Just Wanna Know

Revolutionary Propaganda Organ

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Hamza El Din, 1929-2006

Just got the sad news that Hamza El Din died last Tuesday from complications after brain surgery at Alta Bates Hospital in his adopted hometown of Berkeley.

The artist and musician was probably the Nubian musician best known outside of Egypt and Sudan (Nubia lies across their borders, around Lake Nasser). His songs told of the Nubians' loss of their homeland--many who lived along the river were uprooted by the Egyptian government when it built Aswan Dam.

I saw Hamza El Din in concert in 2001 in Austin, and also got to hang out with him a bit on that trip. He was a really good person. It's sad to think that he's gone.

His official website and another website.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Hurricanes and Unemployment

I'm always one to point out that bad hurricane seasons in the Gulf of Mexico are usually accompanied by good crops in West Africa. The "Golden Years" of coastal real estate in Florida, the 1980s, are universally remembered as "Hungry Time" in West Africa.

And then we all heard the brutal (but correct) argument that disasters are good for certain sectors--for example, there was a boom in hiring last year in Florida and Louisiana in the construction and cleaning sectors...

So here's something more: Tel Quel recently reported that Morocco's unemployment rate has hit an historic low. At 9.8 percent, the first time below the 10 percent threshold in nearly a decade, the rate compares favorably with Spain, France, and Germany, all of which have double-digit unemployment rates.

Why is Morocco's unemployment rate so low? Well, here's another statistic: The urban rate remains at the norm of 13.5 percent, but the rural rate is down to 3.5 percent. In other words, it's harvesting season in Morocco and there a bumper crops. Most economists would have put "seasonally adjusted" before "13.5 percent" and kept the old number.

No doubt the numbers point as much to low mechanization in the agriculture sector as they do to high yields, but I prefer to look on the sunny side. My people in Northern Ghana also tell me the rains have come early and strong there, so look out Florida!

Monday, May 22, 2006

McDonald’s Around the World

I’ve often wondered why Bill Clinton got such a strange reaction back in 1992. You might remember, during the campaign, Bill was out jogging and stopped by a McDonald’s for breakfast. Yes, at the time I got the contradiction (exercising, then eating greasy food), but I remember that the reactions of the pundits went farther than that--they seemed horrified by the fact that he was eating at McDonald’s.

In 2003 I was driving through New Haven, Conn. I followed the freeway signs and found the Yale Univ. campus easily enough. I had never been on an Ivy League campus, and I wanted to see one. I had to mark the event somehow. I would have done the deed myself, but I didn’t want the negative attention, so I got my dachshund, Leo, to pee on the immaculate green lawn. Then I felt hungry. I started looking around for a McDonald’s. I drove around for around 15 minutes before I figured out that I had to "cross the tracks" before I could find one. It was about a mile from campus, in one of the "popular quarters" of town. And I was the only white person in the restaurant.

In certain geographical regions around the United States, entire brands or businesses (Wal-Mart, for example) are marked according to class and race. Along the coasts and in large cities, for the upper middle classes, McDonald’s is only a place to drive through in the morning when they’re late for work. Anyone who goes in to sit down and eat there could be seen as "slumming it." It’s likely that in Little Rock, like in all the places I’ve ever lived, this isn’t the case. But we can be confident that Clinton knew what he was doing, because his jogging break provided a timely counterpoint to George H.W. Bush’s surprise and delight at the UPC scanners in the supermarket. George unwittingly revealed that, just like any good aristocrat, he hadn’t seen the inside of a grocery store in the past decade, while Bill--good politician that he is--showed himself to be a man of the people. Not only did he know that "they" think we’re slobs for eating fast food, but he also knew that we know that they think it, and we feel looked down on and made to feel little as a result. In one act, he overcame his Yale education and his hobnobbing with Hollywood bigwigs.

By now, this concept is axiomatic for the anthropology of globalization: The Nike swoop in Ankara might look like the “same” symbol as the one in Anchorage, but in this new context it might refer to something completely different.

In 1998 I walked into a McDonald’s in Amman, Jordan, and I was surprised to see a very high concentration of women completely veiled and dressed in black. This shouldn’t have surprised me: Outside of the wealthy countries of the West, McDonald’s is one of the priciest tickets in town. For example, a meal at the McDonald’s in Tangier costs 39 dirhams, around $4.25. Since most Moroccans make around $5,000/year and most Americans $40,000/year, multiply $4.50 by 8 and you get $36 per person, roughly. A McDonald’s lunch for a family of five could cost $180. That’s a steak dinner in the US--a good steak dinner. Since the only people who can afford to eat at McDonald’s are the wealthy, and these families are also the ones in which the mothers can afford not to work outside the home but can be veiled head to foot in public, these are the kinds of people who eat at McDonald’s: the very wealthy, the very well (read: impractically) dressed, and the very conservative.

It’s a long way from the shabby slums of New Haven to the chic boutiques of Amman, but that’s how capitalism works. You’ve been waiting for Karatani, so here he is (Transcritique, pp. 239-240):

A neoclassical economist Karatani’s fighting with "praise[d] the extra surplus value earned by technological innovation as "entrepreneurship'" and considered "the surplus value that merchant capital gains as a fair share for its acumen in discovering the regional differences of value and [for] its adventurous spirit of going to ever more remote areas." This economist, and others who think like him,

"thought that the decline of entrepreneurship would terminate capitalism. This only indicates that capital would end when it can no longer exploit difference. It is only inevitable that the entrepreneurship declines when difference is no longer produced. But capital cannot help discovering and/or creating difference, no matter what is at stake.

"Thus, while merchant capital is engendered spatially by the difference between two value systems (that is invisible to those who exclusively belong to either of the two systems), industrial capital sustains itself by continuing to produce different value systems temporally. The improvement of the productivity of labor enables industrial capital to produce different systems within a system. Therefore, the look of equivalent exchange notwithstanding, it can achieve difference. Then immediately thereafter, the difference is dissolved and a new value system at the new level is required and produced. Capital has to produce this difference incessantly and endlessly.”

OK, so my McDonald’s example doesn’t completely reflect what Karatani is saying here. First, he's noting that merchants make a profit by paying a decent price for goods in China, then taking them to Europe and charging a decent price there, and the only difference is that the decent price in China is different from (lower than) the decent price in Europe--"China" and "Europe" are the "two different systems" above, and the sellers in China don’t ever see the buyers in Europe. In a similar manner, industrial capitalists buy labor from their workers at a decent price, put it incrementally into a commodity, and then sell the commodity back to the workers later. The workers selling their labor power as the commodity is being produced are different from (later than, in terms of temporality) the workers buying the commodity. The value added comes through increased productivity due to technology (capital investment). I think my point still holds, though: Capitalism doesn't just capitalize on difference, it actually demands difference.

It sometimes seems like anthropologists of the globalization persuasion (pop culture, transnational studies, et al.) think they invented the idea that commodities are consumed differently in global capitalist consumption. But it appears that this fact is engineered into capitalism itself.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Tolkein in Tangier

The Lord of the Rings trilogy played on two Arab-language satellite channels in March: The Fellowship of the Ring one week, The Two Towers the following week, and The Return of the King the final week.

I had a great time watching because the films were subtitled in formal Arabic, and since I already knew most of the dialogue, I was free to pick up the Arab glosses quickly and compare them to the dialogue. Most of these observations were illuminating: dwarf was glossed qazam, the same word for "midget" or "little person," while elf was glossed jinn, which has a meaning closer to "spirit" or even in some contexts "demon."

I thought I had identified one indisputable mistranslation, however. In Theoden’s final scene in The Return of the King, he calls Eowyn "Niece." She responds by calling him "Uncle." These words were glossed into Arabic as bint akhi and 'ami. Now, the problem here is that bint akhi doesn’t mean merely Niece but more accurately "daughter of my brother." In the same way, 'ami means "my paternal uncle." The Arabic language distinguishes between maternal and paternal relations.

I knew from Tolkein's books that Theoden called Eowyn not "Niece" but "Sister-Daughter." In other words, we can understand that among the people of Rohan (or at least in Rohan's royal family), not only did they distinguish between maternal and paternal relations (like most Arabs), but there was also some sort of modified matrilineal system at work, such that the position of Sister-Daughter has a modicum of formal status (unlike in most Arab societies). Indeed, Eowyn and her brother Eomer had official status in the court. Further, when Theoden died heirless, Eomer took the throne, but this transition of the throne from a brother's lineage to a sister's lineage already had precedent, I believe, in Rohan's royal lineage. (Perhaps this comes from the appendices, and I may be wrong, but I seem to remember that Helm Hammer-Hand did not inherit the throne from his father but from his mother's brother.)

In any case, in Arabic, Theoden should really have called Eowyn bint ukhti ("daughter of my sister"), and she should have called him khali ("my maternal uncle").

So I immediately noted a poor translation, obviously done by people who hadn’t read the book, and moved on. But not so fast... Now I've been thinking:

First, the point of translation is not be precisely correct, but rather to communicate concepts to audiences. A literal translation can be confusing and even useless (unused), so most translators choose to produce a "dynamic equivalent" that seeks to communicate meaning.

Second, Arab viewers who were also readers of the text (I’m assuming that Tolkein has been translated into Arabic?) would already know the difference. Even if Tolkein hasn’t been translated, the point still holds for Tolkein-readers versus non-Tolkein-readers, speaking any language. In other words, viewers who were unfamiliar with Tolkein's textual world wouldn't know about Rohan's modified matrilineal system.

(Digression No. 1: Non-English-speaking Arabs who had read Tolkein in French, Spanish, or some other language would be dependent on the subtitles, that is on the movie’s dialogue, but only as much as any of us who read the book and then watched the movie.)

(Digression No. 2: In contrast to Arabs, many English-speaking viewers--among them Americans, Australians, etc.--don’t figure kinship this way, so "sister-daughter" might hold no semantic content for them beyond a poetic way of saying "niece." In this sense, their cultural baggage prevents a fuller understanding of the text. I’ve always felt something was wrong with Laura Bohannon’s Shakespeare in the Bush, where my title comes from. In the 1960s, Bohannon translated a very rough and sketchy plot of Hamlet for some back-woods Nigerians. Upon hearing the story, her listeners rejected the logic behind almost all the plot points and decided the story was poorly written. Now, I myself don’t think Hamlet makes for good fiction or good drama: It’s too far-fetched for good fiction (Hamlet’s actions don’t make a lick of sense), and it’s too static and ponderous for good drama. And I’m not alone in thinking this. But Bohannon concluded from her experiences that some things aren’t translatable. I’m not so ready to arrive at this conclusion, and I am moreover unconvinced of the competence of Bohannon’s English-Tiv translation. Here we can see, though, that understanding is always incomplete, there is always something missing.)

Finally, my own gloss to T.E. Lawrence in the introduction to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom: Explaining why he followed no rules at all in transliterating Arabic words, Lawrence argued that those who know Arabic don't need to told how to pronounce the words, and those who don't know Arabic don't need to care how they pronounce them. In much the same way, those who know Tolkein's text don't need to be reminded of Rohan's descent patterns, while those who don't know Tolkein's text can be unaware that a change has been made without it distracting from their appreciation of the story.

In fact, the story might actually be clearer to Arabic-speaking audiences (who are also unfamiliar with Tolkein) this way. Presenting Eowyn as Theoden's bint ukhti (sister's daughter) might confuse audiences: "Why is he so close to someone from whom he should by all right be much more distant?" There’s not enough time in the film to go into Rohan's storied past and the patterns of its culture. In contrast, presenting her as Theoden's bint akhi (brother’s daughter) draws out and explains the direct and close ties between them much more immediately, even though it's exactly wrong. While technically the exact opposite of a correct literal translation, "brother's-daughter" might be the more correct "loose" translation--the most appropriate dynamic equivalent.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Commodity Fetishism Like You’ve Never Seen It Before

OK, one more for all you theory heads out there. Quick, what’s the point of commodity fetishism? Well, if you’re like me, you were assigned that first section from Capital where Marx mentions it:

"At first glance, a commodity
seems to be something obvious
and trivial. But its analysis
brings out that it is quite
complicated, abounding in
metaphysical hairsplitting and
theological niceties. So far as
it is a use-value, there is
nothing mysterious about the
commodity, whether we consider
it from the point of view that,
by its properties, it satisfies
human needs, or that it first
obtains these properties as the
product of human labor.

"The activity by which man changes the
forms of the materials of nature in a manner
useful to him is entirely accessible to
the senses. The form of the wood, for instance,
is altered when a table is made out of
it. Nevertheless the table is still a piece
of wood, an ordinary thing which can be seen
and touched.

"But, as soon as the table steps forth as a
commodity, it changes into something that
has extrasensory features attached to its
sensuous existence. It not only stands with its
feet on the ground, but in relation to all other
commodities it turns itself on its head, and
evolves out if its wooden brain grotesque
ideas, far spleenier than if it suddenly were
to begin dancing."

And so on. And if you’re a crude thinker like me, you might have come up with an understanding from this text like this, from Wikipedia's entry on "Commodity Fetishism":

"In Marxist theory, commodity fetishism is an
inauthentic state of social relations, said to
arise in complex capitalist market systems, where
social relationships are confused with their
medium, the commodity. The term is introduced in
the opening chapter of Karl Marx's main work of
political economy, Capital, of 1867.

"Marx's use of the term fetish can be interpreted
as an ironic comment on the 'rational,' 'scientific'
mindset of industrial capitalist societies. In
Marx's day, the word was primarily used in the
study of primitive religions; Marx's 'fetishism of
commodities' might be seen as identifying just such
primitive belief systems at the heart of modern

The article goes on to talk about social relations, objects, and labor. This argument about social relations and labor is clear and understandable, but not really illuminating. Which is to say, OK, I get it, but what can I do with it? To me, on the whole, looking at commodities like this just seem to make Marx look pompous and mean in my mind, to confirm that he argued for "false consciousness," which I don’t like at all, being an anthropologist and not liking to belittle people’s beliefs or say they're false. I don't want to be too critical, but none of my teachers ever helped me understand the concept any better.

Then I got to Karatani's Transcritique. First, Karatani argues that Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism (p. 199) isn’t nearly as interesting or original as his theory of money fetishism (which has to with the self-reproductive drive of capital--p. 160. Whereas the fetishism of commodity concerns only money--a relatively minor part of capitalism--the fetishism of money concerns capital itself, so it’s much more central to capitalism’s logic). In any case, though, Karatani’s take on Marx’s commodity fetishism has nothing directly to do with labor or even with social relations per se, but it rather directly involves money. There are six major points to be made:

1. First, Marx establishes that capitalism more useful for the way it organizes life, makes us see ourselves, than it is for organizing economies and money. Capitalism is "good to think." Thus capitalism becomes a "fictitious institution"--a small peasant who grows crops sees himself as a capitalist: he becomes "his own employer (capitalist), employing himself as a worker, and his own landowner, using himself as his own farmer. He pays himself wages as a worker, lays claim to profit as a capitalist, and pays himself rent as a landowner" (Marx, Capital). We can learn how capitalism helps us see the world, the formal categories it presents to us, in addition to also learning how it "really works" as infrastructure.

(To do this, to look at objects as they are produced and circulate, we need to look at what sorts of positions they occupy in relation to other things. This is formal analysis, in between rational and empirical perspectives. Indeed, Karatani proposes several times that capitalism is probably not really infrastructural. For sure, he’s much more interested in capitalism as superstructure—the logic of capitalism.)

2. So, on with the logic of the commodity. Marx uses the analogy of "20 yards of linen = 1 coat." According to Karatani, the equation indicates that

"Twenty yards of linen cannot express its value by itself; its value can be represented in its natural form only after being posited in the equivalency with one coat. On the other hand, one coat is in the position that it can always be exchanged with the former. ... [T]he equivalent form ... makes the coat seem as if it had exchange-value (direct exchangeability) in itself. 'The equivalent form of a commodity, accordingly, is the form in which it is directly exchangeable with other commodities.' The enigma of money is lurking behind the equivalent form. Marx called it 'fetishism of the commodity.'"

3. So there are two forms out there, two positions that can be held: The relative form of value and the equivalent form of value. In "20 yards of line = 1 coat," the relative form of value is held here by the linen, and the equivalent form is held by the coat.

Whatever items fill these slots are interchangeable. You could just as easily say "one coat = 20 yards of linen." To do so, however, would be to reverse their roles completely. It would be like switching the independent and dependent variables in a lab experiment. In and of themselves, it doesn’t matter which commodity is in which slot. You can switch them around. However, as in the lab experiment, if you switch them you’re going to get a completely different result. Which variable is dependent and which is independent depends on what you’re looking for. In other words, the place of the variable depends on the role the variable plays within the experiment. With regard to the commodity, which one is the relative form and which is the equivalent form depends on the role it plays in the transaction. As long as "20 yards of linen = one coat," the 20 yards of linen has to be in relative form and the coat has to be in the equivalent form. This is absolutely key. Marx:

"Of course, the expression 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, or 20 yards of linen is worth one coat, also includes its converse: 1 coat = 20 yards of linen, or 1 coat is worth 20 yards of linen. But in this case I must reverse the equation, in order to express the value of the coat relatively; and, if I do that, the linen becomes the equivalent instead of the coat. The same commodity cannot, therefore, simultaneously appear in both forms in the same expression of value. These forms rather exclude each other as polar opposites.

"Whether a commodity is in the relative form or [in] its opposite, the equivalent form, [depends entirely] on its actual position in the expression of value. That is, [commodity’s form] depends on whether it is the commodity whose value is being expressed, or the commodity in which value is expressed."

4. Read that last line again. You might see that the first commodity, the one "whose value is being expressed," is a commodity as we ordinarily understand it. It’s the corn, the shoes, the SUV. The second commodity, the one "in which value is expressed," though, is only and always money.

As Karatani puts it, "Thus it is strictly up to its position whether a thing is a commodity or money. A thing can be money only because it is posited in the equivalent form. And the thing can also be a commodity when posited in the relative form of value." Anything can act as money in a transaction, but once it’s money, it assumes certain qualities that the other things (the things it’s buying) can never assume unless they, too, become money. But in that specific transaction, they cannot ever be money, since the money slot is already filled.

5. Finally, the payoff. Where’s the mystery? Why is it a fetish? Marx:

"What appears to happen is not that a particular commodity becomes money because all other commodities express their values in it, but, on the contrary, that all other commodities universally express their values in a particular commodity because it is money. The movement through which this process has been mediated vanishes in its own result, leaving no trace behind. Without any initiative on their part, the commodities find their own value-configuration ready to hand, in the form of a physical commodity existing outside but also alongside them. This physical object, gold or silver in its crude state, becomes, immediately on its emergence from the bowels of the earth, the direct incarnation of all human labor. Hence the magic of money."

Let’s go over this again: money doesn’t exist because things express themselves as being "worth" a certain number of dollars. Rather, it’s the opposite: Things express themselves as worth a certain number of dollars because dollars are money. Dollars are things that are occupying the "money" slot. So it’s not false consciousness but rather simple deceit, the lie that money tells about itself. Money presents itself as being a universal equivalent for all values, but actually it’s only an equivalent because it occupies an equivalent slot across from the rest of the things.

Well, that’s confusing! Yahya, you said you were going to simplify things!

OK, let’s try an example. Let’s look at currency exchange. When I travel to Morocco, and I go to the bank to change money, there are always two rates. For example, I go down to the bank to change dollars into dirhams. I know from the Internet ("Internet no lie!") that the exchange rate is 9.2 dirhams to the dollar. This is simple equivalence. When I’m in the bank, though, the actual rate I get depends on whether I’m "selling" dollars or "buying" them. That’s what the bank calls it on its board: the "Selling" rate and the "Buying" rate. Right now, the banks are advertising that they are "buying" dollars for around 9 dirhams and "selling" dollars for around 9.4 dirhams.

Instead of the standard exchange rate of 9.2 Dh/$, I can sell my dollars to the bank (which buys my dollars) only at a rate of only 9 dirhams even, because it’s a buyer’s market. The bank is the buyer, so it gets to set a low price for me. But if I want to switch roles and become a buyer of dollars, the same bank will sell me dollars at a rate of 9.4 dirhams per dollar. It’s always a buyer’s market, right? And I’m now the buyer, right? So why am I getting taken in the second transaction too?

Because the bank's statement that it is "buying" and "selling" dollars is a big, fat lie: The bank is always "buying." The bank always has the money, and I always need it. When I walk into that bank, I’m always a seller. I have something that might be useful to the bank (currency notes), but it’s not money, it’s a commodity that the bank can buy if it wants to, or refuse to buy if it doesn’t want to, if the price isn’t right. I need to sell my "worthless" currency--some pieces of ink-covered cloth that I can’t use because I can’t buy things with them--to the bank, and I need to bank to buy them. I need to exchange this worthless currency for useful currency, so that I can become a buyer in the futre. I will only become a buyer after I walk outside and start spending what has now been transformed into money.

Why is this so? As Marx said, "These forms ... exclude each other as polar opposites." Dollars or dirhams, they are all commodities that must remain in their separate slots at the same time of the transaction. When one of the currencies switches positions, the other has to switch too. That’s why all foreign currency markets and rates can only pose one currency to a second currency--there are always only two positions, never three.

Back to my example. In the first case, I’ve just arrived in the foreign country and I have dollars that I can’t spend here. These dollars are worthless here, because I can’t spend them. I need to change my dollars into dirhams. I’m selling dollars for dirhams, and the bank is buying my dollars with its dirhams. Dirhams are the money, the equivalent form, and dollars are the commodity, the relative form: in Marx’s formulation, $ = Dh, or dollars are worth (a certain number of) dirhams. Dirhams are the real money, and the dollars are things that are being bought, the commodity.

In the second case, however, I’m getting ready to go back to the US, where my dirhams will be worthless. I have dirhams but need dollars, so I go back to the bank. Now, I have dirhams that I want to sell to the bank. These dirhams have ceased to be money and are a commodity, simply things to sell. Dh = $, or dirhams are worth (a certain number of) dollars. Whereas formerly dirhams were the money I was trying to get the bank to give me for my (commodity) dollars, dirhams are now the commodity that I want to give to the bank, so I can get the bank to pay for them in (money) dollars.

In currency exchange, the bank is always buying. The bank will always be the place where the money is. And this is the real fetishism of the commodity—it stands in relation to money when it’s exchanged for money, and its value is determined by the conditions of exchange.

(BTW, for those Karatani Kantian Marxists out there, this is also an illustration of the parallax view, the idea that where we are conditions how we see things, such that we are always faced with irreconcilable paradoxes: Money is not a special kind of commodity. It’s always only just a commodity. At the same time, money can never be a commodity. It is always something different. This is a paradox.)

6. One last point: This relationship is asymmetrical: The two positions are not equal, but are inherently unequal--one is always more powerful than the other. I wrote previously about education and said that the student has power over the teacher. That’s because the student is the buyer and the teacher is the seller. The student occupies the equivalent form and the teacher the relative form--the student has money to pay for education, and the teacher needs that money, needs to sell her labor power for money that she will then spend in buying what she needs. She wants to convert her labor into money through exchange, and the seller is always subordinate to the buyer. Ponder that!

So when is capital subordinate to the worker? When the worker becomes the buyer of the commodity she just produced, and the capitalist becomes the seller—i.e., capital becomes subordinate to the worker at the time of consumption.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Selling Values and Education

1. Immigrants are like buyers: When they come to a country, they look to see if they like the values. If they don’t like them, they don’t “buy” them. They make up new ones or keep their old ones. The host country’s values are thus worthless.

2. Schools are like markets: The students are buying education from teachers, who sell them their wisdom. If the students aren’t satisfied, they reject that wisdom. The wisdom is thus worthless.

(All this above and all that follows is a very crude way of putting it, but it might be correct in a certain way.)

First we can make the more relevant point, in light of recent debates. Immigrants come to America and negotiate to see what America has to offer. If they see nothing of value--that is, if they don’t buy into America’s values (or are excluded from buying them, if the price is prohibitive)--then America’s values are, quite literally and from a capitalist perspective, worthless. This is because they have not been sold--there has been no exchange, no transfer. We know that value does not reside in the commodity itself but in whatever is paid for the commodity when it is sold. In light of this necessity, it might be possible to see immigration--particularly illegal immigration--as vital to any nation’s continued self-image, since it affirms the value of its values (whatever those might be).

If there’s no one knocking down the door to get in, and then finding it profitable to stay and even assimilate the country’s values—in other words, if there’s no demand, no market--then all that Americans believe in is worthless (valueless, without exchange value) because nobody’s buying it.

(How strangely fitting that, even as the US attempts to impose its values in Iraq--some sort of exchange of values in a coerced market--it rejects the potential exchange that could come about from Mexicans and Central Americans who want to evaluate first-hand the value of American values--again, it produces a coerced market. Another contradiction of free trade capitalism?)

Now, the one that’s going to get me into trouble: education. I know this sounds awfully neoliberal, but it may just be how things exist under capitalism. Schools have become markets for knowledge (or maybe they always were). Students pay tuition bills, and then the instructor presents readings and tests the student’s ability to retain the concepts and information contained in those readings.

A first (minor) point is easy and commonplace: If the students don’t get something they can and do use, then their education is worthless. This is obvious, but it still imparts use value to the commodity of education. The problem here is that payment for the education comes before the education, sometimes long, long before the education. Payment is up front, cash on the barrel, at the beginning of a given semester (or year, in the case of some liberal arts colleges). The money is then “lost” to the buyer if the education doesn’t (nearly) equal what was already paid. Nevertheless, the buyer (student) always has the opportunity not to buy--in the end, all markets are buyers’ markets, because if the buyer doesn’t pay real money, then what is being sold has no value at all.

So the neoliberal argument can have practical use in a classroom setting: “Since you’ve already paid your money, you might as well cooperate in class so you get your money’s worth.” But the point here is that conflict should be expected between student and teacher, because the positions are asymmetrical (as the buyer, the student has more power than the teacher) and also because communication is taking place between individuals who are differently socialized. See below, but in education as in life, communication across communal boundaries must always precede socialization, which in turn precedes community. We might think of these communities as languages. In other words, students and teachers do not understand each other because they’re speaking different languages. The purpose of the engagement is to learn one another’s language (or even develop a new language), and—some might argue—for the student to learn the teacher’s language. But as the buyer, the student has power over the teacher that the teacher doesn’t have over the student. Thus there is greater potential for the new language to be influenced by the student than by the teacher. This is a wonderful thing, and perhaps the only reason to keep teaching.

Sometimes the usefulness of education comes long after the course is over. For example, a professor told me in 2002 that my analysis in my semester project had been “Kantian”--since it came from a Marxist, I took the comment as a slight and dismissed it. Then in 2005 I discovered (very dimly) Kant in Kojin Karatani’s Transcritique: On Kant and Marx (also very dimly understood, but where all this is coming from). I recognized ways of thinking in the book that I also like, and I remembered what the professor had said. Suddenly, what I had rejected as being not worth the money--the professor’s statement--achieved value in my mind. (Of course other parts of the class had already been of proven use value). But my understanding of the course’s use value is irrelevant to the point Karatani makes here. The value of the education was already realized when it was paid for—when, in January 2002, I paid my tuition bill.

(I paid nothing--the bill was zero. What does that mean? A detour follows: Who paid the bulk of Yahya’s Spring 2002 tuition bill? First, I had a fellowship paid for by the federal government, which recognized that training scholars of the Middle East is a valuable thing for the government to do. But the tuition paid by the government was only $1,500. Ordinarily, out-of-state tuition was $3,500/semester. So second, the university ate the cost of the additional $2,000 of “out-of-state” tuition that it was due. Why? Because the university recognized that it is valuable for the university to have federal sponsorship for its graduate students. Third, the other students at my university subsidized part of the education, since they recognized that it is valuable for them to attend a university that trains graduate students in the traditional [non-money-making] fields--their education holds higher prestige, because graduate students attract “high-powered” faculty members, who raise the prestige of the institution. It’s a well-known fact that undergraduates and graduate students in business, law, and medicine at these Research I institutions subsidize, through either higher tuition [law students, etc.] or lower return on their time investment [300 undergraduates in a survey class, etc.], graduate education in the humanities, fine arts, and liberal arts. If these fields have any value at all, it is here. Finally, it costs much more than even $3,500/semester to educate someone like me, probably more in the range of $20,000 or more. So the majority of the cost of education was transferred to the taxpayers of Texas? No. Even the taxpayers don’t really pay very much. Texas is a rentier state, and UT is no exception--both derive much of their income from rents from the oil and gas that happen to reside [or to once have resided] under the state’s soil, as well as from taxes on the industries that process and sell these natural resources, and their employees [for the government], and from the interest and dividends that continue to accrue from invested principal [for the university]. When 3.2 million acres of land for the university were accumulated between 1839 and 1882, no petroleum was known to exist there, so the taxpayers are out only what they would have got for this “worthless” West Texas grazing land from a private buyer—not much at all. [Had the taxpayers sold it to a private individual, that buyer, instead of the university, would have benefited from the petroleum, but not the state.] As a result, the taxpayers really don’t cover much of the cost of maintaining state-sponsored higher education, and this is more and more the case. So who paid? I dunno. The only person I can think of is the potential, future (to 1882), private investor who would have become a millionaire after purchasing several thousand acres of cheap West Texas land on which oil would be discovered. That person paid dearly, but that person doesn’t exist. So nobody paid the bill, there was no exchange, and my education is worthless? No, it has value. I have already traded my educational status for several teaching and tutoring jobs, as well as other grants, all of which paid real money. That’s the point of circulation—the buyer turns into the seller and vice versa. But perhaps there was some surplus value along the way...)

Anyway, here’s the gem that started all this drivel (from Karatani, pp. 71-72):

“As human beings, we are all born children and learn language from our parents (or their equivalents). As a result, we come to share common rules. Likewise, in our daily communication with others, we must always have incommensurable domains, though we do not always remember this surprising fact. Thus communication must, in reality, become mutual teaching. If there is a system of common rules, it is achieved only after the event of the teaching/learning relationship. In the beginning, this mutual relationship is asymmetrical. And this is the most fundamental aspect of communication. Again, this is not an anomaly—it is our daily state of affairs. Rather the anomalies are commonly considered to be the ‘normal’ cases, namely, in the dialogue that takes for granted a common set of rules, as one big merry party or symposium....

“In this context, “teaching” has nothing to do with authoritarian hierarchy, because the teaching (or psychoanalytic) position is the lesser one, subordinate to the others’ (or analysand’s) demand for understanding. In the context of the political economy, teaching is ‘selling’ one’s knowledge to the other. Marx made this fundamental point very clear in his theory of exchange: The individual commodity never contains the substantial value that classical economists claimed was immanent in it. It cannot have a value (or even use value) if it is not sold (exchanged). And, if not sold, it is a thing to be simply discarded. The ‘selling’ position is subordinated to the ‘choice’ of the buyer (the possessor of money), and their mutual relationship is the epitome of asymmetricity.”

(Read more about Karatani in reviews by Shaviro [Part I and Part II] and Zizek [PDF].)

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

"Nine Fingers"? Hookergate? Old Boys Smokin Cigars and Doin Dirty Deals?

Wait a minute, the press should be having more of a field day here.

OK, we can't show any pictures of Brant Bassett--appropriately enought, there aren't any pictures online of the shadowy spook they called "Nine Fingers" at the cigar-n-poker nights at the Watergate Hotel. There aren't even any pictures online of Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, former No. 3 at the CIA, who just resigned under indictment for corruption. But we do have a pic of Porter Goss (a Yale Man like W), who also just got the boot.

Allegedly, Dusty and Nine Fingers used to meet with Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham at the Watergate and the Westin Grand in DC to play poker, smoke cigars, and work out crooked deals. (Abramoff is the super-lobbyist to the Republicans who is going to out some significant portion of Congress one of these days. Cunningham was a California Rep. who already resigned in disgrace for taking ludicrous bribes.)

In addition to CIA men Bassett and Foggo, we can also mention here the federal defense contractor Brent Wilkes. He's an unindicted co-conspirator for his relationship with Duke Cunningham, who allegedly steered contracts Wilkes' way. Wilkes and Foggo played football together in high school and went to college together.

Wilkes set up these soirees for the men. (One may ask, Why was the CIA involved? Hey, why not!) He also played a bit of a pimp, apparently, getting hookers for Cunningham.

Again, why aren't the prurient media getting on this sleaze like flies on ... honey?

Monday, May 08, 2006

Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose...

Fifty years later, discriminatory systems for international immigration are returning. And, of all places, to Holland, that former bastion of liberal thought and respect for human rights. A new law that has just gone into effect requires non-Dutch people seeking to reunite with their Dutch family members to pass a citizenship test that really defies reason. In the latest issue of Le Journal Hebdomadaire, a story outlines how this test plays out for Moroccans.

You might think, this is similar to the US test. There’s nothing wrong here. But passing the test enables one only to get a visa, not to become a citizen. That’s only one of at least three contradictions about the law.

First, the test is required only for immigrants from certain countries. European Union citizens, Americans, Swiss, Australians, and Japanese are mentioned as being excluded, although we don’t know who is included, apart from Moroccans. How was this list of excluded countries compiled? Exclude all very rich or very white countries, and include all poor, brown, and/or Muslim countries? While we’re doing the quota hokey-pokey, why not ban Blacks and Jews while we’re at it? The law is discriminatory.

Second, since when did an applicant’s knowledge of the values of his or her family member’s host country become a factor in deciding whether or not the applicant can be reunited with his or her family? Because my wife married an iconoclast, a man of limited intelligence, or an activist against Dutch nationalism, our children have to be separated from their father? The law is cruel, and not a very far distance from potential abuse as a political weapon.

Finally, it’s just plain wacky. One component of the exam tests Dutch language skills at a time when the Dutch themselves (and, indeed, all the Benelux and Scandinavian countries) are valuing multilingualism—finding, for example, English or German to be far more useful in the new Europe than Flemish or Danish alone. This development has come as Europe as a whole seems to be evolving three linguas franca (English—the language of business and politics—in addition to French and German), at least one of which all Europeans find it expedient to speak, along with their own little “mother tongues,” the extent of whose use is limited to one or two tiny European nooks and crannies, like Holland. It’s a well-known fact that nearly every Dutch adult who went through high school within the past 30 years knows at least a little English. So why cultivate all these Dutch-language nationalists among the immigrants!?

Here’s a list of the questions that were included in the article, with my answers below. You try it too!

1. What’s the name of the crown prince of Holland?
2. Can women choose their partners in Holland?
3. Which country has more inhabitants, Holland or Morocco?
4. Is homosexuality legal in Holland?
5. How long was the war between Holland and Spain in the 17th century?
6. Is violence against women punishable by law in Holland?
7. Which sector employs more workers in Holland, security or construction?

My answers...
1. No idea at all. The queen is Beatrix!
2. Yes
3. Morocco is twice the size of Holland, 32 million to 16 million
4. Better believe it
5. Oh man! Did the Thirty Years War really last 30 years, or is this one of those trick questions?
6. Yes
7. I would assume the labor-intensive construction sector, but with my luck I’d probably answer it during a crime wave and a real estate glut, and I’d get it wrong. How can this be considered a serious question? “I was denied a Dutch visa because I relied on obsolete data concerning the price of eggs in Guatemala...”?!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Go Break a Heart

Nice interview with Kris Kristofferson here.


"Q: Most folks know that you made your first musical mark out of Nashville. The Texas songwriters, like, say, Townes Van Zandt, or Guy Clark, were they more of an inspiration or were they peers?

"A: Well, they were both. But I didn't hang out with them, didn't know them. I knew them, really, through Mickey Newbury, who did know them personally. And I know Mickey always said Townes was the best songwriter there was. And since that included me and Mickey, I figured he must know what he was talking about.

"And Guy Clark, on this latest album, something he said to me once when we were going on the stage in London, gave me the tag line from (the song) 'The Final Attraction.' Cause he said, 'Go break a heart.' And I stuck it on that song.

"Q: That's something to say to somebody right when they're going on stage, 'Go break a heart.'

"A: 'Go break a heart.' Well, it sounds like Guy Clark, doesn't it?"