Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Hydra Magazine

See The Hydra Magazine for all new editorials.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Cooley High Goat Song

Compulsions within a social order that creates the circumstance for mistake renders an otherwise heroic persona a defeated hero. Aristotle's strictures on tragedy seem to me to be an account of the most expedient way to accomplish the whole order necessary for some character to be destroyed within and by.

In addition to creating small worlds, tragedy seems to create a global timescale by holding at a distance an inevitable end that everyone senses and which over and over almost occurs, thus keeping its probability perpetually on the horizon, until finally the catastrophe happens, as everyone knew it must.

These little near-terrors are brushed away so lightly that their avoidance gladdens the heart. The heart is lifted to be taken half-down, to be lifted to be taken half-down, to be lifted to be taken half-down, so that the finale releases not only the large orgasmic climax, but releases all the subdued orgasms collected on the way up.

There are many moments in Cooley High when it seems that catastrophe is about to catch Preach and Cochise, but that element is then wrapped into Motown tune or a comical escape. And Preach and Cochise continue in the element which nobody can see but the audience continues to sense.

Somewhere beneath the elevated train tracks, and the entire movie occurs under those tracks, the element is enlarging. When Cochise is killed because of a mistake in communication, the train's deafening grinding drowns out Preach's cry for help. The horizon of silence and completion has been reached where it was all along, under the tracks. This is the whole world.

And this, this dysfunctional whole, the deaf end of the whole world, has always frightened me because you do not realize the lion until you are already in the maw. The deadly pressure is felt on a stage built for our fiction but the performance can not yet be completed.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, XI

Mr. Poor Richard, but how does wealth tie into virtue?

Taken as a whole, the functioning of Franklin’s virtue system is bipartite. In its direct implementation it would create the necessary stress upon individuals to self-regulate in a socio-economic system where their industry and frugality would bear directly upon the smooth functioning of that system. Indirectly, the transformation possible virtue into a thing accountable daily but never fully attainable, would render an account system of virtue in which a perfected futurity would perpetually be a motivating force because a total impossibility. The system would continuously keep moving forward because its futurity would be as unattainable as it would be desirable. And, to keep it desirable, Franklin yokes it with commercial success:

“[inculcating] Industry and Frugality, as the Means of procuring Wealth and thereby securing Virtue, it being more difficult for a Man in Want to act always honestly, as (to use one of those Proverbs) it is hard for an empty Sack to stand upright.”

But is the sack full of wealth or virtue? The answer again is exclusively neither but compositely both. The means for conveying moral instruction and checking personal corruptibility must be conveyed in civic terms and, for Franklin, there was no force more civically binding than the market economy. Virtue is not exactly commercialized, but rather the system by which virtues are reified is constructed in commercial terms to receive wider attraction.

Additionally this seems to be why the virtue system must remain undefined by the residues of religiosity and transcendental import. The mortgage in the future had to resist temptations to be conceptualized in terms that would render it an imagined future beyond the scope of secular, socio-economic relations. Franklin’s collecting the “Essentials of every known Religion” to create a substructure of religiosity whose fundamental credo is that “the most acceptable Service to God is doing Good to Man” proposes a religious frame that is multi-confessional in its essentialism and civic in its conjoining of essentials for the mutual social benefit of all persons.

When Franklin praises Michael Welfare, the leader of a particular sect for his “Modesty… perhaps a singular instance in the History of Mankind,” he is referring to Welfare’s expressed aversion to conceptualizing religion in a closed system, where it might be “unwilling to receive farther Improvement.” Franklin’s acceptable religion must retain a futurity open to secular, social change—to contingency.

Furthermore, the future must be formulated in sharable terms and the best conveyance for a sharable future in the civic weal was mutual investiture in a commercial structure of credit and character. Father Abraham was a prophet, but a prophet of a moral system that was functional because profitable. The Autobiography is a moral education and a story of success.

And the ideological frame, which contains and motivates the Autobiography as a process of self-representation—of credit and character—created its portability by historicizing futurity in most basic terms. Posterity would carry on the ethical education of everyday time because its metaphor had been constructed so as to project agency forward.

Through his writings, the Almanacs, and the Autobiography, which becomes a theoretical seed from which the purpose and potential of his virtue system is embodied, Franklin renders himself a communicable human metaphor for ethical thinking in a world of contingencies. Martha Nussbaum argues that poesis can function as a kind of training in ethical thinking, inculcating “the gentle art of particular perception” to motive and agency behind and beyond the written pronouncement, the text of the law. Franklin seems to have accomplished the reverse in rendering his written ethical pronouncements on industry and frugality into a semiological nugget encasing the possibility of futurity. Time itself was made a res publica.

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, X.V

Mr. Poor Richard, what was the implosion of the doctrine legitimating the English sovereign?

The Tories of the 1680s, in an attempt to curb the claims of the political anteriority of law, Parliament, or the constitution to the sovereign’s authority, argued that none of those things was actually immemorial, and that the sovereign’s anteriority was evinced by the feudal past. After the Glorious Revolution, this claim became harder to maintain, especially under the attendant scrutiny that the constitution was receiving, showing that it had always undergone historical change (“pre-feudal to feudal to post-feudal”), and thus contained no precedent of antiquity on which to judge allocation of authority. The sovereignty conversely had to revert to Hobbes to ground the legitimation of its presence in the present, as an absolute law without which there simply would be no law. Its polemic, however, retained the vestiges of ancient rule by constructing a present moment (which had somehow always been and would consequently always be) that was recorded in the continuous memory of the English people and their ancestors before them. Cf. Sir John Davies, “Le Primer Report des Cases et Matters in Ley Resolves et Adiudges en les Courts del Roy en Ireland (1615),” Divine Right and Democracy: An Anthology of Political Writing in Stuart England, ed. David Wooton (Indianapolis 2003), 131-143. Pocock, Virtue, Commerce, and History (Cambridge 1985), 95-6; Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge 1987).

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, X

Mr. Poor Richard, so how does this all relate to wealth?

Despite the sententiae offered earlier in this paper as examples of Franklin inveighing notions of ancient nobility, he does not seem to exhibit the kind of vehement repudiation of the immemorial constitution typified by James Harrington, who did not even believe it existed as an organizing principle for the present moment of political activity. Those sententiae are rather directed at the rural population with the intent to cultivate a sense of consequence to their actions and the subsequent responsibility they inherit to self-ennoblement.

Franklin before the revolution, to put it rather bluntly, does not particularly care about the ancientness of the doctrine legitimating the English sovereign. That line of reasoning had already been imploded three quarter centuries before by the party Franklin increasingly found himself in opposition to. His concern in disowning immemorial nobility instead seems aligned with an opposition to the greater chronotopic structure that customary antiquity imports, which delimits claims to the past as much as it does claims to the possibility of a modifiable, new future. The crown could neither perpetuate a functional continuity of the present nor could it administer a logical plan for the future.

And Franklin, from the representation he offers of himself in the Autobiography, had all along been constructing a personhood in agential relationship to its future. The devising of his reputation as economic mechanism, as when an industrious image grants him “character and credit” with his neighbors, engenders a timescale in which a futurity of beneficial economic relations is based on the shared expectations of rewarding exchange between him and his neighbors.

On a greater scale, in what he called a “Rough Draft of Affair of borrowing Money,” Franklin compares the credit of England and America in 1777, arguing that America’s national character, unlike England’s, had been positively established by its timely discharge of debts and that future procurements of debt had been guaranteed by the “Habits of Business and Ability” acquired by its citizenry’s practice of industry and frugality, which had become evident to global creditors. In establishing debt based upon the credit and character of America’s ethos of industry and frugality, America was mortgaging its future labor and thereby creating a negative balance sheet of commercial performance, which would be settled by the increasing productivity and wealth of its citizens. Its citizens, in effect, would have a future to work for.

As early as 1729, Franklin was arguing for a paper currency, which would create, among other things, a greater attainability of credit—interest being lower when money is plenty—from which a greater network of debt among the citizenry would surface. By participating in a community of credit, a citizenry would enact that expanding mechanism which Pocock terms “boomtime beliefs,” working off the expectations of each other to “credit one another with capacity to expand and grow and become what they were not.” Futurity is placed in the contained determination of individuals to create it from a collective imagination of promise and growth.

And Franklin had created the transportable metaphors of futurity by which a future might know the necessity and utility of those virtues—principally frugality and industry—which had enabled the very possibility of the existence of posterity as a speculated-upon future.

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, IX

Mr. Poor Richard, please go on.

The heart of the political crisis as Franklin received it seems to have been a perception that Britons on the opposite side of the Atlantic were not interested in creatively including the Britons on the Franklin’s side of the Atlantic in a shared futurity, but rather in keeping the American Britons perpetually in the present, to the unfair advantage of a futurity whose center and sole concern would always be the weal of those citizens in and near the metropolis, London.

As the events leading to the revolution in America escalated, Franklin repeatedly tried to promote the re-conceptualization of the colonies as included in and compartmental to English governance. The Crown, and the Parliamentary support system surrounding it, however, were making no effort to respond to the newly acquired contingency of vast Empire, and instead were relying the legitimation of their institutional structure upon dimensions of customary continuity and refutations of a shared, possibly different kind of futurity with the Britons in America.

Franklin saw the injustice of the Tax Act, for example, as an issue of improper exercise of power by one people over another when the two were supposed to be a united people. He anonymously published the following queries in The London Chronicle, August 16-18, 1768:

"QUERIES recommended to the Consideration of those Gentlemen who are for vigorous Measures with the Americans. 1. Have the Colonists refused to answer any reasonable requisitions made to their Assemblies by the Mother Country? 2. If they have not refused to grant reasonable aids in the way, which they think consistent with liberty, why must they be stripped of their property without their own consent, and in a way, which they think inconsistent with liberty? 3. What is it for a people to be enslaved and tributary, if this be not, viz. To be forced to give up their property at the arbitrary pleasure of persons, to whose authority they have not submitted themselves, nor chosen for the purpose of imposing taxes upon them? Wherein consisted the impropriety of King Charles’s demanding ship-money by his sole authority, but in its being an exercise of power by the King, which the people had not given the King? Have the people of America, as the people of Britain, by sending Representatives, consented to a power in the British Parliament to tax them? 4. Has not the British Parliament, by repealing the stamp act, acknowledged that they judged it improper? Is there any difference between the stamp act, and the act obliging the Americans to pay whatever we please, for articles which they cannot do without, as glass and paper? Is there any difference as to justice between our treatment of the Colonists, and the tyranny of the Carthaginians over their conquered Sardinians, when they obliged them to take all their corn from them, and at whatever price they pleased to set upon it? 5. If that be true, which is commonly said, viz. That the Mother Country gains two millions a year by the Colonies, would it not have been wiser to have gone on quietly in the happy way we were in, till our gains by those rising and flourishing countries should amount to three, four, or five millions a year, than by these new-fashioned vigorous measures to kill the goose which lays the golden eggs? Would it not have been better policy, instead of taxing our Colonists, to have done whatever we could to enrich them, and encourage them to take off our articles of luxury, on which we may put our own price, and thus draw them into paying us a voluntary tax; than deluge them in blood, thin their countries, empoverish and distress them, interrupt their commerce, force them on bankruptcy, by which our merchants must be ruined, or tempt them to emigrations, or alliances with our enemies? 6. The late war could not have been carried on without America, nor without Scotland? Have we treated America and Scotland in such a manner as is likely in future wars to encourage their zeal for the common cause? Or is England alone to be the Drawcansir of the world, and to bully not only her enemies, but her friends? 7. Are not the subjects of Britain concerned to check a ministry, who, by this rage of heaping taxes on taxes, are only drawing into their own hands more and more wealth and power, while they are hurting the commercial interest of the empire in general, at the same time that, amidst profound peace, the national debt and burden on the public continue undiminished?"

Americans, if truly within the British Empire, expected all rights and responsibilities to a political system that would account for them as equally invested political members. And the decisions made in London after the Peace of Paris seemed to be dispossessing Britons in America from their status as lawful Britons.

Franklin opposed the Stamp Act, but when it passed he reconciled himself to living with it. Only later, after seeing his countrymen incensed with the Acts, did he oppose it more vociferously than before, along with the 1764 Colonial Currency Act, which prohibited the colonials from paying debts to England in colonial currency, which had depreciated, and additionally from issuing more paper money.

Franklin made another attempt to conjoin the futures of Britons in England and those in America by proposing a paper currency printed in England by act of Parliament, backed by mortgage loan security, which would unite the peoples under a single money that would bear six percent interest for ten years, thus together amortizing the English national debt in terms fair to all. According to Franklin it was deemed too radical by the representatives of the Crown. But it seems that it was less a refutation of the radicalism of the idea and more that the English government was simply exhibiting a total indifference to the idea of a united monetary system or any kind of shared future with the Americans.

By 1774, he was sardonically writing to Lord North that, if the particular concerns of the colonies were not to be addressed, the English government might as well enslave and either work or sell the unruly Americans to prevent secession and procure the necessary funds to pay the national debt. North was said by Jefferson to have “betrayed an absolute indifference to the occurrence of a rupture.”

That same year Franklin assigned Joseph Galloway the task of drafting a constitution, which would detail the rights and duties Americans had as English citizens, including representation in Parliament, similar to a plan for union which Franklin had drafted in 1754 for Governor Shirley, in which:

“the people of great Britain and people of the colonies could lear[n] to consider themselves, not as belonging to different communities with different interests, but to one community with one interest, which I imagine would contribute to strengthen the whole, and greatly lessen the danger of future separations.” In the same letter Franklin asserted that there should be no difference in benefits for a smith or a hatter in old England or new—and furthermore, considering that the commercialists in America were contributing so much to the growth of the general English weal, they “ought rather to expect some preference.”

In a more radical formulation of similar logic, Franklin—following the demographic conclusions of his “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind,” published in 1755—envisioned a future in which the population of Britons in America would exceed that of Britons in Britain to such a degree that the seat of the empire would have to be relocated across the Atlantic.

In contrast to an institutional structure of continuity, as provided by the British government to legitimate its immemorial, customary rule, Franklin was operating according to the factors of contingency and the changing dimensions of the actual political state of things. And, to motivate activity in the present, he was implementing the possibility of a new shared futurity, which the institutionalization of continuity—the Crown and its supporting subsidiaries—could not follow because it had to guarantee itself that as things had always been so they must always be and there was therefore no possibility for futurity in America at all.

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, VIII

Mr. Poor Richard, what's the point of making virtue a daily issue? I mean, what's new about that?

Similarly, in the Autobiography’s program of virtue regimentation—what Franklin had proposed to Lord Kames in 1760 as his “Art of Virtue”— the cultivation of virtue is completely structured as discipline on a diurnal timescale to break the “unremitting Attraction of ancient Habits and the Force of perpetual Temptations:”

"I made a little Book in which I allotted a Page for each of the Virtues. I rul’d each Page with red Ink so as to have seven Columns, one for each Day of the Week, marking each Column with a Letter for the Day. I cross’d these Columns with thirteen red Lines, marking the Beginning of each Line with the first Letter of one of the Virtues, on which Line and in its proper Column I might mark by a little black Spot every Fault I found upon Examination, to have been committed respecting that Virtue upon that Day."

And of the virtues most stressed by Franklin, Industry and Frugality, have, as I have noted, a principal emphasis as fundamental controls of time. The day-to-day structure of the almanac’s system of virtue indoctrination is itself subsumed into Franklin’s larger project of appropriating control over quotidian time to arrive “at moral Perfection.” And the daily effort itself internalizes discipline in time consciousness, as opposed to obedience to the time consciousness of an external authority.

David Landes identifies the introduction of the portable timekeeper, watch or clock, as a revolutionary instrument, and the transition from public time to private time that it instantiated in the 17c as a long, revolutionary moment. By virtue of similar relationship of a person to their consciousness of time, Nathaniel Low’s observation in 1786 remarks on the time consciousness as occasioned by the use of almanacs:

"It is easy to prove that no book we read (except the Bible) is so much valued, and so serviceable to the community. Almanacks serve as clocks and watches for nine-tenths of mankind..."

Increasingly widespread use of the diurnal moralization, which Franklin was promoting, was operating as an instantiation of internal time-discipline, which is continuous with Franklin’s project of daily virtue cultivation, which itself was an assertion of republican agency and responsibility. Unlike time obedience—as evident in an anecdote of King Charles V of France, who in 1370 issued an ordinance that all public clocks in Paris, including those of the church towers, should be regulated around the timekeeper of the royal palace, the Horloge du Palais—the appropriation of time consciousness reputed that time should emanate from an external authority and that that authority in keeping time should be the royal imperium.

The idea of an royal imperium as having been granted by an ancient, immemorial right, thus claiming anteriority and sole rights to time, received its unwritten formulation in British polity sometime around 1600. By legitimizing its presence as immemorial concretion, the monarchy positioned itself centrally in a timescale of sanctioned perpetuity. Because it had always been it must consequently always be.

Pocock observes that, “to describe a timeless existence, a sacred origin or an immemorial continuity, are all ways of conceptualizing the continuous existence of a society.” Continuous existence is indeed legitimated—and with it the chronological anteriority of the monarchy. The monarchy, which theoretically came before time, emanated time. Time was a kind of original property of the monarchy, who alone in claiming ancient ownership of time could claim, by extension, sole rights to contingency and agency in time. In this respect, the monarchy could legitimately militate against the usurpation of time and agency by any other political body.

A sententia in Franklin’s 1745 almanac directly condemns the theoretical principle underpinning the monarchic doctrine of traditionalism and immemorial custom: “All blood is alike ancient.” In 1751, he echoed this notion by mockingly computing that for “each present Nobleman, to exclude all ignoble Blood from his Veins, ought to have had One Million, Forty-eight Thousand, Five Hundred and Seventy-six noble Ancestors,” thus showing that “the Pretension of such Purity of Blood in ancient Families is a mere Joke.” Even the Autobiography’s describing deleterious habit as ‘ancient’ seems to be an underhanded critique of ancient modes as fundamentally dysfunctional.

Greater popular control of time therefore becomes a political issue. The appearance of an instrument or a virtue system that could privately claim de facto hold on time was not only associated with a principle of self-regulation, it also brought with it a liberalizing share of legal and political agency for any person that could claim chrono-literacy and chrono-control. As early as 1637, John Suckling already associates control of time with political self-regulation:

"But as when an authentic watch is shown,
Each man winds up and rectifies his own,
So in our very judgments."

Personal appropriation of accurate, private timekeeping is operatively continuous with the legitimation of common, private adjudication. In the same manner by which each man keeps his own time, each man rectifies his own agential relationship to judgment in time. Franklin’s diurnal programming of self-regimentation in the almanac and the virtue system, which is also a tabular account of daily good doable, was suggestively politicized in a bit of advice from Poor Richard:

"In studying Law or Physick, or any other Art or Science, by which you propose to get your Livelihood, though you find it at first hard, difficult and unpleasing, use Diligence, Patience and Perseverance; the Irksomeness of your Task will thus diminish daily, and your Labour shall finally be crowned with Success."

Rather than an impersonal process, grace—or the perfection of human capacities—is seen as a historical effort, which takes place within the closed circle of private labor and is ‘crowned,’ or afforded a public exhibition of one’s imperium over one’s self, according to the successful implementation of those virtues, which are foundational to the Republic, namely controls of agency in relation to a heightened sensibility to time: “Diligence, Patience and Perseverance.”

And what these three virtues share, beyond being a control of character in relation to time, is that they are all specifically controls of character in relation to a timescale that premises a rewarding futurity as the operative stimulus to action in the present. And by this trajectory—hopefully less roundabout than I have intended—I will return to futurity and Franklin’s core issue in the political events of the mid-eighteenth century.