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Archive for October 2009

in the interest of full disclosure (fcc mandated post)

with 5 comments

Joshua Line queries below why I eat / drink in chain restaurants. I do talk an awful lot about doing it, don’t I?

Well, the NYT reports today:

On Monday, the F.T.C. said it would revise rules about endorsements and testimonials in advertising that had been in place since 1980. The new regulations are aimed at the rapidly shifting new-media world and how advertisers are using bloggers and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to pitch their wares.

The F.T.C. said that beginning on Dec. 1, bloggers who review products must disclose any connection with advertisers, including, in most cases, the receipt of free products and whether or not they were paid in any way by advertisers, as occurs frequently. The new rules also take aim at celebrities, who will now need to disclose any ties to companies, should they promote products on a talk show or on Twitter. A second major change, which was not aimed specifically at bloggers or social media, was to eliminate the ability of advertisers to gush about results that differ from what is typical — for instance, from a weight loss supplement.

Given this, perhaps it’s the right time to have a little Letterman-esque chat with my readers. No! I’ve not had inappropriate relations with Starbucks employees in return for my constant stream of plugs for their coffee establishments on my blog! But there is a deal in place – a speechless, contractless deal, one that all parties involved know is in durable effect, even though no papers have been signed, no handshakes enthusiastically shook.

The deal is this. I sit in their establishments blogging the delights of, well, blogging in their establishments . In return, I am permitted to use the toilets, whenever I like, and without buying anything at all. Sure, everyone does this already. But when I do it, I don’t need to creep to the back or pretend first to be in the queue to buy coffee.

The deal is only in effect at the Tottenham Court Road, Brunswick Centre, and Tavistock Square outlets.

At any rate, I just thought all of you should know. I’ve run afoul of so many things lately – seems sensible not to offend the august forces of the FCC too.

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October 6, 2009 at 11:13 am

notes on militant method

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Gabe just left a provocative comment about Zero Books under the “militant preciousness” post:

Maybe it’s my fault for having overly high expectations, but there is a common stylistic let down in the blogs that is accentuated by the way the books promise more than they deliver, which is a perceptive or witty analysis of some cultural phenomenon, and then a final mini-paragraph which says, ‘and perhaps x shows that another way of living is possible’ which has not been earned in any way by the preceding analysis. I’m not convinced this (very enjoyable) polemic and analysis needs this ‘militant’ wrapping at all. And the clear pleasure in the ’self-marketing’ and being ‘on message’ with the unified branding and catchphrases is pretty striking to an outsider.

I feel that I should answer this the long way around, to make clear just what’s driving my rather palpable frustration with certain things. It’s sort of a long story, but basically the background to many of my positions / much of my current and future work, so hopefully you’ll bear with me.

I don’t have a problem with the “marketing” of the books per se. I have a problem when marketing steps in front of, outruns thought and argument. That is to say, I lived (as a Very Young Man) through the final years of the dominance of capital-T Theory in English departments, and cringe a bit when I think back on the ways that a sort of hipness or slickness was taken by publishers and even readers as a fully convertable currency in place of thought, practicality, and rigorous argumentation. The whole scene was, to put it bluntly, fucking useless.

Far too often, the form that “political” work in the humanities took was as follows: reassemble theoretical machine in your apartment. Force literary (or other) texts through machine. Scrape up what comes out the other end – generally a fairly bleak picture of our world and our prospects. Strain and mould into monograph. Just before baking, add a few vague, handwaving gestures about practice – gestures generally way out of sync in either their modestness or their hubristic magical thinking with the bleakness of the portrait you’ve just painted. Finally, bake in the glow of your self-admiration – for now you are a servant of revolution, you have changed the world with your book on, say, racial politics in the 19th century novel.

Then all of a sudden, capital-T theory failed. And then one day I was reading an essay about Conrad and imperialism, and noticed something. What the author was discussing was moderately valuable, interesting even. But the rotely grandiloquent claims at the front of the paper seemed to imply that she was in fact, in writing and publishing this paper, doing something about imperialism, racism, and gender imbalance. She gave a sense (and it’s not really her fault – this is just what one did or does in papers like these – it’s a sort of boilerplate that you insert at the front and the back) that a few more papers like this, and, well, we could expect a major improvement in the state of affairs whose backstory she was tracing.

All of a sudden, this seemed criminally untenable to me. It did because it is. And my head was set a-spinning. For this was just the sort of paper that I wrote too – I put the boilerplate in just the same way. Depressing! And so I started thinking about what might be done.

And I’m still thinking. But a few things have become relatively clear to me:

1. We must think steadily, honestly, and realistically about what it is that our works might reasonably do.

2. The fact that they probably won’t spur the immediate resolution of age-old antimonies and contradictions doesn’t mean that they are totally useless.

3. But getting #1 wrong will likely lead them to be useless, yes. Getting #1 right will likely lead to marginal usefulness, and marginal usefulness is better than no usefulness at all.

4. The cultural sphere still is the place where decisions collective and individual are made about who we are, where we’re headed, and what we should do. The base and superstructure are codeterminant. Intervention in culture is still very valuable.

5. You just have to think about which levers you can pull from where you’re standing. And make sure they are the right levers.

So… Writing anything that jumps a bit too quickly and way too far from object of analysis / findings to the pragmatics earned by the former sticks in my craw. Obviously, none of this is easy to sort out, there’s always a leap of some sort, and it’s very difficult to know in advance. But Owen’s work, for instance, seems to me to get the calibration just about right. (As does IT’s, for that matter). Making an argument – even if it largely at this point takes the form of pointing at things and saying that was good, there are obvious reasons to want more of that – that’s counter-intuitive or runs in the face of conventional wisdom and that is actually distributable (and distributed at this point, due to Owen’s voluminous journalism!) to those who are making real-world decisions about real-world things seems to me an object-lesson in one way we might start to do the work of what we call or used to call “theory” but to get it a bit more right this time around.

On the other hand – and here is where my comments over the last few months about “militant dysphoria” are coming from – some of the stuff being said by people (may of whom are writing books for Zero) seems to me to draw us all the way back and then some to the bad old days. The problem gives itself away, to my mind, when they’ve started fantasizing about the landscapes of the Terminator movies, or post-apocalyptic survival scenarios, or when we think vaguely Nazi Death Metal is somehow dialectically recuperable…. though they can’t say quite how, keep drawing up just short of where the connective tissue is supposed to be. This is why I keep asking for an explanation of the mechanics, and I think this is why people get a bit upset when I do.

And this is where the distortive effect of the marketing cart dragging the theoretical horse comes into play. It’s of course very sexy to lead with Absolute Destruction and Fucking Rubble!!!, Radical Moodiness and really Dark Music! But absent the steps that I’ve described above, I can’t help but feel that what we’re getting is something like the chronic perversity of marketing rather than the necessary rigor and clarity of thought that would be effective.

More to say, but it’s time to go to work!

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October 5, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Posted in theory

sunday post: marxist cream teas and gnarly geolocatable trees

with 2 comments

Very much regret that I couldn’t come along on Owen’s Piccadilly Line tour today. But then again, I’m pretty sure that none of the Holden designed stations feature one of these, which I saw today doing the same, um, walking tour I do almost every weekend – Highgate to Hampstead, hitting every playground in between.

I took a lot of nice pictures of Hampstead Heath along the way. Really starting to develop extraordinarily warm feelings for the Heath and for this stretch of North London more generally. Starting to wish that I lived even closer to the former than I already do (it’s about a 15 minute bus ride from my house).

The country is so very verdant, that even the dead trees have a bit of life in them.

Here is where you go if you want to have sex in the Heath. Just watch out for the police cameras – this is the UK after all.

There are few directional signs in the Heath, and many forks in the path, some of them leading through fairly dense old growth forest. So the first time I walked from Highgate to Hampstead, I used the GPS system on my iPhone to naivgate my way through. Worked like a charm. But it has a funny effect, this GPS thing – maybe something worth thinking about / writing about a bit more. I had anticipated taking a picture of the following the last time I was there – had the camera with me this time.

But as I took it, I couldn’t help but think – probably given the way I’d navigated last time – of what the tree I was taking a picture of would look like on google maps. In fact, I persistently today thought of myself as walking through a map, a satellite image – couldn’t stop thinking about myself from an imagined god’s eye view. Here’s the tree again, as well as the path from which I took the picture:

Odd to think that men and women walked around for so many centuries thinking, at least in part, from the god’s eye view, only to lose it, to see for themselves and at level angle for a bit, only to resume where they had left off due to gps and google maps. At least google’s satellites don’t care about your sins. Er….

At any rate, we made it to Hampstead, I put the camera away. We delivered our daughter to a birthday party, had a nice dinner (accompanied by a semi-sleeping infant – the other daughter), didn’t buy any books at Waterstones or Daunt, and then came home via one bus and then another. I’m getting my most hits ever today, by the way.

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October 4, 2009 at 10:14 pm

obama on k street

with 3 comments

Frank Rich and Thomas Frank, both excellent on Obama’s failure to “tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over,” as he promised during his campaign. If you read carefully, you’ll see where Rich seems to lift a bit from Frank only to double it down quite nicely – has to do with the poster above.

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October 4, 2009 at 8:39 am

Posted in america

militant preciousness

with 56 comments

Reading some of the “militant dysphoria” papers that have been posted, the same problems that I’ve been on about a bit re-appear. Adolescent insanity just about sums it up, but to be slightly more specific, let’s start with absolute vagueness when it comes to the payoff. Here’s the problem. If the point is simply to recognise the dysphoria and then work to get rid of it, that’s fine, but it’s certainly not news. This is what has always been said, and generally said with a lot less theatricality and more substance than here. So rather the point (from a marketing perspective, I guess) is to angle towards the recognition and embrace of the dysphoria. Which of course leads to a fairly simple problem: why the fuck would anyone get onboard with a politics that promises only to make the problems, the things that make us unhappy, worse?

Yeah I know. What a sellout to neoliberalism I am for saying it. Here, have some splintering bone ashes:

To systematise briefly: a world protects its consistency by rendering itself a black box, invincible and invisible, taken for granted. The human world is one determined by vitalistic principles, and it is these which are undone in dysphoria, hence undoing the world which they construct. If capital has subsumed the world of life, has exploited and manipulated its processes to such an extent that it becomes synonymous with life, and indeed a form of life itself, then perhaps the way of death, of non-life, of the freezing over of the vital offers a way out of its particular strictures. It is certainly true to say that capitalism as it stands now requires a degree of acquiescence with the “big other”- to at least pay lip service to the affirmationist common sense. This means that at the level of microeconomics, we must “enjoy” or at least pretend to do so, and at the level of macroeconomics that the dogma of growth of gross domestic product as strictly equivalent to the common good and the elevation of the general standard of living of humanity must be maintained. So in identifying with the state of dysphoria itself and hence to subtract from this world, the militant dysphoric effectively abandons a world already made cold by capital’s alien life, and then perhaps, undoes it. Perhaps.

The final “perhaps” is precious, isn’t it? Some of us, however, hold out for the chance that it might, just might, be possible to enjoy stuff outside of the framework of capitalism – or, Christ, even within it if that’s the lot we’ve drawn for now. A refugee enjoys her or his refuge, a starving man his food. Sometimes its nice to read a book or talk to a friend. Some of us even like sex sometimes (though maybe not these guys) that’s neither paid for nor framed within some subsuming logic of capital.

Oh and just to be clear: making strange never meant just being confusing and vague, or saying things that didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. And also: Baudrillard did all this in Symbolic Exchange and Death, better, though no more convincingly. Here, have a bit more, from Nick Srnicek:

-To some degree, we can see this in Dominic’s discussion of the killing of Finke – the bystander who was killed by the RAF when they broke Baader out of custody. In the militant’s frame, this innocent bystander never enters into the calculations involved in their path. It’s rather bourgeois morality which would force this calculation onto the agencies involved, but it’s excluded here by the assemblage that has framed the militant. Whereas bourgeois morality would have paralyzed action by trying to calculate every possible consequence in advance, the militant has their frame contracted to a much more myopic vision.
-It is this aspect which makes the militant – potentially – a progressive and transformative agent, rather than a reactionary and conservative impediment. A sort of willful blindness, a contraction of the frame beyond everyday concerns, and the focusing of energies on a singular path.

Boy, well, that takes care of the tricky business of collateral damage, doesn’t it? Just to be clear, one could replace the word militant with US military at any single point in the above, and it would work out just as cleanly. Ever seen The Battle of Algiers? Notice the way that it stares the soon-to-be-dead right in the face? Have to say, the thought of toussled-haired hipsters, laptopped and bespectacled, writing such things leaves me just a little bit raw. Know what I mean?

In general: all seems like a lot of grad seminar smokebreak nonsense, the sort of things that the kids get up to when the instructor is out of the room. Or, worse, the sort of thing that irresponsible, comfortable people say when they’re bored. Which is maybe how all the very worst sorts of politics get started. The reveries of frustrated junior stock-brokers. It’s a simple test, easily dismissed as “guardianistical” by the initiates, but if your politics wouldn’t make sense to some poor fucker in a camp in Africa, or migrant worker caught just outside the tunnel, or a prostitute working the outer bits of the outer boroughs, you should stop and shut the fuck up think very carefully about what you’re up to. Only the rich want to die, only the rich privilege their own unhappiness. If you read this blog, you know that I am unhappy about 99 percent of the time – but I’d never, ever mistake that for a politics. Afraid we can’t really spare the bandwidth.

Perhaps I’ll say a bit more when I’m in a better mood. For now, I’ll just say I’m not regretting missing the event for drinks with undergraduates.

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October 4, 2009 at 12:57 am

Posted in theory

family romance in aggregate

with 3 comments

Odd to think that one gets back to the time of Jesus, the climax of the Roman empire, via only 100 generations of ancestors or so. Am tonight imagining a book that would imagine into, at 5 pages a throw,  each one of them, likely the male ones for simplicity’s sake (ugh) in turn. Would require huge amounts of both research and guesswork, probably more of the latter than the former. I also imagine that much of the first 450 pp would be filled with something like the “gardening” sequence in The Life and Times of Michael K, except in the northern hemisphere rather than the southern. And then (from what I guess – I don’t really know who they were) a rapid shuffle from France to Soho to Quebec to Ontario, resting there for a bit until the last 15 pages, when we visit London (captaining a Lancaster bomber for the RAF) only to return to rustbelt Ontario, a veer (via a football scholarship) to Halifax, then New Jersey, and finally after circling around the northeast for a bit a jump back over the seas to London to… do what? Solve the problematique familiale once and for all? Drink in those Soho bars where the forefathers briefly worked or didn’t? Write this book in the Starbucks on Tavistock Square, a few blocks from the British Library?

Perhaps after this, that, and the other thing, on to something like this. Would take probably a decade, no? But would have nicely epical scope. Strange to think that no one’s ever done it, really. Or has someone?

Anyway, feel free to write me at the email address at the upper right-hand side of the page with offers of massive advances so I can quit my job and do this in less than a decade.

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October 3, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Posted in aggregate, novel

in and beyond the shadow of senate house

with 4 comments

Late notice, and I really can’t imagine that anyone who’d be in a position to attend doesn’t already read Owen’s blog, but there are two walks going on this weekend in relation to “In the Shadow of Senate House,” a series of talks and events in and around Birkbeck this fall. I’m very excited to be giving a paper later in the year in this series…

Really wish (and really should) go on these walks, but I’m afraid I’ve used up all of my dad-away-from-the-family time this week and then some, and so it’s birthday parties and puppet shows for me!

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October 3, 2009 at 11:07 am

Posted in london

“henry bores me, with his plights & gripes”

with 6 comments

John Berryman’s The Dream Songs following me around in my waking life, if not the other life too. I should just lie in bed and read it. It is on a table when someone comes in – Oh, you’re reading that too! And then a moment of discomfort with a new student (what to say what to say) broken when, at my prompt about what he is most interested in at the moment, he says at the moment, I’d have to say The Dream Songs. I tell him he’ll read them for his entire life, and they’ll change with his age. Later the same day, with colleagues, I make a joke about the land-grant university system, MFA programs, and suicide…. and Berryman. I regret the joke now, even though I’m sure I seemed very, very clever at the time.

I am not sure what to make of the fact that everyone in the world seems to be reading Berryman at once. It can’t be a good sign, but neither is it the worst. One I linked to, but did not clip in, before: #14:

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

It hangs on the wall, directly outside of my office, this one. Here’s hoping that you, reader, have no Henry, or that if you do, he keeps mostly quiet and calm. Mine keeps me up, drones on through the parts when I should eat or sleep. For instance, he says tonight: Everyone around me – and even me, for once – is doing so complexly well. But the sky it all takes place against is tinged with pseudo-diabetic shock, colored grolsch and yellow. Each according to her or his abilities, and it is great, but it has jaundice, is translucent but hospitalized. That sort of thing!

(But just look at the insipid painting in the background of #14. Turner in the first stanza turns into garagesale watercolor in the third. More complexly changeable than the portrait that hangs in Dorian’s attic, and then the dog, the tail…)

I apologize that this blog, once proudly about things that mattered, has become a waking/sleeping dream journal of sorts. I keep telling you, out of guilt, that I’m writing that Other Stuff all of the time only elsewhere. And I am! A remarkably consistent democratic socialist, in more genres than ever, and then now here, only this, the uncommentable.

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October 3, 2009 at 2:10 am

Posted in berryman

dream 3 – dining out

with 8 comments

Then the terminal scene. It’s New York, and one of those corner neighborhoods that somehow you’ve never exactly been in before, you’ve skirted the edges, but this street is new to you. It’s lined with concept-driven middlebrow restaurants, à la those discussed at the end of this post. Places where you order over the counter and then sit and wait, places where the food rolls around on a conveyor belt, places where you sit at collective tables, etc. * I am supposed to meet someone; I am supposed to find somewhere for us to meet – though it’s never quite clear who it is that I am attending, as they never show.

The street resolves into one of these restaurants, which somehow has gotten planning permission to build right over the street, across entire intersection, blocking further walking so that everyone who has made it this far has only two choices: turn back or enter the restaurant. And in fact, once you enter, you find that there is in fact a back door, one that would allow you to continue your journey, but they’ve constructed the place such that you have to pay at the till, order some food, in order to use it.

You notice someone, younger than you and braver, jump the queue and exit through the back door. It nonetheless remains clear to you that you won’t do this. You step outside through the front door, check your phone for messages. There are none. And then you step back inside and try to figure out what to order.

The place serves sushi-like, un or undercooked items. Save that the items are organs, sheep’s gut and fatted livers, kidneys and the like. ** They do their own butchery on site; that is the concept of this one – along with the innovative turn that you can’t  leave in the right direction without paying.  And then you wake up.

* London restaurants of the middle-palate chain variety tend to combine a food concept with a service concept. Wagamama’s does rather nice pan-asiatic stuff, and (but) you (have to) sit at collective tables. YO! Sushi (I don’t eat sushi, so I’ve never been – I’ve only stared in the window at the Brunswick Centre) does, um, sushi but does the conveyor belt, color-coded plate thing. I could go on. The reason why this happens here and not so much in New York is because labour costs so much more here, whereas the price in New York drops close enough to zero when you factor in the armies of illegals that work in every single NYC restaurant…. So if I am lucky, someone will open a really nice line offering passable Mexican food, but undoubtedly you’ll drop coins into a bank of automat vending machines or something to get them and then squat on the floor to eat them. That sort of thing.

** Dream seamed out of vague disturbing initial stuff having to do with my cats with a thematic overlay from one of those pet hospital shows that much to my, no frustration isn’t the word, horror-struck disgust came on in a public place where I was forced to watch or look away and no doubt sur-triggered by related things on CNN last night (a feature on the stupid Egyptian pig cull a few month back and the resultant piles of organic garbage that are flooding Cairo at the moment, another piece on Roger Moore’s simultaneous campaigns for UNICEF and against foie gras). The first thing featured a veterinarian holding a still-living sheep’s intestines in his hands, in the second they were euthanizing pigs by forcing them to drink some sort of solution, and the third featured images both of the force-feeding of the ducks and a still of a normal duck liver next to the enormous, bloated organ that goes into fois gras.

But the funny thing is, whenever I see this sort of image and squeamishly look away, *** and then back again, and the away again, and so on, I always say to myself or whomever is with me, This is why I couldn’t be a doctor, a surgeon. My mother wanted me to be a surgeon but this is why I couldn’t be.

*** Someone was reading the Evening Standard the other day, which featured on the cover a terrible story about a home invasion that took place not far from my house. The person in question forced me to look away; would not show me the piece in question, allow me to read it. It was an interesting reaction, not to let me read it.

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October 1, 2009 at 4:05 am

Posted in dreams