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Archive for July 2006

oh, to be in england…

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…at the Huggies ® Big Scream showing of Atomised.

(via Infinite Thought)

Actually, there are days and nights when I’d give, well, a lot for just a day+night long vacation back in the realm of deracinated empty consumption society so dystopianized by Houellebecq. You know, soulless wanderings around expensive-land, jaded participation in the evermore banal pursuits of young professional types, creatives, in the sterile and homogenized big city. Today is one of those days. Teething, low-grade fever, an overheated birthday party, too hot to go for a proper walk, stuck in the house, nothing to do outside anyway.

Or, in other words, I’ll betcha those britmoms and britdads were exercising a bit of Certeavian differentially productive consumption at the Huggies screening, poaching on the unbearable emptiness of their yesterdays.

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July 29, 2006 at 10:11 pm

close reading

Ron Rosenbaum’s upset that the NY senators have failed to lead on gay marriage. (Behind the NY Observer’s paywall, unfortunately). Check out the mot juste triangulation that he sniffs out here:

So let’s look at little more closely at why New York’s liberal Senators are not taking a leadership position on this. Hillary Clinton’s extremely guarded statement on the subject can only be called classic Clintonism: She has limited herself to the somewhat cryptic formulation that “I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been: between a man and a woman.”

Cryptic because it could be taken as merely descriptive. As if, 100 years ago, someone had said that “voting is as voting has always been: something done by men” – not necessarily an endorsement of one-sex voting. Or is it meant to sound prescriptive, a dog whistle to potential red-state Presidential voters: Marriage should continue to be as it “has always been: between a man and a woman.”

It’s remarkable, isn’t it – with the Clintons, everything always seems to come down to the ambiguity of what “is” is. Here, is “is” an observation or an affirmation.

For another post, but not without relevance here: I cringe every time I come across a left / liberal blog with a snippet like “Proud member of the reality-based community” stapled beneath their title. For me, Clinton’s delphic talking point is a perverse or not so perverse instantiation of “reality-based” politics. But that’s for another day…

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July 28, 2006 at 10:02 pm


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(Cross-posted from Long Sunday)

Stanley Fish in the NY Times a few days ago:

All you have to do is remember that academic freedom is just that: the freedom to do an academic job without external interference. It is not the freedom to do other jobs, jobs you are neither trained for nor paid to perform. While there should be no restrictions on what can be taught — no list of interdicted ideas or topics — there should be an absolute restriction on appropriating the scene of teaching for partisan political ideals. Teachers who use the classroom to indoctrinate make the enterprise of higher education vulnerable to its critics and shortchange students in the guise of showing them the true way.

Sure, I suppose I agree. In practice even more than in theory. I certainly don’t "indoctrinate" in my classroom. But, on the other hand, I certainly do expose my students to the historical record, positions and representations taken with regard to and within the historical record, and in general a more sophisticated, probing way of viewing the world than the one they brought into the classroom, or so I at least hope. All of which is kosher under Fish’s rules, as everything is always up for argument and discussion, of course. I never, in arguments and discussion, take sides except for pedagogically productive purposes, a play acting of argument to move things along. 

But, I imagine, given the "ideas or topics" that I teach about, and the quality of my non-indoctrinary teaching, there’s a strong likelihood that the students emerge, on aggregate, further "left" than they entered the classroom. In fact, one might well make the argument that the non-indoctrinary approach that someone like me – or perhaps someone like Fish, who knows – takes is nothing more than a subtler, more efficient approach to political conversion – even indoctrination – than, say, the lame dork who shows Fahrenheit 9/11 to his physics class. What if I, in fact, have learned the hidden-in-plain-sight tactics of the mainstream media, constantly staging a debate that in fact is just a show trial, incessantly giving my students the illusion of autonomous participation, when in fact the game is rigged from the start?

It is tough to figure out what Fish would say to this, as he ignores the possibility that the free trade in ideas might itself be deployed in the service of ideological mystification. Is it simply a question of openness to the possibility that the students will truly find their own way? When I was a kid at Catholic school, I learned that the rhythm method was a permissible form of birth control family planning because it demonstrated an openness to pregnancy, whereas the Pill or condoms did not. Fuzzy logic, to be sure. Where does good old fashion coitus interruptus fall on the scale? The nuns didn’t go there, strangely enough.

Last semester, so effectively did I not-indoctinate my class that they found a book whose politics I find very intriguing indeed (William Morris’s News from Nowhere) entirely ridiculous. I couldn’t stop talking about utopia and the limits of fiction and they, almost as a one, took the position that Morris demonstrates through his fiction the absolute impossibility of anarchic socialism. I can’t help but think that they, following their teacher’s lead, underread the book… But perhaps that was just, for me, an acceptable risk, a write-off, in my grand campaign to have my beliefs metastasize through the student body… L’effet du réel, as it were…

In short, I think Fish too is underreading the situation. Or, perhaps, he’s writing in bad faith, fully aware that the free trade in ideas is not only a rhetorical trick, but is in fact the definitive rhetorical trick of our time. "We report, you decide," right? The piece would then be a brilliantly performative piece, engaging in the very tactic of manipulation-via-objectivity that it would be tacticly endorsing.  I wish it were the latter, but I suspect it’s the former. One might so easily imagine an entire army of leftist professors with Fish’s article in hand, bent on ideological domination of the student masses, all in agreement that the best approach is the one of least resistance. Stage debates, employ the silence and cunning of impersonality, shift the goalpost, and reap the ideological benefits in the end. This already, to my mind, is the case (but from a different ideological direction) in US economics departments, where reality itself is conservatively liberal and the price of admission is the acceptance of the status quo.

One other thing: I wonder what Fish would make of politically-polemical or at least engaged writing on the part of academics. Writing occupies such an ambiguous place in our work. The toughest part of my job for my father, who is distinctly not an academic, to understand is the fact that I need to write – that that is what, almost exclusively as I work at a research university, will earn me tenure. There is no way in but to write, and no way to stay but to write, but we are paid to teach. I have to write, but no one is required to read what I write. So where does this fit in his rulebook?

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July 27, 2006 at 11:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

child’s eyes

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And just as we can’t stop apologizing for ourselves, for our childishness, we also can’t stop talking about children. Over at Maxims & Reflections, a fantastic post that pushes us down the path toward why.

Here’s M&R:

In these deceptively simple pictures, Greenberg has captured something of the current emotional weather in middle-class America. Everybody feels bad. Everybody knows something is wrong. But no one knows enough in the way of facts to say just what is wrong and, if they did, they would have to admit staggering and horrific truths about how their lives are sustained and indeed how their children’s lives are threatened…

M&R also takes up the issue of the violence involved in making these photographs. Perhaps the passage from John Berger that I had on here recently might be a valuable gloss. Or, these images and this post a valuable gloss on the Berger.

. . . For the phtographer this means thinking of her or himself not so much as a reporter to the rest of the world but, rather, as a recorder for those involved in the events photographed. The distinction is crucial.

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July 27, 2006 at 10:38 pm


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July 27, 2006 at 10:12 am

Posted in war

the obvious

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A recent uptick in the bloggers that I read apologizing for “stating the obvious.” We’re all doing it, including me. The problems of the world have become, over the past half-decade, so much less interesting, so resistant to nuance, so devoid of argumentative running room, the space to turn on a dime, to snap it over.

We find ourselves speaking like children. We can’t help ourselves – we wail and kick at the obvious. There is nothing complex left to say, no tests of our intelligence, our subtly intuitive sense of things.

And so I come with more obviousness tonight.

In certain ways, what is happening in Lebanon right now seems more upsetting than even the Iraq War was at the outset. I feel more hotly disturbed by it – and I can tell that others do as well – others who like me were extremely troubled by the occupation of Iraq to begin with.

And, to my eyes, the reason has to be something like this: to a significant extent, the rhetoric of justice and democracy, the warm euphemistic language that hid the cold blooded killing, when it came to Iraq and Afghanistan, or even a potential war with Iran, is slipping away. No one evoked a doctrine of proportionality when it came to the earlier conflicts; no one suggested that we were bombing these places in order to convince them of the error of their ways. Whatever was really afoot, the powerful still felt an obligation to lie. That obligation is now disappearing, very nearly gone, apparently.

There are a few half-hearted attempts, whose distance from reality is almost laughable. Condi Rice’s press-conference the other day almost made it sounds as though the Lebanese government itself had invited the Israelis to destroy Beirut, so intractable was their problem with Hezbollah. Just a reflex, I guess. But moments like these are exceptional: Israel doesn’t apologize, and makes little effort toward a justification for their actions couched in the language of civilization-seeding and general democratic benevolence. The US punditocracy has gobbled it up, this opportunity to push the bar a bit further in the direction of madness – scoffing and chuckling at the notion of a humanitarian crisis tonight, a few days ago labeling dead-children “sand bags.”

On the global scale, as my undergraduates love to remind me when we talk about such things, we are still at a relatively small and locally contained level of crisis at the moment. 400 or so deaths, though there are hundreds of thousands of refugees. But there is a qualitative development emerging out of – actually alongside of – this quantitative tally of dead.

They no longer feel that they need to lie to us. And we, sensing that there are ever fewer lies to parry, sink into a dreadful apprehension that the rolling-out of the obvious has only just begun.

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July 26, 2006 at 12:00 am

Posted in distraction, war


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Arthur Danto, “Whatever Happened to Beauty,” The Nation, March 30, 1992:

I wish that in preparing my own contribution I had remembered something the painted Brice Marden said in the course of an interview with his peer Pat Steir: “The idea of beauty can be offensive…. It doesn’t deal with issues; political issues or social issues. But an issue that it does deal with is harmony,” For I would then have realized the degree to which social and political issues are today framed in terms of disharmony, of strife and conflict and confrontation, when in truth the great political visions have been precisely of the harmonious society, and it would be difficult to think of a more exact criterion of political health than harmony. I might then have proposed that every beautiful work can be viewed as an allegory of political well-being, and disharmonious work as allegorical of social pathology.

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July 21, 2006 at 11:54 pm

Posted in aesthetics, simplicity

addressed to an alternative future

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Cited at If:book, John Berger on the photograph:

[Susan Sontag’s] theory of the current use of photographs leads one to ask whether photography might serve a different function. Is there an alternative photographic practice? The question should not be answered naively. Today no alternative professional practice (if one thinks of the profession of photographer) is possible. The system can accommodate any photograph. Yet it may be possible to begin to use photographs according to a practice addressed to an alternative future.

. . . . For the photographer this means thinking of her or himself not so much as a reporter to the rest of the world but, rather, as a recorder for those involved in the events photographed. The distinction is crucial.

Berger’s riffing on Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” looks like. Not sure if I go along with the rest of the post on If:book, where the writer proceeds to apply Berger’s formulation to the sumptuous meals he eats at his summer retreat on Sardinia (pretty sure that’s not the sort of photography that JB was thinking of) nor of the final turn toward the consideration of flickr. But the distinction does seem to be crucial, if a bit opaque. It has to mean something more than a change in the direction of sympathies, as sympathetic images are no less adaptable to the reign of spectacle than unsympathetic ones. (“The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology. Social change is replaced by a change in images.”)

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July 21, 2006 at 10:57 pm

grub street playground

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(Just furthering my efforts to become the go-to site for anarcho-marxist design&lit oriented daddy blogging)

Whoa! Just what I needed! I reminder of the good things about leaving the grub street hothouse that is NYC.

Amy Sohn goes apeshit and makes an ass of herself electronically after playground embarrassment.

Seriously: if you’re female and thinking about leaving whatever you do to become a freelance writer / nonfiction author in the US, just keep in mind that this is exactly the sort of shit you’ll be expected to squeeze out. Coulter-esque attacks on your fellow-women. I understand that this is only a blogpost, but Sohn undersells herself here:

That is the end of my rant. I would turn this into a million-dollar book proposal if I could but I don’t think there’s enough to sustain 500 pages.

Oh, there’s that and more, I’m sure. And I’m sure her phone is ringing off the hook already.

What will be interesting will be the way the Mommy Wars change once the US dollar takes its inevitable dip and “Tibetan nannies” (this is the new thing, eh? I’ve been gone too long…) send themselves to Shanghai or wherever rather than Park Slope.

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July 21, 2006 at 10:22 pm

Posted in america

william gibson comes down with apophenia

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I had to look it up too…

Apophenia: In psychology, the perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things. Apophenia can be a normal phenomenon or an abnormal one, as in paranoid schizophrenia when the patient sees ominous patterns where there are none.

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July 21, 2006 at 7:20 pm

Posted in consciousness, war


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I agree with kottke: very nice infographic:

Much better, anyway than yesterday’s disinfocapiton on the cover of the Evening Standard.

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July 21, 2006 at 12:43 pm

Posted in design, simplicity, war

exchange rate

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A bath of stupidity, hyperbolic untruth, a racist bile for all of us. Infinite Thought took a dip today. My turn I guess.

Hillary Clinton at a pro-Israel demonstration at the UN in NYC on Monday:

“I want us here in New York to imagine if extremist terrorists were launching rocket attacks across the Mexican or Canadian border, would we stand by or would we defend America against these attacks from extremists?” said Clinton, D-N.Y. “We will stand with Israel because Israel is standing up for American values as well as Israeli ones.”

There are fourteen or so ways that this is just heartbreakingly wrong, mindbendingly evil.

First and foremost… Well, I’ll just give you the photo-montage version:

No, Hillary. We wouldn’t rubble Toronto, even if in some ridiculous turn of events some non-governmental entity crossed the border and kidnapped 2 US soldiers. Hell, we wouldn’t even if Steven Harper ordered it himself. Why? Well, I think the answer is obvious, no? Skin-tone. That is the point. That is why this is allowed to happen.

Seriously, Hillary: would we leave the corpses of Canadian children littering the side of the QEW? Really? Having been told to flee, say, St. Catharines, we’d hit their Ford Windstar, leave the little canucks smouldering on the shoulder?

And that’s just the start of course. And while no, we wouldn’t reduce Toronto to a pile cinder blocks, crimp the CN tower, etc I do think this statement should give Canadians and Mexicans a bit of a pause. After all, there are scenarios that have been devised by the US government one could imagine wherein a group – even consisting of Canadian citizens – launches an attack on US soil from Canada, the government response is deemed too weak, and, well…

Offensive. Shit-smellingly so. Brimstone-ish.

As the Canadian father of a Canadian child, 13 months old, currently asleep in her Toronto Maple Leafs pjs acquired last week in Toronto, and as relatively new father who feels an increasingly deep degree of solidarity with parents everywhere, Lebanon, Baghdad, Haifa, wherever, I might as well set it in HTML right now: no matter the crisis point we’ve reached, there is no fucking way I’m pulling the lever for Hillary Clinton, for senator, president, school board sitter, anything. (We’re dual citizens, so dad can vote here, but he’s working on finding a way to put that behind us…) There’s PR, there’s triangulation, and then there’s hateful cynicism that tests the lower limits of decency, rhetorical turns that soak the soul in the blood of infants.

More at archive: sometimes

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July 21, 2006 at 12:12 am

Posted in canada, war

national in form, socialist in content

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Open Democracy on North Korean art:

Socialist Realism is now referred to in North Korea as Juche Realism. Juche art theorists in North Korea divide world art history into two kinds: “peoples’ art”, reflecting the needs of the masses, and “reactionary art”, reflecting the ideology of the exploiting class. Kim Il-song’s 1966 instruction, “Let’s develop our National form with Socialist content”, is still regarded as the absolute guiding principle of Juche art. This “call” for a new Juche Art was in fact a paraphrase of both Stalin and Mao. Stalin had defined Socialist Realism as “national in form, socialist in content”, while Mao called it “national in form, new democratic in content”.

The “national form” of painting naturally meant traditional Korean ink painting or Chosonhwa, but oil painting (an imported western technique) was also encouraged. Large public wall paintings, which would normally be expected to be carried out in oils, were therefore also produced in ink painting, encouraging ink painters to paint realistically. Still today, there are many more ink painters classed as Merit Artists or Peoples’ Artists than there are oil painters, as a matter of principle.

I hadn’t ever heard this formulation before, somehow. And when I first read it, I wondered to myself, “Now what would they possibly mean by a nationalist form for a novel?” and then realized that that’s the point. Not a novel but Korean ink painting or whatever.

But it’s interesting to think, now that I’ve got it straighten out for myself, why it is that “nationalist in form, socialist in content” became something like a universal definition of Socialist Realism, at least according to this article. Why is it that the content is deemed pliable, adjustable to the ideological weather, while the form – in the sense of medium or genre – is considered intractable, rooted in the soil…

Why, in other words, couldn’t it be “Socialist in form and content”?

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July 20, 2006 at 10:08 pm

Posted in aesthetics, socialism


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Ken MacLeod on the doctrine of just war:

Nothing has done more to corrupt humanity than the attempt to civilise warfare. Just War Theory is an utter perversion of the moral sense, a doctrine of literally mediaeval barbarism, invented by clerics to regulate wars between Christian kings. Its finest moral discrimination to date is that it’s legitimate to kill a munitions worker on his way to work, but a crime to kill him on his way home. It tells us that to aim a bomb at an enemy soldier and kill a hundred civilians is – if the necessity is there – legitimate collateral damage, but to deliberately aim one bullet at one enemy civilian is murder. In its pedantic, casuistic jesuitry it still stinks of the cringing, quibbling fusspots who invented it, and retains too its usefulness to a useless and barbaric ruling class. It does nothing whatsoever to restrain their behaviour. Its only function is to befuddle those who oppose, protest and fight them. It justifies every horrific, predictable consequence of imperialist assault as an unintended consequence, and condemns every horrific, predictable consequence of resistance to that assault as an intended consequence. Their violence against civilians is mass murder, ours is collateral damage.

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July 20, 2006 at 8:46 pm

Posted in distraction, war

extension du domaine de la lutte

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(Crossposted from Long Sunday, where I’m taking part in a symposium on democracy

I’m a bit daunted, now, by the passage that I breezily told Angela I’d deal with for this symposium. It’s from E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), and it deals with a central character of the work – or, better, a character whose centrality to the work is very much the question, the issue, at play.

Leonard Bast is 21 when the novel opens, something of a would-be social and intellectual climber, an auto-didact, who has somehow pinned himself on to the Schlegel sisters, who fascinate him as avatars of cultural capital and unearned income. (The “umbrella” in the passage below refers to an embarrassing incident, fraught with class-anxiety, that occurs when Leonard first meets the sisters…)

The boy, Leonard Bast, stood at the extreme verge of gentility. He was not in the abyss, but he could see it, and at times people whom he knew had dropped in, and counted no more. He knew that he was poor, and would admit it: he would have died sooner than confess any inferiority to the rich. This may be splendid of him. But he was inferior to most rich people, there is not the least doubt of it. He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable. His mind and his body had been alike underfed, because he was poor, and because he was modern they were always craving better food. Had he lived some centuries ago, in the brightly coloured civilizations of the past, he would have had a definite status, his rank and his income would have corresponded. But in his day the angel of Democracy had arisen, enshadowing the classes with leathern wings, and proclaiming, “All men are equal–all men, that is to say, who possess umbrellas,” and so he was obliged to assert gentility, lest he slipped into the abyss where nothing counts, and the statements of Democracy are inaudible.

It’s an interesting passage, very tough to pin down the narrator’s tone here, the degree of affiliation or remove from Bast’s own sense of things. Our first response might be that Forster says Democracy when he really means Capitalism. This anxiety that haunts Bast, the necessity of constantly scrambling, constantly reinforcing the foundations of the self, lest he slip into the “abyss” is not, of course, a matter of political self-representation or governmental organization, but rather a matter of market forces, economic liberalism, and individual gumption. Or, if were more politically charitable to Forster, then he means us to hear the euphemistic usage of the word Democracy as euphemistic. And then there is the reactionarily nostalgia, ironized or not, for “the brightly coloured civilizations of the past.” It is true, even if it doesn’t mean all that much, that were Leonard born under pre-democratic / capitalistic feudalism, he at least wouldn’t have suffered from this anxiety about the abyss – either in it or not, but no nervousness about climbing and falling. And, it follows, why leathern wings, exactly? The angel of democracy, as it grants the ability to fly, also turns the classes satanic, naturally unnatural?

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July 20, 2006 at 12:55 am

Posted in literature