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Archive for the ‘catastrophe’ Category

cage match

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CNBC:

“This is a perfect storm in a perfect storm,” said Justin Urquhart Stewart, investment director at 7 Investment Management. “It’s a return to pure capitalism, the survival of the fittest — government can’t and won’t bail everybody out.”

That’s the spirit! Get off your welfare-engorged asses and fight like the rest of us!

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September 15, 2008 at 1:52 pm

Posted in catastrophe, markets

the “perfect day,” lou reed, radiohead, joyce, woolf, benjamin, etc

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Usually when we think about the literature of the single day (think of high modernist texts like Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway) we tend to think of the formal gesture at play as one that materializes, at base, the progressive and secularizing side of modernism. At least I usually think about it this way. Framing a text around a single day in the life of relatively ordinary people seems to represent a secularization of literary time, a turn away from the theologically-inspired teleologies and rhythms that normally structure (or had normally structured) literary works. Whereas the novel that follows its characters over long durations is the stuff of dynastic succession or in its more modern guise family inheritane, the work focused on a single day pulls us back to the everyday life of the man or woman on the street. There’s less room for parents or pedigree, more room for the common experiences and practices of modern life.

I’m not alone in thinking this way. Remember the conclusion of Erich Auerbach’s chapter on Woolf in Mimesis? Now, the chapter focuses on To the Lighthouse not Dalloway, and the former isn’t a one day novel but a two-day-plus-a-longer-weirder-stretch-in-the-middle novel, but I think the point that he makes here is appropriate:

Beneath the conflicts, an economic and cultural leveling process is taking place. It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible. And it is most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and exterior representation of the random moment in the lives of different people. So the complicated process of dissolution which led to fragmentation of the exterior action, to reflection of consciousness, and to stratification of time seems to be tending toward a very simple solution. Perhaps it will be too simple to please those who, despite all its dangers and catastrophes, admire and love our epoch for the sake of its abundance of life and the incomparable historical vantage point which it affords. But they are few in number, and probably they will not live to see much more than the first forewarnings of the approaching unification and simplification.

There’s a lot to unpack here, of course, but I think you see why the quote interests me here. The “representation of the random moment in the lives of different people” seems to augur a coming “leveling,” the emergence of some sort of “common life of mankind on earth.” The equation seems to run, at least here, for Auerbach, that the focus on ordinary, random time (like the mostly random time of Joyce and Woolf’s novels) suggests a turn to a politics of ordinary commonality.

Again, this is how I usually see these things, talk and write about them, and teach them. And I teach them all the time…

But, on the other hand, I’ve been listening to a lot of Radiohead (hahaha) recently and tons of Lou Reed (forever). And of late, two songs – one from each – have crystallized into a little mutually reinforcing dyad in my mind. They somehow came together on a playlist that I made, and everyone knows that random playlist juxtapositioning represents one of the key dark arts of advanced literary criticism and analysis. So… Here are the songs.

I realize that these two songs focus not so much on an “ordinary day” but a “perfect day.” Reed’s seems pretty pointedly ordinary though, but, no, we have no idea what constitutes the day that TY references. (Given the songs that precede it on In Rainbows, it’s hard not to come up with better-than-usual adulterous sex, but really, who knows… I guess the more likely and much tamer reading is that somebody’s about to kick the bucket… But I like mine better…)

Anyway, why so melancholy, Lou and Thom? Why has thinking about time in terms of the “single day” become so menacingly depressive or depressively menacing? Or was it always this way, right from the start?

Look, I know that this is, well, quite a literary historical leap that I’m trying to make, tracing a dynamic from a point marked Woolf and Joyce in the 1920s to Relatively Recent Music for Perpetually-Adolescent Depressives. I’m playing fast and loose, but I still think there’s something here. I could get all Benjaminian on you and take you down the Erlebnis / Erfahrung path. You know, the one that goes like this in the Baudelaire essay that’s in Illuminations:

The greater the shock factor in particular impressions, the more vigilant consciousness has to be in screening stimuli; the more efficiently it does so, the less these impressions enter long experience [Erfahrung] and the more they correspond to the concept of isolated experience [Erlebnis]. Perhaps the special achievement of shock defense is the way it assigns an incident a precise point in time in consciousness, at the cost of the integrity of the incident’s contents. This would be a peak achievement of the intellect; it would turn the incident into an isolated experience.

This stuff, by the way, goes perfectly with one of the general thematic concerns of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, which this very interesting post labels “data melancholy.” (Short version: the pathos in “Videotape” is as much a matter of storing the experience on a degradable and obsolete medium like a VHS tape as it is about, you know, leaving this perfect day behind. The act of preserving the single day (whether in a song or on tape or in a song about tape) reechoes the data loss that occurs due to the shock defense and its characteristic temporality in the first place.)

All that’s there, but I think there’s something else – something that definitely runs in parallel with this issue – that’s at once easier and harder to get at.What the songs underscore, both in their own way, is that the very act of framing time in terms of the single “perfect” day is itself a stress reaction, one that exposes not so much perfection of the day in question as the disastrous or even dystopian nature of the other days that surround it. While Benjamin is getting at the stress or shock on the level of perception or epistemology; Reed and Radiohead broaden the scope out to history, personal (explicitly) and extrapersonal (implicitly). How else to explain the apocalyptic overtone that sneaks back into both songs: the biblical sowing and reaping in Reed and portentous vagueness of “No matter what happens now” in “Videotape.” (Again, if you listen to the rest of the stuff on In Rainbows and the supplementary materials the band released with it, like for instance this, which itself is a song preoccupied with the relationship between time and disaster, you get a few ideas about just what might be happening now in the context of the song…)

The literary historical conclusion that we can get to out of all of this is a little pedestrian, but still worth saying. If the modernist single day texts are vaguely utopian in terms of their very temporality, these utopian temporalities themselves bear the marks of being stress reactions to a string of epistemological, existential, and historical crises that provoked them. This seems a bit obvious, and it is, but not to everyone. (I once got in a fight with a dickheaded senior prof in my old department about a question that I asked in a PhD exam about the role that the first world war plays in Ulysses. He argued that it, of course, plays no role because the work is set in 1904, and thus my question was unfair and illegitimate. I was on my way out of the department, so it was really tempting to explain to him what a fucking idiot he was, but I generally save my anger for my blog, so I didn’t…) With Woolf, it is relatively easy to see how the ordinariness of Clarissa’s single day concretizes itself against the impinging historico-political exterior, trying unsuccessfully to hold it away as it threatens her party etc. With Joyce, this is a bit tougher to see, but it starts to shed light on the relationship between the temporal cut of the book and Franco Moretti’s brilliant reading in Signs Taken For Wonders that Ulysses is a strange sort of science fiction dystopia, strange in the sense that it is a science fiction dystopia set twenty years since…

But there remains an even more interesting point that that. (I hope). The songs bring to the fore a more profound melancholy, a haunting disturbance of the everyday. There is something wrong with our everyday, with our every day. We second-guess, we cannot help but second-guess, ourselves as we attempt to shave small spaces out of this world where we can be happy, or where we can even simply be. There are many reasons why we second-guess ourselves when we do this. Many of them are political or economic. Maybe some of them aren’t. (Is that even possible?) What sort of single day novel would you write if you were to write one today? If I did one, it would be tremulous, afraid of its own shadow and the shadow of its chosen/assigned form. It would be empty – too empty even to register Septimus, to stage an event like the one that happens in Cyclops. I would feel like a hypocrite were I to attempt to allow the outside in. I wish I could put it more concretely than this. There’s been an erosion of the clifftop we call time. All of it has something to do with the necessary movement past Benjamin’s formulation – we now long for the shock factor, even. We’d take Erlebnis. Our Auerbachian “random moment in the lives of different people” has become laughable, commodified, the stuff of ad campaigns, the stuff of the media forms of civic reinforcement. It’s tricky to name, this thing. The everyday has become something that we reach for when we’re at our worse, when the clammy hands of bureaucracy have finally touched our hearts and we try to be gentle, try to fit in.

Christ, I’m not going to (be able to?) name it in a blogpost, am I?

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September 8, 2008 at 12:56 am

apocalypse now

with 6 comments

If we Lombrosoed the best, wide-panning footage from recent collapse/catastrophe/dystopian films, we might well come up with something like this still I’ve just sniffed out of a HD version of the trailer of Blindness. From what I can tell / remember, looks like downtown Shanghai, though I’m probably wrong. The empty-tank abandoned cars, the gray-scale midrise blocks smothering the tight highway in the center. No one’s been around to sweep up casual debris for awhile.

Whether from environmental catastrophe or meteor strike, heatwave or coldwave, terror attack or ultra-SARS, vampires or the end of female fecundity, the mass blindness or bad politics or cannibalistic rage, we always end up here, under a gray sky, walking where we shouldn’t with shopping bags.

We even build the scenario into our fanciest new parks:

There’s lots to say about this. The least interesting thing, perhaps, is that, sure, everyone’s writing allegories and slantsenses of the same imminent catastrophe that really is around the corner, involving peak oil and the like. (It’s a bit more interesting to consider why they don’t simply make a movie about that. No fun, I guess, to see the shit that’s really about to hit the fan, but I don’t think that’s it. More pertinent is the trouble it takes to narrativize / visualize it, as it moves slow and mostly out of sight).

And more interesting, I think, are a few things that are a bit more obliquely there. A sense of possible or even manditory trespass on public grounds where you’re not, in normal times, supposed to walk. It’s a form of desperate liberation, and has a childlike fun adhering to it I think.

Also, there’s the entire question of the role of these gray ersatz buildings, the way they signal a catastrophe that had perhaps already started, that began perhaps even when the first nomadic sheepherders decided to put their tents up along a single path, then some travelling salesman came along and decided to stay put and just sell to them. Or maybe it’s the modernness of the architecture – the way the non-descript individuality of each building mirrors and matches that of the folks walking on the street. A generic family, a kid generically holding a parent’s hand, just as the building on the left has balconies you can enclose if you want, and the one next to it has a different sort of balcony, etc…

The uncollected rubish (you can imagine a crew sprinkling the set with little strips of paper, cuttings of plastic bags. Maybe someone even wedged that one down in the sewer inlet) brings to mind both a street party, a parade, before the cleanup crews pass through. Or is it just the everyday trash that flutters on city streets that aren’t well kept (like mine, I’ve quickly noticed…) because there’s no one left to collect it. The failure of services, of the civic, of public employment. The wind will take care of that, the ocean will collect it, as there simply isn’t the cash on hand, we’re in a crisis don’t you know, structural adjustments will have to be made, sacrifice the clean streets for the sake of…

The gray sky, of course, is more than just a marker of the weather. Sure, of course, it’s global warming, polution, the hot and damp that will soon enough mark the other season, all over the world, in its oscillation with hot and dry. But it’s also the lidness that keeps us in, that keeps our thoughts cycling on two-axes, the axes that run through this picture and these films and our gasping lack of hope for change – the wider weather that means the furtherest left we know how to get is the circulation of fantasies, like this one and all the rest it stands for, of our imminent and increasingly visible demise.

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June 26, 2008 at 12:56 pm

all your fault

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From the IHT today:

Despite rising energy and food prices, Trichet said it was vital for workers in Western countries to moderate wage increases, which economists regard as the best way to avoid an inflationary spiral.

We are being trained. There is no need to allege conspiracy – there isn’t one. The Zeitgeist gusts and guesses, and governments and the media follows the lead. It is a time for austerity, clearly, so that’s the route that the stream of instruction and soft indictment flows.

It is the nasty plastic bag you take from the supermarket that has caused the climate crisis, the spike in fuel prices! It is your wage demand, unionist, that has lodged us between the rockandhardplace of stagflation! Moderate your consumption, learn to live with less, police yourself lest you, through negligence or bad intent, set fire to the housing stock, destroy the savings in your or your family’s or your friends’ and colleagues’ savings account! It is because of you, schoolteacher or tram driver, that the children of Egypt have less bread, that the UN has no rice to bring to the hungry of Asia!

Most unexpectedly, we will soon learn that it was socialism itself, the last living, deep rooted, if withering stalks of it, that was behind all of this that is tipping our time toward catastrophe (reported daily, believed by none, but coming nonetheless). User fees, user fees, carbon based taxation. We do not, so we are told, understand that we must pay for what we use. We have learned to take for free, we have come to expect progress without pain – this was our great sin.

The joining of the fight against inflation with anti-union rhetoric and self-aggrandizing self-flagellation is not, of course, without precedent.

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June 10, 2008 at 11:46 am

Posted in catastrophe, economics

nostalgie de la boom… and ads without ads

with 8 comments

My wife and I have introduced a thing where each of us takes one night a week out by ourselves while the other watches the kiddo. (We’re late getting to this – it was suggested long ago – but what the hell were we going to do with our nights out in the old place, so the time is right…) On my night, I headed down to see the Rodchenko exhibit, but the damn place was closing (nice opening hours here, god). So I had to come up with something else to do with myself. Good movies were out – they’re reserved for some barely imaginable time when we can see them together. So I saw Cloverfield instead. I feel an obligation to see such things, which my wife definitely does not share, and so… 

(Parenthetically: $26 to see a fucking movie? Are you out of your minds? I saw the damn thing in the worst and likeliest of all possible places I guess, but back in the states there’s a constitutional right to affordable consumption of crap movies. I think it’s administered by the Dairy Board, whomever it is who gives the free milk and bread to the starving grad student moms… But I digress…)  

So. Not much to say about Cloverfield. Fun I guess. The genre’s looking very, very tired. But in the very fatigue of the form, I do think we’re seeing something new and interesting afoot. Semi-new anyway. The producers and writers of the thing are all at least my age, but the presumed audience, I guess is a lot younger. Young enough, in fact, to have the same relation to the attacks so heavily quoted in this film as my students are starting to have. For a few years there, we were all in it together. Now, it’s getting a bit strained. Shocking when it dawns on you that your youngest students weren’t even teenagers when the shit when down. In a year or two, when we’re dealing with kids that were seven or so in 2001, it’s going to feel even stranger – for them as much as for us, who somehow can’t stop threading it into our conversations. 

In Cloverfield, I think we see early signs of an anxiety not about terror, but about its absence. It is a movie tailor-made for a demographic that has grown up hearing about 9/11 but which has only vague, mostly false, memories of it. A generation who parents worried about shielding from the tv, even when they were far too young to distinguish the threat of annihilation from the threat of, dunno, the scary shit that lives in your closet. 

(Heard Bush mention the other day the “attack that occurred six-and-a-half years ago.” It’s been a long, long time. Wow…)   

The yupster parties in loft spaces (hahaha) on the Lower East Side (hahahaha) are going to feel something missing, are going to long for the crisping threat that something will happen downtown, that there will be a reason to run up to the roof, that their emotionally desolate choice (just for instance) to leave the girl behind to take a VP position in Japan (? – oh, i see, godzilla. Try Dubai…), the iron continuities in play behind that, will come to a sudden and abrupt end when some rough beast inaugurates another round of trauma sex, epiphanies of “what really mattes,” a war or wars to momentarily back and then, later, pretend that you opposed from the start etc etc etc. 

But unfortunately, this dystopian fantasy is positively utopian in its impossibility. The crows won’t come home to roost, not here, not anymore. The world, dearies, has moved on. The Time Warner Building ain’t the double-barreled omphalous of the world anymore – it’s in the wrong country to matter. No one’s going to expend good fissile material on a nation and an economy doing a great job fizzling out on its own. The catastrophes to come for the kids that were meant to see this film are going to be far less picturesque, and certainly won’t be available for videotaping. 

Anyway, wow. At least I’m blogging again, right?

One other thing, on a related note: saw this little number at the end of the extremely long strand of ads (mostly for cars and other new dystopian movies) that ran before Cloverfields:  Brilliant, and very very strange indeed. And strikingly beautiful! An ad for adlessness, if there ever was one. It may become the totemic youtube of this youtube intensive blog!

And even better, way better, is that the damned thing looks like the opening sequence of an absolutely incredible (and a good deal more horrifying, to many in the wider audience, than Cloverfields, which isn’t very horrifying at all) of a very different sort of speculative fiction, one about a specter lurching back from the place where dismissed specters go in order to decapitate the idols of the era, break open the walls of the buildings in the expensive neighborhoods, and leave most bedazzled and exhilarated at the sweep of violence that has rubbled so many things we thought could never go, that we believed, despite ourselves, that the world simply couldn’t live without.  

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February 15, 2008 at 1:12 am