Saturday, June 28, 2014

Art, Politics, Life

"There is nothing for a man but genius or despair."
William Carlos Williams

Leaving aside the imponderable quantity of my talent, I've long felt that what has held me back as an artist is my interest in life. A work of art should make us feel like Rilke before that archaic torso of Apollo. "You must change your life," it says. Well, I've simply been too committed to working out my issues through living to produce a significant work of art.

That's not nearly as a adventurous as it sounds. My rule has been to keep my experiments within the realm of the possible for the common man (I am a man, so I've only tried to live as men might). I've tried to keep things ordinary. I've held an academic post. I've held an administrative post. I've started my own business. I've married and had children. I've worked in my community. I've taken up jogging. All perfectly ordinary stuff.

I have eschewed any aesthetic that implies that the only way to live is to become an artist. Or a scholar for that matter. Artists and intellectuals cannot be taken seriously if their proposals only work for people who give up their productive labors to cultivate their "ideas". Ideas are only interesting in so far as they go into action. I don't mean that it's ridiculous to be an artist or scholar. It is ridiculous, however, to produce a work of art or scholarship whose true meaning is not "You must change your life" but "You must abandon your life".

The same goes for politics. My political career has been held back by my insistence on enjoying the freedoms I actually have. I cannot take a social movement seriously if it seems to commit me to a lifetime of social activism. I can't take a politician seriously who thinks that what he or she is doing is more important than what my bus driver or wine merchant is doing. I believe that we must first live, i.e., first change our own lives, and then express our broader base of discontent.

All that said, I do believe I have a work of art in me. Perhaps also a political project. I think I am making progress.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Condescension

What is a poet? An unhappy man who conceals profound anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so fashioned that when sighs and groans pass over them they sound like beautiful music. His fate resembles that of the unhappy men who were slowly roasted by a gentle fire in the tyrant Phalaris' bull—their shrieks could not reach his ear to terrify him, to him they sounded like sweet music. And people flock about the poet and say to him: do sing again; Which means, would that new sufferings tormented your soul, and: would that your lips stayed fashioned as before, for your cries would only terrify us, but your music is delightful. And the critics join them, saying: well done, thus must it be according to the laws of aesthetics. Why, to be sure, a critic resembles a poet as one pea another, the only difference being that he has no anguish in his heart and no music on his lips. Behold, therefore would I rather be a swineherd on Amager, and be understood by the swine than a poet, and misunderstood by men.

Søren Kierkegaard

The philistine often declares his admiration for the artist. This is generally interpreted as an acknowledgement of the profound suffering that the artist experiences, akin to that of the madman, but with the important difference of those well-fashioned lips, so that his suffering becomes articulate, and, if frightening, nonetheless imbued with beauty. We are not just impressed with the expression of the passion, we stand in respect of the intensity of the passion that appears to be expressed. We are grateful that someone else is willing to shoulder the burden of so much suffering, because it helps us (when expressed in art) to shoulder our own, much lesser burden.

But I suspect that in the heart of many a successful, comfortable philistine there is an altogether different reading of the poet's words. "This suffering," says the man of affairs, the big man about town, the self-made entrepreneur, the soi-disant job creator, "is no different from the one that I have mastered in myself. Art is merely an admission of defeat in a territory I have conquered. Success in life is the mastery of these emotions, not their expression." Thus all art, no matter how personal, no matter how pathetic, becomes an epic, a celebration of the deeds of great men, who don't feel the emotions expressed in it, but "deal with" them. Ah Palinurus! Ah humanity!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Money and Prices

I've been mulling the grammar of "money". Is it on one or the other side of the pangrammatical divide? If so, probably on the "power" side, I'm thinking. But what is to knowledge as money is to power? Well, money is the power to buy, i.e., purchasing power. Power is to people as knowledge is to things. Money always belongs to someone, let's say. It has an owner.

So what is to a thing as money is to a person?

The answer is: price. A thing's price tells us how much it is worth, just as your money tells you how much you are worth. Obviously, this is a very particular kind of "value", but I think the analogy holds. We know what things are worth and this determines their price. Price is a form of knowledge. Money, by contrast, is a form of power, a kind of mastery over people.

If money is purchasing power, price is simply purchasing knowledge.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Savagery and Laziness

It's long been my conviction that the only interesting political change that is available to us today will come from a coalition of forces drawn from the so-called extreme so-called right and left. This will require that Paul-inspired libertarians and Chomsky-inspired socialists lay aside some of their most deeply held notions about themselves and some equally ingrained prejudices about each other.

As to the latter, it is instructive to listen to Chomsky on Ron Paul's "savagery" and Joe Rogan (a Ron Paul libertarian, last I checked) on the "laziness" of socialists. Chomsky thinks that it is savage to allow an uninsured patient to die in a coma; Rogan thinks it is lazy to play bad songs on the street and ask people to put money in your guitar case. But surely it is sometimes necessary to let people die because the cost of keeping them alive is prohibitive. What is "savage" to Chomsky, I imagine, is letting a poor man die while keeping a rich man alive.

And surely it's okay to play mediocre songs on the street.

Ron Paul is right to point out that behind the uninsured man's situation there is, actually, a choice. You can live from hand to mouth and expect eventually to die in a coma or from the progression of some exotic cancer. Or you can live always fearful of the many ways you might die, insure yourself to the hilt, work hard to maintain that insurance, suck up to your boss so as not to get fired and lose your insurance, and then have the coverage you need should the worst thing happen.

If you don't require people to make such a choice, then too many people become entitled to draw on the productive capacity of the society (and therefore the labor of their fellow humans). Your contempt for savagery is also contempt for my freedom to be lazy. If I'm willing to die of a condition that would be very expensive to save me from, then I should be able to make that lifestyle choice.

Libertarians are very consistent about this when it comes to smoking. One argument for all kinds of state interference in smoking habits is that smokers cost us a great deal of money when they get the cancer they're setting themselves up for. In my utopia you'd be allowed to enjoy a life of smoking as long you paid for your own insurance or simply weren't so damned afraid to die. Chomsky seems to think that composure in the face of death is an attribute of savages.

The more I think about it, the more I can see that both Rogan's and Chomsky's opprobrium are aimed at me. I am utterly lazy and savage by their standards. I'm willing to make do with much less than I have if it will spare me the drudgery. And death is not so distasteful a prospect to me that I'll throw my support behind the perverse incentives of the medical-insurance complex.

I think I'm saying that the left and the right have to check their attitudes about work and death. Paul's take on death may be "savage" but noble. Chomsky's alleged laziness may really just be denunciation of "wage slavery". I think they could agree on these things if they tried.



Friday, June 20, 2014

Ooops

It's been the basic approach of this blog to play knowledge and power off each other like third-rate diplomats. To my horror, I'm discovering that composure can only be found in the correlation of wisdom and love.

Utopia vs. Art

Conversely, it may be that my poems, my novels, my loves are meaningless until the basic food positions are sorted out.

Crisis

"My heart is crammed in my cranium
And it still knows how to pound."
Frank Black

The Pangrammaticon is founded on the notion that we can be as articulate about our desires as we can be about our beliefs. For every statement or formulation of belief there is an equally articulate statement of desire. I have, lately, begun to doubt the correctness of this assumption.

Perhaps only our beliefs, our thoughts, are truly "articulate". Perhaps only our reasons constitute a system of discrete elements joined together in artful ways. Perhaps our passions are not structured, perhaps they have no grammar, but are, instead, a fluid force that carries itself into the meaning of our actions.

"Only by making this distinction—krinein in Greek—not between one being and another being but between being and beings," said Heidegger, "do we first enter the field of philosophical research. Only by taking this critical stance do we keep our own standing inside the field of philosophy." I have been assuming that there is only silence in regard to being, but that we can speak again when we speak of specific becomings. (There is also only silence with regard to becoming as such.)

Now, I am not so sure. When I consider the difference, even just the physiological difference, between "thinking" and "feeling", I wonder if I am right to imagine that my feelings are, or at least can be, as a articulate as my thoughts. I think in the head; I feel in the chest. (My mind is in my head, my heart is in my chest.) What I feel is not something that can be captured in a formula. I can be held back (the usual procedure) or it can be unleashed (usually with disastrous results). Our thoughts, our beliefs, perhaps provide a disciplined context, a structured frame, in which to experience the rush of emotion, the flow of feeling through us. But that structure is not of the feelings themselves. It is merely how feelings feel in the mind.

My articulateness, such as it is, may be entirely intellectual, even when ostensibly applied to my feelings. I pursue clarity in thinking by this means. Is that also what will produce intensity in feeling? What role should my emotions play in dealing with the fluid force of feeling? Is it like the role my concepts play in thinking?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Inequality of Leisure

Discussions about inequality generally turn on income and capital. This conceals the real injustice of inequality ("inequity" proper). The rich have disproportionate leisure to pursue their own aims, to satisfy their own hearts. And they do in fact steal that leisure from the rest of us, who work long hours at meaningless jobs to keep the money machine running. And then glut ourselves on meaningless pleasures.

It will not do to say that the unemployed don't work, that welfare recipients are lazy and have it easy. Their unemployment is subtended by worry; their leisure, in so far as it exists, is a merely a species of the "nervous boredom", Norman Mailer complained about.

Note that the word "school" derives from the Greek word for "leisure". "Whatever satisfies the heart is truth," said Whitman. The injustice, then, is also a species of ignorance. The rich have the freedom they need to learn how life works, to understand their situation, to feel at home in this world. They attend university mainly in pursuit of their identities. They learn who they are, at their leisure. For the poor, going to school is work, intended to qualify them for a life of work.

There is a simple solution to this, of course. Begin by distributing leisure time (i.e., money, i.e., a basic minimum income) and then see how we spend it. Let those who would be rich compete for the opportunities to satisfy the hearts of a people whose basic needs are met. So long as everyone has en equal amount of time freed from worry (I think that's Pound's phrase) we can accept the inequality of wealth and income.

Getting and being "rich", then, would just be one way of spending your time. One lifestyle among others. It would no longer be, as it is today, a nuisance for everyone else.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Leisure vs. Capital

"And there is nothing evident on the horizon—no backlash beyond rhetoric, no movement powerful enough to curtail or channel the flow of capital to labor—that will halt this movement," says Zachary Karabell in Slate about the preponderance of "easy cash" in the world today. "There is only cash and more cash, generating steady gains far in excess of wages, inflation, or the growth rate of so many national economies."

The radical movement that will change everything is not to tax the wealth of the rich, i.e., contract the amount of capital. (Karabell is right to say that the problem is not an excess of capital, but an excess of cash.) Nor is it to "channel the flow of capital to labor". It's much simpler: central banks should print and distribute cash to everyone, thus channeling "the flow of capital", not to labor, but to leisure. This wouldn't actually be a flow of capital, but a flow of cash. It would "erode" capital, letting it flow downward. It would not produce more jobs (we don't need more jobs). It would simply give everyone the dignity of their leisure time. If you want to be rich, that's fine, the way you do this is to provide the people who have the cash (everyone) with the things they need.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Art vs. Utopia

"The chief cause of false writing is economic. Many writers need or want money. These writers could be cured by an application of bank notes." (Ezra Pound)

"Don't write a novel about problems that a well-intentioned social program could fix," I once told a writer friend of mine after reading some of his stuff. I now realize I was talking mainly to myself, as most critics-who-would-be-writers no doubt do. All of my literary ambition, it turns out, is undermined by the fact that whatever I might say about social life, indeed, my entire critique of existence, could be rendered instantly irrelevant with an application of bank notes.

Pound, of course, meant that the blather of people who wrote to make money could be silenced by paying them off. That, I hope, isn't the case for me. (I make a decent living but exactly nothing from writing.) I could, however, accept any human condition that did not humiliate the poor. I would accept whatever forms of life emerged from minimally decent living conditions. And having accepted those forms of life, I would have no reason to compose a poem or novel. Except to entertain. And, with the "basic food positions" taken care of, I would not want to waste anyone's time with entertainment. That's just the sort of artist I am.

I.e., my art (if I have one) and my utopia are at diametrical odds with each other. If someone should come along, some latter-day Huey Long, and find a workable way to get those who own it to "share the wealth", then I would pack in my entire aesthetic, epistemic and ethical project, and start doing some useful work in the fields, or repairing the bridges, or helping old ladies across the street.

William Carlos Williams sternly rebuked those critics who (around 1944) were saying that "after socialism has been achieved it's likely there'll be no further use for poetry". I doubt that. Socialism isn't actually the answer. But I have been able to imagine a pretty simple utopia, a well-intentioned social program, if you will, after the achievement of which there would be no further use for my poetry.

Utopian Methodology

It is by carefully considering why your utopia is not a reality that you reach an understanding of how society works. This understanding is necessarily personal and is, properly speaking, not an understanding at all. Rather, you become more precise in your obedience.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

First Draft of My Utopia

"You gentlemen who think you have a mission to purge us of our seven deadly sins, should first sort out the basic food positions…" (Bertolt Brecht)

[Please tell me what you think so I can incorporate your concerns in the next version.]

I've been obsessed with a utopia lately, and a number of pieces are falling into place. As I get older, my faith in markets increases, or at least my belief in their inexorability. Governments cannot govern in defiance or ignorance of market forces. But they should not simply "obey the markets" as some people think. Here's what I've been thinking:

First, there should be a basic minimum income, a monthly dividend paid out to everyone without prejudice or means testing of any kind. (In my radical utopia, every man, woman and child would receive the same amount from birth until death, but dependents would naturally hand their check immediately over to their guardians.)

Second, there would be no income tax and no sales tax of any kind. All money that is handed to you is yours and none of the state's business. All business would be transacted without any involvement of state agencies.

Third, since there would have to be come sort of taxation, to "cover the bill" or to control inflation as you prefer (the bill could always be covered simply through inflation since inflation is merely a hidden tax levied whenever the money supply is expanded), I would propose a land tax, i.e., a tax on the property that all owners of real estate in a certain sense fundamentally "lease" from the state that protects it with its military and police and all-around civilized behavior of the citizens who respect the fences after being properly educated and bribed with social benefits (like the unconditional basic income). It's only fair that land owners should pay for the convenience of merely having to put up a "private property" sign to enforce their claim.

Fourth, and finally, since the basic income is only worth whatever it can buy, the government would have to intervene in a number of markets to "control" prices, or, rather, to "index" the amount of the minimum income to the price of food, housing, and energy. This is where it gets good.

There already exist a number of perfectly good markets that would allow the government to influence the price of the things that every human being has a basic human right to purchase before making up his or her mind about where to contribute their labor. These markets provide a simple mechanism in which the government could exercise precisely the kinds of long-term prudence that politicians are currently and rightly being chastised for shirking their responsibility for.

There would be no need for rent control legislation. The land tax, wisely administered, would provide enough influence. If rents are too high (so that the basic income could not possibly purchase a decent month of adequate square footage) then the government would simply lower the tax on owner-occupied housing, incentivizing a switch from home rental to home ownership (since it would now become more attractive to own a property). This, of course, would drive property prices up, but it would have the effect of making more rental properties available, and therefore keep prices from rising.

Conversely, if rental prices are falling, the real estate tax could be increased. Now, this assumes that there is a government agency that monitors rental prices and has the power to determine the real estate tax. Obviously a distinction needs to be made between commercial and residential property, and, of course, the kind of business that is operating on a particular piece of land. A farm would be taxed in one way and factory in quite another. Taxes, in any case, would be determined in part by a concern about general inflation, and in part by its effect on the cost of housing.

It would be wise to determine how much of the basic minimum income should go to housing and how much for food (including water) and energy (electricity, gasoline, etc.) Once these proportions are fixed, and the "minimum" living standard has been determined (home, car, phone, internet, travel, caloric intake, meat, fresh veggies, etc.) the price of a number of basic commodities need to be placed under some control, just like rent). An individual will of course be free to have no home, become a beatnik, and just travel around in his or her car (spending the money on gas and grass) but the economic "range" of this freedom will be limited by its convertibility into, say, 50% rent, 25% food, and 25% power of a "decent" quantity.

This, then, tells us what the price of commodities should be, wheat, rice and pork bellies indexing for food, for example, and oil and electricity indexing for power. Now, all the government has to do is buy these commodities when prices get too low, and sell them when they get too high. It will often suffice to work through financial instruments like futures and options, but an ability to buy and sell at spot prices may also be necessary for some market. Here governments would need storehouses, which is a perfectly good idea anyway. In good times, the government would be storing up grain, and in bad times it would be selling it off. Prices would, correspondingly, remain stable.

This is a u-topia in the sense that it is probably never going to happen. It's a eu-topia in sense that it offers a free society, with free markets for the exchange of the products of human initiative, ingenuity and hard work. It would not force anyone into meaningless toil, producing wasteful products, simply in order to have the purchasing power required to survive and the only benefit accruing to very wealthy people who can convert the profits into actual quality of life.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Interstellar Imagination

"I could be bounded in a nutshell and
count myself a king of infinite space."
Hamlet

For a few brief moments the other day, I convinced myself that interstellar travel was not as unlikely as I have generally assumed. (UFOs, therefore, would be correspondingly more likely to be controlled by aliens.) Skimming the relevant Wikipedia pages, I learned of a clever scheme whereby we could travel to the stars at a constant 1g acceleration, thus providing perfect simulated gravity and, due to the miracle of time dilation, make it back and forth to almost anywhere in the galaxy within a comfortable lifetime. (Aliens, meanwhile, beginning on a planet with, say, three times the Earth's gravity, who could therefore comfortably live in a starship accelerating at 3g, and with a lifespan, just as arbitrarily assumed to be three times our own, might view interstellar distances with significantly less awe than we do.)

But then I found Nathan Geffen's entirely convincing demolition of the idea. Unless his math is simply wrong (I haven't made the effort to check), it would seem that even under the most optimistic assumptions about our future ability to convert matter into energy we would need a fuel load that weighs 4.5 times the total weight of the ship. (Yes, that's a paradox. It's like requiring the astronauts to be one fifth their own weight or something.) As Geffen puts it:

We ... have to conclude that using onboard fuel, it is theoretically impossible to get to Proxima Centauri. It doesn't matter what we set the spacecraft mass to, the ratio remains the same. So even for unmanned spaceflight a 1g acceleration to our nearest stellar neighbour is impossible.

I'm a big supporter of this kind of level-headed disciplining of our science-fiction-addled imaginations. Once you do the math, something that seemed like just a future away becomes a straight-up impossibility. So I was amused to find Geffen imagining what he calls a "not altogether far-fetched possibility" to give us (and "hard" sci-fi authors) a bit of hope:

…one day it will be possible to download the human brain, to something as small as a microchip, with durability of hundreds if not thousands of years. Perhaps if this is the future evolution of our species, we will be able to travel in this form to distant stars without being too concerned about the time it takes.

I'm sure I've seen someone somewhere do an analysis of the energy required to completely "read" the contents of an entire human brain, and the time that is subsequently required to transfer that information to some other device (like a chip). It is similar to the energy requirements needed to make a Star Trek transporter. Geffen understands the physical constraints of the universe in regards to matter and motion, but he has to learn to apply the same kind of thinking to information. Once he does so, he'll realize that the brain-in-a-chip scenario is perhaps more far-fetched than 1g acceleration to the stars. There's more going on in the nutshell of our skulls than we sometimes imagine.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Five Questions for Jonathan Mayhew

Do you believe in duende? [Answer]

Is there a "subtle bridge" that joins the senses to the living flesh? [Answer]

Is this bridge a secret? [Answer]

Do some people know this secret? [Answer]

Did Lorca know? [Answer]