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dfw, bureaucracy, left sexiness, etc

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Excited to be writing up a review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. And even more excited to be able to say that the politics of this unfinished novel are at once incredibly subtle but utterly profound – exactly the right answer to so much that has gone wrong lately and continues to go wrong today. Won’t scoop myself by telling you just how this works, here, but for a quick preview of the sorts of things that I am thinking about, and that I think Wallace was thinking about as he wrote this, let me point you to some old posts. First, if you’re interested, take a look at this one on bureaucracy. Second, here’s the final paragraph of my critique of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and its about bureaucracy:

On the final pages of the book, when Mark addresses the question “What is to be done?,” one of his primary suggestions is that the left focus on the reduction of bureaucracy – a suggestion that certainly seems to correspond with the evidence and analysis that he provides throughout. Still, and given what I’ve said above, it is a suggestion that is not without a significant amount of danger. For while we would all like to do less of this maddening bureaucratic work, and while much of this bureaucratic work is aimed ultimately at the cynical reduction of public service in the name of efficiency, there are more pernicious (and more likely) paths to the reduction of bureaucracy than leftist agitation and refunding. I know I’ve focused disproportionately on education in this post, but just one more time: I’m sure, for instance, that the for-profit University of Phoenix in the USA would love to give the Tories a hand at straightening out the UK further and higher education systems and their reams of paperwork once they get in office… Or, as will likely be the case, the Conservative government (or pre-emptive Labour) can allow universities to set their own student fees, which will let “students decide” with their increasingly empty wallets and increasingly large student loans how the funds are apportioned rather than a board of bureaucrats monitoring the self-monitoring of the academics.

Anyway, hopefully if you’re interested you’ll see the review one way or another.

A side point,perhaps a controversial one:

Sort of frustrating situation nowadays amongst what we might call the youngish writing left. Here’s the problem: I’m continually tempted to write something longer on bureaucracy. I have a feeling (obviously you can disagree!) that I’m on to something with this line of argument – perhaps even something like an important “rebranding” of some words whose usage allows for a considerable amount of political mayhem to go on ostensibly with the support of the public. If it doesn’t deal with vibrators and porn, or zombie movies and eco-distaster, or moody depressive pop music, or dumbish sci-fi, pubic hair styles, or some sort of (in the extreme case) blinkered souixante-huitardism it doesn’t feel as though there’s a tremendous amount of market space for it. In other words, let’s say (just play along with me for a second) that one has a hunch that she or he has a good answer to some of the current problems and impasses, but that that answer, in the end, is somewhat boring or even utterly unsexy.

More deeply, one might have a secondary sense that the above referenced themes give themselves on to bad political arguments – arguments that seem to me to have lots more in common with the worst trends in the status quo than anything else. (Left feminist works that mostly spend almost all of their energies hating on women, works “against capitalism” that argue – to my eyes – against the same institutions that capitalists would love to destroy, etc…) (Zizek and Badiou, if complexly in the case of the later, do seem like the bad influences that had set a lot of this in motion…) In short, it starts to seem that somehow the instinct or decision to take up “sexy” lines of approach or themes leads to shit arguments… In particular, in almost none of the cases that I’m referencing here is their the slightest hint behind the attitudinizing and easy critique of a path forward, the simplest step to be taken – at least, again, ones that haven’t already been part and parcel of the right’s approach already (per what I say about Capitalist Realism above…)

I’ve heard all the arguments about “sexing up socialism,” and definitely agree that there’s some serious PR work to be done. But somehow, the current atmosphere seems incompatible with going about things the right way. Maybe I’m wrong, being a bit defeatist about things, but it is the sense that I have.

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April 17, 2011 at 10:40 am

always already there

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Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory:

The whole problem that occupies us comes from the fact that we imagine perception to be a kind of photographic view of things, taken from a fixed point by that special apparatus which is called an organ of perception – a photograph which would then be developed in the brain matter by some unknown chemical and psychical process of elaboration. But is it not obvious that the photograph, if photograph there be, is already taken, already developed in the very heart of things and at all the points of space?

The knowing non-surprise that comes of seeing this sort of thing, but still of course always a trace of shock. The fashion shoot was planned, no doubt, with nearly as much rigor as the demonstrations themselves – planned to capitalize, quite literally, on what seemed to be a nearly sudden outbreak of contingency in the heart of the metropolis. But no doubt, like the cops, the editorial staff too was watching the twitter feeds, setting up dummy facebook accounts to know what was happening and when and where.

(Image from a Vice Magazine fashion spread set at the recent London demonstrations.

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January 19, 2011 at 12:30 am

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

sontag glosses the girlfriend experience / nyc trustafarians

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From the journals, from the start of 1959:

The ugliness of New York. But I do like it here, even like Commentary. In NY sensuality completely turns into sexuality – no objects for the senses to respond to, no beautiful river, houses, people. Awful smells of the street, and dirt… Nothing except eating, if that, and the frenzy of the bed.

Except, of course, that TGE suggests that the last sentence should be reversed to read “Nothing except the frenzy of the bed, if that, and eating.” And I imagine she means real smells, the back-in-the-day real dirt, when the thing that stinks nowadays back in Gotham is something much more abstract. This sort of thing, for instance, the half-told story of the New New York and its Creative Industries.

Famed for its concentration of heavily subsidized 20-something residents — also nicknamed trust-funders or trustafarians — Williamsburg is showing signs of trouble. Parents whose money helped fuel one of the city’s most radical gentrifications in recent years have stopped buying their children new luxury condos, subsidizing rents and providing cash to spend at Bedford Avenue’s boutiques and coffee houses.

The concentration of people relying on family money in certain neighborhoods of New York – not just Williamsburg, though if you want to take a trip to see the ‘farians living in their native milieu, of course it is a good place to start – is extremely high. I don’t have figures, but there was a kind of standard deviation between job/salary and estimated cost of residence that make the state of play rather clear. When I sold my own apartment there, in 2005, I had four offers come in the first day it was shown. Three of the four were way, way over the asking price, and all three of those offers were formally made by family estates or by people who attached a very clarifying letter from their father’s broker in New Jersey.

It bears remembering that TGE incorporates a subtle and interesting reference to this situation. At one point, Chelsea explains that the reason she’s taken up the line of work that she has is because (and I paraphrase – don’t have time to find her exact words right now) she doesn’t or didn’t want to rely on her parents. The math’s not hard to do. Implicitly, the suggestion is that she could have relied on her parents, that they had the means to support her in the city. Her career as a high-end escort doesn’t originate in poverty, nor is it simply some sort of mindless / libidinalized cashgrab. Rather, if we’re all going to be on the anti-bburg-trust-fund bandwagon, and I’m sure we are and should be, Chelsea’s choice of a line of work represents a heroic refusal of exactly the sort of thing that the NYT article describes. Sure, she could have found something else to do, and lived elsewhere and otherwise… She’s like one of the “goodguys,” the recovering-fundees, who are meant to provide relief at the end of the trust fund article:

The culture of the area often mocks residents who depend on their families. Misha Calvert, 26, a writer who relied on her parents during her first year in the city, now has three roommates, works in freelance jobs and organizes parties to help keep her afloat while she writes plays and acts in films. There is a “giant stigma,” she said, for Williamsburg residents who are not financially independent.

“It takes the wind out of you if you’re not the independent, self-reliant artist you claim to be,” she said, “if you’re just daddy’s little girl.”

There’s a long, complicated, and in some senses counterintuitive story to be told about exactly what happened in New York from the mid-ninties onward. Giuliani (and his incredible good-fortune to be mayor during a prolonged bull market – nothing unbreaks the windows in NYC like a glut of finance sector bonuses), NYU, the coming of age of the progeny of a corporate managers of the post-Cold War surge of globalization and financialization, the inflation of a local real estate bubble that started well before the interest rates came down, and informalization of work in the wake of the rise of the unpaid internship, and the rise of what we might call hedged entrepreneurialism amongst the creative types. Lots more too, obviously…

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June 13, 2009 at 8:29 am

the girlfriend experience: “this number is the nadir of passion”

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tgeconvo

I really liked The Girlfriend Experience, but this is perhaps attributable to the fact that I am ultra-invested in something that I am from now on going to call the infra-interesting. The infra-interesting, on the surface, looks a hell of a lot like the boring – and it can be very tricky indeed to make a distinction between the two or to develop an argument that relies on anything more than inference and intuition about why something is the former and not the latter.

I learned about the infra-interesting by reading novels. Flaubert is the once and ever champion of the form, spreading the banalities of an upside-down world so thick that the world itself turns right-side up, as if automagically…. or maybe it’s the other way around. But this particular quality has a long literary history. Some, like Lukacs at certain moments, seem to argue that the novel is nothing but a materialization of the infra-int… Or at least that’s what great novels do. And it’s a continuing story. Apparently, according to Claire Messud’s recent review in the NYRB (mostly behind paywall, sorry) suggests that Colm Toibin’s new Brooklyn belongs under this rubric too… I’ll let you know when my wife’s done with our copy and I can have a looksee.

The difference between infra-interesting and just plain boring pivots on an often-very-complex deployment of irony, which can turn a dessicated film, for instance, that deploys lots and lots of cliched speech, whose characters never quite achieve the exit-velocity of intriguing interiority, whose dramatic events aren’t quite dramatic enough and whose scenarios are rote, and whose settings are unostentatious, banal, and so on, from a boring one to a sublimely infra-interesting production. The problem, of course, is to describe the lever, the hitch, the catch that makes the boring into something else. How can we be sure, except inferentially, that Eyes Wide Shut isn’t simply an incredibly stupid film rather than a meta-reflexive work of perfectly adulterated satiric genius? And how can we be sure, when we listen to the delirious banalities spoken by the characters in Soderbergh’s new film, whether we’re listening to something conceived in the spirt of the pseudo-realist pander or the hardcore-realist bonfire of the vanities?

Meta-ness, of course, is one way to frame a film preemptively as infra- rather than uninteresting. And TGE is stocked to the ceiling with meta-ness. The frame gets broken several times, you know the story about the leading lady, and there’s lots of winking discourse all the way through to clue the audience in to what’s going on. Of course, this is the sort of thing that Flaubert did (along with lots of other cutting edge stylistic technology, to be sure). One of the better moments in this line, perhaps, comes when Chelsea is “reviewed” (that is to say fucked and then written about) by someone called “the Erotic Connoisseur,” the proprietor of a site that reviews escorts. We get the review itself in voiceover, just after the ostensible dramatic climax of the film:

With her smoky-eyes, dark straight hair, and perky little body, Chelsea would appear to have the potential to satisfy in the goth or girl-next-door modes. Alas, Chelsea seems intent on marketing herself as a “sophisticated escort.” With her flat affect, lack of culture, and her utter refusal to engage, Chelsea couldn’t even dazzle the likes of Forrest-Fucking-Gump. And that’s just where the problems begin. Just as her perky little tits seemed to literally shrink at my touch, so too did the connoisseur’s cock fail to launch at the clammy touch of her hand and the lukewarm and loose embrace of her mouth. To quote the great sage Jamie Gillis in Misty Beethoven, “this number is the nadir of passion.” A splendid time is absolutely not guaranteed for all.

The fact that the Connoisseur refers to his freebee sex with Chelsea as “review copy, as it were,” puts us on the right track. And further, of course, the fact that the review could hold valid not only for the character Chelsea, but probably for Sasha Gray herself (as IT puts it, she is known for “unnerving ability to look absent even (or especially) in the midst of some convoluted group penetration”) as well as for Soderbergh’s film, brings the meta in a thunderous way, is almost enough for the movie to achieve escape velocity into the Infra in a single talky bit.

But then again, meta-action is rarely enough anymore. Meta is all over the place – the shittiest film for the bored teenager market has that sort of thing in spades nowadays. Boring meta is still, or now, only just boring. It’s a base to touch, but it can’t make pseudo into hardcore all by itself nowadays, not without help.

So what is it then? Is it the fact that the film felt to me, as I watched it, like not only an illustration but even an expansion of Nina Power’s recent piece on  Nu-language (and Orwell), that does it? In the piece, she describes a recent “astonishing proliferation of coinages, buzzwords and neologisms. Rather than seeing a carefully controlled reduction in the number of officially sanctioned words, we are instead overwhelmed by wave upon wave of faddish expressions and tautologies – a kind of junk syntax in which there is no more reason for a word to be in one part of a phrase than another.” This language and its proliferation, according to Power, arrives via bureaucratic mandate – a mandate that is ultimately responsive only to the deeper mandate to seem productive despite the fact that no real production is taking place.

Sit in any meeting, whether at a company HQ or at a university, or be a participant in a focus group, and the discussion will invariably turn to questions of “benchmarking”, “quality assessment” and “blue-sky thinking” – as if one were sitting in sunny California rather than provincial England. People will “speak to” documents, forgetting that we generally speak to other human beings rather than to pieces of paper. “Clients”, whether they be students, consumers or voters, will be “consulted” as part of some “new initiative” or other. There will be “collaborations” and “partnerships” involving “stakeholders”. Participants will talk for hours and hours in an upbeat, aspirational way. And there will be coffee and biscuits, and people will congratulate one another at the end for such a “wonderfully productive session”. And yet nothing will really have been said. And certainly nothing will have been done – nothing good, at least. It’s not that we have to lie about production figures, as the Stalinist broadcasts by Orwell’s Big Brother did; rather that we have to compensate for the way we barely produce anything at all by becoming obsessed with “innovation”.

Nu-Language is, as she says, “an ominous word-cloud that drifts from one department to another, providing each of them with the illusion of activity and the false comforts of a discourse of dynamism that is incapable of recognising its own sterility.” But what’s really good about TGE, and why it both echoes Nina’s piece and provocatively focalises it into in a new and fruitful direction, is the fact that it demonstrates the spread of the “omninous world-cloud” beyond the meeting room, out into the realm of the officeless new economy of freelance worker. Becoming a yoga teacher, a magazine hack, or a high-end prostitute, it seems, doesn’t get you out of the mandate to repeat these sterilities – in fact, as we see again and again in the film, freelancing results in a deeper internalization of the same. No boss is looking because you are your own boss, but still your mouth moves and the same stuff trickled way, way down from CNBC and human resources consultants, Suze Ormand and the latest long-tailing, black-swanning pop business book.

Picture 6

But of course, this world of self-employment is in crisis – both in the film and the real world. (Serendipitously, the business section of the IHT on Saturday features a long piece about “The Self Employed Depression” – all those yoga teachers in Brooklyn faced with empty dojos and emptier wallets…) But on the other hand, the current economic downturn has only accentuated was was always already the case in the new economy of unteathered (that is, precarious, unbenefited, undercompensated) work. While the freelance prostitute has liberated herself from the protective tyranny of the pimp, freedom comes at the cost of the services of a reserve army of consultants and agents, web designers and moneyhandlers – who collectively take a piece of her or her earnings (in hourly fees and commissions) in order to hold off for as long as possible the inevitable loss of market share that she faces as she ages. Chelsea talks to her accountant about setting up her own retirement account, talks to consultants about diversifying her work into boutiquery as the clock is very much ticking down on her productive viability, and it’s hard to imagine that she has health insurance – though hers is a line of work where one would be well served to have a decent policy.

The precarity of work – especially when mixed with the tendency of that sort of work to fall under the rubrics of affective and/or communicative labor – is a particularly soil for the infra-interesting to grow. Stuck – as we all are in immaterial reaches of the economy, whether we have steady jobs or not – between the dual mandate to play things very safe and steady and constantly, incessant to rebrand and recast ourselves, to diversify our employable assets, and to handle rapid oscillations in market conditions and the tastes of the clients. And worst of all, because of the specific nature of this work, which depends upon in Chelsea’s case selling a fuck as desired, or engagement in yet another conversation about the market or the frigid wife at home as true – just as, for instance, the selling side of what I give my students is in the end based on the feeling of authentic engagement with which I endow my lectures or our conversations in my office – Chelsea, like all of us, ends up by market mandate going to work on herself, tweaking and retooling in order to summon up just one more drop of eau de presence for her customers to smell on her neck. If I were a prostitute (and I’m not sure, given what I’m saying, that I’m entirely not), I might have recourse to “personology” books as well… I too might consult a dice rolling system to trick myself into feeling just real enough about what has long since gone permanently flatline for the sake of keeping alive in my line of work.

But of course the problem is that the very strategies and discourse that we use to attempt to trick ourselves into creative / affectual productivity renders us incapable of the very productivity we seek to provoke. What comes of this, of course, is just the sort of tepid appeal, the enthusiastic benumbment, and mediocritized specialness that characterizes not only the film and the star of the film and the character that she plays, but further the culture at large from which it is drawn. The situation takes the shape of a vicious circle, a tragic trajectory. The infra-interesting, then, might best be characterized by the dramatic emplotment – almost always in tragic form – of the quest to render things interesting under conditions that would seem to prohibit such a development. Rather than simply watching a pornographic video and, you know, getting aroused, it is more like watching a video of someone watching a pornographic video and struggling, against all their boredom and jadedness and who knows, guilt, bad faith, psychophysical dysfuction, to get themselves aroused, to arouse themselves to the point of sexual functionality. It is perhaps a mark of our time that most of us know immediately, if darkly, which of the two options would be more, well, interesting to a contemporary audience of a certain demographic. Soderburgh himself certainly did way back in 1989 when he made his name on the back of another film preoccupied with vicious circles of impotence, desirelessness, frigidity, and talk.

eu

Finally, the presentation of New York in the film underscores and echoes much of what I’ve said above. The film refuses to indulge in a single “landmark” centered shot from what I can remember, instead presenting a cascade of generic looking street scenes from what could be any of the various dining and drinking districts of the city. In particular, Soderburgh sets many of the sequences that take place in restaurants and bars – and there are a ton of these, flipping through the film quickly suggests that it’s made of almost nothing but sequences like these – with opening shots of the front of the restaurants in question like the one above or this one below.

burger

I’ve been out of New York for almost four years now. I didn’t recognize any of these places in the film, and I wasn’t sure until I checked whether they were real places or fictional lookalikes. They are in fact real – or at least were, as one of the two pictured above is already out of business according to New York Magazine. But my non-recognition is probably in fact the point. A great deal of The Girlfriend Experience takes place in upper-middlebrow (upper middle-palate?) gastropubs and bistros – the film starts in one, and proceeds to fill itself with Chelsea’s appointments with clients, consultants, and friends that take place in a seemingly endless sequence of places just like these.

I’ve spent an enormous amount of time – even in London, even despite the fact that I barely get out anymore – in places just like these. In fact, there’s one that I think of as something like the platonic ideal of the form. The first time I walked into Canteen, the place tucked into the netherparts of the Royal Festival Hall facing Waterloo Station, I thought to myself that I should take a picture of the place, as this is what the world looked like for much of my adult life, but soon, perhaps, would look no more.

I am not sure I have the interior design knowledge to do the place justice, but this snippet from a review online might do the trick, and in more than one way:

In keeping with a traditional canteen, the tables and seating are low and simply styled. The seats covered in olive leather are punched Aertex style, menus and cutlery are stored in shelves edging the seating sections, a long bar lines one wall and the open plan kitchen complete with school canteen shelves for trays, the other. This is how you’d expect the executive dining room at IKEA HQ to be styled.

Anyway, why am I so fixated on these places, both in real life and in The Girlfriend Experience? They are collectively, I believe, not only one of the most characteristic spaces of the period we have just lived through, they are further (it follows) perfect spatial correlatives of the infra-interesting itself. The highend and dinnertime version of the would-be-freelancer’s seat at Starbucks, these thirdspaces fall ever deeper into derivativeness and genericness the harder they try to assert, ever so subtlely, their greyscale idiosyncrasy. Whereas the mid-to-highend world once only had low and high restaurants (the pizzeria and the french bisto) to choose from, now we can stumble along the long-since gentrified streets of our capital cities or even our suburban enclaves and find all manner of teak trimmed imitations of the “executive dining room at IKEA HQ” in which to exchange bureaubanalities with our coworkers, to overshare with our lovers and acquaintances, or to contemplate – though not all that long or hard – another bottle of Shiraz with which to drown out the idle Nu-talk that we can’t help but produce when cornered in a “seating section.” They are the scenes of our infra-interesting evenings, after a long days of typing or encouraging or fucking, where we break it all down into words that will leave no mark by the time we leave.

Try to think. What else is there to do but eat and drink at this late stage of the game? What was there to do at night, back as far as you can remember?

The Decline of New York is a popular meme at the moment, but Soderburgh was cannier than most when we painted this decline in the earth-and-Thai tones of the rise of gastropub. We order our groceries and books on-line, we steal our music and our movies. Sex we have wherever we can, but always in places appropriate to the task. But there is nothing left to buy on our better streets than brunch mimosas and glasses of overpriced (and probably supermarket bought) Rioja. But the restaurants are steadily closing. Even in the film, set before the election, they are emptier than they are full.

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June 7, 2009 at 10:34 pm

notes from the golden country

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Was just thinking, while outside for the upteenth time to smoke today, that sometimes, lately, my life feels a lot like the scene that runs from 1:29.10 to 1:29.40 in this clip:

Try not to look at the before or after, which would make all this seem a tid bit melodramatic. And I am never ever melodramatic, even if, sure, there’s been a bit of what comes before and after too, sure. Would that you’d been here to see this non-melodrama, all of you who weren’t!

Do with the politics of the novel / movie what you want. They were totally fucking confused from the start, crossing anxiety about UK austerity with the critique of totalitarianism. I am going to – soon! – write a paper that argues that the real takeaway of the novel is its adolescent sexuality – parents always spying on you in your little room as you write in your journal, dropping notes in the hallway, fucking Julia in the woods, etc etc – and that this is why it works / was adopted as the goto text for American adolescent pre-reeducation all the way up ’till today. That’s always been how the terms of the deal were phrased. Basic American libertarianism is sustained by visions of being disallowed what happens in the back of cars parked in the lot by the football field, Friday night…. Aside from the books I have to write, I can’t decide whether this paper or the one I want to do on Saturday, the NHS, and the War in Iraq is the one to do first. Anyway, that’s another story. Please don’t steal my McEwan idea. The Orwell maybe you can have.

Orwell was a real c___ wasn’t he?

What was I talking about? Right – my feelings. Well, whatever, it’s hard to learn to sit back and enjoy things when you were brought up as I was. Sometimes it feels like your strapped into a machine and dreaming of thinking otherwise. Sometimes you’re Winston Smith, sometimes you’re both Winston Smith and O’Brien at once. When it works, you’re receptionate, you’re in the Golden Country and repeating rote what someone tells you. 2+2=4. No 5! Did I mention that the first book I really read – and really which formed through sinistral means the starting point of this errant mission toward intellectual labor rather than, dunno, financial management or high school baseball coach – was 1984? Discussed it with the smartest guy at school behind the tennis courts, who was a Marxist and an atheist in a school full of defensive ends and third-basemen (like me, like me), and where he gave me a pack of Marlboro Reds, and which I smoked over the course of a few months, and now he’s a vicar in the C of E. And I’m a lecturer in English at a top-flight UK uni and smoking 2 packs a day. Hmmmm…..

He lives in London now, from what I gather. I guess I should look him up. Not the least, for the possibility of free spiritual advice.

Anyway, I’m going to take my last forty-five minutes of allotted consciousness tonight and try to rewrite the scene I pointed you to in the clip, but translocated to heaven. Seriously. I imagine that heaven, if it existed, would be quite a bit like the Ministry of Love. (In the film, the University of London’s Senate House, pictured above, but also here, stands in for the Ministry, even though it does in fact have windows). The most sophisticated version of hell that we were offered back there at St. Virgil’s (we had a relic, btw, probably because there wasn’t much of a market for Virgilius’s leavings….) was that it was like seeing god for an instant and then instantly knowing that you’d never see god again. Losing things, good things, sucks – this much is true. But I imagine that losing bad things, patterns of thought for instance, is hard too, but what would I know about that?

I further imagine, that heaven, again if it existed, might look a lot like one of those capitals of neoliberal giddiness, of consumptive liberty popularly accepted. Like Toronto the last time I saw it, driving north along the QEW past all those new condo developments. Or Shanghai with its strange globes and rockets, the parks with pedestian flyovers. You would have to spend some time in therapy, even the sort of therapy that Winston undergoes, but eventually you’d learn to love it, learn to see more fingers than are really there. Unless you didn’t, but there’s a place for those who are wrongly located: Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace / And rest can never dwell, hope never comes etc etc etc

Nahn sir wii ahm, nahn sir wii ahm, nahn sir wii ahm. Ah, you try not to think it but it just bleeds through. The syllables that you’re not supposed to think, the actions and words that correlate. Build a cloudcastle of no!, fall, and then write tomorrow night, tomorrow morning. You’ll get an email. You’ll show ’em yet. You’ve spent your 45 minutes of consciousness on what, again?

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 15, 2009 at 1:47 am

the secret life of investment bankers

with one comment

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….)

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 6, 2008 at 12:26 am