Indebted to Blackness?

Am I indebted to blackness?

What does it mean to say that I “owe” almost everything I know as a drummer to the roots of drum set playing in African rhythmic wisdom, mediated by the survival of African rhythm in gospel, blues, jazz, soul, rock and roll, reggae, untold numbers of Caribbean hybrids, and the endless rhizome of dance music since techno started in Detroit?

What does it mean to say that I “owe” almost everything that inspired me as a young basketball and baseball player to black athletes?

What does it mean to say that I “owe” my own short-lived basketball career at a state-championship winning high school to the tolerance and graciousness with which black men in my neighborhood—worn out from disappointed love and shitty dead end jobs—allowed my junior high schooled pimply white ass to run at sunset games where I was far too small, slow, and not enough of a 3-point shooter to ever really belong?

What does it mean to say that I “owe” almost all of any palpable human feeling or genuine human resonance in the name “Jesus” to the black spirituals and gospel traditions that inflected the singing and preaching of the black Baptist church that shared the junior high rec room with my dad’s largely-white community church in Sacramento, California?

What does it mean that I “owe” almost all of my feeling for magic and spirit to the survival of West African traditions and lore that managed to mutate and heal and console under the constraints of colonialist Christianity?

What does it mean to think that we “owe” so much in contemporary American food, music, style, culture, laughter, rhetoric, and the will to survive to blackness, to black culture, to black survival under unthinkable conditions of degradation, horror, anxiety, and fear?

To put the screw in even tighter, what does it mean to think that “we” or some group—whites, dominants, whatevers—owes so much of what we are or want to be to “them”?

Well, for one thing, if “we” owe all of this to “them,” then it means we might have good reason for being very, very afraid, even as afraid as the police officers who keep murdering black men, in cold blood, with impunity, even as I write these words. Why would they claim to be so afraid, afraid of what Darren Wilson said he saw, afraid of a demon in Mike Brown’s eyes?

What are we afraid of?   Could it be that what we are afraid of asking the kinds of questions I started with here?   The question of what it might mean to “owe” so much to others, to others that have suffered so much and yet also offered us so much? Are we afraid of the obviousness of the debt Ta-Nehisi Coates argued so elegantly was ours to repay in “The Case for Reparations”?

While I agree with Coates that the case for reparations could not be more obvious, I also do not want to miss the opportunity, politically and philosophically, to realize the profound incoherence of framing moral obligations in particular, and social relations generally, in terms of debt. As David Graeber has powerfully argued in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, the confusion of moral obligations with contractual debt obligations in particular is just that—confusion. Saying we owe a debt to our parents and families and friends is insulting—as if we would not want or at least prefer to keep our interactions spontaneous and even asymmetrical, and as if it were even possible let alone desirable to keep accounts of how much you owe to your mother’s care or your sister’s playfulness. Saying we owe a debt to society, the one that “Primordial Debt Theorists” say stands behind the validity of money itself, is at best nebulous: who or what is our society?   Unless it is identified with “the State”—which is a very recent and unstable reference point for “society,” given that our sense of belonging is more likely to be ethnic or religious or geographical than national—obligations to society are again hard to characterize as debts. But of course when the coercion and terror associated with being a state subject who can be taxed or conscripted into an army is brought into the picture, then the transmutation of loose or at least revisable social “obligations” into “debts” that must be repaid on pain of penalties starts to make more sense. And as Graeber brilliantly points out, the world’s religious traditions, from the Vedic texts to Christian scriptures, all seem to incorporate the language of debt so paradoxically that it often seems as if they are deliberately undermining its coinage. What could it possibly mean to “owe” one’s life to the Absolute, or to be able to “pay” the Divine, the source of all Being, anything back through sacrifice?   How would one possibly imagine paying off one’s debts to God?   The absurdity of the situation was of course not lost on Nietzsche, who like Walter Benjamin and Norman O. Brown later did concluded that the Christian idea of a God that offered to pay back himself, in the end, for debts we supposedly owe him, was simply the hysterical logical conclusion of a neurotic subject that craves its own domination and is incapable of living its life without servitude and subjection, and so projects a divine being who lives and dies in the same pathetic way (hence both the absurdity and the genius of this sacrificial myth).

In any case, debts, as Graeber points out, are highly specific constructs. They are contracts between presumed equals that specify in advance both the creation and destruction of a social relation mediated by money. These contracts can be revised, but only when there is either agreement by the stronger party (the creditor) to do so or when a sovereign power intervenes on behalf of the weaker party (the debtor). The widespread myth that all debts must be repaid (when the very survival of our economy depends on continuous renegotiations) is simply a register of the difficulty that the weaker face in negotiating with the stronger, as in the case of Greece in the face of Germany and the other stronger economies in the EU. It is a myth backed by the threat of violence, and a way of both glamorizing and avoiding that history of violence.

But to come back to Coates’ argument, while I agree in a conventional sense that it is blindingly obvious that reparations are owed to black Americans for what white Europeans took, robbed, raped, and plundered, there’s also another sense in which what should be done really isn’t the “repayment of a debt,” at all. There was never a contract between enslaved Africans and emergent American capitalists. There was no agreement. There were no terms. And there has never even been the possibility of re-negotiation. Slaves aren’t people who “work for you,” for a wage or for benefits. Slaves are by definition not human, they are mere property, which is why it was so important for slave owners to deny Africans their culture, religion, literacy, numerancy, and other modes of self-expression that are identifiably human.

So if and when we say, “what do we owe black America?” or when I ask myself “am I indebted to blackness?” on one level the obvious answer is “yes, we are all indebted to blackness,” and “we owe black America everything.”   But on another level, the question has the power to bring the entire edifice of capitalist social relations into question. Because what are we really talking about here?   Black America neither contracted with white America nor was ever involved in, say, something like an archaic gift economy as analyzed by Marcel Mauss, where foreign peoples would offer one another their gifts in order to honor one another, maintain peace, enjoy exotic pleasures, etc. (these economies were also potentially violent, as in potlatch rituals where rivals demonstrated their superiority by refusing or even destroying gifts.)

But black Americans did not “give” their gifts to white America in this sense, either.

So if it’s not a debt and not a gift then what is it?

Maybe it’s just life. It’s just the unpredictable, unwarranted effects of the lives of people who have chosen, over and over again, to live, and who have believed in the inherent goodness and promise of life, of bodily life on this planet against all odds, under any circumstances. Knowing that no revenge fantasy would ever measure up to the goodness of a meal, of a night with a lover or three, of a jam at the club, of singing and stomping praises instead of raising a hand in violence.

Some things I’ve been through lately have made me appreciate this, things that have been very painful and destabilizing, but that bear no comparison to the torture, humiliation, and vexation the black community lives with day after day. And yet as I live through my own pain, I find that one of the main sources of pain has always been the sense that I owed something to someone else, and that only certain kinds of heroic sacrifices could ever repay those debts. Perhaps this is the demon that Darren Wilson saw, the demon of his imaginary debt to a person who represents the thing capitalism fears most, a life that is unconstrained by debt, a life without why—painful, lavish, exuberant, pointless, free.

Deadlocks of Money and Marriage: Some Notes to The Merchant of Venice

In The Nature of Money at Grinnell this term I decided to use Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, partly inspired by Goodchild’s reading of the play in Theology of Money.

In The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio wants to marry Portia, but needs a certain amount of wealth in order to press his suit, which involves traveling to Portia’s court. This means he needs to borrow money from his rich friend, the merchant Antonio. It also involves playing a game where he must choose which one of three chests—gold, silver, or lead—contain Portia’s image. Bassanio succeeds in winning Portia’s hand, but at great cost to Antonio. Antonio has temporarily borrowed the funds for Bassanio’s suit from Shylock, the Jew, who as agreed to the loan only if Antonio puts up a pound of his flesh as surety if the loan cannot be paid back in fully. Antonio’s merchant vessels are apparently wrecked, forcing him to certain death at Shylock’s hands, but Portia, disguised as a judge, intervenes and gets Antonio off on a technicality—it is unlawful to kill, rendering Shylock’s contract void if it spills a drop of Antonio’s blood. All ends well, with the Jew being taught a lesson about mercy and forgiveness, and all the Christian marriages (there are several others in the play) reaching happy consummation.

But the play is an exceedingly dark comedy.

The game of mercy and forgiveness is the game of being able to remake (make and unmake) bonds. This is not just about money. And it is not only Shylock who asks Antonio to stake a pound of flesh. All of the characters enter into bonds with one another where the stakes are their own lives, or the dimensions of their lives that cannot be quantified. Antonio stakes his fortunes for Bassanio’s friendship, Bassanio stakes his honor, by which he will win Portia, on the basis of Antonio’s friendship, Jessica risks her life as her father’s daughter by bonding with Lorenzo, the Duke risks the “life” of his kingdom by searching for a way to show mercy to Antonio, which would in fact jeopardize Venice’s reputation as a lawful republic.

In this game of high stakes, Shylock seems to be the only one who does not understand mercy and forgiveness and Christian charity. But in fact his sinister and irrational demand for a pound of Antonio’s flesh, which he apparently wants for no other reason than hatred and resentment, is mirrored and doubled in Portia’s supposedly comical demand for Bassanio’s faithfulness, and mock trial and punishment of Bassanio at the conclusion of the play. It’s supposed to be a joke that Bassanio and Lorenzo will be punished for having given their wedding rings away, but in an eerie and uncanny way, it’s not really funny. Maybe because in marriages people really do hang onto those kinds of grudges forever . . . but it really was a situation in which a “bond” needed to be broken in the name of life itself. Namely, the bond or promise of faithfulness made by Bassanio and Lorenzo needed to be broken, or at least abrogated, in order to save Antonio’s life. Effectively Portia can accuse Bassanio of breaking faith in the same way that Shylock can accuse the Duke of undermining justice itself unless he allows the suit (“my bond”) to stand.

What is hidden here is that such “bonds” as seemingly irrational hatred are the only real connection that Shylock as a Jew has to his community, which includes him by excluding him. Unlike the caricature of the Jew as obsessed with the “letter” of the law and neglecting its “spirit,” it is Shylock who really understands the “spirit” of Christian charity and mercy exemplified here, which is to be favorable to some at the irrational and arbitrary exclusion of others—in this case, the hateful Jew. Everything hateful and odious about social life—namely commerce itself and its bloody money—is literally carried by the dirty persona of the Jew. Portia, whose name sounds like “portion” or share, seems to be the source of the solution to the problem—her cleverness gets Antonio off the hook. But Portia’s grace and love obscure her own calculating, even sinister position. Winning her favor was, effectively, winning a lottery. Although it was meant to reveal her “true” suitor, there is something arbitrary about the game. And even though the “moral” of the game is that one should not favor gold and silver, it was only gold and silver that allowed Bassanio to be a suitor, at all—it was only if Antonio’s business at sea was successful that Bassanio’s claim to virtue would be supported.

What all this points to is the deep contradiction in all these Christian claims to charity. For the ability to establish spaces within which love and charity, mercy and forgiveness can be shown, someone must pay the price: Shylock. Shylock’s “bond” is the flesh of Antonio, but what he really wants is the friendship Antonio denies him. Of course, Shylock claims not to want Antonio’s love but only that Antonio do business with him and not despise him for charging interest—that is, for being a userer. But if Shylock does not charge interest there are not the reserves to back the kinds of risks that Antonio and other merchants take. And because, as a Jew, Shylock does not have access to the kinds of honor and friendship that would make other kinds of loans and credit possible without usery, his usery is literally the only friend he has—it is his only ally, his only resource, his only capital—it was illegal at this time for Jews to own property.

The other characters can show forgiveness and mercy to one another because unlike Shylock they are not excluded from the rich sets of relationships that make forgiveness of debts possible—not only possible but desirable, and not only desirable but a kind of game, a comedy. But it’s a real question whether this kind of game, these games of love and credit, are possible without an exclusion of some people (“hath not a Jew hands?”) from the economy of credit.

Above all the love and hope and faith that are expressed in marriages are extremely vital forms of credit. Marriage is an elaborate social institution that works only because there are rich webs of friendship and complicity around the marriage that encourage the partners to commit, to hope, to believe, and also to forgive and remake when things go wrong. It is especially uncanny that the shadow of the violent exclusions that constitute this Christian society at its outer exterior are reflected in the not-quite-comical interior of marriages, where grudges, resentments, entitlements, and other sinister games of micropolitics continually erode the fabric of true love and forgiveness. Bassanio was literally in a position where there was no other right thing to do than to offer his ring, pledged to Portia, in order to thank the judge who had saved the life of his own benefactor. And yet the power falls to Portia to endlessly torment Bassanio about whether his action counts as a betrayal, and whether to continue to offer to him what she freely promised—her love. Bassanio has nowhere to go but the solitude of his integrity, since he cannot justify his action without betraying either the reality of the situation he was in, or without being forced to compare two incomparable values: his love for Portia (her worth) or the gift that was shown him by the genius of the judge who intervened in a life and death situation. That it was Portia herself who was the judge in disguise only deepens the problematic. Since she is somehow witness to the totality of the situation, she automatically has power over Bassanio, unless Bassanio radically accepts the asymmetry of the situation and does not ask for forgiveness for what he did. Paradoxcially, that is the only way to maintain his integrity and prove not just his love for Portia, beyond his apparent betrayal, but more importantly to show his willingness to face up to and accept with compassion the radically corrupted reality in which they are both forced to play this game.

Notes from the Museo del Oro

I had a chance recently to take an unexpected trip to Costa Rica, to a music festival where my friend Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics, was speaking. I was in Costa Rica at all thanks to Charles’ generosity, at a moment when I desperately needed contact with that vibrant and still-thriving land. The music was great, too.

While I was there I also unexpectedly had a day in San Jose and decided to visit the Museo del Oro. It’s a fascinating place, a museum of numismatics owned by the Central Bank of Costa Rica. It’s built underneath one of San Jose’s central plazas. The top level is a rotating space for art shows (currently Albrecht Dürer), the level below that is the numismatics museum (which was unfortunately closed for renovations when I went), and the bottom level, where I spent most of my time, is an exhibition about the pre-Columbian people’s relationship to gold.

In the lowest level of the Museo del Oro there is a kind of walk-through diorama, attempting to show what everyday life might have been like in pre-Columbian Costa Rica, based on archaeology and anthropology and on the traditions that survive in the remaining indigenous groups. It’s a really well-done display, really moving, actually. There are on display many of the gold amulets, decorative and ceremonial objects, and representations of jaguars, frogs, and other animals. It’s not clear what “use value” these objects had, but it’s clear that they were the subject of massive investments of desire and pleasure and attention and care. The technical chemical processes required to make these objects are extraordinarily complex, involving temperatures of over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the introduction of impurities into the gold to make more consistent and malleable, and the complex constructions of molds.

It gave me some time to think about what is so special about gold. I tried to just let myself take it in, phenomenologically. It struck me that gold is hard to look at. It is abrasive, off-putting. It shines or gleams in an invasive, almost domineering way. It has a brightness that assaults. The gold leaf on Orthodox icons creates a kind of shimmering effect that tends to obliterate the distinction between figure and ground. Maybe the background of icons is meant, like a good psychedelic, to disorient, to break down the subject-object, observer-observed, seer-seen distinction in the way that all proper rituals are designed to do. Maybe the surplus use-value of gold is as a bridge between worlds, a portal.

Then I started thinking about where I was, at the bottom of this palace of progress, this shrine to modernity, in a collection of ceremonial gold objects that are protected by massive doors. At the center of this vault is a shaman. What is going on here?   It reads to me as a cipher of the deeply religious roots of the economic, the sacred character of the power of money. All the power of gold seemed to point back to the power of the shaman to transcend, to cross worlds, to make life and death communicate, to heal, to forgive, to renew the bonds of society, to imagine new possibilities of life and expression. In a word, the shaman was responsible for all the functions that money now performs, in the modern world. No wonder his wax effigy is kept locked in a vault deep beneath the earth. No wonder we are instructed that we must accept modern art (two floors above) as a substitute—but of course modern art can only dream of and point to and protest the loss of the kind of spiritual potencies embodied in the shaman. But at least the museum is not lying to us about the real power of money, and the real value of gold.

In my course at Grinnell this term, The Nature of Money, I have been thinking a lot about the fact that most of the reasons people are inclined to give for the value of gold are absurd, the most common one being that gold is valuable because it is scarce. But there are plenty of other things that are scarce. Richard Seaford, in Money and the Early Greek Mind, argues that gold (and silver’s) value as currency may be because it is scarce in combination with it being divisible and interchangeable. But that still begs the question of its value (beyond its function as medium of exchange), for by definition what is valuable should be something distinctive and unique, irreplaceable or unsubstitutable. We have of course learned to value that which is fungible or alienable (exchangeable), but this is arguably an effect not a cause of contemporary economy, which forces us to make ourselves available to one another (as labor) in “flexible” ways—i.e., ways that have little or nothing to do with our talents or desires.

Of course what is in the background here is the tension between money as currency or medium of exchange, on the one hand, and money as a store of value. This is the tension Norman O. Brown, among others, makes a great deal of in the “Filthy Lucre” essay of his monumental 1959 synthesis of Marx and Freud, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. For Brown the issue is that, despite the desire of modern economic theory to envision an economy that is based entirely on exchange relationships, and to which money is wholly subordinated as the “language” or medium of exchange, money itself remains sacred and subject to “irrational” desires for hoarding, and power continues to accrue to the wealthiest even and especially when that wealth is used to inhibit economic activity (when wealth extracts capital and keeps it outside the general sphere of production and consumption).

Even Marx was troubled by the money fetish and struggled to account for it, inventing a bizarre concept of “surplus use value” that is found nowhere else in his corpus. For Marx, as for all modern economists, money is an enigma. If money really counted or measured what it was supposed to—socially necessary labor time—then there would be no problem of the money supply, inflation, or the magical stability of the rate of interest.

Here is Brown’s decisive insight on this limitation (and opening) in Marx’s account of money:

. . . the labor theory of money, which is the automatic consequence of the labor theory of value plus the medium-of-exchange theory of money adopted in the first volume [of Capital] is wrong. There is the recognition that the price of money in borrowing and lending does not obey the basic law for all commodities laid down there, namely that the price is determined not by use-value but by exchange-value (i.e. the amount of labor incorporated into the object, according to the labor theory of value). Hence there is the recognition that there is something irrational about interest. “If interest is to be called the price of money-capital, it will be an irrational form of price, which is quite at variance with the conception of the price of commodities.” Interest again—at variance with the labor theory of value—is seen to arise “outside the process of production,” “the fruit of mere ownership.” Hence the real essence of money is disclosed not by the labor theory of value but a theory of ownership—i.e., power. “But how are gold and silver distinguished from other forms of wealth?   Not by the magnitude of their value, for this is determined by the quantity of labor materialized in them, but by the fact they represent independent incarnations, expressions of the social character of wealth.” The value of money does not lie in the value with which the labor theory of value is concerned. And conversely—this is the crucial point—the labor theory of value does not contain the answer to the problem of power. (Brown 1959: 251)

Brown goes on to argue that only a properly psychoanalytical approach to power can explain what is at stake in money. He notes that Marx, along with Hegel, Nietzsche, and to a certain extent Freud all make the mistake of taking force or power as the ultimate category of social arrangement, such that the power or prestige of money as store of value, in excess of its rational justification as a representation of socially necessary labor time, reduces to the brute force of the owning classes, their literal quantitative, mechanical, and overwhelming physical force. Brown insists, however, that “power is a psychological category” (251). But by “psychological” Brown says he means not the power of subjective mind, but the power of the social itself, which is manifested above all in the phenomenon of “the sacred”: “all power,” Brown writes, “is essentially sacred power” (251). Although to understand why all power is essentially sacred it is necessary to appreciate anthropological insight into pre-modern, archaic societies, this is only better to appreciate how and why power, and money as power, remain sacred in the modern pseudo-rationalistic, pseudo-secular world.

The key to this logic is to appreciate that archaic societies are inherently hierarchical, and are not those inherently egalitarian “primitive communist” societies belittled by Marx as backwards (and which led Marx to despise the peasantry). Some kind of social privilege, some custom and precedent that lends prestige to some but not to others, is endemic in social life. For Brown this is always a matter, in the end, of deception, enchantment, and magic. And he argues it is the same today, with the cult of the entrepreneur Schumpeter thought was the essence of capitalism, up to and including the neoliberal market fundamentalism that treats markets, as I’m arguing in my current book, as tools of divination dispensing knowledge, meaning, and human destiny.

For Brown, the analytical key to money fetishism, to its power and prestige, is the Freudian theory of the reduction of pleasure in the human body to various locales, the repression of the polymorphously perverse surface of the skin which is capable of receiving and giving pleasure anytime, anywhere. Gold as sacred is a symbol of the condensation or fixation on a particularly useless object. In Freudian terms, gold fetishism (as Jonathan Swift already knew) corresponds to the anal character, which eroticizes shit, or more precisely, the feeling of control or power one has in relation to anal function and the pleasure surrounding that zone.

And obviously part of what is in Brown’s target here, in the history of Western esotericism, is the alchemical tradition which seeks to transform shit into gold, or to derive gold from baser elements. In the name of a completely de-fetishized, polymorphously perverse relation to pleasure and to the life principle Brown argues in Life Against Death that we will only be rid of the irrationality of the money complex when our relation to life and pleasure have radically changed, when we are capable of that “science of use-values” Aristotle separated out from the art of making money or art of acquisition (Brown, 253). This would, of course, have to “distinguish real human needs from (neurotic) consumer demands.”

Here is where I want to return to the Museo del Oro.

It is clear that consumerism is not at all identical to enjoyment (let alone genuine satisfaction), and it is also clear that the acquisition and hoarding of money is a bid for prestige and power in excess of all economic rationality (for who can hope to consume a billion dollars of goods and services, or hope to hold the forces of ecological catastrophe at bay with mere wealth?). And it’s also clear that gold and silver have played roles as money historically due not to their scarcity or their divisibility but primarily to their investment as sacred tokens and talismans of power (Brown notes Heichelheim’s finding that the ratio of value between gold and silver has remained remarkably historically consistent, around 1 : 13/2, and that following Laum this cannot be explained by rational relations between supply and demand—it may have something to do with the astrological ratios of their divine counterparts, the sun and the moon [Brown 247]).

As compelling as Brown’s Freudian account is, however, it’s also not entirely clear to me that we can reduce, say, the ritual, mantic, aesthetic, and salutary investment of archaic peoples to something like the repression of the body or the limitation of centers of pleasure to certain fetishized zones. I’m not sure that attachment or attraction to gold necessitates repression. It could be that gold is simply one medium or icon or talisman among many others possible and actual. Perhaps the problem is not how to eliminate fetishism but how to multiply it, or allow for its multiplicity. This, then, might be another entry point into Philip Goodchild’s argument in Theology of Money that what we need are an indefinite number of credit-clearing institutions, of multiple sizes and multiple forms of coordination. The “currency” would then reflect a multiplicity of investments at various scales. This would then represent something like the kind of generalized surface of investment, in the Freudian sense, the surface of a polymorphously perverse economy.

 

Fabulous Gnosis, or How to Not Think Ecology as Economy

How much sense does it make to think of nature as a gigantic system of exchanges?   Why does it seem so intuitive, so obvious, that what goes on in ecosystems can be mapped through economic language, through the language of opportunities, optimization, equilibrium, management, interests, investments?   Is it just because Darwin was reading Malthus when he penned The Origin of the Species?  Or is it because, as Philip Mirowski has been detailing for years, there is a long and complicated history of “transferred metaphors” between economics and other sciences (especially physics, biology, and cybernetics)?

Anthony Paul Smith has recently written a powerful work, A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature:  Ecologies of Thought, that can begin to teach ecology to think without economic metaphors.

One of the implications I take from Anthony’s advocacy of “unified theory” is that if ecology mutates philosophy, non-philosophy must also mutate ecology.  It is not just that an ecological, scientific stance must be introduced into philosophy and theology, but that fabulation must infect ecology.  Not in some cheap postmodern way of claiming that all concepts of nature are fictions, but in the much more precise sense that the action of fabulation, the activity of fiction, is a generic structure in nature, insofar as humans who fabulate are natural.  Once the ecological stance makes the natural status of fabulation clear, then fabulation must be discerned in an ecology broader than humanity.  I have a specific reason for wanting to push this point, and it does not have to do with the “general” pursuit of “universal” truth.  Fabulation must be weaponized in ecological thought against economism.  Ecologies can be seen as transfers of matter and energy between the living, never living, and the dead, but on Anthony’s telling, these are regions of shared pain where species attempt to inhabit niches.  One of the most important insights we arrive at is that fabulation as a mode of dealing with shared pain must mutate ecological thought.

I am wondering about how “the scientific posture” itself might be mutated by its immanental inclusion in the ecologies (of) thought.  I’m not interested in this “in general,” but in view of a deep problem in what is called “scientific explanation,” especially explanation of the ecology.  That problem is the predominance of economic “metaphors” in ecology.

What we mean by explanation is generally a species of reduction.  When ecology “explains” the ecosystem in terms of “exchanges,” species having “options,” drives for “optimizations,” etc., it installs a master-narrative of economics, it theologizes (on) the economic.  The economic metaphor (which of course, as lived, is not a metaphor) implies a set of atomic individuals bent on maintaining their individuality at any cost (i.e. servicing their utility function in accordance with their fixed preference schedules).  In standard economic thought, forms of radical inequality (i.e. “asymmetry”) are supposed to be exogenous to models of marketplace optimization and equilibrium.  So a range of serious problems that plague human life can be seen as “external” to any “economic system.”

Ecologies are not so lucky, and the science of ecology precisely has to account for interpenetrating and overlapping biospheres, including elusive and shifting thresholds and borders at and around which species attempt to maintain their niches.  Ecosystems that overly-optimize become fragile, less resilient, because less open to change.  As ecologists like Walker and Salt realize, this places serious limits on the “explanatory” power of concepts like balance or equilibrium (and, as Nicholas Nassim Taleb has been arguing, in both Black Swan and Antifragile, economic optimization is subject to the exact same problem, since economic activity is, after all, also natural, also fully within the broader ecology).

Yet, try as they might, even Walker and Salt cannot avoid economism-in-the-last instance, even when they conclude, as Anthony quotes them, that “[t]here is no such thing as an optimal state of a dynamic system.  The systems in which we live are always shifting, always changing, and in so doing they maintain their resilience—their ability to withstand shocks and to keep delivering what we want” (152).  It is in this last phrase “keep delivering what we want,” that economism persists.  If by economism (or exchangism) we think in terms of fixed individuals with fixed preferences attempting to maintain or resist threats to the deliverance of what they want, and who make tradeoffs or bargains with others in order to maintain those perceived interests, then even when Walker and Salt jettison “efficient optimal state outcome[s]” as an explanatory principle for the functioning of ecosystems, there is still a dominance of an economic, exchangist paradigm in the last instance:  every species is still conceived as a more or less fixed interest in relationships of trading or bargaining with others in order to maintain those interests.

I am under no illusion that philosophy, as opposed to ecology, necessarily avoids the overdetermination of its vision by economism.  On the contrary.  But I think that one of the implications of Anthony’s work in developing a general theory, a unified theory of ecology and philosophical theology, is the demand for a mutation not simply of philosophy and theology by an ecologically-scientific stance, but the further mutation of what is meant by science, and meant by scientific explanation, given that science, too (even when it is practiced far below the radar of Scientistic metadisursive hegemony), is subject to a set of hallucinations that overdetermine what it means to know, to explain, to render an account.  Specifically, the hallucination of an “economy of nature” in ecology is especially toxic, given that it is vital to in some sense muster ecology or at least ecological materials in order to resist and explode the economic hallucination of reality, the hallucination that life = exchanges.

Anthony does this—provides a re-fabulation of ecology, beyond economic hallucination—it seems to me, through his usage of Negri’s reading of Job.  Here Anthony offers a set of concepts that can replace the economism within which ecology remains, as yet, constrained.

What is common to creatural being is pain.  One species causes pain to another in the working out of niche boundaries.  But corrolary to this pain is the necessity for biodiversity that niches witness to.  There is then a certain creatural sociality as universality at work in the pain of living among one another.  This pain is primary and emotions such as fear or anger are but secondary effects contingent upon the organization of that pain in the creatural socius.  Even violence is secondary to pain, insofar as that violence can be turned into peaceable force by way of creation.  It isn’t my intent to argue for an overturning of death in the ecosystem, but simply to disempower death, just as Job disempowers God.  The niche shows that death, as well as life, is secondary to a more immanent creative power at work as nature against Nature.  Niches witness to the exile of nature from hypostasized Nature.  The refusal of the value of Nature as halluncination of the immeasurable in the name of a grace of nature that is witnessed to in the perverse creative power of new species producing new ways of living indifferently to death (145).

Job creates his niche through a perverse “acceptance of God’s unlimited Power and yet required that God answer for it, so the niche is perverse in the face of the unlimited Power of Nature” (145).  Job’s identity (in the last instance?) is neither as simple product or effluvia of God’s unlimited power, nor as simple defiance or resistance to that power, but a complex acceptance-defiance of Power.  It is the acceptance (perverse submission?) that disempowers Power, since in the moment of “revelation” what is revealed to Job is not God’s awesome “alterity” as Power, but Godself as potency (as never-living?) or perverse creative power.  “In my flesh shall I see God.”  The perverse creative power is experienced “in-person” as a body, as my suffering body, my body in pain (223).  And yet the body itself, on this view, is a “cynical equivocation that locates within this same transcending nature the site of the appearance of the Messiah or a great number of potentialities achieved on this body” (223).

What can this re-vision do for ecology?  In the first place, ecologists, it seem to me, need to take much more seriously the “natural” status of fabulation, of stylization, or of the essential “grace” of all creatures.  It seems to me that Deleuze and Guattari pointed in this direction in A Thousand Plateaus, especially in the plateau “On the Refrain,” where they muse on the double becoming of Messiaen and birdsong:  as Messiaen’s compositions become “cosmic refrains,” birdsong’s functional and territorial aspects (their “utility” in evolutionary terms) are relativized by their expressive or “fabulous” character.  The suggestion would be that ecology could mutate if it could more adequately include culture in its conception of nature.  But this requires thinking through what is going on, naturally, in fabulation.  This is most clear, I believe Anthony is arguing, if we take that sort of ultimate or extreme fabulation called “theology” or philosophical theology as itself paradigmatic for fabulation (which of course means taking philosophical concepts as simple materials, disempowering them in advance of their Worldly status as non-fabulated, as hallucinations).

It was human beings (likely a group) in pain who imagined, in an act of fabulous gnosis, what a Job would be like in pain.  If intense enough, such fabulation is what we mean by “revelation” (as apophaticism and epiphany) and why it can take a perfectly generic character wherever fabulation does not allow itself to be overdetermined by fear or anger.  This, anyway, is how I read Anthony.

 

Perhaps every animal, every living thing, theologizes in the sense that it interrogates or explores or re-expresses its potencies as a way of receiving them.  I believe this is what Anthony calls the “perversity” of nature.

Put formally, separated from the One, the creature is only identified in the last instance by the One.  This absolute futurity of identity is sustained by (and expressed through) the power of the creature to resist the imposition of any identity not-yet-futural.  This looks like perversity or exile from the point of view of the World, which is the point of view that imposes an organon for identity, short of the radical future held open by the fabulation of creatures.

A “flow” of matter-energy between the living, dead, and non-living is not in any sense an “exchange.”  It is a changing co-belonging to an ecosystem.  When Anthony names nature “perverse,” I think he names it non-optimal, far from equilibrium, inefficient, excessive, risky, chancy, pointless.  But more importantly, an ecosystem is a shared experience of pain.  It is a shared process of trying to conceive or fabulate what it would be to do exactly what we are doing.  It is perhaps the refusal of this “as if” character of the One that defines the World.  But to embrace the fabulous gnosis of the One is to determine the as-if-One in as many ways as it is possible to fabulate.

One of the paradoxes here is that we cannot pass directly to science in the name of the earth (against the World).  We must always pass by way of fabulation (and be wary that so often the fables of economics lie ready to hand).  This attempt to identify science and fiction is perhaps the mistake Philip Pullman makes in the His Dark Materials trilogy.  Trying to re-write Milton’s Paradise Lost from the perspective of a “fortunate fall,” Pullman imagines a multi-verse, a universe of multiple worlds where matter is conscious, but where religious authority is bent on eliminating knowledge (gnosis) of such potency in the name of the preservation of its authority (primarily over what pleasures and joys, what fabulations, are allowed).  His heroine, Lyra, and hero Will, are children destined to survive a war on heaven and to become a new Eve and Adam.  Their gnostic challenge is to fall again in the face of a religious authority (in the shape of Lyra’s tyrannical mother, Mrs. Coulter) that is trying to stop the fall from re-happening.  It’s an interesting re-telling of the Gnostic myth, from the point of view of a “materialism” (the traditional Gnostic myth is that the material world is corrupted; Pullman asserts, in more Laruellian fashion, that it is the world of abstract spirit, spiritual authority, not matter and its vitality, that is evil).

But Pullman’s fictional world falls apart because of its imperative that there must be a return to origins, to an original state signified by matter itself, or dark matter.  Instead of fabulation involving a complex tripartite structure of reception, resistance, and invention, the fiction collapses around resistance in the name of a fetishized, pristine materiality, an attempt at a “direct transcription” of the earth.  But as Anthony is teaching us, it is precisely the earth that resists (and thus fabulates) transcription.  The attempt to write fiction = science engenders an inevitably violent struggle rather than the itinerant paths of peace, fragile yet persistent, that Anthony points out to us.  His Dark Materials is profoundly violent, and luxuriates so much in its violence, in a way that I have found deeply disturbing as I have listened to the second of the three books, The Subtle Knife, with my 6 year old as we drive around Philadelphia.  Pullman is trying too hard to be “realistic,” to push the hard core “truth” of the necessity of violent sacrifice for the “cause” of the war on heaven, killing off main characters left and right.  While I completely resonate with the Gnostic vision of conscious materiality and the struggle against authority, Pullman’s insistence on sacrificial violence is not so much a failure of morality as it is more simply, and more consequently, a failure of fiction, a failure of fabulation, a failure to produce the fabulous gnosis that alone, because indirectly, obliquely, perversely, insistently, at every niche possible, interrogates and refuses the economy of violent sacrifice, the requirement of an economic world (or wording) of earth.

Ficitive Credits: Aesthetics As Economics in _Rockers_ (1978)

Fictive Credit:  Aesthetics and Economics in Rockers (1978)

 

            In the 1978 cult classic film Rockers (Dir. Theodoros Bafaloukos) we get a glimpse at what it might mean for economic credit to be grounded in fundamentally aesthetic categories.  While there will not be room to elaborate fully on the topic, what I am ultimately interested in, here, is the role of narrative, especially narratives about possible futures, in constructing credit.  I cannot argue at length for the position here, but my reading of Rockers is a part of a larger project in which I argue for the politically salient role of certain kinds of fiction in the creation and maintenance of economic credit.[1]  The gist of that idea is that stories we tell about ourselves, even when coded in complex mathematical models constructed from economic data, contain irreducible elements of projection into the unknown and the uncertain.  If those projections are in some sense more or less likely stories, then ultimately credit is given or withheld on the basis of fictions we find more or less plausible.  Simultaneously, our distributions of credit reveal the stories—the fictions—to which we are already committed and in accordance with which we are collectively and individually committed to give or withhold credit. 

            For the sake of my argument here, I propose that style can be considered a fiction in miniature, a condensed narrative.  By “condensed” I mean that style expresses individual and collective potency by simultaneously suggesting and suspending possible action, by compressing its potency.  Style operates not so much by simultaneously revealing and concealing, but by simultaneously engaging and disengaging in activity.  Style does not represent but persuades, partly by inviting others into an imaginary action that is not yet, but could be undertaken, on multiple levels and along multiple dimensions.  Style thus compresses a continuum of possible futures, and the most dramatic styles play on a power that Aristotle in the Poetics called the ability of the poet to concoct plausible impossibilities.  Style is a form of daring, challenge, and enticement. 

In Rockers (1978) the challenge is, a defiance of the poverty and degradation of tenement life in Kingston.  Thus the elaborate and continuously evolving styles of the “Rockers” (the reggae musicians portrayed in the film) are much more than mere personal expressions.  The styles here are tactics of survival undertaken in a mode of defiant chicanery and trickster hustle, echoing (dubbing, as it were) the ingenious sound engineering of the reggae studios, where distortion, error, and mere noise are transformed into unanticipated music. 

Rockers is perhaps the crown jewel of a cluster of films that emerged from Jamaica in the 1970’s, the most famous of which is The Harder They Come (1972), directed by Perry Henzell and starring Jimmy Cliff.  At the center of Rockers is Horsemouth, played by Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace.  Horsemouth is (and was, in reality) the most in-demand drummer of the roots reggae scene at the time.  He is known by his friends as the “hard” drummer, an appellation roughly equivalent to the current “badass.”  He’s the best.  He plays with everyone in Jamaica, including Burning Spear, and does regular session work for all the biggest producers, including Jack Ruby.  There are several scenes of Horesmouth drumming live, and as a long-time drummer myself, I can aver that Horsemouth is an extraordinary musician, with exceptional grace, touch, and creativity behind the kit.  Since the rhythm guitar tends to anchor the meter in reggae music, the drums are left to play an extremely light-handed role in the music, accenting, coloring, and in some sense “singing” along with the lead vocal.  This sung role of the drums is of course not accidental, since drums in the West African traditions from which reggae derives are always considered voices, and were originally designed for long-distance communication as well as communication with the spirit world.

            Horsemouth’s touch on the drums is not accidental to his ability to “touch” his friends for the credit he needs to start his own business.  Not content to wait for his big break as a hard-working musician, Horsemouth decides to try his hand hustling records.  This is profoundly ironic, since he is the drummer on many of the records he must now try to push to the various shacks that sell reggae scattered across the island.  Horsemouth needs to first raise the cash to buy himself a motorcycle from which to make his deliveries.  This he does by going around to his friends and asking for loans.  The nuance and subtlety of these requests for credit are fascinating.  Some of his friends demand a cut of the earnings.  Others seem to trust Horsemouth so much that they simply hand over the cash with best wishes, not questioning whether one day he will be good for the loan, let alone better off or profitable from it.

            Everyone Horesmouth interacts with, including his wife, is deeply skeptical that this venture will work out.  It’s worth wondering why everyone plays along.  The odds are against him. Surely these are not loans that would be approved by a local bank.  So what is the basis of the credit?   The mix of motives here is fascinating.  Perhaps some of it is sympathy, some of it is a desire for adventure, some of it is the trill of being part of someone trying to stick it to the man.  

The drummer is obviously “playing” his friends, but they are playing, as well, as they offer some minimal support for him to get his venture off the ground.  There are no formal contracts, no terms drawn up, as Horsey is handed various sized wads of cash.  They know he is good for it.  They know where he lives, who he is.  Their agreements resemble the Islamic tradesman’s handshake and glance toward heaven: God, or in this case Jah, stand surety between you and me, between I-and-I and thee.  Horsey has established his credit not by being a good businessman, but by being a good drummer, a great drummer—by being a known style.  His style is so important, so impressive, that many are surprised that he is hustling, at all—that he is not simply biding his time, waiting for his big break.    One of his friends in particular is shocked that he would even be taking up the hustle.  Just keep drumming, his friend says—that’s the way to get to the big man, to impress the big man.  But Horsey doesn’t want to impress the man.  He wants to be the man.

Originally conceived as a documentary, Rockers morphed into a fiction film during its production.  Although the production lasted only two months, and the film was created on a JA $500,000 budget, it is a masterpiece of filmmaking.  All of the main characters essentially play their real-life selves, and the scenes of Horsemouth’s home are shot in his tenement house in Kingston with his actual wife and children.  These scenes, in particular, are incredibly poignant, exposing the poverty and squalor, as well as the complex conceptions of culture and honor and integrity—at once patriarchal, chauvanist, and intensely emotional—that animate the Rastafarian world view.[2] 

The way that the film rides the line between fiction and reality is extraordinarily rich, and provokes a number of possible interpretive possibilities.  It might be argued, for example, that a certain minimum of fiction here reveals more of reggae culture than any attempt at straight documentary or cinema verite.  That is to say, to the extent that the culture itself is constructed through self-conscious performance, from styles of dress to modes of gesture, projections of affect and attitude through speech, then performance is essential to this culture, and essential to the establishment and promotion of credit.  Here it is clear that a person is a style—there is no person “behind” the style, no nihilistic or cynical calculator, because in some sense, apart from abject poverty, style is all there is.  This is yet another point that a musical film can help articulate:  style for this extraordinary cast of characters is paradigmatically musical style, but it is not musical style without also being a style of life, a mode of comportment, bearing, attitude, and affect.  Just as with the purpose of music in relation to life, the purpose of the style is not to adorn or represent or even hide who one is, but is rather a process of selection and improvisation that is meant to be expressive, productive, and ultimately persuasive.

Part of what Rockers exemplifies so well is a form of life where the aesthetic and the economic almost completely overlap.  It is a story of impoverished yet brilliant musicians who live by their styles, whose livelihood and survival is linked directly to style.  Style is quite literally the meaning of their lives, insofar as these styles are persuasive, insofar as they can be given enough credit to remain viable.  And because the film itself rides a thin line between documentary and fiction, it also serves, as film, as a mode of creating and maintaining further accreditation for reggae, for Rastafarianism, and for the stylized hustle that remains the essence of these lives.  It is a fiction about the aesthetic dimension of credit, as well as itself being a mode of persuasion, a style, that attempts to attract more of that same credit.

Part of why the film is so revealing about economics has to do precisely with how little “exchange,” in the sense of monetary or contractual transactions, actually takes place.  It’s clear that the biggest moves in the economic game are made, on the one hand, through theft and bribery, and on the other hand, through intricate and extensive modes of informal credit.[3]  The basis of credit is a certain kind of belonging, a belonging that is itself a certain kind of style, an ethos.  What affords credit, what is creditworthy, is the distinctive variation made by the drummer on the ethos.

The film thus joins a long tradition of heterodox thought about economics, a lineage including not only Marx himself, but also Marcel Mauss, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, Norman O. Brown, and more recently Giorgio Agamben, Philip Goodchild, William B. Connolly, and David Graeber.  It suggests how economics is not, as it is for the neoclassical view, a closed sphere of exchange governed by the rationality of utility maximization in the face of scarcity, but a general cultural form of antagonistic relations of credit and debt.  Such relations have an essential and irreducibly aesthetic dimension, in the sense that credit is grounded on powers of attraction, the ability to improvise, and above all on the maintenance, through style, of both the mystique and the prestige required to inspire and maintain the trust and recognition of others, a trust that constitutes credit, as such.  On this view, economics is antagonistic not because humans struggle with one another for access to scarce resources or for other modes by means of which to meet survival needs (for example, through the search for employment).  Rather, economics is antagonistic because subsistence needs are embedded in, and cannot be separated from demands for recognition, honor, and prestige.  As a game of honor and dishonor, games of credit both over-code and distort subsistence needs, since bids for prestige involve risks and gambles whose outcomes variously enhance, thwart, and generally obscure human survival needs.

            Through style one does not hide the real truth about one’s intentions or identity, any more than one escapes the struggle to survive.  Rather, the fact that there is no ultimate or fundamental truth of an individual identity, and no direct or simple path to survival, is evidenced by the fact that in human (and arguably in other animal) culture, style is taken seriously, performance is valued for its own sake.[4]  The point can be pressed:  one attains and maintains credit through repeated performances, through the maintenance of style.  Style is how one is who one becomes.  A highly contextual and collaborative process, style makes for elaborate and intricate patterns of individuation.  These patterns are continuously contested, provoked, and more or less realized variants of fictions.  From this point of view, Rockers does not tell us the truth about Reggae or Jamaica.  It tells us a story that persuades us to be attracted to a style.  This is what Horsemouth does, as a way of developing the credit he needs in order to try to move beyond the subsistence level to which even he, the best drummer on the scene, is nevertheless confined. 

            But I would argue that a great deal of the lesson of this film lies in the fact that Horesmouth is not directly concerned about improving his material condition so much as he is about addressing the shame and dishonor that attend the poverty that he and the other musicians somehow survive.  Even when there are scarcities that need to be addressed, the value of lives cannot really be attested to by any mere quantitative increase in wealth unless that increase is an effect of an increase in honor, a restoration of dignity.[5]  But that demand is precisely the one Horsemouth makes when he refuses to wait in line, refuses wait his turn for his big break in the music industry.  When he sets out to become an entrepreneur, he is not so much seeking the level of wealth of The Man, but to regain a dignity that is extracted from the musicians in the form of the honor (the surplus dignity, as David Graeber would put it[6]) of the Mafiosi who employ the musicians at their tourist resorts.  The gangster-resort owners also run theft and extortion rackets, and when the resort owner who has hired Horsemouth for a weekly gig hires thugs who steal his motorcycle, Horsemouth decides to take revenge in a big and stylish way.  The film ends in this fantasy of redistribution, when the rockers manage a big heist, cleaning out the bad guys’ warehouse and giving the goods away to their friends in the tenement slums.  We know that this is not generally how these things end.  Those who rise up to challenge the big boys generally lose in the end.  What is important, here, as Ernst Bloch might have said, is the “principle of hope” embodied in the style, itself:  the utopian overtures of beauty, elegance, and grace with which the heist is done. 

            From my point of view, this sequence is probably the most poignant and beautiful in the entire film. The camera lingers on each Rocker’s distinctive gait, each distinctive way of walking, of carrying hips and shoulders, of swinging the arms, of bearing a head or focusing the eyes.  As the forms by which these more or less desperate, more or less impoverished men create and maintain credit, they are styles become persuasive by inviting participation in the imaginative potencies that these men in some sense are.    

            As Georges Bataille saw with perhaps more clarity than any other thinker, economies are organized not on the basis of needs for reproduction, but around the expenditure of excess.[7]  And that expenditure takes the form of a specific cultural style.  This style is itself a complex of geographical, historical, and perhaps even biological determinants, which together form necessary but not sufficient conditions for determining the style in which the surfeit of energy will be expended in a given, relatively autonomous region.  Bataille catalogued a few variations:  human sacrifice for the Aztecs, Lamaism for Tibet, foreign development schemes for contemporary finance capital.  One of Bataille’s most salient points was that because surpluses of wealth (what he called “the accursed share”) cannot, by definition, be productively (that is to say, reproductively) used, it is impossible to understand surpluses outside of a “sacred” logic, a cultural logic that entails that what defines us as people is not what we do in the face of scarcity but how we manage our excess, “gloriously or catastrophically,” as he put it.  This becomes most evident at the “extremes” of social life, at the level of both extreme poverty and extreme wealth. 

            Part of why a film like Rockers can be so instructive for understanding the nature of economy is that it reveals the contours of what Bataille called “general” economy.  While “restricted” or “reproductive” economy appears to be intelligible through the use of models or tools that track variables of supply and demand, general economy is neither predictable nor rational.  It is driven not by need but by desire, not by prudence but by passion, not by measurement but by gambles, risks, and even by the defiance of death.  The highly contextual and contingent nature of these gambles, and the credit they command or refuse or struggle to retain, is, and will remain, the stuff of legend, the stuff of fiction, and essence of Rockers.  General economy is ultimately a matter of excess, of giving, and of play.  It is, in essence, the style of a life.


[1] I’m particularly interested in the narratives that are constructed in the context of divination practices—practices in which unforeseeable future contingencies are supposed to be intuitively grasped by competent practitioners or “oracles.”  I will explore and critique neoliberal knowledge claims from this perspective in my forthcoming Politics of Divination:  Economic Endgame and the Religion of Contingency (Palgrave Macmillan Press).

[2] For a study of Rastafari women and the paradoxes of their oppression in the context of an explicitly politically-liberatory religious movement, see Obiagele Lake, Rastafari Women:  Subordination in the Midst of Liberation Theology (Durham, NC:  Carolina Academic Press, 1998). 

[3] As Max Weber demonstrated in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, it requires a particular religious style of life (one rooted ultimately in Calvinist doctrines) for the highly peculiar commitments to efficiency, thrift, and reinvestment that mark the form of economy in which wealth is created and maintained primarily in a context of regularized contractual exchange.

[4] See David Graeber’s recent provocation on this point, at http://thebaffler.com/past/whats_the_point_if_we_cant_have_fun.

[5] See Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code:  How Moral Revolutions Happen (New York:  Norton, 2010) for a brilliant treatment of the decisive significance of honor for moral life in general.

[6] David Graeber, Debt:  The First 5,000 Years (Cambridge:  MIT Press, 2011), p. 170.

[7] Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, Vol. I (New York:  Urzone, 1991).  

From Fraud to Play: Or, At Least What Full Communism Cannot Mean

Democracy, or democratic aspirations, as we have known them, are intimately tied to conceptions of equity or equality, whereby when it comes to decision making, no one is counted, a priori, “more” than anyone else (hence the crucial contrast of democracy is not so much with monarchy as it is with aristocracy).  Giambattista Vico must be credited with the argument that philosophy, taken in an extremely generic sense as commitment to principled debate, can be construed as a commitment to the authority of rational argumentation rather than the authority of precedent, custom, prestige, personality, or brute force.  The emergence of democracy, Vico argues in The New Science, is best understood, in materialist terms, as the rhetoric of democracy.  On Vico’s view, the masses “invent” philosophy (as Nietzsche also realized when he emphasized Socrates’ status as a “pleb,”) as an appeal for the right to participate in governance on the basis not of any actual but only the formal possibility of equality.  This of course sets up an excruciating dialectic, because culture, education, experience, and above all wealth are missing in the people, and so they are never (yet) equal.  Even in the minimal case of being consulted or invited to deliberate, it is obvious that there are often serious limitations on people’s ability to do so, grounded in health, education, experience, and so on.  Given that these are necessary for governance the formal equality insisted upon by the people is always short of actual, and thus “the people are always missing” (Kafka/Deleuze).

Thus communists and anarchists often point out that the formal notion of equality is a ruse (and Rousseau already realized this), that in fact this liberal conception of an individual as “equal” to another depends on conceptions of autonomy and agency (and ultimately on property) that are either impossible or undesirable.  At the heart of the weakness of contemporary democracy is the role that economic inequality plays in undermining our conception of what it means to be formally equal to one another, not only in the eyes of the law but also in terms of our ability to govern together (or on one another’s behalf, in republics).  There is a link, also, between impasses in modern epistemology and impasses in modern governance.  This link, or rather gap, is filled in by an economic and finally a religious set of imperatives that cannot be rationalized but must always be obscured (and glorified as obscure, mysterious, as Agamben has demonstarted) in order for the status quo to be maintained.

Like Henri Atlan, Ian Hacking also draws the line connecting the impasse at the core of our conceptions of chance and probability to the contemporary crises in both knowledge and government.  In the 2006 re-introduction to his 1975 classic study, The Emergence of Probability, Hacking compares the dominance of “evidence-based” medicine over clinical medicine directly to democratic aspirations.  The crucial link, here, is finance.  It is cheaper to decide which cures to pursue based on randomized trials, to the obvious profit of pharmaceutical approaches over all other possibilities (or rather to generic, one-size-fits-all approaches over time consuming responsiveness to the needs of particular individuals).  Likewise, it is simpler and cheaper (in the short run) to govern demographics rather than communities, averages rather than individuals.  As Foucault already understood in the early 1970’s, just as neoliberalism was emerging, it is economics that is the crucial suture between the apparent power of modern modes of probabilistic and statistical inference, and new possibilities of governance of “the masses” by governing as little as possible, by determining how to adjust or intervene only in order optimize what is taken to be a stochastic (chaotic yet probabilistic) aggregate of desires, powers, interests, energies, and masses (sic).

What is crucial to see here is how the rise of probabilistic formalisms as a way of resolving political disputes makes the use and abuse of probabilities a defining issue of politics in the modern, post-17th century era.  Hacking observes, following Porter, that “trust in numbers is a consequence not of mathematics but of the drive towards democratic government,” (Hacking 2006:  Introduction 2006).  And yet this is not possible unless people (and their desires and potencies) can themselves be considered as atomic and isolated counters, specific and bounded units.  But given that people are irreducibly complex and unpredictable, how is this limitation and bounding possible?   This is perhaps another way of asking Nietzsche’s question about how we have made ourselves into “trustworthy” animals.

There are many stories here to tell.  But one important story, as David Graeber and others have shown, it that it is the long history of human experiences with money that facilitates the reduction of human complexity to an aggregate susceptible of induction over probabilities.  Money makes the variable and incalculable nature of value appear limited, finite, and subject to both calculation and indefinite storage.  But, as Graeber points out, it is only on condition that human beings can be (have been and continue to be) ripped from social contexts and enslaved that they can be treated as roughly interchangeable, and that thus a quantitative “value” can be placed on a human life, or more specifically, on human attributes (i.e. human capital).  And the ability to quantify ourselves in general, politically, depends on a prior experience of economic quantification.  This experience can only be an experience of enslavement, either in fact or in principle, since it is only a slave that, qua slave, is interchangeable with any other human being, and only as such capable of having her value fully monetized.  It is no accident that the predominance of American finance capital is coterminous with the imprisonment and forced impoverishment of most of its population, as well as with the subjugation to U.S. military power of the rest of the world.

What is extraordinary to realize is the way in which, behind the contemporary biopolitical holocaust, in which vast tracts of human life can be justifiably destroyed in the name of profit, lies an unresolved, and perhaps irresolvable debate between two diametrically opposed modes of inference based on probabilities.  On the one hand, we have the “Bayesian” view that what legitimates inferences from probabilities is their progressive confirmation or disconfirmation of beliefs.  On the other hand, there is the “Fisherian” view that predictive inferences can be made on the basis of experimental conditions under which probabilities are made perfectly random:  “we alter aspects of the world that concern us so that they resemble, as much as possible, artificial randomizers like dice” (Hacking, Introduction).

Hacking points out that these two options are both evasions.

“. . . it is instructive that each kind of probability has evolved its own way, not to solve the problem of induction, but to evade it.  The degree of belief evasion uses the idea of learning from experience by exploiting Bayes’ rule.  The frequency-type evasion deploys the idea of inductive behavior.  From a purely logical point of view both evasions are defective.  They are grounded less in logic than in a moral sensibility.  The degree of belief evasion demands that one should be true to one’s former self.  The frequency-type evasion relies, as C.S. Peirce understood, on the cardinal virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity.”  (Hacking, The Emergence of Probability, 2006 Introduction)

But these two options, these two evasions, are not symmetrical, and are in fact the components of a wicked dialectic.  Today, the Fisherians have won (a situation which is very bad for statistical science, as McCloskey and Ziliak point out in The Cult of Statistical Significance).  What this means is that our social engineers (i.e. economists and their medical, social scientific, governmental and military lackeys) will do anything necessary to turn human life itself into a game of perfect randomness (including the ecological destruction necessary for this to occur, since ecological and geographical variation interfere with “frequentism”).  What is absolutely bizarre and horrifying is the way that this project of wanton human destruction continues to be carried out under the aegis of “progress,” i.e. the “frequentist’s” perverse “faith, hope, and love,” the virtues by means of which we carry on at any cost and endure any suffering.  Ironically, the stoic, Calvinistic faith embodied in the “Protestant ethic,” by means of which one works out one’s salvation with fear and trembling as the market fluctuates day to day, is no longer the ethos of the capitalist classes, as Max Weber thought it was.  As pointed out by Lazzarato in The Making of Indebted Man, this ethos of faith, hope, and love has become outsourced onto the laboring and impoverished classes, as they willingly and at unimaginable psychic and somatic cost take on the precariousness and systemic risk germane to the financial system as a whole.  (As Adam Kotsko pointed out recently, this is Marx’s point that people will do anything, even work for free, in order to express themselves through unalienated labor).

Obviously it is time for revolt, and as ever, the revolution is just beginning.  But a key strategy at this point is to disarm the theologico-political time bomb that is the modern mis-relationship to chance and probability, and to the putatively “natural” or “absolute” character of the uncertainty, randomness, and chaos to which it is supposed to “clearly” attest.  Modern governance (since the 17th but especially since the 19th century) has attempted to be a “positive” science of the “masses,” as if political decisions were quite literally a matter of correct thermodynamic equations.

The ridiculous “conservative vs. revolutionary” alternative is a double evasion.

In Atlan’s terms we can describe these two positions (Bayesian and Frequentist) as the nostalgically secular and the not-yet-fully-desacralized approaches to chance (probability).  The Bayesians are attempting to soberly and conservatively infer only what can be shown to be consistent with previously confirmed patterns of belief, thus justifying action in the present in terms of its likelihood to conform to past patterns.  They are the nostaligically secular (corresponding to contemporary “leftism”).  To put the matter in religious terms, this nostalgic view of chance as secular pretends that chance is nothing divinely creative, but simply the “next” opportunity to renew life as we have known it.  On the other hand, the Fisherians or “frequentists” are the radicals who would have us re-tool reality in order to make it predictable, turn life as we know it into a genuine crapshoot.  What is obvious is that contemporary “conservatives” (i.e. Republicans) are not interested at all in conserving the past but are in fact “radical” and bloodthirsty Fisherians in search of homogeneity—as we all know, the right wing wants to destroy and not to conserve life, while “liberals” (i.e. Democrats) are the pathetic Bayesians who want to conserve as much of the present as possible (in keeping with the past).  So the argument for full communism, to escape the liberal pathos, cannot be simply an argument for conservation of life via the state unless it also an argument for an entirely different relationship to chance and contingency, one that is willing to radically alter our conception of what counts as a “viable institution,” as such.  That this would be totally unrecognizable to us from our particular historical vantage point is not an argument against its truth.

It is of course a matter of real risk, throwing human life open to contingency in a very different way.  But this politics is also the “faith” and “hope” (terms used under advisement, or sous rature) that in so entering into a more attentive awareness of singularity, the very need we apparently have for the kinds of security apparatuses, actuarials, and contingency plans we currently rely on (and which in any case do not work) will fade like the nightmare it currently is.

A common misperception about full communism is that, under communism, the state would or should be able to control the economy in a way that it is either unable or unwilling to do, under conditions of capitalism.  On this view, full communism means a command or planned economy, with the implication that economic activity can be fully rationalized—if not perfectly or completely predicted, then at the very least subjected to constant scrutiny, re-evaluation, and re-assessment by all those concerned.  In the best case, this would look something like what Bruno Latour calls the power of “following up” in the sciences, whereby the various mediators or transitions between theories, experimental practices, the dissemination of information, the effects of technologies, etc., can always be (at least in principle) re-examined, subject to further investigation, more or less “democratically” contested, and so on.  Indeed, if only policy debates and implementation were, in this sense, more scientific, there would be incredible progress.

Be that as it may, I think it is crucial for all critiques of capitalism and capitalist ideology, and for all proposed alternatives, to come to grips with certain fundamental limits to human knowledge, no matter how pragmatically construed.  In all human activities, including not only market exchanges, but also up to and including human language itself, there are fundamental ambiguities, ambivalences, and unforseeabilities that are intractable.  This element of uncertainty in human activity is not only the occasion for deception, manipulation, and fraud, but also for creativity, innovation, surprise, and enjoyment.  What is at stake here is the fundamentally ludic or game-like character of human activity, generally, and it seems to me that any vision of state communism has to account for not only this ludic dimension of human behavior, but more importantly has to better support the necessity of games and game-like structures than capitalism does.

This is true even if the ludic is often agonistic and even painful.  One of the dirtiest (open) secrets about our addiction to capitalism, at nearly any human and ecological cost imaginable, is that it presents itself as a tremendously powerful, attractive, and intricate game, making even the pain involved (no pain, no gain) attractive to us.  It is a game played most purely, as Bataille was perhaps the first to see clearly, by the extremely poor and the extremely rich—that is, by those who give everything they have, placing everything on the line, every day, whether for a lottery ticket or for high-risk debt swaps.  Bataille shows very efficiently how important it is to insist upon the identity of the desperately poor and extravagantly wealthy, precisely from this point of view, rather than imagine that what human subjectivity needs or wants is some kind of middling or average viability or “sustainable lifestyle.”  Bataille saw that even in less extreme forms than lotteries and foreign currency arbitrage, any exchange, any transaction, is a game in which one is playing not only to gain wealth and/or power, but to see, at any given moment, what it is possible to get away with, how far one can negotiate, and to test the limits of possibility, as such.  To play for ultimate stakes.

In his recently translated Fraud:  The World of Ona’ah, Henri Atlan puts this problem in an extremely interesting way.  In his Sparks of Randomness, Atlan had argued that a secular age is grounded, in part, on the foreclosure of any “sacred” or “prophetic” meaning being ascribed to random events, including the more or less probable outcomes of various sorts of stochastic activities such as marketplace behavior.  In Fraud, Atlan continues this line of thought by arguing that secular cultures must encourage a similar tolerance of a certain amount of fraud in all human interactions.  The Rabbinic wisdom tradition, following Scriptures, recognized that on some level it is impossible not to defraud one another, in some minimal way, whether in commerce or in speech, unless we assert that we are complete masters not only of the means an ends of our own intentions, but that we would know in advance how all intentional activities would affect, support, or undermine the intentions of others.  The secular tolerance of fraud parallels a tolerance of the unknown that was formerly religiously mediated by sacrifice rituals.  In the “secularized” era of chance, we no longer ascribe chance to the influence or presence of a divinity, let alone to signs of divine revelation.  The theological-political problem, of course, is that this secularization is necessarily an incomplete tendency, even in the present day, and what tends to happen is that religious meanings are brought back in, at the last minute, to suture the unbearable anxiety of shared responsibility for the unknown and for the ungrounded character of human decisions.

But it is extremely difficult to know how much fraud to tolerate.  The Talmud gives the rule of one-sixth:  it is acceptable to over-charge someone for up to one-sixth of the fair market price, but not more.  This quaint conception seems impossibly naïve, especially in a market context as complex and high-velocity as contemporary global capitalism, where money flows as fast as information, and where the form of money itself (and by extension prices) is increasingly nothing but language:  a series of promises backed by other promises, with no fixed or finite limit (i.e. a gold standard) backing or controlling the flow of promises (credit and debt).  But the opportunity here, Atlan recognizes, is that we should be able to bring the same ancient and long-developed sense of appropriate and inappropriate speech into our conception of what is economically permissible and impermissible.

In this sense the struggle against contemporary neoliberal biopower is not to insist that economic problems can only be addressed in the “political” economy, stupid, but only in the “theologico-political” economy, dumbass.  For in the end, there is no way to regulate economic behavior other than by religious and moral (i.e. theological) cannons, and surprisingly, this can be seen at the most abstract level of what counts as economically “reasonable”—that is, precisely in the vision of the market as a place of “random” activity (as Adam Smith already well understood, but with a conclusion opposite to my own).  Whether or not we think we believe in providence, we always think we know something about providence.  The games we tolerate in the market are still sacred games, still reflections of what we actually believe about providence (or fate or destiny), about the sacred and oracular character of chance outcomes, and about the meaning or lack of meaning that human lives are deemed worthy of in relation to and in view of this game (or games).

So the objection to capitalism cannot be that it plays games with our lives.  The argument cannot be that life is not a game, but that there must be better games to play than the ones we are addicted to.

But for the moment, we are on the horns of a dilemma.

Either the economic endgame is sacred or it is not.

If it is sacred, then the results of marketplace activity are providential and oracular, and the game itself is beyond question (even if it can and must be optimized).

If the game is not sacred, then the results are neither providential nor oracular, and the game can always be abandoned or fundamentally changed, if it is seen producing undesirable or oppressive or unjust results.

But the dilemma can be evaded, through the following ideological ruse:

The game is explicitly secular and implicitly sacred:  it is incompletely desacralized.

The dominant classes exploit the ambiguity by presenting results that are in their favor as providential and oracular, since those results can be construed as preserving the game as a whole.  Simultaneously, it is necessary to reassure the subordinate classes that results not in their favor are the effects of a secular, non-oracular stochastic reality whose chances, when non-optimal for the subordinate, can be excused as insufficiently anticipated by current knowledge practices.  Thus the masses can be appeased by an appeal to their self-sacrificial participation in an ongoing project of the refinement of knowledge.  This suggestion placates the need of the subordinate for the appearance of democracy, since in principle knowledge is an open affair, not restricted in principle to the wealthy or powerful elites.  But in order to ensure that this democratic aspect of knowledge is not effective, access to education is increasingly cut off.  Hence (one consequence) the ongoing attacks on both higher education and public education, as well as public health (crucial for thought).

For Atlan, the key to overcoming the evasion, to overcoming the tacit and perverse sacralization of chance, is to completely desacralize chance.  It is scientific knowledge—the tradition, practice, and community of scientific knowledge—that for him has and will continue to desacralize chance, even if political and economic interests will continue to distort and pervert the open-endedness of scientific claims (particularly when those claims are based on statistical inferences).

But scientific practice will be impotent politically if its results are foreclosed by the control of dominant interests.  The revolt of the people and the refusal of the seductive passivity of comfortable spectatorship at our own live evisceration are also crucial.  But this will not take the form of some more sober or even particularly “reasonable” insistence upon regaining control of our lives.  Rather, it will be, at least in part, the collective recognition of the fact that the game played for money is the game played to destroy all other games.  Success proves nothing in a game rigged in advance, but the solution is not to refuse to play.  It is rather to play the ultimate game:  to playfully detach ourselves, slowly and deliberately, without fear of death, from the game set to destroy all other games.  This game, unlike the game of biopwer, takes chance not as an arbiter or judge, directly transcribed into differential equations,  but as the differential spirit of each unique occasion.

Theology of Money – Notes 10 (Conclusion)

In the final chapter of the book, Goodchild primarily seems to address philosophers of religion, offering his audience a brief reflection on how thinking into Theology of Money might cause them to view their own intellectual efforts in a different light. A political theology, he argues, needs to be embraced, which brings together nature, society, and God in a metaphysical unity founded on promise and credit. “The modern rejection of political theology consists in the ideal of autonomy: instead of asking how one may serve nature, society, or God, one asks how nature and society may be made to serve oneself. The disavowed spiritual energy that gives authority to such an autonomous subject is embodied in money. Money has replaced God. In its pure form, such energy is in fact the power of credit.” [pp. 258]

To think a metaphysics of credit will require a revolution in theology. The theology of the future must take its inspiration from the theology of money. If money promises value in such a way that value may be advanced, then any effective theology must do likewise. That is, rather than pursue the true meaning of value in the abstract, such a theology must identify potential in the concrete form of capital, the means of production that can itself be produced, and then pursue the proliferation of such capital. If money is the supreme value against which all other values may be measured, then any effective theology must seek to understand what those other values are, in terms of the intrinsic potential in each thing (what might it become?), rather than reduce all things to a uniform scale of evaluation (what is it in transcendental terms?). If money is a speculative value whose intrinsic worth awaits demonstration, then any effective theology must risk experimenting with alternative possibilities for the realization of value without prejudging the outcome. If money is “a social obligation demanding that all interaction be ordered in accordance with the repayment of debt” [pp. 260], then any effective theology must recognize that “as a spiritual perspective, debt cannot exist harmoniously in the world with other demands. It is ecologically illiterate.” [pp. 260] whereas the function of theology is to create new bases for cooperation between divergent demands on our time, attention and devotion. “Such is the true meaning of efficiency. Such is also the true meaning of redemption.” [pp. 260] Therefore, to redeem someone from debt is to create something new, a higher purpose to which that someone may devote his time, attention, and devotion. “Forgiveness is not a matter of sovereign decision. It is not something that already lies within our power. Forgiveness is a matter of divine creation. It consists in creating or discovering a new basis for cooperation. It is a challenge to be achieved. Redemption from debt therefore consists in the creation of a new basis for cooperation with debt. It consists in a new ordering of time, attention, and devotion alongside debt so that the renewal of life in all of its fullness is once more possible.” [pp. 261]