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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

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  1. 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 –

    GOOD FOR YOU! I couldn’t believe this paragraph, it is so unknowing, so IGNORANT and provincial, so uninformed on American realities and, of course, the destruction of the WTC made New York far more famous than it already was. It proved it was the center, if any city was–rather, it proved that it was still the center, why else not put the main thrusts of the attacks toward less obviously symbolic centers to demonstrate Yeats (although I guess Al Qaida didn’t spend a lot of time worrryng about him).

    About a month before 9/11, Tom Carson, who used to write very good pieces for The Village Voice (one an excellent document about his compulsive gambling), had written an article in Los Angeles Magazine, which I used to subscribe to since I was always going out there (still am, for that matter), in which the competition between the two bi-coastal cities was proclaimed to be ‘over’, with L.A. as ‘the winner’. Do you remember when people used to talk about this LA/NY competition all the time in the 80s and 90s? Because they did. It was usually condescending New Yorkers like Woody Allen that were silliest, and then people like John Gregory Dunne would show the real facts. Culturally, Los Angeles had caught up in many ways, including in all aspects of high culture. Some of the hype about it was not true–classical concerts, for example, could be found at the Music Center and now at Disney Concert Hall, of the same quality as those in New York, the LA Opera was thriving, they finally got a decent ballet company, etc., they were a WORLD-CLASS HIGH CULTURE city as well as POP CULTURE CENTER–what was usually left out by the Los Angeles proponents was that the quantity was still probably 10% of what you could find in New York, and most shows that opened in Los Angeles originated on B’way, things like that. But still, people were always talking about it, esp. when the art museums started really getting serious, with MOCA, with the new Getty, with the recently renovated Malibu Getty Villa.

    That talk is mostly gone, at least as far as I can tell, and it was gone as of 9/11. It was not a competition nearly so much with other world cities, except there was some talk of London becoming the more important and powerful stock exchange a year or two ago, not sure whether that has come about. Still, when it comes to most comprehensive world city, most think only New York and London in a certain power sense. The LA/NY thing was primarily cultural, and part of it (I should have emphasized earlier, was being too hasty) is that LA is the Pop Capital, it’s not New York.

    ‘The North East blackout which descended on the city two years later represented the requiem.’

    Yes, this is UNBELIEVABLE. You read it and cannot even believe such total shit has been written. You’re so right that it ‘had nothing to do with anything’, I even went to Jefferson Market the next morning while the blackout was still in effect and searched through the still rather dark store to buy a pie crust, which I was able to use since gas was still working. There’s nothing like writing for dramatic effect about real events when you don’t have the slightest sense of proportion.


    October 30, 2009 at 2:44 am

  2. Why am I always left with the sense that these theorists who write about cities have never gotten closer to a sub-middle-class, ungentrified neighbourhood IN a city than watching The Wire?


    October 30, 2009 at 6:14 am

  3. off topic, but since i know you’re a fan of alain de botton:–rousseau-by-rodnik-designer.aspx


    October 30, 2009 at 10:02 am

  4. Thanks for the kind words, but I never wrote a “document” for the Voice or anyone else about my compulsive gambling. Oscar pools are pretty much my limit, so you must have another writer in mind.

    tom carson

    October 30, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    • Hey! never spoke to you before. ‘Document’ I was just using in a campy informal blog way. I had thought it was the same person who wrote for VV also on Thomas Jefferson once, and someone wrote in VV about spending a weekend in Vegas, I think back in late 80s. Also, it could be incorrect about ‘compulsive gambling’, although whoever wrote that article was talking about a big binge in Las Vegas. I assume that wasn’t you, but that some of what I cited IS you, otherwise you couldn’t thank me for ‘the kind words’. I do think you’re a fine writer, no question. The Thomas Jefferson article is a long time ago too, and there was some talk about the ‘artificiality’ of the U.S. based on some esthetic discussion of Jefferson, Monticello or something like that. I’ve thought of it often, even though I think that’s a half-truth at best. But some sense of sterilization does sometimes seem characteristic.

      Are you not the one who wrote about Didion in Los Angeles Magazine, plus the other things I said regarding the ‘competition’ between Los Angeles and New York. If you’re the one, it was, I think, the August, 2001, issue of Los Angeles, and I remember some funny things about Didion, ‘you’ said ‘Give. Her. Credit’. and went one about her SoCal mythologies (my word, now that I’m getting things mixed up), these are, I think, especially apparent in The White Album. I’m a much bigger fan than ‘you’, and have read all her books, though not everything she’s ever written, none of the old Vogue features or the 4 short stories she says are shit, but since Los Angeles has long been a big part of what made her famous, I just mentioned that because of all of those, I think ‘White Album’ is easily better than the other essays (at least in terms of SoCal) and than the novels as well.

      If I recall correctly, this was the same article that said ‘you just have to show up’ to be a part of L.A., and I believe it’s the same one that made an excellent point about that purplish stuff N. West wrote about someone’s attempt to ornament their home, he says something about ‘there is nothing sadder..’ when it was only about a little plath, plaster, etc., ‘you’ said it just about ‘real estate’, that was a nice way of putting it. There wasn’t a thing sad about what West was trying to get all melodramatic about. I do think Los Angeles brings out writing of that sort, although I’m not sure why. Peter Schjeldahl wrote a horrible VV piece back in about 1977, and although I like Bruce Wagner’s novels (although these are definitely very provincial), he does tend to these colours of death and putrefaction sometimes.


      October 30, 2009 at 4:37 pm

      • I meant ‘lath’, not Sylvia. Sorry. Would like to know where you’re writing now, Tom, if you’ll tell us, you were always good.

        Ray Fuller

        October 30, 2009 at 4:42 pm

  5. Buck, the Vegas/gambling piece is the only misattribution I wanted to correct, and “document” only tickled me because if I’d written it it would have been fiction. The other pieces you recall are indeed all mine, and I’m enormously flattered they stayed with you.

    As for Didion, what can I say? To anyone writing about LA, she looms up like Darth Vader at the helm of the Death Star. I was very impressed by her until I lived there myself and realized how tendentious and one-eyed the portrait was — especially since she was catering to an east coast readership that couldn’t get enough of having SoCal’s anomie, absurdity, morbid Mansonian craziness, etc., etc., confirmed in each scorched-earth sentence. God knows she’s got the manner down pat, but the way each self-dramatizing observation of hers blossoms first into a generally applicable metaphor and then an ostensibly irrefutable sociological fact drives me up the wall every time.

    And Mr. Fuller, since you ask, I’m currently the movie columnist for GQ (the American one). Also wrote a novel a while back called Gilligan’s Wake. Very glad to make both your and Buck’s online acquaintance, too.

    tom carson

    October 30, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    • Marvelous, Tom, thanks so much! What was interesting, and why I mentioned J.G. Dunne in my first comment on this thread, was that he clearly adored Los Angeles much more than she did, of which you find evidence in some of the essays of ‘Quintana and Friends’, and still more in the novel ‘Playland’. I haven’t lived there myself, but since 2001, I’ve made 10 trips there, and I have to say that her essays are a big part of what attracted me to the place–she was ‘East Coast’ to a degree, but as a Californian herself, she was no enemy of L.A. at very least. Much of the anomie seemed her own in the early days, as in the long White Album essay at the beginning of the collection. It turns out that that house she nearly made mythical as ‘the big house on Franklin Avenue’ was not demolished as the essay had said it would be way back when. I was interested in this essay and at a reading Q & A I asked her about it, and she said that it was still there, told me the number, and I went to look at it. You may have also mentioned ‘snobbism’ in that LA Magazine article, well, she’s always been accused of that (and is, but tries to conceal it in an amusing way), but in several little conversations at her readings I found her weird in a warm, endearing way. Quirky sense of humour: the very idea of beginning a novel with the sentence ‘Some real things have been happening lately’.

      I’m going to get hold of your book very soon, and should have been aware of your Esquire work.

      Thanks, Ads, for letting us have this little exchange.

      Ray Fuller

      October 31, 2009 at 2:16 am

    • On the chance that we may still have Tom’s attention, I’ll beg Ads’ indulgence for one more fan comment. I too remember Tom’s Village Voice and Rolling Stone pieces and his first novel Twisted Kicks very fondly. There are phrases/ideas that stick some twenty-five years later such as the line from what I believe was a Minutemen review in the Voice about checking out bands as a kind of “subcultural obligation” like going to Lincoln Center. There’s great backstory recalled here:


      October 31, 2009 at 5:49 am

  6. Ha! I think this is fantastic, actually! Much better thing to talk about than what I posted about…

    Glad to see you here, Tom! I’m also remember your VV work fondly…


    October 31, 2009 at 6:45 am

  7. Ads, I do apologize if my first comment ended up inadvertently hijacking your comments thread. I just wanted to set the record straight about my nonexistent Vegas/gambling piece, but then brainy people started to show up saying nice things about my work. That doesn’t happen every day of the week, so I’m grateful to all of you.

    That said, it does seem that the least I can do is show you the courtesy of changing the subject back to your original post. Now that I’ve read — OK, skimmed — the rest of the Miller piece you excerpted, all I can do is climb out of the time machine that zapped me back to, oh, 1985 and shake my head in wonder. Even in academia, I didn’t know people were still propping poor old Walter Benjamin on their knee and turning him into a sawdust-leaking ventriloquist’s dummy that way. And seeing those other moldy names — Guy Debord! William Burroughs! Marshall McLuhan! — being trotted out for one more reunion tour was a bit like watching a Castle Age player summon phantom generals and helpful elves to his side before battling the Red Dragon. For Miller’s sake, I can only hope he’s still young enough to grow out of it.

    And Ray, what exasperates me most about Didion is that she’s written something like a million words about Los Angeles without ever conceding (unlike her husband, as you rightly point out) that life there has its pleasures. Much less that a lot of those pleasures are democratically available even to people without much money, which is the main source of LA’s appeal. What makes her a rotten guide to the place in my eyes is that she’s always had zero appreciation of frivolity, exuberance, silly but real self-expression and so on.

    I also sometimes daydream of showing a journalism class how much of her mystique goes the way of the dodo if you just replace each oracular “I am” with a humdrum “I’m.” But I’ve got no trouble believing she’s endearing in person, since just hearing her interviewed on radio a couple of years back made me feel mildly regretful about all the times I’ve beaten up on her in print.

    tom carson

    October 31, 2009 at 2:31 pm

  8. Wow — it’s kinda nice to see someone else’s writing that is so clearly disorganized. I’ll sorta agree with one point and then the next sentence will have nothing to do with the previous one. And I feel like what point he does have about the decentering of New York was made much better by Mike Davis in Planet of Slums. (and to tie this comment to the others —- hi, Tom Carson! Clearly I need to read your stuff! —- it’s just so much more fun to teach Davis’s apocalyptic ranting about LA than Didion’s existential despair. The students around here connect so much more with it.)


    October 31, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    • it’s just so much more fun to teach Davis’s apocalyptic ranting about LA than Didion’s existential despair. The students around here connect so much more with it.)

      But that’s not a just criterion. I really don’t think the ‘existential despair’ is quite as extreme as Tom does–there’s a lot Didion liked about L.A., she’s just not the exuberant type (she’s never going to scream ‘EUREKA!’ about anything, as her husband did about Los Angeles), but Mike Davis’s predictions of earthquakes and, especially, all that ridiculous stuff about ‘tornadoes in Downtown that never get press’, hey what is this? Is it a conspiracy to cover up tornadoes that surely exist but that not a single other Angeleno I’ve met or read has ever heard of. He’s got a lot of ‘fun stuff’ about almost everything, including the ‘arrogant vaunt’ of Manhattah that he writes about in the opening of ‘Dead Cities’. Well, I paid attention until NONE of the predictions of ecotones with wolves running at me in the Hollywood Hills proved true on time (of course, any of it still could, and I don’t doubt the earthquakes that are yet to hit DT, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, destroyiog everyone, Barbra Streisand included, etc., although they are most overdue by now. If anything, Didion is much more, as in ‘After Henry’, more positive in her outlook about Los Angeles, which has become more successful in the years since she moved back to NYC (1989), and since 2000 or so, many new miles of subway track have been laid, so that there are now the Purple Line, the Gold Line, and others planned, as well as the Blue Line, Red Line, and Green Line. The city works as a city by now, I’m sure she knows her own ’60 suburbs in search of a city’ is totally out of date as the place becomes more centralized and navigable. There is an enormous bus system (I have the map which is 6′ x 6′ and covers both sides) which I have used extensively to explore a huge amount of the city, although Beverly Hllls and Bel Air still have the money to keep such ‘unwashed things’ out, but you can walk much of it, which I have as with Benedict Canyon.

      I am just saying this because when I first read Mike Davis’s books, I thought they were thrilling, as in ‘City of Quartz’ and ‘Ecology of Fear’. But go back and look through ‘Ecology of Fear’ and see if all those darkening tones have proved physically true. I think that you’ll find that NONE of the most dramatic ones have, although that doesn’t mean they won’t.

      To me, Didion is one of the great prose-poets of Los Angeles. Tom is not the only one who is not a big fan, but he and I are BOTH huge lovers of Los Angeles, and this is nice that we could say something about that here–not that many New Yorkers have traditionally also been mad for L.A. But Thom Anderson in the film ‘Los Angeles Plays Itself’ says something about ‘forget Joan Didion’, etc,. and also David Thomson (the film critic he rakes over the coals, also good in his Encyclopedias of Film, but full of purple). Didion can overdramative, but she has been able to gain access to the highest and lowest milieus, as in ‘Slouching Toward Bethlehem’, when she stayed in Haight-Ashbury. i also think her Lakewood articles, that are compiled in ‘Where I Was From’ are brilliant. Now THAT is a neighborhood that really did die with the disintegration of McDonnell Douglas.

      Not that I think they are to be compared, really, they aren’t the same kind of writer. There are lots of writers you have to read, from Fitzgerald, Harlan Ellison, Budd schulberg, even a novel The Big Laugh by O’hara, and Otth Heinrich’s ‘City of Nets’ is good, you have to know John Fante (who Tom may have mentioned in one of his article, he’s most famous for ‘Ask the Dust’. But the problem for me with Davis is that his apocalypses don’t seem to be coming true; if some of them have, then please update me. Every Xmas I go to Los Angeles for a week, and it seems in better shape every time. Apocalypse talk is worthless to me if it doesn’t have basis in physical reality.

      Ray Fuller

      November 1, 2009 at 12:22 am

      • Just want to add that I don’t think Didion’s writing on New York is nearly as illuminating, even for a big fan like me. The very early ‘Goodbye to All That’ has some marvelous writing in it, but mostly that ‘full of wonder then disenchantment’ that happens to some people here (although success determined her relation to it to a great degree, she’s now lived here for 20 more years). In the ‘After Henry’ New York section, I had to read it numberous times before I even knew what she was driving at–she didn’t seem to be able to go very deep, or find the right angle–would sheepishly mention the Gambinos and the other crime families, but say little. There’s all this long stuff about the Central Park Jogger and the Brawley/Sharpton business. She’s not so much inaccurate with her facts (that’s very rare with her) as she can’t find the crucial ones to concentrate on. I wasn’t that impressed with ‘Fixed Ideas after September 11’ either.

        DeLillo writes infinitely better about New York, of course, all of his novels get the various tones exactly right. Didion has never set a novel here, but is also comfortable with Hawaii and the Caribbean.

        Ads’s remark about the MS is important, because it was diagnoaed nearly 40 years ago, and there’s an essay in The White Album. I believe Tom’s article in LA Magazine has a photo in which you see she is sort of ‘all bones’, and could surely weigh no more than 85 lbs. MS is such a strange disease, in that it can kill or cripple fairly quickly (and kill, as in the case of a friend) or allow a reasonably long life. I don’t understand it.

        Ray Fuller

        November 1, 2009 at 12:58 am

  9. tom,

    No problem at all! This is a great comments thread, I think!

    I also sometimes daydream of showing a journalism class how much of her mystique goes the way of the dodo if you just replace each oracular “I am” with a humdrum “I’m.”

    That’s a rather stunning point.

    But I’ve got no trouble believing she’s endearing in person, since just hearing her interviewed on radio a couple of years back made me feel mildly regretful about all the times I’ve beaten up on her in print.

    I have my own story in this line, one that made me feel even more than mildly regretful. The first and only time I ever hear her speak was at a big public reading / conversation at the New School around 2002 or 2003. She seemed really awkward verging on weird – like she was hamming up the awkwardness. I complained afterward to my wife about the whole schtick that she had deployed, really annoying way to come out in front of a paying audience etc. Was perhaps unduly upset about it, I was, for some reason. A few days later I heard about the whole MS thing – and my mother has MS, rather badly. What I had picked up on, in retrospect, was probably the subtle but telltale symptom set of MS, a symptom set I know all too well. Have felt a bit shitty about my reaction ever since…


    I’m sure your writing’s not disorganized – certainly not like that, come on!


    October 31, 2009 at 11:45 pm

  10. I actually loved “Fixed Ideas after 9/11.” I can’t remember why clearly enough to say so on here, but I remember being very excited by it when it came out.

    Agreed about DeLillo though.

    MS is such a strange disease, in that it can kill or cripple fairly quickly (and kill, as in the case of a friend) or allow a reasonably long life.

    Exactly. It’s the perversity of the disease that makes it so hellish. There’s the Jacqueline du Pré sudden decline into tremulous death, and then there’s the thirty-three year run of steadily declining quality of life that’s marked my mother’s run with the disease. Lot’s of diseases kill you quicker; few are worse when considered holistically.


    November 1, 2009 at 9:32 am

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