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Archive for October 2009

être etonné c’est un bonheur: baudelaire’s modernization of poe

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One other thing from the Paris trip – something I’d rather not get lost unread at the bottom of an overly long photoessay. Just as we were leaving the Jardin des Tuileries, we came upon this, an installation described in more depth here. You can probably guess who translated the Poe bit above. It’s from Baudelaire’s translation of Poe’s “Morella.” But the funny thing is that it’s a mistranslation. The first paragraph of the original goes this way – I’ve bolded the bit that is painted on the wall above:

With a feeling of deep yet most singular affection I regarded my friend Morella. Thrown by accident into her society many years ago, my soul from our first meeting, burned with fires it had never before known; but the fires were not of Eros, and bitter and tormenting to my spirit was the gradual conviction that I could in no manner define their unusual meaning or regulate their vague intensity. Yet we met; and fate bound us together at the altar, and I never spoke of passion nor thought of love. She, however, shunned society, and, attaching herself to me alone rendered me happy. It is a happiness to wonder; it is a happiness to dream.

But wondering and being astonished are two very different things, are they not? I feel like I’ve seen this slippage in translation before, and now am wondering  myself whether there’s not something else to this. Baudelaire was actually quite preoccupied with that phrase of Poe’s – the calculation and recalculation of the relationship between astonishment and happiness can be found throughout his work. Here’s one very clear example, where he literally retranslates the passage, from “Salon de 1858”:

Je parlais tout à l’heure des artistes qui cherchent à étonner le public. Le désir d’étonner et d’être étonné est très-légitime. It is a happiness to wonder, “c’est un bonheur d’être étonné” ; mais aussi, it is a happiness to dream,  “c’est un bonheur de rêver”. Toute la question, si vous exigez que je vous confère le titre d’artiste ou d’amateur des beaux-arts, est donc de savoir par quels procédés vous voulez créer ou sentir l’étonnement. Parce que le Beau est toujours étonnant, il serait absurde de supposer que ce qui est étonnant est toujours beau. Or notre public, qui est singulièrement impuissant à sentir le bonheur de la rêverie ou de l’admiration (signe des petites âmes), veut être étonné par des moyens étrangers à l’art, et ses artistes obéissants se conforment à son goût ; ils veulent le frapper, le surprendre, le stupéfier par des stratagèmes indignes, parce qu’ils le savent incapable de s’extasier devant la tactique naturelle de l’art véritable.

Baudelaire’s insistence on sticking with this mis-translation here is somewhat remarkable. At least with his version of “Morella,” the reader wouldn’t have the source-text at hand, and thus the license that he’s taking would go unnoticed. I suppose that one explanation would be that he doesn’t realize his mistranslating the phrase – perhaps he’s make a leap from “a wonder,” that is an astonishing thing or occurence, to a verbal form that it doesn’t really fit.

But in the end, whether Baudelaire was aware of what he was doing or not, whether this is a kind of translational parapraxis or intentionally distorting paraphrase, I’m tempted to say that what we see here is something like Baudelaire’s forced modernization of the darkly romantic Poe. He takes the self-involved wondering and jams it outside, transforms it into external shock.

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October 31, 2009 at 6:34 am

Posted in baudelaire

disneyland paris and disneyland paris: a photoessay

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Disneyland Paris has the distinct feel of an office park in one of the semi-prosperous suburbs that ring mid-sized American cities. We didn’t have much of a view from our room at the Newport Beach Hotel. I hate Newport, Rhode Island – went once and once was enough.

Inside the park, erm, parc itself, I amused myself by taking pictures of the curiously foreshortened buildings. Each story is smaller than the last, you will notice. I wonder if there’s some sort of golden formula that they use to come up with the shrinking proportions – like a Disney modulor – hidden in a vault next to Walt’s brain…

The visitors, too, are foreshortened, as if automagically, by the landhumps that Disney’s designers, following Olmstead, have placed to keep your eyes where your eyes belong.

After the parade passes, an army of sweepers swoops out from somewhere to clear away all the guest-debris. Despite the fact that Disney Co. is very big on uniforms (you’ve surely heard the stories about the costume-characters forced to wear shared underpants and thus contracting pubic lice…) they seem to have at least some of the cleaners dress in their own, randomly selected clothes. I am trying to think about just why this is – would the guests be disturbed by seeing an army of janitors, all clothed alike, marching in the wake of the parade?

I find the cartoonoisotypes almost as disturbing as the increasingly centrality of “princesses” with the Disney pantheon. When I was a kid, surely the parade ended with Mickey and Minnie. Now, an entire flotilla of one princess after another, most rags to riches, and saved by handsome, beardless men. We tend laissez-faire with this stuff in my house, all too aware of the perverse consequences of making pleasure decisions for your kids,  but we’re thinking it might be time for a crackdown. A few too many But I don’t look beautiful in this dress tantrums from a four-year old and something’s got to change.

There’s something to be written about Disney’s bizarre take on historical reconstruction. You build a castle designed to look like one of those insane German ones, Neuschwanstein for instance, but then you decorate it with images and animals drawn from your own 1950s-era cartoon pantheon, as if this roundeyed creatural aesthetic had always already existed.

Ah but then we left Disneyland Paris and went to Paris proper. It’s funny – almost everyone I was in touch with, electronically, while I was away responded with some variation on When you said Disneyland Paris, I thought you meant Paris itself in its Disneyification. Everyone’s right of course. We spent lots of time in the kids’ section of the Jardin du Luxembourg, where there are ponyrides and playgrounds and in fact a super-French puppet theater, which feels like it should be the setting for the start of a Bertolucci film about very very young Parisians about to be caught up in the evental events of souxiante-huit.

Though you hear about him all the time, I never really understood who or what Guignol was until now. Unfortunately I couldn’t understand much of the dialogue. Why is French so hard?

The playgrounds are lovely and well kept. But you have to pay – and pay quite a lot – to visit them. Parents pay too – which results in the curious phenomenon of 18-month olds toddering around the park by themselves, fenced off from their mom and dad who skipped paying the prix d’entrée, while said mom and dad smoke cigarettes and read serious novels on a bench beyond.

I am trying to think when was the first time I met someone who spoke a language other than English. * My daughter chatters on with the other kids in the playground, both she and her interlocutors oblivious to the fact that they lack a common idiom.

Flaubert! My wife asked me whether I wanted to have my picture taken while standing in the shadow of my guy, and I said that I’d think about whether it’d be appropriate or not. I never made a decision on the point.

Perhaps a picture in front of my saint – whom, it should be noted, I ended up more than once dressing as, with wings, with sword, when I was a little Catholic school boy – would have been more appropriate. My what a curly sword though! My sword was never so curly as that!

We walked a giant circle around the city one of the days we were there. Montparnasse to Notre Dame (my daughter likes cathedrals) to the Arc de Triomphe down under the Eiffel Tower and back to Montparnasse, all of that with double-buggy filled with alternately sleeping children. In the Jardin des Tuileries, I experience a sudden apprehension of the fadeur of Paris, and of France in general. Beyond all the Disney-preservation, or perhaps marginally because of it, there’s a sort of insipidity to the place, a consoling blandness almost totally absent from a city like London.

And the funny thing about that is that I’m very soon going to start writing a piece, ultimately destined for my book but perhaps (from what I understand) placeable at a nice journal that some of you read, about Barthes, China, and blandness. It will center on a short piece that Barthes wrote after a visit to Maoist China,  where he states that, having left behind the West and its “turbulence of symbols, we address very vast, very old, and very new land, where signification is discrete to the point of rarity. Right at this moment, a new field is discovered: that of fragility, or still better (I risk the word, quitting it to come back to it later): of blandness [fadeur].”

Barthes found in China “a people (who, in twenty-five years, has already constructed a considerable nation) which circulates, works, drinks its tea or performs solitary gymnastics, without drama, without noise, without pose, in short without hysteria.” But it occurs to me now that only a place bathed in its own brand of blandness – obviously a different type than the Maoists with their calisthenics and their tea – could become so preoccupied with the event, the remarkable emergence. But of course, Barthes was far from the first to take up the subject – the rhythm of blandness and astonishment is the baseline of the French writing of modernity all the way along.

This photo shows where Baudelaire was born in 1821. It’s a block off of Boulevard Saint-Michel, in a house that was destroyed when Haussman put Saint-Germain-des-Près through. I’m about to put up a separate post about Baudelaire – something a bit too interesting to dump in at the end of a photoessay post that itself is a wee bit fadeuse.

My daughter’s learning to read. No, she’s not actually up to perusing the French papers yet. But due to a newspaper distribution strike the last day we were there (devilish irony! half the reason I travel is so that I can buy all sorts of newspapers!) all there was for her to pretend to read was a two-day old copy of some arms-industry owned rag.

* Actually! I do remember the first time I ever met anyone who spoke a different language. It was in Nova Scotia, where my mother’s side lived and lives. We stopped on the drive from Yarmouth Airport (now basically defunct, but it used to have a flight a day from Logan) at an Acadian village on the Bay of Fundy for ice cream. I asked for a flavor – ice cream man yammered back en Français. I remember feeling extremely confused, a bit ashamed. I’m sure my grandmother consoled me by saying something rude about the Frenchies. This seems suddenly and oddly determinative, this episode, and I haven’t thought about it in years.

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October 31, 2009 at 6:16 am

Posted in photoessay, travel


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I like Mute – both the magazine and the website. But checked the site today and something’s gone wrong with their quality control. This piece by Daniel Miller is about as close to a pure distillation of subpar gradstudentese as one could imagine in one’s worst teacherly nightmare. It’s a sort of self-sokaling sendup of Benjaminian thetical writing, all breathless paragraphs that make less and less sense the slower you read them. For instance, check out this one:

The city of the future will resemble Lagos more closely than London. In his book Concrete Reveries, Mark Kingwell takes a page from Walter Benjamin, naming New York as capital of the 20th century, overtaking Paris, the capital of the 19th. At the peaks of their prominence, both the City of Light and The Seat of Empire (© George Washington, 1784) incarnated and symbolised planetary dreams. Every epoch dreams its successor. The destruction of the World Trade Center in September 2001 brought the era of New York’s unquestioned urban supremacy to a close. The North East blackout which descended on the city two years later represented the requiem. The economy runs on symbolic authority like a car runs on gas. In a matter of hours, world trade became hollow. Ground zero replaced the twin towers, creating the context for the recent financial crisis.

Now, if DM were my tutorial student, and thank god he’s not, we’d start with the fact that sentence two has absolutely nothing to do with sentence one. Further, does DM mean that New York “dreamed” Lagos? If so, how so? The destruction of the WTC had absolutely nothing to do with the unseating (if that’s in fact what has happened) of New York as center of the universe – if anything, it allowed for a momentary stabilization of the geographical dispersion of playpieces on the world board rather than the opposite. The northeast blackout has nothing to do with anything, other than permitting a recognition that the city’s a lot more civil than it once was. World trade became hollow? Did it? And in the wake of what, the destruction of the WTC or the blackout – as the organization of the paragraph suggests the latter, but that doesn’t make any sense at all. DM, in general, demonstrates zero understanding of the relationship (or lack thereof) of 9/11 to the financial crisis, which both started before the attacks and resumed in full force several years after them… The attacks themselves had absolutely nothing to do with the general trajectory of the American economy….

This is only one, almost randomly selected paragraph, in the course of an persistently incoherent piece. Come on Mute! You’re letting the side down when you publish stuff like this! And the absolutely precious author bio at the bottom of the piece is enough to make a regular reader gag!

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October 30, 2009 at 1:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

saisissez la dejection!

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If the militant dysphorics ever want a good picture for an event poster or a bookcover, I think I found l’image juste while walking in the Jardin du Luxembourg yesterday.

Step 2 seems especially relevant, no?

Just kidding. Seriously. But I did make myself laugh for a full 3-4 minutes after seeing, passing, returning, shooting, and then contemplating posting this sign.

(On another level, and I know you can do this with just about any set of instructions, but: hilarious to think that some bureaucrat thought that it’d be necessary to instruct les citoyens de Paris in the fine art of inside-out-poop-scooping. For years, I’d been grabbing the dogshit with my bare hand and then dropping it into the plastic bag! Thank you, municipal government, for the instructions that have kept my hands free of dogshit streaks and the accompanying unpleasant odor!)

Anyway. I’m sorry about the light blogging! I was away! But that’s not the whole story. I’m actually, finally, making some progress on the finishing the Monstrous Tome. And I actually like what I’m writing! As a rule of thumb, one needs to remember simply to explain what one is trying to talk about rather than do quickwork quickstep dancing around the point. It doesn’t hurt (except, of course, it does) that someone’s basically called me into an office and put a gun to my head, extracted promises from me, etc. But I’ll get back to the blog soon enough once I’ve written what I need to write, if not sooner.

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October 30, 2009 at 1:18 am

Posted in dysphoria, travel


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Well, my youngest’s passport and visa have finally come through, which means that we’re off on our summer holiday! In October! None too soon, either – the natives are getting a bit restless about foreigners like me swiping jobs away from honest Englishmen.  So I’m headed to a place that is way less ambivalent about immigration and immigrants…

So from Saturday AM, two days at Eurodisney (I know, but come on, the oldest one is four for chrissake! It’s two hours away! I stopped liking traveling places a few years ago so someone may as well enjoy themselves!) and two days in Paris. I’m sure I’ll get some photoblogging done, one way or another.

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October 23, 2009 at 11:28 pm

Posted in travel

porn, fast-forwarding, modernism, new aesthetics

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From a very smart Guardian piece by Jane Graham on the Saw series of ultrahorror films. In particular, this paragraph caught my eye:

When pushed, Burg cites the importance of context in justifying the extreme violence in his films – Jigsaw is punishing those he regards as immoral, thus the torture is not presented with the sadistic glee manifest in the likes of Hostel. What is questionable, though, is how much kids on YouTube care, or even think, about context. The prevalence of home-made YouTube montages simply comprising torture scenes from the Saw films on the site illustrates that, for some viewers, context is just an irritation to be got round, just like the establishing storyline in the Emmanuelle videos was for young boys in the 1980s. “Is it wierd [sic] that I just got an erection after watching that?” asks a fan posting on Facebook after viewing the brutal trailer for Saw VI. “I wish it could turn my stomach but some of the footage in the films are like stuff I do to my friends in my dreams!!!” confides another on Bebo.

Ah Bebo confessor, data-point in a reader-response theory just around the corner but somehow already staring us in the face! But more importantly, Emmanuelle!  Not just for young boys in the eighties, but the early nineties as well! The VHS tape dubbed off of Cinemax, and yes – the pacing of the films, always  a strange stroll through some baroque bienale of transnational decadent not fully post-colonial seventiesness… Like Duras in the ‘Nam but after the end of Bretton Woods…

Of course, Graham’s exactly right: my early-adolescent self didn’t actually watch any of that stuff, not if the FF button could do anything about it. Ahem. But the thing is, still to this day, when I’m teaching or writing about narrative and its rhythms (which is basically what I teach or write when I teach or write) the Emmanuelle movies are never far from my mind. The strange relationship between the heightened moments of revelation or affectual intensity and all of the stuff that moves the characters around the board, shows you the sites, establishes the patter of the everyday that goes on around the climactic bits. In a certain sense, I learned to read the way that I read by watching these soft-core films. And it was the very soft-coreness of them that was determinative on this score. If I’d grown up now, with the porn sites and their menus of contextless acts for the viewing, I’d read differently – or perhaps, who knows, I wouldn’t read at all.

Of course, I’m not alone in this sort of thing, even if the specific media involved have changed with time. Here’s Roland Barthes, for instance, in The Pleasure of the Text returning to his own favorite allegorical materialization of reading:

[W]e boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations; doing so, we resemble a spectator in a nightclub who climbs on to the stage and speeds up the dancer’s striptease, tearing off her clothing, but in the same order, that is: on the one hand respecting and on the other hastening the episodes of the ritual.

The fascination of what Barthes is noticing about the reading of novels runs parallel to the question that today’s porn clips beg about the feature-length films of the past: why have the filler material at all? What is the point, besides evading the censors or fulfilling the aesthetic ambitions of the directors, of the plot and the setting, the conversations and the dramatic angling, when clearly everyone watching the film is watching it for only one thing? *

There are easy and hard answers to this question… I’m going to reserve offering my own ideas for a little bit. (Especially since I’m going to acquire a bunch of these movies with an eye toward writing something about them soon but later… On here of course but perhaps in fuller form too…) Just a hint for now: some sort of interesting and perhaps new definition of the aesthetic itself lurks within those scenes that bathe the porn actress, fully clothed if scantily, if scenery and conversations and transportation. If the models that we’re used to for the aesthetic, ranging from vehicle of pleasure and beauty to device for estrangement and on to statement of impossible autonomy, are worn out, these fill-scenes suggest (at least to me) other modalities of the aesthetic ranging from filter to alibi, dilutive solution to perverse advertisement, negative affectual space to the sort of thing where we take a little rest before doing it all again.

So more of that to come, one way or another. But it occurs to be that what the novelistic romance, or the romance that persists within all novels, was to those in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who were busy with the invention of modernism, I am starting to think porn is – or should be – for us today. It is that popular form, so circumscribed and rote, so unreflectively ideological, so bestial that we might resist, and in resisting discover that we can’t quite fully extricate ourselves from. Modernism attempts to purge literature of romance – but the problem is it simply can’t stop purging itself of romance, and thus the backwash of the young man carbuncular and the girl on the strand, the passante and the strange copulation of Clarissa and Septimus. We might think would it would mean to begin a similarly violent romance, the sort of maddeningly intense affair that refuses to name itself as such, with the legacy of the most popular, titanically popular, aesthetic form of our own time.

* Of course I understand that I’m deploying a reductive and perhaps rather masculinist notion of the way that porn is consumed / enjoyed. Of course I’m aware of the fem-porn industry, and some of the difference involved in that (often themselves organized by essentialised notions of female preference for the emotional over the physical, talkiness vs. dirtiness….) If anyone wants to provide an alternative version of any of the above, by all means the comment box is yours!

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October 23, 2009 at 11:18 pm

Posted in aesthetics, modernism, porn

“it would be wonderful if we became part of a socialist chain”

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Last night, the wife and I were watching Mad Men S3E10 when, at a certain point, she turned to me and whispered: I think you missed your calling. Of course she’s right, in a sense. Or lots of senses – what she was referring to in particular, given the scene at hand, was the fact that the boys at Sterling Cooper drink their way through their “creative” work all day… And, um, let’s not go into that now.

But it is true that I have long harbored a very real fantasy of working in advertising. Mad Men isn’t helping, nor is the fact that people think it’s quite funny / apt to compare me to Don Draper (Americano-effect over here in part…), but the fantasy extends way back before this program first aired. (Check the title of this blog, just for instance….) I doubt that I could ever leave the soul-protecting fortress of public sector work, and advertising is awful, right? To try to get into the business in an ethical and politically-useful way would probably be as successful as all of those friends of mine who went to law school,  you know, in order to work for the Southern Poverty Law Center, and now defend white collar criminals in Washington.

So forget the career change, I guess… Definitely going to write a book about advertising, one way or another, once I’m done with the Monster. Advertising and socialism. But then again….

In the third season of Mad Men, one of the major subplots involves Don Draper meeting, befriending, and then getting a contract to work for Conrad Hilton, the eccentric founder of the Hilton Hotels chain. (It hadn’t occurred to me until just this minute that Conrad Hilton is Paris Hilton’s great-grandfather. Hmmm… Nice touch, Mad Men writers…) Hilton has messianic hopes for the chain, believing that it is in itself an materialized advertisement for the virtues of American capitalism vs. the austerity of the godless Communist menace. Don does his damnedest to deal with his increasingly weird client, but eventually just stops trying under the pressure and instead turns his attentions to an affair with a clingy local school teacher instead.

Well and good. But today I read in this in the Guardian:

What used to be the Caracas Hilton today soars over Venezuela’s capital as a bold symbol of Hugo Chávez’s leftist revolution, a 36-storey, state-run declaration of intent.

The government took it over from the US hotel chain two years ago as part of a sweep towards greater state economic control. Renamed Alba – “dawn” in Spanish and also the acronym of Chávez’s regional alliance, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas – the hotel hosts summits which condemn US imperialism and chart a brighter, leftist future.

“We are the first socialist hotel but hopefully not the last,” said Katiuska Camaripano, its general manager.

Last week it acquired a sister: the government seized the Hilton on Margarita island, Venezuela’s tourist playground. It had angered Chávez during a meeting of African leaders he hosted at the hotel. “The owners tried to impose conditions on the revolutionary government. No way. So I said, ‘Let’s expropriate it.’ And now it’s been expropriated.”

A presidential decree transferred its assets, including 280 rooms, 210 suites, shops, restaurants and a casino to the tourism ministry. A Hilton spokeswoman said the chain was “evaluating” the government’s action.

Now that’s the spirit! Chavez does have a knack of fulfilling fantasies of mine.   And check it out: red branding!

The state’s Margarita acquisition may also be renamed Alba, consolidating the brand name. Venezuela has also partly funded a small Alba hotel in Managua, capital of its leftist ally Nicaragua, said Camaripano. “It would be wonderful if we became part of a socialist chain.”

It only gets better from here:

There are some striking changes. Gone are the American and European managers and well-heeled foreign guests who used to snap up jewellery and cosmetics in the shops. Red-clad government officials and Cuban delegations have largely taken their place. “Business is dead. All we’ll sell is chewing gum and antibiotics,” lamented one store owner.

The Italian restaurant now serves more Caribbean fare such as chicken in coconut sauce and cachapa, a corn-based pancake. The gift shop offers a range of ceramic Chávez mugs and sculptures ranging from $20 to $240.

The bookshop which sold glossy magazines and Dan Brown novels has been replaced by a culture ministry outlet offering political tracts such as Transition Towards Socialism and Venezuela: a Revolution Sui Generis.

The titles are all subsidised, with some costing the equivalent of just 50p. “The problem is people buy the books and sell them on for profit,” said Nicola Castilla, the bookshop clerk. “It’s not easy instilling a socialist conscience.”

Jesus! I’m now wondering if Chavez would consider taking over some of those dingy Bloomsbury hotels, which already have a certain circa-1983 Bucharest about them. I’d stop by for cachapas and 50p books every day if he did!

Anyway, on a night when the BBC is hosting fascists on Question Time, nice to have an alternate fantasy – of Alba Hotels everywhere, of ad campaigns in a yet-to-come workers’ paradise – to fall asleep to….

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October 22, 2009 at 10:58 pm

Posted in ads, socialism, teevee

how many faces can you fit on the face of a single coin?

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Ah! Now I remember what made them laugh during the lecture yesterday. I was teaching in the Anatomy Building (we don’t have that sort of lecture space in the department, so we end up borrowing from the sciences…) and, in addition to pattering on about the vicissitudes of doing English,  I was at one point telling them about paragraphs, how they should recuperate what came in the paragraph before and move things a step forward at the same time. I drew a little picture of Janus on the board as an illustration. And then labelled it, for the benefit of the anatomists who’d be using the room after me, Accurate rendering of the human head, courtesy of your friends in the English department. Defund us now.

Relatedly, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking a bit about personae, not Pound’s but ours. Specifically, how many of them we can have and how many of them we should have. By persona I suppose I mean nothing more than a fictional version of ourselves that we live up to, disappointingly underperform, sync with in spots, or trade for another as the case may be.

But here’s the real question: When one grows tired of donning the mask that comes along with a particularly arduous role – and how many persona parts are truly easy to play, in the end? – one can either look around for another to wear or one can imagine, or even anticipate, quitting the mask-and-part show altogether. The latter seems preferable, less Sisyphusian, but is hard to manage without subtler, more translucent, but nevertheless just as determinant personae slipping in the back door. So… tired, say, of the oscillation between roguish rambler and upright alpha, one wants to abandon the game altogether, one decides “no more.” But then all the souless robots and assembly-line labourers of art and autistic and desensitized angels start swimming up from below.

In short, to have two or more is hard. One might even be harder. Zero is a beautiful thought but probably impossible. Especially once you’ve gotten even a wee bit meta about the whole issue.

It’s interesting to think that modernism, in its negotiations with the concept of impersonality, grappled with this question all the time. Often, impersonality meant the serial adoption of personae, the preparing of faces to meet the faces that you meet. Impersonality as impersonation, in other words. The Flaubertian fantasy takes a turn at Robert Browning, as the dramatic monologue becomes a holding pen where you can keep the romantic impulse and stay unmucked yourself. But always in the corner of the period’s vision there is another, more profound impersonality, the degree zero of unmasked empty subjectivity, Mrs Ramsay’s wedge-shaped core of darkness.

This core of darkness could go anywhere, for no one saw it. They could not stop it, she thought, exulting. There was freedom, there was peace, there was, most welcome of all, a summoning together, a resting on a platform of stability. Not as oneself did one find rest ever, in her experience (she accomplished here something dexterous with her needles) but as a wedge of darkness. Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always some exclamation of triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity…

She gets there, of course, but she only gets there in the way that we all do in the end.

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October 13, 2009 at 7:45 am

an ma thesis for somebody

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Dammit! Not only am I suffering from the taped-tv contingency-failure issue described in my previous post, but even worse: there are so many ways that I am notified about just about everything that happens in the world, that it is almost impossible to keep myself in the dark about the Yankees score until I have time to watch my recorded telecast.

A few days ago, it was my iGoogle homepage with its NYT feed. This morning, things went to hell even faster. Rolled over to check my iPhone’s inboxes, and there was the NYT alert. I’m not sure it’s even worth trying to do what I am trying to do.

With distance increases also the banalizing reach of the twittering infrosources, systematically worming through the world and its information to turn any remaining shreds of romance to into a mere final score.

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October 12, 2009 at 7:35 am

Posted in sports, Television

teaching writing, remembering teaching writing

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Writing a lecture on “essay writing” in the off-minutes today. Will deliver it to the first-years on Monday. In America, I never “wrote lectures,” as I played everything, no matter how large, as a seminar. Here, you’re at a podium and the students won’t talk back, even if asked to. And so you write lectures. It feels strangely old-fashioned. The upside is, I suppose, that there’s a chance that the work that I’m doing today will last me for the remainder of my career, some thirty-two or so years if I stay at my place (and I might!) and they don’t get rid of manditory retirement (which they shouldn’t!)

Writing this takes me back to my year teaching first-year writing (too posh, the place where I was, for “composition.”) I sat through an endless week of summer sessions on how to teach writing; I was surly; I learned an incredible amount. More than half of what I know about the teaching end of teaching English I learned during this period. It was a big time for me. I got my first job, conceived my first child, came to terms (well, sort of) with leaving Brooklyn, the only place I’ve ever unambiguously loved.

I drove to work from Brooklyn, my little blue VW Jetta Wagon, two or three days a week. It was a half time job with half time pay – still more money than I’d ever made in my life. I had an office in a building that wasn’t the English department, and a primo parking spot in a primo lot. I listened to NPR, day after day, while making that commute. Brian Lehrer. Strangely, I never thought to stay late, extend my stay at the university. Life, from my perspective now, seemed incredibly uncomplicated. I picture fast, clean roads, the view from the bridges that I’d cross on the way there and on the way back. Easy conversations with friends who’d hitch a ride back to the city with me when they were out at the university too. At night, I’d type away at my dissertation, which needed to get done.

At the end, we had the baby, who lived for five weeks in the city of her birth, and then we left. They were filming an ad for Nike on the stoop of the brownstone across the street the day the moving trucks came.

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 10, 2009 at 8:53 pm

Posted in academia, brooklyn

in the boxes

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Owen has written a brilliant response to much of what I’ve been saying lately, and I’ve responded in turn. Just thought I’d let you know, in case you’re not frantically checking the comment boxes. This is the sort of discussion, I think, we ought to be having…

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 10, 2009 at 9:06 am

Posted in dysphoria

last call on militant dysphoria

with 22 comments

OK. Last time around for this I think. I’ve pretty much said my peace, but since I keep getting (to a degree, fairly) accused of painting Militant Dysphoria with too broad a brush, I’ll comment on Mark’s new post and that will likely be the end of that for awhile.

Mark keeps writing this stuff, and I’m not sure whether it’s more just to describe the results as getting no nearer to the issue that he needs to address or whether it’d be better to say that he keeps slipping ever further away. At any rate, this is perhaps the fullest description of Militant Dysphoria that we’ve had yet – and it is still terminally self-contradictory and evasive just when the payoff should come.

The post describes MD as a process. First you fall into dysphoria, then you get out – while still retaining, as Mark says, “a certain fidelity with the glacial insights that the hard soil of the Cold World yields.” So what are these “glacial insights”? Mark describes Dysphoria in the following way:

Dysphoria […] involves both a disdain for play-acting and an inability to achieve any distance, particularly in relation to oneself. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the distance between the dejected subject and the rituals of the symbolic order is so total that it is no longer liveable. The depressive experiences himself as walled off from the lifeworld, so that his own frozen inner life – or inner death – overwhelms everything; at the same time, he experiences himself as evacuated, totally denuded, a shell: there is nothing except the inside, but the inside is empty. For the depressive, the habits of the former lifeworld now seem to be, precisely, a mode of play-acting, a series of pantomime gestures (“a circus complete with all fools”), which they are both no longer capable of performing and which they no longer wish to perform – there’s no point, everything is a sham.

So subjective emptying meets an emptying of the extra-subjective, the world beyond the self. He goes on say, looping through a Joy Division / Morrissey comparison that comes down on the side of the former as true bearers of dysphoric melancholy:

No amelioration is possible, that’s the point – and that’s why depression is not mere sadness, not a “mood” that will lift, but an ontological conviction. (Perhaps it is only on “Disorder” – “I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand” – that there is any hint of a redeeming Other, but even here the hope, such as it is, seems faint, or perhaps already abandoned: Like a fool, I’ve been waiting…. but the redeemer will never come. Depression is a “world”, not only because it colours all experience – or rather removes all colour, reducing everything to the stark black and white of the Unknown Pleasures cover (black and white thinking is a hallmark of the depressive condition) – but also because it lacks any limits. Depression is experienced not as depression, as some “illness” susceptible to treatment, but as the Truth. Given this, no-one else could help the depressive; or at least, that is how it looks from the Cold World. Others are impotent, puppets of a pitiless fatality that makes agency an illusion (an illusion to to which they, insofar as they are not themselves depressed, are victims): they are either unreachable (“Candidate”), betrayers (“Means To An End”), or else themselves betrayed (“Shadowplay”).

Via depression / dysphoria / melancholia (the terms are used rather interchangeably in the post), we come to grips with the coldness of the cold world, a seemigly terminal comfirmation of the unconditional worthlessness of ourselves and the horror of the world.

Fair enough. I’ve only been a bit depressed – or perhaps may intermittantly be depressed – and the description seems accurate. I’ve never had a problem with the identification of the dysphoric that has gone around here, the registration that it is in fact highly prevalent in certain rungs and strata of our world, or even the characterizations of it that Mark (and others) provide. But it is interesting to think that it takes the shape of an simple intensification of the anomie and alienation that constitute modern experience in general, the very anomie and alienation that make collective politics difficult to establish – and it might, thus, lead one to suspect, because of this, that it is an unlikely place to set forward as a basis point for a radical politics. But strong arguments general start from unlikely places – this is what makes them arguments and not simply restatements of conventional wisdom. So right at this point, with this post as with all of the previous iterations of the notion of Militant Dysphoria, this is where we are primed to hear the turn, the argument, the unlikely but persuasive claim.

But of course this is where Mark’s post, again as with all previous descriptions of MD, falls flat. The attempt to render dyphoria somehow militant, or to derive a form of militancy out of dysphoria, once again takes a merely gesture shape. Here is what he says:

So much for dysphoria, but what of militancy? Here, perhaps, I can introduce a personal note. I’ve passed through the Cold World a few times, and I can say – I hope without melodrama – that I’m lucky to have survived it. Yet emergence from the “deserts and wastelands” has never meant a happy reinsertion back into the cheer and security of the lifeworld. A spell in the Cold World necessariy involves a subjective destitution, and what then matters is how things are reconstructed once the permafrost recedes. Both Nick and Nathan highlighted the way in which an interruption of habit and the habituated was a precondition for militancy; this was certainly how things worked in my case, in which serious depression was replaced by political anger. Yet the Cold World is not just some preparation for militancy: it is important to retain a certain fidelity with the glacial insights that the hard soil of the Cold World yields. When Dominic spoke last week, his account of dysphoria – that is prompted by a loss that projects the sufferer out of their set of symbolic attachments – sounded like Freud’s discussion of melancholia; but it also reminded me of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. Perhaps – and here again the notion of “militant dysphoria” seems especially urgent just now – militant dysphoria could provide a leftist alternative to the shock doctrine, which violently deprives populations of their symbolic co-ordinates as a preparation for imposing a neoliberal narrative on their shattered nervous systems. At a time when capitalism itself has been denuded of its symbolic embedding – when it has itself been plunged into a dysphoric condition – the time is right for new narratives to be developed and propagated.

The turn to personal experience isn’t itself a bad thing here, except that it allows Mark to draw a veil in front of the actual path toward politicization that leads out of (or is the end of, it’s unclear) the valley of dysphoria. Something interrupts, so say Nick and Nathan, but Mark isn’t going to tell us how he was interrupted out of the habit of depression. Dysphoria doesn’t seem to be a preparation for militancy, except of course it is when we’re talking Militant Dysphoria – things start to get quite confused. Then there’s a reference to Klein, and the “shock doctrine,” but how MD helps us to imagine anythign but the process run in reverse, from equipoise toward inturned, nihilistic depression, is left unsaid. Other than the fact that an episode of dysphoria, once experienced, will leave us permanently a bit dysphoric (and remember – that’s already been established that as a sort of nihilitic inwardness, apolitical but not pre-political), we’re not given much. What we have is something like this:

We must start from the recognition that things are truly bleak. And then something must happen to make us grab on to something else, something like politics, without forgetting that the world is truly bleak. Despite the fact that that we’ve learned that world, at essence, is truly and utterly bleak, we must embrace politics as a solution to this, as unlikely as it sounds. We will never forget that the world is truly and finally bleak, but somehow we will struggle to make it better anyway. Our knowledge of the terminal bleakness of the world will show us how to make it better.

In short, the paragraph of the militancy of the dysphoric does nothing more than wave its hands toward militancy – it does not show how it might happen, or even how it might be encouraged to happen. “[W]hat then matters is how things are reconstructed once the permafrost recedes…” But how things are reconstructed is exactly what we want to know, and it’s just what Mark isn’t going to – and perhaps can’t – tell us. Beyond this, all we have is an impressionistic description of dysphoric depression, a hint that sometimes it somehow transmutes , maybe of its own accord, and nothing more. We have no argument, and we sure as hell don’t have a politics.

Militant dysphoria, the way Mark describes it, seems to be a case of something that we might call the solipsistic fallacy. And it is no wonder that such a solipsistic fallacy would take depression as its privileged subjective condition. Depression, after all, is a psychopathology that convinces its sufferer that everything – in a bleak way, of course – revolves around him or her. For some reason Mark selectively ignores just what he keeps saying about depressive dysphoria – that it encourages a form of narcissistic misanthropy – only to suggest that we remember all the other parts (which were what exactly? what characterized the coldness of the cold world in this model other than withdrawal?) as we formulate our future politics and political narratives.

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 9, 2009 at 12:07 am

Posted in dysphoria

immediacy lost

with 3 comments

Not the same, watching the Yankees playoff games on my DVR the evening after. I used to be able to stay up late for things like the Canadian Olympic hockey team playing on the other end of the world, but that period is long gone now and for reasons age and child and work-related. Sports sometimes seem to be the only source of contingency left, certainly the only form left on television. Knowing that I can fastforward, and actually fastforwarding so as to turn the 4 hour plus contests into something I can watch in an hour-and-a-half, takes about 70 percent of the fun out of it. But letting in play out long form, with commercial breaks, seems a bit insane.

Following from and sadder than that, what a development it is to make a decision between downloaded Mad Men and DVR’d Yankees-in-the-playoffs. Obviously I went with the latter, and will save the former for another night. But how unimaginable twenty months ago. Ah BST! Ah five hours earlier!

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 8, 2009 at 10:54 pm

Posted in teevee

never trust anyone over 30

with 27 comments

A parable inspired by a story that just keeps getting told because it just keeps happening.

Tenured professor gets stirred up, feels his moment in the sun of history is upon him, and leads his students up on the barricades, departmental or university-wide. Things are heady for a bit, and then, as is wont to happen, less heady. And then the inevitable reaction comes, the blowback that always occurs occurs. Said tenured professor is immune, because said professor is, yes, tenured. But the junior staff and grad students that followed him up there, well, they are not. They learn new lessons, lessons on the meaning of words like “blacklist” and “Barnes and Noble.” The tenured professor, when he has time in the evenings, writes letters of deep appreciation and support to his students, now ex-students and under-employed, thanking them for their service to the Cause. Perhaps he even facebook friends them, because he is just that sort of guy.

Students listen to their teachers. Why wouldn’t they? There is nothing worse than the look that you get from people younger than you are and who look up to you when you let a Cause down. Sometimes you do it out of self-interest, but mostly you see what is coming up the pike, slightly more clearly than they do as you’ve been around the block a few times, have heard all the stories about how these things go, and worry about their welfare, spending all that they have and are on a fight that won’t be won.

I’ve been there, and have made the right decisions at the right times. Thank Christ for that. I’m there to help them stay in the business, not usher them out of it in a blaze of hypocritical glory. Just saying.

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 7, 2009 at 11:53 pm

Posted in academia

whatever, ads

with 4 comments

In real life, I have a nearly unpronounceable surname. Almost all vowels. At least it’s distinctive – search for it and you find only me, my father’s campaign contributions to the Republican party, and a long string of arrest records of distant relatives in West Grenville, Ontario. Neither my family nor I really knew how to say it, tried a few different ways, and finally settled in the one least likely to get me laughed at by my fellow jockish types.

But it seems that my pseudonym is just as difficult, if in another sense. There’s a small dispute going on over at digital emunction about the proper way to write the possessive form of my first pseudo name. Should it be Ads’ or Ads’s? Well, it depends whether Ads is a proper noun or common noun. As Michael Robbins writes in response to another comment:

Ads is whose name? For plural nouns, even if they serve as col­lec­tive proper nouns (like the Rolling Stones), CMS is clear: apos­tro­phe only. Now if some dude is called “Ads,” that’s another story; but the author post­ing as Ads is clearly post­ing as “Ads with­out Products,” like when Keith Richards posted in Kent’s Flarf review thread as “Stones,” or when the CEO of Hard­ees signed his com­ment in my meat thread “Hardees.” (I also know this because I once got into an argu­ment about it with some­one who said the same thing as Joel above, so I wrote directly to the edi­tors of CMS, who backed me up. I don’t care if you make fun of me.)

Ah but everyone’s missing the point! True to the fact that the title of this blog was inspired by a paragraph (not the one I’m about to clip in, but rather the one discussed here) from Agamben’s The Coming Community, my blog name is a whatever name, aporetically balanced directly between the proper and the collective.

Common and proper, genus and individual are only two slopes dripping down from either side into the watershed of whatever […] The passage from potentiality to act, from language to the word, from the common to the proper, comes about every time as a shuttling in both directions along a line of sparkling alternation on which common nature and singularity, potentiality and act change roles and interpenetrate. The being that is engendered on this line is whatever being, and the manner in which it passes from the common to the proper and from the proper to the common is called usage – or rather, ethos.

As such, of course, it has no possessive form. There are no possessions of any sort down in the watershed of whatever.

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 6, 2009 at 11:32 am