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Archive for September 2007

act naturally

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I’ve seen the first three episodes of HBO’s new series Tell Me You Love Me. It’s a show about hyperconscious sex, or the lack of sex under the conditions of hyperconsciousness. True to form, I can’t stop thinking while I watch it – it is almost as if the entertainment value that has always been present with the HBO shows has shrunk to zero – this one exists exclusively as a conversation piece, grist for the critical mill, etc. For now, a few scattered notes, though I’m going to try to say something more cohesive about it soon.

1) The much-discussed full-frontalism, and the anti-eroticness of it, incessantly calls to my mind the bit toward the beginning of Women in Love when Birkin freaks out at Hermione…

‘Spontaneous!’ he cried. ‘You and spontaneity! You, the most deliberate thing that ever walked or crawled! You’d be verily deliberately spontaneous–that’s you. Because you want to have everything in your own volition, your deliberate voluntary consciousness. You want it all in that loathsome little skull of yours, that ought to be cracked like a nut. For you’ll be the same till it is cracked, like an insect in its skin. If one cracked your skull perhaps one might get a spontaneous, passionate woman out of you, with real sensuality. As it is, what you want is pornography–looking at yourself in mirrors, watching your naked animal actions in mirrors, so that you can have it all in your consciousness, make it all mental.’

Not an easy passage to teach, for obvious reasons – but it probably is the start of the social story of which Tell Me You Love Me is a contination, the deathtrap of sex after the failure of repression. But on the other hand, one starts to wonder if what we’re witnessing with this show isn’t the birthpangs of a new paradigm of pornographic convention / cliché. For the barely legal, see now couples struggling to get pregnant, anything but lost in the moment, pleasure the last thing on their minds. Where oral and the money shot were, from here on out will have awkward sexual avoidance by exhausted forty-somethings. For girl on girl on guy action, we now offer only awkward, issueless attempts at masturbation in the bathroom before she gives up and goes back to checking the mommyblogs. For jouissance, we will pick up numbing, boring anxiety, the shrink’s office, and people who wear sweat-pants to bed.

Could happen. Keep me posted, porn-fans.

2) Like therapy itself, the show can handle what happens or doesn’t happen in the bedroom, but completely sidesteps the role that work might have in provoking all of this dysfunction in the real world. The sex-avoiding middle aged guy and his (assuredly) stalled career, the question of what the baby-desperate lawyer woman will do if she and he Cruisey husband succeed in bringing his totally motile sperm to her healthy eggs, the anxieties settling into a career path and all that that means today that surely should accompany the worries about stapling yourself to one person sexually for the rest of your life – all this is held off screen, at least three episodes in. That is not what the show is about, not because, I believe, these things are any less interesting, but because they just plain don’t give themselves to a properly dramatic arc anymore, as they did in the high period of the Bildungsroman. A good dollop of therapy with the late-boomer lady isn’t going to clear up the rationalization of the sex-fearing guy’s shitty life at the office.

3) And this relates to both 1 and 2: reentering the bourgeois home this late in the game and on these terms urges upon us the sense that the mythemes that organize Freud’s work on this household need updating, for they are drawn from a period of repressive self-distraction and euphemism (we wanted to do what we could not even say) whereas we live in an era of hyperconscious anxiety (we don’t want to do what everyone constantly does or at least talks about incessantly). Instead of Oedipus and all his pals, we live in the shadow of the law of diminishing sexual returns, the parable of the “feminization” of culture and the accompanying sperm death, the golden rule of the incompatibility of pleasure and planning, ecstasy and anticipation. The shift is at root a shift in temporalities – where the unmastered past was the former antagonist, now it is the present that has flattened and emptied itself once and for all.

4) It is a show, in the end, about people who don’t want to have sex, though society expects them to want it. This is interesting. It is like peeking in on the affective state of someone suffering from a migraine, someone in the hot and sexless minutes after a terrible spousal fight about sex. It feels strange – and meaningful – to observe yourself getting pleasure out of the watching of it.

More to come…

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September 24, 2007 at 10:52 pm

Posted in consciousness

where? here.

with 11 comments

I am almost exactly right here. Mere steps away. So if posting is light, or you’ve written me and I’m slow, or there are blog comments waiting for response, you now know exactly why.  

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September 15, 2007 at 8:03 pm

Posted in meta

the shock doctrine

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If you’ve been reading this site for awhile, you already know how I feel about Alfonso Cuarón in light of his recent work. I’m very, very glad to see the direction that Naomi Klein is headed in. I had very little time for the No Logo stuff. Going after brand lust has always seemed me like lancing a butt pimple when the melanoma patch on your forehead has metastazed into full born brain rot. This seems much better. I’ll buy the book this weekend…

(Terrific the way this video – set in our here-and-now dystopia rather than the semi-imaginary one of Children of Men – so closely mirrors “The World Has Collapsed” public-service ad playing on the bus in the film… And it’s another example of extremely fruitful collaboration between Cuarón and Foreign Office…)

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September 13, 2007 at 11:46 am

ikea glass and antiseptic urbanity

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NYC is about to start installing new newsstands around the city like this one. Now, right from the start, there’s a lot about the situation that I really don’t love. From what I can tell, these stands are the fruits of a public-private partnership (hate those) where the city gets them for “free” in exchange for the corporation in exchange for the company that installs them being allowed to collect ad revenues for the huge ad frames on the back of the box (not pictured here, obviously)… So thumbs-down on that score.

But putting that issue to the side (which doesn’t make any sense, I know, but just play along), figuring out what I make of these new stands aesthetically leaves me tangled in knots. On the one hand, I like the clean cool looks of the things a lot better than the old ones. I don’t even hate the Ikea glass, its color (even if it is sure to become dated very swiftly…) Taking care of your street furniture, having swift looking bus stops and newsstands and even public toilets, to my mind, is like a continual living advertisement for publicness, for public, common space itself. Which, in this nation, even in New York, is constantly in dire need of a good marketing campaign. On the other hand, isn’t it the small-scale humanity, the human mess, of the newsstand, as an institution, that makes it such a special place? The overstocked profusion of cheap goods and reading materials (from what I recall from a conversation with a newsstand guy at a subway station near my old place, one of those guildish NYC laws mandates that the newsstands can sell nothing that costs more than a certain price – $10? What was I trying to buy from him that yielded me this information?), the compact bazaar feel of the things – I’m sure that we will miss it, on some level, when it disappears…

The comment thread on the article behind the first link above contains some interesting amateur discussion about the aesthetics of urban life.

And this post is meant to be a forerunner to a long-plan post forthcoming entitled (probably) Ikea Socialism. 

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September 12, 2007 at 11:32 pm

Posted in design, rationalization

restbreaks for oysters and the specter of eurorationalization

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From a NYT article on an EU ruling that Britain and Ireland can continue to use Imperial (non-metric) measurements for beer and other commodities:

The European Union has long tried to dispel myths that its zealous bureaucrats are trying to impinge on national cultures in their bid to harmonize standards in the world’s biggest trading bloc. Such myths have included that cucumbers sold in the European Union must not arch more than 10 millimeters for every 10 millimeters of length; that it is against health rules to feed swans stale bread; and that Brussels had decided that shellfish must be given rest breaks and stress-relieving showers during boat journeys over 50 kilometers long.

More than a little unconscious content – political and, erm, otherwise – welling up in those myths of rationalization and bureaucratic management, nay? No rest breaks, for shellfish or any of the rest of ’em, in our pound-eating, pint-guzzling bastion of neo-lib freedom, no sir…

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September 11, 2007 at 2:18 pm

Posted in rationalization

back to front, reaction to action

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Have you ever seen this BBC report of the Battle of Orgreave? I believe it is the one discussed here; apparently it reverses the order of events at the beginning of the sequence: in reality, the cops charged, then the strikers threw. (The voiceover, if you listen carefully, seems to strain to negotiate this temporal gaming. The strikers throw, the police charge, then the police are hit, then strikers are injured…)

(Note: this post is meant to relate pseudo-dialectically to the post before. Assume this is also the case for all future posts… Or perhaps this is just more guilt, more ass-covering, sublimated as avantgarde blogstyle).

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September 11, 2007 at 10:30 am

self-criticism: bourgeois socialism

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(Xposted to long sunday…)

I’ve been reading The Communist Manifesto, as well as the truly excellent (and book-length, really) introduction in the new Penguin edition by Gareth Stedman Jones. A few passages toward the end have provoked my interest tonight.

First from the section on Conservative or Bourgeois Socialism:

The Socialistic bourgeois want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting therefrom. They desire the existing state of society, minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat. The bourgeoisie naturally conceives the world in which it is supreme to be the best; and bourgeois Socialism develops this comfortable conception into various more or less complete systems. In requiring the proletariat to carry out such a system, and thereby to march straightway into the social New Jerusalem, it but requires in reality, that the proletariat should remain within the bounds of existing society, but should cast away all its hateful ideas concerning the bourgeoisie.

And another, related passage from the section on Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism:

The undeveloped state of the class struggle, as well as their own surroundings, causes Socialists of this kind to consider themselves far superior to all class antagonisms. They want to improve the condition of every member of society, even that of the most favoured. Hence, they habitually appeal to society at large, without the distinction of class; nay, by preference, to the ruling class. For how can people, when once they understand their system, fail to see in it the best possible plan of the best possible state of society?

The second one is a bit tougher than the first, but I must admit that I feel some half-guilty self-recognition here. I am not sure that I do not, in my heart of hearts, dream of a bourgeoisie without a proletariat.

The thing is, I also do not think I am alone on this point, even in contemporary leftist circles. Is it possible to believe in a proletariat anymore? In the developed world? If you were to say that it exists in the US, you would have to stretch the definition to enormous, distorted dimensions. In short, while Marx and Engels were in 1848 trying to argue the nascent-proletariat into existence in the first place, we who remain invested in Marx wonder if the revolutionary class has not already come and gone, at least here, where we live and think and write.

(This is of course not at all to deny the very, very tangible examples of poverty and degradation and alienation both economic and psychological that exist all around us in the US and other developed nations. It is, rather, to doubt the existence of the very specific configuration that Marx and others labeled the proletariat – and to doubt whether, if change were to come, change would come from even the remnants or the afterlife of this class…)

Isn’t the Bourgeois Socialism that Marx describes something all too familiar to us American leftists? Isn’t it something close to the US fantasy of welfare-state Europe: government by an enlightened, socialized bourgeoisie that, yes, has eliminated (upward!) the proletariat altogether. Of course it is a dream, a falsehood – it is the dream that we Americans often call “Sweden.” And it is a dream that surely has something very much to do with race, the old secrets-in-plain-sight of the American experiment.

There are no easy answers, it seems to me, to this problem. One might be tempted to claim that my problem is simply one of misunderstanding (or choosing not to acknowledge) the global division of labor. One might respond that the proletariat exists, it simply lives elsewhere, and due to the construction of global society, the US must be completely written off as a locale for revolution or reform.

I do not accept this answer. I will perhaps go into the question more deeply, but I cannot help but believe that a socialized United States would be – if done properly* – a gift to the world. There is great suffering here in the US – definitely not on the scale of so many other places – and here is exactly where I tilt toward the second passage from Marx above – there is suffering spread across the economic strata of society.

Dangerous thoughts, I know. They likely will provoke angry responses from some – which I welcome. Just do ask yourselves first whether the policies that you support are truly aimed exclusively or even primarily at the lowest quadrants of society. There are quite a few things that we all like to discuss that are perhaps selected – unconsciously or not – because of their dual applicability to the poor and the relatively well-off at once. I can think, for instance, of reforms that would do more immediate good for the working classes than socialized medicine, which we never stop discussing.

In short, I am left with the same question that I am almost always left with – and the primary question that mobilizes my work on the blogs. I cannot tell whether my self-recognition as what Marx calls bourgeois socialist is:

1) simply an effect of my own class-standing, one that (completely naturally) naturalizes my own classed perspective at universal, as the “truth.”

or

2) a moment of recognition that work needs to be done to reconfigure the terms of Marx’s (of the socialist) argument to present day conditions and in terms more distinct and workable than, say, Hardt and Negri’s turn to the amorphous (and amorphously useless) “Multitude.”

In concluding with this question, you will see that I remain, perhaps, methodologically dogmatic if not programmatically or ideologically so. But – whether or not my questions are the right ones – we do not listen to Marx if we fail to adapt his claims to the current socio-economic conditions, which are distinctly different from those of 1848. I am beginning to feel that resting on the wrong side of some of these questions is stunting out growth as a movement. I am beginning to believe, in other words, that failing to define exactly what it is that we mean, today, by the words socialism and communism, will lock us into a permanent cage of obsolescence, nostalgic hubris, and doctrinal impossibility.

* Of course there is always the possibility of what has been labeled (by Hobson I believe and others) “welfare imperialism.” Which may in fact be one way to label exactly the thing that the US glides toward now. And the extreme form of “welfare imperialism” we usually know as “national socialism.”

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September 10, 2007 at 10:52 pm

Posted in socialism