Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Evils of Codification

Hearsay about Korea

A lot of people I went to grad school with have taught or are now teaching in Korea. A few of them never want to come back. Most hate Korea with all of hell's fury.

"I don't want to simplistically vilify an entire nation, but . . ."

Confucianism is hard for the non-native practitioner. Get-to-know-you questions like "How much money do you make? Are you married? Why not? Do you have children? How many are boys?" strike a lot of Americans as weird. Also weird for Americans is that this information is being ascertained so that Koreans will know how deeply to bow, who should enter rooms first, and what verb tenses to use.

Formalism gives me good feelings, personally. It reminds me of Jane Austin novels.

What sends my colleagues fleeing like pitiful hipster refugees, though, is not the formalism. It's that the formalism seems to psychologically absolve people of their social responsibilities. So long as you've kept to the code in terms of who sits down first and who you can smoke in front of, you're free to be barbarously terrible to people in all other matters.

I've never actually been to Korea. I have no idea if any of this is true. But something like this does, I think, happen with codification.

The invention of currency

The anarchist anthropologist David Graeber has a new book on debt. He says that (contrary to popular opinion) credit came first, to be followed by bartering, and then coinage. Because we moderns usually think about credit in terms of dollar-denominated ledgers, we get things confused, and assume that credit was the most recent invention.

Our confusion comes from our failure to imagine a world in which credit was not denominated. In primitive societies, you let someone stay over or let him eat one of your cows, and he tried to do something equivalent when you were needing and he was capable.

When this changed, it ushered in a wave of violence.

Why? Why does putting things in numbers make everyone evil? I think because of transferability. When debts could be precisely reckoned, recorded, and transferred, it allowed some pretty absurd levels of obligation to pile up. And when the moral terror involved in calling in these kinds of debts could be transferred to banks, governments, and other non-human entities, we could commit our atrocities by proxy, and never really think about what we were doing.


God damn it if anarchism doesn't get its claws in you. You start by reading Noam Chomsky and Ron Paul because you don't like wars and the federal reserve, and then pretty soon the bible is, like, all about love and coercion, man.

In the bible, God makes man and puts him in this garden with this evil no-good Tree of Codification. Something like that. (Did you read my story, "The Tree", yet?) Man eats from it and starts codifying. Laws, money, you name it. God smiles and gives them a code that's explicitly impossible to keep.

And as we all know, "when the great Tao is declined/The doctrines of humanity (jen) and righteousness (yi) arose/When knowledge and wisdom appeared/There emerged great hypocrisy."

So stuff got bad. Codification hit fever pitch, and then God came down in the flesh and hung out with prostitutes, worked on the sabbath, and told a lot of parables about calling in debts and forgiving them.

He dies (quite artistically) on a tree, the Tree of Anti-Codification, and says (and I quote): "Look guys, here's the deal. You all have an insurmountable debt to me. If you want codification, I'll classify you, and you won't like it. If you want to call in your debts, I'll call yours in, and you're fucked. But here's another game we can play: the one we were playing before you picked the no-no tree. We can abide by the spirit of the law (it's more like guidelines, really), and not the letter. We can just try to be excellent to each other."

The point

I have absolutely no point. Maybe it's that humans can't draw for the same reason that governments suck and life is desperate and terrible, and Levi should move to Fannin County.

Or maybe this is just what happens when the anarchy tumor spreads up the stem of your brain.

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