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Archive for the ‘simplicity’ Category

eliot / auerbach

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Very strange, and not at all sure what to do with this yet. Might just be a false echo… But as I’ve indicated on here before, I’ve long been fascinated by the final paragraph of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Namely…

Beneath the conflicts, an economic and cultural levelling process is taking place. It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible. And it is most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and exterior representation of the random moment in the lives of different people. So the complicated process of dissolution which led to fragmentation of the exterior action, to reflection of consciousness, and to stratification of time seems to be tending toward a very simple solution. Perhaps it will be too simple to please those who, despite all its dangers and catastrophes, admire and love our epoch for the sake of its abundance of life and the incomparable historical vantage point which it affords. But they are few in number, and probably they will not live to see much more than the first forewarnings of the approaching unification and simplification.

I discuss it, for instance, in a (strange, wandering) post here. At any rate, I’ve been getting ready to give a lecture today on T.S. Eliot’s essays, and found the following in his 1921 piece The Metaphysical Poets. 

We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

The play of simplicity vs. difficulty (and the gap of a few very important decades) does make me wonder whether there’s a responsive echo going on in Auerbach. Something to look into… (If only there was a good Auerbach biography in English!) What makes it more interesting, perhaps, is that arch-small-c-conservative Eliot is in the midst of laying out his theory of the “dissociation of sensibility” that somehow happened after the seventeenth century (hmmm) while – if very obliquely – Auerbach seems to be suggesting a sort of “re-association of sensibility” in the aftermath of modernism…

More soon if I can find a way / get a chance to look into this further…

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February 9, 2014 at 1:53 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? 

what is difficult

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Flaubert to Colet, 28 June 1853:

it’s so easy to chatter on about the beautiful but to say in good style “close the door” or “he wanted to sleep” requires more genius than giving all the literature courses in the world.

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March 21, 2011 at 1:59 am

Posted in flaubert, simplicity

how many faces can you fit on the face of a single coin?

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Ah! Now I remember what made them laugh during the lecture yesterday. I was teaching in the Anatomy Building (we don’t have that sort of lecture space in the department, so we end up borrowing from the sciences…) and, in addition to pattering on about the vicissitudes of doing English,  I was at one point telling them about paragraphs, how they should recuperate what came in the paragraph before and move things a step forward at the same time. I drew a little picture of Janus on the board as an illustration. And then labelled it, for the benefit of the anatomists who’d be using the room after me, Accurate rendering of the human head, courtesy of your friends in the English department. Defund us now.

Relatedly, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking a bit about personae, not Pound’s but ours. Specifically, how many of them we can have and how many of them we should have. By persona I suppose I mean nothing more than a fictional version of ourselves that we live up to, disappointingly underperform, sync with in spots, or trade for another as the case may be.

But here’s the real question: When one grows tired of donning the mask that comes along with a particularly arduous role – and how many persona parts are truly easy to play, in the end? – one can either look around for another to wear or one can imagine, or even anticipate, quitting the mask-and-part show altogether. The latter seems preferable, less Sisyphusian, but is hard to manage without subtler, more translucent, but nevertheless just as determinant personae slipping in the back door. So… tired, say, of the oscillation between roguish rambler and upright alpha, one wants to abandon the game altogether, one decides “no more.” But then all the souless robots and assembly-line labourers of art and autistic and desensitized angels start swimming up from below.

In short, to have two or more is hard. One might even be harder. Zero is a beautiful thought but probably impossible. Especially once you’ve gotten even a wee bit meta about the whole issue.

It’s interesting to think that modernism, in its negotiations with the concept of impersonality, grappled with this question all the time. Often, impersonality meant the serial adoption of personae, the preparing of faces to meet the faces that you meet. Impersonality as impersonation, in other words. The Flaubertian fantasy takes a turn at Robert Browning, as the dramatic monologue becomes a holding pen where you can keep the romantic impulse and stay unmucked yourself. But always in the corner of the period’s vision there is another, more profound impersonality, the degree zero of unmasked empty subjectivity, Mrs Ramsay’s wedge-shaped core of darkness.

This core of darkness could go anywhere, for no one saw it. They could not stop it, she thought, exulting. There was freedom, there was peace, there was, most welcome of all, a summoning together, a resting on a platform of stability. Not as oneself did one find rest ever, in her experience (she accomplished here something dexterous with her needles) but as a wedge of darkness. Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always some exclamation of triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity…

She gets there, of course, but she only gets there in the way that we all do in the end.

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October 13, 2009 at 7:45 am

the opposite of branded, didactic by accident, impersonal bread

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Print Magazine has a short feature on the Aldi supermarket chain, which it refers to at one point as a “Modernist 99-cent store.” Unfortunately, I can’t find it online, but I’ll type a bit of it up. The person talking in the quotes is “Susan Sellers, partner at the design firm 2X4.”

But once inside the sliding glass doors, we are surrounded by piles – literally piles – of food. Unbranded, unrecognizable, stacked on shipping pallets and in cardboard boxes. No yellow wall of Cheerios, just “toasted oats” on brown boxes: one size, one brand, for almost half the price. No freezers of Ben & Jerry’s, just giant tubs of chocolate and vanilla.

We feel lost.

“Maybe [they] don’t understand that here in the U.S., generic packaging – Helvetica, white, that sort of thing – has this association with the opposite of branded,” Sellers says.

She takes a loaf of bread, swaddled in cellophane, off an eight-crate-high rack. “This is efficient, but it isn’t simple enough to convey freedom from chaos.”

[…]

“Trader Joe’s is about cheap stuff too, but they cultivate a personality. The aesthetic is folksy – like Southwest Airlines – friendly. They wear those Hawaiian shirts. The food is messily displayed. You go there on a Saturday; it’s a madhouse. That’s the Trader Joe’s lifestyle: ideosyncractic, organic.”

Aldi, however, operates with choice-free efficiency. “That’s their biggest gesture: eliminating choice,” Sellers says, ringing up her hot dog buns, veggie chips, pretzels, sugar, and bananas, to the tune of $14.15. “But they’re not in command of the message. It’s didactic by accident.”

I love the bit where the unmarked loaf of bread isn’t “simple” enough, that it doesn’t convey a message (the semi-Orwellian “freedom from chaos” is great too). And I also love the use of the word “personality,” and the implication that Aldi lacks one.

Of course it’s just a marketting come on / business plan, but that doesn’t mean that better things can’t shine through it! Where do you think the productive contradictions are and will be produced, if not in supermarket business plans and customers, well, voting with their feet and the eyes attached! I think we let the Aldi people run the Mosselprom Mini-Markets after the worst is over and better has started up.

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July 18, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Posted in ads, simplicity

auden’s back passage

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I’ve probably quoted enough of David Collard’s piece in the TLS in the post above, but one other thing worth mentioning. Collard quotes Harry Watt description of Auden working at the GPO:

Auden sat down to write his verse . . . . He got a bare table at the end of a dark, smelly corridor. We were now bursting at the seams, and the last corner available was in what was inevitably called “the back passage”. It ran parallel with the theatre, where films were constantly being shown. At one end, a bunch of messenger boys played darts, wrestled, and brewed tea.

At the other end, Auden, serene and uncomplaining, turned out some of the finest verse he has ever written. As it was a commentary, it had, of course, to fit the picture, so he would bring sections to us as he wrote them. When it did not fit, we just said so, and it was crumpled up and thrown into the waste-paper basket! Some beautiful lines and stanzas went into oblivion in this casual, ruthless way. Auden just shrugged, and wrote more.

I’m going to pin this passage somewhere prominent as I get started on my summer work over the next week or so, once the exams and papers are finally marked. I’ve had it with my tempermentalism, my sensitivity to work environments both material and psychological. I can’t work when X happens, I can only work in situation Y, and unless A, B, or C are positioned on my desk / available for consumption / aligned just the right way, then it’s useless even to start.  I’ve gotten into some deeply bad habits with work, you have no idea.

On the other hand, quite a lot of this neurotic tempermentalism is attributable to a general failure of belief. No, not in myself – don’t be silly. But in the disciplines and genres and media in which I do this work. So I’ll have to either sort that out too or simply remember to stop caring and do it anyway.

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May 21, 2009 at 10:33 pm

Posted in auden, me, simplicity

i am a crisis of capitalism, i am the epic fail, i will keep my mbp

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still life with macbook pro, gerhard richter should clip and paint this, especially since I tastefully removed the K-1664 can before I took the shot

This is meant to be, I guess, dialectically related to the previous post. I would have slammed them together, but the thetical numbers didn’t look good with all of the pictures in the way:

The aura of my Macbook Pro has changed since the start of the economic crisis. The machine used to look like the latest iteration of an unceasing chain of ever-better machines, proceding from the ancient IBM Thinkpad I took with me to college (didn’t even have an ethernet slot, so I was off the internet just when the fun was starting) through some junky and less junky Dell desktops and laptops purchased through my grad school’s arrangement with the company, toward my first Powerbook and a MacBook force-gifted to my wife when I decided I needed more umpf, to this baby that I’m typing on right now and then beyond, to the thinner, better battery-life devices that I’d have next, that I’d be buying right about now. The general plan had been to keep them until there’s a year or so left on the extended warranty, buy a new fancy new cutting edge device, and then sell the old one carrying the remaining cover on eBay. But I’d sometimes even jump the gun on that plan, if the getting was good.

Gradually, over the last several months, something has slipped. I’ve started viewing my MBP not as an evolutionary space-holder, simply waiting for it’s faster, better descendent to come along and take it’s place on my kitchen table, but rather as a long-term tool, something that I’ll keep around until it dies. I’ll last past the end of the warranty; I’ll pay to have it fixed. It’s hard drive is maxed out and I spent a large section of the night deleting old duplicate photographs to make more room. (We loved you Mr. Pepys, 2003-2004 RIP, but twenty pictures of you licking your sister and hiding in an empty cereal box and gurgling at birds through the window in Brooklyn are probably all that we can carry with us into the future, given the fact I’ve only got 400 MB of space left!) Obviously it won’t be my computer for life, these things are engineered to be that, but it feels that way for now – which is a new and historically symptomatic way for me to feel, all things considered.

Of course, this reaction is entirely knee-jerk and over-ambient. I haven’t lost money in this thing (well, my TIAA-CREF account has been shredded, but there were only like $8000 in there anyway. My only investment strategy was to bet against my better instincts…. It’s like putting money down against your hometown team in the Superbowl – either way you win, sorta…. I’ll just work until I die, I suppose….) and I could still afford to keep up my stupid mac-loyalty and pre-obsolescent replacement plan if I really wanted to. *

So the question of the previous post remains: what would it take to turn my silly performance of austerity, emblematic of the behavior patterns that are leading the Italian restaurants to ply you with free booze, into something that could actually reap left-benefit. I watch myself in these things because I am normal enough, in some important ways, to work as my own canary in the c.m.

* I know. I bought the eee. But the eee is not a computer, it is a secondary device. And it cost one-sixth of what I’d pay if I were to upgrade the MBP. The point holds, I think. Unless it doesn’t.

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February 24, 2009 at 12:05 am

Posted in me, simplicity

the drama of austerity

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The Guardian last week on the rising demand for garden allotments in the UK:

The trust’s director general, Fiona Reynolds, said the scheme tapped into a mood in which, as a result of the recession, people’s priorities were changing from materialism towards “real” things such as spending time with family, and homegrown food.

Reynolds said: “There’s something in the air. More and more people want to grow their own fruit and vegetables. This isn’t just about saving money – it’s really satisfying to sow seeds and harvest the fruit and veg of your labour. By creating new growing spaces the National Trust can help people to start growing for the first time.”

Not long ago in the New York Times, on Japan and its falling consumer demand:

Younger people are feeling the brunt of that shift. Some 48 percent of workers age 24 or younger are temps. These workers, who came of age during a tough job market, tend to shun conspicuous consumption.

They tend to be uninterested in cars; a survey last year by the business daily Nikkei found that only 25 percent of Japanese men in their 20s wanted a car, down from 48 percent in 2000, contributing to the slump in sales.

Young Japanese women even seem to be losing their once- insatiable thirst for foreign fashion. Louis Vuitton, for example, reported a 10 percent drop in its sales in Japan in 2008.

“I’m not interested in big spending,” says Risa Masaki, 20, a college student in Tokyo and a neighbor of the Takigasakis. “I just want a humble life.”

The papers love this sort of story, which fits all sorts of long-established storylines. Among many other reasons: anxious self-imposed austerity is a more comforting emplotment of demand destruction than other contenders. Not having much choice in the matter,  a large fraction of humanity already eats the food that they grow themselves everyday without it being really newsworthy, and people not buying fancy clothes and cars happens all the time in a not quite narrativizable way. *

But still there’s something to this. Just something that’s not all that useful in its present form. I do happen to think that there probably is a hard-wired way that humans react to bad economic news. Whether the “wiring” actually happens on a neuro-psychological level or on the level of cultural precedent and morés, it doesn’t really matter. But likely there’s something in us that wants to eat a bit less when it looks like the eating might not be so great once this years harvest returns are processed, or because the droughts dried up all the crops – something that carries through to mute the reptile mind when we read that Citigroup is about to be nationalized or the like.

But it’s not all that useful an impulse, when repeatedly captured and characterized according to the plotlines on display above. What it would be useful to do, if we were to invest ourselves in small little counter-ideological projects, would be to attempt to turn the representation of these stories away from the endorsement of some sort of self-hating, self-lacerating fantasy of austere living (we should eat cabbage stew because we’ve been bad consumers!) toward a useful reevaluation of cultural priorities that might lead to a more useful long term result than the sort of thing that happens in individual households, at the grocery store, and in the garden plot. If the citizenry feels nauseously hung-over from the mode and speed and pitch of life during the bubble and its aftermath, it would be better encouraged to contemplate better, wider answers to such a malaise than neo-christian martyrdom by-storebrand purchases.

Zeitgeisty mass-reactions are real, harnessable. They are generally harnessed in service of the worst or the useless. This happens not simply because there are nefarious, implicit conspiracies to drive them in this direction. Sometimes there are, sometimes there aren’t, generally it’s way more complicated than that. I think this issue is one that people on our send tend to over-simplify and under-read. But there are opportunities for engagement and intervention and tide-turning, we we to think about what we’re doing and maybe work from a common starting place and toward a common if open end.

* Another little find, not yet processed, in re aggregate fiction, by the way.

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February 23, 2009 at 11:32 pm

neurath into narrative

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Ah this is just amazing…

I haven’t yet had time to digest all of this, as I only just found it now, but what’s immediately fantastic about this is that the narrativized isotypes tell just the right kind of story – perfect form and content cohesion. *

The work, “The Book of the Ground,” is by an artist named Xu Bing whose webpage you can see here. What’s even more fantastic, perhaps, than the thing itself is the computer program that he’s devised in order to write in this language.

Book from the Ground is a novel written in a “language of icons” that I have been collecting and organizing over the last few years. Regardless of cultural background, one should be able understand the text as long as one is thoroughly entangled in modern life. We have also created a “font library” computer program to accompany the book. The user can type English sentences (we are still limited in this way, but the next step will include Chinese and other major languages) and the computer will instantaneously translate them into this language of icons. It can function as a “dictionary,” and in the future it will have practical applications.

Where can I download a copy of that? Feels like it should have come with my eee (yes I bought one, sorry pollian! you know how I get with these things – have seen it from the fucking iPaq and Clie on, no?)

From what I can tell, when the Book was exhibited at Moma, a computer was set up to allow chatting in the pictographic language:

Mmmm. Utopian, modernist, universalist chat.

Anyway, I’m still collecting my thoughts (and, really, myself) after finding all of this. There’s a lot more to say. Perhaps the first thing to consider are the stakes and ramifications of narrativizing a picto-linguistic form that was designed from the start in resistence to narrativization. And Xu Bing says a few questionable things about the relationship between his project and the universal reign of capital (“Capital has become the new global language of power, but it must still undergo large-scale unification before it can more effectively control commerce” – oh, is that what we’re up to then?) And there might be, just might be, a relationship between these two problems. More thought required! I certainly hope it isn’t a case of “The Book of the Ground” is to Neurath and Arntz as the Saks Sack is to Rodchenko!

But for now, I’m very happy to see all of this. Mmmm work-fodder is almost as good as utopian chat forms! God knows we need both!

* I’m more nervous about labelling the form / content cohesion “perfect” at the end of this post than I was at the beginning. More soon! I promise promise!

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February 11, 2009 at 1:14 am

mosselprom on fifth avenue, and the afterlife of constructivism

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a new ad campaign from saks fifth avenue

a new ad campaign from saks fifth avenue

There’s a piece in the IHT today on constructivism. Ah, a specter’s haunting, you know, the ad men. But there are more serious / valuable paragraphs that come after the stuff about Saks.

Constructivism is also a critical influence on the creation of digital imagery. This is partly because of the intellectual link from the original Soviet Constructivists to contemporary software designers. The trajectory begins with Moholy-Nagy, who worked in the United States with his fellow Hungarian, Gyorgy Kepes, on early theories of the construction of mechanical images. Kepes shared their thinking with his students, including Bass, and later with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among them the pioneering technologists Muriel Cooper and Nicholas Negroponte. The digital artist John Maeda studied under them and then taught Ben Fry and Casey Reas, the inventors of Processing, the advanced software that produces visualization, arguably the most compelling new visual language of our time.

Visualization, or “viz” as it is nicknamed, crunches through complex data to create digital images that explain its meaning clearly. As dynamic digital media, visualizations can be constantly updated, enabling them to illustrate changing information and complicated concepts that are too elusive to be depicted accurately on traditional charts or graphs. Geopolitical developments, such as population shifts, and virtual phenomena, like the flow of Internet traffic, lend themselves to visualization, as do scientific and medical theories. Among the most ambitious applications is the Blue Brain Project in Lausanne, where a group of neuroscientists is trying to create a visualization of the human brain, in the hope that it can be used to help find cures for Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases.

The “viz” phenomenon owes more to Soviet Constructivism than its academic pedigree. When Rodchenko and Popova designed posters and pamphlets for the Soviet state, they were trying to help a confused and largely illiterate population to make sense of the dramatic changes in their daily lives. New laws. New institutions. New working practices. New expectations. New taboos. Their striking collages must have looked as exhilarating to 1920s workers as luscious digital visualizations do to us today, and shared the same aim of helping people to make sense of the complexity of modern life. That’s why there’s so much more to Constructivism than a style that shifts slouchy bags.

This is a story that I didn’t really know, but I’m glad to learn. I’ve begun work on a project on simplicity and modernism, and I must admit that I first became fixated on the term when I was reading John Maeda’s blog and looking at his book on the topic. But I had no idea that there was a traceable genealogy back to exactly the stuff that I’ll probably, long way around, start the project with…

Ah, sometimes, despite what I said and then redacted, it feels really good to be an academic and a blogger, and whatever else it is that I might be. If I could actually find room for all of this stuff in the book that I want to write, man….

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February 9, 2009 at 10:01 pm

simple modernism

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Tell yourself the story of Oedipus Rex. Take a few seconds to do it, a few minutes. If you want the particulars, look them up.

So, it’s a bit more complicated than this due to the preserved unities (and more on this complexity in a minute), but you’ve got the prophesy, the slaying of the father and the marrying of the mother, with the riddle of the Sphinx in between.  Then (now we’re in the real time of Sophocles’s play), we have the arrival of Tiresias, the revelation of the true nature of Oedipus’s crimes, the suicide of Jocasta, Oedipus’s eyes out with the brooch, and then his self-exile.

Now, imagine alternate ways the story might have been told or might have happened. We could have followed blind, dripping Oedipus along his way to Colonus, but left off before we got there or just as he made it to the gates? What if we had narrowly focused in on a day featuring nothing but particularly good sex with Jocasta, or another in which Oedipus spent 9-5 working on land distribution in Thebes or hearing court cases?

Better yet, what if Oedipus had never found out about his crimes, and instead had died of old age? Or what if he had never committed the crimes in the first place, but rather stayed on with Polybus and Merope, eventually reigning unspectacularly in Corinth for a decade or two, before his own son took his place on the throne?

What if he did kill his father and marry his mother but such practices were so widespread at the time that it wasn’t really much of a big deal – he kills Tiresias, shrugs, and heads back to bed with his mother?

What sort of play would Oedipus Rex be if it didn’t locate itself right at the crucial moment, the moment of anagnorisis and peripeteia, retroactive revelation and reversal of circumstances? What if bad things happened, but nothing changed. Or no one knew (or allowed themselves to know) that the bad things had happened. What if the bad things – at least these bad things – had never taken place, either because they didn’t happen or for one reason or another they were not “bad.”

Aristotle, in the Poetics, discusses plot in a way that seems to hold room open for both Sophocles’s play and my own versions of it.

Some plots are simple, others complex, since the actions of which the plots are imitations are themselves also of these two kinds. By a simple action I mean one which is, in the sense defined, continuous and unified, and in which the change of fortune comes about without reversal and recognition. By complex, I mean one in which the change of fortune involves reversal or recognition or both. These must arise from the actual structure of the plot, so that they come about as a result of what has happened before, out of necessity or in accordance with probability. There is an important difference between a set of events happening because of certain other events and after certain other events.

The simple plot with a simple action “in which the change of fortune comes about without reversal and recognition.” We have two words for that sort of action when we’re made to watch it on stage, the movie screen, or the television news; those words are boring and fucked-up. Nothing happens, or something fails to happen, or something happens but no one pays a price, no one even notices, catharsis fails to come, retribution is not ours or theirs. In some sense, what Aristotle describes there with the notion of the simple plot is at once a formula an unstageable play and the logic of history, its brutality, most of the time.

It’s also the formula, I would argue, that best defines the diffuse field of texts that we label today modernist narrative. Imagine these possibilities:

  • Insanely brutal events happen in the Belgian Congo, but it is hard to figure out what or why. One agent of the company in charge is sent to find out the status of another. The latter dies unspectacularly, and the first agent heads back to Europe to talk to the deceased’s girlfriend.
  • A writer writing during and just after the First World War writes a work of epical scope that seems to be bent on the full capture of the realities of life during modernity. But despite the war raging all around him as he writes, he sets the work in the second city (if that!) of the British empire, a backwater full of semi-employed wanderers, and most unnervingly, he sets it exactly ten years before the beginning of the war that would define the early part of the century. *
  • A shell-shocked war veteran kills himself by leaping from his doctor’s window and landing on the area fence. Nonetheless, a woman hosts a lavish party. Not long before this 500,000 Armenians are massacred, and no one really notices.
  • A man comes to a door that has been erected only for him. He does not pass through the door. Nearby, a man is summonded to a trial of the gravest importance that never happens. In the same general area, a family goes back to work after the death of the eldest son, who had been turned into…

When I claim that preoccupation with the everyday is one of the defining characteristics of modernist narrative, I mean the everyday that takes place in lieu of or in resistance to the event. Or even better, the everyday is what takes the place where we would normally expect to find the event – the historical event, yes, but more specifically – technically – the action that turns and in turning provokes reflection that is the most fundamentally characteristic gesture of narrative itself. It would be utterly easy, in certain sense, and utterly literary, in a specific sense, to organize narratives that deal directly with the events of the period: colonial brutality, the advent of total war, bureaucratization verging on dehumanizing totalitarianism. War and sex, violence and news all give themselves to retelling in fiction – but for some reason, the most memorable texts of the most memorable period of fictional production during the past century and a half refuse to take the bait.

Just as water flows downhill, fictional impetus flows into Aristotle’s complex plot forms. Modernist authors did not so much reverse the flow, but rather, however fluid their discursive forms might be, resisted the notion of flow and change altogether.

* See my next post…

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January 11, 2009 at 9:58 pm

to eee or not to eee

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From a constructivist manifesto by Mayakovsky cited in Barrett Watten’s The Constructivist Moment:

What are the fundamental requirements for beginning poetic labor?

[…]

Fourth: Equipment. The business equipment and tools of the trade  Pen, pencil, typewriter, telephone, a suit for visits to the doss-house, a bicycle for riding to editorial offices, a well-arranged table.

I am trying to decide whether or not to buy an eee tomorrow. (Adam Kotsko went through the same ordeal a few days ago…)  I’ve tried out IT’s when she’s not looking, and I do like the damn thing, even though, sure, they keys are tiny and my fingers are very very long. But first of all I have an ancient (but apparently still value-retaining) gift card for an electronics store that may or may not survive the first month of the new year… I’m not sure how much is on it, but it should at least be enough to knock a fifth or a third off of the price. I want the barest-bones model they carry…. Aside from the light weight and narrow dimensions of the thing (it takes up the same amount of space, reportedly, as the hardcover copy of Harry Potter and the Ivory Tower of Self-Denial that I carry around with me everywhere I go) it’s the open-source minimalism that makes me crave owning one. I tried to install Linux on one of my own old machines (a superlight Dell with a crapped out battery) but gave up once I realized how complicated the drivers would be to acquire and orient.  But using the eee would, I’m sure, feel like I was using a computer from the minimalist, rationalized future, like a  govt. issued intellectual sidearm stocked with freeware and political-correctness. And if it didn’t, I would make it feel so by sheer force of delusional will.

But on the other hand, the very program (Macjournal) that I’m writing this post in – and which I know use for all sorts of notetaking and record-keeping and personal journaling and blogging – obviously I won’t have on the new machine. And it won’t effortlessly sync with my other machines via (the incredibly expensive) .mac thing. I write my lectures and do my course prep and keep research notes in Circus Ponies Notebook, and I’m thinking about using Scrivener for book type projects. Not to mention iTunes, and the difficulty of marking papers the way I like to in OpenOffice.Argghh! Mac lock-in! Proprietary formats! It really is a problem, though. The deal breaker, maybe.

I’ve always, since I was a kid, been a materials and means fetishist. I suspect that many of us in this business one way or another are the same way, had the same start. The four color pens, the trapper-keeper inserts, later filofax things, pdas, and now my iPhone and potentially the eee. If this is the case, it’s actually a cheering thought – the idea that we write because we like to play with the tools, that the tools exists therefore we should use them with enthusiasm to make something good… We’re all of us constructivists from the start. Figuring out what it should mean that this is the case, aside from buying a new computer with a utopian (if locked down) operating system, is another matter but worth considering….

This isn’t a start at that consideration, but it is worth noting: at various times when I’ve considered giving up blogging, one of the leading thoughts contra is the consideration of what then my computer will be good for if it’s scaled back to simple email reception and word processing and light surfing. The Macbook would, in other, feel broken, out of work, if I didn’t blog. See? The tool forces the tool-use when the tool is owned by someone like me.

Another post entirely should be devoted to the other major purchase I am planning for my last days in the land of the free: gonna buy a pair of jeans, my first in oh several decades. Hmmmm….. It feels like such a bad idea now that I put it in html. I haven’t worn jeans in approximately, well, since I was a young boy. Another post, another post. Who knew I’d veer into a bizarre form of (self-referential) fashion blogging.

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January 2, 2009 at 7:14 am

Posted in me, open, simplicity

wishful thinking

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From Readymade and via Boredom is Always Counter-Revolutionary, a poster series:

Given the current economic meltdown, this 75th anniversary of the New Deal has particular resonance. How might the current government stem the tide of economic and psychological depression? Can artists and designers help in similar ways today? It’s curious that the WPA style has been reprised in the recent past as a quaint retro conceit, but today may be an opportune time for a brand-new graphic language—equal in impact to the original initiative, but decidedly different—to help rally the cause of hope and optimism.

Though it’s a fun idea that Readymade has here, the posters are dispiriting for at least three reasons.

  1. Aesthetically, they reach no higher plane than the better JetBlue brand campaigns. If the past was helvetican, the future of public art, apparently, brings the serif back into the fold in a goof-folk way. Ugh… And age of aquarius flowerglobs and bloombursts! Anything but that!
  2. The best we can hope for, it seems, is the meager consolation of the reusable shopping-bag college town shabby affluent ethicalism. We won’t have much, but what we have will be green….  Rather than the contemporary equivalent of rural electrification, we get nothing more than good feelings and above all else unanchored hope for its own sake.
  3. Of course, Readymade’s project is meant to be aspirational, at the best suggestive, rather than predicative. But there is something frustrating about even the halfhearted or semicomical discussion of the possibility WPA-type support for creatives in the current environment. It simply isn’t going to happen – there is zero chance that any of us end up writing or illustrating guidebooks or muraling post offices.

Sorry to break it to us, but there simply won’t be public service design and writing stipends rolling around. Just as Obama’s new roads and bridges will be subcontracted out rather than built by armies of federal employees, if new work there is to be for folks like us think more along the lines of back-to-work facilitator or dry-erase confidence augmenter under the aegis of some private corporation running JobCentre or workfare offices.

Merry Christmas! Sorry…. Here, some comic relief, or preemptive training in the skill of skills-training, or something…

On a related note,  there are ominous signs that the primary existing form of state support for intellectuals, academic work (you know, the sort of support where the salary comes with the added perk of a free – and manditory – mental spay / neuter), seems to be headed towards crisis as or more rapidly than we expected. This cover article in the Guardian about the rapidly shrinking endowments of Russell Group universities led our departmental Christmas lunch to be dominated by conversations about any other transferable skills that we might individually possess. (Typing? Private Tutoring? Copyediting?) And of course the pampered types at Russell Group unis here or Ivies over there have the least to worry about. IT has been, as usual, excellent of late on the way that what the crisis will bring, in a sense, is nothing more than a continuation of the status quo at many places.

Although it currently looks like a good idea to be a public servant of one kind or another (as the spivs in shiny shoes run off to teacher training college), it won’t be long before the financial crisis hits universities hard (funny how the ‘trickle-down’ is so much more effective when it’s the redistribution of loss). Small departments are in big trouble. Any good will extended towards the future (‘give us five years to prove how good we could be!’) will be retracted in the name of short-term savings. Informed once again the other day that our department was not in the strongest position because we had no ‘stars’, it was hard not to imagine senior management pitting small programmes against one another in a kind of X-factor head-to-head (But she once had a piece in the Guardian! But he appeared on Newsnight! Isn’t he friends with Martin Amis? Doesn’t she have contacts in the city?).

The management solution, of course, is to cut the time allowed for research (while at the same time push for constant publication) and demand cuts in teaching (‘why can’t you run seminars with 20?’) in favour of the churning out of grant applications. Sod the students! Once they’re here we’ve got their money, who cares if they repeatedly tell us they want more teaching and more seminars and more intellectual engagement? And PhD students! Get lots of them! They bring in tons of cash! Too bad you don’t have enough time to write anything on a topic that someone might want to come and work with you on.

And of course, of course – just before many of you cancel out the rss feed on my site – the potential plight of the already employed is absolutely nothing in comparison to the very real and right-now shit situation faced by the not-yet-employed. While it’s always been bleak, this year it’s beyond bleak. And I’m sure next year it will be even worse, as the last few jobs that were already in the pipeline will have already spilled out at the terminus. I write people to see how their searches are going, always a delicate email to compose and to respond to. This year, friends simply don’t write back.

So, look. None of this is going to lead to the fulfillment of that weird fantasy that so many of us seem to share of shuffling out of the office in the department to write banal travel guides of Delaware or join a troupe of travelling avant-garde actors touring the smaller cities and rural high schools of our great nations. Nothing good, I imagine, will come of this, but if it did – if we were asked to suggest something – I wonder what solution we would come up with in order to relieve the reserve armies of immaterial labor when they’re (we’re) finished being put out of work. One solution would be to radically boost primary and secondary school funding, but this strategy comes with its own distinctive perils. (Here’s IT again…)

More to come…

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December 13, 2008 at 12:02 pm

wtf? where’s my gmail?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August 11, 2008 at 11:13 pm

blanchot / everyday / backwards

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Maurice Blanchot on “everyday speech”:

The everyday escapes. In this consists its strangeness – the familiar showing itself (but already dispersing) in the guise of the astonishing. It is the unperceived, first in the sense that we have always looked past it; nor can we introduce it into a whole or “review” it, that is to say, enclose it within a panoramic vision; for, by another trait, the everyday is what we never see for a first time but can only see again, having always already seen it by an illusion that is constitutive of the everyday.

Right. But… what if he has it exactly backwards. What if it is not that the everyday allows no hold, but simply that we dare not hold it? Or don’t want to hold it? Or cannot hold it, given what we’re usually up to when we’re trying to do this sort of thing? Novels without turns, essays without argument, simply do not sell. It’s frightening to put yourself out of work. And the everyday loves not turns, arguments. So you make it disappear into a protean blur.

Do you see the anxiety there? Why do things have to be dressed in the guise of the astonishing? Why do we have to look panoramically? Who is it that worries about things seeming like we’ve seen them all before?

Moving forward, we should try not to ontologize that which is locally, historically caused, and in particular that which is caused by the functional dysfunctions of our disciplines.

(Of course, of course – I myself am trying to be astonishing, right now, to work panoramically, and to say something new… Big problem, hard to fix the performative inversion when working this way and on issues like this one…. Translate Spivak’s “strategic essentialism” into “strategic performative inversion” and go from there… make it marketable once and for all to abolish the market… the new to abolish the new… the argument to end all arguments…)

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July 31, 2008 at 1:49 pm

Posted in everyday, simplicity