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Archive for May 2007

left hook

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A nice piece on the future of the left and the “social state” from Zygmunt Bauman in the journal Soundings (not a journal that I’ve seen before… but it looks interesting…) I’ll give away the end:

Contrary to the assumption of ‘third way’ advocates, loyalty to the social state tradition and an ability to modernise swiftly – with little or no damage to social cohesion and solidarity – need not be at loggerheads. On the contrary, as the social democratic practice of our Nordic neighbours has demonstrated, the pursuit of a more socially cohesive society is the necessary precondition for modernisation by consent. The Scandinavian pattern is anything but a relic of the past. Just how topical and alive its underlying principles are, and how strong its possibilities for inspiring human imagination and action, is demonstrated by the recent triumphs of emergent or resurrected social states in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil and Chile. Gradually yet indefatigably they are changing the political likeness and popular mood of the Western Hemisphere. They bear the hallmarks of that ‘left hook’ with which, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, all truly decisive blows in human history tend to be delivered. And though this is a truth that is hard to perceive in a Britain that is sunk in the murky dusk of the Blairist era, it is the truth nevertheless.

Still, aren’t both Sweden and Denmark currently run by center-right liberalizing governments? Shouldn’t we be anxious that the Scandinavians themselves are starting to feel that the “Scandinavian pattern” is a relic of the past?

UPDATE: Uh oh…

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May 14, 2007 at 11:11 pm

neither ads nor products

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Sorry that I’ve been off my pace lately here. More is coming, I promise. But it might not be immediately. I have a very large and time-sensitive writing project that I need to bring to some sort of a firm stop by Wednesday or so. And there’s – of course – all the end of semester wrapping-up to do. And then I’ll be on vacation for two weeks. Which takes us to the beginning of June. If I can get access and time, I’ll likely throw some stuff up while I’m away…

Just don’t give up on me – I’ll be back.

For now, you can go visit the little conflagration I’ve started over on LS….

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May 14, 2007 at 12:38 am

Posted in housekeeping

a miracle!

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For the first time ever, I agree with a Brad Delong post.

I should have bought a lottery ticket tonight.

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May 9, 2007 at 12:22 pm

Posted in modernism

the other modernism

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So you end up broken in half, as a student of modernism, by the split in the period and in its emblematic works. On the one hand, the hyper-psychologized dystopias of individual complexity and political ineffability. On the other, the union of form and function under a banner of progress (even real progress). The former is the reflexive stance of the modernist literary text; the later, of modernist architecture and design. Think Joyce vs. Corbusier. Woolf vs. Niemeyer, Kafka vs. Tiege. You find the architectural / progressive motif more attractive – more potentially useful today – as a seed for revivification. But, on the other hand, you work with literature – this is what you do for a living.

It is tough to mine the latter from the former, the simple from the complex, the beautiful utility from the gratingly indifferent. It is tough to find, in short, the other modernism in literary texts. After all, literature doesn’t love hopeful contentment, and work (vs. dark dreamlife) toward that end – and most of all, it does not love utopia, whether actual or anticipated, whether exuberant or fadedly just OK.

Or maybe it’s just you, er, that is, me, as Owen Hatherley has found it hiding in plain sight in a J.G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands.

[T]here is only one instance of a speculative community approaching a Ballardian ideal – a site where we definitively leave the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the cautionary, anti-Modernist dystopia – and that is in Vermilion Sands. This is a 1971 collection of stories spanning his first published story, ‘Prima Belladonna’ (1956) to 1970, all set in the same community: a dead or dying desert resort, populated entirely by the elegantly, wanly idle, most of whom are involved in strangely calm psychodramas. Vermilion Sands is a synthetic and synaesthetic landscape of psychotropic houses that respond to their inhabitants’ desires and fears, singing sculptures, and a place where everything in sight seems to glitter, to take on the qualities of crystal, a flickering chromaticism suffusing everything from stairways to hair colour and eye pigments. It is, as Ballard writes in the 1971 introduction, a picture of an ideal he wanted and expected to see realised. The dystopian tradition is refuted in this introduction: ‘very few attempts (in SF) have been made to visualise a unique and self-contained future that contains no warnings to us. Perhaps because of this cautionary tone, so many of science fiction’s notional futures are zones of unrelieved grimness.’ So could there be here a sort of affirmative retort to the insistence that all Modernist or utopian communities inevitably end up in dystopia?

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May 9, 2007 at 12:14 am

won’t hold together

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1. Today was a good day. The park with my wife and daughter, lunch at a nice place and outside because it’s finally getting warm enough to do that. She had a bit of a tantrum about riding in the stroller from the park to the cafe where we ate, but it subsided. I looked in the bookstore, but there weren’t any magazines or books that I wanted to buy.

2. Later, I watched a hockey game, read a few pages of an advance copy of William Gibson’s Spook Country while my daughter played in the backyard. My wife got home from shopping – bearing hot dogs – and I fired up the grill for the first time this year. Very dad-ish, yes? My daughter has never had a hot dog, and wouldn’t eat one this evening, despite the fact we lathered it in cheese. I think she is thrown by the name. She loves dogs, and periodically would say “ruff-ruff” as we ate them and laugh a bit, but still refuse to eat them.

Whenever I grill hot dogs, I wince at every bite worried that I will encounter a raw spot inside.

3. We watched the Sopranos this evening. I think it was the first good episode of the new and last semi-season. When the jokes work, you get the sense that Chase is writing (whoever is listed in the credits), and that the episode, in turn, will work.

And it did. And in particular, it returned to one of my favorite themes of the show, and a theme very close to my heart. The ambivalence of Tony’s relationship to his son – and his semi-son Christopher – pivots on a deeper ambivalence about masculinity, violence, class transition, and self-improvement. And shame. To put it this way seems very abstract – sounds like guild speak, no? Try it this way instead: Just as he wants Christopher not to be an alcoholic but finds something deeply distasteful and unmanly about his success in not drinking, he would like his own son, Anthony Jr., not to repeat his mistakes, not to go into the “family business” of profitable violence, but can’t help hating his son for his, what, effeminate softness and affluent idleness. He wants, in short, his son to be tough like him without experiencing the situations that make that sort of toughness possible or even necessary.

I grew up with just this sort of mixed message from my own father, and I bear the fruits of it today in spades. I’m not going into to detail, but trust me on this one. (Themes like this, generally not well aired in mass culture, are the reason that this show has a lock on a demographic that is both unusually wide and extremely narrow at once…) It is, I think, an experience that a lot (most? all?) children of men (and women?) who “came from nothing” and “fought their way out of poverty”… and whose children live very different lives – and live in very different neighborhoods – than the one that they have lived.

My father took his first steps to making his (and mine) in the world through violence, though of a different sort that the Sopranos. He was a hockey and football hero from a shit town and from an imploded and very poor family, and likely channeled lots of his own father’s abusiveness into his athletic performance. These skills (this violence) made, in the long run, a successful career path open to him, and it was one that structurally resembles that of the various enforcers and captains on the show… (hint: if my work is strangely preoccupied with labor issues – downsizing, deskilling, intensification, Taylorism – you do the oedipal math to figure out where he ended up…)

4. Things become even more interesting when Anthony Jr.’s invigorating turn to the dark side occurs not through committing an act of violence himself, but through watching (as, of course, do we) someone else perform an act of particularly gruesome violence on another person. The last few episodes have been slightly-preoccupied with the question of who has “popped their cherry,” in terms of ultraviolence, and who hasn’t. Anthony seems to have joined the club – but somehow, now, all it takes is what might be called televisual participation rather than the real thing.

5. After the show, I scroll through the rss reader and come to this. Let it be said I do not recommend clicking through to view the videos. I have a pretty high tolerance – both viscerally and ethically – for viewing this sort of thing, and lord christ has there been a lot of it to view the past several years. Just being honest, I generally find those deeply resistant to viewing this sort of material to be a bit quaint or even hypocritical. I generally back up into a rationalization about the necessity that the impact of violence around the world register – register, perhaps, in particular upon people like me, who write about culture and politics for a living. I have viewed military attacks on civilians, beheadings, and of-course the state run executions of VIPs.

But this one stopped me in my tracks. I viewed the first linked video, which seems to be the gruesome aftermath of the whole affair. The second video, I am guessing, is really the first in the sequence – a lot of yelling and not much to see except for tight-packed men’s shoulders. In the third, we finally get what we are here to see. She is quickly pulled, head locked under a man’s arm, into the center of the crowd. A crowd, of course, of men. She is standing, she is screaming, and then she is not. She has been pulled to the ground, or hit by something and then fell.

This is where I turned the video off. I did not want to see her head get crushed by stones. There are, it is terrible to report, a total of 6 videos in the sequence. I can’t even imagine what happens in the next three in the sequence. Or I can very much imagine it, but this time, don’t want to see it. I can’t really explain why this one is different from the others, the ones that I made it all the way through. It is nightmarish.

6. I have nightmares every night. In fact, I think I only have nightmares. I can’t remember having any other sort of dream for the longest time. On some level, I think, I take this as a normal facet of adult-life. It does not, on the surface at least, affect my waking behavior. I am not even particularly troubled by this fact. I am not even sure that I dislike having nightmares. Obviously, the question becomes are these things that I am dreaming actually nightmares at all?

In fact, it wouldn’t at all be fair, but if you were to tell me that you often or even occasionally have dreams that are not nightmares, I would almost automatically think, on some level, that you were a something of a simpleton.

And I now suddenly realize that this is a good explanation of the origin of my particular academic interests. I write about the necessary relationship between fictional form and social disorder. I also, more recently, have been fascinated by texts that attempt to work beyond this seemingly essential relationship.

7. I have posted on these sorts of videos and images before. The dead children during the bombing of lebanon, etc etc. After partially viewing the stoning, I went outside to have a cigarette and thought about what I might write about this one. I can’t remember now what I said about the previous ones. Any angle I might try to take, and the head swims. To politically particularize this is to lose the visceral reality of it, to mine it for an abominable use-value. Not to politicize it is perhaps even more horrible – to see this event, and all the others like it that happen all the time, both in view and out of it, “clickably linked” or not, as ineffably random or simply markers of a depraved and in-actionable “human nature.” I do not know what to say, and so I say this. Which is abominable. I could have remained silent, which is abominable. And, worst of all, perhaps, is to resolve all of this into a clever, safe crux – which is exactly what I am doing right now as I type these words. My own inhumanity chases me at exactly the speed that I type these words now. The more I say, the worse it gets… But to say nothing would be worse. And there’s the crux, the cleverness, the barbarism, the intensified barbarism of the self-conscious critic of snuff again. A knot that only tightens as you type.

8. I wonder how many of you clicked through and viewed the videos, and of those who did, how far you got with them.

9. NB: I provided you with the link, but ordered you not to follow it. I hoped that you wouldn’t see it, yet I advertised its contents. I want you, my reader, to be both humane and hard, aware and not. I want you both inside and outside of the dark chamber at once, don’t I? And then I link you away to distract you from the problem at hand….

Have you followed the link? Which link did you follow? Did you follow it down to the end?

10. I am not sure that this post, in a sense, isn’t above all else a reenactment, a fan-fiction repetition, of Christopher’s situationally-complex paean to l’art d’être un père that he offers, drunk once again, toward the end of tonight’s episode of the Sopranos.

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May 7, 2007 at 12:09 am

Posted in meta, teevee

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From n+1’s blog, a piece by Jana Prikryl that oscillates between the recent UNICEF report on the well-being of children in rich countries and the author’s recollections of the benefits and drawbacks of a childhood under socialism.

It’s a smart idea, the essay that vividly if ambiguously illustrates the dry but incredibly significant document, as this one does…

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May 5, 2007 at 1:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

21st century socialism

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Nice to see this article on Chávez and Venezuela over at Open Democracy…. Not only has some actual numbers that contradict the hand-waving generalizations that you see in the NYT about discontent and authoritarianism, but a clearer and more assertive explanation of the political structure there than I’ve seen before:

The acceleration of the Bolivarian project – in both ideological and organisational terms, has fuelled concerns over the deepening of the government’s authoritarian tendencies. Established cynics in the media, who have seen leftwing ideals rise and fall, and opponents in the anti-Chávez movement have been quick to point to a frightening new twist in the evolution of the Chávez government. This is seen to be represented by the recent granting of decree powers to President Chávez, the move to extend state control over key sectors of the economy and the debate over the formation of the PSUV.

However, it is at this point that the delineation between popular perceptions of democracy on the ground in Venezuela, and “elite” perceptions, articulated by the media and US “democracy-promotion” groups are revealed. There is widespread popular support for this new trajectory in Venezuelan politics. The creation of the PSUV is seen to be in line with the demands of grassroots groups to have more influence within the organisational framework of the Boliviarian project, while Chávez’s use of decree powers to revise the institutional structures of the state responds to grassroots pressure for more influence, power and resources at the community level. Put simply, many Venezuelans think they are getting more and better democracy through “21st-century socialism”, not less.

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May 5, 2007 at 1:14 am

Posted in americas, socialism