nietzsche evokes isn’t impressed by this “earth-seriousness”, and unconsciously and involuntarily parodies it. Out of that parody, Nietzsche imagines a new seriousness springing forth, setting up its own question marks. And thus “the hour hand moves” and “the tragedy begins”.

So it would seem that the chords of the fifth book, and the book as a whole, crash to a conclusion. But the little numbers don’t stop - Nietzsche moves on to an epilogue – something that is not exactly part of the book, but is in the no man’s land of prefaces and after words. The epilogue begins like a parody of a Wagner opera – or like an episode in Disney’s Fantasia. Nietzsche takes up the “I” as  the author of the book , and depicts himself, like Poe’s poet in The Raven,  feeling the effect of the dark and dreary task of erecting question marks.

“But when I in conclusion this gloomy question mark slowly, slowly painted,  still wanting to recall into the memory of my readers the virtues of correct reading – o these forgotten and unknown virtues! – it happened, that around me the most evil, spirited, gnome-like laughter broke out: the spirits of my book themselves fell upon me, pulled me by the ear, and called me to order.”

It is passages like this that bother those who want to tell us Nietzsche’s esoteric message, or who feel like, as a proper philosopher, Nietzsche’s texts should be  easily reducible to thesis and antithesis in the good old monographic manner. Hegel’s terminology might be obscure, but the form of his book is very clear; and if we are to take Nietzsche seriously, we have to correct his tendency to mix things up and put them all in their proper place. Otherwise, of course, one would have to multiply question mark by question mark, and finally be reduced to reading Derrida’s note on Nietzsche’s misplaced umbrella – the kind of jape that got Derrida into royal trouble when Oxford was about to grant him, horrors, an honorary degree in philosophy.  Here, at the moment when a Hegelian philosopher would be at the end and have argued to a conclusion – here, suddenly, the spirits of the book treat the author like a erring school child. Who, after all, are pulled by the ear and called to order? As Nietzsche well knew from the time he’d invested in German educational institutions, being pulled by the ear was a not uncommon scene. That allusion to a schoolroom scene comes right after a lament for old fashioned reading – another pedagogical theme. But if this is a schoolroom scene, it is a reversed one – for certainly it is the bad students who make gnome like laughter their sabateur’s weapon of choice.

Viewing Nietzsche as an author, this conclusion is not completely bizarre. In fact, as an author who is a philologist and who has written on Greek tragedy, this scene conforms pretty well to the kind of satyr play that always came after the tragic cycle. In fact, we are never far from the satyr play whenever seriousness becomes an issue in Nietzsche’s texts.  

Of course, all of this, for the decrypter of the esoteric message, is simply denial and disguise. Of course, as soon as Nietzsche has revealed his real intentions – dreaming of an order of masters killing and enslaving the weak – he feels that he has gone too far, and engages in this little diversion.

However, if we engage in reading the text, which is what the text literally suggests we do, we find an artistic structure that does not look like denial or diversion, especially as the spirits of the book itself are called into play. Play, parody, and seriousness are the keywords here. The spirits of the book object, evidently, to the last word being given to tragedy. And they also mock Nietzsche’s future fetishism, the sentimentality he has invested in “solitude”, in being a great thinker alone. The jibes are put in terms of music, and Nietzsche accepts the jibes of his “friends” – the spirits of the book, the “we fearless ones”  – while at the same time accepting that the music of the book and the sense of it might be two different things, of which the first is primary. Instead of tragedy, then, the book ends on dance, and on a peasant’s dance at that. Remember that this is the Nietzsche who had no liking or sentiment for the stinking people, and presumably also their tavern instruments, among which the hurdy gurdy would be preeminent.  

If we follow up the notion that we should be reading, here, and perhaps even reaading Nietzsche’s other texts, than the hint – the non-esoteric hint – comes in the phrase “involuntary” parody, which he has used once before in his polemic against David Strauss, the liberal theologian. It is peculiar to authors that the phrases they have used years before still float about in their memory. It is perhaps their characterizing peculiarity. In the case of the polemic against Strauss – well, I would guess that this part of the Thoughts our of Season is the least read, since who among us, friends and droogs, is interested, even a little bit, in 19th century liberal theology? Strauss is probably best known, now, for being translated into English by George Eliot (who thus became the target for some of Nietzsche’s most misogynistic taunts – Nietzsche was quite the troll at times). In attacking Strauss, Nietzsche also attacks the positivist Hegel, and a certain form of apologetic for God that wills the unity of the universe, the eventual conjoining of the subjective and the objective in one coherent work. Interestingly, in his attack, Nietzsche seems to mock a certain rhetoric he later plays with in The Gay science. Here’s a long quotation to finish with – it is left as an exercise to the reader to pick up the resonances:

he [Strauss] assumes without question that all events possess the highest intellectual value and are thus absolutely rational and purposwful, and then that they contain a revelation of eternal goodness itself. He is thus in need of a complete cosmodicy and at a disadvantage compared with those who are only concerned with a theodicy, who
conceive the entire existence of man as, for example, a punsihment or a process of purification. At this point and thus embarrased, Strauss goes so far as to venture for once a metaphysical hypothesisn – the driest and most palsied there has ever been and at bottom no more than an unconscious parody of a saying of Lessing’s. “That other saying of Lessing’s, he says on page 219, that, if God held all truth in his right hand and in his left the never sleeping quest for truth with the condition of contiually erring in this quest, and offered him a choice between them, he would humbly fall upon God’s left hand and beg for the contents of it – this saying has always been regarded as among the finest he left to us. There has been found in it an expression of his restless desire for action and investigation. This saying has always made so powerful an impression upon me because behind its subjective significance I have heard resounding an objective one of immense range. For does it not contain the best reply to Schopenhauer’s crude conception of an ill-advised God who knows of nothing better to do than to enter into such a wretched a world as this is? May it not be that the Creator himself shares Lessing’s opinion and prefers continual striving to peacceful possession.” A God, that is to say, who reserves to himself continual error at at the same time a striving for truth, and who perhaps humbly falls upon Strauss’s left hand and says to him: all truth is for you. If ever a God or a man were ill advised it is this Straussian God, with his pariality for error and failure, and the Straussian man, who has to pay for this partiality – here indeed one can ‘hear resounding a significance of immense range’, here there flows Strauss’s universal soothing oil, and here one senses something of the rationality of all evolution and natural law! Does one really? Or would our world not be, rather, as Lichtenberg once called it, the work of a subordinate being who as yet lacked a full understanding of his task, and thus an experiment? A novice’s test-piece which was still being worked on? So that Strauss himself would have to concede that our world is an arena, not of rationality, but of error, and that its laws and purposefulness are no source of consolation, since they proceed from a God who is not merely in error but takes pleasure from being in error. It is a truly delicious spectacle to behold Strauss as a metaphysical architect building up into the clouds. But for whom is this spectacle mounted? Or the noble and contented “we”, so as to preserve their contentment: perhaps they were overcome by fear in the midst of those merciless wheels of the universal machine and tremblingly begged their leader for help.”

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The secret messages of authors: Nietzsche again

How does one use the papers of an author?
Some authors, like GS Lichtenberg, are famous mainly for the notebooks that they left to posterity. Others, like Emerson and Nietzsche, are famous firstly for their books – even as those books are trailed by the vast haul of their Nachlass, their jounals, their scratch books. Both Emerson and Nietzsche, as well, worked in an essay form that centered on the phrase, or paragraph – or perhaps it would be better to say, using Nietzsche’s dynamite metaphor, that the essay or the number is a sort of photograph of the ruin caused by the explosion of these phrases, sentences, slogans at the center. The center, supremely, does not hold.
I’m thinking about this while reading and  gritting my teeth through, Geoff Waite’s book on Nietzsche. Waite, who positions himself as a true, Nietzsche-defying leftist (an authorial figuration that takes many turns – sometimes he casts himself as a man  heading Nietzsche off at the pass, as though FN wore a black hat and rustled cattle and GW was Wyatt Earp), still turns to Leo Strauss’ notion of esoteric and exoteric to find Nietzsche’s true message. This message is in the notes.
I must admit that I find a certain amount of humor in this. Nietzsche, as is well known, was a sick man with bad eyes, who for most of his life made little money from his books and had to depend on the pension he’d been granted when he quit the University of Basel. This pension was around 800 thaler. Which, in today’s terms, would be about 23 thousand per year. Waite, however, refers to him as a rentier – which is exactly what he wasn’t – and comments about certain illegible notes in Nietzsche’s papers: “Exactiy here Nietzsche's text stutters, becomes unintelligible.91 Whenever one's handwriting breaks down completely—becomes illegible to others or to oneself— this is not necessarily by chance, nor necessarily unconsciously motivated.” The ‘not necessarilys” here are supposed to look like arguments, and certainly they are indisputable – but they also indisputably get us nowhere. Was Nietzsche such a sneek that he couldn’t even write in his notebooks without looling over his shoulder to make sure that nobody read what he really wrote about Plato? I would say, not necessarily, and not even probably, given what we know about the material conditions of his production. In another place – this struck even sympathetic reviewers – Waite pushes towards an image of Nietzsche dreaming of concentration camps to come, when in a notebook entry from the time of the composition of Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes “Der Entschluss. Unzaehlige Opfer muss es geben.” Waite translates this as "There will have to be countless dead bodies [Opfer: offerings or sacrifices]."57  The parenthetical translation choices are there, apparently, to save his scholarly integrity – for of course “The decision: there must be countless sacrifices” could mean just what it seems to mean – that there will have to be countless sacrifices. Since Nietzsche’s public works often speak of Opfer, with the meaning being a sacrificed living thing, or a sacrificed desire, etc., it would seem more, well, hermeneutically just to compare uses and decide just what is going on here, if anything.

However, if one is armed with an esoteric reading kit, things become a lot clearer, forensically clearer in fact.

If Waite’s style of reading Nietzsche seems to go off the track at times, he still presents us with an interesting question, one that is particularly pertinent to Nietzsche. After all, famously, many of Nietzsche’s jottings were put into a book and the book was attributed to Nietzsche: “The Will to Power.” The history of that book is a sort of philological crime, and like so many crimes, it was committed by a family member of the victim – Nietzsche’s sister made the book, employing Nietzsche’s friend, Peter Gast, to read the notes.
Gast – guest – what a perfect name for the intruder in the notebooks! And yet, we, who read those jottings, soon make ourselves at home. After all, it is from these notebooks that the books were quarried, and so we are tempted to think of them as the raw material, or key to the mysteries.

Waite himself seems to move between thinking that the notebooks are where the exoteric reveals its esoteric content, and thinking that even the notebook jottings conceal some ultimately even more horrible fascoid thought. Myself, I think that the exoteric/esoteric dichotomy is disturbed, and made less ‘forensically’ useful,  by Nietzsche’s perspectivism.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Leftist attacks on Nietzsche, or why I am a pseudo-leftist

Domenico Lusordo’s attack on Nietzsche is one that I am weirdly eager to read, or at least some of it – I don’t think I’m in it for 1300 pages. I haven’t yet read Geoffry Waite’s massive attack on Nietzsche, or, really, Nietzschian leftism – pseudo-leftism, Waite claims. Pseudo-leftism is a pretty good description of my own politics, and the fall of communism is not something I mourn (except when listening to Leonard Cohen’s The Future) so there is that.  Marx and Nietzsche were allied in at least this: they weren’t mourners.
However, from the reviews I have read of the Lusordo, and the bits I have read of Waite, my impression is that they are operating within the Nietzschian dance – a politics of the text, if you will. Interestingly, though, they seem to deny Nietzsche any humor or wit. Rather, his is a corpus to be driven through with a plow. If there is humor or wit, this is mere deception, mere encrypting. What it is not, what it can never be, is enjoyment.  For instance, Waite interprets Nietzsche’s subtitle of Zarathustra (a book for everyone and no one) as dividing neatly into a book for the masses and another for the elite. This division leaps over the fact that it is an odd elite, indeed, that is no one. No one, on the contrary, seems to be where the social breaks down, not where the social is ruled. Now, one could argue that rule is all the more efficient when it is incorporated by every one and enforced by no one – but this argument seems to go against Nietzsche’s own fierce anti-democratic bias, and make Nietzsche more like a liberal nudger, a la Cass Sunstein: we’ll just use clever prospective theory to make the masses make the right choices.
No one seems to me to be more hermeneutically approachable by way of a politics of (psychological) depression – the feeling that one’s loneliness has erased one’s social self entirely.
This isn’t the only interpretation of that Niemand – but it does, at least, treat with the letter of the word. Waite seems to have impatiently decided that the opposite of mass being elite, Nietzsche’s text will just have to be nailed here and we can discard as moping or disingenuousness any question about how we get from no one to elite.
This is what I mean by the bulldozing tendencies of Nietzsche’s new lefty critics. From what I have read in the review of Lusordo’s book, a similar impatience with Nietzsche’s playfulness gives us the truth about his “politics”. Lusordo shows that the rhetoric of anti-semitism – most of all, the notion of the rootless Jew – is heavily borrowed from in The Birth of Tragedy to contextualize Socrates. Voila, the book has a hidden anti-semitic subtext that is its key. Now, this is all very well – Nietzsche was prone to anti-Jewish bigotry (a nineteenth century malady that crops up in the correspondence of Marx and Engels as well), and he was very much in Wagner’s circle at the time he wrote his first book. But we seemed to have skipped over a rather crucial moment in the book – this anti-Jewish rhetoric is used to describe Socrates. Doesn’t this rather collapse, or at least damage, the idea around which the anti-Jewish rhetoric was built in the first place – the division between Christian Europe and the Jew? Doesn’t it even, retrospectively, cast into doubt Schopenhauer’s worship of Kant, who the anti-semitic Schopenhauer compared to… Socrates?
What I like about pseudo-leftism is that it deprograms the old lefty urge to conclude.  I don’t ever conclude … this is a principle in which life intersects with theory, for me.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Water pistol juntas

Lately, I've been thinking of this post, which I wrote in 2011

When looking at the story of capitalism and the rise of the European powers, it is striking to see forms of organization appear on the periphery before they migrate to the center. For instance, the work discipline of the factory in 19th century England seems to replicate forms of work discipline created for the sugar 'factories' in the West Indies of the 17th century. In 19th century England, the work discipline was imposed on 'free labor', and in Jamaica, it was imposed on slaves. Yet, if we look away from the changes implied by this transformation of the working agent, we see a continuity of form, or at least the production of an organizational form that can be transposed.  And, unlike serf labor in Central Europe, for instance, this slave labor is relatively free of the codes that define its rights and hedge in the transmission of property and title by the owners.

A similar movement from the periphery to the center seems to be happening in the counter-revolution that is now occuring in all developed countries. What happened to the LDCs in the 80s - the less developed countries - is now being served up to the Developed Countries. It is an interesting mix of fiction and terror.

The eighties are the 'lost decade' in Latin America because they are the decade in which the program of the Washington Consensus, as it came to be know, were imposed on Latin American counties. The weapon by which they were lashed into this madness was debt - combined of course with the military regimes that had been put in place in the sixties and seventies as part of the U.S.'s cold war strategy. And the result of the WC was a major drop in the living standards of the majority of the population, and an end, almost, to growth. While the 50s and the 60s saw tremendous growth in Latin America, and an uneven but perceptible distribution of more wealth to the wage and working class, in the 80s this stopped dead. What emerged in the nineties were 'good countries', like Mexico, that devoted the government to obeying the banks, notably IMF. The IMF model, however, suffered a severe blow when Argentina refused to go along with the usual medicine in 2000, and the U.S. grip on the region began to loosen.

Well, the Washington consensus has migrated, at last, to the developed world. The whole world is now being held up by bankers holding waterpistols to our head. And this threat without a real weapon - for no developed state really needs to obey the bankers, who after all have no police force to arrest it (unlike the Latin American states, where the U.S. could whip up a junta in a heartbeat) - is, to the general amazement of the non-numb among us, being obeyed to the last tittle and jot. 

In the 80s, the police were, in effect, the developed nations. However, beginning, perhaps, with Bush in 2000, the Developed Nations have given birth to the smokeless coup. This coup does not involved armed might - it involves merely taken unelected institutions, such as a court of a central bank, and making them the center of a completely undemocratic seizure of political power, on behalf of the wealthiest people on earth. There aren't, we should remind ourselves, too many wealthy people. And yet the police of every Developed country on earth have been toiling away for wealthy people and locking up demonstrators, cracking down on any demonstration of discontent, and raiding any leaks of information inconvenient to the establishment. The resistence to all of this has been tame beyond reckoning. The self-policing extends all the way up through the discourse - nobody who writes for a major paper or magazine, or who broadcasts, ever couches the new Washington Consensus junta society in terms that would offend your average civics class teacher. 

What would such terms be? Well, for instance, we would start saying: who is all this money owed to? And: can't we simply upset those bankers by taking away their money, one two three, without a by your leave. If sovereign debt is such a problem, we could easily raise the money to pay it by slapping, say, one hundred percent taxes on all bond transactions, and we can use that money to buy the bonds. And absurd solution to an absurd political situation - not an economic one. The question of debt is a question of class. The political class and the financial elite are one, united, and they drive our politics in ways that advantage the financial elite, who use money loaned them, by the governments, to loan money back to the governments. Oh, not directly - rather, by propping up the financial service sector's enterprises, we prop up the places where the bodn dealers work and trade.  

The debt issue is, then, one of those fictions that bear such weight because they serve the interest of a certain power. It isn't that the establishment doesn't believe in its fiction - much as the Aztec priest definitely believed that it was necessary to cut out the heart of a prisoner to appease the gods and continue the course of the world, the elite believe it is necessary to cut out the heart of the middle class to appease the abstract God of Debt, to whom we owe so much. My solution is the radical one of the Lord's prayer - in which we have prettified and made metaphoric the common sense suggestion that we forgive debt every day. Debt. Which is as material as the feeling of the edge of a coin. Forgiving debt is the heart of civilization. And - in this age of the internet, where all that is money has become bytes - it is divinely easy to do it. It is always the sovereign who actually enforces laws to force debters to pay creditors. When the power of the sovereign is calmly and cooly taken from the hands of the people and invested in the hands of ex employees of Goldman Sachs, they switch sides - from being the borrowers for the people, they become the creditors for the banks. 

This is, obviously, going to be a lost decade for the Developed countries. But I'm hopeful that the new Junta order will be, at best, short lived. The arithmatic that counts is not how much debt is owed, but the ratio of the creditor population to the debtor population. I'd keep my eye on the latter, for, given the logic of the counterrevolution we are seeing, the time is approaching when the the banker's water pistol will be jerked out of his hand and turned upon him. And, magically, in that moment it will become a real pistol, with a heft and insistance that will change the power relationship all, all at once.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Thus spoke Zarathustra as Goth scripture

What genre is  Thus spoke Zarathustra? This question has been kicking around the academic universe for a long time. A friend of mine, Kathy Higgins, in her book on Zarathustra, called it a Menippean satire, and compared it with Apuleius.  I think she is right about that. I also think that the Menippean form, in modernity, flows into the gothic novel. Just as there is goth poetry and novels, there is a space for Goth scripture – the Gothic novel in fact yearns to supply that gap, to convey the “Bad news.”   TSZ, upsetting the value system that counts one kind of news as good and the other as bad,  counts as Goth scripture, attempts to fill up the space left by the Schauerroman, by Faust, Frankenstein and De Sade’s Sodom.
This isn’t a claim that Nietzsche read Frankenstein or the One hundred days of Sodom. It is rather that there is a thematic in modern culture, a music, that Nietzsche was keenly attuned to. I don’t doubt that Wagner, at least, was familiar with de Sade, and most likely Frankenstein. And surely Matthew Lewis’s The Monk.  De Sade said about The Monk and Anne Radcliffe’s  that  they were the “indispensible fruits of the revolutionary shocks which have been felt throughout Europe”. Indispensable to those shocks? The phrase, the word, is ambiguous. I would use a less organic metaphor – that the music of the news, the music of actuality, was the score in which they were inscribed. In fact, Sade compares them to the terrifying events of the past ten years, and asks whether the “malheur” of the average European doesn’t outweigh one hundredfold any sorrows or cruelties cooked up to torment Gothic characters. The Inquisition may picturesquely stretch people on the rack in the dungeons of the dreamt up Spain of Monk Lewis, but a mere for years before he wrote, a revolutionary delegation from Paris, sent to Lyon, had lined up counterrevolutionaries in a public square and killed them in mass by shooting chained together cannonballs at them, which tremendously splattering results.  This is to say nothing of the White terror that the counterrevolutionary alliance was putting into place in the areas it conquered.
Of course, Zarathustra was written eighty years after de Sade penned his judgment on the contemporary state of the novel.  But the span of European history since that time, as Nietzsche was keenly aware, was still determined by the French revolution. Or not determined – rather, that history was like a firefly trapped in a bottle,  and bumping against its interior, and maddeningly transparent,  walls.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

deconstructing very serious people

“Nobody will deny that in a world in which everything is connected through cause and effect, and in which no miracles ever happen, each part is a mirror of the whole. If a pea is shot into the Meditteranean, an eye that is sharper than our own but infinitely less fine than the eye that sees all would be able to trace the effect on the coast of China. And what other is a particle of light which contacts the surface of the eye compared to the mass of the brain and its nerves?” This is one of my favorite aphorisms of Lichtenberg. He varied the comparison of the pea in another place in his notebook, imagining that after it was shot into the sea, “this effect would be strongly modified through its impression on the other objects of the see, through the wind that pushes against it, through the fish and ships that move through it, through cave ins on the land. “ 
This is one of my favorite passages in Lichtenberg. It expresses a great idea, a fantastic idea, the imagery of which has a sort of hypnogogic flickering, as though Lichtenberg had magically been able to recover one of those great ideas that one has just as one is falling asleep, which are forever lost to the consciousness that wakes the next morning. 
I often think of this passage when I read someone assessing the importance of an author or event, especially when they do so to make some invidious point. I thought of it when I read the nasty and falsefooted essay attacking Greenblatt’s The Swerve by the head of Harvard Publishing, Lindsay Waters, in a recent Boundary 2 issue. The attack was full of knowing putdowns that came across more as smirking in the back row than magisterial swats – which is what Waters was aiming for. I was very amused by this passage, however: 
“English professors have been proclaiming for decades that they were disseminating subversive ideas that would shake Western civilization to its foundations. They wanted to shock and awe the bourgeoisie. Yet, look who has rocked America and the West to its core: economic theorists, bankers, and accountants—a curious turn of events. Robert E. Lucas Jr. and Thomas J. Sargent, whom I published at the University of Minnesota Press decades before they won Nobel Prizes, were leaders in the production of ideas that deconstructed the international economy.By comparison, the impact of de Man barely measured on the Richter scale.”
Poor De Man! He probably didn’t even know that the chief of the Harvard University Press had a machine that could give us a Richter reading for events! Although one suspects that perhaps Waters doesn’t exactly understand his own machine. Certainly the description of Lucas’s work has a certain smell of bullshit. “Deconstructed the international economy” did he? I can’t imagine that Lucas thinks of himself as deconstructing the international economy. As far as I can tell, Lucas is mostly connected with the model of Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium and the idea that expectations of economic actors are affected by government regulation in such a way as to make such regulation broadly inefficient. I wouldn’t exactly say this rocked Western civilization to its core. On the other hand, Waters seems to have a large experience of drunk English professors – I doubt that many of them, beginning with De Man, were promising to shake Western civilization to its foundations. 
However, it would shake Western civilization to its foundations if we had some richter scale for the effect of every pea that was cast into the ocean. Contra the head of the Harvard Press, however, such a scale, and the mechanism for applying it, doesn’t exist and will never exist. Not unless I’m wrong about this and Christ and the Angels are going to descend to earth and begin to judge the quick and the dead. But if they do, I would bet that Lucas and de Man would be judged to have different effects on different people for different reasons. As would, say, Oprah, Dale Carnegie, and the scribe that wrote the ancient Egyptian Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor. No one scale will apply. 
Of course, “deconstructing” importance and the way it is judged is probably not going to get you very far at… Harvard.