Archive for March 2006
John Tierney today in the NY Times:
The French produce great Camembert, but they haven’t absorbed the wisdom of Spencer Johnson’s modern classic, “Who Moved My Cheese?: An A-Mazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life.” They haven’t heeded Donald Trump’s instructional CD, “Think Like a Billionaire.” They haven’t mastered Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” or Anthony Robbins’s “Awaken the Giant Within.”
We’ll just leave it at that. Except to say that this blog hopes that the white collar GM workers – who were asked to be sure to drive the company car to work today, just in case – are well-versed in Amazing Ways to Deal with Change in their Work and their Lives.
Today’s art scene? Very difficult to judge, since celebrity and the media presence of the artists are inextricably linked with their work. The great artists of the past century tended to become famous in the later stages of their careers, whereas today fame is built into the artists’ work from the start, as in the cases of Emin and Hirst.
There’s a logic today that places a greater value on celebrity the less it is accompanied by actual achievement. I don’t think it’s possible to touch people’s imagination today by aesthetic means. Emin’s bed, Hirst’s sheep, the Chapmans’ defaced Goyas are psychological provocations, mental tests where the aesthetic elements are no more than a framing device.
It’s interesting that this should be the case. I assume it is because our environment today, by and large a media landscape, is oversaturated by aestheticising elements (TV ads, packaging, design and presentation, styling and so on) but impoverished and numbed as far as its psychological depth is concerned.
Artists (though sadly not writers) tend to move to where the battle is joined most fiercely. Everything in today’s world is stylised and packaged, and Emin and Hirst are trying to say, this is a bed, this is death, this is a body. They are trying to redefine the basic elements of reality, to recapture them from the ad men who have hijacked our world.
This opposition between “psychological depth” and the “aesthetic” is truly intriguing. It’s certainly not the way that I usually think of it – that we suffer from deprivation of psychological depth and an overabundance of the aesthetic. And if what I’ve argued recently about Proust – and really I mean eventually to say about most literary modernism in general – could it be that there’s been a reversal in the poles on this front over the past century?
Can art be a vehicle for political change? Yes, I assume that a large part of Blair’s appeal (like Kennedy’s) is aesthetic, just as a large part of the Nazi appeal lay in its triumph of the will aesthetic. I suspect that many of the great cultural shifts that prepare the way for political change are largely aesthetic. A Buick radiator grille is as much a political statement as a Rolls Royce radiator grille, one enshrining a machine aesthetic driven by a populist optimism, the other enshrining a hierarchical and exclusive social order. The ocean liner art deco of the 1930s, used to sell everything from beach holidays to vacuum cleaners, may have helped the 1945 British electorate to vote out the Tories.
Interesting, again, to think of Blair’s appeal as “aesthetic.” We’re familiar with fascism as the “aestheticization of politics,” per Benjamin and others, but neoliberal third way-ism? I sense that Ballard’s right about this too, but how would we describe the “aesthetic” that Blair personifies or plays upon? And this bit about art deco and the advent of the welfare state is wild:
I assume by “ocean liner art deco” he means the advertising posters, available for sale now at the “art store” in every mid-rent mall. What is it about these images, so aggressively futurial and devoid of human mess, that would point the way, in Ballard’s mind anyway, toward the nationalization of utilities and long-distance transportation?
My real fear is that boredom and inertia may lead people to follow a deranged leader with far fewer moral scruples than Richard Gould, that we will put on jackboots and black uniforms and the aspect of the killer simply to relieve the boredom. A vicious and genuinely mindless neo-fascism, a skilfully aestheticised racism, might be the first consequence of globalisation, when Classic Coke® and California merlot are the only drinks on the menu. At times I look around the executive housing estates of the Thames Valley and feel that it is already here, quietly waiting its day, and largely unknown to itself.
So… The distinction between the art deco liner, an announcement via capitalism’s marketing jabber of the possible subsumption of capitalism itself, and the jackboot and shiny leather belt, would seem to be essential. Between the commonplace object, like something out a children’s book, monumentalized and the banalization of the exotically vicious, the hideous adornment of the self in the sartorial correlative of the self’s worst impulses.
In short, an elective psychopathy will come to our aid (as it has done many times in the past) – Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, all those willed nightmares that make up much of human history. As Wilder Penrose points out in Super-Cannes, the future will be a huge Darwinian struggle between competing psychopathies. Along with our passivity, we’re entering a profoundly masochistic phase – everyone is a victim these days, of parents, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, even love itself. And how much we enjoy it. Our happiest moments are spent trying to think up new varieties of victimhood…
Starts to seem as though our task, if we have one, is to combat boredom, but in an (exacty, impossibly) right way….
From James Wolcott today:
More and more, I’m sensing that the 2006 midterms, for better or worse, will be a Lou Dobbs election. (No single forum was more instrumental for aborting the Dubai ports deal than his.) The midterms will be fought not over cultural-war values like gay marriage or abortion, but over the sorts of economic and sovereignty issues Dobbs hammers on about every weeknight on CNN: the squeeze on the middle class; Washington’s runaway budgets and the explosion in deficit; the gutting of pensions; the hollowing-out of America’s industrial base; the war over immigration; globalization and free trade. I don’t think all of this is bad: Dobbs’ program is one of the few on cable that addresses the plight of workers (as opposed to maximizing investment gains and extending corporate power–the mandate of Larry Kudlow’s CNBC show), the negative impact of globalization, and the frustration over the influx of illegal immigrants. (You don’t have to agree with Dobbs’ tone or solutions to recognize the frustration in the Western states particularly has been bubbling hot, and has been too long ignored by the media-political elite.) But Dobbs also runs a regular segment on China called “Red Storm” that’s like a blast from the Cold War past, and intended to raise alarm. It’s like something out of the National Review circa 1958. One of the great paradoxes of our age is how the US can be so dimly complacent and so sharply fearful in the same breath. We’re in a constant state of sluggish agitation, worked up into a righteous state of indifference.
I happen to think Wolcott couldn’t be more right about the coming “Lou Dobbs election.” I’ve been saying this for months now, maybe even a year. (Well, to my wife anyway, as we eat our takeout and change the channel on old Lou…) And Wolcott’s absolutely right, Dobbs focuses on economic issues while the rest of the media fiddles away at supposedly hot-button irrelevancies (best case) or celebrity updates and health tips (more usually). He seems to have acquired a huge following and not a little political clout. The Dubai ports issue seemed to be largely his doing, illegal immigration is bubbling up again, and there’s are hints that ordinary folks are starting to look at the cheap DVD players a bit askance as they spend their unemployment checks on cheap and crappy food at Walmart.
If you live outside of the big cities, read the letters to the editor in your paper. Count the days when you don’t find references to Dobbs’s pet issues.
Anytime the zeitgeist blows back toward economics, and popular economics, that has to be a good thing, right? It’s easy to get a sick sort of leninist chill up your spine, sensing that things are finally becoming hard enough for enough of the voting middle class for things, perhaps, just possibly, to change.
But what terrifies me – and I’m sure terrifies Wolcott, though he perhaps doesn’t make it clear enough here – is that the single connective strand that runs through nearly all of Dobbs central issues is not just populist economics but rather national or racial explanations for economic problems. The issue is never simply Walmart, but Walmart and “Communist China.” (He pointedly always refers to the PRC in this way). The Dubai ports deal (which, come on, the proper question was always why are our ports being “sold” in the first place, not what nation is buying them, something, of course, that the Democrats couldn’t understand, as Schumer manned the barricades flying the flag of “turbans need not apply.”) And, last but not least, the crown jewel in the Dobbs’s ideological crown: our porous Southern border. This one explains itself. If you think low-wages and unemployment are caused by mexican landscapers… Seriously, back to school with you.
Dobbs couldn’t get audience if he provided rational answers to economic questions. Rather, he asks some of the right questions, and provides answers are both easy to understand and which play upon the worst impulses of an audience both bruised and confused. It is a rare and amazing thing when Americans start to pay attention to their actual problems, rather than concerns that waver between the mystical, absurd, and grotesque. But it is less amazing when we figure out that what they’re hearing here, on Dobbs show, is that the answers are those that there fathers and grandfathers and greatgrandfathers had told them, always already. That it’s the blacks or the Chinese or the hispanics, terroristic petroarabs or call center Indians that have caused the problem… That if only “our” politicians could “get tough” with these groups, could look out for “our” interests for once, we could right the ship of state, make auto parts again, take Emmylou to the high school dance.
I have a feeling strange things are going to happen in November 2006. I have a feeling those things will make it terribly clear that a third party could gain 33% percent of the vote in 2008. Up with socialism, of course. But remember what horrid acronyms and shorthands are birthed of the mating of Nationalism and Socialism in times of crisis.
From Walter Benjamin’s “The Image of Proust” in Illuminations:
What was it that Proust sought so frenetically? What was at the bottom of these infinite efforts? Can we say that all lives, works, and deeds that matter were never anything but the undisturbed unfolding of the most banal, most fleeting, most sentimental, weakest hour in the life of the one to whom they pertain? When Proust in a well-known passage described the hour that was most his own, he did it in such a way that everyone can find it in his own existence. We might even call it an everyday hour.
There are lots of different ways to describe Benjamin’s distinctive form of writing, his idiosyncratic form of thought. Some prefer the term “thetic,” which obviously works best with the pieces actually broken into theses, like the “Theses on the Philosophy” of history or the “Work of Art” essay. Others go with “dialectical,” which works as well, but perhaps distracts a bit from the actual contours of the texts.
This passage from the essay on Proust is a perfect example of what I would call Benjamin’s late and distinctive form. And it bears an amazing message, if you listen closely.
The third sentence takes up the blurring of the event, the significant occurrence, into the banal, the long durée, the everyday. For a gloss we can turn back just a bit for this:
Only the actus purus of recollection itself, not the author or the plot, constitutes the unity of the text. One may even say that the intermittence of the author and plot is only the reverse of the continuum of memory, the pattern on the backside of the tapestry.
In Proust’s work, then, we find a reversal of – or the surfacing of the reversal of – the conventional way that he conceive of novels. Rather than organizing the inchoate, the author and plot only interrupt, disrupt, punctuate the underlying continuum of infinite recollection. This reversal levels the finite event down into the infinite “unfolding” of time.
Well enough. But then back to the next sentence of the initial quote, which sends us in a very different direction:
When Proust in a well-known passage described the hour that was most his own, he did it in such a way that everyone can find it in his own existence. We might even call it an everyday hour.
Do you see it? The leap? From the dissolution of significance into the everyday, without a breath, into this – into the generalization of the particular, into communicability. We start with nihilism, neglect the anxious consideration of the abyss that we might expect, and turn in the next sentence to communication.
Reminds me, just this tiny passage, quite a bit of the move that’s being traced out here – the work that gives this blog its name.
The commodification of the human body, while subjecting it to the iron laws of massification and exchange value, seemed at the same time to redeem the body from the stigma of ineffability that had marked it for millennia. Breaking away from the double chains of biological destiny and individual biography, it took its leave of both the inarticulate cry of the tragic body and the dumb silence of the comic body, and thus appeared for the first time perfectly communicable, entirely illuminated. The epochal process of the emancipation of the human body from its theological foundations was thus accomplished in the dances of the ‘girls,’ in the advertising images, and in the gait of fashion models. This process had already been imposed at an industrial level when, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the invention of lithography and photography encouraged the inexpensive distribution of pornographic images: Neither generic nor individual, neither an image of the divinity nor an animal form, the body now become something truly whatever.
From well into the “Swann in Love” section of Swann’s Way, translated by Lydia Davis:
Then he could not think without a feeling of great weariness that the next day he would again have to begin trying to find out what Odette had been doing, use all his influence to attempt to see her. This compulsion to an activity without respite, without variety, without results was so cruel to him that one day, seeing a lump on his abdomen, he felt real joy at the thought that he might have a fatal tumor, that he was no longer going to have to take charge of anything, that it was the disease that would manage him, make him its plaything, until the impending end. And indeed if, during this period, he often desired death though without admitting it to himself, it was to escape not so much the acuteness of his sufferings as the monotony of his struggle.
The novel, that avatar of class triumph and the corresponding triumph of consciousness, is incessantly marking out its own nostalgia for unconsciousness, for the end of the script. Proust is no exception. We follow Swann along the line of his addictive, neurotic relationship with Odette, and as we do, we grow frustrated. There’s always another “but,” another thought on the matter. Swann is trapped, and we are trapped along with him. It really is too much, he really should stop, grow up a bit, get back to reality. But he cannot, and neither can we as long as we hold the book in our hands.
We begin to think, along with Swann himself, that there must be a better way to spend one’s time that the obsessive pursuit of Odette, whether through Swann’s France or Proust’s novel. Swann thinks, at one point, how much better it would be to be simple;
In these almost working-class neighborhoods, what a modest life, abject, but sweet, nourished with calm and happiness, he would have agreed to live indefinitely.
It increasingly seems to me that literary modernism – characterized by such forms as so-called “stream of consciousness” – almost always contains a plea, entre les lignes, to be allowed to return this gift of modernity, this symptom that makes us what we are, consciousness itself.
Following up on my last post about the Sopranos, in tonight’s episode, Tony’s deathbed hallucination has him living some sort of alternative life, sanitized, without the violence of his “real” personality (he’s beaten up by a Buddhist monk, takes shit from hoteliers, etc…), and, from what we can tell from his calls home, with a happier family waiting for him back in Jersey.
So he’s gone straight…
But, we note, in the sanitized version of Tony’s life, he is an arms dealer by profession – selling optics systems to the US military, apparently.
There is no outside, Chase seems to be telling us. Even our fantasies of “clean” existence partake, as if inevitably, necessarily, of the filthy logic of expropriation, exploitation, and cinematic violence.
Check this out. Even as the media catches up with the idea that we’ve been lied to, they still constantly avoid the question why we were lied to. For instance, Wolf Blitzer interviewing former Powell chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson today on CNN:
BLITZER: Let me ask you this question about WMD, because you and Colin Powell were directly involved in this. We asked this question the other day in our CNN-”USA-Today”-Gallup poll: “Did the Bush administration deliberately — deliberately mislead public” — the public — “on weapons of mass destruction?”
Fifty-one percent of the American public say yes, 46 percent say no.
And I’ll pose the question to you: Did the Bush administration deliberately mislead the American public on WMD?
WILKERSON: Wolf, there’s no question in my mind now after looking back at is as an academic, doing research over this last year or two, and my time in the State Department, there’s no doubt in my mind that certain members of the Bush administration did in fact politicize the intelligence, did cherry-pick the intelligence..
WILKERSON: I would put at the top of that list Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, in the Pentagon, who was more or less the planner, if you will, if you can use that term, for post- invasion Iraq.
BLITZER: Who else? WILKERSON: I would also include in that list people like the vice president, who made statements that were simply egregious in terms of their error and in terms of their continued error over time.
Continuing to state the connection between al Qaeda and Baghdad when, in fact, the intelligence community and everyone I knew that had any expertise in the area had taken that down long before the vice president quit saying it.
WILKERSON: With all due respect to Doug Feith, he’s not the vice president of the United States.
BLITZER: Doug Feith is not the vice president of the United States, but Doug Feith was a principle — if not the principle key planner for post-invasion Iraq.
BLITZER: And so what about Rumsfeld, who was his boss, Wolfowitz, who was his boss. What about them?
WILKERSON: Wolfowitz as deputy secretary of defense probably did not do all that he could to make sure that the intelligence picture was as the intelligence community was rendering it.
The interview goes on a bit past this, touching on the “Powell problem,” etc… But the one question that Blitzer won’t or can’t ask is why exactly Wilkerson thinks Feith and Cheney and Wolfowitz lied… What was in it for them? Why would they want to wage war without cause?
The television would quite simply explode were they to head down this path. But they won’t… Have no fear…
From Manohla Dargis’s NY Times review of V for Vendetta:
The Wachowskis appear deeply enamored of the great (super) man theory of history, with mysterioso leaders who are intent on delivering the rest of us from false consciousness. Given this, it’s no surprise that the geopolitical terrain staked out in this film skews so last century: globalization having been given the jackboot, partly, one imagines, because multinational capitalism, with its total market value and shareholder wealth, doesn’t register as cool as all that shiny, shiny leather and crypto-Nazi styling.
#1: The paragraph doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, from the first sentence to the second. They endorse great man history. Therefore, they go with an obsolete political situation, because it’s more aesthetically interesting. Huh? Happened in editing, I’m sure…
#2: Um, I’m pretty sure the Wachowskis covered multinational capitalist chic in a little-known movie they made a little ways back…
#3: (and most important): Um, does Dargis read the paper? (I don’t, of course, mean her own paper…) But sorry, when you say “so last century,” to me what registers is fin de siècle hypercapitalism, Clintonian rising tides, internet startups, Nasdaq, that sort of thing. But the twenty-first for me has been something dressed a little bit more like this:
Detention camps, check:
Charismatic leaders, check:
Government organizations with doublethink inspired names, check:
And so on…
Anyway, William Gibson liked the movie…
Just back from V FOR VENDETTA. More thumbs up than a Chernobyl pianist. Superb. Splendid. Heartening. Go see.
I’d like to go see it. Anyone want to babysit?
The Sopranos, it seems to me, has always been preoccupied with charting the amorphous, over-determined cloud of anxiety that hovers over America today. From the beginning of the first episode of the new season.
Carmela and Adriana (her ghost) are standing in the house that the former is building “on spec,” the frame of it anyway…
CARMELA: I’m worried Ade…
GHOST OF ADRIANA: Everybody’s worried…
CARMELA: No… I’m worried all the time…
A terrific way to open the season. The show, like most or all of us Americans, hasn’t ever quite been able to figure out exactly what it’s worried about… The ever-escalating competitiveness of business… The ever-increasing demands to consume at a pitch and level appropriate to your (real or imagined) social position… The ever-decreasing viability of the family, nuclear or extend, as a form of social organization… The ever-present threat of violence that defines the American city street or suburban parking lot… The fact that sickness and death is nearly-preventable, but only ever nearly…
Underlying it all, perhaps, is a blinding sense – but one only ever evanescently available to the characters themselves – of the corrupt provenance of the money that they spend, the lives that they live. The fact that the home and the cars and the college educations are purchased with ill-gotten gains, with the flesh and souls of drug-addicts and prostitutes and ruined gamblers and beaten down junior associates. At one point during the third season, a psychotherapist (not Melfi – her teacher was it?) advises Carmela to leave Tony: “Stop taking your husband’s blood money. You can never say you haven’t been warned.”
The show takes a novelistic form, of course, and this is what novels have always done: play the inner life against the outer world, the private vs. the public, love vs. money, family vs. society. But what is it about this specific conjunction – of the gangster and the family man, the mob boss and the suffering husband and father, that draws the eyes not just of the academy, and not just of “everyone,” but in particular of HBO’s prized demographic – male, post-ethnic, college educated, upper-middle class or above… The New Jersey demographic, the big bees in the hive of business, finance, law, and government. The underbosses of the empire.
I can’t help but feel at times when I watch the show that one day it will serve as the allegorical record of our own fin de siècle, the fall of the American empire, and what the mass-psychological atmosphere felt like to breathe… Why am I so worried all of the time? Everything is so good… It’s no coincidence that the show has wrapped around 9/11, and it’s no coincidence that the show was never much interested in discussing it.
From Flaubert’s letters, of course:
The illusion (if there is one) comes, on the contrary, from the impersonality of the work. It is a principle of mine that a writer must not be his own theme. The artist in his work must be like God in his creation — invisible and all-powerful: he must be everywhere felt, but never seen.
It is not simply a matter of taking on a pseudonym, even if that pseudonym happens to be God. Rather, as it turns out, it is letting the form speak itself, letting the novel novel.
What would it mean to let the blog blog?
Microsoft is in the process of ever so slowly revealing a new product, some sort of handheld computing device called Origami. There have been leaks of photos and old concept videos, and now a website that is an advertisement for a product not yet visible, not yet on the scene.
As everyone keeps saying who follows this stuff, Microsoft is ham-handedly imitating Apple, the master of the suspenseful half-leak, the provocation of consumer desire via disinformation, false hints, and the like. What will the next iPod do? What “one more thing” will Steve Jobs have for us this time?
All well and good, most likely a sign of waning demand for new technotoys – just to throw them out there on the market is no longer enough. The consumer must be romanced.
The viral marketing campaigns, in short, correlate to an awareness on the part of the marketers of the insufficiency of the products that they sell, the fact that the duration of marketability of the product must be extended backwards, back into the time before the products actual – and inevitably disappointing – appearance on the scene. The consumers, if they will buy at all, will buy on the first day of the products appearance and not afterward. Even by a minute.
Such is democracy, such is the “marketplace of ideas,” in which the public will buy the idea but only when unmoored from an actual product.