October 28, 2008

At Night with a Lowered Book

Born as an idea in Milwaukee, the Edmund Fitzgerald has become a mythic ship, a historic wreck. Once the largest freighter on the great lakes, having gone down in a November storm on Lake Superior, it has become an icon of darkness. A Cleveland brewery has named its cold black porter after it.

Home after the long day, home to two bottles of it to take away the weight of what was, and then whiskey after. Midnight comes and the news fades, and everything slows into quiet. Something about the image of the ship on the bottle, and knowing its fate, reminds me of Brecht. Something about dark times and bad trouble, against which the small gestures of pleasure, the thinking through the wreckage without ever becoming mere spectator:

Years ago when I was studying the ways of the Chicago Wheat Exchange
I suddenly grasped how they managed the whole world's wheat there
And yet I did not grasp it either and lowered the book
I knew at once: you've run
Into bad trouble.

There was no feeling of enmity in me and it was not the injustice
Frightened me, only the thought that
Their way of going about it won't do
Filled me completely.

These people, I saw, lived by the harm
Which they did, not by the good.
This was a situation, I saw, that could only be maintained
By crime because too bad for most people.
In this way every
Achievement of reason, invention or discovery
Must lead only to still greater wretchedness.

Such and suchlike I thought at the moment
Far from anger or lamenting, as I lowered the book
With its description of the Chicago wheat market and exchange.

Much trouble and tribulation
Awaited me.

October 25, 2008

A Wreck on the Shore

Spectatorship. To watch the world's passing calamities, vast and public, or small and domestic, and take their measure. Are they, from that point of sanctuary and safety, seen as essential destructions, unavoidable eruptions, essential sacrifices? Made for the sake of an unfolding future, or what Hegel calls the "true result of history"?

Or is the saving quality actual distance, which is described by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where the European man, over his breakfast, reads in the newspaper of a Chinese village swallowed by an earthquake and  feels pangs of pity, a true tremor of sadness; then meditates on life's fragility or geological risks, only to continue soon enough on with business, pleasure, life? Or does even the witness of some proximate disaster bring the selfish relief of the survivor?

In the tragic mode, that which is unjust and deplorable is worked over and eventually harnessed by reason, which may well allow for the great gift of pity for the unfortunate, but not the sustained fear and trembling at human vulnerability.

The spectator keen to see the drama of history on the stage, avoids the brutality of the waves of passionate dislocation, and instead rests on "the calmer shore and, from a secure position . . . look[s] on at the distant spectacle of confusion and wreckage." One must, as a living being, a brute with an "eye of prey," become a spectator to suffering, including one's own; give it cause, plot, parameters, justification, reason. But be it by rising tides, geological upheavals, or the scandals on the stage that seem mere drama, something other, the figurative shipwreck is almost always a destiny in one form or another, a point of contact with what cannot be escaped through political cant, self-satisfying judgment, or the vast refusals of ill-purpose.

Photograph: "The Wreck of the Viscata," San Francisco Bay, by Carleton Watkins.

October 16, 2008

"A thousand sources of sudden enrichment"

In this time of anxious need, the call goes out. The order is placed, the machinery is fired up and the new printings of standard editions are readied for sale and re-sale. The product, this time, is Marx's Das Kapital. Perhaps it is produced offshore, waiting to be brought back "home" to be distributed with magnificent speed and displayed in bookstore windows for buyers desperate for a way of understanding what is not being adequately explored.

However it comes to be, and come to be owned, it is in many more hands today, talismanic in its thin binding, promising the promise of answers and explanations; a way of knowing what is so frightful.

What trickle of pleasure will a weary train traveler feel when, at the end of a tiring day, the eye impatient with Marx's grueling care and seemingly infinite patience, finds a footnote citing Luther, who writes, "Whoever eats up, robs, steals the nourishment of another, that man commits as great a murder (so far as in him lies) as he who starves a man or utterly undoes him. Such does a usurer, and sits while safe on his tool, when he ought to rather be hanging on the gallows, and be eaten by as many ravens could stick their beaks in and share it. Meanwhile, we hang the small thieves . . . "?

What memory of the Hugo Boss suits and well-shined shoes seen that day will creep in when he finds that Marx writes, "The progress of capitalist production not only creates a world of delights; it lays open, in speculation and the credit system, a thousand sources of sudden enrichment. When a certain stage of development has been reached, a conventional degree of prodigality, which is also the exhibition of wealth, and consequently a source of credit, becomes a business necessity. . . " ? Or, "Public credit becomes the credo of capital. And with the rise of national debt-making, want of faith in the national debt takes the place of the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which may not be forgiven"?

But just as Benjamin refused an easy reduction of the Paris arcades, those enclosed "worlds of delight," the grasping for answers that come too quick are to be refused. The formulations that might allow one, raven-like, to stick their beak in and pluck out a pronouncing judgment, will always give only false pleasure. They are only avoidance of the shock that rattles the body. The temptation is to look for small symptoms in the normalcy, and seeing both at once, find assurance. If so many continue to take the train to work, to walk the same path, day after day, no matter what the newspapers say, then surely it is a matter of just waiting for whatever it is we claim to know is happening, to have happened; like a hurricane that eventually turns to mere rain over land.

A few years back, Alan Greenspan rejected the very idea that there was a brewing crisis because of the play of credit, which metastasized in housing. He referred, then, to the not very uncommon phenomenon of "irrational exuberance." In other words, to a very simple condition. No cause for alarm. This is as helpful as saying that markets run on fear and greed. And it recalls a fragment from Horkheimer's Dawn and Decline:

As one walks through an insane asylum, the horrible impression the sight of the raving mad makes on the layman is allayed by the matter-of-fact statement of the physician that the patient is in a state of excitation. Being subsumed under a specific scientific category, the terror at the phenomenon is presented as somehow out of place. "It's just a state of excitation." There are people who will not be disturbed about the existence of evil because they have a theory that accounts for it. Here I am also thinking of Marxists who, in the face of wretchedness, quickly proceed to show why it exists. Even comprehension can be too quick.

October 9, 2008

Roots of a Crisis

From an apple orchard in a beautiful shallow valley and out of the autumn woods of the Dunes Highway that runs along the shore of Lake Michigan and into and through Gary, Indiana.

The rain is steady, the last light of the gray fades quickly into a wet smear of dark colors. The industrial markers are enormous. Train yards, British Petroleum tanks, a harbor canal, the proliferating rusted-metal land of docks. Old buildings on wide streets for trucks are close to the road, bare and lit by street-light. For longer stretches of the two-lane highway, however, there are few signs of people among the homes that sit dark in the side streets.

The only commercial glow is from the scattered liquor stores. Cash checking outlets, not banks. Occasionally a billboard.

Then night, past more and more of the areas marked by boarded-up homes. Some have the look of being lived in, but are paradoxically, and glaringly, unlit, as if the electricity was inconsistent, shut off, or long dead. Block after block of blackness and cold and wet. One after another, the shells of shelter. And in the rain the feeling of something dire that has penetrated every space where the living take shelter, that the city space is being re-forested vine by vine, cracking wood and overwhelming the old asphalt.

There is a presidential debate scheduled for later that evening. The subject is the economy. The working and middle classes are both starting to realize the long term effects of the long established neo-liberal epoch. They are fearing for their employment futures, their wages, and very idea of pension prospects in the face of the great unwinding following the speculative excesses of the rightfully named naughts; fears of an epic recession, another depression. The debate will say nothing to these regions that are spread around the Great Lakes like natural deserts.

They exude the feeling of numbness, immune from political prospects because they cannot be touched by the necessary fear. Stripped of their ties to the collective, it is as if these spaces lack the luxury of a populist nerve. With the welfare state made threadbare, what is there left to lose in these realms that are pockets abandoned to nature, the drama played out beyond tragedy and into the baseless, unacknowledged ruin?

Photo of Gary by Lee Bay.

October 6, 2008

The Legislation of Catastrophe

And the most terrible, the most horrible catastrophes imaginable, the conflagration of the universe, can it be anything more than the crackling, the burst, and the evaporation of a grain of powder on a candle?
--Joseph Joubert, 1821

In the long wake of the French Revolution, particularly between 1815 and 1850, liberal politics waged war on threats to social order. Trying to bolster the prospects of liberty in the time of the excessive, ruinous promise of revolution, liberal politics tested again and again the dream of a justice fit for the feared worst. As the grounds forming and supporting the law shifted with the seismic force of violent antagonisms, however, there was a dramatic collision of fears.

For some, the events of the half-century demonstrated the absolute vulnerability of the individual exposed to the riotous calamities of revolution; annihilating social forces quite capable of extinguishing all individual liberties, devastating personhood itself.

For others, the notion that those so vulnerable might be offered legal assistance, and thereby given a voice in the systems of the civic arena, threatened the notion of the law itself. It was as if the impulse to the protect the poor came as the sound of a dam cracking, the wall between order and catastrophe splintering case by case, until the whole social order dissolved under the raging waters of an infinite clamor for justice.

This old negotiation with catastrophe comes to mind when one thinks of the thickly paged bill passed this week to (supposedly, possibly) tend to the financial "crisis" before it becomes a catastrophe. As before, the threat cannot be measured. As before, the measures have no way to dim the threats. This time, the mathematical sublime is not just a philosophical formula, but an apt rendition of the inability of anyone to ever know the risks that are supposed to be contained. Even for those for whom "one trillion" is a real number, there is noone who can know the true amount of credit default swaps that have infested the system of capital. If there is a specter in that machine it is a communal failure of the law, of contracted promises -- a curdled moment in the dream of the risk manager's equation.

And when those promises are broken? When the magical thinking ends? Will we sense at all the tiny flick at the end of the candle, somewhere? Or only feel the loss of some distant light that went out long ago, like some star?

We have now learned that these intertwining bets against and for disaster have come to cast a net over everything were, not surprising, the result of a law. An eleventh hour budget passed on December 15th, 2000 contained legislation that removed the prospect of regulation; it ensured our collective exposure to the blind and hysterical risk games, and that such risk would continue unchecked until now, when it is far too late to address and correct.

Slavoj Zizek is fond of saying that given the state of capital, now is a time above all for thinking, for theory, for finding the true measure of our situation. "What is to be done?" requires knowing with what, as well as what is at stake. He is not so confident that this can be done, however, for we are so often lacking a language, a calculus that can ground a critique. One waits for the language to come, one dreads the catastrophe, one recoils from the abuses written in by the law itself.