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public diary: tuesday 18 october

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Students often misuse the word ‘performativity.’ It’s one of those critical terms that undoes itself the way critical terms do, by ‘performing’ themselves badly.

He revised his Joyce lecture for the undergraduates today. It used to be on ‘Joyce’; now it is on ‘James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” More set texts as students desire clarity, exam preparation, value for money.

In the course of subtracting other things, he added the following passage. It is spoken my the priest who runs  the ‘retreat’ that Stephen goes on, as one does, just at the moment of his sexual awakening.

—Last and crowning torture of all the tortures of that awful place is the eternity of hell. Eternity! O, dread and dire word. Eternity! What mind of man can understand it? And remember, it is an eternity of pain. Even though the pains of hell were not so terrible as they are, yet they would become infinite, as they are destined to last for ever. But while they are everlasting they are at the same time, as you know, intolerably intense, unbearably extensive. To bear even the sting of an insect for all eternity would be a dreadful torment. What must it be, then, to bear the manifold tortures of hell for ever? For ever! For all eternity! Not for a year or for an age but for ever. Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny little grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness; and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of the air: and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all? Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had been all carried away, and if the bird came again and carried it all away again grain by grain, and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals, at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would scarcely have begun.

—A holy saint (one of our own fathers I believe it was) was once vouchsafed a vision of hell. It seemed to him that he stood in the midst of a great hall, dark and silent save for the ticking of a great clock. The ticking went on unceasingly; and it seemed to this saint that the sound of the ticking was the ceaseless repetition of the words—ever, never; ever, never. Ever to be in hell, never to be in heaven; ever to be shut off from the presence of God, never to enjoy the beatific vision; ever to be eaten with flames, gnawed by vermin, goaded with burning spikes, never to be free from those pains; ever to have the conscience upbraid one, the memory enrage, the mind filled with darkness and despair, never to escape; ever to curse and revile the foul demons who gloat fiendishly over the misery of their dupes, never to behold the shining raiment of the blessed spirits; ever to cry out of the abyss of fire to God for an instant, a single instant, of respite from such awful agony, never to receive, even for an instant, God’s pardon; ever to suffer, never to enjoy; ever to be damned, never to be saved; ever, never; ever, never. O, what a dreadful punishment! An eternity of endless agony, of endless bodily and spiritual torment, without one ray of hope, without one moment of cessation, of agony limitless in intensity, of torment infinitely varied, of torture that sustains eternally that which it eternally devours, of anguish that everlastingly preys upon the spirit while it racks the flesh, an eternity, every instant of which is itself an eternity of woe. Such is the terrible punishment decreed for those who die in mortal sin by an almighty and a just God.

He too has been on a retreat or two in his time. On one of them, his last, and one that coincidentally took place just about when he was for the first time reading Joyce (which in a very real sense was a kind of harbinger of the career that he would have hopefully for good). At it, those on the retreat were presented with notes from their parents – clearly the priests had gotten in touch without his knowledge. His note was from his father, and read something like this: ‘I am proud of you that you stand up for the little guy. You are the sort of person who stands up for the little guy in a way that I am not. I am proud of you for that.’

He was confused upon reading it, and to this day, more than twenty years later he is still confused. Partly because he doesn’t believe it, believe it in any sense that it could be believed.

Not much later, or perhaps a bit before, his AP English class read portrait. When they came to the retreat sermon, the next morning they returned to school and assumed their spots in the library where they were accustomed to wait for the start of the classes. But this day, in the wake of the sermon they’d read, instead of enthusiasm for the morning sports pages, disputes about ‘fantasy sports’ leagues or other forms of gambling that they regularly engaged in, instead of what we call ‘banter’ in England (but not New Jersey), the sort of banter that 17 year old schoolboys at a boys Catholic school engage in, they were ashen faced to a one, including him, as they were worried about their immortal souls.

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October 18, 2016 at 6:46 pm

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public diary: monday 17 october

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Teaching Yeats today in seminar, he runs into one of those obstacles of affect that seem to be coming ever more steadily as he nears 40.

When he was just a kid, a university student, a professor broke down and called off class after starting to sob real tears while reading a poem by Giorgos Seferis. It was a “classics” class – the sort of thing that the Greek and Latin departments do to boost enrolment. The poem was about ruins, the persistence of ruins, and a dog.

He cannot now find the poem. Search terms lead to false leads. He tries: “Seferis ruins.” “Seferis ruins dog.” “Seferis ruins dogs.” “Seferis Argos.” (The professor brought his dog, Argos, to class each day.)

After the abbreviated class, which he was taking with his now ex-wife, they circled, touched and confused by the display, and said things like “this is what we are too, this is how we want to be,” and returned up the steps to his office.

The dog was there, sleeping. The professor (who soon would be dean) was still sobbing. “Thank you, thank you for caring. It is important that you care. Thank you for that. For that at least…”

That was in 1996 or 1997. He cannot now remember. He did not sob – or even almost cry – teaching, after the post-one-hour-break so that he can have a cigarette – ‘Easter 1916.’ Even after reading them, to start, ‘September 1913.’ But, there was that rare bloom of feeling. Perhaps the feeling best named… well… naming that sort of thing is the stuff of good seminars, isn’t it?

Two things that might have done it. The weird third paragraph of the poem.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.

 

It’s the moor-hens and the moor-cocks that do it. For reasons he explains to the class. And the utter bizarreness of this, well, entry into the poem, which makes it what it is – which is something slightly other than an exercise in highly passive-aggressive social commentary. The “minute by minute” that redoubles before turning into “within it” and then turning, finally, back into “Minute by minute” one more time. Pastoralia temporalized. Put on the stop-watch. Brilliant, this.

 

He started the seminar with some quotes, mostly Yeats but he also exposed them to the Adorno thing about poetry and Auschwitz, which he’s always found somewhat abominable, but sometimes abominable things are really good teaching aides.

 

The other thing? There were meant to be two. Fine: the utter ridiculousness of “Wherever green is worn.” Which picks up the “where motley is worn” of the first paragraph and presses it so tightly into some sort of shamrocked box that you, really, can only imagine it as an product for export. Utter bêtise, which sometimes he rates quite highly in a thing like this, almost overwhelmingly so. And that’s what he’s talking about, export.

 

He didn’t cry today, but if he had, it would have been about the utter teachability of the poem. Which isn’t quite what that dog-leading classics professor was crying about, but it’s close.  Vector that through the Adorno though, which is utterly wrong but still perhaps right in some way that those who read Adorno can’t possibly face up to.

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October 17, 2016 at 11:10 pm

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public diary: sunday 16 october

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Last night, he cleaned the kitchen. Really cleaned it. Residue accumulates under the weight of unforeseen activities. Coffee stains in the sink. Newspapers piling up. The stove circled with various aftermaths of harried cooking. Items out of place are now in place.

Cleaning is a way of hiding, hiding from all sorts of things. His father, he has noted, throws himself into it not just at points but all the time. At first, when his father first started this, when his mother had tipped from struggle to raw incapability, he thought it a gesture as aggressive as it was passive. But it wasn’t. Or it was, but complexly so.

You learn what your father is by acting him out yourself.

The floor is still a mess – maybe tomorrow if there’s time.

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October 17, 2016 at 12:08 am

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wellies on or off

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hadrians-wall

It’s very difficult for writers to get on television in America.

Due to the BBC, it’s relatively easy for writers to get on television in the UK.

Thesis: these facts, and the pressures and opportunities that come or don’t come with them, have a lot to do with the ‘shapes’ of intellectual culture in the two places. Whereas in the USA, culture seems for the most part divided between something that can be emblematised by the yipping commentary on a NASCAR race on the one hand and on the other a graduate seminar in the Rhetoric Department at Berkeley, the culture in the UK can start to feel like just a a drawn-out closing monologue, set in a rustic pub, after the presenter has taken us on a wellies-on walking tour of Hadrian’s Wall.

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January 24, 2016 at 12:21 pm

the federal reserve vs. aristotle

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Dramatic-Arc_Diermyer

Appreciated this rendering, in the New York Times, of the narrative temporality of the Federal Reserve as a sort of pseudo-Beckettian inversion of the logic of drama outlined in Aristotle’s Poetics:

It’s almost as if the Fed were designed to confound explanation of it, precisely so the Rick Sterns of the world could never hope to influence it. Aristotle, in his ‘‘Poetics,’’ described a formula for emotionally engaging drama that screenwriters still consult to this day, with central characters and a plot that moves from a beginning through a climax to resolution. Presidential elections can be molded into this Aristotelian structure perfectly, as can many major news stories.

The Fed, by contrast, seems more like somebody sat down with a copy of ‘‘Poetics’’ and carefully constructed its opposite. There is no beginning to Fed action; it’s always there, always acting, even when its action is to not make any changes. There is no natural climax. It’s just an ongoing conference between a group of economists. And it is never resolved. There is no single moment when the Fed is done.

In this formulation, the Fed is essentially an anti-dramatic, or even anti-evental, organisation. It is an institution designed, in that sense, to keep narrative from happening.

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October 24, 2015 at 11:09 am

Posted in economics, narrative

what is realism, 1 (addendum)

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From (what was chosen to be) the first page of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

“Insects all business all the time.” The line breaks – in its brilliance, but a brilliance that comes of its impersonation of a cliché – the lyrically chanting list of “stuff in a field.” (One can almost see an inspirational poster made of the phrase, the drone ants lifting improbably [if relatively] enormous items in their eternal effort to keep calm and carry it on. A horrific poster in an Amazon fulfilment centre?)  It’s as if one part of realism (that Barthian effet de réel that comes of the mentioning of objects that serve no role in the plotward establishment of meaning) intersects with another notion of realism, the one mentioned in the post to which this one is an addendum – the deflationary mode, that which operates through the undercutting of lyricism, the bringing of things down to earth.

It’s an intersection like a minor car accident is an intersection, a comedic if jarring one. That’s what we sometimes forget about realism, perhaps, just how funny it is, is often meant to be. A higher form of comedy.

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September 27, 2015 at 4:12 pm

Posted in dfw, realism

what is realism, 1

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Lydia Davis in her foreword to the new collection of Lucia Berlin’s short stories:

A description can start out romantic – “the parroquia in Veracruz, palm trees, lanterns in the moonlight” – but the romanticism is cut, as in real life, by the realistic Flaubertian detail, so sharply observed by her: “dogs and cats among the dancers’ polished shoes.” A writer’s embrace of the world is all the more evident when she sees the ordinary along with the extraordinary, the commonplace or the ugly along with the beautiful.

Berlin’s animals seem to me to be more a matter of painterly than “Flaubertian” realism. Think of all the animals going about their animal-business at the feet of the humans involved in climactic events in Renaissance paintings.

Jean Gossart, active 1508; died 1532 The Adoration of the Kings 1510-15 Oil on oak, 179.8 × 163.2 cm Bought with a special grant and contributions from The Art Fund, Lord Glenconner, Lord Iveagh and Alfred de Rothschild, 1911 NG2790 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG2790

But I do like Davis’s general notion as a starting place: realism is that which undercuts the romantic, the lyrical, the sensational. It’s the worry that you’ve left the kettle on during the climactic meeting, the crying child in the buggy during the hushed but pivotal marital conversation, the iPhone buzzing in the middle of fantastic sex.

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September 27, 2015 at 2:01 pm

Posted in flaubert, realism

‘the prose of life’ / a hint from hegel

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IMG_1978

I am in Amsterdam on a ‘working holiday,’ and specifically today I’m trying to finish a section about Karl Ove Knausgård. In particular, I am trying to say something more specific and definite about the uncanny power of his evocations of the everyday or the banal.

Other critics have struggled (productively!) to give a clear description of how it works. For instance, James Wood, in his review of the first volume of the series, describes ‘a simplicity, an openness, and an innocence in his relation to life, and thus in his relation to the reader.’ Wood finds himself working through descriptive contortionism in order to describe the strange effects of Knausgård’s prose and its ‘banality is so extreme that it turns into its opposite, and becomes distinctive, curious in its radical transparency.’ Similarly, Zadie Smith has written in the New York Review of Books that:

 As a whole these volumes work not by synecdoche or metaphor, beauty or drama, or even storytelling. What’s notable is Karl Ove’s ability, rare these days, to be fully present in and mindful of his own existence. Every detail is put down without apparent vanity or decoration, as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously. There shouldn’t be anything remarkable about any of it except for the fact that it immerses you totally. You live his life with him.

She seems to be drawing here on the vocabulary of the contemporary enthusiasm for quasi-Buddhist ‘mindfulness’ meditation… When you have to reach to the New Age section of your vocabulary to describe a literary effect, you know you’re in a bit of a strange spot.

Anyway, in the course of this work I decided to have another look in on Hegel’s statements about the ‘prose of life’ in his Aesthetics. It was quite something to be reminded, given where I’m sitting (the picture above is the view from my desk) of the body of artistic work that he is discussing when he uses the phrase:

Yet if we wish to bring to our notice the most marvellous thing that can be achieved in this connection, we must look at the genre painting of the later Dutch painters. What, in its general spirit, is the substantial basis out of which it issued, is a matter on which I touched above in the consideration of the Ideal as such. Satisfaction in present-day life, even in the commonest and smallest things, flows in the Dutch from the fact that what nature affords directly to other nations, they have had to acquire by hard struggles and bitter industry, and, circumscribed in their locality, they have become great in their care and esteem of the most insignificant things. On the other hand, they are a nation of fishermen, sailors, burghers, and peasants and therefore from the start they have attended to the value of what is necessary and useful in the greatest and smallest things, and this they can procure with the most assiduous industry. In religion the Dutch were Protestants, an important matter, and to Protestantism alone the important thing is to get a sure footing in the prose of life, to make it absolutely valid in itself independently of religious associations, and to let it develop in unrestricted freedom. To no other people, under its different circumstances, would it occur to make into the principal burden of its works of art subjects like those confronting us in Dutch painting. But in all their interests the Dutch have not lived at all in the distress and poverty of existence and oppression of spirit; on the contrary, they have reformed their Church themselves, conquered religious despotism as well as the Spanish temporal power and its grandeur, and through their activity, industry, bravery, and frugality they have attained, in their sense of a self-wrought freedom, a well-being, comfort, honesty, spirit, gaiety, and even a pride in a cheerful daily life. This is the justification for their choice of subjects to paint. (Knox translation, 597-8, italics mine).

SK-A-2860

Work was just about over for the day, and we’ve been trying to decide whether to go back to the Rijksmuseum or not. At least we know where Hegel stands on the matter.

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September 14, 2015 at 12:21 pm

Posted in Art, everyday, knausgård

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kelloggs-corn-flakes

Just to start: my father worked for a consumer products company, one that made biscuits and the like. Cookies, crackers, breakfast cereals, that sort of thing. And when I was a small boy, he used to say to me, in that cryptic way that dads often distribute nuggets of gnomic wisdom, things like: “See that cereal that you’re eating? Do you know that when mum pays for that, mostly what she’s paying for is the box.”

What he meant is that the cereal (or cookies or what have you) itself was incredibly inexpensive to manufacture. (Or, as his company always called it, to “bake.” They had bakeries, not factories.) Most of what it cost the company to bring their goods to market and to sell them on that market went into PR – the design of the packaging, the composition of the ad campaigns, and of course the price to place the advertisements where they appeared. When you buy the Corn Flakes, mostly you’re paying for the iconic rooster on the box, etc.

And so: today, from a Huck Magazine post, which seems to be inspired by Paul Mason’s new book, called “Five postcapitalist projects that offer a blueprint of a new world.”

When was the last time you saw an encyclopaedia? Upsetters Wikipedia have destroyed the old model of profiting from information by locking it away and charging people to access it. Wikipedia not only allows anyone to read for free, but its open editing has allowed it to grow faster than a commercial operation ever could and its advertising-free setup is believed to deprive the ad industry of $3 billion per year. See also: Wikileaks who are using open source principles to revolutionise access to information and hold governments to account.

There is something – and something I’ve long been preoccupied with on this blog – incredibly strange about one of the sentences in this paragraph. It is this one: Wikipedia not only allows anyone to read for free, but its open editing has allowed it to grow faster than a commercial operation ever could and its advertising-free setup is believed to deprive the ad industry of $3 billion per year. 

If you want to see the face of the new, or not really that new but at least burgeoning drive to establish new enclosures of the commons, it is visible here. There’s an odd mysticism, or dark metaphysics, that is at play. Wikipedia, in providing content without advertisements, is actually stealing away or squandering income that might have been derived, in private hands, from advertisements or sales. Which, in a certain sense  – a sense highly palpable if, say, you were the owner of the failing Encyclopaedia Britannica business – would seem pressingly true.

But of course it is not true, not in the least. No more than the fresh air that we breathe is stealing from the possible fresh air companies that might be formed to sell it to us, or the water we drink is stealing from corporations that, improbably, bottle the same stuff that comes out of our taps only to label it and sell it back to us for prices that are often higher than petrol. (Oh wait…)

But while (fortunately) the Britannica people didn’t, it seems, have the money to fight the market encroachment of the Wikipedians nor, perhaps, a leg to stand on argumentatively, this sort of attack on the state sector – in this case not as inefficient but as all too efficient – has become increasingly prevalent of late. The entire funding crisis at the BBC is grounded in attacks of this sort. There’s the kiss of death logic of the “If it’s popular, it’s beyond their remit to show it” argument. Strictly Come Dancing or Wimbledon could well be generating profits for Sky or someone else, and besides, they actually make people feel like the license fee isn’t such a bad deal after all.

But it’s not just the BBC that’s targeted by this “logic.” There’s a gathering storm regarding higher education “state monopolies” and the mystifying message that they’re blocking access to the “market” through their accreditation  cartels. It’s further absolutely clear that the animus against the NHS that exists amongst many Tories is equally based on anti-welfare-state ideas and the sense that there is big money to be made, that’s currently not being made, in the business of medicine. I’m sure if the cost of housing wasn’t so absurdly and eye-wateringly high, we’d be hearing attacks on the few vestiges of social housing left here and in America for inciting “market distortion.” And there are undoubtedly loads of bureaucratically subterranean aspects of the state sector, here and abroad, that are suffering from the same sorts of sorties.

Cynical ploys all of them, and in that sense no more interesting than any of the other hypocritical, fallacious, or just plain cruel attacks on the state sector than any of the others that we’ve seen during our age of austerity. But there is one thing that’s perhaps a bit interesting, as it’s a bit complex, about them.

In addition to the pretext of this line of argument, that state entities suck up market share without generating profit from it, there is an important subtext as well. Namely, that advertising costs us nothing. That is, of course it costs the corporations that advertise, but for the end user of the content that is funded by advertising, it is free.

This, of course, is little discussed. Certainly the media men aren’t going to bring it up. When Murdoch and his lobbying minions and PR flacks say, for instance, that “the BBC is a publicly funded entity that partially destroys our ability to sell advertising,” they of course never continue on to say, “advertising, that given the price that is paid for it, obviously must extract a huge amount of capital out of those that would be watching our channels instead of the BBC.”

When you ride on public transportation, that the bus interior or the carriage of the train is festooned with advertisements, does it cost you money, beyond the fare, to do so? Does it cost you money to use gmail, given all of those little ads that you ignore (but, we can assume, someone’s not ignoring them) on the sidebar? How much more does your newspaper cost you, given all of the car and mobile phone and supermarket advertisements that you find inside of it? How much do you spend, beyond the satellite bill and / or license fee, on spending a night in in front of the television?

I’m absolutely positive that corporations sometimes waste money on advertising, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve never clicked through a “sponsored ad” on Google. But on the other hand – they simply can’t be dumping all of that money, can’t have been dumping, for ages, all of that money, if someone, somehow, isn’t making it back in profit. If Wikipedia is running content that otherwise could generate $3 billion per year, then presumably the attention captured by this content, if not in the hands of the Wikipedias, is worth at least $3 billion per year to the companies that would have been advertising on these sites.

It all, it seems to me, goes back to what my father used to tell me all those years ago. “Mostly the price of the Cornflakes is the box of the Cornflakes.” What I’d like to work on (although sometimes it seems to me to be potentially a project of Kapital-like demands on my brain-power and time, neither of which I have at this point) is a study of just this quasi-mystical value equation. What does the ad before the YouTube video cost us to watch? What would we “save” were the ad not there, were YouTube a public institution rather than an arm of a massive profit-seeking corporation? 

I want to do this because I’ve long believed that the leap from Why not ads on the side of the bus to Let’s dismantle the remains of the welfare state is not only a short one, it’s one in which each step is informed by the selfsame logic. That is, it’s informed by a deep misapprehension about the value of the commons and the sort of life that is lived on them.

UPDATE: Armando Ianucci is on the case this morning in the Guardian

“It’s Facebook and Google who came along and ate up all newspapers’ classified ads. Yet it’s the BBC, who run no ads, that gets the blame, while it’s Google and Facebook that get the helpful tax arrangements from HMRC.”

While on the other hand, in the same paper on the same day, we have Sturgeon and the SNP showing her/its true colours:

“One of the things the last 12 months has demonstrated is that the old model of public service broadcasting – important though I think it is – doesn’t work well enough. It no longer reflects the complex, varied and rich political and social realities of the UK.”

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August 27, 2015 at 12:07 am

the “fictional” people of austerity

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Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 09.37.54

The Guardian leads today with a story about the DWP using “fabricated quotations” from “fictional people” talking “about their positive experiences of the welfare system.” It is the sort of story that raises all sort of interesting issues about what “fiction” is and how it functions in a situation like this. For instance, what do we make of this apology / retraction from the DWP itself:

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 09.29.13

It’s a curious phrasing: “… they were illustrative only.” Only as opposed to what? How would one complete the sentence? The most obvious answer is “as opposed to ‘real,'” which leads to a curious collision between realness of the person in question and what wisdom we can take from their example. Or do they mean “as opposed to “evidentiary”? That is, to rephrase it, “These people are not real people but merely examples of how one ought to comport oneself under austerity.”

Further, the changes that the DWP initially made in response to the furore over the fake stories are revelatorily strange in and of themselves. This is from the printed version of the story (more on changes between the print and the evidently revised story available on-line in a minute):

Before the removal of the second version of the leaflet, a spokesman said: “We have temporarily changed the pictures to silhouettes and added a note to make it more clear that these are illustrative examples only. We will test both versions of the factsheet with claimants and external stakeholders to further improve it in the future. This will include working with external organisations.”

That the names can stay, albeit then pinged by explanatory asterisks, but the stock art images have been turned into “silhouettes” is curious too, as if the DWP is probing the limits and lines where a “real (but fake) story” turns into a generic anecdote before turning into, well, simply a non-narrative command. Zac (pictured) says… turns into “Zac” says… on its way to something said without a claimant saying it, what the DWP was trying to say with its fictional sock-puppets all along: We’d like you to thank us for withdrawing your benefits, as it’s for you own good (even if we can’t find any examples of this being the case…) In short, these morphing pseudo-people – who have, in a short period been revised into shadows before disappearing all together – do seem like the appropriate protagonists for austerity policies that have always been buttressed by the anecdotal false-equivalent (the nation is like a household) and the spectral fictional “type” (the welfare queen, the “benefits migrant” etc).

Even the Guardian itself seems a bit confused by the ontological status of these austerity-drunk pseudo-people. Lot’s seems to have been edited from the print version of the story to the one currently posted on-line – almost as if the newspaper had caught a case of revision and re-revision from the DWP itself. In the print version, for instance, this is the third paragraph of the story:

The fictional person called Sarah was quoted as saying that she had lost some of her benefit because she had initially failed to produce a CV. “I didn’t think a CV would help me but my work coach told me that all employers need one. I didn’t have a good reason for not doing it and I was told I’d lose some of my payment,” she said.

But in the version that currently exists on-line, the first line of the paragraph is changed to:

“Sarah” was quoted as saying that she had lost some of her benefit because she had initially failed to produce a CV.

Whether these un- or pseudo- people are “fictional person[s] called” X or Y or they are just names encased in scare-quotes or locked in a rictus grin of clip art compliance, they are the secret sharers, it seems to me, of those letraset (and post-letraset) people that appear in advertisements for new real estate developments who have been an obsession of mine for a long time.

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Just as our speculative economy seems to be populated by these shadowy denizens of luxury flats that are always on the verge of opening, often never literally present in their concrete and glass inventions, perhaps the DWP’s fictional protagonists are an in a eerie sense a spectral “reserve army of labour” haunting the real reserve army. Instead of the idealised “model workers” and “new men” of socialism, we are beginning to live in a world of model victims of precarity – those Zacs and Sarahs who thank the government for withdrawing their dole to teach them a lesson about the value of updating their CVs and who thank the DWP for allowing them “time off” to visit the hospital.

In this sense, the propaganda of the institutions of austerity darkly echoes Brecht’s joke in his poem Die Lösung:

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In this case, rather than electing another “people,” the DWP has gone ahead and composed one out of clip art and generic names.

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August 19, 2015 at 10:31 am

no parentheses – post 4

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It hits hard, when you’re the sort of person inclined, as I am, to the critical analysis and evaluation of others’ behavior, when you do something yourself that you know is legible. By legible I mean open to readings that endow said action with a meaning beyond the immediately obvious and literal. All the chattering I do, spoken or un, about other people and their foibles returns with a vengeance – I have made myself available to skeptical treatment that is all the worse for the the fact that I will probably never hear it, only sympathetically imagine it.

I’ve done a few things that cause this rather reflexive – even paranoid – reaction in me. The other day I threw a strop outside of my house because there was a summer street party on and someone had stuffed my rubbish bin full of street party debris. The neighbors, with whom I’ve exchanged less than a hundred words since I moved here last November saw me do this, and now I avoid them at all costs, even more diligently than I avoided them before. I can almost hear them discussing my over the top reaction in their bed at night, which sits a few meters away from mine behind, of course, the wall between our places.

Even worse, perhaps, is the fact that I moved to this street in the first place. My current house is on the same street as my home during my previous marriage. It’s a street that runs for two blocks, so it’s not like once living at the bottom of 5th Avenue in Greenwich Village and then moving, a few years and a divorce later, to the same street on the Upper East Side. Or even the bottom of Tottenham Court road in Soho and then moving to one of those flats that sits atop Warren Street Station. My new place is exactly 50 house numbers away from the old one. And given the opposing sides of the streets, that places me 25 houses away from the place that I used to call home.

You can understand why I can hear, echoing, the readings of this development. “He wants to reset the clock. To start over. He’s trying to get it all back. Can you imagine, out of all the streets in London, or even just North London, he picked the selfsame one???”

One of the jokes, perhaps a bit defensive, that I used to make is that I can now go back to my old GP and simply claim that they have my house number wrong. I never bothered to transfer to another doctor, as I’ve not been to a doctor since I last lived here. Full circle, the trip has been, to the point that even the NHS won’t notice I’ve ever been gone.

I can’t decide if I am an incredibly sentimental person or a completely anti-sentimental person. Probably it’s the sort of geometric arrangement where everything meets at the poles, and the least becomes most and vice versa. But I do know that, on the one hand, there were clear reasons to me why I chose to buy this house, reasons that of course had nothing to do with my previous incarnation on this street. They are solidly sensible, middle-class sorts of, reasons. The space afforded, quality of presentation, school catchment zones, relative un-horrificness of the commute. And of course there’s a Waitrose in walking distance.  When asked or prodded, I respond, “I am good at the real estate business. If I picked well once, why wouldn’t I pick the same thing again?”

Definitely not a clincher in the decision, but something that was at the back of my mind, was the fact that when my daughters visit, as they are doing right now, they are in a neighbourhood that they know and love. That, during our last visit, when I still lived in Highbury, they begged me to return to over and over so that they could run into their friends at the park behind their old school. Which of course, now, we do.

But the funny thing is: now that they’re back, and recognized constantly on the street by people that are strangers or half-strangers to me, mothers of their friends or their old friends themselves, they draw away, reluctant to engage, half-heartedly waving and saying “hi” but basically pulling me back toward our house. And then they say, or at least the oldest does, “Please can we go home now. I’d rather just be at home with just my sister and you.” The same thing on the way to the park itself, that object of fascination and long bus rides just last year. “It would be cool if people were there. But I kind of hope they aren’t and we can just hang out. Is that weird, dadda?”

If I were honest, I’d reply that it is a bit weird, but at the same time utterly understandable. For we, as a family, are town people – the bourgeoisie, if you take the term literally – and we I think corporately believe in the “good fences make good neighbors” stuff. They are sisters, but they seem to have inherited my only child’s love of solitude, or the relative solitude of family life behind chained front doors and closed shutters. I can’t remember ever knowing my New Jersey neighbors during my childhood. And now they themselves, my daughters, primarily live in New Jersey. Plus ça change…

I wonder further sometimes whether all of this has anything to do with my interest in the novel as a form. After all, as I tell my students over and over again, the form gets its start in an increasingly bourgeois-ifying world, when the doors are more often shut and the shutters more often pulled. One started to wonder – as I tell my classes – what exactly is happening over the reception room, the kitchen, the bedroom next door. And so the novel pulls down the walls, doll house style, and shows…. The spousal argument in the reception room, the euphemized or not sex in the bedroom, the man with his children who normally live in New York, feeding breakfast to them in the kitchen one Kellogg’s box and yogurt pot at at time, and wondering what exactly it is that we’ll do together today to make day fourteen of thirty-nine go well in a memorable sort of way.

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July 31, 2015 at 12:38 am

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no parentheses – post 3

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Just before bed, my youngest daughter queried my wife about what the prefix “step-“ means. What a stepmother is, a stepdaughter, a step-sibling, and the like. It’s really no wonder: in the past year or so she and my older daughter have gained a stepmother, a stepfather, a stepsister, a stepbrother, and now an as yet unborn half-sister, which they only learned about last week.

She seemed especially baffled, as the conversation went on, about how it was possible that I could be the new baby’s father, given that I am her father but my wife is not her mother. That is to say, her mother is no longer my wife.

Of course, in part, this is the natural impulse of the newly re-sistered to protect her turf, to stake out her claim of specialness and special parental attention. But it also seemed to me like genuine bafflement – a sort of child’s version or inversion of the Freudian axiom about the essential unknowability of paternity.

I remember being confused about such things too when I was her age. I had no pressing reason to wonder about it, but these things edge into the quasi-metaphysical when considered by the six-year-old brain. How can my father father a child who is not my full-sister? What does it mean to be “related” to someone if they are neither my mother nor my father nor my sister nor my brother nor my cousin etc.

For better or worse, I had a less complex childhood than my daughters had, so mostly my own perplexity had to do with the difference between “real” cousins or uncles or aunts and those people who were simply called cousins or uncles or aunts. Living without siblings, and being born to a mother without siblings and a father who clearly would rather have been such, brings these questions to the fore. Do I have any real family at all, save for you two?  I also remember being utterly stumped by the branching and self-entangling family tree of the British royal family.

In the end, she had to be put to bed as we have to get up early tomorrow, but I am not sure that she ever fully grasped the whole step- and half- and full- situation. There is a monumentality to parenthood, in the eyes of a six-year old. It’s like the familial version of the mathematical principle of identity: “each thing is the same with itself and different from another” just as “my dad is my dad and is no one else’s dad… save of course for my older sister, who was here even before me.”

But there is a principle of identity at play for my wife, their step-mother too. At some point in the conversation, my youngest offered the following equation, in conversation, to her.

“You are not my mummy.”

“That is true. I am not your mummy.”

“Actually, you’re just my Rosie. You’re my Rosie.”

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July 25, 2015 at 11:20 pm

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no parentheses – post 2

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We rented an Airbnb place for tonight and the next two nights in Paris. We are in Paris because, due to extravagant airfares, I had to cancel a trip to see the kids last September. “We could do other things with that money – great things” I said on the phone. Disneyland was broached, by one of us, both of us, so we are here.

I saved at least £1500 by staying in an Airbnb in Paris rather than the park itself. Earlier this year, they visited the proper Disney World, in Florida, with their mother and their new step-father, so I felt I could get away with it.

Somehow I missed the right stop. I had convinced myself that we were staying on one of the spurs off of Place de la Nation. When in fact it was Place Voltaire. And so we backtracked. And we are here.

What was interesting though was the entry to the apartment. Here are the instructions that the owner sent us:

Hi Michael, a few information to get in my home…

  • First, when you are in front of the big brown door on the street, you’ll have to make the following code : 472B.
  • Then, in the hall, you’ll see on your left some mailboxes. Mine is the one with ‘X’ written on it and a little orange sticker. You can open it with a coin, or your own key… And get the 2 sets of keys which open the door of the flat.
  • To open the glass door in the hall, put the green pad that hangs on the keys on the black pad just beside the door.
  • Then my flat is at the 5th floor, on your left. The very little key opens it. You’re home!

I let you the phone number of my friend if you have any problem : (phone number hidden). Could you confirm when you’re home that everything’s okay? (I am currently in Rio so I just woke up…)

If you need any information about the house, ask me!

Best regards,

X

Despite all my apprehensions, the directions worked to a T. So much so that I developed a soft sort of respect for our landlord of three days. But my girls, at least temporarily, had other ideas.

It was dark upon entry. We had to use the light on my iPhone to guide us around. Clearly the woman who rented us this place is a person with a penchant for atmospheric lighting. Children react badly to such things, especially when they are initially sceptical about what we are doing in somebody’s flat, off the beaten path, rather than – as my daughter put it – a ‘hotel like the ones in Memphis or wherever.’ She meant a chain hotel.

And so there was a bout of worry to get over. Things seemed to improve when we turned the TV on. I cannot now seem to turn it off, but we will get to that in due time. Nonetheless, I had to turn some pictures – I think a cover of a book about transvestites – over before they would sleep. The French love images – in every corner someone or something peeps out in this place.

But the point of Paris, especially to young Americans, which I was once, is estrangement. I hope that is what happens and it sticks. They are starting Paris in a different place than I did. But let’s hope it sticks.

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July 25, 2015 at 12:41 am

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no parentheses – post 1

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My father burst into tears today. His face scrunched up like a child’s – like himself as a child, his face as a child – and the tears began to flow. Did he leave himself like that, visible, just long enough for me to see before plunging his face into his hands? He will be 70 next month.

He cried because he’d fucked his flight reservations. For the second time this week. The day before he flew from the US, he called me in a panic to say that he’d messed up, really messed up. That he was supposed to fly out of London and back home on Friday but had somehow booked the return for Sunday. He asked if we would be around over the weekend, if it would matter if he and mum stayed on. I responded that – as he already knew – we were taking the kids to Paris on Friday night.

During his stopover at JFK on the way here, he managed to change the flight. As it turns out though, he changed it to the wrong day – Thursday, today, instead of Friday, tomorrow. Which we discovered as we tried to print out his boarding passes in my kitchen – he is obsessive about printing his boarding passes at the earliest possible moment – and the screen indicated that the flight in question was delayed, but would begin boarding within half-an-hour.

Upon examination, we further discovered that the flight he’d thought was booked for Sunday was actually booked for Saturday morning. He’d confused the dates. And even more: we remembered that Saturday morning was the date and time we’d agreed they would leave all those months ago when he was booking his trip.

After the tears, a phone call which sorts it out at a price of $1000 for the two of them. He’d already paid $1000 to sort it out, erroneously, earlier this week. He has the money to cover it – and I remind him of as much. I also bark when, in the midst of the tears and the calling, he utters the phrase, “I’m not sure I can take this much longer,” which I know refers to my mother. I reply: “This has nothing to do with anything other than an airplane flight. What does it have to do with anything else?”

He is gone now – off to a hotel by Heathrow where he will anxiously pack and repack his bags and perhaps take the shuttle over, a night early, to try to pick up his boarding passes, which we never were able to print. Of course one wonders about senility, given what an expensive debacle he’s made of his travel arrangements for this trip. When others speculate, I ward them off.

My barking is not a new thing. I suppose I learned it from him. But it is odd, when one is 38 and one’s father is 69, how quickly the tone shifts. How quickly the once scolded son becomes the scolding son, on alert for faux pas, childish projection, and other behavioral anomalies. I do it to my children, bark, and I do it to my parents too now.

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July 24, 2015 at 12:29 am

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misdelivered mail

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A story:

1) Receive a text on Saturday from the porter in our old building saying that a “large envelope” has arrived for me. We moved away last October, had our mail forwarded changed address on all the relevant accounts.

2) I proceed to worry because:

a) mail, in today’s day and age, has become an ominous matter. One used to receive so many things, and many of them good (papers and magazines, correspondence) by post. Now it seems like the only thing one gets are epistles bringing bad news – a tax that was left unpaid and that now is in arrears, a legal notice of some sort, a bill on an account that hasn’t been paid etc. That and loads of junk mail – which the porter wouldn’t have called us about. I simply can’t think of what it might be – which only makes the fear grow stronger that it is something awful indeed.

b) I am terrible at not worrying about things that I can’t take care of immediately. Because I found out Saturday at noon, and the porter stops working around noon, I wouldn’t be able to resolve the issue by finding out what was in the mysterious package until Monday morning. My first thought: “this is going to taint the rest of my weekend, not knowing, not being able to act on what ever it is. We’re warned against the “fear of fear itself” – quite reasonably, as it might well be the most frustrating and disabling form of fear – but I can’t seem to help myself.

3) Looking for books to shift from my house to my office, as I had a bit of spare room in my bag this morning and I’m trying to keep the house especially tidy of late, I locate something I recently purchased and had meant to read immediately but had forgotten about. It’s the new book that Coetzee has co-authored with the psychoanalysis Arabella Kurtz, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy.

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I decide to bring it along for me to read on the commute.

4) I read the first 15 pages or so of the book on the bus and then during the one stop on the Underground it takes to reach my old apartment building. As I do, I think about how relevant some of it is to an essay that I have coming out in an American academic anthology on “therapeutic culture.” (I wrote a piece for it on “blogging.”) I wonder momentarily if it’s too late for me to add some of it in – and then remember that the book is already probably in production. Proofs appeared months ago. I also think of the fact that just last week I completed an article for another anthology I was meant to appear in. Unfortunately I completed the essay approximately 6 months late. The afternoon that I finished it, I had a drink with one of the other contributors to the volume. “Do you think it’s too late for me to submit it?” I asked. He clicked at his computer in response and produced a pdf of the full proofs of the edition, which had arrived to him via email that day. Alas.

As I read, I also think about my problematic anxiety about the package – and all the instances of problematically useless worrying that I do all the time. I wonder this book will encourage me to consider therapeutic treatment for this. I also wonder what is at the bottom, psychologically speaking, of such worry.

5) My anxiety mounts as I approach my building, ring the buzzer for the porter, who lets me in and hands me the package in question. The return address is a university press. I still cannot guess what it is – though my heart is now at ease as it’s clear it’s not some sort of terrible message of financial mismanagement or the like.

Outside I open the envelope. It’s a finished and final copy of the selfsame collection on therapeutic culture in which my essay appears, the very one that I had considered attempting to edit just now on the underground. And of course, this revelation – one is tempted to call it an epiphany – leads seconds later to a sort of quiet marvelling at the little helix of psychoanalytically-loaded stuff that had just happened this morning.

6. Had my seemingly accidental re-discovery of Coetzee’s book this morning – and the haphazard decision to bring it along on my trip to work (with a detour to confront this anxiety-inducing envelope) been not so accidental and random after all? Had I, on some level, “known” that the only possible thing that could have arrived in such a package was this book – and thus was some back bit of my mind trying to send a irony-laden to the front bits of my mind by giving me a sort of “hiding in plain sight” clue as to the contents of the envelope? And further, the fact that all of this happened via two books on psychoanalysis itself does seem like a bit of a pirouette on the part of my unconscious mind.

7. Or, on the other hand, is this simply the type of story that we love to tell ourselves – the story of a coincidence that can be congealed into the shape of a narrative, or even of a conspiracy (in this case a conspiracy between my unconscious mind and a set of objects – two books.) There are many other details of my morning that I’ve left out that would have contributed nothing to this story: the coffee that I made myself this morning that turned out to have been made with spoiled milk, the painfully large withdrawal I had to make from the bank to pay for a summer holiday and a tax bill, the huge shit that one of the neighbourhood cats left front and centre in my garden last night.

There are even other parallel stories that I am eliding – potentially more interesting ones: I was bothered by the fact that the stopoff at my old place would require me to take the slower of the two underground lines available to me (Piccadilly rather than Victoria). When I reached the station, there were announcements that the latter (my usual, faster route) was almost completely suspended due to a “person under a train.” Which led me at first, for a second, to feel relief – at least I would have been taking the slow train no matter what. And then to feel slightly ashamed of myself for such a ridiculously callous response to a horrific accident.

8. And what is there, further, to make of the fact, that amidst all of this – a non-trivial portion of which has at least something to do with late submissions – further seemed to me, by the time I made it to my office, to stand as good material for a blogpost. A blogpost that I’m writing right now instead of finishing yet another late article for yet another academic anthology.

 

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July 13, 2015 at 11:44 am