Doing laundry and reading
I’m happy to be giving a talk and a reading at this year’s Sacramento Poetry Center Writers Conference. Information can be found on the SPC website. In brief, the event is being held on Saturday April 14 from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM at the SPC, 1719 25th Street, Sacramento, CA. A steal at $30 non-members / $20 for members. With Michelle Bitting, Tim Kahl, Kate Gale, Steve Gehrke, and Christina Hutchins. I’ll be talking about setting in literature around 10:30. Planning on bringing in some work by Stephen Shore, Frank Golkhe, Richard Adams, Faulkner, Flaubert, Barthes, and Philip Levine and having a general discussion on the relationship between self and environment, and extending that into how that manifests itself in literature. This is something of a preview of a more formal version I’ll be giving at American River College’s SummerWords at the end of May / beginning of June.
In case you find yourself in Davis, California this week, my buddy Michael Spurgeon and I are reading from our recent writings at Bistro 33 on Thursday night. Click the link for the info:
I’ve been working on a poem about Yu the Great, founder of the Xia Dynasty. The above image is Ma Lin’s portrayal. Yu was famous for, among other feats, controlling the floods. I’m interested in him as a cartography. He wasn’t actually a cartographer, incidentally, but his flood control (via creating new channels and aqueducts rather than dams) fueled a very interesting map wherein the landscape is divided up, grid-wise, into one li blocks.
This is part of a potentially longer project of interlocking and interrelated poems on cartography and cartographers. The Yu poem is, I think, just a starting point. Excuse the hesitation here, as this is a new project and I’ve not yet worked it all out. Just letting it flow some. Part of this may have started with a song, “Cartographers,” that I did for Ptolemaic Terrascope (not out yet). Who knows how the mind works? Not me.
In any case, I’m spending time seeped in (simultaneously) Leonardo da Vinci, Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, and Chinese mythology, hydrology, and cartography. The connections make sense to me in ways that I can’t even think of now that I’m looking at them all in a list. Egads.
Roberto Bolaño had come to the notice of the English-speaking “world literature” canon just a few scant years before the publication of 2666 in English translation. Some have noted that the novel was lauded as a masterpiece (by English language periodicals) long before the translation had appeared, but if this is the case I am unaware of where such lauding actually occurred. Nonetheless, it is absolutely true that the English language press stumbled over themselves in praise of it. The New York Review of Books called it a “tour de force,” others an “undisputed masterpiece.” It is despite this flood of praise that I must, with all due respect to the critical community, dispute the position this novel has been afforded in the literary canon.
It is first necessary to acknowledge why Bolaño’s novel might have been accepted as a “masterpiece” even before it appeared. The author was already in the grave when the book appeared in print in its original Spanish and the timing could not have been more perfect for his “masterpiece” to appear. He had already entered the canon on the strength of his other novels—sideways, perhaps, but still definitely in it—and here was 1000 pages of experimental novel, written while death loomed over him, no less. How could we not love it? It was like the tragedy of all great Spanish literature wrapped into one monumental book.
“Monumental” is the right word here too, for the novel itself is beastly in length, and size certainly does matter when we consider the greatness, the masterpieceness, the tour de forceness of literary works. If an author is established, is it not the “big book” that is finally granted “masterpiece” status (at least at first). Is that not why we champion The Magic Mountain, for example? Or The Gulag Archipelago? Great books, to be sure, but the absolute best writing by Mann, or Solzhenitsyn, or whoever? Perhaps so, but in critical discourse it at times feels that it is the length of the novel–its page count of physical weight–that tilts us into the category of “masterpiece.”
The reviews of the novel are problematic because of this very acceptance. “One of the cornerstones that define an entire literature,” writes Ródenas for a Barcelona paper. If by cornerstone, this critical means that it is heavy enough to act as a physical cornerstone for an archway, then perhaps he is correct. The problem here is that so little of the reviews grapple with the most important question about 2666, namely what, if anything, is the novel about? What is important about this novel and why should anyone care?
The bare bones are these: The novel is divided into five barely-related sections, each with its own narrative and, largely, its own set of characters. Occasionally one or two characters will traipse into another section but they are self-contained pieces and lack any real sense of continuity. The most problematic section is the fourth, “The Part About the Killings,” a practically endless catalog of the bodies of murdered women found in Santa Teresa, a barely-fictionalized Juarez.
“The Part About the Killings” is indicative of much of the novel. Here, Bolaño focuses on short declarations of fact throughout the novel (with the exception of the final section) and this is nowhere more apparent in “The Part About the Killings.” In describing the murdered women, one might expect Bolaño to humanize them, to offer something of their lives, their histories, their voices, but then there is none of this in the novel: not here and, until the final section of the novel, not anywhere. What he does is tell us again and again that the women were “vaginally and anally raped,” a phrase that becomes mantra-like in this section, but ultimately he takes the banality of the crimes and makes them even more banal by forcing his readers to read, over and over again, that phrase until it loses all meaning. Interspersed with these police reports are walk-ons with various detectives, experts, police officers, and accused perpetrators, none of them offer a sense of depth or seem particularly interested in solving the crimes. I suppose that the end result is to make us feel like the crimes continue because no one cares, but Bolaño does nothing to change that. The dead women, in the end, are as anonymous to us as they were before we picked up the book in the beginning.
The anonymous quality of the dead women extends to many characters and moments in the book, some of which are well-written and memorable. Take, for example, the lengthy sermon by a blind chef and former Black Panther member in the third section. The sermon is funny to be sure, but it adds nothing whatsoever to the novel as a whole, unless it is to add to the ultimate sense of meaninglessness. There are many such moments: biographies of various characters that occupy many pages of the novel but ultimately do not add up to much of anything. I kept wondering if Bolaño had, in his haste to finish a “big book” had simply thrown in everything he had left over.
The final section, “The Part About Archimboldi,” is the most readable section of the novel, but it is also the least meaningful and the least connected to Northern Mexico, where all the other sections have a significant (if sometimes tenuous) stake. There is a sense of fairy tale here and it is compelling material even if it does not ultimately go anywhere. Archimboldi is a fictional novelist invented by Bolaño and his life story is interesting enough and, after the seeming endlessness (and plotlessness) of “The Part About the Killings,” it’s a breath of fresh air. What we are supposed to understand from Archimboldi’s story, though, remains a mystery, particularly as it has no real bearing on anything in the rest of the novel. When it is revealed that Klaus Haas, the suspected murderer, is Archimboldi’s nephew, our own reaction can be “so what,” because the connection seems to offer little understanding for us or for anyone.
In terms of possible recurrent themes, there is a sense of “bookishness” throughout—many characters are journalists, novelists, or literary critics, and in the second section one character is essentially driven mad by books, but what are we to make of that? Books will drive you crazy? I’m reminded here to Darren Aronovsky’s films, especially Pi, a film that is visually interesting but seems to have no intellectual core (math will drive you crazy?). Bolaño’s “books” are much the same here? They are a recurrent figure but hardly a symbol or even an image. Like everything else in the novel, they just are. This is an intellectual novel, then, without intelligence.
And there is one short paragraph towards the end of the novel that offers a kind of sum total of the novel as a whole. In describing one of fictional novelist Archimboldi’s works, Bolaño writes:
The style was strange. The writing was clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way the stories followed one after another didn’t lead anywhere: all that was left were the children, their parents, the animals, some neighbors, and in the end, all that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely. (887)
This is a fair and accurate (if metaphorical) description of 2666, for this novel, too, leads nowhere, the sections canceling each other out in such a way that we are left with nothing at all, not even a sense of plan, intelligence, or emotional inquiry. Bolaño’s work, then, lacks the intellectual center that Calvino, Borges, and Cortazar all had (not to mention Garcia Marquez). In the end it feels like he’s trying something but doesn’t really seem to know what or why. There’s a sense that he felt he really needed to write something both big and weird and so he did.
I’m reminded too of Fitzcarraldo, the Werner Herzog film where Klaus Kinski drags a riverboat up and over a mountain in the jungle with an eye toward making a resort in some distant jungle lake. It’s a fine image but there’s no concrete point to it so besides the “wow” of watching them do this thing there’s little to ponder. Kinski’s character is mad at the beginning of the film and more mad at the end so what does it mean? Human ambition with made a pretty crazy person even more crazy? Got it. Thanks. Andrei Tarkovsky does this same kind of thing successfully in his first full-length film, Andrei Rublev, with the casting of the church bell. That entire project is about the fragility and redemption of the human soul itself, the act of faith (in oneself, in God, in the work of one’s own hands and desires). I wish Bolaño’s work had this but I can find no evidence of it–in the end result, what is the book actually about? I don’t mean to suggest that all great novels need to have some kind of pedantic point, but I do think that they need to hold a spark of meaning and while many great books fail at this they do all (I think) have this in common.
Archimboldi’s story at the end is breathtakingly beautiful at times but it’s so fantastic a story (the village filled with chasms, the foot long cock in Dracula’s castle, Bubis’s wife being the Countess, etc.) that it’s clearly meant as a kind of fiction within the fiction. In other words, Bolaño doesn’t seem to want us to “believe” this story in the way he wants us to believe, say, Section 4. I makes it a very fun read–like reading a grown-up version of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates or something like that–but apart from being “fun” it too lacks any kind of core. It’s a shame that it was left with Fürst Pückler too–that’s just an embarrassing way to have to end your 1000 page epic–with Neopolitan ice cream. God’s just fucking with you then. If only he had died with the sister asking him if he’d take care of her son, his nephew. That’s not a satisfying ending either, but it’s a hell of a lot better than Fürst Pückler.
This leads to what may be the fundamental question of the text: How is 2666 even a novel? In fact, it is not a novel anymore than a collection of short stories is a novel. 2666 is five novellas, some more successful than others, and while it’s true that some of the characters appear throughout, that hardly makes it cohere into a novel, not even in terms of a “experiment” or “innovation,” for neither term applies here. Being compared to Borges or Calvino might be justification for some of his twists and turns but ultimately Bolaño has made no choices here, including everything rather than carefully crafting a cohesive piece of art. My advice is to skip to the final section about Archimboldi and to read that. It has a sense of coherence and magic utterly lacking from the rest of the novel, even if it is ultimately as intellectually hollow as the rest of the novel at least it strives to entertain. The rest of the novel attempts little and strives for less.
Thanks to all of you who have been kind enough to keep track of my novel-writing progress over the past year. It’s been a lengthy and rewarding process. This is my fourth manuscript and the first one that I really felt like was beyond the “apprentice” phase.
In any case, I finished the beast earlier this month–515 manuscript pages in all–and it’s off to the agency. Let’s hope they choose to represent it. I really do think that it’s worth reading and in some ways its the most important art I’ve yet been able to make. I likely say that every time I finish something new, but then again that’s why I keep making art so hell yes I’d better feel that way.
Much of the time since reading. Some are asking when I’m making a new album. That question I can’t yet answer. I can tell you that Digitalis has one last album that I did with Tetuzi Akiyama and Tom Carter. It’s titled “The Darkened Mirror” and will be out whenever Digitalis does it (and it will be on vinyl only). I also have a cassette-only release with Digitalis under the band name “Generals & Such,” which is a project I did with friends Erik Werner (who directed the Washington Dreams of the Hippopotamus video) and Tim Rowan. It’s called “Quixote” and is marvelous. I’m the drummer. Sounds like a noisy freakout of Explosions In the Sky. Perhaps a bit more obtuse than that.
As for new songs, I have a bunch demoed from before the novel, but I don’t have much interest just now in delving into them. I likely have enough for an album, actually, but those who know my work will already know that I don’t really release song collections. Everything always has to have a central theme or idea or narrative. I don’t run sprints; only the distance. So either a theme will be revealed or I’ll keep silent until something comes along.
One thing to look for on the music front: Ptolemaic Terrascope asked me to contribute some material for a scrapbook project they’re working on and offered up 10 minutes of time on the accompanying CD. This I filled up with a single track: “Cartographers.” It’s a long rumination on mid-19th century explorers in the Western American mountain ranges. Heavy but luminous at times. I recorded it with help from Tim Metz, Scott Leftridge, and percussionist Bob Gemelin. These are good people, all. The finished track sounds (I hope) like Talk Talk’s best work: Spirit of Eden. A luminous album indeed.
I’ll get some chunks of the book up here in the near future, I promise. Meanwhile, thanks again for all the e-mails, twitter comments, texts, and facebook messages. You guys are all champions.
I got the idea for this piece from mathematician David Hilbert’s well-known list of 23 “Paris Problems” (1900) that he hoped to see solved in the new century. Of course there is not the slightest connection between Hilbert’s list of problems and this list of questions. Not to mention the fact that many of these questions contain the answers simply in the asking.
1. Should a modern composer be judged against only the very best works of the past?
2. Can there be truly objective criteria for judging a work of art?
3. If a composer can write one or two or more great works of music why cannot all of his or her works be great?
4. Why does the contemporary musical establishment remain so conservative when all other fields of the arts embrace new ideas?
5. Should a composer, if confronted with a choice, write for the musicians who will play a piece or write for the audience who will hear it?
6. When is an audience big enough to satisfy a composer or a musician? 100? 1000? 10,000? 100,000? 1,000,000? 100,000,000?
7. Is the symphony orchestra still relevant or is it just a museum?
8. Is micro-tonality a viable compositional tool or a burned out modernist concept?
9. In an orchestra of 80 to 100 musicians does the use of improvisation make any sense?
10. What is the dichotomy between dissonance and. tonality and where should the line be drawn?
11. Can the music that sooths the savage beast be savage?
12. Should a composer speak with the voice of his or her own time?
13. If there’s already so much good music to listen to what’s the point of more composers writing more music?
14. If Bach were alive today would he be writing in the baroque style?
15. Must all modern composers reject the past, a la John Cage or Milton Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?”
16. Is the symphony an antiquated idea or is it, like the novel in literature, still a viable long form of music?
17. Can harmony be non-linear?
18. Was Cage’s “4:33” a good piece of music?
19. Artists are expected to accept criticism, should critics be expected to accept it as well?
20. Sometimes I’m tempted to talk about the role that corporate culture plays in the sale and distribution of illegal drugs throughout the United States and the world, and that the opium crop in Afghanistan has increased by 86 percent since the American occupation, and the fact that there are 126,000 civilian contractors in Iraq, but what does this have to do with music?
21. Can the orchestra be replaced by increasingly sophisticated computer-sampling programs and recording techniques, at least as far as recordings are concerned?
22. When a visual artist can sell a one-of-a-kind work for hundreds of thousands of dollars and anyone on the internet can have a composer’s work for nothing, how is a composer going to survive?
And does it matter?
23. Should composers try to reflect in their music the truth of their natures and the visions of their dreams whether or not this music appeals to a wide audience?
24. Why are advances in science and technology not paralleled by advances in music theory and compositional technique?
25. Post-Post Minimalism? Since Minimalism and Post-Minimalism we’ve seen a short-lived Neo-Romanticism, mainly based on misguided attempts to return to a 19th century tonality, then an improv scene which had little or nothing to do with composition, then a hodge-podge of styles: a little old “new music,” a little “60’s sound colorism”, then an eclectic pomo stew of jazz, rock and classical, then a little retro-chic Renaissance … even tonal 12-tonalism. And now in Germany some “conceptual” re-readings of Wagner. What have I left out? Where’s the music?
Some of the pile on my desk includes:
Davy Graham, Folk, Blues & Beyond
Geoff Muldaur, Sleepy Man Blues
Calypso Pioneers, 1912-1937
Bob Dylan, Artist’s Choice (from Starbucks but MAN is it gooood!)
Sonic Youth, Murray Street
Loren Connors, As Roses Bow: Collected Airs 1992-2002
Gregory Orr, Burning the Empty Nests
Seek them all out fair traveler.
My wife and I have been discussing the reasons for oil barrel prices being as high as they are. Here’s an interesting article from The Economist about the various reasons (and scapegoats). The Economist is generally a bit too conservative-leaning for my tastes (including its frankly reprehensible support of the invasion of Afghanistan), but this is a good article.
May 29th 2008
From The Economist print edition
AFTER oil hit its recent record of $135 a barrel, consumers and politicians started to lash out in every direction. Fishermen in France have been blockading ports and pouring oil on the roads in protest. British lorry drivers have paraded coffins through London as a token of the imminent demise of the haulage industry. In response, Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister, is badgering oil bosses to increase production from the North Sea, while Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, wants the European Union to suspend taxes on fuel.
In America, too, politicians are haranguing oil bosses and calling for tax cuts. Congress has approved a bill to prevent the government from adding to America’s strategic stocks of oil, and is contemplating another to enable American prosecutors to sue the governments of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) for market manipulation.
But the most popular scapegoats are “speculators” of the more traditional sort.OPEC itself routinely blames them for high prices. The government of India is so sure that speculation makes commodities dearer that it has banned the trading of futures contracts for some of them (although not oil). Germany’s Social Democratic Party proposes an international ban on borrowing to buy oil futures, on the same grounds. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, is also mulling regulation of some sort, having concluded that “speculators are responsible for a big part of the commodity price increases”. The assumption underlying such ideas is that a bubble is forming, and that if it were popped, the price of oil would be much lower.
Others assume the reverse: that the price is bound to keep rising indefinitely, since supplies of oil are running short. The majority of the world’s crude, according to believers in “peak oil”, has been discovered and is already being exploited. At any rate, the size of new fields is diminishing. So production will soon reach a pinnacle, if it has not done so already, and then quickly decline, no matter what governments do.
As different as these theories are, they share a conviction that something has gone badly wrong with the market for oil. High prices are seen as proof of some sort of breakdown. Yet the evidence suggests that, to the contrary, the rising price is beginning to curb demand and increase supply, just as the textbooks say it should.
Those who see speculators as the culprits point to the emergence of oil and other commodities as a popular asset class, alongside stocks, bonds and property. Ever more investors are piling into the oil markets, the argument runs, pushing up the price as they do so. The number of transactions involving oil futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX), the biggest market for oil, has almost tripled since 2004. That neatly mirrors a tripling of the price of oil over the same period.
But Jeffrey Harris, the chief economist of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), which regulates NYMEX and other American commodities exchanges, does not see any evidence that the growth of speculation in oil has caused the price to rise. Rising prices, after all, might have been stimulating the growing investment, rather than the other way around. There is no clear correlation between increased speculation and higher prices in commodities markets in general. Despite a continuing flow of investment in nickel, for example, its price has fallen by half over the past year.
By the same token, the prices of several commodities that are not traded on any exchange, and are therefore much harder for speculators to invest in, have risen even faster than that of oil. Deutsche Bank calculates that cadmium, a rare metal, has appreciated twice as much as oil since 2001, for example, and the price of rice has risen fractionally more.
Investment can flood into the oil market without driving up prices because speculators are not buying any actual crude. Instead, they buy contracts for future delivery. When those contracts mature, they either settle them with a cash payment or sell them on to genuine consumers. Either way, no oil is hoarded or somehow kept off the market. The contracts are really a bet about which way the price will go and the number of bets does not affect the amount of oil available. As Mr Harris puts it, there is no limit to the number of “paper barrels” that can be bought and sold.
That makes it harder for a bubble to develop in oil than in the shares of internet firms, say, or in housing, where the supply of the asset is finite. Ultimately, says David Kirsch of PFC Energy, a consultancy, there is only one type of customer for crude: refineries. If speculators on the futures markets get carried away, pushing prices so high that refineries run at a loss, they will simply shut down, causing the price to fall again. Moreover, speculators do not always assume that prices will rise. As recently as last year, the speculative bears on NYMEX outweighed the bulls.
There is, admittedly, a growing category of inherently bullish investment funds that seek to track commodity-price indices, in which oil is usually the biggest component. Politicians have begun to denounce these “index funds”, since they make money for their investors only if prices rise. According to Mr Lieberman, they have grown in value from $13 billion to $260 billion over the past five years. This surge of investors betting on rising prices, many observers contend, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, helping to push prices ever higher and thus attract yet more investment.
But Bob Greer, of PIMCO, an asset-management firm, argues that even index funds make unlikely suspects. For one thing, they too invest in futures, rather than in physical supplies of oil. So every month, they must trade contracts that are about to fall due for ones that will not mature for several months. That makes them big sellers of oil for prompt delivery.
What is more, their growth is not as impressive as it first appears. Paul Horsnell of Barclays Capital, an investment bank, puts the total value of index funds and other similar investments at $225 billion. That is less than half the market capitalisation of Exxon Mobil, he points out, and a tiny fraction of the $50 trillion-odd of transactions in the oil markets each year. Although index funds have grown quickly, that growth stems in large part from the rise in value of the futures they hold, rather than from fresh investment flows. He estimates that index funds swelled by $13 billion in the first quarter of this year, for example, of which all but $2 billion derives from the rise in commodity prices.
Mr Harris of the CFTC, for one, believes that the oil price is still a function of supply and demand. For the past few years, the world’s production capacity has grown only sluggishly. Meanwhile, demand, especially from the developing world, has been growing faster. So there is hardly any slack in the system. Only Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are thought to be able to increase their output from today’s levels, and even then, there are doubts, since Saudi Arabia, in particular, is secretive about the state of its oil industry.
That leaves the oil market at the mercy of even small disruptions to supply. Prices tend to jump each time militants sabotage an oil pipeline in Nigeria, bad weather threatens production in the Gulf of Mexico, or political clouds gather over the Persian Gulf.
The problem is exacerbated by a growing mismatch between the type of oil being produced and the refineries that must process it. The most common benchmark prices, including the one used in this article, refer to “light” crude, the least viscous sort, which produces the most petrol and diesel when refined. “Heavy” oil, by contrast, yields more fuel oil, which is used mainly for heating.
At the moment, diesel is in short supply and there is a glut of fuel oil. That makes processing heavy oil unprofitable for some refineries, since the gains from diesel are outweighed by losses on fuel oil. As refineries turn instead to lighter grades, it pushes their prices yet higher. The discount on heavier crudes has risen to record levels. But even then, points out Ed Morse, of Lehman Brothers, another investment bank, Iran is having trouble selling the stuff. It is storing huge quantities of unsold oil on tankers moored off its coast.
Presumably, Iran and other heavy-oil producers will eventually be obliged to drop prices far enough to make processing the stuff worth refiners’ while. In the longer run, more refineries will invest in the equipment needed to crack more diesel out of heavy oil. Both steps will, in effect, increase the world’s oil supply, and so help to ease prices.
But improving an existing refinery or building a new one is a slow and capital-intensive business. Firms tend to be very conservative in their investments, since refineries have decades-long life-spans, during which prices and profits can fluctuate wildly. It can also be difficult to find a site and obtain the right permits—one of the reasons why no new refineries have been built in America for over 30 years. Worse, new kit is becoming ever more expensive. Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), a consultancy, calculates that capital costs for refineries and petrochemical plants have risen by 76% since 2000.
Much the same applies to the development of new oilfields. CERA reckons that the cost of developing them has risen even faster—by 110%. At the same time, oilmen remain scarred by the rapid expansion of output in the late 1970s, in response to previous spikes in prices, that led to a glut and so to a prolonged slump. Exxon Mobil claims that it still assesses the profitability of potential investments using the same assumptions about the long-term oil price as it did at the beginning of the decade, for fear that prices might tumble again. Environmental concerns are also an obstacle: America, for one, has banned oil production off most of its coastline.
Increasing nationalism on the part of oil-rich countries is adding to the difficulties. Geologists are convinced that there is still a lot of oil to be discovered in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, but governments in both regions are reluctant to give outsiders access. Elsewhere, the most promising areas for exploration are also the most technically challenging: in deep water, or in the Arctic, or both. Although there have been big recent discoveries in such places, they will take longer to develop, and costs will be higher. The most expensive projects of all involve the extraction of oil from bitumen, shale and even coal, through elaborate processing. The potential for these is more or less unlimited, although analysts put the costs as high as $70 a barrel—more than the oil price this time last year.
Nonetheless, PFC Energy has examined projects that are already under way, and concluded that global oil production will grow by over 3m barrels a day (b/d) over the course of this year and next. In particular, it expects production outside OPECto grow by about 500,000 b/d both years—a marked increase from the near stagnation of recent years.
Meanwhile, the high price is clearly beginning to crimp demand. The growth in global consumption last year was barely a quarter what it was in 2004 (see chart); this year, it is likely be even lower. In rich countries (or at least among the members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a rough proxy), the effect is even more pronounced. Consumption has been falling for the past two and a half years.
Poorer countries’ demand for oil is still rising, albeit at a slowing pace. That is partly because their economies are growing faster, and partly because their consumers are shielded from the rising price through subsidies. But the increasing expense of such measures is forcing governments to water them down or scrap them altogether (see article). That, in turn, should further sap consumption.
China’s growing thirst for oil is often put forward as one of the main factors behind today’s higher oil prices. Demand for diesel there, for example, rose by over 9% in the year to April. But Mr Morse argues that such growth might not last. The government has ordered oil firms to increase their stocks of fuel by 50% to be sure there are no embarrassing shortages during the Olympics. It is also planning to run some power plants near Beijing on diesel rather than coal, in an attempt to reduce pollution during the games. These measures are helping to boost China’s demand for diesel, but the effect will be transitory.
In the short run, neither demand for nor supply of oil is very elastic. It takes time for people to replace their old guzzlers with more fuel-efficient cars, or to switch to jobs with shorter commutes, or to move closer to public transport. By the same token, it can take ten years or more to develop an oilfield after its discovery—and that does not include the time firms need to bolster their exploration units.
Gary Becker, an economist at the University of Chicago, has calculated that in the past, over periods of less than five years, oil consumption in the OECD dropped by only 2-9% when the price doubled. Likewise, oil production in countries outsideOPEC grew by only 4% every time the price doubled. But over longer periods, consumption dropped by 60% and supply rose by 35%. The precise numbers may be slightly different this time round, but the pattern will be the same.
I’m wrestling with thorny French post-somethingist Jean Baudrillard. The excerpt (below) is from William Merrin’s Baudrillard and the Media. It’s following up on Durkheim’s and Mauss’ discussion of the gift exchange process by which some cultures give material good away (as gifts) rather than accumulating them:
Mauss saw the gift as having been historically swept aside by the victory of rationalism and mercantilism. In raising the principles of individual profit, utility and formal contractual relations these had turned humanity from a collective being into an ‘economic animal’: a Homo oeconomicus that was little more than ‘a calculating machine.’ However, in arguing that the ‘ancient principles’ of the gift had not been completely superseded and in seeing them as reappearing in our society ‘like the resurrection of a dominant motif long forgotten,’ Mauss develops a genealogy, adopted by the Durkheimian tradition and found again in Baudrillard. This genealogy sees a mode of relations destroyed by the modern west which replaces it with an inferior, individualized mode, while retaining a belief in the continued presence and possibility of this collective mode as a radical principle opposed to and capable of transforming the contemporary world. If ultimately Mauss’s hopes for a limited reform of capitalism through the gift are unconvincing, his desire to return to its principles and to another, deeper mode of existence carries more weight. (14)
I’m not sure what to do with this yet in terms of my own project, but it’s an interesting idea.