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the tailor of ulm

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Lucio Magri in the current New Left Review:

At one of the crowded meetings held in 1991 to decide whether or not to change the name of the Italian Communist Party, a comrade posed this question to Pietro Ingrao: ‘After everything that has happened and all that is now taking place, do you still believe the word “communist” can be used to describe the kind of large, democratic mass party that ours has been, and is, and which we want to renew so as to take it into government?’ Ingrao, who had already laid out in full the reasons for his dissent and proposed that an alternative course be taken, replied—not altogether in jest—with Brecht’s famous parable of the tailor of Ulm. This 16th-century German artisan had been obsessed by the idea of building a device that would allow men to fly. One day, convinced he had succeeded, he took his contraption to the Bishop and said: ‘Look, I can fly’. Challenged to prove it, the tailor launched himself into the air from the top of the church roof, and, naturally, ended up in smithereens on the paving stones below. And yet, Brecht’s poem suggests: a few centuries later men did indeed learn to fly.

I was thinking “The Tailor of Ulm” would make a bad name for a good blog, a good left group blog. I’m sniffing around for one of those, a name, by the way, so send suggestions but only if they’re really, really good. Anyway, it’s hard to knock pieces like Magri’s, as there is some value in taking ourselves yet again on a quick trip through the narrative of left high and left low and left nearly gone and landing back at “What is to be done?”

But… there is also a way, I think, that pieces like this one, that follow this same trajectory through the continued pertience of our line of thought and work but the “to be honest” poor prospects that anything presently existing could be harnessed into real work, these pieces performatively, reiteratively on some level enforce the stasis that they describe.We hear again that new histories of the immediate past, new theorizations and adaptations of the line need to be developed in tune with current conditions, we hear that there are valuable lessons in the past but that new work remains to be done to render them current, and so on. There is a way that space-filling, talking issuelessly through the gap, becomes tyrannical in itself. It has, this sort of piece, become a genre unto itself, and as such builds guiderails into the flow of ideas, has a determinative effect on future productions, comes to frame (more rigidly and effectively than one might expect – genres are very powerful) ever more constrictively the place where this ever-announced new growth would arrive. It is the fault of no one piece – this is not Magri’s problem – but en masse, these things enforce depression, tacitly instruct that the way to solve the problem is to name the problem again and again and again and again until, what, men learn to fly.

It feels like bad form to head in the “Whereof one cannot speak…” direction…. Ooof… just like that, with the Witty reference, it dawns on me I’ve written this post before. See? The nastiness of genres. They breed like the mice Magri mentions in the piece, Marx’s mice, the mice we can’t stop mentioning, anticipating, baiting… You see what happens when you duck again below the cabinets to check….

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July 15, 2008 at 9:45 am

city as satire

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NYT on a new and enormous Koolhaas project in Dubai.
(We’re all going to have to start thinking and talking about Dubai one of these days, aren’t we?) Apparently, though we don’t have all that much to work on and Ouroussoff gives us very little, this is meant to be something like an materialization of the “generic city” idea from Koolhaas’s S/M/L/XL.

I know I have a lot to say about this “generic city” business, which is a concept as complex and ambiguous as the ad without products (whatever that is…) and in perhaps just the same ways. But my copy of S/M/L/XL is in storage and won’t be available to me till I move into my fractional piece of this not-quite-generic place where I am now. Soon enough…

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March 6, 2008 at 12:29 pm

creative destruction

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Sisyphus just gave me a little present in the comments below:

She’s right, it’s terrific. And it’s of the same sort as the Sky Movies one below, harnessing adbustery rage in service of brand renewal and the like. But even better is the sense that it’s also some sort of self-expression on the corp.’s part of frustration at its own ineptness – 2005, when the Gap began to die after a good run.

Except more of these to come as things slow to a halt. Citigroup analysts being run over by their own Hummers, Walmart visualizing the clusterbombing its own Chinese sweatshops, etc etc, United Healthcare wishing prostate cancer on their own headset-wearing guardians of the meds, all in 30 second spots.

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February 15, 2008 at 11:18 am

nostalgie de la boom… and ads without ads

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My wife and I have introduced a thing where each of us takes one night a week out by ourselves while the other watches the kiddo. (We’re late getting to this – it was suggested long ago – but what the hell were we going to do with our nights out in the old place, so the time is right…) On my night, I headed down to see the Rodchenko exhibit, but the damn place was closing (nice opening hours here, god). So I had to come up with something else to do with myself. Good movies were out – they’re reserved for some barely imaginable time when we can see them together. So I saw Cloverfield instead. I feel an obligation to see such things, which my wife definitely does not share, and so… 

(Parenthetically: $26 to see a fucking movie? Are you out of your minds? I saw the damn thing in the worst and likeliest of all possible places I guess, but back in the states there’s a constitutional right to affordable consumption of crap movies. I think it’s administered by the Dairy Board, whomever it is who gives the free milk and bread to the starving grad student moms… But I digress…)  

So. Not much to say about Cloverfield. Fun I guess. The genre’s looking very, very tired. But in the very fatigue of the form, I do think we’re seeing something new and interesting afoot. Semi-new anyway. The producers and writers of the thing are all at least my age, but the presumed audience, I guess is a lot younger. Young enough, in fact, to have the same relation to the attacks so heavily quoted in this film as my students are starting to have. For a few years there, we were all in it together. Now, it’s getting a bit strained. Shocking when it dawns on you that your youngest students weren’t even teenagers when the shit when down. In a year or two, when we’re dealing with kids that were seven or so in 2001, it’s going to feel even stranger – for them as much as for us, who somehow can’t stop threading it into our conversations. 

In Cloverfield, I think we see early signs of an anxiety not about terror, but about its absence. It is a movie tailor-made for a demographic that has grown up hearing about 9/11 but which has only vague, mostly false, memories of it. A generation who parents worried about shielding from the tv, even when they were far too young to distinguish the threat of annihilation from the threat of, dunno, the scary shit that lives in your closet. 

(Heard Bush mention the other day the “attack that occurred six-and-a-half years ago.” It’s been a long, long time. Wow…)   

The yupster parties in loft spaces (hahaha) on the Lower East Side (hahahaha) are going to feel something missing, are going to long for the crisping threat that something will happen downtown, that there will be a reason to run up to the roof, that their emotionally desolate choice (just for instance) to leave the girl behind to take a VP position in Japan (? – oh, i see, godzilla. Try Dubai…), the iron continuities in play behind that, will come to a sudden and abrupt end when some rough beast inaugurates another round of trauma sex, epiphanies of “what really mattes,” a war or wars to momentarily back and then, later, pretend that you opposed from the start etc etc etc. 

But unfortunately, this dystopian fantasy is positively utopian in its impossibility. The crows won’t come home to roost, not here, not anymore. The world, dearies, has moved on. The Time Warner Building ain’t the double-barreled omphalous of the world anymore – it’s in the wrong country to matter. No one’s going to expend good fissile material on a nation and an economy doing a great job fizzling out on its own. The catastrophes to come for the kids that were meant to see this film are going to be far less picturesque, and certainly won’t be available for videotaping. 

Anyway, wow. At least I’m blogging again, right?

One other thing, on a related note: saw this little number at the end of the extremely long strand of ads (mostly for cars and other new dystopian movies) that ran before Cloverfields:  Brilliant, and very very strange indeed. And strikingly beautiful! An ad for adlessness, if there ever was one. It may become the totemic youtube of this youtube intensive blog!

And even better, way better, is that the damned thing looks like the opening sequence of an absolutely incredible (and a good deal more horrifying, to many in the wider audience, than Cloverfields, which isn’t very horrifying at all) of a very different sort of speculative fiction, one about a specter lurching back from the place where dismissed specters go in order to decapitate the idols of the era, break open the walls of the buildings in the expensive neighborhoods, and leave most bedazzled and exhilarated at the sweep of violence that has rubbled so many things we thought could never go, that we believed, despite ourselves, that the world simply couldn’t live without.  

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February 15, 2008 at 1:12 am

writers (lefters?) block

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Nothing new, I suppose.

My opinion is that the left is not able to offer a true alternative
to global capitalism. Yes, it is true that ‘capitalism will not be
around for ever’ (it is the advocates of the new politics of resistance
who think that capitalism and the democratic state are here to stay);
it will not be able to cope with the antagonisms it produces. But there
is a gap between this negative insight and a basic positive vision. I
do not think that today’s candidates – the anti-globalisation movement
etc – do the job.

So what are we to do? Everything possible (and
impossible), just with a proper dose of modesty, avoiding moralising
self-satisfaction. I am aware that when the left builds a protest
movement, one should not measure its success by the degree to which its
specific demands are met: more important than achieving the immediate
target is the raising of critical awareness and finding new ways to
organise. However, I don’t think this holds for protests against the
war in Iraq, which fitted all too smoothly the space allotted to
‘democratic protests’ by the hegemonic state and ideological order.
Which is why they did not, even minimally, scare those in power.
Afterwards, both government and protesters felt smug, as if each side
had succeeded in making its point.

I agree, I guess. But maybe we need to enter into a pact to sit quietly and not speak or write until we’ve come up with even the tiniest “basic positive vision.” Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, at least at the moment, etc etc.

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January 22, 2008 at 8:55 am


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go read jane dark now!

Kala might be thought of as an attempt to destroy the softimism of world music™. Hands up guns out — represent now world town. The album moves past the bubbly syncretism of Arular; goes looking for beat and a form and a hook for the enraged new world and finds a proliferation of each, which is its wonder. Listening to “Bird Flu,” one has to suspect Maya’s been reading (or reading about) Monster at Our Door, the Mike Davis conjecture about the eventual arrival of deadly H5N1 influenza at America’s doorstep. It’s the exact kind of thing that Brooklyn sharpies who are also expats twisted on geo-social hard times like to read on trans-oceanic flights. You listen to the nervous squawks and fearsome, irresistible clatter of the track and you think, that’s not a song, that’s a revenge fantasy. And quite brilliantly, it locates blowback not in the romantic figure of some lone terrorist, but in global structure itself: terror as an inevitable outcome of evil voodoo poured relentlessly into the world-system. In Davis’s account, bird flu when it arrives won’t be an exotic catastrophe we couldn’t predict, but America’s bad faith returned to it after a mutating tour of the planet of slums, the world-ghetto. Funny thing is, that describes Kala exactly.

Always just about ready to give up on the form, and then somebody (often enough jane dark) writes something like this.

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January 21, 2008 at 6:40 am

wallstalgie / wallfallstalgie

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Within the course of a few days, Putin gets the Tupolevs circling and circling again, and the the western news orgs give in to their own nostalgia for the X Miraculously Opens in X-Commie Stronghold! story. Can you believe that it was a mere eighteen years ago that history once and for all came to an end, etc etc etc?

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September 7, 2007 at 9:40 am

al qaeda in the subdivisions; or, AP American History

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It is worth remembering that, however things look on the surface, we Americans will always be the insurgents, never the occupiers. The IEDs will always be ours, the sniping – we invented that.

Whatever it looks like on the screen, we will always be irregulars, we will always land on the asymmetrical side of things. Our torture rooms are never those of the prison-bricked Central Intelligence office or the PVC camp – they are always in the back room, upstairs and to the back, with the rough hewn chair and the single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling.

We will always be “just kids,” and the wars will always be fought between one backyard and the drainage pond at the corner. Someone’s golden retriever will always run across the field of battle at the critical moment. We will lock and load and empty our magazines before our mothers call us in for microwaved dinners.

In Totem and Taboo, Freud fabulates the origination of the incest taboo in a story that is also (of course) a story of the origins of civilization and the social contract that initiates it. There is a big bad father, and then there are sons. The sons – they can’t get what they want sexually or in any other way – dad has a monopoly over the women. So the sons kill dad (Freud wonders if it was “some advance in culture, like the use of a new weapon,” that allowed the sons to win – I think we can all agree that it wasn’t so much a “weapon” as a set of tactics, namely guerrilla warfare, the sort of thing that would later manifest itself, as we all learn in school, at Lexington and Concord against the Redcoats…) But once dad is dead, there is a problem – a problem whose solution takes the shape of the incest prohibition and, well, civilization itself:

[T]he incest prohibition had […] a strong practical foundation. Sexual need does not unite men; it separates them. Though the brothers had joined forces in order to overcome the father, each was the other’s rival among the women. Each one wanted to have them all to himself like the father, and in the fight of each against the other the new organization would have perished. For there was no longer any one stronger than all the rest who could have successfully assumed the role of the father. Thus there was nothing left for the brothers, if they wanted to live together, but to erect the incest prohibition – perhaps after many difficult experiences – through which they all equally renounced the women whom they desired, and on account of whom they had removed the father in the first place. Thus they saved the organization which had made them strong and which could be based upon the homo-sexual feelings and activities which probably manifested themselves among them during the time of their banishment.

What can we say? If only this were true when it comes to us. The happy – if only ever moderately happy – structuralization of dad’s brutality, the construction upon the solid foundation of a repressed but ever present fraterphilia as well as the (sure!) very dark joke that deaddad gets to play on them in the end as far as access to women goes (“You thought you’d have all, but instead you’ll have none, because you are too many…”) The revolution ends in a socialism of castration – the only consolation arrives via the fact that it you (pl.) that deny yourself the women, rather than that fat bastard of a father, in our case, King George III, later aka LeninoStalin, et al.

No. What happened here is something entirely other. We killed dad, yes, but rather than simply constructing a totem and going on our self-chastening way, we decided (is that the word?) to reenact differently, more viscerally – for real. With our own sons, or especially the sons of others – even as we strike them down, we imagine, time and again, that it is the hand of filial revolt that we raise when we raise to strike. We will always be the bad son, the prodigal returned to fuck dad up right good when we asks what we’ve done with the money, even if there is no beard on those we strike, even if they still are on mom’s tit as we decapitate and worse, in our eyes, fucked up with the drug of repetition without difference, they are bearded and old, they have stolen our mom-sisters from the tent bed, they are sandy with their mature denial of our rights even as infants. We are Issac as Abraham striking down Issac – the call to hold off never comes, because you need a father’s ear to hear it, and we are only sons…

The Child is the father of the Man. Yes, but the natural piety in question, the binding of now to back then, incessantly takes the shape of sprinting in surplus stuff across the backyard, carrying the guns borrowed from our fathers’ (father’s) collection, a children’s crusade, an insurgency of kids, shooting blanks, catching ourselves on film, all in the end for AP credit.

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August 14, 2007 at 1:47 am

think they meant “ouroboros capital management”

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Cerberus Capital Management, whose largest institutional investors include the California State Teachers’ Retirement System and TIAA-CREF (the latter handles my meager retirement accounts), purchases Chrysler, and immediately installs an anti-labor goon as CEO… Robert Nardelli, referred to in this USA Today article as "the poster child of poor workforce relations," is the goon in question. In other words, money managed on behalf of (mostly) union members has, via the wonderful ethical laundry program of capital management lp type stuff, come around to set other union members up for a royal ass-kicking and general despoilation, mostly of, yes, their retirement benefits. Following so far?

We’re not very far away from a scenario in which, say, a car company’s employee-managed retirement fund, via a capital management company, purchases the very car company in question, and in a frantic grasp for capital, robs the very workers who hold the fund of retirement benefits before breaking the company into parts and putting everyone out of work. So everyone ends up with no job, no health benefits, and slightly higher retirement account balances. Except, of course, for the new CEO and the managers in the CM firm, who walk away with tons of cash.

Ha! That would be hilarious! Almost as funny as California school teachers ("inadvertently") fucking the guys who make the Chryslers. (which is not as funny, because it is not as uncanny… plus there’s a rather obvious white-collar, blue-collar thing going on, though I’ll bet the blues on average earned more than the whites do now…)

At any rate, there is of course a message in all of this, a blindingly clear one about complicity and the impossibility of clean hands (like I said, TIAA-CREF manages my money too!), and what the "end of the proletariat" means when it results in the birth of a class of fractional capitalists who unconsciously read their quarterly-statements unaffected by the scenes of cannibalistic creative destruction playing out between the lines of figures.

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August 8, 2007 at 12:32 am

blanket statements

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Krugman today in the NY Times:

Mr. Schumer, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, insists that the large financial contributions that hedge funds make to his party aren’t influencing him. Well, I can’t read his mind, but from the outside his position looks remarkably like money-driven politics as usual. And that’s not acceptable. 

Look, the worst thing that could happen to Democrats is for voters to conclude that there’s no real difference between the parties, that when you replace Republicans with Democrats, all you do is replace sweet deals for Halliburton with sweet deals for hedge funds. The hedge fund loophole is a test — and it’s one that Mr. Schumer is failing.

Yep. But it’s not just hedge funds. How about this cheery exchange between the frontrunners of the peace party:

Senator Barack Obama found himself on the defensive again yesterday about his views on foreign policy, this time over a comment he made about the use of nuclear weapons in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

During an interview with The Associated Press, Mr. Obama, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, initially ruled out using nuclear weapons in the region as part of the effort to defeat terrorism and root out Osama bin Laden.

“I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance,” he said, pausing before he added, “involving civilians.”

But then he quickly said: “Let me scratch that. There’s been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That’s not on the table.”

Later in an interview on Capitol Hill, Mr. Obama, of Illinois, sought to clarify the remark about nuclear weapons, saying he was asked whether he would “use nuclear weapons to pursue Al Qaeda.”

“I said no one is talking about nuclear weapons,” Mr. Obama said. “I found it was a little bit of an off-the-wall question.”

His remarks about removing nuclear weapons as an option in the region drew fresh attacks from Democratic rivals who had already questioned his foreign policy experience.

American officials have generally been deliberately ambiguous about their nuclear strike policies.

Speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, declined to say whether she agreed with Mr. Obama’s initial statement.

“I’m not going to answer hypotheticals,” Mrs. Clinton said.

She added: “I think that presidents should be very careful at all times in discussing the use or non-use of nuclear weapons. Presidents, since the Cold War, have used nuclear deterrence to keep the peace. And I don’t believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons.”

Wow. Glad I don’t have to be ambivalent about casting my vote demward this time around. Back in 2000, it was welfare reform at the like that pushed me over the line. But now that we’re only talking about the use of nuclear weapons in response to, what, a car bomb in Times Square, I feel much more comfortable.

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August 3, 2007 at 8:10 pm