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Archive for April 2006

no more amazement

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Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, VIII.

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.

No more amazement, bemusement, cute quips and quotes, expressions of horror that are down deep registrations only of indolent ennui. Not the exception, but the rule. Nothing special. Nothing new, all of this.

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April 26, 2006 at 2:03 pm

Posted in america, benjamin, everyday

benjamin on the blog

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From the Work of Art essay, thesis X:

For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century. With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers–at first, occasional ones. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for “letters to the editor.” And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer. As expert, which he had to become willy-nilly in an extremely specialized work process, even if only in some minor respect, the reader gains access to authorship. In the Soviet Union work itself is given a voice. To present it verbally is part of a man’s ability to perform the work. Literary license is now founded on polytechnic rather than specialized training and thus becomes common property.

Of course, it was probably just a passing phase, a little utopian flicker before the tubes grow tolls… You didn’t really think this could go on like this, did you?

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April 26, 2006 at 12:29 pm

precarite theologique

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From the good old Assemblies of God website, an Easter Monday message about work just for you;

The world’s attitude toward work should not be the Christian’s attitude. Instead of viewing work as an unavoidable necessity to be fulfilled with minimal effort, the Christian duty is expressed by Ecclesiastes 9:10: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” And the Christian must never forget that he or she represents Christ in the workplace. Not only is work noble and God-ordained, it is also a vehicle for reaching the world for Christ, as commanded in the Great Commission.

A positive attitude can make the most dreary job less of a burden. It can bring cheer to fellow workers who detest their workplace assignment. An attitude of gratitude for the opportunity to work and for the strength to do the work is contagious. Never fall into the negativity of the world concerning work.

A positive attitude is more than just positive thinking. We can do the work as unto the Lord, not just for the supervisor or boss, even when it is not the most satisfying or fulfilling. The Christian should take Christ with him into every area of his life, and the work area that consumes nearly 25 percent of a usual week should be no exception.

Actually, looking back at the source page, there is something really strange going on here…

Some people feel that work is the punishment God placed on Adam and Eve because they sinned by disobeying Him. Adam was to labor to provide food “by the sweat of [his] brow” (Gen. 3:19) until the day he died. But the Bible portrays work as something beneficial and productive, even creative.

So, you mean, are there some people (I’m guessing by “people” we’re limiting ourselves to A of Gers here) who feel that work wasn’t Adam and Eve’s punishment? The Fall wasn’t a fall into work? That old Adam was blissfully stocking Wal-mart shelves with Cheez-its and North Korean DVD players until the worm came around, and ruined all the fun?

In other words, so important is it to the A of G to keep work in the plus column of the human condition that they’re willing to screw with the bible itself?

As we learn elsewhere on the website, “The Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, are verbally inspired of God and are the revelation of God to man.” I’d say then, within this (il)logic, that one of those entities who feel “that work is the punishment God placed on Adam and Eve because they sinned by disobeying” is the Head Honcho himself….

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April 17, 2006 at 10:52 am

avant garde

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Was looking for something else on Amazon – David Harvey’s Spaces of Global Capitalism – and for some reason the ISBN listed at Verso took me here. Weird…

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April 15, 2006 at 11:55 am

Posted in literature

you are all so tired…

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One place to look for Benjamin on Loos is “Experience and Poverty.”

A complex artist like the painter Paul Klee and a programmatic one like Loos – both reject the traditional, solemn, noble image of man, festooned with all the sacrificial offerings of the past. They turn instead to the naked man of the contemporary world who lies screaming like a newborn babe in the dirty diapers of the present.

This is a fantastic piece. Interesting stuff on an architectural theorist and novelist Paul Scheerbart, whom I’m going to look into when I get back to the library. A bit more:

Poverty of experience. This should not be understood to mean that people are yearning for new experience. No, they long to free themselves from experience; they long for a world in which they can make such pure and decided use of their poverty – their outer poverty, and ultimately also their inner poverty – that it will lead to something respectable. Nor are they ignorant or inexperienced. Often we could say the very opposite. They have ‘devoured’ everything, both ‘culture and people,’ and they have had such a surfeit that it has exhausted them. No one feels more caught out than they by Scheerbart’s words: “You are all so tired, just because you have failed to concentrate your thoughts on a simple but ambitious plan.”

(What comes next, about Mickey Mouse, actually, is fantastic as well. But I’ll leave you to find it on your own…)

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April 14, 2006 at 1:29 pm

the yoke of ornament

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From Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime” (1929)

Every epoch had its own style, and ours alone should be denied one!? By style, people meant ornamentation. But I said, “Do not weep. Do you not see the greatness of our age resides in our very inability to create new ornament? We have gone beyond ornament, we have achieved plain, undecorated simplicity. Behold, the time is at hand, fulfillment awaits us. Soon the streets of the cities will shine like white walls! Like Zion, the Holy City, Heaven’s capital. Then fulfillment will be ours.”

Interesting. It seems that Benjamin was a fan, which is doubly interesting. From the introduction to Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays:

The philosopher and art critic Walter Benjamin… rated this pamphlet [Ornament and Crime], with which Loos also used to harangue his audience in his notorious lectures, as the most important work “in combating the aesthetic imperialism of the last century, the ‘gold fever’ of those who proclaim the so-called eternal values of art.”

I’ll try to look up some of Benjamin’s references to Loos tomorrow and perhaps post them… But, for now, let me say that I’m interested in what Benjamin exactly means by “aesthetic imperialism.” Ambiguous. Does he mean the dominance of the category of the aesthetic in general or does he mean in particular the aesthetic of those who side with the “eternal values of art.” In other words, does Benjamin think of Loos’s essay as framing a critique of the aesthetic in general or the description of a new aesthetic, a counter aesthetic?

The category of the aesthetic – or even simply of taste – is difficult to distill from Loos’s essay. Take the following passage:

I do not accept the objection that ornament is a source of increased pleasure in life for cultured people, the objection expressed in the exclamation “But if the ornament is beautiful!” For me, and with me for all people of culture, ornament is not a source of increased pleasure in life. When I want to eat a piece of gingerbread, I choose a piece that is plain, not a piece shaped like a heart, or a baby, or a cavalryman, covered over and over with decoration. A fifteenth-century man would not have understood me, but all modern people will. The supporters of ornament think my hunger for simplicity is some kind of mortification of the flesh. No, my dear Professor of Applied Arts, I am not mortifying the flesh at all. I find the gingerbread tastes better like that.

OK, now wait, the last line is strange. The gingerbread most certainly doesn’t taste better when it’s “simple,” when it’s not shaped as a heart, or a baby, or whatever. It just tastes the same. This is more important than it perhaps looks, at first.

(I can’t decide whether or not to select “multinational capitalist chic” as one of the categories for the post. I will leave it provisionally untoggled.)

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April 14, 2006 at 1:30 am

didn’t that help the armenians?

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Teaching Mrs. Dalloway today, had a harrowing experience. I don’t really like to blog about what happens in my classroom, but I’m a little more troubled about this than usual. And so I will.

So today I’m working through the oscillation between the Dalloway/Ramsay side of the story and the Septimus plot line. The way the novel develops into a profound performance of the conjunctions and disjunctions of people in modern society – all working toward the amazingly strange climax of the novel, where Septimus kills himself and Clarissa D. vicariously “experiences” his death. The way that I read the text, it is in large part about what fills novels and what has to be left out (usually) for novels to function properly and cleanly. It is, in a sense, a hysterical text, one that, like Septimus himself, can’t stop thinking and talking about what it shouldn’t, what is socially unacceptable to fix on.

As Septimus’s wife, Lucrezia, thinks at one point,

But such things happen to every one. Every one has friends who were killed in the War. Every one gives up something when they marry. She had given up her home. She had come to live here, in this awful city. But Septimus let himself think about horrible things, as she could too, if she tried.

Woolf’s novel likewise lets itself think about horrible things. So far so good.

But then we come to my favorite passage of all.

He was already halfway to the House of Commons, to his Armenians, his Albanians, having settled her on the sofa, looking at his roses. And people would say, “Clarissa Dalloway is spoilt.” She cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say so over and over again)–no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians? but she loved her roses (didn’t that help the Armenians?)–the only flowers she could bear to see cut.

This seems to me a good thing to talk about, a surprising reversal for the students to metabolize. It is an enormously complex passage, with another turn of the ethical wheel every time you think you’ve come to a rest. And the fact of the matter is that it is Clarissa who’s thinking this, right, thinking about not thinking about the Armenians (the Armenian genocide, of course, is what we’re talking about here…) I thought I could take for granted that the students would distance themselves from Clarissa at this moment – just as she is distancing herself from herself here – and at least agree that, no, the roses don’t help the Armenians, not one bit. The interesting discussion is supposed to start from this given – what do we make of a novel that features a scene like this one? What do we make of our position as novel reader, students of aesthetic objects, in the wake of this? How is everyday life – ours and hers – formed in resistance to horrors happening off stage, across the Channel or across the world? We can turn no poetry after Auschwitz into no roses after Armenia and work from there.

But the problem is, my students, en masse, started defending Clarissa’s logic here, her alibi. Her roses do, in a way, help the Armenians, as they increase the total sum of beauty in the world. One voice, two, three – a bunch in accord on this. OK, so I get a bit mean, and say, your favorite song on your iPod, that helps a victim of ethnic cleansing in the Sudan? Yes, sort of, comes the response. Living well here in the US helps a tsunami victim, a kid who’s lost both of her parents? Sure, in a way, it does, because somebody needs to live well. I’m not shitting you – this is how the conversation went. I began to catch a bit of Woolf’s hysteria myself. When we nuke Iran, like, being happy here in the US, that balances it out? They hadn’t heard about Iran… but thought yes, in a small way, the scale is balanced.

Some jokster – I really hope he was joking, it wasn’t entirely clear – contributed the fact that the death of 1,000,000 Armenians is really only a drop in the bucket of the total world population. I hope he was joking. When I asked him if he would say that about the Holocaust, everyone got very quiet all of a sudden. They know they’re not supposed to trivialize that. But then someone else said that the dead are truly dead – they’re not around to care about Clarissa’s roses. I nearly lost it, had recourse to humor, stupidly. Couldn’t handle what i was hearing.

I don’t want to be mean. They’re very smart kids, my students. Eventually, one of them spoke up against the roses. But I am a bit worried about this conversation, their intransigence on this point. I wasn’t trying to convince, initially; I didn’t think they’d need to be. But if they won’t back down, even in the face of their instructor’s obvious disbelief and dismay, in their belief that a good job here somehow balances out a bit of carnage over there, having a good sex life makes up for disease and destruction somewhere else, feeling in general happy and good and enjoying the little things, say, in itself works against the flash of light, the mushroom cloud, the searing of skin, the blindness and shrapnel piercing human flesh at the speed of sound, the tumor footprint spreading wider as the population ages, I’m afraid, well, we’re past the point of no return. These are kids.

(BTW – ideological reprogramming, were that my style, and it’s definitely not, wouldn’t work here. They’re hyper-canny about preaching. The word “bias” has infected nearly half of their papers, a word I had never seen in an English paper until the last year or so…)

I’m not sure what to think about all of this…. Except that, well, when I read this tonight, it seemed even more true and plausible than it might have yesterday… (a big clip from the piece under the fold – but why don’t you just go and read it at its home…. It’s a fantastic piece…)

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April 12, 2006 at 12:13 am

Posted in america, everyday, teevee, woolf

useful idiot

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The Canadian papers – that is, the ones I get on Saturday (Globe and Mail and the Star) – are all worked up today about f’n Michael Ignatieff, the fact that he’s about to become the front man of the Liberal Party, or so it seems, how beloved he is in the Annex, and just how lubricatingly sexy he is (seriously?)

Positioning yourself as the useful idiot of some much smarter neocon goons should not, to my mind, be the golden road to electoral success up Ottawa way. Writing the ethics (and oh yeah necessity) of American Empire shouldn’t make you a hit off Bloor.

Here’s Jonathan Schell in the Nation back before the start of the war:

Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard, is also of the “do it right” school. His starting point, however, is the need to disarm Iraq. In his essay in the New York Times Magazine “The American Empire: The Burden,” he begins by noting that if Saddam Hussein is permitted to have weapons of mass destruction, he will have a “capacity to intimidate and deter others, including the United States.” Being deterred in a region of interest is evidently unacceptable for an imperial power, and forces it to remove the offending regime. Yet if the regime is to be removed, a larger imperial agenda becomes inescapable. By this reasoning Ignatieff arrives at the same destination as Friedman and Ajami: The United States must mount “an imperial operation that would commit a reluctant republic to become the guarantor of peace, stability, democratization and oil supplies in a combustible region of Islamic peoples stretching from Egypt to Afghanistan.” We arrive at a new formula that has no precedent for dealing with nuclear danger: nonproliferation by forced democratization. Ignatieff acknowledges that a republic that turns into an empire risks “endangering its identity as a free people”–thus menacing democracy at home by trying to force it on others abroad. Nevertheless, he wants the United States to take on “the burden of empire.”

If someone was interested, now or down the road, in an audio-visual demonstration of this useful idiocy, one could do worse than a greatest hits portfolio gleaned from this Charlie Rose debate between Schell and Ignatieff from February 25, 2003.

God. Ignatieff is an walking talking embodiment of the miasma of blinders-on stupidity that infected the chattering masses in the US during the run-up. Listening to this debate, reading his stuff, puts me right back in the bars of NYC in late 2002-early 2003, arguing with my bien-pensant colleagues. Hearing stuff like, “I’d support it, but only if the UN was on-board…” etc., etc., etc., Seriously, why now? Why Iraq? Why is this what we’re doing? What does this have to do with anything? Doesn’t that give you pause, to realize that there’s not a good reason and we’re doing it anyway? What do you think they’re up to with this, as expensive as it’s going to be, given that there’s no good reason? WTF?

UPDATE: Looks like it might be time for Ignatieff to get the laptop humming again. Wouldn’t want the hawkish left feeling all confused and conflicted when we end the treat of nuclear warfare in our time by dropping nukes on Iran.

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April 8, 2006 at 10:39 pm

Posted in america


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Serendipitously, while looking at something unconnected, I may have located the start of an answer to my issue from yesterday:

It is significant, I think, that “anthropomorphic” has no inverse, no opposite. There is no word, that is, for the attribution of inhuman characteristics to humans or humanity.

From Derek Attridge’s “Age of Bronze, State of Grace: Music and Dogs in Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace,” located here if you have access.

Coetzee’s novel has some affinities with what Margot Norris, in Beast of the Modern Imagination, terms the “biocentric” tradition in modern art: not that Coetzee creates animals in the manner of writers she discusses, “with their animality speaking” (1), but that his work like theirs (and like hers) tries to imagine a relation to animal life outside of the worthy but limited concept of what Norris calls “responsible stewardship” (24).

Attridge’s essay also appears here, if you’re interested. Have to get the Norris, now…

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April 5, 2006 at 4:23 pm

Posted in animal, coetzee

all that is solid melts into air

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A photo I took a few weeks ago, our first trip back to the old neighborhood.

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April 5, 2006 at 2:14 am

ache of modernism

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Two passages. The first from Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles:

“The trees have inquisitive eyes, haven’t they?–that is, seem as if they had. And the river says,–‘Why do ye trouble me with your looks?’ And you seem to see numbers of to-morrows just all in a line, the first of them the biggest and clearest, the others getting smaller and smaller as they stand farther away; but they all seem very fierce and cruel and as if they said, ‘I’m coming! Beware of me! Beware of me!’ … But YOU, sir, can raise up dreams with your music, and drive all such horrid fancies away!”

And the second from Woolf’s To the Lighthouse:

In spring the garden urns, casually filled with wind-blown plants, were gay as ever. Violets came and daffodils. But the stillness and the brightness of the day were as strange as the chaos and tumult of night, with the trees standing there, and the flowers standing there, looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless, and so terrible.

Twin horrors of the modern period: the “horrid fancy” of human immanence within nature, and, on the other hand, the “terrible” realization of its cyclical continuance without human eyes to see it. In both cases, the horror is predicated on a strange conjunction of consciousness, unconsciousness, and time

It is significant, I think, that “anthropomorphic” has no inverse, no opposite. There is no word, that is, for the attribution of inhuman characteristics to humans or humanity.

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April 5, 2006 at 2:12 am

Posted in animal, consciousness, woolf


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OK, so I’ve just spent an awfully long time messing with the categories on this site. No more generic typepad categories. And I’m going to take them seriously from now on.

This site, among other things, is a place where I drop thoughts about some projects I’m working on / going to work on / would love one day to work on. You can follow along with these projects, as they unfold, through the categories from here on out.

For instance, try out consciousness….

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April 5, 2006 at 1:33 am

Posted in meta

no hook

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From a Charles Bernstein appreciation of Barbara Guest, who died in February, in this month’s Bookforum. (The article’s not on-line, unfortunately):

In a period of American poetry in which the most visible, and indeed much of the very best, poetry has been written with hooks galore – whether outrageous or flamboyant or hip or morally uplifting, arrogant or agonized or transcendent – Guest used no hooks. This allowed her to create a textually saturated poetry that embodied the transient, the ephemeral, the flickering in translucent surfaces that we call painterly for lack of a better term to chart the refusal of pseudo-depth of field. It would be easy to dwell on the exquisite surface reflection in Guest’s work while eliding the significance of this insistently modulated diffusion and liminal warping and woofing.

Interesting passage. Two things stand out:

1) the list of “hooks,” which seems to come close to a full list (or at least a well stocked partial list, and one that could be expanded) of literary postures. To imagine a literature without outrage or flamboyance, without uplift, transcendence, arrogance or agony is provocatively difficult. (I guess will have to read some Guest…)

2) the sense that, here at least, our recourse to the visual arts, to painting, when we attempt to describe the literary aesthetic (we do it all the time – the literary aesthetic might be said only to borrow its vocabulary from other media) also carries with it a sense of flatness, a pleasurable lack of depth. The pleasure of the painting isn’t simply the pleasure of the surface, here; it’s the pleasure of the surface without depth, volume, content.

A Guest poem to get you (and me) started. Here are some more.

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April 5, 2006 at 1:19 am

Posted in aesthetics

fantasy-based community

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Wendy Steiner in The Scandal of Pleasure:

Art occupied a different moral space from that presented in identity politics, because art is virtual. We will not be led into fascism or rape or child abuse or racial oppression through aesthetic experience. Quite the contrary – the more practiced we are in fantasy the better we will master its difference from the real.

This sort of argument, one that we’re all familiar with and one – especially if we’re teachers – we find ourselves functionally endorsing from time to time or even often. For instance. when I teach Heart of Darkness, and we come to this –

“What saves us is efficiency–the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force–nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind–as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea–something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . . .”

– of course, in the back of my mind is a sense that perhaps if they could learn to see (upon first reading, not my retelling) the fact that the “idea” is unspecified, can’t be explained further (at least without complications), these students might turn a slightly more skeptical ear towards the empty ideological gestures of the guardians of “efficiency” today.

But this isn’t all that art does, is it? A dribble of pleasure, and a little education in the difference between artifice and reality? The forms of art only lessons in distortion, skips and static in the recording that we can listen for, so that we can know the difference between the song of the sparrow and the recording of the song of the sparrow? The represented content of the work only there to show us how easy it is to translate the things of the world, the recognizable, into the artificial and false?

This can’t be it…

On the other hand, and this is where things get a bit complicated, isn’t Steiner’s rather banal formulation simply the negative, pedagogical form of Adorno’s evocation of artistic autonomy in his Aesthetic Theory?

By virtue of its rejection of the empirical world – a rejection that inheres in art’s concept and thus is no mere escape, but a law immanent to it – art sanctions the primacy of reality.

More to come…

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April 4, 2006 at 1:47 am

Posted in conrad, literature


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From Martha Nussbaum’s “The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia
Woolf’s To the Lighthouse,” located here if you have access to this sort of thing.

Mrs. Ramsay protects her private self. But we notice that it is not the same neatly shaped conscious self that she might communicate to others. Her solitude is not formed for or toward the outer world. We reach here an especially deep difficulty in the way of knowing another mind. What we usually think of as “the mind”–that is, its conscious mental acts, acts that could at least putatively be rendered in language and communicated to another- -are only, perhaps, a part of the mind, a part bound up with the outer world of “being and doing,” a sort of marshaling of the mind preparatory to communication.

Woolf’s depiction thus supports a view of consciousness similar to the one advanced by Nietzsche in Gay Science, where he depicts self-consciousness as a relatively late evolutionary arrival, useful only in connection with communication. Most of our mental life, he plausibly stresses, could be carried on without it, at a level of experience and awareness more like that we are accustomed to attribute to other animals. This account has recently received strong support from research in neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

Question: where would I look for some of this “research in neuroscience and evolutionary biology”? Any sort of Dawkinsite popularizations that would do the trick?

In addition to the Nietzsche, Nussbaum might have cited the fantastic stuff in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, toward the end, when he discusses consciousness as a somewhat superfluous late arrival on the scene (like life itself, like death). I’ll get the full quote when I can get upstairs to where the book is without waking up the teething infant, but for now, some of the surrounding materials:

For a long time, perhaps, living substance was thus being constantly created afresh and easily dying, till decisive external influences altered in such a way as to oblige the still surviving substance to diverge ever more widely from its original course of life and to make ever more complicated détours before reaching the aim of death.


The dominating tendency of mental life, and perhaps of nervous life in general, is the effort to reduce, to keep constant or to remove internal tension due to stimuli (the ‘Nirvana principle’, to borrow a term from Barbara Low).

Obviously, I’ve been thinking about all this a bit lately…

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April 3, 2006 at 10:54 pm

Posted in consciousness, woolf