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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

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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

Terry Castle on Sontag

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Fantastically good piece remembering Sontag in this week’s LRB, and lucky you, it’s not behind the subscription barrier. 

My favorite bit. Castle is dragged along on what Sontag calls "a real New York evening" and it turns out to be a dinner party at Marina Abramovic’s Soho loft. (Abramovic’s a performance artist, she’d "recently been in the news for having lived for 12 days,
stark naked, on an exposed wooden platform – fitted with shower and
toilet – in the window of the Sean Kelly Gallery.") Famous folk are there – Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson – and Castle’s naturally not getting much conversational play.

Here’s the line I liked: "True, Sontag tried briefly to call the group’s attention to me (with
the soul-destroying words, ‘Terry is an English professor’); and
Abramovic kindly gave me a little place card to write my name on."


Anyway, the funny thing is just how lost on the current generation of academics Sontag’s works are. I’d be willing to bet that not a single person in my cohort of English Ph.D. candidates on their way to assistant professorships (with a little luck) has ever read a single work by Sontag. Seriously. I’ve never heard the name come up either in seminar room or bar.

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March 18, 2005 at 12:40 am

Posted in literature

“Economic Values”

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Beuys_economic_values_1From the current Joseph Beuys exhibit at the Tate Modern. This one is "Wirtschaftswerte" or "Economic Values."

From the museum’s website on this piece:

Economic Values 1980

Metal shelves are stacked with packets of foodstuffs and other basic products purchased in the former German Democratic Republic.
Over time the packaging has deteriorated, and the food has disintegrated. On the walls are a group of nineteenth-century paintings from the Tate’s Collection, their dates loosely corresponding to the
period of Karl Marx’s life (1818-1883). Each time the installation  is displayed the paintings are different as they are drawn from the host museum’s own collection. Beuys requested that they should be presented in gold frames as an expression of bourgeois taste. They provide a deliberately provocative contrast to the humble
products on the shelves.

Not only have the products on the shelves changed physically over
time, the political, social and economic context in which Economic Values was created has also altered. When Beuys made the work,
Communism was a major political force and the Berlin Wall divided East and West Germany. These goods from the East were the products
   of an anti-capitalist economy, and for Beuys, represented a simplicity and authenticity that reminded him of his childhood. According to  Beuys, the inner needs of a human being should be met first through the ‘production of spiritual goods’ in the form of ideas, art, and education, rather than in commodities. ‘We do not need all that we are meant to buy today to satisfy profit-based private capitalism,’ he said.

The deterioration of this sculpture over time was something Beuys intended. Indeed he welcomed change in his materials, linking it to the process of regeneration and change he believed society needed to undergo. ‘My sculpture is not fixed and finished. Processes
continue in most of them: chemical reactions, fermentations, colour
           changes, decay, drying up. Everything is in a state of change.’


I love the part about the old paintings from each museum’s own collection. Terrific.

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March 17, 2005 at 10:21 pm

Posted in Art

Chavez Next?

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Take a look at this very thorough post at Critical Montages on Venezuela, Chavez, and the gathering clouds of US intervention. (Found via Charlotte Street…)

The piece is centered on this ominous little number that I had missed in the FT this week:

Senior US administration officials are working on a policy to "contain"
Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president, and what they allege is his
drive to "subvert" Latin America’s least stable states.

strategy aimed at fencing in the government of the world’s
fifth-largest oil exporter is being prepared at the request of
President George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state,
senior US officials say. The move signals a renewed interest by the
administration in a region that has been relatively neglected in recent

Roger Pardo-Maurer, deputy assistant secretary for
western hemisphere affairs at the US Department of Defense, said the
Venezuela policy was being developed because Mr Chávez was employing a
"hyena strategy" in the region.

"Chávez is a problem because he
is clearly using his oil money and influence to introduce his
conflictive style into the politics of other countries," Mr
Pardo-Maurer said in an interview with the Financial Times.

"He’s picking on the countries whose social fabric is the weakest," he added. "In some cases it’s downright subversion."

Chávez, whose government has enjoyed bumper export revenues during his
six years in office thanks to high oil prices, has denied that he is
aiding insurgent groups in countries such as Bolivia, Colombia and
Peru. But a tougher stance from the US appears to be in the offing, a
move that is likely to worsen strained bilateral relations.

policy shift in Washington, which a US military officer said is at an
early stage but is centred on the goal of "containment", could also
have implications for the world oil market.

Mr Chávez has
threatened to suspend oil shipments to the US if it attempts to oust
him. He and Fidel Castro, the Cuban president, have alleged, without
offering proof, that the Bush administration was plotting to
assassinate the Venezuelan leader, an allegation that US officials have
dismissed as "wild".

Suggestions that Mr Chávez backs subversive
groups surface frequently, although so far also with scant evidence.
Colombian officials close to President Alvaro Uribe say Venezuela is
giving sanctuary to Colombian guerrillas, deemed "terrorists" by the US
and Europe.

US officials say Mr Chávez financed Evo Morales, the
Bolivian indigenous leader whose followers last week unsuccessfully
tried to force President Carlos Mesa’s resignation. In Peru allegations
emerged suggesting that Mr Chávez financed a rogue army officer who
tried to incite a rebellion against President Alejandro Toledo in

Mr Chávez has dismissed such claims as fabrications
designed to undermine his attempts to foster greater political and
economic integration in Latin America.

Mr Pardo-Maurer said
Washington has run out of patience: "We have reached the end of the
road of the current approach." (Andy Webb-Vidal, "Bush Orders Policy to
‘Contain’ Chávez," March 13, 2005)

I really hope that if this one comes to a head, I won’t be having the same conversations that I had with left-interventionist friends as I did in the run up to Iraq… Seems ridiculous now to think that it could go the same way, but the world’s gone funny somehow…

Hard not to see Latin America as the last best hope nowadays. The Bush administration’s attention only ratifies that sense, no?

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March 17, 2005 at 9:55 pm

Posted in Politics

Scenes from the Cultural Revolution

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HorowitzmaoSeems appropriate enough that I put this up: Scenes from the Cultural Revolution.

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March 17, 2005 at 3:54 pm

Posted in academia

Purpose Driven Pander?

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So, Paula Zahn fills in for Aaron Brown tonight on Newsnight, and what does PZ bring us but a full-hour special edition of the show on the Purpose Driven Life. Fantastic. Complete with correspondents reading Bible passages, and 1001 stories of felons-alcoholics-porn freaks whose lives were turned around by the "best selling non-fiction book in American history."

Paula Z. does segments like this, just as she used to lay into war protestors, Michael Moore, etc with a horrible gleam in her eye, sandblasted teeth all a glitter.

Question I have is the same one that I had while watching Bush’s press conference today: pander or true belief, honest effort? Seriously, we need an answer right now. Zahn believes that this is what we need to hear about for an hour or she’s doing the red-state two step? I used to think I knew the answer, but I just can’t be sure now. At the press conference today, things were going well for a bit. Nice poke at him on rendition, and then this one, which was pretty good as well:

Q Paul Wolfowitz, who was the — a chief architect of one of the most unpopular wars in our history —

THE PRESIDENT: (Laughter.) That’s an interesting start. (Laughter.)

Q — is your choice to be the President of the World Bank. What kind of signal does that send to the rest of the world?

And then this, which is mind-bending.

Q Mr. President, you have spoken out about the need for owners,
coaches and players in all sports to stop steroid use. And you’ve also
voiced reservations about government getting too involved in that. And
as you know, Congress is issuing subpoenas to Major League baseball
players during spring training. Do you think that that’s an abuse of
power, or is it appropriate, in your view?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, Congress generally has an independent mind of
its own. I spoke out and was pleased to see that baseball responded,
and they’ve got a testing policy in place for the first time ever — a
firm testing policy in place. And it’s very important that baseball
then follow through and implement the testing and, obviously, deal with
those who get caught cheating in the system.

And the hearings will go forward, I guess. I guess that’s the
current status. But I’m wise enough not to second-guess the intentions
of the United States Congress. I do appreciate the public concern about
the use of steroids in sports, whether it be baseball or anywhere else,
because I understand that when a professional athlete uses steroids, it
sends terrible signals to youngsters. There’s — we’ve had some stories
in my own state, one of the newspapers there pointed out that they
thought there was steroid use in high schools as a result of — in
order to make sure these kids, at least in the kid’s mind, could be a
better athlete. It’s a bad signal. It’s not right. And so I appreciate
the fact that baseball is addressing this, and I appreciate the fact
that the Congress is paying attention to the issue. This first started,
of course, with Senator McCain, who basically said, get your house in
order. And baseball responded, and my hope is the system will work.

Q You have no problem with the subpoenas?


Again, this time for the reporter: Truly think that this is the question to ask, or are you just playing for future access? Seriously – I used to be sure that it was the latter, but I’m less and less sure…

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March 16, 2005 at 11:14 pm

Posted in Television

One more for good measure

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One more clip from this weeks LRB for good measure. How about this gem from Bernard Porter’s review of two new books on the Kenya Emergency and the end of the British Empire…

[A]fter the scandalous British beatings of detainees at Hola camp in
1959, which left 11 dead and 60 seriously wounded… Alan Lennox-Boyd, colonial secretary for much of this
period, and one of the villains of both these books…  [at first] denied abuses, then when that was no longer
possible he dismissed them as exceptional (‘bad apples’), and appealed
to his critics to remember what they were up against in Kenya: not an
ordinary policing problem, but an outbreak of atavistic ‘evil’ – a
useful word when you are confronting something you don’t understand.

Familiar ring to it, no?

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March 8, 2005 at 11:42 pm

Posted in History

The Scapegoating of Unhappiness

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Also in the LRB this week: Adam Phillips on Peter Barham’s Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War. (Subscription only – why don’t you grab yourself a copy…)

Sneaky good review… Almost skipped it. But it seems that Barham’s up to something very interesting indeed in this book. According to Phillips, this is the story of how mental injury in or ineligibility for the first world war laid the medico-ideological groundwork for the welfare state. I know, sounds a little strange, but take a look at the article… Here’s a snippet:

Barham has surprisingly little to say about religion – or indeed about
patriotism as ersatz religion – but a great deal to say about a
politics organised around the scapegoating of unhappiness. The ranks of
those who found the war unbearable – there is a difference, of course,
between saying something is unbearable and actually, like the lunatics,
being unable to bear it – were forging, in his view (though they didn’t
know it), a new kind of heroism: they were the prophets, one might say,
though Barham doesn’t quite spell this out, of the forthcoming
politically sanctioned welfare state. It was the mental health
casualties rather than the ‘physical invalids’ of the war, Barham
intimates, who raised the question of whether a case could be made, in
political terms, for the value of vulnerability. Could emotional
fragility be any use to society?

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March 8, 2005 at 11:37 pm

Posted in Books

Very belatedly: The Gates

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Kept meaning to write something caustic about The Gates, and just never got around to it. Maybe this is the problem – not provocative enough to hate, detest, run home and shrill about… Just there…

Hal Foster seems to agree. And he even must have overheard the conversation my wife and I had about it as a index of the banal benevolence of the powers-that-be in the City toward happy art – and complete lack of tolerance when it comes to ugly political protest…

The Gates
made for friendly city politics and nice holiday
aesthetics, and no one can be against sociability in the park. Yet for
what exactly was this festival of the people staged? The Gates
prettied up an extraordinary public place, but the fanfare was empty of
social consequence: the city blocked a demonstration against the
Republican Convention in the park, but gave a green light to Christo.
Out of one eye, then, I saw an enjoyable mass art event; out of the
other, a telling instance of high kitsch in the Bloomberg-Bush era, a
cross between the Yellow Brick Road and a grand opening where the
packaging was literally all.

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March 8, 2005 at 11:17 pm

Posted in Art