From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (10)—Newman's Mail

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.
Click below for all "Seinfeld Ethnography" posts: 
Marine Biologist         The Doorman          Opposite George   Newman's Mail   The Bootleg         Marriage
Just Dessert               Sleep Desk             Late Coffee            High Stakes        Motor Oil              Downtown 
Code Cracking           Nonfat Yogurt          Bad Boy                 It's Not You         I Can't Be...          Exploding Wallet
Elaine Flies Coach    The Close Talker     The Alliance           Broccoli               Coated Culture    Dinner Party

Click here for the reference to the "Argonauts" title, below.
[a] Overwhelm   RF
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific 
Life. It just keeps coming and coming. And then you die. That might be Newman's approach to these matters, but the great thinker was not alone.  Confucius said something very similar, and countless philosophers across the world have hinted that this might be the case.

What does this all mean? There's too much stuff, too little time, and too much pressure? Well, yes. Thinkers from Charlie Chaplin to Pierre Bourdieu have considered these matters, and puzzled over the ways that "progress" and "overwhelm" are linked. There is a disturbing connection between the two. For those of you old enough to remember a time when you waited for the post(man) to come every day, does life with e-mail seem unambiguously better?

I will not pursue this particular line much further, and not only because it is far from being an original question. If you need a prompt in considering this, though, just think what it was like to return to work today and open your e-mail (especially for those of you in the United States, who returned from the Memorial Day holiday). Some of you surely "kept up" with cyber demands during your time away from work. Others of you found...a whole bunch of stuff waiting for you yesterday morning.

And I haven't even mentioned Facebook, yet. Ah, progress.

It just keeps on coming—information and control; knowledge, and power. Before we get too far down the road, though, let's take a look at some "oversize(d) mail/male" (so to speak). We shall call him (channeling Nietzsche) NewMan.

Because the mail never stops 1:05 

[b] Too much   RF
It just keeps on coming (and then there are the phone books and the catalogs—at least in an earlier, non-digital era). What are we to make of never-ending pressure (or at least the very basic idea that I mention in every class I teach—that there will always be too much stuff and far too little time)?

Newman embodies the frustration in truly memorable ways, but let's take a look at what several thinkers have said about pressure, frustration, and monotony over the years. You will notice that I am not peering very deeply into the peculiar pathos that is Newman, at least not yet. For now, he will guide us in our thinking about larger ideas. His particular idiosyncrasies will be topics of analysis (so to speak) in future posts.

***  ***
Remember, as always, that the "theory" readings in Seinfeld Ethnography are meant to juxtapose ideas, and not merely to echo the Seinfeld clip.  Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, and Marshall Sahlins will lead us in directions unforeseen by the great über-carrier, Newman.  Karl Marx starts us off with an interesting little discussion from chapter ten of Capital on the limits of the working day. We will follow with a few lines from Michel Foucault on knowledge, information, and power, and finish with Marshall Sahlins's critique of traditional economic models for understanding certain kinds of societies.

And then we will pause. We will sit back and imagine the entire Seinfeld crew as...hunter-gatherers. We will imagine them picking berries and pursuing antelope. Above all, though, we will imagine them, at the campfire (yes, the secrets of fire are with them), pondering the day that has just passed...and talking, talking, talking.

[c] Capital ideas
Karl Marx
The Limits of the Working Day
We begin with the assumption that labour-power is bought and sold at its value. It value, like that of all other commodities, is determined by the labour-time necessary to produce it. If it takes 6 hours to produce the average daily means of subsistence of the worker, he must work an average of 6 hours a day to produce his daily labour power, or to reduce the value received as a result of its sale. The necessary part of his working day amounts to 6 hours, and is therefore, other things being equal, a given quantity. But with this the extent of the working day itself is not given.

Let us assume that Line A------B represents the length of the necessary labour time, say 6 hours. If the labour is prolonged beyond AB by 1,3, or 6 hours, we get three other lines:
          Working day I:  A - - - - - - B - C
          Working day II:  A - - - - - - B - - - C
          Working day III:  A - - - - - - B - - - - - - C
which represent three different working days of 7, 9 and 12 hours...

The working day is thus not a constant, but a variable quantity. One of its parts, certainly, is determined by the labour-time required for the reproduction of the labour-power of the worker himself. But its total amount varies with the duration of the surplus labour. The working day is therefore capable of being determined, but in and for itself indeterminate.

Although the working day is not a fixed but fluid quantity, it can, on the other hand, vary only within certain limits. The minimum limit, however, cannot be determined...On the other hand, the working day does have a maximum limit. It cannot be prolonged beyond a certain point. The maximum limit is conditioned by two things. First by the physical limits of labour-power. Within the 24 hours of the natural day a man can only expend a certain quantity of his vital force. Similarly, a horse can work regularly for only 8 hours a day. During part of the day the vital force must rest, sleep; during another part the man has to satisfy other physical needs, to feed, wash, and clothe himself. Besides these purely physical limitations, the extension of the working day encounters moral obstacles. The worker needs time in which to satisfy his intellectual and social requirements, and the extent and the number of these requirements is conditioned by the general level of civilization. The length of the working day therefore fluctuates within boundaries both physical and social. But these limiting conditions are of a very elastic nature, and allow a tremendous latitude. So we find working days of many different lengths, of 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, and 18 hours.[1]

Michel Foucault
Labour, Life, Language
[d] Thingèd orders
[And now, approaching 1800] The space of Western knowledge is about to topple: the taxinomia, whose great universal expanse extended in correlation with the possibility of a mathesis, and which constituted the down-beat of knowledge—at once its primary possibility and the end of its perfection—is not about to order itself in accordance with an obscure verticality; a verticality that is to define the law of resemblances, prescribe all adjacencies and discontinuities, provide the foundation for perceptible arrangements, and displace all the great horizontal deployments of the taxinomia towards the somewhat accessory region of consequences. Thus, European culture is inventing for itself a depth in which what matters is no longer identities, distinctive characters, permanent tables with all their possible paths and routes, but great hidden forces developed on the basis of their primitive and inaccessible nucleus, origin, causality, and history. From now on things will be represented only from the depths of this density withdrawn into itself, perhaps blurred and darkened by its obscurity, but bound tightly to themselves, assembled or divided, inescapably grouped by the vigour that is hidden down below, in those depths...

Then—and this is the second phase of the event—knowledge in its positivity changes in its nature and its form...What changed at the turn of the [nineteenth] century, and underwent irremediable modification, was knowledge itself as an anterior and indivisible mode of being between the knowing subject and the object of knowledge; if there were those who began to study the cost of production, and if the ideal and primitive barter situation was no longer employed as a means of analysing the creation of value, it is because, at the archaeological level, exchange had been replaced as a fundamental figure in the space of knowledge by production, bringing into view on the one hand new knowable objects (such as capital) and prescribing, on the other, new concepts and new methods (such as the analysis of forms of production.

Production, life, language—we must not seek to construe these as objects that imposed themselves from the outside, as though by their own weight and as a result of some autonomous pressure, upon a body of learning that had ignored them for too long; nor must we see them as concepts gradually built up, owing to new methods, through the progress of sciences advancing towards their own rationality. They are fundamental modes of knowledge which sustain in their flawless unity the secondary and derived correlation of new sciences and techniques with unprecedented objects.[2]

Marshall Sahlins
The Original Affluent Society
[e] [Af]fluency
If economics is the dismal science, the study of hunting and gathering economies must be its most advanced branch. Almost universally committed to the proposition that life was hard in the paleolithic, our textbooks compete to convey a sense of impending doom, leaving one to wonder not only how hunters managed to live, but whether, after all, this was living? The specter of starvation stalks the stalker through these pages. His technical incompetence is said to enjoin continuous work just to survive, affording him neither respite nor surplus, hence not even the "leisure" to "build culture." Even so, for all his efforts, the hunter pulls the lowest grades in thermodynamics—less energy/capita/year than any other mode of production. And in treatises on economic development he is condemned to play the role of bad example: the so-called "subsistence economy."

The traditional wisdom is always refractory. One is forced to oppose it polemically, to phrase the necessary revisions dialectically: in fact, this was, when you come to examine it, the original affluent society. Paradoxical, that phrasing leads to another useful and unexpected conclusion. By the common understanding, an affluent society is one in which all the people's material wants are easily satisfied. To assert that the hunters are affluent is to deny then that the human condition is an ordained tragedy, with man the prisoner of hard labor of a perpetual disparity between his unlimited wants and his insufficient means.

For there are two possible courses of affluence. Wants may be "easily satisfied" either by producing much or desiring little. The familiar conception, the Galbraithean way, makes assumptions peculiarly appropriate to market economies: that man's wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited, although improvable: thus, the gap between means and ends can be narrowed by industrial productivity, at least to the point that "urgent goods" become plentiful. But there is also a Zen road to affluence, departing from premises somewhat different from our own: that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate. Adopting a Zen strategy, a people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty—with a low standard of living.[3]

...Still this much history can always be rescued [even from] existing hunters: the "economic problem" is easily solvable by paleolithic techniques. But then, it was not until culture neared the height of its material achievements that it erected a shrine to the Unattainable: Infinite Needs.[4]

[1] Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I [Trans. Ben Fowkes] (New York: Penguin Classics, 1990), 340-341. Italics mine.
[2] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things [Trans.information missing] (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 251-253. Italics mine.
[3] Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (New York: Aldine Publishing Company, 1972), 1-2. Italics mine.
[4] Sahlins, Stone Age, 39. Italics by original author.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things [Trans. information missing]. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.
Marx, Karl. Capital, Volume 1 [Trans. Ben Fowkes]. New York: Penguin Classics, 1990.
Sahlins, Marshall. Stone Age Economics. New York: Aldine Publishing Company, 1972.

Wednesday, June 8th
The Bootleg
Jerry and Kramer consider art, legality, pathology, and morality...occasionally at gunpoint.

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