Quotable (#186)

Ed Yong’s microbe book, I Contain Multitudes, is stunningly good. Among hundreds of quotable passages, this (p.84) seems of exceptionally general relevance:

We like our black-and-white narratives, with clear heroes and villains. In the last few years, I’ve seen the viewpoint that “all bacteria must be killed” slowly give ground to “bacteria are our friends and want to help us”, even though the latter is just as wrong as the former. We cannot simply assume that a particular microbe is “good” just because it lives inside us. Even scientists forget this. The very term symbiosis has been twisted so that its original neutral meaning — “living together” — has been infused with positive spin, and almost flaky connotations of cooperation and harmony. But evolution doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t necessarily favor cooperation, even if that’s in everyone’s interests. And it saddles even the most harmonious relationships with conflict.

Quotable (#86)

Tim Wu vividly summarizes (p.28) Schumpeter’s shocking idea:

To understand Schumpeter we need to reckon with his very peculiar idea of “competition.” He had no patience for what he deemed Adam Smith’s fantasy of price warfare, growth through undercutting your competitor and improving the market’s overall efficiency thereby. “In capitalist reality as distinguished from its textbook picture, it is not that kind of competition which counts,” argued Schumpeter, but rather, “the competition from the new commodity, the new technology, the new source of supply, the new type of organization.” It is a vision to out-Darwin Darwin: “competition which commands a decisive cost or quality advantage and which strikes not at the margins of the profits and the outputs of the existing firms but at their foundations and their very lives.” Schumpeter termed this process “creative destruction.” As he put it, “Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in.”

Ccru: Writings 1997-2003

ccrucover00

Available here.

At over 80,000 words, this is by far the chunkiest Time Spiral Press product yet. It contains the entire archive of Ccru completed writings, to the best of our understanding.

Preponderantly, these texts are working the Numogram, which is to say: decrypting the intrinsic content of decimal numeracy as such. Arcane fictional framing repels belief, and thus restricts the message to uncontroversial formal structures of modulus-10 arithmetic.

Editorial intervention has been minimized, to preserve documentary integrity (of material without clear authorial origin, which is now over a decade old).

Freedom in Question

The April edition of The New York Review of Books carries a magnificent article by Mark Lilla on Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission. Calmly disdaining the dominant moral-political panic reactions, he asks what the book is really about, and finds something far more interesting than Islamophobic spleen. Its fundamental suggestion is not that the great Western project of emancipation is endangered, and in need of one more effort in its defense, but that liberation teleology is exhausted — and unmistakably unwanted. Submission is the final act of volition, through which the West — and first of all France — frees itself from the dream of freedom. Whether or not one agrees with Houellebecq — and he is not a writer to court cheap consent — it is difficult to disagree with Lilla.

Since Soumission is fiction, its historical vision is embedded, and ironized. Through the figure of Robert Rediger, university president and opportunistic Islamic apologist, we are exposed to a perception of the cultural crossroads that is supple, wide-angled, and fatalistic:

The Roman Empire lasted centuries, the Christian one a millennium and a half. In the distant future, historians will see that European modernity was just an insignificant, two-century-long deviation from the eternal ebb and flow of religiously grounded civilizations.

It is nothing on this scale of grandeur that leads Houellebecq’s hero François to convert, but rather the personal revelation — received through pornography more than religious scripture — that: “Freedom is just another word for wretchedness.”

And so François converts, in a short, modest ceremony at the Grande Mosquée de Paris. He does so without joy or sadness. He feels relief, just as he imagines his beloved Huysmans did when he converted to Catholicism. Things would change. … why not? His life is exhausted, and so is Europe’s. It’s time for a new one — any one.

Quotable (#68)

John Sundman’s Acts of the Apostles reviewed at Salon (2001):

… it’s hard to argue with the central thesis of “Acts of the Apostles,” which is that advances in computer technology and biotechnology are proceeding so quickly that we are speedily approaching the day when scientists and programmers are able to design machines that can alter our genetic structure and reshape our brains. And what is the engine of this change? Why, capitalism, of course. In particular, Silicon Valley-style capitalism — the relentless search for products that can generate vast revenue through innovations in high technology.

In Sundman’s view, this is a progress that can’t be stopped. Ethicists can’t stop it, governments can’t stop it, and even the band of heroes in “Acts of the Apostles” is essentially powerless. They can deflect it, but not derail it. His horror at the future echoes Sun co-founder Bill Joy’s warning about technological progress. But whereas Joy argues that the dangers of technological progress call out for restraint and/or government intervention, Sundman, at least as far as his novel is concerned, seems convinced that little can be done to stop it. The capitalist imperative is too strong. Even if you stop one megalomaniac software czar, a hundred more will jump to take his or her place.