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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

pausing for pinter, under palms and with laptop open but no access

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Just purchased and read in a sitting Harold Pinter’s Betrayal of 1978. It was the only play in stock here at Barnes and Noble; I do not imagine that there’s been a rush this morning and I’m only getting what’s left.

The play moves backward as it progresses, beginning in 1977 and moving backwards to 1968. There are only three characters. Emma and Jerry, who have had or are having (as we move backwards) an affair and Emma’s husband Robert, who is or was Jerry’s best friend.

Pause

At the next table, a young man and young woman are talking about the credit reporting firm Equifax and how to contact them, whether they have a webpage and whether the webpage lists a contact number. I want to tell them how you go about contacting them, as it is difficult but I have done it. You get about fifteen seconds on the phone with an operator before they hang up on you. But sometimes, as in my case, they sort out the problem if the problem is sortable.

I do not know whether their problem is sortable or not. Probably not.

Silence

I wish Barnes and Noble had some more Pinter for my to buy and read today. I could do with one of the volumes in the four-volume set of his plays.

Pause

Earlier today, I read this article about Pinter and his life and loves in the Daily Mail. It delves into the background behind Betrayal in particular.

Pause

Apparently, you need permission, you need to contact Judy Daish Associates Ltd., 2 St. Charles Place, London W10 6EG England before you attempt to act out Pinter’s work. You may well need to pay what they call in the business a royalty, whether your troupe is best described as “First-class professional,” “stock,” or “amateur.”

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December 26, 2008 at 8:06 pm

Posted in distraction

scientific (self) management

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Somebody just sent me a link to an interesting website, where this among other things has been posted:

Begley is particularly astute on the bizarre organization of Kafka’s writing day. At the Assicurazioni Generali, Kafka despaired of his twelve-hour shifts that left no time for writing; two years later, promoted to the position of chief clerk at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, he was now on the one-shift system, 8:30 AM until 2:30 PM. And then what? Lunch until 3:30, then sleep until 7:30, then exercises, then a family dinner. After which he started work around 11 PM (as Begley points out, the letter- and diary-writing took up at least an hour a day, and more usually two), and then “depending on my strength, inclination, and luck, until one, two, or three o’clock, once even till six in the morning.” Then “every imaginable effort to go to sleep,” as he fitfully rested before leaving to go to the office once more. This routine left him permanently on the verge of collapse. Yet

when Felice wrote to him…arguing that a more rational organization of his day might be possible, he bristled…. “The present way is the only possible one; if I can’t bear it, so much the worse; but I will bear it somehow.”

It was [Max] Brod’s opinion that Kafka’s parents should gift him a lump sum “so that he could leave the office, go off to some cheap little place on the Riviera to create those works that God, using Franz’s brain, wishes the world to have.” Begley, leaving God out of it, politely disagrees, finding Brod’s wish

probably misguided. Kafka’s failure to make even an attempt to break out of the twin prisons of the Institute and his room at the family apartment may have been nothing less than the choice of the way of life that paradoxically best suited him.

The truth was that he wasted time! The writer’s equivalent of the dater’s revelation: He’s just not that into you. “Having the Institute and the conditions at his parents’ apartment to blame for the long fallow periods when he couldn’t write gave Kafka cover: it enabled him to preserve some of his self-esteem.”

(Zadie Smith, The New York Review of Books, July 17, 2008 (reviewing The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay by Louis Begley.)

Hmmm… Yep. Zadie Smith’s had a good year in the reviews, hasn’t she? Anyway, just for my own / the record, I’ll record how my usual day works.

Wake between 8 – 9 AM, ready myself for work, skipping breakfast usually. Prepare a large thermos of coffee to take with. Check blogs while coffee brews.

Bus and train to work, arriving at approximately 10-11 AM. Of late, I’ve been reading things that I want to read during this period. Other times, it’s the paper. At bad times, it’s music.

Email, teaching, advising activities somewhere mixed in here. If not, preparation for teaching or advising. Frequent breaks for cigarettes outside, phone calls, more email. Sometimes I remember to fetch myself a sandwich, fanta, and treat to eat at my desk. At some point I generally buy the Guardian and another pack of cigarettes.

If I am lucky and good, I leave at 3-3:30 PM to write at my shitty Starbucks on Tottenham Court Road. If I am not lucky, I am teaching or meeting with students. If I am not good, I am still puttering around the internet, pretending to work.

Between 5-6 I generally leave for home. Read free papers on the way.

From 6 or so until 10 PM is dinner / kid / television related time. Oh, and I read the stack of not-free papers I’ve acquired during the day during this period as well.

From 10 pm till 2 AM, again, it depends if I am being good or bad. Good means I read solidly (almost never happens); bad means I fuck about with the internet. I used to pretend to write during this period, but generally that meant drinking beer and feeling very writerly while I do it.

Hmm… This is a bit depressing, no? How should it go?

7:30 wake
9:00 reach work, write for two hours if possible
11:00 teaching activities
4:00 reading / writing
6:00 leave for home, family activities
10:00 reading / teaching prep activities if nec.
1:30 to bed

OK. That sounds like a NY Resolution to me. The reading / writing balance would be adjustable – I’m actually more worried about my failure to read than my failure to write in some ways, so it’s best to slant it this way to start.

(Oh and before anyone jumps on me – I’m already only describing here the rare manageable day in which I’m not tied up with teaching / meetings of one sort or another from 10 – 6, or when various childcare issues don’t interrupt etc etc…)

(A faster route toward, erk, efficient time-management would be to abandon the infinitely wasteful practice of incessant cigarette smoking… But that’s a bridge a bit too far at the moment… Can only cut off one semi-debilitating chemical “enhancement” at a time…. But perhaps, down the road, who knows…)

But anyway, all this is to ignore the point that Begley makes and Smith echoes. How long have I nurtured this fantasy that if I were just able to tweak the schedule, marshal my energies, evenly and appropriate distribute my efforts, everything would become easy. How simple it is to ignore the hangups and tics and secret anxieties that underwrite all the timewasting and inefficiency! How would I possibly cope with myself if I were, once and for all, work again as I believe I ought to work?

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December 26, 2008 at 4:39 am

Posted in distraction, me

don’t stop a-thinkin’

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From JHK:

“Right now, the overwhelming sentiment is to get this country back to where we were, say, ten years ago, when everything was humming nicely: Clinton nostalgia.”

Yesterday, rolling around (OK on my way to taco fucking bell to pick up lunch for everyone) this came on the radio. Twas strange, passing strange, and felt like a desperate, deluded radiophonic plea, a catastrophic misunderstanding of something by the mass mind.

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December 23, 2008 at 7:00 pm

Posted in crisis, distraction

frank rich’s problem and ours

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Frank Rich, as he often does in his best Sunday pieces for the NYT, gets into the seam to shout the obvious that the rest of the press cynically or idiotically ignores – in this case the fact that, for all the attention that’s been paid to Obama’s hawkish selections for State and Defense, his economic team is cut from the selfsame mold. In short, with both the imperial wars and the economic crisis, the very people who were involved in creating the problem are now going to be the ones appointed to pull us out…

This is what Rich is so good at, the emperor-has-no-clothes column, and this is what we’ve loved him for. But it is a love tinged with serious frustration as well, with this column no less than all the brilliant and brave ones he’s written about the war and terror over the past near-decade. We are frustrated because while he’s courageous at sniffing out the problem, he seems to stop just short, perpetually, of naming the real reasons for the disorder he describes.

Rich’s thesis today is that the economic team Obama’s assembled resembles the cabinet put together by Kennedy – JFK’s team of boy-wonders that somehow, despite their brilliance tumbled us into Vietnam. The payoff paragraph argues that it is an issue of personal defects, individual hubris, that makes these people make poor choices in crucial situations.

No, it’s the economic team that evokes trace memories of our dark best-and-brightest past. Lawrence Summers, the new top economic adviser, was the youngest tenured professor in Harvard’s history and is famous for never letting anyone forget his brilliance. It was his highhanded disregard for his own colleagues, not his impolitic remarks about gender and science, that forced him out of Harvard’s presidency in four years. Timothy Geithner, the nominee for Treasury secretary, is the boy wonder president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He comes with none of Summers’s personal baggage, but his sparkling résumé is missing one crucial asset: experience outside academe and government, in the real world of business and finance. Postgraduate finishing school at Kissinger & Associates doesn’t count.

Summers and Geithner are both protégés of another master of the universe, Robert Rubin. His appearance in the photo op for Obama-transition economic advisers three days after the election was, to put it mildly, disconcerting. Ever since his acclaimed service as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, Rubin has labored as a senior adviser and director at Citigroup, now being bailed out by taxpayers to the potential tune of some $300 billion. Somehow the all-seeing Rubin didn’t notice the toxic mortgage-derivatives on Citi’s books until it was too late. The Citi may never sleep, but he snored.

Geithner was no less tardy in discovering the reckless, wholesale gambling that went on in Wall Street’s big casinos, all of which cratered while at least nominally under his regulatory watch. That a Hydra-headed banking monster like Citigroup came to be in the first place was a direct byproduct of deregulation championed by Rubin and Summers in Clinton’s Treasury Department (where Geithner also served). The New Deal reform they helped repeal, the Glass-Steagall Act, had been enacted in 1933 in part because Citigroup’s ancestor, National City Bank, had imploded after repackaging bad loans as toxic securities in the go-go 1920s.

[…]

Post-Iraq, we’re unlikely to rush into a new Vietnam. But we ignore the past’s lessons at our peril. In his 20th-anniversary reflections, Halberstam wrote that his favorite passage in his book was the one where Johnson, after his first Kennedy cabinet meeting, raved to his mentor, the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, about all the president’s brilliant men. “You may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” Rayburn responded, “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

Halberstam loved that story because it underlined the weakness of the Kennedy team: “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.” That difference was clearly delineated in Vietnam, where American soldiers, officials and reporters could see that the war was going badly even as McNamara brusquely wielded charts and crunched numbers to enforce his conviction that victory was assured.

But of course, lots of people are a bit too smart for their own good – probably everyone and anyone who’s likely to be appointed to run Harvard or the US economy falls into the same camp. I would be willing to bet that the hubris Rich is naming is a constant in the managerial ranks of any society. No, the deflection that Rich performs here psychologizes or even theatricalizes that which is attributable to bad ideas. It transmutes a corrupt and corrupting ideology into a personal failure, an idiosyncratic flaw.

I hate to sound reflexive, to sound like I’m parrotting the party line, but the problem with Rich’s work – now and throughout the decade – is that as brave as he is in naming what is hiding in plain sight, he systematically refuses to lay blame where blame is due. In this case, neoliberal economics – the self-suspending rope ladder of financialization. We are to blame Rubin and Summers personally, just his earlier columns urged us to blame Bush and Rumsfeld and Rice personally. Rich has all the makings of a brilliant social analyst, a wide-angle reader of the American situation. But when he brings right to the heart of the darkness that he describes, we find not systems and ideas but always a soul in crisis, a man on the verge of sin or deep in sin and trying to scrabble his way out of it. We “blame Bush” – and, as is clear even from Rich’s column today, it is becoming ever more clear that the removal of the stumbling villain from the stage might not be the cathartic crisis point that augurs the end of the horrible piece we’ve been watching.

Still, I need to take care. Rich is brave, but not brave enough. My own argument here has become a performative repetition of the very problem I’m trying to diagnose in the column. I have ended up blaming Rich for casting personal blame when broader, structural claims are required….

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December 7, 2008 at 11:33 am

saturday morning glimmerings

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For half a second after picking up today’s IHT, I misunderstood the relationship between the top headline and the image below it.

Or I wanted to misunderstand it. Of course the image doesn’t have to do with apartment blocks in Detroit doing Che instead of Santa and his reindeer this year but rather is an illustration for just another internally incoherent piece about Cuba and socialism (not up for link for some reason…) Still, still, thrilling when the paper gives you the chance to imagine a different sort of Saturday morning.

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December 6, 2008 at 9:39 am

melancholic intensity and short form writing

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Philip Lopate on Susan Sontag on Walter Benjamin in The Threepenny Review:

Benjamin was […] another exemplar for her of “the freelance intellectual.” Finally, he was a negative model in the difficulty he had finishing books. “His characteristic form remained the essay. The melancholic’s intensity and exhaustiveness of attention set natural limits to the length at which Benjamin could develop his ideas. His major essays seem to end just in time, before they self-destruct.” Her own essay on Benjamin runs a mere twenty-five pages. She later said, by way of explaining why she no longer gave her main energies to essay-writing, that some of the essays in Under the Sign of Saturn had taken her six months to write. From my perspective, this means she should have persisted in essay writing; it was just getting to the proper level of difficulty.

Just as the “literature of the no” (more to come on this) encourages one to romanticize one’s own lack of productivity, reading something like this is suggestive in probably just the wrong way. The ultimate intensity would take the form of aphoristic captions underneath single photos on an underread blog? But why do they require books? No one reads them anymore anyway!

(BTW I think everyone should subscribe to The Threepenny Review, by the way. It never ceases to amaze me that when I write in for address changes or to resubscribe and the like, it’s always Wendy Lesser herself who writes back…)

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December 2, 2008 at 12:48 pm

Posted in benjamin, distraction

the secret life of investment bankers

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Somehow, accidentally, the movie Boarding Gate snuck from the bottom to the top of my mail rental list, and it’s been sitting on top of the DVD player for quite some time. With great anxiety and embarrassment I talked my wife into watching it with me last night – this despite the fact that it is, there is no doubt, mostly a vehicle designed to get Asia Argento on screen as many times as possible in a black bra and not much else. Awkward that.

But anyway… I actually enjoyed it quite a lot. Despite the fact it was only released in 2007, it is well on its way already to the status of period piece, as it does the good old sexed-up globalization bit. Let’s see, the checklist: stacks of cargo containers, freelancing incredibly rich people, wild shifts in venue (Paris to Hong Kong), lots of Asians (especially Asian bad guys), fantastic mostly-empty high-rise apartments, subtitling of more that one non-English language, interesting cellphone sounds, phonecalls taken with a laptop open, and last but not least a scene that takes place is a ridiculous karaoke bar. Check, check, check, check, check, check, check. It’s all there. I’ll freely admit that I’ll miss the genre if it – as it promises to – fades away under the pressures of backscaling and collapse.

For chrissake, look at the title of the film! I don’t remember an actual boarding gate appearing in the film – but, to hell with it, someone knew that the smart decision would be to attach the movie to one of the privileged locales of our period, whether it makes sense or not.

So I enjoyed it. I’m not sure it made all that much sense in the end, but it was very pretty to look at. And it ignited (I admit it) a desire that seems increasingly absurd nowadays. You know the one…. It goes something like shit, I wish, without wanting to actually do anything that makes that sort of money, that I could be the kind of person who lives out of my mobile phone and a overnight bag, dripping myself from exotic locale to exotic locale, spending time in the best of airport executive lounges and having multiple passports. I’d order in, stay at the second best places, and always read the Financial Times, especially on Saturday. It won’t ever happen, but a boy can dream. Or could. If I became a moderately famous academic, maybe someone, once in my career, would pay for me to fly business class, right? Nevermind – this is all shameful. Don’t take any of it seriously.

But. OK. I’ve been thinking about starting up work on a new project, one that helps me to shift from being a modernist to a proper contemporaryist (erk) – basically, I will have soon said all that I really want to say about the period 1890 – 1945. So maybe something on the aesthetics and politics of 1973 – 2008, the aesthetics of financialization, etc. Who knows. But if I did do this, I’d spend a chapter on the following subject, a chapter that would feature a bit of discussion of Boarding Gate, I think:

What I want to write on is a bit counterintuitive, at least to my mind. The first-thought thing to say about films like this, that wrap financial activity in sex and violence, is that they are allegories of the violence that works off-stage in the real world to keep the business running. A simple furniture import-export business is really a front for murder-for-hire and heroin dealing etc etc etc. But this is not that, well, interesting. We’ve done this – and perhaps culture is basically insensitive at this point to that sort of allegory. (We already know, down to our bones, that the tea and crumpets are bought with money from the Jamaican sugar plantations or whatever….)

Rather, what is more interesting about films like this to me is the fact that we can see plainly just what it takes to narrativize a period whose interest is actively hostile to narrative. Michael Masden’s character is basically an investor, but an investor who practices shooting a gun and who has had, to date, an interesting (if mostly impotent) sex life. A really interesting sex life, actually. Argento’s character ridicules him for the failure of his enterprises – a failure that crosses the bridge from the financial to the narratological. A couple that runs a business, a boring one, just as boring as those that at least one friend went into when he decided academia wasn’t for him, is actually tangled up with roofie-attempted-murder. And every sexual act is tinged with the aftertaste of violence and ill-gotten gains.

I’m sure that some “investors” had interesting sex-lives back during 1973-2008, but probably not as interesting as they hoped. And I’m sure some carried a piece, but it was mostly for kicks and paranoid aura. Mostly the hours spent expensively in airport lounges are boring – boring drinks in a boring place.

Think again of The Sopranos, and the perfectly-tuned demographic fantasy that it massaged. Your next door neighbor, the fat ethnic guy next door, could well not just be in waste management, but could rather be clipping guys down on the Newark esplanade and taking the girl he wants at the ‘Bing. The show was a tailor-fitted fantasy about professionalism and the lifestyle that should justly accompany such difficult and morally-compromising work.

Somehow the world wants investment banking to be a task populated by the feral, the oversexed, the trigger-pullers. But it is not. Somehow the world wants something, something with ripped panties and shell casings, to be going on behind the hedges of the hedge funds. But I guarantee you – it is not. We lived – though may live no more – where all of us, deeply and darkly and perhaps with significant embarrassment, wish that our betters – the winners of the meritocratic game – live fuller and more interesting lives than they do.

Because if not them, then whom, exactly?

(Too tired to go on – but for a better read of Boarding Gate you could always take a look at Shaviro’s read, which is very helpful indeed….)

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October 6, 2008 at 12:26 am

“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…

Written by adswithoutproducts

September 29, 2008 at 1:07 am

not yet, not yet, picture mickey mantle, picture joe d…

with one comment

I’m not an Ian McEwan fan. Look, he writes very elegantly. And Saturday is an excellent teaching text (in large part because you get to show students something fairly subtle about the Iraq War, rationalization, and a particularly novelistic form of lying…) His politics are… not very good… And he is one very clear case where the bad politics make for aesthetic failure. You’re really not supposed to be able to label a properly written novel symptomatic this quickly, but there’s no other word for what Saturday is. But that’s another post.

But I am reading On Chesil Beach right now, for some reason or another. Might have something more substantive to say about it soon. But for now I wanted to share something quite excellent with you. The situation is, basically, that a young man and a young woman have just been married and are spending their honeymoon night at an inn on the Dorset coast. Both are virgins. He is tremendously excited to get laid for the first time; she is absolutely revolted by the thought of sex. They’re about to get it on for the first time, and he’s totally misreading her panic reaction as an erotic swoon:

He was thrilled by the light touch of her hands, not so very far from his groin, and by the compliance of her lovely body enfolded in his arms and the passionate sound of her breathing rapidly through her nostrils. It brought him to a point of unfamiliar ecstasy, cold and sharp and just below the ribs, the way her tongue gently enveloped his and he pushed against it. Perhaps he could persuade her one day soon – perhaps this evening, and she might need no persuading – to take his cock into her soft and beautiful mouth. But that was a thought he needed to scramble away from as fast as he could, for he was in real danger of arriving too soon. He could feel it already beginning, tipping him toward disgrace. Just in time, he thought of the news, of the face of the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, tall, stooping, walruslike, a war hero, an old buffer – he was everything that was not sex, and ideal for the purpose. Trade gap, pay pause, resale price maintenance. Some cursed him for giving away the empire, but there was no choice really, with these winds of change blowing through Africa. No one would have taken that same message from a Labour man. And he had just sacked a third of his cabinet in the “night of the long knives.” That took some nerve. Mac the Knife, was one headline, Macbeth! was another. Serious-minded people complained he was burying the nation in an avalanche of TVs, cars, supermarkets and other junk. He let the people have what they wanted. Bread and circuses. A new nation, and now he wanted us to join Europe, and who could say for sure that he was wrong?

Now if you’ve read your Barthes, maybe you know where I’m going with this. Always awkward to do the groundwork of social contextualization when you’re doing your histoire d’amour. But here, the relationship is literalized: the social detail, political factuality, the newspapery stuff is what the novel, like the novel’s protagonist here, tells itself so that it does not come too quickly.

Perfect.

(About the title of this post. Avert your eyes if you’d like to maintain an image of me as a sexless demiurge tapping away at posts morning noon and night. OK. In the USA, the shorthand version of this practice as delivered in popular culture usually takes the form of “thinking of a ballplayer.” Which is very, you know, heteronormative and homosocial and all. But that’s not my point. It went around as a mini-trope when I was an adolescent and was sensitive to such information. But when it went around tv and movies during my adolescence, it usually went around as a practice of middle-aged men, middle-aged men who could remember a different era of baseball than I could. Usually, they “thought about” Mickey Mantle. Every once in awhile, Joe DiMaggio if they were a bit older. And so, any time I’ve been tempted to, erm, try the technique out myself, my mind’s eye fills up with sepia toned portraits of players I never watched, Mantle, DiMaggio. The idea is, I guess, is that the practice take you back to the innocent b/w tv years of childhood, when matters like coming too quickly – or coming at all –  were not yet on the table. But when you get blocked this way, and are instead delivered to a strange screen-image nostalgia rut and rude citationality, everything gets all askew, you grow pensive and kind of meta, and, well, I won’t go into details, but you know. It’s not the best place to be when you really are where you want to be.

But it’s OK. Next time, for sure, I will think about Harold Macmillan, whoever he was. Sure to work, especially since no image, sepia or otherwise, erm, comes to mind….)

Written by adswithoutproducts

September 9, 2008 at 12:25 am

Posted in distraction, novel, sex

stings a bit

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Rather fucking brilliant, this.

Written by adswithoutproducts

September 6, 2008 at 8:49 pm

Posted in distraction, fiction, sex

did you get that on record or what?

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We all, today, walk around with a portable archive of Historical Video Clips in our heads. Without checking, we can picture a secondary explosion on the doomed space shuttle challenger, Germans swinging torches and axes as they exuberantly tear down that wall. We all have that green lit gamescape of the anti-aircraft guns firing aimlessly and ineffectively into the Baghdad sky the first night of the first war on Iraq. Perhaps we have Clinton and Hilary swaying to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Thinkin’ Bout Tomorrow,” though we definitely all possess a whole panoply of views and perspectives on the day that the World Trade Center fell – we have two towers burning, we have the cloud of dust, we have Bush at Ground Zero.

But in this line what do we have – all of us, or even most of us – of the new Iraq War? The firework displays of the first moments of Shock and Awe? And then the day that the huge statue of Saddam fell? Saddam as he was about to die? For a present day, ongoing event, I am willing to bet that most of us carry around precious little in the way of those little mental mpegs that start running the moment the concept comes up. The reports of the embedded journalists at the start of the war were too banal to fix in the soft gray spot, and the ugly remainder of the war seems to be strangely (is that the right word?) under-represented on the nightly news, aside from the days death toll, and, in certain situations, accompanying photographs of dead soldiers when they were clean and young and alive.

No, the current war has not been, in the way that both of the previous major US engagements were, a television war. Bad news and ugly scenes make it difficult to sell retirement services to the increasingly elderly viewers of the network’s programs and CNN alike, and from the first days of the conflict the military has done all that it can to keep its arms tightly around the shoulders of the dwindling number of journalists actually working anywhere outside of the Green Zone in Baghdad. And even if the poll numbers have changed dramatically, the news organizations still seem to be extremely hesitant to do anything at all that would provoke the “Support Our Troops!” crowd.

But even if the images and streams never quite make it to our television screens, it is not the case that we have seen nothing or that there is nothing to see. In a perverse fulfillment of some of the irrationally exuberant predictions of the late nineties and early part of this decade, the scenes that are most pressing, the most real, appear via the efforts of what in a somewhat more hopeful time we used to call “citizen journalists.” They arrive, that is, via YouTube and similar video hosting sites. There is something incredibly strange about the fact that many of the most vivid and terrifying images that I’ve seen arrive via a site whose architecture and design seem ideally suited to dumb pet videos, teenagers glamming against the backdrop of their favorite song, or collections of rim shots from yesterday’s already obsolescent sitcom. These videos are forwarded to us, bloglinked, or, especially when we’ve grown a taste for them, we search them out. We view them during stolen moments at the office, late at night in our sleeping clothes – anytime but at an pre-ordained time. They are, true to the time and its habits of consumption, on demand.

The videos are at once, in general, incredibly simple and dauntingly complex to read. They solicit from us prefabricated modes of critical approach, the automatic and issueless discovery of the message in the media and a whole series of parallel pomo-lotry. Or they simply make us cry – for the dead civilians, for the soldiers that are doing the killing, for ourselves. This has happened to me a few times, viewing them in my office. (It is an unlikely scene – I’m a large guy, I don’t look like a crier…) I get choked up, the tears come, and then, eventually, I stop crying and eventually, I do something else.

I remember having this reaction, for instance, after watching this one in my office. It was one of my first.

You cry and you think. You wonder in what possible scenario these people in the car could have be, beyond any doubt, fair targets. There is the body on the road, another that we cannot see but only hear about just inside the door of the building. Perhaps there are others, also invisible, encased in the cars. Unfortunately, perhaps irresponsibly, you think perhaps what a great title or tagline that magic utterance, the Did you get that on record or what? would be. In order to hold off the tears, or maybe just in spite of them, you wrap yourself in this little puzzle of representational intention, in the contradictions and inconsistencies of the piece. It is a trophy on digital media, today’s ear necklace or captured Luger, but how did it reach the web and why? What do we make of the almost altogether unconvincing claim at the end – that no unarmed people were hurt during the shooting, despite the fact that the dead bodies don’t appear to have been armed.

There is a large subgenre of Iraq videos on YouTube that focus on children. Fortunately they are, from what I have seen, less bloody than the ambush above, but in a distinct sense they are even more disturbing. More dangerous to say, they are perhaps the most interesting of the videos available on-line.

It sometimes seems like a generic mandate that the videos include a self-referential phrase, a mention of the fact that the video is being made…. Are you getting this? Can you see this? But what exactly is this anyway? Is it, simply put, a slice of hideous if halfhearted cruelty informed by a viciously instrumental relationship to the occupied other? Or, are we getting it wrong if our readiness to assume the worst? Is it just a game, a moment of absurd interaction between the soldiers and the children? Children do love to run, to race, after all. We are left in a bind, unable to confidently read the clip, and inevitably turn again to the meta-issues. What about this scene made it camera worthy? And what about this video, once captured and, perhaps, sent along to its initial audience, inspired the wider dissemination of it, a dissemination wide enough that we – you and I – can watch it today?

The playful humiliation of children is in fact one of the dominant themes of the posted videos.

The videos stage and restage the intersection of everyday life – and do children ever have anything other than an everyday life, whatever the circumstances? – and the very different tedium, the anxious and defensive routine, of the US soldiers as they attempt to entertain themselves away from identification with the Iraqis least like to assume the position of antagonists. They all wanna be on video. Like they’re gonna see it ever. Like they’re gonna see themselves ever on video. But they all wanna be on it. Fuckers. Recording these moments is an act of cruelty that parallels the cruelty of the soldier’s actions themselves, but both acts share

At times, and despite their brevity, the videos featuring kids threaten to evolve into semi-allegories of the situation of the whole. The never quite fit the bill, but they come close. And in the closeness, they reveal, like some of the better known iconic images of the conflict, the way that patterns of thought and behavior circle up and down the ladder of rank, the hierarchy of violence.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

To be sure there are lots of other clips that feature sunnier moments of contact, soldiers who haven’t been (haven’t allowed themselves to be?), distorted enough by their context to treat children in ways that would land one in prison almost instantly back home. But even in these softer moments, violence or the playful relaxation of violence seem to be the only options available on the menu.

My collection of clips, of course is selective, but is still, I believe, representative of a large number of similar videos available for viewing on YouTube and the like. And perhaps it is just my idiosyncratic way of approaching texts (I teach literature, I am something of a formalist) that tells me so, but it seems to me that the specificities of the medium in question – the very short video clip – has everything to do with the complex feelings and questions that these pieces engender. Or, of course, it is the close synchronization, the uncanny affiliation, between the formal organization of these pieces and the content that fills the container of the form that makes me feel that they are somehow

That is these clips, because of their atomic, episodic nature, the fact that they are too short to allow for backstory or substantive development, too narrow to permit even a glance at context, and the world surrounding the shot. They bring us right up close to where the action is, the real stuff that evades the propaganda strips, only to end abruptly – always abruptly – and, quite literally, provide us only with another set of videos that the formula has deemed “related.”

At moments, I feel like these YouTube videos are the distinctive aesthetic form of our time and place. They show us what we know, and hide what we cannot know. Often what is revealed during these disjunctive moments is a dead body, innocence or guilt unknown, there is no time for that. Or a smiling child who should be crying, or a crying child who should be smiling, but we have to go – there isn’t the bandwidth or server space to stay. And what would we do if we could stay?

They are like episodes, one starts to feel, in some sort of inchoate dystopian work, one which borrows extra intensity from the fact that it is composed of nothing that isn’t drawn from the real world, the world that we share with the children in the videos. Considered together, watched in a sequence, as I have had you do (if with a few interruptions) they come to seem a slow montage rather than a collection of autonomous shorts. As such, we might well expect them to have the disruptive effect that we have long heard arrives of such starting juxtapositions.

One of the persistent tropes of the “speculative” literary works and films involves the fantasy of the subject transformed by the forced viewing of images. Whether the object is reformation or ruin, submission or transformation, nightmares about the idea that somehow we might be reached and altered, or even controlled, by locking our eyes to a series of disjunctive images, a montage.

And in a sense the reach of this trope extends far beyond the realms of speculative and science-fiction and art film into media theory and notions of ideology, as well as more vulgar conceptions about the relationship between, say, represented violence and violent actions, school shootings and the like.

We wait for the image, the conjunction, that will blind us or make us at last see, that will reset the operating system and let us move under a power “not our own” but all our own, just differently, newly, once and for all.

But the right image, the effective conjunction, never comes. We have flags and mothers and cheerleaders, we have the soft core and the hard core, the lynchings, the bombings, and the children. We have the ambush and the dead and the dirty jokes about tiny girls and the flag, and we pang and parallax, but we do not snap.

These film clips lend us access to a world that has passed. The YouTube videos bring us back to the present. We see them, you have seen them, and they will stick, but they will not transform. Nothing does the trick anymore. It is hardly an appropriate message to draw from the digital stuff that we’ve just watched and the bodies that we can barely imagine behind it, but I am not sure what else there is to say.

Just as Theodor Adorno once argued for the reduction of speculation about emancipated society to a basic, simple demand – “There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more” – perhaps we need to develop an aesthetic, a form, that could ground itself in the coarse demand to stay close to children like these, to follow them from start to finish, and not look away in shame and boredom. We must, in short, find an aesthetic with which to break ourselves into compliance with our baser, animalian, that is to say human, enlightened, imperatives.

Written by adswithoutproducts

September 5, 2008 at 11:10 pm

angry / american

with 3 comments

People keep telling me they like my angry posts. Of course it’s dawned on me that they might be telling me this to keep me from being angry at them. Or even writing an angry post about them. Or perhaps they simply pity me, bathed as I am in pathetic anger, or maybe they all get together sometimes to laugh at what a bad blogger am I.

Did I mention I’m back in the States. That should be explanation enough, I think. Angryish notes on my travels so far:

Strange to learn today that there are currently no privatized airports in the US. Stewart International in the Hudson Valley was privatized only to be returned to the Port Authority of NY/NJ, and it looks like Midway in Chicago will go private very soon. This is especially interesting to learn once you’ve spent some time living in the UK, where basically they’ve all been privatized, and redesigned to suit their new purpose, profit-generation. I probably should do this in an independent post, but Heathrow’s terminal 4 (which I flew out of) is perfect materialization of the microtortures of everyday life in an evermore privatized world. Long story short: I think we’re all becoming fairly familiar with these terminals that are basically just shopping malls with little doors hidden amongst the shitty shops where at some point, swooning from all your duty-free deals, you stumble onto your plane. That’s no surprise. It’s no surprise, the whole elimination of seating so that passenger-consumers are basically forced to wander around buying things rather than oh-so-unproductively sitting and waiting for their flight.

But Heathrow’s terminal 4, in a subtle way, exposes just how far we’ve gone, and gives a experiental sample of where things are headed. There are a few seats scattered around the terminal. A rough estimate suggests that there are enough seats to accomodate maybe one-twentieth of the total passenger load on a moderately busy day. But what is a bit surprising, even mildly shocking, is a cynical step that the designers have taken that rubs in just how bad things have gotten. In short: there are a few seats, and there are a few screens where you can see what gate you’re supposed to use when they finally, as late as possible, let you know where your plane will be boarding. (In most cases, from what I can tell, they know which gate it will be long before it’s called – these are long-haul flights, the airlines seem to rent the spots. Continental to Newark probably always uses the same gate, etc etc etc). The cynical, disgusting step that they’ve taken is that under no circumstances, in no instance, are the departure boards visible from a single seat anywhere in the terminal. I know this is true because I was bored and had an hour to kill so I checked. You can sit, but if you sit, you’ll eventually have to get up. And probably more than once. It would be very easy in many cases to position the screens so that the passengers can see them from where they’re sitting. The planners have deliberately made this impossible. Even if you’re lucky enough to find a chair, you will soon enough have to give it up to check. You will then lose your seat, and thus be forced to wander the mall again until your gate is called.

This, to me, is an emblem of just what life is like, and promises to be ever more like, as finance capital swallows the last bits of the public and the useful. Life will continue to move from capital’s provisioning of a wonderful set of opportunities toward a stunstick on your ass, keeping you moving as you negotiate the space that once was collectively yours.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to describe how dense my feelings are for Newark airport. It’d be soppy to go into just why, but they are. I haven’t been there in years, but was there the other day. And one of the most interesting things about having a consistent, long-term relationship with an airport is that a lot of the history of the place where you’ve lived is fossilized there. I remember when you could park right up at the door of the bottom level, and then, during the early eighties, when they started to push the cars back out from under the airport and road ramps for fear of truck bombs a la Beirut. The security infrastructure, the gate access or lack thereof, the slow then fast dissolve of smoking areas from everywhere to just the bars to nowhere at all… The flapping Budweiser eagle in the parking lot, now on its way to being owned by ImBev, much to the chagrin of the locals…

I could go on and on about EWR, and perhaps will on my way back…

We have lunch everyday at a place by the beach which is entirely stocked with people just like us, well sorta like us anyway: youngish couples with kids visiting parents and in-laws. All the women look exactly the same. My wife and I were talking about it and, elitist twat that I am, I tried to do it in pigFrench so that we will not be understood by the targets of our bile. Elles sont minces, avont les seins tres petits, et les visages pinchees, angulair, carees, et autres choses comme ca qu’on regarde dans les WASPs… That sort of thing.  A minute later, I realized that the thin, breast-less, angular faced waspy-looking woman sitting next to us was in fact French. Ah, c’est la vie, right class comrades? All in gest, and it’s inevitable that your mari amarican is a trader of some sort, so I’m sure you’ll have the last laff on us.

Of course the men all look the same too, but even less interestingly so…

Starbucks at the nearby Barnes and Noble isn’t, um, the same as the one on Tottenham Court Road where (as I keep saying) you can find me from 3-5 PM each day tapping away. I’m sure the employees are mistreated and generally exploited at both, but the fucking boss here is breaking in two new employees during my daily thirdspace break. She criticizes every single move they make, and does so while looking at the customers with a “what are you gonna do with these fucking semi-legals, eh? Hard to find good help, even during the recession.” I want to lean into them and call their boss a bitch in spanish, but I don’t have the words. It’s puta, right? Es una puta grande. If you reply with the right phrase (please, no fucking around and giving me like some sort of noxious pickup line – I will def google translate before I try) I’ll give it a shot.

I went to get a new drivers’ license yesterday (and in doing so officially “homesteaded” in Florida… huh?) You should get one while you’re here, wherever you’re visiting from. $25.25 and no questions asked. Only one thing. If you go to the one I do, when it comes time for them to take your money, the woman behind the desk may bizarrely adopt a blackface patois and ask for twenay faaave dollah n’ twenay faave cent. (Hard to understand if you’re not American, but trust me – this was pure Eddie Murphyism she was schticking, not southern belletism. At home, just folks, other shit comes after it – trust me.) It may not help to admit that you’re a democrat (sorta, of course) when she’s filling out your voter registration card. You’ll know you’re at the right counter when you see the placard on her desk that reads Calling an illegal immigrant an undocumented worker is like calling a drug-dealer an unlicensed pharmcist.

I’m not enjoying the DNC on TV. Step away from the superbowlic reversion of everything to Charles Barkleyite profundity for a few months and it all just seems so, you know, unwatchable. But my wife and I both agreed and disagreed about Hillary’s speech last night. I won’t go into the disagreement, but we agree she did tilt a bit left, didn’t she? The promotion of unionism? That’s not a phrase I’ve heard lately from the mouths of the dems or anyone. Just for now: interesting that the tilt to the left can function as an in-your-face parting shot, stirring up discontent in the party faithful, but can’t be allowed to be mobilized during, you know, an actual campaign, where it’s all home invasions at 6 AM and Iran nuking bluster. It’s like a parting shot after a breakup, when you pull out the impossibly good material you’ve not been saying all along, stuff that might not even be true, but now, just as it ends, you fire for effect and it stings.

Anyway, off to gotham tomorrow for a long-stretch and all by my lonesome, lucky dog that I am. (Payback for missing the first half of the trip taking care of a cat with a UTI. Yeah…) I’m generally more reverent than angry about NYC when I’m actually there, but I’ll try to scare up some shit from the Southerners at the bar at the (goddamm) Sheraton Midtown for you.

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 28, 2008 at 7:00 pm

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

hotel bar

with 2 comments

Hotel bar…. the ambient chatter of middle-management, just slightly above middle-management. Administrative costs are too high. I sit too close to soak it all up. They are setting up a call center. I have trouble coming down in a hotel without time in the hotel bar with a beer, two beers. I keep pace with those who sit with me, near me, discussing the virtues of flying in through Atlanta or Dallas.

People who sit in hotel bars are roughly divisible into four groups: parents with children on vacation, making it halfway (but not even halfway, not nearly halfway) to the night out that the long for – whether together or alone; people who never go to bars except in hotels (lots of Americans seem to fall into this category); people who are always in this type of bar, nearly every night of their lives because they live on the road; and people like me, who can’t get to sleep without observing some members of the other three groups. My group, of course, represents a considerably smaller percentage than the other three groups, but it remains – I have to believe for some reason – a real group nonetheless.

They are discussing firmware, the limitations of their firmware. Their firmware is limiting growth. Someone has an idea. They are a group of four – three men and a woman. They are drinking two cokes, a mineral water, and a red beverage that comes out of a bottle. The company does not pick up the tab if they drink alcohol. They are not of that stature in the company, and they never will be – they are middle-aged, even late middle-aged. They have hit their peak. They are staying at the Marriott and they are not drinking.

“He’s not going to be the right man for the job if he’s going to get flustered.” They have given them peanuts even though they are not drinking alcoholic beverages. I have refused my dish of peanuts, because you don’t know where they’ve been, who has touched them before you.

A flat-screen mutely displays CNN International. A woman in khaki standing at a checkpoint somewhere. It is Kurdistan. There were bombings in Turkey today; yesterday was India. The Dow was down 239 points today. There is a set of sofas closer to the front door of the hotel where a group of Arab children are sitting. Big sister wears a headdress of some sort. There are always Arab children on these seats, or at least there were last night too.

I have spent the day, for some reason, waiting to get down here to my large Hoegaarden and my laptop. I have had a sense today, that I described to my wife, that if we were to spend three months traveling through the three and two star cities of Europe, staying in hotels like this one, and if I were permitted to spend every night in the hotel bars, I would, perhaps, think and work myself through to a new fictional form. I would become, I said, an avant garde writer – less worried about my job and the market for fiction, more interested in getting the form / content relationship exactly right.

They are discussing “cyclical investing,” “what’s coming on the horizon for technology,” and “storage capacity.” My next trip will be to Florida and my parent’s condo there, where I will not have access to a hotel bar. After that, who knows. A conference in Tennessee in November, but I will be too busy with friends new and old to write. Academics are not, definitely, the sorts that I want to listen to and write.

The internet access here is too expensive to use, so I cannot post what I write. Nor can I read what others have posted, nor check email, order books that I have thought to order during the day.

I believe that the context in which I write determines what and how I write. When I work, as I do daily from 3-5 PM (excepting weekends and vacations) at the Starbucks on Tottenham Court Road, my work is full of passing stories derived almost purely from the physical appearance of those that I see there. It is a mixed crowd: students from UCL, doctors from the hospital around the corner, tourists who stop in (and often have their bags stolen, assorted young characters on their way out to better things in Bloomsbury or Soho, further down the road. My work is shaped into bursts, a single page at a time – it takes me about as long to write one of those vignettes as it takes the average customer to sit and drink their coffee, flip through the newspaper or a book that they’ve brought. My stories and poems orbit on the axis where daily life slips away from the historical event – those featured on the cover of the Times prominently displayed for sale in the middle of the store.

Here, I do longer work, both in turns of form and content. In terms of the latter, I strand in a longer view, I think, as it were, globally. I head towards “state of the world” type pieces, which are probably impossible and the wrong thing for me to work on right now, however attractive it is to start at the moment. In terms of the former – in terms of form – well, you can see, this is more than a single page, is meant to have a beginning, middle, and an end. It is meant to conclude – and conclusions are not something that natively grow in the soil of Starbucks on Tottenham Court Road.

When the Hoegaarden starts to hit, I type into sudden roadblocks which stop thought in its tracks – beg me, softly at first (so far), to return to my room, my sleeping wife and child, and go to bed. A contrary impulse tells me to head across the street to a dusty looking bar named Le Coq, where I could drink and probably talk to who knows whom, but of course I cannot write. I suddenly have an urge to confess how much I love to talk to people, just anyone, but only under the right conditions, in the right situations. The stars have to align. Perhaps this makes me a writer – perhaps I would be a better writer if I indulged these impulses whenever they arrive.

“Jim,” apparently, “is working overtime to get us to tell him what the issues are.” Jim, I learn, “has even taken things too far,” has “bent over backwards once too often for his own good.”

If I were to develop a new fictional form, whether or not it took three months in hotel bars, it would, I hope be minimalistic. It would stare into the panoply of detail in the world and suck out the common materials, the universals, the generic outlines that frame the local details. It would focus in on such subjects as the way, for instance, we use money to pay for things that we want, we ration out the goods and experiences that we wish to have based on the amount of cash that our work has left us after paying for necessities like housing, supermarket food, and utilities. I half fear, though, that the new form would also be chattily subjective; that it couldn’t sidestep the temptation to thread it all through the thoughts and observations of the perceiving self. Could it help but editorialize? Could it “refine itself out of existence”? It feels doubtful to me now, but of course I haven’t had the three months on the road that I have said that I believe I need.

On CNN International, someone is cutting up dolphins, or maybe they’re sharks. It’s hard to tell with the sound off. It looks like whatever manner of fish or aquatic mammal it is, they washed up on the shore, dead, so no harm, no foul. People who last night stood directly in front of the flatscreen watching the Tour de France (they are on a tour; they were in Paris that morning for the end of the race) move across the lobby and out for late dinner or drinks on the town. They do not stop to have a drink here where I am.

“This is a huge investment. This is also a huge risk, to do this.” Middle-management dissects and critiques the decisions of the higher-ups, in age-old tradition, sitting in the hotel bar of the Marriott-Brussels. Each one of them, on some level, is thinking “But I am not really sure I could do better if I were in his shoes.” Do not ask me how I know this. One of the four has changed to beer when I wasn’t looking. The female of the bunch is on a tirade – she knows how he feels, but she still doesn’t understand why…. “Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?” she wants to know. Now two have beer. Laughter ensues.

In the toilets (to the right of the concierge, thank you very much) someone has painted a fly on the inside of the urinal. I have read about this somewhere. It improves aim, reduces splash. While I contemplate the fly, the urinal flushes and reflushes four times. I have, it seems, tricked the system by standing still. In revenge, when I return to the bar and order a Stella, the bartender mishears and pours me another Hoegaarden. There was a time when visiting Europe was a big thing for me, but now the glamours starting to come off.

I want to go to Le Coq across the street. The business types at the next table are leaving, wheelie-bags in tow. It is 11:11 PM. As a parting shot, she (the female of the four) says something about “getting your diapers off.” She has a nasty, pouty crook in her hip that she is too old to carry, just barely.

Breaking news: the card one of them tried to put the drinks on “didn’t go.” She charges it to her room. Decline and fall? Collapse of the American Empire? Mortgage crisis, is he upside down, in over his head, in the flickering realms of negative equity? They resolve to someone’s room bill and leave.

I want to bring this to a conclusion. I am not sure that the form supports a conclusion. I spend my night out a week on the Southbank, drinking and writing, but this is better. Fiction thrives on chaos, and as buttoned-down as my night’s protagonists are, there is chaos in this garden. I should go and have a drink at Le Coq, for the sake of having a drink at Le Coq. My wife and daughter are sleeping upstairs. I have probably had enough. Lovers drink by as I smoke my cigarettes on the sidewalk: young and old, young with young, young with old, fat with thin, and so on. Salesmen for struggling companies disembark from cabs and stumble in, even at this late hour.

But I’d like to come to some conclusion. The Hoegaarden and the negative equity are a clue. The Pakistani barkeep is a clue too. The lack of tolerance of the customers, the Arab kids, both a clue. I will not get there tonight. Somebody new says into a mobile phone that “Everything went well. Mary Ellen said everything went well too. There is a new CFO, but everything went well.” More too. I should send this to a magazine for their website, I have a standing offer from an editor, but he doesn’t write me back anymore. I forgot that I’ll be in a hotel in New York in late August, a Marriott, with a great bar for writing.  Bar girls there – interesting in and of itself. Or themselves. I tried to write a fiction there, once, in part about them. It was part two of something. I should interview one, just for you.

If I had a conclusion, I wouldn’t be in this fix. I will not go to Le Coq, as I have had enough. The world, and I, only bear so much. Someone received an instant message – I have heard it. It is 11:30, though my computer’s clock indicates an hour earlier. I will be back in London by tomorrow night, and back at Starbucks on Tottenham Court Road the next day, working, working…

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 29, 2008 at 10:48 pm

Posted in distraction