Archive for March, 2014

A political economy of madness

March 28, 2014

Madness is a vortex to contradictions, it swallows them up and rejects the discernment of reason. In one of the Sophoclean tragedies of the Trojan war saga, the hero Ajax throws himself on his sword in frustration when denied the satisfactions that only a fantasy visited on him by Athena will provide.


He faces death with terrible resolve when his honor is thwarted, still impressed by the value of life and light but implacable that his fate in the world has become intolerable.

“Oh Death, Death, come now and look upon me! To you I will speak in that other world also, when I am with you. But you, present beam of the bright day, and Sun in his chariot, I accost for the last, last time -”

Here the elegant manners of Sophocles only heighten the humane aspect of tragedy, allowing even kings to vibrate with sentimentality that their constant companions, the ceremonies, render obscure from the public eye in everyday life.

“Her soul is steeped in the anguish of that wail.”

On discovering his body, the widow Tecmessa is observed by this chorus when they weigh the general case of expressed feeling being indeterminate in intensity of experienced feeling against coincidence heard, con-substantive and mentionable. It is the human aspect that is larger than life in this play.

The kindness of a marriage like Tecmessa’s is modest; to ask less of trust when the minds of our closest companions are shut from us, a commitment to housing one’s heart where conventionality says enough to one’s housemate about what is to be expected of domesticity. A home life that strains nothing under the weight of uncertainty.

Ajax tells his wife little of what he intends, and mourns his own fate briefly, alone.

She frets in the doorway to their home, asking for news, while he goes to a secluded place to work his own end. They are in disfavor since he went mad, and she is without help until it is too late.


Would news have been enough to stop him? Perhaps not, but allowing the action to devolve in this way ennobles the mundane as a subject for drama.

The Victorian economist Walter Bagehot uses access to information (social capital, gossip) as a metaphor for access to banking credit: “credit, the disposition of one man to trust another, is singularly varying. In England, after a great calamity, everybody is suspicious of everybody; as soon as that calamity is forgotten, everybody again confides in everybody.”

An interesting choice of metaphor, considering the way micro-credit relies on social networks as if setting up an informal system of blackmail in lieu of collateral.

There is certainly something parochial about the Greek myths today, but some of their hooks have enduring relevance. In a globalizing world susceptible to cultural and linguistic convergence theory, the inexorable aggression of commerce transcending cultural distinctions risks a sort of strangling off of imaginary worlds, as the life of the mind adapts to the pace of events and the pressures of a cognitive surplus with a practical dissolution into verbal poverty. What survives this convergence is primordial fear of death, and bitter vulnerability to the whims of forces outside an individual’s control. Here a simple, apolitical brute of a hero like Ajax is as natural a contestant for glory as a sports celebrity.

Whether you call it neoliberal or neoconservative, the new world order makes only modest promises about human rights and human dignity, and allows economic power to trump most other considerations wholesale. Anachronisms like Troy and Rome appeal to the postmodern imagination partly because there is a regression to the mean to be found under this new regime, stingy with transaction costs and quick to cite accomplished facts in political economics over policy promises. Primitivism is a natural choice of metaphor for the cutting edge of austerity measures.


Why Troy then, instead of the all-against-all of Roman politics? The love stories surrounding the Trojan war are epic fantasies of perseverance cut short by the realities of indifferent fate and ruthless rivalry. Apart from Ulysses, hardly anyone of note survives his epilogue to the city’s overthrow.

Eventually the ironies of dissent within the ranks played up in Shakespeare’s satire Troilus and Cressida are confirmed in the conclusion of a war with no victors to speak of, no survivors of nobility, only glamorous deaths on all sides. These ironies fall heaviest on the mundane conventions of patronage politics, with virtually no one pretending to have a just cause for war.

Ugliness and shamelessness triumphs over beauty and glory. Thersites steals the critical acclaim from Helen and her champions for mentionable character development.

John Brady Kresling, in Diplomacy Lessons, describes “the social construction” of realism in international politics: “The most valuable expertise is the ability to generate immediate, plausible bureaucratic responses .. In practice, bureaucratic victory means having advocated whatever course the president ultimately adopts.”

Rather than evaluate available expertise on validity-related criteria, “bureaucrats accumulate instead a roster of presentable, credentialed persons with views likely to reinforce what they perceive to be the prevailing inclination” with caveats. A certain amount of contradiction embedded in the first stab at this is the only safeguard against an upset. Consider these remarks from a UN observer in Bosnia during the ethnic cleansings of the 1990s:

“I saw children placed under the wheels of tanks by fine, upstanding men and then crushed by other men in full possession of their faculties. These people have a coherent strategy. Their aim is to inflict the maximum terror on the civilian population, destroy the maximum property, and exercise the maximum violence on women and children. As soon as the mercenaries [the White Eagles] have accomplished their mission, the established authorities – the police of Karadzic’s militia – arrive to restore order.”

This is typical of tactical atrocities in modern war, as noted in a recent analysis of ongoing violence in Central Africa.

The female of the novice sub-species is naive enough to beggar belief in Leonard Frank’s brisk allegory on charity (in the spirit of the popular doggerel verse “The Development Set”):

“This Dutch girl [on the Development Team] is a Nuisance … She visits villages and reports back to us at dinner that the irrigation schemes are not working the way the government says they are … We make non-committal replies and try and change the subject. … You have to make a choice about the world you live in – the real world or the official world. … It’s always best to take the government figures. That way you save yourself work and don’t tread on toes. We are here, after all, as guests.”

But Kresling puts it this way: “successful – because ambitious, disciplined, and competitive – bureaucrats gradually lose interest in the outside world, no matter how curious they were about it when they started. … Bureaucrats are social animals. By the time [state department] bureaucrats have climbed high enough in the career ladder for their opinions to be heard directly, the successful ones are fully immersed in the study of their superiors and rivals, not the behavior of foreigners.”

What can you use except a “self-organizing bag of junk” analogy, to predict the behavior of consultant-model professionals in the security-intelligence complex? In an environment that discourages them from noticing how much of the official line is being ignored by the people who (politely?) appear to be listening, what exactly do you expect them to do, if asked to play things by ear?

Mine eyes
Were not in fault, for she was beautiful;
Mine ears, that heard her flattery; nor my heart,
That thought her like her seeming. It had been vicious
To have mistrusted her.

The awful familiarity of Troy is a great help here, within the canon for permissible fan references, on the heart of the matter for “a story that just won’t die” as they say, about political gossip.


“Middling dangers are horrid, when the loss of reputation is
the inevitable consequence of ill success.” Earl of Chesterfield

Where does a tone deaf ruling class come from? Profit maximizing imperatives and unconcealed pervasive corrupt practices would make having gut feelings a handicap in those who are actively engaging in the exploitation of the weak.

Yet when policy is dull from lack of scandal, the legislature is all absentee; terror tactics are fully within the reach of every rational actor, motivated or otherwise.

Michael Ignatieff says of the role of revenge-killings in modern ethnic warfare, their claim on the dead is to “honor their memory by taking up their cause where they left off. Revenge keeps faith between generations; the violence it engenders is a ritual form of respect .. Political terror is tenacious .. a cult of the dead, a dire and absolute expression of respect. .. it is the very impossibility of intergenerational vengeance that locks communities into the compulsion to repeat.

“As in nightmare, each side hurls itself at the locked door of the past, seeking in vain to force it open.”

Nightmare follows nightmare in the tragedies mopping up the dramatis personae at Troy, death after death after death.

Could Achilles have prefigured the gospels and passion merely by believing at war that “we” humans are vile things? Not with so few words, except for Shakespeare’s antecedent, the happy point. Homers do make books of the soul.

Talent is, only what it is, mentionable even among those who know less than what it is and repeat everything.


In its way, a world embattled over false dichotomies is vying for balance and sanity. Every paradoxical contradiction in life is a qualitative distinction that announces itself powerfully enough to evoke universal significance in a microcosm, and so describes the grooves of the world.

Literatures travel more freely than ambassadors, and contrary propaganda regimes produce a diversified literature of dissent, until the end of history brings us to an epoch of manufactured dissent and artificially balanced election cycles robbed of foreign policy brinkmanship for cover of war.

Richard Sennett quotes several critics on the loss of negation in modern art in his book Authority, beginning with the stultification of nominal negation as a stock trick of the trades. The writer’s culture, he argues, was once treated as “the point of departure, the anchor, [and] everything is asserted in reaction to it.” But the center could not hold.

“Today … modern art is beginning to lose its powers of negation. For some years now its rejections have been ritual repetitions: rebellion has turned into procedure, criticism into rhetoric, transgression into ceremony. Negation is no longer creative.” – Octavio Paz

This formula for sounding relevant and original produces a tendency toward arbitrariness in the marketplace for dissent, until one must “take virtually for granted the adversary intention, the actually subversive intention, that characterizes modern writing,” in Lionel Trilling’s words. Irving Howe wrote that “modernism consists in a revolt against the prevalent style, an unyielding rage against the official order,” and this intellectual habit can only be relied upon so long as the official order is not quite overthrown.

The balance of yin and yang, in art and in theory, is loosely descriptive of the subsumed categories divided between any two seemingly definitive opposing forces. Precisely because the dividing lines and appropriate definitions of polar opposites are debatable, they enrich our descriptive vocabulary with metaphors that rely on inexactitude for relevance. Metaphors are additive magic; imprecision adds something to the conversation that wasn’t there before, neither description nor a real segue to something else.

Now, epic adventure taken to extreme ends gets a little campy. “I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his pay-roll,” says Edna St. Vincent Millay. Not so Darken Rahl.

Maggot indeed. Modern man can make modesty look bad, fumbling with his idiomatic vocabulary of indifferent, preconceptual, mimetic and for all practical purposes nonverbal utterances that sloppily finesse the tenor of dumb posturing to say Stop or Go, habitually but unwittingly grammatical.

He has learned to coast on accident rates that somehow make it difficult to die anything but a slow, confused and frightening death in this bland and unreflecting incarnation of civilization, the accomplished fact of life that is not, in fact, alive but shows more cognizance than most human behaviors by way of extravagantly well-informed and artificially self-organized design.

The gunboat diplomacy they devote conviction to as human beings (who don’t want to die) is a losing enterprise financially, a largely fictitious genre of public diplomacy. Americans themselves were the last to notice foreign policy (“nukespeak”) is used for election cycles in small contract contests among advertising production design specialists with scant (but scarce) political rhetoric smarts.

“The penguins had the most powerful army in the world. So had the porpoises.” – Anatole France

Who knew, but nobody cares, and parsimony must count for something in the use of an attention span. It’s an attention economy now. Innocency is the only straw man joke that interests the electorate any more, as far as infotainment is prepared “to imply.” Even the genre’s rude ironies are going flat.

Auden is wrong but teaches correctly, to say “Only animals who are below civilization and the angels who are beyond it can be sincere. Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it;” Baudrillard can explain. In projects to unmask the illusion of the real, he says, thought tries to “advance in disguise and establish itself as a lure without concern for its own truth.”

Thought now trusts nothing it possesses. As Bakhtin puts it, “Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated – overpopulated – with the intentions of others.”

“The days of the future stand before us
like a row of small lighted candles –
golden, warm, and lively candles.


I don’t want to look at them, their aspect saddens me,
and it saddens me to remember their first light.
I look ahead to my lighted candles.”

– C. P. Cavafy

The Trojan war story throws us into the primordial soup of material culture, immaterial heritage and psychological idiosyncrasies of place and background in how people experience cognitive dissonance. Lives hang in the balance between propriety and a measured exercise of degrees of disrespect when conversation ensues between mortal enemies.

Respect is as compound and nuanced an attitude as shame; for instance, showing disrespect can be a measure of incongruity between someone’s status and their potential status, a way of reminding them you have higher expectations. Putting it that way can be a reassurance rather than an effort to shame them into trying harder – as if being gentler would be worse, would condescend.

But the disability stigma that attaches itself to madness is a special kind of disrespect, incontrovertible and pervasive rather than situational. Only in the myths is madness cast over a hero and then lifted away, never soon enough to be a true reprieve but lifted just the same. Where lifestyle conventions run to madness, human dignity is no longer considered cause for much of anything at all, and posturing is only ever in the name of being able to afford a personal measure of indifference.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Inflation adjusted to who cares when, the price of care is what it is.