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Archive for February 2009

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

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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.

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February 23, 2009 at 12:50 am

Posted in kafka

ridge running in north london

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I’ve been working way too hard this term. Since I had my daughter, I’ve made a point of taking weekends off from work. Somehow, this time around, it seems like I’ve been in the office almost every weekend at least for part of the time. Not nice. But this past week was “reading week,” the equivalent of “spring break” but not (for one thing, a lot of my students actually do seem to spend the period reading, which is rather amazing. It’s the exam culture over here, among other things, which merits another post altogether….) so I’ve been able to do normal stuff on weekends for at least a few days.

One of the big thrills about the prospect of moving over here was the amount of travelling we’d be able to do. I mean, we have a kid, but still – not having to do a long haul flight to go to all of these places is a big thrill. But in just over a year, we’ve been to…. Belgium. And the grand list of extra-London places we’ve visited in the UK still comes to Edinburgh and Cambridge, the latter visited (god!) twelve years ago.

We’ve been busy. London’s very very big, so you don’t easily get bored with it during your first year or so. So, despite the fact that we had freetime and no obligations during the last two weekends, we travelled a grand total of approximately six miles, there and back, there and back, in search of leisure activites. Today we went to Hampstead via Hampstead Heath.

To get to the Heath from where we live you can either take two buses, or one bus to Archway and then walk the rest of the way. We chose the latter, and when you do this you walk right past the southern side of Highgate Cemetery, where of course Marx is buried. I’ve done it countless times, but I’ve never gone in. I’m not even sure where the entrance is, but it’s definitely not on the Archway side. Not sure what it is about author/thinker sites that puts me somewhat randomly off them or onto them. I’ve walked up the side of a mountain to see Joyce’s grave in Zurich. I’ve skipped a day in Paris to go to Rouen to see the hospital where Flaubert grew up. When I was a kid, my wife and I drove to Lowell and saw Kerouac’s grave. But in college I lived right next door to Emily Dickinson’s house for three years but never visited it, not a single time. Hampstead, which I lived in for the first several months of my time here, has stuff that people flyover to see: Freud’s house, Keats’s house, etc. I’ve visited none and neither. I’m not some sort of bonfire of the fallacies type – I’m increasingly interested in artist’s lives, especially their material lives (money, where they lived, the actual writing process, where they wrote) and the relation to the works.

I’m closing my eyes right now and trying to decide if there was any literary site I could see anywhere in the world what would it be. I can’t think of a single place. I do like walking past lots of literary sites in a day without going in them, like today, so I guess I’d just choose that.

Ah, here’s one side of Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath. My first experience of North London, the place where I now live, came with a shocking surprise. Before my trip out for my job interview, I’d never really left – as most tourists don’t – central London. But the day before my interview (terrible jinx faced and beaten in doing this, and as a baseball player of yore, I am a deep believer in the jinx) I wanted to walk around to see some neighborhoods where we might actually live were we to move here, as I’d be flying out the morning after and so there’d be no time. Naively, I visited St. John’s Wood and Hampstead. Look, I’m sure lots of people coming to New York to live are thinking, dunno, the East Village and Brooklyn Heights or something before they see the pricetags hanging from the doorknobs. And in fact we did end up living in a subleased place in Hampstead to start, so it all worked out in the end. (Also, that night was the first time I met IT and Owen Hatherley in the flesh, at the New Piccadilly, soon sadly gone… So it was a big day for me…)

Anyway, what was the surprise? North London is fucking hilly. Rather mountainous, actually. That day I took the Jubilee Line from St. John’s Wood to Finchley Road, as it looks on the map like an easy stroll from the later to Hampstead, half-a-mile tops.

But in reality, it’s like half-a-mile over and half-a-mile straight up. Anyway, that was my first brush with a geographical formation that I deal with now every single day. My block is relatively flat, but the block to a south rises I’d say 15 stories from one cross street to the next. It’s just a continuation of the formation that makes Parliament Hill a hill. Here’s wikipedia on it:

To the north of the City a ridge capped by sands of the Bagshot formation forms high ground (in places around 130m) including Hampstead Heath and Highgate Hill. The ridge continues eastwards in the London clay to Crouch Hill and Queen’s Wood. To the south, fingers of the ridge run down towards Primrose Hill and Parliament Hill. This ridge is a surviving area of Tertiary rocks younger than the London Clay, surrounded by former routes of the Thames where much younger deposits overlie the clay. Smaller outliers of younger Tertiary high ground exist to the west of the main ridge including Harrow Hill where Bagshot sands survive and at Horsendon Hill and Hanger Lane, where the Claygate Beds of the top of the London Clay formation are capped by much younger gravels deposited by the Thames.

Yep, that’s my ridge. Anyway, Marx used to bring his family for picnics on Parliament Hill, which wasn’t far from his house (no longer in existence) located in the interstitial space between Kentish Town, Belsize Park, and South End Green – Gospel Oak.

We wanted to have lunch at an embarrassing place that I cannot name in Hampstead (no, not McDonalds, better than that, more um French. But fuck are the Croque Ms ever good, and the Hampstead one is the only branch  I’ve found that will serve you a Stella en pression, that is to say in proper portions) but were hungry upon arriving at the Heath so we stopped at the pleasantly obsolescent (they’re tearing it down, I overheard) cafe near the PH tennis courts. My daughter’s doll took an awkward looking nap on the table.

There was some sort of gigantic cross country meet (is that the right word here?) on at the Heath today. It was very odd to see, here, now, since I went to tons of these when I was in high school as my best friend was a big time long-distance runner. I remembered today that we used to egg each other on, not very helpfully, to get disastrously drunk the night before our biggest games / meets, my baseball games and his meets. And I remembered that both of us plunged toward mediocrity, probably blowing chances of scholarships and so on, as we moved from our early high school careers toward the end. Monstrous and sober sophomores turned into middle-of-the-pack seniors, but we filled bucket after bucket with puke in my basement. My hand-eye coordination got shakier and shakier; he tended more and more to get cramped in the middle of races. Demon drink! He still runs. I can’t find an email address to contact him at, but I find reports of the races he’s run for a major NYC running club.

Feel like I’ve said this before, but my favorite thing about the lower end of Parliament Hill fields, where the playgrounds are, is the fact that the Overground runs right next to it. You can almost feel like you’re in proper Europe, Europe proper, pushing your kid on a swing with a council-cafe bought latte in your other hand as a blue and gold Overground train shuffle by just beyond the fence. I missed the picture that got it all in – you’ll have to do with an image of a train idling at Gospel Oak station.

People famously fly kites from the top of Parliament Hill as it is very very windy there. We forgot the kite today, so we did not.

When you leave Hampstead Heath to the south, you enter a really lovely area called South End Green. If it weren’t for school complications that we were saying today we should have just gotten over, we’d probaly be living in a flat there instead of the house here. It’s fucking lovely, one of my favorite parts of London. Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy both lived there at one point, among many many others. Hard to explain just why, beyond that, it’s so attractive to me – it’s still expensive, it’s full of American expats (yuck!), it’s underserved when it comes to life-necessities, and the transit is poor. Instead of an explanation of why I love it so much, despite its flaws, you’ll have to do with the photo above. It’s a branch of Le Pain Quotidien, which is a poshish chain, Belgian not French, that moved into this corner after a fancy burger place closed just as we were moving out of the area. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is that this was the location of the bookshop where Orwell worked and about which he wrote “Bookshop Memories”:

But as soon as I went to work in the bookshop I stopped buying books. Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books were boring and even slightly sickening. Nowadays I do buy one occasionally, but only if it is a book that I want to read and can’t borrow, and I never buy junk. The sweet smell of decaying paper appeals to me no longer. It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles.

Next we went to Hampstead village proper, had lunch; went to the Waterstones, where I bought Kafka’s Letter to my Father, which somehow I’ve never read but really should; checked prices on a venue for our daughter’s birthday party (wtf? a venue? what happened to some cheapass pinup pin-the-tail on the donkey scotchtaped to the wall and two cans of juicy juice set out on an unclothed table? ah, kids today) but I forgot to take pictures. This despite the fact that Hampstead is the only place where I myself have ever actually recognized a celebrity other than Peggy Noonan (another long story) – but not long ago I saw Russell Brand (for the benefit of Americans who won’t – and shouldn’t – know who he is) eating brunch at a cafe by aforementioned Waterstones. I have no doubt at all I’ve seen lots of them, but they’ve mostly remained, as it were, in the optical unconscious because I hate celebrities. But on the way home I got a shot of Royal Free Hospital, which is a brutalist masterpiece, and apparently the first hosptial designed (in Europe or the world I am not sure) with the aid of CAD. Ah, computers should berth us when we are sick, as only they really know how it feels.

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February 22, 2009 at 12:49 am

Posted in london, photoessay

last in a series of posts… you’ll see….

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Ah, there’s no way that you could have known, but if you just read the previous post about Dickens, you just read not simply a post but an experiment in blogging. Surprised? I bet you are! And as the title of this one suggests, just as that was the first of a new set, this is the last of an old set. Now you’re confused as well as surprised. Sorry!

Long story. I doubt you’ll read to the end, but I’ll tell you anyway.

Little known fact: I’ve been blogging longer or way longer than anyone on my blogroll with the possible exception of Kotsko and definitely (I think!) Ftrain, who barely blogs anymore, and I’m not sure he ever considered what he did “blogging” anyway. I’ve changed blog addys at least twice that I can remember. There was an original site under my real name that I got rid of when I first heard the siren shriek of the job market during, I think, my second or third year of grad school. (I believe that the google trove for my real name still includes my listing on a very early blogroll at Crooked Timber, believe it or not, as well as some snarky comments in response to a post on Judith Butler…) My second was called, er, Cultural Revolution – that’s the reason why some people still call me CR, which was my handle at both Long Sunday and during the Holbonic Wars at The Valve. Now this one, which I acquired to lose the old name (look, I’d just come back from China when I started the other, which really is the opposite of an excuse, I know…) and so that I could have a free and clean wordpress.com account.

I have, to date, posted 63 posts considering whether I should take down the blog or not, unless I missed a few or ten. Now look, it’s a form that I love, and that has won me some very good friends, and that has in fact served as a useful public notebook for coming up with ideas for work (my semi-started second big academic project, which has to date yielded me several good conference papers and served to do the job that a second project needs to do at job interviews, was wholly born on here….)

In fact, it’s safe to say – and this is a big statement, but a safe one, I am pretty sure – that my little lived existence right now, today, would be much less full and exciting if I didn’t have the blog. Let’s leave it at that.

On the other hand, and its a big other hand, I am – you may be surprised to learn – an extremely perfectionist writer in my real life. Not in some ways, ways that really matter. I’ll never send out a manuscript again without paying a copyeditor to work it through or doing it myself, I can be a bit sloppy. Not that sort of perfectionism, unfortunately, but I want things that I write to be really smart and perfect. Really really smart and perfect actually, as far as the ideas go, the articulation of the ideas, the relevance of the ideas, you get the picture. Basically, I pretty much refuse to write unless I am overturning some major received idea or preconceived notion about an issue – unless, that is, what I am writing can be considered groundbreaking work. I have broken major ground with Conrad, I have sort of broken ground with Joyce, and I have a piece still in the can about Joyce that I know breaks some serious fucking ground, but I am resistant to publishing it despite spontaneous offers to do so after verbal delivery of said piece as it’s almost the only unpublished thing in the book I’m working on, which given a summer’s work (and proper copyediting) will break reasonably big ground, I think, in the study of modernism in general. Unlike on the blog, I am also not a self-indulgent writer – in real life we’re talking. Above all, I am an exceptionally slow writer. Slow slow slow. But it’s worked for me, in some ways anyway, some very material ways, so far.

Now, maybe you can see where this is going. The blog provides a space for me to write in a way that I don’t normally allow myself to do. I can’t keep a journal – I’ve tried since I was a kid and it just makes me feel sort of schizophrenic, writing things for which I am the only audience. On the blog, I can write at speed, I can be sloppy and self-indulgent, write misery memoir bits to see where they take me, take up unpromising leads and add no value but still post them, etc etc etc. And sometimes they pan out! But, given my natural tendencies as far as writing goes, there’s a bit of grate and spark that happens after, some uncomfortable friction, when I look back at what I’ve done on here, whether a few minutes later or the next morning for a few months hence.

This makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps you’ve noticed the number of retracted posts lately. That makes me uncomfortable and is a sign of underlying uncomfortableness as well. Not good! I’m uncomfortable enough as it is – I don’t need to go looking for new delivery systems and means of self-infliction, for god’s sake!

I’ve come to realize that the problem might not be with blogging itself. I am not going to take the blog down; I probably won’t ever. I have been talking this over with people and stewing in private moments about it this week, and finally tonight I’ve come to a conclusion about what to do.

I am tempted to stick my own name up on the blog. Ooooooo. Yep I know.  I know. I know what you’re thinking: yeah, maybe, um, yeah, maybe you should think twice about that, given, erm, content and quality. I know. But let’s do a breakdown of the ups and downs:

Contra:

  • I could get in trouble with my job. Now, this is England, and things aren’t so terrifying as they are in America, and probation’s not tenure. But still, at the place I’m at, there remains a possibility that writing stuff could get me called into an office of some sort, somewhere. There’s non-blog precedent that’s rather scary etc.
  • Anxiety about getting in trouble with my job, in times like these particularly, could stop me from writing, well, not just about some things, but about anything at all.
  • The stuff that I write off-blog seems to be good. At least some have thought so. I’m going to water my corpus down, turn it to mush, front the back and back the front, all not nice!
  • I find it therapeutic and sometimes interesting to write about myself, even in a personal, perhaps uncomfortably personal way. That will certainly come to an end with the end of pseudonymity.

Pro:

  • I will feel tons more pressure to write only good things on here, things that I would be proud of in real life. Therefore there will be higher quality, if lower quantity, and I won’t (probably) feel that grating embarrassed feeling the morning after anymore.
  • I won’t write about myself anymore. Which I shouldn’t do and I’ve been told, repeatedly, I shouldn’t do. Or at least not the way I generally do.
  • My readership will likely spike. Watch. It will. I’ll report back, but you’ll see…
  • My wife’s principal argument, as she is a proper writer and blog-averse, and who gets paid for her work: that though it is properly communist or whatever to do as I do, it is insane to write without name attached, as nothing will ever come of it. I actually, for better or worse, hear what she is saying here.

There’s more to include in the lists, but I’m getting tired, so let’s wrap up. I am scared to do it, and scared to lose my pseudoblog, but I am thinking it might be best. So, here’s the deal. I’m not ready to take the leap just yet. But from the Dickens post forward, not including this one, and for an indefinite period, I am only going to write things on here that I would consider acceptable if this weren’t a pseudoblog, if my name were on the masthead. I’d love to hear what any of you think about what I’m thinking. But I figure it’s worth a trial run, at least. And at least it will clear out the mainpage before colleagues and students (and oh christ family????) start coming around and finding notes on my early-mid-life crisis or therapeutic epiphanies and so on….

(Ooof. Family. Jesus I forgot about that. There’s a chance they might not really understand google yet. Let’s hope. Maybe this will be healthy. Does wordpress.com include an IP blocker? Does anything? Oh lord…. My god, it’s one thing to write Safe for Work, another thing to write Safe for Mom and Dad…. I’ll ask at therapy on Tuesday….)

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February 21, 2009 at 1:09 am

Posted in blogs, me

fallen women and aggregate fiction

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John Bowen in the TLS on a new book about Urania College, a “refuge for fallen women” that Charles Dickens established in Shepherd’s Bush in the 1840s:

Hartley is fascinated by the lost “Casebook” in which Dickens recorded the stories of all the Urania women. They were obliged to tell him everything and, even if they sometimes lied or omitted things, it would still be an extraordinary document to read, for Dickens, we know, gained people’s confidence readily and was a deft and accurate reporter. Hartley has hunted widely, but the book probably went up in smoke in the great bonfire of his papers that Dickens lit one afternoon in the garden of Gad’s Hill. I think she overstates the case when she describes it as Dickens’s “ur-text, the book behind his other books” or posits that in filling it in he was writing “his sixteenth novel, but one he knew he could never publish”. She is on surer ground when she draws parallels between Dickens’s work at Urania Cottage and his own secret autobiographical writing. For, as he first imagined and then created the home for these young victims of bad parents or bad luck, he was also quietly exploring his own escape from childhood poverty and the street-life of nineteenth-century London. However different the successful and prosperous middle-aged novelist was from fifteen-year-old Emma Spencer, already a veteran of the Clerkenwell Workhouse and the Field Lane Ragged School when she arrived in Shepherd’s Bush, he also strongly identified with her and her kind. “A sloppy education”, he wryly confided to Miss Coutts, “is a kind of bringing up, that I think I can thoroughly understand.”

This is most clear in the dual obligation – storytelling, followed by silence – that marked the new beginning. Urania women were obliged to tell their story to Dickens but, once they had done so, were forbidden ever to refer to it again, either to each other, the staff at the home, or in their future lives. The parallel with the ways that Dickens handled his own family’s shameful secrets is striking. After John Dickens was freed from prison and the twelve-year-old Charles was released from Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, the Dickens family never spoke about the events again. His parents, Dickens wrote, were “stricken dumb upon it. I have never heard the least allusion to it, however far off and remote, from either of them”. He, by contrast, did tell the story but, like the Urania women, only to a single ear, that of his friend John Forster, who revealed nothing until after Dickens’s death. Telling the story once, then silence and a new start: for the Urania women, as for Dickens himself, a unique, taboo-breaking act of narration would act as a bridge to a new life.

All very thrilling, the proto-psychotherapeutic approach cum content-collection thing, the male author with notebook amid teenage fallen women (that he’s saving, that he’s transporting) thing.

But more pertinently, this semi-novelistic “Casebook” also would seem to provide one sort of model for the aggregate fiction (should I call it “aggregated realism”?) that I’ve been on about lately, no?

If I lived like Alain de Botton, I might might be tempted to throw myself into rewriting the Casebook as a historical novel at once accurate and blissfully anachronistic. It’s a fantastic idea, and if you have tons of free time, there – it’s yours. Credit me where the credits go. But given my lack of time (all that Dickens to teach, among many other things, all that other stuff to research), would be tempting in the shape of an updated and/or even dystopian model, that is if the dystopian genre hasn’t fizzled under the candlecap of the dystopia now were about to live through…

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February 21, 2009 at 12:03 am

the mystical physiology of advertising

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Interesting article in the NYT about an exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs on French TV advertising.
But one thing in it has left me intrigued and confused. The guy speaking in the following paragraph is the “chief creative officer for Havas, the country’s second-biggest advertising agency”:

Or as Mr. Séguéla formulated the situation: American commercials go from the head to the wallet, British ones from the head to the heart, French, from the heart to the head. That accounts for why, as in a classic French commercial for Canal Plus, the French pay television station, a man describes a movie about emperor penguins in Antarctica to a woman who pictures hundreds of Napoleons sliding around the ice. Or why, in an ad for Air France, sexy models use clouds as pillows, clearly not dreaming about low fares and on-time departures.

Could be that I’m that I’m again taking throwaway langauge too seriously, but I’d love to understand what all of the head-to-wallet, head-to-heart, heart-to-head stuff really means. The idea that there are national trajectories to ads, or even to the little plots that constitute ads, is too attractive not to wonder about for a bit…

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February 19, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Posted in ads

the rhythm method

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One of the many things I’ve been figuring out lately about myself is what to make of my religious upbringing. That sounds wrong: “religious upbringing.” Makes it sound like we sat around discussing Bible stories at night instead of watching TV. Wasn’t like that. But I did go to Catholic school from the age of 3 till 18. 16 years of religious education, that makes. And I attended Mass, weekly, from 3 or so until 17, when I got my driver’s license and I could claim I was going to church and instead go sit around in exotic Barnes and Nobles scattered around northern NJ. I most definitely, and thickly, went through the whole I am going to hell, definitely going to hell. I promise I’ll never lock myself in the bathroom again and do that to myself. I am going to hell phase. Not nice! Horrible at the time, then came to seem trivial and cliche a bit later once I’d “lost my faith,” now seems more serious and deformative than I had thought, those early years of sexual efflorence while still under the chastening, condemnatory wing of Jesus H. Christ.

It’s funny. During a moment of real stress the cause of which I can’t quite put my finger on now, I started going to Mass again for a week or two during my second year of grad school. Talked to my wife about converting, even. (There was a funny scene where I tried to explain to her why she couldn’t go up and receive communion with the rest of us Catholics – she still thinks I’m crazy, but when we talk to other Lapsers they agree that, no, I told her the right thing). I can’t remember now what this was about – I think it was an intellectual crisis of some sort but it remains hazy.

But then again, on the other hand, there’s this sort of thing:

…I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

I always listened quite closely when people told me to listen. Quite a lot of Catholic education is self-contradictory, equivocating, incoherent. You’d put your hand up and ask, But father, does that really mean that rich people basically can’t go to heaven? I mean, if that’s what Jesus is saying, it means that… and they would sort of brush you off and say that it’s a lot more complicated than that. Or sometimes, they’d have a well-prepped response to blur things out a bit. “Rich” doesn’t mean “rich” in the sense that we think it… Etc… It was a frustrating, confusing experience for someone with a predilection to very, very careful reading and taking things very seriously in general.

Even though there’s no heaven, and no kingdom of god, I happen to believe, no know, that Jesus was right about the rich man. This is how the religious stuff has stuck on me, absolute rules and imperatives unanchored by any visible system of reward or punishment. Ads without products, in a sense. But true to the first and basic a priori of religion itself, just because this seemingly necessary structure of consequence is invisible doesn’t mean it’s not there… It may be all the more there because I can’t touch it, edit it, argue with it….

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February 19, 2009 at 11:46 am

Posted in selfcriticism

ohno! noro!

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Ugh, and things were going so well! Seems that, as of 3 AM this morning, I’ve come down with the “winter vomiting bug,” aka a norovirus.

Given how bad it would be if either of the other members of my household came down with this (very infectious) malady, I’ve been quarantined up in our guest room all day. Total consumption: one bottle of Vittel, a few bites of an orange ice-pop (didn’t go well, not at all), one bottle of Lucozade, and two bowls of lovely red Jello.

It’s only been an hour or two that I’ve felt well enough to do anything other than lay in my bed and drift between half-sleep and wall-staring thought. Boring! Hideously boring! Not nice. I shouldn’t leave the house tomorrow, but I might go into the office anyway.

Anyway, viruses baffle me. They’re not quite alive – can only exist parasitically within another cell, the cell that they are infecting. Little more than a strip of RNA or DNA sheathed in fat, their sole purpose seems to be the reproduction of this code strip. Sure, that’s what we’re all for, but odd to think of something that doesn’t have any sort of independent existence doing this. My stomach and intestines are plagued with information bent of self-copying.

If something’s going to make me projectile vomit for hours on end, make me miss work and going out, and keep me sequestered up here with nothing to do but watch BBC News on my computer, I just wish it was a bit more ontologically clear and distinct!

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February 18, 2009 at 7:29 pm

Posted in torture

david harvey all up in delong’s comment boxes

with 2 comments

Interesting! Brad DeLong slams David Harvey (at one point as a provisioner of “pointless intellectual masturbation”) and Harvey shows up in the comment box to defend himself. The final paragraph of Harvey’s response:

These are dangerous times and I would have thought the definition of fair and unbiased to which DeLong subscribes might go somewhat further than that given by Bill O’Reilly. What is needed is generous critique, the taking of whatever is positive in competing accounts and a real struggle to come to terms with ways we might better proceed. It will be hard enough to save capitalism from the capitalists but the real tragedy here is that the real message from DeLong’s commentary is that we need also to save capitalism from the economists.

(Ha! Found it after I googled for “William James chronic masturbation” because I was trying to say something funny in the last post about this sort of thing… Much better that I didn’t, I think….)

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February 18, 2009 at 12:22 am

Posted in crisis, economics

peril and promise of automatism

with 4 comments

William James in his Psychology: Briefer Course:

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.

Attractive idea, yes? It’s hard for me to say. No, that has to be wrong and is awful. There are no such things as “higher thoughts.” But of course there are, we all know just what he means. Why do I keep blogging meaningless shit from my life? Shouldn’t I hand my life over to the “effortless custody”?

I am going to work tomorrow for at least eight hours and I am going to think about absolutely nothing but work for those eight hours. I’ll let you know if any “higher thoughts” are produced.

(Ugh… wasn’t even thinking of this when I wrote the kernel of this post… But there it is….)

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February 18, 2009 at 12:06 am

Posted in distraction

freepapers for all! socialize the news!

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Clearing some old links out today. The topic of this one keeps me up at night, and I basically advocate exactly what they advocate. David Swensen and Michael Schmidt in January in the New York Times:

As long as newspapers remain for-profit enterprises, they will find no refuge from their financial problems. The advertising revenues that newspaper Web sites generate are not enough to sustain robust news coverage. Though The New York Times Web site attracted 20 million unique users in October, Web-driven revenues support only an estimated 20 percent of the paper’s current staff.

As newspapers go digital, their business model erodes. A 2008 research report from Sanford C. Bernstein & Company explained, “The notion that the enormous cost of real news-gathering might be supported by the ad load of display advertising down the side of the page, or by the revenue share from having a Google search box in the corner of the page, or even by a 15-second teaser from Geico prior to a news clip, is idiotic on its face.”

By endowing our most valued sources of news we would free them from the strictures of an obsolete business model and offer them a permanent place in society, like that of America’s colleges and universities. Endowments would transform newspapers into unshakable fixtures of American life, with greater stability and enhanced independence that would allow them to serve the public good more effectively.

(Found this article, btw, via this one….)

It keeps me up at night. I’m a newsprint fetishist from way back – from the sports pages of the Newark Star-Ledger (this story almost made me cry) forward through to the fact that the thought all the way at the back of the line that one of the thrilling things about moving to England would be the wide range of papers I’d get to pick from everyday. Remember an embarrassing scene on one of my birthdays during grad school when a friend came by and saw the big ol’ stack of foreign papers my wife had so sweetly gotten me on the occassion. You, um, this is what you want for your birthday? I sheepishly nodded, yep, exactly this. And I’ve said before that one of the better barometers of my general mood and disposition is the number of papers that I buy during a day. (Today was OK, fair to good. Purchased IHT, the Guardian, Wall Street Journal-Europe, The Economist, and read the two evening freepapers. There are bigger, happier days than that… You should see me getting on a long-haul flight – pretty embarrassing.)

But the fact of the matter is that the internet is only good at recirculating what the printed papers generate. They die, and it’s nothing but endless stories about Kate Moss’s now womanly boobs and, I dunno, someone else’s boobs. Put the dying things in foundations, fund them from on high. We all walk around with stupid fantasies that we’re going to be writing local histories or photographing bridges when the shit finally really does drop during this crisis. But the best way, if anyone wanted to do a quick hitting revitalization of culture and the cultural employment market, would be to let a thousand newsprint flowers bloom and let papers local and national spend their time becoming one stop shops for information and art and all the other good things in life rather than sweating themselves to death looking for a department store to place a Saturday morning lingerie ad or someone to put their 2002 VW Jetta Wagon up for sale.

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February 17, 2009 at 11:48 pm

Posted in news

just in the nick of time

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From the NYT last week:

Hundreds of buildings commissioned by the Works Progress Administration and Roosevelt’s other “alphabet” agencies are being demolished or threatened with destruction, mourned or fought over by small groups of citizens in a new national movement to save the architecture of the New Deal. In July, at the Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico, a dozen buildings built in the Spanish Revival style in the 1930s, including murals with Native American themes, were bulldozed. In Chicago, architectural historians have joined with residents of Lathrop Homes — riverfront rows of historic brick public housing — to try to persuade the Chicago Housing Authority not to raze the complex. In Cotton County, Okla., a ruined gymnasium has only holes where windows used to be. Across the country, schools, auditoriums and community centers of the era are headed for the wrecking ball.

Relatedly, go read Owen in the NS on the Finsbury Health Centre.

(Should have registered this long ago, but do you know how damn cool it is to open up the New Statesman nearly every week and find new work by Owen in there? Some weeks, like this one, twice!  Anyway, overdue to say, yes, this is very cool…)

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February 17, 2009 at 11:24 pm

Posted in architecture

friedman without lexus no olive tree neither

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It was like the start of one of those Thomas Friedman columns from the early days – the start but without the argument, without the world is now flat, the history is now over, the Dow 36,000 is inevitable.

I was walking down Tottenham Court Road on my way to work at midday when I decided to stop into the local McDonalds outlet and see how the product held up after its six hour flight from Newark.

Mmmm, reader, can report it was tasty good and justlikehome. Why the fuck do I bother with the weird sandwich varieties, the prawn, the “coronation chicken,” the mexican (don’t ask),  the hawaiian (who knew that philly cream cheese was so big on the big island – I guess they’re referring to the part during the luau when the pig is yanked off the spit and dropped into a big vat of cheezspread!) when I could have a medium Big Mac meal for £3.60 each and every day?

[Update: ooops. Another annoying NYT columnist, David Brooks this time, has beat me to the punch today:

The folks at Pew asked one other interesting question: Would you rather live in a community with a McDonald’s or a Starbucks? McDonald’s won, of course, but by a surprisingly small margin: 43 percent to 35 percent. And that, too, captures the incorrigible nature of American culture, a culture slowly refining itself through espresso but still in love with the drive-thru.

OK. Now I feel a little bad. Sated, but bad…. I’ll make up for it by going to Starbucks in a few hours….]

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February 17, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Posted in empire

“though he were dead, yet shall he live”

with one comment

Ah yardwork, not gardening, for I am ineluctably American. I do not finesse and I do not plant little flowers. I chop and rip, I should have a machete, not clippers.

My daughter sat in her cat chair and rhapsodized a song about a heroine who built the “tower, the Tower of London” and then is imprisoned in said Tower, only to be rescued by a boy named Elmer. Fucking Disneyplots! Still, the song was lovely….

As for me, I was happily and mindlessly raking up the thick coat of leaves until I struck and killed a hidden toad with my rake. This was upsetting, for he was huge and sentinent looking. And he looked, in his inverted dead state, like a full-sized human heart, just laying there damp on the scruff.

I turned my attentions to other parts of our pocket garden. I thought about writing a poem about it, the rake bit, the toad bit, the heart bit. Random death from the air at the end of a HomeBase bought metal rake, all in the midst of warm and wet and animally leaf-sleep.

When I turned back to see once again, the toad was gone! Lazarus toad! I started to tell my daughter about Lazarus when she asked, but couldn’t make it through for it is a silly, silly story.

The fucker ruined the poem too. But I’m glad he’s still alive, if poked and bleeding and less certain about his world than he was a few minutes ago…

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February 17, 2009 at 10:48 am

Posted in such as it is

“personally, i always preferred lipton’s”

with 5 comments

I promised the Voice That Whispers in My Ear at Night (hereafter VinE – I mean for this post and future posts) that I would a) read for two hours then b) write not-blogposts for an hour or two. Ooops! I will make it up by posting something serious and potentially work-facilitating.

I’m the comments to my post on macroeconomic microfictions / fiction in the aggregate, Dave suggests (if I have it right) that I work from individual focus toward panoptic aggregation via a terminal wide-angle shot, one that reveals that the selfsame story is going on for a whole bunch of people at the very same time. I could do this, and will do I’m sure, but let me show you something that I think about, unreconstructed modernist that I am.

Some of you, I know, won’t like this clip, but allow it me it as it shows something relatively quickly and clearly.

(Now: if you have 15 minutes, watch the whole thing. If you have 8 minutes or so, you’ll be ok. Watch the first 8 minutes and you’ll figure out the trick if you’re paying close attention. If you only have 4 minutes, just watch the first 2 and the last 2 minutes, you’ll still get the point…)

So it’s Anthony Minghella’s 2000 version of Beckett’s 1963 Play. I happen to think it’s pretty fantastic. OK, Minghella’s bit is OK, but the play itself is head-slammingly perfect. And I actually really like the performance by the britishy superstars involved.

Let me just say it again. I absolutely love every single thing about this play. If you’re looking for me, where my heart lies aesthetically, this is a fairly good crystallization in 15 minutes. I’ll say why, I hope, in the course of writing this post and answering Dave’s comment.

Just to keep things simple, let’s talk about Minghella’s version, as it is a bit different from the scripted version of the play. And in fact, his variations speak to exactly the question that I’m trying to get at in writing this. (Oof. Right there, all of a sudden, this fell into being something that I should write for real, not for blog. Did you see that? Started sounding like someone who actually writes about drama….)

Now, Beckett / Minghella’s Play drives at the generic from two different angles, in two different ways. The first way is the Minghella addition. Those panning shots that reveal, most strikingly at the end, that we’re in some sort of place where everybody is chattering on in just the same way, perhaps about exactly the same sort of thing, except, we are led to imagine, in their own way. Same yet different. What other sort of story do we expect these other urn-dwellers would tell?

(This runs a bit far from Beckett’s script, which does call for a chorus, but it seems to be a chorus composed of the three characters – the two women and the man – themselves. They are to speak a sort of barely discernable scattershot redux of their previous language. But, no, in Beckett’s version, there are no other urns, no other urn dwellers, there is no whole world or hell of similarity in difference… Minghella’s retraction of the camera to see all these others is his own addition to the work….)

I think Minghella’s tactic actually does work, if cheaply, but works only as an underscoring of what we already should know from what we’ve seen of the three characters themselves and their words. And here is where we find the second, and ultimately more satisfying, mode of rendering the generic available here.

For it is the story itself that we’re bound up in here – this tawdry, ultimately boring story of some sort of utterly predictable love triangle, and the emotional atmospherics that are concomitant with it – that is the first and best vehicle of the genericness of the play. People, Beckett seems to say, get caught up in these things, the things spur endless amounts of chattering solipsism, we cannot stop spitefully talking about them, about ourselves, even if there is no one left to listen, nobody who would possibly stay to listen to what we have to say. The amazing false profundities on display, the cliche takeaway – Adulterers, take heed: never admit! – already tell us all we need to know, before the pan, before the wide shot, about the play’s take on the ostensible subject matter at hand.

The formal devices of the play and the stage-directions work to intensify this effect. First, and most obviously, there’s the fact that the play turns at midpoint only to repeat itself in its entirety, which brings a hellishness to bear that preempts Minghella’s setting of his film version in the place that Clov can see out the windows in Endgame. Whatever individual interest, whatever romantic frisson, is left after the first go-round is decisively killed off when we hear the same damn thing again in full. And the mode of delivery indicated by the directions (and, I think, impeccably followed by Thomas, Stevenson, and Rickman in this version,) only make things worse…. that is to say better.

Faces impassive throughout. Voices toneless except where an expression is indicated.

Rapid tempo throughout.

It’s all fast and underbreath – the voice of neurosis, or of prayer said rote in order to finish quickly and get on to something else. Thy kingdomcome, thy willbedone, on earthasitisinheaven. The impassivity of the speakers signals that the words, the words that press up for no interlocutor,  press up to be said because they, situationally, have to be said, the situation requires their saying. So florid, so ostensibly full of emotion and relevance, uttering them (and that’s what they’re doing here – uttering) undercuts them, leaves them as all too human psychopathology, the stuff you say when your mind is out of your control because you’re caught in an altogether familar situation.

Ack. I need to get to sleep! But for now, let’s just put it this way. The panning move on Minghella’s part would be worthless, a false suggestion of true genericity, if not for all the steps that Beckett’s already taken to make sure that the foregrounded stuff is what it is, is generic. The pan, the wide shot, forces the point – but one should only force (right, VinE?) what’s ready and appropriate to be forced. This is the capacity that I’m looking to develop – the widening out works, but only when there’s generic ready there for the widening. Or in fact, as with Minghella’s version, the widening shot works mostly – only – when it’s there to reindicate, to underscore, to clarify, to intensify. We can see all the other cars in the parking lot, in other words, but that only does what I want it to do once it’s clear that the foreground story is, in a sense, the story of behind all the other cars in the parking lot. I have no problem tipping my hand, but I want to be sure first that I have a hand worthy of being tipped.

Anyway, a post that is not likely to come – as it’s a part of my book that I will dutifully revise MTWTF this summer, has to do with the initial and literal announcement of the generic as the principal issue of what will become modernism at the start of Madame Bovary. This bit, and sorry for the French, but it’s untranslatable, sets it out in writing:

Nous avions l’habitude, en entrant en classe, de jeter nos casquettes par terre, afin d’avoir ensuite nos mains plus libres; il fallait, dès le seuil de la porte, les lancer sous le banc, de façon à frapper contre la muraille en faisant beaucoup de poussière; c’était là le genre.

Now remember, the word genre has a triple meaning in French. Here it’s “the way things are done,” but of course it also means literary genre. Further, it also means gender. But that’s another story altogether, he whispers to the VinE, whom he hopes is pleased that he didn’t totally fuck his night, even if he didn’t quite do what he had promised her he would….

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February 17, 2009 at 1:42 am

Posted in beckett, flaubert, generic, genre

dear sir or madam

with 3 comments

Ha! Helen DeWitt writes a fantasy of what life would be like if I wasn’t a fully employed and accountable member of the teaching profession:

2008 was supposed to be the year I stopped smoking, stopped drinking, went to the gym every day and finished five books. It didn’t work out that way; one reason is that there were rather a lot of people to deal with who wanted references.

[…]

I don’t like to sabotage applicants who are two days from their deadline; unfortunately it’s not easy to know how to notify all the people who are vaguely thinking: ‘I might ask HD for a reference if I decide to go in for X.’ I’m hoping some of these people read the blog; if you do, bear in mind that I won’t be writing references until 2010.

In the snip are a set of rude/unreasonable/inefficient things that people have done in the course of asking her for references. I know them all. In fact, I am pretty sure that almost none of the requests that I’ve gotten in the last year didn’t fulfill at least one of these criteria.

Ah but whatever. DeWitt’s lucky – she seems to be writing for friends and acquaintances. I write for students, and so you have to put up with the shit that they pull or else you’d have rafts and rafts of unemployed advisees, tutees, and graduate students. It’s part of the job, and I guess it’s why I get my what ₤2000 / month (after taxes) to spend on pizza, natural gas, pints of Kronenburg, Montessori tuition, a new hardwood floor in the kitchen to replace the one with holes in it, my sexy pair of jeans, and Underground fare.

The truth is, as often as I say otherwise, I’ll probably teach for ever, even if I didn’t really need to. (Whether I “really need to” now is another, and very complicated, subject. If I ever post on this subject, just stop reading as soon as you can tell – leave a comment saying “I stopped reading once I realized, per your warning” and  I’ll delete it in the morning and we’ll be all good…) I’m not sure that life on the outside, all that unsupervised time, would really be all that helpful and healthful for me. I am learning, quickslow slowquick, to deal with the fact that sometimes I only get an hour or so to work on X or Y, and that’s OK, a full hour is a full hour and better than an empty hour or no hours at all.

It’s a jock thought really. I remember being told in high school that suggested that studies had shown that serious high school athletes, whose afterschool time was largely blocked out with practicing and competing, outperformed peers who filled their extracurricular time with a whole lot of nothing. Get home, get work done, go to bed, repeat. Clarifying, simplifying.

I’ve learned lately – and this is probably just me, so universalize at your own risk – the more athletically I think about things the better I do. Go figure. I should – I will – start running up and down the hills of North London again. Tomorrow, OK???? It’s tempting to email my dad and have him put my cleats in the mail – there’s an adult baseball league here that plays on a shitty mal-designed field over at Finsbury Park, a 15 minute walk from my house. Hmmmm….. I’ve already got my gloves (the good one, the first-baseman’s mitt) here, but I really need the cleats…. Hmmm….

What was I on about? Oh, right, the exteriority of teaching! The blessed exteriority! I am going to start thinking about this word in earnest – a word that doesn’t seem to appear all that much in the corpus of literary criticism but absolutely should! – very soon, and you’ll see what I come up with. But writing the references, leading the seminars, marking the tedious papers – all, as they say, get me out of myself. Which is no mean feat! I’d love to have a less demanding job – CUNY Grad Center, oof! or even a normal post-tenure gig at the sort of place I did my graduate work, god! I thought the place I am at was going to be sort of like that, but boy was I wrong (think liberal arts college, an especially intense one, but with graduate students that overwhelmingly favor me as a writer of letters and editor of PhD application materials etc).

But it’s important enough for me to put this down. Just as on The Wire they talk about good police, I am good teacher. And though I envy DeWitt her year off from letters, since it seems to be important for me to keep straight about everything, it’s worth setting that down in html, once and for all.

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February 16, 2009 at 11:16 pm

Posted in academia