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Archive for December 2008

rookie mistake!

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I’ve been teaching as regular faculty for 3.5 years, 2 different institutions. You’d think I’d have learned by now that if you sit in your office when term isn’t in session, you will get asked by the chair or head to do things you don’t want to do. Usually there are 30 targets to snipe at; today there are probably 4 or 5. And I just took one for the team. She just went up the hall handing out the work, just enough for each of us…

From now on, the fucking library! Or my crappy starbucks! Idiot!

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December 15, 2008 at 4:21 pm

Posted in academia

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