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Archive for the ‘distraction’ Category

the default mode: sociality, distraction, and concentration

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From Julian Baggini’s essay / review on “sociality” in today’s Financial Times. Here, in particular, he’s discussing Matthew Lieberman’s book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.

Lieberman’s task is in some ways the most straightforward. His aim in Social is to impress upon us just how much we have learnt in recent years about the wiring of our brains. Social thinking is so fundamental that it fills our consciousness whenever we switch off from any pressing task. This “default mode network” activity “precedes any conscious interest in the social world”, having been detected in babies as young as two days.

Most neuroscientists believe we have a dedicated system for social reasoning, quite different to the one that is used for non-social thinking. What’s more, when one system is on, the other turns off. Lieberman explains how the social system fulfils three core tasks. First, it must make connections with others, which involves feeling social pains and pleasures, such as those of rejection or belonging. Second, it must develop mind-reading skills, in order to know what others are thinking, so as to predict their behaviour and act appropriately. Finally, it must use these abilities to harmonise with others, so as to thrive safely in the social world.

This notion –  that we have two parallel systems, one for the non-social thinking involved in dealing with “pressing tasks” and another “default mode” that inherently angled towards the social – is an interesting one. And it’s one that seems intuitively true, given how incredibly easy it is to slip from concentrated hard work to checking in on what one’s friends (real and “only electronic”) are saying on social media networks and the like. Of course, it doesn’t even take an online connection to feel the gravitational pull of the social (or even that particularly intense form of the social known as the “sexual”) when we are hard at work on something that requires fixed attention. (See, for instance, Inigo Thomas’s recent LRB piece on the British Library pick up scene – he’s basically written down what everyone chatters about when on the topic of the BL). 

But what I’m wondering about here is not so much the default social mode (which I’m convinced exists) but the other mode, the mode of that runs when completing the “pressing task” – the mental state that we are in when we successfully refuse ourselves yet another check of our email accounts or twitter scrolls. I’m working from a review here, so Lieberman might have it completely differently in his book, but isn’t there also a complex “sociality” to the ostensibly non-social forms of concentrated attention?

In my own work, for instance, which consists mainly of writing, preparing to teach, and marking students’ work, there’s always a implicit, virtual conversation going on as I compose or correct with the readers or audiences that I am planning or at least hoping to communicate with. Of course, the forms of work that require my concentration may be more social that what others have to accomplish – an accountant or an engineer isn’t necessarily expecting to deliver the fruits of her spreadsheet calculations or CAD diagrams to a lecture hall full of people. But even then – and even when I have to devote myself to the calculation of student marks or the tedious estimation of MA admissions returns – isn’t there a deeper, more cryptic sociality involved in the completion of these seemingly inherently solitary tasks. After all, without a sense of the students who are awaiting the marks, my boss who expects me to get the numbers right and on time, the university superstructure that expects students to graduate with full transcripts and seminar rooms next year that are full of students, would I ever even begin to get these (often excruciatingly boring) things done?

Freud coined a term for the deepest, darkest, and most hardwired of the secret interlocutors that converse  (if “converse” is the word, rather than “cajole”, “chastise,” etc) with us as we complete our daily tasks – or engage in any aspect of our quotidian behaviour. He called it the “superego,” that aspect of our psychologies which takes the shape of an internalized, virtual version of authority figures – first parents, later other figures like teachers or religious leaders – and with whom we negotiate constantly. As he has it in The Ego and the Id:

The super-ego retains the character of the father, while the more powerful the Oedipus complex was and the more rapidly it succumbed to repression (under the influence of authority, religious teaching, schooling and reading), the stricter will be the domination of the super-ego over the ego later on—in the form of conscience or perhaps of an unconscious sense of guilt.

In other words, I agree with Lieberman’s thesis about the inherent sociability of human thought and work. But – again conceding that I haven’t read his actual book, only the review – I wonder whether the “default mode” isn’t even more default than he’s making it there. I wonder, in short, if  it isn’t when when we’re most alone, when we’re as concentrated and “unplugged” as we can be, that the voice of the other – even if it comes from nowhere but within our own minds – shouts at us the loudest.

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January 4, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Posted in distraction, sociality

forgetting to remember the reminders of old

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The experience of a new sense of paranoia, about our intellectual capacities, our attention spans, our abilities to concentrate, to retain. “I simply don’t seem to have the wherewithal to make it through a long book anymore – twitter’s ruined it all.” “I can remember when I’d simply sit at my desk and will my way to finishing an essay, as an undergraduate, more than a decade ago. But now, there are all of these sites to check, and emails and texts pinging their way into my awareness all of the time, and so…”

And so… one lays in bed at night worrying that the game really is up, what one could once do one can do no more, lost now in the funhouse of the always-on mediasphere. “In or around June 1995 human character changed again,” a recent essay tells us. Another, by a self-proclaimed saint of seriousness, warns us of a coming apocalypse. Reading in bed, yes, it’s true – why can’t I remember what happened in the previous chapter of this history of Byzantium? Why, furthermore, am I still not finished with this history, months after my trip to Istanbul? In the early morning, more panic to ring in the day with worry: will today be like yesterday, and the yesterday before that, where despite my best intentions I still don’t get anything done, instead always taking “five more minutes” to scan the social media screens, to surf around in the flotsam of trivial news?

Between the articles and the personal sense of guilt, then, a creeping sense of despair. Perhaps it’s the personal and intellectual version of what the ancient Romans must have felt about their Greek predecessors. Despite all these resources, all of this wealth and power and worldly awareness, why can’t we get the statues to stand up without props? Why can’t we write an Odyssey or an Oedipus Rex? Where are our Aristotles, our Platos? 

But then this morning a second thought about all of this: Undoubtedly, undoubtedly, all of these new screens and devices, fora and threads, have a major impact on my – and all of our – mental and psychological ecosystems. There’s no doubt either that having the world’s body of information searchable on my desk has made me lazy about retaining information, and the ease of electronic contact has made me less willing and able to do the quiet, self-circumscribed work that I used to do when there simply weren’t many options for finding continual, causal contact with friends and strangers. But…

I am wondering this morning when, exactly, was my worklife not organised around long periods of apathy and distraction, punctuated by sudden rushes of illumination, focus, and productivity? Long before I had a working web browser and wifi setup, that’s for sure. I can’t remember what happens in novels or histories now, sure – but then look back and the notebook after notebook I filled with notes during my undergraduate and graduate years? How much of War and Peace did I really have in hand, despite just having read it, back in 1996? And further, when was it that I didn’t blow off reading interminable critical monographs to read the newspaper, magazines, or whatever was at hand? In short, when wasn’t my internal intellectual life organised in a manner resembling a factory with lazy workers, constantly off for a smoke break or getting distracted in conversation, and with a manager staring down at it all in despair, occasionally shouting at the shiftless individuals to get the hell back to work?

Not sure there’s a wider point to all of this, except perhaps to offer a slight rejoinder to the prophets of social media apocalypse who would tell us that we’re screwed… and who often succeed, as with my night time worries, to convince us of this. More than that, I guess I’m trying to remind myself – to remind myself that I’ve always needed reminders, and that if ADHD or dementia there is growing in my brain and mind, it’s been growing there from the very start.

Written by adswithoutproducts

September 18, 2013 at 10:33 am

Posted in distraction

informational economies

with 5 comments

The difficulty: while fucking away time on facebook and twitter when you should be “working” on your informational commodity of one type or another might seem like self-distraction or time-wasting, the fact of the matter is that given the way things work, the connections that you are making or fostering might well be more important to the furtherance of your “career” than anything you might tap, dutifully, into the Word document open but hidden behind all the browser windows.

Or so one tells oneself. Perhaps even rightly.

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 18, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Posted in distraction

notes on violence and justice

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1) Rewatching the first season of the Sopranos (can it really have been a decade since?) and amongst all of the wonderful (and wonderfully woven) thematic threads is one that I’d forgotten. In S01E09, which is best remembered for the Uncle Junior “South of the Border” sequences, Tony and the boys decide to punish their daughter’s soccer coach when it’s discovered that he was sleeping with one of his charges. What follows is a sequence in which the males are frustrated in their plans through the reasonable intervention of several women, especially Artie Bucco’s wife (who identifies the egotism inherent in the planned action – the fact that the coach would die more than anything else for the collective satisfaction of the mobster fathers) and Jennifer Melfi, Tony’s shrink, who asks the critical question: Why is it that Tony feels that it’s his job to exact justice in every case?

2) The stage is set for the anti-climactic ending by playing the potential climax out in advance, only in small scale and in a banal setting. Artie Bucco and Tony are out for dinner, and they see a young guy wearing a baseball cap in this relatively swish restaurant. After a conversation-that-aging-white-guys-like-to-have about declining social standards and the like, Tony gets up from the table, walks over to the becapped diner, and tells him to take off the fucking hat. The kid does so, embarrassing himself in front of his girlfriend in the process.

3) I’ll admit, I have a little bit of a problem with this sort of thing myself. It’s important, I think, to draw an immediate distinction between calls-to-action that really are yours (your wife / your daughter / your son / your husband is in trouble and its up to you, and only you, to respond) and this other category of events that the Sopranos episode is highlighting.

I’ve ended up in problem after problem in life by throwing myself into frays that were not mine – always, always, on the side of “justice,” or at least what seemed just to me at the moment – it ways that might seem absolutely baffling to someone wired otherwise. They would ask me, just as I am now asking myself, “Why is it your business, business that you actually have to bring to some sort of conclusion, if for instance some young kid hits on a girl in a bar over-aggressively? Why is that your fight to fight?”

4) I don’t like spitting on the street. The other day I was walking down the road when the kid in front of me hocked up a huge one and sprayed in on the pavement. I was just about to tap him on the shoulder to ask why the fuck London seemed like him the right place to blow his brown sputum around when I realized it was one of my tutorial students from last year, one of my favorite ones. I ducked away without him seeing that I was behind him.

5) What exactly is my problem with protest? I’ve been trying to sort it out this week, obviously in the wake of the big demonstration in London on Wednesday. I hate going to them, though often have. Obviously they have to happen, but for some reason (just being honest here – perhaps in the tradition of Orwell on the sense that he could never quite overcome that poor people smelled – and hopefully in service of some larger claim) I can’t help but walk around incredibly fucked off at everyone around me. Whether self-satisfied later-day liberals or kids who don’t seem to know what they’re actually protesting, whether anarcho-thugs bent on violence for its own sake or annoying academics taking a break from skimming the New Left Review – I am an equal opportunity hater, even if – as is generally the case – I am fully on-board with the cause in question.

6) When I was in grad school, I attended one of the anti-WTO protests in New York. After I proudly reported this fact to one of my smarter and more pragmatic friends, he asked me – quite simply – what it was exactly I was protesting. I could not coherently answer.

For whatever reason of bearing or position, people don’t often ask me questions like that, questions based on an assumption that I simply am too ignorant to answer. It was an awkward 30 second exchange whose import I’ve never quite shaken.

7) I was in my office meeting with students during the early stages of the protest this Wednesday. I’d check the BBC News video feed on my computer and as things heated up at the Millbank Centre I decided that I really wanted to go down there. I mean like viscerally.

8 You really learn what it means to live in a country without a revolutionary tradition when you watch the news media – and even various student representatives – go into an absolute fucking flutter over the destruction of a rather incidental amount of property. America gets panicked about a lot of things, but christ, I can’t imagine the response to some equivalent act of group vandalism taking quite this tone and intensity. Sure, the building housing the Conservative Party HQ isn’t some random Starbucks or Gap outlet, but still….

9) The left response to the seizure of the building has been incredibly incoherent, incoherent in the guise of semi-reasonableness but really wearing the hairshirt of fear and irresolution. For instance:

Why couldn’t Solomon explain her actions? One assumes that she and the other who participated in this event actually did have reasons for doing what they did. One further assumes that she here on Newsnight she wanted to avoid falling into a trap that she presumed Paxman (and the British media in general) was laying for her, but ended up blundering into a far worse situation in the end. In refusing to answer directly, what ends up filling the gap where the reason should be is not the presumption of violent intent. It’s the presumption of stupidity, collective stupidity.

Even worse, some sort of on-message conspiratorial stupidity – which becomes the global effect when one considers many of the articles and documents written in support of the occupation. Again and again, the occupation is explained as an effect of amorphous “student frustration” – which only again begs the question of what, exactly, this act would do to assuage or ameliorate this frustration. It doesn’t get much better in things like the now infamous “Goldsmiths Lecturers Letter” (full text here):

We also wish to condemn and distance ourselves from the divisive and, in our view, counterproductive statements issued by the UCU and NUS leadership concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ. The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts and privatisation that will follow if tuition fees are increased and if massive reductions in HE funding are implemented.

Well OK. That’s pretty carefully worded, but ultimately says not much more than “look over there not here!,” which doesn’t really amount to a serious appraisal of the actual event that the letter is ostensibly focused on but which it ultimately skirts. As such, it opens itself even more flagrantly to the exact sort of co-optation that it ultimately and quickly suffered from. Co-optation without side-effect, as there was nothing in the statement to poison with reason those who would use it irrationally.

Again, assuredly there were reasons, even if uncomfortable ones, for entering the building. It’s my hunch that they would in fact play better than this sort of thing that we’re seeing from the left on television, in the papers, and in a series of petitions and collective letters. If occupations and the like are going to be conducted, if windows are, yes, going to break (as Solomon vaguely promises during the programme), mightn’t it be a good thing to be able to describe why in fact they are happening? The collapse of the London Eye is nothing compared to the wholesale destruction of Higher Education in the UK. The collapse of the London Eye is a deeply-felt expression of student frustration. I don’t want to talk about the collapse of the London Eye, even though I planted the charges. I want to talk about student fees. I’m afraid it didn’t play well this time, and will play even worse next time.

10) At the end of the Sopranos episode that I mentioned above, Tony actually bows to the reasonable arguments advanced and decides to call off the hit. He ends up rolling on the floor of his house, in a drink-n-valium fueled stupor, only able to say to his wife “I didn’t hurt nobody.” He’s restrained his impulses for once, thought something through for once, let the “system work” for once, and ends up an incoherently frustrated mess, basically a very large child in a semi-coherent state.

While most of us are able to step back comfortably from an endorsement of mafia-style vigilante violence of the sort dealt with there, I still think that the episode serves as a very vivid and ambiguously wired political or ethical allegory. That is to say, the crossing of ethical demand and psychological need, the complex relationship between instantaneity and process, and in particular the very complex question of impersonal involvement, even violent involvement, in the pursuit of justice of one stripe or another, are persistent ones, insoluble but worth seeing (I hope, I hope) presented vividly.

11) Why did I want so badly to go down to Millbank? Was it simply because there was the possibility of violence? Why didn’t I go down to Millbank? Well that, my friends, is a longer story than I can possibly tell here.

It’s bad form in even a vulgarly dialectical essay like this one, but I hope that you can see the aporia that’s looming over this piece.

12) Of course some of the impulse to violence in the service of justice is hardwired, written into our basic codes and structures. Interesting to think so, though. Seems an animalian holdover, something quite primitive, but on the other hand: do animals commit vigilante violence?

I suppose the question of vigilantism comes down to an issues of numbers, sets. Family – herd – neighborhood – any random victim on the street.

13) Of course it’s hardwired, but it’s also an impulse I clearly learned from my father. Such vivid memories from my childhood – the time at the baseball game when teenagers were carrying on behind us, using foul language and generally being loud, and my father…. turned around on them. A scene that I’ve been repeating my entire life, along with many others of the same, my entire life: in thought and dream and often enough action. When one is a child, a boy child enamored with his father, these scenes seemed like living allegories of bravery and abstract justice, arbitrary interventions on behalf of justice for its own sake.

Now, while some of the sheen of those moments has been retained, I increasingly want to ask – him, the him in myself – the very question that Melfi asks Tony:  Why was this sort of thing his job? Why is it our job?

14) Under-interrogated psycho-social issue: What is the effect of having a father who went to war when you yourself did not? A grandfather who did while your father did not? I suppose I could ask some of my friends whose fathers served in Vietnam…. Mine was Canadian so (fortunately) missed the show. I suppose I could ask some of these friends, but would risk wandering them into the high traumas of parental alcoholism and violence that I know understand were going on behind the scenes, at night when I generally wasn’t there.

15) The numbered, thetical form that these personal-cum-political blogessays that I write often take allows for a certain halting stream of consciousness, not unlike that which is supposed to obtain during psychoanalysis, to take place. Just write what comes next, from whichever frame of reference it comes.

Of course, this tactic (tactic?) inevitably results in a document useful only as a clearing house for further thought – it is not thought itself. It is a smooth, empty concrete floor where one spills out all of the contents in the hopes that once out one might put them back together again with coherent form.

16) The hidden non-sequitur incoherence of Benjamin’s “Work of Art” essay… The madness of the ending – as an ending to that piece – despite the brilliance of the observations arriving at cinematic pace throughout…

“Fiat ars – pereat mundus”, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of “l’art pour l’art.” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.

17) Theory and what it excuses: if I were to put myself back in the frame of mind that I once briefly held – during the coursework time, I suppose, of my PhD – I could allow myself to wrap this up in a theoretical aporia, a full-empty question or request for further thought that allows me to step away without solving anything out. We must interrogate the complex entanglements of personal desire and public good, personal perversity and rational action, that informs each and every act of political violence, in this context potentially liberatory political violence. I could glibly ignore the performative contradictions inherent in my piece, expecting that mystified readers would leave off the contradiction inherent in everything that they exuberantly label performativity.

Identifying knots of over-determination but doing so in a tone that seems to indicate that you are announcing a political program is something like treading water while selling slickly-packaged books to the passing tourist boats.

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November 13, 2010 at 2:36 pm

nora barnacle’s bum and virtual shotguns

with 11 comments

Maybe I’m just being silly, but I find this video strangely fascinating…

For one thing, I could see these videos dragging Stephen Joyce into his most insane legal action yet. But beyond that I have this vague sense that I’d love to write something that somehow was the exact fictional equivalent of these videos. Not sure what that would mean, exactly. But here we have attention-in-distraction (is he actually playing while he reads these?) plus porn (excellently – porn in epistolary form captured in a streaming video – brilliant!) plus the asynchronous “plot arcs” of the letters and the games (on one of the later video you get JJ abruptly cutting off the letter because he purportedly just uh-oh’d himself in the course of writing it) plus virtual sociality (the erotics at a distance of the letters crossed with the fascination of the girl gamer with the letters, and perhaps, we might imagine, the guy who is reading the letters) plus the stupidity of imitative pastiche (the guy who keeps resaying lines from the letters – quite accurately, as if he’s writing them down – in a sort of movie-announcer-cum-Halo-guy voice….)

I could keep going. Sometimes I really miss the US PhD seminars that I ran. I’d totally throw this in for us to kick around at the end of one of the three hour blocks….

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November 9, 2010 at 10:56 am

late hegemonic fantasy: the pacific

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Just watched the first two episodes of The Pacific on Sky Movies. Stirring and scary yes, but also can’t help but feel that what I’m watching is a some sort of desperate projection of American nostalgic fantasy about the last time that we were outgunned, undermanned, underfed, often injured and generally in dire straits but we won. (It’s no wonder that the Battle of Khe Sahn during the Vietnam War plays a similarly iconic role in the American [filmic] subconscious). The colonel in charge of the unit we’re following even at one point, in the face of throwing what’s barely left of his Marine division against the entire Japanese army, reiterates an order from above: if this goes badly, you’ll retreat to the jungle and fight as guerrillas. To which all involved respond, fuck no, sir. We’re almost guerrillas, we might well have become guerrillas, but we’re never in the end guerrillas. And we watch as the desperate Marines manning the machine guns, constantly low on ammo, mow down hundreds upon hundreds of Japanese infantrymen. (At one point, in an act of medal-winning bravery, someone has to go clear a pile of bodies from the breach in the barbed wire fence in order to create a free-fire zone…) Sometimes, after the battles, the more thoughtful of the Americans go and look at the family pictures that the Japs carry in their bags. Once, one of them even finds a child’s doll in the satchel of the dead. But in another case, when these undermanned Americans send a medic out to help a terminally injured Jap, the latter pulls the pin on a grenade to blow the aiding hands and bodies to pieces. Bastards.

So why is this necessary right now? Well, there’s this sort of thing, which I really recommend you watch, and which I found via Chained to the Cinematheque:

I keep wondering (see below) whether videos like this one, which seem to represent in their depiction of the distractedly distanced killing perpetrated by US troops (which of course continues – or in fact intensifies into the primary US tactic for dealing with international insurgencies) some sort of semi-omnipotent Playstation-style control of the battlefield, actually augur something else, a sort of existential or mass-psychological or even material over-reach. That, if I could guess, is exactly the anxiety that constitutes the political unconscious of the Tom Hanks’s HBO production that I watched tonight. But this may or may not be wishful thinking. Understandable, I suppose, for me to construct fantasies about the failure of national projects that involve severely injuring children in the back of a van that their father’s driven to pick up a dying Reuters employee and deliver him to a hospital and then denying said children proper medical treatment.

Anyway, in case you’re new to the blog, here’s a previous (and more interesting) post on a parallel topic. And actually another one here, originally written for n+1’s website but they couldn’t sort out the coding issues with the embedded videos. I’m actually currently attempting to finish a small bit of fiction on this subject that I’ve been working on forever… We’ll see – maybe the awful video above has given me the spur that I need.

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 6, 2010 at 12:42 am

Posted in distraction, Television, war

un perroquet in my pigeon hole

with 2 comments

This is a week for seriously, seriously getting some serious work done on the book. Seriously. But nice things keep happening today and you know when nice things happen you have to photograph them so that your blog-readers can participate vicariously in the niceness.

For instance.

BOOM! This wasn’t supposed to be out until 3 Septmember, but I took a quick stroll through W’stones on the way in and there it was, weirdly positioned way down at the bottom of the new arrivals section. Flipped through for references to the period that I’m most interested in, the period just before the start of what this one deals with (1972-1975) and couldn’t find any. I’m so over readerly joy, at this point of my life and work, but ever so rarely something like this comes along and I’m tempted to blow off the day’s work and plow through…

So I’m all set to work. Just a quick check of the pigeon hole (they laugh here when you say mailbox, I don’t know why, but I do know that the pigeon thing gets me confused sometimes and so I say things like cubby hole and then people laugh even harder…) and lo and behold another surprise!

BOOM! I’ve been waiting for someone to go to Rouen so that they could a) visit the Musee Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Medecine (ha!) and b) pick me up the postcard that can only be called Loulou Hits the Mirror Stage for so long now. (Loulou is a parrot featured, fucking amazingly I think you’ll agree, in Flaubert’s “Un coeur simple,” which you should read right now if you haven’t…) I had one from my visit in 1998 and stupidly put in on my office door at the last place. Some souvenir-hunting student came along when I was running my European Fiction course and stole my bird. Really depressing – there’s not all that much stuff in the world that I have a sentimental attachment to, but this was one. And so I noticed that Anglofille was heading to Normandy, and long story short, she hooked me up! And not only did she hook me up, but she got me the last damn one – the display model as it were! I can’t even imagine what sort of interlingual awkwardness that required – I assuredly would have bailed…

It’s a bit strange to think that likely I gestured at this one, the one that’s now sitting on my desk, in order to indicate which one I wanted back in 1998. You know, I could write a pomo sort of novel about this, one that makes a bit of a mystery of whether this parrot is the right parrot, that gradually discovers that there are more than 50 Loulou’s in Rouen, and I could call it something like Gustave’s Parrot or Flaubert’s Bird or….

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 18, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Posted in distraction, flaubert

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