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cheap: the aeroflotification of capitalism

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Frederick Studemann argued recently in the FT that Aeroflot in the 1970s was a forerunner of the low-cost, low-service airlines of today.

Not only was it far more extensive and cheaper than in the west, it was less elitist. While back home air travel was for the few, in the USSR it was for the many – just another mode of public transport. Aeroflot, the national carrier, was both the world’s biggest airline and one of the cheapest, so catching the red-eye to Vladivostok was as easy as hopping on the Number 2 trolley bus on Kutuzovsky Prospekt.

Frankly, it was difficult to know where to start. Maybe with the pervasive, sweet, plasticy smell of the planes or the routine delays and constant lack of information. Or how about the flint-faced stewardesses stomping down the aisle offering the “choice” of tangy water or tangy water? Or perhaps the unspeakable food, the shabby fittings and the bleak, run-down airports in the middle of nowhere. Then who can forget the grumpy staff for whom dialogue was an alien concept, preferring instead to find new ways of deploying arbitrary rules and associated punishments. All in all, not unlike a rush-hour ride on the Number 2 trolley bus.

Any of this sound familiar? We may have scoffed at the notion of Aeroflot leading the world.

But how wrong we were. Thirty years on it is clear that far from being a laughable expression of a clapped-out system destined to crash under the weight of its internal contradictions, Aeroflot was in fact the pioneer. Low-cost travel today is simply playing catch-up with those Heroes of the Soviet Union: passengers packed in like sardines, robbed of respect and subjected to a baffling array of terms, conditions and penalties. Passengers do not interact with people but with an impersonal, unforgiving apparat dedicated to the ruthless pursuit of a (centrally fixed) plan.

It’s an interesting effect, this one, when some product sector or another in capitalist economies drops low enough in price that it starts to take on the sheen of a popular good. (Can’t find the story, but some UK government official or another recently defended the “right” of “ordinary people” to low-cost flights… Can anyone remember this and point me in the right direction so that I can update the post?) Google’s empire, to cite the most obvious example, depends entirely upon this populist semblance of public provision – everyone has the “right” to a free email address, a free blog, free news stories, free internet search, free telephony, etc… Chris Anderson’s just written a book about this, that according to the publisher’s description

considers a brave new world where the old economic certainties are being undermined by a growing flood of free goods – newspapers, DVDs, T shirts, phones, even holiday flights. He explains why this has become possible – why new technologies, particularly the Internet, have caused production and distribution costs in many sectors to plummet to an extent unthinkable even a decade ago. He shows how the flexibility provided by the online world allows producers to trade ever more creatively, offering items for free to make real or perceived gains elsewhere.

Corporations like Ryanair and Google are figures that populate one of the stories that capitalism loves to tell itself and those doomed to live in its grasp – that given enough time and given the allowance for the markets to operate without regulatory hindrance, the general level of affluence will rise as the cost of living drops. But of course, especially when it comes to the airlines, most of the cheap or freeness is a smoke and mirrors false advertisting effect. The Times (UK) ran an article revealing what anyone who’s ever tried to check a bag on a Ryanair flight already knew – that BA actually costs less on many, many flights than its cut price competitors. But let’s even pretend that you actually can access a low-cost flight. I’m sure many many people actually have flown to Spain or Greece from the UK for what I pay for a pack of cigarettes everyday, even if not nearly as many as the advertisements would have you believe.

The answer, and the overall answer to the free and the cheap that is one of the primary calling cards of capitalism remaining, of course involves a heady mix of financialisation, micro-payments, consumer distraction, non-populist austerity, and government subsidy. And the game ends with the demise of the less cynically-minded corporations and then prices rising right back to the place where they were before the game began.

Would love to say more about this, but can’t yet. Given world enough and time, I’d sit in the British Library – or at least the Pret à Manger across Euston Road from the it – and work on a new version of Kapital, centred on the mystical question of what it costs us to view the tiny advertisement at the top of our Gmail inboxes. Actually, seriously… There’s the magnum opus right there – political economy, temporality, “free,” text, interactivity, attention in distraction, ecology – everything all at once… Perhaps once I’m done with the tedious thing I’m working on now… Like Marx, I a) live in North London b) like do my drinking on or near Tottenham Court Road and c) tend to spend Saturdays with my family on Hampstead Heath, so I think I’m a perfect fit for the job.

It’s funny how you hear a lot less about the Walmart Effect lately, though, isn’t it?

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August 17, 2009 at 11:00 pm

going, going, gone

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Not really funny, more sad:

I have somehow lost, one by one and/or in clumps, almost every book having to do with my summer’s project, which happens to be the project that I’ve been working on since oh about spring 2001. I have lost (and repurchased) all of my Lefebvre. Now I notice that I’ve lost every book that I have that discusses Lefebvre’s work. I wouldn’t have posted this until I just now remembered that a few months ago I was asked to review another monograph on roughly the same topic as my own, told the editor not to bother sending the book as I had it, had read it, it was right here…. And then I had to write her back asking her to send me the fucking review copy in the mail. None of these are in my stack at home and none of these are in my office.

Maybe there’s a hole in my bag, a hole perfectly proportioned to allow only the relevant, pertitent, and manditory to fall out.

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June 12, 2009 at 1:07 pm

all work all play makes blank a blank boy

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Light blogging, relatively speaking, lately, and for that dear readers am very very sorry. You don’t want to hear me go into the details, and you don’t really have to unlike those I know in the pinkflesh earthside, but, ahem, just to make this whole thing more real for you, here’s what I’ve been up to:

– Cleaning up the topmost bedroom because my bestest pal from grad school is coming to stay for a bit. When we were young and not yet employed, I used to meet him every single Wednesday (I think it was Wednesday, right?) at places like this. Whichever of us could get there a bit early would go and occupy a table outside in advance and sit reading the Times until the other showed up. Golden days. In the picture below, it looks like it’s a cloudy NYC day but it still never gets that light in London.

dylan thomas had a bad night here

– Shaking Alain Badiou’s hand. Yep, yep. I know. You’re impressed. Thing is he’s bigger than I am, I think, which weirds me out. I am bigger than almost everyone, but not Badiou. Physically I mean. No! Not that sort of physically! You know what I mean, god, you guys! I later asked IT, apropos of I don’t know what, maybe it was this post,  if she thought I could take him. She took the fifth. Hmmmm…..

– Working like a maniac. Christ alive, it’s too much! All I do is mark papers and attend departmental meetings. One of my Ph.D. advisors, a guy who wrote a book on Benjamin et al that I know many of you have read, once told me as we walked somewhere after seminar that one of the worst things about academic work is that you never get to read. I responded that I was sure he was being a little hyperbolic. But as it turns out, my god, I don’t have time to read – or let’s see, wash myself, wash my clothes, eat properly, process complex personal epiphanies, read newspapers other than the londonpaper, call my mother, clean the litterboxes, or be civil to ex-students who knock unannounced on my office door.

It’s true what you hear, Americans, about academic life over here. It’s busier, and harder. The upside, of course, is that they don’t seem to fire people all that often. And if you’re lucky, you get to live in London.

– Going to a hauntology event. Which was nice, as it was underneath London Bridge. So under London bridge that you had to have your ID scanned at the door, I guess to make the BBC’s job easier afterwards if you were make the damn thing, erk, fall down. It reminded me, a bit, of nights that I used to have when I was childless (ooops, initially typed childish, ha!) in Brooklyn. That is to say, it made me feel middle-aged before my time. I told my therapist today about that feeling, and he said Yeah, I don’t picture you so much as a raver. I think you’re more a type for talking somewhere with a bottle of wine open. I love my therapist. He’s from Boston, btw. No raver am I! He’s right. I like me some good conversation.

Problem is, I was five years younger in Brooklyn, that is to say safely within the core demographic for such affairs. Now I am, suddenly and shockingly, older than most of the people who attend such events. Hmmmm…. And strangely I’m not depressed by this.

– Feeling even more middle-aged, but in a comfortable way, because everyone I know well, basically, is starting to get requests to appear on TV or radio. Including me, even. One of the Major American Networks is apparently trying to cast my wife as a talking-head in a Major Piece they’re doing on socialized medicine, the NHS and the like. My wife is a brilliant Overton Window player, which is probably the best thing, in terms of politcised hackery, that you can be.

I am happy to hear that the Major American Networks are working on Major Pieces on socialized medicine. I am thinking that they should film the birth of our second child via the costless services of the NHS at University College Hospital, especially the part where my wife pushes and I faint.

– Getting work. Mmmmm. Work. By which I mean writing work, of the non or only para-academic variety. I am covering the enormous Communism Conference for a fine American magazine / journal that you almost definitely read if you look at my site. And this summer I get to write a personal essay cum litcrit piece on sitting around in coffee places doing crosswords and the like that will be published by one of the Finer Left-Oriented Presses. (The table of contents of this collection reads like a who’s who of Interesting London, plus one guy from the Bronx, and, um, me…) And I have various stuff (on Lefebvre and other things) that I need to get to right away. This sort of work makes me very happy indeed…. Not that I don’t want to revise my monograph or anything….

– Watching Mad Men. It’s not the best thing ever, but it’s more than good enough to keep me entertained. Was thinking today that with this one – who is always the one to be pictured in newspaper items about the show – they are effectively bringing the big ass back after several decades in the desert of televised desire. All well and good, bring it back then…. All to the good, all very just and right.

Ah man, I have to go and read some student papers now… Exhausted, awful, but glad that I got in touch….

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March 13, 2009 at 12:34 am

what is the cost of me in boiling cups of tea?

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Relatedly, I was in a someone’s office the other day making up some collaborative document or other, when there was a bit of information we needed from the internet. He turned to his computer, then hesitate, and then said to me, “You know the amount of energy it takes to google something, right? I am trying not to if the information is otherwise at hand.” Oh, right, this must be what he was talking about. At the moment, though, the statement, the possibility that the statement was true and that life itself and research and thought was about to crystalize into a permanently chaining thermodynamic equation of inefficiency and guilt made things flicker even more vertiginously than a few moments before.

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February 24, 2009 at 7:31 am

Posted in distraction

peril and promise of automatism

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William James in his Psychology: Briefer Course:

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.

Attractive idea, yes? It’s hard for me to say. No, that has to be wrong and is awful. There are no such things as “higher thoughts.” But of course there are, we all know just what he means. Why do I keep blogging meaningless shit from my life? Shouldn’t I hand my life over to the “effortless custody”?

I am going to work tomorrow for at least eight hours and I am going to think about absolutely nothing but work for those eight hours. I’ll let you know if any “higher thoughts” are produced.

(Ugh… wasn’t even thinking of this when I wrote the kernel of this post… But there it is….)

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February 18, 2009 at 12:06 am

Posted in distraction

notes on seeing a bad movie

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It shouldn’t be that hard to make a decent movie. It’s getting to the point where they all look like the last decade’s worth of Woody Allen’s stuff. I haven’t seen many first-run movies since I got to London: There Will Be Blood, Blindness, Revolutionary Road, a couple others. All complete and utter shit. (For some reason, I see decent to good stuff when visiting the US: Synechdoche, NY and Slumdog Millionaire were brilliant and fine, respectively.)

But those that I’ve seen in London make me wonder what exactly is wrong with the American movie industry – or even what (else) is wrong with America itself. Bad-to-middling movies used to be bad-to-middling, but rarely this bad. I’m busily retrofitting myself (seriously) as a Bordieuvian institutionalist, but I can’t quite write all this off as simply a meta-effect of corporate control, aesthetic champs and the money that makes their grass grow. Go see Revolutionary Road, seriously, and you’ll see what I mean. This is beyond moneytaint; this is something more akin to mass aesthetic brain damage, narrative aphasia.

The reviews are largely right, nothing much happens in the film, and this the first and easy way to describe the problem at hand. But it has to be more than this. Nothing much happens all the time and in all sorts of ways; it merits examination just how and why and to what end in each specific case. So here’s my stab at the problem – which is a tricky one, a hiding in plain sight sort of issue.

The primary characters are locked in a Major Crisis that is both a crisis of the couple as a dyad and of both members of the couple individually. All three crises (hers, his, theirs) feed on one another. (Spoiler warnings – seriously, who fucking cares!) And the movie flits along from one cliched enactment of this crisis to another: a community theater play that goes badly, an affair with a secretary, a neurotic decision to “change their lives,” screaming and yelling and crying, a new pregnancy that will then won’t then will be aborted, an affair with a neighbor, more screaming and yelling and hysterical over-reaction, and blood-dripping unlikely death.

Fine. Lots of terrible plot action to work with. But somehow, startingly, the film never gets outside all of these tears and near-fisticuffs, morning-after shots with lovers, and bad days at work. In a sense, like a marriage in crisis or a person in crisis, like the severely depressed, it sets itself on autopilot, too lazy or mindfucked to get outside of all this strictly cliched nonsense, can’t somehow find a way to register either the crisis’s lack of objective correlative (as when TSE leaves Hamlet a babbling neurotic here) or the crisis’s material foundations. (The film gestures unconvincingly, extremely unconvincingly, in the direction of unfulfilling work – but in the end signals to take this direction seriously would be to be as permanently adolescent as the protagonists themselves). Rather, it holds the shot, it plays along, it tries to force affect out of overacting, enlightenment out of the darkness of depressive repetition.

I actually think there is something startingly and performatively (in the bad sense) dystopian about a movie that allows itself to be this obvious and cliched without worrying about the fact, as if the entire issue of self-monitoring and, well, effort to say new things is well beyond its control. There’s a simple way to link together the string of good HBO shows – they were to a one aimed at genre renewal. The Sopranos brought among lots else social contextualization / analogization to the mob drama, Sex and the City brought vibrators to the sit-com, Deadwood brought eloquence and politics to the western, The Wire brought the dialectic to the cop show, and so on. The basic appeal of the programs is that they took the effort (or had the institutional opportunity) to do something new with old forms. Revolutionary Road, conversely, harrowingly, suggests a reversal of the tides, a yang to the ying of HBO. What if instead of vivification, we take the cards dealt by genre, arrange them on the table one after another, ace through king, and made not a single modification?

Revolutionary Road twice brings a “madman” onto the screen – a math Ph.D., son of the local real estate agent, who has been institutionalized and electroshocked until the math went away, but not the despair. But he’s not that scary; the opposite really as he is, perfectly according convention, the only person capable in the film of calling things by their proper names. But this is bullshit. Everyone knows that the truly frightening madman isn’t the one who brings enlightenment, but repetition, who ceaselessly breaks the basic contract of communication to keep saying the same thing over and over, the repeat long past anyone’s willing to listen. In this case, yes, it’s the characters who are mad but not as mad as Sam Mendes, the director, who fostered their performance without even the slightest registration of destructive irony.

The saving grace of the entire evening was standing outside the door of the cinema as my wife powdered her nose and listening as each and every fellow viewer voiced a variation on the same thing that I said: What the fuck was that? Thank god. One can easily, if one has a dark projective imagination, conjure another scene: this movie plays and you look around to notice the sympathetic tears and cathartic smiles of the other citizens in the hall. But then again, that is basically what it felt like to live in America for much of the last decade. The worst enactments of the most stale and conventional crises and the concommitant plotmoves (this time on the stage of domestic or international affairs), doused with cynical sangfroid or worse, mindless and heartless belief, would be again and again accepted by the others around you – family, the people they show on television, the people who vote, in some cases intelligent friends – with a smile or a smirk or a tear in the eye or even, in the worst cases, a flat, affectless, distractedly staring face.

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February 9, 2009 at 1:54 am

Posted in distraction, movies

pwnd!

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Maybe, maybe not, you’d be surprised to learn that when I was a little kid I was absolutely obsessed with war and the military. OCD-type obsessed. “Playing war” in suburban backyards, military simulators on the computer (I think the last Xmas when I can remember what I actually got was the one when I received this, and they played it for something like twenty-four straight hours….), reading Jane’s Guides and the like. Best of all, was this – which I never actually played with another human being, but whose modules and rule books I read and reread and tried to play by myself but you can’t, really.

Anyway, memoirs of a lonely, semi-Aspergersy childhood in late cold war America I guess. All this is prologue introducing a childhood epiphany, one of those little tiny moments of philosophical insight that you have when you’re a child but which stick with you. Maybe you, if you were like me, thought miniscule thoughts about causality (I remember discussing, basically, Zeno’s arrow problem with my mom long before I’d heard of Zeno’s arrow – she was, erm, unhelpful. I can’t even imagine, actually, what she thought but I remember the day like it was yesterday…) or had the thing that everyone has when they set vanity mirror parallel to the bathroom mirror and, boom, infinite regress.

But the one that I’m thinking about tonight is a little less abstract. I remember realising, all at once, that one of the presumptions that I had about soldiering was – had to be, mathematically – all wrong. The presumption was this: that if you served in the armed forces during a war, likely you would kill several members of the opposing side during the course of that war. That is, that say the average veteran of, say, WWII would have killed several people during his tour or tours of duty.

Simple math shows that this simply cannot be the case. Imagine a war in which there are 100,000 front-line troops on each side. If on side A, the average soldier killed even 1.5 enemy combattants, well, that would be 150,000 dead, just from the start. Of course, some on side A would die before they had killed, and then there are injuries to account for and the like. But I think you see the point: I realized that it must be relatively rare for one solider to kill another soldier during a war. That is, it would be a fairly hotshit thing to have killed even one of the enemy. (In WW2, about 3 million of 17 million German soldiers died – a fairly high percentage, but only 17 percent… So it’s very unlikely that whatever grandpa told grandma to get her in the sack and / or justify his drinking was true…)

Huh. This came as a great shock to me, and it’s really no wonder that it did. Movies make killing seem common, depending on the realism of the picture in question. Video games, of course, arc the issue into absurdity. Remember all those scrolling Nintendo games, where you fight your way through level after level of the enemy, killing thousands and thousands of bad guys before you’re done?

Then again…. We know tonight that semi-final tally of the current war on Gaza comes to 1200+ / 13, a set of numbers that seems preordained to force newswriters into the absurd position of putting an almost before the phrase a hundred to one ratio… if they were brave and honest enough to write the phrase into their work to begin with. These are movie ratios, if not numbers more appropriate to a video game. The fact that they include both military and civilian casualties only makes the point horrifically worse.

Perhaps, then, what was unrealistic about the films and game when I was a kid, and which led to the misunderstanding that gave way to mathematical revision, has actually now been reversed. It’s not the cold war any more, which had a tendency to turn asymmetrical battles symmetrical through direct or indirect support of the “other side.” But the counterweighting effect has long since passed….

But it’s interesting that the newest war videogames both enact and critique at the same time this turn toward hundred-to-one ratios in war. Call of Duty 4, from which the images in this post are drawn, has two modes of play like most “first-person shooters” today. There’s a conventional game, where you follow a storyline from training to, well, something to do with seizing a post-soviet missile silo, and in which you fight against all of those computer directed badguys that we’re all long familiar with from videogames. On this side of the game, since you play as a single named character (OK – two named characters, one from the British SAS and the other from the US Marines), the presumption is that, yes, in the course of the game “you” kill hundred and hundreds of Middle Easterners and Russians without dying yourself. This was once unrealistic, but since your solidiers go into battle in this game with the ability to summon Air Force bombing runs and helicopter gunships, UAV flyovers and the like, well, maybe not as unrealistic as it once was…

The other mode of play, however, offers what we might call a utopian revision of the game played in the first part – if a vision of war can ever rightly be called utopian. This is the multiplayer mode, where you sign on and can join a game set in one scenario or another against other human beings who have logged on to play against you. In each case, you pick a side to join – the Americans, or in the case of most of the scenarios, some sort of Middle Eastern army or resistance movement, a hybrid I suppose of the Iraqi national army and Hamas. But, in order to make the game fair and attractive to players, whichever side you select you choose from the same sets of weapons, and have the same ability to call in airstrikes or UAV reconaissance missions. Asymmetrical war has been rendered symmetrical for the sake of fun and sportsmanship – it is an odd sight to see, F16s flying over a photorealistic Falluja dropping clusterbombs on American Marines, but one that you accept for the sake of the game. Suspension of disbelief, a fair fight, a kill-to-die ratio of approximately 1-1 in the case of all but the best and worst players, whichever side they prefer to fight on.

And it all leads me to wonder what it would be like to write a videogame in which one dies a hundred times over before one successfully kills a single antagonist. The boredom of waiting to fight the enemy would be punctuated, in all but the rarest of cases, by sudden death from the air. After hours of waiting, the screen would simply go blank, over and over and over, without the player ever getting to fire a shot. The sole variety, perhaps, would come from death by other means – a sniper’s shot to the head or a round from a tank. But no matter how, the screen goes blank just the same way – you probably shouldn’t even get to appreciate the difference in the way that you just died again.

And it further leads me to wonder whether the ability to countenance the deaths of others on our fields of battle arrives via the fact that, when confronted by numbers like 1200 or 600,000, we have no more sense that each of those individuals had a backstory, independent subjectivity, a fully human life than we are able to believe that the programmers of games give each of the computer-contolled enemy figures independent initiative, fuzzily human logic, and the rest of the markings of existence equivalent to those that play the game and, eventually, win the game. The bad guys circle their programmed rounds, follow the strings and orders of the code, fire more slowly and less accurately that we do as we kill them. They are robots, bots, spam, studio-manufactured figments. And they all look the same with their swarthy skin and balaclavas and with the AK-47s that they grip and sometimes fire.

Their corpses, as in the games, fizzle and melt back into the earth a few seconds after they die. If they didn’t, their mouldering bodies would litter the field, the screen, and make it impossible to see the next one for the piles of previous victims.

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January 18, 2009 at 2:55 am

Posted in distraction, videogames, war