28 February 2009

The Po-Mo Prometheus

Sorry if my last post ended on a glum note. After writing it, I wondered where that bit of pessimism came from in me.

I had to think, questioning some of my basic assumptions about my expectations for Obama's presidency. If you look back over the last year of posts here on WoW, you'll find a number of feuilletons railing against what I believe to have been war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Bush administration. Other, more connected, more important people (including some in Congress) have taken up the mantle. Let's hope they keep at it.

I needed a frame of reference because that sort of came out of nowhere. Now, I'm not necessarily a Jungian or a Joseph Campbellite depth psychologist, but I do believe mythology often supplies us with narratives to help us understand our experience—as, of course, does literature. So, as I've done in the past, I looked to mythology for a template. My likening of McCain/Palin to the Narcissus/Echo myth is Exhibit A. So, thinking in terms of myths, I suppose I wanted Obama to be like Hercules and clean out the Augean stables of the muck and shit left behind by the prior administration.

Lakoff's piece, The Obama Code, threw me off my frame. What Lakoff seems to be saying—and, again, forgive me for using a mythological narrative as an interpretive tool—is that Obama is more like Prometheus; he is trying to bring the fire of moral conscience to society. Let me explain:

Briefly, the familiar story of Prometheus: he was one of the Titans who sided with Zeus against his own kind. In some versions of the story, he was the creator of the human race. He tricked Zeus into accepting animal sacrifices of fat and bones, allowing humanity to eat the meat. He stole fire from the immortals and brought it to the human race. Zeus punished him for this, first by sending Pandora with her box as the first woman, then by having him chained to the Caucasus Mountains where an eagle or vulture came every day and feasted on his liver (which, of course, regenerated every night).

The symbolic act that stands out, of course, is the bringing of fire. In some versions of the story, Prometheus stole it from the sun; in others, from the Olympian gods themselves who had been hiding it from humanity. In Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound, he also is claimed to have rescued humanity from destruction and taught them the arts of civilization. For this act of defiance against the gods and for his choosing to side with humanity against the gods, Zeus exiled him, imprisoned him, and subjected him to eternal torture.

My pessimism, I think, stemmed from this myth. The learning is that consciousness-raising is invariably a painful psychological upheaval. That's at the individual level. But, in the social arena there's a parallel: The elite, the status quo, the powers-that-be (=the gods) cannot abide the lower classes (=mere mortals) having the same privileges (=fire) they enjoy. When one of their own—preferably a newbie—effects such a betrayal by enlightening those they consider their lessers, they will surely try to bring him down.

This is what Obama, if I read Lakoff aright, has done.

The mantra of the religionist reformer has always been that you have to change the inner person before you can effect behavioral and, indeed, societal change. That is the aim of 'conversion'. But we live in a secular society and politicians are not priests.

From 20th Century analytic philosophy, we glean that understanding the way the mind works can only truly come about through understanding the way language works: again, the model of consciousness. Changing the rhetoric of politics would represent, then, on this model, an attempt to reform politics, in specific, and society, in general.

What Obama is attempting to do, according to Lakoff's Obama Code, is inculcate a moral conscience in the consciousness of the nation: social responsibility and accountability. The resistance to this has been fierce among certain groups already, principally those who cannot see beyond their own noses: that is, those for whom there is no greater and no other morality or accountability than that of the individual. To make people aware of their own collective responsibility is a Promethean transgression akin to stealing fire from the gods and bringing it to humanity. And it is sufficient to invite their everlasting animosity.

There is some reason for hope, however; again, hewing close to the interpretive power of the myth: Prometheus was eventually rescued from his torture and exile by...drumroll please...Hercules! So, on our interpretation, it may, indeed, take a cleaning out of the Augean stables—prosecuting the Bush administration for its crimes and cleaning out the Constitutional muck they left behind—to save Obama from their wrath.

Do you think this is stretching it?

26 February 2009

The Obama Code

There was something very different about Pres. Obama's speech to the nation and, incidentally, to the assembled bicameral legislature Tuesday night (24 Feb. 2009). For roughly 24 of the past 28 years (ignoring the truculent George Herbert Herbert Bush), these speeches have felt more like performances: there have been stock muggings and pauses for applause lines, there have been rote coded 'dogwhistle' turns of phrase geared to excite certain key constituent bases, there has been preening egotism and petulance. I could go on.

Obama claims he wants to change the tone of the rhetoric on Capitol Hill. Of course, so did GWB and Clinton. Clinton, I think, tried but failed. GWB, as per usual, lied. Obama, on Tuesday, sounded like a roll-up-his-sleeves-and-get-to work problem-solver, something I've asserted here. This is different—at least for now. We can only hope he doesn't become corrupted by the status quo.

One of Obama's advisers, George Lakoff, Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, gave us fair notice of what Obama was hoping to accomplish "because tens of millions of Americans--both conservatives and progressives--don't yet perceive the vital sea change that Obama is bringing about." Thus, we have what he calls: The Obama Code. It's been all over the Web.

Briefly, Lakoff asserts Obama is focusing, first, on values over programs. Obama has a vision of the fundamental values of this country and with his budget he is looking to implement, cut, or expand programs based on the values they inculcate. Second, the key value behind our avowed national emphasis on freedom, fairness, and equality is empathy:
"empathy-based moral values are the opposite of the conservative focus on individual responsibility without social responsibility. They make it intolerable to tolerate a president who is The Decider--who gets to decide without caring about or listening to anybody. Empathy-based values are opposed to the pure self-interest of a laissez-faire "free market," which assumes that greed is good and that seeking self-interest will magically maximize everyone's interests. They oppose a purely self-interested view of America in foreign policy. Obama's foreign policy is empathy-based, concerned with people as well as states--with poverty, education, disease, water, the rights of women and children, ethnic cleansing, and so on around the world."
{Seems to me like he takes to heart the values inscribed in the Declaration of Independence and is not a faux Constitutional strict constructionist.]

The third aspect of Obama's appeal is "biconceptualism". Essentially, this means he can work with, let's say, Sen. X on economic matters because they share the same values even though they have to agree to disagree on foreign policy or other issues. This builds a fluid, issue-based web of value constituencies which excludes only the most ideological 'my way or the highway' hardened partisans.

The fourth idea reconceives the role of government as two-fold: protection and empowerment. "The idea is that government has twin moral missions: protection and empowerment. Protection includes not just military and police protection, but protections for the environment, consumers, workers, pensioners, disaster victims, and investors." Obama recognizes there are more stakeholders in the role of government than the party in power and its base. [We discussed this idea of broad base of stakeholders here.]

The fifth idea is a recognition that budgetary and economic priorities represent moral choices. The Bushes and Reagan never got this, or else their morality was perversely skewed to aid multinational corporations and the wealthy elite on the backs of the lower and middle classes. Don't kid yourself: there has been a transfer-of-wealth class war going on in this country, with little respite, since the Reagan days. It's just that the assets of the public sector have been pillaged by the well-connected, moneyed classes who, in turn, further received favorable marginal tax rate cuts. Viewed as a moral issue, this is reprehensible—and any honest religionist will tell you so.

Further, according to Lakoff, Obama recognizes the 'big picture' aspects of economics and government: there are systemic causes and systemic risk. That is to say, we as a society have a social responsibility to the rest of the world not to consume all its natural resources and destroy its environment, for example. No single SUV or carbon dioxide spewing factory is going to destroy the global environment, but the collective risk of doing nothing about the totality and proliferation of such things is huge. To ignore this is not only morally bankrupt, it could be suicidal.

Finally, because Professor Lakoff can say it so much better than I—and because it sounds suspiciously like it ties into a theme I've been pursuing lately here at WoW—I quote:
"As President, Barack Obama must speak in patriotic language. But all patriot language in this country is "contested." Every major patriotic term has a core meaning that we all understand the same way. But that common core meaning is very limited in its application. Most uses of patriotic language are extended from the core on the basis of either conservative or progressive values to produce meanings that are often opposite from each other.

I've written a whole book, Whose Freedom?, on the word "freedom" as used by conservatives and progressives. In his second inaugural, George W. Bush used "freedom," "free," and "liberty" over and over--first, with its common meaning, then shifting to its conservative meaning: defending "freedom" as including domestic spying, torture and rendition, denial of habeus corpus, invading a country that posed no threat to us, a "free market" based on greed and short-term profits for the wealthy, denying sex education and access to women's health facilities, denying health care to the poor, and leading to the killing and maiming of innocent civilians in Iraq by the hundreds of thousands, all in the name of "freedom." It was anything but a progressive's view of freedom--and anything but the view intended in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

For forty years, from the late 1960's through 2008, conservatives managed, through their extensive message machine, to reframe much of our political discourse to fit their worldview. President Obama is reclaiming our patriotic language after decades of conservative dominance, to fit what he has correctly seen as the ideals behind the founding of our country.
"Freedom" will no longer mean what George W. Bush meant by it. Guantanamo will be closed, torture outlawed, the market regulated. Obama's inaugural address was filled with framings of patriotic concepts to fit those ideals. Not just the concept of freedom, but also equality, prosperity, unity, security, interests, challenges, courage, purpose, loyalty, patriotism, virtue, character, and grace. Look at these words in his inaugural address and you will see how Obama has situated their meaning within his view of fundamental American values: empathy, social and well as personal responsibility, improving yourself and your country. We can expect further reclaiming of patriotic language throughout his administration."
Again, Lakoff, echoing my previous post:
"The conservative message machine is huge and still going. There are dozens of conservative think tanks, many with very large communications budgets. The conservative leadership institutes are continuing to turn out thousands of trained conservative spokespeople every year. The conservative apparatus for language creation is still functioning. Conservative talking points are still going out to their network of spokespeople, who still being booked on tv and radio around the country. About 80% of the talking heads on tv are conservatives. Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are as strong as ever. There are now progressive voices on MSNBC, Comedy Central, and Air America, but they are still overwhelmed by Right's enormous megaphone. Republicans in Congress can count on overwhelming message support in their home districts and homes states. That is one reason why they were able to stonewall on the President's stimulus package. They had no serious media competition at home pounding out the Obama vision day after day."
Indeed, language matters. Policies matter. Budgets matter. Values matter.

David Brooks, the credentialed conservative columnist for the New York Times, called Lousiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's response to Obama's speech an "insane", "nihilist" "disaster". That sounds about right. Obama is seeking to be transformative, and Lakoff's Code, if accurate, represents nothing other than a true "transvaluation" of the so-called values that have driven this country's and, in point of fact because of our power and influence, the world's economy and environment into the toilet. They hate him. They will try to tear him down; it's what they do.

25 February 2009

Speaking of Hate—And How

Ever wonder how, over the past few years, sometimes when you hear some rancid commentator (Coulter, Malkin, Pat Buchanan or Bay) on a cable "news" show (Hannity, Beck, O'Reilly—that's you FOX) or some bloated talk radio host (Limbaugh, Hannity), or you receive a forwarded "urgent" email from one of your too-political friends making some outrageous claims (Obama's the Anti-Christ, liberals want to take away all your guns), or read an editorial in the Wall Street Journal or New York Post or an op-ed in the Washington Post (Will, Krauthammer) or the New York Times (Brooks, Kristol (his job there's done)) saying there's a rumor out there, or some newsmagazine (Commentary>, New Republic, National Review) comes out with an issue deploring such things, or a new book hits the stands (Regnery Press) and even though its premises seem ludicrous on its face (Bernard Goldberg, Jonah Goldberg, Coulter (yet again), Bennett) everyone seems to be talking about it, and then some congressman stands up and vituperatively mouths the same pithy phrases—ever wonder how and why they all seem to hit certain points on the same week?

The tone of these talking points are usually an aggressive mix of sarcasm and resentment and some form of veiled/coded racism or sexism or xenophobia or other hate-filled bigotry. They often contain a toxic mix of truth, truthiness, lies, and bullshit in such measures as to make them indistinguishable. As often as not, they involve claims that can't be easily verified or make false or misleading sensationalistic assertions that are (probably deliberately) ignorant of countervailing proofs: a minute of bunk that takes (or would take, given the time and expense involved) five more to debunk. One favorite tactic of these bloviators is to accuse their enemies of trying to do the same things they've been doing the whole time or to claim they believe one thing while secretly doing its opposite. It's all about attitude, stance, opinion, villification, outrage (faux, usually), and, in a word, ressentiment. They are maddening.

So, where do these talking points originate? How do all these people keep on the same page? Is it the natural flow of ideas and issues? Or, does some gnome sitting in the Empire State Building or some Heritage Foundation hack send out a blast email to all the connected Blackberries with a list of items of the day? Paul Krugman wants to know, too.

According to Krugman, it seems that during the Bush Presidency*, talking points were distributed by the White House, presumably by its political director Karl Rove. One suspect he had some role in their creation, as well. But now that they don't have the White House?

I came across this recently. Here's one likely suspect: Grover Norquist, direct mail fund-raising champ and head of Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist is famous for his requisite Wednesday morning meetings. He's also the source of the quote that he wanted to shrink government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." You can read more about him here.

Here's another suspect (though I guess they coordinate their agendas) : Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga) from the Savannah area. According to his own web site, it seems Mr. Kingston is head of something called the Republican 'Theme Team': "Known as an effective communicator and a conservative voice, Kingston has served as the Chairman of the Theme Team since 1997." This is another right-wing propaganda organ. Their Tuesday Morning Meetings are well-known and de rigeur in certain circles, as well.

Their charter reads as follows:
Purpose: To present to the American people a unified message on certain Republican themes.
Tuesday Morning Meetings (10 :30 a.m.):
•  The Theme Team is made up of Members who wish to coordinate a message with Leadership and other groups, including COS, the Wednesday Group, Republican Study, the NRCC, and other Republican Organizations.
•  Ideally, the Theme Team will develop ideas and phrases to be used by all Republicans. Outlets for these themes include one-minute speeches, special orders in coordination with the Communications Advisory Group.
•  The most immediate function of the Theme Team is to organize one-minute speeches. One-minute speeches should convey a single message, be clever enough to catch the attention of the viewing audience, and be clear enough to be effective with the public.
•  One-minutes are written by a variety of speechwriters from the Leader's Office, the Whip Office, Conference, Policy, and other Members' Offices and Committee Staffs .
•  Themes developed by the Theme Team and approved by the Leadership should be communicated to all Members of the Conference through a variety of ways.
•  Themes should be posted in the Republican Cloakroom. The Conference Boarding Pass and other appropriate venues will similarly communicate those themes.
•  The Whip Meeting and the Policy Forums should mention what the Team has developed for that week. And, under special circumstances, the Cloakroom line should be employed to communicate to all Republican offices
what the themes are.
Their use of repetition in forum after forum and media after media only serves to drive home their points:. It doesn't make them true:
"But the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over." -- Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 184

"The purpose of propaganda is not to provide interesting distraction for blasé young gentlemen, but to convince… the masses. But the masses are slow moving, and they always require a certain time before they are ready even to notice a thing, and only after the simplest ideas are repeated thousands of times will the masses finally remember them." -- Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 185
Quotes from Mein Kampf, trans. by Ralph Manheim, (Cambridge, Mass.: The Riverside Press, 1962).
Remember, Pres.* G.W. Bush once gave his own version of his job description as follows:
"See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda."
Never forget that.

Which raises the question: Without the Dauphin there to "kind of catapult the propaganda," one wonders how they'll be able to sustain. The usual method is the creation of a bogeyman, an "Emanuel Goldstein", an object around which to organize their periodical 'two minutes' hates'.

Look for it! Hate! Coming soon, no doubt, to a theater near you.

20 February 2009

Ur-story: Africa Division

Several months back, I looked at Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King (1957) about an American's frolic in Africa. I called the piece 'Going Native'. Around the same time Bellow's book came out, Chinua Achebe published his Things Fall Apart. It is like the mirror image, or negative, of Bellow's piece.

Where Henderson seeks some sort of authenticity running amok with the 'natives' and the lions deep in the jungle, Achebe's protagonist sees his life fall apart due, in part, to the arrival of Western missionaries and colonial administrators.

Briefly, Okonkwo, Achebe's protagonist, has risen of his own prowess to a respectable position within his clan and village of the Ibo tribe on the lower Niger River. Like Henderson, he attains prominence by performing a ritual feat of strength. He has several wives and many children. His yam crops are prolific—a sign of his wealth. The time is roughly the late 19th to early 20th Century. There do not seem to be any chiefs in the social order; social polity is decided by group action—i.e., the men assembled in council. There are festivals and rituals and superstitions and customs everyone seems to acknowledge and honor. Men are valued for their ability to communicate received wisdom, to quote and apply the aphorisms that have been handed down through the generations. The action of the novel involves Okonkwo's tragic fall from this natural state of grace due to changing circumstances over which he has no control and his own inflexible adherence to the old ways.

I'll not summarize the plot. The book is fifty years old and considered a classic; there's plenty on the web to give you an idea of the particulars—if you're into that sort of thing before picking a book to read. Rather, I want to look at the novel along the analytical axes I've been contemplating here at WoW.

First, the language. My point of view is that the language of the novel should bring us in close to the world of the novel. That means the descriptions and imagery and figurative language should derive from the senses and sensory impressions of the world. Achebe puts us in the world of Okonkwo from the very second paragraph:
"The drums beat and the flutes sang and the spectators held their breath. Amalinze was a wily craftsman, but Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water. Every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, on their backs and their thighs, and one almost heard them stretching to breaking point. In the end Okonkwo threw the Cat." (p.3, Anchor 50th Anniversary edition)
There are more touches such as the following, but not enough (for my tastes, that is):
"Her brass anklets rattled as she danced and her body gleamed with cam wood in the soft yellow light." (p.118)
And then in the climactic moments, it becomes intense again—re-emphasizing the power of the close-in focus:
"...Enoch boasted aloud that they would not dare to touch a Christian. Whereupon they all came back and one of them gave Enoch a good stroke of the cane, which was always carried. Enoch fell on him and tore of his mask. The other egwugwu immediately surrounded their desecrated companion, to shield him from the profane gaze of women and children, and led him away. Enoch had killed an ancestral spirit, and Umuofia was thrown into confusion.

That night the Mother of the Spirits walked the length and breadth of the clan, weeping for her murdered son. It was a terrible night. Not even the oldest man in Umuofia had ever heard such a strange and fearful sound, and it was never to be heard again. It seemed as if the very sould of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming—its own death.

On the next day all the masked egwugwu of Umuofia assembled in the marketplace. They came from all the quarters of the clan and even from the neighboring villages. The dreaded Otakagu cam from Imo, and Edwensu, dangling a white cock, arrived from Uli. It was a terrible gathering. The eerie voices of countless spirits, the bells that clattered behind some of them, and the clash of machetes as they ran forwards and backwards and saluted one another, sent tremors of fear into every heart. For the first time in living memory the sacred bull-roarer was heard in broad daylight." (p.186-87)
As for Frye's anatomy, Things Fall Apart clearly satisfies his criteria for the novel genre. The central situation is the clash of cultures, colonial with indigenous. Okonkwo's character, larger than life in the world of the novel, though at peace within his own societal structure (even with his ostracism from it), cannot help but come in conflict when Western society intrudes into his world. And to his detriment at that. Achebe presents a view of a historical moment crystallized in the character and conflict of the Okonkwo character.

Similarly, Achebe's novel clearly fits Shroder's definition of a novel: Okonkwo is reasonably well-off in his society. His fall is tragic and comes as as result of his own hamartia: his inflexibility and Billy Budd-like reactivity. As Achebe tells us on p.4: "When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men...." His disillusionment with the overwhelming societal change that affects his life—a life that has gone on relatively the same for ever—is ultimately fatal, but his death is voluntary and consistent with his character.

As for my own notion of Ur-story—to wit, that the novel is a model of consciousness—Okonkwo's coming to consciousness of the new reality effecting his world produces both in him both pain and mortal shame. Yet, there is no contemplation of mortality: it remains as foreign to him as the white man's society and system of (ignorant) justice. He is warrior who has killed many men in battle. This is who he is. He murders his own "adopted" son because it is the way of things. He accidentally kills another boy at funeral celebration. There is no contemplation of death and mortality in him. Death is, for him and his society, part of the natural order of things. The contemplation of mortality is not. And that may, indeed, be the point: just as the colonials bring their religion and their systems of economics and justice to the indigenous worlds under their sway, they also bring the consciousness of sin and mortality.

This is not a Western novel. There is no grasping, as in Bellow's Henderson, for the "authenticity" of the native, which is, of course, the underbelly of imperialism. The political aim of colonialism is to impose its cultural structures on those it conquers/invades. The artistic class of the colonialists, ever-sensitive to the humanity of the situation, intuits the longing for the other in that moment and, like Bellow, tends to romanticize it. Yet, and this may be the tragedy of Western art, it misses the bigger imposition: it is naive, ignorant, innocent, unconscious of the trail of tragedy and horror colonialism leaves in its wake:
"The Commissioner went away, taking three or four ofthe soldiers with him. In the many years in which he had toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa he had learned a number of things. One of them was that a District Commissioner must never attend to such undignified details as cutting a hanged man from the tree. Such attention would give the natives a poor opinion of him. In the book which he planned to write he would stress that point. As he walked back to the court he thought about that book. Every day brought him some new material. The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger."

18 February 2009

How Good Is Greed?

To learn more about this image, Hercules Chasing Avarice from the Temple of the Muses, go here.

The proximate causes of the current economic meltdown have to do with aggressive and malign mortgage lending practices which were used to generate mortgage bundles which were turned into securities and commoditized and leveraged as assets to borrow multiples of their amortized values to invest in who knows what else. Insurers insured and reinsurers reinsured these assets banking on the streams of income they promised. When the underlying assets began to lose value, that is to say when some of the mortgagees began to default, the whole teetering superstructure collapsed on itself. The 'stuckees' left holding the bag panicked and chaos ensued.

What does that mean? Let's put it in more concrete terms. Let's say you want to buy a house. You take out a 30-year mortgage from me (I'm a bank) for $300,000 at reasonable terms I think you can afford (assume my good faith for purposes of this example). Good. Now, I calculate the value of that mortgage over those 30 years—let's say it's $1 million, to keep it at round figures: that is, principle plus interest. Assume I have 1000 identical mortgages. According to my math, I now have $1 billion in assets—even though you and your fellows will only be paying me a few hundred dollars each each month. There is, of course, a lot of risk in this assumption, including people defaulting on their mortgage obligations to me, people paying down their mortgages early, etc. Ignore that for now.

Now, here's where the real magic comes in. I can do a number of things with $1 billion in these (sort-of) assets that you can't do with $1000 in real assets. I can sell them to a bundler for an agreed-upon price (it will be higher, in a rational world, for mortgages that have little risk of default and lower for riskier such assets). The bundler can slice them up into 'tranches' and sell security interests in the underlying payment streams. If the bundler (or purchaser of slices of mortgage bundles) is a hedge fund, it can borrow against them (up to an Enron-like 27-to-1 ratio) and invest the proceeds. The idea is that you can make greater returns on $27 billion than on $1 billion, especially if your return on assets is greater than the interest you're paying on the $27 billion. But remember, this is all leveraged on the back of only 1000 x $300,000 mortgages. Pretty soon, we're talking real money. And, even though they're supposed to be asset-backed, nobody can really tie any specific aspect of those $27 billion in investments to grandma's $300,000 condo in Fort Myers.

As in all things, Murphy's Law applies: Things can go wrong at any point in this process. Some examples: you lose a job, you are not qualified for a $300,000 mortgage, a mortgage broker falsifies/spins your qualifications, you repay early, you default, you take out a second mortgage on any equity you've accumulated (beginning a second line of leveraging), prices on real estate in your neighborhood/city/state/country/world tank because of foreclosures or souring economic times or whatever, you are otherwise "underwater" on your mortgage (i.e., your home is now worth less than the mortage(s) you've taken out on it), my investment returns don't exceed my interest rate, the hedge fund goes short on some investments and gets the equivalent of a 'margin call' on its leveraged debt, etc., etc.

This is a rough, general outline of the narrative of the origins of the current economic crisis. Some of the particulars may be off a bit; I'm not an economist. Top-heavy debt. Leverage. Uncertainty. These are real. And it doesn't take long before the whole thing comes crashing down, and not necessarily for rational reasons.

But to look no further than these let's call them 'symptoms' is to miss the underlying malaise, which is a philosophical if not spiritual one. Let me explain.

The incentives to borrow, to leverage are built in to the system. Capitalism, as practiced in the U.S. lo these many years, is aspirational. Its laissez-faire attitude toward the accumulation of wealth in the private sector is, of course, one of its hallmarks. As is its inbred antipathy toward the public-sector, in general.

Current laws and corporate practices tend to favor managers over shareholders, not to mention other interested parties. This has been a huge recent trend. Shareholders delegate/relinquish control of corporations to management: that's the definition of the corporate structure. It seems this is a fatal flaw.

In the current climate, it is the shareholders who are suffering as managers have driven their corporate assets into the ground—particularly in the financial sector which is the locus of the crisis we're in: banks are either going under or their share values are down over 90%. And, of course, the CEOs and other managers have been making out like bandits as they reap huge salaries and bonuses and share options whether or not they perform (i.e., create shareholder value). The difference between executive pay and average labor wages has increased radically over the last decade.

They have been managing their companies the way the Bush administration ran the country: their own interest in retaining power has taken precedence over the shareholders' interest in the well-being of their company. They didn't care whether they bankrupted the company/country, so long as they benefited in the short run.

There are a number of stakeholders in any given company: (a) the owners: shareholders; (b) the creditors: bondholders; (c) the managers: management; (d) the customers: purchasers (down chain); (e) the suppliers: vendors (up chain); (f) labor: the employees; as well as (g) any number of indirect beneficiaries: the local community of landowners, schools, churches, local governments, and suppliers of goods & services to local employees. There are more. To manage a company as if only the management's retention of its jobs and power is to neglect the interests of the rest of these stakeholders. This is a big problem.

As a political corollary, to manage a country as if the primary interest of the administration was to maintain its own power is to neglect a far-greater constituency of stakeholders in the country's well-being. I'll not enumerate them here, but it's pretty much everybody. And, though clearly analogous and key to any serious look at what has happened to our country over the past eight years, that is a political discussion for another day.

We have become less an "ownership society" than a "management society" where management means, essentially, to handle things. To supervise or run things. To control the situation, or at least appear to be in control. To achieve short-term profit, or the appearance thereof. To work around. To lurch from crisis to crisis or kick the can down the road. So much management today is simply PR, and that mostly self-serving. One even thinks of the locution of doctors "managing" an incurable disease: it only applies when they are incapable of curing it. The focus is all wrong for a viable company/country.

Management is not the same thing as problem solving. Problem solving means identifying problems, determining the underlying issues, and resolving them. This is not the same thing as controlling the situation, or the perception of the situation. True, one must have some form of control before solving something, but corporate America tends to reward more those who control the perception of things than those who actually roll up their sleeves and try to solve problems. PR triumphs.

Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld et al. touted themselves as the CEO presidency. They were consummate managers. Bush had a solid track record of managing businesses (Arbusto Energy, Harken Energy) into the ground (that in itself should have alerted us to something), only to be bailed out at the last moment by rich friends of his father, including Osama bin Laden's brother. That they managed the country into the current situation should not be surprising, especially as they used their power to de-regulate and slacken enforcement of the laws and regulations put in place to protect stakeholders in the country's well-being other than the management/capitalist class. In fact, it was entirely predictable.

I wonder, too, if anyone's done a study of how many billions of dollars they spent on PR alone. We know they paid newspaper columnists and fiddled with the rules about on-shore military propagandizing and kept Hill & Knowlton-types on retainer. Not to mention Karl Rove. They set out to make the country in their own image. And it is now bankrupt.

It is my hope we've elected a problem solver as President. A true problem solver is unafraid of negotiation and input from others who share his interest (namely, solving the problems). In terms of company/country organizations, solutions from below are generally received as threats to the power of managers. It does not make them appear to be in control. For true problem solvers, the more input the better the available options.

Drat. I've veered off into politics again. And I didn't want to do that. But there is a philosophical point there. The Presidency inspires. If the president is a manager (as we've defined), then others will emulate. If the president is a problem solver, then, hopefully, problem solvers will rise.

This doesn't address the 'spiritual' crisis I mentioned. And by that I am not referring to any sort of religious notion. Stay with me here: Right after 9/11, President* Bush, in his initial response to the crisis, exhorted Americans to "go shopping." I remember at the time being stunned silly: 'WTF is he talking about?"

What that exhortation revealed was Bush's own true conception of the basis of American capitalism and, more to the point, his own deep-seated contempt for Americans. Americans are consumption machines. Buy, buy, buy. Acquire. Get. Spend, spend, spend. Have.

In Heidegger's terms, it was a case of having vs. being. Appearance vs. reality.

Over the ensuing years, everything the Bush administration did was geared to stoke this consumption engine. A supply-side economic philosophy requires mindless, infinite consumption for it to sustain. Lending and mortgage regulations were relaxed and interest rates kept low, and 'citizens' were encouraged to take on more or more debt for the purposes of consumption. Refinance so you can buy that car or take that vacation. Flip that house. The purpose of individual debt was not that of, say, the mortgage bundler or hedge fund, i.e., investment. No, the purpose of individual debt was consumption. And this is a spiritual malaise if it is the ground of your being. (see Paul Tillich—dang, there I go citing a theologian. I'll try to watch it.)

There's still a big economic problem. Here's a basic fact of life: assets depreciate, debt matures. Teach your children.

If you've ever done your own taxes or done bookkeeping for your business, you know this—whether it sank in or not. The stuff you buy loses its value. As soon as you sign the papers and drive that new car off the lot, it's resale values drops. But the money you borrowed to buy that car continues to grow as the interest matures. If you owe money, you pay interest until it is all paid down. The interest keeps growing, and sometimes it compounds.

Let me put it another way: very few of the things you buy increase in value. Almost all of them decrease. For example, several weeks ago I took my teenager to the local thrift shop. While she was looking around, I rummaged in the men's aisles and found a lovely, wool, tweed Brooks Brothers' sports jacket, unworn, with the tags still on it and the pockets uncut, for $20. The next time I was at the mall—my daughter is a product of her culture, sadly—I found the same jacket in BB new, on sale, for $300.

Asset values keep going down. And debt obligations keep going up. Diverging. Managers have seized control of the sources capital creation, and arrogated them to their own self-interest. Somewhere, somebody is holding a ship-load of IOUs and markers and is waiting to be paid. This is the big problem facing the country. Do I have a solution? Sadly, no.

Does Pres. Obama or Tim Geithner or Larry Summers? Who the heck knows.

But it seems to me the solution lies somewhere on the continuum of saving and investment, creativity and productivity (in problem solving), and public-spiritedness and not in the ethos of consumption, management, selfishness that have driven us into the hole/morass we find ourselves in now.

No wonder they call it the dismal science.

17 February 2009

En garde

While we're on the subject of the dismal science (I apologize for my lapse into sentimentalism in the previous post), I'm not liking all this talk lately about how it took WWII and only WWII to end the Great Depression. It's all coming from one side of the political spectrum—and it's not the side that came up with or supported any aspects of the New Deal (or President Obama's stimulus plan, for that matter).

It sounds like these people are spoiling for war. Right now, it's all in the abstract—sort of. But it sure sounds like they're laying the groundwork for war: "Any war will do; we just need one to fix the economy. Don't worry, we'll come up with an enemy. We can demonize pretty much anybody; we're good at that. Look what we did with/to Granada, Nicaragua, Saddam the first time (remember the Hill & Knowlton-generated incubator fraud?), feminazis, socialists, atheists, Bill Clinton, liberals, Iraqis, France, Arabs, Muslims. And on and on and on."

War for war's sake is sheer barbarism. War for economics' sake is a perversion, no matter what ideology or rationale the perpetrators gin up to justify it. Both are obscene. We've discussed the case for 'just war' earlier, if you're interested.

Many feel the wars of the 21st Century will be fought over resources: oil, water, arable land, lebensraum (where have I heard that one before?), minerals (silicon, bauxite, e.g.), whatever. And that the Iraq business under the Bushes, per et fils, was just the first in the series. There's a certain cynicism and pessimism and hopelessness in that prophecy, self-reinforcing and potentially self-fulfilling.

On the other hand, there are those who feel there are alternatives to war. They offer energy alternatives, economic alternatives, philosophical alternatives. Reasonable alternatives. Of course, they don't tend to be as, shall we say, "persuasive". I will say this, though, we've had two separate wars going on for the last seven or so years under a self-proclaimed "war-time President". It doesn't seem to have helped.

Now, I'm no economist, so I have to take the word of people who know more than I do about this subject. The following graphs show the decline in unemployment and unemployment rates under various presidents and the growth of gross domestic product and productivity prior to WWII:

The counter-argument, 'articulated', if you will, by Michael Steele, new head of the RNC, seems to be that government-created jobs are not 'jobs.' Go here if you don't believe me. I'm sure your police, firefighters, teachers, VA doctors and nurser, prosecutors, judges, economists, politicians and their staffs, road-crews, soldiers, etc., etc. will buy that. Some things simply don't pass the laugh test.

If you want to be a warmonger, be one. Just don't attempt to deceive us into another war based on false pretenses, lies, fraudulent misreading of history, bad economics, ignorance, and ideological bullying.

16 February 2009

A Valentine

I saw the movie "Revolutionary Road" with my wife this weekend. Happy St. Valentine's Day, Dear!

The thoughts it inspired were not the expected ones: love and sadness, the creeping boredom of the suburbs, madness and sanity and conformity, the importance of legal and available abortion, Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio and the Titanic. No. The thoughts the movie inspired were economic. Stay with me here.

In the movie, Kate's character is a bored '50's housewife who feels like she's a prisoner of the suburbs and her husband's soulless career. She hopes to escape (with him) to Paris where she can maybe work as a secretary for an embassy or NATO or the EC—it pays big bucks—while her husband (the Leo character) takes some time off to find out what he truly wants out of life. He is in danger, now, of becoming just like his anonymous father, a salesman drone.

The Wheelers (Kate and Leo) are anomalies in the suburbs. Everyone there is cookie-cutter: men in hats go off to work on the trains and the women stay home (in the house) with the kids. It is before two-car families. Married women, of a certain socio-economic class, do not work. It is before feminism. Children are seen and not heard. (The Wheelers would be in their mid-eighties today.)

The idea of Kate getting a job is so far-fetched it borders on insanity—this is one of the key tropes of the film. But—and this is the question I keep coming back to—what happens when key members of the society (bright, trainable women) are not allowed to be economically productive? The movie is about what happens to individuals when you stifle them. The economic question is what happens to the society.

This is not an academic question, by any stretch of the imagination. We, in the West, are inured to the idea women being regular, productive participants in the workplace economy for half a century. Hell, we very nearly had our first female president this year: Hilary Rodham Clinton. Yet, in many societies, this is not the case. Anyone see the movie "Persepolis"? One thinks also of the Taliban and their brothers. Last week, I saw the following headline: "Saudi Princess Says She's Ready to Drive." Repression, suppression of females is on-going in much of the world.

I'm not trying to make a moral point here (e.g., it's wrong to repress the creative productivity of a human being), or even raise the issue of sexual liberation (e.g., god says women's place is in the kitchen and the hareem), or even the whole question of property (e.g., women are chattel).

What are the economic effects when half your productive employees are unemployed? [Of course, 'half' is an exaggeration. Many women are, indeed, voluntarily employed in the legitimate job of home-making and child-rearing and have no desire to enter the workplace. Fine. Let's call it a third, for argument's sake.] When a third of your economic producers are not allowed to take gainful employment, your economy will only chug along at two-thirds its true potential—in broad strokes.

Given the current state of the global economy, what would happen if the powers that be (the powers that squelch) were to unleash this amazing potential? Educate women equally, employ women fully, pay women what they're worth. Is this a worthwhile, transformative goal for, let's say, our current Secretary of State to pencil in to her agenda? I think so. Could it remake the global economy? That's change we can believe in.

Happy (belated) Valentine's Day.

10 February 2009

Ur-story: "'Is it about a bicycle?' he asked."

The first declaration of the International Necronautical Society Manifesto states : "That death is a type of space, which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit." Well, they are not original and they were not first. Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman beat them to the draw. O'Brien's unnamed flaneur describes precisely such an arc, eventually lapsing into a stunned forgetfulness as he experiences the apparent eternal return of the same. (Or, alternatively, cycles down the drain toward extinction.)

Now, Nietzsche was no farceur, though Zarathustra gave me more than a few chuckles. His principle was more a moral one: a person should live as if everything he did would be repeated over and over again throughout eternity. [Groundhog Day anyone?] O'Brien is more of a fatalist: if you think life is absurd, wait'll you hit the afterlife.

Denis Donoghue, in his Introduction, cites Hugh Kenner's observation (re Beckett) that
The crucial place of Ireland in the recent history of Western literary art is accounted for by the historical fact that Ireland escaped the humanist dogma. Consequently the great Irish nihilists (for so they appear in a humanist perspective) have been the persistent reformers of the fictional imagination. Swift, a bare seven years after Robinson Crusoe, ascribed an overriding concern for footling verisimilitude to a mind so biased toward positivism and so devoid of moral resources that it could be permanently imposed on by talking horses." (xi)
Donoghue declares that
"it is indeed characteristic of Irish fiction—or at least Irish anatomies—to stand aside from the common urgencies of feeling and to treat the whole farrago of sensibility as warranting merely speculative attention. The murder in The Third Policeman is accompanied by no sign of guilt or scruple: the ethical issue is disposed of in silence. Nature, conventionally a great source of heart-stirring, is not allowed to pour its benisons over the populace." (xi)
Of course, it is only fitting and proper that I take on a so-called anti-humanist text after declaring so positively my humanist creed in a previous post.

Our nameless 'hero' (for lack of a better term) in his fantastical world encounters (without parenthetical comment, appearing as he does to have no inner life beyond devising deceptions for avoiding conviction for the murder he commits) a two-dimensional police station filled with odd policemen and a number of magical devices, including an infinity of nesting boxes; an elevator to another (infinite) dimension; a society obsessed with bicycles; and a policeman who steals citizens bicycle parts, then hides them so he can then appear to find them; bicycles which are part human

I don't know if you ever pranked your high school or college teachers like this, but a group of us once invented a philosopher (I forget his name now) and cited several of his works innocuously in papers we submitted for several different college classes. We got away with it. None of the professors ever called us on it. O'Brien does the same thing here, beginning nearly every chapter with a reference to the absurd philosophus gloriosus, de Selby, and the contentious "scholarship" on him, right and left. "For my part I had completed my definitive 'De Selby Index' wherein the views of all known commentators on every aspect of the savant and his work had been collated," (14) the narrator assures us. de Selby, it turns out, had some interesting ideas:
"A row of houses he regards as a row of necessary evils. The softening and degeneration of the human race he attributes to its progressive predilection for interiors and waning interest in the art of going out and staying there." (21)

"Roads he regards as the most ancient of human monuments, surpassing by many tens of centuries the oldest thing of stone that man has reared to mark his passing." (37)

"'[A] journey is an hallucination'. The phrase may be found in the Country Album cheek by jowl with the well-known treatise on 'tent-suits', those egregious canvas garments which he designed as a substitute alike for the hated houses and ordinary clothing. His theory, insofar as I can understand it, seems to discount the testimony of human experience and is at variance with everything I have learnt myself on many a country walk. Human existence de Selby has defined as 'a succession of static experiences each infinitely brief', a conception which he is thought to have arrived at from examining some old cinematograph films which belongs probably to his nephew. From this premise he discounts the reality or truth of any progression or serialism in life, deniews that time can pass as such in the accepted sense and attributes to hallucinations the commonly experienced sensation of progression as, for instance, in journeying from one place to another or even 'living'." (50)

"If a man stands before a mirror and sees in it his reflection, what he sees is not a true reproduction of himself but a picture of himself when he was a younger man. ... Ultimately he constructed the familiar arrangement of parallel mirrors, each reflecting diminishing images of an interposed object indefinitely. The interposed object in this case was de Selby's own face and this he claims to have studies backwards through an infinity of reflections by means of 'a powerful glass'. What he states to have seen through his glass is astonishing. He claims to have noticed a growing youthfulness in the reflections of his face according as they receded, the most distant of them—too tiny to be visible to the naked eye—being the face of a beardless boy of twelve..." (64-5)

"In the Layman's Atlas he deals explicitly with bereavement, old age, love sin, death and the other saliencies of existence. It is true that he allows them only some six lines but this is due to his devastating assertion that they are all 'unnecessary'. Astonishing as it may seem, he makes this statement as a direct corollary to his discovery that the earth, far from being a sphere, is 'sausage-shaped.'" (93)

"[H]e held (a) that darkness was simply an accretion of 'black air', i.e. a staining of the atmosphere due to volcanic eruptions too fine to be seen with the naked eye and also to certain 'regrettable' industrial activities involving coal-tar by-products and vegetable byes; and (b) that sleep was simply a succession of fainting-fits brought on by semi-asphyxiation due to (a)." (116, n.1)

"[H]is ideas of paradise are not without interest. ... Briefly he indicates that the happy state is 'not unassociated with water' and that 'water is rarely absent from any wholly satisfactory situation'. ... The story is one of a long succession of prosecutions for water wastage at the suit of the local authority. At one hearing it was shown that he had used 9,000 gallons in one day and on another occasion almost 80,000 gallons in the course of a week. ... none of the vast quantity of water drawn in ever left the house." (144-6)
Of course, all of the foregoing is duly documented and footnoted—some notes running upward of eight or nine pages, all tongue-in-cheek. O'Brien introduces each major section of the book with a de Selby disquisition which, oddly, relates the main themes of that section and, what's more, de Selby's views turn out to be plausible in the absurd world of the text. I'm sure much scholarship has been brought to bear on this point. (O'Brien giggles in the background.)

Again, we are in the realm of the Ur-story. The strategy O'Brien a/k/a O Nuallain a/k/a na gCopaleen adopts is the absurdist one: turn the whole thing into a farce. Some readers might want to turn the whole thing into an allegory—maybe with the police representing the Church and de Selby Aquinas or some such. I resist this. The story is what the story is. O'Brien is showing us that, on his conception, death takes us from a three-dimensional time-space world to a bizarre timeless, two-dimensional space which has its own conception of death and portal to its own eternity which, to my mind, would be the one-dimensional one, and on and on to nothingness: a gradual diminution not unlike some of de Selby's philosophical musings.

Tom McCarthy [pdf] take note:
"There is nothing mysterious about the Necronautical project. The aim announced in the First Manifesto of exploring, mapping and colonising the space of death does not suggest a 'beyond' of which we have knowledge, nor, emphatically, the spurious tales and consoling fictions reproduced by culture. The space of death is traced in the boundaries, horizons and faults within art, literature and language; lines, moreover, which are not transgressed but are woven into the texture of our craft. Necronautical materialism has no message from the 'other side' but is a technique for subjecting event, performance, text and map to rigourous examination and transformation." [Used without permision which is apparently okay.]
Here's your map.

Of course, we would be remiss, given the name of our blog, to omit the book's key quote about Wisdom:

"'The first beginnings of wisdom,' he said, 'is to ask questions but never to answer any. You get wisdom from asking and I from not answering. ...Turn everything you hear to your own advantage. Always carry a repair outfit. Take left turns as much as possible. [Right turns in non-British countries.] Never apply your front brakes first.'"

In a world predominated by bicycles and men who are part bicycle, such wisdom is deserving of heed.

03 February 2009

Ur-story: Things To Do in Dublin When You're Dead*

Do you like the television show 'The Office'? (Especially the British version?) What about the Blackadder TV series with Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie? Then, you must love Monty Python. And you may or may not know about The Goon Show, the British radio series starring a young Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Michael Bentine. The Goon Show ran throughout the Fifties on British radio. It is still played in many places in syndication. I used to listen to it in college—I think it came on WUNC-FM on Saturday evening's just before A Prairie Home Companion (a different kind of humor altogether). The best way to describe it is surreal, absurdist farce with sound effects. Firesign Theater, if you know them, owes the Goons a great deal. But, they're not from the British Isles and that is not the purpose of this post.

What is it with those wacky Brits and their humor? You find it in Beckett and Sterne and Swift and Douglas Adams. You see it in the movie "Brazil". In particular, you get in spades in the novel The Third Policeman, by Flann O'Brien a/k/a Brian O Nuallain a/k/a Myles na gCopaleen.

This may be one of the funniest novels I've ever read, rights up there with, say, A Confederacy of Dunces or Don Quixote. It's also one of the strangest, and here we venture into originality. In the introduction to the edition I have, the Dalkey Archive paperback [btw: FYI: The Dalkey Archive is also the title of another book by O'Brien!], Denis Donoghue calls on the typology/anatomy of types of prose fiction of Northrop Frye we discussed in an earlier post, calling it "of the Menippean form. ... [It] takes its place in a well-established tradition of fictive, anatomical weirdnesses." (ix-x)

At first glance, the set-up is a rather simple one: an anonymous wooden-legged man conspires with his "lazy and idle-minded" friend and tenant farmer, John Divney, to rob and murder one Phillip Mathers who "carried no less than three thousand pounds with him every time he hobbled to the village to lodge his money." (15) They carry out their plan and mug the man who is carrying a black box presumably full of money. Divney hides the box while the narrator buries Mathers. After an appropriate interval, Divney sends the narrator to fetch the box which he says is hidden in a hole in the floor of the old man's mansion. This is when things get weird:
"Without stopping to light another match I thrust my hand bodily into the opening and just when it should be closing about the box, something happened.

I cannot hope to describe what it was but it had frightened me very much long before I had understood it even slightly. It was some change which came upon me or upon the room, indescribably subtle, yet momentous, ineffable. It was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye; perhaps all of these and other things happened together for all my senses were bewildered all at once and could give me no explanation. The fingers of my right hand, thrust into the opening in the floor, had closed mechanically, found nothing at all and came up again empty. The box was gone!" (23)
Now, we are in the region of the Ur-story.

Then he has tea with old Mathers, whom he (and we) had presumed dead. Mathers, it turns out, can only reply in the negative to any questions the narrator puts to him. This is clearly Monty Python territory. When asked his own name, the narrator responds: "I have no name." He hews to this tactic throughout the story in the hopes it will keep him from being held accountable for the murder of the old man.

Next, we venture further into a weird bit of metaphysics as Mathers explains that you can tell how long a person will live by determining "the colour of the wind prevailing at his birth. ... the lighter the better." (33)
"'When I was born there was a certain policeman present who had the gift of wind-watching. The gift is getting very rare these days. Just after I was born he went outside and examined the colour of the wind that was blowing across the hill. He had a secret bag with him full of certain materials and bottles and he had tailor's instruments also. He was outside for about ten minutes. When he came in again he had a little gown in his hand and he made my mother put it on me.'

'Little gowns?'

'He made it himself secretly in the backyard, very likely in the cowhouse. It was very thin and slight like the very finest of spider's muslin. You would not see it at all if you held it against the sky but at certain angles of the light you might at times accidentally notice the edge of it. It was the purest and most perfect manifestation of the outside skin of light yellow. This yellow was the colour of my birthwind.'" (33)
(One has to go to Brian Evenson's novel about Mormon weirdness, The Open Curtain (which is not funny), to get a better depiction of magical underwear.)

The recipient gets a new gown from the policeman each year on his birthday and puts it on over the ones from the years before. Each year, with the accumulation of these diaphanous and stretchy gowns, the person's color gets darker until it turns black, and the person dies. The narrator figures these policeman can help him regain his lost black box, and Mathers points him to the local police barracks:
"'There is Sergeant Pluck and another man called MacCruiskeen and there is a third man called Fox that disappeared twenty-five years ago and was never heard of after. The first two are down in the barracks and so far as I know they have been there for hundreds of years. They must be operating on a very rare colour, something that ordinary eyes could not see at all. There is no white wind that I know of. They all have the gift of seeing the winds.'" (35)
The remainder of the book is the narrator's absurd odd-y-sey to recover the black box. (more to follow)

* Extra credit and bonus points if you pick up the allusion in the title.