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Archive for March 2005

The Torture Room

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From J.M. Coetzee, "Into the Dark Chamber: The Novelist and South Africa" (1986)

The dark, forbidden chamber is the origin of novelistic
fantasy per se; in creating an obscenity, in enveloping it in mystery, the
state creates the preconditions for the novel to set about its work of

Yet there is something tawdry about following the state in
this way, making its vile mysteries the occasion of fantasy. For the writer the
deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by
the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce
representations of them.

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March 30, 2005 at 1:31 am

Posted in literature

Fair and Balanced Heart of Darkness

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Spending the day grading papers that I should have graded
last week… Starting to develop the psychopathia correctitus that I’ve been
warned about.

Physiological or psychosomatic that my right eye seems to be
failing? Warned about that too…

The paper’s on Heart
of Darkness
and Things Fall Apart. Somehow,
I’ve manage to provoke 80 percent of my students into a variation on the
thesis: “In ‘An Image of Africa,” Achebe calls Conrad a racist, when in reality
it’s Achebe who is the racist.”

Whoops. Not exactly what I meant for them to take home from the course. Nice practice for deconstructing defenses of affirmative action… "It’s the feminists who are the sexes…" "It’s the gays who are intolerant…" "It the African novelists who are the racists…"

Disturbing sign of the times: almost all of the papers
employ the words “bias” and “balance” as key terms in advancing their argument.
Wonder where they got that from? Not their instructor…

‘What I had really intended to say was that in your article
I noticed you had used two words which have become obsolete. But they have only
become so very recently. Have you seen the tenth edition of the Newspeak

‘No,’ said Winston. ‘I didn’t think it had been issued yet. We are still using
the ninth in the Records Department.’

‘The tenth edition is not due to appear for some months, I believe. But a few
advance copies have been circulated. I have one myself. It might interest you
to look at it, perhaps?’

‘Very much so,’ said Winston, immediately seeing where this tended.

‘Some of the new developments are most ingenious. The reduction in the number
of verbs — that is the point that will appeal to you, I think. Let me see,
shall I send a messenger to you with the dictionary? But I am afraid I
invariably forget anything of that kind. Perhaps you could pick it up at my
flat at some time that suited you? Wait. Let me give you my address.’

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March 29, 2005 at 2:25 pm

Posted in academia

Crookeder Timber

with 11 comments

I’ve said it before, in other contexts, but what I think would be totally great would be the creation of a group blog, a la Crooked Timber, but composed of/by folks to the left and theoretically inclined side of CT’s line. I’m way too bashful to ask anybody in particular, though I know who’d be a good fit, and it’s so obvious that it would work…

The problem with this format is the fact that you need to generate multiple posts per day to make a ripple, and almost no one can do that on their own. And those that can do it on their own aren’t coming from the angle that I’m (we’re) most interested in…


In other words, a group blog that threw the Blanchot and Benjamin, Kafka and Adorno, Flusser and Lefebvre, Marx and Sartre up on the wall everyday… This is what I’d love to see / be a part of… God, it’d be great…

Anyone interested…

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March 25, 2005 at 3:46 am

Posted in Weblogs

The Capital

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PalaceVia AEIOU a terrific gallery of Soviet buildings that were never built.

Leap backward two decades, and to England: "The changing is translated into something fixed and necessary. This leads to rigid lines and dead crystalline forms, for pure geometrical regularity gives a certain pleasure to men troubled by the obscurity of outside appearance. The geometrical line is something absolutely distinct from messiness, the confusion, and the accidental details of existing things." (T.E. Hulme, "Modern Art and its Philosophy" as cited in Trotter, Paranoid Modernism, 3).

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March 24, 2005 at 11:18 pm

Posted in History


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ImagesJohn Banville’s got a good piece on Houellebecq in Bookforum this month. (Unfortunately, the magazine’s not got the current issue posted yet, so I can’t link to the article…)

Utterly fascinated by Houllebecq. Have read all of his stuff. Would love to write something if I had the time.

For now, a few thoughts inspired by some of the passages that Banville quotes.

From Whatever (An English title that misses the boat entirely on what’s afoot in the real title: Extension du domaine de la lutte):

There are some authors who employ their talent in the delicate description of varying states of soul, character traits, etc. I shall not be counted among these. All that accumulation of realistic detail, with clearly differentiated characters hogging the limelight, has always seemed pure bullshit to me, I’m sorry to say.

    The pages that follow constitute a novel; I mean, a succession of anecdotes in which I am the hero. This autobiographical choice isnt’ one, really: in any case I have no other way out. If I don’t write about what I’ve seen I will suffer just the same – and perhaps a bit more so. But only a bit, I insist on this. Writing brings scant relief. It retraces, it delimits. It lends a touch of coherence, the idea of a kind of realism. One stumbles around in a cruel fog, but there is the odd pointer. Chaos is no more than a few feet away.

    The novel form is not conceived for depicting indifference or nothingness; a flatter, more terse and dreary discourse would need to be invented.

    But I don’t understand, basically, how people manage to go on living. I get the impression everybody must be unhappy; we live in such a simple world, you understand. There’s a system based on domination, money and fear – a somwhat masculine system, let’s call it Mars; there’s a feminine system based on seduction and sex, Venus let’s say. Is it really possible to live and to believe that there’s nothing else?

Well, so there we are. Houellebecq is constantly writing in such a way that signals the obsolescence of the novel form – can it’s obsolescence be doubted? – but which forms novels, as if by instinct, by habit. A mirror of how we live – the novel and the "idea in back of it" is long gone, but we write on nonetheless.

What’s’ more interesting perhaps is this construction: "Writing brings scant relief. It retraces, it delimits. It lends a touch of coherence, the idea of a kind of realism." Wish I had the French, but what are we to make of the fact that the "idea of a kind of realism" is not just an attribute of the novel, by syntactiaclly here what is "lent" to the writer by the writing, what brings "scant relief"? How is realism a relief, and what is it relieving us from?

I do think that Banville misses the ultimate joke that runs underneath The Elementary Particles like a fault-line. The novel is ostensibly narrated by one of the posthumans ("one of the" is definitely the wrong way to put it when it comes to this race that’s left individuality behind…) whose invention the novel describes. But here’s the joke: what need does this race have for the novel form itself? Why does it need to tell the story that is Houllebecq’s novel, if it truly is "posthuman"?

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March 22, 2005 at 1:26 am

Posted in literature

28 Days Later

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Was just watching the DVD of 28 Days Later with the director’s commentary turned on… (Never do this with DVDs… Don’t watch many DVDs to begin with… But anyway…) Pretty interesting, especially because this featured featured a conversation between Danny Boyle, the director, and Alex Garland, who wrote the screenplay – and whose The Coma I recently read and liked…

Anyway, didn’t listen to the whole thing, but I was interested in the fact that many scenes in the movie were inspired by news footage of "real life" catastrophes, mostly of the third world variety. For instance, the movies that the chimpanzees are watching in the lab at the opening of the movie are recreations of riots in Sierra Leone. The scene where the main character scoops 20 pound notes off the ground was based on a photograph from Phnom Penh, the day Pol Pot was deposed. The scene where the characters blow up a gas station (and a bunch of the infected) and escape the blast by bracing against a building was drawn from a (photo of?) a bomb blast in Northern Ireland.

Weirdest of all – there’s a scene in which a big billboard in Piccadilly Circus is covered with "missing" signs a la 9/11. (The worst one of all, which we only see for a second, is a crayon drawing of "Mom" and "Dad" and "Home." Ugh… Freaky…)

Anyway, when I first saw the film, I of course assumed that this was inspired by 9/11 – but the film was shot before September 2001. Instead, Boyle says that they got the idea from images in the wake of an earthquake in China, where apparently the same thing had happened.

So do we take 28 Days Later as either 1) a repornographization of the catalogue of violent media images that fascinate us, but leave no permanent mark, on the tv or 2) a sort of filmic, allegorical, Regarding the Pain of Others that brings the secret horror of our times home and into open display?
(Or, in a another vein, what is the secret meaning of "That can’t happen here!" / "What if that happened here?")

Finally, again impressed by the footage of emptied London in the movie.

28_days_laterI was a little disappointed to learn that some of the emptying was carried out digitally, after the fact.

There was a strange little mini-genre of movies produced immediately before 9/11 which centrally featured emptied out metropolises. The other one I’m thinking of is Vanilla Sky, the 2001 remake of Open Your Eyes. 

VanillaskyThese scenes, especially the beautiful ones in 28 Days Later, always make me think of Wordsworth’s "Upon Westminster Bridge," which maybe the Boyle (or Garland) was thinking of too when they orchestrated the pictured scene…)

EARTH has not anything to show more fair:  
  Dull would he be of soul who could pass by  
  A sight so touching in its majesty:  
This City now doth like a garment wear  
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,          5
  Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie  
  Open unto the fields, and to the sky;  
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.  
Never did sun more beautifully steep  
  In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;   10
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!  
  The river glideth at his own sweet will:  
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;  
  And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Always think back to what might be one of my favorite days ever, or at least recently. Last year (actually, one year ago next week) Wife and I were in London, staying over in a crappy Ibis by the Earl’s Court underground station. Woke up ungodly early – or never really got to sleep – due to jetlag. We’re standing by the breakfast room door at 4:45 AM, waiting for it to open. Ate breakfast and headed down to, yep, Westminster Bridge – there about 6 AM. Subsequently walked from there all the way to Wapping along the river – probably, literally, saw a total of 10 people the whole way. Sunday morning, I believe. Crossed and recrossed and crossed again the river on the way. Can’t really explain why, nor can I explain how powerful the memory of this morning was. The emptiness amidst fullness… Probably a feeling akin to Wordsworth’s though. And something like the feeling that drags us out to see 28 Days Later, strangely enough…

Ahh.. It’s true. Just consulted the pictures of the morning. No one in sight… Here you go:


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March 20, 2005 at 3:01 am

Posted in Film

Transcendent Homelessness -> Ad Without Products

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The greatest
discrepancy between idea and reality is time: the process of time as duration.
The most profound and most humiliating impotence of subjectivity consists not
so much in its hopeless struggle against the lack of idea in social forms and
their human representatives, as in the fact that it cannot resist the sluggish,
yet constant process of time; that it must slip down, slowly yet inexorably,
from the peaks it has laboriously scaled; that time – that ungraspable,
invisibly moving substance – gradually robs subjectivity of all its possessions
and imperceptibly forces alien contents into it. That is why only the novel,
the literary form of the transcendent homelessness of the idea, includes real
time – Bergson’s durée – among its
constitutive principles. (Lukács, Theory
of the Novel
, 120-1) 

But the question is, what happens when there’s no longer an “idea”
left for “real time” to diverge away from? The impossibility of the novel here
and now – the idea is no longer transcendently homeless, but rounded up and
exterminated, rationalized out of existence. Like the Olympics are coming, or a
big summit: the idea’s been interned in camp outside of the city, floats on a
listless boat just beyond the buoy that marks the start of “international
waters.” Lukács’s description is brilliant, but fails to take account (could
not have taken account) of the fact that, after the end of history, where we
live now, there’d be no tension left, nothing for the “real time” to grind
against. The idea itself has evaporated – again, here and now. Elsewhere,
perhaps, it’s another story.

Our story is the one that Agamben’s telling here, the parable
of the ad without products:

the absurdity of individual existence, inherited from the subbase of nihilism,
has become in the meantime so senseless that it has lost all pathos and been
transformed, brought out into the open, into an everyday exhibition: Nothing resembles
the life of this new humanity more than advertising footage from which every
trace of the advertised product has been wiped out. The contradiction of the
petty bourgeois, however, is obstinately trying, against all odds, to make
their own an identity that has become in reality absolutely improper and
insignificant to them. Shame and arrogance, conformity and marginality remain
thus the poles of all their emotional registers. (Georgio Agamben, The Coming Community, 68).

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March 18, 2005 at 1:56 am

Posted in everyday