Another ponderable from ‘Debt’

September 25, 2011 § 3 Comments

“Within human economies, motives are assumed to be complex. When a lord gives a gift to a retainer, there is no reason to doubt that it is inspired by a genuine desire to benefit that retainer, even if it is also a strategic move designed to ensure loyalty, and an act of magnificence meant to remind everyone else that he is great and the retainer small. There is no sense of contradiction here. Similarly, gifts between equals are usually fraught with many layers of love, envy, pride, spite, communal solidarity, or any of a dozen other things. Speculating on such matters is a major form of daily entertainment. What’s missing, though, is any sense that the most selfish (‘self-interested’) motive is necessarily the real one: those speculating on hidden motives are just as likely to assume that someone is secretly trying to help a friend or harm an enemy as to acquire some advantage for him- or herself. Neither is any of this likely to have changed much in the rise of early credit markets, where the value of an IOU was as much dependent on assessments of its issuer’s character as on his disposable income, and motives of love, envy, pride, etc. could never be completely set aside.

Cash transactions between strangers were different, and all the more so when trading is set against a background of war and emerges from disposing loot and provisioning soldiers; when one often had best not ask where the objects traded came from, and where no one is much interested in forming ongoing personal relationships anyway. Here, transactions really do become simply a figuring-out of how many of X will go for how many of Y, of calculating proportions, estimating quality, and trying to get the best deal for oneself. The result, during the Axial Age, was a new way of thinking about human motivation, a radical simplification of motives that made it possible to begin speaking of concepts like ‘profit’ and ‘advantage’ — and imagining that this is what people are really pursuing, in every aspect of existence, as if the violence of war or the impersonality of the marketplace has simply allowed them to drop the pretense that they ever cared about anything else. It was this, in turn, that allowed human life to seem like it could be reduced to a matter of means-to-end calculation, and hence something that could be examined using the same means that one used to study the attraction and repulsion of celestial bodies. If the underlying assumption very much resembles those of contemporary economists, it’s no coincidence — but with the difference that, in an age when money, markets, states, and military affairs were all intrinsically connected, money was needed to pay armies to capture slaves to mine gold to produce money; when ‘cutthroat competition’ often did involve the literal cutting of throats, it never occurred to anyone to imagine that selfish ends could be pursued by peaceful means. Certainly, this picture of humanity does begin to appear, with startling consistency, across Eurasia, wherever we also see coinage and philosophy appear.

The Confucian ideal of ren, of humane benevolence, was basically just a more complete inversion of profit-seeking calculation than Mo Di’s universal love; the main difference was that the Confucians added a certain aversion to calculation itself, preferring what might almost be called an art of decency. Taoists were later to take this even further with their embrace of intuition and spontaneity. All were so many attempts to provide a mirror image of market logic. Still, a mirror image is, ultimately, just that: the same thing, only backwards. Before long we end up with an endless maze of paired opposites — egoism versus altruism, profit versus charity, materialism versus idealism, calculation versus spontaneity — none of which could ever have been imagined except by someone starting out from pure, calculating, self-interested market transactions.”

— David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (238-9)


Debt, Speculation, Apocalypse

September 9, 2011 § 2 Comments

Immanuel Wallerstein likes to point out that the French Revolution introduced several profoundly new ideas in politics — ideas which, fifty years before the revolution, the vast majority of educated Europeans would have written off as crazy, but which, fifty years afterward, just about anyone felt they had to at least pretend they thought were true. The first is that social change is inevitable and desirable: that the natural direction of history is for civilization to gradually improve. The second is that the appropriate agent to manage such change is the government. The third is that the government gains its legitimacy from an entity called “the people.” It’s easy to see how the very idea of a national debt — a promise of continual future improvement (at the very least, five percent annual improvement) made by government to people — might itself have played a role in inspiring such a revolutionary new perspective. Yet at the same time, when one looks at what men like Mirabeau, Voltaire, Diderot, Siéyes — the philosophes who first proposed the notion of what we now call “civilization” — were actually arguing about in the years immediately leading up to the revolution, it was even more about the danger of apocalyptic catastrophe, of the prospect of civilization as they knew it being destroyed by default and economic collapse.

Part of the problem was the obvious one: the national debt is, first, born of war; second, it is not owed to all the people equally, but above all to capitalists — and in France at that time, “capitalist” meant, specifically, “those who held pieces of the national debt.” The more democratically inclined felt that the entire situation was opprobrious. “The modern theory of the perpetuation of debt,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, around this same time, “has drenched the earth with blood, and crushed its inhabitants under burdens ever accumulating.” Most Enlightenment thinkers feared that it promised even worse. Intrinsic to the new, “modern” notion of impersonal debt, after all, was the possibility of bankruptcy. Bankruptcy, at that time, was indeed something of a personal apocalypse: it meant prison, the dissiolution of one’s estate; for the least fortunate, it meant torture, starvation, and death. What national bankruptcy would mean, at that point in history, nobody knew. There were simply no precedents. Yet as nations fought greater and bloodier wars, and their debts escalated geometrically, default began to appear unavoidable. Abbe Sieyès first put forward his great scheme for representative government, for instance, primarily as a way of reforming the national finances, to fend off the inevitable catastrophe. And when it happened, what would it look like? Would the money become worthless? Would military regimes seize power, regiems across Europe be likewise forced to default and fall like dominos, plunging the continent into endless barbarism, darkness, and war? Many were already anticipating the prospect of the Terror long before the revolution itself.

It’s a strange story because we are used to thinking of the Enlightenment as the dawn of a unique phase of human optimism, borne on assumptions that the advance of science and human knowledge would inevitably make life wiser, safer, and better for everyone — a naïve faith said to have peaked in the Fabian socialism of the 1890s, only to be annihilated in the trenches of World War I. In fact, even the Victorians were haunted by the dangers of degradation and decline. Most of all, Victorians shared the near-universal assumption that capitalism itself would not be around forever. Insurrection seemed imminent. Many Victorian capitalists operated under the sincere belief that they might, at any moment, find themselves hanging from trees. In Chicago, for instance, a friend once took me on a drive down a beautiful old street, full of mansions from the 1870s: the reason, he explained, that it looked like that, was that most of Chicago’s rich industrialists of the time were so convinced that the revolution was imminent that they collectively relocated along the road that led to the nearest military base. Almost none of the great theorists of capitalism, from anywhere on the political spectrum, from Marx to Weber, to Schumpeter, to von Mises, felt that capitalism was likely to be around for more than another generation or two at the most.

One could go further: the moment that the fear of imminent social revolution no longer seemed plausible, by the end of World War II, we were immediately presented with the specter of nuclear holocaust. Then, when that no longer seemed plausible, we discovered global warming. This is not to say that these threats were not, and are not, real. Yet it does seem strange that capitalism feels the constant need to imagine, or to actually manufacture, the means of its own imminent extinction. It’s in dramatic contrast to the behavior of the leaders of socialist regimes, from Cuba to Albania, who, when they came to power, immediately began acting as if their system would be around forever — ironically enough, considering they in fact turned out to be something of an historical blip.

Perhaps the reason is because what was true in 1710 is still true. Presented with the prospect of its own eternity, capitalism — or anyway, financial capitalism — simply explodes. Because if there’s no end to it, there’s absolutely no reason not to generate credit — that is, future money, indefinitely. Recent events would certainly seem to confirm this. The period leading up to 2008 was one in which many began to believe that capitalism really was going to be around forever; at the very least, no one seemed any longer to be able to imagine an alternative. The immediate effect was a series of increasingly reckless bubbles that brought the whole apparatus crashing down.

— David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (359-60)

Man Hunt

September 3, 2011 § 11 Comments

Fritz Lang’s 1941 film Man Hunt (based on a novel with just as unintentionally homoerotic a title, Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household, which I haven’t read) is structured around an interesting conceit: just before WWII, a thrillseeking British aristocrat (Alan Thorndike, played by the Canadian Walter Pigeon) is caught aiming a rifle at Hitler in what he claims was a “sport stalking,” basically throwing the fish back in. He’s then constantly pursued for the rest of the movie by the Gestapo in order to get him to sign a confession that he both a) really intended to kill Hitler and b) did it with the full knowledge of the British government, creating a pretext for war. Why Germany would want to go to war with Britain in 1938 is anyone’s guess, but that’s beside the point. By the end of the film, Gestapo agent Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders, the great English Nazi), before getting an arrow in the neck, has convinced Thorndike that he unconsciously desired Hitler’s death but fails to get him to subordinate that desire to a nation state. Since we’ve seen Thorndike’s own aristo father imply that England would gladly give him up for dead to appease the Führer, it’s easy to understand why.

But the resistance to nationalism goes deeper. Thorndike is an individualist, a free spirit, able to treat his social class — that most typically English of classes, landed gentry — as merely a source of income. I don’t know the circumstances behind the casting choices, but it’s entirely fitting that the lead actor be a Canadian with no interest in sounding English, the love interest, a working-class Londoner, played by an American (Joan Bennett — hearing Jersey attempt Cockney is quite an experience), and the heavy an Englishman with fluent German. Having heard Sanders do a decent enough German accent in other films, I can only assume that Lang told him to drop it for this role, and anyway the incongruities are backed up by the plot: the name Quive-Smith is an odd hybrid that doesn’t seem to have much to do with German, he is suspiciously described at one point as “too perfectly English”; Thorndike’s accent is (weakly) explained by the amount of time he spends “at his house in Canada,” etc. All of which adds an extra layer of irony to the following bit of dialogue between them. I’ll include the whole scene as it’s the only one I could find on YouTube; the part I transcribed occurs around 4:30:

Quive-Smith: “Your conversation fascinates me, Thorndike. But this softness in your nature with regard to the ultimate purpose of firearms betrays the weakness, the decadence, not only of yourself but of your entire race. Yes, you’re symbolic of the English race.

Thorndike: “I’m beginning to think that you’re symbolic of yours!”

The film’s amusing habit of highlighting the distance between the actors, the characters, and the national cultures they’re supposed to represent foregrounds the instability of any connection between signifier and state-fiction, and the absurdity of insisting on them. That this absurdity is linked to war is the film’s moral argument. Which can be a bit hard to reconcile with the fact that its one utopian projection is inextricable from violence. We’re told that Thorndike is an apolitical pacifist. This claim is undercut early on — after squeezing an empty trigger on Hitler, we see him put a bullet into the chamber and aim the rifle again before he’s caught — but it is not exactly refuted. In the end he confesses to wanting to carry out the assassination, not for England but for “humanity,” a concept that, like his pacifism, he derives from his enlarged sense of self, his abhorrence of anyone else trying to “play God.” If only he had figured this out straightaway, he could have saved the world. And indeed the film ends with him joining the military, solely in order to go rogue as soon as he’s behind enemy lines and “fulfill his destiny” by killing Hitler all by himself.

To get any idea of how this might have played at the time of the film’s release, months before the U.S. entered the war, we’d have to imagine Kathryn Bigelow’s upcoming propaganda movie about killing Bin Laden coming out a few months after 9/11. But that wouldn’t be right either, because Man Hunt was an American studio film, adapted from an English novel published before the war, directed by a Austrian Jewish refugee, set in England from just before the invasion of Poland to just after the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, and released shortly thereafter. It was enough to cause problems with American censors who saw it as anti-German — the US was of course still neutral. Man Hunt is the only anti-nationalist war propaganda movie I can think of without lasers, dragons, or zombies, made in the name of an international alliance that had not yet become the Allies (so the Bigelow analogy would only work if the movie was made in China, set in New York, and directed by an Arab Jew). In Thorndike, frontier toughness (he’s a hunter who kills Quive-Smith with a makeshift bow and arrow), gentlemanly charm, and pacifistic morality come together under the banner of upright Anglo-American individualism, to create a fantasy that 60 years later has all but become NATO foreign policy. Post-Bin Laden, we’re living in Man Hunt‘s utopia.

But what if we resist the interpretation the film guides us toward, that of the lone badass driven by universal principles to stop wars, indifferent to the state that underwrites his adventures? To seize instead on that initial, almost anarchistic moment where Thornhill takes aim, shoots nothing, and packs up to go home, and read it against the teleology of the plot and his ‘unconscious’ utopian motives? It would be the nihilistic choice, true, the abandonment of all thought of a better world, but it would embrace everything great about the movie: its lightness, its sense of playful irony, the analogy it draws between serious ethical principles and the rules of a game — and a different kind of power, power as the mockery of power, seriousness as the mockery of seriousness.

Totality and Exhaustion

September 2, 2011 § 6 Comments

A few notes on two writers for whom the all-encompassing totality of the capitalist system is aligned with the exhaustion of culture, and how that problem is to be dealt with: Don DeLillo and Fredric Jameson.

Cosmopolis isn’t among Don DeLillo’s best for the same reason that it is the most useful for comprehending his work as a whole: it condenses all/most of the ‘standard’ DeLillo concerns into a slim précis that can be read (as I did) over the course of a plane ride. Eric Packer, its currency trading protagonist, is the kind of vapid, amoral übermensch in love with abstraction capitalist society encourages, a postmodernist par excellence. He is stalked by an assassin  as confused about his identity as was Lee Harvey Oswald in the earlier Libra. The chief difference between he and Packer is not ideological (the character’s anticapitalism is pretty swiftly revealed to be a hypocritical front), rather that it actually occurs to him to be troubled by his own vagueness. To reach the same point of personal reflection, Packer has to embark on an ironized voyage of self-discovery (he’s ostensibly out to get a haircut) which leads to the loss of his fortune as well as a great deal of emotional and physical pain and suffering. Self-dissolution figures as the only possible ‘solution’ to the problems of intense abstraction and meaninglessness, after his belief in an underlying order to the digital world of high finance he inhabits is proven false: he miscalculates the rise of the yen. Kinski, his ‘theorist,’ a Baudrillard parody and chief representative of this initial conviction, claims the anticapitalist rioters they encounter are merely effects of the market. Packer agrees with her until the spectacle of one such protester setting himself on fire: “What did this change? Everything, he thought. Kinski had been wrong. The market was not total. It could not claim this man or assimilate his act. Not such starkness and horror.” In DeLillo, suffering and impending death take on quasi-religious significance, delivering a shock that has the potential to shift the protagonist out of abstract capitalist consciousness toward awareness of self, a kind of negative enlightenment:

“But his pain interfered with his immortality. It was crucial to his distinctiveness, too vital to be bypassed and not susceptible, he didn’t think, to computer emulation. The things that made him who he was could hardly be identified much less converted to data, the things that lived and milled in his body, everywhere, random, riotous, billions of trillions, in the neurons and peptides, the throbbing temple vein, in the veer of his libidinous intellect. So much come and gone, this is who he was, the lost taste of milk licked from his mother’s breast, the stuff he sneezes when he sneezes, this is him, and how a person becomes the reflection he sses in a dusty window when he walks by. He’d come to know himself, untranslatably, through his pain.”

It’s entirely the point that these details are so non-specific, such conventional markers of humanity. As evidence for his singular, irreducible reality, they could be anything; he simply has to recognize them as such, against those who might (for confused ideological reasons, the result of a weak self) wish to negate his being: assassins, terrorists, rioters, etc., and against the “cybercapitalist” technoculture that treats all selves as interchangeable bits of data. Defying them all is the self of the novel, the self shorn of all qualities, just the proprietary, organizing center for stories.

DeLillo is one of a long line of secular mystics in American literature. He uses fiction to give history’s contingent and meaningless events a mythic structure, a sense of totality that is not reducible to knowledge. The clunkiness of Cosmopolis‘s narrative movement (it’s closer to an outline than a novel, making it the perfect choice of DeLillo’s novels for the film adaptation it is about to receive) exposes the limitations of the overall approach. Is catastrophe, however vicarious and mediated by technology and irony, really the only serious response to existential dissatisfactions, are those dissatisfactions so universal as to deserve elevating over more immediate antagonisms, and is the attempt to do so in the name of the contemplative subject of the Angl0-European novel dissociable from whiteness, maleness, detachment, elitism? But depicting with such force the hysterical core of ‘late capitalist’ white male consciousness in terminal decline is one of DeLillo’s triumphs as a novelist, and maybe it’s too much to ask that he do something else.

I like to think of him as The Novel’s answer to Fredric Jameson (I’m referring to the novel more as a cultural institution than a type of text, supposed to be preserving or defending the legitimacy of something or other), though without providing the pedagogy and “cognitive mapping” that Jameson ultimately asks for. Jameson is interested in totality as an existential bond between knowledge, emotion, and action, and for him narrative can by and large no longer provide this. His theme, like Adorno’s, is the failure of culture to be what it’s supposed to have been at various points over the last 200 years: the sole remaining hope for achieved totality after the failures of religion, nationalism, (positive) ideology. Because “our imaginations are hostages to our own mode of production,” then “at best Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment…and that therefore the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively” (xii, Archaeologies of the Future). This is a valorization of criticism over its objects, of consciousness of failure over the failed attempt. Theory is necessary to excavate the submerged ‘utopian’ kernel in cultural product, and so theory takes the place of the novel. But today cultural criticism at all levels of sophistication is just as passé as any other cultural product. In the wake of thousands of scholarly articles and millions of blog posts about TV shows and their relationship to capitalism, one can detect a nostalgia for the period of so-called high theory, the sense that Baudrillard’s simulacra is a more exciting, more vital, more interesting vision of reality than anything possible today. The fashionably jaded don’t long for a period of greater authenticity — we don’t believe in it, assuming anyone ever did — but times when the lies were, or at least felt more interesting (maybe you had to be there). Here Jameson and DeLillo run into basically the same problems. It’s not about fiction vs. theory – they’re just another dialectical pair. The important split they both take for granted is between thought and action – that one can be meaningfully judged independently of the other, that one can compensate for the failure of the other. Recognizing this, one starts to understand the desperation of the desire for closure, the extraction of a closed world, however doomed and miserable, from ceaseless outward movement, any inevitable remainder to be referred to from afar as a sign of exhaustion. The world claimed by totality can only be comprehended, never known. Grasp of the whole presupposes a certain divine ignorance.

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