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Archive for February 23rd, 2009

the drama of austerity

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The Guardian last week on the rising demand for garden allotments in the UK:

The trust’s director general, Fiona Reynolds, said the scheme tapped into a mood in which, as a result of the recession, people’s priorities were changing from materialism towards “real” things such as spending time with family, and homegrown food.

Reynolds said: “There’s something in the air. More and more people want to grow their own fruit and vegetables. This isn’t just about saving money – it’s really satisfying to sow seeds and harvest the fruit and veg of your labour. By creating new growing spaces the National Trust can help people to start growing for the first time.”

Not long ago in the New York Times, on Japan and its falling consumer demand:

Younger people are feeling the brunt of that shift. Some 48 percent of workers age 24 or younger are temps. These workers, who came of age during a tough job market, tend to shun conspicuous consumption.

They tend to be uninterested in cars; a survey last year by the business daily Nikkei found that only 25 percent of Japanese men in their 20s wanted a car, down from 48 percent in 2000, contributing to the slump in sales.

Young Japanese women even seem to be losing their once- insatiable thirst for foreign fashion. Louis Vuitton, for example, reported a 10 percent drop in its sales in Japan in 2008.

“I’m not interested in big spending,” says Risa Masaki, 20, a college student in Tokyo and a neighbor of the Takigasakis. “I just want a humble life.”

The papers love this sort of story, which fits all sorts of long-established storylines. Among many other reasons: anxious self-imposed austerity is a more comforting emplotment of demand destruction than other contenders. Not having much choice in the matter,  a large fraction of humanity already eats the food that they grow themselves everyday without it being really newsworthy, and people not buying fancy clothes and cars happens all the time in a not quite narrativizable way. *

But still there’s something to this. Just something that’s not all that useful in its present form. I do happen to think that there probably is a hard-wired way that humans react to bad economic news. Whether the “wiring” actually happens on a neuro-psychological level or on the level of cultural precedent and morés, it doesn’t really matter. But likely there’s something in us that wants to eat a bit less when it looks like the eating might not be so great once this years harvest returns are processed, or because the droughts dried up all the crops – something that carries through to mute the reptile mind when we read that Citigroup is about to be nationalized or the like.

But it’s not all that useful an impulse, when repeatedly captured and characterized according to the plotlines on display above. What it would be useful to do, if we were to invest ourselves in small little counter-ideological projects, would be to attempt to turn the representation of these stories away from the endorsement of some sort of self-hating, self-lacerating fantasy of austere living (we should eat cabbage stew because we’ve been bad consumers!) toward a useful reevaluation of cultural priorities that might lead to a more useful long term result than the sort of thing that happens in individual households, at the grocery store, and in the garden plot. If the citizenry feels nauseously hung-over from the mode and speed and pitch of life during the bubble and its aftermath, it would be better encouraged to contemplate better, wider answers to such a malaise than neo-christian martyrdom by-storebrand purchases.

Zeitgeisty mass-reactions are real, harnessable. They are generally harnessed in service of the worst or the useless. This happens not simply because there are nefarious, implicit conspiracies to drive them in this direction. Sometimes there are, sometimes there aren’t, generally it’s way more complicated than that. I think this issue is one that people on our send tend to over-simplify and under-read. But there are opportunities for engagement and intervention and tide-turning, we we to think about what we’re doing and maybe work from a common starting place and toward a common if open end.

* Another little find, not yet processed, in re aggregate fiction, by the way.

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 23, 2009 at 11:32 pm

children shouldn’t smoke

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Someone recently told me – with all or at least some of the prefacing requisite to such a statement – that I am a bit childish about work. It is not simply that I grumble about having to do things that I don’t want to do. It is that I literally at this point won’t do them. That’s not quite right. I will do them, but I do them incredibly slowly, sulkily, inefficiently. I will read a review copy of a mongraph that should take me a night or two to finish over the course of a month, more than a month. I will allow to weigh down upon me and my time until the people around me are staring in amazement: how can you still be reading that? What else have you been doing? I answer: nothing, nothing – I have been working on nothing but this. And they shake their heads, make prefatory statements about the fact that what they are about to say comes only from a caring and respectful place, and then they will call me a child – a child in a hulking man’s body, but a child nevertheless.

One of the reasons that I smoke, aside from the heroin-level addictiveness of nicotene, is because it gives me leave to stroll around the neighborhood, thinking about the things I’d like to be writing instead of the work that I’m actually doing back in my office. Today I have been thinking that I’d like to write a piece about the essential if vaporous difference between the sort of life one lives as a semi-bourgie intellectual in London vs. the one that one lives (that I might have lived in New York). The essential, the vaporous. I am not talking about playgrounds and the difference between Sunday Lunch and Sunday Brunch, although of course those things have something to do with it too, are contributory factors or maybe symptoms. It’s hard to know the difference between the one and the other.

So I smoke and I think about that and then I go into the student shop and buy the papers and some mints to hide the tobacco stink when I get back to my department, the hallway, my office. It’s just the sort of thing for Journal X I think. They would love the geography involved, and I am singing a song that their readers, demographically, would want to listen to. Perhaps I should write a bit and send it on to Y.

Back to the monograph now, and my desk, and my fancy computer. The blog allows the smokebreak to linger, to materialize itself. It is definitely a cheaper habit and less carinogenic, literally if not metaphorically.

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 23, 2009 at 11:23 am

Posted in me

liebster vater, cher père, dearest father, дорогого отца, 最亲爱的父亲

with 2 comments

I am right now reading Kafka’s letter to his father. A few reactions, right in the middle of things:

  • If one has father issues (as I most certainly do, no did, no do, no did), one reads this perhaps as I do: with a voice inside saying things like No, it’s not like that. That’s close but it’s more like this. Which is a strange effect, when reading a “literary” text. I don’t, you know, do that with novels, or any other text I’ve ever read.
  • Therapy helps. Whatever I said in the previous point, I feel a bit distant from the intensity from this sort of letter, which is a good sign, I am sure. Proper psychotherapy helps, I am a big advocate.
  • This is the first time I am reading some Kafka that I actually feel like the text in question should not have been published. It feels like reading a very great man and writer on his very worst day. Perhaps it should have been published pseudononymously. Perhaps I won’t finish it because perhaps I shouldn’t finish it.
  • Father issues only get stranger and tougher – sorry to be obvious – when you are a son and then you have kids yourself, become a father yourself. As then you read a document like this from both sides of the “dearest,” don’t you.
  • One bit that’s particular poigniant to me is the bit about the verbal abuse of others. I understand just what he’s saying when Kafka writes the following:

    Your extremely effective rhetorical methods in bringing me up, which never failed to work with me, were: abuse, threats, irony, spiteful laughter, and—oddly enough—self-pity. I cannot recall your ever having abused me directly and in downright abusive terms. Nor was that necessary; you had so many other methods, and besides, in talk at home and particularly at the shop the words of abuse went flying around me in such swarms, as they were flung at other people’s heads, that as a little boy I was sometimes almost stunned and had no reason not to apply them to myself too, for the people you were abusing were certainly no worse than I was and you were certainly not more displeased with them than with me. And here again was your enigmatic innocence and inviolability; you cursed and swore without the slightest scruple; yet you condemned cursing and swearing in other people and would not have it.

I suppose that this is just the type of post that would have to go if I put my name on the blog, eh? You’re right, all of you – fuck it. The name stays off.

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 23, 2009 at 12:50 am

Posted in kafka