Archive for April 2007
Her reconnection to world events in part began on Boxing Day 2005. Following the tsunami in Indonesia, Björk recorded an album of fans’ remixes of her single Army of Me, donating the proceeds to Unicef. A year later, she was invited to visit the region and found “they were still just digging in the earth and finding bones and dresses of relatives”, an image that you suspect might have occasioned her desire for the dirty sound of the clavichord. She flew from Indonesia straight to New York, to a studio session with the producer Timbaland, and immediately wrote the song Earth Intruders. “It just came like a tsunami out of my mouth,” she says, sounding still faintly surprised, “and lyrically it’s probably the most chaotic song that I’ve ever written, it sort of doesn’t make sense.” It is a marching song, “Bundle of bombardiers,” it insists, “We are the canoneers/ Apache voodoo.” She shakes her head a little, rubs her nose. “I tried to edit it afterwards to fix it and make logic out of it,” she says, “but it’s just like chaos.”
Finally got around to reading the (rather fantastic) piece on 24 that was in the New Yorker back in February. There’s a lot to clip out of it, but let’s start with this paragraph:
Bob Cochran, who created the show with Surnow, admitted, “Most terrorism experts will tell you that the ‘ticking time bomb’ situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our show it happens every week.” According to Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College and the author of the forthcoming book “Torture and Democracy,” the conceit of the ticking time bomb first appeared in Jean Lartéguy’s 1960 novel “Les Centurions,” written during the brutal French occupation of Algeria. The book’s hero, after beating a female Arab dissident into submission, uncovers an imminent plot to explode bombs all over Algeria and must race against the clock to stop it. Rejali, who has examined the available records of the conflict, told me that the story has no basis in fact. In his view, the story line of “Les Centurions” provided French liberals a more palatable rationale for torture than the racist explanations supplied by others (such as the notion that the Algerians, inherently simpleminded, understood only brute force). Lartéguy’s scenario exploited an insecurity shared by many liberal societies—that their enlightened legal systems had made them vulnerable to security threats.
If you, like me, are a lit-person who occasionally (or not so occasionally) drifts into self-doubt about the importance or potential importance of whatever it is that we do, this paragraph (and all the paragraphs and pieces and tv shows and guantanamos that emerge, in part, from the described text) should make you feel a bit better… and, of course, worse. Narrative, in short, matters. Very little happens that isn’t wrapped in narrative. And in this case, narrative temporality matters most of all. This is clear, usually. But sometimes one forgets….
And weird… Check this out….
(xposted to Long Sunday)
It is helpful, if also a bit unnerving, when media culture generates near proofs, direct materializations, of theses that you’ve already been walking around feeling smugly smart about. The thesis that I’m thinking about right now isn’t exactly mine, but it is one that has held my attention for a little while now. And I think I can localize the origin of this line of thought down to a single passage from William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, a passage that clues us in to the significance of the novel’s title.
“Of course,” he says, “we have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. … We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.” (Clipped from here).
It is an argument about science fiction that is also an argument about the experience of time at present, or vice versa. And it is in an excellent description of the state of speculative films today. In one of the DVD extras for Children of Men (unfortunately not available on line) the set-designers and stylists discuss the fact that Cuaron wanted everything in the film to look like stuff from today, only older and more weathered, which is exactly what we get. The future as present-less-infrastructural investment. Disaster movies set themselves in a next year that looks a lot like last year, while Al Gore’s apocalyptic infomercial confusedly quivers between easy futural solutions (buy carbon indulgences!) and a deeper, more convincing sense that we are always already fucked.
Newsmagazine features on future stuff has morphed into special issues on What Is About to Happen, and What Are They Doing to Stop It. From this…
(Survival Guide???? See what I mean…)
What set me to writing this post (the “near proof” mentioned above) was the trailer for a new PKD film-adaptation, reportedly quite terrible: Next.
A PKD symptomatic in with the protagonist can only see into the proximate future – a future that apparently climaxes with the detonation (or do they stop it???) of a nuclear device in an American shipyard. Right. It is tough to think of a premise that comes closer to exactly mimesis of the dominant temporal strategy of the first four years of the Bush administration, which I was only half-gulible enough to half-take serious, as I anxiously sort-of awaited the truck bombing of the synagogue and the two cop cars constantly parked in front of it at the end of my street in Brooklyn.
The progression of PKD films over the past quarter-century is vividly emblematic of the recision of the future; with each iteration, we draw closer to the present, and even drop at times back into the past. First, there’s Blade Runner, with its replicants and super-huge video screens and so forth, even if things are dusty and noirish. Then there’s Total Recall with the robot drivers and Mars Today and tennis sim that Sharon Stone practices with. But A Scanner Darkly is a retro future, set in a Californicated past of stoners and beautiful losers, no matter where (when) it thinks it is. (I know I’m leaving a few out, but bear with me….) And then there’s Here.
When I teach utopian / dystopian fiction from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to my undergraduates, I usually start by taking them on a little mental journey back to a time when the question future was actually up for argument, and then bring them back to the here and now to ask them what, if anything, they can imagine significantly changing during the course of their lives. More and better video games, older and older people, fewer and fewer good jobs. But, of course, no fundamental alteration in the political or culture organization of things – their kids, if they have them, will live in the same sort of world as they do. Maybe someone will cure cancer, perhaps there will be free tv on the internets, but mostly things will rest as they are.
The first time I used this ploy, I actually waited to hear what they thought the future might look like. I have since learned to lecture straight through the socratic counter-point. They don’t answer; they’ve never, it turns out, even considered the question – at least the vocal ones haven’t. It is all entirely new to them…
It is tough, though, to know exactly what to make of this development – the foreshortening of the future from way, way out there to quite soon to almost now down toward in selben Augenblick. On the one hand, of course, it marks a foreclosure of the concept that the world might be radically otherwise, as there will never be any time for it to radically change. On the other hand, the whole scenario calls to mind Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” and its resistance to the Social Democratic concept of progress as a “progression through a homogenous, empty time” in favor of a “notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop.”
At any rate, perhaps this sort of issue is exactly the sort of thing that the present day literature department should take up as a task. We English professors love the conjunction of the aesthetic and the political. But something has happened that makes it nearly impossible (save through pseudo-blog) to make this argument publically.
Need to upgrade that last link (to a trailer for Red Dawn) into its own post.
For some of you, the hallucinatory and insane apropos-ness of this film will be old hat. But if you’re not familiar with it: that there is as quick an introduction to the long and almost entirely hypocritical history of US foreign policy towards national movements of self-determination as you’re going to get. And since we’re all talking about this sort of thing, it also is a crystal clear materialization, for the benefit of the baffled, of our gun laws…
A nice summary of this theme in the movie from wikipedia:
The private ownership of firearms is also presented as part of the film’s anti-Communism. Early in the film, a bumper sticker seen on a truck states a classic gun owner’s creed; “They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers.” The shot moves down to a dead hand holding an empty Colt pistol as well as shots of the same pistol being pried from the dead person’s hand by a Soviet paratrooper, presumably from a police officer or armed civilian gunned down earlier during the invasion of Calumet, Colorado. As the protagonists flee the initial invasion of Calumet, they stop at a local sporting goods store owned by one of their fathers. He tells them to gather supplies and gives them several rifles and pistols along with boxes of ammunition. (The father and his wife are later executed because of the guns missing from the store’s inventory.) In a later scene, a Cuban officer orders one of his men to report to the local sporting goods store and obtain the paperwork of local citizens who own firearms. The Cuban officer specifically refers to Form 4473, which is the actual form used to record the sale of a firearm by a dealer to a private citizen in the United States. These scenes speak to the long-standing issues of government gun control.
Whether these principles apply to the citizens of the states the US has invaded is another story, of course. Relatedly, I’m not sure if I’ve ever really noted the uncanniness of all of the those hoisted AK-47s, until now.
The deeds of the world are slowly disappearing. The suburbs will spread everywhere, and the life of us all will be written on the American page. And all writing henceforward will concern the ordinary, the everyday. There will be nothing of which to write but that. And language, meanwhile, will turn over like a sleeper. And all of literature will have been part of its dream. And everything we’ve done, likewise. And when it awakens, it will face us without a face and look at us with no eyes and speak in great long words that will be our words unravelled.
A famous passage from Joyce’s Portrait:
The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper intangible esthetic life. The personality of the artist, at first a cry or cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalises itself, so to speak. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic like that of material creation is accomplished. The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.
The ambiguity of literary modernism’s dream of “impersonal” art is brilliantly captured in the stringing together of “invisible” and “refined out of existence.” Can’t, of course, be both at the same time: either the artist is there but hidden or has actually been wrung out of the work. The oscillation between egotistical artistic supremacy and the “death of the author” is one of the rhythms that define the progression of this period’s work.
I tend to be more interested in the “no artist” side of the issue than the other, because I think a good bit of what utopian / progressivist tendencies or even side effects there are to be found in the works of such figures as Joyce and Beckett, Woolf and Proust are to be found there. And I’m also very interested in the legacy of this preoccupation on the part of the “high modernists.”
One place that we find its development, of course, are in all of the strategies of opening works to contingency and randomness practiced by fellow modernists and figures that are usually affiliated with later schools / periods. Automatic writing, from Yeats through the surrealists and onward. Burroughs’s cut-ups. All sorts of “found art” tactics. Often enough, these techniques are staked either on the “unconscious” as the black box that generates the disorder or the disorder as the means that gives access to the truths of the unconscious.
But there is another way to think about impersonality – or maybe even to do impersonal art. And while I’m sure there is precedent for this sort of idea (commenters?) – a few things I’ve been seeing around the internet and on tv have got me thinking in a different direction.
The first is this tv commercial:
It’s fairly difficult to discern what exactly this ad is meant to sell. The Dassault website is only somewhat helpful…
Sophisticated technologies tend to be the preserve of experts. Today, Dassault Systèmes wants to break with this tradition and establish 3D technology as a new universal language with applications in every walk of life. But that’s not all. At Dassault Systèmes, we also strongly believe that the more advanced and complex technology becomes, the easier it should be to use.
To express this groundbreaking vision – and the major advances we have driven in 3D technology in terms of capability, flexibility and ease of use – French advertising agency devarrieuxvillaret has created a new tagline for Dassault Systèmes:
See What You Mean.
OK… “Universal language,” eh? (Of course, Dassault is best known for making warplanes…. and for owning Le Figaro…)
At any rate, the ad is a mashup of SimCity (the bit where the building flashes red because it’s not connected up to the underground utility conduits is the deadest giveaway) and letraset type peopleoids (not sure if that’s the appropriate term for the little guys pictured below or not…)
That’s all well and good. It’s likely the sort of ad that presents a image of something not yet possible, but which, by triggering a mass-fantasy, will urge that impossible thing into existence… Not unlike the fancy computer interface in Minority Report….
But what interests me in particular about this ad is the way that it proposes a new form of fiction, not yet possible, but dreamed of, perhaps, for at least the last 150 years. (The Joyce quote is, of course, only a plagiarized version of a few passages from Flaubert’s letters). What would it be like to use a technology like the one shown in the commercial as a technology for the creation of fiction? A fiction in which the “characters” were left to roam “on their own” a preconstructed section of “reality” forged by the artist, following the imperatives wired into their advanced AI? The little people stuck in the traffic jam in the ad, the pedestrians yelling at the cars – what would it be like if we could follow them closely, “hear” what they are thinking, establish ever more complex situations to drop them into? Fiction as experiment in a sense truer than any that has ever before been attempted. Fiction, at last, opened to the contingency and unpredictability that it has crept towards, largely unsuccessfullly, during the entirely of the period that we label the “modern.”
I am not talking about machinima, not the way it is practiced now, anyway. I am not talking about “user-controlled” “characters”….
Anyway, so that’s the first trigger. Second is this, which handles things a bit differently.
“Anthroptic” is an edition of 80 hand-made artist books that represents the collaboration between new media artist Ethan Ham and writer Benjamin Rosenbaum. The book contains 8 folios that pair one image with one “chapter” of the story. The images were taken from Ethan’s online project “Self-Portraits” in which he trained a facial recognition program to his face before unleashing it onto the internet photo service Flickr. While searching the millions of photos on Flickr for its creator, the computer program sometimes made mistakes, identifying inanimate objects as Ethan. These mistake images became the starting point for Benjamin’s short short story. Benjamin weaves these images into an exquisitely interconnected tale that can be read in any order.
Scripted recognitions, epiphanies. Algorithmic revelations. That sort of thing. Robotic portraiture. You start to see where I am going here with this…
(re)collector is a public art installation that approaches Cambridge as a ‘museum of the mind’, using cameras to acquire memorable images that can then be reorganised into ideas. The Greek concept of ut pictura poesis claims that poetry is more ‘imageful’ than prose. In this project, the cameras do not document Cambridge using a simple, straightforward archive of events, but rather seek to record a collection of dramatic moments. The city becomes a tableau for pictura poesis, with events amplified through combinations of framing, movement, and silence, becoming more memorable and cohesive as a result.
This interesting enough at this point, the idea of constructing “ideas” or narratives out of CCTV footage. But where things get truly fascinating comes in the next paragraph:
The gothic character of the Bridge of Sighs, King’s College Chapel and various city centre side streets present backdrops for extracting cinematic moments from peoples’ everyday activities. Surveillance cameras installed around the city, will be programmed to recognise and capture public activities including farewell scenes, meetings, escape scenes, chases, love scenes, etc. Each day over the festival, the results will be edited to produce a daily feature film, complete with premise, protagonists, locations, plot, to be viewed at a public screening in Cambridge during the festival programme. The movie’s audience is composed of many of the same people that feature in it; the project seeks to renegotiate our relationship with where we live by showing us the latent narratives embedded in our everyday lives that we cannot see.
I’d love to know exactly how the cameras are programmed to decide what a moment of fictional significance, of narrative crisis, looks like. (I certainly don’t doubt that it can be done as it is already being done). And what if instead of humans getting involved with the editing of the clips into a coherent narrative, the machine performed that task as well. Surely, the recognition of a “love scene” is more complicated than sticking the scenes together in some sort of coherent order.
I’m going to have to write a follow-up post, unfortunately, detailing the aesthetic and political ramifications I think might come of such endeavors when focused properly, as I’m too beat to continue tonight. A few of the words and phrases, though, that are hovering about in my mind include “fiction as experiment,” “(repurposed) automatic behavioral detection,” “automation for automation’s sake,” “interchangeable parts,” “autonomy vs. advertisement” and…. “(truly) socialist realism.”
More soon… Sorry to defer the punchline…
(NB: I should say that I do know that some parallel work is being done on this sort of thing by the media/body people, by, for instance. But it nevertheless seems to me that I am aiming in a slightly to very different direction than much of that very helpful work…)
Hugo Boss established his company in Metzingen, Germany, in 1923, only a few years after the end of World War I, while most of the country was in a state of economic ruin.
Before and during World War II, Mr. Boss’s company both designed and manufactured uniforms and attire for the troops and officers of the Wehrmacht as well as for other governmental branches of Nazi Germany.
Boss died in 1948, and the company then languished in relative obscurity until the 1950s, when, in 1953, Hugo Boss released its first suit design for menswear.
(started writing this as a comment on this thread at Long Sunday, but it got a bit too long, so it’s over here instead…)
I can report that “nappy” was very much a proud member of white suburban poseur vocabulary in the early-nineties. We used it all the time, or at least the (white) guys I played baseball with did… “nappy-ass” this and that. You could drive a “nappy ass car,” or your girlfriend could be “fuckin’ nappy…” Imus’s “nappy-headed” seems like a bit of a intensification, in that it draws it back to its original source. I don’t think anyone in my crowd actually knew what it meant – that it referred to black hair texture etc…
A parallel thing I’ve been wondering about: why is it that white suburban kid borrowings from black/rap discourse seem to have frozen over the last few decades. When I hear the little poseurs go on and on here at the university, you’d think that I wouldn’t be able to follow what they’re talking about, at least some of the time. But it’s never the case – exactly the same words, syntax, sentiments, intonations. “Yo, them bitches was fly…” sort of stuff. It sounds like I’m back there, 17, waiting for my turn at bat or whatever…
(Sometimes – and I realize that this is likely delusionally self-centered of me – I wonder if the sort of place that I grew up outside of NYC wasn’t actually an incubator for a lot of this white kid fakeo talk that currently defines what I’d call the ESPN demographic of US culture… From our lips to the halls of academe’s better dorms… I’m sure that’s just a strange “effect,” and that it happened nowhere and everywhere all at once…)
Towns like the one where I grew up are interesting places. Unlike the little white kids that I saw while living recent in Brooklyn, who were carefully held away from any possibility of contact with the kids in the projects, etc, kids in certain suburban towns end up brought together in unlikely ways because of way things are organized (i.e. one public high school for everyone, one american legion baseball team for everyone, etc…) Obviously, most suburban towns outside of NYC aren’t like this (and there is a long history of segregation by districting there for sure), but there is a string of semi-urban hamlets – nowadays the places most coveted by new parents fleeing the housing costs in the City itself – that do function in this way to a certain extent…
There were certain nights when I was playing ball that there’d be, say, a scout from Dartmouth or Cornell checking out the pitcher, while sitting next to the scout were our sixteen-year old third baseman’s girlfriend and their two kids. Judging from the newsclippings my mom used to send me from the local paper, half of our team is in and out of trouble with the cops, and the other half (with one big exception – moi) works for finance firms on Wall Street.
What gets even weirder is the relationship between all of this and Imus, and his demographic, which to my mind centers on the <i>parents</i> of people like me. (My dad is absolutely crushed this week – he’s listened for 30 years or so – and just can’t stop repeating PR firm manufactured talking points about Jesse Jackson and “Hymietown.”) Is it that suburban white boy borrowings from black culture have come around the corner to meet the baby boomers at the pass that is ESPN? It is strange to think that my dad’s favorite figure, above all others, in entertainment and information business has gone down for borrowing too liberally from the strange but oh-so-american patois of my youth…
Sometimes it seems to me that my business needs to invert its foundational question – the question that informs most of the work done today.
It is interesting, yes, that literary works borrow from discourse x, preoccupy themselves with important social subject y, or are informed by the long and complex history of z, but it is not all that interesting. It is not surprising, in other words, that literary works partake of the circumstances that define the world into which they are created, that they borrow social materials, or mimic this or that polemic, discussion, or shoulder-shrugging engagement.
But what is more interesting – what is to me a bit shocking - is that human beings immersed in this or that historical context, or even human beings who would like to engage with this or that probing social question, or elicit a sympathetic engagement with a certain social problem, resort to fiction – to made up stories – in response (or semi-response) to these situations.
In short, that art exists in the first place, was ever deemed the right response to anything, is more interesting than the fact that a given art object partakes of the world in which it was created, which is obvious, no surprise.
Let me put it one other way:
1) Someone is writing a story about injustice, cruelty, absurdity – and so at one point in this story the author deploys an image highly reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib photographs in order to illustrate or intensify the effect of the piece. This is not surprising.
2) Someone is upset, angry, or fascinated by what happened Abu-Ghraib (or Auschwitz, or Abu Ghraib, or the lives of the socially excluded, or unhappy housewives, etc etc etc) and because of this upsetness, anger, fascination that person decides to write a fiction, a story about a situation that never actually happened, no matter how close the details of the story are to the provoking event. This is an interesting response, no?
Of course, I am not the first person to think this way…
… but sometimes I worry a bit that I might well be the last.