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Archive for April 6th, 2007


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The New York Observer is to the realm of print journalism what Cops is to television programing. Both are born of utter rot. Both primarily feed and water the worst impulses in their audiences. But interestingly, both, because of their malignant rottenness, are venues for the near-exclusive exposure of the truth of American cultural life and its decay today.

I’ll leave you to troll through youtube looking for Cops examples, but here’s one from the Observer.

Dana Vachon, the 28-year-old banker turned blogger turned novelist about town, was not wearing socks. Just loafers. A buttery brown leather pair that may or may not have been Gucci and cocooned his feet to reveal just the manliest hint of hair-sprinkled skin. Set against an outfit of cobalt blue jeans, gold-coin cufflinks, and a gold-buttoned blazer, they perfected the look of a fresh Welton Academy grad who had just arrived for cocktails at the club.

As it happened, Mr. Vachon wasn’t sipping cocktails but herbal tea, and he was reclining at a table at the 1990’s trend-spot Balthazar—a restaurant that is, in theory at least, not a private club. It was an intriguing choice for a young scribbler whose first novel, Mergers and Acquisitions, is being promoted as the spiritual and stylistic heir to Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney’s coke-powered chronicle of early New York yuppiedom.


He began by freelancing for magazines like The American Conservative, which led, at the suggestion of his B.B.F. (best blogger friend) Elizabeth Spiers, to a blog about the “life and adventures of a 26-year-old investment banker,” which led to his discovery by power-agent David Kuhn, which led, in the spring of 2005, to a deal with Riverhead Books. A big deal. Mr. Vachon would get $650,000 to produce two novels for the imprint. That he was a first-time author who sealed the deal on spec, with just a 70-page taste of his novel-to-be, made him irresistible to lit gossips.


“I wanted to set down a portrait of this generation. Period,” he continued. “What’s the great Flaubertian quote? ‘All it takes for a member of the bourgeoisie to be happy is good health, selfishness, and stupidity, but the first two will get you nowhere if you don’t have the third’?” he said, slightly misquoting the author. “I love that.”

Seriously. Please. Stay. Away. From. The. Flaubert. You. Are. Going. To. Hurt. Yourself.

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April 6, 2007 at 2:42 am


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From a nifty piece on the Czechoslovak Month of Books:

The Month of Books event was designed to demonstrate the harnessing of the written word in the service of Communist doctrine. The Month of Books was targeted above all at select population groups where “ideological growth” could be expected. The youth, peasants, and workmen were to be remoulded and remade into politically mature comrades devoted to the Socialist regime. By establishing the post of literary adviser, the state apparatus secured access to workplaces. Factories, foundries, schools, and other institutions became venues for exhibitions, literary discussions, and other cultural events. Milos Vantuch, former head of the central library at the Klement Gottwald New Foundry, gives a detailed account of one such discussion:

The book, The Basics of the Coking Industry, authored by Kozina and Pisa, two excellent experts, has become available on the market. It is written in a very readable form so that almost all employees of the coke plant will be able to study it thoroughly. These are the reasons we chose this book for the discussion. How did we organise the discussion? The operational library of the coke plant provided us with the names of all those who had borrowed the book and we visited them personally in their workplaces. We discussed the book with them and asked their opinion. They also agreed to present their views as contributions to the discussion. We explained to them the significance and importance of the fact that they themselves would present their contributions. […] The discussion was very interesting. Its course was as follows: […] comrade Cejka opened the discussion and asked engineer Splichal to host it. The first person to enter the discussion was comrade Kormanec, blast-furnace foreman. In his opinion, the book lacks information on the water consumption per tonne of coke when quenching in the coke-quenching tower. He also mentioned the difficulties of switching from coke gas to blast-furnace gas. […] At the end of the talk, professor Kozina took the floor and, speaking on behalf of his co-author, said that they were very content with the results of the discussion and warmly thanked the organizers. The talk began at 14:40 and ended at 17:10. 65 comrades, both men and women, took part; there were 22 contributions to the discussion.”

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April 6, 2007 at 1:55 am

Posted in literature, socialism

what should the left propose?

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An interesting (and devastating) review of Roberto Unger’s What Should the Left Do? by Michael Bérubé. (I haven’t read Unger’s book, so I can’t really attest to the accuracy of the review, but I’m willing to take MB at his word.) Here’s one bit where Bérubé highlights a Unger’s reaction to the “Dictatorship of No Alternatives” in which the reaction itself takes the shape, to my mind, of a repetition of exactly the sort of third-way progressivism without pain that is half or more of the problem.

To understand the nature of those proposals, one needs to realize that when Unger speaks of the Dictatorship of No Alternatives and humanity’s desperate need to overthrow it, he is not just talking about the narrow spectrum of politics in the United States, where the center has shifted so far to the right that tepid Clintonian triangulation has become the left wing of the possible; he’s dissenting from the idea that the projects of egalitarian social justice should be funded by the redistribution of wealth. Instead, Unger’s project seeks “to root a bias to greater equality and inclusion in the organized logic of economic growth and technological innovation rather than making it rest on retrospective redistribution through tax and transfer.” (This does not, however, prevent Unger from proposing a confiscatory tax on inheritances—or, as he puts it, “the simple abolition of the right of inheritance”—so that “social inheritance for all would gradually replace family inheritance for the few.”)

How do we root a bias to greater equality and inclusion in the organized logic of economic growth and technological innovation? Basically, by making market dynamics more dynamic than even the most exuberant cybercapitalist has yet imagined, in order “to produce a series of repeated breakthroughs in the constraints on economic growth.” At the same time, we will set about creating a form of “high-energy democratic politics” that “requires a sustained and organized heightening of the level of civil engagement,” including plebiscites and other instruments of direct democracy that will override fusty old constitutional strictures and the friction-generating effects of that pesky Madisonian separation of powers. We will thereby “arouse a fever of productive activity, not by suppressing the market but by broadening opportunities to participate in it,” even as we “impose on the creations of such feverish productive activity a rigorous mechanism of competitive selection.” If this sounds like a paradox, surely it is no less a paradox than the idea of creating a new branch of government devoted to the creation of ceaseless flux, a kind of Megadepartment for the Fomenting of Constant Change, “equipped with both the practical resources and the political legitimacy to undertake a task for which the traditional Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary are ill suited.” That task, Unger explains, “is to intervene in particular social organizations and practices that have become little citadels of despotism, and to reconstruct them.”

If the book opens with a critique of actually existing “flexibility,” the answer proposed seems to be a utopian version of the same, a leftist thread of irrational exuberance that, yep, hitches its wagon to the very creative destruction that is the watchword of the thread of No Alternatives to the No Alternatives. (And, god, while things might be straightening out a bit now, way later than it should have happened, given the polls on Iraq, the Patriot Act, and just about every other issue of public import during the first 3/4ths of the Bush era, do plebiscites really seem like a sure fire fix?)

But beyond the question of value of this particular book, what is at once rather revealing and disheartening about that fact that it fails, the fact that every book and article and thought of this sort seems either to fail utterly to fulfill its contract and propose any proposition at all or to collapse into a heap of insane contradictory repetitions or repetitive contradictions, is the sense of how difficult it is today to develop even a modest suggestion of what it is that we might collectively want or do or even just think about wanting or doing. The Dictatorship of No Alternatives rules inside our restive, if confused minds and works just as profoundly as it does out there in the world of blurring partly lines and incessantly announced impossibilities. We see in Unger’s book – and just about everywhere else – just how difficult it is for the left – whatever left, whether we’re talking about the US democratic party or Brazilian legal theorists or marxist English professors or anyone between or beyond these poles – to say coherently just what it is that the left should or even might propose beyond reactive incrementalism, parrying against the worst possible cases.

(In a sense, what I am writing here is not only about Bérubé’s review, but also a tough day at the office. Heard two papers, both informed by some degree if different types of political engagement via cultural analysis, by two esteemed scholars, one of which shrugged off without real rejoinder the fact that the aesthetic principle he seemed to be advocating streamed historically, quite directly, into an allegiance with Nazism, while the second derided the work of human rights organizations and practical critics like Sontag (sure, sure, of course we see what you mean, of course) without suggesting any possible course of action beyond thinking good thoughts, radical thoughts, knowing better than the engaged and entangled. I was not a happy camper by the end of the day…)

And, to preview where I am headed with all of this in future posts: I am beginning to wonder whether a realignment (not total, but definitely significant) of the aesthetic humanities (did you see that! a little realignment in and of itself right there) might not be able to incrementally work towards a modest utopianism, or utopianly vector a kind of political incrementalism, in such a way that we (both the aesthetic humanists in the academy and, well, hopefully, the wider world) might start to know again what kind of story we’d like to tell ourselves and our children about the world and its direction. I wonder if, given certain adjustments in the way we work and in particular what we work towards might begin to shed light on at least what it is that we want, what we like, what is, in the fullest and newest sense, beautiful, a shift that might with work and luck be a first step on the road toward what we might do.

Stay tuned… More to come…

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April 6, 2007 at 12:29 am