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Archive for May 2009

notes on the aggregate 1: letraset mirror-stage

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1. Unexpectedly ended up spending the day in the hospital Wednesday – my wife needed some more surgery four weeks after all of this. She’s OK, or she will be eventually… But a frustrating way to spend a day for all involved, especially her. So it was a busy day, fraught with anxieties large and small – what do we do with the three-year-old while we’re there? What happens if the little one needs to be bottlefed? What will they find when they examine? How safe is general anaesthesia? Another day thick with dramatic tension following upon several years of the same sort of thing.

But hospitals have a strange effect upon the individual in the throes of the dramatic day. The hospital in question today had some 16 floors, some of which were populated by perhaps 30 patients, others more like 200 patients. A couple thousand cases of people (patients, loved ones, health workers) all in the middle of dramatic occurances – pain, morbidity, despair, elation, amputation, diagnosis, last rites. When in a large hospital in the middle of your busy day, the elevator cars becomes chapels of impersonalization. Your plight, your anxiety, is nothing compared to the people getting off on the eleventh floor – the young peoples in-patient area. Or wherever. There are several thousand of you. A hundred of you will experience mortality, tragedy. It doesn’t quite take the edge off, but it does put things in perspective, the aggregation of trauma.

2. The major moment of my involvement the day’s affairs came when (just like four weeks ago) I had to keep an unweaned and generally quite hungry baby girl asleep during the duration of the surgery lest she, as she of course would if she awoke, start screaming for a breast that ten floors down on an operating table. So I paced the room while holding her, back and forth, half of the time looking at the door of the room and the other half looking at this.

It’s a lovely view from up there. For those unfamiliar with Bloomsbury, that’s  the Wellcome Trust dead ahead, the Euston bus terminal and a smidgen of Euston station in the middle left, and in the distance the reddish one is the British Library. St. Pancras and Kings Cross Stations are a bit hard to see, but they’re there, smudgily. For someone more familiar with New York, it is somewhat astounding to think that you can get a more or less full panorma of the city from the thirteenth floor of a building more or less in the middle of the city. Here’s the other side, taken from an elevator bank, looking towards Tottenham Court Road right below, past Fitzroy Square in the middle on the left, and toward Marylebone and Paddington and everything else to the west.

I spend a good amount of my weekday life on the streets in the foreground of these two shots. In buildings and open spaces clearly visible from where I was pacing, I have purchased books, been interviewed for a job, received a phone call to say that I had a job, lectured students, tutored tutees, greeted long absent friends, drank in pubs alone and with friends and with students and with colleagues, eaten lunch, spent several nights in shitty hotel rooms because I’d been a drunken fool, attended communism conferences, gotten my hair cut, had heartfelt conversations late at night with my wife, had heartfelt conversations with others, purchased endless cafe lattes and copies of The Guardian, stumbled home drunk, received free of charge countless copies of the londonpaper, made angry and apolegetic phone calls while pacing in the parks, worked on articles and monographs and talks, picked someone up when they drunkenly fell on the pavement, taken books out of two libraries, wrote half of one novel and a third of another as well as countless poems, tried to find free internet access, smoked thousands of cigarettes, and lots else. Lots else both boring and sublime. I’ve had an impossibly busy year and a half in London. And almost everything down on the street, these things that I’ve done, felt so incredibly vivid. Often, the vividness of the events seemed to border on legibility or even scriptability – especially the obvious ones, you can pick them out of the list for yourself.

But from up here, thirteen floors up, everything seems different, doesn’t it? My wife and I watched window-washers scaling the building opposite, but aside from them, everyone else is antlike and thus a bit robotic-looking. People walk from work to the Underground. People carry objects from a store back to their office or towards home. Cars circle blocks – you can’t tell if it’s the same cab endlessly circling or different ones each time around. From up high, mankind goes about the motions, in aggregate. The follow scent trails from hive to food source and back again. There is no interiority, hideous or beatific, to deal with from up here. From up here, in short, the world is unnovelistic, and it’s an odd experience to look down panoptically at the places where your life is ordinarily lived and lived densely.

3. I am fascinated by, have long be taken with, the doubleness (the duplicity?) of modernism. When we talk about, say, modernist architecture, we generally mean planning and rationalisation, efficiency and redistribution. We mean the anti-aesthetic, the anti-ornamental, the flatly utopian. On the other hand, when we think about modernism in the sense that I am paid to think about it, that is to say in a literary sense, we generally mean something quite different. Modernist novels, famously, take up the issue of the interior regions, the unheard but somehow overheard subverbal chatter. Dalloway or Ulysses seem, at least on first and many subsequent glances, to herald a new, and newly intense, emphasis on psychology, the gears working in the individual as the individual navigates her or his everyday life.

My academic work tries to square the circle a bit, bridge the gap, and wonder what is frilless and impersonal about personality, what is objective and anti-individualistic about something like style indirect libre, and what is suggestively collectivist about dispersal, introspection, and hyperbolic selfhood.

4. I don’t have the books that I need at home with me, so the theoretical interlude might be a bit scattershot and from memory. But if I am right, and I might be, there is some major rethinking ahead of us on the question of the relationship between the bird’s eye view and the secret history. (Left-oriented) cultural, literary, and political theory has for decades and decades been incoherent on this point. We fantasize about post-individuality, yet we still privilege the literature of the flaneur. We sanctify dispersed, individualized resistance, and we withhold from ourselves the thought of the structure or state, even as we at the same moment would have no time for the neurotic, bumbling avatar of bourgeois modernity, the autonomous individual.

We take up, reflexively, the cause of Michel de Certeau’s tactical against the strategic. Just think of contemporary forms of protest and the response to protest and our responses to their responses. But we do this despite the fact that the entire tide of history has washed toward the man of the street and his whims as the only arbiters of truth and efficiency worth banking on, as it were. As with so many other left concepts and approaches, we meet the opposition on their own ground, not ours. We even might say we allow ourselves to get kettled – willingly jump into the pot that they have long since set to boil.

5. There is a much, much wider question about the relationship of literature and quasi-literary products and politics that we would do well to if not answer at least preoccupy ourselves with, keep very much open. It is at once a simple and extremely complex question, and it goes something like this. Do we take literary and quasi-literary representation to be first and foremost a critical approach to social representation, one that shows how things are so that we might know how things are and thus find ourselves activitated to change them? This is the standard approach to the problem, and has been for a long, long time. If one writes seriously about the atomized self, one inevitably (following the natural gradients of literary production) will end up displaying the perils of atomized selfhood. It is hard to find literature that is meant to celebrate that which it represents.

But despite the fact that we have long since been preoccupied with the critical use value of literary representation, there is another answer – a murky one that we’re all familiar with, one that will seem obvious and true as soon as I say it, even if we have a much harder time formally acknowledging it. That is, literary representation, at times or perhaps always, also serves as an advertisement – a positive advertisement – for certain ways of being, acting, seeing or thinking. Again, this is probably at once too simple and too complex to go into fully here, but it is clear that for all the critical energies brought to bear by, say, modernist literature on the plight of the prewritten self in all its abyssal reflexivity and determination, modernist literature also performed a sort of advocacy – we might say, hesitantly, aestheticisation – of the selfsame situation. Literature holds up for emulation just what it is in the process of tearing down. It shows the world to be changed, unbearably changed, and in doing so accustoms us to the same change that it is otherwise resisting. Such is the conservative modernism (modernism this time with a small m, or something with a large one) of the literary endeavor itself.

So it does two things, two contradictory things, at once. Sometimes it works in oscillating phases, other times an intensive simultaneity. But there is no possible movement forward on a rethinking of literary aesthetics that doesn’t come to grips with this question in all it’s complexity.

6. Narrative works have always, but especially since the advent of modernity, been preoccupied with the individual and her or his actions, reasons, feelings, and outcomes. There is a boy and he meets a girl, and they feel X about each other but Y about the world and then…. something happens. Of course, though, despite their dependency upon the story of the individual or individuals, novels and stories always stage their people playing out their lives against a backdrop, a backdrop which includes things and places but also people – large or small numbers of people sketched in great or less great detail.

Other forms – those privileged by the media and disciplines that tend toward the topographic rather than individual, the strategic rather than the tactical per Michel de Certeau – reverse these poles. The surroundings (things, places, groups) move to the fore, and the individual is left to be represented only abstractly, as a type – metaphorically or literally a cut-out.

We might even want to take up a somewhat complex (between it relies on a twist) chiastic analogy like this: the background welter of fiction is to the individual as the letraset figure is to the architectural plan.

Once letraset goes CAD, humans even grow pixelated shadows and depending on the processing power that generated them, even start to see their own reflections in the mirrored glass. (Image courtesy of IT).

We can anticipate – it has been anticipated, actually – that the letraset people will one day soon have little digitized minds of their own. They will head our into the planned cities in which they live to do all of things that we do in the cities where we live, all the things that I described above and more. They will shop for food and vintage clothes, they will conduct their love affairs in pubs and flats and streamlined hotels in city centres, they will make tough decisions about their jobs, birth children in hospitals and watch their loved ones die.

7. I am starting, but only just starting to be able to imagine a meeting point between the architectural plan and the psychological fiction, between the sentient letraset people and the background materials of the realist novel. This meeting point is something that I am getting used to calling aggregate fiction. It is important to note that it already exists, perhaps has existed right from the start, in half-forms and hybrids, false starts and imperfect versions. The trick would be to pull it forward and make it stand on its own.

In the next post in this series, I’ll discuss among other things, the difference between the mass and the aggregate, the complicated politics of this potential form, and start to build out (hesitantly) a literary genealogy of what I’m talking about and/or looking for.

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May 25, 2009 at 8:31 pm

“where the left hand works where you you know decide to use the left hand”

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ha!!!!! I’ll admit, for about six or seven seconds I was like wait, um, oh nooooooo!

God, I am so excited about this…. Just to continue with the hyperbolicism from yesterday, you might not know it but  I am in fact Lars von Trier’s biggest fan in the whole world.

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May 25, 2009 at 10:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

exam marking (overlook hotel style)

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Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

(Basically, that’s just what my day felt like. The passage, which kept coming up, is actually perfect, isn’t it, as it’s either the perfect gloss on “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” or vice versa…)

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May 24, 2009 at 6:51 pm

Posted in academia

theme and variation

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Sadly, I know very little about classical music. This is because I am American and because I have rather uncultured parents and for a long run was rather shoddily educated, especially as far as non-fundamental topics like music and art went. The only lessons I ever got in playing an instrument were those mediocre group affairs called school band. I played the trumpet like all the other boys except for the one drummer and the single saxophonist, got just past “Jingle Bells” and then gave the thing up. Eventually, during college, I sold the slightly-dented instrument at my hometown music shop when I was hard up for book and Taco Bell money.

The girls played flute or clarinet, and thinking back, I bet their choice of an instrument indexed much of what was to come for them in life, though each in her own particular way.

I do have a feeling, however, that I may be the person who has listened to Glen Gould’s rendition of the Goldberg Variations more than anyone else in the world. I can’t remember why I first picked up a recording of it – must have had something to do with some book or other. But it basically has served as my work soundtrack for fifteen years or so – I am working well, generally speaking, when I am working with this on the stereo or playing out of the computer…

I took a helpful introductory course on music during my last semester of university (the same semester I took Greek I – fun, unuseful term that was….) But I still lack the vocabulary to say anything substantive about this piece of music or Gould’s performance of it. But I think that what it handles, what it productively preoccupies, is my brain’s (my mind’s?) anticipatory faculty. I have a jutting, clambering temporal tendency – I am no good at sitting still in the moment. This goes for work as it does for non-work (though, also, possessing or being possessed by this bad temporality has a tendency to make non-work feel an awful lot like work, too…) My mind’s always on what happens next with X, where this goes from here… I would love to label this a form of romantic idealism, or classical virtu, but really what it comes down to is a heady mixture of inheritances, perhaps one simply the abstractly psychological face of the brutely neuro-chemical underpinnings. I’d rather not spell them out here, but one has to do with an adaptation to capitalist social organization and the other with addiction – two faces of the same thing, really.

But listening to Gould, as I mark papers or type away at my book, has the feeling of box ticking, of boxes being elegantly and repetitively ticked. It feels like the invisible hand inside my head that normally points elsewhere, over there, with ever greater insistence, and then which gets frustrated, over there! over there!!!!, and then when it senses that I am simply not understanding the stakes of all this, makes a fist, knocks, bangs, breaks one knuckle and then another on the inside of the skull but just keeps knocking despite the throbbing pain… It feels like this hand is empenciled, ticking boxes on an infinitely scrolling roll, a standardized test sheet made of piano notes and thus busy for the moment and leaving me alone to work and think.

And so, just to broaden this out a bit, if I am against capitalism in any sort of visceral way (the other ways to be against it seem to me untrustworthy at best, inefficient at midbest, and complicitly hypocritical at worst) it is because capitalism fosters in a not-simply-metaphorical way the evolutionary development of body parts where they shouldn’t be. Hands in head, heads in cocks, hearts in eyes, and so on and definitely vice versa. It is an open and worthwhile question the relationship of the aesthetic in regard to (in treatment of) the sort of socio-genetic defect. The preoccupation of the parts that get in the way works to two ends – more than two ends – at once. The Goldberg Variations and similiarly constructed works serve as a form of local anaesthetic (like the shots of cortisone the ballplayers take to keep them on the field) that permits me to disobey the pain-signals coming from the knocking and scratching of the hand, such that I can be momentarily free…. but free to do exactly what other than slightly more calmly follow the prescriptions of this part that spurs me on?

If you have recommendation for other things I should listen to given the above (ha!), the comment boxes are yours for the ticking and typing.

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May 24, 2009 at 11:22 am

Posted in me, music

ghost airports: fantasies of over-capacity

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The BBC on a South Korean “ghost airport”:

Yangyang International is an airport looking for a reason to exist. Built on South Korea’s east coast just seven years ago, you won’t find any delays or long queues here. In fact, you won’t find any passengers at all.

The initial vision could not have been more different.

Up to three million people a year were meant to throng the gleaming floors of the departure and arrival halls, built at a cost of almost $400m (£260m).

But last year an average of just 26 passengers a day came through the doors, vastly outnumbered by the 146 airport staff on hand to serve them.

In November the last commercial flight took off, and the terminal became what the Korean national press has dubbed a “ghost airport”, an impressive monument to overestimated demand.

The novel that I’m working on this summer basically starts in an airport like this one… I’m trying to think just what the fascination is, for me or in general, with this sort of space. Asia, in my limited experience, is full to the brim with things like this – empty airports built to serve as-yet-non-existent populations, high-volume roadways built for the traffic and trade of 2030 rather than 1958.

Americans on the other hand make do with the opposite – infrastructural elements always seem to be handling triple the load they were intended to handle and living on thirty-years past their projected obsolescence horizon. If an airport is under-crowded in the US, this is generally because the city to which it is attached is in the process of dying. We might even say that the Asian ghost airport is the geopolitical inversion of that utterly common American form – the ruin formed by the triple processes of state defunding, creative destruction and geographical dislocation.

So, while the Korean airport discussed in the BBC piece seems to have been born of political corruption – and even America has its own cases of that sort of thing – there’s still something to this I think. While it’s not at all hard to drive around the US finding the architectural materialization of private-sector speculations and public-sector dereliction, things like empty bullet-trains to unbuilt cities, hulking universities for student populations not yet born, hospitals for patients not yet sick, and slick public housing for populations yet to arrive but who vividly anticipated are very difficult to imagine in anything other than the light of the utopian apparitions. Those of us familiar with the post-industrial portions of the USA, the northeast and the Great Lakes region, know only the bent tracks and silted canals and abandoned silos and factories – the native flora cast in concrete and iron of unemployment, casualization, and privatization.

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May 23, 2009 at 9:59 pm

krugman’s pwning and ours

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A quick update to this post from last week. Just to rehash. Paul Krugman wrote that it was “tremendously good news” that a lobbying group representing the US health insurance industry had sketched “out a plan to control health costs.” I wondered in my post, basically, “WTF planet is Krugman on?” And today he writes:

That didn’t take long. Less than two weeks have passed since much of the medical-industrial complex made a big show of working with President Obama on health care reform — and the double-crossing is already well under way. Indeed, it’s now clear that even as they met with the president, pretending to be cooperative, insurers were gearing up to play the same destructive role they did the last time health reform was on the agenda.

No shit! You really do wonder about these Nobel Laureate economists sometimes, don’t you? How many pages into PK’s textbooks do you have to read before it becomes clear that there is very little incentive for for-profit corporations to stop rapaciously chasing profit and instead self-morph into a humane quasi-socialized health care system that, you know, puts the patient first, shareholders way in the back?

Betcha we’re about to get pwnd, one way or another, in the short run or the long run, as far as the socialization of medical care in the USA is concerned. The reason why is readily available for all to see in columns like these.

(Special to my wife: write your NHS birthin’ column, dammit!)

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May 22, 2009 at 12:08 pm

Posted in economics, socialism

“the highest achievement in socialist literature to date”

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Richard Seymour, aka Lenin of the Tomb, on Oscar Wilde in an interview with Mark Thwaite at ReadySteadyBook.

MT: Socialist classics: are you a Ragged Trousered fan, an Upton Sinclair fan? Is it Wilde’s The Soul of Man that moves and inspires you or some other fusty old tome I won’t have heard of?

RS: I love Wilde, and the essay you mention was probably the first socialist text I ever read, although there are moments when the egotistical sublime degenerates into egotistical absurdity. I could be wrong, but I think it was here that Wilde first refashioned Christ in his own image, a dirty trick that he would repeat in De Profundis just to show how little prison had altered him. Christopher Hitchens has argued, probably correctly, that the heroic individualism and distrust of the mob in Wilde’s socialism contains a coded plea for the right to live as a sexual outlaw. This is a fuck sight better than most excuses for megalomania. But I read The Soul of Man during that low, dishonest decade in which the Left was largely capitulating to neoliberalism, and in which New Labour was reviving every discredited form of bourgeois cant. I read that it was finer to steal than to beg. I read that disobedience was man’s original virtue. I read that one is shocked, not by the crimes of the wicked, but by the punishments inflicted by the virtuous. I read that the rich need to be liberated from their property, for their own good. I read all that and compared it to the farting balls that the ever aphoristic Tony Blair came out with – rights and responsibilities, fairness not favours, tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime – and was reminded that behind every political failure is a literary failure. While I’m on the subject of Wilde, why isn’t it more widely known that the highest achievement in socialist literature to date is The Importance of Being Earnest? To think that bourgeois audiences to this day can watch a Miramaxised version of the play, and not notice a vicious attack on their own proprietorial obsessions, their class bigotry, and the narrow self-interest embodied in the values that they claim are universal and enlightened, is a real shame. Someone should point it out to them. Let them go and watch Jimmy Carr, and keep their grasping philistine hands off Wilde.

Really like that bit about Earnest. Sure, it’s clear in a sense, but I never would have put it quite that way – but I will, the next time I teach it, and I teach it lots…

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May 21, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Posted in socialism, wilde

auden’s back passage

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I’ve probably quoted enough of David Collard’s piece in the TLS in the post above, but one other thing worth mentioning. Collard quotes Harry Watt description of Auden working at the GPO:

Auden sat down to write his verse . . . . He got a bare table at the end of a dark, smelly corridor. We were now bursting at the seams, and the last corner available was in what was inevitably called “the back passage”. It ran parallel with the theatre, where films were constantly being shown. At one end, a bunch of messenger boys played darts, wrestled, and brewed tea.

At the other end, Auden, serene and uncomplaining, turned out some of the finest verse he has ever written. As it was a commentary, it had, of course, to fit the picture, so he would bring sections to us as he wrote them. When it did not fit, we just said so, and it was crumpled up and thrown into the waste-paper basket! Some beautiful lines and stanzas went into oblivion in this casual, ruthless way. Auden just shrugged, and wrote more.

I’m going to pin this passage somewhere prominent as I get started on my summer work over the next week or so, once the exams and papers are finally marked. I’ve had it with my tempermentalism, my sensitivity to work environments both material and psychological. I can’t work when X happens, I can only work in situation Y, and unless A, B, or C are positioned on my desk / available for consumption / aligned just the right way, then it’s useless even to start.  I’ve gotten into some deeply bad habits with work, you have no idea.

On the other hand, quite a lot of this neurotic tempermentalism is attributable to a general failure of belief. No, not in myself – don’t be silly. But in the disciplines and genres and media in which I do this work. So I’ll have to either sort that out too or simply remember to stop caring and do it anyway.

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May 21, 2009 at 10:33 pm

Posted in auden, me, simplicity

auden’s anonymous songs for lenin

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Amazing find described in today’s TLS. As, in David Collard’s words, a “trial run” for his work on Night Mail with Benjamin Britten, Auden did the sub- and intertitles for Vertov’s Three Songs for Lenin for its first ever showing at Ivor Montagu’s New Gallery Cinema.

The supporting programme at the forthcoming October screening would include a dazzling abstract work by Len Lye, Edgar Anstey’s influential Housing Problems, and the premiere of the experimental Coal Face, the first collaboration between Auden and the promising young composer Benjamin Britten. The main feature, though, was to be the world premiere of a Russian propaganda film commissioned by Joseph Stalin to mark the tenth anniversary of Lenin’s death. The director was Denis Kaufman (1896–1954), better known by his adopted name Dziga Vertov (“Spinning Top”). His new film was called Three Songs of Lenin and was structured around peasant folk songs eulogizing the dead Soviet leader and promoting Stalin as his political heir. Montagu was busy arranging subtitles and intertitles, and soon realized that the songs deserved a more poetic treatment in English. He needed advice, and urgently. What about that chap working for the Post Office?

In December last year I was working through the Ivor Montagu papers, which entered the BFI’s Special Collections archive in 1985. My main interest was in the first screening of Coal Face, but the next item in the pile was a stiff white envelope that contained a typed note: “The following titles are ‘verse’ titles to be held up for a few days while wording is checked in consultation with Auden”, dozens of scruffy typescript sheets in an unfamiliar format, and three manuscript pages in Auden’s best handwriting, blue ink on cheap unwatermarked paper, held together by a paper clip, a 1930s original by the look of it. The Montagu collection is one of the most frequently consulted in the BFI’s archive, but until now no one seemed to have recognized the importance of this material. Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor, confirmed that these poems had never been published and that this was a significant find.

I’d say! And look! I’m going to try to make this one…

Soon we shall have the chance to judge for ourselves, thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of Nathalie Morris, the Special Collections curator at the BFI, and her colleagues. Highlights from the original programme, including a rare print of Three Songs for Lenin, will be given a special screening at the BFI Southbank (formerly National Film Theatre) in London at 6.15 on June 8. Auden’s verses will be read by the actor Simon Callow and for the first time in almost seventy-five years Uncle Wiz and the Spinning Top will be reunited.

The titles themselves aren’t really all that interesting. But what is interesting is the thought that Auden must have had Vertov and the idea of anonymity in mind when writing the fantastic stuff that’s in Night Mail.

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May 21, 2009 at 10:23 pm

Posted in auden, movies

dream 2 – bookstacks

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Only have part of this one. I don’t normally remember dreams, so I actually have to try to remember to remember them if you know what I mean. Problem with that is that it wakes me up, and I can use all the sleep I can get. So this is just a fragment.

My wife is cleaning up, trying to get rid of the stacks of books that grow around the house. She hands me a pile and asks if I can take these in to my office, as there really isn’t any room here, at home. There isn’t any room in my tiny office either – stacks have started to grow on the floor there too.

The books that she hands me are odd, though. They are all from the same publisher – HBJ, actually – and all have the cover design that they employed back when my wife and I were undergraduates. Americans, at least those of a certain age, will remember this design from editions Woolf’s work published during the 1990s.

I flip through the books, but don’t recognize any of the titles. Zizek on Woolf? Hmmm…. Others are novels I haven’t heard of, by authors whose names I don’t recognize. I can’t remember the titles now, but they seem to be English, rural, woodsy, Wessexy or Essexy. Mid-century or modern-day updates of all of those Hardy novels that you haven’t read and probably won’t ever.

Notes: I almost brought home The Waves to read last night, but decided on Ballard’s The Drowned World instead. Never got to it, but in the course of the evening went looking for anything by Mary Gaitskill after reading this in The Nation. While I was looking, I found two more copies of The Waves, one with the new HBJ cover and one with the old – the one my wife used in her “Woolf and Shakespeare” course back at college.

The woodsiness that adheres to books that I was handed in the dream probably has to do with the fact that I just started Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze, which is very woodsy indeed. I mean look at the cover even:

The changing cover designs of novels map generational change in literature departments. When I was in college, we had those black framed Penguins, while the older profs still sometimes carried around the dayglo orange models, pages falling our, held together with tape and rubber bands. I am sure that at some point I said to myself One day you will be carrying around this copy of Madame Bovary and your students will have the new edition and it will mark you as old and they will think about you when you were at college, what you were like, and so on.

I am not sure what the whole making up / distorting titles thing is about in my dreams. I know that I’ve done this forever. One of the first professors I worked with in grad school, a year-long visitor from out west, a Heideggerian comp lit theorist of the old school, who didn’t much like my work and with whom I’ve never since been in touch despite the fact that the book I’m writing very clearly originated in the work that I did in his seminar, did once tell me a story, not a very good one, platkafka or bassoborges, that when he was in grad school he became convinced that there was this book that he couldn’t find in the library, that he needed for something he was working on. He couldn’t remember the title or the author, but knew it existed and so spent days and days scouring the library looking for the work in question. You can sense the ending, no? Finally he realized that the book didn’t exist, at least not the way he had been thinking. No the book he was looking for was his own book, the one that he was writing, had to write.

Harumph. I am glad that I dream about other peoples’ books, and that I know they don’t exist, as I don’t really have time to look for them.

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 13, 2009 at 10:22 am

Posted in dreams

impersonality and the individual

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“Of the vaporization and centralization of the Ego. Everything depends upon that.” (Baudelaire, “My Heart Laid Bare”)

Henri Lefebvre toward the end of the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life, in the course of arguing on behalf of American literature and against the French stuff of the period:

Petty-bourgeois individualism has reached the extreme limit of exhaustion, and that goes for the intellectual as well as the writer. In the ‘human sand’, each grain, which is so dreadfully similar to all the others (unless we look at it through a psychological microscope) thinks it is frightfully original, even unique! Individualism ends up as the impersonality of the individual. It is the dialectical result of the ‘private’ consciousness and of its internal contradiction: the separation of the human being from the human. Nothing is easier to express than that abstract ‘psychology’ of this individuality, devoid of any content which might be difficult to express. Only a little knowledge of grammar is necessary. And there is plenty of that around! But unfortunately the tone of all these confidences and all these descriptions happens to be that of impersonality; therefore of boredom. The accusation that the Marxist dialectician levels at modern French literature as a whole is not that it expresses individuality, but rather that it expresses only false individuality, a facade of individuality, and abstraction. Nor is it by working in an element of ‘anguish’ that a young writer can give his descriptions or his story the direct, visual, physical, moving style, so much more individualized and varied, that one finds in Faulkner’s characters and novels. (237)

Yes. Not so worried about the Faulkner issue right now. But what’s interesting about this is the way that it maps on to the complicated issue of literary impersonality, which is significantly different from the impersonality (actual individual impersonality, that is lack of a personality, an interesting one) that Lefebvre’s discussing right here. That is to say, literary impersonality, which is generally understood to mean the distancing or problematization of the notions and ideas of the author (you knew what Dickens wanted to tell you but with Joyce it’s much harder) is a formal stance, not a psychological status or condition.

Maybe you know Eliot’s exquisite joke about this…. He really was funny sometimes in his essays. This is from “Traditional and the Individual Talent”:

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.


But here’s the thing. Literary impersonality, which in its narrative manifestations generally takes the shape of some variety of free indirect style, tends as it happens to be a priviledged means of exposing just the sort of impersonality that Lefebvre’s describing above. The free indirect form penetrates the interiority of the character, but only in such a way that we seem to remain outside of the character. We are not probing it, like a headshrinker, nor is the poor guy or girl spilling his or her guts – it’s just there on the surface of the prose for us to see. As a form, free indirect discourse depends upon the exteriorization of the interior. Or – and I should show my math, but just bear with me for the moment – it depends upon the exteriorability of the interior, even the pre-exteriority of the interior. It doesn’t take too much in the way of mental gymnastics to see that for what goes on inside to come out in a shape that (sometimes, often, in the best cases) is intelligible, fairly coherent, and not really all that out of step with conventional narration (in step enough that you have to teach people to see this fact, right?) might well have been, well, conventional, available for this sort of presentation right from the start.

It’s no wonder that Flaubert pushes the form to the fore in the work that he does – in a way, a romance novel about a woman who reads romance novels is a straight shot…. One even starts to wonder whether the theme that he chose didn’t invent the form rather than the other way around.

We’re coming pretty close to what I would call the tacit, implicit, or unconscious formal politics of modernist prose. Lefebvre believes we learn something important when we, having passed through the moment of the Cogito, come to a further step along the path toward self-understanding – the step which takes the alienated, flimsy self for a marker of both alienation and the possibilities that might come of the social forms that generate it. The recognition that we are not simply ourselves turns from a tragic consequence of modernity into the announcement itself of the imminence of another sort of world, a better sociality and sociability.

(There – I’m going to count that as having worked on the m’script today…. That’s clearer than usual and I’ll work with it….)

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May 12, 2009 at 12:19 pm

if you see sid, ask him if he wants to buy the postal system too

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The front two pages of The Observer’s Business section Sunday featured one story after another dealing with the dysfunction and failure of privatized industries in Britain. It’s become very clear that the privatization of public services – services that in many cases shouldn’t or even can’t turn a profit – only works, in so far as it works, during periods overflowing with finance capital looking for a home. Then again, just about anything can be made to work during a period like that one, but now that cash is in short supply, take a look at where we are:

The privatized British rail system is looking even more fucked than usual.

The corporation that wants to buy the Royal Mail is having second thoughts now that it appears it may be difficult to slash the workforce.

The Blairite Private-Finance-Initiatives are starting to require, predictably, massive infusions of public investment.

BT (which hasn’t been publically owned since 1984) wants cut 10,000 jobs.

Perhaps as a minimal claim, right now, we might start demanding that industries that never had any business being privatized – in fact, simply couldn’t be effectively privatized and remain both solvent and accessable – might be returned to their natural states. And further, we might ask that our leftish public intellectuals stop mooning about as if they don’t understand the way the game works.

We could start with Paul Krugman. I can’t for a second understand his (guarded) optimism about the following:

Six major industry players — including America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), a descendant of the lobbying group that spawned Harry and Louise — have sent a letter to President Obama sketching out a plan to control health care costs. What’s more, the letter implicitly endorses much of what administration officials have been saying about health economics.

Are there reasons to be suspicious about this gift? You bet — and I’ll get to that in a bit. But first things first: on the face of it, this is tremendously good news.

The signatories of the letter say that they’re developing proposals to help the administration achieve its goal of shaving 1.5 percentage points off the growth rate of health care spending. That may not sound like much, but it’s actually huge: achieving that goal would save $2 trillion over the next decade.

How are costs to be contained? There are few details, but the industry has clearly been reading Peter Orszag, the budget director.

In his previous job, as the director of the Congressional Budget Office, Mr. Orszag argued that America spends far too much on some types of health care with little or no medical benefit, even as it spends too little on other types of care, like prevention and treatment of chronic conditions. Putting these together, he concluded that “substantial opportunities exist to reduce costs without harming health over all.”

Sure enough, the health industry letter talks of “reducing over-use and under-use of health care by aligning quality and efficiency incentives.” It also picks up a related favorite Orszag theme, calling for “adherence to evidence-based best practices and therapies.” All in all, it’s just what the doctor, er, budget director ordered.

So let’s see. A lobbying / PR organization that represents the health insurance companies circulates a communique saying that they’re on board with the idea of slashing health care costs by rationing access to “some types of health care with little or no medical benefit”, hmmm… After all, you know what Keynes said about this, about what happens in the long run…. Why, exactly, does this excite Krugman? He should read this thing that I know I’ve posted before, from Heart of Darkness. It’s a bit misogynistic – you have to take my word that the misogyny doubles back on Marlow by the end of the book….

“One thing more remained to do — say good-bye to my excellent aunt. I found her triumphant. I had a cup of tea — the last decent cup of tea for many days — and in a room that most soothingly looked just as you would expect a lady’s drawing-room to look, we had a long quiet chat by the fireside. In the course of these confidences it became quite plain to me I had been represented to the wife of the high dignitary, and goodness knows to how many more people besides, as an exceptional and gifted creature — a piece of good fortune for the Company — a man you don’t get hold of every day. Good heavens! and I was going to take charge of a two-penny-half-penny river-steamboat with a penny whistle attached! It appeared, however, I was also one of the Workers, with a capital — you know. Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle. There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman, living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet. She talked about ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,’ till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.

“‘You forget, dear Charlie, that the labourer is worthy of his hire,’ she said, brightly. It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.

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May 12, 2009 at 10:36 am

more on “genre” and why i can’t read it

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A few lead-in infobits and then a continuation of an argument:

1) Bought Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones today after hearing yet another respected litblog voice vouch that he couldn’t put it down, would rush home from work to read it, hadn’t showered since he started etc. I have to say: I started reading it today (while watching Arsenal get clubbed by Chelsea – look at norf london me, oy!) and I have a feeling everyone is right. You can tell a murderer from his fancy prose style, but bureaucratic murderers are masters of understatement and that’s what we refreshingly get here. I’ll report as I go, but so far so good.

2) Very much relatedly, found Journey Planet via Ken MacLeod’s site, and within the former I found something truly excellent. Not sure the ethics of cutting and pasting this here, but what the hell. It’s a cover design for 1984 by someone named Kris Stewart according to the caption in the zine.


Absolutely perfect… funny how one can defamiliarize something that everyone knows so well by refamiliarizing it.

3) OK now for the (again, related) argument. We all had quite a skuffle in the comments box a few posts back about genre fiction and what I was calling (sort of reluctantly) or what was being called the bourgeois novel. Some these skuffles have continued off-line. I’ve been thinking more about it, and I think I’m ready to explain a bit more about why “genre fiction” doesn’t really do it for me.

First, though, the fine print. 1) I don’t hate genre fiction. In fact I read or try to read quite a lot of it. I very much like the idea of it! I was being a bit too stark and polemical for my own good. 2) Christ, I don’t hate J.G. Ballard. I will say that I am continually disappointed by Ballard’s work – whenever I read it I feel that it could be so much better than it actually is. But there’s probably even a bit of anxiety of influence type psycho-dynamic going on when I talk about him, and as I keep promising, I’m going to try to say something bigger and better soon. But just to prove that I don’t dismiss him: I’m teaching a graduate seminar on him next year, by choice! 3) Issues of taste are really complicated! How can they be discussed without the weird slant logic of what I like is admittedly only what I like but on the other hand I have to make a claim for universal value or else why the fuck are we talking about this? Kantian or something? I think so…. But it’s complicated talking about things in this way and strangely, strangely, we’re not used to doing it anymore – maybe because we don’t really understand (or understand all too well) the bit I just put into italics.

End of small print. On to the argument, stated very succinctly but ripe for expansion:

I believe that narrative fiction’s principle interest, what it does best and is basically meant to do, is to rehearse a rhythm of banality and eventfulness, ordinariness and emergence, everyday life and the shocking turn, the crisis. It goes on at length about nothing really happening, things being ordinary, and then something else happens.

The problem for me with most genre fiction is that it skews from the start and by structural mandate the relationship between the familiar and the unfamiliar that is the very baseline of fiction, in my opinion and according to my tastes. I think this is easy to see. When the generic presupposition is in the distance future, when everything is utterly different and new, something happens or whatever, I get lost, I doesn’t sound like music but rather only noise.

Of course there are “genre” writers who are invested in boredom and ordinariness. And of course this is complicated by the fact that there are many “conventional” or “bourgeois” novelists who start with a defamiliarizing gesture. But I also think you can see what I mean. And from what I understand (which is not much) this is an active line of debate and discussion in “genre” circles themselves. And it’s not that I simply can’t read past this stuff as wallpaper, because of course I can. The problem isn’t that – the problem is that the mandate to start from the unfamiliar skews the writers’ relationship to the form itself, generally seems to make them misunderstand the first and primary thing that the form does well.

I also happen to think – and much of my work is staked on this claim, so christ I hope I’m right – that one of the main things that modernist narrative was invested in was the exposure of this dialectic, or in particular the shadowy part of this cycle, the everyday side. I’d even go so far as to say that most of the works that we think of as major milestones in the development of modernist prose were in fact invested in an experiment in prose narrative without the fateful turn, the illuminating exposure, the shocking revelation. Perhaps – consciously or unconsciously, or somewhere between the two – they were trying to teach us something about the nature of fiction, trying to get us to think about this dialectic and the phase of it that we’d often generally rather forget.

I further think that there is a politics implicit in this arrangement, a politics of uneventfulness, an implicit practice that works against the event. And I’m going to try to say this, at length and in depth, as I rewrite the goddamned manuscript yet again but for the first time really, this summer.

But just to circle back for a moment: most of the genre or quasi-genre stuff that I like is stuff that fulfills this contract, the contract of the narrative form. Lots of utopian and dystopian fiction is in touch with this issue – lots of it even hyperbolizes the point, making it more visible that it generally is with other thematic frames. But when we start in a spaceship, or with a bodice that’s always already ripped, or with a seamonster who is god or the devil or both, or with vampires, or anything else that skews the realism, that is to say the tedium, of the work, I am lost and I cannot read, not willingly anyway.

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 10, 2009 at 10:34 pm


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Ah, for the first time in nearly a year, there are two empty wine glasses next to an empty bottle formerly filled with shitty white wine on the coffeetable. (Jacob’s Creek, 2006. Was an excellent year for swill.) This is because for the first time in nearly a year she is drinking again, given the fact that she is post-partum enough to buy herself an hour or so without an infant either a) inside of her tum or b) mewling to be fed, right this instant.

Thank god for small mercies, we needed this today. The distribution was approximately 90% me and 10% her, but still, lovely. I missed this sort of thing. A lot.

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 9, 2009 at 10:25 pm

Posted in me

saturday morning report: homo economicus

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I manage myself just as we all have been managed for the past decade, more than the past decade. Struggling with disequilibrium and underperformance, I offer myself yet another promise of soft reform – a renewed investment in rational organization, transparency and efficiency.

Instead of a superego, I have a blue-ribbon panel of Chicago School economists. Instead of an ego, I have an idealistic head of state who has long-since worked out the fact another world isn’t possible. Instead of an id, I have a dysfunctional market mechanism, taking profit just before the bonuses for the season are decided.

And Saturday mornings are when they let the numbers out. Heads shake, eyes roll, pundits yelp for reform until someone takes the podium to deliver the requisite talking points. We have a plan that we believe will restore confidence in our failing…

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May 9, 2009 at 10:13 am

Posted in me