Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The world we have

I've lived in communities in which there was an unending fund of capital -- one could marry, have innumerable children, go far away to work, die, and be completely ok with that, because everybody was part of here comes Everybody. The individual didn't much matter. Money mattered, but wasn't the sole source of social and earthly solace. There were lots of things that mattered besides one's solitary existence -- things that nobody much could explain but entirely believed because of a shared memory of a bond between men and gods and living things. The community did not efface the individual, but was Everybody writ large. It contained the love and sense and care and dignity that we in the US associate with the nuclear family. The nuclear family is as hollow as the individual when the entire collective fails to be anything more than an aggregate of individuals trapped in desire and wealth bondage.

There is the wealth capital of USian understanding, and another sort of capital -- of the living people -- that is far richer. It's what we left behind when we tried to form a more perfect union. Nice try, no cigar -- at least, so far.

(The new union was more perfect because it was to be less bloody -- to be, in fact, not based on tribal blood, hereditary bloodlines, or any precious bodily fluid whatsoever. It was all very abstract, and at this late date it's doubtful that we can make sense of what it was supposed to be, other than to say it was an experiment in some form of open society. I say "we," but in fact, because of the very nature of this experiment, there is no more "we.")

Unparenthetically, there is no "we" in the US. No organic human solidarity through blood, race, religion, tribe. Not that people don't try. But the whole gambit of going it alone in the New World -- making sure no Indian power survived to keep us company, showing the British the door, thumbing our noses at any aristocratically ordered social world of peers and servants -- was to open the way to an order in which individuals of whatever persuasion could work, play, and remain on the near side of war, open or covert. The constitution was a rough attempt to keep people relatively honest by making sure no one got too much power or privilege. The Law, it was thought, would keep each of these mutually unbound individuals in line.

That is to say, the world we want -- or wanted, back when we thought we had an idea about such things -- was not so much a vision of a certain kind of world, full of good Christians, noble farmers and honest shopkeepers, as it was watchful and involved a deep and shared suspicion of the ways and means by which visionaries, no matter how well intended, tend to impose their worlds on others, whether their visions are shared or no.

Today of course nearly everyone has retreated from that bold and perilous 18th century insight into human error and delusion. One question is: how, in light of the lynxlike text that created us, have we managed to get so stupid?

This is a large question. Just the other day a friend pointed out that in the 1956 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica which he owns, the article that deals with Roman History is thirty-five and one-half pages long. In the more recent edition used at his workplace -- first published in 1974 and reprinted through 1993 -- the same subject gets all of two pages.

Somewhere along the line, it seems the entire matter of source -- history, origins, roots, tendrils of the world we live in -- became too troublesome to describe in anything more ambitious than a sound bite. Exactly when this was decided, and by whom, is unclear. But if the Britannica has gone that far, we can be fairly confident that other representations of the wellsprings of the past are now airier than Kool Whip Lite as well.

So there's this breathtaking, nearly infinite abbreviation of the substance of what came before. What was once considered to be human knowledge, the basis of Reason which produced the social configuration we seem at pains today to be obliterating at every turn. We have no reason to be a "we" except for the root historical configuration that we no longer remember.

Such reduction of the past ought to give us a hint. Add, perhaps, the truly impressive panoply of contemporary experts on every hand -- academicians, rhetoricians, bloggers, pundits of AM, commentators of weeklies, newspaper columnists, do-it-yourself counselors, shrinks, career advisors, midwives, testing services, seers, sophists, trendy business book writers, Gurus of Information, masters of the finely turned period, moral manicurists, mavens of faith, Cassandras of Commerce, arbiters of taste, master chefs, dancing masters, one or another of The Most Remarkable Men in America, critical Intelligence firing on all cylinders, Ivy Leaguers, military strategists, women of business acumen, Damning Diagnosticians of Human Turpitude, Penetrating Prophets of Doom, icy ironists, learned etymologicians, string theoreticians, firewalkers, griots, complex semioticians and intuitants of complexity, lawyers, actuaries of annihilation, meteorologists, economists, Click and Clacks, labor leaders, discoverers of panaceas, investment advisors, pest control experts, mystics of Santa Fe, polemicists of radical, moderate and conservative Thought, post-ironic Zizekians, gadget wonks, cognitive semanticists, underground operatives, aromatherapists, Papal Emissaries, card counters, spoon benders, table turners, sex liberators, enfants terribles, idiots savants, ambassadors, vinophiles, tradeshow organizers, students of society, inventors of new techniques, profound interpreters of numinous phenomena and cagey hermeneuticians of phenomenal numina -- the embarrassing plenitude of these and more can suggest that we as a "society" have lost all memory of exactly how fucking unbelievably capable of self-delusion we can be. We forgot lesson 1 of 1775: "Do whatever you sensibly can to prevent others from doing unto you whatever the fuck they think they can get away with."

What could be a key enabling element here, of use in helping come to terms with the effacement, the abbreviation of human time and the multiplication of Bacon's idols and worship thereof, is the fact that along the way from an agrarian society to this united state of contractual obligations, we created monsters and into them breathed life. There is nothing commensurate between a human being and a corporation, yet we mistook corporations for persons, and formalized that error. The media we are always complaining about is spamological speech by and for corporations that have no interest in or concern with human being in time, or history. A corporation, by definition, is capital with no obligation but to itself. As such it is a large and powerful entity with no social, aesthetic, political or ethical constraints. Our desire their plaything.

Corporations evolved as a means of aggregating capital in order to aggregate capital. They are ingenious mechanisms that provide "solutions" to "problems," answers to needs, and modes of ahistorical being in the world for large populations of displaced beings in the world. If they hadn't evolved, someone would have had to invent them, just as someone invented the steam engine.

But we have failed to civilize them. They are 10,000-necked giants that make sure we don't think about things like Roman History because that use of our time would make us irrelevant to their needs.

We have been gullible in opening human society to the non-human. For example, nearly every encounter with a corporation today entails extraordinary patches of unrecuperable time: no transaction without its Marketing Moment, its Legal Disclaimer, its Voicemail Maze, its Follow-up Survey, its Notice of Bankruptcy. And the error is symmetrical: Just as we ineluctably think of these entities in human terms, they invariably interact with us as if we were tiny replicas of corporations -- that is, creatures who have no death limit, infinitely replaceable machines. But die we do, and our lives are emptier for all the time wasted, consumed, obliterated and vitiated by corporations whose core is Das Kapital, not el pueblo.

Essentially, these giant entities that do not give a fig for history are post-modern. They are also pre-modern, insofar as they are simply outside the stream of the human. But not outside as in, having no impact on. More like boulders in a river -- entirely uninterested in where the flow came from or where it was going, but massively capable of sending it off in an entirely new direction for no reason at all. And it is this absence of interest that might help explain the boffo abbreviation of Roman History in the Britannica. We live, and breathe, and believe and dream and act upon, representations of a world issued by non-human creatures that have their, and not our, real interests in view. They wish us to forget that before they invented intellectual property, there was intellect, and the joy of making, and the eerie creak of the soul trying to take flight. We -- I -- don't merely want yet another vision of a world. I -- we -- need to learn to see the occulted world we have. Had. Have. To begin to consider how on Earth to take it back.

For Peter Karoff and Phil.


Blogger Ray Davis said...

But not just for them, Tom. Thank you.

5/19/2005 9:55 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Does this mean you're back?

Good. And yes, thanks.

5/19/2005 3:50 PM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

Thanks to you both. I should be free of dial-up bondage soon. At least one can hope. I look forward to not encountering data constipation each time I wish to visit a site.

5/19/2005 10:00 PM  
Blogger Juke said...

The word "disheartening" is pretty common, easily understood, and has a lot of applicability these times. Its root, minus the negating prefix, is rare enough to be clunky in a sentence, or nearly so.

I mean it. Heartening.

5/20/2005 7:41 PM  
Blogger Jon Husband said...

bravo, Tom

5/21/2005 1:02 AM  
Blogger Kia said...

Corporations organize and govern people. I wonder how many of those who grew up to expect enough of everything in a community of everybody considered that expectation as occurring within the domain of a corporate job -- career IBM or Martin Marietta.

When I was in my last year of high school my father took his first US corporate job. It was with what was then Martin Marietta, in the US Virgin Islands. They took care of their employees lavishly. Health insurance (full coverage till I was 23), airfare to and from St. Croix where I had a summer job waiting for me that paid better then anything I could have got there, generous recreational facilities for the use of employees and the community, Christmas parties where every single employee's child got a nice present.

I'm sure lots of people can remember the sense of solid steady improvement of life that those jobs had for the middle class.

The corporation was amoral, certainly, when it wasn't being immoral. But anyone on the inside would probably have said, 25-30 years ago, that it took care of its own.

That's not even true any more. And I don't know how to characterize that change. I wonder whether it is related to the drive for speculative, high-speed turnover of capital. It sort of became a machine into which you inserted capital and hoped to get more capital out as quickly as possible without the troublesome delay of waiting until product got made and sold. Or Enron getting out of the pipeline business and into the trading business.

Also I wonder how well that business worked. Martin Marietta in St. Croix went out of business because the world market for aluminum went so bad that they couldn't stay profitable any more.

What we forget is that corporations as a place for people to live a lifetime in haven't had such a long lifespan. We assume that they are supposed to survive, like Dracula. But think how many went down. Think of Pan Am. Who would have ever thought Pan Am would go away? Or the crisis at General Motors that made a celebrity of Lee Iacocca. I guess what I'm suggesting that although they are supposed to be these indestructible things they have their vulnerabilities. What sustains a lot of them is government bailouts, long credit lines, and the vast outlay to secure legislation that favors their interests and protects them from competition.

Ironically, at the very time when corporations were looking for welfare assistance from such measures, the star CEOs of the corporate world, all these suited beezers on the cover of Time, looking tough, were peddling a hard, hard free market line. The hard line, of course, was for the thousands and thousands who would be laid off.

Oh, no, the market wasn't kicking the whole concept of the viability of the corporation all over the landscape, it was that Mary in purchasing's mental health plan was too expensive.

Enron, whose executives couldn't wait to get shut of the actual burden of making anything, is only one instance of this weird shift, a sort of Ponzification. While the free market theme produces whole Gulf Streams and El Ninos of hot air, free market players are prowling the world looking to "capture revenue streams." The idea is to have absolute control over something essential -- the entire telecommunications -- cable, internet, telephone, radio -- system of Belize (this has happened by the way) or all the airport tax revenues of the island of Antigua (also happened). They might have to beat some other bandit to this little cache but once they have it there is no more competition. It's not about free market or competition at all.

Or a little closer to home, when United Airlines has to go and ask the taxpayers to cover the default on their employee pension plan, just how free -- according to the free marketeers -- is the deregulated airlines market really?

The line has been that regulation kept corporations from the inscrutable and infallible wisdom of the market. Regulation allowed tort lawyers and bureacrats to keep us all from getting rich the way we were supposed to because of their restraints on trade.

Well, it looks to me like regulation of corporations also protected them from themselves.

5/22/2005 2:37 PM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

thanks for the thoughts - most 'preciated - a lot to respond to - hope to soon

5/24/2005 10:03 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

You heard this?

5/26/2005 9:16 PM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

The good master of York did share it with me. We shall have robotics for our meat.

5/26/2005 9:30 PM  
Blogger Kombinat! said...

Thank you for writing this Tom, -- hmm, Milan Kundera comes to mind and his quote - "It is deplorable, but it is a fact: we have learned to see our own lives through the eyes of business or government questionnaires..."

Well, in the world we have this fact is not deplorable. In our somnolence not much is deplorable any more and wealth bondage seems like slumber party.

5/29/2005 4:42 AM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

I hadn't seen that Kundera quote before - thanks K!

And see this - it's not just what we "learn." It's what we become.

5/30/2005 8:59 AM  
Anonymous Those Bastards said...

Very, very cool.

Those Bastards

5/31/2005 2:04 AM  
Blogger Kombinat! said...

Yes Tom, What we become - fat cows for slaughter feeding transactional compound growth parasite-symbiosis.

Ultimately this leads back to the eternal qustion - How to Be? How much do you need to "Have" to "Be"? In pursuit of Having we give up our Being and become Human Havings, transactional creatures vomiting phrases dumped into our gaping mouths when staring into that Thing. - So, how to Be? How much 'Having' is enough to "Be" when you wake up in a world of manufactured scarcity every single day.

I told my friend whose responses of "I don't shit money" to her teenage girl's incessant pleads to 'buy, buy, buy' - that she does not have a chance. She must 'shit money' - it's the only game in town - her daughter a transfixed participant in these bulimic games of compulsive swallowing large quantities of desire and vomiting contempt and disrespect on her mother for not shitting fast enough. - As I said, it's the only game in town.

6/08/2005 8:41 AM  
Anonymous tinfoiled said...

What is breathtaking, besides the reduction of the past and the monsters we've set loose, is your writing. It's a good thing that posts don't evaporate overnight or I'd of missed good old Tom Matrullo. whose intellectual rigor and honesty makes me blush with shame. You must have got a some satisfaction out of The Corporation, the film? What with the corporation himself/herself scoring as socially deviant on every personality test administered. Yes, that was fun. So, I'll be looking for more from you Tom, great stuff. We're working away on the book, out next spring, The World We Want.

7/05/2005 10:37 PM  
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