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the next five minutes

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It’s another one of those times when things actually start to look like Ballard’s “next five minutes.” In some cases, exactly like it. They’re putting up riot fences around the giant Westfield shopping mall today in West London….(via here). Elsewhere, the other night, there was this:

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August 8, 2011 at 1:30 pm

into the seine with all of us, malcolm gladwell first

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From Anne Applebaum’s review of Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic by Michael Scammell in the NYRB. In this passage, she’s coming to the end of a redescription of a rather riotous evening that Koestler, his girlfriend, Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, and Camus’ wife spent together in Paris:

Scammell, whose fine-tuned sense of irony serves him well here, describes that evening’s conclusion:

“They broke up at dawn. Alone with Sartre, Beauvoir sobbed “over the tragedy of the human condition,” then leaned on the parapet of a bridge over the Seine and said: “I don’t see why we don’t throw ourselves in the river.” “All right,” agreed Sartre, “let’s throw ourselves in,” and began to cry himself. In another part of the city, Koestler too burst into tears as he stared into the Seine. Then he disappeared into a pissoir and shouted to Mamaine, “Don’t leave me, I love you, I’ll always love you.” They got home at about eight o’clock and slept all day, except for Sartre, who stuffed himself with pep pills and dragged himself off to the Sorbonne to give his lecture. It wasn’t possible even for an existentialist to address the students “sans moi.””

Leaving aside its entertainment value, that particular passage raises some interesting questions. We are not so many years removed from 1946, in the grand scheme of things. Yet much has changed since then, starting with the rules of acceptable public behavior. It is simply not possible to imagine any three prominent contemporary American public intellectuals—say, Malcolm Gladwell, Niall Ferguson, and David Brooks—indulging in a night on the town such as that one, let alone weeping over the human condition and threatening to throw themselves into the Seine at the end of it. Hollywood starlets and pseudo-celebrities behave that way in our culture, not serious people.

Oooof. Now I’m weeping and thinking about throwing myself into the East River, next time I’m there. If that’s a representative roster of NYC intellectuals aujourd’hui, and christ maybe it is, then yes, the human condition is truly fucking not well.

There’s something else that’s funny to say about this, but I’m not going to say it. Perhaps I just came to the party late. Right! Back to work then!

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February 18, 2010 at 10:32 am

Posted in collapse

ballardianism on the gulf coast

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A third of the houses in Cape Coral, Florida, just up the interstate from where I’m currently typing this, are under foreclosure. The NYT has pieces on this town at the front of both the main and business sections of today’s paper – the first a depressing story about the great numbers of people living in the US with zero income save for food stamps and the second an eerie piece on the rows and rows of foreclosed and now abandoned houses. Here’s an extended snip from the latter:

Dave Robison has lived in northwest Cape Coral since 2002, when he moved down from Cincinnati, paying $160,000 for his house. He figured that he would stay until his house fetched enough to allow him to retire full time in Mexico. Now, he bitterly regrets that he didn’t cash in back in 2005, when the house was worth perhaps $400,000.

He walks his two greyhounds past a tan stucco house on the corner, where the grass on the lawn reaches three feet high, possibly sheltering possums and snakes. An official abatement notice is tacked to the front door, ordering the owner — someone in Reseda, Calif. — to cut the grass. A house across the street is similarly forlorn.

“You think you’ve got something and you don’t,” says Mr. Robison. “There’s nothing you can do but just ride it out.”

Farther down the block, another house sits cloaked in overgrown shrubbery with yet another abatement notice tacked to the door. Two years ago at this very house, I met the two women who were then living there — Elaine and Charlene Pellegrino — a mother and daughter. They were sifting through the belongings of Elaine’s husband, Charlene’s father, who had recently died, leaving them with two troubled businesses to run and debts they couldn’t manage.

Elaine Pellegrino, then 53, was disabled, living on Social Security. Her daughter was jobless. They had resigned themselves to losing their home and had stopped making the mortgage payments. Yet they were cognizant that they could stay for many months as their case worked its way through a local court system already overwhelmed by foreclosures.

Now their days there have ended. Tax documents sit in a rain-matted stack in front of the garage. A “for sale” sign lies warped and discarded in the weeds.

Inside the house, bills are scattered across the floor with playing cards, a March 2008 TV Guide and the innards of a VCR. A plastic trash bag brimmed with foreclosure documents. Behind the house, green slime chokes the swimming pool — the same green slime that now colonizes countless pools left to the elements in South Florida.

The Pellegrinos moved out in July 2008, Charlene explains. A bathroom pipe had burst, and mold had grown on the walls. She and her mother couldn’t afford repairs.

The strangest thing was how the bank implored them to stay, she says. Even after it became clear that they were not going to pay their mortgage, the bank figured that it would be better having them there to deter scavengers who would strip out the cabinets, the wiring, the toilets.

“They wanted us to stay on indefinitely,” Charlene says. “It was weird.”

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the super-ultra-lux mall a few blocks from where I’m staying and which serves as my lifeline to the better papers and suitable workspace (via Barnes and Noble) and nightly drinks (via a series of faceless though upscale restaurants) doesn’t seem to be suffering much from the downturn.

More to come. Sorry to have been away. Headed back to London tomorrow on an overnight flight…

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January 5, 2010 at 7:20 am

Posted in collapse, crisis

gas station microtragedy / possession, repossession, dispossession

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When I’m around my father, I end up landing in sicker and stupider regions of the television map than I’m used to. He has poor taste, and flips channels quite a lot. Network drama to NHL hockey to, yes, pro wrestling and “ultimate fighting” and the like. There’s now a show – a fake reality show – that deals exclusively with the repossession of peoples’ vehicles. Cars, SUVs, construction equipment, motor cycles, boats, the whole gamut.

I’m not sure whether it matters or not that the show isn’t really a reality show. It’s purportedly a series of “recreations” of actual repossessions, according to a disclaimer that runs at the front of the show. I’m sure that most viewers distractedly take it as real. If that is the case, I’m further sure that this show is as sick and sad but also complex as other programs in the genre. What is the appeal? Schadenfreude, sure, but more than that perhaps. The crime-and-punishment based reality shows have always been a complicated compost of affectual registers. This is for another post.

But one of the interesting things about this show that I was watching is the fact that almost every time the repossession company pulls up (of course, in this case, with cameramen in tow) and the actor playing the owner of the vehicle to be towed away suddenly realizes what is happening and confronts the repossessors, the owner makes a great show of not believing that this is happening. There must be some mistake, I’ve paid my bills, I could show you, yes, but the cancelled checks are at my work, I’m calling the cops – you’re stealing my car! Now, half the time it is meant to be clear that the deliquent owners are lying – these are the less interesting cases. The more interesting cases are those where the scene is written and acted as though, despite the fact that they said to be four, six, twelve months behind on their payments, the actors in question play the scene as if they really do believe that they aren’t. Despite the fact that they obviously on some level know that they are broke, that this day was soon to arrive, at the moment when the tow-truck is pulling their car away, they are clearly one-hundred percent convinced that the note is paid in full, that a huge mistake has been made, and that everything is as it should be – save for the fact that a heavily tattooed thug is driving away with their vehicle. It’s hard to describe how we know this as we watch the show – some particular mixture of anger and confusion, some reality effect that can’t be faked in the grain of the voice – but know it we do. This arc is the primary dramatic arrangement of the show – the rational if swarthy agents of collection are confronted time and again by deluded, nearly hallucinatory, exemplars of the American consumer, absolutely baffled by the fact that the other shoe has just dropped, the bill has finally come due, that it’s too late to ask for an extension and that they now will have to find another way of getting to the office park in the exurbs tomorrow for work.

Operation Repo is a realist show. It’s presuppositions about the way people are and how they act are meant to be our presuppositions about the way people are and how they act….

Today I stopped at a gas station next door to my hotel for water and cigs, and overheard something fascinating while waiting to pay for my stuff. A middle-aged white guy was standing at the counter, taking quite a long time with his transaction. The customer in question looked middle-class, maybe verging on upper middle-class. Decently attired, probably out of the, um, Kohls collection but still. The way that it works at gas stations in the US (almost all self-serve by now) is that you either dip your credit card at the pump or you pay cash in advance inside the station itself. But this guy was inside, having the clerk run and rerun his credit card. It hadn’t worked at the pump, and wasn’t working inside either. He had the clerk run it again to preauthorize only $5 this time instead of $20 as before – still refused. But it became clear, from the conversation, that this is something that he had done yesterday, the day before – something that he’s been doing everyday at the same gas station. He said, “Yeah I can’t understand what it is – this credit card is good. It’s just convenient for me to get gas here. I live around the block. I can’t understand why it isn’t working. Do you have a number for the company to call or something? Man, I just don’t get it.” The exchange with the clerk was polite, perhaps exceedingly so if the story was what he wanted it to be. He had the clerk run the card again, for $5 again. Refused. He took the number of the credit card company and promised to go home and call and get it all sorted out. He did not, as might be expected, present another card so that he could at least get some gas while he was here. Neither did he pay in cash. He left without filling his car. An unfinished sentence streamed through my mind: but if he’s back here, three days in a row, obviously he’s not getting gas elsewhere, it is not the case that the card is working at other gas stations, so… All polite, all everyday and normal. But it’s clear that this is a life that’s quietly come unstrung. He is not stealing, he was not playing a confidence game on anyone other than himself.

One wonders how much gas he has left in his tank, how much longer he will be able to make it to the station for his daily his of self-deceiving self-distraction. I’ll have to call the company, just as soon as I get home. I wonder why….

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December 31, 2008 at 5:53 am

infrastructure

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From the NYT, one minute ago:

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama committed Saturday to the largest public works construction program since the creation of the interstate highway system a half-century ago as he seeks to put together a plan to resuscitate the reeling economy.

[…]

Although he put no price tag on it, he said he would invest record amounts of money in the vast infrastructure program, which also includes work on schools, sewer systems, mass transit, electric grids, dams and other public utilities. He vowed to upgrade computers in schools, expand broadband Internet access, make government buildings more energy efficient and improve information technology at hospitals and doctors’ offices.

The post-election performance has been mixed tending toward depressing-per-expectations, but this I’ll take. Others are very unhappy and for just the right reasons.

Alan D. Viard, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, told Congress recently that public works spending should not be authorized out of “the illusory hope of job gains or economic stabilization.”

“If more money is spent on infrastructure, more workers will be employed in that sector,” Mr. Viard told the House Ways and Means Committee. “In the long run, however, an increase in infrastructure spending requires a reduction in public or private spending for other goods and services. As a result, fewer workers are employed in other sectors of the economy.”

Yep! We’ll take it!

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December 6, 2008 at 8:39 pm

in parts (free partial ebook in pdf! fiction! mine!)

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OK. I worked on something all summer, every day. As I said before, Starbucks, Tottenham Court Road, 3-5 pm. Everyday. I am dissatisfied with it, and so it has died. Or been killed. It was to be a sort of novel, a novel composed of single page tearouts from “other novels,” chronicling something like the soon to arrive decline and fall of the nation of my birth. Whatever. I’m going to start something new. Eventually. Maybe tonight. Probably not tonight but maybe tomorrow.

But here, for your edification and entertainment, are the first 25 pages of the thing. Maybe I’ll post more later – we’ll see. Yes, the blank pages are intentional. That’s just the point. And some of it already seems a bit anachronistic, given the (fuckit, yay!) even more rapid descent of things than I expected.

But the general themes are adswithoutproductsy. So here it is:

in-parts

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October 15, 2008 at 11:49 pm

Posted in america, collapse, fiction, me, meta

“this blind world”

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From the NYT review of the new movie of Saramago’s Blindness:

In the movie, as in the book, every character but one — an ophthalmologist’s wife played by Julianne Moore — comes down with the title affliction, which is, bafflingly, contagious. (And which, just as mysteriously, manifests itself not as darkness but as total, blank-page whiteness.) “In most films everything is based on the eyes,” Mr. Meirelles said. “You cut to show where the character is looking, that’s how you tell stories. It’s all about point of view, and I wasn’t going to do this film showing only Julianne’s character’s point of view. So how do you get people involved with the characters when you can’t put them in the same position visually?”

His solution, he said, was to “put the audience in this blind world, to try to deconstruct the image, if I can say that.” (Just this once, but don’t let it happen again.) “Sometimes the image is washed out, sometimes it’s out of focus, sometimes the framing is totally wrong, deliberately,” he continued, “and toward the end of the film I even tried separating the sound from the image — showing a character with his mouth shut, but you’re hearing his voice.”

“It was all very experimental,” he said. “Very scary.”

We live in interesting times. One spends their weekend moving around as one is accustomed to moving around on weekends. Let’s see… Saturday went over to Highgate to spend time in a park, noticed that Andrew Marvell used to live where this park is now, ate lunch, returned to same establishment to drink a bit more once the kiddo was asleep in her stroller, watched the US debate on tv. Sunday: walked from Archway past Highgate Cemetery and through Parliament Hill to Hampstead where I ate a crêpe avec jambon et frômage from that cart there, saw Russell Brand eating lunch (didn’t realize he was anything other than a Guardian sports columnist till, like, yesterday – I’m still new to the UK), and almost bought Mary Beard’s new book on Pompeii. While doing all this, found time to purchase snacks and groceries and beer, watched Arsenal lose, watched the Mets lose, made headway on the novel that I’m reading and enjoying, and read some but not all of the newspapers I’d purchased.

So very bourgieboho and parental, no? Everyday life as it’s been lived in the age of the rising tides, the rising boats. It was a sunny weekend in London, so the parks were full, the outdoor spots at the eateries were packed.

But of course all this normalcy is playing out against the backdrop of some very very dire analysis that I don’t need to link to – I’m sure you’ve read it all already. Let’s not even talk about the bailout – even its authors don’t seem at all convinced that it will be effective in any palpable way. And really, it’s been clear from the start that that’s not the point. But the general consensus seems to have turned toward the inevitability of something very depression like, and perhaps deeper even than the depression with which we’re all familiar. So… the destruction of the last vestiges of the better bits of the state, soaring unemployment, insane inflation, the end of consumer credit, the evisceration of retirement accounts, mass repossessions of homes, bank failures beyond the means of the authorities to insure, and did I mention soaring unemployment? It was, apparently, ten minutes to midnight seven minutes ago – this is the takeaway from the papers and internet today.

Ordinary weekend days in London. I’ll go to work tomorrow and put the finishing touches on my lectures for the week. Reports of the imminent collapse of the world financial order. Collapse. Rubble. I’ll try to make it to the shop on campus, for once, before they sell out of the sandwiches I like. I’ll order that Beard book from Amazon; I’ll check CNBC.com thirty or forty times especially once the US markets open.

Listen: not everyone has the luxury of this disjunction. I know that very very well, and it’s true a hundred times over. Titannic numbers worldwide never got lifted on the upswing, or were directly punished by it. More locally, lots have already lots their shirts. I know this. I know it very very well.

But that said, this disjunction is something else. I suspect just about everyone who is in a position to is feeling it by now. And there are a bunch of things to say about it. The temptation is simply to keep detailing the uncanniness of the whole affair, where life goes on as an LCD mushroom cloud rises over the affluent corners of the earth. It is so easy to aesthetize it, to keep typing it out – especially since it feels like we’ve been in training to paint in just the tones we have on hand now for a decade or more.

But there’s something more profitable to do than painting for painting’s sake at the moment. Something is showing itself through the very failure of lived experience and financial news to line up properly. It is, perhaps, a promising pedagogical situation – or even a perfect political entry point. It goes something like this: the difficulty that we have reconciling our day to day lives with the problems in the market, the trouble that we might have actually believing that everything might be about to change, and change for the worse, and change as if overnight, is an appropriate difficulty to have. The fact that our lives are running along as they are, but might be ruined in a blink of an eye by a spreading virus of speculatory paper gone bad, is irrational, insane. I work, I am paid by my employer, I spend my money on the things that I need and sometimes just want – what should that have to do with credit default options or short sold stocks or baroquely structured derivatives?

It actually doesn’t make sense, not any sense at all. Our blindness before this thing, our inability to see (or see and then believe) what is about to happen, makes all the sense in the world. We are the realists; the world has conspired against realism.

If there is a “we,” we would do well to make much of the mysteries of abstraction, the violence that it has but should not be permitted to bring down upon ordinary life. We should cast this as a problem of a simplicity whose rights are being infringed upon by an unnecessary and illicit complexity. We should encourage those who would to wonder about the reasons why the normal circuits of life are being interrupted by factors that can’t even be understood by their administrators, their authors. For there is no reason why this must be – there is no reason that whatever these people in the financial districts of the world get up to, legally or illegally, normal life need be interrupted in any way. It will be, it is almost sure to be, but this is the tragedy. This is not, whatever the metaphors distributed by the news media and politicians, a meteorological event, an unforeseen occurrence. This, we should say, is not at all the case. It is not a sudden storm, a “black swan” – the difficulty of seeing this is part and parcel of the problem at hand…

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September 29, 2008 at 1:07 am

a suggestion

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The Guardian has a relatively interesting feature talking to prominent leftists and leftishists about the crisis and capitalism.

It would be a good thing if “we” could all get together and come up with something. Whether or not it seems likely that “we” could ever actually prevail even just slightly in a moment like this, it does seem like it’s part of the deal that we’d at least, you know, give it a poke.

But I’d like to make one suggestion before / if we do. If you happened to be selected to be left public intellectual of the month (seriously – I’m being serious now), and are asked to speak or write about the current crisis, by all means avoid expressions of schadenfreude, apocalyptic glee, giddiness and the like. Ordinary people are not going to share your popcorn as you settle in to watch this film. Say something about what should be done – normal folks want their retirement accounts to stay semi-there, want to keep a job, and don’t want their bank deposits to vanish into a bad dream of a customer service call that never gets answered, they’d like not to haul their currency to the Wal-Mart in a wheelbarrel – all reasonable things. 

Not trying to be hypocritical about this, believe me. This blog has been about 80% apocalyptic glee from the start, and is in part a chronicle of ten years that I’ve spent watching CNBC and waiting for the Big Event. It’s just, you know, we’re really bad at the PR side of the game, and it’d be nice to see “us” take things seriously, for once.

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September 17, 2008 at 11:35 pm

the canary’s dead

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Not the one that lives at the wharf, the one in the coalmine.

I’m lucky to have in-laws that I can use as my own personal focus group of middle american attitudes and reactions. Middle to lower-middle class, from the middle of the country (though down a bit from the exact center), a smattering of evangelicals and irreligious libertarian conservatives, also one Hilary Clinton supporting (now Sarah Palin? I’d bet) late-middle-aged single mom, they run the gamut. I’m not being arrogant – I come from rather ordinary to sub-ordinary stock as well (you should see the stuff that comes across the google alert thing I’ve set up for my very very rare last name – police blotter clip after police blotter clip), it’s just mine are from the wrong side of the St. Lawrence and I don’t really keep in touch.

Anyway. Um. Yeah. Mom-in-law emailed today saying that she’s thinking about pulling her $ out of the mutual fund in her retirement account. I’m sure I’m not the only person that’s been wondering at what point the bad news penetrates the awareness bubbles of ordinary americans, but I think, folks, that day is coming soon. Tomorrow? And when it does, watch what happens. They keep writing articles calling various abstract things that happen “the postmodern version of a bank run.” I think that the pre-postmodern version is still a viable form. We’ll see.

I’ve suggested that it’s probably not smart for her to pull the money, given the tax liability and the fact she’s yanking it back at a very unfortunate time. Who knows though. But even if she goes ahead and does it, where then should she put it? After all, from what I understand, the FDIC is funded to handle maybe one significant bank failure – say Washington Mutual if (when?) it goes.

Here’s guessing tomorrow’s going to be an interesting day.

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September 17, 2008 at 11:18 pm

Posted in collapse, crisis, economics

bounce

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The incessant, miraculous deferral of the catastrophic rupture, the long-awaited break. Always a bounce. That’s the thing about abstraction – that’s the thing about it’s marvellous ability to keep the story rubbing along. Come on now, try not to think jouissance. Try not to think interminable foreplay, a ten year tease. The rewewed high street shops, the cost of a terraced house, the dip and peak of oil. The end of the story will never arrive.

Today like many days, the futures numbers were in, the European markets had spoken, the crowds had delivered their wisdom, the columnists had typed – braving a bit of hysteria, the ever-reasonable had allowed a soupcon of panic into their columns. The disaster metaphors had circled, abroad and in our skulls. Perfect storm, category 5, smoke rising over lower manhattan, past the window at speed. And then the historical comparisons: Like the 1980s, but bigger. Like the 1930s, only worse.

It will never arrive, the collapse. It will never arrive because they will not let it. That is the thing about abstraction, storytelling. But also, the nationalization of failure, counterfeit, false paper, the spoils of ill-fought battle, the moral hazard. Something else will fail, the currency, the state, the national welfare, but not this.

The EKG is not broken; it’s the patient that’s undead.

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September 15, 2008 at 2:42 pm

apocalypse now

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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