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Archive for July 18th, 2009

the opposite of branded, didactic by accident, impersonal bread

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Print Magazine has a short feature on the Aldi supermarket chain, which it refers to at one point as a “Modernist 99-cent store.” Unfortunately, I can’t find it online, but I’ll type a bit of it up. The person talking in the quotes is “Susan Sellers, partner at the design firm 2X4.”

But once inside the sliding glass doors, we are surrounded by piles – literally piles – of food. Unbranded, unrecognizable, stacked on shipping pallets and in cardboard boxes. No yellow wall of Cheerios, just “toasted oats” on brown boxes: one size, one brand, for almost half the price. No freezers of Ben & Jerry’s, just giant tubs of chocolate and vanilla.

We feel lost.

“Maybe [they] don’t understand that here in the U.S., generic packaging – Helvetica, white, that sort of thing – has this association with the opposite of branded,” Sellers says.

She takes a loaf of bread, swaddled in cellophane, off an eight-crate-high rack. “This is efficient, but it isn’t simple enough to convey freedom from chaos.”

[…]

“Trader Joe’s is about cheap stuff too, but they cultivate a personality. The aesthetic is folksy – like Southwest Airlines – friendly. They wear those Hawaiian shirts. The food is messily displayed. You go there on a Saturday; it’s a madhouse. That’s the Trader Joe’s lifestyle: ideosyncractic, organic.”

Aldi, however, operates with choice-free efficiency. “That’s their biggest gesture: eliminating choice,” Sellers says, ringing up her hot dog buns, veggie chips, pretzels, sugar, and bananas, to the tune of $14.15. “But they’re not in command of the message. It’s didactic by accident.”

I love the bit where the unmarked loaf of bread isn’t “simple” enough, that it doesn’t convey a message (the semi-Orwellian “freedom from chaos” is great too). And I also love the use of the word “personality,” and the implication that Aldi lacks one.

Of course it’s just a marketting come on / business plan, but that doesn’t mean that better things can’t shine through it! Where do you think the productive contradictions are and will be produced, if not in supermarket business plans and customers, well, voting with their feet and the eyes attached! I think we let the Aldi people run the Mosselprom Mini-Markets after the worst is over and better has started up.

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July 18, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Posted in ads, simplicity

genre fiction

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Not supposed to read Amis on anything, especially not for chrissakes the “Islamic World,” but I was bored in the hospital and so I did, and found something intriguing right at the end:

As for apocalyptic Islamism, in all its forms, I cannot improve on the great Norman Cohn. This is from the 1995 foreword to Warrant for Genocide (1967), where the subject is the Tsarist fabrication The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and what Jewry calls the Shoa, or the Wind of Death:

“There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics [notably the lower clergy] for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history.”

It’s interesting that Cohn (and by affirmative citation Amis) offers here a genealogy of such ideologico-political developments as Nazi anti-semitism as a sort of genre fiction – the sort of thing devised by the ill-educated who give their pathologies the run of the house, the sort of thing that the “ignorant and superstitious” devour off the bookracks of our not-so-better booksellers. The higher clergy, the sleekly educated, keep their fantasies clean and aboveboard.

Reading Bourdieu (more to come, more to come) feels a bit like taking a drug that permanently alters, as if automatically, everything that you come across in the wake of the trip. Everything take the shape of cultural class war, lumpens vs. undead aristocrats. (It’s only more interesting that the primary front of said class war is located within the individual artist herself or himself). What Amis quotes takes the same shape, but here aesthetico-politically instead of politico-aesthetically. But of course, the truth is that the high priests of these businesses design their genocides to be pablum palatable rather than gothicky and sickelven. That’s right – I’ve not read enough Bourdieu to figure out if this is boring to say, but would be interesting to examine the cast of characters of the 20th Century Horror Show in the same way that he reads the literary players of Mid-19th Century Paris.

Starts to feel like Disney itself is the missing link that keeps America all things to all people, especially those that it slaughters for spoil. No one sanitizes the dark fairy tale, the ur-stuff of fantasy fiction, like their cartoonists. As one genius knew very very well as he finished burning down the Beckton Gas Works…

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July 18, 2009 at 11:31 pm

Posted in genre

“the real tragedy of england” / office park socialism

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The real tragedy of England, as I see it, is the tragedy of ugliness. The country is so lovely: the man-made England is so vile. (D.H. Lawrence).

Perversities – inner-originated or outer, who knows – conspired to put me back in the gynaecological surgery ward during the same week when I finished reading Ballard’s Crash. Too bad Ballard’s sexo-aesthetic didn’t take – perhaps I’d have been wafting along in some sort of dark erotic reverie instead of melting into a puddle from anxiety and wanting-to-be-homeness. I spent three days and two nights, and I’m just back now, and so very happy to be back.

I hate hospitals, I really do. We were taught quite a lot at Catholic school about the fucked up fort-da games God plays with hell – a glimpse of the All-Most and Everythingest, and then lost, lost forever, that sort of thing. You’re hottest most excellent fantasy, but when she turns (and keeps turning forever and ever) there are maggots for eyes and yuck for breasts and burning hot coals where the… you know what I mean. Hospitals are like that for me too. Single rooms in them impersonate austere hotel rooms (love those!) but then add into the mix nervous electronics (hate that!) and people who burst into your room unannounced to do unpleasant things (hate that even more! in a visceral sort of way!) that completely blow the fantasy that you’re trying to keep in place that this is just a lovely few days spent somewhere with an interesting view and worse TV choices than at home.

Anyway, we spent three days and two nights. With luck, we are now absolutely finished with absolutely everything having to do with the medical end of bringing children into the world. We’ve had our two, my wife was injured and then injured worse, and now we’re done. We’ve replaced ourselves, and now, well, it’s your turn! We’re done!

head-on

Best of all, we got to do our three days and two nights during the runup to what appears to be a full-scale swine flu pandemic. You heard it here first – they’re clearly in the process of shifting hospitals from their normal and normally gory work of hacking and sawing and sewing and injecting into H1N1 Containment Camps. Shit. I overheard unpleasant conversations between nurses in the lifts (elevators) detailing the geometrical increase of infected patients in their wards: we had none yesterday, three today, and they’re telling us to be ready for nine tomorrow. The reassuring thing is that none of the staff seemed particularly worried about this outbreak, except in terms of what it is about to do to their next few workweeks. But clearly, this thing is happening.

from the side

Apparently, infection makes the lights go out wherever you are, and turns your hands sort of black to white, white to black, and green in the dirty spots. Worse than you thought, huh? But it does make it easier on the Underground. If the person you’re tit-to-tit with during the morning rush starts to cough and sputter, simply give a little left-and-down juke and see if there’s any green aura involved. Saves on swabs.

mushroomic

Anyway, I had lots and lots of time to start out our 13th floor window. Here’s some rain happening over the Thames Estuary. I thought less abstractly and interestingly about things like aggregate fiction, and more poignantly and pressingly about simply wanting to be out of the hospital, down on the street, and back on schedule with my work. I could see all of my workplaces – the libraries and my office and even the tops of buildings that contain my favorite coffee places at street level – from up here.

I’ve decided that I want the following image (properly and professionally cropped, of course) to be used on the cover of some book soon, perhaps even the one I’m finishing now.

northwest mittel-europa

northwest mittel-europa

One of the reasons why the image is an appealing choice for a cover is because it’s so fucking weird. And not just this scene – London from above, with the exception perhaps of stuff along the river, is weird in general. Funny to think how few images you see of London from above. There are easy and hard reasons why this is so. The easy ones generally have to do with the ugliness of the city. It truly is ugly – you can come and see for yourself if you like.

I will photoshop out the cranes if I use this for a cover, as they are not really real, not in the realest sense of real – like the BT Tower is real.

My wife and I decided that in certain senses, London from above reminded us most (or best) of things like the boringer parts of Toronto seen from on-high, or the way Waterbury, Connecticut looks from the 84. (If you know what I mean with that last one, specially NY-NJ to NE driving props to you…) Obvious, if you look in just the right directions, it’s a bit different, but in general, blah.

But don’t get me wrong. It is one of the most loveable things about this place. There are big problems with photogenicness as well – a kind of hyper-realness that of course never feels real enough, as per almost every single street in Manhattan. London feels at times like an only-slightly post-medieval Los Angeles, with the invisible hand dropping what it would as the city sprawled. Terraced houses are nice. Modernist apartment blocks are nice. Terraced houses giving way for six units to modernist apartment blocks and then back again doesn’t look all that nice – and that’s the rhythm of the entire city.  And because of that rhythm, which repeats itself in large scale in the act of dropping a sublimely iron-curtainy looking telecommunications tower into Fitzrovia,  you can take insipidly beautiful / excitingly ugly pictures like the one above. And this rhythm has much to do with the sense of generic urbanity, raw unmarked urbanness, that London gives off in all of its parts – a sense that when felt deeply suggests that Ballard didn’t even have to go to the highway networks that mesh Heathrow. Tottenham Court Road fits the bill just as well.

postcardic (and not really my picture)

But on the other hand… or perhaps on the same hand but only somewhat differently, there’s the question of what to make of all the greenglass newbuilds like the one pictured, the hospital in question above. (The BT Tower picture was taken from that central column of windows in the tower, thirteen floors up…) Nu-language utilitarianism rendered in transreflective window treatments, the design might well have been plucked from an office building on the Rt. 1 pharmacorridor in New Jersey. It is big, it is banal, but it is clean and new. Despite the fact that the photo above (full disclosure – not mine this time) could easily work as a nouveau-nostaligic entry worthy of a future decade’s Architectures de cartes postales, but of course it never will. People have changed, and our architecture is regrettable. But still, perhaps only the Americans in the audience can appreciate how wonderfully funny and more than funny it is to get medical care in a hospital that looks like it could be the regional office of Merck & Co., but which contains no cash registers at all, except the ones at the newsstand and the cafe.

I can’t help but fantasize, from time to time but insistently in spots, about the repurposing of all of the slick office buildings, with their employee cafes and openplan offices, into workspaces for a new bureaucratic rationality, distributing goods and services rationally. Just as in 1984, the characters struggle to remember what these places were before they were rebranded into totalitarian ministries, I tease myself with the thought at times of what sort of conversations might occur over the corian-countertops and leftover cubicles of media company officebuildings put to better use.

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July 18, 2009 at 11:28 pm