Archive for July, 2014

The useful art

July 31, 2014

Speaking at a 2012 literary festival, Jonathan Franzen expertly flattered his audience, sweeping them, himself and the US president into gratifying communion:

One of the reasons I love Barack Obama as much as I do is that we finally have a real reader in the White House. It’s absolutely amazing. There’s one of us running the US.

‘real writer type’, too: the young Obama, his early promise detected, was offered, and duly inked, a publishing contract to write his memoirs while still at college.

Released just before an electoral campaign for the Illinois Senate, that book presented the candidate in his now accustomed role: embodiment of triumph over racial prejudice, personification of national healing.

Jonathan Franzen June 2012 Artists and Writers for Obama

The breadth of presidential interests is, of course, not exhausted by the written word. Its scope encompasses all varieties of Blue State cultural output, visual as well as verbal.

Thus Obama may loyally have read Franzen at Martha’s Vineyard, but he is also a fan and sponsor of the cinematic blockbuster.

The contours of this aesthetic ecumenicism — a broad-minded taste for Hollywood dross as well as Champaign-Urbana middlebrow — adhere closely to the map of industries granted favourable copyright, patent and intellectual-property protection — now of unprecedented extent and duration — during recent decades.

The Motion Picture Association and the Association of American Publishers both have a friend, attuned to their needs and sensibilities, in the White House.

Its current occupant, following Clinton’s efforts to secure the TRIPS Agreement, is the first to establish a domestic office of Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator.

The cultural pretensions of Democratic presidents, along with their financial contributors and electoral base, have accordingly changed since 1946, when Harry Truman could rail against ‘the “Artists” with a capital A, the parlour pinks and the soprano-voiced men.’

Today press, academy and the well-educated flock to the Democrats.

Amid this reconfiguration — postwar rise of the media and entertainment industries, verbal culture displaced by the visual, fortification of IP as a massive source of royalties and licence revenue — the very role of the writer has been transformed.

Professional distinctions between journalist, writer and scholar have been blurred, publicity pursued and cultural authority lost.

Franzen’s attempt to edify a self-conceived intelligentsia might therefore, at least, prompt one question.

How, examined in the longue durée, has production and reproduction of books and the written word altered the social position of authors? How have the writer’s esteem, prerogatives and benefices altered with his or her workaday techniques, tools of the trade, property rights and proximity to power?

The topic is vast, but some remarks can be made.

To organize any society’s division of labour, a ruling class always depends on technologies of information transmission and storage (e.g. written culture, number systems, monetary tokens, aides memoire).

Thus, in the temple economy of ancient Sumer, writing, numerical notation and arithmetic developed to record and tally units of sheep, wheat, fish, etc. on clay tablets.

Herodotus explained how geometry arose from the Egyptian state’s need to survey and measure land boundaries for apportionment to tenants:

Egypt was cut up; and they said that this king distributed the land to all the Egyptians, giving an equal square portion to each man, and from this he made his revenue, having appointed them to pay a certain rent every year: and if the river should take away anything from any man’s portion, he would come to the king and declare that which had happened, and the king used to send men to examine and to find out by measurement how much less the piece of land had become, in order that for the future the man might pay less, in proportion to the rent appointed: and I think that thus the art of geometry was found out and afterwards came into Hellas also. For as touching the sun-dial and the gnomon and the twelve divisions of the day, they were learnt by the Hellenes from the Babylonians.

Literate societies, which allow information to be more readily stored externally and transmitted horizontally (e.g. by telegraph) as well as vertically across generations (e.g. training manuals), can deploy a more complex labour process than non-literate ones.

Reckoning_Before_Writing

Through the movement of symbols — coins, written messages, titles to deed — separate production units can be coordinated.

Or large-scale collaborative projects, such as architectural or construction works, can be undertaken, with many producers working in parallel under the same roof.

Thanks to writing and other methods of storing information, technological specialties can accrete and be taught to new generations, and society’s labour resources allocated to different concrete tasks.

The ‘disembodied word,’ wrote Ernest Gellner, ‘can be identically present in many, many places.’

The scale of productive labour commanded, and thus the capacity to extract and appropriate a surplus product (e.g. tax-raising or rent), is thereby increased by a system of extendible records such as writing.

The sovereign rulers or elite of such a territory are able to mobilize greater resources (military service, armaments, requisitioned food, etc.) to squander on war or the threat of war, or to administer in peacetime.

Thus the rulers of a literate society will be more likely to succeed in military conflict with external rivals and internal challengers.

Tokens Iran 4th millenium BC

Suppose this rudimentary level of literacy reached, as in agrarian societies.

How then has the manner in which manuscripts were copied and books printed influenced matters?

Charlemagne’s Frankish military machine, the most effective in post-Roman Western Europe, and the most ecclesiastically based, was also the first to effectively promote book copying and literary education as part of an official recovery of the classical past and its cultural treasures.

Stung by the humiliations inflicted upon the Merovingians by the tax-raising Umayyad state, the Carolingian court in Aachen — its own fiscal resources modest — opted to undertake an ambitious administrative and education policy.

Late in the eighth century Charlemagne addressed a famous letter to the abbot Baugaulf of Fulda, instructing him to forward copies to every monastery in Francia:

[The] bishoprics and monasteries entrusted by the favour of Christ to our control, in addition to inculcating the culture of letters, also ought to be zealous in teaching those who by the gift of God are able to learn, according to the capacity of each individual, so that just as the observation of the rule imparts order and grace to honesty of morals, so also zeal in teaching and learning may do the same for sentences, so that those who desire to please God by living rightly should not neglect to please him also by speaking correctly…

For although correct conduct may be better than knowledge, nevertheless knowledge precedes conduct.

Therefore, each one ought to study what he desires to accomplish, so that so much the more fully the mind may know what ought to be done, as the tongue hastens in the praises of omnipotent God without the hindrances of errors. For since errors should be shunned by all men, so much the more ought they to be avoided as far as possible by those who are chosen for this very purpose alone, so that they ought to be the especial servants of truth.

For when in the years just passed letters were often written to us from several monasteries in which it was stated that the brethren who dwelt there offered up in our behalf sacred and pious prayers, we have recognized in most of these letters both correct thoughts and uncouth expressions; because what pious devotion dictated faithfully to the mind, the tongue, uneducated on account of the neglect of study, was not able to express in the letter without error…

Therefore, we exhort you not only not to neglect the study of letters, but also with most humble mind, pleasing to God, to study earnestly in order that you may be able more easily and more correctly to penetrate the mysteries of the divine Scriptures.

Since, moreover, images, tropes and similar figures are found in the sacred pages, no one doubts that each one in reading these will understand the spiritual sense more quickly if previously he shall have been fully instructed in the mastery of letters…

Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne describes how the king himself, though barely able to write, joined in the Frankish elite’s recovery of Latin classics and early Christian authorities:

The plan that he adopted for his children’s education was, first of all, to have both boys and girls instructed in the liberal arts, to which he also turned his own attention…

Charles had the gift of ready and fluent speech, and could express whatever he had to say with the utmost clearness. He was not satisfied with command of his native language merely, but gave attention to the study of foreign ones, and in particular was such a master of Latin that he could speak it as well as his native tongue; but he could understand Greek better than he could speak it. He was so eloquent, indeed, that he might have passed for a teacher of eloquence.

He most zealously cultivated the liberal arts, held those who taught them in great esteem, and conferred great honors upon them.

He took lessons in grammar of the deacon Peter of Pisa, at that time an aged man. Another deacon, Albin of Britain, surnamed Alcuin, a man of Saxon extraction, who was the greatest scholar of the day, was his teacher in other branches of learning.

The King spent much time and labour with him studying rhetoric, dialectics, and especially astronomy; he learned to reckon, and used to investigate the motions of the heavenly bodies most curiously, with an intelligent scrutiny.

He also tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success.

Alcuin’s letters describe that scholar’s mission, recruited to Aachen as Charlemagne’s ‘restorer of letters’.

There he would salvage and transcribe lost manuscripts, with copying accuracy improved by development of the standardized script known as Carolingian miniscule.

Alcuin would also establish and amass a library of books (Virgil, Augustine, Jerome, etc.), administer abbeys, and teach ‘liberal studies and the holy word’ to the Frankish aristocracy, court officials and clergy.

A common elite culture was thereby transmitted at the Palace School, instructions issued in a language and Church ideology that all ecclesiastic authorities could understand and apply.

Aachen palace

Van Zanden - West European monasteries

Through the serial copying of texts by scribes and notaries, and the teaching of students, this ‘culture of letters’ gradually diffused outward throughout the cathedral schools of the Frankish realm.

Common institutions (incorporated towns, monastery and cathedral schools, Catholic orders) spread from the Rhine-Meuse heartland of the Carolingian lands across Europe.

Latin Christendom’s conquest to the south, in Acquitane, northern Spain and Italy, and to the east in Saxony and the Slavic lands, created social and legal replicas rather than dependencies.

European book production, initially concentrated in the Italian peninsula, took off continent-wide.

Van Zanden - European manuscript production

A poem by the Archbishop of Mainz conveys some idea of the enthusiasm for scribes, and the written word, among the Carolingian elite:

As God’s kingly law rules in absolute majesty over the wide world
It is an exceedingly holy task to copy the law of God.
This activity is a pious one, unequalled in merit
By any other which men’s hands can perform.
For the fingers rejoice in writing, the eyes in seeing,
And the mind at examining the meaning of God’s mystical words.
No work sees the light which hoary old age
Does not destroy or wicked time overturn:
Only letters are immortal and ward off death
Only letters in books bring the past to life.
Indeed God’s hand carved letters on the rock
That pleased him when he gave his laws to the people,
And these letters reveal everything in the world that is
Has been, or may chance to come in the future.

An ingratiating manner was thus adopted towards the specialist corps of scholars, writers and clerics. Political authority, while chiefly engaged in the sordid business of territorial aggrandizement, relied for its perpetuation and its sense of mission upon scriptural authority, and its codification in writing.

The word was repository of wisdom and legitimating truth. Its custodians should be indulged.

Carolingian manuscript

Europe’s urban and commercial efflorescence of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries marked another development of book production.

The Pecia system, using multiple scribes, reduced the time required to reproduce a manuscript by allowing parallel copying of many fragment of the text, rather than a single serial process.

This technique was developed in medieval universities that had sprung up, the first under Imerius at Bologna, to recover and interpret the Roman civil code.

This medieval revival of Roman jurisprudence, making available classical precepts of ownership and contract, was propitious for the growth of West European commodity production, trade and urbanization.

In the more coherently developed Byzantine Empire, centuries earlier, revival of the Justinian Code by Basil I had been accompanied by renewed appreciation for Virgil, Homer and Augustine. The Macedonian Renaissance, with Photius and his famous library, presented a pinnacle then unreachable in backwards Francia. Byzantine state officials were trained in Graeco-Roman classics: Leo the Mathematician taught Aristotelian logic at the Magnaura school.

In the West, however, until the Renaissance the Church served as a ‘special vessel’ that preserved the cultural heritage of classical antiquity, ‘escaping the general wreckage to transmit the mysterious messages of the past to the less advanced future… the indispensable bridge between two epochs.’

scriptorium

Van Zanden - Book production and monasteries

In our own day, the practice of copying information has become more important to social production.

First lauded by Daniel Bell in the 1970s, the ‘information economy’ was the subject of more sustained and thoroughgoing ideological celebration in the 1990s, with industrial capitalism receiving bouquets for having overcome its material constraints and resource limits.

Of course, as with much else, the economic contribution made by copying information was identified long ago by Charles Babbage.

Replacement of the scribe (a serial process of copying) by the printing press and moveable type brought rapid increase in the productivity of information copying:

Printing from moveable types… is the most important in its influence of all the arts of copying.

It possesses a singular peculiarity, in the immense subdivision of the parts that form the pattern. After that pattern has furnished thousands of copies, the same individual elements may be arranged again and again in other forms, and thus supply multitudes of originals, from each of which thousands of their copied impressions may flow.

This set the scene for generalized literacy among the educated workforce required by industrial capitalism. And it ensured, for a time, the supremacy of verbal culture.

Outside the printing industry itself, mass production using interchangeable parts has, since the mid-19th century, depended on replication of standardized products made to precise tolerances. (This, in turn, makes possible the development of numerical-control machine tools, replacing jigs and fixtures.)

Copying technology in manufacturing has more recently been refined by optical and UV lithography.

Today’s books, images, recorded music and software are transmitted rapidly and in parallel using Unicode and ASCII.

Information (e.g. a sequence of words) is liberated from its dependence on any particular medium or embodiment in a specific material artifact (e.g. typeset document). Written text may be duplicated at will.

Any such item of text, able to be reproduced at low cost, must therefore become copyright if it is to be remain property and yield monetary reward.

This raises the question of the author as independent producer.

When does the writer retain property rights to his or her product?

Especially since the 1970s, copyright law has decreed that employees, or those contractors working for hire, waive ownership rights over their creative work to the commissioning or employing entity (publisher, studio, ad agency).

Staff journalists or advertising writers, for example, have no property claims in their published works, which belong instead to the periodical or agency that employs or contracts them (some exceptions apply).

Freelance writers, too, while nominally independent contractors and thus entitled to copyright, are in bargaining terms at the mercy of publishers: ‘if [writers] do not capitulate and assign rights to such conglomerates they risk being blacklisted.’

This divestment of authorship has accomplished a sharp change in the social position of writers, who had hitherto, in some measure, been independent producers: owning their own tools of the trade, working under their own direction rather than that of supervisors, preserving rights to their output and whatever fruits it might yield.

‘The author isn’t dead’, wrote Catherine Fisk, reaching for a clever epigram and duly finding it: ‘he just got a job.’

Unfortunately, as if in a company-man dystopia, he has been subsumed into the identity of his corporate employer. His disappearance is by now almost complete. Although he has gone on writing, the corporation has become the author of his oeuvre…

[Modern] creativity is exercised in an employment setting where salaried creators sign away their rights in their work as a condition of hire — sign away, in effect, their very status as authors.

In this ‘corporatization of creativity’, there is an echo of the fate of the salaried engineer, brought into a collective work team by growth of the patent system.

David Noble describes emergence of the ‘corporation as inventor’ at the in-house research laboratories (General Electric, AT&T, Bayer, BASF) of the late nineteenth century:

The frustration of independent invention led the majority of inventors into the research laboratories of the large corporations; in the process, invention itself was transformed…

Inventors became employees in corporations to spare themselves the hardship of going in alone. Their patents were thereby handled by corporation-paid patent lawyers and their inventions were made commercially viable at corporate expense. Corporate employment thus eliminated the problem of lawsuits, and in addition provided well-equipped laboratories, libraries and technical assistance for research. The nature of their actual work, however, had changed…

By employing the technical experts capable of producing inventions, the corporations were also obtaining the legally necessary vehicles for the accumulation of corporate patents…

In time… employees became required to assign all patent rights to their employer, as part of their employment contracts, in return for their salaries.

The writer’s reduced circumstances in the world have been accompanied by a marked decline in the quality of authorial output.

Little published in the decades following the Second World War stands comparison with the tightly bunched sequence of totems released after the First: works by Proust, Joyce, Mann, Kafka, Musil, Rilke, Valéry, Mayakovsky all appearing within a few years of each other.

Fredric Jameson notes the social mutations behind this post-1945 fall-off in novelistic standards — a decline everywhere grudgingly conceded but rarely dwelt upon.

The great modernist seers, not least in their own self-mythology, were independent producers, retaining an artisanal autonomy of routine, if not hieratic ritual. Pen and paper offered a self-sufficient cloister from the industrial economy of plastics, electronics and chemical factories.

These droits de l’auteur were usurped as their literary successors, obliged to do paid journalism or media work in whatever measure, have been drawn into capitalist social relations:

[There] is a deeper reason for the disappearance of the Great Writer under postmodernism, and it is simply this, sometimes called “uneven development”: in an age of monopolies (and trade unions), of increasing institutionalized collectivization, there is always a lag. Some parts of the economy are still archaic, handicraft enclaves; some are more modern and futuristic than the future itself.

Modern art, in this respect, drew its power and its possibilities from being a backwater and an archaic holdover within a modernizing economy: it glorified, celebrated, and dramatized older forms of individual production which the new mode of production was elsewhere on the point of displacing and blotting out.

Aesthetic production then offered the Utopian vision of a more human production generally; and in the world of the monopoly stage of capitalism it exercised a fascination by way of the image it offered of a Utopian transformation of human life.

Joyce in his rooms in Paris singlehandedly produces a whole world, all by himself and beholden to no one; but the human beings in the streets outside those rooms have no comparable sense of power and control, of human productivity; none of the feeling of freedom and autonomy that comes when, like Joyce, you can make or at least share in making your own decisions.

As a form of production, then, modernism (including the Great Artists and producers) gives off a message that has little to do with the content of the individual works: it is the aesthetic as sheer autonomy, as the satisfactions of handicraft transfigured.

Modernism must thus be seen as uniquely corresponding to an uneven moment of social development, or to what Ernst Bloch called the “simultaneity of the non-simultaneous,” the “synchronicity of the non-synchronous” (Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen): the coexistence of realities from radically different moments of history  handicrafts alongside the great cartels, peasant fields with the Krupp factories or the Ford plant in the distance.

The history of early twentieth-century avant-gardes in the visual arts easel painting stretching the limits of handicraft creativity in response to the new commercial technologies of photography, cinema and television seems to confirm this diagnosis.

But the written word has been cheaply reproducible for centuries. The printing press was invented long before sound recording or disc pressing.

Why then should authors have suddenly submitted to the depredations and indignity of the employment relationship? Why relinquish a purely commercial transaction for a relationship of command and subordination?

The background to this loss of social esteem can be plotted briefly.

The writer of ‘independent means’ — beneficiary of family fortunes and legacies, of a gebildet European bourgeoisie happy to subsidize the artistic careers of its wayward sons — had dwindled in number by the mid-twentieth century, cancelled along with the aristocracy whose ‘high culture’ the business classes were trying to ape.

In a 1946 radio broadcast, E.M. Forster described the workings of this vanished world of Mann, Gide, Proust, Zweig and himself: ‘In came the nice fat dividends, up rose the lofty thoughts.’

He surmised, correctly, its obsolescence.

Suddenly needing to earn a salary, many writers were drawn into journalism, academia and marketing by the postwar expansion of higher education, entertainment media and advertising industries.

Creative-writing programmes, residencies, fellowships and institutional grants provided new homes in the academy, and birthed the postwar genre of campus novel. (Prescribed syllabuses meanwhile supplied a market for books that, lacking sufficient buyers, might otherwise have gone unpublished.)

State bureaucracies, massively swelled by warfare and welfare state, absorbed others into officialdom and public administration. (Proust had recommended a comfortable, undemanding sinecure as the ideal occupation for an author.)

The result today is that all writers, even the most exalted, must resort to journalism or occasional teaching. Journalists are therefore tempted to suppose themselves writers — indeed the more successful, receiving grants from university, foundation or think tank, as interim scholars.

For writers, this coming down in the world reaches its culmination with the insistence, courtesy of a copyright lawyer at Google, that the notion of sole creative authorship has always been a myth. The ‘romantic’ notion of the author disguises the reality of artistic collaboration, bricolage and cheerful plagiarism.

Bleating about usurpation of the author’s property rights, he declares, is little more than moral panic.

(Of course, Patry rather misses the point: in commercial terms, appellation of authorship is akin to indication of geographical origin, e.g. of wine or cheese, an identifying badge which is recognized under the TRIPS Agreement as similar to trademark or certification.)

Today the ‘creative industries’ — so named by their publicists — are presented as a smart new engine of economic growth, the swelling revenue of Disney, Viacom, News Corporation, Comcast and Time Warner an example of twenty-first century conditions favouring the intelligent over the dim.

The ‘creative economy’ and ‘cultural industries’ are now topics of urgent reports by UNCTAD and UNESCO, not to mention a cottage industry of scholarship, popular publications and municipal boosterism.

In reality, the high incomes of media, software and pharmaceutical firms are a form of rent based on access denial and control. This is a business model familiar from the land enclosures of the British agricultural revolution.

Patent royalties, copyright fees, licence revenue, etc. — not to mention the income earned by lawyers and agents securing such arrangements — derive not from any new productive powers or technological innovations, but from asserting exclusive property rights, and thereby securing claim over a revenue stream.

The grotesquely concentrated market of book publishing — Pearson, Bertelsmann, Lagardère and a handful of other giant houses commanding the global scene — is exemplary.

Proletarianization of the author, as with the academic scholar, therefore signals not an explosion of knowledge, but its seizure and sequestration.

Along with prolonged copyright and trademark protection, the other half of the ‘creative industry’ business model is contributed by network externalities. Low costs of reproduction, and uniformity of customer tastes, allow multiplication of copies to any number of users.

The presence of more buyers raises the value of the original copy. With greater scale comes increasing returns.

A handful of market-cornering ‘superstars’ prosper; the eager but unloved proliferate.

‘Content’ production and transmission are therefore encouraged only to the extent they can be subdued and corralled by publishing platforms and distributors. The volume of writing solicited is unprecedented (e.g. content farms), but the channel clogged with noise (recycled articles, duplicated material). The proportion of people reading books of any type has declined.

Amid this scene, the pose struck by Franzen — himself as Voltaire or Maupertuis at Frederick the Great’s Prussian court — provides buffoonish relief.

Franzen and Safran Foer - Artists and Writers for Obama

What, finally, of Franzen’s panegyric of Obama as literary patron and cultural custodian?

One of the cherished fantasy-images of postmodern politics is that of an intelligentsia, hitherto a marginalized and downtrodden caste, restored to social prominence and installing one of its own in the chancellery.

Havel in Prague provides a euphoric example, as does the short-lived spectacle of ‘civil society’, journalists and economists in Poland and post-Soviet Russia, celebrating their own professional guild-values as foundations for a new society.

The ur-reference of these contemporary fantasies is 1848, when the poets and novelists of European romanticism — Manzoni, Petöfi, Mickiewicz — played starring roles for national movements in Poland, Hungary, Germany, Belgium and Italy. For mid-nineteenth century romantic nationalism, language was the bearer of heritage, providing a cultural basis for political unity.

Such rhetoric, now hopelessly archaic but guaranteeing a prominent role for the national bard (e..g Milan Kundera), was revived with the breakup of the Soviet Union and other multi-ethnic states, the return of private ownership dressed up as a Springtime of Peoples.

In the 1990s such visions spread outwards from the newly capitalist countries, an elixir to replenish the threadbare ideological cupboards of the old. Their compensatory function is obvious for European and North American intellectuals suffering the aesthetic degradation and social indignities of globalized advanced capitalism, as described above.

Reality is, of course, unkind to this daydream of a renewed social alliance between belles-lettres and state authority.

As with his peers abroad — the parvenu crassness of Sarkozy springs to mind — today’s US president, educated at a private prep school worth over $300 million, is instead anxious to flaunt his social kinship with ‘savvy businessmen.’

In such a scene, letters today barely sustain even a vestigial role as elite decoration or philanthropic point d’honneur.

Literature has, of course, rarely drawn the attention of wealthy patrons. It lacks the monumentality and civic resplendence of architecture; cannot offer the networking opportunities and social prestige of the opera house or gallery board of directors; easily duplicated, it does not yield the returns on investment of the one-of-a-kind painting.

Yet if sponsors have always been scarce, membership of the propertied classes has, in previous epochs, meant an obligatory amount of taste, learning, connoisseurship, and reverence towards literary matters.

Books were favoured as a luxury appurtenance, patronized and consumed for ornamentation and exhibitions of status, to be sure — but also were a matter of elite self-conception, recruitment and social functioning.

In 1808 Napoleon — his Grande Armée having brought emancipation of the Prussian peasantry, state certification of teachers and foundation of Berlin University — took time out from the Congress of Erfurt to grant a breakfast-time audience with Goethe.

Goethe recounted this episode in a conversation with Eckermann:

“But,” continued he, gaily, “pay your respects. What book do you think Napoleon carried in his field library? — My Werther!”

“We may see by his levee at Erfurt,” said I, “that he had studied it well.”

“He had studied it as a criminal judge does his documents,” said Goethe, “and in this spirit talked with me about it. In Bourrienne’s work there is a list of the books which Napoleon took to Egypt, among which is Werther. But what is worth noticing in this list, is the manner in which the books are classed under different rubrics. Under the head Politique, for instance, we find the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran; by which we see from what point of view Napoleon regarded religious matters.”

The three versions of this meeting (recorded by Talleyrand, Friedrich von Müller and Goethe himself) were recorded by Luise Mühlbach in her historical novel Napoleon and the Queen of Prussia:

Napoleon, continuing to eat, beckoned Goethe, with a careless wave of his hand, to approach.

He complied, and stood in front of the table, opposite the emperor, who looked up, and, turning with an expression of surprise to Talleyrand, pointed to Goethe, and exclaimed, “Ah, that is a man!” An imperceptible smile overspread the poet’s countenance, and he bowed in silence.

“How old are you, M. von Goethe?” asked Napoleon.

“Sire, I am in my sixtieth year.”

“In your sixtieth year, and yet you have the appearance of a youth! Ah, it is evident that perpetual intercourse with the muses has imparted external youth to you.”

“Sire,” said Daru, “M. von Goethe has also translated Voltaire’s Mahomet.”

“That is not a good tragedy,” said Napoleon. “Voltaire has sinned against history and the human heart. He has prostituted the character of Mohammed by petty intrigues. He makes a man, who revolutionized the world, act like an infamous criminal deserving the gallows. Let us rather speak of Goethe’s own work—of the Sorrows of Young Werther. I have read it many times, and it has always afforded me the highest enjoyment; it accompanied me to Egypt, and during my campaigns in Italy, and it is therefore but just that I should return thanks to the poet for the many pleasant hours he has afforded me.”

Goethe and Napoleon at Erfurt

During the late Roman empire, Symmachus had declared in a letter that his senatorial elite were the ‘better part of the human race.’ Though idle and landed, Roman aristocrats had to be familiar with Virgil and Juvenal.

Such, indeed, was the cultural pedigree later drawn upon by bourgeois revolutionaries, for whom such distant treasures of the past remained legible, banners and elevated slogans to be salvaged from history, then used to embellish contemporary campaigns.

Dutch republicans sought to vindicate their revolt against Philip II’s Spanish yoke with arguments from Aristotle, Roman thinkers and the Bible. The English Revolution drew its language from the Bible.

In France, said Marx, ‘the Revolution of 1789–1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman republic and the Roman empire’:

Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, St. Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time — that of unchaining and establishing modern bourgeois society — in Roman costumes and with Roman phrases…

Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian colossi disappeared and with them also the resurrected Romanism — the Brutuses, the Gracchi, the publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself. Bourgeois society in its sober reality bred its own true interpreters and spokesmen in the Says, Cousins, Royer-Collards, Benjamin Constants, and Guizots; its real military leaders sat behind the office desk and the hog-headed Louis XVIII was its political chief. Entirely absorbed in the production of wealth and in peaceful competitive struggle, it no longer remembered that the ghosts of the Roman period had watched over its cradle.

But unheroic though bourgeois society is, it nevertheless needed heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and national wars to bring it into being. And in the austere classical traditions of the Roman Republic the bourgeois gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions, that they needed to conceal from themselves the bourgeois-limited content of their struggles and to keep their passion on the high plane of great historic tragedy.

Postmodern culture, of course, famously knows its own share of dress-up, pastiche and nostalgic revival.

Franzen’s grotesque embrace of Karl Kraus shows this: an example of nostalgia for the aesthetic, and of commercial culture’s wish to salvage from unprofitable ‘obscurity’ a peculiarly stringent and unassimilable modernism.

But — appropriately for a Restoration era that denies any future prospect of change — this decorative relationship to the past is enfeebling rather than stimulating. If it is to be drawn upon, any historical item must first be converted into a fashion plate, suitable for collection and ornamentation, the merest patina and embellishment.

Thus in literary necromancy, too, yesterday’s priests are replaced by today’s cheap hucksters.

The ‘past brought to life’ can involve little genuine connection to a shared cultural heritage, the latter now hopelessly remote and irrelevant. It follows instead the relentless, rhythmic turnover of the fashion cycle.

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Display of rectitude as a war of attrition

July 25, 2014

It is as foil to his brutal, sport-mad, loutish classmates that Stephen Dedalus is thrown into relief as a quiet, sensitive young artist-to-be.

In the schoolyard, delicate and wheezing, Stephen is not like other boys:

The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries.

The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light.

He kept on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect, out of reach of the rude feet, feigning to run now and then. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of players and his eyes were weak and watery…

He was caught in the whirl of a scrimmage and, fearful of the flashing legs and muddy boots, bent down to look through the legs. The fellows were struggling and groaning and their legs were rubbing and kicking and stamping.

Then Jack Lawton’s yellow boots dodged out the ball and all the other boots and legs ran after. He ran after them a little way and then stopped. It was useless to run on…

It would be better to be in the study hall than out there in the cold.

To such extravagant lack of athletic ability, add a record of conversational misfires and a tendency to lapses in classroom etiquette.

This experience of youthful difference is disagreeable. Stephen the aesthete must find a more suitable habitat in which to fit himself — if not a different, less provincial country entirely.

Theophile Gautier

Yet revealing one’s type in this fashion  sticking out from the plodding, lowing herd of peers and contemporaries  is not all bad.

It is through such outward and visible signs of inward distinction that the sheep are separated from the goats, the philosopher from the street-porter, and those with a special destiny from the ordinary run of people.

And how do you distinguish yourself from the crowd when, having progressed to a better school, all your peers are of similarly thoughtful and bookish temperament?

The pale gleaming purity of the ‘model youth’ is readily perceived against a background of ‘undistinguished dullards.’ But what to do on those nights when all the cows, like you, are black?

In David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, readers are introduced to the grad student Molly Notkin, ‘as of yesterday enjoying ABD pre-doctoral status in Film & Film-Cartridge Theory at MIT’.

Molly’s pious, high-minded ex-boyfriend is described:

[An] erotically circumscribed G.W. Pabst scholar at New York University tortured by the neurotic compulsion that there are only a finite number of erections possible in the world at any one time and that his tumescence means e.g. the detumescence of some perhaps more deserving or tortured Third World sorghum farmer or something, so that whenever he tumefies he’ll suffer the same order of guilt that your less eccentrically tortured Ph.D.-type person will suffer at the idea of, say, wearing baby-seal fur.

Here is a kind of arms race of sanctimony, the pursuit of holding the most exacting and conspicuously austere standards of conduct within one’s reference group (i.e. of grad students in the liberal arts).

The Pabst scholar is engaged with his peers in a bidding tournament to exhibit the most delicacy and unremitting sensitivity, the most guilt for his lapses into the profane:

Molly still takes the high-speed rail down to visit him every couple weeks, to be there for him in case by some selfish mischance he happens to harden, prompting in him black waves of self-disgust and an extreme neediness for understanding and nonjudgmental love.

In The World of Odysseus, Moses Finley portrayed Homeric contests for esteem as a kind of zero-sum tournament of social climbing:

It is in the nature of honour that it must be exclusive, or at least hierarchic. When everyone attains equal honour, then there is no honour for anyone. Of necessity, therefore, the world of Odysseus was fiercely competitive, as each hero strove to outdo the others…

In the final analysis, how can prepotence be determined except by repeated demonstrations of success? And the one indisputable measure of success is a trophy.

The prestige gained by the ‘winner’ was a kind of positional good. The value of honour depended on its being unequally distributed: having it entailed that some other people didn’t have it.

This encouraged a competitive rat race of escalating heroism, a tournament or bidding war in which ever more resources — time, effort, spilt blood — were expended.

It resembled what Veblen would later describe, in Gilded Age Chicago, as a treadmill of ‘pecuniary emulation… a restless straining to place a wider and ever-widening pecuniary interval between himself and this average standard.’

For abiding by an obligatory norm wasn’t enough to distinguish the Homeric warrior (or the ‘tortured PhD type’) as a hero or elicit the approbation of others. One had to go beyond the call of duty.

Admiration was reserved for supererogatory acts: those that surpassed the norm.

Veblen on keeping up with the Joneses:

As fast as a person makes new acquisitions, and becomes accustomed to the resulting new standard of wealth, the new standard forthwith ceases to afford appreciably greater satisfaction than the earlier standard did. The tendency in any case is constantly to make the present pecuniary standard the point of departure for a fresh increase of wealth; and this in turn gives rise to a new standard of sufficiency and a new pecuniary classification of one’s self as compared with one’s neighbours.

One-upmanship is typical when this kind of (indivisible, positional) prize is at stake.

We’re all familiar with social contests (e.g. pursuit of prestige through conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, arms races in education leading to ‘credential inflation’, litigation battles with massive legal expenses incurred by both parties, R&D races, competitive giving in potlatch, etc.) that generate escalating and wasteful consumption of resources.

Each participant knows that the prize in these tournaments will be awarded to whoever is willing to match others’ bids and commit that extra epsilon of costly resources, refusing to drop out.

The rents accrued, in the end, by the winner are often matched or surpassed by the resources squandered during the contest.

When new standards are successively established and function henceforth as a baseline or default, we have a kind of ascending-bid auction.

The latter is an auction where everyone submits bids, with successively higher iterations, and the prize winner is the one who can afford the most costly investment.

Sensitivity, insofar as it confers prestige while bringing expense of time and effort, may be one such contest.

How does the tournament proceed: in what manner are competitors pruned and a prize allotted?

The needs of some individuals are easier to satisfy than the needs of others: society must, for example, expend more of its limited resources to supply electricity to a resident of a remote farming region than it does to provide the same good to an urban dweller.

A person (e.g. someone with restricted mobility who must amend the design of their house or workplace to be capable of getting around) may have ‘expensive tastes’ even without voluntarily cultivating the latter.

Some societies (and some agents i.e. governments, firms, individuals) can afford to spend resources satisfying such costly needs. Others cannot.

A large corporation may be able to afford diversity and inclusion programmes or sensitivity training for its employees, and can modify office facilities to allow access by disabled workers and visitors, etc.

A small proprietor may be unable to afford either investment, or may have to choose between them.

Regularly maintaining and upgrading manuals of approved usage or conduct is a costly task, as is employing compliance officers, or monitoring the speech and behaviour of oneself and others.

It will only be undertaken by those with resources to spare.

This is, of course, to say nothing of the inclination to undertake such costly benevolence. Willingness rather than capacity may be the decisive factor.

Yet such enlightened attitudes must themselves be cultivated or acquired through training, reflection or experience. Thus their possession  like table manners, personal decorum or the ability to play a musical instrument  itself requires expense that not all can sustain.

BAE Systems diversity and inclusion matrix

Displays of sensitivity therefore function as a discriminating signal. They are, in certain contexts, a screening device that sorts insiders (the initiated) from outsiders.

A display of rectitude is only valuable as a screening service if it reliably distinguishes the ‘good’ from the ‘bad.’ If some display is easy to emulate (i.e. relatively cheap) then it is not credible as a status symbol.

Self-punishment, as exhibited by the sexually tortured film student, satisfies the handicap principle. It is not for everyone, being costly to maintain. Only the earnest need apply. The elaborate tartufferie of the big corporation, for different reasons, is also expensive to fake.

How much sensitivity, or guilt in the case of the film student, can one sustain?

This challenge triggering an arms race and squandering of resources — is the currency or subtext of many social interactions where, for lack of anything else to do, jockeying for prestige is the object: online discussion, for example, in which participants compete to parade the most costly investment (in knowing the currently approved or most esoteric terms, etc.).

But similar contests of one-upmanship pervade the bien-pensant circles of the professional and managerial classes, and their social satellites, as described in a recent post.

Genteelisms, as is well known, aim to provide a signal of distinguished taste and courtesy, as reliable as any good food and stylish furnishings. (Kojève, observing the survival of now-meaningless archaisms like tea ceremonies in postwar Japan, called this ‘snobbism’). They are a chief method for regulating in-group membership.

Yet, rapidly outdated, or too widely dispersed to work as shibboleths, they provoke a ceaseless euphemism treadmill.

The standard of circumlocution now set higher, an escalating level of resources must be devoted to mutual monitoring to detect infringements, and to lexical ingenuity to repel attacks, in order to come out ahead of the pack.

In general, the class of behaviour involves acquiring redundant goods or credentials, or undertaking some costly investment of time or effort, in order to maintain one’s position relative to competitors for some prize.

Such contests, as Finley and Veblen described, are a high-wire act of ‘restless straining.’

Hypocrisy, said Maugham, was ‘the most difficult and nerve-wracking vice that men can pursue’, demanding constant vigilance. It could not be practised in spare moments, but was a ‘whole-time job.’

So, too, the exhausting battles for prestige, and enforcement of correct conduct and usage, among those with a deep regard for social status and the esteem of peers and colleagues.

Submitting to this regimen is not so easy as Alexander Cockburn imagined in his article on the ‘Conscience Industry’:

Today, at the level of symbolic action, a person of progressive temperament can live in a bubble bath of moral self-satisfaction from dawn to dusk… For every decision in the liberal day, there’s a certificate of good behaviour being flaunted by some of the most disgusting corporations on Earth.

Every decision, all day? Less a warm bath than an exhausting workout. The reader of the Nation cannot relax if she is to keep up with her peer-competitors in the field of uprightness and decorum.

The dinner party as rat race.

The body shop

July 11, 2014

From a feature article in last Sunday’s New York Times:

In an era of globalization, the market for children crosses national borders; witness the longtime flow of Americans who have gone overseas to adopt babies from South Korea, China, Russia and Guatemala.

Other than the United States, only a few countries — among them India, Thailand, Ukraine and Mexico — allow paid surrogacy. As a result, there is an increasing flow in the opposite direction, with the United States drawing affluent couples from Europe, Asia and Australia. Indeed, many large surrogacy agencies in the United States say international clients — gay, straight, married or single — provide the bulk of their business…

Together, domestic and international couples will have more than 2,000 babies through gestational surrogacy in the United States this year, almost three times as many as a decade ago.

What, if anything, is to be made of such developments?

A little more than a decade back, a succession of startling innovations in biotech, the turn of a new millennium and Clinton’s ‘New Economy’ boom together spawned a potboiling genre of fanciful prognoses, fretful futurology and journalistic speculation on the fate of the ‘body’, marriage and parenthood, and human reproduction.

This was a publishing bubble of airport literature and Kulturkritik, which various eminences did not eschew.

Habermas Future of Human Nature

Around the same time, Foucault’s ‘biopolitics’ was rediscovered by the Anglophone academy, a narrow seam contributing another rich source of mischief and vapidity for cultural studies.

In the midst of this scene, in 2001 Duncan Foley delivered a clear-eyed scholarly lecture on economic growth and demography. In it, he anticipated the new century bringing ‘opportunities and pressures’ for what he termed ‘reproductive arbitrage’.

The latter, he suggested, would ensue in a world where sub-replacement fertility prevailed in the ageing metropolitan economies, alongside a demographic floodtide of human misery elsewhere, as much of the globe experienced industrial growth insufficient to absorb its massive, stagnant ranks of young and prime-age people into employment.

karachi

Planet of Slums - Mike Davis

This reproductive arbitrage — a ‘global market for children’, buying where cheap and selling where coveted, at a premium — would, he pointed out, be something novel.

It was to be distinguished from the traditional migration of underutilized reserves of labour from remote hinterlands to the industrial centre.

The twentieth-first century, at its dawn, heralded a ‘sharp polarization between countries with rich ageing populations which cannot reproduce themselves and countries with poor, younger populations which are growing’:

Productive arbitrage opportunities will arise because the rich countries will have chronic shortages of labour and surpluses of capital, while poor countries will have chronic shortages of capital and surpluses of labour. Arbitrage suggests either the movement of capital to the poor countries through foreign investment, or the movement of labour to the rich countries through migration…

Reproductive arbitrage opportunities will arise because of the tendency for poor countries to specialize in producing children, as the rich countries specialize in producing wealth. Thus, we can expect an explosive growth in the trade in reproduction and its associated services like surrogate parenthood, adoption, and the provision of child-care services between older, richer countries and younger, poorer countries. We have also begun to see the early stages of this phenomenon already.

As its clients have multiplied, treatment of the gestational-surrogacy market by the popular media has been equivocal.

Amid warm applause for the realization of parental dreams long held, misgivings are voiced, shortcomings admitted. Queasiness rarely rises, however, to the level of outright reproach, rejection or, least of all, investigation of underlying causes.

Prurience of the ‘Octomom’ variety carries its share of denunciation and spite, of course. But few right-thinking people would see fit to deny that the technology and ‘bioethics’ of assisted reproductive procedures are the chief matters at stake: philosophy, of a sort, rather than politics.

‘Regulation’, by vigilant international NGOs if not local authorities, is the prescribed salve.

(Not yet accustomed to the ways of the world, earlier journalistic treatment of ‘traditional’ surrogacy [insemination with sperm rather than embryo] was, in the 1980s and 1990s, rather more stringent in its scrutiny of market participants and their claims.)

Typically less given to delicate euphemism, the gurus and think tanks of the libertarian right have maintained a cautious silence on surrogacy’s cosmopolitan turn. Perhaps wary of upsetting a precarious apple cart, they are more likely to have found intervention unnecessary.

Inferences can, however, be drawn from past forthright statements.

In 1977, Judge Richard Posner notoriously proposed ‘legalizing a market for babies’. Affecting bemusement at the outraged response that greeted this calculated provocation, Posner observed in his own defence, and with some justification, ‘we have legal baby selling today… I simply think it should be regulated less stringently than today.’

The University of Chicago’s Richard Epstein, in a 1995 paper on surrogacy and contract law, complained that ‘condemnation of any transaction as “baby-selling” is all too often treated as a conversation stopper’.

A more phlegmatic outlook was called for.

Surrogacy’s ‘commercial aspects’ were ‘a regrettable but necessary part of transactions that yield enormous nonquantifiable benefits to the biological father and his wife, and to their friends and family who have comforted them during their years of anxiety and distress’:

The ability of individuals to handle these transactions with sensitivity and discretion is not precluded because money changes hands. Indeed the success of the venture may be aided if the money allows skilled professionals to ease the transition of both sides.

Meanwhile the industry of international adoption receives promotional services from the likes of Harvard Law School’s Elizabeth Bartholet.

Foley’s remarks were little more than an aside, to which, as the phenomenon he identified has since grown, detail can be added.

What circumstances underpin the global specialization of reproductive tasks, linked increasingly by commercial transactions undertaken for profit?

Relative prices and jurisdictional peculiarities play their part (an Indian surrogate at the most internationally renowned clinic in Gujarat is fortunate to receive a fee of $6500, some others as little as $800, while their North American counterparts fetch around $30 000. Merely donating ova, if their source is an Ivy League graduate, itself attracts $20 000).

Fertility rates are inversely related to female labour-force participation (and per capita output), lifetime births per woman being highest where female paid employment is least, and the costs of child rearing (education, medical care, foregone wages) smallest.

Malnutrition causes half of all Indian women to be anaemic. Nearly half of all Indian children under three are underweight and undersized, and maternal mortality (around 200 per 100 000 live births) is estimated to kill 80 000 Indian women each year, contributing with Nigeria around a third of the world’s annual maternal deaths (most from anaemia, haemorrhage or uterine rupture, eclampsia and septic abortion).

A bare half of all Indian childbirths are attended by skilled health personnel (the figure is around 80% for Indonesia, and 99% for China).

Why is it that ‘poor countries’, seemingly so ill-suited for the task, should today have come to ‘specialize in producing children’ for the industrially developed zones of the planet?

‘Reproduction’ arises as a topic in classical political economy (Smith, Ricardo, Marx) because of the peculiar character of that productive input known as human labour.

The latter is not (as are capital goods) produced as a direct commodity via the capitalist system of production; nor (like land, minerals and similar resources) garnered freely from nature; but must instead be born, reared, trained and socialized, in the domestic household or elsewhere, before it can be hired on the market as employable labour-power.

Thus, in the view of classical political economy, labour supply is induced by demand, growing or shrinking according to demand for employees at a given real wage, caused by variation in productive investment.

Over a few decades, labour supply is flexible or elastic, because employers seeking workers may tap in to external sources (idle pools abroad drawn in as immigrants) or underutilized domestic sources (the unemployed, housebound women, etc.).

Conditions in the slums and shanty towns of today’s Delhi, Jakarta, Lagos, São Paulo, Karachi, Kinshasa, Dhaka, Istanbul and Cairo may thus be compared to those of Henry Mayhew’s London.

In early Victorian times, Britain’s industrial revolution had breached Malthusian limits, detonating population growth and urbanization that, for the moment, outstripped the pace of fixed-capital accumulation and demand for employees.

The London streets of 1840 therefore teemed with petty vendors and sole proprietors (fruit sellers, flower stalls, artisans, prostitutes) whose meagre inventories and simple tools of the trade were of a scale measly enough to be owned by a single precariously placed individual or family, hawked and peddled by day and carried home at night.

With the available workforce more plentiful than the needs of capital owners required, human life came cheaply and the necessities of subsistence were procured in haphazard, opportunistic fashion, as described vividly by Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor, and captured in the crowded tenements of Dickens’s fiction.

Despite rapid growth in productivity, British real wages remained stagnant throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, its urban hordes preserving slack in the labour market.

The Rookery St. Giles's 1851

Nearly two centuries later, in today’s Britain and other advanced economies, shrinking working-age cohorts (15-64 years) support relatively large economically inactive cohorts of the elderly and infirm.

In this metropolitan core, most strikingly in Europe and Japan, mechanization of production has caused output-capital ratios eventually to fall, as the stock of factories and equipment accumulates more rapidly than the number of available employees.

Labour productivity and output-capital ratios in the OECD

Labour productivity over time (US) and space (world)

Beyond the frontiers of the OECD, however, in the less industrially developed countries whose populations comprise the overwhelming majority of the world, Mayhew’s vista of scrounged livings now predominates.

In today’s official lexicon, it is designated as the ‘informal economy’.

Ninety-three percent of the Indian workforce, and 85 percent of the non-farm workforce, is deployed outside the organized corporate or state-owned sector in tiny household enterprises.

These marginal hundreds of millions of South Asian ‘self-employed’ and sub-contractors, whose low business revenue and few tangible assets makes them uncreditworthy to formal lending sources, provide the social infrastructure for those microfinance initiatives that so capture the hopes of well-meaning left-liberals abroad.

More importantly, such vast pools of urban misery — propelled out of the countryside by the Green Revolution, into cities where insufficient investment exists to draw them into paid employment — form a latent reserve of potential employees, thus keeping a ceiling on wage growth.

In Africa, South Asia, Latin America, West and Southeast Asia, low labour productivity corresponds to lesser capital intensity (fewer tangible assets used per worker), high output-capital ratios and a younger population.

Indian agricultural, construction, pottery and textile workers thus perform manual labour whilst their more productive counterparts abroad are assisted by machinery and equipment.

The capital-labour ratio in India is less than one-tenth its level in the United States. The resulting difference in labour productivity yields a stark income divergence: India’s average real wage is one-twentieth that of the USA.

In these circumstances, with the postcolonial prospect of secular ‘development’ and improved living standards having long since receded, those offering otherworldly salvation and similar religious consolations have naturally thrived.

In India, appeals to the devout, and invocations of Hindutva, have multiplied under the impeccably business-minded administrations of Rao, Manmohan Singh and Modi. BJP and Congress alike truckle to local piety while catering to foreign creditors.

Typically backed as an anti-left bulwark by the local security apparatus, favoured as a counterweight to unruly secular nationalism by imperialist intelligence services, and firmly planted in the soil of matrimonial and sexual conservatism, such confessional movements, of whatever stripe, have not looked favourably upon the entry of women to paid employment, female enrolment in public schooling and other novel social roles.

Along with these superstitious revivals, the persistence of archaic social relations  debt bondage, small farms and petty proprietorships, landlordism and sharecropping, patriarchal tyranny, hereditary caste occupation, and various other forms of labour tying  tends to encourage precocious marriage sealed by dowry, relatively early age of first pregnancy, reduced spacing of births and high birth rates.

Nearly half the female Indian population is illiterate; fewer than half receive secondary education.

The wealthier Indian states  Maharashtra, Haryana, Gujarat, Punjab — have the most imbalanced sex ratios, with sex-selective foetal reduction facilitated by imaging technology. The practice of female-specific abortion therefore increased from the 1990s.

Yet the origin of commercial surrogacy in India, Thailand and the former Soviet republics is not simply the penury and devastation internal to these countries, enormous though these are.

The ‘market for children’ depends upon economic and jurisprudential developments pioneered in the advanced regions of North America, Europe, Northeast Asia and the Antipodes.

Trails of commodification are blazed in California.

There, the presence of an advanced biomedical-university complex, a favourable judicial environment, and cultural deregulation to make the rest of the United States blush, have placed the state at the forefront of proprietary and contractual developments governing human somatic material, as well as probate and family law (disputes over inheritance and parental rights).

Efforts by universities and research hospitals to secure intellectual-property claims to their research findings, and to patent the research tools (including biological material) used in obtaining them, have spurred the process.

Moore v Regents of the University of California (1990)  establishing that a patient or donor had no claim to profits derived from use by recipients of his or her own harvested or extracted tissues, cells or gametes  encouraged resort to sperm and ovum donations, and sped development of the ‘oocyte economy.’

The ruling in this case explicitly referred, as a foremost consideration, to its implications for biomedical research, the judges dutifully genuflecting before the needs of industry.

Similarly, to facilitate the practice of IVF, sperm donors are legally held to have relinquished parental rights over biological offspring born as a result of artificial insemination. Californian judges have found that gestational hosts do likewise, in order that surrogacy arrangements should proceed without a hitch.

It is in Sacramento, rather than Ahmedabad, that authorities have been asked to rule on the ownership and disposition of frozen embryos.

And it is in the beating heart of world capitalism that a 1996 article in a legal journal could announce that gestational surrogacy had brought about the ‘demise of the unitary biological mother’. (Its author is now a ‘philanthropy consultant’ who ‘helps charities and brands secure celebrity support for cause-marketing campaigns and fundraising events.’)

Ivy League egg donors

moorepatent

This image of divided maternity (‘demise of the unitary mother’) furnishes an almost parodic example of the fragmentation that follows from commodification or rationalization, as described in the Marxist and Weberian traditions.

Once an activity (such as human sexual reproduction) is drawn into the sphere of production for the market, or a need is supplied as a commodity, the division of labour splits it apart into its specialized aspects or components.

‘Reproductive arbitrage’ and the ‘market for children’, therefore, are symptoms of what Arlie Hochschild calls the ever-advancing commodity frontier, the encroachment of commodity production and the capitalist sector upon ever more elements of human life.

Activities once performed by individuals or households for their own use, for satisfaction of their own needs with both the labour and its output free of monetary cost — become services available for purchase on the market, in return for payment.

The ‘relinquishing of family functions to the market realm’ is hardly novel. The role of the domestic household as a production unit that self-provisions has ebbed for several centuries, its scope annexed and chiselled away since at least Britain’s Agricultural Revolution.

Few households now cultivate their own crops, educate their own children, spin and weave their own textiles, or construct their own houses. Responsibility for all these activities has been transferred to the capitalist sector or the state.

A few residual tasks remain for unpaid housework: the final stages of food preparation, childcare for infants and preschoolers, some custodial care of school-age children, cleaning of residential premises, etc.

The waning role of the domestic sector  and the transfer of production to a capitalist sector that can introduce efficient new techniques, raise productivity and realize economies of scale  has meant a degree of liberation from isolation and household drudgery, freeing up women for paid employment and other social roles.

Yet Hochschild, since The Managed Heart (1993), has drawn attention to recent new incursions by the market into the domestic household, in the fields of emotional intimacy, affective display and attachment.

With supply of these to customers now yielding a profitable return, employees, especially in ‘hospitality’ or service occupations, are obliged to convincingly demonstrate emotion: the solicitousness of the waiter, the empathy of the care worker, the conviviality of the flight attendant, the cheerful verve of the tour guide.

Emotional labour ‘requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.’

Such transactions may be extended, Hochschild has noted, to ‘outsourcing’ (from independent contractors or employees) family functions traditionally performed by women, as mothers and wives, within the domestic household: cook, teacher, nurse, nanny, but also provider of emotional support, companionship and sexual partnership.

Intimacy may be purchased either in spot markets or by entering into long-term bilateral arrangements, with previous methods of attracting mates and forming pair-bonds having now dissolved or become too time-consuming,

A ‘familial role’ is ‘shown to be divisible into slivers, a whole separated into parts.’

Here, too, efficiency gains are made from turning tasks over to dedicated specialists:

Especially in its more recent incarnation, the commercial substitutes for family activities often turn out to be better than the “real” thing. Just as the French bakery may make bread better than mother ever did, and the cleaning service may clean the house more thoroughly, so therapists may recognize feelings more accurately. Even child care workers, while no ultimate substitute, may prove more warm and even–tempered than parents sometimes are.

Thus, in a sense, capitalism isn’t competing with itself, one company against another. Capitalism is competing with the family, and particularly with the role of the wife and mother.

Recoil, if it occurs here, is surely inspired not just by dread of the ersatz, but from threatened fulfilment of the bleakest Frankfurt School visions of the ‘exchange principle’ making human beings fungible and interchangeable.

In the banalization sought by use of the term ‘sex worker’, there is a caricature that mimics and nullifies the earlier hopes of women’s liberation, in the guise of realizing those aspirations.

To be sure, demands to revise the family, and disrupt standard reproductive arrangements, have long featured as a staple in visions of social transformation.

But surrogacy in a dingy Gujarati basement dormitory, or a gleaming Californian clinic, is far indeed from the sexual and matrimonial innovations proposed for Fourier’s phalanstère, Bacon’s New Atlantis or Campanella’s City of the Sun, let alone Firestone’s utopia of ‘artificial reproduction’ and parthenogenesis.

The relationship of gestational host to client is less novel than supposed, as made clear in an anecdote from Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self:

I didn’t want her to think of me as this big rich American coming in with my money to buy her womb for a while. So I did touch her at some point, I think, her hair or her shoulder. I tried to smile a lot.

Through the interpreter I told her, “I am very glad and grateful you are doing this.” I explained that we’d tried to have a baby but couldn’t. I told her not to worry for herself; she would be taken care of. I asked her about her own child.

She didn’t look at ease. It was not the unease of, “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” but more the unease of the subordinate meeting her boss.

Of course, the precise relationship is rather presumptuously misspecified: the surrogate is a commercial subcontractor, not an employee. The contracting parties, holding all cards, are the surrogacy clinic and its commissioning clients.

World capitalism is capable of accommodating, and indeed of promoting, those survivals of domestic servitude and patriarchal terror that assist the growth of its latest production lines. The hereditary dynasty of Nehru, not to speak of the lineages of Bush and Clinton, attest to an official capacity for preserving the atavistic: inherited charisma, or family branding, at the head of the bureaucratic state.

Maintenance of a servile pool of Indian women (contractually denied any right to abortion, etc.) thus serves roughly the same social function as does existence of the idle, squandered two billion or so human beings wasting away, on standby, in the slum workshops of Asia’s informal sector, and in the continent-sized skid row of Africa: exiled from capitalist employment yet useful to employers.

Liberal capitalist societies, in ideal form, prohibit certain market transactions (e.g. the sale and purchase of human beings, contracts of indentured servitude).

They offer thereby a more limited scope for commodity exchange than do slave-owning societies. When the Roman civil code was rediscovered in the High Middle Ages, and used as the foundation for European commercial law, a good deal of antiquated material relating to trade in slaves had perforce to be discarded by the glossators.

However, it is a commonplace of Marxist thought that capitalist property relations tend, by their nature, to expand into every available territory, occupy each vacant line of production, and invade any vulnerable social nook. Commercial transactions, and property rights, thus tend to encompass more domains of existence than ever before.

This may be most apparent in the industries of health, physical embellishment and body transformation: repair, modification, procreation and enhancement.

What types of entities and powers may legitimately be alienated, surrendered under the profit motive, or acquired by payment? What parts of the body, or human capabilities, have recently lapsed into chattel status, and may validly be transacted in the market; which of them are murky?

While the United States’ National Organ Transplant Act (1984) forbids the sale or purchase of vital organs for ‘valuable consideration’, some philosophers have recently advocated legalization of payment for kidney sales; another salutes ‘commodification of human body parts’ and, indeed, ‘universal commodification.’

The attitudes of some, it has elsewhere been remarked, betray ‘an underlying fear of treating the human body, or the cellular material that will develop into a human being, as the personal property equivalent of cars or television sets.’ This, ‘although perhaps justifiable on moral grounds’, is unhelpful. All rights, ultimately, flow from proprietary interests.

Thus speaks the wisdom of the age.

It brings to mind the young Marx’s description of the ‘power of money’, which Adam Smith had said conferred the ‘power to command’ labour and the products of labour.

As the productivity of human labour increases, the fruits of the entire world are brought within the grasp of the wealthy, who can through spending remedy all deficiencies:

That which is for me through the medium of money  that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy)  that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my  the possessor’s  properties and essential powers.

Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality.

am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness its deterrent power  is nullified by money.

I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame.

I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest.

I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has power over the clever not more clever than the clever?

Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?

If money is the bond binding me to human life, binding society to me, connecting me with nature and man, is not money the bond of all bonds? Can it not dissolve and bind all ties? Is it not, therefore, also the universal agent of separation? It is the coin that really separates as well as the real binding agent.