the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Friday, April 14, 2006

Cooked Books

Last Wednesday, the A.C.L.U filed a motion for dismissal in U.S. v. Patel (Operation Meth Merchant), claiming law enforcement officials had discriminatorily targeted South Asian grocers in their methamphetamine drug sting in Rome Georgia, northwest of Atlanta. As evidence, the motion cited the testimony of an undercover agent, identified as “John Doe 2,” who described how he was directed by the officers he worked for to make targeted purchases, during which he was instructed to say specific things, including
statements such as “I need it to go cook” or “Hurry up, I’ve got to get home and finish a cook.” When John Doe 2 expressed concern that people who manufacture meth would neveroffer such unsolicited and incriminating statements, the officers (a) ordered him/her to make the statements subsequent to the paying for and receiving the products and (b) explained “that the Indians’ English wasn’t good, and they wouldn’t say a lot so it was important for [him/her] to make th[ose] kinds of statements” to support the arrests.
When the grocers sold the agents otherwise innocent products (cold medicine, aluminum foil, etc.), the State then used the agent’s vernacular “unsolicited and incriminating statements” as evidence that the grocers had been informed of what the agents intended to do with said products.

The term “cook” lies, therefore, at the crux of the U.S. v. Patel case, but furthermore provides an evocative hinge around which to bring together two concurrent and overlapping discussions within the Long Sunday community. On the one hand, there is a thread which takes the current reappropriation of the Spanish Civil War rallying cry “no pasarán,” by some “two-a-penny right wing proxies” in the recent anti-American protests in France, and uses this as a pretext to reexamine Derrida’s reading of Celan , and particularly his poem “Shibboleth” On the other hand, there is next week’s on-line symposium on Spivak’s “Scattered Speculations of the Question of Value,” together with several discussions which have already been disseminated in advance.

At the heart of the U.S. v. Patel motion is the verb “to cook,” which was used by the drug agents as a sort of shibboleth—silently marking, as Derrida writes in Sovereignties in Question, “the multiplicity within language, insignificant differences as the condition of meaning.” Indeed, what is ultimately at stake is not the word’s literal, conventional meaning, but rather a slang, underground meaning. In fact, as many have observed, the fact that all of the discussions of the case in the media have found it necessary to explain that “to cook” is slang for preparing crystal meth suggests this alternate meaning of this term is far from universally known, making it all the more surprising that an immigrant with poor English skills would necessarily understand the reference. John Doe 2’s testimony notwithstanding, the logic of Operation Meth Merchant is predicated on attributing the grocers with linguistic competency (or even super-fluency) in American English. Rather than serving as an invitation of inclusion, however, the “to cook” shibboleth instead reaffirms the xenophobic prejudices already in place.

This linkage between crystal meth and community inclusion/exclusion in rural Georgia, furthermore, has a curious postscript. In September, 2005 (about four months after the conclusion of Operation Meth Merchant), it was revealed that when Atlanta suburb resident Ashley Smith was held hostage by escaped convict Ben Nichols back in March, she had actually not used a copy of Rick Warren’s Christian best-seller, A Purpose-Driven Life to placate the escaped con, as she had initially claimed, but rather had used some crystal meth which she happened to have on hand. From opiate of the masses, to genuine opiates....

The verb “to cook,” meanwhile, also stands at the threshold of Spivak’s seminal essay, “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value” (1985). Near the beginning of that piece, Spivak is given pause by the overdetermined significance of the term:
It is our task to suggest that, by lifting the lid of that seemingly unified concept-phenomenon, Marx uncovered the economic text. Sometimes it seems that cooking is a better figure than weaving when one speaks of the text, although the latter has etymological sanction. Lifting the lid, Marx discovers that the pot of the economic is forever on the boil. What cooks (in all senses of this enigmatic expression) is Value.
Spivak’s stress on this “enigmatic expression”—including its para-pharmaceutical connotations as elaborated above—inadvertently raises the question the roles of fetishism and addiction in the production of value.

What if what cooks is, in fact, an addictive drug such as crystal meth? Derived from common household products, crystal meth is reputed to be a highly addictive and physically devastating drug. What determines the value of such a drug? What is the place, within a theory of commodity fetishism, for a logic of fetishistic desire or physiological addiction?

These twin themes of linguistic shibboleths and fetishistic consumption, meanwhile, come together in the recent phenomenon of Jeffrey Gitomer’s “little red book” series. A few weeks ago, Gitomer (identified on Amazon as “the world’s leading expert on selling”) published Little Red Book of Sales Answers: 99.5 Real World Answers that Make Sense, Make Sales, and Make Money (2006), which is a sequel to his modestly best-selling (300,00 copies) 2004 volume, The Little Red Book of Selling: 12.5 Principles of Sales Greatness .

Troping on Mao’s famous Little Red Book, Gitomer’s aphoristic capitalist bibles are similarly designed to be memorized in small chunks and applied to a wide variety of situations. Both Mao’s and Gitomer’s texts, therefore, arguably are concerned as much with a sort of linguistic or discursive competency (how to say appropriate things in appropriate situations), as they are with teaching actual knowledge or ideology (in The Problem of a Chinese Aesthetic, Haun Saussy argues that the hyper-politicized Book of Odes 诗经 was traditionally used much the same way).

Gitomer’s texts, furthermore, are apparently as concerned with the dynamics of consumption as they are with selling. As the Publisher’s Weekly notes in its short review of the 2004 volume, Gitomer is not merely concerned with selling, but also with the psychology of buying:
If salespeople are worried about how to sell, Gitomer (The Sales Bible) believes they are missing out on the more important aspect of sales: why people buy. This, he says, is "all that matters," and his latest book aims to demystify buying principles for salespeople.
Why do people buy things? More generally, how would a theory of value account for commodities which are literally festishized (not to mention the objects of physiological addiction)? For instance, how would Gitomer explain that appeal of his own books--an appeal which, even if it certainly falls well short of addiction, may nevertheless be productively compared to the fetishistic appeal of texts like the original Maoist Little Red Book (or, for that matter, Warren's A Purpose-Driven Life)?

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