En torno a la democracia social

En su Pequeña crónica de grandes días nos recuerda el gran Octavio Paz cómo el período de la posguerra ha sido uno de los más pacíficos y prósperos de la historia europea reciente. Algo similar arguye la historiadora Sheri Berman en la introducción de su fascinante [amazon ASIN=”0521521106″]The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century[/amazon], una historia cuidadosa del desarrollo de la democracia social en el siglo XX. Continue reading “En torno a la democracia social”

Žižek… The Plagiarist!

A quick follow up on my previous post on Žižek’s alleged case of plagiarism. First, several bloggers have picked up the story, from Slate‘s Rebecca Schuman to NPR’s Annalisa Quinn and Gawker‘s Michelle Dean. Žižek himself wrote to Critical Inquiry — the original publisher of the transgressive essay— a full “Clarification,” blaming the mishap on some sloppy “friend” who provided him with a summary of Stanley Hornbeck’s review of Macdonald’s book at the time when he was writing his. Continue reading “Žižek… The Plagiarist!”

El capital del siglo xxi

Thomas Piketty img
Thomas Piketty dando una charla en el seminario “Pour une Révolution Fiscale”, 28 abril 2011. Foto Parti Socialiste du Loire – Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

La tesis central del libro El capital en el siglo veintiuno del economista francés Thomas Piketty es muy simple.[1. En este comentario nos referiremos a la edición inglesa: [amazon ASIN=”B00I2WNYJW”]Capital in the Twenty-First Century[/amazon], Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2014.] Continue reading “El capital del siglo xxi”

The Critic as Clown

Clown 1910Thinking about the Chomsky-Žižek controversy — see previous post 1 and post 2 on this topic — in which the American called the Slovenian a “clown”, I’ve been wondering whether we should consider the words ‘critic’ and ‘clown’ as complementary rather than exclusionary. Then I recalled that Terry Eagleton did actually explore a similar idea in an old essay on William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral, part of his excellent collection Against the Current.[1. See “The Critic as Clown,” Against the Current. Selected Essays (London: Verso, 1991), págs. 149-165.] Continue reading “The Critic as Clown”

(Literary) Theory and the Humanities

Recently, the Commission on the Humanities and Social Science, a bipartisan congressional group charged “with determining the top ten actions that the congress, state governments, universities, foundations, educators, and others should take to ensure national excellence in the humanities and social science fields,”[1. See news release.] released a report summarizing the current state of these disciplines. Their findings are unsurprising. Basically, they conclude that the humanities (and the social sciences) are in decline.[2. I should say that The Atlantic‘s Jordan Weissmann disagrees. In a recent blog he argues that rather than declining the humanities are undergoing a renaissance: “Yes, the percentage of lit lovers on campus is near the lows of 30 years ago. But a far higher fraction of all young adults finish college today. As a result, the portion of college-aged Americans with a degree in a humanities discipline has jumped by around one full percentage point.”]

Some hard data. In 1954, 36% of undergraduates at Harvard University majored in a humanity discipline against 20% today (according to a recent report).  Bachelor’s degree completion in humanities spiraled down from 14% in 1966 to 7% in 2010. The percentage of would-be Humanists has declined in Harvard from 27% to 18%. And all this seems to be part of a national trend.

In a society that believes that there is no value “beyond the buck” — to paraphrase actor Jack Lemmon in a Charlie Rose’s interview about his 1973 film Save the Tiger — the humanities certainly are unattractive. There is no buck in (most) humanist concentrations — for instance, humanists earn an average of 25% less than engineers. And although some studies have argued in the past that money don’t buy happiness, a more recent one seems to suggest that it isn’t the case actually. We know that today happiness and success are totally reified — that is, we believe them to be embodied in some concrete object external to us such as money and/or commodities (e.g., smart phones or tablets). Certainly, the kind of skills that a well-rounded liberal education offers can never be a guarantee of making big bucks — and having access to the kind of commodities some people would consider markers of success. No surprise them that recently some people have even questioned the idea of getting a college education at all. As Michael Ellsberg said a couple of years ago in a New York Times op-ed,  “we don’t have a shortage of lawyers and professors. [But] a shortage of job creators.” Being “job creators” an euphemism for people who know how to turn a fast buck. He would probably argue that we don’t have a shortage of Humanists either.

British literary critic Terry Eagleton, in his The Significance of Theory (Blackwell, 1990), argues that the phrase “crisis of the humanities” is a tautology. “Historically speaking,” he explains,

the idea of the humanities, at least in the modern period, arises at a point where certain kinds of positive human values are felt to be increasingly under threat from a philistine, crassly materialist society, and so must be marked off from that degraded social arena in a double gesture of elevation and isolation. How could the humanities not be in crisis in social orders where it is perfectly clear, whatever their own protestations to the contrary, that the only supremely valuable activity is one of turning a fast buck?

In other words, in a society that denies our having any “positive human value” — since we are helplessly violent, insatiably greedy, and unashamedly unsocial — the only option left is being valued based on what we possess. Since the humanities help us to “savour the human as such,” no surprise to find it under attack from a social order in which “the only supremely valuable activity is one of turning a fast buck.”

However, as Eagleton argues in his essay, the humanities play an important role in contemporary life precisely because of this state of affairs. Through the humanities we construct and reproduce “forms of subjectivity” that are indispensable for our society to function properly. The humanities remind us that “being human” demands having some space beyond the tangible — a mythical space that some people may call religion, others philosophy, and a few literature. Being human, a human subject, is as priceless a feat as being a Christian or a Muslim, just to mention two instances of subjectivity most people might resist to trade for a buck — as the famous credit card commercial states, you can’t put a price on them. Nonetheless, being priceless is not the same as being worthless.

As Kenneth Burke would’ve argued, there is a big difference between naming a thing and pricing a thing. Although both processes involve some kind of “magic,” they are not of the same kind. The latter involves a hiding of things, while the former involves an uncovering. They are two different types of symbolic action. One serves the purpose of reducing antagonism, since as symbols prices operate in the marketplace to reduce friction and facilitate the exchange of goods. On the contrary, the other raises antagonism, because they involve a critical process, a deep questioning of assumptions and beliefs, a constant monitoring of our “associational clusters.”[3. Cf. Kenneh Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form. Studies in Symbolic Action (New York: Vintage, 1957), 3-117.] Pricing things is mostly a relational process while naming things is implicitly dialectical, since it seeks — to paraphrase Herbert Marcuse — to uncover the “other than [those things] are.” And in this dialectics resides its subversive potential. No wonder the humanities represent a threat to our current “social arena”!

A crisis in the humanities seems to me just another symptom of a crisis of imagination. As Marcuse himself explains in his One-Dimensional Man (Beacon, 1966), in our contemporary society “reason repels transcendence,” and through its analytic, neo-positivist flavors[4. And today’s neo-liberals are symptomatically-neo-positivists. See Amoroso et al., Unified Theories (The Noetic Press, 2008)] it seeks to “exorcise such ‘myths’ or metaphysical ‘ghosts’ as Mind, Consciousness, Will, Soul, Self.” I will add ‘imagination’ to this mix. The result of this process is a vacuum of the human as such, since humans are not the one-dimensional caricature of the “consumer subject” or the “proletarian subject.” Pricing things is a form of atomization, of disintegration into an emptiness of undistinguished particulars. There is an implicit negation of universality in the whole idea of the marketplace as the dominant metaphor of contemporary society. But a similar process occurs when left-wing irrationality seeks to reduce humans as such to a blank slate void of any subjectivity or moral agency. Right-wing ideologues trade the universal for a configuration such-and-such of barely connected particulars; left-wingers do the opposite, trading the individual particulars for a monolithic social dough. The failure of imagination resides on both sides of the political spectrum anyway. And it’s precisely because of this that the humanities, as a “mythical space” in which universals and particulars fight a constant battle, may be awfully helpful.

Venezuela’s Slum Lord

A few of months ago, The New Yorker published an article by journalist Jon Lee Anderson on Venezuela’s most famous slum: the Tower of David. Originally built as headquarters for one of the country’s largest banks, today the Tower seems to symbolize late Hugo Chávez’s Revolution biggest failure.

As a Venezuelan, I’m very familiar with the country’s long lasting housing problems. During the post-war years, Venezuela’s capital Caracas became a magnet for people looking for opportunities and a better life. For many decades, oil rich Venezuela invested heavily in all kind of housing projects around the country, particularly in Caracas, projects that somehow and for some time accommodated many of the newcomers. However, it never was enough to alleviate the ever increasing demand for dwelling of a growing population always ahead of the curve. To this we must add the populism and corruption that has always characterized Venezuelan politicians, particularly during and after the 1970s, who thought that by sponsoring squatting and invasions of public and private lands they would easily solve the problem. Consequently, slums and shanty towns began to pop up everywhere, creating huge belt of poverty and crime around many of Venezuela’s most populated cities — something I witnessed as a young man many times.

In 1998, when Hugo Chávez won his first election, one of his campaign promises was to find a definitive solution to a by then chronic housing problem. Of course, such a solution never materialized — despite a good number of well-intended attempts that were crippled from the very beginning by corruption and/or ineptitude. On the contrary, what the so-called socialist government of Chávez did was to dig deeper into the failing policies of his predecessors, including squatting and invasions. No surprise then that while the alleged main goal of the so-called Revolutionary government has always been to promote social ownership, the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans only want “something [they] can call [their] own” — as Zaida Gómez, the store-owner interviewed by Anderson, put it candidly. The crying of this unfulfilled wish is something I’ve heard many times since I can remember — people who basically want a roof they can call their own.

Reading Anderson’s piece — and another one published last year by the NY Times — isn’t easy. Ours is a country that was a model for the whole hemisphere for many years. An emerging democracy, believed to be a forerunner of freedom and social-justice in a region in which the majority of its neighbors were ruled by either dictatorships or corrupt oligarchies, both from the left and the right. Of course, my generation — born and raised under the democratic system — came to realize early on that ours was a very weak democracy to say the least, plagued by social and economic troubles but mostly crippled by a clueless and stultified political class. If Chávez represented anything in contemporary Venezuelan history, it was the legacy of a failed national project and the flawed generation who was responsible for carrying on with it. In this sense, the Tower is not only a symbol of a failing populist Revolution and his colorful leader but also one of a frustrated national project.

It hurts to admit that for many years now the whole country has been on this slippery road towards becoming a slum of national proportions. Last year, almost 20,000 people died victims of crime-related violence. Despite declining poverty rates, the real economic situation of the country is far from the image of apparent prosperity that some on the left have try to convey outside its borders. As much-cited Mark Weisbrot’s paper concludes, most of the reduction in poverty is measured only in cash income — not a surprise giving the fact that the government has invested most of recent years’ oil revenues into a variety of social programs targeted to the country’s poorer. However, regarding the social benefits in the short run of these policies, they seem impossible to sustain in the long run. Inflation, insecurity, food shortages, dependence on imports (about 70% of the goods consumed are imported), and a dilapidated infrastructure are among the many problems that Venezuelans face today. Recently, the government was forced to devalue its currency 32% — just one of the many signs of economic trouble that seems to darken the country’s future, tied as it has always been to the ups and downs of commodity prices — i.e., oil. I should add to this the current political uncertainty created by Chávez’s passing and the transitional process during the last few months. In all honesty, Venezuela’s future seems as grim and surreal as the Tower’s story may appear to an unsophisticated reader.

From a faux Saudi Republic — as people used to call the country in the 1970s — Bolivar’s motherland has become just another failing Revolution. This may seem an obvious epilogue to many of Chávez’s critics — a very disingenuous and simplistic conclusion though. Chávez’s term wasn’t an isolated event, a singularity in Venezuela’s convulsive history. To look at Chávez’s failure without considering the long history of failing policies that preceded him — and made his tenure possible — is not only naive but more importantly counterproductive. As it has happened many times in the past, such attitude will only guarantee the eternal return of some populist savior — or saviors — willing to trade good wishes for all the power he/she can accumulate. However, what’s more unreassuring about Venezuela’s current situation is neither its eternal housing crisis nor its failing economy but the degree of  division and polarization that poisons its political and social environments. The country is a deeply divided nation that seems not to find a common project good enough to unify it and to satisfy all political and social actors. In this sense, the country is getting closer to that Schmittian point of no-return in which one side — whichever has the strong end of the rope — will do whatever it can to annihilate the other side. In this sense also, the Tower becomes a terrifying metaphor.

Margin Call (2011), or a Report on the Banality of Greed

So far, few movies have been as successful as J. C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011) in portraying the events of the 2008 economic crisis. In fact, the movie achieves something only a few among the best films in history have ever been able to achieve, say, catching the Zeitgeist — the spirit of the time.

The film is about the events leading to the demise of an American investment bank during the financial crisis of 2007-2008. It’s modeled on the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that filed for bankruptcy in late 2008 after big losses due to the subprime mortgage crisis. In summary, it tells the story of a group of executives who discover, with the help of junior analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a flaw in the software the company uses to calculate risk. Due to this flaw, the company is now exposed to monumental losses should the value of its mortgage-based securities decreases, as it is believed most likely to happen. The discovery initiates a chain of events that mobilizes the upper echelon of the company, including its CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). In order to save their own financial interests, Tuld and his head of security Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) made the decision of selling off all the company’s toxic assets before the market realizes the truth about those same assets’ real value. A decision that is opposed by Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), the company’s head of sales, who understands that in doing so Tuld is threatening the future of the company — no one will ever trust the company once they have realized what is about to happen — as well as spreading the risk throughout the whole financial system. At the end, Rogers agrees to help Tuld, after the latter offers him a substantial compensation.

Despite the apparent simplicity of its plot, Margin Call is a brilliant exploration of the ethos of modern day capitalist society. The word ethos refers to the set of beliefs and values that guide the behavior of the different members of a community. This ethos configures our particular Zeitgeist — say, our particular cultural and moral climate. Two words summarize this ethos: money and, ultimately, greed.

It’s all about money… isn’t it?

At first sight, money seems to be at the chore of all Margin Call‘s characters. For them, money seems to be everything. It is the fundamental unit they use to measure up every aspect of their lives — from success, to happiness, loyalty, and so on. For instance, when Sam learned that his dog has cancer and is going to die, he complains about the thousand dollars a week he is spending to keep his pet alive. It is as if this amount truly represents the sincerity of his feelings towards his dog.

A similar thing happens with Tuld. He knows he cannot demand loyalty from his subalterns. I suspect he wouldn’t accept it anyway — at least not for free. Loyalty for him should be translated into money. So, he buys it. He pays Eric Dale (just a few hours after he’s been laid off from the same firm) to come back to the company and sit there for a few hours doing nothing, so to prevent the former employee from leaking what is about to happen. He pays him well, since that’s the only way he can guarantee Dale’s loyalty. The same happens with Head of Risk Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore). Tuld decides that she is the head that must roll after the storm — although she reminds him that she was the one who warned both him and his protegee (Jared Cohen) about the coming collapse. He pays her as well, to buy her silence, at least for one day. At the end, Tuld buys Sam also, despite the fact that the latter will do whatever he can to serve the firm’s best interest — and it seems likely he would do it for free. However, Tuld doesn’t understand about loyalty unless it’s expressed in terms of money. So, he gives Sam a generous check.

There is this sequence in which Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), Sam’s senior salesman, is outside watching New York city from the building’s roof. He is there along with Peter and Seth Bregman (Penn Bradgley), another junior analyst. One of the analysts asked Will about what is going on, about what he thinks will happen. He replies: “they don’t loose money, no matter if everybody else does.” With “they” he means Tuld, Cohen, and all the top executives. They never loose money, no matter if by doing so they take their own company down — as they actually ended up doing — or take the whole financial system down, as it will probably happen at the end. The survival of the fit, of the job-creators, is the only rule in place. Every one is on his/her own. No one cares about what could happen to anyone else but oneself. The job-creators must survive even if it is a the price of millions of other people’s jobs. That’s the logic of it all.

In the closing scene, Sam is on his ex-wife’s yard digging a hole to bury his dead dog. When she comes out and warns him that the police was on its way, all he can say is that he couldn’t think of any other place to bury their pet but its former home. His ex-wife sees him in all his misery and decides to go back inside, asking him to take care of himself. The movie closes with a sudden black screen. However, although we can’t see anything, we still are able to listen to the sound of the shovel scratching against the solid ground. We can’t help to think about the metaphor of this last scene — a hidden shovel digging the hole we all will soon be buried in. We are left wondering who or what the dog itself is a metaphor of.

The banality of greed

Hannah Arendt once described Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann — indicted and executed in Israel for crimes during the Holocaust — this way:

[He] was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothings would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III “to prove a villain.” Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his own personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. […] He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness — something by no means identical with stupidity — that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminal of that period. And if this is “banal” and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from [him], that is still far from calling it commonplace. It surely cannot be so common that a man facing death, and, moreover, standing beneath the gallows, should be able to think of nothing but what he has heard at funerals all his life, and that these “lofty words” should completely becloud the reality – of his own death. That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man – that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem. But it was a lesson, neither an explanation of the phenomenon nor a theory about it.

According to Žižek, violence may come in many forms. There is the subjective type of violence we see in assaults, torture, war, and all other physical violent acts. It is the type of violence Eichmann was indicted for. Also, there is objective violence. This last kind of violence may come in two different forms: a symbolic form and a systemic form. Symbolic violence is the type of violence embodied in “language and its different forms” — modern-day political campaigns are usually full of this kind of violence. Systemic violence is the “often catastrophic consequences of the functioning of our economic and political systems.” The Latin American Debt Crisis of the 1980s; the Great Depression, Stalin’s forced collectivization; all these are examples of systemic violence. The same applies to the events depicted in Chandor’s movie.

In the latter case, there were neither concentration camps nor gas chambers. The number of corpses were not as many as in Auschwitz, although the number of virtual casualties have been almost the same… so far. A parallel argument to the one Arendt made on Eichmann could be made of the people who participated in the 2007-2008 financial crisis. A similar depiction of the Nazi criminal could be given of those involved in this systemic act of violence. It was the same “remoteness from reality,” the same “thoughtlessness” that could “wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together.”

The scene on the roof is a clear evidence of how Eichmannian these characters are. Will Emerson hangs on the edge of the building, risking a long fall, only for the thrill of it. There is no motives, no thoughts, no sympathy towards the others (Peter and Seth) who witness the stunt in panic… only a sense of power, the power of control, of having the last word. Tuld, at the end, admits that the whole thing is not really about money… it is power. But it isn’t power either; it is the hunger for more, the same drive towards the void that led Will on the edge of the roof. Money is just a vehicle, a fetish used to reach for what really moves them: greed.

If Eichmann was guilty of one form of banality, the banality of evil, the Tulds of the world are guilty of another, the banality of greed. The biggest achievement of Margin Call resides in having made such banality visible that it seems almost a caricature. However, fantasy here is the real thing, and the alleged real is just a fantasy.

En busca de El pez que fuma

Conversando el otro día con un compatriota que preparaba un curso sobre cine latinoamericano en una universidad de los Estados Unidos, a la pregunta: ¿qué película venezolana incluyes?, su respuesta automática fue “ninguna”. Luego, por supuesto, siguió la sentencia de rigor: con excepción (quizá) de Araya (1959) y Oriana (1985), el resto de la cinematografía nacional es pura mierda (la hipérbole es mía).

Recordé está conversación recientemente mientras disfrutaba de El pez que fuma (1977), la inolvidable película de Román Chalbaud. Hacía muchos años que no la veía. Tenía apenas 9 años cuando se estrenó en 1977, así que estaba fuera de toda discusión que me dejaran entrar al cine a ver las tetas al natural de Haydeé Balza, o el despampanante cuerpo desnudo de la jovencísima Mimí Lazo. Sea como sea, no la pude ver sino muchos años después, en la TV, editada y super-censurada, y, ya en la universidad, en VHS, en el cineclub de la facultad de ingeniería, en todo su esplendor (el de la Balza y de la Lazo).

Está vez volví a ver la original, sin censuras, y no pude evitar sentir un orgullo profundo por nuestro cine nacional — y una lástima por los estudiantes de mi colega que no han tenido la oportunidad de disfrutar de esta joya del cine latinoamericano. Para mí, El pez sigue siendo la obra más importante de la cinematografía venezolana, muy por encima de todas las Orianas o Arayas del mundo. Y no es para negar la importancia de estas últimas, pero si hemos de hablar de un cine que represente el Weltanschauung nacional, la respuesta no está ni en el experimento postmoderno de Fina Torres ni en el formalista de Margot Benacerraf.

¿Qué mejor lugar que un prostíbulo de la Guaira para representar la cosmovisión de nuestro país? La historia no puede ser más familiar. Dos rivales que se enfrentan por el control de un territorio en disputa. El territorio es a la vez una mujer y un negocio. La mujer, la Garza (interpretado por la inolvidable Hilda Vera), es la matrona y dueña del local, fuente del poder y del orden masculino por el que se disputan el amante y su aspirante. La Garza es un motivo nacional, la devoradora de hombres que desde las páginas de Gallegos ha poblado siempre el imaginario literario venezolano. El negocio, por el otro lado, representa el orden institucional en torno al que se articula la vida del barrio, que funciona tanto como referencia normativa y moral (vemos a la Garza denunciando el abuso infantil y la maternidad irresponsable al inicio de la película) como material (es el mayor empleador y motor de la economía local). Mujer y territorio son objeto de uso y abuso, utilizables pero nunca poseídos totalmente (como la Garza insiste en recordarle al desleal Dimas).

Hay que estar ciegos para no ver la alusión obvia a la historia de un país que por centurias ha sido, como la Garza y su burdel, objeto de uso y abuso por guapetones provenientes de solares españoles o de mánores norteños. La garza es Venezuela; el burdel, la democracia… o viceversa. No extraña, pues, que Jairo (que además representa también al Otro lacaniano del imaginario venezolano, el inmigrante o hijo de inmigrantes colombianos — Jairo es un nombre muy común en la comunidad de inmigrantes de ese país hermano —, que acecha desde el subconsciente marginal) haya nacido en 1958, “con la democracia”, como dice, con cierta ironía, la Garza. El duelo de Jairo y Dimas simboliza también esa transición del caudillo eterno (i.e., Juan Vicente Gómez) al caudillo temporal, elegido con votos (o manotazos), que cada cinco años se disputaba al cuerpo de la nación, o su institucionalidad. Jairo y Dimas son arquetipos del político nacional, corrupto y corruptor, que ofrece cambios pero, como el gatopardo, sólo se asegura que todo cambie lo suficiente para que no haya cambio alguno.

Todo eso comprimido en una (tele)novela para la pantalla gigante, con elementos melodramáticos y retóricos que nos recuerdan la ópera, como ocurre con casi todo el cine de Chalbaud, o, quizá sea mejor decir: del binomio Chalbaud-Cabrujas. Por eso no tengo pena en admitirlo: El pez es el pináculo del cine venezolano. La mierda vino después.