Sunday, July 27, 2008

Preliminary notes on reading Dante

I'm reading The Inferno, in the translation by Robert & Jean Hollander. In recent months, when short of time but wanting to read something, I've read the opening verses several times. Not intending to read the whole, but getting a taste, to see what it was like. I read:
Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh--
the very thought of it renews my fear!

It is so bitter death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.

How I came there I cannot really tell,
I was so full of sleep
when I forsook the one true way.
To my delight, I found I could read it, that I knew, finally, that I really wanted to. Where formerly I'd considered Dante as one of those writers I'd read, if I ever got around to it, only out of some misplaced sense of duty--one ought to read Dante, at least The Inferno--now I knew that I wanted to experience the work for itself.

I kept returning to those opening verses, without feeling the need, yet, to move forward in the narrative. Here was a voice, in time, with a story difficult to relate. "Midway in the journey of our life" - "the straight way was lost" - "I cannot really tell" - "so full of sleep": these were words pulling me in, making me want to read on, though for now I just wanted to stay here.

I read through the first canto. Then I read Robert Hollander's notes following. In verses 32 to 54 of this first canto, the poet encounters three beasts barring his way up the hill--a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. In the notes Hollander touches on the discussion surrounding the nature and source of these beasts. Are their sources biblical? Do they represent the mortal sins "lust, pride, and avarice"? Are they emblematic of something Virgil later refers to as "the three dispositions Heaven opposes, incontinence, malice, and mad brutishness"? Do they stand in for different elements of Dante's contemporary political concerns? I read these notes, and the old sense of unease creeps back in. What basis do I have for deciding? In fact, it's worse than that: when I read the verses, to me these beasts are simply beasts. Biblical or classical (or, certainly, political) allusions do not come to mind, because they are unavailable to me. So I worry, again, about reading in the right order, that perhaps now is not a good time to tackle Dante. I should wait till I've read, and no doubt sufficiently understood, Virgil, Ovid, the Bible. And where does it end? How far back does one go before one is justified in simply reading?

But back to the beasts: why can't they be just beasts? And what happened to that voice and my response to it? I return to Hollander's introduction, in which he makes note of the "enormous apparatus that has attached itself to" the poem. Centuries of commentary, line-by-line analysis, interpretive controversies, and so on. He discusses the problem of allegory, which is the problem tripping me up with the three beasts in the first canto. I'm not going to rehearse the points about allegory here, but he says enough to persuade me that allegory is not the key to The Inferno.

And yet, though some brief notes are helpful, each time I read one of these sorts of notes, somewhat longer notes about interpretive controversies and the like, I get distracted, I feel that anxiety, now faint, now stronger, making me doubt my current reading. But do I really think I'm expected to get it all with one reading? When I have thought about reading things in the proper order, reading this to enhance my ability to enhance that, am I not implicitly denying the possibility of re-reading? Doesn't this sort of anxiety return me to the realm of single readings, where I try to cram it all in, read everything? Doesn't seven centuries of controversy and commentary tell me that people have returned to this poem again and again? Do I really expect that line-by-line readings happen with initial readings? Can't these beasts then re-emerge simply as beasts?

Yes, it turns out, they can. I decide to read on, into the poem, beyond the first canto. And that voice is still there, drawing me in.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

The First Furrows of Care

I've been thinking it's time to return to Kafka. It's been years since I read The Castle, more still since The Trial. Quite by accident, it seems, I've read "The Metamorphosis" more often than any other single piece of fiction, but again, not for many years. Some months ago, I bought the Collected Stories, in the handsome Everyman edition, edited by Gabriel Josipovici. I was in need of a new collection of the stories, if only because my other edition contains only those stories published in Kafka's lifetime (awkward blurb from Martin Amis, winning the war against cliché, so the rest of us can get on with our lives: "Acquire this necessary book"). Then, recently, I read Letter to His Father. I hope to say more about this remarkable document in another post, but for now, suffice it to say that I think I am beginning to see Kafka a little better.

Last night I dipped into the Collected Stories, looking for one of those extremely short fictions. I turned to "First Sorrow" and I read. And by the end, I was reminded of "Bartleby the Scrivener", Melville's story, which figures so prominently in Vila-Matas' intriguing Bartleby & Co. In that story, we have a man, a scrivener, who, no matter the question, "would prefer not to", confounding his boss, the narrator of the story. Some of us may "prefer not to" do any number of things life throws our way, but Bartleby is not kidding around. Ultimately, he "prefers not to" himself right to death. He (and Melville) follows his position to its logical conclusion.

"First Sorrow" is about a trapeze artist who, first, "had so arranged his life that, as long as he kept working in the same building, he never came down from his trapeze by night or day". He is a great artist, so the management puts up with it. He is able to have his needs attended to by relay system, and necessary, eccentric travel accommodations are made. Finally, however, he announces "that he must always in future have two trapezes for his performance instead of only one". No problem, says the manager. But the trapeze artist repeats his demand: "The very idea that it might happen at all seemed to make him shudder." The manager repeats his assurance, but the artist breaks down. And here is how the story ends:
Deeply distressed, the manager sprang to his feet and asked what was the matter, then getting no answer climbed up on the seat and caressed him, cheek to cheek, so that his own face was bedabbled by the trapeze artist's tears. Yet it took much questioning and soothing endearment until the trapeze artist sobbed: 'Only the one bar in my hands -- how can I go on living!' That made it somewhat easier for the manager to comfort him; he promised to wire from the very next station for a second trapeze to be installed in the first town on their circuit; reproached himself for having let the artist work so long on only one trapeze; and thanked and praised him warmly for having at last brought the mistake to his notice. And so he succeeded in reassuring the trapeze artist, little by little, and was able to go back to his corner. But he himself was far from reassured, with deep uneasiness he kept glancing secretly at the trapeze artist over the top of his book. Once such ideas began to torment him, would they ever quite leave him alone? Would they not rather increase in urgency? Would they not threaten his very existence? And indeed the manager believed he could see, during the apparently peaceful sleep which had succeeded the fit of tears, the first furrows of care engraving themselves upon the trapeze artist's smooth, childlike forehead. (Translation by Willa & Edwin Muir)
I must have read this story before--it's in the other collection, having been published during Kafka's lifetime as part of A Hunger Artist--I've read this story before, and yet I have absolutely no memory of it. It must not have made much of an impression on me. I'm a different reader now, and now I find this story astonishing. The manager can see what must happen, even if the trapeze artist is momentarily assuaged. The manager can see this, and he is troubled. He knows there is nothing he can do, nothing that can be done. The logic of the situation is such that the trapeze artist will never quite be free of this torment. And Kafka, of course, follows the needs of his fiction right to the end. Just as, in "Bartleby", where it might be more "realistic" for the man to give on certain things--I might prefer not to go to work, or prefer to silently protest against the absurdity of life, but odds are I'm going to break down and eat when I get hungry enough--instead, Melville follows the idea through. Here, Kafka does the same, only more so, and with more economy. He has only to have the manager consider the logic of the situation--"would they not threaten his very existence?"--and notice the trapeze artist's furrowed brow and know that he has not imagined it, for the fable to be complete.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

On what basis do we choose?

In my junior year of high school, I took a course called Research Seminar, in which we were supposed to learn how to do research and write papers. The class was intended to prepare us for college (it did not). Pretty basic stuff: we researched topics, wrote papers of varying lengths, culminating in a fairly large research project and paper. (It was in the context of the last that I was later accused of plagiarism. A long story, not worth going into, except to note here that it contributed to my deepening sense of the arbitrariness of power.) We took class trips to the research library at the nearby University of Delaware. I remember thinking to myself, as I observed college students working in the library, looking things up, doing research, that I would never have the personal resources needed to put in that kind of effort.

Early in the semester we were assigned a relatively simple task. The teacher had a collection of articles, I think, or print items of some kind. We were to select any one of these items and write about it. I don't remember much more about the task. What I do remember is that I couldn't do it. I sat there, and I watched the other students make their selections. I watched them begin writing. And I sat and sat, sorting and re-sorting the collection, getting nowhere. Did I not understand the task? It was fairly straightforward, so it's not that, not quite. Here's what it was, I've only recently realized: I didn't know on what basis we were to make our choice. How were we to decide? How did the others know? What was I missing? How would I find out?

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Reminder: Read Josipovici

Why is Gabriel Josipovici not simply the most famous critic working today? Why are so many of his books out of print? How can it be that On Trust is out of print? How can The Book of God be out of print? Did no one read them? Everyone should read them. Everyone should read them.

I have to think people don't like what he has to say. Is that it? Is it that simple? To me, these books are crucial. They speak to me on an elemental level, about life and modernity and literature. And they are beautifully written.

I'll have more to say about why I think Josipovici's work is so necessary--and why it speaks to me so personally. But for now, just praise. And a reminder: the more recent collection of essays, The Singer on the Shore, is equally fantastic. You should go out of your way to read it. Read it.

[Update: it appears that both On Trust and The Book of God are still in print, at least according to this page at the Yale University Press. I'm not entirely sure why I thought they were not, except that no new editions appeared available when I was looking into buying them. In any event, being university press books, they are of course insanely expensive, if bought new. It would be nice to see his books in more affordable editions. You should still read them.]

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Bloggers of the No

Apropos of this post, Aimée asked me about this "bloggers of the No" business. I replied that the novel I'd just finished, Enrique Vila-Matas' Bartleby & Co., is all about writers who refuse to write, writers who have stopped writing, and so on. "If they've stopped writing, how are they still writers?" Ha! I paused before saying something vague to the effect that it had to do with the Blanchot and Heidegger I'd been reading. Ugh. Forgive me for the glibness of this answer. I was tired and fading fast and unsure how much to say before falling asleep. Which is not to say that the Blanchot and Heidegger is not related. But the point I would have tried to get across, were I more awake and able to find the words, is that it's all related, all that I've been writing about here. But this is somehow still unacceptable.

My next post was a passage from Vila-Matas' Montano's Malady. Lloyd Mintern commented that the book has been "as much an influence on [his] personal history, as when [he] first read Alain Robbe-Grillet". I feel I know what he means. Though my reading of Montano's Malady was far from ideal. It took me three (very) sleepy weeks--a long time for a short book--so it was choppier than I would have liked. Even so, I found much to like in the book, as in Bartleby & Co. But more than anything, they made me think of my own problems writing--my own refusals. I feel an urge to write about this, along with a strong reluctance to do so. A voice tells me that I shouldn't write about this, shouldn't blog about it, shouldn't give in to the solipsistic impulse. (I know, it's a blog.) I've gotten away from writing whatever it is I was writing, in favor of writing about myself in terms of the books I'm reading. Or so it seems. Maybe it's just my imagination. I think it's that writing about this enables me to write about other things--existence, politics even. It's that, reading what I've been reading, the Vila-Matas books mentioned above and, of course, Proust and Beckett, I recognize possibilities. I recognize myself, in some sense.

Sometimes it seems easier to just stop--it comes so slowly, and I'm so often so tired. But I still feel that need to get something across, to myself if no one else.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Noted: Virginia Woolf

From To the Lighthouse:
Looking at the far sand hills, William Bankes thought of Ramsay: thought of a road in Westmoreland, thought of Ramsay striding along a road by himself hung round with that solitude which seemed to be his natural air. But this was suddenly interrupted, William Bankes remembered (and this must refer to some actual incident), by a hen, straddling her wings out in protection of a covey of little chicks, upon which Ramsay, stopping, pointed his stick and said "Pretty--pretty," an odd illumination in to his heart, Bankes had thought it, which showed his simplicity, his sympathy with humble things; but it seemed to him as if their friendship had ceased, there, on that stretch of road. After that, Ramsay had married. After that, what with one thing and another, the pulp had gone out of their friendship. Whose fault it was he could not say, only, after a time, repetition had taken the place of newness. It was to repeat that they met. But in this dumb colloquy with the sand dunes he maintained that his affection for Ramsay had in no way diminished; but there, like the body of a young man laid up in peat for a century, with the red fresh on his lips, was his friendship, in its acuteness and reality, laid up across the bay among the sandhills.

[. . .] Begun long ago, their friendship had petered out on a Westmoreland road, where the hen spread her wings before her chicks; after which Ramsay had married, and their paths lying different ways, there had been, certainly for no one's fault, some tendency, when they met, to repeat.

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Noted: Virginia Woolf

From To the Lighthouse:
The jacmanna was bright violet; the wall staring white. She would not have considered it honest to tamper with the bright violet and the staring white, since she saw them like that, fashionable though it was, since Mr. Paunceforte's visit, to see everything pale, elegant, transparent. Then beneath the colour there was the shape. She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment's flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself--struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: "But this is what I see; this is what I see," and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Rootlessness of Western Thought

Just one thread I attempted to follow in this post, before I decided to reign myself in and spread things out over multiple posts, has to do with Heidegger's ideas about the Greeks, at least as they appear in Poetry, Language, Thought. In the essay "The Origin of the Work of Art", he tries to get to "the thingness of the thing". In the course of doing so, he goes over the ways in which we normally think of a thing, for example its properties or physical characteristics (hard, soft, heavy, light, rough, smooth, etc). But:
What are we thinking of when we now have the thing in mind? Obviously a thing is not merely an aggregate of traits, nor an accumulation of properties by which that aggregate arises. A thing, as everyone thinks he knows, is that around which the properties have assembled. We speak in this connection of the core of things. The Greeks are supposed to have called it to hupokeimenon. For them, this core of the thing was something lying at the ground of the thing, something always already there. The characteristics, however, are called ta sumbebekota, that which has always turned up already along with the given core and occurs along with it.

These designations are no arbitrary names. Something that lies beyond the purview of this essay speaks in them, the basic Greek experience of the Being of beings in the sense of presence. It is by these determinations, however, that the interpretation of the thingness of the thing is established which henceforth becomes standard, and the Western interpretation of the Being of beings stabilized. The process begins with the appropriation of Greek words by Roman-Latin thought. Hupokeimenon becomes subiectum; hupostasis becomes substantia; sumbebekos becomes accidens. However, this translation of Greek names into Latin is in no way the innocent process it is considered to this day. Beneath the seemingly literal and thus faithful translation there is concealed, rather, a translation of Greek experience into a different way of thinking. Roman thought takes over the Greek words without a corresponding, equally authentic experience of what they say, without the Greek word. The rootlessness of Western thought begins with this translation. (All italics in the original; translation by Albert Hofstadter.)
This idea fascinates me, and I will be returning to it here. (As I will to the more difficult language--the thingness of the thing, the Being of beings, etc. But one thing at a time, please.)

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Unfinishable

I began the last post in a burst of excitement. Having read the Kabat-Zinn passage last night, I immediately felt the urge to write about it in the context of my other reading. Then I was reminded of one thing and then another, and before I knew it I had a mammoth unfinishable blog post on my hands. I was led to Thomas Merton and Blanchot and Heidegger and then Josipovici and I was quoting passages and writing connective paragraphs and getting far away from the original thrust, though it all felt, and feels, intimately connnected. . . but it doesn't have to all be in one place, does it? Of course not. So. . . spreading it all out. . . (Incidentally, this is one of the many reasons--lack of time being another--contributing to the erratic schedule here of late.)

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Wake Up

In Everyday Blessings, the book about mindful parenting which I mentioned previously, there is a chapter called "Live-In Zen Masters". In it, co-author Jon Kabat-Zinn talks some about his Zen training: "It's all about mindfulness and non-attachment, knowing who we are at the deepest levels, and knowing what we are doing, which paradoxically includes both not knowing and non-doing." He compares Zen training to parenting: "They both appeared to be about waking up to life itself. . ." and sees babies as akin to "live-in Zen Masters":
Zen Masters don't explain themselves. They just embody presence. They don't get hung up in thinking, or lost in theoretical musings about this or that. They are not attached to things being a certain way. They are not always consistent. One day does not necessarily have to be like the next. Their presence and their teachings can help us break through to a direct experiencing of our own true nature, and encourage us to find our own way, now, in this moment. They do this, not by telling us how, but by giving us endless challenges that cannot be resolved through thinking, by mirroring life back to us in its fullness, by pointing to wholeness. More than anything Zen Masters embody wakefulness and call it out of us.

Children are similar in many ways, especially when they are babies. The older they get, the harder it may be for us to see it. But their true nature is always present, and always mirroring our own, if we are willing to look, and to see.

Children have what might be called "original mind"--open, pure, unencumbered. They are undeniably and totally present. They are constantly learning, developing, changing, and requiring new responses from us. As they grow, they seem to challenge every place that we might be holding an expectation, a fixed opinion, a cherished belief, a desire for things to be a certain way. As babies, they so fill our lives and require so much attention to their physical and emotional needs that they continually challenge us to be present totally, to be sensitive, to inquire into what is actually happening, to risk trying something, and to learn from their responses to our attempts. They teach us how to be attuned to them, and to find joy and harmony in our connectedness with them. There is little time for theory, and it doesn't seem to help much anyway unless it is connected to practice.

Of course, children are not really Zen Masters. Children are children and Zen Masters are Zen Masters. But if we are able to look at our children with openness and receptivity, and see the purity of life expressing itself through them, at any age, it can wake us up at any moment to their true nature and to our own.
I read this passage last night, and a few things struck me about it. For one thing, the language about "knowing" and "not knowing and non-doing" reminds me specifically of Thomas Merton's essay titled "Love and Solitude", collected in Love and Living, an essay I had particular trouble with. Here, for example, is the opening paragraph of "Love and Solitude":
No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and the peace that is "heard" when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.
I remember having trouble with this essay and that it reminded me of those kinds of writing that have given me the most difficulty--the kind of writing I've been struggling with recently, for example writing by Blanchot and Heidegger. It strikes me now, in copying out the passage above, that another pass at this Merton essay may be helpful to understanding Blanchot's "essential solitude". And words in the Kabat-Zinn passage, words like "fullness" and "presence" and "wake us up", also remind me of Blanchot and Heidegger (in my admittedly limited experience with each).

Of course, many people in the West have been drawn to Eastern traditions, such as Zen Buddhism, because they are dissatisfied with the spiritual life of the West. The West is often seen as spiritually bereft, as overly analytical or "rational", and so on. I'm sympathetic to this charge, though I am neither inclined nor prepared to enter into a detailed treatment of the topic in this space. As someone about to become a father, I am thus far persuaded that there is great wisdom in the approach to parenting described in Everyday Blessings (how well I will do it remains to be seen). What interests me here, however, are the ways in which the language at times reminds me of that language used in the writing I find difficult (but which in this context I do not find difficult), and what that might tell us about the philosophical and literary project of these writers--which matters to me because of how I conceive of its importance in the grand scheme of living in the modern world, including the ongoing project of living my own life, and the importance of art, literature in particular.

It seems to me that, among the reasons Blanchot and Heidegger are difficult, is that they are writing about ideas and concepts for which we lack either the sufficient vocabulary or the sufficient kinds of experience, or vocabulary for noting experiences, which perhaps amounts to much the same thing. It could be that we lack the vocabulary because we have been, for centuries, falsely employing concepts carelessly borrowed from our ancient predecessors. And it could be that the vocabulary we do use is confusing because it is unable to properly express the concepts under discussion (much as, in English, we lack a word sufficient to express the French jouissance).

I know I've made some claims that are both vague and grandiose, but I hope to be able to make at least some headway in future posts in articulating what I mean, along the way towards my understanding of it myself. I'll finish by saying that I hope it will become clearer why I insist on writing posts that are about some combination of babies and writing and philosophy and politics, and why most of those posts that seem unconnected are in fact connected, and in certain ways about the same thing.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

The End of Suburbia



Crucial video about a crushingly huge problem--the decline of cheap oil, and the attendant impossibility of maintaining the American way of life, the suburbs in particular. I've been meaning to spend more time about this kind of thing, but haven't been able to organize my thoughts. I hope to rectify that in the future. (Also, I hope to link more to Feral Scholar, where they spend pretty much all their time talking about this kind of thing, and what might be done about it.) In the meantime, be sure to watch this documentary. (Via Jacob Russell, via here)

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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Noted: Enrique Vila-Matas

From Montano's Malady:
Gradually the percentage of copying in my poems decreased and slowly, but with a certain amount of confidence, my own personal style evolved, always constructed--to a greater or lesser extent--with the collaboration of those writers whose blood I sucked for my own benefit. Without haste, I began to acquire a little of my own style, nothing dazzling, but sufficient, something that was unmistakably mine, thanks to vampirism and the involuntary collaboration of the rest, those writers I laid hands on to find my personal literature. Without haste, arriving always after, in second place, accompanying a writer, all the Cernudas I discovered along the way, who appeared first, original. Without haste, like Walser's secondary or Joseph Roth's discreet characters, who pass through life in endless flight, placing themselves on the margins of the reality that troubles them so much and also on the margins of existence--in the face of the mechanism of sameness so dominant in the world today, to defend an extreme residue of irreducible individuality, something that is unmistakably theirs. I discovered mine in the others, arriving after them, first accompanying them and later liberating myself.

I think I can now say, for example, that thanks to Cernuda's protective staff I began to walk on my own and to find out what kind of writer I was, and also not to know who I was, or, better put, to know who I was, but just a bit, in the same way as my literary style is just an extreme residue, but that will always be better than nothing. The same can applied to my existence: I have just a bit of my own life--as can be observed in this timid dictionary--but it is unmistakably mine, which, to be honest, to me already seems a lot. Given the state of the world, it is no small thing to have a bit of autobiography.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Political Economy links and quotes

Today seems the best possible day to post links about Marx and political economy. Last time I mentioned Reading Capital with David Harvey. I found the link to that marvelous resource at From Despair to Where?, a blog I re-discovered as I was cleaning out my bookmarks last week. That blogger also wrote this review of Marshall Berman's Adventures in Marxism, at the Socialist Standard@MySpace blog. I've been struggling, in my limited time, to articulate a connection between my reading of the literary Modernists and my left-wing political outlook. Here is a passage from Berman's book, quoted in the review:
Marx's point in presenting this immense and bizarre chorus is to show capitalism as a maelstrom that sweeps the whole world into its flood, past and present, reality and mythology, East and West: everything and everyone is caught up and whirled in the world market, nothing and no one has the power to hold back. We the readers – along, of course, with the writer – are part of it; we respond, our voices are incorporated into the chorus; the audience finds itself on stage. This may be one reason why, like many great modernist works, Capital never really comes to an end: it reaches out to us in the audience, and challenges us to give the work an ending, by bringing an end to capitalism itself […]

[Marx's] feeling for contradictions infuses the whole of Capital with vitality and adventure. An adventure is not an idyll: much of its excitement springs from its risks, from the chance that it could end horribly; but we go on, because we are moving in an ambience of life and hope. The ambience could be a great gift to us today. It is right there, in Capital: the book lies open and open-ended, waiting only for us to give ourselves.
We happen to have a copy Adventures in Marxism. I'll be reading it.

Last week at The Pinocchio Theory, Steven Shaviro wrote about an essay by Graham Harman which, he says, "draws surprising parallels between Husserl’s phenomenology and the 'weird fiction' of H. P. Lovecraft" and "argues that Lovecraft’s tales of unrepresentable monsters cannot be read in a Kantian register". My familiarity with Kant, Husserl, and even Lovecraft is precisely nil, but in his post, Shaviro takes the opportunity to bring in Ellen Meiksins Wood's thesis in The Origin of Capitalism, which he summarizes quite well. For example:
there are markets without capitalism, but there is no capitalism without the absolute reign of the market. As Wood puts it, “this unique system of market-dependence means that the dictates of the capitalist market – its imperatives of competition, accumulation, profit-maximization, and increasing labour-productivity – regulate not only all economic transactions but social relations in general” (2002, 7). And this is the key to what I have been calling the monstrosity of capital. It is utterly contingent in its origins; and yet, once it has arrived, it imposes itself universally. Capitalism might never have emerged out of the chaos of feudal, commercial, religious, and State institutions that preceded it, just as [Lovecraft's monster] Cthulhu might never have stumbled upon our planet. But in both cases, the unfortunate encounter did, in fact, take place. And it is only afterwards, in its subsequent effects, once it has in fact arrived on the scene and subjugated all its rivals, that capitalism is able – again, much like Cthulhu – to present itself retro spectively as an irresistible and all-embracing force. Capitalism arose “in a very specific place, and very late in human history” (2002, 95). But once it arose, it made market relations compulsory: as Wood says, the so-called “free market” became an imperative, a coerced activity, instead of an opportunity (6-7).
There is a great discussion in the comments. One commenter, JCD, provides a link to his own, more detailed discussion of Wood's book at his Fragments, or: blog, here. One of the posts there is specifically about the concept of "improvement"--which I found most fascinating in Wood's book, and which threw my lame Poli-Sci 101 understanding of John Locke into a whole new light (which is to say, no understanding at all). There's no good way for me to quote from it, without simply quoting the whole thing. But you should read it if you're curious, and unsure about whether to dive into Wood just yet. (This idea, incidentally, is directly linked with my problems with the notion of "progressivism". More on that in another post.)

I spent some time tooling around JCD's site and discovered that he and some others have embarked on a group blog called Final Cause, "dedicated to radical political economy". As it happens, in the comments to his post, Shaviro himself links to two posts there called "Capitalists not Burghers" (part one, part two), which also discuss Wood's arguments. Good stuff. I also appreciate the post "Capital currently has every disease known to man". Here's an excerpt from it:
It’s sort of crazy when you think about it. The capitalist steals what you make. That’s not crazy, that’s just violent. But then he tells you he’s giving you the privilege of getting back some of what he and the other capitalists have stolen with credits earned through the labor which the capitalist forced you to do in the first place. It’s like winning the right to buy back your stolen goods from the trunk of a car on the side of the street two weeks after your house was robbed. If that happened, you wouldn’t feel privileged to buy your stuff back. You’d be pissed and call the police. But no one polices the capitalists but themselves.

You might wonder why people would ever stand for something so simultaneously unnatural and idiotic. The truth is that they don’t, and they never have. In any social organism where one class pumps surplus out of another class (i.e., steals what they make), the overriding and perennial problem is to maintain control over the class from which the surplus labor is pumped. In a sense, that’s exactly what the history of any class society is about: the changes undergone so that one class can continue to pump surplus out of another class. But the history of all societies is equally the history of resistance to this imposition of work and the various measures the ruling classes take to adjust to that resistance and keep the extraction going. When the extracting class runs out of options to meet these challenges, or when the challenges become so formidable they overwhelm all attempts to contain the contradictions, the pump stops moving surplus from one side to the other, and the history of that social organism is at an end.
Returning to The Pinocchio Theory (which is a consistent combination of, or alternation between, fascinating and way over my head), Shaviro's three posts just prior to the one linked above were about Capital (in which he discusses the work of, among others, Hardt & Negri and Deleuze & Guattari, to name just four of the oft-referenced authors I haven't yet made my way to): "What is to be done?", "Monstrous Flesh", and "Body of Capital".

To wrap things up by bringing things a little closer to the present situation, some time ago there was a great article in CounterPunch by Stan Goff and De Clarke titled "Politics is Food is Politics". A small sample:
Though the brunt -- as always -- is now being borne by the most marginal and fragile, the over-developed industrial metropoles are not escaping the impact of this crisis. In the United States, the culmination of a decades-long crisis of capital accumulation -- which has heretofore been exported to the rest of the world -- is coming home to roost in the form of a severe "credit crisis" at the same time as the oil price spike. We are entering a protracted period of stagflation: economic stagnation (recession) combined with price inflation (due in part to the impact of oil prices on virtually all economic sectors). We in the US are more deeply in debt, personally and nationally, than at any time in our history. And the key products that are driving up our cost of living -- even as our net worths stagnate and fall back -- are basically gasoline and food.

We metropolitan Americans panic when we contemplate the possibility of becoming unable to afford our private automobiles. This is not just because of our legendary ego-attachment to the car. The primary reason we panic is because we need our cars to get to our jobs (at least one study has suggested that Americans spend 20 percent of their take-home pay on their cars, so we are working one day out of five to pay for the car so we can drive to the job). And we need our jobs.

It's a given: people need their jobs. But why? Because without the income from those jobs, we and our children don't eat. Our access to food is permitted only when it's mediated by money -- which we can only obtain by working (for the ruling class) or by becoming wards of the state (which, increasingly involves coerced labour).
Goff and Clarke are, of course, the proprietors of the essential Feral Scholar blog, where increasingly of late they have been discussing food and debt and what to do when the society we all depend on, however warped and unnatural it may be, is itself heading towards a major fall. I've been wanting to talk here more about what they've been getting up to over there (and, of course, at Insurgent American), but my own problems with work and life have sucked my time away. I hope to get into in later posts.

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