Response: Part 3

by Francis Spufford on June 14, 2012

5. History and comedy

I agree strongly with Rich Yeselson that praise for the novelty or innovativeness of the book’s form has been overplayed.  The overall patterning of it is fiddly, but the pieces of which the pattern is made are as straightforward as I could make them, and not just because as I get older, I increasingly think that simple is more interesting (and difficult to achieve) than complicated.  It’s also, as he says, that I had lots of very well-established precedents to draw on.  On the historical novel side, the whole Tolstoy-does-Napoleon recipe for dramatising the viewpoints of the grand historical figures, and the equally available rule of thumb that tells you how to mix the documented and the imagined to create the illusion of comprehensiveness.  And, drawing on SF, I had the scientist-fictions of Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson to follow.  My Kantorovich very clearly has the DNA of Le Guin’s Shevek and Robinson’s Sax Russell in him.  Not to mention – as I’ve carefully confessed in the notes – that the whole alternation of character-driven scenes with italicised authorial narration is lifted straight out of Red Mars. And collections of linked short stories that fill in different vertebrae of a narrative spine are not exactly unheard-of, either, from Kipling to Alice Munro.  I am proud of the two ‘machine’ sections, set in Lebedev’s logic and Lebedev’s lungs, one in which determinacy produces indeterminacy, the other  in which the arrow goes the other way; and the messages of approval from George Scialabba’s amygdala cause fluttering in my own; but it’s not like Don DeLillo doesn’t already exist, and Pynchon, and for that matter Nicolson Baker.  It’s not as though there isn’t a blazed trail for paying imaginative attention to system.


But Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate occupies a special place for me, as a object of admiration and source for borrowable techniques.  For one thing, it is a masterclass in how the toolkit of socialist realism can be turned to heterodox purposes.  For another, to be more frivolous, the novel is a monument of imaginative and moral witness – I can’t read Sofya Levinton’s journey to the gas chamber without weeping helplessly – but line by line the prose is not so fabulous that it forces you the way reading Tolstoy does into endless Waynes World-ish cries of ‘I’m not worthy!’  Grossman seems to be a more assimilable master from whom to learn.

So I’m fascinated to read Niamh Hardiman’s and Carl Caldwell’s twin comparisons of Red Plenty to Life and Fate, with their basically opposite conclusions.  Both agree that Red Plenty’s mode is comedy, unhappy comedy, in distinction to the tragedy of Life and Fate, but for Niamh the result is ‘the open-endedness of the characters’ experiences as we witness them’, while for Carl, the consequence is closure, a sealing shut of the possibilities of the fictional strand of the book because the story all takes place under the overhang of non-fictional certainties, which suck all genuine life out of words like ‘hope’ in the story, leaving only ironic slapstick behind.  Needless to say, I’d rather Niamh was right.  But I can’t adjudicate.  The way the book assembles itself in other minds, the patterns of effect that my intentions settle into there, aren’t within my competence at all.  I haven’t got any interpretative authority over the thing.

What I can say is that the whole interrelation of the fictional and non-fictional  elements in the book was set up as my improvised solution to the problem of allowing a story with a known end – failure – to take on some unpredictable life.  I wanted to permit some space for hope, for expectancy, in a situation which would, I thought, be perceived by most people as self-evidently over, done with, a closed ledger, productive of neither interesting questions nor sympathetic human emotion.  It seemed to me that if I stipulated to the facts, and used them as a kind of authoritative backdrop or sounding-board, I might then allow myself a cleared space next to them in which there was room for something else to expand, something looser, composed of moments of experience rather than of reasoning about outcomes.  And experience isn’t teleological, even if it’s the experience of hope.  Its truth as experience doesn’t depend on what happens next.  But to create this zone of not-fact, free as story because of what it wasn’t, I had to create a ‘historical’ narrative which represented solidity, which was to be taken as the singular and dependable truth, even when I was being highly opinionated and questionable in my judgements, as in the italicised sections’ dismissal of the Bolsheviks before 1914 as a tiny political cult.  In a conjured-up tension with a certain truth, fiction could billow out into undetermined life.  (I hoped.)

But as Colin Danby and Neville Morley have discussed in the comments, that isn’t what history is.  History as practised by historians is not an invocation of unquestionable fact, at all.  It’s a vast collective text, implicitly discursive, in a state not only of continual revision but of continual argument over method.  Even in its most narrative, singly-authored forms, it poses, as Carl Caldwell points out, continual questions about representation, and in this respect is not so very far away from fiction at all.  The reason why, in Red Plenty, ‘the two genres remain distinct’, with a historical apparatus (italicised intros + footnotes) of ‘assertive statements’, is that both strands of the book, both components, are in truth equally rhetorical.  The ‘history’ does not contain anything that I know or believe to be untrue.  But it is there to help fiction live, to pull open the space of not-certainty.  If, instead, it has the effect of capping off and closing down the fiction, that will be – well, not the first time in my writing that I have managed to contrive the reverse of my intentions.

On the subject of comedy, though, and its not-necessarily-happy qualities, can I bring in Henri Bergson?  He talks about the internal equivalent to the ‘mechanical inelasticity’ of the pratfall being the state of adapting ourselves ‘to a past and therefore imaginary situation, when we ought to be shaping our conduct with the reality which is present’.  Hence the comedy of absent-mindedness.  Bergson sticks to the past for his example: but it would work too as an explanation of what happens when a person (or a whole society) gives priority to the future.  Comedy is one of the effects of ceaselessly pretending – or under compulsion, pretending to pretend – that the ideal society to come should shape conduct more than the disappointing present one.  If you try to live in the palace that hasn’t been built yet, you’ll collide with the furniture of your actual tenement, over and over, and then be obliged to pretend not to notice.  The USSR, on this account, could be seen as a society of compulsory absent-mindedness, stepping through the slapstick of the plan under pain of worse.  Or maybe you don’t even need the future.  The present would do, if you existed in a sufficiently imaginary relationship to it.  Then ideology is  comedy.  But again, as the person performs their compulsory mime of surprise at the discovery that the soup-plate, for the umpeenth time, has glue or ink in it, I think—I hope—that a space opens for less predictable feeling.  For the person alongside the tyrannical joke, as it does for the person alongside the closed history.

6. Feasibility studies

I have a powerful urge just to point dsquared and Cosma Shalizi at each other.     The 7800 words of ‘In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You’ provide an answer to the question in ‘New Ideas from Dead Political Systems’ about what if anything we can learn from the Soviet case which is orders of magnitude more elegant, powerful and mathematically-informed than anything I could manage.  I wish the essay had existed before I wrote the book.  It would have saved me months if not years of clumsy attempts to think  through the underlying intellectual issue: whether, in any possible world, and not just under the hampering constraints of the Soviet environment, anything resembling the Kantorovich scheme for optimisation through prices could power a planned cornucopia.  In science-fictional terms, whether Iain M Banks’ Culture Minds, and the nanoscale Babbage engines of the Solar Union in Ken Macleod’s Cassini Division, and the computers of the Mondragon Accord in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, can plausibly be imagined to be running a programme for post-scarcity consisting of millions of linear equations.  I’ll take it as a vindication of my whole daft project that it has prompted such a beautiful piece of intellectual path-finding to exist.  I’m not competent mathematically to challenge the conclusion it arrives at – which in any case squares with my own inchoate conclusion, gained from reading Stiglitz’s Whither Socialism?, that optimised allocation of resources, even if possible, solves the wrong problem—but like a lot of people who have commented,  I’m glad that Paul Cockburn has called by to bring the expertise of someone who has been thinking seriously for some while about ways and means to deal with, at least, the computational difficulty.  I would be delighted, and excited, to read a more sustained Shalizi-Cockburn exchange.  (Especially if they would both be kind enough not to apply too strenuous a data-compression algorithm, and to keep talking in terms I can understand.)

So I think what I can usefully do is to make a couple of points off to one side of Cosma’s argument.

But first let me engage with Daniel on more narrowly historical ground.  I don’t agree that the only lesson from the Soviet experience is ‘not to do that again’.  The USSR was ‘a great big waste of everybody’s time’, but not just that, I think.  The Soviet case doesn’t tell you much about the feasibility of optimal planning, because for a thick array of reasons to do with power and path-dependency and the lack of foothold for the reformers’ ideas in the actual conduct of the economy, they never came close to being applied in anything but the most truncated form.  (Perhaps luckily.)  But it does provide a kind of appallingly costly control study for the 20th-century experiences of capitalist industrialisation, in which we get to see what happens when an industrial revolution is run again with some key institutions missing or different.  The USSR is something close to a real-world history experiment, a really nasty lab-test of an alternative time-stream, and negative results of an experiment are still results.  And I don’t believe these results all reduce to: if you steal 95% of a society’s income and invest the proceeds, badly, in heavy industry, you get a temporary boom in outputs entirely detached from human welfare, and a toxic wasteland.  Okay, so some of the lessons are stupidly obvious.  Such as, don’t conclude from the fertility of mass production that you can run an economy consisting entirely of large units; you need units of all sizes simultaneously, shoe factories and cobblers, or you run into a kind of economic equivalent of Henry James’ late style, so cruelly described by H G Wells as being like watching a hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea; you get a whole world of clumsily pea-chasing hippos.  But even that offers an opportunity for critical reflection on the forces in our present world that are pushing for less economic diversity, for one model of corporate organism to replace the mixture of public and private structures.  And then there’s the result to do with the staging of industrial take-off, and the different informational demands of the different stages, which doesn’t seem to have been investigated much by anyone, except in a non-quantitative or cultural-studies-ish kind of a way by people like Manuel Castells.  There clearly is a difference between the informational load placed on a planning system by early industrialisation (viable) and by the later turns up the spiral (not viable), which there don’t seem to be easy grounds to explain in Von Mises-style or Hayekian arguments that all planning as such must be defeated by co-ordination problems.  Yes yes, product differentiation, diversification, growing service sector: but there’s something tangible to be known here, I think, about the phase changes of development.  However, I with my literature degree and my detailed understanding of the powers of the adjective am not the person to know it.

Back to Cosma.

First, a biographical point.  I can’t tell you how interesting the demonstration is, from the shallowness of the maths itself, that Kantorovich’s denial of the market-like properties of his system must have been knowingly opportunistic.  So far as I know (and of course I’m confined to the universe of English-language materials) this is the first light on the question of how self-aware he was about what he was doing: how much he was in on Rich Yeselson’s ‘mordant joke’ about him laboriously re-inventing market relations in mystified Marxian terms.  I’ve had to choose an interpretative side here, more or less in the dark, since Kantorovich so carefully bit back expression of any political consequences to his work.  I chose to go with the idea of him as a true believer that’s suggested by his tenacity at offering his optimising services through more than four decades of changing Soviet politics, and his demonstrable innocence in dealing with the politics of the academy.  But this is evidence for the other case: for the idea of him as someone aware of a market-mainstream of economics to which he was trying to inch back, which is supported by his long friendship (not in Red Plenty) with the Leningrad survivor of pre-revolutionary economics, V V Novozhilov.  It is utterly, wonderfully elegant that a piece of surprisingly crude argumentation by someone we know to have been a (mathematical) sophisticate should send an ungainsayable signal of intent from out of the Stalinist fug.  It’s rather like Zoya Vaynshteyn/Raissa Berg finding the unsuppressable genetic signal of the collectivisation famines in her mutation data.

Then a point about the desirability of the cybernetic cornucopia, independent of its feasibility.  The power of the Kantorovich result, as I understand it, is that it proves that a set of prices exists for any plan which would allow it to be co-ordinated in a decentralised way, by having local actors simply maximise profits; which in turn, if the system worked, would allow a whole economy to be steered towards an agreed goal, rather than just passively following a trajectory determined piecemeal, by all the aggregated decision-making going on in it.  Result: emancipation, or at least greater human choice about our collective destiny.  But, but, but.  Not only are there are the insurmountable problems of the Soviet context – for the system, to calculate the prices, would require the same impossibly complete information about capabilities which Gospan had been failing to gather for decades – and the computational obstacles Cosma lays out.  There is then also the question of whether, by shifting from our captivity to the zombie dance of commodities to a captivity to the plan, we have really done any more than relocated our passivity, and gained any emancipating ground.  If we don’t like our unplanned subservience to the second-order consequences of our collective life (market, government, family), why would we like a planned, first-order subservience to the masters of the bead game any better, even if they were acting as instruments of our collective choices?  Even granted the perfect execution of a probably impossible computational task, wouldn’t the quality we were trying to escape promptly re-enter the system under another name?  The latter part of the commonwealth forgets its beginning, as Count Boberino a useful patsy of Shakespeare’s said, on another island, long ago.

Finally, a point about rhetoric.  If we’re deciding instead that, like all panaceas, wildly overpraised at first and then shrinking to the size of their true usefulness, Kantorovich’s insight has a future as something more modest, a tool of human emancipation good for some situations but not others – and aiming too for a more modest (and safer) politics that gains the more human world of our desires in pragmatic stages, which is what Cosma ends up with, and George Scialabba has found in the Nove-Albert-Schweikart nexus – then we have a presentational problem.  It’s a lot easier to build a radical movement on a story of tranformation, on the idea of the plan that makes another world possible, than it is on a story of finding out the partial good and building upon it.  The legitimacy of the Soviet experiment, and of the ecosystem of less barbarous ideas that turned out to tacitly depend upon it, lay in the perception of a big, bright, adjacent, obtainable, obvious, morally-compelling other way of doing things.  Will people march if society inscribes upon its banners, ‘Watch out for the convexity constraints’?  Will we gather in crowds if a speaker offers us all the utopia that isn’t NP-complete?  Good luck with that. Good luck to all of us.

And thank you.

 

{ 25 comments }

1

stostosto 06.14.12 at 10:19 pm

Thank you, Mr. Spufford, for an extraordinary, fantastic book. I wish it had been around when I was an economics student and wrote my thesis on planned economies back in the late eighties.

2

William Timberman 06.14.12 at 11:41 pm

Thank you again, not only for the book, but for this elegant three-part symphony of a response to our responses to it. Folks who talk incessantly about the art of the possible have absolutely no idea what amazing things are possible. I hope some of them have been eavesdropping.

3

Emma in Sydney 06.15.12 at 2:41 am

William, have you seen the repentant post brought on by you over on Brad Delong’s blog? Respect.

4

rf 06.15.12 at 2:59 am

Just want to second William Timberman’s thanks to Francis Spufford, I think reason said it best:

http://crookedtimber.org/2012/06/11/response-part-i/#comment-417987

But also Emma in Sydney’s respect to WT for knocking some sense into Brad De Long – it was a long time coming but….

5

Donald Johnson 06.15.12 at 5:10 am

“In science-fictional terms, whether Iain M Banks’ Culture Minds, and the nanoscale Babbage engines of the Solar Union in Ken Macleod’s Cassini Division, and the computers of the Mondragon Accord in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, can plausibly be imagined to be running a programme for post-scarcity consisting of millions of linear equations. “

We need a discussion of the economic feasibility of the Culture novels. I need to go back to Cosma’s piece (and I read the Stiglitz book a long time ago), but I would guess (based solely on ungrounded intuition) that a vastly superior intelligence with the power to construct mini-Ringworlds could make a Utopia for a bunch of mere humans. It would be like humans constructing a utopia for hamsters. Keep out the cat, give them water and tasty carrots (or whatever hamsters eat), provide little wheels to run around in for stimulation, and warm cozy places to burrow.

6

Ken MacLeod 06.15.12 at 5:55 am

What William said.

By the way, it’s Paul Cockshott, not Paul Cockburn.

7

William Timberman 06.15.12 at 7:11 am

Brad DeLong is a very smart and very humane guy, and even if he weren’t, it would be ungracious of me to criticize anyone I’ve learned as much from as I have from him, even by implication. Still, I came into this arena from the plebeian end, and for me its long been obvious that the irrationalities of late capitalism present challenges that the politics of what we used to call the Establishment are too constipated to address effectively. Precisely because I’m not anybody in particular, I’ve had over forty years of experience with what nobodies can expect from that Establishment, beginning with a draft notice in 1966. What happened in 2008 therefore didn’t surprise me at all, and the fact that it changed almost nothing didn’t surprise me either. If Brad DeLong, who is somebody, now understands why I wasn’t surprised, and why I don’t thinking electing social democrats is anything more than a holding action, I’m grateful, but it would be awfully presumptuous of me to believe that I’ve had anything to do with that understanding.

8

Chris Williams 06.15.12 at 10:42 am

I know it’s the end (and I agree that it’s been great) but I still want to worry away at the issue of history, its genres, and their relationship to truth. Francis just wrote:

“The reason why, in Red Plenty, ‘the two genres remain distinct’, with a historical apparatus (italicised intros + footnotes) of ‘assertive statements’, is that both strands of the book, both components, are in truth equally rhetorical.”

I’d argue that this is true only if we take ‘rhetorical’ to mean ‘elements arranged in a certain order in order to produce a desired effect’. The footnotes track back to other texts of various kinds against which they can be tested, and through which the overall validity and relevance of _RP_’s content can be assessed. That makes them different kinds of text from the body text of the book – whether italicised or not.

As well as being considered in isolation, the two different compenents need to be considered as a whole, in order to judge the kind of book that they help to create. I find these things interesting (to the point of getting Francis to come and talk about them to my department last year. He’s intelligent and eloquent in person, too.) because I suspect that academic historians pay far too little attention to the ways that history is actually learned, and the relationship (if any) between this process and the genres which we traditionally use to communicate the results of our research.

9

Neville Morley 06.15.12 at 11:34 am

Mainly here to add to the chorus of thanks for a wonderfully rich and detailed response to what’s been an enormously enjoyable and enlightening seminar.

But I’d also like to respond to Chris Williams’ points, mostly in full agreement e.g. with “I suspect that academic historians pay far too little attention to the ways that history is actually learned, and the relationship (if any) between this process and the genres which we traditionally use to communicate the results of our research.” Before that, however, I would disagree with the disagreement with Francis’ statement that both components of the book are equally rhetorical: the fact that they adopt different rhetorical strategies, and thus are indeed different kinds of text, doesn’t make one un-rhetorical. That’s too close to the standard academic historical move which obfuscates issues of how history is actually learned and communicated: “because my work is obviously different from a fictional or semi-fictional account, it is therefore entirely free from any literary or imaginative elements.”

10

Chris Williams 06.15.12 at 12:19 pm

Fair point, Neville – I was perhaps reading the wrong thing into the meaning of ‘rhetorical’ there.

11

Henry 06.15.12 at 12:26 pm

Neville, I’m a bit surprised – when I did my own bits and pieces of graduate class in history (I nearly switched over), Hayden White was already pretty long in the tooth, with his rhetorical figures from Northrop Frye and all that. Has the discipline actually regressed in its understanding of this in the intervening period?

12

Chris Williams 06.15.12 at 12:32 pm

Henry, there are a lot of historians who never took HW on board, let alone those who are graduating now without ever being taught about him. British historiography is remarkbly untheorised.

13

Neville Morley 06.15.12 at 12:47 pm

Exactly; at least in the UK, and the bits of the US system with which I’m familiar, White’s work fed into a more or less separate and marginal tradition of ‘historical theory’, which cane to draw heavily on post-structuralism and deconstruction and hence increasingly argued that historiography was an entirely fictional and imaginary discourse – see e.g. the works of Keith Jenkins. Naturally this was even less appealing to ‘mainstream’ historians than the earlier stuff. What never happened was what White was, originally at least, seeking to promote namely a rhetorically self-conscious and theoretically aware historiography; partly, I suspect, from a reaction against anything that looks remotely theoretical, partly because there seems to be a particular fear of the insidious and suspect nature of rhetoric.

To be fair, I don’t think it’s just historians who have this problem; I don’t detect much of an impact in mainstream economics from the rhetorical analyses of Deidre McCloskey…

14

John 06.15.12 at 1:18 pm

Great seminar!
As a digression on the Culture series (which I love to bits), Banks constructs a true post-scarcity economy for the Culture, though I think it’s underpinned by a few hand-waves. It’s post-scarcity not because of excellence in allocation, but in the sense that the Culture Minds can simply make more of anything for anyone than that person could conceivably want (or if necessary create a indistinguishable virtual representation of it to plug into their brain). Living space is post-scarcity owing to the combination of the vastness of space and the ability to create habitats anywhere. The only theoretically scarce ‘resource’ is power over other sentient entities – and this not available at all to individual humans in the Culture, as it is reserved to a mixture of the entire demos, and more directly to the godlike Minds that run things day to day. The handwaves seem to consist, firstly of this state of affairs being unquestioningly accepted – I believe the general idea is that Culture humans have been genetically engineered to think like that, with mild, easygoing personalities. Conceptually, the other handwave is around population growing to fill the more or less infinite resources of stuff and space – somehow there is general agreement in the Culure not to allow this to happen, backed by Cultural norms…. this agreement seems to be maintained to some degree at the Galactic level in the books, where the various species and c/Cultures have a tacit agreement to block in civilizations that grow too fast.

15

mds 06.15.12 at 1:33 pm

Let me throw some more kudos on the kudos pile for Mr. Spufford. There. Now, onward to polemic!

And I don’t believe these results all reduce to: if you steal 95% of a society’s income and invest the proceeds, badly, in heavy industry, you get a temporary boom in outputs entirely detached from human welfare, and a toxic wasteland.

This is too bad in a way, because then we could replace “heavy industry” with “financial industry,” and possibly drop “toxic,” and arrive at a simple lesson that otherwise seems to be escaping a great many people.

16

MikeJake 06.15.12 at 5:21 pm

@15 “This is too bad in a way, because then we could replace “heavy industry” with “financial industry,” and possibly drop “toxic,” and arrive at a simple lesson that otherwise seems to be escaping a great many people.”

I don’t know…I’d say we’ve polluted the country with “toxic” real estate that nobody wants, that stands neglected and blights neighborhoods, and is encumbered by levels of debt and back-taxes (as well as doubt over the true ownership of the property) such that some municipalities have decided that it’s better to bulldoze the properties rather than wait for them to be sold.

But your larger point stands. We can draw clear analogies the traditional “industrial wasteland” and our modern “financial wasteland.”

17

Rob Hunter 06.15.12 at 7:32 pm

John @14:

It’s peraps worth noting that Banks acknowledges the hand-waving, which I think you are right to identify in terms of questions of exit, voice, and loyalty (in addition to the hand-waving about how post-scarcity would be achieved by a proto-Culture), in his “Few Notes on the Culture.”

18

Belle Waring 06.16.12 at 1:59 pm

It’s generally accepted in the Culture that everyone has one child as a woman and another as a man, and further that people get bored after 300 or so years and upload themselves in some fashion. So their population growth is not unconstrained. Also, orbitals are huge. The thing that doesn’t make sense is that there are no collectors in the Culture. People don’t want atomically accurate copies of a Rothko painting; rather, they want the damn painting. There are no collectors in the Culture, who vie for rare geodes or old drone casings or Khmer bas-reliefs or two-thousand-year-old dresses from a particularly influential orbital. That is implausible, impossible, and unscientific. There are no buy limits at the knife missile show! That would infringe upon our basic liberties.

19

Neville Morley 06.16.12 at 2:12 pm

Obsessive pedantry alert…

(i) Most people in the Culture have just two children – but there are exceptions, albeit such profligacy is “frowned upon” by the Culture (The Player of Games, p.44 in my edition), and it’s clear that life expectancies are increasing and life/death choices are changing over the course of the books – but I’d agree that there doesn’t seem to be unconstrained population growth, and so no obvious Malthusian trap.

(ii) Isn’t the obsession with authenticity in the way you describe historically contingent, and comparatively recent – that whole Benjamin, work of art in age of mehanical reproduction thing? For example, Roman senators collected Greek sculpture, but they seem to have been quite happy with copies rather than with ‘the original’; having a Praxiteles Venus doesn’t imply that you own one made by Praxiteles’ own hands (not least because hand work is disparaged; what matters is Praxiteles’ conception).

20

Emily 06.16.12 at 2:48 pm

Chris @12, historiography was required for all history majors when I took it a few years ago now, and included (among others) Carr, E P Thompson, Said, Joan Scott, White, Foucault, Huntington, and Fukuyama from the Western trad from memory, as well as some works on subaltern studies and indigenous studies.

21

Matt 06.16.12 at 11:25 pm

In a society where everything can be duplicated down to the atomic level, collecting rare physical objects might seem as futile as (say) someone seeking out an “early”, “authentic” 1980s-vintage download of Phrack containing the Hacker Manifesto, on 1980s vintage hardware, and (here is the really tricky part) actually saved on that hardware in the 1980s, and not just faked up from ebay parts a week ago to cater to the collector.

With technology like the Culture’s no probing of the object itself can establish provenance. An object might establish a 200 year provenance as long as it’s under continuous observation for 200 years, but if all the sensors fail for half a minute it reverts to yet another exact representation of a thing with no assured past. I suppose people could still collect obsessively the way some people today fill their houses with old newspapers and empty cans, but collecting in the sense of finding status and pleasure in acquiring antique furniture or rare automobiles would seem impractical.

22

Belle Waring 06.17.12 at 2:34 am

[furtively rearranges collection of empty cans.]

23

Neville Morley 06.17.12 at 8:36 am

But of course there are other kinds of collecting, and other motives for collecting, between the wish to possess rare or unique, and hence (in a different economic system) valuable, objects, and the hoarding of pieces of string in case they might come in useful some day. Most obviously, there’s collecting for the sake of collecting, the pleasure coming from the process itself and only marginally from the use value of the collection, and not at all from any putative exchange value: Panini football stickers, for example. Obviously the Culture’s productive capabilities make it much easier to cheat – you could simply ask for a complete set to be delivered – but that’s easy enough to get around (e.g. by setting yourself rules about how things can be collected) if what you’re interested in is the feeling of striving for completeness rather than completion itself.

24

hartal 06.19.12 at 3:36 pm

If comedy is absent-mindedness–or the inability to attend to life because your behavior seems set by an internal machine or what Bourdieu calls habitus–then those who imagine themselves living by the codes of a yet distant society seem to be more in a dream-like state than an absent-minded one. I am not sure dreaming is comic. But I agree–and so did Bergson somewhere in his ruminations on laughter–that comedy and dreaming are both manifestations of an inattention to life.

25

Tim Wilkins0n 06.20.12 at 10:14 am

(I hope I can be excused an offset response to Martin Bento’s comments on the now-closed Response Part 2 thread, themselves including an offset response to me on a yet earlier thread, viz. http://crookedtimber.org/2012/05/29/red-plenty-or-red-poverty-reality-versus-psychoprophyilaxis-reflections-on-spuffords-vision-of-the-rise-and-the-decline-of-the-communist-system/#comment-416330 ff., which in turn reprises various discussions I and we have had here about “conspiracy theory” rhetoric, Hofstadter etc.)

I agree that the US doesn’t really have legal mechanisms expressly aimed at repressing dissent. Instead, there is misuse of other legal powers (see HUAC and – coming soon – Patriot Act type stuff) as well as ‘extra-legal’ methods – which I suppose would cover both illegal and informal tactics such as Hooverist crimes and a wide range of propaganda tactics. These are shared between the state and its private sector cooperators or masters.

As I think I suggested in a recent argument with Otto, the use of more subtle and informal methods of controlling opinion (and thus, in classical Orwellian fashion, action) makes the US system much more robust. One way in which it does that is by being very easy to overlook, partly due to the protection which we agree is provided by ‘conspiracy theory’ accusations and the associated rhetoric of ‘paranoia’ etc.

Talking of which, your life could be destroyed, perhaps in ways you could not even trace, much less prove immediately reminded me of secretive employee blacklists e.g. http://crookedtimber.org/2012/02/06/the-jedi-master-fallacy-and-others/#comment-401628 . These record union ‘troublemakers’, but one would also expect that they would include a variety of others, such as those who have lodged grievances or alleged unfair or wrongful dismissal in employment tribunals – this of course in teh civilised world where such things exist – and in particular of course those who have left employment under comnpromise agreements which usually incorporate bilateral confidentiality clauses.

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