Limited, Inc.

“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

Sunday, February 18, 2018

nineteenth century observations about the twenty first century

The difference between intentions and conditions is a tricky topic, one that philosophers dance around, taking different partners to the dance.

In the creaky old nineteenth century, they came up with the magic word “determine” and waved it over this business. So that they ground out phrases like, the economy determines history, or man determines his fate.
Yet what was determination? Was it cause? And if so, why not just substitute the term cause here? But that, it turns out, was a substitution too far. For determine meant something more like: produces the terms in which… And this leads us to a difference between simple causes and conditions. And this leads us to the making of distinctions, which is not an American specialty. Save for Henry James, Americans are not big on making distinctions, which has a sort of sissy feel. I can imagine the bumper sticker: only sissies make distinctions!

But to go back to something that isn’t dumb methodogical individualism. Let’s hypothesize that larger, institutionalized social forces, like the state, or businesses, or parties, operate in reality not to institute some rigid intention or goal (even if they do that too), but, ultimately, to produce the conditions that will make push forward the self-organizing of a set of goals. For instance, you want your Uber company to make a profit, but you also want to atomize the work force, which amplifies the opportunity to exploit that work force, and to that end you cover your Uber company in a self-employment vibe. Or even a self-entrepreneur vibe.
This might seem secondary. But in the long term, you won’t make a profit if the social conditions are against you. It is part and parcel, then, of your short term intention to make possible its reproduction through a series of short terms – all the way to infinity, so to speak. Thus, it always seems that institutions, like people, follow some intention, but it always also seems that their success depends on creating some condition that is beyond the particulars of that intention. 

In “A treatise on efficacy” Jullien compares the Western and Chinese notions of how states and enterprises operate. For instance, he considers Sun Tzu’s notion that the general, before battle, should “ban omens and dismiss all doubts.”

“The whole of this Chinese thought is prompted by a single concept: whatever happens “in any case” “cannot not happen” (once all the conditions are ascertained); in other words, it is “ineluctable”.

“This idea of the ineluctability of processes and so also of success for whoever is capable of profiting from it recurs constantly throughout all Chinese thinking. Even a thinker such as Mencius subscribes to this logic of consequentiality, despite the fact that he adopts a position altogether opposed to the theses of the strategists, since he considers that sovereignty depends not on the relation of forces and therefore the art of warfare, but on the sway exercised by morality. Or rather, morality is itself a force, and a particularly strong one, because it possesses great influence and uses this to effect, in a diffuse and discrete fashion. Be concerned for your people, Mencius tells the ruler, share your pleasures with them, and you will inevitably progressively come to rule over all other princes. That is because all peoples will desire to pass under your authority; they will open their doors to you and will be unable to resist you. Through violence, you will inevitably eventually come to grief, for the power at your disposal is limited and arouses rivalry.” 

Okay, now, this sounds closer to the 19th century, and its iron laws of determination. Here’s a good example of intention, conditions, and inelectability. In the 00s of mauvais reputation – after about 2005 – there was a moment when the deep thinkers in the establishment realized that Iraq was a disaster. It had created conditions that were ineluctably leading to events that were creating other conditions, none of them good from the U.S. perspective.

This moment, however, passed, like an angel overhead. Because what these deep thinkers did is – they called upon the miraculous. They would say, well, right now Iraq is a mess, but in six months we might have an American lovin’ democracy on our hands! And thus, they dickered with ineluctability, with determination, with conditions, by shutting their eyes. And they were very set on indeterminability. Nobody could predict. Prediction was impossible. And so on. It was as if I decided to build a birdhouse, but claimed loudly that I couldn’t predict, before I finished it, whether it would actually be a supersonic automobile. 
I look back at this moment because I think that not only were the deeper thinkers vastly, bigly, utterly fucked up, but I also think that the mindset of massive excuse-making produced a set of intellectual conditions in these here states. These conditions made it ever easier to make one’s entire career of falsified predictions and bogus analyses. The same conditions that allowed economists to predict in the 00s that we were in the “Age of Moderation” (when we were actually on the verge of the economic precipice), or that allowed the establishment in center-left parties to promote the conditions that would decimate the working class through “free trade” agreements without thinking that destroying their political base would eventually destroy their own political power.
The conditions that have created the great Unintelligence in the states – the Unintelligence that is embodied by Trump, a man of shit destiny  – will blindly keep operating until they are overthrown.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


The news that Newsweek has now become a front for a cultish religious organization to launder money made me think of a post about Reader's Digest I wrote in 2009. It is still a pretty good analysis of business culture in the Bush-Obama era. Hell, in the Trump era.


“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.

Fake news in 1800 - or how to do history

There’s a good rule that goes: by indirection find direction out. Or, translated from the Shakespearese into nice wooden ideology critique terms: since present injustices rest on past ones, one of the ways to delegitimate the former (otherwise known as “waking up”) is to go after the latter with a blowtorch.
That’s a rule of thumb, natch. It can allow the scholarly type to disappear into the tunnels of history-mongering and never emerge again, blowtorch in hand. Rectifying the past is a painstaking business, and liable to blowback. When you find what you want to find, often you have to ask: is this a poisoned gift? But vanity more often whispers: hey, hypothesis and proof, don’t have nothing whatever to do with the unconscious libido.

So far, I am not describing Abbé Gregoire; I’m merely farting around with ideal types. However, there was, in Gregoire’s capacious C.V., room for activist scholarship – especially when he was on the outs. As he was in 1800.

Before 1800, he’d been one of the great lights of the Revolution. It was Gregoire who first addressed the question of the rights of men in 1789. Gregoire proposed the abolition of the academies of the ancien regime. Gregoire was the first who proposed the abolition of the monarchy to the Convention after the flight from Varenne. But, as an opponent of the death penalty, he voted to condemn the king for treason to the country but not to execute him. Among his causes was that of the abolition of slavery, which was, alas, not at the top of the agenda in France in the 1790s, and certainly not in in the Napoleonic counter-revolution either. But Gregoire persevered, even as the convention, post Thermidor, turned against the abolitionist politics of his organization, the Société des amis des Noirs. Incidentally, the neo-liberal turn in the eighties that saw bigwig French historians – notably Francois Furet – adopt the Cold war view that the French revolution simply foreshadowed Stalinism, somehow leaves out of account the slave trade. It is as if about half a million Africans did not perish in the 18th century under the Ancien Regime. Gotta keep your eyes on the prize – Stalin! And pay no attention to the sound of those chains…

But I digress. To get back to Gregoire, all that activity had left him rather to the side as Napoleon rose. Napoleon was the kind of opportunist Gregoire had no time for, plus a bloodshedder. So Gregoire had time for other things: for instance, striking blows against slavery. In 1800, in the European context, anti-slavery was not a popular position, since of course the bourgeoisie was making money hand over fist on the whip and the steal. So Gregoire looked back to the past for friends. And who did he see at the other end of the inverted telescope but the Spanish bishop of Chiapas, Bathelemy de las Casas.

In 1800 he published a pamphlet, Apology for Barthelmy de las Casas, disputing the idea that de las Casas had originated and promoted the idea of the slave trade. Gregoire saw clearly how de las Casas was being used by supporters of the slave trade (a category into which fell, alas, a number of “enlightened” thinkers): here was a humanist, a protestor against the massacre of the Mexican Indian nations, who turned to slavery as a humane palliative for the pains of conquest. And, more than that, there was a rhetorical gesture, here, that was then and is now a commonplace of conservative boilerplate, which involves an “even the liberal” logic: even the liberal de las Casas saw how necessary slaves are!

So Gregoire decided to do something that was, historiographically, significant: he decided to trace the chain of title, so to speak, that led to the charge against de las Casas.
“The badmouthers, finding they could not discover any faults in las Casas, invented one, and for two centuries the calumny has weighed on his tomb.”
This is an accusation, more than a hypothesis, but as in a defense lawyer’s speech, it contains a hypothesis: the attribution of sympathy for, or even the discovery of, the African slave trade to de las Casas was prompted by propagandists and rests on an invention.
The hypothesis has two parts: importantly, one needs to scan de las Casas’s biography and writings to find out what misconstrual was going on here.
Gregoire first works to put his apology in line with a humanistic historiography that goes back to Secondo Lancellotti, an Italian humanist who was relentlessly modern, whose 16th century book attacking the “impostures” of ancient historians (and arguing against the very idea of a “Golden Age” – was translated in the 1770s into French. I’m going to ignore, here, the tempting bypath showing a certain receptivity to the Renaissance in the Enlightenment, and how that worked – and return to Gregoire. For after high fiving his buds (dead, alas), Gregoire plunges into business of the history of the slave trade. He finds that instead of being an invention of de las Casas, it was an affair that was being pursued by Portugese merchants before America was even discovered. He does not find an onlie progenitor, but he does find that the Portugese, from the 1430s onward, were raiding the coast of Guinea for African bodies, and selling them in marts to the Spanish. And he finds that the Spanish, before Columbus’s discovery, had entered into the same trade in competition with the Portugese. Importantly, then, the slave trade was in existence on European soil before the New World was discovered.

Like future historians, Gregoire was well aware that the slave trade was originally derived from another commerce – that of cane sugar. The European fondness for this psychotrope was such that one could make huge profits on maintaining a labor force for the intensive work of cultivating and refining it; and that the level of exploitation (the level of profit) would be even greater if that force was unwaged and disciplined to one great task.

“Black slavery seems to have followed, in modern times, the transplantation of sugar cane, cultivated successively in Spain, in Madeira, in the Azores, in the Canaries and in America.” Like cavities appearing across the mouth of the Atlantic (sorry about that image, I’m reaching a little), the slave trade, sugar cane cultivation, and discovery all formed a malign triad.

Still, all Gregoire has established so far is that the slave trade pre-existed de las Casas. But did he endorse it? “But did Las Casas, depressed by the cruelties exercised against the Indians, propose to the Spanish government to replace them with negros? Marmontel, Roucher, Raynal, Paw, Frossard, Nuix, Bryant Edward and Gentey all tell us so.”
One should rest, here, for a second, and think about why this is more important than simply a historical observation. In 1800, when Gregoire was writing, the emancipatory moment had passed in Saint-Domingue. Slavers plied the waters of the Atlantic still. Slavery had been accepted and embraced in the U.S. The economy that developed from the sugar cane depended, still, hugely, for the flow of funds that was generated by the work of the slaves and the trade in them. There’s a long and bitter dispute that has its roots, actually, in the Enlightenment, between economists (generally apologists for capitalism) who claim that the slave trade and slave produce wasn’t that important to Europe and that it was actually opposed by real capitalists, and economists (generally critics of capitalism) who claim no, the figures are damning. No side, though, claims that the slave trade and slave produced commerce was minor. Any history of the “rise of the West” that ignores slave labor is a lie, and Gregoire’s work is important for calling out this lie at an early date.

Now, break over, let’s return to the claim about de las Casas. Here’s where Gregoire strikes. Repeated over and over again by soi-disant “liberals” of the 18th century, the claim, it turns out, rests on one source: not on something de las Casas had written, but on Herrara, a Spanish writer who made this claim. Interestingly, after reviewing the European writers who repeat it, Gregoire turns to a non-European writer: the Mexican creole writer, Clavigero. I say this is interesting: it is a gesture that breaks with a line of implicit authority that runs through history as a discipline up to this day. The facts, in this tradition, are generated by (white) Europeans or Americans. White males. And the voices of those speaking from outside the department (even if they are inside the subject which the historians are treating) are given secondary status, if they are given status at all. This is an established habit in 1800 – and it is still an established habit in 2018.
Gregoire, then, turns to the 1601 history by Herrera, where the idea that de las Casas advocated for African slavery was first propounded. He notices that Herrera quotes no source, no text, even though the unpublished works of de las Casas were available to him – indeed, he exploited them for his book.
Then, Gregoire does some nice SherlockHolmes-ery. As in the curious case of the dog who didn’t bark in the night, a clue in The Silver Blaze, Gregoire examines if there were other voices raised about de las Casas in the period between 1517 (when de las Casas supposedly wrote to the King suggesting African slaves for the Americas) and 1601. In fact, what Gregoire finds are other candidates who suggested African slaves, and names them. But none of them are the Bishop of Chiapas.

Finally, Gregoire brings together his ideas on he topic, and introduces a discovery: an anonymous manuscript in the national library in Paris that seems to date from Casas’s lifetime, is addressed to the Court in Madrid, and suggests that the Spanish conquest was entirely illegitimate and that the Spanish should give back Peru to the Incas and that they have to restore ownership of all mines, land and property to the Indians. This, of course, is a ultra ultra radical proposition, but a reasonable, and certainly, for the Bishop of Chiapas, a Christian one. It simply doesn’t fit with the idea of mass enslavement of Africans.

Gregoire rounds out his pamphlet with a summarizing paragraph that I like quite a bit:

Look at how the error established itself and took root. Thirty years after the death of Las Casas, there comes a credulous or malevolent history, who, without proof, directs an accusation, unvoiced up to then, against him. Some repeat it without examining it; others conclude that he was the first to introduce the slave trade: here already we have a commentary that exaggerates on the text. Then one ties these ideas to the barbarities justly thrown at the English, Dutch and French colonists, and [this is how] one elevates a whole scaffold of calumnies.”

Fake news in 1601. Fake news in 1800.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Stalinism in America as directed by shameful twitter feminists!

Bret Stephens, the NYT’s star climate change denialist columnist, got shamefully smeared on Twitter for writing, about Woody Allen: “If Allen is a pedophile, he appears to have acted on his evil fantasies only once. Compare that to Larry Nassar’s 265 identified victims.”

These twitter feminists, as the ever heroic Katie Roiphe has named them (Roiphe, in the Stalinist conditions prevailing in the U.S., has only been able to avail herself of our imperiled freedom of speech lately on CBS news, Harpers Magazine, and Slate. In other words, she has been muffled just like Solzhenitsyn in the U.S.S.R!), have found something a bit fishy about a defense that seems to come down to, come on, one little rapish situation with a little girl is no big deal. Of course, as Stephens defenders have pointed out, he did not mean that at all! What he meant was, Allen, who at the time was taking nude photographs of his partner’s 18-20 year old stepdaughter, was way way too busy to go after other of Mia Farrow’s adopted children.

So there’s that.

But, seriously folks… one of the under-remarked elements in the backlash against the Metoo moment has to do with class and race. You guessed it! For what were conservatives like Bret Stephen writing in the 80s and 90s and 00s? Why, they were writing screeds about how bad welfare was, since it was just rewarding the “irresponsible” behavior of the “underclass”. This irresponsible behavior was presented, almost always, as libidinous. Those poor men just couldn’t keep it in their pants! All of which added up to a culture of immorality. One that needed the firm hand of the policeman.
Well, hmm. So we flashforward to the 10s, and what do we see? The apologists for the plutocratic class, and in general for the upper level of management, have suddenly gotten groovy! If Mr. Allen was, say, Joe in the D.C. slums of the 80s, taking nude pics of his stepdaughter, I’m pretty sure the Andy Sullivans and the Bret Stephens of that time would be shocked, and using this as evidence of a wholesale breakdown of responsibility by the “poor”, otherwise known as the exploited working class. But give Joe in the D.C. slums a couple of million dollars, make sure he is white, and low and behold – we can’t puritanically persecute him! That would be awful, and evidence that the PC crowd is executing its master plan:Stalinism in America!

I laugh. I have to laugh. I have to say that the whole Trump era suffers from the fact that its violence, its nonsense, its racism, its lack of even a figleaf of logic, is so damn laughable.  A killing joke.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

On the launch of another tiresome centrist think tank

There was an interesting study made in the nineties and reported in Joan Ciulla’s The Working Life. Executives were polled about what motivated workers. Their answers ranged from ceremonies to non-cash awards. They were then asked about what motivated executives, and as one, they chorused: money.

This poll not only gives us a glimpse of how the exploitation of workers generates complex denial rituals among capitalists, but it also gives us a glimpse of how politicians in the neo-lib era think. Both Republicans and Democrats have been agreed, in the last thirty or forty years, that executives need lots and lots of money. Our recent cure for the depression, which was handed out by Dr. Obama and his treasury secretary and Fed Chief, was very, very heavy on the money for executives. But for workers – well, the Republicans have come up with ardent defenses of the second amendment, and the Dems have come up with retraining workers after we pass marvelous “free trade” agreements to undermine their jobs and salaries. Although to be fair, the Dems sometimes come up with things like Romneycare, which makes sure to put in place a complex set of impediments and forms so that the medical care for all thing doesn’t get out of hand. After all, the workers love those ceremonies!

I was reminded of this by the recent launch of a think group dedicated, on the one hand, to stopping the Dem bandwagon of Medicare for all, which has become faddish among Dem pols, and making sure that some “bi-partisan” health care approach, one that is acceptable to “stakeholders” (the investors in insurance companies, drug companies, hospital corporations, and etc.) and the ceremony-fetishizing worker. It is led by Andy Slavitt, who, to give him credit, was great at opposing the drive to abolish ACA last year. He was less great in opposing any universal expansion of health care. And he has saddled up with such great minds as former Republican senator Bill Frist, who sponsored a bill for privatizing medicare when he was in Congress.

Money for capital, non-cash awards for the rest of us: there’s a bi-partisan platform we, or at least the we who writes and the editorials and runs Congress, can get behind!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018


I have finally finished my other, my monster, the novel. The Novel! And now I am looking for anyone interested in diving into this attempt to ... no, I'm not going to describe it. But if any reader of LimitedInc is interested, send me a message at and I'll send you a copy.

Next up is, of course, correcting spelling, making sure the graphs are tabbed correctly, finding an agent, selling it.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

kafka's famous laughter

There is a lineage that goes from Lichtenberg’s Scribble book through Lamb, Baudelaire’s Fusées, Rozanov, Pessoa, and – supremely – Kafka, whose request to Brod to burn his papers was, as it were, a request from this history itself, over and above Kafka’s personality. The principle holding this literature together was enunciated by Bartleby – I prefer not to. This is, in the universe of the clerk, equivalent to Lucifer’s non serviam – it ties together the two elements of the scribble and the institution. If we can speak of an institutional consciousness, it is always a consciousness of the system. Jack Goody, in The Domestication of the Savage Mind, notices the importance of the list in all early writing that has been found in the Mesopotamia. Goody divides lists into three types: the list that is a catalogue of names, events and offices, which he calls a ‘retrospective’ list, and which can be thought of as a representation of work-flow; the ‘shopping’ list, or the list that includes expectations and items for future projects; and the lexical list – the proto-dictionary, the list that lists the elements of listing – sounds, letters, numbers. A very important list, according to Goody, in Mesopotamia. All three of these lists are dealt with and syncretized in the clerk’s office – viewing the clerk very broadly as one of the central types of ‘circulation’ worker, as Marx named them. The accountant’s task, for instance, is – for all of its spreadsheet cleverness – directly related to the functions invented in the Mesopotamian bureaucracies. 

The clerk’s literature is a form of Western Dao – Bartleby’s phrase operates in this invisible tradition much as certain phrases from the Chuang Tzu operate to bind together the concept of the Dao. “Therefore a man who has wisdom enough to fill one office effectively, good conduct enough to impress one community, virtue enough to please one ruler, or talent enough to be called into service in one state, has the same kind of self-pride as these little creatures [the cicada and the quail who mock the giant flights of monster birds, etc.] Sung Jung-tzu would certainly burst out laughing at such a man. The whole world could praise Sung Jung-tzu and it wouldn’t make him exert himself; the whole would could condemn him and it wouldn’t make him mope.” 

Sung Jung-tzu’s laughter, to be sure, is different from Bartleby’s inexpressiveness. But in the line of texts that extend from Lichtenberg to Kafka (and into the pit of which, I think, literature in the age of its de-institutionalization is being inexorably lead), there is a laughter that comes out when, for instance, Kafka read his stories out to his friends. Or in a letter to Felice, when Kafka told his fiancé that he was famous in his office for his laughter [Ich bin sogar als grosser Lacher bekannt] and gave the example of his inability to stop laughing when, one day, the president of the Insurance company made a speech bemoaning the accidents of workers and the trouble this causes for insurance companies. In fact, Kafka coulndn’t help laughing, nor could he even look away and disguise his face when the President made his speech. 

Friday, January 26, 2018

the super-ego in the cultural industry

Among bad signs, this is a good one: you are sitting there watching a movie and you suddenly start feeling like Teddy Adorno.
Adorno, after all, was, at least as a writer, the very embodiment of melancholy. He could easily have been incorporated as some opposite to Joker in the Batman universe – call him Melancho. Melancho, the criminal mastermind who leaves a trail of tears at the crime site.

Last night, I had a Melancho moment. We were watching a good film: Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Mo. We’d been waiting to see this film. The babysitter was in place. The Bastille moviehouse boasted a screen two times the usual MK2 one. Great.

And it was much as I’d read about, and admirable. Frances McDormand was unyielding, and Woody Harelson was charming. But I gradually became aware of a severe mismatch between the nightvision of the world in the film, its dark and daft humor, and the musical score. Not the country songs, which of course Hollywood has to add if there is a rural setting (which is like a caption: rural setting). No, it was the stringwork that began to get to me. The musical score, it struck me, was operating as a sort of psychotic super-ego, making sure that one “got” every sequence.

Take, for instance [Spoilers ahead] the suicide of Sheriff Willoughby. It was hard to watch this sequence, but it was not incomprehensible. Rather, I understood it as one understands a narrative – I understood it via some synthesis of sympathy and intellect.

As, I assume, we all understand such things. But in the immediate aftermath, what does the film do? It starts to swell with a string section. The stringwork was a way of “explaining” to me that life was awfully sad. Of course, in a ruse that tells you the superego’s been here, the explanation really serves as a denial. The strings take away the shock. The underlining takes away the rawness. Life isn’t so sad after all when you have a string section tastefully following you around.

Adorno, of course, understood this as the chief mission of the cultural industry.
And maybe the music was, in fact, essential to the deal.
Every film is a deal. In this case, the writer and director, Martin McDonagh, eveloped a reputation as a sort of Irish Sam Peckinpah of the theater with plays that were as bloody as those of Seneca. This is a reputation that gets you articles in chic glossies. And attracts the attention of the next big thing crowd in the movie industry. But that very invitation then has to be digested by the investors. They have to contemplate whether the chic glossy audience can be translated into a profit margin that will make everybody whole.

My feeling is that the string section really wasn’t for me to feel sad about the sheriff, but rather it was for the investors, it was to make sure that they didn’t feel too sad about me feeling sad about the sheriff. Because if it was too much of a bummer, I’d desert the profit margin, we’d all desert the profit margin, and … there wouldn’t be a profit margin!

This is of course what commercial films do. Sometimes there’s a genius in the system, but that genius is always going to have to go through a lot of investor fat. When this is discussed, at all, it is usually discussed in terms of audiences. What “audiences” like. This conveniently deflects the discussion from what investors like. It is, as always, the subrosa class warfare text in pop culture. In fact, audiences don’t, actually, exist like some immobile Platonic form, the form of Babbits, throwing popcorn at the tragic sense of life and applauding fart jokes. Rather, this audience is a product of the cultural industry, as surely as epidemic diabetes is a product of the corn oil industry.
It made me feel like Melancho.

Good flick, otherwise.