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Archive for October 2007

coal smoke and scary statues

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From the boilerplate describing the newest entry in the SimCity series of games, SimCity Societies

Shape your city through its values and priorities.

More than just a city-building simulator, SimCity Societies puts you in the new role of social engineer. Mix and match six “social energies”—productivity, prosperity, creativity, spirituality, authority, and knowledge—to determine the core attributes that will be reflected in the infrastructure of your city as well as in its people. After you plant these seeds you’ll witness the evolution of your city as everything from its physical appearance to the sounds heard on its streets adapt to reflect these values

Well, at least we know what “social energies” are on the table and which are off. But never fear, commies, while “Vertovian Wonderland” doesn’t seem to be an option in version 1.0, you do still have the ability to construct what is repeatedly called an “Orwellian City.”

Another world is possible, I guess. Precociously ostalgic eleven-year olds, you have nothing to lose but your windfarms!

All this reminds me of something that I might well have posted before, but I can’t help rerunning. It’s a paragraph from Steven Berlin Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You.

Several years ago I found myself on a family vacation with my seven-year-old nephew, and on one rainy day I decided to introduce him to the wonders of SimCity 2000, the legenday city simulator that allows you to play Robert Moses to a growing virtual metropolis. For most of our session, I was controlling the game, pointing out landmarks as I scrolled around my little town. I suspect I was a somewhat condescending guide – treating the virtual world as more of a model train layout than a complex system. But he was picking up the game’s inner logic nonetheless. After about an hour of tinkering, I was concentrating on trying to revive one particularly run-down manufacturing district. As I contemplated my options, my nephew piped up: “I think we need to lower our industrial tax rates.” He said it as naturally, and as confidently, as he might have said, “I think we need to shoot the bad guy.”

I wish I could believe that Johnson knew how hilarious the last two lines are, but I’m afraid not. They are as inadvertantly ironic as the title of the book in which we find them.

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October 13, 2007 at 12:13 am


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If you have access, through school or subscription, to the New Left Review, go take a look at this from John Berger in 1974. It’s a selection from The Seventh Man – an extraordinary book…

Or there’s Owen’s brilliant piece on Moscow from Archinet (William Gibson likes it – I think you will too…)

Joshua Clover gives us an excellent read on war in recent movies in his new Film Quarterly column. Here’s the final bit, compact and perfect, on Children of Men.

What is there to see, then? Formalism, one supposes— remembering that form itself is no more able to stand apart from history than the eye can stand apart from what it re- gards. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006) has an annoying plot, with dud intriguing and an empty messianism. But its look, its way of looking, repay such annoyances and then some: the gray and permanent state of emergency; the acts of terror demoted to the background, quotidian and near- banal; the sensation of quarantine that extends, unnamed, in all directions.

The war of all against all has perhaps never been better filmed than in the prolonged escape through the warrens and streets of Bexhill camp, redolent of Guantanamo and Long Kesh, of Abu Ghraib reenactments. There’s no order because there’s no cause, just as there’s no cause offered for the biological crisis; it’s all simply become a way-things-are, some endgame of imperial decline. The camera, red smear on lens, shifting subtly between over-the-shoulder and POV, doesn’t know where to look. Everyone’s shooting at everyone. It moved me, to paraphrase the poet Robert Creeley about Bresson, that life was after all like that. You are in war. You race through the town, with blood on your eye, burdened. The story is true.

Chabert’s had some good ones lately. “Consider the use of cartoons, photographs, and anonymous letters which will have the effect of ridiculing the New Left. Ridicule is one of the most potent weapons which we can use against it”: 

On the other hand, Matthew Yglesias has been seemingly bent on becoming a one-guy example of the young Thatcherite pundit class growing up all around us on-line:

With the proviso that I don’t know much about UK economic history, it’s clearly the case that despite the personal and ideological linkages between Thatcher and Reagan they were operating from very different baselines. It can easily both be the case that the UK in the late 1970s was too far left on the main issues being debated at that time and that the United States in the late 2000s is too far right on the main issues being debated at the moment. After all, even after Thatcher Britain has a health care system that’s so statist virtually nobody on the American left will defend it.

Hmmm… Let’s try another post.

Related to the inequality post below, one thing that bugs me about the way liberals often approach these issues is a tendency to get bogged down into picayune controversies about exactly why inequality has exploded. Was it the skill-biased technological change? Were CEOs underpaid in the past? Can we blame globalization? In truth, while these are all interesting questions, in terms of politics and policy they take a back seat to debates over remedies which often lack a tight relationship to the debates over causes.

Oftentimes, though, liberals act as if the thing that needs to be done is to prove somehow that inequality has exploded because people are in some sense “cheating” — so you get these long stories about corporate governance and corrupt compensation committees, etc

Or… this tendency on the part of liberals might just have something to do with the fact that ninety percent of American cars feature a bumper-sticker on the rear bumper of their SUV that reads “You can pry my neoclassical economic assumptions out of my cold dead fingers. Unemployment, poverty, and sinking wages are not and have never been a structural effect of a gamed economic system. Rather, in the land of free and the home of the brave, the only thing that changes is the laziness of the poor (generally increasing, despite the cattle prods) and the superiority of the meritocrats (earned, not made…)”

Too bad Yglesias didn’t go MD instead of Doctor of Centrist Chatter. All that aspirin for mysterious swellings, blood in the stools, could have saved a lot of people a lot of money. Why waste time with diagnosis when there are over-the-counter remedies to dispense?

You want more? How about this truly provocative piece from Lauren Berlant – so provocative, in fact, that CI has made it free to all comers. I’m going to have more to say about this, I hope, soon enough.

Finally, how about this story from Tim Burke.

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October 12, 2007 at 11:29 pm

Posted in housekeeping

sante / fénéon

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From a shortened version of Luc Sante’s introduction to the new NYRB edition of Félix Féneon’s Nouvelles en Trois Lignes, running in the current NYRB…

Fénéon’s three-line news items, considered as a single work,
represent a crucial if hitherto overlooked milestone in the history of
modernism. Even as the entries are obsessively handcrafted, the work is
in a sense the first readymade. It heralds the age of mass media, via a
sensibility formed by the cadences and symmetries of classical prose;
forecasts a century of statistics, while foregrounding individual
quotidian detail; invites speed of consumption, while manifesting
time-consuming labor of execution. It recognizes its own transience but
does not concede to it. It savors the ironies of chance without
fabricating a moral agency to explain them, but never shies from
properly attributing the consequences of power, greed, and stupidity.
Like the work of certain photographers it is dispassionate sometimes to
the point of cruelty, but by the same token, respecting its readers, it
does not package a facile response for them. It is a dry bundle of
small slivers of occurrence that lie beneath history, but it represents
the whole world, with all of its contradictions.

The relationship between the form of these three-liners and the political-historical context that Sante evokes is worth thinking more about.

(Also worth looking at in the current NYRB: John Gross’s piece on William Empson’s letters – unfortunately not free like the one above. Somehow, the story of his rather long, well, dalliance isn’t the right word for it – advocacy of Mao and his China are a story that we missed when I studied him as a student…)

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October 12, 2007 at 9:44 pm

Posted in form, modernism

misuse of literature

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We don’t grow beasts like Hitchens in the US. Filled to the brim with satanic figures we surely are, but they rarely have reams of poetry by heart. Ours slick and equivocate, but not with the likes of Yeats and Shakespeare on their forked tongues.

Here he is with his latest and perhaps worst piece to date:

I was having an oppressively normal morning a few months ago, flicking through the banality of quotidian e-mail traffic, when I idly clicked on a message from a friend headed “Seen This?” The attached item turned out to be a very well-written story by
Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times. It described thedeath, in Mosul, Iraq, of a young soldier from Irvine, California, named Mark Jennings Daily, and the unusual degree of emotion that his community was undergoing as a consequence. The emotion derived from a very moving statement that the boy had left behind, stating his reasons for having become a volunteer and bravely facing the prospect that his
words might have to be read posthumously. In a way, the story was almost too perfect: this handsome lad had been born on the Fourth ofJuly, was a registered Democrat and self-described agnostic, a U.C.L.A. honors graduate, and during his college days had fairly decided reservations about the war in Iraq. I read on, and actually printed the story out, and was turning a page when I saw the following:

“Somewhere along the way, he changed his mind. His family says there
was no epiphany. Writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens
on the moral case for war deeply influenced him … “

Did you notice that the moments of ethical adding up that happen in the piece, the places where Hitchens “solves” the problem of his own complicity with this horrible thing (the war, the death of this kid), involve the deployment of literature. Literature that serves here as a cloud of easy equivalence, as permission to say mistily what you couldn’t possibly say without the screen of metaphor and allusion.

For the piece relies upon the equation: Hitchens is to Iraq what Yeats is to the Easter Rising and Orwell is to Barcelona. But of course Iraq is not the Easter Rising, nor is it Barcelona, unless perhaps you’re seeing it from the other side of the lines.

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October 5, 2007 at 9:46 am

Posted in distraction, literature, war

hearts and minds

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From the NYT tonight:

SHABAK VALLEY, Afghanistan — In this isolated Taliban stronghold in eastern Afghanistan, American paratroopers are fielding what they consider a crucial new weapon in counterinsurgency operations here: a soft-spoken civilian anthropologist named Tracy.

Tracy, who asked that her surname not be used for security reasons, is a member of the first Human Terrain Team, an experimental Pentagon program that assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to American combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her team’s ability to understand subtle points of tribal relations — in one case spotting a land dispute that allowed the Taliban to bully parts of a major tribe — has won the praise of officers who say they are seeing concrete results

One wonders about what it’s like to receive that phone call or email or whatever way the initial pitch comes, what it’s like to systematically forget all the horrifying mistakes your discipline has made in this or other parallel directions, and say, sure, yes, I’d like to hear some more about this opportunity. Yes, sure, I’d like the informational packet. What is the pay like? And so on. It’s the same sort of doublethinking self-deception, I imagine, that gets otherwise sane and reasonable people to agree to appear as talking heads on cable news shows… 

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October 4, 2007 at 10:26 pm

Posted in academia, war

overcoming informel

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October 3, 2007 at 1:13 pm