Pseudo-Random Thoughts on Pseudo-Random House (2003)

ABOUT THIS METHOD OF ARGUMENT

All “rational argument” is useless.

“Rational argument” narrows the spectrum to that of expertise. In an argument limited to expertise, the status quo ante is maintained, desperate situations continue to deteriorate.

Agriculture became rational and scientific in part through the graces of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which, when given to cattle, increases yields of milk and beef. It also results in a need on the part of cattle for more protein in their diets. This need is satisfied by feeding them, among other things, the leavings of slaughtered cattle. This diet is also a source of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, that is, “mad cow disease.”

When a slaughtered cow, the meat from which made its way into American markets and American stomachs, turned out to have BSE, Dee Likes, executive vice president of the Kansas Livestock Association, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying: “We want the government to make science-based decisions, not decisions based on emotion and distortion.”

One example of a science-based decision is that to dose cattle with rBGH for increased profit.

By calling for more of this same sort of decision-making, Dee determines the outcome. Dee limits the discussion to the propositions of “experts.” “Their” scientists say “this,” “our” scientists say “that.” The status quo remains unchanged, and the argument proceeds to proceed, a piece of rhetoric as immortal as a line of cancer cells. The argument of “reason” against “reason” renders most people impotent — herbivores and carnivores alike. Most people, in fact, are ruled out of the argument altogether, because they are not “experts.” Most people are “emotional.” Their thinking is “distorted” by “subjectivity.”

This impotence is not an unfortunate coincidence: achieving it is the central purpose of rational American debate.

***

Men who argue “rationally” exclude feeling and common sense from consideration. So do sociopaths.

We have “rationally” argued the subject of global warming to the point that I can go for a walk in Atlanta in shirtsleeves and sandals on January 4th, something that wouldn’t have been possible when I moved here twenty-seven years ago.

As Tom Brokaw might say, “That’s progress!”

***
A NOTE ON METHODS AND CONCLUSIONS

People who are narrow, harsh, and unforgiving tell us that the world is narrow, harsh, and unforgiving, and they work diligently, first, to make it that way, and then, to ensure that it remains so. Because they are “like” their world, and because their world is “real,” they are “realistic.”

Our characterization of the world tends to be our own character writ large. We become angry and work hard to make the world, and God, in our image, and we call this labor variously, “Realism” or “History” or “Economics” or “Science.” Or perhaps best of all, “Nature.”

As the engineer Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, our characterizations of the world do tell us something about the world: they tell us that the world can be described in myriad ways, wonderful and tragic, breath-taking and grim; and they tell us something about ourselves: firstly, that we are in the world and of it.

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THE THINGS SOME PEOPLE BELIEVE

Upon receiving a special National Book Award, Stephen King took to task people “who make a point of pride in saying they have never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark, or any other popular writer.” He posed a rhetorical question: “What do you think? You get social academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your culture?”

Stephen King is a good bourgeois. He believes that reading has something to do with American culture.

***
“EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED,” SAID TOM BROKAW, PART 1

If, on September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden’s engineers had killed, not three thousand bond traders, stock brokers, credit managers, etc. but, say, three thousand black people, or three thousand Hispanics, or, at any rate, three thousand people working for hourly wages in the neighborhood of six or seven dollars, here’s what I believe talk radio would have said:

“Some Arabs tried to blow up that building in 1993. If you ask me, anybody who went in there after that was taking their life in their own hands!”

Let me make this, as Richard Nixon might say, perfectly clear: this is not a comment about talk radio. It is an expression of what an hourly-wage earner believes about the people who run his country and the businesses he works for.

***
ABSTRACTION IS THE ENEMY

Professor David N. Rowe, Yale University, on his 1960s idea to purchase all the world’s surplus wheat to cause starvation in China: “Mind you, I am not talking about this as a weapon against the Chinese people. It will be. But that is only incidental. The weapon will be a weapon against the Government because the internal stability of that country cannot be sustained by an unfriendly Government in the face of general starvation.”

Osama bin Laden, interview in the Pakistani newspaper Ausaf, Nov. 10, 2001: “The September 11 attacks were not targeted at women and children. The real targets were America’s icons of military and economic power.”

***
SCIENCE FICTION, PART 1

Introducing a science fiction story called “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin, the science fiction editor David Hartman says that the genre offers “no clearer affirmation of the principle that science and scientific law rule the universe” (The Ascent of Wonder, New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1994, p. 442). Indeed, Gregory Benford, a science fiction writer who teaches physics at the University of California at Irvine, uses “The Cold Equations” in his classes. The story, he says, shows “society’s institutionalized delusions set against the overwhelmingly, absolutely neutral point of view of the universe.”

Here is the story’s affirmation of the universe: scientific law dictates that a stowaway aboard an EDS — an emergency rescue ship flying serum to a frontier world infected with a deadly fever— must be jettisoned into the vacuum of space. This execution must occur because everything about the trip is figured out to the last ounce of fuel, the ultimate gram and microgram of passengers and cargo, and if the stowaway is kept on board, the ship will not be able to reach its destination, and six people will die of plague. Six is more than one. Or rather, and better:

6 > 1

That is a “cold equation.” (Actually, it is a cold inequality.)

Supplying the melodramatic coup de grâce, the stowaway in Godwin’s equation is “a smiling, blue-eyed girl” named Marilyn, with curly brown hair, perfume, lipstick, and wearing a pleated skirt with sandals with iron buckles, decorated with colored glass.

Godwin goes on and on about the “laws” involved in his situation and their indifference to human passions:

EDS’s obeyed only physical laws and no amount of human sympathy . . . could alter the second law. (450)

Existence required Order and there was order; the laws of nature, irrevocable and immutable. Men could learn to use them but men could not change them. . . . The laws were, and the universe moved in obedience to them. (452)

The stowaway’s prospect is also detailed, by Marilyn herself:

“. . . I’ve read how people look who die in space — their insides all ruptured and exploded and their lungs out between their teeth and then, a few seconds later, they’re all dry and shapeless and horribly ugly.” (456)

After the girl is jettisoned, the pilot who threw her to her death comes back to Godwin’s theme of “laws”: “A cold equation had been balanced and he was alone on the ship” (458).

All we have to do is the math.

But leaving math class, one cannot help but wonder: is the law an ass?

This question is raised by John Huntington in one of the best books ever written about science fiction, Rationalizing Genius (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989). Marilyn’s weight is given in the story as 110 pounds. Huntington mentions the presence in the story of a number of seemingly disposable items: a chair, another seat, a metal box, a “communicator,” a ship’s radio, a chronometer on an “instrument board,” a pad clipped to a “control board,” a “normal-space transmitter,” the door to the closet the girl hid in, and the other contents of that closet. There is also the clothing worn by the pilot and Marilyn, an item that certainly never would have passed the notice of a notorious, adolescent sci-fi lecher like Robert A. Heinlein. Is all of this cargo essential to the mission? Does it weigh anywhere near 110 pounds?

Huntington does not argue with Godwin’s basic thesis, that the universe is indifferent to human dilemmas and feelings, but only with the end to which that thesis is put, an end he refers to as a “hard-core illusion” of science (p. 81).

What we really see in “The Cold Equations,” Huntington says, is the slaughter of innocence, in the shape of a virgin, at the hands of a man claiming to behave scientifically, while evading responsibility for his act of murder:

“Nobody wants it this way; nobody would ever let it be this way if it was humanly possible to change it.” (448)

“Everyone would like to help you but there is nothing anyone can do.” (448)

“No one would ever let it be like this if it could be changed.” (450)

But Huntington notes, “we can also ask whether the voice repeatedly denying responsibility here is accurate even if there were no other solution possible” (84). Shouldn’t the architects of this system have the balls to take responsibility for its effects? As Huntington says, they have designed “a space ship so precise, so perfect, so exactly adjusted to the weight of a specific crew that it has no margin of safety, no reserve fuel, no back-up system” (82). Could not those designers be guilty of having ignored such obvious lessons of history as the one that human beings are prone to believe nonsense (like “rules were made to be broken” and “my case truly will be different”)? Shouldn’t someone have to account for designing a system this rigid, inflexible, and perfectionistic?

Because “The Cold Equations” is not about “scientific law” or any other kind of law. It is a perverse dream of tossing an innocent into a vacuum and killing her while pretending that her murder is “inevitable.” Like deregulation.

And oddly like the proponents of deregulation, “The Cold Equations,” and Professor Benford, argue for a peculiar kind of “realism,” namely, one that denies genuine though impalpable bonds among people and the impossibility of measuring the worth of a human life (“society’s institutionalized delusions”).

The worth of human life brings up the actual point of “The Cold Equations”: human beings are ciphers.

6 > 1

***
INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY

Responsibility is for poor people. They are responsible for being poor. Responsibility is for people in jail. They are responsible for being bad.

We have no responsibility to poor people or criminals. We have responsibility only to our shareholders.

Should we have no shareholders, we will have no responsibility to anyone. In this, we will resemble Ted Bundy.

Peter Olson, the president of Random House, has responsibility only to the shareholders of Bertelsmann, the parent company. He is responsible only for making money for them. He bears them no other responsibilities. If we are not shareholders, Peter Olson bears no responsibility to us.

Peter Olson bears no responsibility to concepts — such as “taste” or “literature” or “tradition” or “community.” Concepts cannot hold shares. Peter Olson inherited these concepts, as we all did. In the new economy, we cast aside our inheritance. In its place, we have money.

***

LOGIC

6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words.
Ethics is transcendental.
(Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.)

–Ludwig Wittgenstein
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

***
REPLY TO ROWE AND BIN LADEN

Nothing was incidental, but all was chosen with care and with care planned, by you personally. Every death is personal, and every death involves you. As a small boy tells an SS man in The Investigation: “You won’t be forgiven anything.”

***
SCIENCE FICTION, PART 2

The New York Times magazine, in an article by Lynn Hirschberg, depicts a banker and attorney, Peter Olson, doing battle with an elitist, the book editor, Ann Godoff.
(Remember that the New York Times is a “liberal” paper.)

Hirschberg quotes Olson: “We’ve got layers of snobs here [in book publishing]. If you want to be a snob, this is a great business.”

Olson, neither a snob nor an elitist but a businessman, is seen walking through Book Expo America in the Los Angeles Convention Center, passing various booths, and remarking of Houghton Mifflin: “I’d love to buy them. They are very attractive.”

Godoff was the editor in charge of the Random House Adult Trade Group division. This is the part of the company that published William Faulkner. Olson, since firing Godoff, has merged the Trade Group with the Ballantine division. Ballantine publishes Jeff Shaara and Essays that Worked for Medical School.

Godoff was fired because under her leadership the Trade Group did not meet the new company average of 12 percent return on sales. In 2002, the Trade Group made only $2 million — one-third of Olson’s required 12 percent. It is worth noting that part of the loss that year was incurred by no less than the team of Stephen King and Peter Straub, whose Black House, a sequel to their earlier book, The Talisman, lost millions.

Olson has a mission to bring every division of Random House into line with his sales goal of a return of 12 percent.

12% > Ann Godoff

In place of Professor Benford’s “overwhelmingly, absolutely neutral point of view of the universe,” Peter Olson has another absolute, The Marketplace. He doesn’t have anything against culture or taste or good writing or community or Ann Godoff. But The Marketplace has primacy over those things, which are, after all, highly subjective. The Marketplace, like our neutral universe, is an objective fact, with inflexible rules that are indifferent to our sentimental aesthetics. So Peter Olson, the captain of Spaceship Random House, is no more responsible for what he does than the pilot of Tom Godwin’s rescue rocket. He’s just following natural law.

And Ann Godoff has been accordingly hurled into the cold, black void of outer space. But unlike the unfortunate Marilyn, Godoff has been rescued by Penguin Books, which immediately hired her and gave her her own imprint. About thirty of Random House’s authors went with her, but Olson only remarked, with the crystal-clear objectivity of dollar science: “We have thousands of writers.”

1000s > 30

Peter Olson is what the cartoonist Bill Mauldin once called a garatrooper. Though without personal military experience, he reads military history avidly. Hirschberg quotes him as saying, “Military histories are better for learning about corporate strategies and management technique than any other books.”

This comment is the current banality of what passes for thinking in American business. Perusing the “Management” section at the local Barnes & Noble turns up the following titles: Career Warfare; Brand Warfare; No Excuse Leadership: Lessons from the U.S. Army’s Elite [sic] Rangers; Leadership Lessons of the Navy Seals; It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy; Business as War: Battling for Competitive Advantage; Sun Tzu: The Art of War for Managers; Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell; The Rumsfeld Way: Leadership Wisdom of a Battle-Hardened Maverick; Leadership Lessons from the Civil War; The Marine Corps Way: Using Maneuver Warfare To Lead a Winning Organization; Guerilla anything (Publicity, Marketing, etc.); Sun Tzu for Success; The Book of Five Rings, and Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence.

It seems that men in three-piece suits, sitting at desks, toying with spreadsheet formulas, dream fiercely of pitched battles, of George Patton advancing on the Russians, of Douglas MacArthur invading China, and other bold encounters that never happened. These sentimental dreams may or may not be adequate metaphors of business, but they are definitely fantasies, like “The Cold Equations.” And the prevalence of these dreams of conquest suggests that, perhaps, unlike Adam Smith, some of our men in three-piece suits do not know what business in fact is or is for.

(Of course, the U.S. military, since its defeat in Vietnam, has tried to model itself more and more on the lines of business, using modern management theory to address its inner workings. Enlisted personnel are customers. This is also a fantasy, the fantasy that soldiering is just another job in an array of jobs, no different in essence from working in a call center or making SUVs on an assembly line. Missing here, and missing also from the warrior fantasies of the men in suits, is the ideal of service. Suffice it to say that we are witnessing the success of this approach in our current adventures in the Mysterious East and in our educational system. But business, at any rate, did not lose in Vietnam. No, in Vietnam, as in most wars, business won big. How’s that for a cold equation?)

Cold equations such as Peter’s 12 percent return on sales enter the picture in another fantasy: management as a science. In an age of polling and statistics, that is, in an age of bullshit, in order to have power you must be scientific. Like Tom Clancy. Remember those spy satellite sequences in the movie version of Patriot Games where the terrorists moved around on the screen as little white dots against a desert background? That’s scientific.
We like science because it is objective. Our dependence on science — which we chose to call reliance — parallels the decline of what Emerson called self-reliance. This phenomenon might be a good subject for scientific study. Be that as it may, the objective quality of science is well-suited for application to The Marketplace, which we also sense as objective, that is, god-like, indifferent to our fates, and beyond our control. It may be that this confidence in The Marketplace has certain meaningful parallels as well.

But The Marketplace is full of numbers — numbers of dollars are the whole point of The Marketplace, correct? And numbers are also our favorite form of abstraction, manipulable in ways that more than satisfy the American craving for concreteness and certainty. Limiting our perceptions of The Marketplace to a view only of the numbers yields a higher level of the desired certainty and concreteness. Thus we arrive at the great cliché of contemporary business: that only the quantifiable aspects of work need to be considered at all. Limiting our attention to the quantifiable results in — you guessed it, didn’t you? — numerous cold equations.

The best way to study the quantified aspects of work is to have a project, like the Manhattan Project, and a team, like the one Robert J. Oppenheimer led. Or, better, Edward Teller. Edward Teller yields big cold equations. Way bigger than Oppenheimer’s, that’s for sure. Oppenheimer was given to making references to Hindu holy books: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” There’s no room in business for this kind of mysticism. How Old Europe can you get?

Your study of the quantifiable will need at least one technology, too. The preferred technology in business today is spreadsheet technology. Spreadsheets are everywhere and are widely employed in the creation of models for decision-making, and other forms of simulation. You can use a spreadsheet, in other words, to create metaphors of actual business by abstracting the numerical aspects of work. To put it simply, spreadsheet technology gives you beaucoup cold equations. Spreadsheet technology makes you feel like a George Patton of industry. (Patton was Richard Nixon’s favorite movie. It is a movie for boys.)

Cold equations are the alpha and omega of the varied manifestations of this science. The point of this science is to arrive at propositions that are contrary and indifferent to the human. That’s why we can’t really call this pure science. It’s applied. Especially in our management science and our military science: cold equations and rational argument, and not emotion or subjectivity. Emotion is wrong because we have no instruments to contain it. It tends too much toward the indescribable, the indecipherable. It has too many qualities. And subjectivity is obviously wrong, because no one wants to die, and somebody’s got to. Poor pretty, young Marilyn, for instance, or maybe Anne Godoff.

Science and technology are your allies in the face of fear, and the worst fear is the fear of being out of control. Science and technology put you in the driver’s seat. Remember how those guys used to come flying down out of the sky into an Olds 88 in the Hertz ads? That’s you, with science and technology.

Once you’re in control, nothing can go wrong. And if nothing can go wrong, you will balance your cold equations. You will be free of “society’s institutionalized delusions.”
Sonny Mehta, the editor responsible for Alfred A. Knopf’s 12 percent, told Lynn Hirschberg: “Taste is not what Peter is about.”

That is because taste is not scientific, is not enabled by any technology. Taste has nothing to do with technology, and especially not with spreadsheet technology. This is why most science fiction, like most business and almost all of academe, is tasteless.

Peter Olson’s favorite writer is Lee Child, who writes thrillers about an ex-military policeman named Jack Reacher. Here’s a sample from Killing Floor, in which Jack Reacher recalls a young man’s prison experience:

I remembered an army guy, a deserter. Young guy, not a bad recruit, went AWOL because he got some nut religion. Got into trouble in Washington, demonstrating. Ended up thrown in jail, among bad guys . . . Died on his first night. Anally raped. An estimated fifty times. And at the autopsy they found a pint of semen in his stomach.

Now that’s tasteless. It’s ok, though: it’s entertainment. In fact, it’s entertainment for boys: “bad guys” will rape you anally if you get involved with “nut religion.” Jack Reacher is not a “bad guy.” He is a “good guy.” In fact, according to Child, Jack Reacher is modeled on Peter Olson.

Taste is not modeled on Peter Olson. As any conservative will tell you, your taste is an expression of your morality, whatever it may be. Garatroopers like Peter Olson love stuff like Jack Reacher. They love to read about war and anal rape and people dying. Those are tough subjects, harsh truths, life is hard and tough and unforgiving, and so are garatroopers.

Garatroopers are soldiers who are stationed too close to the front lines to have to wear ties, yet too far into the rear areas to ever see combat.

Jack Reacher is a garatrooper’s wet dream. He may even be an “institutionalized delusion.”

Could it be that science and technology — like a naive morality given over to daydream cartoons of bad guys and good guys — have taken on some of the characteristics of institutionalized delusions? Might Peter Olson and Gregory Benford, Ph.D., actually have become little more than the personification of certain delusions of the Enlightenment? Was Richard Nixon correct when he said, “Americans are children”?

***
“EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED,” SAID TOM BROKAW, PART 2

Lee Child, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steele, Isaac Asimov, Thomas Kinkaid, George Rodrigue, Laurel Birch — to name only a handful among tens of thousands — are parasites on the body of our art.

The relationship between a parasite and its host may be symbiotic, like that between the rhinoceros and the tickbird, whose cries alert its near-sighted friend to danger. And from the dime novels of the 1890s to the roughhouse of Carroll John Daly to the work of Dashiell Hammett and the dialogue of Ernest Hemingway, there is a direct though circuitous relation. Roses will grow in shit.

More often the parasite kills the host, as smallpox consumes the human organism. This is what is happening now: the parasites are so numerous and so vicious that they are overwhelming their host. This is all to the good, for it will kill the bizarre mutant we flatter ourselves by calling “American culture.” Once this imposter is dead, and all its parasites are left without anything on which to feed and so pass from the scene themselves, then perhaps a real civilization can arise at last.

***
A CONFUCIAN RECTIFICATION OF A NAME

In the Virtual Reality we call America, Peter Olson passes for a capitalist, that is, an arbitrary rich man who, at all costs, must and will amass ever greater sums of money, piles of dollars, diarrhea of dimes. In truth, he is, in John Ralston Saul’s phrase, “an employee in drag”: he draws a salary, has a pension, receives sick pay, and is covered by health insurance, four things that I do not have because I am a freelancer — that is, a capitalist. Peter flies first class, or better, “business elite.” When you’re done reading Fortune, meet me back in Coach. Peter Olson, like the majority of our business class, is not about risk or self-reliance. Those things, like taste, are for Anne Godoff’s writers. As for the rest of you, there are the cold equations. Peter Olson is about self-aggrandizement and his own security. Capitalists do not work for Bertelsmann. Capitalists work only for themselves.

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INTELLIGENCE

Experts tell us we need better intelligence. Better “business intelligence,” better “political intelligence,” better “military intelligence.”

Experts tell us we can gain better intelligence of all sorts by means of science and technology.

Like rational argument, science and technology yield More Of The Same.

To “better” our “intelligence” is to improve and strengthen, to enlarge and perfect the problem.

We solve a problem when we step outside it; that is, when we transcend it. Transcendence is not scientific. The scientific only works inside the problem. This institutionalizes Gregory Benford, but gives us no answers.

We want answers.

We can have them.

There is no end to any problem when it is viewed scientifically, that is, exclusively in terms of the problem. When we transcend the problem — any problem — we see it in terms of the outside, and out there, it is not a problem. Out there, the problem has disappeared.

We do not need better intelligence. We need wisdom.

***
MOM

Lee Child makes lots of money. Pam Anderson does too. Showing her ass. Everyone gathers round. They say: “Ass!” The law is an ass. So are garatroopers.

Remember your mother. Cover your ass.

 

Note:  On May 6, 2008, Random House announced that Peter Olson would step down as CEO of the company, because of failure to attain sales goals.

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