“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, May 18, 2012

Donna is dead


“At first, God gave the judgement of death upon man, when he should transgresse, absolutely, Morte morieris, Thou shalt surely dye: The woman in her Dialogue with the Serpent, she mollifies it, Ne fortè moriamur, perchance, if we eate, we may die; and then the Devill is as peremptory on the other side, Nequaquam moriemini, do what you will, surely you shall not die; And now God in this Text comes to his reply, Quis est homo, shall they not die? Give me but one instance, but one exception to this rule, What man is hee that liveth, and shall not see death? Let no man, no woman, no devill offer a Ne fortè, (perchance we may dye) much lesse a Nequaquam, (surely we shall not dye) except he be provided of an answer to this question, except he can give an instance against this generall, except he can produce that mans name, and history, that hath lived, and shall not see death. Wee are all conceived in close Prison; in our Mothers wombes, we are close Prisoners all; when we are borne, we are borne but to the liberty of the house; Prisoners still, though within larger walls; and then all our life is but a going out to the place of Execution, to death.”

And so Donna Summer has not gone out to the place of Execution, trailing behind her my early twenties in Shreveport, Louisiana. But I’m going to take the serpent’s side of the argument, here. Whatever it was we ate (or sniffed, or smoked) back then, it made more sense to think Nequaquam moriemini than to think God would strike us down for discovering the toy store of our own bodies, since it was the demiurge that had stocked it. And this was a discovery that required a certain toy music. It was a delicate kind of thing, this music, as certainly really good toy’s are: containing just that small bit of unheimlichkeit which inhabits the doll, the clown, and the windup figure, reminiscent of that infantile moment when the line is blurred between what is living and what isn’t, when the categories aren’t fixed and the dreams aren’t quite captured and pent by the circle made by sleep. The Giorgio Moroder thump and the old Phil Spector echo effect made a space for a certain kind of voice, one that varied the diva aspiration to filling the song: this voice emptied it.

At the time, I had begun living in one of those classic small Southern towns where the old Dixie hierarchies still gamely held, and in holding distorted themselves into all kind of grotesqueness. Shreveport was like a weird combination of a Walker Percy novel and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It was a perfect outpost, actually, to watch the American system warp. And the perfect outpost within that outpost was the Florentine club, until it was finally blown up. Or so I heard. It was a combination disco and gay bar, and gay bars in the backwater South tend to be under attack, especially in 1979.

I don’t think any American craze has been hated quite as much as disco, for it combined all the unpleasant reminders that the old American verities (which went all the way baaaack  baaack baaack to … 1945) were disconnected from reality: blue collar masculinity was a joke (prefigured by YMCA, and instantiated in the 80s by a leveraged buyout culture and a political leadership that had the knives out for the unions); heterosexuality was a joke; and not only had the doors of perception been kicked open by drugs, but we had all been unceremoniously hustled through them by an increasingly ominipotent media and ‘information economy’ (that produces anything but information that you, well, actually need), so that by this time it was already apparent that a rose was not a rose and not a rose – at best, it was a prop to be photographed for an advertisement to get you to buy a rose. As for American might – disco seemed not so much to criticize it, like the New Left in the 60s, as to ignore it, as though it didn’t exist at all. And if America wasn’t mighty, what was it?
Well, one answer was that it was place to get high on whatever was at hand, dance, and fuck, as much as possible. Hot stuff baby this evening.

Myself, I’ve always been more the bold boy in my head than out of it. I confined myself mostly to dancing. I was first taken to the Florentine by Dean, one of the first people who befriended me at the college I began attending in Shreveport. Dean had a major crush on me – which was not as flattering as it seems, since Dean eventually had a major crush on every straight guy that he met. But I owe him the trip to the Florentine, because after Dean, I began to go there, almost every night, with Cathy. We were both touched by some faint 70s version of the St.Vitus mania, and it played itself out under Rick James’ Superfreak, the Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight, and every word that fell from the mouth of La Donna S.

This account rather compresses the dance years in one way: it was actually Dyretta who taught me, in as much as I am teachable in this department, to dance. Dyretta, much to her regret, could not drain that thing in me that irresistibly went to the freak – as Dyretta said, the white boy’s dance. The old Adam, here, try as he would, could not change for the New Eve. But she did her best to introduce me to what was up, and I responded in kind: she turned me on to the Sugar Hill gang, and I gave her, for her birthday, the Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot. A wholly satisfactory exchange.

The dance years finally came to an end when I went for a year to France, to study in Montpellier. They were succeeded, in the 80s, by the much different Talking Heads years, and New Orleans. And Donna Summer’s voice is not one I listen to very much anymore. But I am sad, sad, sad that she is dead. She crowned a better decade.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

reputation poker: Dimon the mad banker of Wall Street

GHARIB: As you know, there is a lot of anxiety out there that the financial crisis is not over, that there is another shoe to drop. What is the next big thing you are worried about in terms of credit quality?
DIMON: We go through this every five or six years and you can just go back in history. They are always a little bit different. But there are a lot of commonalities: Fear, specter of recession, credit assets, re-price, spreads re-price, etcetera. You`ve seen sub-prime, SIV, CDOs, CLOs (ph) and now it is monolines, municipals, wraps. But at the end of the day, those things will resolve and our system has resolved a lot of them. A lot has been de-leveraged. A lot has been paid off. A lot of problems have popped up are now gone. It`s not over yet, but you know, I would be surprised if the financial part of this isn`t over by the end of the year.
- February 14, 2008

In Matthew Josephson’s amusing history, The Robber Barons, there is a nice story about the young J.P. Morgan. After having done what any man on the move would do in 1861 – paying  a substitute to fight for him in the Union army – Young Morgan looked about him for opportunities. One of the knocked on his door, in the person of Simon Stevens. Stevens had stumbled onto a deal, by which he could buy 5,000 Hall carbines and sell them to the Union Army of the West, with which he had a contract. The beauty of the deal was that the carbines had been rejected by the government in Washington on account of the fact that they were defective – when used, they tended to explode, taking the thumb of the shooting soldier with them. “The quartermaster at Washington sold them for $3.50 apiece. “The government had sold one day for $17,486 arms which it had agreed the day before to purchase for $109,912,” comments the historian Gustavus Myers. That young Morgan knew of this situation is plain from the fact that after repudiation of the consignment of guns by General Fremont’s division, he bluntly presented his claim not for the money he had advanced, but for all of $58,175, half of the shipment having been already paid for in good faith.” 

Thus began the Morgan tradition of advancing money for products that tend to blow up in the users hands. Evolution and human kindness being what it is, the products are now called credit swaps. But the object is always the same: a quick buck, made with the poker face of propriety, and the compliance of a corrupt government.

Matthew Josephson and, for that matter, Gustavus Meyers, are dead. And so is critical business journalism. In the shitstorm about Morgan’s 3 billion dollars and counting losses from the desk of its London Whale, the NYT business page has been an exemplary mix of rather shocking news (once again, a big bank decides to make the big bucks by doing socially negative betting, gets dick handed to it on plate) and asskissing – since it seems to be obligatory that every story tell us that Jamie Dimon is some financial wizard, a brilliant CEO who led Morgan unscathed through the financial collapse.

The story is, of course, a crock. According to Table 8 (Borrowing Aggregated by Parent Company and Includes Sponsored ABCP Conduits) of the GAO report on the Federal Reserve’s Emergency Loan Program (a series of programs that lent  money at 1 percent or below), JP Morgan borrowed 391 billion dollars, making it the twelfth largest borrower. Now admittedly, in today’s dazzling new world of free funds for the wealthy, 391 billion dollars is peanuts. A quick and dirty guestimate of what that means? If in that climate Morgan had borrowed that much money at 6 percent, the interest would have come to 21 600 000 000. At 1 percent, the interest came to 3 600 000 000. Granted, these were loans that had very brief time periods – which meant, essentially, the Fed was giving the bank billions to play with, but pretending that the loan was not for a year, but for a day, a week, etc. Still, I don’t think making money when the government essentially hands you 18 billion dollars is that difficult. I think even I could do it. I’d like at least to try. Please Uncle Sam?

But here’s the fix: you will never, ever read a  report in the NYT that quotes the GAO report. The 16 trillion dollar loan jamboree held for the richest by the richest is a non-event in American journalism. Whereas certain events – such as Kim Kardashian’s weight and sexual life – are known in microscopic detail, down to the last tooth on the zipper of her K-Dash skirt – other events in America are too shocking for the eyes of the public. The continual and vast state support for the richest are super secret.

Thus, Roger Loewenstein, who used to be a good journalist, wrote a sycophantic piece about Dimon in the NYT two years ago that included grafs like this:
“The popular animus has come as a shock to Dimon. Recently, while entertaining a roomful of corporate clients over a tenderloin dinner, he felt the need to assert his and his industry’s worthiness. “I am not embarrassed to be a banker,” he noted. “I am not embarrassed to be in business.” In truth, Dimon has plenty not to be embarrassed about. He fulfilled a banker’s first obligation: he made sure his bank survived. This was thanks to his strategy of maintaining a healthy cushion of capital for a rainy day. When markets melted down and the economy plunged into recession, J. P. Morgan remained not only solvent but profitable every quarter. When other banks were refusing to lend, Dimon’s continued to offer credit to customers ranging from homeowners to Pfizer to the State of California. And when the United States needed a strong institution to bail out a failing bank, it turned — twice — to JPMorgan Chase.
Dimon sees himself as a patriotic citizen who helped his country in a time of crisis. Now the most visible face of Wall Street, he thinks banks and bankers have a role not only in rebuilding the economy but in coming up with remedies for the financial system. Critics say that, as a part — even a solvent part — of a failed system, he should be grateful for the government’s assistance rather than stridently critical, as he has been, of some of its reforms. Dimon, they note, took advantage of the crisis to acquire Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual, and J. P. Morgan emerged from the crisis as a vastly larger institution. That is a cause for alarm to 33 U.S. senators, who voted this spring for an amendment that would have forced big banks to dismantle. The country is deeply divided over the proper role, and the size, of banks, and nothing epitomizes these tensions quite like the narrative of Jamie Dimon.”
I especially like describing the takeover of WashMu as a patriotic act, instead of an act of typical elite gouging, in the spirit of those Hall Carbines of the Civil War era. JP’s spirit was doubtless pleased. Love of one’s country never felt so good.
So: read the news, and remember that there is nothing more tinpot than a reputation on Wall Street – except perhaps one on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Erecting a monument to tasering in Seattle

Ah, the blood pressure read of the day is the article about the pregnant women tasered for refusing to sign her traffic ticket. A beautiful story of moral idiocy, state power overreach, and what happens when you fill the courts with idiot judges.

Here's the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/15/us/police-taser-use-on-pregnant-woman-goes-before-supreme-court.html?hp

This article is a regular mine for the satirist who lives away from the home of the free. There's the idea that tasering is a “a useful pain technique,” rather than a useless one - both of which are beloved by our boys in blue!

There's the quote from the 10th district judgem Alex Kozinski, a real prize from the Reagan era, who said, of the three cops who tasered a pregant woman for not signing her traffic ticket for going 12 miles above the speed limit in a school zone: “They deserve our praise, not the opprobrium of being declared constitutional violators. The City of Seattle should award them commendations for grace under fire.”

Of course, the clever satirist can not only delight in Judge Kozinki faschisty-moronic sense of who the City of Seattle should honor and what 'under fire' means, but can dig deeper into his recent history and - strike gold! Here's what our Kozinski does in his spare time (Wiki quote):

"In 2008, according to The Los Angeles Times, Kozinski "maintained a publicly accessible website featuring sexually explicit photos and videos."[5] In response, Kozinski called for an ethics investigation of himself.[6] In July 2009, Kozinski was admonished by a panel headed by Judge Anthony Scirica.[7][8]"

Surely Scirica could have asked for some pain control in this case.

Another judge, however, deserves a pitying look - pitying because obviously, competing with Kozinski for the moron accolade is difficult:

Another dissenter, Judge Barry G. Silverman, said “tasing was a humane way to force Brooks out of her car.”

“There are only so many ways a person can be extracted from a vehicle against her will, and none of them is pretty,” he explained. “Fists, batons, chokeholds, tear gas and chemical spray all carry their own risks to suspects and officers alike.”

This woman had to go to the bathroom. One of the ways of extracting said person would be to wait fifteen minutes. Of course, you could also explain why she needed to sign the ticket, and even encouraged, as one helpful NYT commentor observed, to write, My signature to this ticket in no way acknowledges my guilt. But why do that? She 's black, she's pregnant, she's taserable.Times a wastin'. And there's this controlled pain technique that the cops are just itching to use on a pregant women. It will be, well, scientific good fun! Meanwhile, the elderly judges, like some grotesque George Grosz tableau, will clap their bony hands together, or get bony in other parts of the body (after which, of course, they will investigate themselves), at the creamy dreamy thought of the boys in blue bein'... boys.

A good case for the current Supreme Court to extend the "fan club for police" ideas that have had a long, long tradition there, since the days when the drug war demanded that we toss aside any of those frivolous protections to our privacy, property, and dignity in order to allow the state to claim your endocrine system as its property. Tasing, keeping prisoners in solitary for forty years, and the general torture machine of the American penitentiary system have long been kept going by the creepy people who inhabit the upper reaches of the judiciary.

Which is why I, a lefty, was totally down with Newt Gingrich's suggestion that the Supreme Court be subordinated to Congress. In fact, I think the Supreme Court should simply be abolished. I don't see the need for it.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Back to zero

Back to the zero

The golden age of psychometrics extended from the first measurements of current in the nerves, effected by Helmholtz, and the first attempt to measure the time of sensation, which was performed by Helmholtz’s student, Sigmund Exner, up to the Pavlovian era of the conditioned reflex in the 20s. It was a mad scramble of different instruments all employed to make psychology a science of the smallest interval – the measure of the thought, the nerve impulse, the present of seeing, hearing, and touching. He who says science says measurement – such was the law and the prophets in the 19th century – and under this law, psychology seemed, by its very object, to be excluded – since psychological states seem preeminently qualitative. But instrument by instrument (the myrograph! the Weber compass! The kymograph!), a physiological route to psychological states was carved out. If the object of psychology was not the qualitative state, but the quantitative reflex arc, then psychology could finally be legitimated as something more than a mishmash of post-humoral speculations, for it would have found its total material correlate.

By the 1860s, some advances had been made in the instrumentation and measurement of current in the nerves in relation to stimulus. Helmholtz had determined, through the use of a galvonometer, calculating the distance between the nerve end to be stimulated and the muscular contraction that was observed, the time measuring the traversal of the nerve current. He found that the impulse took between 0.0014 and 0.0020 seconds, which meant that the speed of the conduction was between 25 and 43 meters per second. As in frogs, so in man. If shock were collision, if stimulus could be reduced to mechanical motion, then we could set up our speeds for the present.

But was shock collision?

It was at this point that we can locate as an event in both science and literature an essay written by a Russian physiologist, Ivan Sechenov, entitled Reflex Actions of the Brain (1863). It was an essay that drew conclusions from clinical and laboratory work to evoke a certain paradigm for working with the mental.  They key was the reflex:

“Thus all the exterior manifestations of cerebral activity are reduced to muscular movements. This very much simplifies the question. In fact, an almost infinite multitude of phenomena are reduced to the combined play of some tens of muscles… Furthermore, the reader may immediately perceive that all qualities appertaining to exterior manifestations of cerebral activity: animation, passion, mockery, sadness, joy, etc. are of a mechanical origin. The most rigid spiritualist is obliged to agree. Besides, could it be otherwise when we know that the stone comes to life under the hand of the sculptor and that that of the musician pulls out from an inert instrument sounds that are full of life and passion? Thus the hand of these artists being only apt to produce purely mechanical movements, how could it in turn introduce in the sounds and forms a passionate expression, if it were not in its turn a purely mechanical act? After what we have said, do you not feel, dear reader, that a moment must come when we can analyse the exterior manifestations of cerebral activity as easily as the physician today analyses a musical accord or the phenomena given by a falling body?” [My translation of the French translation]

It was this address to the reader that strained the Russian censor’s tolerance. The essay in which Sechenev was not originally meant to be published in a medical journal. It was meant to be published in a literary one, The Contemporary, edited by one of the famous names in Russia’s politico-literary history: Chernyshevsky. 

By the time The Contemporary was banned, Chernyshevsky was already in prison. It was in prison that Chernyshevsky wrote What is to be Done, featuring a materialist physiologist based on Sechenov. And in one of those reflex arcs that are called “response” or “influence” in literary criticism and intellectual history, Chernyshevsky’s book called forth another book, Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Mousehole.

It is hard to read Sechenov’s essay without seeing the shadow retrospectively cast across it by Dostoevsky. For instance, this is how Sechenov makes the point that what we call habit is a matter of muscular movement:

“Fearing to multiply examples, I will limit myself to asking my readers: is there anything in the world that is so repugnant, so horrible, that man cannot get used to it? Each will doubtlessly respond that there isn’t. And yet each knows that, in order to get used to many things, one needs to make long and painful efforts. To get used to odious or repugnant things isn’t about supporting them without effort (to claim this would be absurd), it is about directing one’s effort skillfully.” (19)

Yet, this flash of the real vileness of life has a scientific purpose. Sechenov was, if not the sole discoverer, the great purveyor of the idea of inhibition. In this sense, Sechenov closes out a period in which shock, whether as something vital or as mechanical motion, had a simple relationship to the body electric of man.

“Twenty years ago, physiologists still believed that the excitation of every nerve attached to a muscle led infallibly to a contraction of the latter. And then Eduard Weber demonstrated, by the aid of irrefutable experiments, that the excitation of the nerve wave which, by certain of its ramifications, arrives at the heart not only does not augment the activity of the latter organ, but even paralyzes it.”

After listing other discoveries in this vein, Sechenov writes a sentence that is heavy with the future: “In the presence of these facts, the idea has gained, little by little, credit with  contemporary physiologists that nervous influences can exist in the animal body having for result to moderate or even arrest involuntary movements.”

In other words, there exists inhibition. The shadow side of shock, numbness, has a physiological correlate. And it is from numbness, from inhibition, that we can build out, precariously, the spiritual world beyond the muscle:

“Knowing all these facts, can contemporary physiologists refuse to admit in the human body –and notably in the brain, since the will only operates by the intermediary of that organ –the existence of mechanisms that arrest reflex movement?” (22)

The complexity added by inhibition to the reflex picture is then compounded with another feature of animal life: the natural exaggeration to which the animal is carried by sudden circumstances, emergencies, fears. Sechenov lists them, including stories of the sudden incredible strength of the weak in emergencies, the fleetfootedness of asthmatics in panic, and various Plinian stories of animal feats. All of which does not bring us outside the mechanical – one can devise machines that also perform non-linearly. However, it does bring us outside the predictable. To find a place for inhibition and exaggeration in our animal life, Sechenov considers that there is such a thing as unconscious reflex action.  

“Thus, the operations which produce an accumulation of the final energy of reflex action take place in the cerebral hemispheres. There is two ways to explain the fact: the mechanism in question could itself be organized on the plan of the reflector, and thus its central partmust serve as a point of junction between sensitive and motor nerves; or one could consider it as an appendix to the reflector, producing unconscious reflex actions. This second conjecture is infinitely more probable than the first…”

Shock leads us here, to a point where numbness, inhibition, and the unconscious meet. The experimental data for this will come not simply from the beheaded frogs and trepanned cats of the laboratory, but from men and women – in train wrecks, entangled in factory machinery, under bombardment. The shocks produced by the industrial experience will carry the unconscious reflex action into the court room, make it a matter for insurance adjustors as well as doctors, lawyers as well as researchers, and create a massive trace that will be felt by the agents of circulation as well as the working class.