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isotypes have trouble sleeping too

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Appreciate this excellent Neurathian post on sleep troubles by Christoph Niemann at the NYT. Been having a lot of trouble in this department lately – not so much of the universal can’t get to sleep at night type but rather, and ominously, of the Old Guy wake up way too early in the morning and can’t get back type. Frustrating.

Sorry about the light blogging and even light comment returning. Of the course of a week or so, I’ve had exactly 9800 words due, split into three separate pieces. All excellent, exciting things to do. But they suck up even the reserve tank of writing juice, as well as repeated refills of my new and totally beloved french press. More to come I’m so sure.

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September 16, 2009 at 10:32 am

wish they had an ipad app: communist monopoly

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This via Der Spiegel, but ultimately the excellent Marginal Utility’s twitter feed:

A Polish research institute has developed a board game to teach young people about life under Communism. In the game, which is inspired by Monopoly, players must wait in endless lines at stores for scarce goods. For added realism, they have to put up with people cutting in line and products running out — unless they have a “colleague in the government” card.

There are no glamorous avenues for sale, nor can players erect hotels, charge rent or make pots of money. In fact, a new Polish board game inspired by the classic Monopoly is all about communism rather than capitalism.

The goal of the game, which will officially be launched on Feb. 5, is to show how hard and frustrating it was for an average person to simply do their shopping under the Communist regime in Poland. The game has been developed by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a Warsaw-based research institute that commemorates the suffering of the Polish people during the Nazi and Communist eras.

Just like in the original Monopoly, acquisition is the name of the game. In this case, however, that means struggling to get basic necessities such as food, clothing and furniture. “In the game, you send your family out to get items on a shopping list and they find that the five shops are sold out or that there hasn’t been a delivery that day,” the IPN’s Karol Madaj told SPIEGEL ONLINE Thursday, explaining that the game “highlights the tough realities of life under Communism.”

The name of the game is Kolejka, which according to the article is the Polish word for queue or line. I’ve written recently about communist queues – but while I’ve just about given up the pretense that this blog is still pseudonymous, I still won’t link at this point. (There isn’t a link anyway – it’s in a collection from Verso, released last year. Take a look around and you’ll find it if you’re really interested…)

For now: there is something interesting about the fact that fascination with the communist queue seems to be making something of a comeback just as the last vestiges of unrationed or less rationed goods provided by the former welfare states of the West. Fewer university places, more expensive mass transit, more expensive health care – the thought that here, in the liberal capitalist wonderland, we never wait in queues, there’s no such thing as insufficient distribution of goods, and, in particular, that no one is able to jump in front of anyone else is a bit of a stretch. The right side of the US health care debate has long run with the fallacious notion that medical services aren’t rationed there. Of course they’re rationed – just by those who extract profit by doing so rather than efficiency savings. I just watched the brilliant series of episodes from The Sopranos which blur together American college admissions and mafia-type offers that can’t be refused, which was slightly, though not entirely, hyperbolic – speaking from personal experience here. And in Britain, there’s been a persistent interest in what has been called the “Ryanairification” of civic services, a system in which one straightforwardly bribes the council pays a fee in order to jump the line – among other things, of course.

Anyway, lots more to say about this but have to run… I’d like a copy of the game for the little Isotype people, pictured above, alone…

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January 20, 2011 at 8:22 pm

keep the interesting in business: helen dewitt

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I’m not sure that all of my US readers (sounds like the UK ones maybe can’t) shouldn’t try to help Helen DeWitt out if they can. The Last Samurai is a very interesting novel; Helen is a very interesting novelist. The world needs more interesting, especially the literary part of the world. And she’s mentioned in a now-deleted post involving Neurathian isotype in her next book – which all AWP readers should understand and support.

(Just to be clear – the better end result from any interest this may spark in you is not to buy a used copy of her novel from Amazon, which will do you but not Helen any good. Unless I’m wrong, a new copy from Amazon would maybe do the trick… But better yet, follow her instructions…. You can pretend you’re paying me for my years of hard toil keeping all of you entertained and educated and such… We’re talking about somewhere in the environs of $15, so come on for chrissake!)

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April 16, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Posted in dewitt, marketing

disneyland paris and disneyland paris: a photoessay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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October 31, 2009 at 6:16 am

Posted in photoessay, travel

busy man i am

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1. Was browsing in the LRB Bookshop today and picked up a particularly handsome and fronttabled book about literature in my period. Hmm… Lovely, I thought, I’d like mine to look just like this. I wonder who the publisher…

My heart fell when I realized that the book was published by a house that had read my dissertation back in 2005 and expressed enthusiasm about publishing the fucker. I had turned them down, as said fucker needed work, and besides, we were taught, back in the golden years and by people whose career paths had been paved in gold, not to publish with commercial presses as it looks bad on the CV.

Fuck. Fuck. Perhaps I’ll try again with them now, in a much worse publishing environment, and several years on. But the thought of all I might have been doing with this monstrosity off my plate…. Fuck.

2. Have been writing (and missing deadlines) more or less constantly. For the current thing, all the famous people have theirs in; mine is basically the only one outstanding. And I am not famous, sadly. But the interesting thing is that approximately a third of the piece was cut and pasted (and, sure, heavily editted) from the blog, which actually seems to be becoming the notebook-type resource that I’ve always intended it to be.

Good news is that I think this thing I am just about to finish is probably the best thing I’ve written since the piece that got me both jobs that I’ve had. You have to wait for Ads’s products, but sometimes Ads’s products are ok. Wish I could link to all of it on here. One day! Soon!

3. Went to a meeting with my kid’s school teacher today. They start a year earlier here than they do in the US, which I suppose means one day my daughter, if we ever move back to the US, will turn out to be brilliant and troubled. Anyway: was astounded by the amount of material that we learn when we go to school. The letters and numbers, counting and reading, writing and adding. And then all the other stuff.

The teacher has asked me, in my capacity as a university lecturer, to come do things for the kids. I am thinking Isotypes. What do you think?

One of the other girls, quickly becoming one of my daughter’s friends, has a pair of academic parents. What sucks is that the mom likely just read a friend’s job application that didn’t work out. (They didn’t hire me either when I applied….) What is funny is that the dad reminds me of a character on Mad Men, spitting image, but it’s not that flattering a comparison. He also flirted like shit with my wife tonight, unaware perhaps that I was her husband. Hmmm…..

4. I am a bit crestfallen that I won’t have an opportunity to go on my daily run tomorrow. What busy lives we lead! But running is actually starting to help – I go to sleep earlier than I’ve ever done, as I’m actually normal-tired at the end of the day instead of rangey-exhausted.

5. A year and a half in, and I am actually starting to make friends with my colleagues. I mean I was friendly enough before, but now there’s a weekly meetup of guys, and this is a good sign for me, you have no idea.

6. School starts next week. Americans will be shocked to hear this, but the first week of university here is mostly taken up with drinks parties – no, not just for us, but for us with the students, i.e. new undergraduates. What a dissolute place this is. I have pledged myself to remain not quite dry, but dry enough, during said parties. I do like the party involving the MA students, who again, now that the pound has fallen against the dollar, will be largely American. It’s funny to see their faces fall when it dawns on them that they’ve paid all this money to participate in enormous numbers of seminars with a guy from New Jersey.

7. I am not sure, but I think I might have a sockpuppet problem.

8. I have decided to ask my parents for some money, as I likely need it. You might have heard, but the cost of living in London is a wee bit high.

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September 24, 2009 at 11:43 pm

Posted in academia

macroeconomic microfictions

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picture-12

From a piece in the IHT about the effects of the crisis to Dubai:

With Dubai’s economy in free fall, newspapers have reported that more than 3,000 cars sit abandoned in the parking lot at the Dubai Airport, left by fleeing, debt-ridden foreigners (who could in fact be imprisoned if they failed to pay their bills). Some are said to have maxed-out credit cards inside and notes of apology taped to the windshield.

I’ve done a bit of digging around, and it looks like that number may be a wee bit high. (The total capacity of the lots at the airport is only 6,000 cars so, um, IHT wtf with the reporting?) Still, cars are being abandoned, and probably for the reasons mentioned in the article.

I’m wondering tonight why stories like this are so appealling to me. My attention is captured by events and circumstances that render macroeconomic events, trends, and circumstances visible. The cars serve as self-organizing isotypes, with the airport parking lot as a sort of living Gesellschafts- und Wirtschafts-Museum.

But there’s more to it than just that. The other thing that I love about articles like this one in the IHT has to do with the relationship between the aggregated image of the abandoned cars and the little journalistically-mandatory emblematic story about an individual caught up in the gears in her own generic but personal way. Here’s the start of the article I’ve linked to:

Sofia, a 34-year-old Frenchwoman, moved here a year ago to take a job in advertising, so confident about Dubai’s fast-growing economy that she bought an apartment for almost $300,000 with a 15-year mortgage.

Now, like many of the foreign workers who make up 90 percent of the population here, she has been laid off and faces the prospect of being forced to leave this Gulf city — or worse.

“I’m really scared of what could happen, because I bought property here,” said Sofia, who asked that her last name be withheld because she is still hunting for a new job. “If I can’t pay it off, I was told I could end up in debtors’ prison.”

Now, the gut stirring (not saying in an emotional sense, god, in a literarily appreciative sense, dare I even say secularly epiphanic sense) thing that happens is the wafting sense of there being a Sofia-story, almost the same, just a tiny bit different in each case, behind every one of these 3,000 (or however many, really) abandoned cars.

Someone told me recently that I shouldn’t write fiction about myself, people like myself, or even project myself in to characters based on people similar enough to me, like my father or my grandfather. They are right, totally right. What I want to do instead is to write something that approximates the macro / micro crosscut that I’ve just described. You might well want to say, “Sure Ads, that’s just realism!” But it’s not really. Realism, classically conceived and actualized, does no such thing, as it’s too wedded to the character, her/his individuality, and later his/her interiority to really achieve the effect I am talking about.

Perhaps I’ll make a post soon that talks about a few attempts at aggregated fiction. If you have suggestions for me to read, I’d love to hear them obviously.

I love / hate it when there’s a word that I want that doesn’t quite exist. (For instance, was thinking the other day that I want a word for “possession” or “possessiveness” from which the economic register has been surgically excised… But there is no such word…) I’d like a word that stands for something like the uncanny, except instead of the stuck dialectic of the familiar and the unfamiliar, my new word handle the stuck dialectic of the single and the aggregate. (Agamben’s whatever doesn’t quite cut it, though it’s close… Maybe it’s better in Italian, but in English it has that stupid Valley shrug and eyeroll to it… And that’s not the only problem…)

But basically the effect that I’d like to get to would be a smooth and subtle version of something like this: I’d like to tell the story of Sofia’s last day in Dubai, packing her suitcase and stuffing it into the back of her 3 series Beemer, dropping the keys to her overly-expensive flat in the mail slot of the building’s superintendent, driving to the airport and abandonning her car in the parking lot but then, through the magic of form, somehow push the story though some sort of calculator that converts it all to TIMES 3000, NOT QUITE BUT MORE OR LESS THE SAME.

In other words, and sure, in a continuation of many modernist narrative projects with which I am intimately, oh so intimately familiar, I’d like to work out a subtle, non-ostentatious form for the embodied generic, the lived aggregatation, the soft-spread typical.

Think after critical project X and critical project Y, and any actual fiction in between, the next one will be on just this.

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February 13, 2009 at 11:48 pm

neurath into narrative

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Ah this is just amazing…

I haven’t yet had time to digest all of this, as I only just found it now, but what’s immediately fantastic about this is that the narrativized isotypes tell just the right kind of story – perfect form and content cohesion. *

The work, “The Book of the Ground,” is by an artist named Xu Bing whose webpage you can see here. What’s even more fantastic, perhaps, than the thing itself is the computer program that he’s devised in order to write in this language.

Book from the Ground is a novel written in a “language of icons” that I have been collecting and organizing over the last few years. Regardless of cultural background, one should be able understand the text as long as one is thoroughly entangled in modern life. We have also created a “font library” computer program to accompany the book. The user can type English sentences (we are still limited in this way, but the next step will include Chinese and other major languages) and the computer will instantaneously translate them into this language of icons. It can function as a “dictionary,” and in the future it will have practical applications.

Where can I download a copy of that? Feels like it should have come with my eee (yes I bought one, sorry pollian! you know how I get with these things – have seen it from the fucking iPaq and Clie on, no?)

From what I can tell, when the Book was exhibited at Moma, a computer was set up to allow chatting in the pictographic language:

Mmmm. Utopian, modernist, universalist chat.

Anyway, I’m still collecting my thoughts (and, really, myself) after finding all of this. There’s a lot more to say. Perhaps the first thing to consider are the stakes and ramifications of narrativizing a picto-linguistic form that was designed from the start in resistence to narrativization. And Xu Bing says a few questionable things about the relationship between his project and the universal reign of capital (“Capital has become the new global language of power, but it must still undergo large-scale unification before it can more effectively control commerce” – oh, is that what we’re up to then?) And there might be, just might be, a relationship between these two problems. More thought required! I certainly hope it isn’t a case of “The Book of the Ground” is to Neurath and Arntz as the Saks Sack is to Rodchenko!

But for now, I’m very happy to see all of this. Mmmm work-fodder is almost as good as utopian chat forms! God knows we need both!

* I’m more nervous about labelling the form / content cohesion “perfect” at the end of this post than I was at the beginning. More soon! I promise promise!

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February 11, 2009 at 1:14 am

“unlike the sociology of the past, [this] is informed by modern economic theory”

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You don’t say… Any guesses on the unmodern economic theory that informed said sociology of the past?

Sisphyus just pointed out this NYT review/article of Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms in the comments to a previous post.

Here’s where it really gets frightening:

Dr. Clark says the middle-class values needed for productivity could
have been transmitted either culturally or genetically. But in some
passages, he seems to lean toward evolution as the explanation.
“Through the long agrarian passage leading up to the Industrial
Revolution, man was becoming biologically more adapted to the modern
economic world,” he writes. And, “The triumph of capitalism in the
modern world thus may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or
rationality.”

Boy is that ever a heavily thudding "our" in the last sentence. You have to love it, really, and the way that it echoes the hard science cum totally asswild speculation stuff that cropped up everywhere toward the end of the nineteenth century. Thermodynamics and entropy, therefore heat death (well sure, a long, long way off), therefore a universe and its maker that agree on one point: economic equality leads to dissolute catastrophe. At least via this article, and of course we should wait for the book, it doesn’t sound like there’s going to be much to back up the genetic turn aside from a hunch and some handwaving in the genome-decoded direction.

A genetic predisposition to low interest rates, huh? Then again, maybe he’s on to something.

So yuck, yes. But I’m actually more upset at the Times than Clark himself, for an ideosyncractic reason. They have, their information design department anyway, taken Neurath’s Isotype in vain.

You can click through to see a big version of the infographic, but do you see those little guys in the middle, the second graph? Not cool – this is exactly the opposite sort of argument than the one they were, ahem, born to serve.

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August 9, 2007 at 12:01 am

lucky me

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I am so lucky that exactly three weeks from today, I am going to be in Amsterdam, just a short train ride away from this. (If I need you to, would you be willing to write my wife to explain exactly why it is so absolutely necessary for us to pack up the kiddo and leave gorgeous Amsterdam – where we’ll only be as of now for two full days – to head to Den Haag?)

I learned of it via an excellent article today on metamute by Marina Vishmidt, which gets quite a lot succinctly right about Neurath:

Although the classical logitical positivist statement remains Wittgenstein’s ‘the world is everything which is the case’ , the Vienna Circle was not always confined to the ideological quietism that could be deduced from that statement. Neurath’s work combined pragmatism with a utopian orientation, a drive to represent ‘things as they are’ in the hope that revolutionary progress would make out of them things of the past. The Marxist ethics behind the ISOTYPE project complemented the kinds of formal innovations – images built of numbers, standard templates, seriality – that structure the internet, another vision of universal information, albeit one without a clear ideological mission. The disambiguation of social contradictions as a premise for a materialist design practice is one of the questions that After Neurath: Like Sailors on the Open Sea tries to address in the format of an exhibition but also of a year and a half-long programme of research, symposia, and smaller exhibitions. The allure and shortcomings of a universal grammar is another, with the connotation that it is both a dream of reason and a bold proposition for engineering social change.

UPDATE: Oh for christ’s sake. The exhibition is off – ended in April. Whatever. Glad I figured this out before I got on the train to Den Haag….

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May 3, 2007 at 1:32 am