l’homme aux rats

Anarchist, Symbolist, insubordinate dreyfusard, man about town, Octave Mirbeau is an indispensable maître mineur of the Third Republic. His most popular work, Le Journal d’une femme de chambre, merited film treatment by the greatest Latin directors of all times, Luis Buñuel and Jean Renoir. His most scandalous novel remains unfilmable. In Le Jardin des supplices, which appeared in 1899, at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, Mirbeau targeted fear and hatred, the twin foundations of bourgeois society, in a narrative arc traversing the terrain of desire and disgust to culminate in a strange sexual obsession. And what about the rats?

virtues and values in market exchanges

All appropriations and transfers of conventionally valued goods or services, be they consensual or coerced, are essentially self-regarding as regards their cost, but essentially other-regarding as regards their value. For consumable goods, the relevant distinction between their consumption and socially warranted dominium arises from Deuteronomy 23:24-25, as explained by John Kilcullen. To the extent that sex is valued conventionally rather than intrinsically, all varieties of sexual intercourse are likewise essentially other-regarding. In particular, while no one is qualified to speak for all sadomasochists, the following passage from a review by Charles Rosen is very much to the point:

When I was writing a review of Alban Berg’s correspondence, I remarked to an elderly and very distinguished psychoanalyst that I was surprised by how many of Schoenberg’s students seemed to enjoy being so badly treated and humiliated by him. She replied, “I have no time to explain this just now, but I can assure you that there are a great many masochists and not nearly enough sadists to go around.”

What is valued in all kinds of sex, as in all other kinds of conversation, is not the mere brunt of its experience, but also its mutuality.

Market exchanges of all sorts of goods or services are essentially other-regarding, not in regard of obtaining them at the lowest possible cost, but in regard of establishing and maintaining their value. In so far as an analogous situation obtains in communication, this is a matter of conventional values in the conventional Lewisian game-theoretic construal of convention as coordination. Notwithstanding any misgivings concerning the expense of spirit in a waste of shame, market exchanges are expected to leave each party with the impression that what they received in the exchange is worth more than what they gave up. In the normal course of events, a notional impression of increase in value would serve as well as, or even better than, an actual increase therein. Thus Max Weber’s criticism of Benjamin Franklin in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that the appearance of honesty serves the same purpose as honesty itself, and hence an unnecessary surplus of this virtue would appear to Franklin’s eyes as unproductive waste. Weber concludes that Franklin purveys a strict utilitarianism, whereby the mere appearance of honesty (der Schein der Ehrlichkeit) is always sufficient when it accomplishes the end in view. But in the long run, such appearances can only be sustained by tacit collusion of both parties. The butcher who places his finger on the scale enters in a relation of mutual dependency with the carnivore who averts his eyes from this petty subterfuge. Likewise the wife who shores up her sex appeal with face paint and foundation garments, colluding with the husband who bears mute witness to her daily embellishments.

Consider sexual politics. In the context of a long-term romantic relationship, reciprocal constructive ambiguity manifests in the woman wondering whether the man is just using her for sex, while he wonders how long he can keep her guessing. The maintenance of this equilibrium depends on a delicate balance between competition and coordination, negotiated among the parties. This is where David Lewis’ analysis of convention may pay off. Lewisian conventions exemplify two main conditions:

  1. Convention is a strict Nash equilibrium with no gain realizable from unilateral deviation by any party thereto, and a loss realized by any deviating party, with an additional coordination proviso that all parties prefer universal compliance in the convention, on condition that at least all but one comply to it.
  2. Convention is arbitrary in having an alternative that could serve equally well in its place.

Consider the case of corporate employment, where the corporation is tasked with creating the appearance of improvement in the lot of its employees over the scenario of their free agency. As explained by Ronald Coase, this improvement is due to amortizing the transaction costs of their initial association. The appearance of extra value accruing to the employees in this association, depends on coordination among its parties in representing real or imaginary long-term benefits of sticking together. Correlatively, the appearance of extra value accruing to the employer from the employees is a matter of coordinating their appearance of hard work sustained through brown-nosing and back-biting, and relieved by the meremost minimum of discreet sexual harassment and persiflage around the water cooler. And so on.

A Microsoft employee takes several years to vest into his stock options. In exchange, he gives up the opportunity of higher wages in the free market. (That may no longer be the case in the current economy, but let us set that aside.) The value of this long-term benefit depends on the interim growth in the Microsoft stock price. This dependence yields a motive for all Microsoft employees to prefer universal loyalty to their employees amongst their colleagues, on which see the pep talks by Steve Ballmer, with their disparate reception among the faithful and the unaffiliated. At the same time, when and if Google gets big enough to buy Microsoft, with all outstanding stock warrants subject to universal conversion, all current Microsoft employees would prefer a universal shift in loyalty to their new employer amongst their colleagues. In short, their loyalty is stable in being motivated by a prospective gain dependent on universal compliance, but arbitrary in lacking an essential connection to the fortunes of the brand.

An analogous situation appears to arise with any construal of value motivating economic exchanges putatively benefiting both parties. Indeed, it is hard to conceive of an alternative to construing it as a matter of coordination in the foregoing fashion, given that the labor theory and other unfashionable imputations of inherent value are unlikely to yield the preponderance of the “win-win” scenario. As for the aspect of virtue playing its part in market exchanges, its role appears to be taken by Frankfurtian bullshit serving as the counterpart of the mere appearance of honesty claimed by Weber to be necessary and sufficient therefor.

honor and dignity in the american soul

In his account of “the stark, enduring figure” of James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer in his 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature, D.H. Lawrence observes:

He is neither spiritual nor sensual. He is a moralizer, but he always tries to moralize from actual experience, not from theory. He says: ‘Hurt nothing unless you’re forced to.’ Yet he gets his deepest thrill of gratification, perhaps, when he puts a bullet through the heart of a beautiful buck, as it stoops to drink at the lake. Or when he brings the invisible bird fluttering down in death, out of the high blue. ‘Hurt nothing unless you’re forced to.’ And yet he lives by death, by killing the wild things of the air and earth.
    It’s not good enough.
    But you have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.

A recent treatment of the essential American soul in an article by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker discusses murder in America within the conceptual framework of honor and dignity, in reference to work by the late Eric Monkkonen and the ongoing Pieter Spierenburg. Continue reading honor and dignity in the american soul

max weber on starting and ending fights

Welcher Mensch wird sich vermessen, die Ethik der Bergpredigt, etwa den Satz: „Widerstehe nicht dem Übel“ oder das Bild von der einen und der anderen Backe, „wissenschaftlich widerlegen“ zu wollen? Und doch ist klar: es ist, innerweltlich angesehen, eine Ethik der Würdelosigkeit, die hier gepredigt wird: man hat zu wählen zwischen der religiösen Würde, die diese Ethik bringt, und der Manneswürde, die etwas ganz anderes predigt: „Widerstehe dem Übel,—sonst bist du für seine Übergewalt mitverantwortlich.“ Je nach der letzten Stellungnahme ist für den Einzelnen das eine der Teufel und das andere der Gott, und der Einzelne hat sich zu entscheiden, welches für ihn der Gott und welches der Teufel ist. Und so geht es durch alle Ordnungen des Lebens hindurch.

What man will take upon himself the attempt to “refute scientifically” the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount? For instance, the proposition, “Resist no evil” or the image of turning the other cheek? And yet it is clear, from a worldly perspective, that an ethic of indignity is being preached here; one has to choose between the religious dignity that this ethic confers and the dignity of manly conduct that preaches something quite different: “Resist evil, lest you be jointly responsible for its empire.” According to our ultimate standpoint, the one is of the devil and the other of God, and the individual has to decide, which for him is God, and which is the devil. And so it goes through all the orders of life.

        —Max Weber, Wissenschaft als Beruf / Science as a Vocation, 7 November 1917

Befreien wir es aber zunächst von einer ganz trivialen Verfälschung. Es kann nämlich zunächst die Ethik auftreten in einer sittlich höchst fatalen Rolle. Nehmen wir Beispiele. Sie werden selten finden, daß ein Mann, dessen Liebe sich von einer Frau ab- und einer andern zuwendet, nicht das Bedürfnis empfindet, dies dadurch vor sich selbst zu legitimieren, daß er sagt: sie war meiner Liebe nicht wert, oder sie hat mich enttäuscht, oder was dergleichen „Gründe“ mehr sind. Eine Unritterlichkeit, die zu dem schlichten Schicksal: daß er sie nicht mehr liebt, und daß die Frau das tragen muß, in tiefer Unritterlichkeit sich eine „Legitimität“ hinzudichtet, kraft deren er für sich ein Recht in Anspruch nimmt und zu dem Unglück noch das Unrecht auf sie zu wälzen trachtet. Ganz ebenso verfährt der erfolgreiche erotische Konkurrent: der Gegner muß der wertlosere sein, sonst wäre er nicht unterlegen. Nichts anderes ist es aber selbstverständlich, wenn nach irgendeinem siegreichen Krieg der Sieger in würdeloser Rechthaberei beansprucht: ich siegte, denn ich hatte recht. Oder, wenn jemand unter den Fürchterlichkeiten des Krieges seelisch zusammenbricht und nun, anstatt schlicht zu sagen: es war eben zu viel, jetzt das Bedürfnis empfindet, seine Kriegsmüdigkeit vor sich selbst zu legitimieren, indem er die Empfindung substituiert: ich konnte das deshalb nicht ertragen, weil ich für eine sittlich schlechte Sache fechten mußte. Und ebenso bei dem im Kriege Besiegten. Statt nach alter Weiber Art nach einem Kriege nach dem „Schuldigen“ zu suchen,—wo doch die Struktur der Gesellschaft den Krieg erzeugte—, wird jede männliche und herbe Haltung dem Feinde sagen: „Wir verloren den Krieg—ihr habt ihn gewonnen. Das ist nun erledigt: nun laßt uns darüber reden, welche Konsequenzen zu ziehen sind entsprechend den sachlichen Interessen, die im Spiel waren, und—die Hauptsache—angesichts der Verantwortung vor der Zukunft, die vor allem den Sieger belastet.“ Alles andere ist würdelos und rächt sich. Verletzung ihrer Interessen verzeiht eine Nation, nicht aber Verletzung ihrer Ehre, am wenigsten eine solche durch pfäffische Rechthaberei. Jedes neue Dokument, das nach Jahrzehnten ans Licht kommt, läßt das würdelose Gezeter, den Haß und Zorn wieder aufleben, statt daß der Krieg mit seinem Ende wenigstens sittlich begraben würde. Das ist nur durch Sachlichkeit und Ritterlichkeit, vor allem nur: durch Würde möglich. Nie aber durch eine „Ethik“, die in Wahrheit eine Würdelosigkeit beider Seiten bedeutet. Anstatt sich um das zu kümmern, was den Politiker angeht: die Zukunft und die Verantwortung vor ihr, befaßt sie sich mit politisch sterilen, weil unaustragbaren Fragen der Schuld in der Vergangenheit. Dies zu tun, ist politische Schuld, wenn es irgendeine gibt. Und dabei wird überdies die unvermeidliche Verfälschung des ganzen Problems durch sehr materielle Interessen übersehen: Interessen des Siegers am höchstmöglichen Gewinn—moralischen und materiellen—, Hoffnungen des Besiegten darauf, durch Schuldbekenntnisse Vorteile einzuhandeln: wenn es irgend etwas gibt, was „gemein“ ist, dann dies, und das ist die Folge dieser Art von Benutzung der „Ethik“ als Mittel des „Rechthabens“.

First, let us free ourselves from a quite trivial falsification, that ethics may first arise in a role that is highly compromised morally. Let us consider examples. Rarely will you find that a man whose love turns from one woman to another feels no need to legitimate this before himself by saying: she was not worthy of my love, or, she has disappointed me, or whatever other like “reasons” exist. This is an attitude that, with a profound lack of chivalry, adds a fancied “legitimacy” to the plain fact that he no longer loves her and that the woman has to bear it. By virtue of this “legitimation”, the man claims a right for himself and besides causing the misfortune seeks to put her in the wrong. Likewise, for the successful amatory competitor, the adversary must be less worthy, otherwise he would not have lost out. It is no different, of course, if after a victorious war the victor in undignified self-righteousness claims, “I have won because I was right”. Or, if somebody under the frightfulness of war collapses psychologically, and instead of simply saying it was just too much, he feels the need of legitimizing his war weariness to himself by substituting the feeling, “I could not bear it because I had to fight for a morally bad cause”. And likewise with the defeated in war. Instead of searching like old women for the “guilty one” after the war—given a situation wherein the structure of society produced the war—everyone with a manly and controlled attitude would tell the enemy: “We lost the war. You have won it. That is now all over. Now let us discuss what conclusions must be drawn according to the objective interests that came into play, and what is the main thing in view of the responsibility towards the future that above all burdens the victor.” Anything else is undignified and will rebound. A nation forgives if its interests have been damaged, but no nation forgives if its honor has been offended, especially by a bigoted self-righteousness. Every new document that comes to light after decades revives the undignified lamentations, the hatred and scorn, instead of allowing the war at its end to be buried, at least morally. This is possible only through objectivity and chivalry and above all only through dignity. But never is it possible through an “ethic”, which in truth signifies a lack of dignity on both sides. Instead of being concerned with what the politician is interested in, the future and the responsibility towards the future, this ethic is concerned with politically sterile questions of past guilt, which are not to be settled politically. To act in this way is politically guilty, if such guilt exists at all. And it overlooks the unavoidable falsification of the whole problem, through very material interests: namely, the victor’s interest in the greatest possible moral and material gain; the hopes of the defeated to trade in advantages through confessions of guilt. If anything is “vulgar”, then, this is, and it is the result of this fashion of exploiting “ethics” as a means of “being in the right”.