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Archive for August 2009


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So the order comes down to sublimate all of the brackish, churning stuff into the work. Sounds like a great idea; I’ve thought the same thing or at least something similar often enough. So then you rear back, perhaps you sit down, rest your forehand on your hand, stare deeply into the dark bit inside yourself (only a metaphor) and try, by the magic pulsion of interior eyebeams to move cargo X from pile Y to pile Z. You picture the boxes of Stuff lifting out of the big stacks by little stacks and levitating automagically over across the warehouse floor and into another place, a place marked Z: The Work. You repeat until almost all of the stuff has shifted.

There. Done.

And so you take your forehead off your hand, you elbow off the table, you open your eyes and click on the Microsoft Word icon in your Dock. A blank page. You type and bit and then erase a bit. Repeat this gesture a few times. Nope. Nope. Looking in again, the boxes have slipped back. The floor must be skewed, the bottom of the boxes greased. Perhaps it’s subsidence, the dreaded discovery that the ground beneath your beautiful warehouse has shifted in the thiry some years since it was built.

So you pick up the house phone that’s hanging there on the wall of the warehouse nearest the door. Sometimes you know you’re connected to the boss (really, only ever the boss’s paid consultant) but generally you leave what you have to say on her voicemail.

You tell the story, this story, except it’s told in the first person instead of the second, the past tense rather than the present. I tried, by the magic pulsion of my eyebeams and as you suggested, to move cargo X from pile Y to pile Z, but…

There won’t be a response tonight. Tomorrow there will be another consultation with the consultant. You will have to tell the story again, right from the beginning, and again in first person and again in the past tense.

One day, everyone agrees, you’ll get the boxes moved and the boxes will stay where they’re meant to sit.

As you wait for the call, you distractedly wonder whether the single word written on the side of the boxes – the word PERISHABLE – is the name of the company that makes the items or a description of the items inside until you realise how stupid you’re being. Next you wonder if you are getting enough sleep and enough to eat.

And then you come back from inside to here, the kitchen table, close the Word doc, open Firefox, and then you write this post.

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August 31, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Posted in overheard

costa theatre

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Writing a piece about the place I used to live, due Tuesday, so there I was at Costa Coffee of a Sunday, yesterday:

Hipster-hippieish type comes in, with his red t-shirt and woollen cap, tries to game the girl at the counter with the “I gave you a tenner, not a fiver” routine. She insists. He says what one says: “I know what I had in my pocket and it’s impossible that I could have…”

She heads back to the back to review the CCTV. He sits in a corner with this latte. She never even stops on her way back, walks right past him with out comment or glance, back to work at the till, and he sits in a funk of awkwardness – a lazy decadent twit, not as clever as he thought, who’s just tried to game the Bangladeshi girl out of £5 that she’d end up replacing out of her own pocket, tried to steal an hour of her life but failed. Fuck this. Fuck her. I’ll sit out my coffee and hit another one. Fuck all of this. I’m not going to leave and let her see that it matters to me, any of this.

Then a young couple, baby hung in a harness which in turn is hung on the petite her of the her and him, come in, order. She lectures, in great detail and with increasing frustration, the barista on a better way to make the drinks that the barista makes all day, makes for a living. It is a matter of technique; perhaps the communication of better technique to employees of chain coffee houses is how this one does her share of world improvement. Knowledge transfer, the art of living.

Then, just as before, the turn. The creepy guy who is here all the time, incredibly skinny, dressed all in black and with a pointed beard and a cane (one might think junky, or even HIV-infected junky, but I am actually going to go with MS afflict, like my mom, from the way he walks…. There’s a softness to the way MS-types move through the world, and he has it in spades…) lurches over to her and begins to coo and cack and their precious one. Mom is forced to lock her feet and smile nervously. These are the things that one deals with living in the city, and I must bear it, I must be tolerant, though I’m increasingly unsure just why that is the case. At least something like that.

Street theatre. Love it. It’s like nature but with money and words. Like the best sort of tv but on all the time and for the price of a single cup of coffee or even for free.

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August 31, 2009 at 8:24 am

Posted in coffee places

our enclosures and theirs

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From the front page of Saturday’s Guardian:

James Murdoch repeated his call for the BBC to be reined in today, saying that the corporation should have its licence fee funding reduced by government so that it becomes “much, much smaller”.

In a question and answer session at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival following last night’s MacTaggart lecture, the chairman and chief executive of News Corporation in Europe and Asia suggested the licence fee should be reduced significantly.

“If you simply constrained the expenses – with plenty of advance warning – the next [licence fee] settlement or something like that – [you say] the number is ‘X’. We have got a huge debt pile in this country. We have financial issues. I think the BBC would prioritise pretty fast,” Murdoch said.

He added that the corporation’s 24-hour news channels and website were inhibiting the ability of commercial competitors to invest in news. “The news operation is creating enormous problems for the independent news business and it has to be dealt with,” he said.

“The BBC should not be in the business of competing with professional journalists. The consequences [for] independent journalists is probably the most urgent one to deal with.”

So the point would seem to be that any public provisioning of goods or services, whether efficient or not, crowd pleasing or not, must be considered first and foremosts as an enclosure of a space where profit could have been and should be harvested. I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing quite a lot of this argument in the next few years – we already are, both here with the BBC and in the US with health care reform. The problem is that according to the rules of the game as currently constituted – in the political structures and ideological atmospherics of our time – Murdoch and the like have their point. If GDP is the only metric that matters, of course they are right.

Perhaps nothing illustrates so clearly the inefficient efficiency and aggregate brutality of markets as a means to distibute things we need than the fact that if there’s something we can with relative ease give out for free we, following our logic, allow someone, set up a tollbooth, and charge a premium for access to it. Just because it’s better for someone to turn a profit than for no one to turn one.

What’s left? Those public sidewalks (called pavement here, which is something different, though similar, at home). Why should everyone happily walk around on those nicely paved paths, all for nothing, when they represent a massive opportunity to grow profit. Why not distribute contracts for corporations to build very fine wooden boardwalks, one inch above the public ground, complete with coin operated turnstiles at the begininng of every block? Perhaps just a micropayment, a penny per go.

Not only would it be a tremendous boost to the economy, but these boardwalks would foster the efficient delivery of sidewalk access, as those who didn’t really really need to go for a walk would stay off the public thoroghfares, especially during peak hours, when we might well charge more.

And once we had the boardwalks-over-sidewalks system running, I’m sure we would find lots of other opportunities for this sort of economy boosting operation. There are the obvious candidates of course – socialized systems of medical care, public or even private not-for-profit education provision (Princeton University as an infringement of the right of the University of Phoenix to operate a high-end profit-based university in central New Jersey), public libraries (could save a flagging Blockbuster Co.), police and fire protection, etc.

Perhaps when all of this was done, we could move on to the truly large untapped markets, such as that which would be generated by enclosing our living spaces in impermeable plastic bubbles, from which the air is systematically withdrawn and then reintroduced. Perhaps some state subsidy would be available for the poor, but there’s no reason that most of us should be simply breathing when we could be boosting GDP by paying for breathing rights, paying for breath on our debit cards or by bank direct deposit.

At any rate, they’re right – even the mildest, most customer friendly forms of socialism are inimicable to the efficient operation of markets. This is because public goods, in the end, tend to win. Can’t have people voting with their eyes, feet, minds, and bodies when we could have them voting with their wallets.

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August 31, 2009 at 8:16 am

austerity 4: easygovt

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From the front page of the Guardian today:

A leading Conservative council is using the business model of budget airlines, Ryanair and easyJet, to inspire a radical reform of public service provision which is being seen as a blueprint for Tory government.

The practices of the no-frills airlines, who charge customers extra for services which were once considered part of the standard fare, are being emulated by the London borough of Barnet as it embarks on “a relentless drive for efficiency”. A spokesman for the council has unofficially dubbed the project “easyCouncil”.

Barnet wants householders to pay extra to jump the queue for planning consents, in the way budget airlines charge extra for priority boarding. And as budget airline passengers choose to spend their budget on either flying at peaktime or having an in-flight meal, recipients of adult social care in Barnet will choose to spend a limited budget on whether to have a cleaner or a respite carer or even a holiday to Eastbourne. Other examples of proposed reforms include reducing the size of waste bins to minimise the cost of council rubbish collections.

Well, there’s the flipside fulfilment of this that I was talking about not all that long ago.

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August 29, 2009 at 12:14 am

Posted in austerity

austerity 3: write a schedule

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Still haven’t broken the news of our imminent breakup to the good doctor, who’s still on holiday,  but yeah I’m leaving psychoanalysis. Not only does it cost too much money (I go the private route here, ugh) but it does have a tendency to weigh my weeks down with non-stop existential crisising, when really I’d be better served, you know, putting my head-down and working and being decent to those that I love. And I’ve already decided something to replace it with. No! Not more booze!

Sex with strangers, of course.

Just kidding. Ahem.

But here’s on thing that psychoanalysis did give me a bit of insight on. I’m a little hard on myself. No! I am! I’ve learned a bit about where this all started, but I’m not fixed yet. Beyond all the other mental murk and mutter, there’s one persistent fantasy that drives me mad, that makes me exceptionally mad at myself. And that is the fantasy of strict efficiency, of optimal organisation, of using my time so very wisely that it hurts.

As they say in the supermarket business, my life feels like it is defined by shrink. I get these blocks of time to work, I’ve always had these blocks of time to work, and I persistently underfulfil! Despite the things I’ve done, the things I’ve earned, I am convinced way down deep that I am an incorrigble slacker, that I’ve not spent a day correctly since I was in college. Back then, wow, did I work. Day after day after day, my now-wife and I sat in the library reading and reading and reading. I have a terrible sense that ever since then, I’ve been coasting on those four years of hard labor, spent without a social life (Friday we’d go to a movie and eat some pizza, and once in awhile we’d drive up to Montreal and drink on a hotel room balcony), without friends, mostly without drink,  but with reams and reams of literary and language study and papers so exquisite that they stopped marking them at a certain point.

Downhill, downhill, since then. Perhaps more rapidly lately. Perhaps more rapidly since the advent of psychoanalysis?

Here’s my dream day, the day that I intend to have but never do.

7:00 – Wake, quickly read the IHT front to back while eating a healthy breakfast and entertaining my older daughter, who gets up at 7 AM every. single. day. It used to be a problem getting up this early, but not since kids. Left alone I still am lucky to make it past 6:30 without waking. But generally I fuck around on the internet after parking my kid in front of Ceebeebies. I drink loads of coffee but eat nothing.

8:50 – Leave for work. I take a bus and then the underground. During this time I should read something pleasureable yet useful. Check on this part of late – I do read during the commute, at least lately.

9:30 – Begin working, preferably writing, and preferably somewhere condusive to this sort of work, such as a library or my office. Generally, this doesn’t happen, at least not smoothly. I check email, I check blogstats and comments, I continue reading that pleasurable but useful commuting book, I do other things. I do these things and then I smoke a cigarette, and another, and further I’ve pre-convinced myself, tacitly, to work somewhere where it’s easy to jump out for a cigarette (i.e. Starbucks). Trashy. Only hours in, or so it feels, do I finally buck up and get to the actual work at hand.

12:30 – Have lunch. As a rule of thumb, though, unless a woman makes me have lunch, I will not have lunch. This goes back to the beginning, to mom of course. Today somehow, someway, and with no woman present, I purchased a double cheezburger with bacon at Burger King and ate it, ate it standing up. American-style fast food is the only thing that can break the needs-a-woman curse. At a boozy end-of-term party, a female colleague actually fixed me a plate of food – I have the look of a man who does not eat unless a female implores him too. This is a blessing and a curse at once.

13:00 – Resume work. If I have written well in the morning, which I never do, this is a good time to read Hard Books. Instead, this is the time that I either continue smoking or actually get to the writing I was supposed to do in the morning but didn’t quite do.

15:00 – Shift gears and write some fiction. This is what I did last summer, and it yielded something at once unpublishable but that I was proud of. This is the first time that I should be allowed to step into Starbucks, but unfortunately I’ve generally already been in three or four of them by this point.

17:30 – Head home. Read morning book or freepapers (I have no problem with the freepapers! Some people don’t get this but they are totally wrong!) during train trip home.

18:00  – Enter home, eat dinner, entertain oldest daughter, bond with infant daughter. This generally happens, there’s no choice in the matter really, though tonight my wife was an absolute saint and allowed me to have nap while she bathed and bedded the children. Absolutely saintly, that sort of gesture….

20:00 – Watch entertaining yet edifying programme with my wife, probably downloaded illegally, as this is Britain and there’s nothing on, ever. As if, though, the kids are all snug in their beds by 8 PM!

22:00  – Head to bed to continue reading my commuting book. Now, herein lies a major problem. The major problem. Generally speaking, this is when the lagering starts and the reading and writing stop. Except, um, blogposts. I should go to bed, I should read in bed and then go to sleep. I should not maintain some sort of fiction, as I head ever more deeply into middle age, that this is When The Writing Happens. Because it doesn’t. Except for blogposts. Like this one.

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August 28, 2009 at 12:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

austerity 2: comment on paye ses dettes quand on a du génie, or vice versa

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In his “fictionalized memoir” Youth, J.M. Coetzee describes living in a place that just happens to be only a few steps away from Marx’s grave.  At this point in the book, he’s just gotten a job working as a programmer for IBM in London.

Now that he has an income, he is able to rent a room of his own in a house off Archway Road in north London. The room is on the second floor, with a view over a water reservoir. It has a gas heater and a little alcove with a gas cooker and shelves for food and crockery. In a corner is the meter: you put in a shilling and get a shilling’s supply of gas.

His diet is unvarying: apples, oats porridge, bread and cheese, and spiced sausages called chipolatas, which he fries over the cooker. He prefers chipolatas to real sausages because they do not need to be refrigerated. Nor do they ooze grease when they fry. He suspects there is lots of potato flour mixed in with the ground meat. But potato flour is not bad for one.

I have never had to write for money. Whether I am capable of doing it or not is another question. I could have used some money in college, but I was too young then. During grad school, there was the stipend – $13,000, split most years between myself and my wife – just enough to keep oneself in a university subsidised one-bedroom in a banally modernist high-rise in the woods. Later, there was paying work, academic jobs – three of them, actually, one after another.

When I first moved to Brooklyn, just as the inflation level of the real estate bubble passed from ridiculous to obscene, I decided that I wanted to buy an apartment and I wanted to do it by writing a novel. It was the era of that sort thing; one of the students that I had taught had just signed a seven-figure contract for two books, was about to buy a gigantic house in Park Slope. And so I sat in the tiny kitchen at the tiny table that we had found that would actually fit it and typed a novel into my laptop, night after night. I would smoke several cigarettes with the window open and the fan on, write, and then go to sleep.

There were mice and cockroaches, yes. Both the little roaches that come in packs and the big indestructible lone motherfuckers, the ones that you could mash with the end of an aluminium baseball bat and they’d pause for a second only to resume their steady sprint around the living room floor.

I actually finished the novel – the only one I’ve ever finished. It’s resting in a document file somewhere on my hard drive, unopened since the day I completed it. It was about a couple who make their living by running an amateur pornography site. Then someone falls in love with her, one of the customers. And then they meet, and nothing’s there.

No good. Obviously I never did anything with this thing. And then I got a job and another and another. It’s nice to make money from writing, but even if I did, it wouldn’t substantially change my lifestyle.

Bourdieu’s writings on art suggests that the negotiation with having to write for money or not – and all the grey areas between the two, like having to write for money but pretending you don’t or not having to write for money but pretending you do – is a or even then defininitive factor in the determination of literary stance and even literary form. It happens simultaneously, in his reading, on the level of the individual artist and as an aggregate effect. For instance, a wider range of people in mid-19th century France get secondary education, smart but poor young men rush into the city looking for work they do with their heads rather than their hands, and the feuilletons, reviews, and papers fill with new names but new names often writing commercialised shit, whatever pays the bills. Or, from the other direction, there is the young man who inherits a sizeable fortune, but then out of stupidity, addiction, or pose, squanders it, and then is himself forced to dip into something that he can’t stop comparing to prostitution, even if he knows it’s not quite the same thing.

Bourdieu is persuasive on this point – that it is out of the warp and woof of having money and needing money that literature itself, as a category, is born, and close on its heels (to extend his point slightly) modernism. Every document of civilisation is at the same time a document of one form of aristocracy or another separating itself from the barbarism of commerce… or one form of meritocracy separating itself from the barbarism of unanchored hierarchy. Or both at the same time.

But that world has passed, the machine that generates distinction has rolled itself to a stop. Neither are there aristocratic redoubts to remove to, nor is there money to be made in this business. Instead, we’re all in a bedsit just off Archway Road, counting off our meagre amenities, proud of ourselves for having found a brand of sausage that doesn’t go bad when the fridge is broken or never existed to begin with. We read the Observer on Sunday; we are careful with our spending on lunch, whether we really need to be or not. We are, like the young Coetzee, austere with our stipends and we go into great detail about it, if only with ourselves. It only takes a glance at the work, all of it, to discover the effect that this austerity has had on the form, the quality, and the pertinence of the things that we make.

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August 27, 2009 at 7:25 am

Posted in austerity, coetzee

l’effet du réel

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In the backdraft of IT’s post about arses, how about this?

“Clésinger’s Woman Bitten by a Snake, a succes de scandale . . . ensured its creator’s notoriety at the Salon of 1847. The scandal surrounding the work was orchestrated by Theophile Gautier, who spread a rumour that the cast for the statue had been taken from life. The model was Apollonie Sabatier, called ‘camp-follower of the fauns’ by the Goncourt brothers, but by Baudelaire ‘the beautiful, the good, darling’, ‘a guardian angel, muse, Madonna’ and ‘girl who laughs too much’. This notorious work exerted a lasting influence. Sculptors began making the female body more curvaceous and languishing, but omitted the cellulite rippling above Mme Sabatier’s thighs that had lent credence to the live-casting rumour. ‘A daguerreotype in sculpture’, wrote Delacroix, in his journal for 7 May 1847. However, the tide of realism was arrested by subsequent titles for nudes. They were called Sleeping Hebe (Carrier-Belleuse) Eve after the Fall (Delaplanche) and Young Tarentine (Schoenewerk). Mathurin Moreau’s Bacchante continued this series late into the century.” — Pingeot, Musée d’Orsay, p. 45.

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August 27, 2009 at 6:22 am

Posted in aesthetics

austerity 1: north london dinner party

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One of the most fascinating pastimes available in the districts populated by those called, not inappropriately, bourgeois bohemians, is to try to figure out how the other people on your street make ends meet. The stakes are higher now than they used to be, of course. Families who had overspent themselves a few years ago were due nothing more horrible than a visit to the local refinancing outlet to jack their indebtedness from 90 percent of the value of their home to 110 percent and beyond. But with property values doubling over ever two years, what did it matter anyway, right?

Now, of course, things are different. The easy cash for semi-solid collateral is mostly gone, only to return if and when the governments’ (both US and UK) ill-considered efforts to inject liquidity into the markets actually start to work… and in working, likely reinflate the bubble that is at the back of many of the problems that we face today. So when you’re idly speculating about your neighbors’ finances, you’re thinking dispossession and moving in the with parents rather than the semi-comical pyramid schemes of a few years ago. Serious stuff.

But either way you wonder. He’s a freelance cameraman and she, well, she runs some sort of small business out of her house. They joked that they put the extension on their second floor on their credit card. They only moved in a year before we did, so it’s not like they bought the place in the middle of a price trough.  None of their parents looks particularly wealthy but who knows. She takes in kids for child-minding too…

Of course, this is an old story, one of the older stories about this sort of life and this sort of living. One would love to go back and interview Marx’s neighbors at 9 Grafton Terrace in north London to hear what they thought or guess about the whole freelance writing / Engels-funded operation.

Once settled into the suburbs, Marx sometimes gave his address as Haverstock Hill, the main road linking Chalk Farm with Hampstead Village. Today, as then, Grafon Terrace is still on the ‘wrong’ side of that road, being very much part of the working-class district of Kentish Town, rather than the middle class parts of Hampstead on the other side.

She’s a translator or something, but I think it’s mostly piecework that she gets, not a steady job. She says that she wants to go back and get a PhD. They’re moving into a new place, but it’s small and maybe that’s why they don’t want us coming over yet. If only they knew. But yeah, he must be in business or something. She doesn’t really talk about it.

The trick of it is, the serious issue at play, is that vast stretches of places like Brownstone Brooklyn and North London are populated by people who 1) have interesting jobs or non-jobs and 2) couldn’t possibly afford according to their actual salaries to live where and as they do. The bourgeois bohemia that is the proving ground and playing field of intellectual life at present age is funded by parents and debt, hubris and affluent upbringings. That’s the objective half of the problem. The subjective half has to do with stress and bills, aspirational enthusiasm and grief, as well as a general sense of the unrealness of things that comes along with living in a property worth something like a million dollars but worrying about the price of the latte that you just purchased.

Marx’s house in Grafton Terrace, like so many of its kind, was rented. Because of the tendency of the building trade in London to overproduction, there was usually an abundance of new houses at quite low rents for middle-class tenants, and a glut of houses would bring rents well down. Thus, the Marxes paid only £36 a year in rent, in half-yearly installments, for a house with a rateable value of £24. Of the initial rate installment of £4.20, £3.20 was for the Poor Rate, 10p for the sewers, 20 p for the lighting and water, and a general rate for paving and other services. During this period the Marxes always paid their rates on time.

She’s upset. Her book hasn’t sold and the agent’s been stringing her along asking for rewrites for like three years. I don’t know what he does – he’s working on a book about 1968 or something. He always wears that same suit, the Tom Wolfe hipster suit, yeah with the hat. They own their place though. Dartmouth Park, right by Parliament Hill. Three bedrooms or so. But she’s so broke that I paid for pizza last time we were out. But then she laughs when I tell her that we don’t own a car – she says that we should buy a used Volkswagen or something.

On Saturday, after many many visits to the adjacent park which is 15 minute away from my house by bus, my wife and I finally paid for entry into the Highgate Cemetery and visited Marx’s grave. It is starting to seem very significant to me, not in a personal way but in a personally-knowable way, that he did the work that he did where he did it and lived a life in north London that seems remarkably similar to mine, despite the fact that it all happened more than a century ago.

One of the defining rhythms of our time, our time as lived by the notable technodrones who staff the Empire, is a rhythm that I’m very, very familiar with. It is the life-rhythm of having cash in the bank, yet not pulling cash from the machine so as not to walk around with money to spend… which in a city like this generally means spending it. In short, I’ve been able to live the life that I lead through a tenuous intermixture of moderate talent, extreme good fortune, and a certain amount of austerity. I think my experience of these mixture is more representative of a certain banally rarified way of life than, in the best case, it should be. So I’ll blog about that for the next week or so. Please understand that I am not asking for nor suggesting an ounce of sympathy for any of this. Quite the opposite. But it is symptomatic and waiting to be told.

(All quotations are from Asa Briggs & John Callow, Marx in London)

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August 24, 2009 at 11:33 pm

Posted in marx, Uncategorized

reality bites

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Kids asleep but Mad Men S03E01 came down in fuck’d shape and there was nothing else on TV. So I was going to write a rather nasty (but purposefully so!) post about this, but my wife talked me down. I was, well, talking some huge shit as we typed into the family laptops at the kitchen table just now, and she advised me to take what she didn’t refer to as a rampantly megalomaniacal sense of ownership of certain age-old literary forms and channel it into a better, more productive place than blognuking books that I haven’t read yet.

And then she went to bed. And then a few minutes later came down bitching about something that she was reading in bed that poaches on her territory (what does some girl who went to Andover have to tell us about fucking Tennessee? Ouch.) A second very good literary agency requested my wife’s m’script this week. She has earned more megalomania than I have, I suppose.

I’ll just say this one thing. When someone says something like “genre is a minimum-security prison” I reach for my… Althusserian sensibilities. Postulating yourself outside of genre is just as effective as closing your eyes and thinking really hard about being extra-ideological, and for exactly the same reasons. It follows like night follows day that this Shields guy looks to have written a blogbook without a blog, which we can recognize as generic (though not in the good sense) even if the convened panel of illustrious authors cannot, and from the looks of it not a very good blog either. Genre has always already housed his ass. I am tempted to illustrate. Maybe tomorrow.

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August 20, 2009 at 11:23 pm

Posted in novel

gi cbt; or, why isn’t she picking up the phone?

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What we love in Woolf, for instance, is the infolding out of the parts of the social map that aren’t supposed to touch so that they do. Remember when Peter Walsh walks past Septimus and Rezia losing their shit in Regent’s Park (he’s talking to a dead man; she’s married to a guy who talks to dead men) and gets the whole thing so very wrong and so very right at the same time?

And that is being young, Peter Walsh thought as he passed them. To be having an awful scene—the poor girl looked absolutely desperate—in the middle of the morning. But what was it about, he wondered, what had the young man in the overcoat been saying to her to make her look like that; what awful fix had they got themselves into, both to look so desperate as that on a fine summer morning? The amusing thing about coming back to England, after five years, was the way it made, anyhow the first days, things stand out as if one had never seen them before; lovers squabbling under a tree; the domestic family life of the parks. Never had he seen London look so enchanting—the softness of the distances; the richness; the greenness; the civilisation, after India, he thought, strolling across the grass.


Those five years—1918 to 1923—had been, he suspected, somehow very important. People looked different. Newspapers seemed different. Now for instance there was a man writing quite openly in one of the respectable weeklies about water-closets. That you couldn’t have done ten years ago—written quite openly about water-closets in a respectable weekly. And then this taking out a stick of rouge, or a powder-puff and making up in public. On board ship coming home there were lots of young men and girls—Betty and Bertie he remembered in particular—carrying on quite openly; the old mother sitting and watching them with her knitting, cool as a cucumber. The girl would stand still and powder her nose in front of every one. And they weren’t engaged; just having a good time; no feelings hurt on either side. As hard as nails she was—Betty What’shername—; but a thorough good sort. She would make a very good wife at thirty—she would marry when it suited her to marry; marry some rich man and live in a large house near Manchester.

That sort of thing – the violent intersection, the missed opportunity to see what is hiding in plain sight there on the park bench all while he actually does see it. The bringing together of things already together but also not – things that should be brought together but from another perspective shouldn’t ever be brought together, not in a million years. Hard not to think of that sort of thing, anyway, when you read something like this in the NYT today:

The Army plans to require that all 1.1 million of its soldiers take intensive training in emotional resiliency, military officials say.

The training, the first of its kind in the military, is meant to improve performance in combat and head off the mental health problems, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide, that plague about one-fifth of troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Active-duty soldiers, reservists and members of the National Guard will receive the training, which will also be available to their family members and to civilian employees.

The new program is to be introduced at two bases in October and phased in gradually throughout the service, starting in basic training. It is modeled on techniques that have been tested mainly in middle schools.

Usually taught in weekly 90-minute classes, the methods seek to defuse or expose common habits of thinking and flawed beliefs that can lead to anger and frustration — for example, the tendency to assume the worst. (“My wife didn’t answer the phone; she must be with someone else.”)

What a juxtaposition! Training these poor fuckers to handle, say, exposure to (or even perpetration of) the mass severing of limbs, the reduction of human beings to mist, the serial death of friends and children, intersections of metal and glass and human flesh so baroquely gruesome that Ballard would have been strained to imagine them, all via the confrontation of the most banal of domestic paranoid fantasies, the very stuff of soapy quotidianity: she isn’t picking up the phone because she’s busy being fucked by another man.

Perhaps it will work, who knows. We are strange, strange creatures and we do even stranger things to one another. At any rate, I’ve just added the Times bit into my book, the opening pages of it…

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August 18, 2009 at 1:42 pm

Posted in therapy, war, woolf

un perroquet in my pigeon hole

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This is a week for seriously, seriously getting some serious work done on the book. Seriously. But nice things keep happening today and you know when nice things happen you have to photograph them so that your blog-readers can participate vicariously in the niceness.

For instance.

BOOM! This wasn’t supposed to be out until 3 Septmember, but I took a quick stroll through W’stones on the way in and there it was, weirdly positioned way down at the bottom of the new arrivals section. Flipped through for references to the period that I’m most interested in, the period just before the start of what this one deals with (1972-1975) and couldn’t find any. I’m so over readerly joy, at this point of my life and work, but ever so rarely something like this comes along and I’m tempted to blow off the day’s work and plow through…

So I’m all set to work. Just a quick check of the pigeon hole (they laugh here when you say mailbox, I don’t know why, but I do know that the pigeon thing gets me confused sometimes and so I say things like cubby hole and then people laugh even harder…) and lo and behold another surprise!

BOOM! I’ve been waiting for someone to go to Rouen so that they could a) visit the Musee Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Medecine (ha!) and b) pick me up the postcard that can only be called Loulou Hits the Mirror Stage for so long now. (Loulou is a parrot featured, fucking amazingly I think you’ll agree, in Flaubert’s “Un coeur simple,” which you should read right now if you haven’t…) I had one from my visit in 1998 and stupidly put in on my office door at the last place. Some souvenir-hunting student came along when I was running my European Fiction course and stole my bird. Really depressing – there’s not all that much stuff in the world that I have a sentimental attachment to, but this was one. And so I noticed that Anglofille was heading to Normandy, and long story short, she hooked me up! And not only did she hook me up, but she got me the last damn one – the display model as it were! I can’t even imagine what sort of interlingual awkwardness that required – I assuredly would have bailed…

It’s a bit strange to think that likely I gestured at this one, the one that’s now sitting on my desk, in order to indicate which one I wanted back in 1998. You know, I could write a pomo sort of novel about this, one that makes a bit of a mystery of whether this parrot is the right parrot, that gradually discovers that there are more than 50 Loulou’s in Rouen, and I could call it something like Gustave’s Parrot or Flaubert’s Bird or….

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August 18, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Posted in distraction, flaubert

cheap: the aeroflotification of capitalism

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Frederick Studemann argued recently in the FT that Aeroflot in the 1970s was a forerunner of the low-cost, low-service airlines of today.

Not only was it far more extensive and cheaper than in the west, it was less elitist. While back home air travel was for the few, in the USSR it was for the many – just another mode of public transport. Aeroflot, the national carrier, was both the world’s biggest airline and one of the cheapest, so catching the red-eye to Vladivostok was as easy as hopping on the Number 2 trolley bus on Kutuzovsky Prospekt.

Frankly, it was difficult to know where to start. Maybe with the pervasive, sweet, plasticy smell of the planes or the routine delays and constant lack of information. Or how about the flint-faced stewardesses stomping down the aisle offering the “choice” of tangy water or tangy water? Or perhaps the unspeakable food, the shabby fittings and the bleak, run-down airports in the middle of nowhere. Then who can forget the grumpy staff for whom dialogue was an alien concept, preferring instead to find new ways of deploying arbitrary rules and associated punishments. All in all, not unlike a rush-hour ride on the Number 2 trolley bus.

Any of this sound familiar? We may have scoffed at the notion of Aeroflot leading the world.

But how wrong we were. Thirty years on it is clear that far from being a laughable expression of a clapped-out system destined to crash under the weight of its internal contradictions, Aeroflot was in fact the pioneer. Low-cost travel today is simply playing catch-up with those Heroes of the Soviet Union: passengers packed in like sardines, robbed of respect and subjected to a baffling array of terms, conditions and penalties. Passengers do not interact with people but with an impersonal, unforgiving apparat dedicated to the ruthless pursuit of a (centrally fixed) plan.

It’s an interesting effect, this one, when some product sector or another in capitalist economies drops low enough in price that it starts to take on the sheen of a popular good. (Can’t find the story, but some UK government official or another recently defended the “right” of “ordinary people” to low-cost flights… Can anyone remember this and point me in the right direction so that I can update the post?) Google’s empire, to cite the most obvious example, depends entirely upon this populist semblance of public provision – everyone has the “right” to a free email address, a free blog, free news stories, free internet search, free telephony, etc… Chris Anderson’s just written a book about this, that according to the publisher’s description

considers a brave new world where the old economic certainties are being undermined by a growing flood of free goods – newspapers, DVDs, T shirts, phones, even holiday flights. He explains why this has become possible – why new technologies, particularly the Internet, have caused production and distribution costs in many sectors to plummet to an extent unthinkable even a decade ago. He shows how the flexibility provided by the online world allows producers to trade ever more creatively, offering items for free to make real or perceived gains elsewhere.

Corporations like Ryanair and Google are figures that populate one of the stories that capitalism loves to tell itself and those doomed to live in its grasp – that given enough time and given the allowance for the markets to operate without regulatory hindrance, the general level of affluence will rise as the cost of living drops. But of course, especially when it comes to the airlines, most of the cheap or freeness is a smoke and mirrors false advertisting effect. The Times (UK) ran an article revealing what anyone who’s ever tried to check a bag on a Ryanair flight already knew – that BA actually costs less on many, many flights than its cut price competitors. But let’s even pretend that you actually can access a low-cost flight. I’m sure many many people actually have flown to Spain or Greece from the UK for what I pay for a pack of cigarettes everyday, even if not nearly as many as the advertisements would have you believe.

The answer, and the overall answer to the free and the cheap that is one of the primary calling cards of capitalism remaining, of course involves a heady mix of financialisation, micro-payments, consumer distraction, non-populist austerity, and government subsidy. And the game ends with the demise of the less cynically-minded corporations and then prices rising right back to the place where they were before the game began.

Would love to say more about this, but can’t yet. Given world enough and time, I’d sit in the British Library – or at least the Pret à Manger across Euston Road from the it – and work on a new version of Kapital, centred on the mystical question of what it costs us to view the tiny advertisement at the top of our Gmail inboxes. Actually, seriously… There’s the magnum opus right there – political economy, temporality, “free,” text, interactivity, attention in distraction, ecology – everything all at once… Perhaps once I’m done with the tedious thing I’m working on now… Like Marx, I a) live in North London b) like do my drinking on or near Tottenham Court Road and c) tend to spend Saturdays with my family on Hampstead Heath, so I think I’m a perfect fit for the job.

It’s funny how you hear a lot less about the Walmart Effect lately, though, isn’t it?

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August 17, 2009 at 11:00 pm

alain de botton strikes back!

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I’m wondering what the beatdown that IT gave Alain de Botton has to do with this little piece of befuddlement, reported today by Robert McCrum in the Observer:

I hear that Alain de Botton is about to start work at Heathrow airport’s Terminal 5, for a new book, you understand. Apparently, the author of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work will serve behind the check-in desk for a whole week and deliver an account of the ordeal to his publisher, Profile, in time for publication in September. In keeping with the elevated tone of de Botton’s literary endeavours, he will be known as “writer in residence”. Let’s hope he finds the encounter with the travelling masses less irritating than his well-publicised feud with the blogosphere.

Kind of hilarious to think about the scenario that engendered this project. AdB stalking the better bits of London, absolutely infuriated that fucking bloggers have impugned his ability to understand and thus to describe work just because he’s never had to do a day of paid labour in his life. I mean, doesn’t a childhood of interacting with the help count for anything anymore? Stomp, stomp, stomp. Fuck it…. I’ll show them. I’ll sign on for a whole week and then they’ll know that I. mean. business.

You know – they should be thinking bigger with this. How about a whole series in which, for instance, AdB gets poverty by spending half-an-hour at a welfare benefits office. Or becomes a woman by sitting in a gynaecologist’s waiting room. He could tell us what illiteracy is like by wearing an eyepatch and trying to read. Or what it’s like be have AIDS in Africa by going to Boots without his Boots Advantage Card. Really no end to the possibilities here: homeless by sitting out in his garden past 10 PM. Falsely imprisoned by having his housekeeper lock him in his conservatory for fifteen minutes with the lights turned off.

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August 17, 2009 at 12:03 am

back when awp was cr

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I have imported all my posts from my previous blog, Cultural Revolution, into my archives. (That’s, by the way, why I’m called CR still by some of the oldtimers in case some of you are wondering…) The posts are in rough shape, missing pictures and comments and I’m sure most of the links are broken. But for the, you know, historical record and all…

The added posts run from August 2004 to October 2005, just as I started my assistant professorship at my last place. (Here’s the post where I quit Cultural Revolution…) I took a half a year off at that point, and then started this site.

There was another blog even before that, but at this point I can’t even remember its name, let alone find an archive on my hard drive, though I’m sure it’s there somewhere….

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August 15, 2009 at 6:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

coetzee live

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Well, almost. You can listen here. I’ve never before heard him read.

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August 15, 2009 at 1:01 am

Posted in coetzee