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misdelivered mail

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A story:

1) Receive a text on Saturday from the porter in our old building saying that a “large envelope” has arrived for me. We moved away last October, had our mail forwarded changed address on all the relevant accounts.

2) I proceed to worry because:

a) mail, in today’s day and age, has become an ominous matter. One used to receive so many things, and many of them good (papers and magazines, correspondence) by post. Now it seems like the only thing one gets are epistles bringing bad news – a tax that was left unpaid and that now is in arrears, a legal notice of some sort, a bill on an account that hasn’t been paid etc. That and loads of junk mail – which the porter wouldn’t have called us about. I simply can’t think of what it might be – which only makes the fear grow stronger that it is something awful indeed.

b) I am terrible at not worrying about things that I can’t take care of immediately. Because I found out Saturday at noon, and the porter stops working around noon, I wouldn’t be able to resolve the issue by finding out what was in the mysterious package until Monday morning. My first thought: “this is going to taint the rest of my weekend, not knowing, not being able to act on what ever it is. We’re warned against the “fear of fear itself” – quite reasonably, as it might well be the most frustrating and disabling form of fear – but I can’t seem to help myself.

3) Looking for books to shift from my house to my office, as I had a bit of spare room in my bag this morning and I’m trying to keep the house especially tidy of late, I locate something I recently purchased and had meant to read immediately but had forgotten about. It’s the new book that Coetzee has co-authored with the psychoanalysis Arabella Kurtz, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy.

9781473512290-large 

I decide to bring it along for me to read on the commute.

4) I read the first 15 pages or so of the book on the bus and then during the one stop on the Underground it takes to reach my old apartment building. As I do, I think about how relevant some of it is to an essay that I have coming out in an American academic anthology on “therapeutic culture.” (I wrote a piece for it on “blogging.”) I wonder momentarily if it’s too late for me to add some of it in – and then remember that the book is already probably in production. Proofs appeared months ago. I also think of the fact that just last week I completed an article for another anthology I was meant to appear in. Unfortunately I completed the essay approximately 6 months late. The afternoon that I finished it, I had a drink with one of the other contributors to the volume. “Do you think it’s too late for me to submit it?” I asked. He clicked at his computer in response and produced a pdf of the full proofs of the edition, which had arrived to him via email that day. Alas.

As I read, I also think about my problematic anxiety about the package – and all the instances of problematically useless worrying that I do all the time. I wonder this book will encourage me to consider therapeutic treatment for this. I also wonder what is at the bottom, psychologically speaking, of such worry.

5) My anxiety mounts as I approach my building, ring the buzzer for the porter, who lets me in and hands me the package in question. The return address is a university press. I still cannot guess what it is – though my heart is now at ease as it’s clear it’s not some sort of terrible message of financial mismanagement or the like.

Outside I open the envelope. It’s a finished and final copy of the selfsame collection on therapeutic culture in which my essay appears, the very one that I had considered attempting to edit just now on the underground. And of course, this revelation – one is tempted to call it an epiphany – leads seconds later to a sort of quiet marvelling at the little helix of psychoanalytically-loaded stuff that had just happened this morning.

6. Had my seemingly accidental re-discovery of Coetzee’s book this morning – and the haphazard decision to bring it along on my trip to work (with a detour to confront this anxiety-inducing envelope) been not so accidental and random after all? Had I, on some level, “known” that the only possible thing that could have arrived in such a package was this book – and thus was some back bit of my mind trying to send a irony-laden to the front bits of my mind by giving me a sort of “hiding in plain sight” clue as to the contents of the envelope? And further, the fact that all of this happened via two books on psychoanalysis itself does seem like a bit of a pirouette on the part of my unconscious mind.

7. Or, on the other hand, is this simply the type of story that we love to tell ourselves – the story of a coincidence that can be congealed into the shape of a narrative, or even of a conspiracy (in this case a conspiracy between my unconscious mind and a set of objects – two books.) There are many other details of my morning that I’ve left out that would have contributed nothing to this story: the coffee that I made myself this morning that turned out to have been made with spoiled milk, the painfully large withdrawal I had to make from the bank to pay for a summer holiday and a tax bill, the huge shit that one of the neighbourhood cats left front and centre in my garden last night.

There are even other parallel stories that I am eliding – potentially more interesting ones: I was bothered by the fact that the stopoff at my old place would require me to take the slower of the two underground lines available to me (Piccadilly rather than Victoria). When I reached the station, there were announcements that the latter (my usual, faster route) was almost completely suspended due to a “person under a train.” Which led me at first, for a second, to feel relief – at least I would have been taking the slow train no matter what. And then to feel slightly ashamed of myself for such a ridiculously callous response to a horrific accident.

8. And what is there, further, to make of the fact, that amidst all of this – a non-trivial portion of which has at least something to do with late submissions – further seemed to me, by the time I made it to my office, to stand as good material for a blogpost. A blogpost that I’m writing right now instead of finishing yet another late article for yet another academic anthology.

 

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July 13, 2015 at 11:44 am

porn and democracy

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From Hannah Dawson’s review (paywalled) of Margret Grebowicz’s Why Internet Porn Matters in the current issue of the TLS

Grebowicz […] argues that despite its theoretical potential, internet pornography tends to oppress rather than emancipate. The “free speech” that it embodies still belongs in large part to men, objectifying and subjugating other human beings. The many testimonies of self-empowerment from the “victims” of the industry are matched by first-person reports of misogyny, degradation, rape and incarceration. Rather than opening up an egalitarian space for self-construction, the file-sharing, file-ranking chatrooming online realm is creating communities all the more powerfully by normalizing discourses that preclude our saying anything new or real. “Internet pornography”, writes Grebowicz, “emerges as the perfect manifestation of the babbling political body, the speechless mass, in which every subject is interchangeable for every other, exercising its rights and expressing, more and more, telling us what we already know, climaxing, climaxing, always recognizable and predictable.”

The final sentence of the paragraph rings a bit oddly against what precedes it. While “speechless” sounds ominous, the “babbling” of the “political body” sounds like an only slight pejorative rendition of democracy. Interchangeability is ambiguous too, as it is both the result of capitalism’s reduction of us labourers to replaceable parts and, again, a quality of democratic equality. The exercise of rights, in particular the right to expression, too is of course a staple of the democratic diet. But the point of the paragraph seems to be that porn is underwritten by and a source of profitable reenforcement to the powers that be, in particular, men.

So there’s complexity at play here: internet pornography presents an ambiguous vision of freedom that is subtended by a business apparatus that depends upon the very opposite of freedom. In this, it stands (like so many other cultural products, but  more intensely and viscerally) as an uncannily accurate aesthetic mirror – a reflection more than a representation – of the political and economic conditions that obtain today in the world. On the aggregation sites, it seems, everyone has a voice, the cascading streams of thumbnails suggest a world in which all are represented, all represent themselves, and all are of course taking great pleasure in this rhythm of representing and being represented. And the consumer in turn sifts her or his pleasure out of this capacious pot of pleasure-taking and freedom-having. Everyone is equal, ostensibly, in their interchangeability – one’s acts are as free and pleasurable as those of the next. It can start to sound almost utopian, when described this way. But, of course, in the end and as in the world itself, almost all of this performance is stage-managed by those who profit from the exploitation of others. *

Given all this, a few questions to start. First, a quiet aesthetic question posed by internet pornography, perhaps, is what we do with its banality – the fact that it is constantly “telling us what we want to know” – in view that we incessantly come back to taste the banality again. There further is another quiet question, this time politico-aesthetic, about what this banality has to do with the conditions of its production and the means of its distribution.

But beyond these two, there’s an age old matter of ethics – and the ethics of the aesthetic – at play, one that queries the relationship between exploitation and representation, empathy and what we might call “forced performance” which has troubled the better sort of critic and writer since the very beginnings of literature itself, and which manifests itself at certain vividly aporetic moments as history moves forward. (One relatively recent example – Ruskin’s implication that the gothic cathedral is actually more beautiful than the pyramids because of the freedom of the workers who made them. But can that be right? Does free trade coffee actually taste better than that which is more exploitatively sourced?)

How much relieved sexual dissatisfaction is the suffering of a single human being worth? What am I to make of my enjoyment of the fruits of other’s struggles? Does it matter whether I am aware of the mechanics of production of that which I enjoy? How are we to understand the nexus of volition and exploitation, of willed self-exploitation and exploited wilfulness, that underwrites not only pornography but the increasingly illiberal world-space of “liberal capitalism”?

I have a sense that this perpetually recoded algorithm of suffering and enjoyment, repression and representation, is one of the matters that it has always been and still is essentially worthwhile for us to take up. Further, it is a question that has everything to do with the issues at play in the article by J.M. Coetzee that I discuss in this post. But more on that, I promise, soon…. A continuation of this is already in the works…

* Please note that I am – for the sake of starting up a line of thought – side-stepping for the moment several very important issues here. They include the very non-representative nature of porn (obviously not anything like “everyone” is represented there, no matter how many hundreds of thousands of videos exist to be viewed) as well as the extremely complex issues of exploitation and agency in the production of porn. These need to be addressed… but for now, let me just juggle a bit with the terms of the argument and description of the situation as presented in the review I have started from…

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January 6, 2014 at 1:30 pm

notes on the novel, genre, woolwich

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What else does the novel, by the very nature of its elemental form, teach us than that there is some relation, or at least should be, between our internal subjective states and the world in which we move. Foreground / background. Protagonist / context. Romance / history. The family / the city. Wires run between the one to the other, from the outside in and back again. Almost every name of a novelistic subgenre or period movement (realism, naturalism, modernism, postmodernism, to name just a few of the recent ones) names a different mode of wiring. Shifts in genre represent new ideas about how to write the machine. How tangled or untangled it is, how many wires run hither and how many yon, what buttons there are to push to control the voltage and wattage of the link up, how much bandwidth in total is carried.

***

Has there ever been a “terrorist attack” as uncanny as the one that happened yesterday in Woolwich? And uncanny is the right word – utterly familiar (tropes of beheading, tropes of “bringing the fight back to the oppressor,” the visibility of violence) yet at the same time utterly not (the refusal of both escape or self-immolative martyrdom, the implicit invocation of the laws of war when it comes to “innocent bystanders,” the further refusal to “let the event speak for itself,” or be spoken for by leadership organisations far away and ex post facto, or through pre-recorded statements aired after the event,  and the immediate extinguishing of the fear of further attacks, at least by the same actors, as per Boston). With this one, we seem to slip from the genre called “terrorism” to something else: a gruesome morality play about the calculus of war, the algebra of carnage. Street theatre allegory that trades the fake blood for the real.

So was it the “genre shift” that explains the strange reactions of the bystanders who observed the attack and its aftermath? Women reportedly ran over, in the course of the attack itself, to attempt to help the dying or dead soldier, thinking that the three actors in this play were rehearsing an all-too-common everyday scene we call “a car accident.” Who was it, and why was it, that someone stayed to film a man whose arms were drenched in blood, who carried a knife and a cleaver in his left hand, while he delivered his final soliloquy? What to make of these recorded conversations between the killers and their audience?

Is there a better answer than that a genre had been disrupted or reinvented, and thus the rules that normal apply (murders try to escape, bystanders flee, etc) were unavailable for consultation?

***

Genre is also another name for myth. While it sometimes postures as science, it has far more in common with superstition. Throw salt over your shoulder, and lucky will occur. One character says something, the other, naturally, touches wood. We now, in our pharmacologically-lexiconed period, are far more likely to call superstitious practices the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. One has to check, and check again, that the water’s not running in the bathroom before one leaves the flat. Push hard three times on the front door to make sure it’s locked… or else another storyline will ensue, the one that has an evening return to a gaping door, the laptop gone, the bedroom drawers dumped. This is literally it – some sort of chemical depletion or superfluity occurs, some traumatic event takes place, and then an almost mystical belief in certain irrational storylines takes over. To disobey the mandates of genre is to open oneself to an unhappy ending.

Last night: this news-story. On television and especially on the web. Fraught conversations about the arithmetic of death. And then a phone call. Bad news of the sort that late night phone calls usually bring. The trope of the middle-aged son and the ailing parent. The novel teaches us to think of the one thing as related, if complex, to the other. At least metaphorically, or even just formally. What is happening out there of course is a prelude to what is about to happen right in here, in the space of the family home and especially the skulls (and bodies) of those that inhabit it.

Think of the script. The call in the night in the movie. The early middle-aged son who ignores the call momentarily, caught up as he is in an argument about the gruesome news on television. The politics of violence, the physics of the world system. The cigarette whose space allows a second thought, a second glance at the mobile phone. Ominous – we can imagine what will happen next. The film that will play out from its start in a graphic sequence of news images morphs into a dark family drama. How does one cope when the worst comes home to roost?

***

A fallacy (a word quite close to “myth” and “superstition”) that doesn’t have a name, one that is hardwired into the DNA of the novel as a form. I’ve tried to name it in things that I’ve written, in seminars that I’ve led. Sometimes it seems to have more to do with temporality. What happens after what, or at the same times as each other. We could call it presumptive fallacy. Retro-prospective fallacy. The fallacy of coincidence. Sometimes it’s simply about the structural mandate that the foreground be read in the light of the background and vice versa. Contextual fallacy? Flaubert, disrupter through over-fulfilment of so many genre mandates, so early in the game, was aware of the problem. Think of Frédéric waiting for Madame Arnoux while the revolution kicks off a few blocks away in L’Éducation sentimentale.  The New Critics liked to label fallacies on the part of the reader. I am more interested in the fallacies inherent in artistic forms themselves, even though obviously these can turn into the former and often do through the sort of training that novels provide. 

***

But of course, myths are also true in a very serious sense. I don’t simply mean that what we believe we are. What we think is the only thing there is. Although that may well be true. In this case, it is also useful to think of myth or superstition or even fallacy as a customary practice, a mode of operation, running orders against confusion. The world, as we know, lives out the demands of its many operative genres every single day. Perhaps now as much as ever. A myth is habitus, generated by practice, an operating manual written and re-written each time we act.

The novel makes us stupid in one sense, solipsistic, tends to make us look for our angle on things, what does this mean to us? What were the attackers yesterday, in both his words and deeds, and deeds both during and after the attack, trying to say to me? Or at least us? There is a counter-instinct, for those disciplined a certain way, to try to climb up the ladder of transcendent wisdom, to disavow the inwrought narcissism of our conditioned response. To gasp and yell when the news commentators reduce a global to a local question, an a serious question to a matter of insanity or unanchored spite. They might think what they want, but they have no right to act it out here. To force us into these stringent attempts to adjust the genre back to something we’re comfortable with. 

But the attempt to climb out of the fray of self-interest, however complex, however Wallace-ianly convoluted and self-reflexive, is of course a trope in yet another sort of story, another sort of myth, one that – we need to remind ourselves – has the deepest affinities with an imperial mindset, one that takes the world panoptically, one for whom impersonality is a transferable skill.

What retards political development – and really contemporary thought as a whole – more right now than an inability to come to terms with the relationship between the self, located wherever it might be, and the world-system as a whole? At least here where we are? What are we, sequestered in the posh uptowns and suburbs of the global system, meant to think or say when we are in the wrong jurisdiction? We know not to fall into the ethical mode, charity is of no use, but there may be an exitless cloverleaf, a highway cul de sac, ahead if

Despite all the complicities of the novel, these generic demands and the demands of its sub-genres, the promise remains that the bad faith strictures themselves make space for revelatory manipulation, clarifying detournage. They even, potentially, lead us toward the formulation of simpler questions, question more pressing in their semi-solipsistic simplicity. Like this one, that with the little revision, some shifts in seemingly inevitable consequence, the script I outlined above could be made to ask:

Who has to die in the prime of life, and who is afforded the luxury of death that comes at an actuarially appropriate stage? 

revolution and repetition (Flaubertian crusty)

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A guy on the barricades during the first pages of the third section of Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale:

J’ai fait mon devoir partout, en 1830, en 32, en 34, en 39. Aujourdhui on se bat! Il faut que je me bat!”

 

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March 21, 2011 at 1:18 pm

china, chips, seeds, scale, scales

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1. According to Bloomsberg Businessweek, “In 2010, the U.S. added 937,000 jobs; Foxconn, the Taiwan-based maker of nearly every consumer product you wanted this year, added 300,000.” But on the other hand, from another article in the same magazine,

Ah Wei has an explanation for Foxconn Technology Group Chairman Terry Gou as to why some of his workers are committing suicide at the company’s factory near the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.

“Life is meaningless,” said Ah Wei, his fingernails stained black with the dust from the hundreds of mobile phones he has burnished over the course of a 12-hour overnight shift. “Everyday, I repeat the same thing I did yesterday. We get yelled at all the time. It’s very tough around here.”

Among other things, Foxconn manufactures the iPhone and the iPad for Apple.

Further, China moved at the end of 2010 to limit its exports of the “rare earth metals” whose supply it almost entirely controls and which are necessary for the production of most electronic devices so as, it seems, to protect its share of the manufacturing market as its workforce begins to expect ever higher wages. In other words, if there’s fancy strange rocks hiding in the engine room of your Device, they’re likely going to have to be made in China for the foreseeable future.

2. On the other hand, the guy who made the art installation pictured above – which seems to me about the most sublimely appropriate artistic representation of the global economy imaginable – had his studio demolished in Shanghai last week.

Chinese demolition workers have torn down the Shanghai studio of the artist Ai Weiwei – a move he says is linked to his political activism.

Mr Ai said the demolition crews arrived without warning on Tuesday and flattened the building within a day.

He originally had permission to build the studio, but later officials ordered it to be destroyed, saying he had failed to follow planning procedures.

Mr Ai has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of China’s leaders.

The work pictured above is “Sunflower Seeds,” which was recently on display in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Here’s the description from the Tate’s website:

Sunflower Seeds is made up of millions of small works, each apparently identical, but actually unique. However realistic they may seem, these life-sized sunflower seed husks are in fact intricately hand-crafted in porcelain.

Each seed has been individually sculpted and painted by specialists working in small-scale workshops in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. Far from being industrially produced, they are the effort of hundreds of skilled hands. Poured into the interior of the Turbine Hall’s vast industrial space, the 100 million seeds form a seemingly infinite landscape.

Porcelain is almost synonymous with China and, to make this work, Ai Weiwei has manipulated traditional methods of crafting what has historically been one of China’s most prized exports. Sunflower Seeds invites us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today.

Without getting all Pater-before-La-Gioconda on you, I hope that you can even vaguely imagine the overwhelming power – at once critical and, well, crushingly aesthetic in some sort of very old fashioned sort of sense – of seeing this work. When the visual titanicness of the display meets your recognition that each of the 100,000,000 seeds was painstakingly handpainted by human beings working for a wage, one comes as close as one can – as I ever have – to a painfully concrete yet at the same time marvellously abstract sense of the absurd scales, absurdly tipped scales, that orchestrate our world today.

3. Francis Fukuyama, Sisyphusianly obligated to revise forever his early call of time at the pub of history (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?), has recently written a piece for the FT titled “US democracy has little to teach China.” Here’s an extract:

The most important strength of the Chinese political system is its ability to make large, complex decisions quickly, and to make them relatively well, at least in economic policy. This is most evident in the area of infrastructure, where China has put into place airports, dams, high-speed rail, water and electricity systems to feed its growing industrial base. Contrast this with India, where every new investment is subject to blockage by trade unions, lobby groups, peasant associations and courts. India is a law-governed democracy, in which ordinary people can object to government plans; China’s rulers can move more than a million people out of the Three Gorges Dam flood plain with little recourse on their part.

Nonetheless, the quality of Chinese government is higher than in Russia, Iran, or the other authoritarian regimes with which it is often lumped – precisely because Chinese rulers feel some degree of accountability towards their population. That accountability is not, of course, procedural; the authority of the Chinese Communist party is limited neither by a rule of law nor by democratic elections. But while its leaders limit public criticism, they do try to stay on top of popular discontents, and shift policy in response. They are most attentive to the urban middle class and powerful business interests that generate employment, but they respond to outrage over egregious cases of corruption or incompetence among lower-level party cadres too.

Fukuyama focuses, as he would, on autocratic China’s ability to force infrastructral development and to please it’s new and growing – yet still demographically insignificant – urban middle classes. The infrastructure is important sure, and the middle classes may well be happy with the fruits of upward mobility, but we all know that the real competitive advantage – and human cost – of China’s “democracy deficit” is the fact that it is able to manipulate its internal labour market and keep its currency artificially weak, thus keeping standards of living artificially depressed.

Despite the fact that Fukuyama stages his piece as a question begging affair –

During the 1989 Tiananmen protests, student demonstrators erected a model of the Statue of Liberty to symbolise their aspirations. Whether anyone in China would do the same at some future date will depend on how Americans address their problems in the present.

– the title gives the game away. Fukuyama hasn’t really described a question so much as yet another equipoised situation, a roadmap of the configuration that, whatever the grumbling of our leaders, is basically the baserock foundation of our current and miserable status quo.

4. What causes Foxconn workers to kill themselves is that which permits Foxconn alone to add a third of the number of jobs as the entire US economy in 2010 is that which depresses wages around the world, and is that which renders Ai Weiwei obnoxious to the PRC, and is that which sanctions the race to the bottom that we’re all suffering through, the rise in in what the BBC was chirping away this morning about as the “misery index.”

We are suffering separately, and somewhat differently now. The ebb tide of the economic cycle is rapidly lowering all of our boats – our separate little skiffs that float on the sea of production. Would that we could figure out how to suffer, and thus perhaps to alleviate the suffering, together.

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January 19, 2011 at 1:56 pm

“history without life”: fernando pessoa’s book of disquiet and awp

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Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is one of those books that has lingered at the front of the to-be-read pile for years and year. I dip in for twenty pages in a stolen moment, and then… it drifts back to the shelf waiting for another start.

I am delighted by Pessoa, but even more than delight it is probably recognition – the recognition of an orientation parallel to mine, of a project similar enough to one of my own projects (namely, the one that you are reading right now) – that informs this slow-motion compulsive pattern of starting and then leaving off, again and again, for probably something like a decade now. Take a look, for instance, at this passage which comes close to the start of the work:

I envy the people – well, I don’t know if I actually envy them – whose biographies are written or who write their own. In these disconnected impressions, which I deliberately leave disconnected, I shall narrate my autobiography in an indifferent sort of way, without facts; my history without life. These are my Confessions, and if I don’t say anything in them, it’s because I really have nothing to say.

What does it matter that someone confesses his worthiness or that he serves some useful purpose? What happens to us either happens to everyone or only to us: in the first instance, it’s banal; in the second it’s incomprehensible. By writing what I feel, I can cool this febrile sensitivity of mine. What I confess is unimportant, because nothing is important. I compose landscapes out of what I feel. I compose carnivals of sensations. I completely understand women who embroider out of grief or knit because life exists. My old aunt used to play solitaire during the course of infinite family gatherings. These confessions of feeling are my solitaires. I don’t read them, the way people read cards to know the future. I don’t put a stethoscope to them, because in solitaire the cards don’t really have any value. I unravel like a multicolored skein, or I make yarn figures out of myself that are like the ones braided by tense hands and passed from one child to another. I just take care that my thumb doesn’t miss making the final knot. Later I turn my hand over and the image changes. And I start over.

Comes very close – perhaps all too close, per what I said above – to the implicit, generally unconscious operating principle in place behind much of what I do here on this blog. ads without products started out, years ago, as a standard-issue editorializing site, commenting on the news, connecting the news with what I was reading, obliquely discussing my work, etc. But over the years, and I suppose because I’ve lived through what the shrinks call a transition crisis, the blog changed. As I went from grad student to assistant professor to lecturer, moved from America to Britain and before that from New York to somewhere else, and above all else fell abruptly from the prolonged adolescence of urban irresponsibility to the previously unimaginable heavy duties of parenthood, things changed and the blog became (for the most part – some of the old style stuff still trickles through) something else, something like my own book of disquiet.

Some very nice people have written me suggesting that there is a book scattered throughout these Sunday posts and the like. It’s a tempting thought, and incredibly heartening that they say so. (I’m well aware that there are others, if they’ve not long since gone away, who’d like nothing more than for me just to get back to the old stuff and think I’ve gone made with solipsism and the like). I’m working on a novel right now, a relatively conventional thing with a plot and characters and a setting, something that’s meant to be sold as literary fiction and sold to a publisher that publishes that sort of thing. There’s an incredibly optimistic thought at the back of my mind, a problematic thought whose optimism isn’t the worst of its problems. The thought is this: that if I were successful at publishing this novel, and maybe another like it, then I would free myself to work in unconventional forms, forms ranging from the sort of thing that I was up to here or some sort of Weight of the World style compendium of semi-fictionalized everyday life.

But of course I’m not stupid enough to think, down deep, that that plan really makes sense. No one, nowadays, earns themselves out of responsibility to the satisfaction of market demands, and the trajectory of most writers now suggests quite the opposite – with each work ever more vivid evidence of their fealty to the satisfaction of convention. This isn’t a personal failing on their part – it’s a structural attribute of the market and atmosphere in which we live. (The academic parallel is tenure, which of course is supposed to liberate American professors unto their own idiosyncrasies, but that’s is rarely the case. Having run the full race-track, 99 percent either collapse into mediocre unproductiveness or keep churning out more of the same stuff they’ve been pavlovianly stickn’carroted into doing to earn tenure).

So if I were smarter (I’m not sure whether “and braver” should be here or not), I’d just skip ahead to the formally challenging, market-resisting stuff that I’d like to do down the road, because neither success or failure the other way is particularly likely to open that door in the future. So what to do?

I’m not going to abandon the thing I’m working on because a) I keep doing that, three or four times with nearly complete manuscripts, and that’s starting to get really annoying if not super-deeply symptomatic and b) I like it OK, somedays and c) I’m 21,000 words in, which is quite a lot when you think about it. But I am also, this week, going to work on something semi-fictional and bloggic and with interesting images interspersed for another opportunity, one as exciting to me as anything else.

(For the record, this has not been a Sunday post, despite the fact that it is in fact Sunday morning, the traditional time of their composition. This was housekeeping, and like all housekeeping meta in the wrong way, meta with the wrong sort of banality….)

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June 27, 2010 at 8:46 am

iphone 4 and “mechanical reproduction”

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I’m fascinated by the new iPhone 4 promotional video, its juxtaposing of scenes of quietly utopian everyday life with shots of the human-free robotic production of the phones. What’s especially fascinating is the chaismus at play: wholesomely septic family life under neoliberalism, with its romping, drooling toddlers and hotel comforters that at least look clean, takes place at a distance. Dad’s in Hong Kong or Milwaukee, mom’s at home taking endless videos of the scrambling kid. They have family time via videophone – perhaps dad’s been away for a long time, christ perhaps they conceived the kid via some other newly released app that “will change everything, all over again.”

On the other hand, what is it – according to the logic of the video – that permits this touchless familial intimacy at a distance? An entire factory full incessantly and with inhuman precision machines that seem to be, well, copulating these devices into existence. All that clockwork contact, pressing and insertion. One sequence even seems to involve something of a moneyshot, the climactic interest of which at least in part is the strangeness of seeing a tiny bauble of goo amidst all this stainless steel sterility.

Static visions of yesterday’s Crate and Barrel lifestyle, Californian, with the single child and a job that shows dad the world, are subtended not simply by the magical products on offer at the Apple Store, but the laborless labor of the machines, fucking all day and night to bring us our A4 chips and Retina displays, our 18 month contracts with AT&T or O2 and our business trips to pay them out.

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June 8, 2010 at 11:37 am

“the world is leaking”: a new temporality of disaster for a new decade

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True to his word, Giovanni Tiso has written an excellent post on the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Definitely go take a look…

I’m fascinated by the oil spill cam too, and like Giovanni said in my comments, there’s something mesmerizing about it, hypnotic. The Icelandic volcano seemed bent on introducing us to a new temporality of disaster for a new decade, replacing the shock and awe of telegenic terror attacks and rapidly escalating infection rates and (again telegenic) bombing raids, the tsunamis and earthquakes and hurricanes, that characterized the aughts with the awful banality of destructive persistence. But the gusher in the Gulf adjusts this new apocalyptic rhythm to the right physical scale.

Rather than the top of a mountain blowing off and then, surprisingly, causing real problems when it simply continues to smolder, we have a relatively small pipe at the bottom of the sea per-houring and per-minuting the Gulf toward total environmental collapse – and who knows what else.

I’m pretty immune to prophetic anthropomorphism, reading the palm lines of the image, and pathetic fallacy in general. I seriously mistrust Jamesonian acolytes for their tendency to just this sort of thing. (And that’s not the only faulty move I’m making in this post… Who gives a shit about “decades,” right?) There’s no Spielburgian divinity or Weltgeist storyboarding these things out to tell us something that we should already know… (Thankfully, really – we’ve got enough real problems to deal with without waking up to find a burning bush in the back garden etc) Being in England is only encouraging any I refute it thus-ism that was latently present in my makeup.

But on the other hand, it’s really, really hard not to read the whole world into and out of this one, hard not to take it as a sign of some sort that times have changed, and in particular not to anticipate lots more bad plumbing in the years to come….

(I should note – and not just here, but in an email to someone that I’m way overdue on – that Jonathan Lethem’s still newish Chronic City does a pretty good job of capturing this “new” temporality of disaster in narrative form…. I’ll try to say more about this when I’ve got more time, which has to happen sooner or later, right?)

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June 1, 2010 at 12:49 am

wall street 2

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A Hollywood stuck in an endless circle of remakes, unable to conceive of novel characters or situations, meets and is mangled up with a world stuck in what promises to be perpetual economic crisis, ceaselessly recycling its heroes into vilains and back again.

The only way, it seems, that you can tell that time is passing at all is by the size and shape of the mobile phones.

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May 15, 2010 at 6:57 pm

on rereading

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There’s a nice set of quotations on the subject of rereading at the site for a very cool looking series of Bartleby-related events last month at Triple Canopy’s space in Brooklyn:

When we have read a book or poem so often that we can no longer find any amusement in reading it by ourselves, we can still take pleasure in reading it to a companion. To him it has all the graces of novelty; we enter into the surprise and admiration which it naturally excites in him, but which it is no longer capable of exciting in us; we consider all the ideas which it presents rather in the light in which they appear to him, than in that in which they appear to ourselves, and we are amused by sympathy with his amusement which thus enlivens our own.”

– Adam Smith, A Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

“These bands operated on [Chet] Baker’s premise: that the song plays the music and the music plays the player and that, consequently, the song, as played, is not a showcase for the player’s originality, but a momentary acoustic community in which the players breathe and think together in real time, adding to the song’s history, without detracting from its integrity, leaving it intact to be played again.”

— Dave Hickey, Air Guitar (1997)

“Rereading, an operation contrary to the commercial and ideological habits of our society, which would have us ‘throw away’ the story once it has been consumed (‘devoured’), so that we can then move on to another story, buy another book, and which is tolerated only in certain marginal categories of readers (children, old people, and professors), rereading is here suggested at the outset, for it alone saves the text from repetition (those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere).”

– Roland Barthes, S/Z (1970)

“It is, of course, an indispensable part of a scrivener’s business to verify the accuracy of his copy, word by word. Where there are two or more scriveners in an office, they assist each other in this examination, one reading from the copy, the other holding the original. It is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair.”

– Herman Melville, Bartleby, The Scrivener (1853)

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May 4, 2010 at 1:35 am

the prayer

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For years and years, from the beginning, the nightly prayer (even after God) finally to work properly tomorrow. The schedule, the set of texts. At one point, it was the Norton Anthology of World Literature and a teach-yourself guide to Spanish, then Latin, then Homeric Greek, Italian, and finally Chinese. Earlier than that it was all the books listed in the back of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. Of late, there isn’t even a set of books to read – the list has turned into a toppling and random stack. It was also always certain amount of writing, either in the morning or at night (my nights are unworkable now – I am too old). But in conflict with this, a steadily developing doubt in volition and will. We are waifs amid forces, we do what we will do. You can make a list but you cannot make yourself keep to the list. But still one says the prayer, even after God, for the work to come and for everything, finally, to be in its right place.

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May 4, 2010 at 12:47 am

catastrophe, in syndication

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Funny thing. Not so long ago, it looked like the future when this sort of stuff was shown on TV. Now, just a few years later, it has the look of a made-for-tv period movie, set circa 2003.

The age of media-anticipated catastophe, of the mass-marketed dystopia, seems to have come and gone. Would be interesting to think ever so carefully about it, it’s relationship to where we are now. “Carefully” meaning without the backpocket mysticism of Jameson’s lesser advisees, mining the cover of Underworld for far more than it was worth.

Unfortunately, can’t do that tonight as I’ve gotta read a book for an overdue review, and it’ll really piss someone off if this looks like it took more than five or six minutes.

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April 26, 2009 at 9:05 pm

other children’s skin

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From a nice piece in the NYT today about thrift stores in Poland:

Thrift stores here have become impromptu laboratories of the changing mores and attitudes in a country adjusting to newfound wealth. Young Poles here in the capital are now confident enough in their ability to buy new clothes that they at last have taken to wearing old ones. Those eking out a living on fixed incomes, especially retirees, still lack the means to do otherwise.

And so the hip and the strapped meet at secondhand stores like Tomitex, on Nowowiejska Street in downtown Warsaw.

The pronounced stigma of buying used clothes in a poor country was once a powerful deterrent for shopping — or at least admitting to shopping — at secondhand stores, known here by the derogative colloquialism lumpex, which translates as something like bum export. That stigma has been replaced among the young by a playful attitude toward vintage clothing and bargain-hunting that would not be out of place among their contemporaries in London or New York.

A subset of early memories drawn from the summerlong visits back to my mother’s home town in very rural Nova Scotia, the fishing village where she grew up focuses on visits to Frenchies, a used clothing store that at that time was a single store or maybe there were a couple but since then has branch out to become a sort of pan-maritimes chain.

(You can only imagine, or perhaps you can’t, how weirded out I was when Calvin Trillin wrote a piece about the store in the New Yorker. Gemein/Gesell gone wild! I’ve never felt so authentique in my life, so townie, organic even….)

I am quite sure that my mother wore mostly used clothing during her childhood and the few stories that I’ve heard about my father’s home growing up and clothing are troubling and not to be gone into here. But these stories happen to be the very sort of stuff that a form of therapy that would be able to work between the traditional registers of psychoanalysis and issues of class and money and ideological drip would make hay with, if such a practice properly existed. At any rate, both of my mother and father come from shitty circumstances, differently inflected but ultimately the same cocktail of alcoholic fathers, overworked mothers, nowhere locales, zero cash, and a fortunate and unlikely escape to university or vocational training in a tiny (large to them at the time!) city.

Anyway, I grew up with very real used clothing antipathy – probably of just the same sort of attitude described in the clipping from today’s NYT up top – and definitely caught from my class-shifting parents. They wore used; their son would wear – and learn to expect nothing less than, actively be disgusted by anything other than – new. I can’t remember exactly how this feeling was transmitted to me, but I am sure – especially now that I’m thinking about it in light of this article – that it was in fact transmitted, and done so by my parents rather than some sort of ambient socio-ideological vapor.

But when my mother and I would go to visit the family up in Nova Scotia, we would always make a trip or two or three to Frenchy’s over the course of the summer. You won’t be surprised to hear that these were horrible experiences for me, filled with a variety of dread that’s close to the fear and anxiety that comes of going to the doctor for an injection or the dentist for a drilling when you’re a child. I didn’t really understand wealth and poverty at that point, I wasn’t embarrassed at all. It was the visceral disgust that came of trying on clothes that had been worn by other people, that had encased other children’s bodies, caught their spills, been inextricably soiled by their skin. And it only got worse when we’d actually bring these items home, and later, perhaps the next day, I would be expected to wear them – not just for five minutes in a fitting room, but all day, straight through to my bath at night. The memories get vague at this point, start to break down, but I think at a certain point my eight or nine year-old self went into revolt, simply refused to wear the items any longer. I think, further, I have a memory of my mother conceding, likely throwing the stuff in a bag that was kept for our own clothing donations.

It felt dirty to wear the clothes. Dirty in a way that was unbearable, visceral. This is, of course, just how I’d been raised to feel.

All of this I’ve thought about, when I’ve thought about Frenchy’s, before. What I’ve never yet thought about – and what the article about Poland has led me to consider – is what exactly my mother was thinking when she took me to this place and put me through the experience of trying on and later wearing the clothes that we found there.

The hometown-girl made good in the States amidst relatives, trying to fit in with the people back home, playing along. She never dresses her son in anything but new things, normally, but it is true what the cousins and aunts keep saying, that there are great bargains to be had there, and they always outgrow everything so quickly anyway. Perhaps – probably – it never registered how deeply she’d woven this message into her son. Perhaps it came as a great shock when he refused that morning to wear any of it ever again. Quite likely, almost definitely, there was at least a passing thought that she had spoiled him – that even if she didn’t really want him wearing this sort of stuff, it wasn’t a great sign that he didn’t want to wear it. Her cousins’ kids, of course, didn’t resist. This is where there clothes came from, had always come from, whether by the standards of the village they were rich or poor. (They were all more or less poor and since these days they have only gotten poorer, disasterously so by North American standards…)

Probably she wrote his – my – behavior off as childish temper, a burst of willfulness that was unusual for me. I was a good child, vaguely angelic (but just think of what keeps the good angels good angels), and generally did everything that I was told to do. The clothes at Frenchy’s were crumpled in piles, piles dumped hourly on tables made of 4X4s. I can’t remember now whether you paid by the item or by the weight of the bag that you filled. Or perhaps on another level or even the same level, she understood. She hadn’t wanted to go along anyway. I wonder if she had bought anything for herself. If she did, I wonder what she did with it. I am very sure, absolutely sure, that she’d never have worn it.

Many of my friends, now and before, wear or wore vintage clothing. I could do, but it’s not really me. At this point, I think it’s not even really the childhood anxieties about it. At some point when I was sixteen or seventeen, suddenly this no longer really bothered me anymore. Before then I disliked wearing the handed-down uniforms that we were given on the baseball and basketball and football teams I played for. Then, suddenly, it no longer mattered. Surely it had something to do with the arrival of sex on my scene, and the very different relationship to other people’s bodies that comes of it. But still, today, it’s just not my thing. I’m one of those catholic school boys who never really gets over the uniform. Every single day, working or not working, I wear a variation on the outfit I wore during my first nine years of school. A collared shirt and a sweater, never sneakers, chinoish pants. I skip only the tie – I almost never wear one. Some of the clothes I continue to wear are older than used – shirts I got when I went to university, sweaters that are almost worn through. A long Italian wool coat I bought – my best friend bought the same sort, same day – during the last winter of high school, when I was feeling like a poet. (A colleague stopped me in the hall a month ago when I was wearing it and said that it is a “poet’s coat, you know, the sort of thing that Eliot or Lowell wore.”  (I should use this story as an exemplary anecdote when I teach “The Dead” because it’s so exactly right…) Part of me was ecstatic to hear this; most of me was dreadfully embarrassed. He was, I’m sure, hazing me – I am, after all, the new guy still.

My wife pointed out today that now my mother makes her take her to fancyass but dowdy consignment stores. She’s of limited mobility, and so has to be taken places, and it’s consignment stores that she wants to go to ahead of any other place. It’s something we’ve never really understood, my wife and I, and would laugh off as just another parental absurdity. She has the money to buy what she likes as far as clothes go; why does she does she insist on sifting through the crap at these places? It is interesting and strange to think that my mother, perversely, may finally have learned to occupy the place where she lives – that she has finally forgotten Nova Scotia and Frenchy’s and wherever the clothes came from when she was a girl and before there was a Frenchy’s to visit.

Of late, but really forever though couldn’t articulate it, if I am not feeling like I am walking around in London but my fucked up head and heart are in Shitsville, Canada, I am feeling like I am walking around in Shitsville, Canada but my fucked up head and heart are in London. Either way, wherever head and heart and the rest of me are located absolutely or relatively, I have just now categorically refused to wear the semi-worn shirt from Frenchy’s, stated my refusal in no uncertain terms, even with stamping feet and tears in my eyes, but am wearing the damn thing anyway, feeling the dirt soak in through every tiny little hole.

Ah, well. This is all starting to feel a bit The Best American Essays 2008. And there’s surely a little narrative hiding in plain sight that’s prefitted for The Best American Short Stories 2009, and all that that sort of thing drearily entails. So I’d better stop before I over-epiphanize this shit. No one’s paying for it, anyway, neither by the item nor by the pound.

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December 15, 2008 at 12:53 am

bounce

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

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

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

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

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September 15, 2008 at 2:42 pm

my bank branches: a brief memoir

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My parents, to this day, still don’t believe that they can use their ATM cards at banks not their own. And by “their own,” I mean the actual branch a quarter-mile from their house. I’ve taken their card and done it for them, drawn cash at the mall, etc. But they still don’t believe me, even when it works.

My first ATM card came with my second bank account. I had a little passbook account during high school which never filled higher than $60 and generally hovered around $0. The passbook was interesting – I’m not sure if it was really true or not, but I had the sense that if I lost it the money would vanish too. As if the passbook was the only record of the money in my savings account – that it was in fact my savings account.

It’s funny to think about kids growing up without the experience of waiting on line in banks with their mum. Every week, the same. I have very fond memories of waiting on line with my grandmother at her bank in the mall, across from the hair salon that she had after my grandfather died, to drop off the day’s takings. And there was, overall, a sense small awe about it – the sense that this is where they keep the money, the fact that this was the only working office you entered (except for dad’s, when he’d take you by every once in awhile…) There was a bureaucratic solidity and functionalism to the place that would seem so out of place. Whatever it smelled of, the local branch, it wasn’t multinational capitalism, the slash and burn of the market now available on PC! or whatever it smells like now. I want to write more about quasi-governmentality, about the air of officialness, but not now…

For now, think about the very fact of safety deposit boxes! They surely don’t exist any more, right? They are exactly antithetical to what a bank is today, they send the wrong message about the company in question… They are primitive, and cater to primitive impluses on the part of the customers, and as such, I am sure thay they no longer exist. Perhaps I will check, just to make sure…

I remember noticing, toward the end of my growing up, that this branch still had an 8 inch floppy disk drive on the counter. 8 inches! This was at the beginning of harddrives and laptops and the peak of the 3.5″ disk days! Even I had never used one of those, and my first computer (sort of lifted from my dad’s work) came in 1981 or 1982, an original IBM PC with dual 5.25″ drives. Were they keeping the account records on those? What else would they be for?

So it was only in college that I opened an account that came with an ATM card. But, like many, I remained nervous about depositing checks through the machine. Do you remember the cycles of news features that went around, I think around 1999 – 2000, that asserted that statistically you’re better off with the machine for deposits? Machines make errors, but not more than tellers, who are human, bored, expensive, and we’d like to have fewer of them, thanks. And so I stopped depositing my checks inside and learned to use the ATM for that too.

In my college town there were two banks to choose from, then one bought the other a few months after I moved in. My bank, days after it bought the naming rights to a brand new arena in an east coast city, was in turn acquired by yet another, larger bank. The accents of the stationary that they wrote you on changed from blue and green to red and blue, and then they asked if they could stop sending you “expensive, wasteful” mail altogether and so the emails arrive, painted up in red and blue.

In graduate school, the branch of my bank closed for six months after I arrived in order to refurbish. When it reopened, it had dragged the teller bar back to a windowless warren at the back of the building and replaced it up front with a “personal finance center” with self-standing cardboard cut outs of sailboats and hanggliders, country homes and, I think, the Eiffel Tower. There were couches and booklets to peruse, and soon after they added an espresso machine, though it was unclear when, if ever, you were entitled to an espresso drink. Certainly not when you were heading to the counter (barely happened anymore anyway) to do something like question a charge on your account or have a certified check made out.

But up front, well-dressed people milled around ignoring the grad school looking types who came in. The first few times, embarrassingly, I tried to cash a check with them. I thought it was just a late-ninties thing, like the open-plan offices that were opening everywhere – and that maybe you’d walk around with your teller as they got you your cash. (Think what Apple’s done in their stores – they have checkouts in the back but sort of frown on you for using them… You’re supposed to “pick up” one of the “geniuses” and get him to whip out his little wi-fi device and instamagic the funds off your card…)

I still have that account, but I’m going to close it soon. I got scared about closing accounts for awhile because of the mysteries of the credit rating, the effect that it has to open and close accounts. If we were to rewrite Capital today, we’d have to have a whole chapter on credit ratings, those of individuals, those of non-individuals and so on. Have you ever had trouble with your credit rating? Ever tried to contact the agencies in question? Lucky you if not. They do not publish the phone number – I think the helpful people that found it must have tried every possible number in sequence until they got someone who picked up with “Yeah, Experian here, whatchu want?” You get about seven seconds to state your case, despite the fact that they seem, from the volume of email that I receive from them, to make half their living on selling peeks at your credit report back to you. They don’t mention that, shit, if there’s something wrong you won’t be able to do anything about it. It’s basically like that perennial and increasingly-less sci-fi question about knowing the exact date and cause of your death in advance.

Anyway, my new bank account is with an outfit that I’ve visited exactly twice, and a year or so went by between opening the account and my first visit. Both times it was for a certified check, once to move out of New York and once to buy a car. There are branches here, but I’m not entirely sure where they are. When I talk to them, I talk to people in call-centers in India. When I need money, I go wherever’s closest and cheapest to get money. My daughter, I’m sure, will never write a check – I’m down to one or two a year. It is annoying when people send checks to me. My salary drops automatically in, the utility payments are lifted automatically out. I’m not sure they even give you an option of being paid any other way. The banks that you pass on the street look less and less open for business everyday – you’d feel strange entering one, like you might find it empty once you were in, just a plasma screen showing infomercials about investment products and retirement plans staring Dennis Hopper or someone who looks like Dennis Hopper, and an espresso machine, but no coffee and no cups.

We learn about things through buildings – we are taught about the rules of the world, the way things are now going to work, however they worked in the past. And, just as important, corporations compose their constitutions, their business plans, in brick and mortar, faux-leather sofas displacing marble columns, product pamphlets replacing deposit slips in the little containers under the writing surface. Imagine the conversations in the corporate HQ that eventually led to the redesign of my grad school bank. Imagine what came before and after those conversations. What changed when they decided to start charging to see a teller?

Most pertinently, when we see these new images of people lining up outside the failing banks, we are used to thinking 1929. The media reminds us of 1929. But there is more to it than that. For how many of these people is this the first trip ever to their local branch? The second time they’ve stepped inside, the first being the day that they opened their account? The bank run, queue to see a teller, materializes the anachronistic nature of the bank branch today, physically inforces a return to practices that have long since been marginalized, rendered as old-fashioned as mailing a letter with a stamp, writing in long-hand, or having shoes repaired. This is, truly, a dialectical image, where the spark leaps from past to present, despite the fact that both prongs are nowhere else but the grubby sidewalk of this supermarket plaza in California.

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July 16, 2008 at 11:36 am