Archive for April, 2007

The big meltdown

April 28, 2007

Above all, gold is a tease; immaculate substance pleading for a form. Take the Spanish conquest of the Incas. On finding the intricately worked gold figures made by the Incas, the Spaniards melted them down into ingots. Hernándo Pizarro oversaw the big meltdown in Cajamarca in 1533. He had Indian smiths working on nine forges, and on many days they melted over six hundred pounds weight of gold. At the end of four months, they had melted eleven tons of golden vases, golden figures, golden jewelry, and golden furnishing ornaments. He then escorted the train of 225 llamas carrying the gold and silver to Lima. A load of baser gold arrived a few days later on the backs of sixty llamas. Imagine this on a movie screen; those dun-colored mountain slopes of the central Andes that stretch forever, cut across by a line of stately llamas not even knowing what they carried, other than its weight. In the Temple of the Sun in the Incan capital of Cuzco, the Spanish found a garden whose plants were made of gold and silver. This, too, they melted down.

Inevitably money – like color – makes one think of stories of transmutation of form into substance of substance into flows. The story of the Inca’s garden tells us more about money than many an economic treatise. Pizarro melts the garden down into ingots nice and square that fit into boxes in ships’ holds to go to Spain as bullion, the ur-form of money. The Indians want gold as the ultimate mimetic metal, flowing and ductile, with which they can imitate most anything. But the money boys want gold as that with which they can acquire most anything. Squared up as ingots or rounded as coins, their gold has done a good deal more than serve as a medium of exchange. It has made everything in the world exchangeable in what we now see as the big meltdown.

Michael Taussig, My Cocaine Museum

Or here is a metaphor for the polyvalence which Roland Barthes cites as the mark of great literature: ductility. Words, perhaps, are ore drawn through your retinas and shaped by your brain, in the same motion with which it rights the inverted, bifurcated image your eyes send to it, twisted into tiny dioramas and vistas. Yet this falls apart as soon as one tries to separate its auditors into the “money men” and the mimetic men, in that language is so closely tied with information. Let us melt a fact (which is inseparable from the method by whose use that fact was arrived at) into words and into benignity. Is even the poet culpable?

Labor’s vulgarity

April 27, 2007

Let me sketch a stigmatized metaphor by installing a tiny loom next to your toilet – a loom, perhaps, mounted to the wall with hinges such that it can swing out over your lap when you sit.

Then, at some later date, as you do your duties to self and society, think back to this entry and the matter I give you to chew on. Think, for example, of the similarity between the mindless working of your fingers and the tiny vaginations of your intestine which propel your waste to its final end. These are examples of pure process – method rotely applied without regard to your identities or cogitations. Compare these activities with the common habit of bathroom reading, which seeks to enrich the mind as possession, even as the body unmistakably declares its allegiance to the material and the impossibility of your possessing it.

Weave, perhaps over the course of several weeks, a trivet which has emerged from you as passively as an egg from a chicken, and just as anonymously. Notice how your closest observation of this trivet’s weaving only makes it more difficult to weave; for the trivet cannot take any bit of you with it as it supports the weight of a steaming stew or risotto.

But if you cannot install a recognizable sample of yourself in this trivet, you can accomplish a recognition of your type in that trivet if, say, you choose one pattern of colors over another. Then you could at least say that your tastes are of a certain sort, just as 19th century Germans would classify the qualities of their bowel movements to glean facts about their health.

More than any of this, though, treat yourself by being sullied completely. Do not attempt to retain your dignity in the face of this work. The markets wait for your trivets.

The Human Use of Martian Beings

April 26, 2007

In last Sunday’s issue of the New York Times, Michael Pollan published an article about how farm subsidies in the U.S. act as an economic incentive to eat poorly. It’s an interesting topic in and of itself, but the article, titled “You Are What You Grow,” contains the following line, which brought my attention to other matters:

A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup.

The appeal to a researcher from Mars is a fascinating rhetorical strategy that is also not entirely novel; I’ve seen any number of Martian workers summoned up to criticize Earth culture. Yet I have to wonder what exactly Pollan hoped to gain by this device. He acknowledges the obvious contradiction of this state of affairs when he writes in the very next line that “such is the perversity of the farm bill.” So perhaps he doesn’t want to merely point out the “perversity” of these subsidies, but to point out that they are so intertwined in our system of governance and eating that few denizens of Earth are capable of seeing their absurdity.

And yet, this seems to be at cross-purposes with his very thesis that this is a peculiarly American problem. Why, then, wouldn’t a public health researcher from Europe, Asia, or Africa suffice for his purposes? It may be that an appeal to reason shared by Martian and human alike has the same function today as appeals to divine reason have had in times past (and, of course, in certain ignominious circles still). For an action – be it sodomy or subsidizing corn – to be offensive to a single person is apparently not enough; instead, that action must be discursively magnified in such a way that it offends against the rules of the universe.

John Berger, in his essay on Disney, claims that (and I’m sadly paraphrasing because I loaned this book out) Disney’s way of making animal cares perfectly congruent with human cares is the equivalent of saying, “There is no escape from this banality.” I have to wonder if the God who winces at butt sex and the Martian public health researcher (because alien cultures naturally have the same professions and needs as we do) who takes apart our Twinkies aren’t also forms of this same humanistic nihilism.

God, country, foppery

April 24, 2007

I chanced today to see a prayer rally held by the Knights of Columbus in front of our august capital. Immediately I knew it was a prayer rally – not because I saw any behavioral signifier of prayer but because the words “prayer rally” were printed on the baseball caps of several participants.

What I saw next, though, led me to believe that these hats were a mere conciliatory gesture bestowed upon those who were not fortunate enough to receive capes. For when I considered the great minority of that lucky latter bunch, I could not help but wonder if they weren’t all praying for capes enough for each of them.

The Bugaboos Project

April 21, 2007

I think it was my recent reading of Schiller’s Notes on the Aesthetic Education of Man that has made me so interested in the way that everyday actions betray analytic, synthetic, and aesthetic impulses. The analytic, Schiller says, is the mark of a purely physical sensibility, reflecting an orientation towards the natural world’s diversity and the differentiated objects of our appetites; the synthetic, on the other hand, is a function of the unifying process of reason. The aesthetic, or play, is cited by Schiller as the only ground of possibility for their interaction.

As I was outside enjoying the spring weather today, I was the subject of an infant’s unabashed stare and thought of how purely analytical it was. “Will this person satisfy some appetite of mine? Will he threaten it? Why is he dressed as a ninja?” he seemed to ask. The infant had not yet been able to synthesize the effect of his stare with social nicety or even the disciplinary effects of other, unapproving kinds of staring. From his stroller, he sought to be the pure viewpoint of science and knowledge.

It reminded me of nothing less than the impunity with which people stare from their cars at pedestrians or each other. The stroller is, of course, not a universal. In many countries, babies are carried in slings attached to their parent’s front or attached by skilled bundling to that parent’s back. Yet the stroller seems to be a unique training device for the burgeoning cogito. The stroller separates the infant from the vicarious experience of his parents’ doings and makes him an easily detachable unit with a proper space (or propre lieu [i.e., a space of his own]) in which to gather knowledge.

Retour à la savane

April 19, 2007

I have been bad: desultory, insouciant, and bad.

I have not only left things undone things which should have been done, but I have allowed myself to lie down in the cesspool of my self-pity and wallow.

Not least among these commitments which I have so cavalierly shirked is this very blog. Yes, I am both a shirker and a wallower. But no more. When I was rejected recently from every PhD program to which I applied, it occurred to me that I can no longer slide by on inborn talent alone. A minor reconciliation with my Protestant past must somehow take place, and I must learn to work.

So we have here a convenient practice – a daily reminder to hone my skills for now and for a later date. I promise that I’ll try to do better.