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Archive for February 2005

Too Many Books

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Pas au-dela’s got a nice post, complete with one of my favorite passages from Orwell (the one where he’s basically work at the paper-bound early-century version of Blockbuster), about books, the "pleasant problem" of having "too many books to read.  And yet also the pressure always, bordering on compulsion, for just one more book…"

I have always been a book horder. It used to be more fun in the days before Amazon, when my wife and I would raid used book stores – our particular favorites were those that had tables and tables of remaindered academic books. (Lots of stores like this in Amherst-Northampton, where we went to college…) All this is ruined by the internet – there’s no need to stock up, to buy the one you don’t need now, but might down the road, and might never see again…

Getting to the point: somehow I’ve gotten to the point where I love throwing books out, and especially selling them on Amazon. Last month: more than $300 in sales. The pressure to buy just one more at some point turn into the pressure of "you have not read yet! when are you going to read?!?" and since then is been all disinvestment rather than acquisition. (Although, since the advent of Amazon Prime, I’ve been suffering from a bit of a resurgence in book buying. The perfect scam to hook someone like me – no shipping costs means it literally is like grabbing a book from a shelf, any hour of the day…)

Anyway, I’ve always been interesting in the psychology of hoarding vs. the psychology of disencumberment… I grew up in a household that didn’t read, in a town with no readers. The books that I bought back then were a great comfort to me, a sign of who I was – who I was becoming. (My wife and I in a sense came together out of this shared trait/affliction). Acquired an enormous library by age 18, spent every dollar I had on books. But as my confidence in myself grew I turned into an empty-bookcase man. Ideal would be to have the 100 books I actually need to use and no more.

(Remember one time when I was still very young, and I went out to visit my now-wife where she lived at the time. My dad gave me $200 to take with me on the trip – which was more money than I had ever had in my wallet to that date. Arrived in her city, and we promptly headed to a Borders where we spent the entire sum, and then some, on a big old stack. Good memory… One of the best $200 I ever spent…)

It’s sort of like when I was a kid, and you could determine the nouveau riches (or not quite riches) from the old money people by the home decor. The former stocked their places with junk, knickknacks, brickabrack. While the latter had barren living rooms, refrigerators with no magnets on them…

I was born into the former, but I’ve become very much the latter. For better or worse. Breathe the open-plan, the empty, the thing-less like its air. What a sellout, a class traitor….

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February 20, 2005 at 2:17 am

Posted in Books

Berger on Poverty

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Charlotte Street links to a brilliant piece by John Berger on poverty from Open Democracy.

It’s just fantastic. Pretty jaded, have been reading too much, in fact the eyes seem to be starting to go in the way that they will at this point in an academic career. But Berger hits hard, right in the head and heart (whichever order…)

Take this paragraph, near the end:

Here the future’s unique gift is desire. The future
induces the spurt of desire towards itself. The young are more flagrantly young
than on the other side of the wall. The gift appears as a gift of nature in all
its urgency and supreme assurance. Religious and community laws still apply.
Indeed amongst the chaos which is more apparent than real, these laws become
real. Yet the silent desire for procreation is incontestable and overwhelming.
It is the same desire that will forage for food for the children and then seek,
sooner or later, (best sooner) the consolation of fucking again. This is the
future’s gift.

I’m not sure Berger’s not the left writer most worthy of emulation today. That’s what I can’t help but think each time I dip in…. God, the brilliant dictional drop in the second to last sentence. Makes you feel as though you’re reading the word "fuck" again for the first time – or that’s been transfigured somehow into something it hasn’t been nearly forever…

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February 19, 2005 at 1:59 am

Posted in Culture

Mr. Brown’s Neighborhood

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OK, please don’t take this as a horrifying burst of naivete, because it’s not. Let it be clearly stated: I am fully aware of the near collapse of U.S. television news, and print journalism, in the last half-decade. I’ll say it again: I am fully aware of the near collapse of U.S. television news, and print journalism, in the last half-decade.

I don’t really watch Aaron Brown’s show on CNN anymore, not since the election anyway. He’s always been a bit of a mixed bag – actually does hard news / often lashes out jingoistically or repeats the idee recue of the day. Not a great program, by any means, but a little better than the usual stuff.

But I flip over to Brown’s show tonight, and what do I find. Here are the big stories of the night:

1) Rise of poker on television and the internet
2) "After three days of intensive hearings, the FDA says three pain
medications are safe enough to use despite their links to heart risk."
3) "The Marines are investigating the death of a West Virginia boy who drowned at boot camp at Paris Island.  His parents want answers, understandably, after they saw the tape of
what preceded their son’s death, pictures shot by CNN affiliate WIS in
Charleston, South Carolina and reported by our Jason Bellini." (OK – this one was pretty good…) Leads into allegations of sex abuse in the military (US on US, of course, not Gitmo / Abu G. style)
4) Endless two segment-long interview with NBA commisioner David Stern (???)

What’s going on here? Feels as though (though I have no real evidence) Brown’s taken a ratings nosedive and the powers that be have asked him to straighten up and Zahn-ify his show… Wonder if that’s what’s happening?

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February 19, 2005 at 1:39 am

Posted in Current Affairs

What I Heard About Iraq

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Eliot Weinberger, "What I Heard about Iraq," London Review of Books (2/3/05)

I know others mentioned / linked to this back when it appeared at the beginning of the month, but I just got to it today. Terrific piece – and very much worthy of clipping into a Word document for your archive.

Better yet, print it out, fold it up, pry up a floorboard in the place you live, and hide it there…
The way things are going, when we’re all scribbling in our journals just outside of the gaze of the Screen (or so we thought), it’ll provide some nice material for the first chapter…

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February 19, 2005 at 1:15 am

Posted in Current Affairs

Anteroom of the Event

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From what’s called, in the 4th volume of the Harvard UP edition Benjamin’s
works, “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History” (basically some of the stuff that
didn’t make it in to the theses): 

In the idea of classless society, Marx secularized the idea
of messianic time. And that was a good thing. It was only when the Social
Democrats elevated this idea to an ‘ideal’ that the trouble began. The ideal
was defined in Neo-Kantian doctrine as an ‘infinite [unendlich] task […] Once the classless society is defined as an
infinite task, the empty and homogenous time was transformed into an anteroom,
so to speak, in which one could wait for the emergence of the revolutionary
situation with more or less equanimity.

Interesting stuff… But isn’t the problem (and the interest)
located in the fact that both versions of history turn the present into a sort
of antechamber, a waiting room, where one attends the ever-receding event?
However secularized Benjamin’s messianism is, it wasn’t ever going to be free
and clear of the meaning-evaporating boredom of waiting for the advertised
product to arrive…

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February 18, 2005 at 1:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

This Just In: “It’s the socialization, stupid”

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It’s kind of funny for a humanities-type like me to wake up to the likes of this (in an article on the Larry Summers controversy at Harvard) in the Times:

Howard Georgi, a physics professor [at Harvard]  who has been part of a successful
effort in his department to recruit women for tenured positions, said,
"It’s crazy to think that it’s an innate difference." He added: "It’s
socialization. We’ve trained young women to be average. We’ve trained
young men to be adventurous."

So you mean that these ostensibly natural, innate differences are actually socially constructed? Hmm…

All that I’m trying to say, without knowing all that much about the actors involved, that it’s interesting that when it comes to an actual political issue, a question about the current state of affairs and their arrangement or re-arrangement, the issue breaks down to a conservative articulation of the "natural" against a quasi-progressive reminder of the social, the constructed. Even in the sciences…

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February 18, 2005 at 10:58 am

Posted in academia

We’re Sorry!

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From today’s Times, "G.I.s Under Inquiry for Killing of 2 Afghans":

The first reports in the local press said that American forces had
killed two members of Al Qaeda, and that three more had escaped. But
Colonel Hayes said it was clear to him that the victims were just
villagers, and he confirmed that the military had given each of the
families $2,000 to help them through their immediate difficulties.

have no reason to say there were Taliban or Al Qaeda," Colonel Hayes
said, adding that in the few weeks he had been based in Shindand he had
seen no evidence of Taliban or Al Qaeda activity in the area.

"I can only say it was a mistake," the district chief, Mr. Kamin, said. "They had no weapons, they are from a poor family."

Of course there’s an article something like this one everyday, every other day, in the Times. There’s something to reading slowly through them, watching the absurd and horrible develop like a scene  from a terrible movie, a movie that goes nowhere…

Two men are gathering firewood
and then an SUV pulls up with US soldiers in it
and then the men run
and are shot by the soldiers.
And then, because one isn’t quite dead, the soldiers
shoot him again to make sure.

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February 18, 2005 at 10:52 am

Posted in Current Affairs


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From the movie Adaptation, perhaps the last good movie I saw in a theater:


You talked about Crisis as the ultimate decision a
character makes, but what if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing
much happens, where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies. They
struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the
real world —


The real world? The real fucking world? First of
all, if you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you’ll bore your
audience to tears. Secondly: Nothing happens in the real world? Are you out of
your fucking mind? People are murdered every day! There’s genocide and war and
corruption! Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his
life to save someone else! Every fucking day someone somewhere makes a
conscious decision to destroy someone else! People find love! People lose it,
for Christ’s sake! A child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a
church! Someone goes hungry! Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman!
If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know much
about life! And why the fuck are you taking up my precious two hours with your
movie? I don’t have any use for it! I don’t have any bloody use for it!


Okay, thanks.

 The strange thing is, in the dialogue excerpted above, we
can’t help but have the feeling that both
Kaufman and McKee have a point. On the one hand, a movie in which nothing
much happens, in which people don’t have epiphanies does indeed seem to be more
“a reflection of the real world” than the usual Hollywood production. But
McKee’s right too – there is more than enough genocide and homicide, romantic
devastation and natural disasters to supply as many films as could possibly be
made. This conversation at the end of the writing seminar is like an
allegorical rendition of a genre of experience that we are all familiar with:
watching cable news reportage of a tsunami while we grade student papers,
eating a take-out dinner on September 11, doing chores on the day when a war
begins elsewhere. Adaptation, as a
whole but especially in this scene, serves as evidence that the age-old
question of what it means to be realist or
even just realistic – a question
staked on the slipperiness of the concept of the “ordinary” or the “usual” – is
still very much in play.

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February 18, 2005 at 12:54 am

Posted in Film


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I’m currently teaching 12 first-year students at the very good university where I’m about to finish my aforementioned dissertation… The other day in class, I polled them on what languages they’re taking… Interesting findings.

Out of 12, only 3 are taking foreign languages (not good).
Out of the 3 that are taking foreign languages, none are taking European languages (I think this is good…)
The languages in question: Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Swahili.

My general line of thought is that it would be a fantastic thing if American students chose their foreign languages based on their importance in the whole world, not just US academic tradition. When I was an undergrad, I took the latter approach. 4 full years of both French and German. The French I’ve made good use of, the German I haven’t. Wish now that I knew Chinese, Arabic, even Spanish for the Latin American element. 

On the other hand, knowing my students (future meritocratic technocrats, present technocratic meritocrats) I can’t help but think that this new emphasis on non-Western languages is just a repetition of the high enrollment in Russian back before the end of history. The "Know your enemy" logic that produced, for instance, Condi Rice. WHY are they learning Arabic, Chinese?

(The Swahili-taking student is a special case, bound for greatness, I think… Last semester, I had another white student who was obsessed with Africa – but that was, I think, because she plans some sort of Xtian missionary work down the road. Not good. This one, this semester, is all game – provocatively left-minded in exactly the right sense… The kind of student that makes it all worthwhile… Feel like the small things you do, teaching thesis arguments and Heart of Darkness and so on, may one day have a part in making a difference in the world… For the better…)

I also had one of my better students from last semester contact me to ask if he could name me on his application for Marine Corps ROTC as a reference… Lovely… Obviously, you play it straight, ’cause that’s what teachers do, but there’s a kind of natural temptation to take unorthodox steps to protect this warm, 18 year old body from the absurd harm that it might just put itself in front of… If I were a better, braver person…

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February 17, 2005 at 1:10 am

Posted in academia


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Ok, I got a job. A good one in fact. And I even had a choice.

But now I have to finish the dissertation, and soon. And teach my current students. And buy myself a new house. And get ready for the arrival of my first child – a daughter – in June.

More to come, I promise…  But tonight I am typing away at the introduction…

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February 16, 2005 at 1:05 am

Posted in Personal