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IHT is full of these lately:

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March 2, 2009 at 4:59 am

macroeconomic microfictions

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picture-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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February 13, 2009 at 11:48 pm

wtf? where’s my gmail?

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So there seems to be some sort of massive gmail outage going on. Tomorrow we’ll perhaps hear about the billions and trillions of dollars worth of damage this has done. But of course, the financial figures miss so much, as they always do. All the bitchy gossip that will go unsaid. Lovers aiming to chat across oceans will have to take the night off or find another way. Baby pictures will rest on hard drives, unable to travel for another night. Think of the lost hours of trying and trying to open the millions of accounts.

I’ve been meaning to write a post for awhile about the increasingly significant role played by entities that we might call quasi-utilities. Mostly web-based, these free or almost free services come to seem like a kind of human right, an automatic endowment that we receive simply for being alive. We feel entitled to decent email access (once we’re on the web in the first place of course), free chat, free books (albeit not in paper form). We feels ourselves to possess the right to look at the photographs of friends and family. Maps, likewise, guide us from place to place without apparent cost. Of late, even scaled down versions of expensive programs like Microsoft Word have been added to Google’s pseudo-public empire.

We don’t notice the advertisements, though we do see them. We are familiar with the model from television which was perhaps the first of the quasi-utilities.

In a sense – and much to their dismay, from a profit-making angle, newspapers have evolved in this direction as well. I pay for a subscription to the IHT, because I like newsprint and it’s page for page probably one of the better papers in the world, but I don’t really need it to keep up with the NYT, which is right there waiting for me anytime I like and for free. Reading the papers for anyone who came of age just after I did has perhaps always seemed like something that you ought to be able to do for free, if you want to do it in the first place. When you scroll through the news on your computer or your phone it is easy to have the sense that you live in a world in which content is below and beyond value at once, something there for the taking. And of course the entire sector of media capitalists have never been panicked by anything like they have been by the dawning sense that music and tv programs and films too exist as non-commodities, items to be freely shared rather than bought and sold.

Now, there’s lots to be said about this. It is important to remind ourselves at the getgo that the publicness of the services and information provided by google and similar corporations only appears to be a public utility rather than a private business. Administrators at some libraries, thankfully, are beginning to catch on to the fact that google’s book scanning business is in fact a business – is not a frictionless gift to the world in the utopian form of “every book, every page, any time or way you like.”

That said, that said – what is perhaps the point to take away from these for-profit services is that they bring to the public a taste of the free and easy that comes of efficient public provisioning. They are, that is to say, advertisements in and of themselves for a healthy public sphere. Learning to get something for nothing (even if it’s not nothing, in the end, for now) is exactly the mentality that we’d be best served to foster. The web makes it easy, but perhaps it might best be visualized as what they called a “gateway drug” when I was a kid. (I don’t know if the phrase is still current – but the idea was that the true danger of pot, in its happy non-dangerousness, was that it readied kids to try more dangerous, destructive “hard” drugs.) It’s not a long leap from free and well-designed email to free and smoothly working public wifi. And from public wifi, it’s a longer leap, though not all that long, to nationalized health care. A bit further yet to media, housing stock, and all the rest. After all, who today would pay for an email account?

Two points to be addressed in future posts. One: the pernicious lies that are told about GDP destruction through the market dominance of public, not-for-profit entities. (The BBC comes to mind on this point… All those ads that could be run but aren’t – the international page views that the fucking Guardian could be garnering if not for the BBC’s site….) Yes, public entities do in fact reduce GDP – the takeaway from this fact is that there is something wrong with GDP as a yardstick of civic health, not that cash should be sliced away from the “public monopoly.” Two: It wouldn’t take much effort for us to offer the argument that any sort of user tax on ISP customers for downloads would, sure, be a fine idea but only if the proceeds were pooled into some sort of state support for artists rather than bottom-line fattener for media companies. We download free; the artists are paid by the state; Sony finds a way to fuck itself for trying. Nuff said. Three: and this is more complicated. I’d like to take a long look at the functionalist design aesthetic of google and its many sites as an impersonation of the aesthetic practices of an as-yet-impossible regime of use-value centered provisioning. The design of the google sites, despite the occassional burst of disneyland coloring, is rather amazing… The blandest thing there is on the internet is also the most popular thing. Something there to think about, don’t you think?

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August 11, 2008 at 11:13 pm

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

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

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

Here’s where it really gets frightening:

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

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

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

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

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

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August 9, 2007 at 12:01 am

photographic literalism

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I was just thinking about this series of photos, which I saw in Le Monde when I was in France, but couldn’t find on-line for saving, and lo and behold here they are via kottke.

Food Nutrition Eating Health Diet [BOLD

Food Nutrition Eating Health Diet [BOLD

Powered by ScribeFire.

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June 5, 2007 at 3:04 pm

funkytown

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I’ve loved this ad – even though it was for an energy company – for quite a long time. Always seemed to me to be potentially open for repurposing and.. I really love modularity, just in general. (We see an English version here, of course…)

But lo and behold, the other day when I thought to go to youtube to check if it was available for me to suck down into my archive, I found this:

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May 3, 2007 at 11:01 pm

lucky me

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

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

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

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

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May 3, 2007 at 1:32 am