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October 27, 2010


Andrew Gelman - "if you have to describe someone as "famous," he's not."

October 25, 2010

The crass jokes, they write themselves

Benedict Anderson takes time out of his discussion of the Cuban Revolution in Under Three Flags to tell us that:

With the help of two Asturian anarchists, a young Cuban nationalist called Armando Andre hid a bomb in the roof of the ground-floor toilet of the Captain-General's palace. The device was supposed to explode when Weyler sat down on the pot, bringing the whole second floor down on his head. The plotters were unaware, however, that Weyler suffered so severely from haemorrhoids that he almost never used the facility, preferring an earthenware field-potty when he had to relieve himself. The bomb went off, but no one was hurt, and Weyler decided to inform Madrid that the explosion had been caused by stoppages which prevented the latrine's gases from escaping normally.

I am sure that Anderson's discussion on the same page of how the Captain-General was "partly relieved" and of the "diehard colons" of the Revolution, have absolutely nothing to do with this footnote.

October 11, 2010

The Line of Prophets

The doctrine that the line of Prophets is closed firmly circumscribes the Sacred and thus saves it from devaluation. Plato himself was not sufficiently aware of the Quantity Theory of Ideas. The proscription of innovation protects a scriptural faith from inflation.

Ernest Gellner, Muslim Society, p.24.

October 08, 2010

A Sociology of Jack Vance I: Master Twango's Establishment at Flutic

Described in the early chapters of Cugel's Saga, Master Twango's manse is a study-in-miniature of society as a web of contractual relations and power asymmetries - Ronald Dore's market capitalism without a hint of the spirit of goodwill. When Cugel takes up the role of 'overseer' for Master Twango, he is informed by his predecessor that "[a]t Flutic all is exact, and every jot balances against a corresponding tittle." This description is misleading; the subsequent suggestion that "[c]onditions at Flutic are always optimum[sic] and at worst meticulous" is more apt in its sly hint that the books are jiggered.

"At Flutic," said Weamish, "nothing is left to chance. Twango carefully distinguishes sentiment from business. If Twango owned the air, we would pay over coins for every gasp."

In much of Vance's work, rococo social practices and rhetorical flourishes of false sentiment gild over the most debased kinds of self-interest. At Flutic, the veneer is nearly completely worn through. There is not even the pretense of an appeal to goodwill. Instead, Flutic emphasizes the mutual benefits of contractual relations.

Yet as Cugel soon discovers, any ambiguities in the contracts governing his new responsibilities are swiftly resolved in favor of Master Twango, and enforced through swift and thorough beatings by the repulsive Gark and Gookin, or other available. The accounting system through which employees' wages are tallied against expenses incurred may err by the odd misplaced decimal point, again to the advantage of Master Twango. Contractual relations serve Twango as a rhetorical shield. When Master Soldinck discovers that he has been mulcted of several valuable crates of scales, Twango points out that he had inspected the crates and handed over a receipted invoice, and hence cannot be held responsible. Despite the suspicious circumstances, Twango cannot conceive that one of his employees might have abstracted the scales for his personal benefit. Were he to find enlightenment, it might plausibly render him legally responsible for reimbursing his counterparty. Hence, he obdurately insists on the benign motives of his employee and his own observation of the appropriate contractual forms.

An ungenerous reader might suggest that the description of Flutic has some internal inconsistencies. It is odd and remarkable that Master Twango would offer a lavish buffet of expensive food every night in the hope that his employees would partake of it and hence increase their indebtedness to him. His employees being fully aware of the ploy, invariably confine their appetites to stewed kale, hunks of raw onion, and small dishes of boiled burdock leaves. This renders Twango's tactic both inept and expensive. Yet such a manifest display of irrational behavior must surely be intended by the author for some subtle rhetorical purpose.[^1]

To compare: The Giant Throop in Lyonesse III: Madouc

Further sociological readings.

Ronald Dore, "Goodwill and the Spirit of Market Capitalism," British Journal of Sociology (1983). Available here.

[^1]: So too, it is inconceivable that Vance errs in his description of the unfortunate imbroglio at the lavatory trough behind the Inn of Blue Lamps, where Master Chernitz is invited to retract his suggestion that Cugel is a "moral leper," even though no such suggestion is recorded in the written text. Still, I must admit that the distinct literary conventions of the omniscient and of the unreliable narrator are only rarely combined to advantage. To what purpose they are combined in this particular instance, I cannot readily discover.