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Archive for July 2008

blanchot / everyday / backwards

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Maurice Blanchot on “everyday speech”:

The everyday escapes. In this consists its strangeness – the familiar showing itself (but already dispersing) in the guise of the astonishing. It is the unperceived, first in the sense that we have always looked past it; nor can we introduce it into a whole or “review” it, that is to say, enclose it within a panoramic vision; for, by another trait, the everyday is what we never see for a first time but can only see again, having always already seen it by an illusion that is constitutive of the everyday.

Right. But… what if he has it exactly backwards. What if it is not that the everyday allows no hold, but simply that we dare not hold it? Or don’t want to hold it? Or cannot hold it, given what we’re usually up to when we’re trying to do this sort of thing? Novels without turns, essays without argument, simply do not sell. It’s frightening to put yourself out of work. And the everyday loves not turns, arguments. So you make it disappear into a protean blur.

Do you see the anxiety there? Why do things have to be dressed in the guise of the astonishing? Why do we have to look panoramically? Who is it that worries about things seeming like we’ve seen them all before?

Moving forward, we should try not to ontologize that which is locally, historically caused, and in particular that which is caused by the functional dysfunctions of our disciplines.

(Of course, of course – I myself am trying to be astonishing, right now, to work panoramically, and to say something new… Big problem, hard to fix the performative inversion when working this way and on issues like this one…. Translate Spivak’s “strategic essentialism” into “strategic performative inversion” and go from there… make it marketable once and for all to abolish the market… the new to abolish the new… the argument to end all arguments…)

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July 31, 2008 at 1:49 pm

Posted in everyday, simplicity

eggs from art

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From the International Herald Tribune months ago:

The monuments on the square are bearing the brunt of the invasion. Pigeons usually do not sleep where they eat, but the certainty of a 24/7 feeding frenzy has induced many to make St. Mark’s their year-round home, setting up nests among elegant cornices or in other fragile spots. As a result, the statues on the facades are now cobwebbed with dozens of fine scratch marks from where the pigeons try to grip onto the statues to roost.

And pigeons, like chickens, seek calcium carbonate for their eggs.

“They peck at the most exposed parts of the marble,” as well as the stucco that restorers use in their work, said Renata Codello, the state art official charged with preserving the square. She flipped through a series of photographs of pockmarked statuary.

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July 31, 2008 at 11:41 am

Posted in aesthetics

DeWitt…

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Finally something to read. I’ve had a bad summer of reading. Aside from the mongraphs (that I’ve complained about already….) I’ve had a particularly bad streak during the last month or so. Said streak has included, among other forgetable works, Jose Saramago’s Death at Intervals and (somewhat randomly) Will Ashon’s The Heritage. The former is truly terrible – it takes magical realist corniness to a new level, a seemingly endless thought experiment that never quite breaks the barrier of interestingness. The latter was just sort of dumb – it pretended to be a relatively high concept dystopia, and that’s what the reviews implied too, but mostly felt like I was hanging out with the kids I see on the bus to and from Finsbury Park everyday. Though I take it that I’m supposed to like it, I must admit that Chris Petit’s Robinson hasn’t been all that much more pleasurable to read, as it’s a slow drip hangover sort of book, even if it’s not without its redeeming moments and atmospherics. Perhaps it’s the right book at the wrong time for me, too close to the bone or not close enough.

But now, finally, something I actually sit down at night with pleasure to. Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, which is interesting, and at work I’ve been reading the full (tho pictureless) version of her YOUR NAME HERE in pdf, part of which you might remember was published in the last issue of n+1. I found my way to her blog via a comment that she left on this post at Owen’s site, and she seems to be a reader of, well, my friends’ blogs…. All marks in her favor.

Anyway, it’s good to have something to read again. If only it wasn’t basically fucking August and time to start reading, you know, the stuff I have to teach in the fall… (including, yeah, Bleak House, which I skipped when we covered it in grad school, and which, yes, I have to tell a lot of 19 year old kids all about in a few weeks…)

I’ll have more to say about DeWitt in the next few days, I’m sure…

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July 30, 2008 at 11:51 pm

Posted in novel

le degré zéro de l’europe

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I am lucky enough to have travelled lots in my life, and because I’m so lucky, I am unlucky enough to be getting a little jaded with the whole affair. Especially now that it takes 1.51 minutes to get into the thick of what used to thrill me the most, and what used to take 7+ hours of flying, jet lag, airport transfers, etc.

I have my own subscription to the International Herald Tribune now. It comes in through my mail slot at an hour that is either very very late or very very early, depending on whether I’m sleeping or working at the time. (If you want, roll to the ten minute mark of this… Unfortunately, that’s not who brings my copy…) I read it on the Underground on the way to work each day. We used to devour it, each and every word, on trains and in train stations. We’d split it into parts to share. Now, some days, and despite its cost, it goes  unread alogether.

So I have developed a resistance. It was bound to happen, and again, it is in a sense a luxury to have such a problem. The only thing that does the trick now is the taste of a sort of abstract and unmarked europeaness. I visited one of the cities that does not make the guidebooks last weekend – we were visiting a friend who was there for a month. Population about 250,000 – not far off the city that I left behind in the US to move over here.

There is almost nothing of note to see in this city. A new Calatrava train station that’s quite wonderful, but not yet open. Everything else, from what I can tell, in the tourism line are only regional curiosities – unremarkable cathedrals, an enormous staircase up the side of a hill, some lovely bridges over a lovely river. Even the public art, the statues, seem to be drawn from a catalogue of generic statuary – the sort of works that a computer would pick if it were decorating a town of this size.

All that said, I loved it. I loved the flat fronted, 1960s apartment buildings everywhere. I asked my host if the district I was in was heavily damaged during the war, either of the wars. But it wasn’t – it was just empty and then filled. We ate breakfast at the same cafe each day, and ordered the same set order. There were chain stores, but unremarkable ones – mostly midmarket eurobrands that I’ve never visited. There was a bus system, and a Füssgänger Zone, and an aquarium. There weren’t many banks, and supermarkets were hard to find. In general, in cities like this one, I find it amazing how little retail there is in the residential districts. People must walk downtown for nearly everything. Park with a playground by the river, a few semi-trendy restaurants (“you can go to this one in the capital too!”)

Everything at once ancient and modern, fixed and modular. People rode bicycles, drunks sat on benches with cans of local beer. The last night, we kept the kids out too late at a cafe and they were rowdy, and we bothered a middle-aged guy, fat and with a nicely trimmed beard, who was reading a journal called Critique while he sipped a beer and wrote notes in his notebook. We were a little drunk and we wanted to say, but look, we do what you do, but in the metropole. Cut us some slack. There were brothels by the train stations, and I looked but I couldn’t see them on the way back.

Of course some of the facination comes of a crusty europhilia that every american has and sophisticated ones try to lose. Cute cafe – what a breakfast, with the hock of bread and confitture and, mmm, wonderful little cheeses and butter and some coldcuts of meat (we are near germany, aren’t we?) But there is also something a little more interesting than that – something that falls under that fascinating word fadeur that so preoccupied Barthes – and preoccupies me now. There are lots of ways to come at the issue – the most direct route would be to think about middleway social democracy, the cold war, what to do with the Calatrava train station, and the like. But for now I wish that I could spend not a life but a few years there, and if I did, I would wander thinking what is the minimal action? Shall I take a bus? Shall I take my daughter to the park? I should eat something simple and drink something nice, but in real moderation. I must live within bounds, aim for nothing more, because my life should match its environment. I shall read Critique at the cafe and write in my notebook and try not to glare at the tourists and their noisy children, but I will glare anyway, just once or twice. And you see, you see, it would be unsustainable. It would miss the point. I am where I belong, unfortunately, fortunately. London, perhaps, is suiting me all too well.

There were old people, and not all that many young people now that I think of it.  There wasn’t an art museum, I don’t think – at least not that I saw. It was hard to buy a Herald Tribune, but easy to get the British papers, which was fine, really. There was however a tourist, taking notes in his notebook, thinking the phrase le degré zéro de l’europe over and over and over again. But he did not take photographs, only looked.

(NB: I borrowed this person‘s photos for this piece…. They are truly lovely… I will start carrying a camera someday, but I really do prefer to use the images that others have taken, for reasons that I think are relatively implicit in the piece itself…)

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July 30, 2008 at 10:33 am

Posted in europe, generic, simplicity

hotel bar

with 2 comments

Hotel bar…. the ambient chatter of middle-management, just slightly above middle-management. Administrative costs are too high. I sit too close to soak it all up. They are setting up a call center. I have trouble coming down in a hotel without time in the hotel bar with a beer, two beers. I keep pace with those who sit with me, near me, discussing the virtues of flying in through Atlanta or Dallas.

People who sit in hotel bars are roughly divisible into four groups: parents with children on vacation, making it halfway (but not even halfway, not nearly halfway) to the night out that the long for – whether together or alone; people who never go to bars except in hotels (lots of Americans seem to fall into this category); people who are always in this type of bar, nearly every night of their lives because they live on the road; and people like me, who can’t get to sleep without observing some members of the other three groups. My group, of course, represents a considerably smaller percentage than the other three groups, but it remains – I have to believe for some reason – a real group nonetheless.

They are discussing firmware, the limitations of their firmware. Their firmware is limiting growth. Someone has an idea. They are a group of four – three men and a woman. They are drinking two cokes, a mineral water, and a red beverage that comes out of a bottle. The company does not pick up the tab if they drink alcohol. They are not of that stature in the company, and they never will be – they are middle-aged, even late middle-aged. They have hit their peak. They are staying at the Marriott and they are not drinking.

“He’s not going to be the right man for the job if he’s going to get flustered.” They have given them peanuts even though they are not drinking alcoholic beverages. I have refused my dish of peanuts, because you don’t know where they’ve been, who has touched them before you.

A flat-screen mutely displays CNN International. A woman in khaki standing at a checkpoint somewhere. It is Kurdistan. There were bombings in Turkey today; yesterday was India. The Dow was down 239 points today. There is a set of sofas closer to the front door of the hotel where a group of Arab children are sitting. Big sister wears a headdress of some sort. There are always Arab children on these seats, or at least there were last night too.

I have spent the day, for some reason, waiting to get down here to my large Hoegaarden and my laptop. I have had a sense today, that I described to my wife, that if we were to spend three months traveling through the three and two star cities of Europe, staying in hotels like this one, and if I were permitted to spend every night in the hotel bars, I would, perhaps, think and work myself through to a new fictional form. I would become, I said, an avant garde writer – less worried about my job and the market for fiction, more interested in getting the form / content relationship exactly right.

They are discussing “cyclical investing,” “what’s coming on the horizon for technology,” and “storage capacity.” My next trip will be to Florida and my parent’s condo there, where I will not have access to a hotel bar. After that, who knows. A conference in Tennessee in November, but I will be too busy with friends new and old to write. Academics are not, definitely, the sorts that I want to listen to and write.

The internet access here is too expensive to use, so I cannot post what I write. Nor can I read what others have posted, nor check email, order books that I have thought to order during the day.

I believe that the context in which I write determines what and how I write. When I work, as I do daily from 3-5 PM (excepting weekends and vacations) at the Starbucks on Tottenham Court Road, my work is full of passing stories derived almost purely from the physical appearance of those that I see there. It is a mixed crowd: students from UCL, doctors from the hospital around the corner, tourists who stop in (and often have their bags stolen, assorted young characters on their way out to better things in Bloomsbury or Soho, further down the road. My work is shaped into bursts, a single page at a time – it takes me about as long to write one of those vignettes as it takes the average customer to sit and drink their coffee, flip through the newspaper or a book that they’ve brought. My stories and poems orbit on the axis where daily life slips away from the historical event – those featured on the cover of the Times prominently displayed for sale in the middle of the store.

Here, I do longer work, both in turns of form and content. In terms of the latter, I strand in a longer view, I think, as it were, globally. I head towards “state of the world” type pieces, which are probably impossible and the wrong thing for me to work on right now, however attractive it is to start at the moment. In terms of the former – in terms of form – well, you can see, this is more than a single page, is meant to have a beginning, middle, and an end. It is meant to conclude – and conclusions are not something that natively grow in the soil of Starbucks on Tottenham Court Road.

When the Hoegaarden starts to hit, I type into sudden roadblocks which stop thought in its tracks – beg me, softly at first (so far), to return to my room, my sleeping wife and child, and go to bed. A contrary impulse tells me to head across the street to a dusty looking bar named Le Coq, where I could drink and probably talk to who knows whom, but of course I cannot write. I suddenly have an urge to confess how much I love to talk to people, just anyone, but only under the right conditions, in the right situations. The stars have to align. Perhaps this makes me a writer – perhaps I would be a better writer if I indulged these impulses whenever they arrive.

“Jim,” apparently, “is working overtime to get us to tell him what the issues are.” Jim, I learn, “has even taken things too far,” has “bent over backwards once too often for his own good.”

If I were to develop a new fictional form, whether or not it took three months in hotel bars, it would, I hope be minimalistic. It would stare into the panoply of detail in the world and suck out the common materials, the universals, the generic outlines that frame the local details. It would focus in on such subjects as the way, for instance, we use money to pay for things that we want, we ration out the goods and experiences that we wish to have based on the amount of cash that our work has left us after paying for necessities like housing, supermarket food, and utilities. I half fear, though, that the new form would also be chattily subjective; that it couldn’t sidestep the temptation to thread it all through the thoughts and observations of the perceiving self. Could it help but editorialize? Could it “refine itself out of existence”? It feels doubtful to me now, but of course I haven’t had the three months on the road that I have said that I believe I need.

On CNN International, someone is cutting up dolphins, or maybe they’re sharks. It’s hard to tell with the sound off. It looks like whatever manner of fish or aquatic mammal it is, they washed up on the shore, dead, so no harm, no foul. People who last night stood directly in front of the flatscreen watching the Tour de France (they are on a tour; they were in Paris that morning for the end of the race) move across the lobby and out for late dinner or drinks on the town. They do not stop to have a drink here where I am.

“This is a huge investment. This is also a huge risk, to do this.” Middle-management dissects and critiques the decisions of the higher-ups, in age-old tradition, sitting in the hotel bar of the Marriott-Brussels. Each one of them, on some level, is thinking “But I am not really sure I could do better if I were in his shoes.” Do not ask me how I know this. One of the four has changed to beer when I wasn’t looking. The female of the bunch is on a tirade – she knows how he feels, but she still doesn’t understand why…. “Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?” she wants to know. Now two have beer. Laughter ensues.

In the toilets (to the right of the concierge, thank you very much) someone has painted a fly on the inside of the urinal. I have read about this somewhere. It improves aim, reduces splash. While I contemplate the fly, the urinal flushes and reflushes four times. I have, it seems, tricked the system by standing still. In revenge, when I return to the bar and order a Stella, the bartender mishears and pours me another Hoegaarden. There was a time when visiting Europe was a big thing for me, but now the glamours starting to come off.

I want to go to Le Coq across the street. The business types at the next table are leaving, wheelie-bags in tow. It is 11:11 PM. As a parting shot, she (the female of the four) says something about “getting your diapers off.” She has a nasty, pouty crook in her hip that she is too old to carry, just barely.

Breaking news: the card one of them tried to put the drinks on “didn’t go.” She charges it to her room. Decline and fall? Collapse of the American Empire? Mortgage crisis, is he upside down, in over his head, in the flickering realms of negative equity? They resolve to someone’s room bill and leave.

I want to bring this to a conclusion. I am not sure that the form supports a conclusion. I spend my night out a week on the Southbank, drinking and writing, but this is better. Fiction thrives on chaos, and as buttoned-down as my night’s protagonists are, there is chaos in this garden. I should go and have a drink at Le Coq, for the sake of having a drink at Le Coq. My wife and daughter are sleeping upstairs. I have probably had enough. Lovers drink by as I smoke my cigarettes on the sidewalk: young and old, young with young, young with old, fat with thin, and so on. Salesmen for struggling companies disembark from cabs and stumble in, even at this late hour.

But I’d like to come to some conclusion. The Hoegaarden and the negative equity are a clue. The Pakistani barkeep is a clue too. The lack of tolerance of the customers, the Arab kids, both a clue. I will not get there tonight. Somebody new says into a mobile phone that “Everything went well. Mary Ellen said everything went well too. There is a new CFO, but everything went well.” More too. I should send this to a magazine for their website, I have a standing offer from an editor, but he doesn’t write me back anymore. I forgot that I’ll be in a hotel in New York in late August, a Marriott, with a great bar for writing.  Bar girls there – interesting in and of itself. Or themselves. I tried to write a fiction there, once, in part about them. It was part two of something. I should interview one, just for you.

If I had a conclusion, I wouldn’t be in this fix. I will not go to Le Coq, as I have had enough. The world, and I, only bear so much. Someone received an instant message – I have heard it. It is 11:30, though my computer’s clock indicates an hour earlier. I will be back in London by tomorrow night, and back at Starbucks on Tottenham Court Road the next day, working, working…

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July 29, 2008 at 10:48 pm

Posted in distraction

to the hive with it

with 6 comments

1) Who said the bit about the unequal distribution of modernity? It was Jameson, right? Where did he say it?

2) Why can’t I find this myself? I’ve encountered that ol’ chessnut a hundred times this year at least…..

3) Or did I dream it? Is it (according a tale that goes around early-stage grad programs sometimes) the book I was always meant to write??? The Unequal Distribution of Modernity by Ads W. Products. Good title!

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July 23, 2008 at 1:31 pm

helpful advice from fucking americans

with 9 comments

Lovely country:

To the Editor:

As I read of Diane McLeod’s unfortunate financial plight, I was struck by the photograph of her with cigarette in hand and ashtray on table. I wonder if Ms. McLeod has considered how much she could increase her cash flow if she were to quit smoking. $100 a month? $300 a month?

Jonathan Ballon

Darnestown, Md., July 20, 2008

That’s right, doc. Given that Diane’s now $280,000 in debt, is about to lose her house, has fucked her son’s credit rating, and has been downsized by one of the two jobs that she has, it sounds like an absolutely perfect time to take up the walk in the park that is smoking-cessation. After all, if she’s on a pack a day, she would actually be able to pay off that debt (not counting the compounding interest) in a mere 153 years. Good call!

There is no more American attitude than glancing at an image of a person in great distress and wondering aloud things like (taking the present example) Is that Snapple she’s drinking there? Awfully extravagant. You can bet if I were in her shoes, I’d be making my own iced tea, and with thrice boiled teabags to boot. And a Coke rather than a store-brand cola? How about water? It comes out of the tap, dear, and it’s free. Gee, wouldn’t I love to have a cordless phone. Must be nice not being tethered to the wall, girl chatting on the back porch in the sun with a smoke in your hand… My my my, I’m sure we know what happened here…

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July 22, 2008 at 8:14 pm

Posted in america, distraction