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Archive for April 2008

the fourth box

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Being by nature a top-downer, a statist, I give some thought, but not enough thought, to the various strands of open-source, quasi-anarchistic social and political thought that’s been bubbling up during the last decade or so.

(More material from Benkler, who, to his credit, makes just about everything he does available for free on his site… In fact, you can download the whole of his book The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, which I’ve not yet read but which has been sitting in my “to be read” folder for far too long now and needs to be gotten to.)

During the video above (from the usually rather abominable TED conference), Benkler throws the following powerpoint slide up on the screen:

 

Now, the most important box is the one in the upper right-hand corner. It’s the one that Benkler claims is new, a recent development that emerges with the rise of open source software and the like. Of course he’s wrong about it being new – there have always been decentralized, non-market based economies and arrangements. Borrowing your neighbor’s ladder, giving gifts, barn-raising, communal living arrangements, self-starting communal farming – you get the picture, these things have always been with us. 

Still, we know what he means. We understand that Linux and p2p filesharing do represent a sort of giant exception to the hegemony of market-based exchanged, and that they distinctly exhibit signs of aspects of human nature that we always knew were there but which the conventional economists and political thinkers would have us believe are not and never were. 

And further, we understand what Benkler means when he opposes this fourth box not only to market-based models of economic organization but also to non-market versions, in particular that of the NGO and the government. No, if there ever was a reasons to develop an allergy to the state, that time is now, when it is ever more clear that the primary purpose of government has devolved into PR flacking and material facilitation for the military-industrial complex and oil companies, soft selling neo-liberal “reform,” and the policing of borders when convenient to corporate interests and the co-signatories to economic treaties that permit the movement of capital but not its creators.

But still, my allergy to the state is met and matched by a far more profound allergy to those (mostly the same guys as above, strangely enough) who wish to do in the state. Techno-anarchism, even when as eloquently presented by the likes of Benkler, seems in general to serve as a political outlet most appropriate to testosterone-addled tech bunnies who need neither stable work nor health care nor really much to do with the public sphere at all. Open-source politics could well be an efficient and free distributor of many things, including information, information, and information. But when it gets to the stuff that lies outside of the so-called “information economy” – when it comes to the relatively minor items like a roof over your head or food on the table or a stable income, I’ll be damned if I can see how non-market social-sharing systems are going to help a whole lot. For these open systems are mostly cash and resource poor unless they sell themselves back into the market, and then the game is fixed anyway.

So I remain a statist. But still…. I can’t help but feel that there is something to this open-source argument. In fact, tonight, I am wondering if the something in question is what is produced when the two boxes on the right, the government box and the social sharing and exchange box, are aufhebunged together into a tight little ball.

In short, while it is clear why one would want to overcome the state as it is, it is not clear that the state (or am I talking about the government – I’m not sure – but “government” certainly doesn’t sound like the right word in this case and maybe that is part of the issue) couldn’t itself be re-conceived as itself a sort of open source project, a medium of social sharing and exchange. Dare I say that it might even be rebranded – and in the wake of rebranding, reworked or replaced – as what Benkler might call a platform that facilitates just such a stance as he describes.

Another phrase to describe the result, I think, would be democratic socialism.

But lots of questions remain. Should our conception of the state follow the lead of Linux (which developed its own open system completely independently of its un-open competitor, Microsoft’s OS) or is it a case more parallel to that of the Mozilla foundation, which inherited itself from the for-profit Netscape Corporation. Of course, this only draws us back into one of the oldest and most persistent debates in the development of Marxist political theory, the one that centered on the viability of the bourgeois state apparatus for transformation into a socialist state. And further, am I simply talking about a new nomenclature (a new marketing campaign) to describe what we already know, or would the synthesis of the two boxes result in the generation of new approaches and demands?

More to think about, for sure. But for now, I’ll post and get it over with for the night….

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April 30, 2008 at 12:57 am

Posted in open, socialism

“possible manipulation in the oil markets”

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From the NYT today:

The split on the gas tax is a relatively rare one for Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, who agree on the broad outlines of policy in most areas. They have both called for the suspension of purchases for the national strategic petroleum stockpile, a supply of oil to protect the country against sudden supply disruptions; new taxes on oil companies; measures to curb global warming; and heavy federal spending on renewable energy sources. They have also called for a federal investigation of possible manipulation in oil markets.

Ha! You mean, like, this? 

Just to be clear, the wars and threats of future wars are not responsible for the entire run up in price, as there’s clearly an enormous increase in demand / plateauing of supply at foot that at the base of this. But the “war premium” ensured that the oilcos were receiving a nicely inflated price from 2002 on, despite the fact that the US economy was falling into recession. The “axis of evil” speech, which turned loose talk into an announcement of imminent action, was given on January 29, 2002. Look again at the graph… 

Nothing would have sucked more, for certain parties, than running the last stable years of oil supply down at $10 / barrel. 

One needn’t believe in direct conspiracy, only capitalist over-determination (that, on its side, looks like underdetermination…) Things happen because they can – fields of benefit fall into place, everyone’s happy and lobbying, and then you get this sort of thing. 

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April 29, 2008 at 1:52 pm

Posted in distraction, war

loss leaders

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From the Independent today:

A draft law on the “modernisation of the economy” unveiled yesterday threatens, according to its supporters and some of its critics, to revolutionise shopping in France. Other critics suggest the draft law is too timid. Large French shops will mostly remain closed on Sundays. Little effort will be made to diminish the regional domination of French supermarket chains.

The draft presented by the Economy minister Christine Lagarde will make it simpler to build medium-sized supermarkets. That should encourage “hard-discount” chains such as Lidl and Aldi, which have a relatively small share of the French market.

If approved by parliament, the law would also abolish the existing complex rules which, in theory, forbid sale below cost and force manufacturers to provide goods at the same wholesale price to hyper-markets and village shops.

With inflation gathering pace and wages stagnating, the law is intended to help to fulfil the President Nicolas Sarkozy’s promise to increase the purchasing power of French people.

The federation of large shopowners predicted that the law would reduce prices of food and basic household goods by 2 per cent. Serge Papin, head of the Système U chain of supermarkets, predicted price cuts of up to 3 per cent.

Michel-Edouard Leclerc, head of the Leclerc chain, said the law would “cut inflation in half” by allowing shops to refuse the “excessive price rises” demanded by manufacturers. He predicted a “vast spree” of price-cutting from September, if the law is passed.

Yes, it will slightly cut inflation doubly. On the one hand, grocery prices will go down slightly. On the other hand, massive numbers of workers and owners of small groceries will likely be put out of work and either stay out of work or accept the low wages offered by the hypermarkets that walmartized their shops out of existence. We’ve seen this before – back during the boom in the US the greenspanites couldn’t stop talking about the fact that Walmart singlehandedly kept inflation at safe levels. What they didn’t discuss much is the fact that this is in part accomplished by the proletarianization of the workforce.

The French ban on loss-leaders always seemed to me an incredibly sensible piece of law, one that at once supported employment and consumer convenience and urban vitality. Prices at hypermarkets may go down some, but it seems to me the net effect has to be that prices at small shops will simply go up.

As if we needed to be reminded that each crisis – whether deflation or inflation, whether demand failure or food crisis, poor farmers or expensive food, too-expensive houses or too-cheap ones – will always be met with the same set of responses: deregulation, lower taxes, and the dismantling of the social state.

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April 29, 2008 at 12:07 pm

tramarbeit

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One of the things I was missing in the place that I used to live was a decent bookstore. In particular, I was missing decent bookstore tables. You know, where someone or something picks books, sets them up front, that sort of thing. For better or worse, the book table seems to me to be the only real reason that bookstores might keep existing, for a little while anyway. When I know that I need something, more often than not I order it or get it out of the library. I go to bookstores exclusively to find things I didn’t know that I wanted. Back in the place we left, we had a local independent bookstore with the tables that might as well have been labeled The Atlantic Monthly Selects from the New York Times Book Review and a Barnes and Noble whose algorithm was clearly set to Rust-Belt Middle Brow, Not Much Going on Here. Not a lot of fun, and I didn’t spend all that much time in them.

Anyway, there are some good bookstoresshops with some good book tables here where I am now. My neighborhood Waterstones isn’t great, but they do have a lovely table of fiction in translation, almost entirely new stuff or newly translated stuff that I haven’t heard of.

This is going to fall way, way short of a review, but Andrzej Stasiuk’s Nine is very much worthwhile, especially if you’re the sort that would be interested in a novel that, as far as I can tell, breaks every record for most tram trips per page. * (And, really, you are interested in that, as it’s a core demographic indicator amongst AWP’s readership..) Amidst the flashbacking flutter between Poland pre and post, we also get cafeterias, rooftops, apartment blocks, train stations, kiosks galore. Sold yet?

* Other works with tram ridership that come to mind? For me, Joyce’s “Araby,” Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, Beckett stuff, mmmm

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April 28, 2008 at 12:53 am

Posted in novel

“spiritual elitism” and the event

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Eagleton on Zizek this week in the TLS:

Take, for example, his “defence” of Heidegger’s espousal of Nazism in the 1930s, and of Michel Foucault’s championing of the Iranian revolution some forty years later. Both commitments Žižek views as deeply objectionable; but in his view they were at least commitments to the need for revolutionary change, even if both Heidegger and Foucault backed the wrong horse in this respect. Behind this case lies Žižek’s indebtedness to the leading French philosopher Alain Badiou, to whom this book devotes some critically sympathetic pages. For Badiou, the good life, ethically and politically speaking, consists in a tenacious adherence to some “Event” which bursts unpredictably on the historical scene, transforms the very coordinates of human reality and refashions from top to toe the men and women who remain loyal to it. One of the atheistic Badiou’s examples of such an event is the life and death of Christ.
There is a certain rather Gallic formalism about this notion. As with existentialism, the precise content of the redemptive event, as opposed to the miraculous fact of its occurrence, is not always the main point at stake. Žižek agrees with Badiou that it is better to cling disastrously to such a revelation of truth than to remain indifferent to it, which is surely not the case. There is nothing admirable in fidelity for its own sake. Luke-warmness is not the most heinous of crimes. French radical thought has often turned on a contrast between some privileged moment of truth and the bovine inauthenticity of everyday life, and Badiou is no exception in this respect. There is a spiritual elitism about such ethics, which is hard to square with this book’s suggestive reflections on the idea of democracy.

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April 27, 2008 at 11:26 pm

Posted in everyday

rancière on bovary

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I’ve read just about all the Flaubert criticism there is to read that’s available in English, and lots that’s not. But Jacques Rancière’s “Why Emma Bovary Had to Be Killed,” published recently in Critical Inquiry, might just be, pound for pound, the best I’ve ever read. (I apologize if you don’t have access to the journal one way or another). I’ve got lots to say about it, but will for tonight mostly just quote a bit to give you a taste. 

 

The fictional definition of Emma is in keeping with the big concern of the 1850s and 60s that was encapsulated in one word: excitement. At that time in France, the diagnosis could be heard everywhere at every time; society suered from a fatal disease that aected the social order and individ- ual behaviors as well. It had become an unrelenting turmoil of thoughts and desires, appetites and frustrations. In the good old times of monarchy, religion, and aristocracy, there had been a clear, long-standing hierarchy that put every group and every individual in its right place. It gave them a firm footing and limited horizons, which are the conditions of happiness for poor people. Unfortunately that order had been shattered, first by the French Revolution, second by the rise of industrialism, third by the new media—the newspapers, lithographs, and so on, which made words and images, dreams and aspirations, available everywhere to anybody. Society had become a hustle and bustle of free and equal individuals that were dragged together into a ceaseless whirl in search of an excitement that was nothing but the mere internalization of the endless and purposeless agitation of the whole social body.

Such was the discourse of the notables and the learned persons. What must draw our attention is the synonym they gave for that excitement. That synonym was democracy. They had first met democracy in the shape of the government of the people, the government of free and equal citizens, where the rulers and the ruled people are one and the same. Needless to say, they had eciently worked during the French Second Republic (1848–51) to crush the threat of democratic anarchy, at the cost of handing over their own freedom to a new emperor. But it was not enough to crush it by force. They had to annul its political significance, make it a mere sociological phe- nomenon. Therefore a new democratic ghost was substituted for the older; political democracy, they said, had been crushed, but there was a new, far more radical uprising of democracy that no police, no army could tear down: the uprising of the multitude of aspirations and desires, cropping up everywhere in all the pores of modern society. To be sure, the idea was not exactly new; Plato had invented it two millennia before by stating that democracy, in fact, was not a form of government but the way of life of those “free” Athenians who cared for nothing except their individual pleasure. The modern antidemocrats translated it into a more dramatic version, as the uprising of the multitude of unleashed social atoms, greedy to enjoy everything that was enjoyable: gold, indeed, and all the things that gold can buy, but also, what was worse, all that gold cannot buy—passions, values, ideals, art, and literature. Such was the big trouble as they saw it. It would be a lesser evil if poor people only wanted to get rich. Poor people are sup- posed to be “practically minded.” But poor people were now taking a new view of what practical-mindedness meant. They wanted to enjoy all that was enjoyable, including ideal pleasures. But they also wanted those ideal pleasures to be practically enjoyable ideal pleasures. 

For those who come upon Flaubert’s book, Emma Bovary is the frightening incarnation of that desire. She craves ideal romance and physical love. She constantly negotiates between material and ideal sources of excitement. When she has resisted her love for Leon, she thinks that she deserves a reward. She buys a piece of furniture. And not any piece of furniture: a gothic prie-dieu. This is what respectable persons perceive as the law of democracy, the law of universal equivalence: anybody can exchange any desire for any other desire. A critic sums it up as follows: “Madame Bovary, this means the pathological overexcitement of senses and imagination in dissatisfied democracy.” That would be a good reason for sentencing her to death. But respectable persons are not asked to judge Emma; they are only asked to judge her inventor. The first person who has an interest in killing her is Flaubert. Besides the trial of the writer, there is the trial that the writer mounts against his character. Besides the evil that frightens respectable persons, there is the evil done to literature by Emma, which means the evil that he wants her to do, that he embodies in Emma.

Perhaps you can sense where he’s headed with all this… The anxious war of Art vs. the aestheticization of everyday life as the battle between Flaubert and his creation, but it’s even more complex than a reactionary defense of privileged access to the aesthetic, as the aesthetic in question, the aesthetic perhaps proposed by Flaubert in Bovary is one that itself resists hierarchy, the oldest hierarchies that define the shape of art, and not just the shape of art. 

There is one person who could have explained it to Emma. Unfortunately it is the person whom you are not supposed to meet in a convent. It is the Devil. Before writing Madame Bovary, Flaubert had written the first version of his Temptation of Saint Anthony. The devil that tempted Saint Anthony was much cleverer and much more generous than the old nuns in the convent. He gave him the explanation of “mystic languor” as he dragged him on an aerial journey through space. He made him discover what life truly is when our sensations are released from the chains of individuality. With his help, the saint could discover strange forms of preindividual or impersonal life: “inanimate existences, inert things that seem animal, vegetative souls, statues that dream and landscapes that think.”5 In such a world our mind loses all its conventional bearings. It bursts into atoms of thought that come into unity with things that have themselves burst into a dance of atoms. The Devil reminded the saint that he had already felt that experience of fusion between the inside and the outside: “Often, because of anything at all, a drop of water, a shell, a strand of hair, you have stopped short, your eyes fixed and your heart open. The object you were gazing at seemed to encroach upon you, as you bent toward, and new ties were found: you clutched each other, you touched each other by subtle innumerable embraces.”

Those “subtle innumerable embraces,” those shells, strands of hair, and drops of water, together with sunrays, breaths of air, and grains of sand or dust whipped up by the wind make up the sensory framework of Madame Bovary. They are the real events of the novel. Every time that something happens in the fiction—notably the birth of a love—they are the real content of the event, the real cause of the emotion. Let us remember what happens when Charles first falls for Emma: “The draught beneath the door blew a little dust over the flagstones, and he watched it creep along” (B, p.35). 

When Emma falls for Rodolphe, she perceives little gleams of gold about his pupils, smells a perfume of lemon and vanilla, and looks at the long plume of dust raised by the stagecoach. And when she first falls for Leon, “weeds streamed out in the limpid water like green wigs tossed away. Now and then some fine-legged insects alighted on the tip of a reed or crawled over a water-lily leaf. The sunshine darted its rays through the little blue bubbles on the wavelets that kept forming and breaking” (B, p.107).

This is what happens: “little blue bubbles” on wavelets in the sunshine, or swirls of dust raised by the wind. This is what the characters feel and what makes them happy: a pure flood of sensations. Much later, the Proustian narrator will evoke the message addressed by the sensation to the person that it strikes, a message that he will sum up as follows: “Try to solve the riddle of happiness which I set you.”7 But the Flaubertian characters don’t solve the riddle. They don’t even understand what kind of happiness can be enclosed in swirls of dust and bubbles on wavelets. They want those microevents to be linked together in a real plot. They want the swirls and bubbles to be turned into properties of real things that can be desired and possessed, into features of individuals that they can love and who can love them. From the point of view of the writer, they don’t mistake art for life. They mistake one art for another and one life for another. They mistake one art for another; this means that they are still trapped in the old poetics with its combinations of actions, its characters envisioning great ends, its feelings related to the qualities of persons, its noble passions opposed to everyday experience, and so on. They are out of step with the new poetics that has shattered the hierarchical poetics of action in favor of an “egaliarian” poetics of life. This also means that they mistake one life for another. They still perceive a world of subjects and predicates, things and qualities, wills, ends and means. They think that things and persons have qualities that individualize them and make them desirable and enjoyable. In short, they think that life is defined by aims and purposes. They have not listened to the lesson of the Devil: life has no purpose. It is an eternal flood of atoms that keeps doing and undoing in new configurations. 

This is brilliant stuff, but there’s one thing perhaps that I’d tweak or add or augment. These micro-events that Rancière so persuasively describes are also a matter of time – they are time images, visual manifestations of the passage of time. The blowing of the dust, the movements of the insects – these events are a matter of a new, secular temporality that, like the aesthetic involved in their encapsulation in the novel, is incompatible with standard narrative forms. (Sometimes I call these temporality the anti-ephiphanic, other times simply the everyday. I comes to the same thing, in the end…) Novels can light on these moments, but novels cannot stay – and a novel made entirely of them (of course this happened, in a sense, later, with Woolf and others) simply does not work as a novel, does not do what a novel is supposed to do.

More to be said, of course…  

 

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April 23, 2008 at 9:54 pm

hilary goes dystopian

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April 23, 2008 at 11:42 am

Posted in america