March 24, 2008

In passing…

Filed under: Derrida, Marx, Philosophy — duncan @ 9:48 pm

I seriously need to get myself an internets connection – I can’t respond to comments properly today - sorry!  But anyone interested in ‘Specters of Marx’, which has been in the news here recently, needs to run, not walk, over to Rough Theory, where N. Pepperell has a fabulous post up about Derrida’s selective interpretation of ‘Capital’ – and Derrida’s own exorcism of Marx’s more threatening specters.  I’d been green with envy if I wasn’t so delighted.

March 23, 2008


Filed under: Economics, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 3:11 pm

“GDP… is the total value of all final goods and services produced in an economy during a given period, usually a year.” I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again (as I stare in bafflement and frustration at these pages of elementary macroeconomics): the distinction between ‘final’ goods and services and ‘intermediate’ goods and services is arbitrary nonsense (like the parallel distinction between consumption and investment). We have here two mututally supporting visions of the economy (which do not altogether correspond to the ‘money’ and ‘real’ economies): call them the circular and heirachical visions. On the one hand, the economy is a closed system of circulation, in which the concept of ‘final’ or ‘end’ purchase makes no sense. On the other hand, the economy is a system of appropriation, production, and consumption/expulsion, which receives inputs from outside the closed system (natural resources, say), and produces output that does not return to the closed system (which is consumed, in the double meaning of used and destroyed… or which is simply expelled, as with, say, pollution). The concept of ‘final product’ seems to belong to the second system, yet is understood in terms of the first.

And yet this second system is very hard to understand in a way that doesn’t reinscribe it within the idea of circular flow. As I’ve said before – the apparently most basic form of ‘consumption’ is eating, the ingestion of food (and drink). But this is also the most basic form of investment – the production of the productive resource of human labour. When the economy is divided between the two general institutions of households and firms, with firms’ output ‘consumed’ by households, this can be understood as part of the general social production of the category of labour. And this is in turn, no doubt, connected to the fact that, except for its function as the source of consumption, the institution of the ‘household’ falls entirely outside the system of economic valuation that finds its expression in GDP. The category of labour is, of course, created by the elision of domestic labour. But this may be just an example of the peculiar status of the ‘household’ among the institutions of our economy.

Circular Flow Diagram

Filed under: Economics, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 3:08 pm

Insulting your intelligence again, let me share my latest textbook perplexity. In chapter two (of Krugman, Wells and Graddy’s ‘Economics: European Edition’) I was introduced to ‘the circular-flow diagram’ of the movement of money, goods and services in the economy.  [Sorry about the appallingly ugly images, the result of a hasty google search.  I can't seem to access the images on Krugman et al's web page.]

Basic circular flow diagram

Worth noting here, perhaps, the basic institutional divisions. Polanyi would tell us that the market for goods and services is a real market, and that factor markets are in some sense ‘fictional’. I’m not sure I altogether agree with that; but let’s focus on the division between firms and households. One of my longstanding questions is something along the lines of: why does economic liberalism so often ally itself with social illiberalism – why, when we talk of the ‘right’, do we refer both to free market dogmatists and to homophobes, misogynists and racists? I’m no closer to answering that question (or understanding why it’s ill-posed…) but it is perhaps worth noting that the ‘household’ is an institution as important in the creation of this diagram as the ‘firm’.

Be that as it may, there’s a double-movement in this diagram: of money, circulating in one direction, and goods, services and factors, circulating in the other. One of my biggest perplexities, when studying (pre-elementary) economics, is the relation between the ‘real’ and the ‘money’ economies. This perplexity is only heightened when I reach a more sophisticated version of the ‘circular flow’ diagram, in chapter 24.

Circular flow diagram with financial intermediaries

The issue is basically this: what do we mean by the creation of value? I find all this incredibly hard to think through, but let me start with the problem that money is at one and the same time a representation of value and value itself. We could find countless locations of the production of subtly different kinds of ‘value’ in this diagram. For instance: isn’t the household – the family unit – considered, at least in certain dominant ways of thinking (which I by no means want to renounce, but…) the locus of the most important values? Consider, if you want to, that ‘labour’ means not only the work purchased by a capitalist employer, but also the ‘work’ of childbirth. (Some connections here, no doubt, with the previous post on Nabokov…) If we think that life is what we value more than anything else – and, above all, the lives of our loved ones – then the family is the locus of the creation and nurturing of this value.

I think it’s fairly grotesque to write like this: the assimilation of important things to the language of economics, and their misrepresentation in so doing. But I also think…

(The production of commodities by means of commodities. Where commodities = us.)

My specific bafflement, today, is focused on this sentence of my textbook. “By our basic rule of accounting, which says that flows out of any box are equal to flows into the box, the flow of funds out of the markets for goods and services to firms is equal to the total flow of funds into the markets for goods and services from other sectors.” (p. 585). In fact, my bafflement is focused on the first half of the sentence: “By our basic rule of accounting, which says that flows out of any box are equal to flows into the box…”

Surely this ‘basic rule of accounting’ has to be complete nonsense. Our ‘circular flow diagram’ illustrates a closed system. If the flows out of any box in the diagram are equal to the flows into this box (assuming each arrow in the diagram depicts an unchanging quantity [and, I guess, velocity?] of funds) then the amount of ‘funds’ in the system is a constant. This is an economy involving no production (or loss of value). What nonsense.

(I’ve been corrected on this blog before (in a friendly and helpful way :) ), when I’ve complained about elementary textbooks in this way – so I should say that, yes, I know that Krugman, Wells and Graddy don’t actually hold the stupid opinions that their teacher-personas ask us to take seriously. I know they’re being simplistic in the interests of pedagogy. But the bottom line is: don’t lie. If you’re trying to teach a subject, don’t lie. I mean – this lie is completely transparent. It isn’t fooling anyone. Why lie like this? Why treat your readers or students as if you think they’re worse than idiots? One of the strangest and most sinister features of all the education I’ve been subjected to: you progress by demonstrating your willingness to accept falsehoods. Let’s have no more of that, please.)

Plainly, the amount of ‘value’ in the economy can increase and decrease. But we can, provisionally, going along with the unacceptable formulations of vulgar economics, distinguish between two types of ‘value’: real value and monetary value. This isn’t a distinction between the value of money as adjusted for inflation, and the value of money on its own terms. It’s the distinction between the two movements of circular flow: the movement of the ‘real’ economy (goods and services) and the movement of the ‘money’ economy (money).

If the general value in an economy, let’s say, increases, then there are two forms of ‘production’ here. [We are bracketing off the many different alternative understandings of value – focusing only on the value of commodities/services and the value of money, as economists ask us to]. On the one hand: real production. The production of cars, say. On the other hand: monetary production. The production of money, in the financial sector.

In the circular-flow diagram Krugman, Wells and Graddy have chosen to illustrate their textbook, you have [going along with vulgar economics and bracketing out perhaps more pressing and important understandings of the meaning of ‘value’] two locations of the production of value.

1) The firm
2) The financial sector.

The amount of ‘value’ in the economy can increase in two ways.

1) The production of valuable goods (/services)
2) The production of money.

What’s fascinating and deeply weird is that these two different forms of the production of value are both almost entirely distinct and completely inseparable. Economic, capitalist value is created by the relation between money and commodities. If you didn’t have a money economy, you wouldn’t have value in the capitalist sense – the economists’ sense – at all. Value as economists understand it can’t be applied to goods in themselves, independent of the mediation of the money economy. But money in itself has no value independent of its relation of representation to ‘real’ value.

The current financial crisis is, obviously enough, an example of the production of money running far ahead of the production of commodities – to the point at which the ‘value’ of that money became unsustainable, it was so distant from the ‘real’ value that must (ultimately, in some sense) anchor all ‘monetary’ value. A crisis of overproduction is, perhaps, the opposite. [Though I need to do more reading...] So it can be tempting to say: well, ‘money’ value and ‘real’ value must, in some way, eventually, coincide (in the long run). While this reaction is, no doubt, appropriate enough, I think it can easily underestimate the sheer weirdness of the relation between the ‘money’ and the ‘real’ economies.

I, too, find the analogy I’m about to use both pretentious and (more to the point) stupid; but I’m going to use it anyway. If our economy exhibits a ‘circular flow’, this flow isn’t a double-movement in which two separate forms of value travel in opposite directions. It more closely resembles a Moebius strip, in which a single form of value is transformed, by its movement, into its opposite. (And that analogy needs to be immediately abolished, in favour of a less stupid, more helpful formulation.)

Obviously enough, I’m just trying things out for size here. One day, I promise, I’ll know what I’m talking about.

Nabokov’s Terror

Filed under: Literature, Nabokov, Philosophy, Self indulgence, Unreadable — duncan @ 2:57 pm

Nabokov famously hated both Freud and Sartre. In the screenplay to ‘Lolita’, if I remember right, Humbert is transplanted to L.A., where he has been hired to work on a film about existentialism. That’s meant to convey, I think, both Nabokov’s low regard for an intellectual movement so cheerfully adopted by the fashionable and the philistine – and an unease about his own writing. Nabokov doesn’t so much hate existentialism as feel that it isn’t being done properly; it’s a Hollywood philosophy, rather than a real (an authentic?) one. In the afterword to his collection ‘Tyrants Destroyed’, Nabokov writes of his story ‘Terror’: “It preceded Sartre’s La Nausee, with which it shares certain shades of thought, and none of that novel’s fatal defects, by at least a dozen years.” [And let me say right away that I, too, know almost nothing about Sartre – though I share Nabokov’s dislike of ‘Nausea’.]

Anyway, here’s a passage from ‘Terror’. The narrator, the usual chilly Nabokovian writer, is visiting a strange city when he experiences a feeling of ‘supreme terror’. He finds himself unable to express it using the normal resources of his art. “I wish the part of my story to which I am coming now could be set in italics; no, not even italics would do: I need some new, unique kind of type.” But then he says that he believes he has found the right words. “When I came out on the street, I suddenly saw the world such as it really is. You see, we find comfort in telling ourselves that the world could not exist without us, that it exists only inasmuch as we ourselves exist, inasmuch as we can represent it to ourselves… [It’s not exactly clear to me who the ‘we’ in this sentence is meant to encompass; a fairly select bunch of philosophical idealists and/or solipsists, it would seem. Be that as it may…] Well – on that terrible day when, devastated by a sleepless night, I stepped out into the center of an incidental city, and saw houses, trees, automobiles, people, my mind abruptly refused to accept them as ‘houses,’ ‘trees,’ and so forth… My line of communication with the world snapped”. Significantly, Nabokov’s narrator compares this with the sensation one experiences “after one has repeated sufficiently long the commonest word without heeding its meaning: house, howss, whowss. It was the same with trees, the same with people.” And then comes the passage I want to emphasise. Here we find bound together, extremely efficiently, a number of key Nabokovian themes. And it’s almost embarrassingly easy to read this passage psychoanalytically. (A quick aside – it’s not entirely clear to me how seriously we’re meant to take Nabokov’s contempt for Freud – for the most part it seems totally on the level (and hysterical); but on occasion Nabokov seems to be almost asking us to ignore his ‘manifest’ views. Take his lectures on ‘Anna Karenin’, where, if I remember right, he launches into his usual attack on the psychoanalytic view of literary symbolism, before discussing, in great detail, Anna’s red bag, and its metaphoric function in the novel. It’s almost as if he’s asking us to make the connection that a salaried professor of Russian literature couldn’t, in the fifties, express in polite company. But I suppose Nabokov’s ‘intentions’ (whatever sense we choose to make of that concept) aren’t necessarily the issue here: what matters, in the first place at least, is how his work functions… and a clearer example of a hysterical sexual nightmare you’d be hard-pushed to find than this passage from his story ‘Terror’.)

“I understood the horror of a human face. Anatomy, sexual distinctions, the notion of ‘legs,’ ‘arms,’ ‘clothes’ – all that was abolished, and there remained in front of me a mere something – not even a creature, for that too is a human concept, but merely something moving past. In vain did I try to master my terror by recalling how once in my childhood, on waking up, I raised my still sleepy eyes while pressing the back of my neck to my low pillow and saw, leaning toward me over the bed head, an incomprehensible face, noseless, with a hussar’s black mustache just below its octopus eyes, and with teeth set in its forehead. I sat up with a shriek and immediately the mustache became eyebrows and the entire face was transformed into that of my mother, which I had glimpsed at first in an unwonted upside-down aspect.” (‘Terror’, in Nabokov, ‘Collected Stories’, p. 177)

Several moves in the passages from ‘Terror’ I’ve quoted.

1) A vision of the world as it “is” rather than as it (usually) appears – a vision of the world unfiltered through the conceptual and experiential categories we use to understand existence. The world thus perceived is meaningless, because it is only our understanding of the world that gives it meaning. “I am convinced that nobody ever saw the world the way I saw it during those moments, in all its terrifying nakedness and terrifying absurdity.” A form of perception devoid of all conceptual scheme, and thus devoid of all sense.

2) But, of course, in describing the world as it really “is”, without the apparatus of our concepts or the categories of ordinary experience, Nabokov, or his narrator, has to use language, concepts, analogies, metaphor, all the resources of literary expression. In the passage I’m highlighting, he uses a comparison with an in-some-ways-similar experience of ‘absurdity’ from the narrator’s childhood. But, of necessity, the description of this experience cannot convey bare existence (here, the bare existence of the human face), but must rather convey a particular kind of experience, by comparing the face in question to something else, using the resources of metaphor: “an incomprehensible face, noseless, with a hussar’s black mustache just below its octopus eyes, and with teeth set in its forehead.”

3) I don’t think you need to be a complete Freud fanatic to see this as a primal scene of sexual nightmare – an expression of male revulsion at a certain fantasised vision of female sexuality (complete with castration anxiety and vagina dentata). What Nabokov, or his narrator, wants to present as horror at sheer existence, is rerouted, by the story’s metaphorics, towards horror at female sexuality. At this level of the story, existence itself is equated with female sexuality; and female sexuality is understood as specifically maternal.

A full reading of this story would place this analysis within the context of Nabokov’s art as a whole. But I don’t want to do that. I just want to use this story, and this quote, as an occasion to talk, in a massively underinformed way, about the general literary-philosophical-psychoanalytic situation we encounter here.

So. This story, and particularly this passage in the story, is a perfect example of that much maligned neologism ‘phallogocentrism’: the connection, at some deep conceptual/emotional level, between ‘logocentrism’ – the understanding of Being as dominated by or derived from Logos (form, word, reason) – and ‘phallocentrism’: the social, sexual, and conceptual prioritising of the male over the female, with all the ambiguities and misogynies that this implies.

Obviously my take here is Derridean – though it’s also hugely influenced by the Derridean literary critic and philosopher Henry Staten, and the psychoanalytic literary critic Janet Adelman. The (‘Statenian’) argument would run something like this. Western philosophy, since forever, has understood both existence and thought as grounded in the ‘Logos’. This assimilation can be understood in terms of the philosophical privileging of form over matter. Thought and existence can be linked together – the connection between our thoughts and their apparently non-conceptual content can be guaranteed – because thought and existence share something: form. My thoughts may be made of different stuff from the world they represent – but the form of my thoughts is identical with the form of their content, and this explains how thought can have content.

This form of philosophical explanation is fundamentally incoherent – because it has an overriding tendency not just to privilege form over matter, but to utterly abolish matter in favour of understanding everything, including Being itself, in terms of form. For if form is the principle of intelligibility, then that which is not form – i.e. matter – is, strictly speaking, unthinkable, and unknowable. When we say ‘matter’ we cannot mean matter, on this theory – we must mean the form of matter. Thus – there is no matter; or, at least, matter drops altogether out of any coherent logocentric thought, becoming the pure noumenon, about which nothing can be said.

And yet, of course, we still do talk about matter; and indeed matter remains as the dark shadow to any philosophical theory of being as form. This dark shadow is the space within which Nabokov situates his story of ‘terror’. And it has two aspects – the failure of a representation to fully correspond to its object (as in the repetition of a word until it appears to lose its meaning); and a material existence that cannot be encompassed by form. There are thus two threats to ‘logocentrism’: materiality on the one hand, and the failure of language to fully convey meaning, on the other. This latter threat, to be simple about it, is the threat of poetry – because poetry, or literature, depends upon a use of language that emphasises language’s ‘material’ properties, rather than its transparency to the objects of reference. And this is the threat that Derrida presses in his emphasis on ‘the materiality of the signifier’. But this threat is in fact a special case of the more general threat of materiality – or (rather) the threat of the utterly incoherent concept of materiality that is both invented and suppressed by logocentric thought.

As I say, this entire network of philosophical concepts is incoherent; it is not sustained by its own logic or necessity, but by other forces. And – this is the claim of those who emphasise the importance of ‘phallogocentrism’ – one of the most significant of these forces is a phallocentric sexual politics. The ‘Freudian’ level of Nabokov’s story ‘Terror’ is more important than its ‘existentialist’ level. Logocentrism creates an entirely incoherent concept of matter – which is then forcibly suppressed from the surface of philosophical systematicity. But this concept of matter has already been equated with a fantasised idea of female sexuality – and it is this equation that drives philosophy’s suppression.

Nabokov is, in a way, being very candid in this passage (whether deliberately or not…). His metaphysics, or the metaphysics his authorial persona advocates, is fundamentally idealist: Nabokov apparently believes in the persistence of the soul after death, and in the constitution of the empirical world by those persisting souls. He believes, like Pnin, not in an autocratic god, but in “a democracy of ghosts”. [All these remarks are hopefully going to tie in eventually to hauntology and ‘Specters of Marx’. I’m baffled that no one I’ve come across has written on ‘Nabokov’s Hauntology’.] But in this short story (as elsewhere) Nabokov reveals this philosophical inclination as driven by a fantasised fear of female sexuality, and of maternity – which are nonetheless implicitly equated with being in general. No doubt this equation is part of a still more general heterosexism. But I want to emphasise how important this equation/suppression is to Nabokov’s work (and, in passing, how symptomatic it is of more pervasive literary/ideological trends. Eventually, with a bit of luck, we’ll work our way round to ‘Hamlet’). To take only the most obvious example: in ‘Lolita’, Lolita’s escape from Humbert is represented and embodied by her pregnancy. But the entire story of her capture/escape occurs in the space between the death of two mothers, both mentioned almost in passing. Humbert’s mother: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three”; and Lolita herself: “Mrs. ‘Richard F. Schiller’ died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day, 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest.” These are among the most chilling sentences in the book – not just because of the brutal indifference of the narrators. This description of Lolita’s death recuperates her escape from Humbert’s supernatural fantasies (of nymphet love), (and, incidentally, from the name ‘Lolita’), while simulataneously evoking Nabokov’s own fantasies of grace and (Christian?) immortality. Lolita and her child are dead before the book begins – and it is as if Nabokov can only bear to write about (or to imagine) her if she has no children. In this respect, Nabokov fails the test that Humbert, for all his monstrousness, passes in chapter 29. Humbert doesn’t kill Lolita. (But then perhaps he knows, in some corner of his soul, that his creator will.)

I’ll try to carry on along these lines in a while. Destination: Hamlet.

March 22, 2008

‘The Economist’ takes a deep breath and, wincing, explains why the current financial crisis has nothing to do with deregulation

Filed under: Economics — duncan @ 2:24 pm

“The criticism that this crisis is the product of the deregulation of finance misses an important point. The worst excesses in the securitisation mess are encrusted precisely where regulation sought to protect banks and investors from the dangers of untrammelled credit growth. That is because regulations offer not just protection, but also clever ways to make money by getting around them.

Existing rules on capital adequacy require banks to put some capital aside for each asset. If the market leads to losses, the chances are they will have enough capital to cope. Yet this rule sets up a perverse incentive to create structures free of the capital burden—such as credits that last 364 days, and hence do not count as “permanent”. The hundreds of billions of dollars in the shadow banking system—the notorious SIVs and conduits that have caused the banks so much pain—have been warehoused there to get round the rules. Spain’s banking regulator prudently said that such vehicles could be created, but only if the banks put capital aside. So far the country has escaped the damage seen elsewhere.”


March 18, 2008


Filed under: Politics — duncan @ 9:06 pm

And I’m drunk, having just spent the evening with a former civil servant for the ministry of defense, trying to explain, ever less cautiously, my rage.  So forgive me if I quote d-squared’s latest post.

One of those fifth anniversary surveys, asks a number of questions, but look at Q20. Apparently, 24% of Iraqis answered “yes” to the question “Have you personally experienced the murder of a member of your family or relative since the invasion in 2003?”.’

Existence and Property

Every time I try to think about things using philosophy, I’m reminded just how little philosophy I’ve read. I need a great many years absorbing the canon before I can say anything worthwhile – and I don’t have them.

So, talking crap, let me talk about the opposition between existence and properties. On the one hand, you have the philosophical vision that underpins a certain form of empiricism: a substratum, the existent, which has certain sensible properties. The properties may come and go, but the substratum remains, for it is adamantine.

There are all sorts of problems here. For one, this substratum tends to, as it were, ‘drop out’. Since (at least in this empiricist vision) it seems to be the properties, and not the thing in itself, which we perceive, it becomes easy to deny the existence of the thing in itself. Then we’re left with an alternative philosophical vision, in which there are nothing but properties – with no fundamental being to which they are attached. At this point, the concept of existence itself becomes a product of properties, and we find ourselves with a kind of idealism.

If you want to, you can see this in terms of the vocabulary of analytic philosophy. For vision (1), take Russell’s theory of descriptions, in which there is an entirely empty ‘there is an object such that…’ and then a description of the object – a list of its properties. For vision (2), take the theory that (if I remember right…) Quine gestures towards, in which the concept of the class is genuinely basic, and the property of belonging to this or that class precedes our understanding of existence.

Does existence precede essence, or does essence precede existence? – is I guess the point. Or, rather, you obviously can’t understand existence and essence separately.

I hate writing like this. I need to do some reading. But I don’t have time.

Anyway – I want to make a highly shonky move from property in this philosophical sense to property in the economic sense. I don’t think this move is necessarily as shonky as it might appear; but it’s clearly a bit dodge. The point is this: the free market is based on the exchange of property. And the owners of property are, by and large, people. (Corporations too, of course; everything’s very complicated. But let’s try to keep it simple for the minute.) People exchange commodities: that’s the free market.

But I’ve been reading Marx and Polanyi. And what they both emphasise is that capitalism is born at the moment when labour becomes commodified (or, rather, in which certain kinds of human activity become commodified as labour). The basic institution of capitalism is a market for wage-labour. And labour is, in some ways, a very different commodity from any other. Because, to be simple about it, we are labour: labour is us.

I need to qualify that immediately: so of course labour isn’t a natural category; of course all our lives aren’t all labour; of course the very idea of labour, and the way in which it’s understood, is a product of institutions, social structures, mechanisms of discipline and control; it’s the creation of the concept of labour that we want to examine here.

But having said all that. In some sense we are labour; labour is us. A human being owns property. The question is: when a human being also becomes property, what becomes of her relation to herself? Is this relation a relation of ownership? Do I own myself; am I my own most basic property? Or does property not enter into a relationship that is, fundamentally, no relationship at all, but simple existence? Or is the question entirely ill-posed in these terms? And all these questions also need to be asked in relation to slavery – one of the most massive facts of early capitalism, which is by no means dead today.

Believe it or not, these remarks were prompted by trying to re-read some of Keynes’s General Theory, and being struck by the fundamental distinction he draws (p. 23), between the income of entrepreneurs, and the income of factors of production (by and large – labour.) What’s the basic distinction between entrepreneurs and others, which is operative in so much economic thought? Why are entrepreneurs seen as the demi-gods of capitalist culture? Isn’t it because only the entrepreneur fully owns herself? And therefore only the entrepreneur fully exists? According to this logic of existence and property.

And in trying to attack this logic, don’t we have to go deep into the concept of ownership – of property (‘the proper’, as Derrida calls it) – and its relation to (human) existence?

Oh fuck it; this blog’s becoming a nightmare.

Movement towards equilibrium

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

Veering back towards the economics I know nothing about – I’m still baffled by equilibrium analysis. Today’s befuddlement: to what extent does any market ever reach equilibrium?

For starters: unless I’m missing something, at competitive market equilibrium, nobody makes any profits. (If any firm was making money, another firm could sell the same product cheaper, and take all the sales.) Since in the real world firms do in fact make profits, this seems to suggest that we don’t have any kind of competitive equilibrium in the real world. Presumably this is for two reasons. First: the market is driven by oligopoly, monopolistic competition, etc – it is not perfectly competitive. Second: the market, constantly disrupted by technological innovations, changes in consumer taste, changes in factor prices, etc. is almost always moving towards some new equilibrium rather than sitting snugly at one.

Which is of course enough to make one have doubts about the emphasis on perfect competition and equilibrium analysis in first year undergraduate textbooks. But that’s not my point today. Today I’m puzzled by my textbook’s account of the movement towards equilibrium. [My textbook: Paul Krugman, Robin Wells and Kathryn Graddy, ‘Economics: European Edition’ (2007)] Here’s one of KWG’s examples:

“In market equilibrium, something remarkable supposedly happens: everyone who wants to sell a good finds a willing buyer, and everyone who wants to buy that good finds a willing seller.” [A misrepresentation of the theory, of course: KWG mean: everyone who wants to buy a good at equilibrium price finds a willing seller; everyone who wants to sell a good at equilibrium price finds a willing buyer. A petty quibble; but this kind of shorthand is used all the time in the economics I’ve been reading, and its effect is to suggest that free markets satisfy all their participants’ needs. In fact, of course, market equilibrium is reached not just by enabling exchanges but also by preventing them: if you want to buy a good, but don’t have enough money to pay equilibrium price, you can’t buy it – and that’s one of the ways in which the market establishes equilibrium price (moving market price along the demand curve until the correct number of people are ‘willing’ to buy the good). It seems at best unhelpful, when describing a competitive market, to write that “everyone who wants to buy that good finds a willing seller.” But all this is obvious and quibbling.]

Carrying on with KWG: “It’s a beautiful theory – but is it realistic?… In London the answer can be seen every day, just before dawn, at the famous Billingsgate fish market… There, every morning, fishermen bring their catch and haggle over prices with restaurateurs, fish and chip shop owners, fishmongers and a variety of middlemen and brokers. The stakes are high. A restaurant owner who can’t provide her customers with the fresh fish they expect stands to lose a lot of business, so it’s important that would-be buyers find willing sellers. For fishermen it’s even more important that they make a sale: unsold fish loses much, if not all, of its value. But the market does reach equilibrium: just about every would-be buyer finds a willing seller, and vice versa. The reason is that every day the price of each type of fish quickly converges to a level that matches the quantity supplied and the quantity demanded.” (p. 73)

I’m kind of tempted to go along to the Billingsgate fish market and see how it actually works. I simply don’t know. It seems likely, from where I’m sitting, with no actual knowledge, that KWG’s description adequately characterises what goes on there. But I’m also inclined, in my completely ignorant state, to doubt that market prices exactly do “quickly converge… to a level that matches the quantity supplied and the quantity demanded.” For instance – doesn’t it seem possible that prices of fish are sometimes reduced as the morning wears on – because, as KWG say, “unsold fish loses much, if not all, of its value”, and certain traders have been unable to get rid of all their stock? Contrariwise – doesn’t it seem possible that if sales are higher than expected, the price is raised as the morning progresses, to take advantage of high demand? These changes in price could be seen as what KWG call the movement towards equilibrium. (Or they could be seen as a form of price discrimination.) I suppose my question is – what benefit do we get from seeing these (of course entirely hypothetical) changes as movements towards an equilibrium? In a scenario in which prices change, should we see this as a market’s movement towards equilibrium, or as a fluctuating equilibrium? Or both? Economics talks about short- and long-term equilibriums; and if we make the short term short enough, we can make every moment in time, in the movement towards equilibrium, its own equilibrium. But this seems to more or less destroy the concept of equilibrium. I suppose I’m saying – why can’t we just analyse the economic forces that, economists tell us, move the market towards equilibrium, without using the concept of equilibrium at all? What does this concept give us, that we can’t get from analysing the market’s barter, power relationships, etc, etc. on their own terms?

Well – it gives us the whole apparatus of equilibrium analysis, of course. So I need to keep plugging away. But in the meantime, has anyone spent much time at Billingsgate fish market?

March 16, 2008

Derrida’s Two Alterities

Filed under: Derrida, Philosophy — duncan @ 5:24 pm

For some reason I’ve not felt like posting anything these last ten days. I’ve been happily – albeit slowly – reading away. (Perhaps I’ve got enough of the obvious objections to simplistic economic orthodoxy out of my system; I can read without feeling the need to complain. And reading, rather than whinging, perhaps seems a more productive use of limited time.) But I thought I’d put up a few thoughts on my favourite subject: Derrida. This stuff is way simplistic, to the point of being totally wrong. But hey ho, never mind.


Derrida is obviously a big fan of Levinas. One of the main goals of his work is to open up philosophy’s totalising ambitions to ‘alterity’ or ‘the other’. Derrida is certainly sceptical, in some ways, about Levinas’s ethics of alterity. For Levinas philosophy is egology; it is, in some sense, narcissistic. But Derrida insists (following a certain strand of Freud) that there is no such thing as non-narcissism – there are only more or less open or hospitable narcissisms. So Derrida is sceptical about the valorisation of alterity that seems prominent in Levinas’s, and in a lot of post-Levinasian, thought. But Derrida is still on side with the project. He still values some intellectual endeavours more than others because of their openness to ‘the other’ – whatever ‘the other’ might mean.

That’s what I want to focus on in this quick post: what Derrida means by ‘the other’, by ‘alterity’. I want to suggest that there are two concepts or directions of alterity at work in Derrida’s thought. I want to call them, simplistically, the materialist and the messianic concepts of alterity. I think that w/r/t the former Derrida can be seen as taking his bearings from Bataille, w/r/t the latter, from Benjamin. And I think that the changing emphases of Derrida’s work can be connected, to a large extent, to the changing weight he places on these two concepts of alterity.

Let’s say that we take Derrida’s project (again far too simplistically) as oriented towards a critique of the classical philosophical concept of being as form, where form is what guarantees being’s self-identity, and thus intelligibility. The materialist concept of alterity would then open an implicitly idealist concept of being to the non-idealist ‘formlessness’ of matter. It would take its bearings from a passage like this one. (Bataille, ‘Formless’, in ‘Visions of Excess’, p. 31).

“A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.”

I think this is the direction we see Derrida pursuing most consistently in his great middle-period works, particularly ‘Glas’ and the remarkable essay ‘Economimesis’. Derrida’s project here, I think, is to reroute the manoeuvres of transcendental philosophy – manoeuvres motivated, at base, by the need to see supposedly formless matter as always subject to the form-giving powers of a consciousness that transcends and remains untouched by formlessness… Derrida wants to reroute these manoeuvres into a thoroughly non-transcendental philosophy, by claiming that the ‘formless’ corporeal is always a (quasi-) transcendental condition of transcendental thought. This leads him to place great weight on what one could call a Bataillean ‘virulent materialism’; it leads him to use Genet’s profane blasphemy as a counterweight to Hegel’s idealist totalisations; and it leads him to write about how vomit, and how that which makes us vomit, is the (quasi- or, better, non-) transcendental condition of Kant’s entire philosophical project.

But Derrida finds himself unable to pursue this direction, for reasons I’ll hopefully get to in a minute. And in the later work we see a decisive shift away from materialism – virulent or otherwise – in favour of a Benjaminian emphasis on the other as messiah (albeit without messianicity). Here Derrida takes his bearings from passages like this one. (Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in ‘Illuminations’, p. 255).

“We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogenous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.”

Here Derrida is pushing not at the philosophical connection between being and form, but at the philosophical connection between being and time – and the inclination to see time as a totalising medium of intelligibility. This fundamental connection between form and time – the fact that both are used to produce an ontology of being as self-identity – is, I think, what Derrida means by the metaphysics of presence. In his later work Derrida wants to open homogenous time to the other in the shape of a messiah, or a messianism, that can divide every second of time against itself. And this opening of time is of a piece with the parallel opening of form. Derrida pursues this messianic project most forcefully in his later writings on religion – and in ‘Spectres of Marx’, where it is linked to the concept of ‘hauntology’.

Derrida is completely consistent in opposing what he sees as ontology in general: the understand of being as form as self-identity as presence. But the non-ontology which Derrida aspires to create by emphasising the non-self-identity of being has a very different character at different locations in Derrida’s work. A profane materialism on the one hand; a quasi-religious messianism on the other. And, to get to the point concerning me personally – I am considerably more in sympathy with the former than with the latter. When I deploy Derridean arguments in this blog, it’s the ‘materialist’ Derrida I want to emphasise. I want to push this Derrida’s arguments as far as I can, and counter the arguments of the second, messianic Derrida where possible. Specifically (and to bring things back to economics; which is, after all, the ostensible subject of the blog): I think a ‘Derridean’ reading of Marx would be possible that is radically different from the reading Derrida actually proposes in ‘Spectres’ – because in ‘Spectres’ Derrida is at his most ‘messianic’; whereas a discussion of Marx is precisely where, in my opinion, Derrida should be at his most ‘materialist’.

Now, any deconstructionist worth their salt is going to be deeply suspicious, not to say laughing out loud, at my attempt to isolate two distinct and self-contained ‘Derridas’. Have we learned nothing?! Doesn’t it seem more than likely that the ‘materialist’ and the ‘messianic’ already contain and constitute each other? (And that they and philosophy in general are also open to countless other forms of ‘alterity’ – to countless other others?) Didn’t Bataille describe himself as one of the mystics of the ages? And isn’t Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ precisely an attempt to articulate a form of ‘historical materialism’? Well sure. But I’m going to run with this for a while, I think.

If we want to give some space to this reading of Derrida, we need an account of the relation between the two ‘Derridas’; and we need to explain what logic governs the shifting emphases of materialism and messianism in his (or their) work. And that means going considerably deeper into Derrida’s thought than I think I can – because I haven’t read any Husserl, and I’ve not read nearly enough Heidegger. Husserl and Heidegger are, of course, the two most important objects of and influences on Derrida’s whole method. And without a decent knowledge of the two H’s (which, believe you me, I’m not going to acquire any time soon) I don’t see how I can adequately comment on, or understand, the fundamentals of Derrida’s project.

All the same, I’m going to end with the beginnings of a critique. The following quote is, in my opinion, the most important in Derrida’s corpus. It occurs at least twice: once in a footnote in ‘Speech and Phenomena’; then again, as a self-citation (with all the Derridean ambiguities this implies) in ‘Glas’. And when the sentence is repeated (but, the voice of deconstruction tells us, its repetition or iteration was already part of its original inscription), it describes a project that Derrida still sees as essential, but still feels unable to attempt: a project continually deferred – which is perhaps connected to deconstruction’s constant emphasis on constant deferral. The sentence (or sentence-fragment, really): “the very concept of constitution itself needs to be deconstructed.” (Speech and Phenomena, p. 85 I don’t have ‘Glas’ to hand.)

My overly simplistic claim (perhaps an obvious one) is this: the concept of constitution cannot be deconstructed, because deconstruction presupposes and utterly depends upon the concept of constitution. No doubt this is true of all the metaphysical concepts that Derrida mobilises and transforms, shifting their meanings as he takes his bearings away from the metaphysical projects from which he partially extracts these concepts yet within which his work partly remains. But in my opinion the concept of constitution is different, for deconstruction, from all the other metaphysical concepts Derrida deploys and displaces. Derrida’s critique of transcendental philosophy – and Derrida’s critique of philosophy is based on a prior assimilation of all philosophy to transcendental philosophy… Derrida’s critique of transcendental philosophy always depends on a use of the concept of constitution – a search for conditions of possibility, whether they be ‘transcendental’ conditions in the full sense or not… and so Derrida cannot allow this concept of constitution to be subject to the vicissitudes of meaning-contamination under the pressure of which all the other terms of the metaphysical tradition are made to tremble. The concept of constitution is, in my opinion, the stable centre around which Derrida’s critique of the philosophical search for a stable centre revolves.

Which is far too simplistic. At certain moments in his text – specifically, the ‘materialist’ moments I value – Derrida seems to push his idea of ‘quasi-transcendentals’ to a point at which the whole post-Kantian apparatus of conditions of possibility threatens to collapse. It’s this Derrida – the Derrida who imagines a wholly material transcendental, which can therefore no longer function in any way as transcendental, or as a means of constitution – that I value (and it’s this Derrida, I think, who’s close to Wittgenstein). Yet Derrida repeatedly pulls back from the consequences of his assault on the Kantian problematic; and substitutes for the material ‘transcendental’ a logic of spectrality which is explicitly opposed to ‘ontologising’ materialism. We could see this as a characteristic deconstructionist double-movement, ceaselessly alert to the lures of onto-theology (which can ally itself as powerfully with materialism as with religion). But we can also see it as a flaw in Derrida’s work: a refusal to reject the terms of the Kantian, critical tradition, because this would also mean a rejection of the discursive strategies that Derrida has developed in response to it.

The very concept of constitution itself needs to be deconstructed. But the concept of constitution cannot be deconstructed. Which means, in my opinion, that it simply needs to be rejected. This is, I’m sure, no surprise to anyone. But as I’ve said before, I’m behind the curve, trying to catch up.

Anyway, economics-related service will be resumed in about a year and a half, when I’ve read some books.

March 9, 2008

A quick word on comments

Filed under: Uncategorized — duncan @ 1:07 pm

Just passing through, I wanted to thank everyone who’s left comments recently.  Since I only access this blog thing in internet cafes, and since I’ve been spending far too much time and money in internet cafes lately, my responses to these comments are both tardy and, worse, far too abrupt and unconsidered.  If I’ve left your comment unattended, or responded with what seems like brusque indifference, I apologise.  I’d like to respond at inordinate length and with inordinate care – but I’m a bit pressed for time.  So I just wanted to say how lovely it is to get responses to the babble I post here.  Thanks for stopping by.

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