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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