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Archive for July 3rd, 2008


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Last thing I did on my trip to Edinburgh this week was visit the Canongate Tolbooth, that is, the “People’s Story Museum,” which was a lucky find, as it is a rather crusty but generously socialist museum of the vie quotidian in the Scottish capital. Placards describing the role of “Marxist radicals” in opening education to the working class, Neurathian maps of social housing in the city (sadly, the timeline index of course ends in 1984 or thereabouts), leftover banners from long-ago marches and the like. Lovely. And makes me think that I should probably do some work on this sort of museum, as it fills a hole between a hole bunch of my interests so very well.

One thing that I’m thinking about, was thinking about when I was there. What’s with all the wax guys, the dioramas? You know what I mean, this sort of thing:

Basically, the two staples of the left museum – the “people’s museum” – have long been the quanty graph or map and the “slice of life” diorama. I’ve done a lot of thinking about the former, and will continue to think about it, but the later is pretty interesting too. I know the form has a history, one that’s been well-covered over the last decade or so (think visual entertainments of the late 19th and early 20th etc…)

Now, of course they make a low-tech and relatively cheap effort at “breaking the frame” that would come of, say, stocking your everyday life museum with a series of period photographs or even pictures of contemporary restagings of scenes. We’re not talking Madame Tussauds, here, but there is at least a momentary and slight sense that you’re looking at “real people” rather than shadowy after-images, easily dismissable in a world chocked full of photos. Not that interesting, I don’t think, nor is the fact that by contextualizing the real fake people in rooms full of period objects you emerge with some sort of materialist notion of the subject, straw people who effectively are the things that are in their kitchens or bedrooms or prison cells. There’s something else to these things that I’m straining to say…

Lucky for me, the only two images of scenes from the Tolbooth that are available on-line are the two that affected my daughter (who’s three) the most. The prison people she was fascinated with, even more so after I explained (I know, I coulda done better) that prison is sort of like the poopie chair that we make her sit in when she’s bad, except that people end up in prison unfairly sometimes. (The people above, according to the caption at the museum, include a thief, a deserter, and a debtor). The other one she was most interested in was the one immediately above this paragraph. If memory serves, it’s a mother and her three children, living under the rafters somewhere, immiserated because the husband / father was taken during a dysentery outbreak sometime in the 19th century.

Neurath wanted his graphical museums to be equally legible to the child and the adult, the lettered and the illiterate, and it must be said that kids get the dioramas too, maybe more than the adults – at least mine did. I’m quite sure that she was far more interested in them than she’d be in most pictures – at least those that don’t feature “a monster that eats people” or “the queen.” (I know. Look, it’s not my homeland’s fault, the queen business…)

So what is it I want to say about them? Simply that dummies inspire empathy in a way that 2-D images do not, because children understand them?

No, not quite. I think what I want to say is that there’s something about this low-tech form, left behind in a world of MegaArt and BisectedCows and DisneyAnamatronicalism, that itself is a signal of something in its low-tech-ness and cheapitude. The flea-bitten displays, the care of construction of the individual and its life space, the art effort of the thing, seems to me an allegory of at least two things at once. First, the meagre means that the constructors of the People’s Museum, wherever it is, work with today. There are no funds for the retrofit – yesterday’s technology will have to do. There is a deep pathos in this. Second, yes, the care for the individual, the shit statue of an irrelevant person – there’s something to that too. Pretense or whatever it is, taking the time to fit out an Edinburgh fishwoman, the abandoned poor mother, the guy who lives in the rooming house with his other suit hanging on the wall, even if they’re plastic or wax, paper mache or cardboard – the care of production, the art of making them visible, is in itself a performance of our politics, and as such, bring tears and feeling faster even than the contents of the scenes themselves.

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 3, 2008 at 11:58 pm

Posted in aesthetics, socialism

the end of us

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I imagine that most of you, at least those of you who look at the NYT, have already seen this.

Baby boomers, hired in large numbers during a huge expansion in higher education that continued into the ’70s, are being replaced by younger professors who many of the nearly 50 academics interviewed by The New York Times believe are different from their predecessors — less ideologically polarized and more politically moderate.

“There’s definitely something happening,” said Peter W. Wood, executive director of the National Association of Scholars, which was created in 1987 to counter attacks on Western culture and values. “I hear from quite a few faculty members and graduate students from around the country. They are not really interested in fighting the battles that have been fought over the last 20 years.”

Cohen is right, of course, to emphasize the changing nature of the American academic workplace and job market – it’s the first and last answer to the problem of the de-politicization of the faculties. But there is something else going on, I think, something deeply related to the material situation but not entirely continuous with it. It has to do with the failure of the ideological momentum of the left itself, the cul de sac that was mainline theory and the bigger, emptier cul de sac that the humanities found themselves in after they emerged (as they emerge) from it. The previous order was handy with a certain problem set – diversity issues, race and gender issues – but stumbled once it had attained many of its aims in these fields.

At the start of his career, Mr. Olneck traced the links between where someone’s family came from and where they ended up on the economic and social ladder. Although he has done quantitative research, 20 years ago he jettisoned number-centric studies for historical narrative, exploring how schools throughout the 20th century responded to immigrants and diversity. In his work one can detect some of the era’s preoccupations when he argues, for instance, that fights over bilingualism and standard English were about power.

The same goes for his extracurricular activities. In 1989 he worked to kick the R.O.T.C. off campus because of the Defense Department’s ban on homosexuals. (The effort failed.) More recently, his neighborhood was riled by a Walgreens plan to open a drugstore. “All these people who had protested the war and civil rights,” Mr. Olneck said, laughing; Walgreens “didn’t know what hit ’em.”

Lots more to say, but for now: it may be becoming clear, only as we lose it, that a progressively-minded academia, however ineffective it can be in attaining the real-world materializations of its aims and ideals, is worth something rather than nothing. And while the intensification of labor and deskilling that definine the business practices of the institutions that hire us are, yes, the first and last cause of the problem, the fading of the old paradigms, the lack of a viable framework that would enable new work and better communication, isn’t helping matters either.

In other words, what, at this point, would we even imagine a left academia to believe in at this point? What, reasonably, would they invest themselves in? Obamania? The permanostalgia that I increasingly feel characterizes my own political inclinations, and that I would love to transform (or even have transformed) into something a little more practicable?

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 3, 2008 at 9:13 pm

Posted in academia

used to be the f train, now it’s the victoria line

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While, overall, the London Underground works a lot better than the NYC subway system (how many times did I wait for 15 minutes for the F at Bergen? Waiting 15 minutes here would lead you to think that something terrible had happened topside) I do definitely miss the MTA design elements. Labelling things with single letters and numbers will always, always beat giving them (often political freighted) names, just as numbering streets will always be more modern and wonderful than all those dead folks clotting up our maps and making everything vastly more difficult to navigate. And placing those letters and numbers in sharply colored circles redoubles the fun…

The picture above is from a very nice post on Christoph Niemann’s NYT blog. Sometimes it seems like the only true barometer of things worth keeping in this world – especially when the aesthetics of everyday life are concerned – are things that are worthy of childhood obsessions.

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July 3, 2008 at 2:55 pm

Posted in simplicity

not for circulation, please

with 4 comments

Ah, starting to feel the burn of the inevitable backstroke yet? Faith-based post-welfare and fisa. Even the Rovian swift-boating of McCain’s war record smells so strongly of Clintonianism, of “lessons learned in the last election.”

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July 3, 2008 at 1:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized