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first world problems: mckenzie wark on boredom

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While reading Sven Lütticken’s new piece in the New Left Review, I was led to click through to a piece by McKenzie Wark called “#Celerity: A Critique of the Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” While I don’t want to go directly into the “accelerationism” issue here – those of you who’ve been reading me for awhile have a sense of where I stand on the matter – I would like to flag up one paragraph that speaks (despite itself?) to the big problem that I have with what we might call neo-Situationist thinking.

3.2 It’s a question of whether boredom with the commodity economy will work fast enough, as it spreads from the overdeveloped world to the underdeveloped, to open up a new path before metabolic rifts like the climate crisis forces the planet toward more violent, disorganizing, and frankly fascist ‘solutions’ to its problems. Already in China factory workers are starting to get restless. Beyond that, there’s only so much cheap labor left on the planet to exploit. Meanwhile, in the overdeveloped world, a rather novel regime of value extraction is finding ways to extract value from non-work. Search engines and social networking find ways to extract value from activity regardless of whether it is ‘work’ and without paying for it. It’s a kind of vulture industry, parasitic on frankly successful popular struggles to free vast tracts of information from the commodity form and circulate it freely. But having beaten back the old culture industries with this tactic, the social movement that was free culture finds itself recuperated at a higher level of abstraction by the vulture industries and their ‘gamification’ of every aspect of everyday life. So: any alter-modernity project has to bypass the expansion of the old commodification regimes across the planet, but also these curious new ones, dominant in the overdeveloped world, but tending now to transform information flows everywhere.

The “question” at play in the first sentences is whether “boredom” will spread fast enough from the overdeveloped world to the underdeveloped to best the onset of “metabolic rifts” like climate change. It’s a foolish – and yes, foolishly accelerationist question – and it’s one that provides space for a sloppy slippage in terms in the first few sentences.  “Already in China factory workers are starting to get restless.” Boredom has turned into “restlessness,” and restlessness is indeed something like boredom. But of course the factory workers in China aren’t restless because they’ve over-gorged in the fruits of “overdevelopment.” They are “restless” because they are being worked to death to provide the materials of this ostensible “overdevelopment.” (The more you think about it, in the context of this paragraph, “restless” is an absolutely horrifying word to use to describe the existential situation of those generic Chinese factory workers.) Wark’s slight of hand blurs the lines between the one and the other – casting Foxconn workers as in a sense “catching up” with our existential plight as they contemplate throwing themselves down staircases…

The perspectival problems continue in the next sentence – “Beyond that, there’s only so much cheap labor left on the planet to exploit.” Whether or not that’s true – I seriously doubt it – what are we to make of this statement in context? What will happen when the world “runs out” of cheap labour? Presumably there’s a possibility that global capitalism is in fact potentially about to solve the problems of uneven distribution of goods (and with the goods, “boredom.”) If it doesn’t – in the context of this paragraph – it doesn’t really matter anyway. We’ll all be toast.

In general, any argument that structurally equates (and I’m not even sure that’s not too generous a word for what’s afoot here) the exploitative tedium of Chinese factory work with our bored entrapment in the “gamification” of our tweeting or Facebooking is focalised from a perspective that so desperate to project hysterically one’s own (middle class, academic, first world) life-experience as the very model of the global drama of exploitation.

In short, this paragraph (and Wark’s argument as a whole) is grounded in a fantastical resolution of the real problems of worldwide inequality – a resolution necessary so that Wark’s hipster dilemma’s can take center-stage in the drama of global politics. Or to put it another way, whenever anyone founds their political argument on the concept of boredom, I reach not for my gun but for my World Atlas. Boredom may be a worry for “us” (us here in the “overdeveloped” world, even us trapped in the gears of a socio-economic system based on the festina lente temporality of precarity), but it’s not a pressing problem for the world, no matter what the spoiled youths of ’68 had to say about the subject. 

 

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 3, 2014 at 12:03 pm

against the really free school

with 43 comments

Ah, feel vindicated today. During the UK student occupations, I accepted any invitation I received to address student occupations and did my best to come up with something good to say to them… Even though that increasingly amounted to saying something like “Christ, you guys know better than I do at this point… Look at what you’ve done!”

A few weeks ago, I received an email encouraging me to come up with something for the Really Free School. After thinking about it for awhile, I decided to ignore the request… But not without feeling a bit guilty for not pitching something in, especially since the aspects of this movement that have provided opportunities for me to usefully participate have gone into remission for the moment. But reading this this morning, I realize that the hunch I had – that I’m on a different side of this from them – was right. Here’s the post in full:

!Education’s Napster Moment

As a result of the emergence of a virtual marketplace that encourages the forming of community and the sharing of ideas, we have inadvertently been equipped with the tools needed to undo the current rules of engagement.

Ours is the first generation to be given the toolset by which to produce, collectively organise and display our message/ideology/product to a global audience; an audience that, like you, has an equal opportunity to subvert the current trajectory of our education system.

Universities are collapsing. Not as a result of dramatic cuts but because they represent an outmoded model for their primary function, the exchange of knowledge and research. The education industry is about to experience the same death blow to its infrastructure and profit model that Napster issued to the music industry back in 1999.

Everyone within our generation is aware that the construction of ideas and the execution of research has shifted its locality to a sprawling virtual space that is open to collective input.

Let us not draw out the death rattle of our institutions by allowing concessions to be made and minor battles to be fought and ultimately lost – instead let us accelerate the pace of their demise.

Abandon the institution and declare it’s death, the point at which our apathy for the current state of play is declared, the better. With this change we will be able to destabilise the mediated control of our social trajectory, causing a genuine crisis for those that stand to profit both politically and financially from our existing system. It is the institutions and those that control them that need us.

Create a real crisis, torrent your syllabus, duplicate your id cards and give them to strangers, scan your entire library and post it on AAARG, distribute maps of your university online, relocate your seminars to a space outside of the institution. Invalidate the universities existence, so that together we can begin to build fresh foundations on its grave.

Invite anyone and everyone to participate, saturate your institutions and make them a true open space. The path to knowledge does not end on the day of graduation.

This document was put together on the spur of the moment as a direct response to this situation, its ideas are not fixed. Instead it seeks to act as a provocation or suggestion that we should consider the complete reformation of what we currently have. More money/Less cuts cannot cure the decline of our institutions. We have now a unique opportunity to create something new, independently and autonomously.

Wow – sounds like someone’s been reading Kpunk et al – at least before Kpunk et al’s dextrous sidestep into allegiance with the generally non-accelerationist protest movement late last year. (Short version of my critique: saying “They’re not as apathetic as I wrote” is not the same as saying “Perhaps the embrace of apathy is not the right way forward…” Harder to admit that your argument was wrong than your diagnosis…) But that is some pretty hardcore accelerationism cum depressive despair in the blogpost, per what we’ve seen from the likes of the left-theoretical blogetariat. I am fully in-line with the desire to open university admissions, to grant as much access as possible, deheirarchize institutions etc. (If CUNY wants to go back to open admissions and offer me a job, I’d be there in a second, despite the fact that I do indeed get on very very well with my hand-picked and quite brilliant students where I am now…) The only reason I don’t want anyone to video and release my lectures for free on the internet is that I’d have to rewrite my lectures every single year for fear that some or most had heard it all already. Trust me, I have enough work to do as it is…

More seriously, I am absolutely sure that the way forward is not the abandonment of what vestiges of socialized education remain in the UK or anywhere else. I think it’s safe to say that they’re missing an absolutely enormous, gaping difference between the napster-fucking of the music industry and doing the same thing to what is left of publically funded university education. In short, most of us don’t care in the least about the survival of, say, Sony. We don’t care about cutting into to their profit margins, we don’t care if they go under, and we might even have faith that if they and their competitors no longer existed we would still be able to find good or even better music without them.

On the other hand, I’d like to think that we do care about the continued existence and viability of not-for-profit and (let’s hope) state funded educational centres. At this point in history, there are far better targets for anarchistic rage than the ISAs that administer higher education, at least in the humanities and social sciences. (At the moment, I am being force-interpellated by institutional pressure – from a University Press – to add more Badiou etc into my book. That’s not exactly the stuff of Christian conservatism…)

I used to talk to someone who from time to time would kick around the idea of dropping out (or being evicted from) regular academia and “taking it on the road” – giving talks and passing the hat. She also was a sometimes theorist of the sort of university without walls idea that is behind the RFS communique above. When we talked about it, the thing that I always said was that sure, it’s a nice idea, but if I were her I’d just plan to give, say, the porn talk over and over again and probably forget about giving the Hegel lecture quite so often or even at all.

Some of education isn’t fun – it can’t be fueled by people hitting “like” on some social networking website. I’m lucky. I get to teach the attractive stuff from the modern period, the stuff that just about everyone wants to read. But I am incredibly grateful that my students are forced to read lots of other materials that, given the choice, they likely wouldn’t. Lots would skip Chaucer if they could, and much else besides that they complain about to me but ultimately they need to have in order to understand – and in particular to see the limitations of – the hip fun but ultimately sort of narcissistically angled stuff that they get to do with me.

I have no moral qualms with downloading music or television. I will say however that my ability to do so doesn’t necessarily lead to the best use of my time. This morning for instance, feeling in a bit of a rut, I finished up the newest season of Mad Men rather than reading Peter Hallward’s excellently lucid book on Badiou, which I started yesterday. Perhaps you see the problem? The infinite availability of what I like isn’t necessarily a conduit to my successful continuous self-education.

And of course there’s another side to this. Destroy the university and no one pays me anymore. I spend an awful lot of time and energy on teaching – most months, almost all of my time and energy. The students seem to want me to do it. Maybe it’s their interpellation by their ISA of choice, but they’d be pretty upset to run the seminars on their own or if I just put my syllabi and lectures on-line. But if no one’s paying my fine but meagre salary, I’d obviously have to find something else to keep me in hotdogs and buns. Call it me defending my financial interests, but even given the rough job market I’m pretty sure I could find something amazingly more lucrative to do for a living than this.

I think it’s become clear – it seemed very much so at the occupations last year – that faculty are no longer viewed with suspicion. We’re all on the same side here… Save of course for those who go over to administration, which is another matter altogether and something that I sure as shit will never do. At any rate, I’d bet six cans of Grolsch that within a few months, Cameron et al rolls out some sort of Big Society e-learning initiative. When you’re coming up with ideas that happen to be exactly the same as those of the party in power, it might be time for a bit of an decelerationist moment. If so, maybe the folks at the Really Free University could be hired in to administer it.

Scattered post – sorry about that. Anyway, glad I didn’t go. This is not something that I support. I hope there will be many opportunities in the near-term to give talks at occupations whose interests and aims I share.

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 16, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Posted in academia, occupations

when students start to teach

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Cheering front-page article in the Guardian today:

The UK faces the prospect of widespread and co-ordinated industrial action in the new year, with the leader of the largest trade union today warning that it is “preparing for battle” with the government over its “unprecedented assault” on the welfare state

Len McCluskey, the newly elected leader of Unite, says union leaders will be holding a special meeting in January to discuss a “broad strike movement” to stop what he described as the coalition’s “explicitly ideological” programme of cuts. Writing in the Guardian, McCluskey praises the “magnificent student movement” that has seen tens of thousands of young people take to the streets to protest at the government’s plans for post-16 education, saying it has put trade unions”on the spot”.

“Their mass protests against the tuition fees increase have refreshed the political parts a hundred debates, conferences and resolutions could not reach,” he said.

Love that last paragraph. As I’ve said before – here and elsewhere – I’m an enormous skeptical person when it comes to political protest. Somehow, though, from the start this seemed to me to be a different sort of thing. Perhaps it’s because some sort of tipping point in the slow yet rapid constriction of neo-liberal reform had been reached; definitely it’s because of the amazingly focused and intelligent – and above all else, determined – efforts of the students that I was interacting with that I felt so engaged by this one.

A few days in, I started to have a sense that something like the article above was quickly becoming possible. One of many important moments: a several day-long intermittent conversation with a young (i.e., har, my age) RMT officer in the smoking area of the occupation I was involved with.

Something’s definitely happened. I used to worry that Xmas would be the end of it. Now, I have a sense that this is only a much-needed break (what a manic month, jesus) and that everyone that I knew who was involved is deadset on its continuation and in fact its acceleration. And there, despite the UK’s current Snowmaggedon, it is on pg 1 of today’s paper.

Written by adswithoutproducts

December 20, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Posted in occupations

fuck(t)wittery

with 14 comments

Sifting around on twitter tonight for stuff in relation to the occupations. Found this from Mark Fisher. Obviously read it bottom to front.

  1. @PennyRed @leninology and it’s not as if anyone died or got very seriously injured.7:55 PM Nov 28th via web
  2. @leninology @PennyRed I agree – and the images are something that can be used to motivate others too7:52 PM Nov 28th via web in reply to leninology
  3. @PennyRed The police charge enabled that strategic victory, it didn’t prevent it.7:50 PM Nov 28th via web in reply to PennyRed
  4. @PennyRed We should be cold and clinical right down the line. What was the protest about if not winning a strategic victory?7:50 PM Nov 28th via web in reply to PennyRed
  5. @PennyRed it’s powerful propaganda in battle for hearts and minds, plus it emphasises antagonism and ruling class phobic panic7:44 PM Nov 28th via web in reply to PennyRed
  6. @PennyRed on the contrary, cops charging kids is surely a good thing, strategically speaking.

He’s talking about this of course:

Anyone who advocates, you know, people getting run over by police horses in the service of a cause, however just, doesn’t need to be listened to. This ain’t the Terminator, version 1 2 or 3. Spend some time at an occupation, and you’ll see that  “strategic victories” are achievable without weird Accelerationist ideas. (Alternately, if you’re not sure about this – pick the situation / organization that you like the least. Dunno, the Tories, the G8, or the Catholic Church. Celebrate when they do their worst, as it is only a sign that things are moving towards the end, despite, well, the human cost…. This is what he’s talking about….)

I mean, honestly, why not suggest Mark gets run over by a fucking horse in order to enable our strategic victory. It’s happening again tomorrow – bet the horses will be out.

Written by adswithoutproducts

November 30, 2010 at 12:42 am

Posted in crisis

a portrait of the president as a mechanized middle manager

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David Bromwich’s brilliant breakdown of the Obama presidency in the current issue of the LRB makes for depressing reading… Obama comes across in a way that makes perfect sense but which I’d never quite gotten before, or at least gotten this fully. If the Bush administration’s dominant rhetorical strain was the dark-magical realism of Orwellian double-think, Obama’s linguistic mainline is the pablum parlance of the powerpoint infected boardroom. Here’s Bromwich on Obama vis a vis Afghanistan:

If, some years hence, one were to measure when the hope for ending the wars ran out, a critical exhibit would be the ‘final orders’ Obama asked all the participants in his Afghanistan review of 2009 to approve. The text, printed by Woodward, is a strangely lawyer-like set of agreed-on directives, at once imperative and vague. The point of a contract is that it is binding: if it is not followed, there are legal grounds of redress. These final orders are a mimic contract: a list of notions expressing a ‘commitment’ to a consensus that was never wholehearted. Yet Obama thought mere verbal formulae could strengthen the agreement he had forged between Petraeus, McChrystal and Mullen, who wanted a full-scale counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and Eikenberry, Lute, Brennan and Biden, who wanted no more troops to be sent. The words are mechanised and managerial: ‘US troops in early 2010 in order to degrade the Taliban and set the conditions for accelerated transition’; ‘leveraging the potential for local security forces’; ‘working with Karzai when we can, working around him when we must’; ‘implementing a post-election compact’; ‘a prioritised comprehensive approach’; ‘begin transferring lead security responsibility’; ‘effective sub-national governance’. All here is in the highest degree uncertain, obscure, and hedged about by bureaucratic evasion and metaphor. None of the terms has the slightest real precision. Yet Obama agonised over the details of this phraseology; a whole metaphysic of war and peace hung on the difference between ‘degrade’ and ‘disrupt’; the word ‘transfer’ took on the authority of a reprieve signed by a governor.

My favorite line of all of Bromwich, though, is this one: “His eloquence finds its natural key not in explanations but in statements of purpose.” We’re supposed to hear, I’m quite sure, the academic undertone in the final phrase in that sentence. Perhaps more than anything else it’s this walking, talking CV-type status that explains more than anything else the appeal that he held for young Americans during the election. They recognized in his bullet-pointed hopes and dreams themselves in their college interviews and grad school applications, and were just as willing as admissions boards often are to reward a polished plan and sterling presentation of self with a place in the program….

 

 

Written by adswithoutproducts

November 15, 2010 at 11:40 am

Posted in america, obama

jane dark responds…

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Jane Dark has a helpful response to my recent stuff on nationalization and discursive norms. Here’s the end of it:

So one might say that we are seeing not the tender creep of socialist possibilities into the national discourse, but their further erasure. Every time that we agree that the word “socialism” might refer to something other than, at a minimum, worker ownership if not indeed the end of surplus value extraction; every time that we misrecognize state corporatism as something other than a moment in capital’s “equilibrium in motion,” we “turn the wheel of discursive normativity a click” away from socialism. We forget what that word promises. Perhaps the most optimistic memory, as Jasper reminded us, is that the corporatist regimes have arisen historically in the fact of popular socialist challenges — but that in no way guarantees the motion will summon forth such a movement via some blind mechanism of counterweights.

To change metaphors: we stand with CR and many others in identifying this as a moment when the chinks in capital’s armor are visible. But this talk of nationalization, this strategy of planning, is an attempt to anneal the fissure in capital’s domination, not to open it wide. It serves as the sign of an opportunity, but is not itself in any way opportune.

I don’t think I disagree with much of what Jane has to say in this piece, and I’m glad that Jane noted that I’m not necessarily writing in support of any of the moves that have recently taken place. It may well be that I locate the critical moment of what is to come at the juncture where we parry with the right / left distinction between various modes and ends of nationalization, even if that moment comes after the act of nationalization itself. And I do fully understand that it’s a parry were very likely to lose. And it may be that I extend a slightly more generous line of credit (foolishly perhaps – I mean, now? even only metaphorically?) to the populace, its capacity for ideological adjustment under the pressures of the real.  And it may be, when we’re talking about the USA or the UK for that matter, that it’s hard either to see an alternative to the nationalizations themselves or an alternative to laying our chips on the future possibilities in this line as our best bet in bleak times. Sadly, honestly, I am not a believer in American revolution, nor am I an accelerationist, as the marginal human costs are far too high.

Written by adswithoutproducts

December 13, 2008 at 11:29 pm

Posted in crisis

iiiiiiiiiif i can make it there

with 3 comments

I have these nights, and this is one of them, where I slip accidentally on a webpage and fall into a giant vat of NYC self-promotional art sleeze, NYC PR hucksterism, the NYC lolitoliterary-complex, and the like. Somebody ’08 is coming up in the scene, a coital-merger has occured between the It-Girl Novelist and the Recently Disgraced Celebrity Blogger, or some semi-celebrity’s kid is tearing shit up with his band out of St. Ann’s School, Bklyn Heights.

There’s a lot to be said for the town, of course. If you asked me nicely I’d probably buy an Arsenal jersey, get killed converting my remaining cash on hand back into the peso del norte, and head on back to Brooklyn. And I’m sure that part of the affective difference between the two places is personal, in that I simply don’t know as many people here (mostly I know kind and wonderful bloggers actually) and so I can’t spend as much time coveting my neighbors’ effortless and totally unwarranted success.

But there is a way that NYC, a few weeks after you sign your lease, requires that you remain doubled over in existential/intestinal agony for the rest of your time there, chanting to yourself I’m already 31 and though I’m an assistant professor at a fancy school my novel has not come out, has not yet even been written. I have no agent, without an agent I cannot sell my novel. Without my novel, I am unloved, there will be no film of my novel, and without that I might as well never have left north jersey. I’m fucking 31!!!! I’ll be 32 in three months!!!!

Seriously, I’m not kidding. That’s just what it’s like. And remember, people there don’t drink the way they do in London, so there’s really no cure except for therapy, which usually only makes things worse. Self-reflection is sort of, you know, a big part of the problem in the first place. The only thing that might help is when it dawns on you that everyone is miserable just the same way. But that epiphany usually only comes when just as the Israeli rookie mobsters have dragged the last box of books out to the van bound for parts unknown and full of people who want to move back to NYC. Like you, as soon as you get there. So even when I moved out of the big city and lived for a little bit in a rusting late bastion of pure-hearted (well…) avant gardism, the New York Observer would arrive every week, and with it a nearly automatic little flashback of self-hatred and resentiment. And then I’d moan for the rest of the day about where we were living. And then again the next day, and so on, until the next pink copy of the paper arrived to start the cycle again.

Luckily, in the depths of it tonight, I happened to have on hand today’s copy of the chubby, record-collecting Guardian, full to the brim with unattractive middle-aged people complaining about the Olympics, the price of milk at Tesco, and the slow decline of ITV, whatever that is. Ah, London. I’m not sure why it is that my coworkers at my quite highly ranked department seem so sane and egoless compared even to the thunderous mediocrities at the state U I left behind, let alone the hothouse freaks that you’d find at a place like Columbia. They do pretty fabulous things, but they also, like teach and mark papers. They make sure I do my work, but they avoid, you know, gratuitously insulting me or body-slams-by-rank because I’m young and new. How weird is that? The chubby Guardian lets my wife write for CIF, whereas the NYT is to focused on its world-historical mission as the Raper of Pecker’d to let anyone who doesn’t work for a DLC-approved think tank or oil company lobbying firm write book reviews, let alone opinion pieces.

So luckily, on all fronts, the Guardian is here to save the day. (If only it wasn’t so fucking boring! Ah but that’s just the point!) Unluckily, I sat down and wrote this bitchy post, which shows that the cure remains a long way off. I think there’s an Andrew Marr documentary on my Sky + box somewhere that would maybe do the trick…

Fuck. I can’t believe I wasted an hour on this when these little town blues could be melting away…

[Eds note: This post represents such bad form that I’ve just now come on to delete it. But, I dunno. I won’t. This is a sickness or health type of relationship that we’re in, dear readers… Bear with me… I’m already feeling better. You could probably leave comments about what an asshole I am and it’d accelerate the healing process… Go ahead, you know you want to… I mean, I could have at least made all this resolve into some sort of point, at least… The sweet mercies of the performative, ah….)

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 15, 2008 at 10:30 pm

Posted in distraction, meta, nyc

form and the breaking of form

with 3 comments

The word “trope” is one of those little dialectic-at-a-standstill words that we literary types love: it means both what it means and the opposite of what it means at once. Etymologically, it is a “turn,” a change of direction. But we use it to indicate something static, sclerotic – something rigidified into a cliché, a token for thoughtless circulation. Combined, we get an all-too-expected dynamism, a movement that follows the path of expectation such that we wonder whether “movement” was the right word from the start. This is why we love to use the word to describe the narrative form bad movies – a trope of the horror genre etc. Something happens, but it is the same thing that always happens…

On CNBC’s main page, there are three columns: from the left, we have “Top Stories” (which looks like an RSS feed, with the top story blurb previewed, then we have a column of stock indexes and their red or green arrows, and finally a column (that you ignore) of ads for upcoming tv shows and links to video content.

I am interested, right now in the first column, the News one, and in particular the little snippet preview of the top story, which during US business hours is almost always about the performance of the market right now. I’ve kept a little text document on my desktop where I clip the previews in as I read them. Here’s a few that I’ve compiled over the past few days:

Stocks turned lower again after rallying on the Fed’s move to add more money to the banking system. “You had a psychological bounce off of 13,000 (in the Dow),” said Patrick Fay of DA Davidson. “Personally I think its being overdone and every talking head is talking about the end of the world but the reality is that it’s not.”

Stocks remained lower in the final hour of trading but were well off their worst levels of the day. “Ultimately the system is strong and the ECB and Fed are there to support the market if need be,” said Jason Trennert of Strategas Research Partners.

Stocks fell to the lowest levels of the day amid anxiety about the credit markets and a weak earnings outlook from Wal-Mart. “We’re seeing a mini-panic, which is symptomatic of a market that is finding a bottom,” said Michael Metz of Oppenheimer.

Stocks seesawed as declines in basic materials shares offset gains in financials as the Federal Reserve added more funds to the banking system. “I think we might have a little bit more on the downside but we might be close (to a bottom),” said Steve Massocca, co-chief executive officer at Pacific Growth Equities. “I think it’s a good time to put money to work.”

It is as if they are written by a computer, compiled by an algorithm like the one that organizes the Google News page. Bleak data followed by semi-optimistic quote from a trader or analyst. It is just a trivial thing, a stylebook efficiency that keeps the jobber who generates the news bubbles in-line, but it is also the enactment – and perpetual reenactment of a tiny little story line, where the cold winds of the impersonal figures (who stand in for the place that “nature” used to play in the story we tell ourselves) are met and matched, are faced, by the solitary and heroic human being, his ability to see behind and above and around the numbers – and, above all, his own narrative sensibility, his sense of how stories like this one, the storyline we sometimes call “creative destruction,” go. Sundown, sunup – after bloodletting, regrowth. Of course it is just an effect of the sort of market cheerleading that is the raison d’être of CNBC – which spends far more time selling its viewers the market to its viewers than reporting on what the market is actually doing. But it is also an example of the tiny storylines, the little gnomic tropes, that run the world now, or at least try to. We find them everywhere – in the political sphere, the employment market, and of course in the realm of the geopolitical (“they only understand one thing, force” and the like…)

As we all know, however, form becomes most meaningful in its breakdown. This is a lesson that the modernists didn’t invent, but which they intensified, brought to the center of our understanding of how art works and how it means.

Look back at the capture I’ve inserted above. Apparently, today, the guy who writes the blurbs wasn’t able to find a sunny human on the trading floor to complete his preformatted narrative arc.. Look at the blank space there in the image, the empty spot where the rest of the story is supposed to be… A full four or five lines of text missing…

Stock indexes are sharply lower following worse than expected housing data, more troubles for Countrywide Financial and as traders have accelerated unwinding yen carry trades.

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Written by adswithoutproducts

August 16, 2007 at 12:37 pm

Posted in form, markets

21st century socialism

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Nice to see this article on Chávez and Venezuela over at Open Democracy…. Not only has some actual numbers that contradict the hand-waving generalizations that you see in the NYT about discontent and authoritarianism, but a clearer and more assertive explanation of the political structure there than I’ve seen before:

The acceleration of the Bolivarian project – in both ideological and organisational terms, has fuelled concerns over the deepening of the government’s authoritarian tendencies. Established cynics in the media, who have seen leftwing ideals rise and fall, and opponents in the anti-Chávez movement have been quick to point to a frightening new twist in the evolution of the Chávez government. This is seen to be represented by the recent granting of decree powers to President Chávez, the move to extend state control over key sectors of the economy and the debate over the formation of the PSUV.

However, it is at this point that the delineation between popular perceptions of democracy on the ground in Venezuela, and “elite” perceptions, articulated by the media and US “democracy-promotion” groups are revealed. There is widespread popular support for this new trajectory in Venezuelan politics. The creation of the PSUV is seen to be in line with the demands of grassroots groups to have more influence within the organisational framework of the Boliviarian project, while Chávez’s use of decree powers to revise the institutional structures of the state responds to grassroots pressure for more influence, power and resources at the community level. Put simply, many Venezuelans think they are getting more and better democracy through “21st-century socialism”, not less.

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Written by adswithoutproducts

May 5, 2007 at 1:14 am

Posted in americas, socialism

“this hobble of being alive is rather serious”

with 9 comments

1.

A paragraph from Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Tess has just read a letter that her mother has written her in response to a request for advice on how to deal with her imminent marriage to Angel and the nasty event in her past:

She was recognizing how light was the touch of events the most oppressive upon Mrs Durbeyfield’s elastic spirit. Her mother did not see life as Tess saw it. That haunting episode of bygone days was to her mother but a passing accident. But perhaps her mother was right as to the course to be followed, whatever she might be in her reasons. Silence seemed, on the face of it, best for her adored one’s happiness: silence it should be.

The difference between Tess and her mother in terms of the significance that they find in this event is not simply a question – for Hardy or for Tess – of simple psychological makeup. Rather, it is a historical question. Hardy takes great pains to establish the vast generational difference between the mother and daughter as no mere matter of the conflictual divergence of child from parent. They are rendered as members of different species, very nearly, sundered from each other by the enormous acceleration of the rate of historical change.

Between the mother, with her fast-perishing lumber of superstitions, folk-lore, dialect, and orally transmitted ballads, and the daughter, with her trained National teachings and Standard knowledge under an infinitely Revised Code, there was a gap of two hundred years as ordinarily understood. When they were together the Jacobean and the Victorian ages were juxtaposed.

This second paragraph is easy enough to understand. There is a very real gap between the two in terms of education and, it follows, discourse, knowledge. But the first paragraph suggests something more, something that rings very true while it, in a sense, defies explanation. The first paragraph – which registers the fact that what was a “haunting episode” for Tess is nothing more than a “passing accident” for her mother – emblematizes the pervasive modern sense that “today” “we” feel things more deeply than those that came before. That life – and the experiences that fill it – are more vivid, pressing, and real than they once were. That our lives matter to us in a way that theirs do not.

I would argue that this is a fundamental experience of modernity. Not the fact that things matter more to us than to others, but simply the sense that they do. We cannot truly know what it felt like to starve, to be raped, to lose a child at birth back then (or – as I’ll explain – over there) – we only know or think we know that we feel equivalent experiences more now than they did then. For a sixteenth-century peasant farmer to starve must have been hard, for sure; but for “us” to starve today would be unbearable, would cut to our exquisitely developed nerves.

Is it simply that life is improving, and with life, expectations? For Tess’s mother and her generational cohort, was being raped by the son of the Good Family nearby a rite of passage of sorts, an fact of life trivial enough to be universal and thus unworthy of excessive contemplation? There is no sign in Hardy that this in fact is the case. No, it has to be something that’s changed in us… a heightened sensitivity, a doubling-up of feeling that comes of consciousness itself?

Is it in a fact the sense that we are more fully-conscious than they were. The injury would cut the skin, and hurt, but today, bathed in consciousness, we not only feel the cut but feel ourselves feeling the cut. We don’t doubt that the women and the men of the past were conscious… to some degree. Perhaps only minimally-conscious, or so weathered by pain and lack that a sort of callus developed over their sensitive parts, a callus that never has a chance to form today. No, let’s stick with the minimal-consciousness idea, as it jives with so much else that we know – or can assume – about the men and women of the past, who knew no future, could anticipate no change, and filled the hole between birth and death, if they bothered to fill it at all, with the mind-evactuating hum of religious dogma, another anaesthetic – an “opiate” in fact.

2.

My parents, for instance, do not whine about the place that they live. To me my life will have been lived in vain if I do not ultimately and for the most part live just where I want to iive. My father didn’t require fulfillment from his work as I do from mine, just money. I also require if not an ideal marriage at least one grounded in a sort of soul-to-soul contact, a deeper sympathy – ultimately, “real love.” My parents, clearly, did not require this. While I love my child dearly, at time I rage inside for my lost youth, freedom that has disappeared never to return. My wife does as well, but I am fairly certain that my mother did not. The suffocation of childrearing seemed perfectly natural, the only thing for her, right?

And just imagine for a second the simplicity and happy austerity of grandparents… Like children, even when they were in the prime of life.

Sometimes, when the pressures and dissatisfactions mount up, when I very nearly can’t take it anymore because I literally can’t think about anything but what it wrong with everything and everything that is still to be done – I am overworked and undersatisfied, things were better back then and might never be good, really good, again – I put myself in my place by thinking “Just how shitty would it be, really, if you were elsewhere and in other conditions – the conditions of perhaps most people in the world. If it wasn’t just taken for granted that you would eat and stay warm and that this child you have would survive and prosper. If there were bombs falling or strangers in uniform at the door. Or were diseased and dying young. Imagine that – and then complain!”

It works for awhile, but it is not in any way a permanent fix.

3.

Is this – all this – what Hardy / Angel Clare means by the “ache of modernism” that they find in Tess? That despite her meagre origins, she somehow feels it too?

Angel, however, saw her light summer gown, and he spoke; his low tones reaching her, though he was some distance off.

“What makes you draw off in that way, Tess?” said he. “Are you afraid?”

“Oh no, sir … not of outdoor things; especially just now when the apple-blooth is falling, and everything is so green.”

“But you have your indoor fears–eh?”

“Well–yes, sir.”

“What of?”

“I couldn’t quite say.”

“The milk turning sour?”

“No.”

“Life in general?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ah–so have I, very often. This hobble of being alive is rather serious, don’t you think so?”

“It is–now you put it that way.”

“All the same, I shouldn’t have expected a young girl like you to see it so just yet. How is it you do?”

She maintained a hesitating silence.

“Come, Tess, tell me in confidence.”

She thought that he meant what were the aspects of things to her, and replied shyly —

“The trees have inquisitive eyes, haven’t they?–that is, seem as if they had. And the river says,–‘Why do ye trouble me with your looks?’ And you seem to see numbers of tomorrows just all in a line, the first of them the biggest and clearest, the others getting smaller and smaller as they stand farther away; but they all seem very fierce and cruel and as if they said, ‘I’m coming! Beware of me! Beware of me!’ … But you, sir, can raise up dreams with your music, and drive all such horrid fancies away!”

He was surprised to find this young woman–who though but a milkmaid had just that touch of rarity about her which might make her the envied of her housemates–shaping such sad imaginings. She was expressing in her own native phrases–assisted a little by her Sixth Standard training–feelings which might almost have been called those of the age–the ache of modernism. The perception arrested him less when he reflected that what are called advanced ideas are really in great part but the latest fashion in definition–a more accurate expression, by words in logy and ism, of sensations which men and women have vaguely grasped for centuries.

Still, it was strange that they should have come to her while yet so young; more than strange; it was impressive, interesting, pathetic. Not guessing the cause, there was nothing to remind him that experience is as to intensity, and not as to duration. Tess’s passing corporeal blight had been her mental harvest.

They are perfect for each other, these two. A love story not unlike my own. They take everything very seriously, too seriously. The fact is that the world exists for them – what happens happens because they are there, at the summation point of history, to feel it, to suffer from it.

Only now does the strange paragraph before Angel’s assignment of the “ache” to his soon-to-be wife start to make sense….

4.

One way the “ache of modernism” become political is Oscar Wilde’s way in the “Soul of Man Under Socialism”:

The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely anyone at all escapes.

Now and then, in the course of the century, a great man of science, like Darwin; a great poet, like Keats; a fine critical spirit, like M. Renan; a supreme artist, like Flaubert, has been able to isolate himself, to keep himself out of reach of the clamorous claims of others, to stand ‘under the shelter of the wall,’ as Plato puts it, and so to realise the perfection of what was in him, to his own incomparable gain, and to the incomparable and lasting gain of the whole world. These, however, are exceptions. The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know the life – educated men who live in the East End – coming forward and imploring the community to restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such charity degrades and demoralises. They are perfectly right. Charity creates a multitude of sins.

Another way – a more recent way – the ache becomes political informs the novels of Michel Houellebecq, in which each moment of discomfort, each disappointment, generally erotic but also drawn from other categories of experience, adds another wire, another sprocket, to the edifice called “post-humanity” that he is steadily building, fantasizing into existence. When it is built, we will be able – so Houellebecq claims – to retreat back into the slumber of the ages, the quiescence of mindless and well-oiled simplicity.

5.

But of course, as we have heard, “modernity” is not just a temporal field, but also a geographical determination. We are not only more modern that those that came before, but also those who live elsewhere. We cannot stop telling ourselves this, as it is the story that explains everything at once, why things are the way they are, and why we are permitted to do the things that we do. It permits the equal sign to stand where ordinarily it could not. And it enables us to explain certain psycho-sociological aporia that otherwise would stick in the craw.

We cannot stop telling ourselves this.

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Written by adswithoutproducts

January 26, 2007 at 1:55 am

not blegging for compliments, really…

with 5 comments

So, yes, we’re at a bit of a crossroads with this site, clearly. I’m not really updating it anymore. Dylan youtubes don’t count.

In short, I’m trying to decide what to do. The three (or, perhaps four) options.

1) Keep going with this site, redoubling my efforts. Update like I used to, back in the day.

1a) Keep going with this site, but just like I am now – trying not to worry about the frequency of my posting. Pretend / believe that this is just a dry spell, and that I’ll become vigorous and prolific in bloggery again soon, or at least at some point.

2) Start a new and fully-anonymous site. (Enough folks know who I really am, that this is only semi-anonymous…)

3) Quit the game altogether, as my time might be much more profitably spent on, say, reading real books and writing real books and articles and suchlike.

Decisions, decisions. I think I’m going to start a fully-anonymous site – obviously, you won’t hear about it here – and see how that feels for a bit, while keeping this one in a limp. Full-anonymity is tough work though – when you live in a place like the place where I live, the ip addy is enough of a giveaway that even visits to and comments at other sites could spoil the secret.

Obviously, the big question is why am I so worried about anonymity? The job, the career, of course has a lot to do with it. But more than a fear of discovery, and the possible ramifications of it, I know that the more people there are who know who I am, the less (and less adventurously) do I write.

In my other job, the real one, you see, I’m a terrible perfectionist. Hours hovering over the sentence – headachy bouts of real-time self-editing, that sort of thing. The blog releases me from that. The style (?) of my writing here is developed over, well, as close to a lifetime as someone my age could have spent in the on-line world – mostly anonymous, always on the same topics. I started when I was, what, 15 or 16, with bulletin boards on Prodigy (!) – which is, almost exactly, half my lifespan.

(I hadn’t ever done the math before. That’s rather stunning. I’ve been messing around on here for half my life… I doesn’t seem like half my life. But there’s aging for you… Accelerates, apparently, the passage of time. Viciously.)

In short, the public persona meets pseudo’d bb nut at the crossroads. (Not “public persona” as in famous, jesus, no. Just the part of me that publishes or tries to, holds a job, teaches classes…) The former bristles at the sloppiness of the latter, he willingness to hold forth on topics that aren’t his, his willingness to engage in questionable arguments sure to yield nothing good… In particular, the former carries around with him a phobia about materials being read in less than optimal state – materials that fall somewhere short of the explosively intelligent…

On the other hand, well, there are the friendships I’ve formed on here, the very obvious pleasure that I take in interacting with everyone and being interacted with. Along the lines of what Scott is talking about here, I guess. I may go to the MLA panel that he’s talking about. I think that I’m not alone in being almost stupidly excited by the idea of it…

I probably keep in better touch with people that I’ve met on here than most (not all but most) of my good, good friends from grad school, who have scattered, just as I have… Blogging provides a degree of social stability amid the flux of early-career academic itinerancy, when all those people who you saw on a daily basis for five or six years, lived just above you or around the corner from you, dissolve into postdocs and assistant professorships, leave the field under their own power or on a stretcher, stay behind for “one more year” back at “the department” and so forth…

It’s so complicated… Humpfff…

Anyway, I’ll work it out. There may or may not be a new, nearly empty, anonymous blog out there in the left-cultural-academic b’sphere. We’ll see which – or whether either – wins…

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Written by adswithoutproducts

October 31, 2006 at 12:11 am

Posted in blogs, meta

extension du domaine de la lutte

with one comment

(Crossposted from Long Sunday, where I’m taking part in a symposium on democracy

I’m a bit daunted, now, by the passage that I breezily told Angela I’d deal with for this symposium. It’s from E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), and it deals with a central character of the work – or, better, a character whose centrality to the work is very much the question, the issue, at play.

Leonard Bast is 21 when the novel opens, something of a would-be social and intellectual climber, an auto-didact, who has somehow pinned himself on to the Schlegel sisters, who fascinate him as avatars of cultural capital and unearned income. (The “umbrella” in the passage below refers to an embarrassing incident, fraught with class-anxiety, that occurs when Leonard first meets the sisters…)

The boy, Leonard Bast, stood at the extreme verge of gentility. He was not in the abyss, but he could see it, and at times people whom he knew had dropped in, and counted no more. He knew that he was poor, and would admit it: he would have died sooner than confess any inferiority to the rich. This may be splendid of him. But he was inferior to most rich people, there is not the least doubt of it. He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable. His mind and his body had been alike underfed, because he was poor, and because he was modern they were always craving better food. Had he lived some centuries ago, in the brightly coloured civilizations of the past, he would have had a definite status, his rank and his income would have corresponded. But in his day the angel of Democracy had arisen, enshadowing the classes with leathern wings, and proclaiming, “All men are equal–all men, that is to say, who possess umbrellas,” and so he was obliged to assert gentility, lest he slipped into the abyss where nothing counts, and the statements of Democracy are inaudible.

It’s an interesting passage, very tough to pin down the narrator’s tone here, the degree of affiliation or remove from Bast’s own sense of things. Our first response might be that Forster says Democracy when he really means Capitalism. This anxiety that haunts Bast, the necessity of constantly scrambling, constantly reinforcing the foundations of the self, lest he slip into the “abyss” is not, of course, a matter of political self-representation or governmental organization, but rather a matter of market forces, economic liberalism, and individual gumption. Or, if were more politically charitable to Forster, then he means us to hear the euphemistic usage of the word Democracy as euphemistic. And then there is the reactionarily nostalgia, ironized or not, for “the brightly coloured civilizations of the past.” It is true, even if it doesn’t mean all that much, that were Leonard born under pre-democratic / capitalistic feudalism, he at least wouldn’t have suffered from this anxiety about the abyss – either in it or not, but no nervousness about climbing and falling. And, it follows, why leathern wings, exactly? The angel of democracy, as it grants the ability to fly, also turns the classes satanic, naturally unnatural?

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Written by adswithoutproducts

July 20, 2006 at 12:55 am

Posted in literature

Disenchantment

with 24 comments

Know I’m being a bit of a jerk, but it’s hard not to find it a bit funny to watch the atrios crowd discover that there’s only one thing their other hero, Brad Delong, hates more than the economic policy of Bush administration. Apparently, to offer even the mildest criticsm of global capitalist hegemony – criticism mild enough to make it on to the op-ed page of the NY Times forgodsake – is to expose yourself as "Crypto-Nazi scum." Take a look – especially at the comments – here.

Anyway, calls to mind an charming passage from Bob Woodward’s book about Greenspan. We could subtitle it, borrowing a phrase from Hobsbawm, "Clinton Learns the Rules of the Game." The game in question being the relationship between full employment and inflation.

All the economic models built
on years of history showed there was a limit to how high growth could go
without triggering inflation. To complicate matters, the economists believed –
and recent American economic history showed – that there was a level of
so-called full employment. There was a limit on how low the unemployment rate
could go without triggering inflation, and it was thought that the range was 6
to 7 percent. This lower limit was called the NAIRU – the non-accelerating
inflation rate of full employment. The unemployment rate had started the year
above 6 percent and was heading down.
    Even [Robert] Rubin insisted that there was an
optimum full employment rate of growth.
    The president [Clinton] was skeptical and even outraged. So the problems were too much economic growth and too many people working! It was ridiculous, he seethed.

But you know how the story ends.

 

 

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 11, 2005 at 12:28 am

Posted in Current Affairs