Category Archives: Errant Thought

Philip K. Dick, the Imbecile, the Visionary

Here’s the thing about Philip K. Dick: he was an abysmal writer.  Though they are now far less frequent than a few years ago, every Dick “retrospective” begins with some sort of veiled caveat about his writing, which quickly segues into effusive praise of his ideas and style.  Notice Adam Gopnik’s piece in the New Yorker from just over a year ago:

“Of all American writers, none have got the genre-hack-to-hidden-genius treatment quite so fully as Philip K. Dick…Dick has also become for our time what Edgar Allan Poe was for Gilded Age America: the doomed genius who supplies a style of horrors and frissons.”

Notice the turn here.  Though Gopnik later argues the contrary, his very citation of the widespread belief that Dick is a genius underappreciated serves as salt for an argument that must be made, namely although Dick is a horrible writer, he can and must be appreciated for his “form of protest and instant social satire.”  This pusillanimity of argumentative tact is necessary for the argumentative sleight-of-hand that most Dick critics must make in order that his writing is accepted by the public intellect.

This sort of criticism, though helpful in getting Dick’s name around, is wrong-headed and yields an improper reading of the man’s expansive body of work.  If the argument is bought, Dick is treated as high literature, regardless of his poor prose.  This is as stupid a concept as it is wrong-headed, because through Dick’s writing it is self-evident that the ideas his writing elicits are the true mettle of Dick’s literary persona.  The current critical view of Dick is wont to strip away the layers of writing that surround his ideas like so many coatings of paint.  His writing, though bad, is not a foil: it is the essential aspect of a literary philosopher, not a satirist or a social critic.

As a major of philosophy, my perspective on the writer is necessarily skewed towards this reading, but I think it is corroborated by even a cursory review of his books and the underlying ideas they treat.  The New Yorker critic sees in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a blithe lampooning of American corporatism and the decay of the rule of law.  Blade Runner has in this case served to obscure the book’s actual message by the sheer power of its visual language (this is an important point).  Deckard’s infantile social capacity is mirrored with the social impulse towards mood-modification.  His wife cannot communicate with him on any meaningful level because she is obsessed with her own Cartesian winter, spent modifying her moods and compulsions with high-technology pharmacology.

In Dr. Bloodmoney, a predominant theme of Dick’s writing is taken to its apotheosis: Walter Dangerfield orbits the earth in a satellite, broadcasting classical music to the inhabitants below.  Dr. Bloodmoney or Bruno Bluthgeld or Jack Tree is himself responsible for the nuclear war that has brought the human race to its knees.  This is Descartes’ cogito enlarged to the point of absurdity.  Bloodmoney finds himself vested with the terrible power of being able to cause a nuclear holocaust with his own mind.

Dick critics who see him as a satirist par excellence do him a disservice, mainly because his satire would be ideosyncratic and without any real insights into the human condition after World War II.  Dick is backward-looking, and forward-extrapolating.  He is not trying to poke fun at the consumerism stalking the gates of American culture or of the vapid scientism that challenges the viability of any ideology.

It is a common refrain that the Dickian hero is more likely than not an ‘average joe’, who is just trying to make his way through the world, yet is brought kicking and screaming into unfortunate circumstanes that demand he prove his worth.  This is convenient because the satirical read benefits: Dick is simply portraying the plight of the common man under the encroachments of modern technology.

Dick is portraying a loneliness that is modern above all, and modernity has no space at the table for a satirist.  Why do Dick’s ideas matter so much, then?  Because he stands for the resumption of history after its end; to show that there is a continuity in the crises of humanity.  We wrested the spark of atomic fire from the fennel-seed of intellect.  Our mistakes and slips of mind have ever more potent consequences, but it is by very dint of the seriousness of modern life that Dick finds an even more essential meaning to being human.  His writing isolates this continuity and matches profundity in the human sorteé with ever-greater absurdities in his own outpouring of love, grief, and humor.

The Racism directed at Barack Obama has a rational basis.

Exhibit A:

Most people are spinning this as some sort of horror story about the dark underbelly of America.  What you see in the video above, however, is what the Soviets would have called “Reactionaries”.

This is a problem that I have had to think about long and hard.  It has made my support for Obama at times wax and wane.  The “Change” trope, as tired and worn as it may be, is still what symbolizes this election, and the forces arrayed against each other fall into two camps: for change, and against change.  This may seem like a bit of a non-sequitur but the point does bear mentioning.  John McCain has been reluctantly coopted by the (mostly) conservative forces that are vehemently against the “changes” (substantial or not) that Obama proposes.

The reason McCain will lose this election is that he thinks he must also hop on the ‘change’ bandwagon in order to win.  It’s no surprise that of recent he has abandoned the theme of ‘change’ and has instead tried to focus everyone’s attention on the sorts of change that Obama seeks to bring about.

And these changes are not minor.  The racism and bigotry that has infected this election cycle is not purely on account of Obama’s blackness as such; instead it is about demographic and ideological shifts that are remaking the face of the United States.

Until this election, the common retort of green party members that the Democrat and Republican parties were really the same was actually for the most part true.  The mass of society was mostly white, vaguely well-off, and for the most part ideologically similar (in favor of American intervention, against taxation, against Communism, etc.).  Main differences appeared over fringe issues such as how to deal with certain problems, rather than what the problems actually are.

John McCain and Barack Obama, for all of their rhetoric, are split along an easy-to-grasp, but still quite profound ideological line.  McCain stands for the old meritocracy (that was so happily bought into by most white people, because it quite frankly to be egalitarian towards people of the same race).  Obama stands for the revolution (if one could ever occur here).  Obama wants to institute far-sweeping changes that are at heart changes to the way that America functions both in governance and society.

Again, people look to these two leaders and wonder what their stances on issues will be; but the real reason that values matter (and will be harped upon by McCain and Palin) is because that is exactly what Obama promises to bring to Washington: a new set of guidelines.  Obama’s is a campaign of change not on the level of policy but on ideological fundament.

Obama pitches himself as a great leveler (hence the Messianic imagery); the cries of “communist” and “terrorist” are not so far from home for this reason.  Osama Bin Laden stands for hardline Islamic ideology.  Islam is only confusing if you refuse to understand it.  But the religion itself exists on a very simple premise: people are equal.  You cannot depict Allah and Muhammad because that would put Muhammad higher up than any other devout worshipper.  Islam’s appeal in southeast Asia is for the very reason that it advocates radical equality.  The link between Obama and Osama is not one of semantic drift: it is grounded in an intuition (that is not so far from the truth) that Obama wants to bring radical equality to our nations’ highest office.

The news media and liberal blogs are keen to paint the racist demogoguery surrounding Palin rallies as simply one instance of human irrationality–artifacts, they say, of a troubled past.  Really, these bigoted outcries are grounded in a very real insecurity that most white,  middle-class Americans feel about Obama, because he is the anathema of a structured (read: vaguely, if merit-based, aristocratic) American society.

How Scrip can Save us from the coming Depression

My grandfather was an eccentric.  He went to Harvard aged sixteen, later dropping out to pursue his interests in newspapers and various entrepreneurial projects.  Shortly after the war, he created “The Boyd System”, the country’s first credit card system.  It operated in small regions of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  The system quickly failed, because people did not understand that goods purchased with the cards would have to be paid for (eventually); My grandfather ended up having to foot the bill for the finery that many people had bought under the impression they would never have to be paid for.  This last fact reveals a truth about the human conscience that is not readily apparent today: new developments in technology must also be met with more refinements in the human psyche.  Capitalism leads us to believe that humans behave with the same rational self-interest in one situation as they do in another.  This is untrue.  Humans must be taught how to behave under a specific system, otherwise the system itself will fail (or those forced to live under it will suffer).

It’s fitting that my Grandfather spent the last few years of his life on a book about credit and currency.  His quest was more than a little Quixotic: when he died, there were approximately 5 manuscript copies in the hands of seven different editors.  The book itself was about as disorganized as the room in which my Grandfather died.  I had several opportunities to pick my Grandfather’s brain before he died.  Most of the time he called me ‘brainwashed’ for the classical economic education I was receiving at college.  Naturally I was keen to prove him wrong with my newly-learned Keynesian dogma.  In many cases I think we were arguing over moot points–his vitriolic anxieties about the current economic order found expression in his frequent attacks on my beliefs.

My Grandfather had a few salient points to offer which I think will profit anyone trying to make sense of the current economic crisis.

1.  The United States Government is being strangled by the debt it has sold to foreign buyers.

The Chinese and Japanese have more or less footed the bill for the last ten years of consumer profligacy in the United States.  To pessimistic commentators, this much is obvious.  The cheap loans which American companies and individuals enjoyed was largely created by the enormous foreign currency reserves that the Chinese accumulated through artificial inflation of the U.S. Dollar.  By purchasing massive amounts of Treasury bonds, the Chinese were effectively able to depreciate their own currency against the U.S. Dollar, thereby stimulating their own export markets and feeding the American appetite for non-durable consumer goods (flat-screen televisions, lawn furniture, etc.).

2.  The current crisis in the market can be traced back to the currency that the engines of Capital and Commerce must share.

This remains my Grandfather’s most salient point.  With a little explanation, this is easy to see.  Commerce is geared towards a currency that has no residual value at all.  The U.S. dollar, importantly, states that it is valid for “all debts public and private”; While the U.S. Dollar is in its current apparition a far cry from the Gold standard dollar of yore, it still retains value in and of itself (that is, Capital reserves are expressed in dollar values, and loans are made between companies in dollar values).

The most important point to recognize here is that it is in the individual’s interest to hoard as much money as possible.  This is even more true today, when investments in companies and money market accounts are particularly shaky propositions.  The impetus of an investor is to either retain cash or to purchase things that are of hard values–Gold, Oil futures, etc.  Contrast this with the interests of commerce, and one can easily see why the interests of commerce are fundamentally opposed to the interests of capital.

To a commercial company (a company that offers a good or a service; not capital), the more money there is in circulation, the better.  Of course in cases of hyperinflation this is not true, but the reason that a central bank must sustain a small level of inflation is that it must maintain liquidity–if the amount of money in an economy is fixed, then commerce will be strangled by a lack of currency.  If someone wants to purchase a good or service, they must have cash in hand.  However if cash is scarce (people are hoarding), then commerce suffers.

The way a depression is created, then, is if there is no cash available for commerce–if it is kept under lock and key by the forces of capital.  No small wonder then that the Great Depression saw multiple Scrip currencies created that were not tied at all to any hard value but were used for commercial transactions.

3.  The way to dissolve the opposition between the forces of Capital and Commerce is to create a separate currency for each sector.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it?  Let’s say the US Government creates a new currency called the “Peso” that had no residual value, and is not printed in notes.  Each peso only holds value for a year after the last transaction it was used in.  Every company retains a balance sheet, showing how many pesos they owe to various individuals and companies, and how many pesos they are owed by various individuals and companies.

If the system above is properly implemented (I have never seen it on a national scale; the examples I know of, like the Swiss “Wir Bank” have only been implemented on a small scale), the results are straightforward.  If the only way that one can redeem the value of a peso is to purchase a good or a service from another company, then commercial transcations overall are stimulated.  If the government implements a system whereby one can exchange pesos for dollars (the latter being a currency that actually retains residual value) at a 5% loss on the dollar, then the impetus remains to purchase goods instead of hoarding capital.

This system may never work on a national scale, but the reason that systems like this have never been successfully implemented is because of opposition from the Government.  If a system of currency only implies debts and credits between companies, with no residual value in the currency itself, the government becomes a dispensible accessory to commercial transactions.

I have elucidated my Grandfather’s ideas in a haphazard manner, and I would be surprised of anyone who reads this does not end up confused at least on some point (probably the last).  I will probably create another post to further elucidate my Grandpa’s points, but until then if you find yourself curious about anything I have said, please post a comment.

The Sunday Reading

My favorite article in today’s New York Times is titled “The Rise of the Machines” by Richard Dooling.  I am particularly happy about the fact that we are now long enough into the financial crisis that people are beginning to bring up and dust off the real issues at hand, instead of bandying about with the common parlance of the 24-hour news media.  

Dooling brings up the possibility that the Credit Default Swaps created by impossibly complex computer algorithms are a symptom of Humanity’s long march towards utter dependence upon machines.  

Man is a fire-stealing animal, and we can’t help building machines and machine intelligences, even if, from time to time, we use them not only to outsmart ourselves but to bring us right up to the doorstep of Doom.

The Pitchfork 500: Just about as Boring as the Indy 500.

 

yawn.

yawn.

Except there are no cars and loud noises to keep ones’ critical reasoning from getting in the way.  Here we have the erstwhile attempts of a few unshaven hipsters at a real piece of literature; something they can say will last a little longer than the typical blog post.  That is to say, this book will be purchased, for money, by people who are interested in hearing what Pitchfork deems “the Greatest songs from Punk to the Present.”

And, what do they have to say?  I don’t have my review copy (Their PR lady doesn’t seem to want to get back to me), so I’ll just mercilessly pick apart their blog post about it.  In their words, The Pitchfork 500 is

an alternate history of the past three decades of popular music– one that extends beyond the typical Baby Boomer-approved canon of the Clash, Prince, Public Enemy, Nirvana, Radiohead, and Outkast.

Fair enough; I was sick of The Clash anyway.  Who needs ’em?  Who will our new arbiters of high culture usher in to the now-vacant throne over which Western culture will be surveyed with a cautious and pragmatic eye?  

From art-rock and proto-punk godfathers such as Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie to today’s leading lights such as the Arcade Fire, the White Stripes, and Kanye West…Interspersed throughout are sidebars on the most vital subgenres from electro to grime to riot grrrl, along with pieces like “Career Killers: The Songs That Ended It All” and “Runaway Trainwrecks: The Post-Grunge Nadir.”

Well, let me just get this out of the way:  Don’t use my fucking word.  I refuse to believe that ‘Nadir’ will be bastardized like so many other words and beaten into an utterly uninteresting pulp by the blog-o-sphere.  Let alone be used in the same volume that claims Kanye West is the apotheosis of Western culture, much less a ‘leading light’.  Bah, humbug!

 

Something doesn’t add up.

I’ve just finished reading the latest installment the New York Times Reckoning series; This look at the current financial crisis has given rise to some queer intuitions on my part when held up against another brilliant article in The Chronicle about how the best historical example of the current crisis is not 1929, but rather 1873.

The latter article suggests a much more probable cause for the current mania; namely that a certain combination of economic forces and fear have given us our current situation.  The question in this situation is when the bottom of both fear and the rapid revaluation of our economy will occur.  The second question is who stands to profit most when this time comes.  The silly thing about the Times article just linked is that it question-begs.  It tries to inculcate the reader into thinking that things have bottomed out, and will only get better soon (read: “Buy stock, for gods sake!  We need your cash!”)

What then, to make of the panic of 1873?  The author of the article in the Chronicle claims that the crisis of 1873 preceded a westward-shift of power; he draws the hazy conclusion that power will continue to shift west, to China: this is an impossibility.  Enough has been made of China’s political and social problems, but their economy is predicated on exports to such an extent that a slowdown in the West will surely have negative repercussions in Beijing.

Where does this leave us?  I’m inclined to say that we are headed towards a period of general decline, probably no longer than the Great Depression itself was.  Commodity prices are already plummeting, leaving the petro-fascists out in the cold, along with most other ‘developing’ (3rd-world) countries that had depended on high commodity prices for economic growth.  In this sense, Iraq will probably jump to the fore once again, because it is of little doubt that the current spate of stability has little to do with the increased presence of US troops but $100/barrel oil prices.

Where, are we left?  It’s a question I’ve been having some trouble answering.  There exists some third variable and presence beyond investor fear and a burst housing bubble.  This is no correction.  It’s a massive redaction.

Interesting times, to be sure.

The mid-week read

Gerald Early has written an eloquent and thought-provoking piece in the Chronicle about Barack Obama’s election hopes in the context of American racial history.  He presents the first coherent argument about the end of racism that does not give any thanks to White culture while also unceremoniously dumping the age-old and endlessly-harped-upon Black position as-victim.  I think his most interesting thought is

Many of us black professionals, members of the black elite, keep the embers of our victimization burning for opportunistic reasons: to lev-erage white patronage, to maintain our own sense of identity and tradition. In some respects, this narrative has something of the power in its endurance that original sin does for Christians. In fact, our narrative of victimization is America’s original sin, or what we want to serve as the country’s original sin, which may be why we refuse to give it up.

It’s a piece well worth reading if you are interested in the cultural and political themes that this election draws upon but only seem to get passing reference in the news media.