Saturday, December 29, 2012

Homo homini lumpus

"Man is a lump to man." In the original (Plautus) it was lupus (wolf). But as I typed the phrase into the Google search box, my fingers followed their well-worn path for what follows the "l-u..." It makes more sense than "wolf" anyhow.

I stumbled systematically last night upon a lovely article by Robert Cluley and Stephen Dunne, titled "From Commodity Fetishism to Commodity Narcissicism." It's in a journal called Marketing Theory. Who knew that the last refuge of Marxian/Freudian analysis would be marketing theory? Cluley and Dunne investigate the dilemma concerning the "enlightened" consumer who, knowing only too well the social and environmental conditions under which the commodity is produced, purchases proceeds to act as if he or she didn't know. After a preliminary discussion of Marx's and Freud's analysis of fetishism, the authors settle on Freud's concept of narcissism as offering a way to reconcile the objective and subjective analyses. Toward the end of the article, they sum up their analysis with an allegory about the daily bread:
This daily bread, for the commodity fetishist, that is to say the rational consuming subject of classical economics, is simply one useful and exchangeable object among others which may or may not be chosen for consumption. The daily bread, in the Marxist analysis, is still the same hunger satisfying object, of course, albeit a hunger satisfying object that cannot be isolated to utility or exchangeability alone but must rather have its utility and exchangeability explained in terms of the labour of baking and the social position of the baker. The bread, for the Freudian fetishist, offers insight into the subject that desires it – this subject relates to bread as an object of desire and in so doing attributes to it a meaning that cannot be reduced to function or subsistence. The commodity narcissist, finally, sees the bread as a potential expression of his or her idealized self, an expression that must be denied to all other potentially self-expressing selves. At the same time, far from acting as if they are unaware of the social relations that have produced the bread, relations that they lay claim to find morally reprehensible, the narcissist enjoys their ability to act reprehensibly through consumption. Whichever way we look at the bread, therefore, we have to have recourse to a certain model of the consuming subject – a subject that certainly has economically isolatable characteristics but just as certainly cannot be reduced to these economic characteristics alone.
"The narcissist enjoys their ability to act reprehensibly through consumption." What is "reprehensible" here is not consuming the bread or even consuming the bread while ignoring the working conditions and social position of the baker but, in essence, "giving vent to the lurking 'temptation to to ill treat his neighbour.'" Although this might seem like a far-fetched interpretation when presented as nakedly as presented here, it acquires a great deal more plausibility in the context of the paradoxical disconnect between consumer attitudes and consumer behaviorHypocrite consommateur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!

Although I hate to make things even more complicated than Cluley and Dunne suggest, there are a couple of directions that I would like to take their research further. One of those directions involves asking whether the narcissism that they (and Freud) identify is intrinsic to human nature as such or is a specific symptom of Western culture and modernity. Alf  Hornborg's (2006) discussion of "Animism, fetishism and objectivism as strategies for knowing (or not knowing) the world" offers a convenient starting point for such an inquiry, especially considering his own enduring focus on fetishism. Cluley and Dunne cite an earlier work by Hornborg in their paper.

The second thought has to do with the mythological status of any specimen story, which would of course include Freud's castration complex and "His Majesty the Baby." Shoshana Felman's (1983) "Beyond Oedipus: The Specimen Story of Psychoanalysis" makes some fascinating suggestions about what lies beyond wish fulfillment and the compulsion to repeat, say, narcissistic consumption, i.e., that "the narrative strategy of demystification takes place only through a new narrative mythification. In urging us to go beyond the myth, Freud also tells us  that beyond the myth there is, forever, but another myth." Or, in terms specifically of the Homo homini lupus,  the alleged aggression may be usefully considered as a signifier rather than an instinct. Ultimately, the consumer's desire (and, ergo, aggression) has no object (thus its interminability). "Desire, a function central to the whole of human experience, is the desire of nothing nameable" (Lacan).

The above might sound intimidating in the condensed form that I've stated it here but what I'm getting at is really just a distinction between some presumably primal instinct of aggression and a culturally-specific discourse of aggression. That is to say, the "wolf" is a tale we tell ourselves about ourselves -- albeit a tale that occasionally manifests itself in wolfish behavior. What I'm getting at is that it's not a question of "human nature" versus some ethical/ecological discourse but of competing discourses, one of which is "privileged" in some way that it may be possible to discern. It might even be that the ethical/ecological discourse inadvertently reinforces or intensifies the commodity narcissism one (kind of like the church inveighing against fornication).

This last point is consistent with the research finding by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler that refutations of myths are ineffectual and even tend to "backfire" in reinforcing the misperceptions. Nyhan and Reifler cite Mark Twain's quip that “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Of course Mark Twain never said any such thing.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

How to Tell Good Guys from Bad Guys

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is good guy with a gun." -- Wayne LaPierre.

Mr. LaPierre's pronouncement confronts the American public with the crucial task of distinguishing between who is the bad guy and who is the good guy. Fortunately, John Steinbeck addressed this question some 58 years ago, originally published in Punch in September 1954 and republished in The Reporter in March 1955.

How to Tell Good Guys from Bad Guys

JOHN STEINBECK 
Television has crept upon us so gradually in America that we have not yet become aware of the extent of its impact for good or bad. I myself do not look at it very often except for its coverage of sporting events, news, and politics. Indeed, I get most of my impressions of the medium from my young sons.

Whether for good or bad, television has taken the place of the sugartit, soothing syrups, and the mild narcotics parents in other days used to reduce their children to semi-consciousness and consequently to semi-noisiness. In the past, a harassed parent would say, "Go sit in a chair!" or "Go outside and play!" or "If you don't stop that noise, I'm going to beat your dear little brains out!" The present-day parent suggests, "Why don't you go look at television?" From that moment the screams, shouts, revolver shots, and crashes of motor accidents come from the loudspeaker, not from the child. For some reason, this is presumed to be more relaxing to the parent. The effect on the child has yet to be determined.

I have observed the physical symptoms of television-looking on children as well as on adults. The mouth grows slack and the lips hang open; the eyes take on a hypnotized or doped look; the nose runs rather more than usual; the backbone turns to water and the fingers slowly and methodically pick the designs out of brocade furniture. Such is the appearance of semi-consciousness that one wonders how much of the "message" of television is getting through to the brain. This wonder is further strengthened by the fact that a television- looker will look at anything at all and for hours. Recently I came into a room to find my eight-year-old son Catbird sprawled in a chair, idiot slackness on his face, with the doped eyes of an opium smoker. On the television screen stood a young woman of mammary distinction with ice-cream hair listening to a man in thick glasses and a doctor's smock.

"What's happening?" I asked.

Catbird answered in the monotone of the sleeptalker which is known as television voice, "She is asking if she should dye her hair."

"What is the doctor's reaction?"

"If she uses Trutone it's all right," said Catbird. "But if she uses ordinary or adulterated products, her hair will split and lose its golden natural sheen. The big economy size is two dollars and ninety-eight cents if you act now," said Catbird.

You see something was getting through to him. He looked punch-drunk, but he was absorbing. I did not feel it fair to interject a fact I have observed —- that natural golden sheen does not exist in nature. But I did think of my friend Elia Kazan's cry of despair, and although it is a digression I shall put it down.

We were having dinner in a lovely little restaurant in California. At the table next to us were six beautiful, young, well-dressed American girls of the age and appearance of magazine advertisements. There was only one difficulty with their perfection. You couldn't tell them apart. Kazan, who is a primitive of a species once known as men, regarded the little beauties with distaste, and finally in more sorrow than anger cried, "It's years since I've seen or smelled a dame! It's all products, Golden Glint, l'Eau d'Eau, Butisan, Elyn's puff-adder cream—I remember I used to like how women smelled. Nowadays it's all products."

End of digression.

Just when the parent becomes convinced that his child's brain is rotting away from television, he is jerked up in another direction. Catbird has corrected me in the Museum of Natural History when I directed his attention to the mounted skeleton of a tyrannosaur. He said it was a brontosaurus but observed kindly that many people made the same error. He argued with his ten-year-old brother about the relative cleanness of the line in Praxiteles and Phidias. He knows the weight a llama will bear before lying down in protest, and his knowledge of entomology is embarrassing to a parent who likes to impart information to his children. And these things he also got from television. I knew that he was picking up masses of unrelated and probably worthless information from television, incidentally the kind of information I also like best, but I did not know that television was preparing him in criticism and politics, and that is what this piece is really about.

Indigenous Art Form

I will have to go back a bit in preparation. When television in America first began to be a threat to the motion-picture industry, that industry fought back by refusing to allow its films to be shown on the home screens. One never saw new pictures, but there were whole blocks of the films called Westerns which were owned by independents, and these were released to the television stations. The result is that at nearly any time of the day or night you can find a Western being shown on some television station. It is not only the children who see them. All of America sees them. They are a typically American conception, the cowboy picture. The story never varies and the conventions are savagely adhered to. The hero never kisses a girl. He loves his horse and he stands for right and justice. Any change in the story or the conventions would be taken as an outrage. Out of these films folk heroes have grown up Hop-a-long Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry. These are more than great men. They are symbols of courage, purity, simplicity, honesty, and right. You must understand that nearly every American is drenched in the tradition of the Western, which is, of course, the celebration of a whole pattern of American life that never existed. It is also as set in its form as the commedia dell' arte.

End of preparation.

One afternoon, hearing gunfire from the room where our television set is installed, I went in with that losing intention of fraternizing with my son for a little while. There sat Catbird with the cretinous expression I have learned to recognize. A Western was in progress.

"What's going on?" I asked.

He looked at me in wonder. "What do you mean, what's going on? Don't you know?"

"Well, no. Tell me!"

He was kind to me. Explained as though I were the child.

"Well, the Bad Guy is trying to steal Her father's ranch. But the Good Guy won't let him. Bullet figured out the plot."

"Who is Bullet?"

"Why, the Good Guy's horse." He didn't add "You dope," but his tone implied it.

"Now wait," I said, "which one is the Good Guy?"

"The one with the white hat."

"Then the one with the black hat is the Bad Guy?"

"Anybody knows that," said Catbird.

For a time I watched the picture, and I realized that I had been ignoring a part of our life that everybody knows. I was interested in the characterizations. The girl, known as Her or She, was a blonde, very pretty but completely unvoluptuous because these are Family Pictures. Sometimes she wore a simple gingham dress and sometimes a leather skirt and boots, but always she had a bit of a bow in her hair and her face was untroubled with emotion or, one might almost say, intelligence. This also is part of the convention. She is a symbol, and any acting would get her thrown out of the picture by popular acclaim.

The Good Guy not only wore a white hat but light-colored clothes, shining boots, tight riding pants, and a shirt embroidered with scrolls and flowers. In my young days I used to work with cattle, and our costume was blue jeans, a leather jacket, and boots with run-over heels. The cleaning bill alone of this gorgeous screen cowboy would have been four times what our pay was in a year.

The Good Guy had very little change of facial expression. He went through his fantastic set of adventures with no show of emotion. This is another convention and proves that he is very brave and very pure. He is also scrubbed and has an immaculate shave.

I turned my attention to the Bad Guy. He wore a black hat and dark clothing, but his clothing was definitely not only unclean but unpressed. He had a stubble of beard but the greatest contrast was in his face. His was not an immobile face. He leered, he sneered, he had a nasty laugh. He bullied and shouted. He looked evil. While he did not swear, because this is a Family Picture, he said things like "Wall dog it" and "You rat" and "I'll cut off your ears and eat 'em," which would indicate that his language was not only coarse but might, off screen, be vulgar. He was, in a word, a Bad Guy. I found a certain interest in the Bad Guy which was lacking in the Good Guy.

"Which one do you like best?" I asked.

Catbird removed his anaesthetized eyes from the screen. "What do you mean?"

"Do you like the Good Guy or the Bad Guy?"

He sighed at my ignorance and looked back at the screen. "Are you kidding?" he asked. "The Good Guy, of course."

Now a new character began to emerge. He puzzled me because he wore a gray hat. I felt a little embarrassed about asking my son, the expert, but I gathered my courage. "Catbird," I asked shyly, "what kind of a guy is that, the one in the gray hat?"

He was sweet to me then. I think until that moment he had not understood the abysmal extent of my ignorance. "He's the In-Between Guy," Catbird explained kindly. "If he starts bad he ends good and if he starts good he ends bad."

"What's this one going to do?"

"See how he's sneering and needs a shave?" my son asked.

"Yes."

"Well, the picture's just started, so that guy is going to end good and help the Good Guy get Her father's ranch back."

"How can you be sure?" I asked.

Catbird gave me a cold look. "He's got a gray hat, hasn't he? Now don't talk. It's about time for the chase."

Got Him Pegged. 
There it was, not only a tight, true criticism of a whole art form but to a certain extent of life itself. I was deeply impressed because this simple explanation seemed to mean something to me more profound than television or Westerns.

Several nights later I told the Catbird criticism to a friend who is a producer. He has produced many successful musical comedies. My friend has an uncanny perception for the public mind and also for its likes and dislikes. You have to have if you produce musical shows. He listened and nodded and didn't think it was a cute child story. He said, "It's not kid stuff at all. There's a whole generation in this country that makes its judgments pretty much on that basis."

"Give me an example," I asked.

"I'll have to think about it," he said.

Well, that was in March. Soon afterward my wife and I went to Spain and then to Paris and rented a little house. As soon as school was out in New York, my boys flew over to join us in Paris. In July, my producer friend dropped in to see us. He was going to take an English show to New York, and he had been in London making arrangements.

He told us all of the happenings at home, the gossip and the new jokes and the new songs. Finally I asked him about the McCarthy hearings. "Was it as great a show as we heard?" I asked.

"I couldn't let it alone," he said. "I never saw anything like it. I wonder whether those people knew how they were putting themselves on the screen."

"Well, what do you think will happen?"

"In my opinion, McCarthy is finished," he said, and then he grinned. "I base my opinion on your story about Catbird and the Westerns."

"I don't follow you."

"Have you ever seen McCarthy on television?"

"Sure."

"Just remember," said my friend. "He sneers. He bullies, he has a nasty laugh and he always looks as though he needs a shave. The only thing he lacks is a black hat. McCarthy is the Bad Guy. Everybody who saw him has got it pegged. He's the Bad Guy and people don't like the Bad Guy. I may be wrong but that's what I think. He's finished."

The next morning at breakfast I watched Catbird put butter and two kinds of jam and a little honey on a croissant, then eat the treacherous thing, then lick the jam from the inside of his elbow to his fingers. He took a peach from the basket in the center of the table.

"Catbird," I asked, "did you see any of the McCarthy stuff on television?"

"Sure," he said.

"Was he a Good Guy or a Bad Guy?" I asked. 
"Bad Guy," said Catbird, and he bit into the peach.

And, do you know, I suspect it is just that simple.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Guns and Butter: Oedipus at Sandy Hook

James Livingston has written a perceptive commentary on the Newtown tragedy, "Guns and the Pain Economy" in which he asks,
"why do these young white male people whom we routinely characterize as crazy—as exceptions to the rules of civilized comportment and moral choice—always rehearse and recite the same script? If each killer is so deviant, so inexplicable, so exceptional, why does the apocalyptic ending never vary?"
The equally obvious answer, Livingston concludes, is because "American culture makes this script." 

Livingston then goes on to point out that William James foresaw this cultural condition in 1910 and quotes liberally from James's essay, "The Moral Equivalent of War." So far so good. James made some trenchant observations about what he termed "the fear of emancipation from the fear regime." Erich Fromm made eerily similar arguments in his 1941 book, Escape from Freedom, in which he examined the psycho-social underpinnings of the rise of fascism.

Both Fromm and James falter, however, when they move from diagnosis to prescription. Very briefly, both propose to dispense with war (or in Fromm's case, authoritarianism, destructiveness and conformity) by somehow repurposing the state – James through conscription for peacetime service; Fromm through planned economy. James's prescription may be viewed as a concession to what is conceived as an intrinsic human nature; Fromm's as a path to a fundamental transformation of an historical culture.

Randolph Bourne's 1918 essay, "War is the Health of the State," offers a clue as to where Fromm and James go wrong. For Bourne, the state is an historical symbol – distinct from nation, government or country – and bound up emotionally with "trappings… of military origin":
Wartime brings the ideal of the State out into very clear relief, and reveals attitudes and tendencies that were hidden. In times of peace the sense of the State flags in a republic that is not militarized. For war is essentially the health of the State.
Although Bourne omitted direct citation, the last sentence – which contains the title of his essay – alludes either to James or James's own source, Homer Lea:
War is, in short, a permanent human obligation. General Homer Lea, in his recent book The Valor of Ignorance, plants himself squarely on this ground. Readiness for war is for him the essence of nationality, and ability in it the supreme measure of the health of nations.
To put Bourne's allusion and James's citation into context, it is instructive to examine the stark social Darwinist mythology at the core of Homer Lea's thesis that "military vigor constitutes the strength of nations":
The beginnings of political life are not hidden absolutely from us, and though there is no exactitude in our knowledge, we are nevertheless cognizant of the fact that at one time, when primitive man lived in continuous, individual strife, there occurred, somewhere in the sombre solitudes of a preglacial forest, what has proven to be to mankind a momentous combat. It was when the brawniest paleolithic man had killed or subdued all those who fought and roamed in his immediate thickets that he established the beginning of man's domination over man, and with it the beginnings of social order and its intervals of peace. When the last blow of his crude axe had fallen and he saw about him the dead and submissive, he beheld the first nation; in himself the first monarch; in his stone axe the first law, and by means of it the primitive process by which, through all succeeding ages, nations were to be created or destroyed.
One must distinguish here between Lea's crude, unscientific anthropology and his ideologically-faithful representation of the generative myth of the state – its "specimen story," to use Shoshana Felman's term. With regard to specimen stories, Felman cautions, "In practice, there is no such thing as a specimen story. The very notion of a specimen story as applied to the reading or interpretation of another story is thus always a misreading, a mistake." This is not to say that such mistakes are useless or futile. On the contrary, they offer the possibility to "go beyond the myth." "Science," Felman asserts, "is the drive to go beyond."

Felman was discussing the role of the Oedipus myth in Freud's theory, in "orthodox" psychoanalysis and in Jacques Lacan's critique of that orthodoxy. "Freud's reference to the Oedipus as a key-narrative – the specimen story of psychoanalysis – is structured by three questions," Felman writes. Those questions were: "Why is the story so compelling?" "What is it that the story is compelling us to recognize [in ourselves]?" and finally, the question of the validity of the theory. In other words, we are moved by the story; we identify with it in some profound way and these effects on us seem to validate the story's existential truth (regardless of its empirical truth or falsehood).

Returning finally to Lea's primal war myth and James's "moral equivalent," it is all too easy to see the unpersuasive banality of James's "dishwashing, clothes-washing and window washing" conscript as surrogate for Lea's stone-axe wielding paleolithic "monarch." Setting aside the bland digression of James's "moral equivalent" returns us to the compelling question of "the fear of emancipation from the fear regime." Is there no hope or possibility of emancipation, either from the fear regime proper or from the reflexive fear of emancipation? Will "gun control" emancipate us from the fear regime and its sequel? Must we succumb to the primal war myth even though we know it is a myth simply because an alternative is, literally, unimaginable?

Imagine.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Production of Robots by means of Rowe-bots

Suddenly it's robots everywhere. Sandwichman got the jump on this trend back in July with the New Robot Economist Pop-up Theatre. Nick Rowe at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative has joined the fray with a post on the Production of Robots by Means of Robots.



In his post, Nick presents a "model" of how a robot economy might work, ignoring land, which he expresses as C + I/a = L + K and Kdot = I. He later modifies his model to include land: C + I/a = (L + K)b.N1-b.

The Sandwichman's youtube clip also contains a model. It is a physical model constructed of cardboard (pasteboard) and string rather than a mathematical model but it wouldn't be difficult -- just unnecessary and pedantic -- to express mathematically how the arms, legs and jaw will move in response to a pull on the string.

Which brings me to a question. In what way is Nick's mathematical model of a robot economy any improvement over Sandwichman's pasteboard jumping-jack model of Nick Rowe?

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Robots, the Rift and the Rebound

This is a placeholder for an essay that will respond to Paul Krugman's recent column on Robots and Robber Barons and John Bellamy Foster's feature article in Monthly Review on The Planetary Emergency.

I've been here before. Again and again. It's like one of those dreams where you're screaming as loud as you can and no sound comes out.

Here's the proposition, the creation of wage-labor "jobs" is coupled with the consumption of hydrocarbon-based fuel. This is an historical-empirical fact that anyone can confirm for themselves by looking at the data for the last 200 odd years. It is neither rocket science nor brain surgery.

Although it may be theoretically possible --"in principle" -- to uncouple or decouple job creation from fuel consumption, no one has done it or shown how it could be done. It is science fiction. But economists persist in assuming that it will happen "automatically," so to speak, through market-generated technological substitution. Or, in plain language, someone will invent a perpetual motion machine. That isn't even theoretically possible!

The Robots symbolize the age-old anxiety about machinery displacing human labor, throwing people out of their jobs and thus depriving them of their livelihood.

The Rift refers to the metabolic rift between town and country, between industrial processes and natural rhythms, biomes and landscapes. Even a good thing can become too much of a good thing toxic in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Rebound is a descriptive synonym for what is otherwise known as the Jevons paradox, the idea that increases in the fuel efficiency of machinery will paradoxically lead to increased consumption of the fuel because it will make the fuel, in effect, cheaper. And, as Dorning Rasbotham proclaimed 232 years ago, "A cheap market will always be full of customers."

The robot and the rebound are tied to each other continuously in a kind of metabolic Möbius strip. On "one side" are fuel efficiency and consumption and on the other are labor displacement (by machinery) and re-absorption (through market extension). But an ant -- or an unemployed worker -- crawling along this strip would eventually return to its starting point only after traversing both sides.


One can advance further along this Möbius strip-tease with the realization that labor is, according to Robert Costanza, "embodied energy." Admittedly, human labor is more than mere embodied energy -- but perhaps not so much more from the almighty perspective of economic exchange.

Anyway, that's the basic idea. I'm not sure if it will be an essay or a book.