Law in Contemporary Society

Chaos is a Friend of Mine

-- By StephenSevero - 16 Apr 2010

"Complexity so intricate no one can fathom it."

In "Something Split," a chapter of Lawrence Joseph's Lawyerland, we are introduced to transactional lawyer Carl Wylie through his apathy. He claims he doesn't care about academic theories concerning what the "law" is, or even "money." Rather, Wylie says what interests him is chaos, which he describes as being "so intricate no one can fathom it." This interest can be seen as a claim that everything he does is embedded in an impenetrable chaos. At first, this seems strange - why would a transactional lawyer, someone who deals with complex and intricate business deals on an almost daily basis, place his business beyond his ken? What good is a lawyer who doesn't even attempt to understand the underlying scientific nature of what he does? But approaching the story through the lens of Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class, this interest in impenetrable complexity can be understood as an important role in the larger scheme of societal evolution.

"He is especially prone to accept so much of the creed as concerts the inscrutable power and the arbitrary habits of the divinity which has won his confidence."

In many ways, the role of the lawyer can be seen as paralleling that of the priest and holy man in Veblen's book. Like the shaman, the lawyer stands between people who want something and the inscrutable but propitiable Other that can satisfy their desires. The Law is powerful, animate, and inscrutable; law is just a written code and an enforcement system. As a priest of The Law, Wylie benefits by making it seem inexplicable - and therefore all the more powerful. And as a priest knows God, Wylie knows The Law not by some academic understanding, but rather by continually subjugating himself to it. Like the priest, Wylie presents himself as capable of subtly manipulating The Law through his intimate understanding.

Whether or not Wylie believes what he claims, he benefits from claiming it. His success rate shows his expertise in The Law, not logically or studiously obtained, but intuited through years of experience with and relationship to the power of The Law. If the power were capable of comprehension, Wylie would be much more fungible.

Veblen sees this animism as a hereditary holdover from our more primitive days, Wylie just sees it as effective. He downs multiple espressos a day just to keep up with his work - which is constantly accelerating. Intense, detail-oriented concentration at an ever increasing pace - sag behind and "you're irrelevant fast - real, real fast." And yet, Wylie's daily life appears to be steeped in seemingly irrational, religious-like ritual. All Wylie eats and drinks during the day is fruit, espresso, and wine. Such an imbalanced diet is not likely to aid mental functioning and sharp, detail-oriented focus. And Wylie describes his 3-4 double shots of espresso with religious fervor. "I time when it hits - the extent to which it speeds the thought process. That precise point when consciousness is heightened and everything glows." This is exactly the type of animism that Veblen describes arising out of (and helping to explain) exploit.

In fact, this understanding of animistic behavior can be extended beyond the law of transactions to help explain other present-day phenomena. For example, consider the "gray box" of CDOs and the stock market in general. Flipping stocks is a gamble, and one which allows the gambler to affect the outcome. The more people who want a stock, the more valuable it is. This satisfies the gambler's desire that his bet is not in vain, that it has influenced the outcome. "It is felt that substance and solicitude expended to this end can not go for naught in the issue." Veblen feels that this animism hampers rational thought. If the "gray box" isn't just a machine, but a being - one capable of at least some sort of clinamen, then there is little value in close scrutiny of the moving parts. It is enough to have seen it work often before, even if its wealth generation defies the laws of thermodynamics.

"Which goes to show that you can make a million dollars a year by pretending to know what you're doing, and being able to sit through interminable meetings without developing any serious maladies."

But even Wylie and his priestly ways are subject to pecuniary pressure from the market. As the exiles and emigrants of his trade note, "Partnership isn't worth shit. You do business with a partner or an associate to the extent to which you get more from them than what you're giving." Currently, Wylie earns his living by transferring money "in a way no one else in the world knows how to do quite as efficiently", and if he continues to be the most efficient, his position will be secure. His animism, his treatment of the law as indeterminate chaos almost capable of independent conceit, may still convince his business partners of his skill - but the show alone will not support him. As technology connects people from all over the world, firms no longer have to rely solely on nearby generalists like Wylie. A priest who dabbles in all the gods isn't as useful and pecuniarily valuable as one who specializes in the particular god I need to woo.

Wylie is being forced out by a societal evolution. He already feels the acceleration, commenting on how much harder he works and how much faster he must move to stay relevant in the ever-expanding world. And he is well aware of what he must do to remain relevant - "You have to do things, be part of things, you don't want to be part of. You have to pretend to be what you're not." Under greater money pressure, Wylie may no longer espouse animism and may instead proclaim an ethic of efficiency supported by scientific analysis. "The evolution of society is substantially a process of mental adaptation on the part of individuals under the stress of circumstances which no longer tolerate habits of thought formed under and conforming to a different set of circumstances in the past."

Thanks for the edit, Kalliope. I realize my first draft made it sound like Wylie actually believed his animism, or even that I believed it too. I definitely agree about the quotes - I knew they'd have to be cut down somehow, but I wasn't sure how yet. In retrospect it was pretty obvious - the longer Veblen quotes killed the flow.


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r8 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:34:51 - IanSullivan
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