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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


with 3 comments

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

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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

lenin on workfare

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Lenin has been excellent lately. Always, but especially lately I think:

The reason Johann Hari can talk like this is because he accepts a moral fairy tale: benefits are some sort of charity in which nice middle class people part with a portion of their income to support the poor. That much is patently obvious from his opening shot. But the welfare state is not a charity. It is a modestly redistributive model to which everyone in work contributes. Most of those receiving benefits will have paid taxes at some point, or will at some point in the future. They do not need to be ordered around and demeaned by forced labour when at some point in their life they fall on hard times. Even those who have never paid taxes and, for the sake of argument, are conscientious layabouts who avoid the labour market (and who can blame them, given that most people cannot expect the relative security, dignity, fame and financial rewards that a newspaper columnist will receive?), don’t need to be penalised in this way. First of all, even if it could work, it would require a nightmare scenario to do so. To really get to grips with the supposed recalcitrant spliff-heads and daytime-telly addicts (my stock of cliche is rapidly running out), you would have to construct a state bureaucracy so intrusive, and so arrogant and overbearing, that it would inevitably bring large swathes of even the ‘deserving poor’ under its surveillance and constant harrassment. People who have spent their lives contributing to the society would find themselves battered with ‘work-oriented interviews’, phone calls, demands for information, allocations for miserable ‘community service’ work. Constant testing and grading, and in the case of the incapacitated, inspection by GPs pressured with reward-focused targets, would be the motif if such a pointless exercise. Even if you could single out the tiny minority of putative couch potatoes, which of course you cannot, it would save the taxpayer next to nothing and produce no overall benefit. The politicians who are devising these schemes have every reason to know all this. They are not targeting the ‘Andys’ of this world, even if Andy is unfortunate enough to exist and to have a priggish moralist like Hari as a friend. The intention is to, as fully as possible, role back the welfare state – not to replace it with a version that people like Johann Hari can defend in good conscience, but to reduce it to a shell. That requires, as with the attack on the US social security system (scheduled to resume under Obama, I bet you), the contrivance of ‘crises’. Suddenly, we lack the money for all this luxury, suddenly there is a financial gap, a shortfall, and there are all these millions of people using the system when they should be in paid work…

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July 21, 2008 at 10:03 am

impossible is nothing: adidas’s socialist art

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What a strange world we live in. Adidas has made a series of TV ads for the China market that look, well, properly socialist. That is, they seem to me to be the sort of things that an actually-existing-socialist state might make, if they still existed and had hotshit marketing firms on hand to help out. A logical, if very slick, development from the sort of posters the commies liked to do for sporting events and the athletic ideologies of communism.

And the towers of people – people as architectural elements – are particularly interesting and strange in the adidas ad.

Of course, of course, it’d be easy to describe these as more nationalist than socialist. But almost all Olympic themed ads are nationalist – and these are different. Easy test: could you imagine the same ad being made for the American market? For the UK? No, but it’s trickier to say why not…. Some options I’ve come up with:

1) Americans don’t go in for a sense that our athletes are somehow built by society, that they are products or embodiments of the collective. It breaks against the libertarian self-made myth that we love our jocks to live out. (I remember – but cannot find in the usual repositories – an ad that I think Home Depot did a few Olympics ago that would be fruitfully paired with the one above. Working-class athletes in minor sports doing their humdrum jobs only to train, night after night. I think it may even have had something to do with some sort of program that Home Depot had to employ poor Olympic hopefuls. Or was it FedEx? But you see the point – bagging your boxes of nails and mousetraps, not diving into a sea of countrymen….

2) Westerners don’t like to be portrayed as a gray mass of depersonalized semi-individuals. Sports ads more typically revolve around the fantasy that you have been magically been brought into the game – that you somehow are A-Rod or Beckham or whatever. Look how easy they make it for me:

3) A little more complex, but we tend to figure “nationhood” through emblems, scenes, symbols, and physical / topographical elements rather than as a mass of people. Masses of people as nation is a bit scary, and sends the wrong message.

Anyway, it’s an interesting piece of work, this add, and deserves to be filled-away in everyone’s drawer of hauntological repetitions with a big difference….

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July 21, 2008 at 12:22 am

Posted in ads, china, socialism

my bank branches: a brief memoir

with 13 comments

My parents, to this day, still don’t believe that they can use their ATM cards at banks not their own. And by “their own,” I mean the actual branch a quarter-mile from their house. I’ve taken their card and done it for them, drawn cash at the mall, etc. But they still don’t believe me, even when it works.

My first ATM card came with my second bank account. I had a little passbook account during high school which never filled higher than $60 and generally hovered around $0. The passbook was interesting – I’m not sure if it was really true or not, but I had the sense that if I lost it the money would vanish too. As if the passbook was the only record of the money in my savings account – that it was in fact my savings account.

It’s funny to think about kids growing up without the experience of waiting on line in banks with their mum. Every week, the same. I have very fond memories of waiting on line with my grandmother at her bank in the mall, across from the hair salon that she had after my grandfather died, to drop off the day’s takings. And there was, overall, a sense small awe about it – the sense that this is where they keep the money, the fact that this was the only working office you entered (except for dad’s, when he’d take you by every once in awhile…) There was a bureaucratic solidity and functionalism to the place that would seem so out of place. Whatever it smelled of, the local branch, it wasn’t multinational capitalism, the slash and burn of the market now available on PC! or whatever it smells like now. I want to write more about quasi-governmentality, about the air of officialness, but not now…

For now, think about the very fact of safety deposit boxes! They surely don’t exist any more, right? They are exactly antithetical to what a bank is today, they send the wrong message about the company in question… They are primitive, and cater to primitive impluses on the part of the customers, and as such, I am sure thay they no longer exist. Perhaps I will check, just to make sure…

I remember noticing, toward the end of my growing up, that this branch still had an 8 inch floppy disk drive on the counter. 8 inches! This was at the beginning of harddrives and laptops and the peak of the 3.5″ disk days! Even I had never used one of those, and my first computer (sort of lifted from my dad’s work) came in 1981 or 1982, an original IBM PC with dual 5.25″ drives. Were they keeping the account records on those? What else would they be for?

So it was only in college that I opened an account that came with an ATM card. But, like many, I remained nervous about depositing checks through the machine. Do you remember the cycles of news features that went around, I think around 1999 – 2000, that asserted that statistically you’re better off with the machine for deposits? Machines make errors, but not more than tellers, who are human, bored, expensive, and we’d like to have fewer of them, thanks. And so I stopped depositing my checks inside and learned to use the ATM for that too.

In my college town there were two banks to choose from, then one bought the other a few months after I moved in. My bank, days after it bought the naming rights to a brand new arena in an east coast city, was in turn acquired by yet another, larger bank. The accents of the stationary that they wrote you on changed from blue and green to red and blue, and then they asked if they could stop sending you “expensive, wasteful” mail altogether and so the emails arrive, painted up in red and blue.

In graduate school, the branch of my bank closed for six months after I arrived in order to refurbish. When it reopened, it had dragged the teller bar back to a windowless warren at the back of the building and replaced it up front with a “personal finance center” with self-standing cardboard cut outs of sailboats and hanggliders, country homes and, I think, the Eiffel Tower. There were couches and booklets to peruse, and soon after they added an espresso machine, though it was unclear when, if ever, you were entitled to an espresso drink. Certainly not when you were heading to the counter (barely happened anymore anyway) to do something like question a charge on your account or have a certified check made out.

But up front, well-dressed people milled around ignoring the grad school looking types who came in. The first few times, embarrassingly, I tried to cash a check with them. I thought it was just a late-ninties thing, like the open-plan offices that were opening everywhere – and that maybe you’d walk around with your teller as they got you your cash. (Think what Apple’s done in their stores – they have checkouts in the back but sort of frown on you for using them… You’re supposed to “pick up” one of the “geniuses” and get him to whip out his little wi-fi device and instamagic the funds off your card…)

I still have that account, but I’m going to close it soon. I got scared about closing accounts for awhile because of the mysteries of the credit rating, the effect that it has to open and close accounts. If we were to rewrite Capital today, we’d have to have a whole chapter on credit ratings, those of individuals, those of non-individuals and so on. Have you ever had trouble with your credit rating? Ever tried to contact the agencies in question? Lucky you if not. They do not publish the phone number – I think the helpful people that found it must have tried every possible number in sequence until they got someone who picked up with “Yeah, Experian here, whatchu want?” You get about seven seconds to state your case, despite the fact that they seem, from the volume of email that I receive from them, to make half their living on selling peeks at your credit report back to you. They don’t mention that, shit, if there’s something wrong you won’t be able to do anything about it. It’s basically like that perennial and increasingly-less sci-fi question about knowing the exact date and cause of your death in advance.

Anyway, my new bank account is with an outfit that I’ve visited exactly twice, and a year or so went by between opening the account and my first visit. Both times it was for a certified check, once to move out of New York and once to buy a car. There are branches here, but I’m not entirely sure where they are. When I talk to them, I talk to people in call-centers in India. When I need money, I go wherever’s closest and cheapest to get money. My daughter, I’m sure, will never write a check – I’m down to one or two a year. It is annoying when people send checks to me. My salary drops automatically in, the utility payments are lifted automatically out. I’m not sure they even give you an option of being paid any other way. The banks that you pass on the street look less and less open for business everyday – you’d feel strange entering one, like you might find it empty once you were in, just a plasma screen showing infomercials about investment products and retirement plans staring Dennis Hopper or someone who looks like Dennis Hopper, and an espresso machine, but no coffee and no cups.

We learn about things through buildings – we are taught about the rules of the world, the way things are now going to work, however they worked in the past. And, just as important, corporations compose their constitutions, their business plans, in brick and mortar, faux-leather sofas displacing marble columns, product pamphlets replacing deposit slips in the little containers under the writing surface. Imagine the conversations in the corporate HQ that eventually led to the redesign of my grad school bank. Imagine what came before and after those conversations. What changed when they decided to start charging to see a teller?

Most pertinently, when we see these new images of people lining up outside the failing banks, we are used to thinking 1929. The media reminds us of 1929. But there is more to it than that. For how many of these people is this the first trip ever to their local branch? The second time they’ve stepped inside, the first being the day that they opened their account? The bank run, queue to see a teller, materializes the anachronistic nature of the bank branch today, physically inforces a return to practices that have long since been marginalized, rendered as old-fashioned as mailing a letter with a stamp, writing in long-hand, or having shoes repaired. This is, truly, a dialectical image, where the spark leaps from past to present, despite the fact that both prongs are nowhere else but the grubby sidewalk of this supermarket plaza in California.

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July 16, 2008 at 11:36 am

tip jar

with 24 comments

So I’ve just had my best day ever for hits. This is in, well, some five years of blogging. Thanks, Jane, for the link – that helped. It also helps that I remain, somehow, one of the goto sites for banana images on google, which makes up another 78 touches. But aside from that, there are more of you checking this blog than ever before.

Now, look. I’m not asking for cash or even amazon clickthru revenue. What I am asking for, if you could, is for you to leave a comment under this post telling us roughly who you are, where you are, what you do for a living, and anything else you think relevant. Why? I spend a lot of time coming up with this stuff, in the summer several hours a day before I start work on my monograph (still, god, I’m still doing this….), grad papers that remain to be marked, the novel(s) I mentioned a few posts ago. It’s sort of shameful in these circles to admit it, but I take my hitcount fairly seriously, and am all the more likely to write here when I feel that I’m being read. Since moving to, I no longer have a snazzy hitcounter that can fill me in on the whereabouts and sometimes university affiliation of my readers – all I get is the raw number. So, it follows, anonymous comments will not be tracked down to their owners – I simply have no way of doing this now. Comment is free on AWP, as it were…

So, if you enjoy reading this site and you’ve been lurking without commenting (just fine by the way) take the big splurge and leave me a note in the comments telling me, no names necessary unless you’re desperate to say, who you are, whatever way you’d like to define that.

(If you’re someone that I already know reads this blog, there’s no need for you to participate in the great AWP delurk either… This is just for the silent majority….)

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July 16, 2008 at 12:00 am

Posted in me, meta

belgium while it lasts

with 3 comments

I have to decide tonight so I can book a hotel room. Ghent or Antwerp? Anyone? Remember, I’ve got a kid, so I’m not going to be doing much, you know, clubbing or anything really at night other than drinking Belgian supermarket wine in my room (which is very exotic compared with the Tesco wine in my living room, right now and every night). Note, I’ve been to Bruges before, so that’s why it’s not on the list….

Ghent is as of now in the lead…

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July 15, 2008 at 8:48 pm

Posted in me

in particular

with 2 comments

Adam Thirwell on Les Misérables in the Guardian:

When the book was finished, Hugo tried – and failed – to write a preface. The preface would have begun like this: “This book has been composed from the inside out. The idea engenders the characters, the characters produce the drama, and this is, in effect, the law of art. By having the ideal, that is God, as the generator instead of the idea, we can see that it fulfils the same function as nature. Destiny and in particular life, time and in particular this century, man and in particular the people, God and in particular the world, this is what I have tried to include in this book; it is a sort of essay on the infinite.”

Those in particulars are interesting, aren’t they.

(via signandsight)

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July 15, 2008 at 12:34 pm

Posted in novel


with 2 comments

William James in his Psychology:

why, some day, walking in the street with our attention miles away from that quest, does the answer saunter into our mind as carelessly as if it had never been called for – suggested, possibly, by the flowers on the bonnet of the lady in front of us, or possibly by nothing that we can discover

Of course, we’ve known all this for awhile. The poets and fictionists did, and the “theorists” of the period in question. Benjamin, of course, is famous for it, and that’s why he’s one of the patron saints of blogism.

It has to be a generational issue, to some extent, the fact that we don’t take what we make on here all that seriously. That we haven’t framed a “movement” out of it, complete with marketing phrases and manifestos and the like, that we are so embarrassed when we navel-gaze a bit about what we’re doing that we immediately ward it off with a joke.

But it might have value. It at least, as dictated by the mandates of its form, sidesteps several of the worst problems faced by conventional work in the discipline or movement or school. There are ways, when you squint a bit, that it seems like the logical next step, the materialization of aims and desires and strategies employed or prospective, that have been percolating for a hundred years, a hundred and fifty years.

But we’re too embarrassed to think that way about it. And plus, we most of us negotiate with impulses that nudge or push in other directions. (Good time to link to this…..) But it’d be worth thinking about it. (God, see – the temptation, the reflex, is to write a 25 pp paper and send it to fucking Critical Inquiry. That right there is the problem…. What am I asking myself to do that I’m not doing already, right here and in this post?)

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July 15, 2008 at 10:20 am

Posted in blogs, distraction

the tailor of ulm

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Lucio Magri in the current New Left Review:

At one of the crowded meetings held in 1991 to decide whether or not to change the name of the Italian Communist Party, a comrade posed this question to Pietro Ingrao: ‘After everything that has happened and all that is now taking place, do you still believe the word “communist” can be used to describe the kind of large, democratic mass party that ours has been, and is, and which we want to renew so as to take it into government?’ Ingrao, who had already laid out in full the reasons for his dissent and proposed that an alternative course be taken, replied—not altogether in jest—with Brecht’s famous parable of the tailor of Ulm. This 16th-century German artisan had been obsessed by the idea of building a device that would allow men to fly. One day, convinced he had succeeded, he took his contraption to the Bishop and said: ‘Look, I can fly’. Challenged to prove it, the tailor launched himself into the air from the top of the church roof, and, naturally, ended up in smithereens on the paving stones below. And yet, Brecht’s poem suggests: a few centuries later men did indeed learn to fly.

I was thinking “The Tailor of Ulm” would make a bad name for a good blog, a good left group blog. I’m sniffing around for one of those, a name, by the way, so send suggestions but only if they’re really, really good. Anyway, it’s hard to knock pieces like Magri’s, as there is some value in taking ourselves yet again on a quick trip through the narrative of left high and left low and left nearly gone and landing back at “What is to be done?”

But… there is also a way, I think, that pieces like this one, that follow this same trajectory through the continued pertience of our line of thought and work but the “to be honest” poor prospects that anything presently existing could be harnessed into real work, these pieces performatively, reiteratively on some level enforce the stasis that they describe.We hear again that new histories of the immediate past, new theorizations and adaptations of the line need to be developed in tune with current conditions, we hear that there are valuable lessons in the past but that new work remains to be done to render them current, and so on. There is a way that space-filling, talking issuelessly through the gap, becomes tyrannical in itself. It has, this sort of piece, become a genre unto itself, and as such builds guiderails into the flow of ideas, has a determinative effect on future productions, comes to frame (more rigidly and effectively than one might expect – genres are very powerful) ever more constrictively the place where this ever-announced new growth would arrive. It is the fault of no one piece – this is not Magri’s problem – but en masse, these things enforce depression, tacitly instruct that the way to solve the problem is to name the problem again and again and again and again until, what, men learn to fly.

It feels like bad form to head in the “Whereof one cannot speak…” direction…. Ooof… just like that, with the Witty reference, it dawns on me I’ve written this post before. See? The nastiness of genres. They breed like the mice Magri mentions in the piece, Marx’s mice, the mice we can’t stop mentioning, anticipating, baiting… You see what happens when you duck again below the cabinets to check….

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July 15, 2008 at 9:45 am