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Brittle Clarity

Unusually cold weather hereabouts, but with the cold comes an incredible brittle clarity, as though you could crack the air with a smack of your hand. It’s nothing compared to real cold elsewhere (we’re barely hovering around freezing), but it’s shocking for we weather wimps of San Francisco. I’ve been making my usual sojourns to hilltops, first on Saturday to Twin Peaks and Tank Hill, which provided these following shots. Downtown is obvious, then a view of Pt. Reyes in the distant north, then from Tank Hill a look across the park and the DeYoung tower to the Golden Gate with Bolinas in the distance.

Yesterday a friend and I entered the foreboding darkness of Sutro Forest, that odd San Francisco hill above the UC Med Center densely covered with imported Eucalyptus trees which are in turn being choked by ivy. In general the steep slopes are pretty impassable, covered in thorny blackberry bushes and poison oak. Nevertheless we climbed up to visit Ishi‘s cave, and here’s a couple of shots of it. You have to be thin and not claustrophobic to actually enter it; after a squirming crawl it opens up a bit and you can semi-stand up. I preferred to stay outside. The first time I visited about 4 years ago the camera I had with me broke as I tried to take a photo. Of course I assumed there was “something going on” and never tried to do it again until yesterday. (Ishi lived at the UC Med Center where he was under the “care” of the Kroeber’s–the parents of science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin–who were doing anthropological research into the California Indians, of which Ishi was considered one of the last “wild” ones.)


I absolutely loved an essay in the February Harper’s Magazine by Jonathan Lethem, the novelist. It’s called “The Ecstasy of Influence” and it’s a beautifully crafted essay about the twists and turns of intellectual property and copyright, leading to us all being “disnied” in the sense that the endless extension of copyrights to benefit large corporations is impoverishing the public commons from which we all get our inspiration and creative ideas. To put it bluntly, we all borrow, steal, plagiarize and re-use our cultural commons, but what’s new these days is that there is a major effort to radically reduce the public domain and limit further additions to it as much as possible. Lethem, who is a great stylist and funny writer, pens a lovely essay but the kicker is at the end when he provides a key to his essay, showing where he borrowed sentences or ideas for every single piece of his essay! It’s brilliant! Here’s a couple of paragraphs that I particularly loved:

The kernel, the soul” let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances” is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration the get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. Neurological study has lately shown that memory, imagination, and consciousness itself is stitched, quilted, pastiched. If we cut-and-paste our selves, might we not forgive it of our artworks?We may console ourselves that our lust for subsidiary rights in virtual perpetuity is some heroic counter to rapacious corporate interests. But the truth is that with artists pulling on one side and corporations on the other, the loser is the collective public imagination from which we were nourished in the first place, and whose existence as the ultimate repository of our offers makes the work worth doing in the first place.

Just as I read this essay I was coming to the end of Karl Polanyi’s famous work “The Great Transformation,” a somewhat dense but very well presented history of, and polemic against, society being based on an ostensibly self-regulating market. He wrote it in 1944 and seemed to believe that the economic liberal arguments for an independent economic sphere based on self-regulating markets had been thoroughly discarded by the experiences of the Great Depression and WWII”¦ Whoops! Not hardly. Not only did they not disappear (the gold standard was re-established a year later at Bretton Woods, along with the World Bank and IMF) but they came back with a vengeance under Reagan and Thatcher and then with the neo-conservative ascendance under George W. Bush it’s a full-scale embrace of the ideology (but crucially, without the practice” the Cheney Gang is foremost a kleptocracy who make heavy use of the state to transfer wealth from the public to themselves and their friends, quite in violation of any sense of a self-regulating market).

Anyway, there was a nice interplay between Lethem’s look at the growing dominance of propertarian thinking around culture and Polanyi’s long look at the incredible destructiveness of market-based systems that are not constrained by a larger sense of society and its own independent purposes. Here’s a couple more useful quotations:

Lethem: “In our times, the rhetoric of the market presumes that everything should be and can be appropriately bought, sold, and owned” a tide of alienation lapping daily at the dwindling redoubt of the unalienable”¦”

Polanyi: “But labor and land are no other than the human beings themselves of which every society consists and the natural surroundings in which exists. To include them in the market mechanism means to subordinate the substance of society itself to the laws of the market.” (p. 71)

Polanyi: “To separate labor from other activities and to subject it to the laws of the market was to annihilate all organic forms of existence and to replace them by a different type of organization, an atomistic and individualistic one.

“Such a scheme of destruction was best served by the application of the principle of freedom of contract. In practice this meant that the noncontractual organization of kinship, neighborhood, profession, and creed were to be liquidated since they claimed the allegiance of the individual and thus restrained his freedom. To present this principle as one of noninterference, as economic liberals were wont to do, was merely the expression of an ingrained prejudice in favor of a definite kind of interference, namely, such as would destroy noncontractual relations between individuals and prevent their spontaneous re-formation.” (p. 163)

After almost two centuries of the growth of markets, world wars and global trade, USAmericans as the quintessential products of this logic are amnesiac, isolated, easily bamboozled, and generally unable to imagine a life that does not consist of buying and selling. Most apparently “progressive” politics tend to revolve around how to shop ethically, rather than examining how to make a common wealth for all. The ecological crisis, most visible in climate change (but lurking not far behind will be collapsing soils and fresh water shortages), is a logical outcome of unconstrained market behavior. The chattering classes are generally uninterested in any discussion of the deeper issues of our division of labor, the grossly inequitable access to resources and wealth that is ever sharpened by the existing system, the technological hubris that keeps dangling fantasies of easy fixes just ahead, or how we might redesign life to reflect the underlying abundance that could still be the basis of a good life for all (but not forever!).

The growing sense of planetary fragility is well founded. The remarkable silence when it comes to the underlying cause of that fragility, unfettered market society, is unacceptable. I’m glad the discussion is ongoing about the absurdity of private intellectual property, but it seems that a bigger conversation about the absurdity of private property and the self-destructive market society on which it depends is long overdue.

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One Response to “Brittle Clarity”

  1. 1
    Hungry Hyaena:

    Terrific reaction to Lethem’s collage! I am unfamiliar with Polanyi’s book; I’ll have to remedy that. In any event, it seems the William Cronon’s philosophy and writing may be an intellectual descendant. Dare I say Cronon may have been – gasp – influenced?.

    I appreciate your tying the two forms of property together.

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