Thursday, May 27, 2010


But as for Queequeg--why, Queequeg sat there among them--at the head of the table, too, it so chanced; as cool as an icicle. To be sure I cannot say much for his breeding. His greatest admirer could not have cordially justified his bringing his harpoon into breakfast with him, and using it there without ceremony; reaching over the table with it, to the imminent jeopardy of many heads, and grappling the beefsteaks towards him. But THAT was certainly very coolly done by him, and every one knows that in most people's estimation, to do anything coolly is to do it genteelly.

Smart Guys, Top Girls, The Talented Tenth

Richard Seymour's second book, The Meaning of David Cameron, is out, and from the intro to it given as a launch talk, it looks to be a worthy sequel to The Liberal Defence of Murder, an informative and thoroughly persuasive denouncement of imperialism and a debunking of the liberal political tradition's claims to various virtues. I haven't read the new book yet; I was happy (and a little surprised, considering) to see Seymour taking on the ideology of excellence/myth of the ladder/cult of individual merit as a bogus and hackneyed old justification for social hierarchy and material inequality.

While in the early Thatcher era this petty bourgeois cult of excellence and individual talent went over well with pundits and flourished in the punditry of ordinary public discourse, as it does today, and was propagated zealously in the mass cocaculture, as it is today, there was an explosion of rage and ridicule in response to it from the realm of the arts (parallel to some predictable participation in its propagation). This is perhaps most interesting because it had been this very realm which pundits like Nietzsche and Rand and their spawn used most often as ideal exemplar and model of meritocracy to be imitated across human affairs. It was not long after Thatcher's assumption of the UK's helm that petty bourgeois aesthetic theory began aggressively to denigrate this realm of contemporary performing arts which increasingly rejected not only the myth of existing meritocracy but the values expressed by the offering of meritocratic hierarchy as a goal, which repudiated the pseudo-progress of neoliberalism as both illusory and undesireable, and which was developing practises designed to undermine the individualist mythology serving as its justification. The new wave of contempt for "agitprop" and the "experimental" took a populist tone against the "pretentiousness" of avant-garde work and a haughty aestheticist-elitist one against "preaching" in traditional forms, and simultaneously laboured to elevate in their places, with the help of purpose built exegetical habits geared toward representing it as a kind of popular culture, the mass commodity cocaculture which relentlessly promoted that individualist mythology that justified its own enterprises of exploitation and accumulation, celebrated and protected the privileges of the demiurgic creative intellectual proprietor, and laboriosuly enticed audiences to enjoy the spectacle of the virtuous, wholesome and thrilling properties of competition.

Caryl Churchill's Top Girls (1982), instantly a "feminist theatre classic", is a dramatically ornate and politically simple play about exploitation in capitalism, poignantly exhibiting the "failures" [refusals] of bourgeois feminism to grasp [acknowledge] the intolerably unjust totality which produces the limited problem of women's unequal opportunities - disadvantages as individuals in competition with men - it recognises, isolates and confronts. The play more than deserves its imposing reputation, though it suffers from Churchill's blindness to imperialism and race and the faint but not insignificant Anglosupremacism permeating all her work. At the time of its appearance there had already been several years of public criticism of white bourgeois feminism (embodied for Churchill by Margaret Thatcher and depicted by her through the heroine of Top Girls, the new managing director of the Top Girls employment agency whose career advancement has depended on her ability to shift the labour of child rearing onto a subordinate woman). Much of the most powerful such criticism came from radical black American women who like Churchill illuminated the reformist bourgeois feminist movement's fatal individualism but from a perspective concerned and acquainted with the function of race and imperialism, as well as gender, in capitalist exploitation and the division of the exploited by hierarchies of oppression. Marred by a repressed but operational Euro/Anglocentrism and White/Anglosupremacism traditional to the most prominent strain of British Socialism, Churchill's dramatic attack on the petty bourgeois cult of meritocracy as adapted by a mass culture commodity version of feminism, was nonetheless uncompromisingly dissident, impeccably socialist in the strict sense, and insightfully didactic. It was hugely popular and successful in 1982. In the same period, other hits of the West End and Broadway stage exhibited progressive and leftist creative intellectuals' preoccupation with this question of equality of opportunity, which throws elite individuals marked for representation up against glass ceilings, as the capitalist changeling substituted for socialist social equality. Among those mainstream plays most successful at the time and memorable today were August Wilson's Fences and Charles Fuller's A Solider's Play (filmed as A Soldier's Story by Norman Jewison in the mid 80s).

The same era also saw Amiri Baraka's autobiography, LeRoi Jones, raise for a (relatively) wide audience this question through an examination of the costs to African Americans of integration of institutions (such as Major League Baseball), a victory achieved by the Civil Rights Movement which had, until the ferocity of the reaction known in the US as Reaganism was unleashed, always been seen by liberals and those to the left of them as unmitigated progress toward the goal of racial equality which though routinely imaged by visions of integrated social spheres of the highest privilege was understood to involve a transformation of society and not just the redistribution of roles for proportional representation of race and gender. That the social movements' paths, which had set out for "liberation" (from racism and misogyny, from homophobia, from oppression and persecution, but also from exploitation, thus merging in the struggle for socialism), could be redirected toward the infinitely distant and worthless "equality of opportunity" was only beginning to be widely understood by progressives and radicals in the US in the late 70s, after a roll of significant victories for humanity had come up hard against a new ruling class offensive. Somehow, between then and now (in the past decade especially, starting about when the current crop of hipster pundits was entering university) progressives and radicals in the imperial core culture industries, fed an endless diet of flattering Nietzschianism in fifty different flavours of jargon, seem to have largely forgotten, and perhaps become incapable of learning without great difficulty, what about thirty years ago their predecessors easily understood. So Seymour's focus on this most loathesome, and possibly dangerous if usually risible, strain of supremacist individualist mysticism in his new book is particularly welcome.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Maurice Joly

Machiavelli: There is no doubt, I confess, that I have little admiration for your civilization of cylinders and shafts; but, believe me, I move with the times; the power of the doctrines to which my name is attached is the fact that they can accommodate themselves to all times and situations. Today, Machiavelli has grandsons who know the price of his lessons. One believes me to be quite old and every day I am rejuvenated on the earth.

Montesquieu: Are you joking?

Machiavelli: Listen to me and judge for yourself. Today, it is less a question of doing violence to men than disarming them, of repressing their political passions than effacing them, of combating their instincts than deceiving them, of proscribing their ideas than changing them by appropriating them.

Montesquieu: And how? I do not understand this language.

Machiavelli: Permit me. Here is the moral part of politics; in a little while we will come to the applications. The principal secret of government consists in weakening the public spirit to the point of completely disinteresting the people in the ideas and principles with which one makes revolution these days. In all eras, peoples -- like individual men -- are paid with words. Appearances are almost always sufficient for them; they do not demand more. Thus, one can establish artificial institutions that respond to a language and ideas that are equally artificial; one must have the talent of snatching from the parties the liberal phraseology with which they arm themselves against the government. One must saturate the people to the point of exhaustion, to the point of disgust. Today, one often speaks of the power of public opinion; I will show to you that one can make it express what one wants when one knows the hidden springs of power. But before dreaming of directing it, one must stun it, strike it with uncertainty by astonishing contradictions, work incessant diversions upon it, dazzle it by all sorts of diverse movements, imperceptibly lead it astray from its routes. One of the great secrets of the day is knowing how to seize hold of popular prejudices and passions so as to introduce into them a confusion of principles that render all understanding impossible among those who speak the same language and have the same interests.

- Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu (1864)

Monday, May 24, 2010

ZizzyRand, Bishop of Otan

The Randian hero is not ‘phallocratic’—it is rather the figure of the failed Master (Wynand in The Fountainhead, Stadler in Atlas Shrugged) who is phallocratic: paradoxical as it may sound, the being of pure drive who emerges once the subject ‘goes through the fantasy’ and assumes the attitude of indifference towards the enigma of the Other’s desire, is a feminine figure. What Rand was not aware of was that the upright, uncompromising masculine figures with a will of steel, with whom she was so fascinated, are effectively figures of the feminine subject liberated from the deadlocks of hysteria. It is well known that a thwarted (disavowed) homosexual libidinal economy forms the basis of military community—it is for that very reason that the Army opposes so adamantly the admission of gays in its ranks. Mutatis mutandis, Rand’s ridiculously exaggerated adoration of strong male figures betrays an underlying disavowed lesbian economy, i.e., the fact that Dominique and Roark, or Dagny and Galt, are effectively lesbian couples. It is thus a thin, almost imperceptible line that separates Rand’s ideological and literary trash from the ultimate feminist insight.

But who can discern that even finer line between the lesbian libidinal economy and the Lacanian frontal lobotomy?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"If The Handbag Could Think"

The topos of the Intellectual in American mass media - German-accented psychoanalyst and professor interviewed on television. It's especially amusing to hear Erich Fromm in 1958 explaining as already rather obvious the practises Hardt and Negri describe as "immaterial labour" as if they were producing some remarkable "insight" into an unfamiliar phenomenon. But the differences in language, perspective and focus of concerns between contemporary versions of this point (a pretext for the production of clouds of empty jargon and displays of reification-juggling) and Fromm's-on-TV (deploying a rhetoric rooted in the concrete and comradely concern) are fascinating:

Mike Wallace: What do you mean by "the marketing orientation", Dr. Fromm?

Fromm: I mean by that our main way of relating ourselves to others is like things relate themselves to things on the market. We want to exchange our own personality, or as one says sometimes our personality package, for something. Now this is not so true for the manual worker. The manual worker does not have to sell his personality. He doesn't have to sell his smile. But what you might call the symbol-pushers, that is to say all the people who deal with figures, with paper, with men, who manipulate, to use a fitter, or nicer word, manupulate men and signs and words, all those today, have not only to sell their service but in the bargain they have to sell their personality. More or less, there are exceptions.

Wallace: So the sense of his own value must depend upon what the market in a sense is willing to pay for it.

Fromm: Exactly. Just as a handbag which cannot be sold because there is not enough demand is economically speaking useless, and if the handbag could think, it would have a terrific inferiority feeling, because not having been bought it would feel useless, so does a man who considers himself as a thing, and if he's not successful to sell himself he feels he is a failure.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

"A Well-Timed and Profitable Accident"

How did the Gulf oil rig explode? A prominent theory adds Halliburton to the mix.
Workers had just finished cementing the well when the rig blew, leading experts to speculate that a flaw in this process could have caused the explosion. Halliburton, the largest company in the global cementing business, was in charge of cementing the well.

In order to prevent oil and natural leakage, rig workers pump cement down wells after they've finished drilling. This process requires a very particular type of cement, one that must be mixed and stirred in a precise fashion. If the cement is flawed, it can crack or fail to set properly, allowing oil and gas to leak through. If gas escaped through the Gulf rig's cement, it could have shot back up the well -- what's known as a "blowout" -- and ignited the fatal blast.

Halliburton was also responsible for cementing a well off the coast of Australia that blew last August, leaking oil for ten weeks before it was plugged. Though the investigation continues, an official from the U.S. Minerals Management Service testified that a poor cement job probably caused the explosion.

Gulf oil well disaster could mean explosive profits for Halliburton
The oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico could be a well-timed and profitable accident for Halliburton, the global oil company with the famous connection to former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. Just eight days before the uber-Valdez accident, Houston-based Halliburton acquired Boots & Coots Services, also based in Houston, in a $240 million cash and stock deal.

Boots & Coots, which uses the graphic of a burning oil well to represent the ampersand in its name, specializes in "pressure control and well intervention services." In other words, when an oil well explodes, Boots & Coots can step in and help remedy the problem. In a release, Jerry Winchester, Boots & Coots president and CEO, says "Combining the resources of both companies creates the premier intervention company across the globe.”

While Halliburton's timing of the acquisition could be chalked up to luck, some members of Congress are asking questions. Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), have asked Halliburton provide all documents relating to "the possibility or risk of an explosion or blowout" at the rig in the Gulf, according to a report in the LA Times.