February 29, 2008

Gavin Kennedy on Smith’s strategic use of ‘Providence’

Filed under: Economics, History — duncan @ 6:29 pm

Gavin Kennedy, of Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy, has put up a couple of posts responding to my post last year on the ‘invisible hand’.  Since Kennedy is a Smith scholar who knows almost everything there is to know about Smith’s work, and I’m incredibly not, I don’t have much in the way of response.  If you’re interested, however, his posts can be found here and here.  Also of interest is this related post, in which Kennedy connects Smith’s invocation of Providence to the political pressures of his time.  Perhaps I’ll return to this when I know what I’m talking about.

February 27, 2008

Labour Theory of Value

Filed under: Economics, Philosophy — duncan @ 9:03 pm

Why would labour be the source of value? The idea seems ridiculous. I don’t know how Marxist or Ricardians would justify their claims. (And N. Pepperell’s Rough Theory has a series of fascinating posts arguing that Marx is really critiquing the labour theory of value, because he is critiquing the social production of the category of labour). Still, I can imagine an argument along these lines.

Start with the completely mainstream idea of opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is what you give up to get something – all costs, we’re told, are opportunity costs. Then consider that the most important thing you give up to get anything is your life. You can give up a portion of your life (by dedicating your time to something or someone you value), or you can give up your life altogether (those things we value most, we would be willing to die for). Since our lives are lived in time, when we give time to something we also prove the value it has to us, because we give up – we let die – some portion of our lives.

The next step would be to say that life, or life-time, is not a commodity, which can be given up in favour of some other commodity; life is special, because we are life; we are our lives. Giving up life is altogether different from giving up anything else. And in fact, the argument would run, it is only the giving up of life that ultimately grants value. If I give up a commodity, in order to receive another commodity, that may demonstrate how much I value it. But the original commodity’s value is only created by the fact that I would be willing to give up life for it in turn – in fact, by the fact that I already have given up life for it, in working to receive the money I paid for it. How much we value something precisely corresponds to how much of our lives we’ve given to it; nothing else matters.

Since labour just is life – life lived within the social realm of capitalist production – all value within capitalist production must therefore come from the giving up of labour.

Now, I can imagine an objection to this argument along the following lines: we value something by giving up our own lives, yet under capitalism those with the most value are those who give up least. Wealthy capitalists possess far more value than they ever could give life for. Indeed, many of the wealthiest people in the world have never worked a day in their lives. This is true. But it is now possible to emphasise the collectivity of the subject who values capitalist commodities. Value is social. I value something, because we give up so much for it.

The argument would run as follows. Exploitation creates value by forcing others to give up their lives. Capitalist exploitation thus depends on the specular logic of identification. Capitalist exploitation, we could say, is a form of sacrifice. If I sacrifice someone to the gods – or send men to their deaths in war – I feel that something is honoured by this murder because I identify, however transiently, with those I kill – and this identification equates this death with mine. I imagine myself as the murdered one, and in doing so I imagine the immense value I would place on something if I myself chose to die for it. Since in fact another dies, I can live this act of self-sacrifice while also surviving it – another’s death creates a value I myself can enjoy. And this is the operation that takes place every day when the owners of capital force their workers to give up their lives, in order to produce commodities. Capitalism is an immense machine, dedicated to the production of value through the sacrifice of others’ lives. And that’s why labour is the source of value.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t the labour theory of value as presented in Ricardo or Marx. But I wonder what resonance it has with classical political economy.

February 26, 2008

“All costs are ultimately opportunity costs”

Filed under: Economics — duncan @ 9:24 pm

 Not the promised post on ‘Structure, Sign and Play…’, but a quick aside on opportunity cost. 

The heading’s quote comes from Krugman, Wells and Graddy, chapter 1, page 7.

“The concept of opportunity cost is crucial to understanding individual choice because, in the end, all costs are opportunity costs. Sometimes critics claim that economists are concerned only with costs and benefits that can be measured in terms of money. But that is not true…. [T]he cost of [something] is what you must give up to get it. All costs are ultimately opportunity costs.”

Which seems to make a lot of sense.  But notice just how much uncertainty the idea of opportunity cost brings into one of the most fundamental concepts of economics. Opportunity cost opens the concept of cost (which is, superficially, both concrete and already-quantified) to an infinity of doubt.

Here’s K, W & G again, p. 165:
“What do Bill Gates, David Beckham and Kylie Minogue have in common?  None of them has a university degree. All three are no doubt clever enough to have degrees. However, they made the rational decision that the implicit costs of getting that degree would have been too high – by their late teens, each of these three had a very promising career that they would have had to put on hold in order to get a university degree. Ms Minogue would have had to postpone her acting and singing career; Mr Beckham would have had to put off his incredibly successful football career; Mr Gates would have had to delay developing the most successful and most lucrative software ever sold, Microsoft’s computer operating system.
In fact, many extremely successful people – especially those in careers like acting or athletics, where starting early in life is especially crucial – do not attend university. It’ a simple matter of economics: the opportunity cost of their time at that stage in their life is just too high to postpone their careers for a university degree.”

Gates, Beckham and Kylie all chose to junk university, in favour of a career that promised extraordinary success. They all, apparently, made the right choice. But (my point is) extraordinary success is always a possibility. As is extraordinary failure.  Every hypothetical opens up an infinity of possibilities. By what mechanism are we to calculate which alternative world should be substituted, in our calculations, for the one we inhabit? By what mechanism are we to calculate opportunity cost?


February 25, 2008

Wittgenstein at War

Filed under: History, Literature, Philosophy — duncan @ 9:19 pm

On the outbreak of the First World War, Wittgenstein was in Vienna. He was studying in England, and living in Norway (where he’d built himself a hut on a fjord – you can’t make this stuff up). But at the start of August 1914 he was back in Austria and, unable to get out, he decided to volunteer. Suicidal Wittgenstein felt that war would be the ultimate test of his character – his chance to prove himself to himself, to overcome his weakness and cowardice, and to live cheerfully in the face of death. He wanted to be sent to the front – which he was; he participated in the disastrous Galician campaign, and was lucky to survive. But because he was a trained engineer (before he became interested in philosophy, he studied aeronautical engineering in Manchester) he was then assigned to an artillery workshop in Krakow. As the Austrian forces chaotically retreated, outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, Wittgenstein read Tolstoy’s ‘Gospel in Brief’. He prayed that God release him from the misery of his surroundings.

“To bear life in the workshop, it seems, required no divine assistance. Apart from the fact that he had very little time to himself to work on philosophy, life was almost pleasant, at least by comparison with the previous four months. In any case, it was preferable to life in Vienna.” (Ray Monk, ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius’, p. 123). Vienna was where Wittgenstein’s family lived – and it was also the home of the fin de siecle culture he both admired and distrusted. Even when living in solitude in Norway, Wittgenstein had received Karl Kraus’s Die Fackel. There he read an article by Kraus about Der Brenner, an avant-garde literary journal, published in Innsbruck. Wittgenstein had returned to Austria in July because he wanted to meet Ludwig von Ficker, Der Brenner’s editor – they met on the very weekend of the ultimatum to Serbia. Wittgenstein had decided to give 100,000 crowns to Austrian artists without means, and he wanted Ficker to distribute it. One beneficiary would be Rilke – and Georg Trakl, a regular contributor to Der Brenner, also received a considerable sum. Wittgenstein’s comment on Trakl’s poems: “I do not understand them, but their tone makes me happy. It is the tone of pure genius.”

By August 1914 Trakl was also on the Eastern front. In September he participated in the battle of Groduk; and after the battle he suffered a complete mental breakdown. As the Austrian army headed back towards Krakow, Trakl was in a Krakow psychiatric hospital. He wrote to Wittgenstein: “I would be greatly obliged if you would do me the honour of paying me a visit… I will possibly be able to leave the hospital in the next few days to return to the field. Before a decision is reached, I would greatly like to speak with you.” Wittgenstein was delighted. He wrote in his diary: “How happy I would be to get to know him!” On the day he arrived in Krakow he wrote that he was “thrilled with the anticipation and hope of meeting Trakl.” “It is already too late to visit Trakl today.” Trakl committed suicide on November 3rd. Wittgenstein arrived at the hospital on the morning of November 6th. Monk: “’Wie traurig, wie traurig!!!’ (‘What unhappiness, what unhappiness!!!’) was all he [Wittgenstein] could find to say on the matter.” (p. 119). It was Wittgenstein who broke the news to Ficker; who in turn informed Trakl’s family.

Curse you, dark poisons,
White sleep!
This weirdest garden
Of trees wrapped in twilight
Filled with snakes, nocturnal moths,
Spiders, bats.
Stranger! Your lost shadow
In the sunset’s red,
A gloomy corsair
On the salt sea of misery.
White birds rise at the hem of night
Over collapsing cities
Of steel.

[The meme, from N. Pepperell:
1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.
Nominees: Flashboy, Comte, Roger, IT, Robert Vienneau.
(There’s no obligation to play the game…)]

February 20, 2008

Normative Economics

Filed under: Economics, Philosophy, Unreadable — duncan @ 9:13 pm

[Take careful note of the ‘unreadable’ tag above.]

All economics is normative. In the first place, for all the obvious reasons. Human beings are weak, and human knowledge is partial. We are always inclined to mould the facts to fit our preoccupations, prejudices, and desires. To the extent that abstract thought abstracts from numinous reality, this moulding process is the stuff of thought itself. So even the most objective analysis is guided, to some extent, by values, loathings, needs. (And, as Hilary Putnam reminds us, truth is also a value.) Plus, deception is an intrinsic feature of our crooked human timber: it’s in the grain. Since the claim of objectivity is a one of the most powerful rhetorical tropes available, it will often be made precisely when the issues at stake are most doubtful, the ideas advanced most tendentious.

So far so blah. But there are more specific ways in which economics cannot escape the shadow of normativity. What claims economics has to scientific status mostly come from its treatment of human problems in quantitative terms. “’I can calculate the motions of the heavens, but not the madness of men,” Newton said, after losing a fortune in the South Sea bubble. Since Cournot – or since Cournot’s methods spread – economics has prided itself on using the differential calculus (which Newton used to unlock the secrets of motion) to describe the motion of our souls. (Note to self: I really must read Mirowski). Economics hoped to make society Newtonian. Or, perhaps better, Liebnizian. (Note to self: I must read more Liebniz. Permit me a moment of frenzied despair – so much to read; so much to understand… I’m better now). What is the rational self-interested individual, if not the monad; and what is the self-regulating market, if not the divine force that binds these monads together, ensuring synchronicity, and guaranteeing, in the face of countless horrors, that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds? Why, I wonder, was this vision associated with the calculus from the start?

Economics aspires to be a quantitative science. [I just went out for the evening. Now I’m back, and have lost my train of thought...] This is easy enough when economics deals with actual quantities – so many cars, so many houses, so many bankruptcies, so many deaths. But when economics’ objects are not already quantified, it has to quantify them. Economics needs a mechanism of homogenisation, by means of which the inordinate world can be placed on a single numbered scale. This mechanism will be what economics calls a measure of value.

One purpose of money is this homogenisation of value. In this sense – in the sense that economics presupposes the reduction of value to a single scale – economics already sees the world through money’s eyes. But economics does not take money’s valuations as they stand. Economics enquires into the mechanisms by means of which prices are established – and also, more importantly, into exchange rates, interest rates, inflation, and all the other features of money that prevent it from functioning as economics wishes it could – as a transparent, homogenous medium for the measurement of value. Economics does not believe what money says. Yet economics can only distance itself from monetary valuation by comparing it to another set of valuations, which must be understood as fulfilling the very function economics wishes money could. [Yuch. I’ll try to clarify this horrible paragraph in my next post.]

Let’s say that there are two ‘normative’ principles at work here. One we could call the principle, or paradigm, of quantification, or homogenisation. This would correspond to the general ‘perspective’ that capitalist economics adopts towards the world. The second normative principle would be the perspective economics adopts within that perspective: the question of which particular method of quantification economics selects as the basis for analysis. So – for instance – economics acknowledges that prices can’t be used as the basis for comparison of values across space and time (because of inflation, exchange rates, etc. etc.). Economics therefore instead decides to analyse value in terms of purchasing power. Now the question becomes – power to purchase what? It could always be claimed (and will be claimed, because it’ll be true) that the value of the good selected as the base unit for comparison has itself changed over space and time – a change that of course would not show up in economics’ measurements of value, if those measurements take the value of this good as given. In selecting its unit of homogenisation and quantification, therefore, economics is always already making a value judgement. It is saying ‘I value this; I will not let it be degraded; I will not let it lose its lustre; my ardour for it will not fade’. Economics is saying – I have chosen this as the solid base of value, the thing in itself, the centre around which the flux revolves. I have chosen this as the meaning or source of value.

[Marx’s labour theory of value, incidentally, is the selection of labour as this base unit (it’s more than that; but that’s an important feature). Marx, philosophically knowledgeable and brilliant guy that he is, understands exactly what this means. Here’s one of the most important sentences in ‘Capital’: “Labour is the substance, and the immanent measure of value, but it has no value itself.” (my emph. Vol I, p. 677) I suggest that anyone with time on their hands compare this passage with Wittgenstein’s discussion of the metre rule in Paris – which, Wittgenstein says, has no length. The same principle is at work: the origin of measurement cannot be measured; it constitutes the system, and therefore is not part of it. This claim needs to be rejected. There isn’t much that carries over from the early to the late Wittgenstein, but this idea of a symbol that makes our discourse possible, and for that very reason cannot be part of our discourse – this idea persists. Anyway.]

On what basis does economics make this judgement? It makes it based on motives and criteria that precede and constitute economics. Economics’ objectivity – to the large extent that this objectivity is based on the discipline’s ability to quantify the apparently unquantifiable – is always dependent on an ethical judgement that cannot be justified from within the system of economics.

Christ, that’s the most incoherent blog post anyone has ever written. I’ll try to fix things later. Till then take care.

[NB: Reading the post back, I should have made it clearer what I’m trying to do here (though its probably obvious): recapitulate Derrida. In my next post, I think I’m going to take a leisurely jog through ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’. Everything, or almost everything, I’m trying to do above can be found in that essay. My aim is to apply Derrida’s argument to the human science of economics – a human science that has so far magnificently resisted any engagement at all with modern philosophy – a ‘science’ still built, in fact, on the shakiest of nineteenth century foundations: utilitarianism. I also plan to formulate some criticisms of Derrida’s approach. But all that can wait.]

February 18, 2008

Limited Inc Redux

Filed under: Philosophy — duncan @ 9:18 pm

[Not Roger's site, the Derrida book]

Jumping right in, because we’re all bored to tears by this controversy:

1) Searle’s critique of Derrida is obviously filled with gross misreadings.
2) But one of Searle’s misreadings is more interesting than the others.
3) Searle says that Derrida confuses permanence with iterability.
4) Derrida doesn’t confuse permanence with iterability. He assimilates permanence to iterability.
5) And that’s because Derrida’s working out of a phenomenological framework that is, fundamentally, idealist.
6) That’s to say: it’s based on the classical philosophical subordination of matter to form.
7) Derrida’s critique of Austin is largely based on Derrida’s claim that Austin’s work belongs to that philosophical tradition.
8 ) But it’s not clear to me that this claim is justified, in the strong form in which Derrida makes it.

I think this is why the whole Derrida/Searle debate gives the impression of two people talking past each other. Searle misreads Derrida because he totally misses the metaphysical level at which Derrida’s argument is pitched. But Derrida can’t quite come out and clarify that metaphysical level, because it’s a bit of a stretch to see Austin’s work as subordinate to the metaphysics of presence in the strong way Derrida needs it to be if his argument’s going to work.

I’m not all that settled in my opinions, here. My big leap above is obviously (8), which amounts to a rejection of the Austin-related argument of Signature Event Context. I need to justify that. I’ve been reading Austin today, and Derrida’s critique is mostly on the money, IMO. Nonetheless, I worry about the speed and, as it were, casualness, with which Derrida assimilates Austin to a philosophical tradition Austin mostly repudiates. The issue, I think – or one important issue – is ‘ordinary language’, and the extent to which Austin’s programmatic refusal of standard philosophical discourse locates him outside the game of transcendental necessary conditions, etc, that Derrida still plays, however sceptically. Austin certainly can’t be wholly exempted from metaphysical discourse – but his work is perhaps more distant from it that Derrida wants to acknowledge.

But that’s not putting it very well; I’ve got a lot of thinking to do.

The double performativity of money. Why do capitalist economies need to keep on growing?

Filed under: Economics, Philosophy, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 8:55 pm

For your delectation today, another mix of quarter-digested reading and half-baked speculation, seasoned with lashings of blithe ignorance. For dessert: remorse.

So once upon a time, money was a commodity much like any other. In the middle ages, money basically meant precious metals. But then things went weird – and, non-coincidentally, they went weird just as capitalism was getting up and running. The French Revolution, that triumph of property rights, internal markets and centralised contract law over protectionist local economies [I’ve been reading a bluffers guide; this is more than likely bollocks], was financed by the (inadvertent) creation of a paper currency, the assignat. And modern capitalism rests upon a financial sector whose baroque workings are incomprehensible even to the men, women and machines whose lives are spent in those virtual labyrinths. The weirdness upon which our world rests is, nonetheless, quite simple, in essence. It’s about the reflexivity of debt, or of the promise – solid Derridean themes. As all readers of J.L.Austin will know, a promise is quite a striking form of speech-act: it’s a performative, which means that what it says is also what it does. If I say (as Orwell liked to) “I brush off my coat. I floss my teeth. I glare at my reflection in the unforgiving mirror” (or some such) then my saying these things is different from my doing them. My speech is not the brushing, the flossing, the glaring. But if I say “I promise to give you five pounds” then the saying is the promising. The distinction between speech and deed here collapses, because this speech-act is a performative – the saying is already, irrevocably, no matter my ‘intention’, the doing of what I say.

Austin wants to reorient our attitude to language such that performatives are given comparable status to common-or-garden propositions – a project Derrida calls ‘Nietzschean’ in its implications. I think that’s pushing it. But I want to circle around a peculiar feature of promising that Austin nowhere, to my knowledge, remarks. This is fucking strange. Ready? Saying “I promise to give you five pounds” needn’t just make the promise it describes. It can also fulfil the promise it describes. Don’t believe me? Take out a five pound note. I have one here, and I transcribe:

Bank of England

[Autobiographical interlude: as it happens, this five pound note is, at time of writing, all the money I have in the world. No, don’t worry, it’s fine. Really: end-of-the-month wage-slave shortfall, nothing to worry about, thanks for your concern…] That’s what the note says: it’s a promissory note. This promise to pay me five pounds is itself five pounds. There is a total reflexivity of the promise, here. And this double performativity of the promise of money is possible because money is always already a promise – it was a promise even when it apparently had a wholly material form, as precious metal.

More on this as and when. For now, here’s another thing. Banks make money. Not just in the sense that they generate profits, but also in the sense that they manufacture our currency. Money is a commodity, and banks are the factories that produce it. Banks produce money physically: all English banknotes are printed by the Bank of England (although in Scotland practically anyone with a printing press can run off the stuff, which is going to cause serious problems if any of those currency-producing banks goes Northern Rock). More importantly, banks produce money virtually. Let’s say you have one hundred pounds. You deposit it in a bank. The bank (NatWest) then lends out the money to someone else, at a higher rate of interest than whatever they’re giving you. (This is the main source of the bank’s profits). The money the bank’s loaned out is then deposited at the self-same bank. So: NatWest has twice the money originally deposited. And it decides to loan it out again. NatWest loans its newly deposited money to a third party, at an even higher rate of interest, and this new customer, once again, decides to deposit their borrowed money at NatWest. The bank now has three times the money originally deposited. It has three times the money that actually exists, in any physical sense. Nonetheless: so long as the bank has promised to pay its customers whatever they’ve deposited, and so long as its customers believe that the bank will fulfil that promise, the money NatWest has created, out of thin air, is real. Because money is nothing other than the bank’s promise to supply money.

This ghost story is how our economy actually functions. There’s a good summary in this John Lanchester article. Our currency is made of debt. If even a substantial minority of any bank’s customers decided to ask for their deposits back all at once, the belief system upon which these promises are founded would collapse, and the bank would go under. Which is, more or less, what happened to Northern Rock when the credit crunch hit.

I’ve been reading around economics for about a year now, and while this basic economic fact is universally acknowledged, I’ve yet to find a book or article that places it centre-stage. [I know, I just haven’t read enough. Any tips?] In economics textbooks it’s often mentioned, in an ostentatiously casual tone, towards the end of the final section. “Oh *ahem* as it happens (*ahem*) everything we’ve told you is built on an illusion (is that the time?)”

I need to do more reading. But instead here’s a suggestion. Banks only survive because they are able to make profits. This is true of all capitalist industries; but of banks more than any. Why? Because banks always have to keep ahead of the moment at which their customers demand their money back. If, as a bank, I borrow X pounds off of you, and I lend X pounds to someone else, I need to be damn sure I’ll have the X pounds back by the time I have to repay you. If I don’t have it – if I don’t have it in hard cash – then I’ll be more than embarrassed: this scenario would produce the end of my business, because my business is entirely built on trust. If I can’t make good on my promises I’m no longer a bank; I’m simply a thief.

What does this mean for our economy? It means, perhaps, that banks need to keep producing more and more money. If the amount of money on a bank’s books starts declining for a prolonged period then that bank will go under, because it will be unable to fulfil its obligations. Banks are built on an upward spiral of money-production; a downward spiral is likely to mean not declining profits, but collapse.

Is this right? (The claim certainly doesn’t follow from what I’ve said; but I think it makes a certain intuitive sense… possibly…) If it is right, what would the necessity of ever-increasing money-production mean for the rest of the economy? It would mean, I think, one of two things: either massive inflation, or ever-increasing real production. The former would destroy our economic world; the latter is necessary to keep the quantity of ‘value’ in the economy more or less equivalent to the quantity of money.

I haven’t thought any of this through (as is clear). But this argument would provide a plausible explanation for the utter commitment of capitalist economics to ‘growth’. Growth is essential for capitalism, because capitalism is built on a financial system that has to grow or die.

That is all. Criticisms and/or explanations are, as always, more than welcome.

February 16, 2008

Prices and Appropriation

Filed under: Economics — duncan @ 9:06 pm

The exploitation that structures the global economy can be read in the prices of similar commodities worldwide. Commodity X, worth ten pounds in developed country A, is worth ten pence in developing country B. This is a measure, in large part, of A’s exploitation of B.

Let’s say you want to appropriate the resources of a nation, a people, a continent, a hemisphere – and let’s say you want to do it through the medium of voluntary free exchange. In the long run, the value of a country’s exports must equal the value of its imports. How, then, can A appropriate B’s resources, while exchanging them for resources of equal value?

Simple: A’s commodities must be worth more than B’s. The same commodity, X, must be worth more when moving from A to B than it is when moving from B to A. In this way, A can appropriate B’s resources – without appropriating any ‘value’.

The differences in prices worldwide aren’t a result of relative wealth; they are a result of the power relations that create this relative wealth. The refusal to consider the effects of power on the operations of the free market is one of the greatest scandals of economics.

[NB: I know, things are so much more complex than this. Don’t even say it…]


Filed under: Economics, Philosophy — duncan @ 9:05 pm

I’m years from being able to do anything with these suggestions. But the blog’s for getting things off my chest, and so:

Karl Polanyi, ‘The Great Transformation’, p. 75. “The crucial point is this: labor, land, and money are essental elements of industry; they also must be organized in markets; in fact these markets form an absolutely vital part of the economic system. But labor, land, and money are obviously not commodities; the postulate that anything that is bought and sold must have been produced for sale is emphatically untrue in regard to them.”

Critics of economics, or of market economics, tend to see capitalism as betraying or concealing the true realities of our social existence. The methods of valuation that are essential to the operation of a market economy destroy the valuations that should be guiding our politics and our lives.

I endorse this view. But I only partly endorse it. One of my strategies in this blog is going to involve its rejection. On the one hand, yes: strip away the lies that generate our vision of the market economy. But on the other hand: trace out the full implications of that vision. My goal here is Derridean: to wholly inhabit the philosophical system we wish to deconstruct. I see economics’ treatment of money as closely parallelling metaphysics’ treatment of the sign. And if economics proposes that everything can be seen in terms of commodities (which is also to say, in terms of money), I say – fine, let’s see how far you’re willing to take that idea. In my opinion, the commodification of everything is, for economics, unthinkable without a foundation that escapes commodification. I propose that we attempt to eliminate that foundaton – and see what this does to the concept of the commodity.

The Original of BORER, more like.

Filed under: Literature, Media — duncan @ 9:04 pm

Right, sorry to be a part pooper, and I realise there’s a degree of… hypocrisy involved here – but would everyone please shut the fuck up about ‘The Original of Laura’ already?

Here’s the deal:

1) It’s a fragment. I’m not sure how many words 50 index cards of Nabokov’s scrawl amounts to, but pretty clearly nowhere near a novel, or even a novella. We’re not talking ‘needs a few finishing touches’; we’re talking ‘basically not written yet’.
2) It’s probably not very good. I’m about as fervent a Nabokovophile as you’ll find; but his last few novels are, in even my opinion, weak. I won’t be re-reading ‘Look at the Harlequins!’ in a hurry, and I wish people wouldn’t pretend that ‘Laura’ is just a few well-placed semi-colons away from ‘The Castle’ or ‘The Aeneid’.
3) Even if it were worth talking about, it’s not worth talking about at incredible length every six months, in a fresh flurry of speculative, contentless punditry. Unless the thing’s been either burnt or published, I don’t want to hear about it.
4) And yet: the front page of ‘The Times’ this week. WTF?!

I know it’s unreasonable of me to complain about the media spending too much time on literary marginalia. I should be grateful. But I feel obliged to read this stuff – I spend precious minutes pouring over dull remarks by Tom Stoppard and John Banville – and I’m pissed off. So, rather than exercising self-control, I’m asking the world’s journalists: please: shut the fuck up about ‘The Original of Laura’.

Thank you.

[In an attempt to give this post some actual content, here’s Nabokov on the fate of the sequel to ‘Dead Souls’. Contrarian as ever, he refuses to see Gogol’s destruction of the manuscript as a victory of religious philistinism over artistic instinct. Rather, Nabokov sees Gogol’s decision as the death-bed resurgence of his better nature, revolting against the pieties to which he had subordinated his muse. (Notice, however, that Nabokov’s contemptuous dismissal of religious values is phrased, as so often, in somewhat religious terms – the chapel may be false, in this passage, but the blue flames of hell are real…)

“…and if Chichikov was fated to end his days as an emaciated monk in a remote monastery, then no wonder that the artist, in a last blinding flash of artistic truth, burnt the end of Dead Souls. Father Matthew [Gogol’s priest] could be satisfied that Gogol shortly before dying had renounced literature; but the brief blaze that might be deemed a proof and symbol of this renunciation happened to be exactly the opposite thing: as he crouched and sobbed in front of that stove (“Where?” queries my publisher. In Moscow.), an artist was destroying the labor of long years because he finally realized that the completed book was untrue to his genius; so Chichikov, instead of piously petering out in a wooden chapel among ascetic fir trees on the shores of a legendary lake, was restored to his native element; the little blue flames of a humble hell.” (‘Gogol’, pgs. 137-8)]

Older Posts »

The WordPress Classic Theme Blog at


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.