Archive for March 2009
In the course of my appointment this morning, I was asked whether it is the work itself that I want or something that the work will in turn give or grant me, somehow obtain for me. Something else, harder and declarative rather than interrogative, later, at the very end, left me reeling. But the first question is a good question.
So after I’m out on the street in Marylebone. I talk on the phone for a bit, and consider sitting at one of the coffee places on Baker Street, on Marylebone Road, on Marylebone High Street, but decide instead to walk toward Euston Station. It is a pleasant walk. I do it when I can, and have done it recently. You skirt the bottom of Regent’s Park – if you want you can turn in and look for Septimus and Rezia and draw the wrong conclusions like Peter Walsh does when he sees them there in Dalloway. Wrong conclusions that are also right, or right ones that are wrong.
I make my way along Marylebone Road until it turns into Euston Road, and there I stop at a Starbucks – again, one that I’ve stopped at before very recently, the one across from Warren Street Station. The plaza outside is like a tiny version of the giant plaza at the foot of the World Trade Center, when there was a World Trade Center.
At Starbucks, I write a poem. I start inside and then change to an outside table so that I can have another cigarette. Here’s what I came up with, a draft, a draft, barely more than a scribble….
The lopper’s heart of hard black plastic,
the hinge it swings its fingers on,
cold forged in diecast mold in China
and bonded to last a lifetime long,
has worn itself to crack and splinter
under the fist grip force you daily bring.
Before the seller even asks them,
you know just what his questions are:
“Did you use your tool appropriately?
Did you follow all the instructions? Can you
tell me all that happened in the seconds
before it buckled, bent, and finally broke?”
Whatever. Lines and punctuation all fucked up, yes, and things are rough in the second stanza. Lots to iron out there. Still I like the sound of the first bit and the general angle – the swing, the lop, as it were – of the thing. So I head home, but not before catching a glaring look from a woman at the next table as I read it over and over under my breath.
I do not read on the ride home. I stare. As I sit, there’s occcassionally a warm frizz of homecoming, an anticipation of the shower I’m about to have, the sun shining through the kitchen window as I eat my lunch.
Back in North London, the front door catches on an Amazon box. It’s Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. After Hi to my wife – she’s busy writing, writing – I read the first few pages of the novel before I have a shower.
It starts with a character named Jeff (not Geoff) in Marylebone. He mutters to himself on the street before stopping in to a Patisserie Valerie on Marylebone High Street. Jeff is a writer, seemingly less successful than his author, though not entirely unsuccessful. He is working on a piece, or not working on it.
In the shower, I think about writing a post, this post. At lunch, my wife reheats me some pizza, the leftovers of a kid-sized pizza. I lay the peri peri sauce on thickly but carefully.
Was just looking at triple canopy’s issue #5, which is devoted mostly to photoessays and videoessays. Worth looking at… good choice for a theme, no? I wonder why the photoessay is so persuasive as a form, all of a sudden.
Nice photospread in Saturday’s FT by Michael Wolf, who “used a telephoto lens to take a surreptitious look behind the façades of Chicago’s international-style architectural gems, he fantasised he would see ‘thrilling things,'” but found of course only banal working and more working….
Also worth looking at the pocket history of the office cubicle that comes at the end of this week’s magazine…
I knew this already from the trouble that some people I’m trying to help through the Ph.D. application process are having this year, but here it is in html at Inside Higher Ed:
But there is a notable exception: Several colleges have recently announced that, regardless of application quality, they plan to admit fewer Ph.D. students for this coming fall than were admitted a year ago. The economics of doctoral education are different enough from those of other programs that some universities’ doctoral classes will be taking a significant hit, with potential ramifications down the road for the academic job market, the availability of teaching assistants, and the education of new professors.
Emory University plans a 40 percent cut in the number of new Ph.D. students it will enroll this fall. Columbia University is planning a 10 percent cut. Brown University has called off a planned increase in Ph.D. enrollments. The University of South Carolina is considering a plan to have some departments that have admitted doctoral students every year shift to an every-other-year system. These cuts are exclusively for Ph.D. programs. Terminal master’s programs and professional school programs are generally being encouraged to fill their classes; those programs are of course ones in which many universities assume students will pay most or all costs themselves, using loans as needed.
As someone who got into my Ph.D. program off of the “wait list” – and in the year of what was apparently the best (non-academic) job market in world history, 1999, when you had to be insane to take a $13,000 stipend rather than a ridiculous $100,000 job generating “content” for some “new media” outfit or other – I have a hard time fantasizing that I would have made it through the grinder if I’d been a prospective research student now. Lucky I am – don’t think I don’t know it.
You know, those of us who made it through just before the barndoor slammed shut might want to think about things that might be done to aid those still in the pipeline as the shit hit the fan. No one’s got lots of money to throw around… But I wonder what sorts of things might be done, our departments might do, hmmm…. I don’t have any specific ideas yet, but it’d be worth thinking about so as to prevent a “lost generation” effect from happening.
I received an email from the publisher of the IHT last week warning me that my paper would look a bit different on Monday. And I must admit, as I lazed and dozed this morning, there was a little jolt of Xmas morning excitement when I rememebered what was waiting for me at the foot of the mailslot.
They’ve changed the font of both the masthead and the body text to resemble that of the mother-paper, the New York Times. The redesign as a whole is a deferred outcome of the fact that the paper used to be a joint operation of the NYT and the Washington Post until the former took over sole ownership in 2007. So this is a step towards the final rebranding of the paper into the global edition of the Times, rather than a curious hybrid of an independent international paper filled with its own content plus a crosscut of materials from two papers at home.
Looks a lot lighter and graphicalistical throughout. Especially in this land of content-light newspapers, the IHT always felt like you were reading a paper designed to maximize the amount of newsstuff per page, the equivalent of the whole NYT but crushed into twelve pages designed to make it by air efficiently to Kuala Lumpur or Montevideo. It’s always felt a bit like eating something that looked on the outside like a croissant, but left you feeling like you ate a loaf of bread by the time you were done. We’ll have to see if we feel as full when we’re done with the new one.
They’ve added more business opinion and dropped business numbers, which is only the fulfillment of a trend across the industry. The sports section has grown from two pages to three, but I’m not sure, again, they’ve added comment so much as spread it out more evenly over the pages.
Above all else, they’ve kept the crossword. Phew. I’ll have a nice opportunity later today to check if that’s any clearer and simpler and easier. Let’s hope not.
Trying to unwind as my term’s now over – the busiest term I’ve ever had by a mile – I’ve been reading the papers this weekend. Lots of stuff to point out to you:
1. Terrific long piece in the NYT today by Nicolai Ouroussoff featuring ideas for urban investment in America. Concrete (mmm) ideas here about both what sort of projects might be taken up, and even better a suggestion toward the end about how the funding might work:
I am also a fan of a National Infrastructure Bank, an idea that was first proposed by the financiers Felix Rohatyn and Everett Ehrlich.
The bank would function something like a domestic World Bank, financing large-scale undertakings like subways, airports and harbor improvements. Presumably it would be able to funnel money into the more sustainable, forward-looking projects. It could also establish a review process similar to the one created by the government’s General Services Administration in the mid-1990s, which attracted some of the country’s best talents to design federal courthouses and office buildings. Lavishing similar attention on bridges, pump stations, trains, public housing and schools would not only be a significant step in rebuilding a sense of civic pride; it would also prove that our society values the public infrastructure that binds us together as much as it values, say, sheltering the rich.
2. A little snippet appeared in the Saturday Guardian’s “This Week in Books” column that, had I missed it, might well have seriously messed up some writing I will do in the near future.
These days, the Parisian intellectual is commonly seen on both sides of the Channel as a species on the fast track to extinction. But there are still enough of these old dinosaurs roaming the Left Bank to cause a noisy literary scandal. This is what happened after the recent publication of two journals by Roland Barthes, the philosopher and critic who died in 1980. The publishers of Carnets du Voyage en Chine (“Notebooks of a Journey to China”) and Journal de Deuil (“Diary of Mourning”) have been attacked because these unfinished texts were never meant for publication and allegedly reveal intimate secrets about Barthes’s private life. His admirers are arguing loudly that these secrets undermine his authority as a thinker.
It’s true that the China book places Barthes closer to Russell Brand than his more high-minded peers. The diary of a “fact-finding” trip to China that Barthes made in the company of like-minded Mao fans in 1974, it begins with the author moaning Pooterishly about the airline food and a stain on his new trousers. The tour is a dreary round of ping-pong matches and choir-singing. Not surprisingly, on a trip to see Buddhist statues in Henan province, the author’s attention wanders. Contemplating his imminent return to Paris, he laments: “I won’t have seen the ‘kiki’ of a single Chinese man.”
The novelist Philippe Sollers – a fellow traveller on the expedition in every sense – has been quick to defend Barthes’s point of view here as “heroically political”, a comment on sexual repression in Mao’s China. Others have been less kind, pointing out that the word “kiki” is rarely used by anyone of either sex over the age of 11. The veteran wit Raphaël Sorin has likened the text to an unworthy parody. Angriest of all is Barthes’s former editor François Wahl, who has launched a fierce attack on the publishers and talked of a betrayal of the real Barthes.
Barthes’s 1974 trip to China is going to be a pivotal moment in the monograph I’m going to write after I finally finish my dissertation book. Luckily, the above doesn’t at all contradict the thing that I’m going to say about it. No, rather, it’s, um, material confirmation of just what I was thinking. Good…
3. Also in the Guardian‘s Saturday review was a fine piece by Brian Dillon on Chris Marker’s La Jetée of 1962 and Marker’s career as a whole. Here’s La Jetée, in case you’ve never seen it….
4. Lots of reviews of Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, including this one. Just ordered it after a valiant attempt to purchase said volume the honorable way at my local (and largely useless) bookseller. So that makes the grand total for the weekend (ugh this is bad): the Dyer novel, the new Paul Muldoon, the Barthes bit on China, Marker’s Immemory DVD, Harold Pinter’s Plays (Vol. 2), Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment, Xiaolu Guo’s 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth (I like Chinese fiction, like stories about “making it in China,” especially like reading them now that the entire machine is running in reverse.) I was also given The Watchmen, Chekhov’s Plays, and an edition of Longinus (I think I was given the last two – Pollian left them on the desk in the guestroom when he departed…) Jesus. I always do this at the start of the summer. I don’t, per se, read during the school year, so there’s this spike of ambition that happens and I buy a shitload of books.
5. Where did the Guardian’s Saturday “Writers’ Room” feature go? I can’t imagine that they’re discontinuing it. Here’s the one for Dyer, while we’re on the subject, from a little ways back. (As a Canadian national – CANUSA dual citizen – I was seriously thrown by the “Don Cherry” thing in that article… Is he once of us, I thought? But it must be another Don Cherry, right… Just to keep things clear, I’m going to put a photo of the real DC over my desk at the university the next time I’m there…) Anyway, maybe they’re just taking the week off with the feature – or they’ve run out of writers to call up and annoy. I think I’m especially fascinated by these rooms lately because (as I’ve grumbled about many times) I don’t have a writers’ room of my own. I’ve included an image of my, erm, workspace before, and here’s one of my current home library:
6. IT’s not a newspaper, but she has posted a very good paper by Jeff Kinkle and Alberto Toscano on The Wire. More to say on this when I have time….
In the weeks before the M.T.A. vote, the artist Jason Logan and I spent a lot of time on the buses and subways that, unless the state steps in with a last-minute rescue package, will soon be gone or severely cut back. We met people whose jobs or health depended on their routes; we met some who simply didn’t want to walk far in the cold. Many — and it seemed often those most dependent — were unaware that their means of transportation could disappear.
Both Jason and I have always been drawn to this phenomenon of people, behaving for the most part civilly, getting from here to there, side by side. And we wanted to find some way to convey the less tangible costs of service cuts and fare hikes. Here (pdf), large X’s are adults; small x’s are children.
8. An interesting piece in the Observer today by Tristram Hunt on the long history of attacking banks here in London. I doubt I’ll make it out to any of the fun, wish I could, wish I could….
He is unusual, among writers, in not having to worry about working at all. His father, Gilbert de Botton, moved to Switzerland from Egypt as head of Rothschild Bank, and then founded Global Asset Management in 1983. He sold it in 1999 for £420m, leaving young Alain (who turns 40 this year) a trust fund of £200m. He doesn’t use the money, preferring to live by his writing – but he admits that the soul-sapping tedium of the modern workplace is not something he really understands. His first book, Essays in Love, was published when he was 23 and still “pretending to do a PhD”. His books are successful enough that fish packing has never beckoned.
Not sure, but I’m guessing that this might just make AdB the richest writer in the history of the world. There are exchange rate issues to figure out, but can you think of another candidate?
BTW, seems ever more clear that IT basically framed the reception of this book with her early post on it.