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Archive for August 2008

fragments of a belated bildungsroman

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Nothing better, especially when the drink is out of reach for the night, than to have a nice intense talk about the estate tax, what it means to come from nothing and what it means to come from the ones who came from nothing, the “unfairness” of progressive taxation, rising inequality, working class roots, and elite, parentally-provisioned, university education, with your fucking dad right after Obama’s DNC speech. This is especially true when you can hear the ocean rustling in the mid-distance just beyond the window.

One feels like shreiking (in a little boy’s shriek, the shriek of a three-year old deprived of a goddamned cookie or action figure or something) that yes, one knows, one thinks about this shit all of the fucking time! No kidding! Basically this stuff we’re getting upset about, it’s my life, it’s my job, it’s my vocation, it’s what I eat instead of breakfast and the chaser that follows my nighttime drinks!

Instead, instead, you try to sound like an adult male, and yell something like But dad, there is no more welfare in this country of ours! Clinton took it all away! No black woman is going to get cable tv with your hard earned and “double taxed” dollars. I promise! Obama didn’t mention the reinstitution of social welfare during his speech – believe me, if he had, I woulda heard it!

I think I slipped an ideological disc just now.

Imma see how angry I can get this blog till it fucking breaks.

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August 29, 2008 at 4:16 am

Posted in america, me

angry / american

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People keep telling me they like my angry posts. Of course it’s dawned on me that they might be telling me this to keep me from being angry at them. Or even writing an angry post about them. Or perhaps they simply pity me, bathed as I am in pathetic anger, or maybe they all get together sometimes to laugh at what a bad blogger am I.

Did I mention I’m back in the States. That should be explanation enough, I think. Angryish notes on my travels so far:

Strange to learn today that there are currently no privatized airports in the US. Stewart International in the Hudson Valley was privatized only to be returned to the Port Authority of NY/NJ, and it looks like Midway in Chicago will go private very soon. This is especially interesting to learn once you’ve spent some time living in the UK, where basically they’ve all been privatized, and redesigned to suit their new purpose, profit-generation. I probably should do this in an independent post, but Heathrow’s terminal 4 (which I flew out of) is perfect materialization of the microtortures of everyday life in an evermore privatized world. Long story short: I think we’re all becoming fairly familiar with these terminals that are basically just shopping malls with little doors hidden amongst the shitty shops where at some point, swooning from all your duty-free deals, you stumble onto your plane. That’s no surprise. It’s no surprise, the whole elimination of seating so that passenger-consumers are basically forced to wander around buying things rather than oh-so-unproductively sitting and waiting for their flight.

But Heathrow’s terminal 4, in a subtle way, exposes just how far we’ve gone, and gives a experiental sample of where things are headed. There are a few seats scattered around the terminal. A rough estimate suggests that there are enough seats to accomodate maybe one-twentieth of the total passenger load on a moderately busy day. But what is a bit surprising, even mildly shocking, is a cynical step that the designers have taken that rubs in just how bad things have gotten. In short: there are a few seats, and there are a few screens where you can see what gate you’re supposed to use when they finally, as late as possible, let you know where your plane will be boarding. (In most cases, from what I can tell, they know which gate it will be long before it’s called – these are long-haul flights, the airlines seem to rent the spots. Continental to Newark probably always uses the same gate, etc etc etc). The cynical, disgusting step that they’ve taken is that under no circumstances, in no instance, are the departure boards visible from a single seat anywhere in the terminal. I know this is true because I was bored and had an hour to kill so I checked. You can sit, but if you sit, you’ll eventually have to get up. And probably more than once. It would be very easy in many cases to position the screens so that the passengers can see them from where they’re sitting. The planners have deliberately made this impossible. Even if you’re lucky enough to find a chair, you will soon enough have to give it up to check. You will then lose your seat, and thus be forced to wander the mall again until your gate is called.

This, to me, is an emblem of just what life is like, and promises to be ever more like, as finance capital swallows the last bits of the public and the useful. Life will continue to move from capital’s provisioning of a wonderful set of opportunities toward a stunstick on your ass, keeping you moving as you negotiate the space that once was collectively yours.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to describe how dense my feelings are for Newark airport. It’d be soppy to go into just why, but they are. I haven’t been there in years, but was there the other day. And one of the most interesting things about having a consistent, long-term relationship with an airport is that a lot of the history of the place where you’ve lived is fossilized there. I remember when you could park right up at the door of the bottom level, and then, during the early eighties, when they started to push the cars back out from under the airport and road ramps for fear of truck bombs a la Beirut. The security infrastructure, the gate access or lack thereof, the slow then fast dissolve of smoking areas from everywhere to just the bars to nowhere at all… The flapping Budweiser eagle in the parking lot, now on its way to being owned by ImBev, much to the chagrin of the locals…

I could go on and on about EWR, and perhaps will on my way back…

We have lunch everyday at a place by the beach which is entirely stocked with people just like us, well sorta like us anyway: youngish couples with kids visiting parents and in-laws. All the women look exactly the same. My wife and I were talking about it and, elitist twat that I am, I tried to do it in pigFrench so that we will not be understood by the targets of our bile. Elles sont minces, avont les seins tres petits, et les visages pinchees, angulair, carees, et autres choses comme ca qu’on regarde dans les WASPs… That sort of thing.  A minute later, I realized that the thin, breast-less, angular faced waspy-looking woman sitting next to us was in fact French. Ah, c’est la vie, right class comrades? All in gest, and it’s inevitable that your mari amarican is a trader of some sort, so I’m sure you’ll have the last laff on us.

Of course the men all look the same too, but even less interestingly so…

Starbucks at the nearby Barnes and Noble isn’t, um, the same as the one on Tottenham Court Road where (as I keep saying) you can find me from 3-5 PM each day tapping away. I’m sure the employees are mistreated and generally exploited at both, but the fucking boss here is breaking in two new employees during my daily thirdspace break. She criticizes every single move they make, and does so while looking at the customers with a “what are you gonna do with these fucking semi-legals, eh? Hard to find good help, even during the recession.” I want to lean into them and call their boss a bitch in spanish, but I don’t have the words. It’s puta, right? Es una puta grande. If you reply with the right phrase (please, no fucking around and giving me like some sort of noxious pickup line – I will def google translate before I try) I’ll give it a shot.

I went to get a new drivers’ license yesterday (and in doing so officially “homesteaded” in Florida… huh?) You should get one while you’re here, wherever you’re visiting from. $25.25 and no questions asked. Only one thing. If you go to the one I do, when it comes time for them to take your money, the woman behind the desk may bizarrely adopt a blackface patois and ask for twenay faaave dollah n’ twenay faave cent. (Hard to understand if you’re not American, but trust me – this was pure Eddie Murphyism she was schticking, not southern belletism. At home, just folks, other shit comes after it – trust me.) It may not help to admit that you’re a democrat (sorta, of course) when she’s filling out your voter registration card. You’ll know you’re at the right counter when you see the placard on her desk that reads Calling an illegal immigrant an undocumented worker is like calling a drug-dealer an unlicensed pharmcist.

I’m not enjoying the DNC on TV. Step away from the superbowlic reversion of everything to Charles Barkleyite profundity for a few months and it all just seems so, you know, unwatchable. But my wife and I both agreed and disagreed about Hillary’s speech last night. I won’t go into the disagreement, but we agree she did tilt a bit left, didn’t she? The promotion of unionism? That’s not a phrase I’ve heard lately from the mouths of the dems or anyone. Just for now: interesting that the tilt to the left can function as an in-your-face parting shot, stirring up discontent in the party faithful, but can’t be allowed to be mobilized during, you know, an actual campaign, where it’s all home invasions at 6 AM and Iran nuking bluster. It’s like a parting shot after a breakup, when you pull out the impossibly good material you’ve not been saying all along, stuff that might not even be true, but now, just as it ends, you fire for effect and it stings.

Anyway, off to gotham tomorrow for a long-stretch and all by my lonesome, lucky dog that I am. (Payback for missing the first half of the trip taking care of a cat with a UTI. Yeah…) I’m generally more reverent than angry about NYC when I’m actually there, but I’ll try to scare up some shit from the Southerners at the bar at the (goddamm) Sheraton Midtown for you.

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August 28, 2008 at 7:00 pm

on the top shelf

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I’ve avoided writing about this because it makes me angry enough to, well, write more angry, stupid blogposts, but Stephen Michelmore does a nice job on the whole Kafka / porn faux shitstorm that’s been circling around the bowl lately. SM’s piece features a rather nice pull from Milan Kundera’s “In the Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta.”

Masterful as they were at analyzing all the strategies of love, nineteenth-century novels left sex and the sexual act hidden. In the first decades of our century, sex emerged from the mists of romantic passion. Kafka was one of the first (certainly along with Joyce) to uncover it in his novels. He unveiled sex … as a commonplace, fundamental reality in everyone’s life. Kafka unveiled the existential aspects of sex: sex in conflict with love; the strangeness of the other as a condition, a requirement, of sex; the ambiguous nature of sex: those aspects that are exciting and simultaneously repugnant.

You spend your life (as I do) trying to develop ever more complicated theories on and renditions of literary modernism, it’s nice to run into a reminder of some of the baseline but massive innovations of the movement. Kundera’s list of ways that sex appears in Kafka and Joyce is right on, I think.

Anyway, beyond all that Michelmore says about James Hawes’s Excavating Kafka, the thing that drives me most nuts about the whole affair is the way that this book and it’s media life seems to act out all of malign impulses that direct academic literary work today. It is driven by:

  1. big-score research – ridiculous fantasies drawn from A.S. Byatt novels or is it the Da Vinci Code of the, my god, sudden and startling archive find that turns the entire field on its head
  2. prepackaged media pre-positioning made of easy-to-open scandal n’ intrigue for the dummies at the papers swallow and spew up again
  3. something approaching utter disdain for the ethics of this work, for the one thing that we should have left in this business of letters after all else is gone, and that is barebones empathy for the human, a sensitivity to what it costs to be human, an appreciation of what it costs, a tolerance for idiosyncrasy, etc etc.

Why does Hawes keep going around saying things like this? How does he sleep at night after saying it?

Even today, the pornography would be “on the top shelf”, Dr Hawes said, noting that his American publisher did not want him to publish it at first. “These are not naughty postcards from the beach. They are undoubtedly porn, pure and simple. Some of it is quite dark, with animals committing fellatio and girl-on-girl action… It’s quite unpleasant.”

Seems fair, given the circumstances, to do a little sniff-test close reading on Hawes’s own words here – I’ll leave you to fill in the dots about the organization of his psychosexual drives. The “girl-on-girl action” bit is too easy. Um, that’s not how you’d say it if you were on the side of the weird angels you’ve aligned yourself with, James. More interesting is the idea of “animals committing fellatio.” Perhaps this is just a US / UK translation issue, but we Americans save the verb “to commit” for sexual acts that imply a moral trangression. One “commits” adultery. One “commits improper actions upon and with myself, father.” One does not, you know, “commit” getting really nicely laid. Or “commit” a blowjob, especially if one likes giving or getting them. The idea of animals “committing” anything – oooo, those horny, sinful little (or big) creatures, always taking the devil’s lowroad toward the wet and nasty, etc etc – is a bit odd, and it’s hard not to imagine a particularly, um, complicated relationship to animals, their sexuality, and their moral status informing that particular construction. Hmmm….

That’s all for now. I’ve really got to get some work in tonight on my monograph, Joseph Conrad Loved to Touch the Asscrack – Isn’t That Fucking Sick?!?!?!!????!.

[NB: James Hawes defends himself in the comments… He’s got some things to say that seem fair enough… So maybe I was being a wee bit harsh here… Still, still, what I saw in the papers was upsetting and we all need to be vigiliant, very vigiliant, when the reporters come calling… Take a look at what he says though….]

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August 16, 2008 at 9:56 pm

Posted in academia, wtf?

iiiiiiiiiif i can make it there

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I have these nights, and this is one of them, where I slip accidentally on a webpage and fall into a giant vat of NYC self-promotional art sleeze, NYC PR hucksterism, the NYC lolitoliterary-complex, and the like. Somebody ’08 is coming up in the scene, a coital-merger has occured between the It-Girl Novelist and the Recently Disgraced Celebrity Blogger, or some semi-celebrity’s kid is tearing shit up with his band out of St. Ann’s School, Bklyn Heights.

There’s a lot to be said for the town, of course. If you asked me nicely I’d probably buy an Arsenal jersey, get killed converting my remaining cash on hand back into the peso del norte, and head on back to Brooklyn. And I’m sure that part of the affective difference between the two places is personal, in that I simply don’t know as many people here (mostly I know kind and wonderful bloggers actually) and so I can’t spend as much time coveting my neighbors’ effortless and totally unwarranted success.

But there is a way that NYC, a few weeks after you sign your lease, requires that you remain doubled over in existential/intestinal agony for the rest of your time there, chanting to yourself I’m already 31 and though I’m an assistant professor at a fancy school my novel has not come out, has not yet even been written. I have no agent, without an agent I cannot sell my novel. Without my novel, I am unloved, there will be no film of my novel, and without that I might as well never have left north jersey. I’m fucking 31!!!! I’ll be 32 in three months!!!!

Seriously, I’m not kidding. That’s just what it’s like. And remember, people there don’t drink the way they do in London, so there’s really no cure except for therapy, which usually only makes things worse. Self-reflection is sort of, you know, a big part of the problem in the first place. The only thing that might help is when it dawns on you that everyone is miserable just the same way. But that epiphany usually only comes when just as the Israeli rookie mobsters have dragged the last box of books out to the van bound for parts unknown and full of people who want to move back to NYC. Like you, as soon as you get there. So even when I moved out of the big city and lived for a little bit in a rusting late bastion of pure-hearted (well…) avant gardism, the New York Observer would arrive every week, and with it a nearly automatic little flashback of self-hatred and resentiment. And then I’d moan for the rest of the day about where we were living. And then again the next day, and so on, until the next pink copy of the paper arrived to start the cycle again.

Luckily, in the depths of it tonight, I happened to have on hand today’s copy of the chubby, record-collecting Guardian, full to the brim with unattractive middle-aged people complaining about the Olympics, the price of milk at Tesco, and the slow decline of ITV, whatever that is. Ah, London. I’m not sure why it is that my coworkers at my quite highly ranked department seem so sane and egoless compared even to the thunderous mediocrities at the state U I left behind, let alone the hothouse freaks that you’d find at a place like Columbia. They do pretty fabulous things, but they also, like teach and mark papers. They make sure I do my work, but they avoid, you know, gratuitously insulting me or body-slams-by-rank because I’m young and new. How weird is that? The chubby Guardian lets my wife write for CIF, whereas the NYT is to focused on its world-historical mission as the Raper of Pecker’d to let anyone who doesn’t work for a DLC-approved think tank or oil company lobbying firm write book reviews, let alone opinion pieces.

So luckily, on all fronts, the Guardian is here to save the day. (If only it wasn’t so fucking boring! Ah but that’s just the point!) Unluckily, I sat down and wrote this bitchy post, which shows that the cure remains a long way off. I think there’s an Andrew Marr documentary on my Sky + box somewhere that would maybe do the trick…

Fuck. I can’t believe I wasted an hour on this when these little town blues could be melting away…

[Eds note: This post represents such bad form that I’ve just now come on to delete it. But, I dunno. I won’t. This is a sickness or health type of relationship that we’re in, dear readers… Bear with me… I’m already feeling better. You could probably leave comments about what an asshole I am and it’d accelerate the healing process… Go ahead, you know you want to… I mean, I could have at least made all this resolve into some sort of point, at least… The sweet mercies of the performative, ah….)

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August 15, 2008 at 10:30 pm

Posted in distraction, meta, nyc

wtf? where’s my gmail?

with 4 comments

So there seems to be some sort of massive gmail outage going on. Tomorrow we’ll perhaps hear about the billions and trillions of dollars worth of damage this has done. But of course, the financial figures miss so much, as they always do. All the bitchy gossip that will go unsaid. Lovers aiming to chat across oceans will have to take the night off or find another way. Baby pictures will rest on hard drives, unable to travel for another night. Think of the lost hours of trying and trying to open the millions of accounts.

I’ve been meaning to write a post for awhile about the increasingly significant role played by entities that we might call quasi-utilities. Mostly web-based, these free or almost free services come to seem like a kind of human right, an automatic endowment that we receive simply for being alive. We feel entitled to decent email access (once we’re on the web in the first place of course), free chat, free books (albeit not in paper form). We feels ourselves to possess the right to look at the photographs of friends and family. Maps, likewise, guide us from place to place without apparent cost. Of late, even scaled down versions of expensive programs like Microsoft Word have been added to Google’s pseudo-public empire.

We don’t notice the advertisements, though we do see them. We are familiar with the model from television which was perhaps the first of the quasi-utilities.

In a sense – and much to their dismay, from a profit-making angle, newspapers have evolved in this direction as well. I pay for a subscription to the IHT, because I like newsprint and it’s page for page probably one of the better papers in the world, but I don’t really need it to keep up with the NYT, which is right there waiting for me anytime I like and for free. Reading the papers for anyone who came of age just after I did has perhaps always seemed like something that you ought to be able to do for free, if you want to do it in the first place. When you scroll through the news on your computer or your phone it is easy to have the sense that you live in a world in which content is below and beyond value at once, something there for the taking. And of course the entire sector of media capitalists have never been panicked by anything like they have been by the dawning sense that music and tv programs and films too exist as non-commodities, items to be freely shared rather than bought and sold.

Now, there’s lots to be said about this. It is important to remind ourselves at the getgo that the publicness of the services and information provided by google and similar corporations only appears to be a public utility rather than a private business. Administrators at some libraries, thankfully, are beginning to catch on to the fact that google’s book scanning business is in fact a business – is not a frictionless gift to the world in the utopian form of “every book, every page, any time or way you like.”

That said, that said – what is perhaps the point to take away from these for-profit services is that they bring to the public a taste of the free and easy that comes of efficient public provisioning. They are, that is to say, advertisements in and of themselves for a healthy public sphere. Learning to get something for nothing (even if it’s not nothing, in the end, for now) is exactly the mentality that we’d be best served to foster. The web makes it easy, but perhaps it might best be visualized as what they called a “gateway drug” when I was a kid. (I don’t know if the phrase is still current – but the idea was that the true danger of pot, in its happy non-dangerousness, was that it readied kids to try more dangerous, destructive “hard” drugs.) It’s not a long leap from free and well-designed email to free and smoothly working public wifi. And from public wifi, it’s a longer leap, though not all that long, to nationalized health care. A bit further yet to media, housing stock, and all the rest. After all, who today would pay for an email account?

Two points to be addressed in future posts. One: the pernicious lies that are told about GDP destruction through the market dominance of public, not-for-profit entities. (The BBC comes to mind on this point… All those ads that could be run but aren’t – the international page views that the fucking Guardian could be garnering if not for the BBC’s site….) Yes, public entities do in fact reduce GDP – the takeaway from this fact is that there is something wrong with GDP as a yardstick of civic health, not that cash should be sliced away from the “public monopoly.” Two: It wouldn’t take much effort for us to offer the argument that any sort of user tax on ISP customers for downloads would, sure, be a fine idea but only if the proceeds were pooled into some sort of state support for artists rather than bottom-line fattener for media companies. We download free; the artists are paid by the state; Sony finds a way to fuck itself for trying. Nuff said. Three: and this is more complicated. I’d like to take a long look at the functionalist design aesthetic of google and its many sites as an impersonation of the aesthetic practices of an as-yet-impossible regime of use-value centered provisioning. The design of the google sites, despite the occassional burst of disneyland coloring, is rather amazing… The blandest thing there is on the internet is also the most popular thing. Something there to think about, don’t you think?

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August 11, 2008 at 11:13 pm

pistelli

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John Pistelli is back! And his new stuff is as good as it used to be back at commonplacebook….

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August 1, 2008 at 11:12 am

Posted in blogs