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Archive for December 2008

essentialism, really

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Have recently (finally) started Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. It’s still early, unfairly so. But just a guess:

Having seem Y tu mama tambien and Amores perros, one is in a very good position to see quickly and clearly what is wrong with Bolaño’s stuff. When one reads Bolaño’s stuff, one is placed in a very good position to see quickly and clearly what was wrong with Y tu mama tambien and Amores perros, which maybe one missed the first time around.

(Sorry, chiastic thinking has taken over from my forehead on back. Taught Joyce last week – hither and thither, thither and hither….)

But I’ll finish it to make sure. And I’ll read the new one too, for good measure. Let’s hope I’m wrong given the time investment in front of me.

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December 15, 2008 at 1:11 am

Posted in novel

other children’s skin

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From a nice piece in the NYT today about thrift stores in Poland:

Thrift stores here have become impromptu laboratories of the changing mores and attitudes in a country adjusting to newfound wealth. Young Poles here in the capital are now confident enough in their ability to buy new clothes that they at last have taken to wearing old ones. Those eking out a living on fixed incomes, especially retirees, still lack the means to do otherwise.

And so the hip and the strapped meet at secondhand stores like Tomitex, on Nowowiejska Street in downtown Warsaw.

The pronounced stigma of buying used clothes in a poor country was once a powerful deterrent for shopping — or at least admitting to shopping — at secondhand stores, known here by the derogative colloquialism lumpex, which translates as something like bum export. That stigma has been replaced among the young by a playful attitude toward vintage clothing and bargain-hunting that would not be out of place among their contemporaries in London or New York.

A subset of early memories drawn from the summerlong visits back to my mother’s home town in very rural Nova Scotia, the fishing village where she grew up focuses on visits to Frenchies, a used clothing store that at that time was a single store or maybe there were a couple but since then has branch out to become a sort of pan-maritimes chain.

(You can only imagine, or perhaps you can’t, how weirded out I was when Calvin Trillin wrote a piece about the store in the New Yorker. Gemein/Gesell gone wild! I’ve never felt so authentique in my life, so townie, organic even….)

I am quite sure that my mother wore mostly used clothing during her childhood and the few stories that I’ve heard about my father’s home growing up and clothing are troubling and not to be gone into here. But these stories happen to be the very sort of stuff that a form of therapy that would be able to work between the traditional registers of psychoanalysis and issues of class and money and ideological drip would make hay with, if such a practice properly existed. At any rate, both of my mother and father come from shitty circumstances, differently inflected but ultimately the same cocktail of alcoholic fathers, overworked mothers, nowhere locales, zero cash, and a fortunate and unlikely escape to university or vocational training in a tiny (large to them at the time!) city.

Anyway, I grew up with very real used clothing antipathy – probably of just the same sort of attitude described in the clipping from today’s NYT up top – and definitely caught from my class-shifting parents. They wore used; their son would wear – and learn to expect nothing less than, actively be disgusted by anything other than – new. I can’t remember exactly how this feeling was transmitted to me, but I am sure – especially now that I’m thinking about it in light of this article – that it was in fact transmitted, and done so by my parents rather than some sort of ambient socio-ideological vapor.

But when my mother and I would go to visit the family up in Nova Scotia, we would always make a trip or two or three to Frenchy’s over the course of the summer. You won’t be surprised to hear that these were horrible experiences for me, filled with a variety of dread that’s close to the fear and anxiety that comes of going to the doctor for an injection or the dentist for a drilling when you’re a child. I didn’t really understand wealth and poverty at that point, I wasn’t embarrassed at all. It was the visceral disgust that came of trying on clothes that had been worn by other people, that had encased other children’s bodies, caught their spills, been inextricably soiled by their skin. And it only got worse when we’d actually bring these items home, and later, perhaps the next day, I would be expected to wear them – not just for five minutes in a fitting room, but all day, straight through to my bath at night. The memories get vague at this point, start to break down, but I think at a certain point my eight or nine year-old self went into revolt, simply refused to wear the items any longer. I think, further, I have a memory of my mother conceding, likely throwing the stuff in a bag that was kept for our own clothing donations.

It felt dirty to wear the clothes. Dirty in a way that was unbearable, visceral. This is, of course, just how I’d been raised to feel.

All of this I’ve thought about, when I’ve thought about Frenchy’s, before. What I’ve never yet thought about – and what the article about Poland has led me to consider – is what exactly my mother was thinking when she took me to this place and put me through the experience of trying on and later wearing the clothes that we found there.

The hometown-girl made good in the States amidst relatives, trying to fit in with the people back home, playing along. She never dresses her son in anything but new things, normally, but it is true what the cousins and aunts keep saying, that there are great bargains to be had there, and they always outgrow everything so quickly anyway. Perhaps – probably – it never registered how deeply she’d woven this message into her son. Perhaps it came as a great shock when he refused that morning to wear any of it ever again. Quite likely, almost definitely, there was at least a passing thought that she had spoiled him – that even if she didn’t really want him wearing this sort of stuff, it wasn’t a great sign that he didn’t want to wear it. Her cousins’ kids, of course, didn’t resist. This is where there clothes came from, had always come from, whether by the standards of the village they were rich or poor. (They were all more or less poor and since these days they have only gotten poorer, disasterously so by North American standards…)

Probably she wrote his – my – behavior off as childish temper, a burst of willfulness that was unusual for me. I was a good child, vaguely angelic (but just think of what keeps the good angels good angels), and generally did everything that I was told to do. The clothes at Frenchy’s were crumpled in piles, piles dumped hourly on tables made of 4X4s. I can’t remember now whether you paid by the item or by the weight of the bag that you filled. Or perhaps on another level or even the same level, she understood. She hadn’t wanted to go along anyway. I wonder if she had bought anything for herself. If she did, I wonder what she did with it. I am very sure, absolutely sure, that she’d never have worn it.

Many of my friends, now and before, wear or wore vintage clothing. I could do, but it’s not really me. At this point, I think it’s not even really the childhood anxieties about it. At some point when I was sixteen or seventeen, suddenly this no longer really bothered me anymore. Before then I disliked wearing the handed-down uniforms that we were given on the baseball and basketball and football teams I played for. Then, suddenly, it no longer mattered. Surely it had something to do with the arrival of sex on my scene, and the very different relationship to other people’s bodies that comes of it. But still, today, it’s just not my thing. I’m one of those catholic school boys who never really gets over the uniform. Every single day, working or not working, I wear a variation on the outfit I wore during my first nine years of school. A collared shirt and a sweater, never sneakers, chinoish pants. I skip only the tie – I almost never wear one. Some of the clothes I continue to wear are older than used – shirts I got when I went to university, sweaters that are almost worn through. A long Italian wool coat I bought – my best friend bought the same sort, same day – during the last winter of high school, when I was feeling like a poet. (A colleague stopped me in the hall a month ago when I was wearing it and said that it is a “poet’s coat, you know, the sort of thing that Eliot or Lowell wore.”  (I should use this story as an exemplary anecdote when I teach “The Dead” because it’s so exactly right…) Part of me was ecstatic to hear this; most of me was dreadfully embarrassed. He was, I’m sure, hazing me – I am, after all, the new guy still.

My wife pointed out today that now my mother makes her take her to fancyass but dowdy consignment stores. She’s of limited mobility, and so has to be taken places, and it’s consignment stores that she wants to go to ahead of any other place. It’s something we’ve never really understood, my wife and I, and would laugh off as just another parental absurdity. She has the money to buy what she likes as far as clothes go; why does she does she insist on sifting through the crap at these places? It is interesting and strange to think that my mother, perversely, may finally have learned to occupy the place where she lives – that she has finally forgotten Nova Scotia and Frenchy’s and wherever the clothes came from when she was a girl and before there was a Frenchy’s to visit.

Of late, but really forever though couldn’t articulate it, if I am not feeling like I am walking around in London but my fucked up head and heart are in Shitsville, Canada, I am feeling like I am walking around in Shitsville, Canada but my fucked up head and heart are in London. Either way, wherever head and heart and the rest of me are located absolutely or relatively, I have just now categorically refused to wear the semi-worn shirt from Frenchy’s, stated my refusal in no uncertain terms, even with stamping feet and tears in my eyes, but am wearing the damn thing anyway, feeling the dirt soak in through every tiny little hole.

Ah, well. This is all starting to feel a bit The Best American Essays 2008. And there’s surely a little narrative hiding in plain sight that’s prefitted for The Best American Short Stories 2009, and all that that sort of thing drearily entails. So I’d better stop before I over-epiphanize this shit. No one’s paying for it, anyway, neither by the item nor by the pound.

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December 15, 2008 at 12:53 am

che!

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Adam Kotsko’s got a nice one up about A.O. Scott’s review of Soderbergh’s Che.

Scott claims that we need a “moral reckoning” on Guevara. Yet do we really lack for skeptical commentary on the Cuban revolution and left-wing revolutionary activities in general in the US? Hasn’t mainstream opinion settled on the conclusion — or rather, the a priori assumption — that, whatever Guevara’s intentions, the Cuban revolution was bad on the whole? This is what political correctness really looks like: dismissing any position outside the mainstream as somehow naive or dishonest, forbidding directors from being sympathetic or identifying with certain types of subjects.

The garbagey (oh, and recently deceased – I didn’t know! nice!) New York Sun basically got some of its start as a rightwing anti-NY Times website. Maybe we should form a similar aggregating nicheblog from the left and see what happens?

(UPDATE: more, more from Jane Dark… Go look!)

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December 13, 2008 at 11:48 pm

Posted in nyt

jane dark responds…

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Jane Dark has a helpful response to my recent stuff on nationalization and discursive norms. Here’s the end of it:

So one might say that we are seeing not the tender creep of socialist possibilities into the national discourse, but their further erasure. Every time that we agree that the word “socialism” might refer to something other than, at a minimum, worker ownership if not indeed the end of surplus value extraction; every time that we misrecognize state corporatism as something other than a moment in capital’s “equilibrium in motion,” we “turn the wheel of discursive normativity a click” away from socialism. We forget what that word promises. Perhaps the most optimistic memory, as Jasper reminded us, is that the corporatist regimes have arisen historically in the fact of popular socialist challenges — but that in no way guarantees the motion will summon forth such a movement via some blind mechanism of counterweights.

To change metaphors: we stand with CR and many others in identifying this as a moment when the chinks in capital’s armor are visible. But this talk of nationalization, this strategy of planning, is an attempt to anneal the fissure in capital’s domination, not to open it wide. It serves as the sign of an opportunity, but is not itself in any way opportune.

I don’t think I disagree with much of what Jane has to say in this piece, and I’m glad that Jane noted that I’m not necessarily writing in support of any of the moves that have recently taken place. It may well be that I locate the critical moment of what is to come at the juncture where we parry with the right / left distinction between various modes and ends of nationalization, even if that moment comes after the act of nationalization itself. And I do fully understand that it’s a parry were very likely to lose. And it may be that I extend a slightly more generous line of credit (foolishly perhaps – I mean, now? even only metaphorically?) to the populace, its capacity for ideological adjustment under the pressures of the real.  And it may be, when we’re talking about the USA or the UK for that matter, that it’s hard either to see an alternative to the nationalizations themselves or an alternative to laying our chips on the future possibilities in this line as our best bet in bleak times. Sadly, honestly, I am not a believer in American revolution, nor am I an accelerationist, as the marginal human costs are far too high.

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December 13, 2008 at 11:29 pm

Posted in crisis

first time as woolworth’s, the second time as woolworths

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This is the second time I’ve had a Woolworth(‘)s close in my town. The first was in the middle of the early-nineties recession, that hit New York and environs harder than anywhere else in the US. (Can remember the teacher giving us a talk about parents being laid off and what this means and doesn’t mean… Someone must have been absent that day…) Woolworth’s closed for good in 1993, turning into a Foot Locker, when I was fifteen years old. (Weird! Just found this!)

Last night, the remaining employees at the one at the center of my little urban village were standing outside smoking and talking churlishly to the passerbys who seemed drawn to speak to them as if they were strange, minor celebrities for a night. “Yeah the store’s closing. Yeah you might have seen something about it on the telly?” I was nervous about taking the shots with my phone’s camera. I didn’t want them to see me taking them, or if they did, to be where I could get out of earshot as quickly as possible. But still, I too wanted a souvenir, something for the blog.

Oh and you should go read this for sure….

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December 13, 2008 at 12:25 pm

wishful thinking

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From Readymade and via Boredom is Always Counter-Revolutionary, a poster series:

Given the current economic meltdown, this 75th anniversary of the New Deal has particular resonance. How might the current government stem the tide of economic and psychological depression? Can artists and designers help in similar ways today? It’s curious that the WPA style has been reprised in the recent past as a quaint retro conceit, but today may be an opportune time for a brand-new graphic language—equal in impact to the original initiative, but decidedly different—to help rally the cause of hope and optimism.

Though it’s a fun idea that Readymade has here, the posters are dispiriting for at least three reasons.

  1. Aesthetically, they reach no higher plane than the better JetBlue brand campaigns. If the past was helvetican, the future of public art, apparently, brings the serif back into the fold in a goof-folk way. Ugh… And age of aquarius flowerglobs and bloombursts! Anything but that!
  2. The best we can hope for, it seems, is the meager consolation of the reusable shopping-bag college town shabby affluent ethicalism. We won’t have much, but what we have will be green….  Rather than the contemporary equivalent of rural electrification, we get nothing more than good feelings and above all else unanchored hope for its own sake.
  3. Of course, Readymade’s project is meant to be aspirational, at the best suggestive, rather than predicative. But there is something frustrating about even the halfhearted or semicomical discussion of the possibility WPA-type support for creatives in the current environment. It simply isn’t going to happen – there is zero chance that any of us end up writing or illustrating guidebooks or muraling post offices.

Sorry to break it to us, but there simply won’t be public service design and writing stipends rolling around. Just as Obama’s new roads and bridges will be subcontracted out rather than built by armies of federal employees, if new work there is to be for folks like us think more along the lines of back-to-work facilitator or dry-erase confidence augmenter under the aegis of some private corporation running JobCentre or workfare offices.

Merry Christmas! Sorry…. Here, some comic relief, or preemptive training in the skill of skills-training, or something…

On a related note,  there are ominous signs that the primary existing form of state support for intellectuals, academic work (you know, the sort of support where the salary comes with the added perk of a free – and manditory – mental spay / neuter), seems to be headed towards crisis as or more rapidly than we expected. This cover article in the Guardian about the rapidly shrinking endowments of Russell Group universities led our departmental Christmas lunch to be dominated by conversations about any other transferable skills that we might individually possess. (Typing? Private Tutoring? Copyediting?) And of course the pampered types at Russell Group unis here or Ivies over there have the least to worry about. IT has been, as usual, excellent of late on the way that what the crisis will bring, in a sense, is nothing more than a continuation of the status quo at many places.

Although it currently looks like a good idea to be a public servant of one kind or another (as the spivs in shiny shoes run off to teacher training college), it won’t be long before the financial crisis hits universities hard (funny how the ‘trickle-down’ is so much more effective when it’s the redistribution of loss). Small departments are in big trouble. Any good will extended towards the future (‘give us five years to prove how good we could be!’) will be retracted in the name of short-term savings. Informed once again the other day that our department was not in the strongest position because we had no ‘stars’, it was hard not to imagine senior management pitting small programmes against one another in a kind of X-factor head-to-head (But she once had a piece in the Guardian! But he appeared on Newsnight! Isn’t he friends with Martin Amis? Doesn’t she have contacts in the city?).

The management solution, of course, is to cut the time allowed for research (while at the same time push for constant publication) and demand cuts in teaching (‘why can’t you run seminars with 20?’) in favour of the churning out of grant applications. Sod the students! Once they’re here we’ve got their money, who cares if they repeatedly tell us they want more teaching and more seminars and more intellectual engagement? And PhD students! Get lots of them! They bring in tons of cash! Too bad you don’t have enough time to write anything on a topic that someone might want to come and work with you on.

And of course, of course – just before many of you cancel out the rss feed on my site – the potential plight of the already employed is absolutely nothing in comparison to the very real and right-now shit situation faced by the not-yet-employed. While it’s always been bleak, this year it’s beyond bleak. And I’m sure next year it will be even worse, as the last few jobs that were already in the pipeline will have already spilled out at the terminus. I write people to see how their searches are going, always a delicate email to compose and to respond to. This year, friends simply don’t write back.

So, look. None of this is going to lead to the fulfillment of that weird fantasy that so many of us seem to share of shuffling out of the office in the department to write banal travel guides of Delaware or join a troupe of travelling avant-garde actors touring the smaller cities and rural high schools of our great nations. Nothing good, I imagine, will come of this, but if it did – if we were asked to suggest something – I wonder what solution we would come up with in order to relieve the reserve armies of immaterial labor when they’re (we’re) finished being put out of work. One solution would be to radically boost primary and secondary school funding, but this strategy comes with its own distinctive perils. (Here’s IT again…)

More to come…

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December 13, 2008 at 12:02 pm

good news(chool) in dark times: no confidence in bob kerrey

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From the NYT:

Bob Kerrey, the Vietnam veteran and former Nebraska governor and senator known for his acerbic tongue and iconoclastic tendencies, was handed an overwhelming vote of no-confidence on Wednesday afternoon by the senior faculty at the New School, the Greenwich Village university he has run since 2001.

Mr. Kerrey has clashed with some professors since the day of his appointment as the New School’s president, with complaints that he lacks a Ph.D. and that his politics — particularly his early support for the Iraq war — were too moderate for the unabashedly liberal campus. But the underlying controversies became an open uprising this week after Mr. Kerrey announced that he would serve temporarily as provost as well as president after cycling through four provosts in seven years.

I never attended the New School, but I have strangely strong feelings about the place, as, erm, someone who lives in my house did a degree there and worked there in administration for several years right at the beginning of the Kerrey saga. (Probably spent more time in its halls than I did at my own university during a year or two stretch). And all I can say is good riddance if this actually gets rid of the guy. An object lesson in just how wide the gulf between the political and intellectual left can be in America, his tenure was…

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December 11, 2008 at 10:52 am

Posted in academia

bakery closure microtragedy / fits on one page

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From the NYT and via Bitch Ph.D.:

Starla D. Darling, 27, was pregnant when she learned that her insurance coverage was about to end. She rushed to the hospital, took a medication to induce labor and then had an emergency Caesarean section, in the hope that her Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan would pay for the delivery.

[…]

Ms. Darling [was] among 275 people who worked at an Archway cookie factory here in north central Ohio. The company provided excellent health benefits. But the plant shut down abruptly this fall, leaving workers without coverage, like millions of people battered by the worst economic crisis since the Depression.

[…]

Ms. Darling, who was pregnant when her insurance ran out, worked at Archway for eight years, and her father, Franklin J. Phillips, worked there for 24 years.

“When I heard that I was losing my insurance,” she said, “I was scared. I remember that the bill for my son’s delivery in 2005 was about $9,000, and I knew I would never be able to pay that by myself.”

So Ms. Darling asked her midwife to induce labor two days before her health insurance expired.

“I was determined that we were getting this baby out, and it was going to be paid for,” said Ms. Darling, who was interviewed at her home here as she cradled the infant in her arms.

As it turned out, the insurance company denied her claim, leaving Ms. Darling with more than $17,000 in medical bills.

Some of you might have taken a look at my strange, unfinished little dystopian fiction, part of which I posted for you to download a few weeks ago. Well, this is, in a sense, just the sort of thing I was anticipating and trying to render… The thousands and thousands of microtragedies and banal collapses that will come of this thing, this thing that has been inevitable and totally visible from a long, long way back. In a sense, I’ve clipped this NYT story into a shape that would have fit almost without seam into the project… There’s more to be said about why that would matter, the size and the shape of this type of story, and I’ll get to it soon if not (tempting!) later tonight.

(BTW, there is no such thing as a “cookie factory,” as the NYT has it. They are called bakeries… Believe me, I would know, but not for any admirable reason…)

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December 9, 2008 at 10:35 pm

left lit crit

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Was at this conference a few weekends ago, not as much as I would have liked, but a bit. Saw Owen Hatherley’s paper – excellent stuff as usual. I want to be a little unspecific about what I was doing there, to protect all involved. But I was in a position to ask people questions about literature and politics, and I sort of duffed it a bit. My questions were fine, but I didn’t really ask the question that I wanted to ask, at least in the way that I wanted to ask it. There are reasons why I didn’t, the leading one being that it’s the sort of question that has a tendency to drive situations (seminars, conference panels) off the rails, away from the work under discussion. But still I’m a little disappointed I didn’t ask it. Here it is, roughly, though way more self-referentially than I would have made it there:

I’ve written one thing in my life that I’m relatively proud of. It’s a piece of academic literary criticism, one that I think says something fairly new and profound about a very canonical work of literature. It was accepted for publication at a fairly prestigious journal as I was applying for jobs the first time around, and it served as my writing sample when I applied for the job I now have. In short, it has served me very well.

Here’s the issue. It is, I think, a fairly good piece of leftist literary criticism. Marxist might not be quite the word, as there’s not tons of Marx referenced in the paper itself, but it is centered on questions of work and employment and what they have to do with the way that the work is written and what the work ultimately has to tell us about these things and its world in general.

That said, and here’s where the problem starts – a problem both extremely obvious yet something that none of us in the business of left literary academia seem to want to address – what is very very clear is that the readership of this piece will be comprised almost entirely of scholars and students of the author in question. They will use this piece in order to help compose their own works on the same topic by borrowing from or adding on to or arguing with my paper. It is impossible to think of a single possibility of the findings that I advance in this paper having any effect on anyone anywhere who is working on anything other than literature.

So… there is an utter disconnection between the tools that I put to use in this paper, what the tools were intended to do, and the context of usefulness that my paper itself fits into. The left technology that I brought to bear upon the text I brought to bear because I believe in its potential worldly usefulness, but when applied to literary texts, that usefulness becomes merely literary, an acting-out or practice version of something that seems never to get beyond acting-out or practice versions.

It feels a bit like training very dilligently to become, what, a pediatric neurosurgeon, honing those delicate finger movements, only to spend most of your time tying bows on birthday presents because that’s all your really allowed (or capable, somehow) of working on – bows. Or maybe it’s like getting really pissed off at someone to the point of deciding you’ll head to the gun shop and buy a really nice submachine gun, and then coming home and using the submachine gun to open your cans of beer the quick and dirty way.

There are probably a lot of other ways I could put this, an infinite numbers of ways. It is frustrating. You see my point, yes? I understand that it’s an incredibly obvious problem, but on the other hand it’s also obvious that we all just keep going along producing left-inflected literary criticism without quite solving out the fundamental issue. And even if we can’t solve out the fundamental issue, we’re still left in a very weird spot: if we simply aren’t able (for professional reasons or because of our aptitudes and training) to do anything other than produce literary criticism and history, it would feel irresponsible or worse to abandon the leftist forms of the enterprise, but those forms nonetheless make nothing happen, so we probably might as well let them go.

Theory, the period of high theory in literature departments, allowed us to ignore the problem at hand more easily, even if it still was very much at hand. There was a collective hallucination in place that allowed us to believe that our work mattered in a way that it never did. But now that the hallucination is over, we’re left in a tough spot.

Maybe I’ll write about the ways that I’m thinking about getting out of the bind in another post. But this is a start. Wish I had asked something like this during my turn at the conference, and if the venue was ever going to be right, it was here. But you can see, perhaps, why I didn’t….

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December 9, 2008 at 8:28 pm

ever more nervous about nationalization

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Despite the fact that the non-nationalized corporation that he works for has just dragged its own building down to the pawnshop in order to keep paying his salary, David Sanger from the NYT still believes in the American way. Just. A Bit. Nervously. And just like our president-elect.

WASHINGTON — When President-elect Barack Obama talked on Sunday about realigning the American automobile industry he was quick to offer a caution, lest he sound more like the incoming leader of France, or perhaps Japan.

“We don’t want government to run companies,” Mr. Obama told Tom Brokaw on “Meet the Press.” “Generally, government historically hasn’t done that very well.”

But what Mr. Obama went on to describe was a long-term bailout that would be conditioned on federal oversight. It could mean that the government would mandate, or at least heavily influence, what kind of cars companies make, what mileage and environmental standards they must meet and what large investments they are permitted to make — to recreate an industry that Mr. Obama said “actually works, that actually functions.”

It all sounds perilously close to a word that no one in Mr. Obama’s camp wants to be caught uttering: nationalization.

Not since Harry Truman seized America’s steel mills in 1952 rather than allow a strike to imperil the conduct of the Korean War has Washington toyed with nationalization, or its functional equivalent, on this kind of scale. Mr. Obama may be thinking what Mr. Truman told his staff: “The president has the power to keep the country from going to hell.” (The Supreme Court thought differently and forced Mr. Truman to relinquish control.)

The fact that there is so little protest in the air now — certainly less than Mr. Truman heard — reflects the desperation of the moment. But it is a strategy fraught with risks.

The first, of course, is the one the president-elect himself highlighted. Government’s record as a corporate manager is miserable, which is why the world has been on a three-decade-long privatization kick, turning national railroads, national airlines and national defense industries into private companies.

The second risk is that if the effort fails, and the American car companies collapse or are auctioned off in pieces to foreign competitors, taxpayers may lose the billions about to be spent.

And the third risk — one barely discussed so far — is that in trying to save the nation’s carmakers, the United States is violating at least the spirit of what it has preached around the world for two decades. The United States has demanded that nations treat American companies on their soil the same way they treat their home-grown industries, a concept called “national treatment.”

No need, really, for me to go into how bothered I am by Sanger’s “first risk,” is there? As basically just about every corporation in the world totters on the verge of collapse, as far as I know packages mailed via the USPS will still arrive in time for the special morning. Everyone knows why Amtrak has trouble, and Sanger should come over to the UK to experience what fully privatized rail travel is really like. I’ve heard all those privatized and deregulated airlines are doing really really well lately, but sure, yes, the privatized (um?) defense industry has done well over the past decade, that much is true.

I know it’s boring to keep posting these, but I’d like to keep a record just for record keeping’s sake. A post is coming that dares to tie the knot between my dominant preoccupations, NYT watching and nationalization, within hours or at the tops days. That Habermas piece is around here somewhere….

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December 9, 2008 at 12:55 pm

Posted in anxiety, news, socialism

found memoir (part ii)

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(I am declaring this, retroactively, to be part i)

From Giorgio Agamben’s Profanations:

Each of us has known such creatures, whom Walter Benjamin defines as “crepuscular” and incomplete, similar to the gandharvas of the Indian sages, who are half celestial genie, half demon. “None has a firm place in the world, or firm, inalienable outlines. There is not one that is not either rising or falling, none that is not trading its qualities with its enemies or neighbor; none that has not completed its period of time and yet is unripe, none that is not deeply exhausted and yet is only at the beginning of a long existence.” More intelligent and gifted than our other friends, always intent on notions and projects for which they seem to have all the necessary virtues, they still do not succeed in finishing anything and are generally idle [senz’ opera]. They embody the type of eternal student or swindler who ages badly and who must be left behind in the end, even if it is against our wishes. And yet something about them, an inconclusive geture, an unforeseen grace, a certain mathematical boldness in judgment and taste, a certain air of nimbleness in their limbs or words – all these features indicate that they belong to a complementary world and allude to a lost citizenship or inviolable elsewhere. In this sense, they give us help, even though we can’t quite tell what sort of help it is. It could consist precisely in the fact that they cannot be helped, or in their stubborn insistence that “there is nothing to be done for us.” For that very reason, we know, in the end, that we have somehow betrayed them.

Written by adswithoutproducts

December 9, 2008 at 12:20 am

Posted in agamben, foundmemoir

awk: new word

with 7 comments

I write “awk: new word” sometimes in the margins of my students’ papers, despite the fact that I was told, a long time ago now, that it is a useless comment, very unhelpful. It is a bit unhelpful, but sometimes unhelpful is just what the students need in order to learn for themselves to become better writers.

Anyway, perhaps you won’t be as cruel to and/or pedagogically rigorous with me as I am with them. I need a new word. The word I am looking to replace in my vocabulary, perhaps forever, is utopian. Utopia might be able to stay; I am tired of the adjectival form. I spray it over everything – any intimation of anything good reflexively become utopian. I have utopian intimations, I see utopian glimmers, there are utopian promises and utopian specters.

I never really see anything all that utopian just laying around on the street. It’s the wrong word – even setting aside the tricky oscillation of it etymologically between everything and nothing.

Ameliorative is to tenative. Paradisal is too much and too theological. Salutary sounds neurotic. Socialist perhaps puts too fine a point upon it. What’s a better word for the good stuff that I see, peeking out from behind the debris-pile?

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December 8, 2008 at 9:52 pm

political parapraxis / detroit bailout

with 3 comments

When the political actors wrap the potential bailout of the American car companies in language of environmentalism, they aren’t being serious, they’re being cynical. There are reasons – some decent, some horrible – why those that want to save these dying corporations, but first on no one’s list is the prospect of forcing to market low-emissions vehicles and the like. It is a marketing strategy, and one that play on a very strange sense that is perhaps semi-subliminally resident in the minds of some voters and many commentators: If the nation controlled General Motors, General Motors could be forced to design and distribute vehicles that would be at once socially beneficial, attractive to consumers, and sustainably profitable. From the NYT today:

“They’re going to have to restructure,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on “Meet the Press” on NBC. “And all their stakeholders are going to have restructure. Labor, management, shareholders, creditors — everybody is going to recognize that they have — they do not have a sustainable business model right now, and if they expect taxpayers to help in that adjustment process, then they can’t keep on putting off the kinds of changes that they, frankly, should have made 20 or 30 years ago.”

Even the deployment of the slightly – though not much – more realistic sense that the goal of government intervention is going to return these companies to profitability seems to me fairly cynical and not at all realistic. Jobs and shareholders, not necessarily in that order, are being protected, full stop. The rest is windowdressing.

That said…. Each and every time they dress the windows with this sort of talk, every time the government players offer the argument that General Motors or Chrysler would have been better managed by responsible, sane, and forward-thinking bureaucrats rather than their board and corporate management, they turn the wheel of discursive normativity a click toward state management and the economics of planning. The Environmental Protection Agency together with the Department of Transportation could better manage a car company than the invisible hand of the market and the men it selects for ownership? Talk like this, however cynically deployed, was absolutely unimaginable a few months ago. Of course the chatterers on television and the papers will forget all about these arguments when (if!) things improve. But the voters, an ever larger percentage of whom are about to become unemployed, perhaps won’t if they are startled into attention by the shock of what’s coming in the next few months and years.

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December 8, 2008 at 11:29 am

frank rich’s problem and ours

with 5 comments

Frank Rich, as he often does in his best Sunday pieces for the NYT, gets into the seam to shout the obvious that the rest of the press cynically or idiotically ignores – in this case the fact that, for all the attention that’s been paid to Obama’s hawkish selections for State and Defense, his economic team is cut from the selfsame mold. In short, with both the imperial wars and the economic crisis, the very people who were involved in creating the problem are now going to be the ones appointed to pull us out…

This is what Rich is so good at, the emperor-has-no-clothes column, and this is what we’ve loved him for. But it is a love tinged with serious frustration as well, with this column no less than all the brilliant and brave ones he’s written about the war and terror over the past near-decade. We are frustrated because while he’s courageous at sniffing out the problem, he seems to stop just short, perpetually, of naming the real reasons for the disorder he describes.

Rich’s thesis today is that the economic team Obama’s assembled resembles the cabinet put together by Kennedy – JFK’s team of boy-wonders that somehow, despite their brilliance tumbled us into Vietnam. The payoff paragraph argues that it is an issue of personal defects, individual hubris, that makes these people make poor choices in crucial situations.

No, it’s the economic team that evokes trace memories of our dark best-and-brightest past. Lawrence Summers, the new top economic adviser, was the youngest tenured professor in Harvard’s history and is famous for never letting anyone forget his brilliance. It was his highhanded disregard for his own colleagues, not his impolitic remarks about gender and science, that forced him out of Harvard’s presidency in four years. Timothy Geithner, the nominee for Treasury secretary, is the boy wonder president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He comes with none of Summers’s personal baggage, but his sparkling résumé is missing one crucial asset: experience outside academe and government, in the real world of business and finance. Postgraduate finishing school at Kissinger & Associates doesn’t count.

Summers and Geithner are both protégés of another master of the universe, Robert Rubin. His appearance in the photo op for Obama-transition economic advisers three days after the election was, to put it mildly, disconcerting. Ever since his acclaimed service as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, Rubin has labored as a senior adviser and director at Citigroup, now being bailed out by taxpayers to the potential tune of some $300 billion. Somehow the all-seeing Rubin didn’t notice the toxic mortgage-derivatives on Citi’s books until it was too late. The Citi may never sleep, but he snored.

Geithner was no less tardy in discovering the reckless, wholesale gambling that went on in Wall Street’s big casinos, all of which cratered while at least nominally under his regulatory watch. That a Hydra-headed banking monster like Citigroup came to be in the first place was a direct byproduct of deregulation championed by Rubin and Summers in Clinton’s Treasury Department (where Geithner also served). The New Deal reform they helped repeal, the Glass-Steagall Act, had been enacted in 1933 in part because Citigroup’s ancestor, National City Bank, had imploded after repackaging bad loans as toxic securities in the go-go 1920s.

[…]

Post-Iraq, we’re unlikely to rush into a new Vietnam. But we ignore the past’s lessons at our peril. In his 20th-anniversary reflections, Halberstam wrote that his favorite passage in his book was the one where Johnson, after his first Kennedy cabinet meeting, raved to his mentor, the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, about all the president’s brilliant men. “You may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” Rayburn responded, “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

Halberstam loved that story because it underlined the weakness of the Kennedy team: “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.” That difference was clearly delineated in Vietnam, where American soldiers, officials and reporters could see that the war was going badly even as McNamara brusquely wielded charts and crunched numbers to enforce his conviction that victory was assured.

But of course, lots of people are a bit too smart for their own good – probably everyone and anyone who’s likely to be appointed to run Harvard or the US economy falls into the same camp. I would be willing to bet that the hubris Rich is naming is a constant in the managerial ranks of any society. No, the deflection that Rich performs here psychologizes or even theatricalizes that which is attributable to bad ideas. It transmutes a corrupt and corrupting ideology into a personal failure, an idiosyncratic flaw.

I hate to sound reflexive, to sound like I’m parrotting the party line, but the problem with Rich’s work – now and throughout the decade – is that as brave as he is in naming what is hiding in plain sight, he systematically refuses to lay blame where blame is due. In this case, neoliberal economics – the self-suspending rope ladder of financialization. We are to blame Rubin and Summers personally, just his earlier columns urged us to blame Bush and Rumsfeld and Rice personally. Rich has all the makings of a brilliant social analyst, a wide-angle reader of the American situation. But when he brings right to the heart of the darkness that he describes, we find not systems and ideas but always a soul in crisis, a man on the verge of sin or deep in sin and trying to scrabble his way out of it. We “blame Bush” – and, as is clear even from Rich’s column today, it is becoming ever more clear that the removal of the stumbling villain from the stage might not be the cathartic crisis point that augurs the end of the horrible piece we’ve been watching.

Still, I need to take care. Rich is brave, but not brave enough. My own argument here has become a performative repetition of the very problem I’m trying to diagnose in the column. I have ended up blaming Rich for casting personal blame when broader, structural claims are required….

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December 7, 2008 at 11:33 am

explaining us to each other, part one

with 6 comments

1. At an American public Christmas festival filled with children’s activites and rides, there will be too few (that is, no) stands selling alcoholic beverages. Why such a problem with drinking?

At a British public Christmas festival filled with children’s activites and rides, there will be too many (today at Hyde Park, one out of three) stands selling alcoholic beverages. Why such a problem with drinking?

2. Americans are baffled and intimidated by these:

Britons are baffled and intimidated by these:

3. On a crowded subway train at rush hour in New York, person B steps on person A’s toe or bumps person B thoughtlessly with his heavy computer bag. But person B keeps his mouth shut about it, because to talk shit would be – by social mandate – to force person A to talk shit back, and thus to invite serious escalation.

On a crowded Underground train at rush hour in London, person B steps on person A’s toe or bumps person B thoughtlessly with his heavy computer bag. Person B feels license to begin grumbling and vaguely talking shit about person A, since – by social mandate – the surrounding passengers will immediately blame person A if he responds in kind in his own defense, even if he is clearly the innocent party from the first.

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December 6, 2008 at 10:29 pm

Posted in america, britain