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Archive for August 2009

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