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Archive for April 2011

interminable revision / how literature means (or doesn’t)

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As always, the big question at play with this massive thing that I am forever revising is a question about the argument and its reach. In the last draft, I kept the “wider claims” very quiet, almost inaudible. I notice something – something quite important – about a certain set of texts, label it as important, but don’t quite say why. * I am commended by my reader for noticing this something, but urged to articulate more fully what exactly I think it means. Which is what I am trying to do right now… but without tilting into the perilously tempting stance of massively overstating the case, making my finding mean something politically or even philosophically that it can’t (possibly / quite) mean. And so a seemingly endless practice of revising my revision, trying to get the line of the claims just and square.

Literature is really funny in the way that it means. You can’t quite argue “Well, this really does give us a whiff of something, but it’s hard to say just what…” But that, to my mind, is basically what it does. But it can’t simply be something like that as the argument of an academic monograph.

* I constantly tell my students, when I basically take them back through the principles that I learned as a half-time teaching of composition as I was finishing my PhD, that I am absolutely not being condescending to them when I reexplain concepts like motive, argument, structure, and the like. I always tell them that the selfsame issues are what at stake in my own work, and that I am constantly failing to fulfill these basic rhetorical rules and premises. I’m not sure they always believe me, but it is absolutely positively true. These things are what bring meaning to work, given the fact that meaning is difficult, they are what make writing of this sort (any sort?) difficult.

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April 27, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Posted in academia, everyday

the pale king: a review

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Here’s a review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King by, well, you can figure it out… Lots about bureaucracy in there, no? Really like the image (above) they put with it…

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April 25, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Posted in dfw

privatising the mail…

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Apropos to some of what I’ve been on about lately with regard to bureaucracy and the like, there’s an absolutely excellent long piece in the LRB by James Meek about mail privatisation in the Netherlands and here… Love this sort of piece that moves dexterously from the situation on the ground, the structures that make it what it is, and the history of the whole deal…

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April 22, 2011 at 11:51 am

tesco riot

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April 22, 2011 at 10:25 am

Posted in protest

princeton suicide

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Hard to know what to make of this, because the university’s not being forthright about it, but very, very disturbing…

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April 22, 2011 at 10:16 am

Posted in academia

words and politics

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From Krugman’s column today:

But something else struck me as I looked at Republican arguments against the board, which hinge on the notion that what we really need to do, as the House budget proposal put it, is to “make government health care programs more responsive to consumer choice.”

Here’s my question: How did it become normal, or for that matter even acceptable, to refer to medical patients as “consumers”? The relationship between patient and doctor used to be considered something special, almost sacred. Now politicians and supposed reformers talk about the act of receiving care as if it were no different from a commercial transaction, like buying a car — and their only complaint is that it isn’t commercial enough.

Sounds like the work of Luntz to me… (Actually, here’s a summary of his 2009 memo on health care). See how this works? You preemptively and subtly rework the terms of the debate simply by changing the words that are used.

Both the facilitating situation and ultimate effect of this sort of rhetorical gamesmanship can be found in another article from the NYT today on a new national poll:

[S]lightly more Americans approve than disapprove of a proposal by Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin to change Medicare from a program that pays doctors and hospitals directly for treating older people to one in which the government helps such patients pay for private plans, though that support derived more from Republicans and independents. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll that found 65 percent opposed Mr. Ryan’s plan, suggesting results can vary based on how the question is asked.

Twice as many respondents said they would prefer cuts in spending on federal programs that benefit people like them as said they would favor a rise in taxes to pay for such programs.

Yet more than 6 in 10 of those surveyed said they believed Medicare was worth the costs. And when asked specifically about Medicare, respondents said they would rather see higher taxes than see a reduction in its available medical services if they had to choose between the two.

Arggh! Replace Medicare with vouchers, because it costs to much, but Medicare is also worth the costs. Cut spending on programs like Medicare rather than raising taxes, but also raise them to keep Medicare…. Obviously there’s, as always in America, sharp ideological polarization at play, but at least some – or actually probably a large percentage of respondents, when you think about it – who are answering questions in diametrically contradictory ways….

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April 22, 2011 at 10:00 am

don’t need a weatherman…

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Strange situation: not all that long ago, it seemed to me obvious that dystopian speculative fiction was one of the genres if not the genre best adapted to a left political stance. The drawing out of the inevitable ramifications of all this, the dramatic revelation of the crisis whose traces were already starting to streak the screen of things-as-they-are, the warning that the relatively bearable everyday was already pregnant with something much, much worse – these seemed to be close to the best one could do with narrative art today.

I even started writing some myself, a project that I’m constantly tempted to return to…. But honestly it’s feeling increasingly wrong-footed, if one would be even a mildly political narrative writer, to head in this direction given the way things are now.

Given that the fact is that the world over austerity measures, privatizations and rationalizations, and other efforts to starve out what vestiges of the welfare state remain are being sold to the public under the very brand of inevitable and interminable crisis. People sort of vaguely accept, I think, that things are bad and something needs to be done as it’s only going to get worse. 

Depicted catastrophes tend to blur together into a generalized air of imminent expectation of the worst. We’ve seen two phases of this already, lately. Roughly the first stage with its quiet but persistent stream of “untimely” bleak visions amidst the high water marks of post-Cold War affluence, globalization, and tech bubbling. The second, much less discrete, came amidst the televised events and wild market swings of the first decade of the 21st century. The generalization of this atmosphere of imminent catastrophe – through films and books, news reports and editorials, the web, whatever – has served as a distributed and as if automatic PR machine better than any the right could have paid for in service of its quest to cut away the remainders of soft socialism. Even depictions of dystopian situations born of capitalism itself play into, I think, the message that those who administer capitalism need to have distributed right now…

Not a hard and fast position I’m taking here – just an inference, an intuition, that I’m trying to think through a bit. Of course I’m painting with too broad a brush, even if I’m just speculating at this point…

(Perhaps worth mentioning that I’m going to write something soon about Evan Calder Williams’s new book soon, once I’ve finished it….)

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April 19, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Posted in aesthetics, crisis, dystopia

?

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I don’t really understand the point of this piece at The New Statesman about DFW. Basically, Aime Williams a) doesn’t seem to have read much Wallace, and hasn’t yet finished The Pale King but b) offers the incredibly insightful point that he has some serious fans who may have trouble evaluating his work while c) calling him silly for having some strange orthographical habits, d) didn’t really like Oblivion because other people did (do you see any other explanation?) and e) seemed to think that the title of one of his essay collections was a sign of some sort of childishness.

Overall, the argument of the piece seems to be I haven’t liked DFW but a few of the quotes from the new book that I’ve seen in reviews look interesting. Still, his fans are irrational and make me want not to like him… Not quite the stuff of riveting literary journalism, no…

Huh. To my mind better practice to a) read the books, at least more than one of them b) decide why you do or don’t like them and then, and only then, c) write up something about why. Guess I’m just old school like that…

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April 17, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Posted in dfw

dfw, bureaucracy, left sexiness, etc

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Excited to be writing up a review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. And even more excited to be able to say that the politics of this unfinished novel are at once incredibly subtle but utterly profound – exactly the right answer to so much that has gone wrong lately and continues to go wrong today. Won’t scoop myself by telling you just how this works, here, but for a quick preview of the sorts of things that I am thinking about, and that I think Wallace was thinking about as he wrote this, let me point you to some old posts. First, if you’re interested, take a look at this one on bureaucracy. Second, here’s the final paragraph of my critique of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and its about bureaucracy:

On the final pages of the book, when Mark addresses the question “What is to be done?,” one of his primary suggestions is that the left focus on the reduction of bureaucracy – a suggestion that certainly seems to correspond with the evidence and analysis that he provides throughout. Still, and given what I’ve said above, it is a suggestion that is not without a significant amount of danger. For while we would all like to do less of this maddening bureaucratic work, and while much of this bureaucratic work is aimed ultimately at the cynical reduction of public service in the name of efficiency, there are more pernicious (and more likely) paths to the reduction of bureaucracy than leftist agitation and refunding. I know I’ve focused disproportionately on education in this post, but just one more time: I’m sure, for instance, that the for-profit University of Phoenix in the USA would love to give the Tories a hand at straightening out the UK further and higher education systems and their reams of paperwork once they get in office… Or, as will likely be the case, the Conservative government (or pre-emptive Labour) can allow universities to set their own student fees, which will let “students decide” with their increasingly empty wallets and increasingly large student loans how the funds are apportioned rather than a board of bureaucrats monitoring the self-monitoring of the academics.

Anyway, hopefully if you’re interested you’ll see the review one way or another.

A side point,perhaps a controversial one:

Sort of frustrating situation nowadays amongst what we might call the youngish writing left. Here’s the problem: I’m continually tempted to write something longer on bureaucracy. I have a feeling (obviously you can disagree!) that I’m on to something with this line of argument – perhaps even something like an important “rebranding” of some words whose usage allows for a considerable amount of political mayhem to go on ostensibly with the support of the public. If it doesn’t deal with vibrators and porn, or zombie movies and eco-distaster, or moody depressive pop music, or dumbish sci-fi, pubic hair styles, or some sort of (in the extreme case) blinkered souixante-huitardism it doesn’t feel as though there’s a tremendous amount of market space for it. In other words, let’s say (just play along with me for a second) that one has a hunch that she or he has a good answer to some of the current problems and impasses, but that that answer, in the end, is somewhat boring or even utterly unsexy.

More deeply, one might have a secondary sense that the above referenced themes give themselves on to bad political arguments – arguments that seem to me to have lots more in common with the worst trends in the status quo than anything else. (Left feminist works that mostly spend almost all of their energies hating on women, works “against capitalism” that argue – to my eyes – against the same institutions that capitalists would love to destroy, etc…) (Zizek and Badiou, if complexly in the case of the later, do seem like the bad influences that had set a lot of this in motion…) In short, it starts to seem that somehow the instinct or decision to take up “sexy” lines of approach or themes leads to shit arguments… In particular, in almost none of the cases that I’m referencing here is their the slightest hint behind the attitudinizing and easy critique of a path forward, the simplest step to be taken – at least, again, ones that haven’t already been part and parcel of the right’s approach already (per what I say about Capitalist Realism above…)

I’ve heard all the arguments about “sexing up socialism,” and definitely agree that there’s some serious PR work to be done. But somehow, the current atmosphere seems incompatible with going about things the right way. Maybe I’m wrong, being a bit defeatist about things, but it is the sense that I have.

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April 17, 2011 at 10:40 am

“the ninth guy on the bench”

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From a footnote in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s GQ review of David Foster Wallace’s forthcomign The Pale King,

Early in 2008, GQ asked him to write about Obama’s speeches or, more largely, about American political rhetoric. It was still a somewhat gassy idea as presented to him, but Wallace saw the possibilities, so we started making inquiries to the Obama campaign, and even made reservations for him to be in Denver during the convention. Our thought was to get him as close to the head speechwriters (and so as close to Obama) as possible. But Wallace said, very politely, that this wasn’t what interested him. He wanted to be with a worker bee on the speechwriting team—to find out how the language was used by, as he put it, “the ninth guy on the bench.” It also seemed like maybe a temperament thing, that he would be more comfortable reporting away from the glare.

More, I’m sure, to come on The Pale King. Going to walk across the street now to Waterstones and check if they have any in stock yet….

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April 4, 2011 at 10:44 am

Posted in dfw

bella ciao

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It is lovely, the sorts of things that keep on happening in London. Especially when the students are around. Like this:

Should have filmed it in landscape, but even in portrait, one starts to have a little bit of faith…. Spirits remain relatively high…

For more on the song in question, in case you don’t know it, see this

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April 4, 2011 at 10:12 am

Posted in occupations

brick ‘n mortar ‘n toilets

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Sign in the window of a recently closed Borders bookstore somewhere in America:

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April 4, 2011 at 9:58 am

Posted in america

“give yourself an enema…”

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Quite something this:

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April 2, 2011 at 12:00 pm

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