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Covid Concept Home

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 20/10/2021 - 2:45am in

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An opinion piece by Tressie McMillan Cottom describes a new “Covid concept home” that was unveiled this summer. The home—with its four bedrooms and three-and-a-half bathrooms—is clearly intended for upper middle-class buyers, though it has not yet been priced. The “concept” emerged from a collaboration among three businesswomen in light of an online survey of nearly 7,000 U.S. adults (with household incomes of $50,000+/year). The survey’s purpose was to test “consumer sentiment in light of COVID-19 to understand the design changes consumers want in new homes and communities.”

Those survey results reveal an interesting trend in the expectations of a certain social group about work, school, and home life: “many consumers view the pandemic not as a one-off, but as a harbinger: They will need to work from home in the future.” The Covid concept home is built with this in mind.

There’s a lot of creepy consumerism here. Beyond the details that come out in McMillan Cottom’s description, the online tour of the house reveals stylized décor that romanticizes a simpler time when one could easily travel to distant vacation destinations with children. The kids’ room includes a climbing rope so homeowners will be well-prepared to exercise their children the next time public parks close and kids without backyards or indoor climbing equipment are again relegated to streets and sidewalks and parking lots for their outdoor recreation. These houses are clearly marketed to people who have the means (or hope for the means) to get as much of their skin out of the future pandemic game as possible.

There’s also a lot of creepy gender stuff here. McMillan Cottom describes the builders’ and developers’ attempts to frame the home’s design as feminist and empowering. “But when you peel back the women’s [survey] response to see the expectations underlying them,” she writes, “it does not sound empowering.” Rather, the design reflects the extreme pressures women have borne during the pandemic, and that they seem to presume they will continue to bear, at least intermittently.

Among the home’s design features that reflect women’s added burden of care work during the pandemic, McMillan Cottom notes two “flex spaces” in the home, the obvious function of which is for holding Zoom calls. One has an artful brick wall for backdrop; the other has decorative wallpaper and is located just off the kitchen: Although not explicitly gendered, “this design decision is a response to the idea that mothers need to remain tethered to the kitchen, because the kitchen is the control center of the home. The kitchen is open and gives direct sight lines to another innovation: schooling rooms.”

Yes, that’s right: “The Covid concept home has a built-in home schoolroom, with a Dutch door that allows the mother to be able to see into the room and theoretically supervise the children, while also providing separation so that she can continue to work from both the kitchen and her odd, small, highly decorated, kitchen-adjacent Zoom room.”

This home, says McMillan Cottom, is built for an “extremely retrograde” ideal of mothers tethered to the kitchen. “But now, instead of supervising the home life and the children, being tethered to the kitchen also allows her the ‘flexibility’ to participate in the paid labor market from her closed-in Zoom room.”

The piece builds to an important point: “The Covid concept home demonstrates both the exuberant quality of American consumption — that we can buy our way out of everything — and its limits as a solution. Designing for problems that may seem straightforward in a survey may sound really cool, and may provide you with some really cool features… But the problems posed by Covid can’t really be solved at the level of the household. These are structural, collective problems: politically and culturally, economically and spiritually. A concept house for our post-Covid reality probably needs to look more like dense, accessible, affordable housing so that women can untether themselves from the control center of their homes, and instead just enjoy a simple cup of coffee in the kitchen.”

I think she’s right that these are structural problems and that we need dense, accessible housing instead of this Covid concept home. But I was struck by a parallel that goes unnoted.

Given the gendered social norms that explain why women have been so burdened during the pandemic, attempts to idealize housing that brings those burdens closer together in domestic space as a feminist solution is simply crass. That’s in part because consumer choice is a solution only for a privileged few. Another problem with the thought that the Covid concept home is feminist and empowering is that making women’s unjust burden easier to carry doesn’t remove the unfairness. But that description—making women’s unjust burden easier to carry without removing the unfairness—doesn’t apply only to the Covid concept house. Lots of social policy that the left endorses does exactly the same thing. For example, just like the Covid concept house, subsidized childcare makes it easier to be a working parent. But it doesn’t eliminate the costs of parenting—nor should it. And, so long as parenting imposes costs in terms of work and the many other projects adults might like to pursue alongside parenting, and so long as women do more of the parenting, women will be disproportionally set back in those other projects. Arguably, so long as women are disproportionally set back, the unfairness remains.

This is not to say that subsidized childcare and the Covid concept house are analogous in all morally relevant respects. For one thing, there’s a difference in the degree to which the burden is lessened. A more important difference is that subsidized childcare eases the burden even for those who can’t afford gendered home offices and a built-in schoolroom. But the fact that both subsidized childcare and the concept house arguably leave gender unfairness intact suggests that, while McMillan Cottom is surely right that “the problems posed by Covid can’t really be solved at the level of the household,” they can’t be solved absent household changes, either. We ask too much of women caregivers, and part of that problem is that it’s too hard to provide care while also doing all the other things that women need and want to do. But another part of the problem survives the lessening of those burdens. We ask too much of women caregivers because so many—women included—still expect women to do the caregiving when the caregiving imposes costs at work and at play. And that can be solved only if we get everyone—men included—to value and insist on men doing caregiving.

Middle class housing shouldn’t look like this. But it will, for now. Within that context, and if consumers’ predictions about future pandemics are right, the kitchen zoom room isn’t such an abomination. We just need more men zooming from the kitchen and more women zooming from the upstairs quiet. And, even as we desperately need subsidized childcare, we also need more men staying home with the sniffling kid while they wait for that Covid test to come back negative.

Sunday photoblogging: Saint Guilhem-le-Désert

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 17/10/2021 - 9:40pm in

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Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert

Hierarchy of the Grift

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 06/10/2021 - 9:33pm in

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Recently I was trapped in a room with a beautician trying to upsell me ‘treatments’. She handed me a glossy brochure for a process that involved lying down on a bed with a large inflatable bag secured around the waist, and having carbon dioxide pumped into the bag. This would, I was assured, cause my lower half to become thinner and less lumpy. It would cost several hundred pounds. I nodded, smiled, refused all offers, and left at the earliest appropriate moment, feeling quite grumpy about the utter crap marketed to women to stoke and then assuage our insecurities. There’s no point saying ‘No thanks, that’s bullshit pseudoscience and frankly insulting,’ because that would be rude. The only market signal permitted is ‘No thanks’.

I got to thinking about how these kind of products and services are disseminated. Before the young women in the salon press the brochures into our hands, they’ve been on a ‘training’ to learn how to sell this stuff as well as administer it. (Also, what happens to the young women? I rarely see older ones working in those places.) There must be trade shows with stands and people marketing this crap to each other, business owners making the trip and trying to invest wisely in the fashionable treatments of the future. There must be companies that develop them and, after a fashion, scientists or science-adjacent people who … I’m searching for a verb. Come up with it? Test it? (For some incredibly loose idea of the word test.) Suggest the science-neighbouring catchphrases and concepts to populate the marketing collaterals?

There must be a whole ecosystem of investors, licensors and people wearing white clothes and exquisite make-up who sell this stuff to each other, long before the poorly paid woman in that room chirps about ‘removing toxins’. How do the development people communicate to each other? At what level or in what contexts do they acknowledge that what they sell is bullshit, and the approximately three year life cycle of each product is based on novelty, marketability, and what can be squeezed into a tiny room and 30 minute appointment. Do they speak openly about the grift of getting salons to invest – probably on quite unfavourable terms – in their equipment, knowing it’s near impossible for people down the end of the chain to make more than a short-lived sliver of profit on such patently ineffective bullshit? Do they smirk?

The comparison that comes to mind is American rightwing shock-jocks, the guys spewing out cookie-cutter hatred on syndicated local radio stations across the country. The middle of the pyramid guys who believe the antivax disinfo, guzzle horse medicine and die of covid, as people higher up the chain got vaccinated the second they could. One thing this has all shown us is at what precisely which point in that pyramid where people must openly acknowledge the grift. The suckers aren’t just the listeners, but people at a surprisingly high grade of the hierarchy.

I’m curious if the sucker identification point is constant across human activity. Do the endless, derivative crypto-currencies you see advertised on buses – a clear sign it’s way past time to get out – have the same basic model as beauticians selling bullshit treatments, and women ‘investing’ in product for multi-level marketing schemes?

It’s also striking how gendered these grifts are, how tied up in intensively defined and policed social and political identities that don’t allow any air of questioning in. How cult-like the conditions for flourishing must be. Other people must know far more about this.

Monday photoblogging: Béziers cathedral

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 05/10/2021 - 3:03am in

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You have to look very hard to discover that this building replaced the structure destroyed when anti-Cathar crusaders massacred up to 20,000 people in 1209, an episode during which the crusader commander Simon de Monfort, faced with the difficulty of distinguishing heretics from Christians, infamously uttered the words “kill them all! God will know his own.”

Béziers

Group size and tolerating those with whom we disagree

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 03/10/2021 - 7:27pm in

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The other day I tweeted what I took to be a fairly banal sociological observation and one that took no normative position, as such. I observed that people in families or smaller communities are, as a condition of participating in many everyday social activities, under some pressure to be more tolerant of people with divergent moral, religious or political views to their own than are people in large communities or networks such as cities or the internet. People in larger networks typically have more choice about who they interact with and so can restrict themselves more easily to others who think like they do. Notice that there aren’t necessarily two distinct groups of people here. People interact both in small family groups for some of their time but also in wider networks. In the first, there’s pressure to put up with the disagreeing other, to some extent, in the latter there’s much less pressure since you don’t have to engage.

Some people reacted a little negatively, or so I took it, to my observation. It was suggested that I was “lauding small towns” over cities, though I was not. Others, more supportive, chimed in to say that growing up in small places they’d been under more pressure to justify themselves and their views to others with whom they disagreed, whereas in cities they’d not had to bother. And some people notices that the working-age population did indeed have to tolerate people with different opinions to their own since they had no choice but to be in the workplace, while perhaps retirees could select co-thinkers and screen out unwelcome opinions.

My banal observation didn’t just come out of nowhere. On the contrary it arose from the comparatively privileged experience of living in two quite different places. In the one, I can have a social life where I end up hanging out with people who are pretty similar to myself; in the other, if I am to have any social life at all, it has to be with relatively small numbers of people who just happen to be in the town and know one another. That can be enriching, since I end up having conversations with people different to myself and learning about points of view quite other to my own. But there’s also a pressure to self-censorship, to avoiding certain topics in case they cause ill-feeling and to letting remarks go when they are possibly but not obviously freighted with racism and sexism. Generally, I think exhortations to people to get out of their bubble and to speak across divides are a waste of breath. But put people in different circumstances with others with whom they disagree and they will find ways to rub along and communicate, with a mix of challenge and restraint.

If you’re a socialist you need the Real Utopias Project

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 02/10/2021 - 1:56am in

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One of my favorite, and most intense, writing projects this year has been preparing a contribution to an in-progress volume celebrating the work and life of my late friend Erik Olin Wright. The essay, provisionally called “If you’re a socialist you need the Real Utopias Project whether you like it or not”, was prompted by reading and hearing numerous criticisms of either Erik’s book Envisioning Real Utopias, or the Real Utopias Project more generally. So what the essay does is argue for the importance of the RUP against those criticisms in a way that is much more defensive, combative, confident, and irritable than I would ever be discussing my own work. It’s been fun, though also quite strange to so inhabit the thought of someone to whom I was so close for so many years: I have had ‘new’ conversations with him in my head as the paper has unfolded.

I’ll share the final section below the fold, which will give you a sense of what I think. But, taking a leaf out of JQ’s book, I also thought some of you might like to read the whole draft and, even better, might be able to give me some feedback on it.

For those of you with more sense than to read an entire paper, here’s how the essay (currently) concludes:

Wright says: “Particularly in the Marxist tradition, radical intellectuals have insisted that wholesale redesign of social institutions is within the grasp of human beings. This does not mean, as Marx emphasized, that detailed institutional blueprints can be devised in advance of the opportunity to create an alternative.” In the early days of the project, he considered calling it “Society by Design”, and rejected that title exactly because it connoted a technocratic elite imposing designs from above. The title he chose is more appealing, and better reflects his intent as well as his personality.
In deference to Wright I have so far avoided the term “blueprint”. But I think the Real Utopias Project is usefully seen as a process of scrutinizing… well, blueprints. Socialists who think they do not have an obligation to offer real, practicable, designs, thereby express disdain for those who they are inviting to make commitments and sacrifices and to take the risk of everything going wrong. As Wright says, “vague utopian fantasies may lead us astray, encouraging us to embark on trips that have no real destinations at all, or, worse still, which lead us towards some unforeseen abyss”. How can anyone judge whether those commitments, sacrifices, and risks are worth taking, without being offered a blueprint? You wouldn’t ask to redesign someone’s house, still less ask them to pay for it, and still less to risk their lives for it, without offering them a blueprint. “Trust me, we’ll work it out together” or, worse, “Trust me, you’ll work it out” or “Trust me I’ll work it out”, sound like empty promises at best, and attempts to disguise a hidden agenda at worst. Basic respect requires one to offer up for consideration, scrutiny, revision, or rejection, a proposal that one has already diligently scrutinized oneself. The approach socialists should take, if any designs pass muster in something like the RUP is this: “Here’s is a blueprint. We’ve worked hard on it, using the expertise available to us, and we think there’s a good chance it will work to realize the goals that we can offer you reasons to share with us. Of course, you might reject it. Or maybe you have a better one. Let’s compare them! And of course, if you accept ours, it’s not written in stone, any more than yours is if that’s the one we settle on. They’re blueprints, not commandments. We’ll work, together, to revise the blueprint, so that we can make the house we share the best it can be, as we build it together”. The more risky and costly the transition, and the less detailed and well-scrutinized the blueprint, the more contemptuous the offer. And, coincidentally (and fortunately) the less likely it is to win support.

History does not suggest that there will be plenty of second chances if we get it wrong in one instance. And it does suggest that getting it wrong can be catastrophic. If you’re a socialist you need the Real Utopias Project whether you like it or not.

Monday photoblogging: Cirque de Navacelles

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 27/09/2021 - 7:12pm in

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The always-spectacular Cirque de Navacelles on the border between Gard and Hérault drawn by the River Vis, of which this was a meander from which the river diverted about 6000 years ago.

Cirque de Navacelles

Sunday photoblogging: Marseillan

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 20/09/2021 - 1:39am in

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Marseillan, this afternoon.

Marseillan

Do taxes fund spending?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 18/09/2021 - 12:54am in

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You wouldn’t have thought that this was a difficult or controversial question. But actually it’s both. It’s controversial because it’s more or less the central battleground for Modern Monetary Theory, and therefore an absolute magnet for bad tempered online debate. And it’s difficult for the same reason that a lot of things are difficult – the question looks like a reasonable one that should admit of a short answer, but that’s because all of the complexity and ambiguity is packed up into the fact that words are used in an ordinary language sense but the statements made with them need to be precise.

There are two possible courses of action in a situation like this. The first is to say either “very few people in this debate are confused about the actual facts, so this is really a dispute about semantics and since I am not in an iron lung, I have better things to do” or, depending on your circumstances, “despite being in this iron lung, I just got a new adult colouring book”, and then get on with your day. This is quite attractive, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for taking it.

But it’s not wholly satisfactory, because although few people actively involved in this controversy are confused, there are a lot of people in general who are confused about the relationship between taxes and spending and who think “taxes fund spending” is an uncontroversial and obviously true statement. And the process of un-confusing them is made a lot more difficult by the unclear semantics. That’s the point (when there is one) of semantic debates – if you have the semantics squared away then when people say dumb or contradictory things then they sound dumb and contradictory, but while the language is confused, they might sound profound or practical.

And so we come to the second course of action, which is “ENDLESS SQUABBLING”. Hurray!

I’ll start by just noting a few principles which I myself regard as uncontroversial, stupidly. First we have what might be called the “Very Weak-Form Laffer Curve” or less annoyingly the “Blood/Stone Theorem”. This is just the statement that at any given time (italics there to indicate some foreshadowing of a point to come in three paragraphs’ time), there is a maximum possible output of the economy, and if the economy can’t produce more than this, you can’t take more tax than this either. Furthermore, you can’t get round this constraint sneakily – even if the government finances some of its spending by means other than taxation, the total amount of government expenditure plus the total amount of private sector expenditure have to be lower than or equal to the productive capacity of the economy. Most importantly, if you try to print money to exceed this level, it will just result in inflation.

Caveats! What’s an arid semantic debate without caveats? I’m ignoring the overseas sector here; you can’t, in some important sense, get round this constraint by importing the difference. Or at least not sustainably – you could in some shorter periods, and the choice of period to consider will matter a lot. I will help myself here to an airy and misplaced mathematician’s “without loss of generality”.

The second important basic principle is the Keynes Possibility Principle – “Anything we can actually do, we can afford”. This is somewhere between a truism and a definition of the concept of “monetary sovereignty”, a concept that’s very important to MMT people. If you’re an imperial province, or if you’re otherwise subject to requirements to make payments overseas, then it’s not true; there are a bunch of things which you could do, but can’t afford because of your obligations. I am, however, for the purposes of this post, going to assert the principle, because I think it’s important to make clear that the semantics of “taxes fund / do not fund spending” have nothing to do with debt sustainability or borrowing constraints. That really is a separate and largely empirical issue which unfailingly confuses things when it’s brought up.

So … do taxes fund spending? What does that even mean? The physical image is obviously of some coins going into a bag, and then being taken out again to spend on things. Abstracting several levels from that, we’re really talking about things like “is the level of taxation a constraint on the level of government spending?”, “does a change in spending need to be matched by a change in tax receipts?” and “can spending increase without raising taxes, sustainably?”. It’s clear when you look at these questions why people quickly start talking about debt and borrowing constraints, because the argument quickly switches to a debate about fiscal policy. But really it’s more fundamental than that, because “do taxes fund spending?” is a question about the underlying workings of the system, not about any particular state which the system might be in.

Semantic debates like this one are often driven by the fact that the words used describe a phenomenon which is itself different depending on how you look at it. In the case of the relationship between taxes and spending, and as foreshadowed above, the time period under consideration is very important. You can see this by taking two corner cases:

If your accounting period is “the whole of history, past present and future”, then of course taxes fund spending, because over that period, “taxes” and “government spending” are the same thing. They are two different names for the amount of economic output that is directed by the government sector rather than the private sector.

At the other corner, as your accounting period becomes infinitesimal, it gets more and more accurate to say that there is no relationship at all between tax receipts and spending – nobody at all thinks that receipts have to match up to spending in real time. On any given day, the government will spend some money, take in some tax receipts, and either issue or redeem some kind of IOU, either money or securities; you can construct an accounting system such that the three categories add up to zero, but you need to be clear that this is something you’re imposing on the transactions, not an insight into underlying economic reality.

So what happens at a more sensible, middling length accounting period? Let’s think about the actual system, in terms which I stupidly believe to be uncontroversial and universally accepted among people who know what they’re talking about, and then we can decide whether the reality we’ve described is accurately described by the phrase “taxes fund spending” or not.

Under a gold standard, of course, the only kind of IOUs that the government can issue are debt securities which have to be paid back. So, there’s an economically meaningful accounting period over which the taxes collected have to equal the money spent, adjusted for timing differences. In this case, the feeling is overwhelming that “taxes fund spending” is a good description of that relationship.

But, of course, this is the whole point of “Modern Monetary Theory” – as I regularly and apparently irritatingly point out, the first word of that phrase is an adverb modifying the adjective, not an adjective modifying the noun. It’s a theory of modern monetary systems, not a modern theory of monetary systems. That’s why people shouldn’t be surprised to find that there’s not much to it that wasn’t in Keynes. The word “modern” here means “not gold standard” and it is meant to describe a system in which the government sector is able to issue IOUs which don’t need to be paid back; money. That changes things a lot.

There are two qualitatively different states that the economy can be in from this point of view; full employment or less-than-full employment. The qualitative difference is that in the first case, increasing government sector spending must, by the blood/stone theorem, involve reducing private sector spending. Let’s look at this first because it’s a bit easier.

Assume that the economy is in a state of full employment at its potential output level P, and government spending G is (perhaps fortuitously) equal to tax revenue T. Because G=T, there is no need for the government to change the number of IOUs in circulation. Now we want to increase G.

There is a choice of methods here; either raise T by the same increment as G, or print some IOUs. But whichever you do, the blood/stone theorem will still apply. One way or the other, if you can’t produce more than P, then the increase in G is going to have to be matched by a decrease in private sector spending, which is the same thing as an increase in T. In fact, this might be one basis for a choice of accounting period – one economically meaningful time scale for this question would be to ask “over the period of time for which it is reasonable to take P as fixed, do taxes fund spending?”.

Right here you can see why this is a semantic debate. The two statements:

“raised taxes in order to bring in tax receipts to spend, issuing IOUs to cover the gap between the spending and the tax receipts”

and

“issued IOUs to spend, then raised taxes in order to prevent inflation”

are pretty clearly describing the same set of events. But the second one feels considerably less natural as a description; “the tax rise funded the spending” seems to describe the causal connection better.

Now let’s take a look at the more difficult, interesting and arguably relevant case. The actual output of the economy is some level less than P, and this is accounted for by private sector and government sector spending. The choice of methods here looks a lot more obvious, because there is no need to reduce private sector spending by increasing T; you can just print IOUs and spend them to increase G. If you don’t need to raise taxes in order to raise spending, then the taxes-fund-spending description feels pretty wrong.

Except that the two cases need to be made symmetric. Although misbegotten austerity is, annoyingly, a thing in the real world, we shouldn’t build it into the abstract argument that, in the example above, the policymaker is seemingly indifferent to unemployment. Let’s consider, without loss of generality, the case where the desired increment to government spending happens to equal the difference between current total output and P:

“Issue IOUs equal to the desired increment to G and spend the proceeds, thus bringing total output to P”

and

“Raise taxes to bring in tax receipts to cover the desired increment in government spending, then carry out monetary stimulus by issuing IOUs to raise private sector spending until output equals P”

The amount of IOUs that you would have to issue in the second sentence above would, of course, be equal to the tax increase; you’re increasing G by the difference between current output and P, so in steady state you need private sector spending unchanged in both cases. So the two sentences are, once more, describing fairly similar realities. But this time round it’s the taxes-fund-spending framing that seems unnatural; you’ve raised taxes and then rebated the proceeds right back to the taxpayers. (I have ignored the fact that the increase in government spending and output will itself tend to increase the tax take in most taxation systems; I have also ignored distributive effects. Without loss of generality, oh yeah).

I think what we’re establishing here is that “taxes fund spending” isn’t a useful phrase, and nor is its negation. Taxes, spending and monetary stimulus are three parts of a system which is regulated so as to allow public services to be provided in accordance with the Keynes Possibility Principle, while ensuring that the sum of government and private sector spending obeys the blood/stone constraint.

Which means that if you’re more worried about inflation and you’re thinking about the supply side, you’ll say that taxes fund spending, but if you’re worried about austerity and thinking about the demand side, you’ll say that taxes don’t fund spending. In aggregate.

“In aggregate” there is very important, because the most common context for people to argue about taxes funding spending is with respect to “pay-fors” for proposed new spending programs. And I think this is a case where the semantics cause people to say very wrong things indeed.

As we have seen above, it’s most defensible to say that an increment to spending needs to be “funded” (and therefore, that a new program needs to be justified with either a new tax or an equivalent reduction in existing programs) during an accounting period when the economy is at full employment. But this would mean that a “pay-for” promise or proposal could only really be made for a maximum of one accounting period. In the next period, P will be different; either the spending program no longer needs to be funded, or a new “pay-for” is needed whether the program is taken on or not.

Added to which, in many cases, the spending program and its associated taxation will themselves have an effect on the future output capacity of the economy. This is true of a lot more things than those which are classified as “investment” in the conventional system of accounts; education expenditure affects future productivity, prison spending affects future property destruction, even something like an Olympic Games is likely to have some effect on the future.

In other words, the “funding” decision is one that needs to be made separately in each accounting period, and at the level of the fiscal balance in aggregate. Paying for individual programs out of individual taxes is an analytical fallacy, and it’s not a harmless one as it’s deflationary (there’s an implicit assumption that the full-employment case is the relevant one and that the stimulus effect of a new program can be ignored or regarded as actively harmful). After all, when Toyota opens a new car factory, it’s very rare for them to be asked “how will you pay for it?”.

Space

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 14/09/2021 - 10:31pm in

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ONE

I used to think novels were these telos-fuelled trams you hop onto, not like the trams of a normal European city with lines forming meshes that tent-pole at exchange points to condense traffic and the importance of certain neighbourhoods, imposing a new behavioural topology on top of whatever geography was already there, but more like the Luas in Dublin which has just two lines that are only thematically north-south and east-west, were built at the same time but did not interconnect either physically or fare-wise, despite multiple people and agencies pointing out the rank stupidity of this, and so force you to travel in a single dimension, along one obtusely pre-determined line. You get on and off the tram, or put the book down and pick it up again, but you can only ever travel forward to the end or back to the beginning, the way novels retroactively unravel their meaning as the conclusions reframes all that went before. Though, the way numbers are going, long-form fiction seems less city trams than heritage railways tended by hobbyists and devotees, going nowhere much at all.

This was my way of thinking, anyway, before I got really into audiobooks and learnt that some special few stories are not journeys but places. Those places are both a subset of reality and bigger than it, and evert into us as we immerse into them.

It happened like this. After a dose of covid and ensuing confinement indoors, I left London to spend last autumn, winter and spring in my own country, walking nearby roads and the sea shore for two or three hours most days. (We had a 5km limit enforced at police check-points.) After exercise like that I need to spend at least as long lying flat to recover, so between the walks and the lying about in the dark, and, I suppose, the only going into town once a week to buy food for myself and my parents, I wanted other human voices. But not cacophony; communion. I should say this was by no means an unhappy time, but the period of deepest contentment in my adult life so far. I don’t know if I could do it every winter, but the discipline of having to provide my own endorphins with no recourse to external stimuli meant consciously limiting the horizons of even imagined escape, while physically seeing for miles in all directions for much of each day’s available light.

In London I have never seen the sun set. It’s something that happens behind lines and lines of buildings. I never hear silence. In the short, tense spells of engine quiet between the rumbling whine of this low-flying jet and the next climaxing overhead and pressing on to Heathrow or City, there is siren, stadium cheer, motorbike retort, horn, one side of an argument, car alarm, house alarm, cars accelerating down a narrow lane, scolding, cajoling, bottle meets concrete, outdoor café clatter, jackhammer, bin lorry, the unexplained laughter of strangers. It’s a congery of noise, a beaded cacophony whose lulls part the air in the swing of a sucker punch. And look, it’s just city life. Ignore it or listen all you like. None of it means anything. (Not quite true. Next day I read this over to the deep, stereo thwock of a Chinook somewhere above. One is fine. Two or more over central London are never good.)

My first audiobook in the soft Kerry silence was Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, read by Chiwetl Ejiofor. My Mum recommended it, but I manfully over-ruled my inner teenager to download it anyway. This is how it starts: “When the moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides.” Piranesi, beloved child of the House, walks and reads his world, contained by it but free, sanguine about physical discomfort and deprivation, open to knowledge and joy.

The thing about ME/CFS, as I experience it, anyway, is the exhaustion cannot be, well, exhausted, only briefly appeased. If I work my legs – and they are good, strong legs and shapely, the part of my body I used to think generated my energy rather than spent it – they do not immediately tire, but I lose the ability to summon words, finish sentences and find my way to places I know well. An hour or a day after exertion the feeling of a metal dome between my skull and brain, squeezing, will give way to a wholly systemic sludge, the ‘walking through treacle’ tiredness so many describe. But, and this only makes sense in the course of a long, long illness, I do not want to rest. I fight it as a toddler fights nap-time. I eat sugar, read Twitter, pick off low-hanging to-dos, look online at things I won’t buy. If I sleep this afternoon, I just might feel ok tomorrow. If I don’t, I will feel as bad or worse. But I refuse to rest because that gives the exhaustion what it wants. Anyway, it’s fickle. You know the experiment where they feed some lab mice in response to them pushing a button, and some only randomly, when they push it? The mice in the random group keep pushing and pushing till their little noses are bloody, even until they die, because this time it might just work. M.E. is like that. To lie down to rest is to hope for relief.

To lie down to rest is to find something else to fail at. Counting backwards, slowed exhalations, body-scan, imagining being in the sea and slipping under, imagining being an albatross flying for weeks, forgetting how land smells, half asleep and instinctively surfing currents of wind.

Nope. Still awake, failing to sleep. Still addled, raddled, unable to generate sufficient nothingness to swoop down into even as, swooping, you become not-one-thing and fizz out into air. Still here in this bed, this room, this house, hoping for relief that will almost certainly not come.

Into those early darkening afternoons crept Piranesi.

TWO

The repetition of numbers in a familiar but imperfect sequence greatly helped my fritzing, glitching brain. Each mini-chapter of Piranesi, as read aloud, starts with an incantation like;

“The Eighty-Eighth Western Hall; SECOND ENTRY FOR THE TWENTIETH DAY OF THE SIXTH MONTH IN THE YEAR THE ALBATROSS CAME TO THE SOUTH-WESTERN HALLS”.

Ejiofor reads in a way that’s quite cool and clear, but in a subtle, rolling intonation that swells out the pleasure in each word, yet he never even hints at irony. This is so important, because Piranesi is of our world, and has forgotten it, so we read his world for clues he misses about how he has come to be in this situation. Any inferred complicity of the reader with the listener would undermine Piranesi’s integrity and dignity, and trivialise his deep and daily joy. It would go against the book itself. The great joy of this novel is Piranesi’s open-hearted delight in the world of the House, and how he expresses this through his scientific enquiry and religious practice.

There already exists a venal stand-in for us. Piranesi notices that he calls the infinite chambers ‘vestibules’ and ‘halls’, while the only other human, the Other, calls them ‘rooms’, and the House a ‘labyrinth’. Piranesi correctly diagnoses the absence of veneration or love in the Other’s attitude to the House, but never wonders where the language they both use has come from. He knows what a mother is, and a minotaur, but never wonders about his own mother or the existence of Crete. Just as the House is filled with crumbling marbles of pure, momentary, human essence, Piranesi has been stripped by harsh conditions and memory loss of his ego, selfishness and vanity. He is more beautiful than he can ever know. Everything that happens in the story is caused by Piranesi acting selflessly, often sharing what little he has. Ejiofor is Piranesi, incanting his diary entries, laughing as he imitates the chatty monologue of the birds, and knowing nothing, suspecting nothing, until Piranesi does. There can rarely have been a more perfect union of reader and text.

Piranesi’s first break from the Other, a prickly man who brings vitamins and instructions to seek out arcane and powerful knowledge, is sparked by a journey to a far-away hall where Piranesi sees a group of statues standing rapt under a moonlit window. He is deeply moved and immediately rejects the idea that the House is a riddle or a text to be resolved, saying “if we ever discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery.” He proposes a different kind of research, not one determined to solve and wrest meaning from the House, but an open-ended lifetime of appreciation and discovery. “The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of itself. It is not the means to an end.”

I noticed two statue-scenes in the House’s halls that were not from our world but from Narnia; when Lucy meets Mr. Tumnus, and the Last Battle. The first and the last. It’s so striking that while these and so many other imagined worlds come to us inside perfectly engineered vessels of story – now I see them as little one-man submarines, lethal as torpedoes, rounded as worming tablets – the reason they live so long in our minds is not that we’re still involved with what happened and what happened next, but that we want to escape all the way into them to live.

The House is an imagined space with perhaps an infinite number of imagined spaces nested inside. You could say in that coolly Borgesian way that it demonstrates the bubbling vastness of infinity, like a library or an Aleph, a memory bigger than the mind it inhabits, a map exponentially greater than its territory. But in the world of true feeling and spiritual nobility engendered inside this book, the very idea of a labyrinth is reductive and extractive, a fear-bricked dungeon the Other builds around himself. There is no minotaur, and no hidden treasure, either. The world is just the world. The House is just the House. The point is to be held by it, not as a prisoner but as a beloved child, walking, seeing and singing to the end of his days.

Piranesi is meticulously plotted and structured, but to be in its thrall is to live in the embrace of the House, to listen for the tides, map the stars, share seaweed with the nesting albatross, write down numbers that relate only to other numbers and soon to nothing at all. I listened to it through evenings that started at four o’clock, my rain gear drying on hooks, rain pelting a dormer window after a journey across the Atlantic. The next day I would get up again, do a few hours’ work, then put on my boots and strap my walking poles around my wrists, walk a mile or so down the grassy middle to a beach we call Bun an Bóthair, which just means ‘end of the road’. Turn left on the beach and into the prevailing wind, Milo yipping and darting into the water if the tide was low, or gingerly tapping the waves running at cross purposes over the little pier if it was high. Then twenty or so tough minutes over slimy rocks and out onto a sandy headland so rippled, vast and bare you can almost see the tide running back in from the sea. As Piranesi says, tides are “not not alive”, are they?

To enter Piranesi’s world was both to leave my own and to return somewhere deeply familiar, like a house I lived in as a baby or a lament sung once and forgotten till heard again in entirely different circumstances.

To be continued

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