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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.

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September 18, 2013 at 10:33 am

Posted in distraction

informational economies

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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.

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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

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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.

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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….

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August 18, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Posted in distraction, flaubert

cheap: the aeroflotification of capitalism

with 4 comments

Frederick Studemann argued recently in the FT that Aeroflot in the 1970s was a forerunner of the low-cost, low-service airlines of today.

Not only was it far more extensive and cheaper than in the west, it was less elitist. While back home air travel was for the few, in the USSR it was for the many – just another mode of public transport. Aeroflot, the national carrier, was both the world’s biggest airline and one of the cheapest, so catching the red-eye to Vladivostok was as easy as hopping on the Number 2 trolley bus on Kutuzovsky Prospekt.

Frankly, it was difficult to know where to start. Maybe with the pervasive, sweet, plasticy smell of the planes or the routine delays and constant lack of information. Or how about the flint-faced stewardesses stomping down the aisle offering the “choice” of tangy water or tangy water? Or perhaps the unspeakable food, the shabby fittings and the bleak, run-down airports in the middle of nowhere. Then who can forget the grumpy staff for whom dialogue was an alien concept, preferring instead to find new ways of deploying arbitrary rules and associated punishments. All in all, not unlike a rush-hour ride on the Number 2 trolley bus.

Any of this sound familiar? We may have scoffed at the notion of Aeroflot leading the world.

But how wrong we were. Thirty years on it is clear that far from being a laughable expression of a clapped-out system destined to crash under the weight of its internal contradictions, Aeroflot was in fact the pioneer. Low-cost travel today is simply playing catch-up with those Heroes of the Soviet Union: passengers packed in like sardines, robbed of respect and subjected to a baffling array of terms, conditions and penalties. Passengers do not interact with people but with an impersonal, unforgiving apparat dedicated to the ruthless pursuit of a (centrally fixed) plan.

It’s an interesting effect, this one, when some product sector or another in capitalist economies drops low enough in price that it starts to take on the sheen of a popular good. (Can’t find the story, but some UK government official or another recently defended the “right” of “ordinary people” to low-cost flights… Can anyone remember this and point me in the right direction so that I can update the post?) Google’s empire, to cite the most obvious example, depends entirely upon this populist semblance of public provision – everyone has the “right” to a free email address, a free blog, free news stories, free internet search, free telephony, etc… Chris Anderson’s just written a book about this, that according to the publisher’s description

considers a brave new world where the old economic certainties are being undermined by a growing flood of free goods – newspapers, DVDs, T shirts, phones, even holiday flights. He explains why this has become possible – why new technologies, particularly the Internet, have caused production and distribution costs in many sectors to plummet to an extent unthinkable even a decade ago. He shows how the flexibility provided by the online world allows producers to trade ever more creatively, offering items for free to make real or perceived gains elsewhere.

Corporations like Ryanair and Google are figures that populate one of the stories that capitalism loves to tell itself and those doomed to live in its grasp – that given enough time and given the allowance for the markets to operate without regulatory hindrance, the general level of affluence will rise as the cost of living drops. But of course, especially when it comes to the airlines, most of the cheap or freeness is a smoke and mirrors false advertisting effect. The Times (UK) ran an article revealing what anyone who’s ever tried to check a bag on a Ryanair flight already knew – that BA actually costs less on many, many flights than its cut price competitors. But let’s even pretend that you actually can access a low-cost flight. I’m sure many many people actually have flown to Spain or Greece from the UK for what I pay for a pack of cigarettes everyday, even if not nearly as many as the advertisements would have you believe.

The answer, and the overall answer to the free and the cheap that is one of the primary calling cards of capitalism remaining, of course involves a heady mix of financialisation, micro-payments, consumer distraction, non-populist austerity, and government subsidy. And the game ends with the demise of the less cynically-minded corporations and then prices rising right back to the place where they were before the game began.

Would love to say more about this, but can’t yet. Given world enough and time, I’d sit in the British Library – or at least the Pret à Manger across Euston Road from the it – and work on a new version of Kapital, centred on the mystical question of what it costs us to view the tiny advertisement at the top of our Gmail inboxes. Actually, seriously… There’s the magnum opus right there – political economy, temporality, “free,” text, interactivity, attention in distraction, ecology – everything all at once… Perhaps once I’m done with the tedious thing I’m working on now… Like Marx, I a) live in North London b) like do my drinking on or near Tottenham Court Road and c) tend to spend Saturdays with my family on Hampstead Heath, so I think I’m a perfect fit for the job.

It’s funny how you hear a lot less about the Walmart Effect lately, though, isn’t it?

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August 17, 2009 at 11:00 pm

going, going, gone

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Not really funny, more sad:

I have somehow lost, one by one and/or in clumps, almost every book having to do with my summer’s project, which happens to be the project that I’ve been working on since oh about spring 2001. I have lost (and repurchased) all of my Lefebvre. Now I notice that I’ve lost every book that I have that discusses Lefebvre’s work. I wouldn’t have posted this until I just now remembered that a few months ago I was asked to review another monograph on roughly the same topic as my own, told the editor not to bother sending the book as I had it, had read it, it was right here…. And then I had to write her back asking her to send me the fucking review copy in the mail. None of these are in my stack at home and none of these are in my office.

Maybe there’s a hole in my bag, a hole perfectly proportioned to allow only the relevant, pertitent, and manditory to fall out.

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June 12, 2009 at 1:07 pm

all work all play makes blank a blank boy

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Light blogging, relatively speaking, lately, and for that dear readers am very very sorry. You don’t want to hear me go into the details, and you don’t really have to unlike those I know in the pinkflesh earthside, but, ahem, just to make this whole thing more real for you, here’s what I’ve been up to:

- Cleaning up the topmost bedroom because my bestest pal from grad school is coming to stay for a bit. When we were young and not yet employed, I used to meet him every single Wednesday (I think it was Wednesday, right?) at places like this. Whichever of us could get there a bit early would go and occupy a table outside in advance and sit reading the Times until the other showed up. Golden days. In the picture below, it looks like it’s a cloudy NYC day but it still never gets that light in London.

dylan thomas had a bad night here

- Shaking Alain Badiou’s hand. Yep, yep. I know. You’re impressed. Thing is he’s bigger than I am, I think, which weirds me out. I am bigger than almost everyone, but not Badiou. Physically I mean. No! Not that sort of physically! You know what I mean, god, you guys! I later asked IT, apropos of I don’t know what, maybe it was this post,  if she thought I could take him. She took the fifth. Hmmmm…..

- Working like a maniac. Christ alive, it’s too much! All I do is mark papers and attend departmental meetings. One of my Ph.D. advisors, a guy who wrote a book on Benjamin et al that I know many of you have read, once told me as we walked somewhere after seminar that one of the worst things about academic work is that you never get to read. I responded that I was sure he was being a little hyperbolic. But as it turns out, my god, I don’t have time to read – or let’s see, wash myself, wash my clothes, eat properly, process complex personal epiphanies, read newspapers other than the londonpaper, call my mother, clean the litterboxes, or be civil to ex-students who knock unannounced on my office door.

It’s true what you hear, Americans, about academic life over here. It’s busier, and harder. The upside, of course, is that they don’t seem to fire people all that often. And if you’re lucky, you get to live in London.

- Going to a hauntology event. Which was nice, as it was underneath London Bridge. So under London bridge that you had to have your ID scanned at the door, I guess to make the BBC’s job easier afterwards if you were make the damn thing, erk, fall down. It reminded me, a bit, of nights that I used to have when I was childless (ooops, initially typed childish, ha!) in Brooklyn. That is to say, it made me feel middle-aged before my time. I told my therapist today about that feeling, and he said Yeah, I don’t picture you so much as a raver. I think you’re more a type for talking somewhere with a bottle of wine open. I love my therapist. He’s from Boston, btw. No raver am I! He’s right. I like me some good conversation.

Problem is, I was five years younger in Brooklyn, that is to say safely within the core demographic for such affairs. Now I am, suddenly and shockingly, older than most of the people who attend such events. Hmmmm…. And strangely I’m not depressed by this.

- Feeling even more middle-aged, but in a comfortable way, because everyone I know well, basically, is starting to get requests to appear on TV or radio. Including me, even. One of the Major American Networks is apparently trying to cast my wife as a talking-head in a Major Piece they’re doing on socialized medicine, the NHS and the like. My wife is a brilliant Overton Window player, which is probably the best thing, in terms of politcised hackery, that you can be.

I am happy to hear that the Major American Networks are working on Major Pieces on socialized medicine. I am thinking that they should film the birth of our second child via the costless services of the NHS at University College Hospital, especially the part where my wife pushes and I faint.

- Getting work. Mmmmm. Work. By which I mean writing work, of the non or only para-academic variety. I am covering the enormous Communism Conference for a fine American magazine / journal that you almost definitely read if you look at my site. And this summer I get to write a personal essay cum litcrit piece on sitting around in coffee places doing crosswords and the like that will be published by one of the Finer Left-Oriented Presses. (The table of contents of this collection reads like a who’s who of Interesting London, plus one guy from the Bronx, and, um, me…) And I have various stuff (on Lefebvre and other things) that I need to get to right away. This sort of work makes me very happy indeed…. Not that I don’t want to revise my monograph or anything….

- Watching Mad Men. It’s not the best thing ever, but it’s more than good enough to keep me entertained. Was thinking today that with this one – who is always the one to be pictured in newspaper items about the show – they are effectively bringing the big ass back after several decades in the desert of televised desire. All well and good, bring it back then…. All to the good, all very just and right.

Ah man, I have to go and read some student papers now… Exhausted, awful, but glad that I got in touch….

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March 13, 2009 at 12:34 am

what is the cost of me in boiling cups of tea?

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Relatedly, I was in a someone’s office the other day making up some collaborative document or other, when there was a bit of information we needed from the internet. He turned to his computer, then hesitate, and then said to me, “You know the amount of energy it takes to google something, right? I am trying not to if the information is otherwise at hand.” Oh, right, this must be what he was talking about. At the moment, though, the statement, the possibility that the statement was true and that life itself and research and thought was about to crystalize into a permanently chaining thermodynamic equation of inefficiency and guilt made things flicker even more vertiginously than a few moments before.

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February 24, 2009 at 7:31 am

Posted in distraction

peril and promise of automatism

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William James in his Psychology: Briefer Course:

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.

Attractive idea, yes? It’s hard for me to say. No, that has to be wrong and is awful. There are no such things as “higher thoughts.” But of course there are, we all know just what he means. Why do I keep blogging meaningless shit from my life? Shouldn’t I hand my life over to the “effortless custody”?

I am going to work tomorrow for at least eight hours and I am going to think about absolutely nothing but work for those eight hours. I’ll let you know if any “higher thoughts” are produced.

(Ugh… wasn’t even thinking of this when I wrote the kernel of this post… But there it is….)

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February 18, 2009 at 12:06 am

Posted in distraction

notes on seeing a bad movie

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It shouldn’t be that hard to make a decent movie. It’s getting to the point where they all look like the last decade’s worth of Woody Allen’s stuff. I haven’t seen many first-run movies since I got to London: There Will Be Blood, Blindness, Revolutionary Road, a couple others. All complete and utter shit. (For some reason, I see decent to good stuff when visiting the US: Synechdoche, NY and Slumdog Millionaire were brilliant and fine, respectively.)

But those that I’ve seen in London make me wonder what exactly is wrong with the American movie industry – or even what (else) is wrong with America itself. Bad-to-middling movies used to be bad-to-middling, but rarely this bad. I’m busily retrofitting myself (seriously) as a Bordieuvian institutionalist, but I can’t quite write all this off as simply a meta-effect of corporate control, aesthetic champs and the money that makes their grass grow. Go see Revolutionary Road, seriously, and you’ll see what I mean. This is beyond moneytaint; this is something more akin to mass aesthetic brain damage, narrative aphasia.

The reviews are largely right, nothing much happens in the film, and this the first and easy way to describe the problem at hand. But it has to be more than this. Nothing much happens all the time and in all sorts of ways; it merits examination just how and why and to what end in each specific case. So here’s my stab at the problem – which is a tricky one, a hiding in plain sight sort of issue.

The primary characters are locked in a Major Crisis that is both a crisis of the couple as a dyad and of both members of the couple individually. All three crises (hers, his, theirs) feed on one another. (Spoiler warnings – seriously, who fucking cares!) And the movie flits along from one cliched enactment of this crisis to another: a community theater play that goes badly, an affair with a secretary, a neurotic decision to “change their lives,” screaming and yelling and crying, a new pregnancy that will then won’t then will be aborted, an affair with a neighbor, more screaming and yelling and hysterical over-reaction, and blood-dripping unlikely death.

Fine. Lots of terrible plot action to work with. But somehow, startingly, the film never gets outside all of these tears and near-fisticuffs, morning-after shots with lovers, and bad days at work. In a sense, like a marriage in crisis or a person in crisis, like the severely depressed, it sets itself on autopilot, too lazy or mindfucked to get outside of all this strictly cliched nonsense, can’t somehow find a way to register either the crisis’s lack of objective correlative (as when TSE leaves Hamlet a babbling neurotic here) or the crisis’s material foundations. (The film gestures unconvincingly, extremely unconvincingly, in the direction of unfulfilling work – but in the end signals to take this direction seriously would be to be as permanently adolescent as the protagonists themselves). Rather, it holds the shot, it plays along, it tries to force affect out of overacting, enlightenment out of the darkness of depressive repetition.

I actually think there is something startingly and performatively (in the bad sense) dystopian about a movie that allows itself to be this obvious and cliched without worrying about the fact, as if the entire issue of self-monitoring and, well, effort to say new things is well beyond its control. There’s a simple way to link together the string of good HBO shows – they were to a one aimed at genre renewal. The Sopranos brought among lots else social contextualization / analogization to the mob drama, Sex and the City brought vibrators to the sit-com, Deadwood brought eloquence and politics to the western, The Wire brought the dialectic to the cop show, and so on. The basic appeal of the programs is that they took the effort (or had the institutional opportunity) to do something new with old forms. Revolutionary Road, conversely, harrowingly, suggests a reversal of the tides, a yang to the ying of HBO. What if instead of vivification, we take the cards dealt by genre, arrange them on the table one after another, ace through king, and made not a single modification?

Revolutionary Road twice brings a “madman” onto the screen – a math Ph.D., son of the local real estate agent, who has been institutionalized and electroshocked until the math went away, but not the despair. But he’s not that scary; the opposite really as he is, perfectly according convention, the only person capable in the film of calling things by their proper names. But this is bullshit. Everyone knows that the truly frightening madman isn’t the one who brings enlightenment, but repetition, who ceaselessly breaks the basic contract of communication to keep saying the same thing over and over, the repeat long past anyone’s willing to listen. In this case, yes, it’s the characters who are mad but not as mad as Sam Mendes, the director, who fostered their performance without even the slightest registration of destructive irony.

The saving grace of the entire evening was standing outside the door of the cinema as my wife powdered her nose and listening as each and every fellow viewer voiced a variation on the same thing that I said: What the fuck was that? Thank god. One can easily, if one has a dark projective imagination, conjure another scene: this movie plays and you look around to notice the sympathetic tears and cathartic smiles of the other citizens in the hall. But then again, that is basically what it felt like to live in America for much of the last decade. The worst enactments of the most stale and conventional crises and the concommitant plotmoves (this time on the stage of domestic or international affairs), doused with cynical sangfroid or worse, mindless and heartless belief, would be again and again accepted by the others around you – family, the people they show on television, the people who vote, in some cases intelligent friends – with a smile or a smirk or a tear in the eye or even, in the worst cases, a flat, affectless, distractedly staring face.

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February 9, 2009 at 1:54 am

Posted in distraction, movies


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Maybe, maybe not, you’d be surprised to learn that when I was a little kid I was absolutely obsessed with war and the military. OCD-type obsessed. “Playing war” in suburban backyards, military simulators on the computer (I think the last Xmas when I can remember what I actually got was the one when I received this, and they played it for something like twenty-four straight hours….), reading Jane’s Guides and the like. Best of all, was this – which I never actually played with another human being, but whose modules and rule books I read and reread and tried to play by myself but you can’t, really.

Anyway, memoirs of a lonely, semi-Aspergersy childhood in late cold war America I guess. All this is prologue introducing a childhood epiphany, one of those little tiny moments of philosophical insight that you have when you’re a child but which stick with you. Maybe you, if you were like me, thought miniscule thoughts about causality (I remember discussing, basically, Zeno’s arrow problem with my mom long before I’d heard of Zeno’s arrow – she was, erm, unhelpful. I can’t even imagine, actually, what she thought but I remember the day like it was yesterday…) or had the thing that everyone has when they set vanity mirror parallel to the bathroom mirror and, boom, infinite regress.

But the one that I’m thinking about tonight is a little less abstract. I remember realising, all at once, that one of the presumptions that I had about soldiering was – had to be, mathematically – all wrong. The presumption was this: that if you served in the armed forces during a war, likely you would kill several members of the opposing side during the course of that war. That is, that say the average veteran of, say, WWII would have killed several people during his tour or tours of duty.

Simple math shows that this simply cannot be the case. Imagine a war in which there are 100,000 front-line troops on each side. If on side A, the average soldier killed even 1.5 enemy combattants, well, that would be 150,000 dead, just from the start. Of course, some on side A would die before they had killed, and then there are injuries to account for and the like. But I think you see the point: I realized that it must be relatively rare for one solider to kill another soldier during a war. That is, it would be a fairly hotshit thing to have killed even one of the enemy. (In WW2, about 3 million of 17 million German soldiers died – a fairly high percentage, but only 17 percent… So it’s very unlikely that whatever grandpa told grandma to get her in the sack and / or justify his drinking was true…)

Huh. This came as a great shock to me, and it’s really no wonder that it did. Movies make killing seem common, depending on the realism of the picture in question. Video games, of course, arc the issue into absurdity. Remember all those scrolling Nintendo games, where you fight your way through level after level of the enemy, killing thousands and thousands of bad guys before you’re done?

Then again…. We know tonight that semi-final tally of the current war on Gaza comes to 1200+ / 13, a set of numbers that seems preordained to force newswriters into the absurd position of putting an almost before the phrase a hundred to one ratio… if they were brave and honest enough to write the phrase into their work to begin with. These are movie ratios, if not numbers more appropriate to a video game. The fact that they include both military and civilian casualties only makes the point horrifically worse.

Perhaps, then, what was unrealistic about the films and game when I was a kid, and which led to the misunderstanding that gave way to mathematical revision, has actually now been reversed. It’s not the cold war any more, which had a tendency to turn asymmetrical battles symmetrical through direct or indirect support of the “other side.” But the counterweighting effect has long since passed….

But it’s interesting that the newest war videogames both enact and critique at the same time this turn toward hundred-to-one ratios in war. Call of Duty 4, from which the images in this post are drawn, has two modes of play like most “first-person shooters” today. There’s a conventional game, where you follow a storyline from training to, well, something to do with seizing a post-soviet missile silo, and in which you fight against all of those computer directed badguys that we’re all long familiar with from videogames. On this side of the game, since you play as a single named character (OK – two named characters, one from the British SAS and the other from the US Marines), the presumption is that, yes, in the course of the game “you” kill hundred and hundreds of Middle Easterners and Russians without dying yourself. This was once unrealistic, but since your solidiers go into battle in this game with the ability to summon Air Force bombing runs and helicopter gunships, UAV flyovers and the like, well, maybe not as unrealistic as it once was…

The other mode of play, however, offers what we might call a utopian revision of the game played in the first part – if a vision of war can ever rightly be called utopian. This is the multiplayer mode, where you sign on and can join a game set in one scenario or another against other human beings who have logged on to play against you. In each case, you pick a side to join – the Americans, or in the case of most of the scenarios, some sort of Middle Eastern army or resistance movement, a hybrid I suppose of the Iraqi national army and Hamas. But, in order to make the game fair and attractive to players, whichever side you select you choose from the same sets of weapons, and have the same ability to call in airstrikes or UAV reconaissance missions. Asymmetrical war has been rendered symmetrical for the sake of fun and sportsmanship – it is an odd sight to see, F16s flying over a photorealistic Falluja dropping clusterbombs on American Marines, but one that you accept for the sake of the game. Suspension of disbelief, a fair fight, a kill-to-die ratio of approximately 1-1 in the case of all but the best and worst players, whichever side they prefer to fight on.

And it all leads me to wonder what it would be like to write a videogame in which one dies a hundred times over before one successfully kills a single antagonist. The boredom of waiting to fight the enemy would be punctuated, in all but the rarest of cases, by sudden death from the air. After hours of waiting, the screen would simply go blank, over and over and over, without the player ever getting to fire a shot. The sole variety, perhaps, would come from death by other means – a sniper’s shot to the head or a round from a tank. But no matter how, the screen goes blank just the same way – you probably shouldn’t even get to appreciate the difference in the way that you just died again.

And it further leads me to wonder whether the ability to countenance the deaths of others on our fields of battle arrives via the fact that, when confronted by numbers like 1200 or 600,000, we have no more sense that each of those individuals had a backstory, independent subjectivity, a fully human life than we are able to believe that the programmers of games give each of the computer-contolled enemy figures independent initiative, fuzzily human logic, and the rest of the markings of existence equivalent to those that play the game and, eventually, win the game. The bad guys circle their programmed rounds, follow the strings and orders of the code, fire more slowly and less accurately that we do as we kill them. They are robots, bots, spam, studio-manufactured figments. And they all look the same with their swarthy skin and balaclavas and with the AK-47s that they grip and sometimes fire.

Their corpses, as in the games, fizzle and melt back into the earth a few seconds after they die. If they didn’t, their mouldering bodies would litter the field, the screen, and make it impossible to see the next one for the piles of previous victims.

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January 18, 2009 at 2:55 am

Posted in distraction, videogames, war

the literary like a cancer that you catch from yourself

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When you walk around with a sense that you are literary, and further that what literary means in this case is not quite perverse but perhaps something like dialectical in a rather unanchored way, you are of course rendered unfit for political position-taking, you tend toward the overreading of documents, the endless deferral of signature writing, awkward conversations with those who know better.

“But wasn’t that always the point of the dialectic? It’s unanchoredness?” you ask yourself just before you ask yourself the next question, which is whether you believe that there is such a thing as bad faith. And there you are back again, right in the middle of the not-quite-perversity that might or might not be the hallmark of the dialectic, the unanchored one.

Of course, the answer is no. You don’t believe that there is such a thing as bad faith. This is a problem. But even with a gun to your head, even if you in extremis answered that you did believe in bad faith, even if people would die because of your lie, “Yes, yes, god. Of course there is. Of course there is such a thing as bad faith! Obviously, god, of course!,” it still wouldn’t be bad faith, not in your opinion. It would only be the gun at the back of your head and a completely comprehensible human response.

Of course people save themselves. Of course they distractedly save themselves first, block off the thought of the others who will perish. You can hear the very thoughts in their heads as they do so, because they are not unfamiliar thoughts. (Not unfamiliar to anyone you want to add but stop yourself). And if others die because of it, because of the lie or the solipcism, it is not their fault, but the fault of the structures and systems that are unforgiving of lies or solipcism, that render them more deadly than they ever should be.

What sort of answer is this and to what? It’s getting humid in here so you decide for a change to think about yourself.

When one’s habits of thought, the only instrument that works in one’s trusty toolbox is a sort of vulgar Derrideanism that both survived the end of Derrideanism with a capital-D and one’s own unwillingness to get on board with Derrida to begin with, in the first place, back when that was the sort of decision one was asked to make, one is clearly left in an awkward place.

You wonder if it was Derrida at all. How could it have been? How much of his work did you actually read? You read Grammatology, Writing and Difference, the one about Hegel, the big one with paintings, the one with Blanchot in it (did you?), some of Specters, other things. What is the one with the essays? Which one has the interviews? Christ now you can’t even remember the name of the one with the signature, and whether that’s the one with Austin in it.  You did meet him once,  you introduced yourself. But whatever had happened had happened long before that. That was the end of the story, when whatever it was was already set in the stone of your method, your calcified method. This is only dawning on you now.

When you got your first job you should have remembered, you should have stopped and considered (this coming only now, amazingly, just now four years later) that what you call “vulgar Derrideanism” is actually and simply only quite refined but basic liberal-arts college English technique. It is what you learn to do when someone takes the time to mark your work well but ambiguously, and when you have the time and the need for approval that you ponder the ambiguities, discuss them endlessly during walks with your one-day wife. What did he mean by that? Why did he draw the question mark in the margin? What was wrong with that passage? It is what you learn to do when you are there to learn and you are taught by conscientious vulgar Wittgensteinians who haven’t read much or any Wittgenstein. They don’t need to – there are decades worth of essay prompts for them to draw on. Why bother with the foundational materials at this point when what works truly works.

Describe the process of taking a book out of Frost Library.

Describe what it’s like to hit a tennis ball.

Describe what it’s like when you read this poem.

You were rewarded when you learned to balance paradoxes, to pull the string of ambiguity without snapping it, to keep the little plastic ball bobbing just above the straw that extended upwards from your lips toward the sky. But another way to put it is that you learned perversity, sinistrality, to coin a word. Always let the left hand remodel what the right hand is doing.

Despite some reservations, they allowed you to continue working in the field. This happened again and again until you are just where you are. You do what people used to be able to do but can’t anymore. And what is that, exactly? And can you imagine hearing something like that and feeling a spurt of unreflective pride. I do what people used to be able to do but can’t anymore.

It is a relief when, as you correct your manscript, when the readers have pointed you to a passage that could use more analysis. There is nothing easier for you than more analysis. You will get to the part about the major, and absent claims of the work later.

In the afternoons, you work for an hour (two during summer) on fiction. It is no wonder why. And it is unlikely that you will ever publish a single word of it. It is no wonder why.

Today you taught. You teach very well. At least they smile when they leave. They say nice things about you, very very nice things about you, when you’re not around to hear. You get a raft of Ph.D. students, here like the last place. When you teach, someone, always a female when it happens, almost always stops to thank you for your enthusiasm. No one, none of them, are enthusiastic. You are so enthusiastic. It’s such a breath of fresh air, your enthusiasm. You are enthusiastic, it is true. You are intense – everyone tells you you are intense. You took the first paragraph of the 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads and showed them at least three extremely convincing but mutally contradictory ways to make Wordsworth into a parodoxicalist, an ironist, a dupe of haunting ambient ironies, or perverse. You love the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads because almost every paragraph of it contradicts itself in its own distinct way. The science of pleasure, the real but made, metrical but natural, poetry but prose but poetry but prose. The social and historical determination of art and thought, but mere idiosyncratic intensification of the timelessly common.

Paul de Man. He was one of those people who did the sort of thing that people no longer do, but you can do. Paul de Man. You wonder if you have it in you to be Paul de Man. You wonder if they’ll let you write for the papers too.

Or…. you are Private Joker in an alternate (and perhaps more interesting, perhaps) version of Full Metal Jacket, in which after he learns to disassemble and reassemble his rifle so very well, takes all too strongly to the running joke about the eroticization of his weapon, in the climactic scene, instead of blowing away his teacher and sticking the barrel up his mouth, he instead is himself made a drill instructor on Parris Island. And in fact, rather than shifting the scene to Vietnam (that is to say London, really…), we watch as now Master Sgt. Joker brings his own sets of inductees into fully and effectively the Corps, despite the fact that the war, after Tet, isn’t going all that well. Best of all, he is cool and methodical where the first drill-instructor was bluster and joke. He is better, cooler, cleaner than his teacher.

So you acquired technique, a proficiency. But there will be no program to reskill workers with obsolescent skill sets, no federal program to subsidize engineering’s transformation into massage therapy, telecom marketing into environmentally sensitive agricultural work, financial (and other forms of) speculation into deaconry or even church sweeping. There will be no subsidy to beat croquet mallets into shovels, tuning forks into spoons that feed knives to hungry children. It is unlikely that you can do these things, unfortunately, on your own, with out a bailout.

No, you will be left with your toolbox and single tool to make do as one can despite the closure of the factory, the bakery, the plant. Piecework, odd jobs, putting out, freelancery. All while holding down your sinecure – the unemployment is elsewhere, has little to do with your job.

When all this is the case, one is likely to do no harm, but one is also almost certain to do harm in doing no good. Whether more harm than others, it’s hard to say.

All of this is so much as to say, in what can only be called (dishonestly, really, or is this too a lie) an extreme case and performance of bad faith, I should have signed the fucking letter. What the fuck is wrong with me, really?

Like David Lurie at the end of Coetzee’s Disgrace, they should put me in the backyard with a banjo with broken strings and a three-legged dog and an operata about Byron’s abandoned mistress to write. They should, but it’s too late, as I’m so already there.

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 16, 2009 at 2:18 am


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