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

Friday, July 14, 2017

don't blame Ayn Rand. Blame Alex Osborn

I had gone through this vale of tears thinking that the root of brainstorm was meteorological: that the brain is encouraged to “rain down” ideas. But this week, I have learned that storm was meant, by the coiner of the phrase, to evoke soldiers storming a position. In other words, the brain was to be considered a sort of grenade, and the brainstormers were to be considered commandoes rushing at a problem.
The coiner of the phrase was an advertising man. Naturally. Name of Alex F. Osborn. Now, a lotta folks blame everything that’s been crapped up on Ayn Rand’s malign influence. Few (or maybe nobody) blames Alex F. Osborn. But I think a case can be made that Osborn’s brainstorm baby – set sailing on a sea of Babbitry and business uplift – has had a larger effect on the American elite’s cognitive style than the firebreathing Rand, who had the good sense to see that under the suit or  casualware of the business school graduate beats a heart just yearning for someone to mistake him for a hero in a Harlequin Romance.  Good way to sell books. And if daffy Silicon Valley types weave a philosophy from Rand’s romances, well, pretty much tells you about the level of Silicon Valley types.
But Osborn was serious.
“It was in 1939 when I first organized such group-thinking in our company. The early participants dubbed our efforts “brainstorm sessions; and quite aptly so because, in this case, “brainstorm” meas using the brain to storm a creative problem— and to do so in commando fashion, with each stormer audaciously attacking the same objective.” [Applied Imagination]
Osborn is quite excited by the sheer quantity of brainstorming results. A group at his agency developed over 800 ideas for one of his clients. 800! Imagine, as they would say today, the disruption!
Osborn gives four rules for brainstorming:
“1. Judicial judgment is ruled out. Criticism of ideas is withheld until later.
2. Freewheeling is welcomed. The wilder the idea, the better.  It is easier to tame down than to think up.
3. Quantity is wanted. The greater the number of ideas, the more the likelihood of winners.
4. Combination and improvement are sought. In addition to contributing ideas of their own, participants should suggest how ideas of others can be turned into better ideas; or how two or more ideas can be joined into still another idea. “

If the surrealist idea of automatic writing were turned into a parlor game for servants of capital, I guess it would look like this.
However, my point here is that the breathless idea of being “freewheeling” and putting out all these ideas out there – the more there are, the more likely we are to find “winners” – has become the unfortunate cognitive style of the Executive branch in its ultra testosterone mode. In a sense, Trump’s tweets are the ultimate brainstorm. They wheel so free that the wheels come off; they flurry, they multiply. And they both judge and ask not to be judged – exposing the contradiction between 1, where criticism is given its division of labor instructions to stay away, and no. 4, where we are trying to make an idea better, which is truly hard to do if we can’t judge its worth at all. Meaning that we end up with excitable inanity, the usual form in which exec speak happens. It is all very uplifting and, as Osborn likes to say over and over again, creative. The American cult of the creative may not have started with Osborn, but he was a votary.
Osborn indicates with some satisfaction (in the book I’ve been quoting) that the military has taken up his ideas and run with them. I think some glimmer of brainstorming is behind the cockeyed sense of intellectual entitlement that pervades both Silicon Alley and Wall street: that the making of software apps for taking pictures of cats, or slicing and dicing a financial instrument so that nobody understands what it is about, is very creative.   Trump, that old joke, with his art of the deal, otherwise known as cheating at cards, is very likely convinced that he is a brainstormer par excellence. He and Kushner and Bannon – can’s you see these fatuous men putting their heads together to solve, say, the problem that miiiinoooorities are still allowed to vote in this country. Etc.

I don’t blame Rand. Poor Osborn is the guy I blame. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

theses on neoliberalism: once more with feeling!

Ellen M. Wood's "The Retreat from Class" , published in 1983, is uncannily predictive of the course of neo-liberalism. Though she is pretty highhanded with us epigoni of French Theory, what she says about the disappearance of class within political discourse – and cultural discourse in general - is totally correct, at least in the Anglosphere.

Of course, class only disappears in the minds of the bien-pensants, not from their daily lives. Class as lived experience is overwhelmingly present, from the sandwich shops of David Broder to the shores of the mini-mansion subdivision universe.

Neoliberalism is neo because, unlike classical liberalism, it proceeds logically from the dismantling of the labor theory of value. In terms of class, this means writing out the working class, and substituting as its pertinent tri-fold structure the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor. The wealthy are described as wealth makers. The middle class are economically autonomous, and the poor are government dependents.

Within neo-liberalism, then, taxing the wealthy is justified by the government services provided for them, and not as a countermeasure to the level of exploitation that creates that group. The middle class, if it demands something from the government, is displaying moral culpability: how dare, for instance, middle class kids demand free secondary education? Obviously, they simply want bribes. And the poor never work – the goal is to get them to work. Then we can pull away government support for them.

Class, which used to indicate a position in the spheres of production and circulation, becomes, in neoliberalism, a proxy for income.

Politically, income is a very weak guarantor of solidarity. The search for solidarity turns elsewehere – to various identities, which, in the absence of a robust sense of production and circulation, take on the primary roles in structuring our lives, and thus the politics concerning our lives.

It is interesting to me that Marx talks about life, not about economics, when speaking of what determines our consciousness. Life is at the center of his thinking, yet it is consistently read out of his thinking. When we read that Marx doesn’t accord enough force, or accords no force, to ideas, the people saying this are usually at work. They are usually academics writing ideas in books that, among other things, will gain them tenure. The ideas that they are talking about come from the great names. They are not talking about the ideas of the sandwichmaker at Subway. Why?

What we know of the life of the sandwichmaker – or of our own lives – is that we perpetually sacrifice our idea time to our work time. Marx has a pretty keen idea of what space, in the course of a life in which twelve hours a day is devoted to repetitive work activities, is going to go into ideas that are going to be written on paper.

The neo-liberal triumph is to make this all seem delusory. Instead, we have the great ideas of the great ideamen – usually men, but under our new more liberal standards, even women are accepted! – and then we have the daily lives of people who, if we don’t watch out, will want free government services.

It is in this way that neo-liberalism moves from being some set of “ideas” about the economy to a cosmic vision of how things are and ought to be.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Gareth Stedman Jones's Marx

I was so irritated by the review of Gareth Stedman Jones’ Marx “biography” in the London Book Review that I began to research GSJ’s past pronunciamentos in re the great man. Jones has been treading high road to capitalism for a long long time. But he has the misfortune, or fortune, to have linked himself early to Marx. Instead of disavowing Marx and moving on, he’s dedicated himself to the more remunerative task of misinterpreting Karl. As was pointed out in 2004 by Jacob Stevens, fascinated by Jones’s long  yawp of an intro to the Penguin edition of The Communist Manifesto,  Jones’s Marx is recognizably a product of one of the Cold War subthemes in the “battle of ideas”: that Marxism is a religion. Hence, the title of the book of confessions by ex-Commies: The God that Failed. Jones’s variant is that Marx knew very well that ideas rock the world, but hid this under a materialism that was in stark contradiction to his humanist faith.

In making this case, Jones embraces the idea that intellectual history is pretty much about reading books. Marx reads some books, is influenced, writes books, etc. etc.

It is a case he has been making for some time. For instance, in 2002, writing for the Guardian, Jones casts cold water on the anarchos and lefties making with the cops at globalist fests – like G20 summits – by way of another Cold War trope – capitalism did everything that Marx wanted communism to do! In 2002, it was very popular for ex-lefties to make arguments of this form. Hence Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens making mock of the betrayal of the “left” by those who opposed the crusade for all that was right and good in Iraq.

Jones did not go that far, although the Blairist butter in his Guardian article is pretty thick. But what bugs me about Jones is not so much his politics – which is a garden variety of bien-pensant reformism, which in the short term is what we got – as his historical method. For instance, this:
“Marx’s manifesto vision was driven by a conviction that the capitalist cash-nexus distorted the expression of human need. Drawing upon legal historians, he concluded the modern forms of private property and the exchange economy based upon it was only one in a historical succession of different property forms. Capitalist private property had produced the unparalleled productivity gains of the 19th century industrial revolution.”

This to my mind ignores the Marx who did not have to read German legal historians to see what was going on about him as he lived and worked in Cologne. All he had to do was read the newspaper he edited. Jones simply ignores the series of newspaper articles Marx wrote about the laws concerning the abolition of traditional gleaning rights in the woods that formed an important part of the wealth of the German landowner aristocracy. How important was this issue? Wood theft constituted the highest percentage of the crimes for which people were sentenced to prison in Germany in the nineteenth century. It was while working on his newspaper that Marx saw the belief he’d been educated in – that law makes property – was untrue. Rather property law was being remade by class. Although Jones has evidently had his head in a library for a long long time, he might have stuck it out enough to notice how intellectual property laws have again remade property. This was not in response to some principle in the law, but rather to some pressure from the owners of computer software and giant pharma. You can sell your car second hand – you can’t do the same with your code for your Microsoft Office Suite. Rationalization isn't reason - the capitalist libido operates now just as it operated in the forests around Cologne in 1845. 

All of which is a way of saying: Marx noticed things outside of books. He noticed events. Jones is correct that the critique of capitalism was never succeeded by the construction of some positive communist utopia, with instructions showing how part a fits into slot b. On the other hand, what promoter of capitalism ever envisioned global warming? Or had a grasp of the vast effects of unleashing the chemical-industrial products on this world? Did the inventor of nitrogen fertilizer have any sense that he was igniting a population boom, and destroying peasant societies globally – more effectually than communism ever did?

All of these overwhelming effects of the system can be abbreviated into the term “alienation.” It is what we live in. Marx’s critique gives us a mirror of how it came about, and how it functions. It is based not on reading the British economists and the German legal historians – these were useful, but not sufficient – but on reading newspapers, reports on factory conditions, going out into the streets. Marx was perhaps the first philosopher to ever take what the newspaper reported as material for thought.

You’d never know that from an intellectual archaeology that refuses to look at the nineteenth century except in the cliched terms of “the industrial revolution” – a sort of children’s book caption for what was happening. A more serious issue might be Jones’s substitute of private property relations for wage labor. Which is what Marx was on about at the time he wrote the Manifesto, and immediately afterwards, when he edited – wait for it – a newspaper, and made speeches to workers organizations, such as the one in Vienna in 1848, on the theory of property by Puffendorf. Just kidding! The speeches were on wage labor, and were reprinted in a pamphlet, and referred to the wages made by weavers, for instance. It referred to the worker’s time – his or her living time.
Here’s a quote, ending with a perfect little metaphor. And then I’m done with the bug up my ass that succeeded my reading of that stupid review in the LRB.  

“But the putting of labor-power into action -- i.e., the work -- is the active expression of the laborer's own life. And this life activity he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of life. His life-activity, therefore, is but a means of securing his own existence. He works that he may keep alive. He does not count the labor itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another. The product of his activity, therefore, is not the aim of his activity. What he produces for himself is not the silk that he weaves, not the gold that he draws up the mining shaft, not the palace that he builds. What he produces for himself is wages ; and the silk, the gold, and the palace are resolved for him into a certain quantity of necessaries of life, perhaps into a cotton jacket, into copper coins, and into a basement dwelling. And the laborer who for 12 hours long, weaves, spins, bores, turns, builds, shovels, breaks stone, carries hods, and so on -- is this 12 hours' weaving, spinning, boring, turning, building, shovelling, stone-breaking, regarded by him as a manifestation of life, as life? Quite the contrary. Life for him begins where this activity ceases, at the table, at the tavern, in bed. The 12 hours' work, on the other hand, has no meaning for him as weaving, spinning, boring, and so on, but only as earnings, which enable him to sit down at a table, to take his seat in the tavern, and to lie down in a bed. If the silk-worm's object in spinning were to prolong its existence as caterpillar, it would be a perfect example of a wage-worker.“

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Japan EU trade treaty sucks - not that you'd know that from the nyt

The NYT - in mourning for the TPP - casts its lonely eyes on the European-Japanese treaty and finds it a shining symbol of all that is good and right. Actually, it is a shining symbol that the EU's elite never learns anything. Negotiated in secret, full of the kind of mulitnational corp goodies that are the new road to serfdom, its benefits will flow to the top 1 percent, while undermining the bottom 99 percent. This article in Libe is of interest

Trade treaties are always sold as being so ultra beneficial to the "poor" - which is what we call the laboring class in these neo-liberal times. It is odd that no representatives of the "poor" are ever allowed to shape them, then. But what do the poor know? Best keep these things secret.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

hurray for long beach!

One of Raymond Queneau’s novels, St. Glinglin, begins with a sentence that for some reason has burned itself into my memory: «Drôle de vie, la vie de poisson”. Actually, like all memory burns, this one turns out to be a little lost in space. I repeated it to A., yesterday, as we were walking around the maze of the Long Beach aquarium, but attributed it to Zazie dans le metro. And, in a final parapraxial slip, I claimed that the sentence went Droledevieviedepoisson, one word, when actually Zazie does begin with one word, “Doukipudonktan”, who is that stinker, which Queneau takes from the Finneganwakesese of everyday French.

The sentence about fish signals, in Queneau, that we are again working with a sort of loose cannon of a personage, a perpetual grad student who has gone down a side route that has nothing to do with the money he’s been granted to pursue his studies: studies in literature, not aquarium.

The Gathmanns are ferocious aficionados of aquarium, in all its aspects. Indeed, we are, as a family, agreed that the fish does have a Drôle de vie – a life of color, grubbing in the sand, nipping each other’s fins, some peakishness (Proust’s neurasthenia has nothing on that of certain tropical fish), and complex relationships with each other founded on a seeming indifference best captured in that sequence in The Meaning of Life where the fish all greet each other like London bank employees on the tube.  To support that lifestyle, certain Gathmann’s maintain big aquariums, and have even dabbled in the esoteric arts of salt water. When the Gathmanns as a group go to any big burg, one of the first things they check out is whether the burg hosts an aquarium.

Myself, until recently, I was a dissenter. The idea of laying down the hard earned ready to see a buncha fins struck me as a waste of spondoolees.  But all my snobbish distinctions have tottered and fallen since Adam was born. To have a four and a half year old is to realize that one’s personal canon must be constantly revised, i.e. bulldozed,  to let in such things as Peep and the Big Wide world, and that there is much to be said for the archetype of the Joker and knock knock jokes. Adam has been in love with sharks for some time, but it only recently hit me that sharks are, to Adam’s age group, what dolphins were to my childhood – the fashionable sea creatures. The stock price of dolphins has gone the way of the stock price of Sears and Roebuck, which makes me sad. On the other hand, I love it that Adam’s generation is all about saving sharks. In fact, I do remember happy hours playing sharks when I was a boy. There was a foldout of shark species from National Geographic that I can remember in detail, although as pointed out, first graf, my memory is not what I remember it to have been. All of which is to say that,  according to all accounts, a good place to get up close and personal with sharks was this Long Beach aquarium. And Sea world is both more expensive and probably, for someone who cares even the slightest for animals, not the best choice. So off we went on a staycation jaunt.
I’d def recommend the place. It is not, like most joints that draw in kids, a depressing money suck. The exhibits are gorgeous, sorted according to ecological region. There are hammerhead sharks, or a species of them – there are about 30 species. There are the cutest Rays or Skates in the child petting pools. The personnel are relaxed Cali types. The message of be good to the environment is good for the future environment, that U.S. of 2030 when Trumpism is remembered in Museums of Shame, and racism is actually called racism, rather than “alt-right”, in newspapers. Of course, it will also be the U.S. trying to figure out what to do with refugees from Arizona as the temperature there climbs to 160 F. There was a special exhibit on tropical frogs, with a lot of plant life and frogs that you have to find among the leafage, since tropical frogs like to hide. There was a great octopus, and I do love octopus – I love them in nature and I love them with a little salt and pepper, oil and vinegar. There was an area of the aquarium with seats and tables and nothing else – evidently, the place had actually been designed for parents with kids, because the one thing you long for after a while is a place just to rest andyou’re your kids play with the toys you bought them at the gift shop. Overall, I’d rate the experience as brilliant. It made me love Long Beach for more than the fact that it is one of the few cities in America with a park  named for a communist: Harry Bridges, who made the longshoreman’s union a model of exploiting the exploiters.      

Sunday, July 02, 2017

the mummy's curse

Classical scholars have a name for the fictional device of the “discovered manuscript: pseudo-documentarism. It is a device that goes back quite a ways in the Greek world, with hints in, say, Plato’s dialogues, but that really comes into its own, according to Karen Ni Mheallaigh, in the first and second centuries A.D. Mheallaigh emphasizes the way the discovered manuscript both addresses the materiality of the text and blurs the line between fictional and historical truth.
“Pseudo documentarism in its various manifestations raises the stakes sharply in the game of make-believe, because it asks readers not only to concede the text's fictional truth but also to enter into the fantasy of historical truthfulness as well: in other words, it fictionalizes the issue of historical truth – an ethically worrying thing to do – and in doing so, it tests the limits of the reader's grasp of the rules that govern make-believe. The finer the line distinguishing fact from fiction, it seems, the keener the frisson of readerly pleasure becomes.” (Pseudo-Documentarism and the Limits of Ancient Fiction: Karen Ní Mheallaigh,  The American Journal of Philology 2008)

Good as far as it goes, but I think that there is another aspect – the productive dimension of the document – that gets pushed a little to the side here. After all, the exchange that happens is not only covered by the ‘contract’ with the reader, but by the contract between discoverer and author. The fiction after all creates an interesting editorial relationship where the author (who, we think, “really” composed the text) is transformed from the producer to the publisher, from the laborer to the manager, or administrator.
Like discovery in general in the West (an ideological unity that could be defined in terms of ‘discovery’ and “invention”, since discovery, as we know, signifies the erasure of the discovered peoples, or at least their subordination as subjects who can be discovered, but aren’t themselves discoverers, while invention is accorded to the discovering nation as the sign of its intellectual superiority), the discovery of the manuscript, the document, comes with a history of why it had to be discovered – why its producers either lost it, or chose to hide it, or – in more catastrophic stories – why the culture in which it was produced was buried. Discovery turns a use object into a treasure, with its very special terms of exchange.  If the relationship between the writer and reader is a “contract”, the publication of the discovered document points to a more primary broken contract. One of those Derridian paradoxes that, in our flat age, we are forgetting about.

In a colloquy on the motif of the manuscrit trouvé  held in the Louvain in 1999, one of the participants, Jan Herman, quotes a passage from Vivant-Denon’s Travels to Lower Egypt that gives us a wonderful  dialectical image of the discovered manuscript. The passage comes just after Vivant-Denon, who was one of the scholars enlisted by Napoleon for his attempt to conquer Egypt, is speculating about Egyptian writing and the possibility of Egyptian books, after having uncovered a stele on a dig:

I couldn’t help but flatter myself in thinking that I was the first who had made a discovery of such importance; but I congratulated myself even more when, some hours afterwards, I was blessed with the proof of my discovery by coming into possession of a manuscript that I even discovered in the hand of a superb mummy that had been carried to me. You have to be a true collector, amateur and voyager to appreciate the total scale of my joy. I felt myself almost faint: I wanted to argue with those who, in spite of my pleading, had violated the integrity of this mummy, when I saw clutched in his right hand and under his left arm the manuscript of a papyrus scroll, which I would never have seen without this violation: I couldn’t speak; I blessed the avarice of the Arabs, and above all the chance that had offered me this good fortune; I didn’t know what to do with my treasure, having so much fear of destroying it. I didn’t dare touch this book, the most ancient of all books known until this day, and I dared not confide it to anyone, or put it anywhere. All of my bedding cotton did not seem to me sufficient to softly wrap it up. Was this the history of some personage? The epoch of his life? Was the  reign of a sovereign under whom he had served inscribed there?  Was it some theological dogma, some prayers, or the consecration of some discovery?”

Note that even before Vivant-Denon begins to read it (which, if it were in Egyptian, he didn’t have the capacity to decypher), the discovery itself is the result of broken contracts, of violations of the most sacred sort. It is the underside, perhaps, of the history of pillage that calls itself the civilizing mission that violation is followed by contract, by care – the torn sheets of the mummy replaced by the sheets of bedding of the French savant. Only a truly contracting culture could pillage with such a clear conscience.  But the contract at some point doesn’t work to mollify worry. At this point, the dead come back. At this point, the gothic takes over. At this point, the editor/finder has a hard time convincing himself that he is not the stealer/robber, and that the avarice of the “arabs” is amplified ten times, a hundred times in his case. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

my howl

During the Bush years, I wrote this. Sort of still believe it. Although my tie to America has weakened considerably.
I gotta ask sometimes about my own divided sense of, affection for, the Homeland. It’s the crow’s own country for us, which I crisscross in my imagination on black wings, the smell of carrion and white magic in my birdie nostrils. But is it by any stretch of the imagination my country still? Or have I been simply completely fucked out of it? After all, I pepper it with every pot shot in my cap gun, and it would be a fair reading of what I say about these states that I generally view it as a savage hoedown of decrepit holy rollers ruled over by the most thieving gang of imbecile oligarchs ever to drool over a bribe or start a vanity war. So am I yankee doodle dandied out? Or am I in the position of the Pilgrims way back there in the seventeenth century, carrying the cursed language on my tongue but looking for kingdoms other.

Well, pardners, close combat vituperation is as native to the red clay and purple mountain’s majesty in which my testicles dropped as a preacher sex scandal, so there is that. I’m of this country, and take my privileges accordingly. I don’t possess a pair of calipers to measure American wickedness against some other and potentially more moral destination. I weigh it against my expectations, and its own philosophical claims – for what other nation is as philosophical as the U.S.A.? We invented the absolute weapon, then built 40,000 some missiles to convey it, and by that act proclaimed ourselves the end of history and an end in itself. No country was ever bold enough, or fucked up enough, to think so highly of itself as that. We wuz followed up to the heights, sure, but it was us that got there first. What other nation had the brass balls to claim that if, by some godawful chance, we were attacked, we reserved the right to destroy humanity? Okay, the aforesaid Soviets, but that didn’t work out too well for them, did it? The US runs me ragged, but it is way and wicked rich in every material and metaphysical oddity, which is a comfort. Yes, I expect that in my lifetime things will get much harder here for my class (the stragglers and strugglers); I expect the rich shits, whom to lay a sexual name on disparages itself, to acquire ever more power, and the American majority to refuse to do the rational thing and string them up, or strip them down, or in other ways put the fear of god into them. I could say that the Americans of my time just became servile asskissers, but I know the lack of fight is because the majority is tired and is driven by debt like the sinners in some Memlinc hell are scourged by demons. But I also expect wild souls to cross all expectations, who knows how: some minor redeemers, some jammers in the war machine. Sitting in the belly of the beast, I count on some regular people to wake up and pinch it hard. There will be noises off in the American underground, and I don’t want to miss that.”
In a coupla months I am alighting for foreign shores. I’m sorta sick of America, but I still think I stand with both the diss and the hope.