Archive for June 2006
Nevertheless, politics should not be the greatest international concern. For over in Gaza, one appalling act must now eclipse all thoughts of “road maps” or “mutual gestures”: on Wednesday, Israeli war planes repeatedly bombed and utterly demolished Gaza’s only power plant. About 700,000 of Gaza’s 1.3 million people now have no electricity, and word is that power cannot be restored for six months.
It is not the immediate human conditions created by this strike that are monumental. Those conditions are, of course, bad enough. No lights, no refrigerators, no fans through the suffocating Gaza summer heat. No going outside for air, due to ongoing bombing and Israel’s impending military assault. In the hot darkness, massive explosions shake the cities, close and far, while repeated sonic booms are doubtless wreaking the havoc they have wrought before: smashing windows, sending children screaming into the arms of terrified adults, old people collapsing with heart failure, pregnant women collapsing with spontaneous abortions. Mass terror, despair, desperate hoarding of food and water. And no radios, television, cell phones, or laptops (for the few who have them), and so no way to get news of how long this nightmare might go on.
But this time, the situation is worse than that. As food in the refrigerators spoils, the only remaining food is grains. Most people cook with gas, but with the borders sealed, soon there will be no gas. When family-kitchen propane tanks run out, there will be no cooking. No cooked lentils or beans, no humus, no bread the staples Palestinian foods, the only food for the poor. (And there is no firewood or coal in dry, overcrowded Gaza.)
And yet, even all this misery is overshadowed by a grimmer fact: no water. Gaza’s public water supply is pumped by electricity. The taps, too, are dry. No sewage system. And again, word is that the electricity is out for at least six months.
The Gaza aquifer is already contaminated with sea water and sewage, due to over-pumping (partly by those now-abandoned Israeli settlements) and the grossly inadequate sewage system. To be drinkable, well water is purified through machinery run by electricity. Otherwise, the brackish water must at least be boiled before it can be consumed, but this requires electricity or gas. And people will soon have neither.
Drinking unpurified water means sickness, even cholera. If cholera breaks out, it will spread like wildfire in a population so densely packed and lacking fuel or water for sanitation. And the hospitals and clinics aren’t functioning, either, because there is no electricity.
Finally, people can’t leave. None of the neighboring countries have resources to absorb a million desperate and impoverished refugees: logistically and politically, the flood would entirely destabilize Egypt, for example. But Palestinians in Gaza can’t seek sanctuary with their relatives in the West Bank, either, because they can’t get out of Gaza to get there. They can’t even go over the border into Egypt and around through Jordan, because Israel will no longer allow people with Gaza identification cards to enter the West Bank. In any case, a cordon of Palestinian police are blocking people from trying to scramble over the Egyptian border–and war refugees have tried, through a hole blown open by militants, clutching packages and children.
In short, over a million civilians are now trapped, hunkered in their homes listening to Israeli shells, while facing the awful prospect, within days or weeks, of having to give toxic water to their children that may consign them to quick but agonizing deaths.
So I’ve been writing a ton this summer, and it’s not a new thing but when I write I constantly click open the rss reader to siphon it down as it fills. It is one of my many, many bad writing habits. And unlike some of my bad habits, which are a bit edge-sharpening, give me a little burst of clarity and fixity as I circle and stream along, the feeds are purely distracting. When I’m lucky, it’s a single sweep through, no links followed. When unlucky, I get caught up in it, end up leaving comments somehwhere or ordering books from Amazon etc. When I’m shit out of luck and concentration, I’ll blog about something that I’ve read. (You might notice I’ve been posting way more than usual of late…)
Addictive. I’ve always been a bit of an info-freak, newspaper fetishist, trend gnawer, whatever. But rss is a whole nother story. After, what’s it been, two years or so, my collection of feeds is heading toward some sort of tipping point where I’m provided constantly and instantaneously with everything that I have to read right now. And it takes a toll on the work…
…I mean, I guess it takes a toll. It should, right? I’ve already mentioned my complete inability to read Actual Books this summer. But I’ve written quite a lot, am relatively happy with what I”ve written, etc, etc…
Ok – the point: during my writing time, quite a bit of mental energy is spent holding the world (in the shape of these feeds) out. They have nothing to do with what I’m working on, and I’ve got this reflex developing that
A kind of banally deconstructive question: How is my current work shaped by what I spend so much effort excluding? And what would work that embraces rather than walls out distraction look like?
A few Benjamin cites to help out. On the one hand, from “The Work of Art” essay:
The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested. Duhamel, who detests the film and knows nothing of its significance, though something of its structure, notes this circumstance as follows: “I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.” (Georges Duhamel, *Scenes de la vie future*, Paris, 1930, p. 52.) The spectator’s process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant, sudden change. This constitutes the shock effect of the film, which, like all shocks, should be cushioned by heightened presence of mind. By means of its technical structure, the film has taken the physical shock effect out of the wrappers in which Dadaism had, as it were, kept it inside the moral shock effect.
But on the other hand, from “The Storyteller”:
Every morning brings us news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it. Leskov is the master at this (compare pieces like “The Deception” and “The White Eagle”). The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced upon the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.
(BTW: do you see the funny turn here, so characteristic? We expect the news to be disjointed, not the story, right? But then it is the story that lacks the connective tissue that runs between events….
In addition to wanting to develop my work into the shape of a giant wiki, complete with multimedia links and a three-plus-dimensional structure vs. the linear mode of the traditional book, I have a much more mundane and realistic request: I’d like to teach in classrooms with projectors that I can connect my laptop too. I’m at an underfunded state u – at my grad institution this would be fully doable, but not necessarily here.
I need it to show my students stuff like this:
Fantastic, no? Spike Jonze directed it, and yes, I know what it’s in service of so shush. But what an absolutely stunning performance of multiple logics of modernism. “Make it new,” of course – the “you will become your parents if you don’t chuck your parents’ furniture” meme that is always operative withe Ikea, not to mention a very true psycho-genealogical finding about Americans. But then, also, there is the mimed perspectival shift – we “see” the ad from the perspective of an entity which has no perspective – and the perspectivelessness of the lamp is the point. (This is the old Portrait of the Artist trick, where we identify with Stephen only to find him emptied out by the end, full only of trope, a machine that makes bad poetry and false epiphanies…)
It’s all there: the pastiche of obsolete forms, the opening in medias res, the minimally marked “everydayness” of the setting. And of course the shocking turn at the end which, true to form, is not immanent but comes from an interruption from without, and brings not peripeic catharsis but Brechtian estrangement and consciousness. All in the service of selling you a new lamp, encouraging you to fill the landfills with the old one…
So many of the dangers, so much of the promise, of modernism, right here in a thirty second ad. It’s not an ad without products, for we see the new lamp, if only through a wet window brightly. And we see it only, after the change of perspective, in order to laugh at the misery of the passé, the obsolescent, the nostalgically outmoded. An anti-fetishistic solicitation for anti-fetishistic fetishism.
Precedent suggests that it is wise to worry whenever we encounter the formulation “not quite empire.” While naming can itself be a form of domination, when the names slip away and the workers of empire continue to operate provisionally, exceptionally,as it were, we know that we are nearing the darkest heart of the matter.
Robert Skidelsky in the New York Review of Books:
The main conclusion which emerges from Maier’s study, though it does not seem to me that he spells it out explicitly, is that between the two poles of “empire” and “independence” there are a large number of intermediate positions which exhibit different mixtures of independence and subordination. It is the fiction that there are only two alternatives—a fiction which is the joint product of Wilsonian idealism and anti-colonialism—which causes most of the current confusion. Any exertion of power by the strong is called “imperialist” by its opponents, while the imperialist has to pretend that his actions are fully consistent with national independence.
Yet while this disguise may offend simple souls who crave sharp contrasts, it may also be a sign of progress. There is some evidence that forms of rule have been growing softer, more subtle, and more humane; being less transparent, they are harder to define. Despite the mass killings and other atrocities that still disfigure parts of the world, the systematic “imperial” brutality of Hitler or Stalin which Dallas documents is past history. They tortured and killed millions; now a relatively small number of violent deaths, of “human rights” abuses attributable to imperial efforts, arouses universal condemnation—partly, but not wholly, because of the difficulty of keeping violence off the airwaves.
Proudly, I am, perhaps, one of those “simple souls” offended by the blur, as it causes me to recall Marlow’s circumlocution in Heart of Darkness:
“Mind,” he began again, lifting one arm from the elbow, the palm of the hand outwards, so that, with his legs folded before him, he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower–“Mind, none of us would feel exactly like 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. . . .”
It is a bit uncanny, isn’t it, how similar the structures of the arguments are… We can see what Marlow either 1) cannot see or 2) can see, but forces himself to go on anyway. That the indefinability of the “idea,” the way it functions only to fill a gap in his argument, his comparison, to keep the sentences rolling out. It cannot be defined, for definitions are, in many cases, inefficient…
You find the strangest stuff when googling around. I needed a definition of “autotelic,” which comes up all the time in the Kant that I’m reading now. And I found this, a paper from the Sony Computer Research Lab. Here’s the abstract:
The dominant motivational paradigm in embodied AI so far is based on the classical behaviorist approach of reward and punishment. The paper introduces a new principle based on ’flow theory’. This new, ‘autotelic’, principle proposes that agents can become self-motivated if their target is to balance challenges and skills. The paper presents an operational version of this principle and argues that it enables a developing robot to self-regulate his development.
I haven’t read the paper yet, and who knows if I ever will, but it sounds like an application of modern “human resource” management techniques to inanimate, yet incipiently thinking, things. Why offer a reward when the work is a reward in and of itself? Why “manage” when they can be taught – can be expected – to manage themselves?