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Archive for June 27th, 2006

en-lightenment

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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.

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June 27, 2006 at 10:59 pm

roundup

In case you’re not already reading it, go check out signandsight’s weekly world magazine roundup. Just fantastic. Definitely worth picking up their rss feed as not to miss this.

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June 27, 2006 at 12:07 pm

Posted in blogs

an idea at the back of it

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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

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June 27, 2006 at 9:57 am

Posted in conrad, distraction, empire, war

autotelic automatons

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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?

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June 27, 2006 at 2:22 am

what goes round

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Hate to tell the folks at Slate, but as I was looking around for articles that I need for another post (coming), I found my way to a 2002 piece from their site. My first thought upon reaching the piece: how funny – it’s a circa 2002 site design! Wow – pre-broadband!

Unfortunately, it wasn’t not their 2002 design. It was their brand new 10th anniversary redesign.

(Also, while I was over there, I was reminded of the whole stay-at-home mom / working women issue that just keeps plastering itself across our cultural windshield. Tempted to post on this. But I won’t. I know better, actually. But I will say this. There’s something a wee bit dysfunctional about a society wherein when we get really riled up, pissing and fuming and not gonna take it any more, we get up on our soapbox and demand MORE WORK!

I should shut up. But here, from the Slate piece:

It is in forcing us to consider the implications of all this that Hirshman’s book is most interesting: If you are a woman who is committed to gender equality, who doesn’t believe that a woman’s place is necessarily in the home, she argues, then you have to think about how your choices shape the collective good. Her stubborn insistence is refreshing. Unlike others, she is willing to come out and say, in no uncertain terms, that the luxury of making our own decisions as if they had no larger implications isn’t ethical at this point in time. If that makes feminism unpopular, so be it; but shying away from persistent inequality by invoking the language of “choice,” she observes, is hardly feminism. If you buy her argument, then even if you find it hard to leave your baby at home, and even if you find the workplace sometimes less-than-fulfilling, it’s important—to society as a whole—that you work. This sounds extreme, but of course it’s the lesson every man is taught when he’s a boy: Your responsibility to society—the way to become an adult—is to work.

Hmm… The lessons that I was taught as a boy – and they’ve served me very, very well in the workplace – wasn’t so much “Work and better society through it, buddy boy!” but rather “You fucking lazy shit! How are you going to get into Harvard with a fucking B+ in Calculus.” Maybe not quite that, but something more along the lines of “Were you to piss away the hard won class advance that I’ve won for us by the bloody sweat on my brow, son, by becoming say a poet or a novelist or even just like an ordinary person who works in a bookshop, let alone raising children full-time or something, then, well, my life, which I’ve given up for you, will have come to absolutely nothing.”

And thus the Ph.d. rather than the MFA. And, look, the Ph.D. rather than being badgered into a law degree or an MBA or something was getting off easy. (Dad’s class antennae are jiggered such that doing a Ph.D. at Prestigious University X was, well, intimidatingly OK… And I don’t think he ever really got how bad the job situation was/is…)

In short, I have absolutely no interest in undercutting American women’s right of self-determination. No way, no how. But I am not so sure that demanding further entanglement in the self-strangling mode of life that we call ours is the way to go about pulling down any sort of betterment. There are other problems with the argument, of course. Is Hirschman’s piece supposed to advance the cause of men taking more initiative in the parenting department? By devaluing childrearing? O’Rourke again:

Until those who care about equality recognize that it will take collective action to create further change, the kinds of policy amendments most women want to see won’t take place, and women will continue doing 70 percent of the housework—while men continue to do less housework after marriage than they did as bachelors.

Do Hirschman and O’Rourke really believe that this class of CEOs and corporate lawyers are really going to turn around and get behind social legislation that “most women want to see”? Really?

In other words, and I’m sure it’s quite idealist of me, especially as an American, but it seems to me possible, if not probable, that women and men both might step back a bit from this problem to ask some really very easy questions about why we’ve been forced into an untenable situation, about the paradoxical relationship between technological progress and the intensification of labor, why we need two incomes when one (or 2 halves) used to suffice, what’s been lost (pensions, health benefits, low cost housing, cheap mass transportation) that forces us to embrace the drives that parasitically inhabit us, keeping us close to the workbench from sun-up to sun-down, and shocking us minute-by-minute with visions of a life terribly ordinary, the unbearable lightness of limited expectations, time for children and their useless living.

(Full disclosure: my wife and I – and we’re very lucky that we can do this, as I’m an academic and she is a writer – split time caring for the baby. Not necessarily 50 / 50. Maybe more like 30 / 70. I will admit that it is not something that comes easily to me, not working. We both are frustrated at times: she doesn’t get to work as much as I do, but it wasn’t easy being a first-year assistant professor and rarely starting work before 1 PM. Neither of us have gotten more than 5 hours of sleep for more than a year. We’re lucky though, that we can work this out. And we’re very lucky that we both get to spend so much time with an absolutely wonderful little person. And if there’s one thing that I’ve learned since having this child, it’s that judging the choices of others, whatever they are, on this front, is a recipe for egocentric, projective disaster…)

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June 27, 2006 at 12:47 am