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le degré zéro de l’europe

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I am lucky enough to have travelled lots in my life, and because I’m so lucky, I am unlucky enough to be getting a little jaded with the whole affair. Especially now that it takes 1.51 minutes to get into the thick of what used to thrill me the most, and what used to take 7+ hours of flying, jet lag, airport transfers, etc.

I have my own subscription to the International Herald Tribune now. It comes in through my mail slot at an hour that is either very very late or very very early, depending on whether I’m sleeping or working at the time. (If you want, roll to the ten minute mark of this… Unfortunately, that’s not who brings my copy…) I read it on the Underground on the way to work each day. We used to devour it, each and every word, on trains and in train stations. We’d split it into parts to share. Now, some days, and despite its cost, it goes  unread alogether.

So I have developed a resistance. It was bound to happen, and again, it is in a sense a luxury to have such a problem. The only thing that does the trick now is the taste of a sort of abstract and unmarked europeaness. I visited one of the cities that does not make the guidebooks last weekend – we were visiting a friend who was there for a month. Population about 250,000 – not far off the city that I left behind in the US to move over here.

There is almost nothing of note to see in this city. A new Calatrava train station that’s quite wonderful, but not yet open. Everything else, from what I can tell, in the tourism line are only regional curiosities – unremarkable cathedrals, an enormous staircase up the side of a hill, some lovely bridges over a lovely river. Even the public art, the statues, seem to be drawn from a catalogue of generic statuary – the sort of works that a computer would pick if it were decorating a town of this size.

All that said, I loved it. I loved the flat fronted, 1960s apartment buildings everywhere. I asked my host if the district I was in was heavily damaged during the war, either of the wars. But it wasn’t – it was just empty and then filled. We ate breakfast at the same cafe each day, and ordered the same set order. There were chain stores, but unremarkable ones – mostly midmarket eurobrands that I’ve never visited. There was a bus system, and a Füssgänger Zone, and an aquarium. There weren’t many banks, and supermarkets were hard to find. In general, in cities like this one, I find it amazing how little retail there is in the residential districts. People must walk downtown for nearly everything. Park with a playground by the river, a few semi-trendy restaurants (“you can go to this one in the capital too!”)

Everything at once ancient and modern, fixed and modular. People rode bicycles, drunks sat on benches with cans of local beer. The last night, we kept the kids out too late at a cafe and they were rowdy, and we bothered a middle-aged guy, fat and with a nicely trimmed beard, who was reading a journal called Critique while he sipped a beer and wrote notes in his notebook. We were a little drunk and we wanted to say, but look, we do what you do, but in the metropole. Cut us some slack. There were brothels by the train stations, and I looked but I couldn’t see them on the way back.

Of course some of the facination comes of a crusty europhilia that every american has and sophisticated ones try to lose. Cute cafe – what a breakfast, with the hock of bread and confitture and, mmm, wonderful little cheeses and butter and some coldcuts of meat (we are near germany, aren’t we?) But there is also something a little more interesting than that – something that falls under that fascinating word fadeur that so preoccupied Barthes – and preoccupies me now. There are lots of ways to come at the issue – the most direct route would be to think about middleway social democracy, the cold war, what to do with the Calatrava train station, and the like. But for now I wish that I could spend not a life but a few years there, and if I did, I would wander thinking what is the minimal action? Shall I take a bus? Shall I take my daughter to the park? I should eat something simple and drink something nice, but in real moderation. I must live within bounds, aim for nothing more, because my life should match its environment. I shall read Critique at the cafe and write in my notebook and try not to glare at the tourists and their noisy children, but I will glare anyway, just once or twice. And you see, you see, it would be unsustainable. It would miss the point. I am where I belong, unfortunately, fortunately. London, perhaps, is suiting me all too well.

There were old people, and not all that many young people now that I think of it.  There wasn’t an art museum, I don’t think – at least not that I saw. It was hard to buy a Herald Tribune, but easy to get the British papers, which was fine, really. There was however a tourist, taking notes in his notebook, thinking the phrase le degré zéro de l’europe over and over and over again. But he did not take photographs, only looked.

(NB: I borrowed this person‘s photos for this piece…. They are truly lovely… I will start carrying a camera someday, but I really do prefer to use the images that others have taken, for reasons that I think are relatively implicit in the piece itself…)

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July 30, 2008 at 10:33 am

Posted in europe, generic, simplicity

used to be the f train, now it’s the victoria line

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While, overall, the London Underground works a lot better than the NYC subway system (how many times did I wait for 15 minutes for the F at Bergen? Waiting 15 minutes here would lead you to think that something terrible had happened topside) I do definitely miss the MTA design elements. Labelling things with single letters and numbers will always, always beat giving them (often political freighted) names, just as numbering streets will always be more modern and wonderful than all those dead folks clotting up our maps and making everything vastly more difficult to navigate. And placing those letters and numbers in sharply colored circles redoubles the fun…

The picture above is from a very nice post on Christoph Niemann’s NYT blog. Sometimes it seems like the only true barometer of things worth keeping in this world – especially when the aesthetics of everyday life are concerned – are things that are worthy of childhood obsessions.

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July 3, 2008 at 2:55 pm

Posted in simplicity

“you would think they were praying to it”

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A young man whose English is of rather recent vintage has been coming around just about every other day in a very sharp if cheap suit to knock on our door and educate us on the amazing opportunities to save! big! bucks! via energy deregulation. He’s caught me in moments of rage in my sleepy clothes (rage re: the previous post) and yesterday he woke up my daughter after my wife had painstakingly gotten her down for a nap so that she could get some work in.

We tell him to come back later, every time he knocks, but yesterday he caught me coming in from a smoke on the street and I got to hear the pitch. I had a bit of trouble making out what he was exactly talking about, what he was selling – I think electricty, from some company that’s not British Gas, which is what we’ve got. But what I could make out – and christ if he didn’t say the word six or seven times in the course of his 90 second pitch – was deregulation. I had not heard of deregulation, had I? I did not know what deregulation was, did I, and that what it was was an opportunity for me to save several pence per unit on my electricity consumption? Did I know that deregulation afforded me choice, unprecedented choice, whereas in previous years, the years Before Deregulation, I was forced to simply pay the rate they wanted me to pay for my energy?

It made me think of Conrad, actually, though almost everything nowadays does:

“I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life. Still, one must look about sometimes; and then I saw this station, these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard. I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence. The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.

I guess Enron, not just its final implosion but more the summer of rolling blackouts that it orchestrated in California in 2000 (see the last paragraphs here) wasn’t as big a story over here. But then again, I guess you can still here the pitch back home – more to would-be pyramid scheme early-entryists than to end users, but still…

Perhaps that’s the sort of video my young travelling salesman friend has seen. Perhaps that’s what he’s up to. I love the part about the “greatest redistribution of wealth ever seen in our nation.” There’s a specter haunting America, the specter of infotainment driven microenronbots knocking on yr doors, redistributing yr wealths…

Mine is a bit more perverse perhaps and frontminded, but I think there are actually tons and tons of people who share a tendency to stick with what once were state-run monopoly operators out of a set of wholly comprehensible (if often, now, illusory) reasons. Nostalgia for simplicity and security would probably lead the pack. It drives the slimy-laissez fairists mad, the unwillingness to take the time to consider our options in full (maybe set a weekend aside to go over our literature and those of our competitors with your spouse) and to be brave and self-standing enough to take the great leap forward into market choice! This tendency – see this clip for an interesting case study – is again something that might well be a popular instinct with potential to be activated into something useful indeed.

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June 17, 2008 at 11:21 am

shunted off the information superhighway

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So one of the tidbits that travels back from american expats in the uk, and has for a long time, is the incredible asskicking difficulty of getting phone/internet/tv set up here. Ah, I thought, I am patient. I have a phone that gets email, and the tv gets freeview, and there’s internet at my office, so I will be so angelically calm through the weeklong wait.

Weeklong wait, weeklong wait. If only a weeklong wait.

Let me confirm what those previous expats have said. This is no fun. First, the broadband cable people (company named after a pre-sexual condition, or one who is in that condition) find the fiber-optic leash is snapped in the street, and would take digging, so I cancelled and stuffed politics to one side and went instead with the fascist operators named after the blue (gray, here) dome above us, who came today and can’t because, um, there’s reno scaffolding next door in front, and the neighbor’s new loft blocks the back, and they won’t do chimney’s because that is dangerous and so I cancelled them out too.

So now, apparently, on to my oxygeny mobile phone operator, once the telecom monopoly of espana, now just some random post-privatization conglomerate. They are cheap; they have promised access within 6 to 10 days; we will see about that.

One day, though, one day, my friends and readers, I will blog again during the sliver of time I devote to this sort of thing in the evenings.

But for now, and there’s a lot more to come on this from me soon, I hope: let’s think about advertisements for socialism. Not placards or prints or tv spots in this case, but policy and institutions that both are themselves socialist and encourages people to think well of public ownership and provision, to turn against the private sphere as corrupt and inefficient, impossibly bureaucratic (despite the incessant promises of efficiency and cost-effectiveness). Let’s think about what, say, wide-scale public wifi would do for our movement, and the reasons why it’s been for the most part prevented so far, and why exactly it’s proven so difficult for us to article the utter insanity of blocking access to something everyone, everyone would agree would be a wonderful thing simply in order to maintain an inefficiently organized market for these services.

“Yeah, we used to pay for internet access. It was crazy – crazy expensive and a pain in the ass to get fixed. Now it’s just there….”

(You can substitute medical care, eduction, effective and clean transport, housing, entertainment, books, whatever you like for “internet access.” It is, like almost every other political problem, an Overton Window issue… We’ve had rather nice but uncosmopolitan americans staying with us this week, first time international travellers. It’s so fun telling them about flat rate prescriptions – free for kids! – from the NHS and the like… If you’re a jaded britainian, let me recommend hosting middle-class americans for memphis for a week – it’ll show you full well how much is still left here, despite it all, that’s worth fighting for…)

Relatedly, I am beginning to think that the real and ultimate source of the incredibly hot antipathy that the Bush administration has for Hugo Chavez – why they (to all appearances) intervene in Venezuela’s affairs, elevate him to AofE stature, and all the rest – isn’t because he calls names, or even because he threatens to play games with the oil supply, but simply because he raises the specter of a solution to the world’s economic and perhaps even envirnomental crises so glaringly obvious and in the end simple and really with ample precident, that it is bound to start occurring in the minds of the US citizenry, popping up like little thought bubbles as they fill their tanks the morning after hearing news reports of the absolutely insane profit reports on tv the night before. That is, HC nationalized the oil industry in VZ. He thought and did the utterly thinkable that must somehow remain unthinkable, beyond the pale, lest wonderfulness break out all over and spoil the fun of dark times for those with a stake in dark times.

Too much too quickly and in the wrong order, but I’ve been thinking that we might want to be more specific about what it is that we propose, move away from amorphous think-good amelioration and nostalgia and, you know, pick a bit that seems important. I vote the communalization (used to be nationalization before I fixed it) of things. Services, maybe industries, and the like. This will be way too quick, really flimsy and insubstantial, but while watching this the other night, the part where it gets to Thatcher and the privatization horrors, Marr emphasized the way that one privatization would, in a sense, pay for the next. I wonder if that (and given all different senses of the word “pay”) mightn’t run in reverse as well. And I finally wonder if the window of opportunity hasn’t already begun to open, what with Northern Rock and almost inevitably the american airlines within a year or so, and we’ll see what comes next.

Start whispering it around to your friends and neighbors. We could have them, given the right turn of events, by force majeure. That is to say, we might have to have them. State of emergency and all….

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June 16, 2008 at 2:53 pm

an “iPod government” vs. the EITC

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From the New York Times this weekend:

On many budget matters, Mrs. Clinton’s instincts seem similar to her husband’s. Both favor carefully crafted tax credits that can help people who most need it, that come with relatively modest price tags and that seem likely to survive a divided Congress.

Mr. Obama sometimes talks of his vision of an “iPod government,” with simple programs that people can understand. He also talks of persuading voters and members of Congress, including Republicans, to support his plans.

Ah, whether through coyly rendered insight or dumb luck, the reporter here is on to something in the arrangement of these two paragraphs. The policy opposite of an “iPod government,” in the best possible case of what that might mean is in fact the system (a mainstay of neo-liberal regimes of the last decade or so) of shifting from direct social disbursements to the tax credit form of funds delivery. Google around for “unrecovered tax credits” and you’ll see why this might be the case.

You might start with the wikipedia article on the Earned Income Tax Credit, which includes the following paragraphs:

Millions of American families who are eligible for the EITC do not receive it, leaving billions of additional tax credit dollars unclaimed. Research by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Internal Revenue Service indicates that between 15% and 25% of households who are entitled to the EITC do not claim their credit, or between 3.5 million and 7 million households.

The average EITC amount received per family in 2002 was $1,766. Using this figure and a 15% unclaimed rate would mean that low-wage workers and their families lost out on more than $6.5 billion, or more than $12 billion if the unclaimed rate is 25%.

To translate this into UKese, look here. And here’s a graphical representation (what else?) of just why the EITC is a symptom of a politics of neo-liberal complexity, rather than true socialist simplicity:

Easy enough to figure out what’s coming to you, eh? Try it yourself to see. This is the “survival of the fittest” version of the welfare state, designed to fail. Born of actuarial anticipation rather than humane and good faith efforts to help. Perhaps most important of all, even if it does work, it’s designed in such a way that almost no one can understand how it works, or even what it is in the first place. But this too is the point, for if the citizenry was to move about with a sense that they in any sense are thought to be entitled to a living, well…. we simply can’t have that, those are waters that we don’t dare to sail into, etc etc…

Sadly, I’ve not really seen any signs that Obama actually means to take the project of (best case) iPod governmentality up. I suppose there’s more to say – about the difference between best and worst case simplicity, what lies between those poles, and what in the end I think all this might mean… As always more to come…

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May 5, 2008 at 1:16 am

rancière on bovary

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I’ve read just about all the Flaubert criticism there is to read that’s available in English, and lots that’s not. But Jacques Rancière’s “Why Emma Bovary Had to Be Killed,” published recently in Critical Inquiry, might just be, pound for pound, the best I’ve ever read. (I apologize if you don’t have access to the journal one way or another). I’ve got lots to say about it, but will for tonight mostly just quote a bit to give you a taste. 


The fictional definition of Emma is in keeping with the big concern of the 1850s and 60s that was encapsulated in one word: excitement. At that time in France, the diagnosis could be heard everywhere at every time; society suered from a fatal disease that aected the social order and individ- ual behaviors as well. It had become an unrelenting turmoil of thoughts and desires, appetites and frustrations. In the good old times of monarchy, religion, and aristocracy, there had been a clear, long-standing hierarchy that put every group and every individual in its right place. It gave them a firm footing and limited horizons, which are the conditions of happiness for poor people. Unfortunately that order had been shattered, first by the French Revolution, second by the rise of industrialism, third by the new media—the newspapers, lithographs, and so on, which made words and images, dreams and aspirations, available everywhere to anybody. Society had become a hustle and bustle of free and equal individuals that were dragged together into a ceaseless whirl in search of an excitement that was nothing but the mere internalization of the endless and purposeless agitation of the whole social body.

Such was the discourse of the notables and the learned persons. What must draw our attention is the synonym they gave for that excitement. That synonym was democracy. They had first met democracy in the shape of the government of the people, the government of free and equal citizens, where the rulers and the ruled people are one and the same. Needless to say, they had eciently worked during the French Second Republic (1848–51) to crush the threat of democratic anarchy, at the cost of handing over their own freedom to a new emperor. But it was not enough to crush it by force. They had to annul its political significance, make it a mere sociological phe- nomenon. Therefore a new democratic ghost was substituted for the older; political democracy, they said, had been crushed, but there was a new, far more radical uprising of democracy that no police, no army could tear down: the uprising of the multitude of aspirations and desires, cropping up everywhere in all the pores of modern society. To be sure, the idea was not exactly new; Plato had invented it two millennia before by stating that democracy, in fact, was not a form of government but the way of life of those “free” Athenians who cared for nothing except their individual pleasure. The modern antidemocrats translated it into a more dramatic version, as the uprising of the multitude of unleashed social atoms, greedy to enjoy everything that was enjoyable: gold, indeed, and all the things that gold can buy, but also, what was worse, all that gold cannot buy—passions, values, ideals, art, and literature. Such was the big trouble as they saw it. It would be a lesser evil if poor people only wanted to get rich. Poor people are sup- posed to be “practically minded.” But poor people were now taking a new view of what practical-mindedness meant. They wanted to enjoy all that was enjoyable, including ideal pleasures. But they also wanted those ideal pleasures to be practically enjoyable ideal pleasures. 

For those who come upon Flaubert’s book, Emma Bovary is the frightening incarnation of that desire. She craves ideal romance and physical love. She constantly negotiates between material and ideal sources of excitement. When she has resisted her love for Leon, she thinks that she deserves a reward. She buys a piece of furniture. And not any piece of furniture: a gothic prie-dieu. This is what respectable persons perceive as the law of democracy, the law of universal equivalence: anybody can exchange any desire for any other desire. A critic sums it up as follows: “Madame Bovary, this means the pathological overexcitement of senses and imagination in dissatisfied democracy.” That would be a good reason for sentencing her to death. But respectable persons are not asked to judge Emma; they are only asked to judge her inventor. The first person who has an interest in killing her is Flaubert. Besides the trial of the writer, there is the trial that the writer mounts against his character. Besides the evil that frightens respectable persons, there is the evil done to literature by Emma, which means the evil that he wants her to do, that he embodies in Emma.

Perhaps you can sense where he’s headed with all this… The anxious war of Art vs. the aestheticization of everyday life as the battle between Flaubert and his creation, but it’s even more complex than a reactionary defense of privileged access to the aesthetic, as the aesthetic in question, the aesthetic perhaps proposed by Flaubert in Bovary is one that itself resists hierarchy, the oldest hierarchies that define the shape of art, and not just the shape of art. 

There is one person who could have explained it to Emma. Unfortunately it is the person whom you are not supposed to meet in a convent. It is the Devil. Before writing Madame Bovary, Flaubert had written the first version of his Temptation of Saint Anthony. The devil that tempted Saint Anthony was much cleverer and much more generous than the old nuns in the convent. He gave him the explanation of “mystic languor” as he dragged him on an aerial journey through space. He made him discover what life truly is when our sensations are released from the chains of individuality. With his help, the saint could discover strange forms of preindividual or impersonal life: “inanimate existences, inert things that seem animal, vegetative souls, statues that dream and landscapes that think.”5 In such a world our mind loses all its conventional bearings. It bursts into atoms of thought that come into unity with things that have themselves burst into a dance of atoms. The Devil reminded the saint that he had already felt that experience of fusion between the inside and the outside: “Often, because of anything at all, a drop of water, a shell, a strand of hair, you have stopped short, your eyes fixed and your heart open. The object you were gazing at seemed to encroach upon you, as you bent toward, and new ties were found: you clutched each other, you touched each other by subtle innumerable embraces.”

Those “subtle innumerable embraces,” those shells, strands of hair, and drops of water, together with sunrays, breaths of air, and grains of sand or dust whipped up by the wind make up the sensory framework of Madame Bovary. They are the real events of the novel. Every time that something happens in the fiction—notably the birth of a love—they are the real content of the event, the real cause of the emotion. Let us remember what happens when Charles first falls for Emma: “The draught beneath the door blew a little dust over the flagstones, and he watched it creep along” (B, p.35). 

When Emma falls for Rodolphe, she perceives little gleams of gold about his pupils, smells a perfume of lemon and vanilla, and looks at the long plume of dust raised by the stagecoach. And when she first falls for Leon, “weeds streamed out in the limpid water like green wigs tossed away. Now and then some fine-legged insects alighted on the tip of a reed or crawled over a water-lily leaf. The sunshine darted its rays through the little blue bubbles on the wavelets that kept forming and breaking” (B, p.107).

This is what happens: “little blue bubbles” on wavelets in the sunshine, or swirls of dust raised by the wind. This is what the characters feel and what makes them happy: a pure flood of sensations. Much later, the Proustian narrator will evoke the message addressed by the sensation to the person that it strikes, a message that he will sum up as follows: “Try to solve the riddle of happiness which I set you.”7 But the Flaubertian characters don’t solve the riddle. They don’t even understand what kind of happiness can be enclosed in swirls of dust and bubbles on wavelets. They want those microevents to be linked together in a real plot. They want the swirls and bubbles to be turned into properties of real things that can be desired and possessed, into features of individuals that they can love and who can love them. From the point of view of the writer, they don’t mistake art for life. They mistake one art for another and one life for another. They mistake one art for another; this means that they are still trapped in the old poetics with its combinations of actions, its characters envisioning great ends, its feelings related to the qualities of persons, its noble passions opposed to everyday experience, and so on. They are out of step with the new poetics that has shattered the hierarchical poetics of action in favor of an “egaliarian” poetics of life. This also means that they mistake one life for another. They still perceive a world of subjects and predicates, things and qualities, wills, ends and means. They think that things and persons have qualities that individualize them and make them desirable and enjoyable. In short, they think that life is defined by aims and purposes. They have not listened to the lesson of the Devil: life has no purpose. It is an eternal flood of atoms that keeps doing and undoing in new configurations. 

This is brilliant stuff, but there’s one thing perhaps that I’d tweak or add or augment. These micro-events that Rancière so persuasively describes are also a matter of time – they are time images, visual manifestations of the passage of time. The blowing of the dust, the movements of the insects – these events are a matter of a new, secular temporality that, like the aesthetic involved in their encapsulation in the novel, is incompatible with standard narrative forms. (Sometimes I call these temporality the anti-ephiphanic, other times simply the everyday. I comes to the same thing, in the end…) Novels can light on these moments, but novels cannot stay – and a novel made entirely of them (of course this happened, in a sense, later, with Woolf and others) simply does not work as a novel, does not do what a novel is supposed to do.

More to be said, of course…  


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April 23, 2008 at 9:54 pm

dignity without dignity, stage without an exit

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From the introduction of J. M. Coetzee’s Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (1997)

Innocence is a state in which we try to maintain our children; dignity is a state we claim for ourselves. Affronts to the innocence of our children or to the dignity of our persons are attacks not upon our essential being but upon constructs—constructs by which we live, but constructs nevertheless. This is not to say that affronts to innocence or dignity are not real affronts, or that the outrage with which we respond to them is not real, in the sense of not being sincerely felt. The infringements are real; what is infringed, however, is not our essence but a foundational fiction to which we more or less wholeheartedly subscribe, a fiction that may well be indispensable for a just society, namely, that human beings have a dignity that sets them apart from animals and consequently protects them from being treated like animals. (It is even possible that we may look forward to a day when animals will have their own dignity ascribed to them, and the ban will be reformulated as a ban on treating a living creature like a thing.)

The fiction of dignity helps to define humanity and the status of humanity helps to define human rights. There is thus a real sense in which an affront to our dignity strikes at our rights. Yet when, outraged at such affront, we stand on our rights and demand redress, we would do well to remember how insubstantial the dignity is on which those rights are based. Forgetting where our dignity comes from, we may fall into a posture as comical as that of the irate censor.

Life, says Erasmus’s Folly, is theater: we each have lines to say and a part to play. One kind of actor, recognizing that he is in a play, will go on playing nevertheless; another kind of actor, shocked to find he is participating in an illusion, will try to step off the stage and out of the play. The second actor is mistaken. For there is nothing outside the theater, no alternative life one can join instead. The show is, so to speak, the only show in town. All one can do is to go on playing one’s part, though perhaps with a new awareness, a comic awareness.

We thus arrive at a pair of Erasmian paradoxes. A dignity worthy of respect is a dignity without dignity (which is quite different from unconscious or unaffected dignity); an innocence worthy of respect is an innocence without innocence. As for respect itself, it is tempting to suggest that this is a superfluous concept, though for the workings of the theater of life it may turn out to be indispensable. True respect is a variety of love and may be subsumed under love; to respect someone means, inter alia, to forgive that person an innocence that, outside the theater, would be false, a dignity that would be risible.

Dangerous and interesting this, more to come, and perhaps something on why I like the constructions X without Xs, Xwithout Y, etc quite as much as I do….

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March 10, 2008 at 11:52 am

Posted in simplicity

overcoming informel

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October 3, 2007 at 1:13 pm

from the seatback pocket

It’s no surprise that the folllowing fliers from The Camp for Climate Action (who seem to be running the Heathrow protests…) would appeal to me:

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August 21, 2007 at 8:02 pm

Posted in design, simplicity

bring yr allen wrench

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Holy crap, do I want one of these.

I’m going to post more about this later, I think, with a bit more heft and a bit less raw fetishistical attachment. But my wife would never, ever let me buy one. At least I don’t think she would. But land is really cheap around here, even some gorgeous lakefront type stuff, nestled amidst vineyards and apple orchards. But I’d like electricity and water. Where do you pee, let alone poo? Maybe it’s not for me.

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July 21, 2007 at 12:13 am

Posted in simplicity

“universal is for everybody” – oprah discovers socialism

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Absolutely amazing moment today on tv. I had heard that Cormac McCarthy was going to be on Oprah to discuss The Road – which seemed like an unlikely and interesting thing to see so I taped the show. But as it turned out, the McCarthy section was by far less interesting than the first segment, which featured Michael Moore discussing his new movie about the American health care situation, Sicko.

The moment when it felt like the ground was giving way beneath my feet comes about 1:30 into this video (which is bound not to last on-line, so get it while the getting’s good)…

(The video is, as I predicted, now gone…)

Here’s a transcript of the exchange in question:


OK this is what I was going to say about the film – that I got it in a way that I hadn’t gotten it before. Now don’t you love when that happens. When you just go “Ooo! I got it!” Because you know the word “socialism” really stirs up…


[Scarily] Socialized Medicine…


Socialized Medicine


[Scarily] Ooo…

O: And then when you showed the example of [how] we have socialized activities in this country. The fire department – we don’t pay for a fire department. We don’t pay for the police department. We don’t pay for public schools.


And it’s universal.


We don’t pay for the library. And it’s universal – universal is for everybody.




And so the very idea of extending that to the care of people is really something that I have to honestly say that I hadn’t thought about it because I’m one of those people, “I got mine,” so I wasn’t thinking about who didn’t have theirs. Really. Right.


And we don’t expect the fire department to turn a profit. It would be an appalling thought, and the reason we don’t is because it’s a life and death issue. Well, health care is a life and death issue.




And that’s why turning a profit has to be removed from the system.

Good Christ, that’s amazing. The slow but distinct re-discovery of what that word, “socialism,” might mean by a figure obviously not associated with words like that. The discovery that we already very much have elements of it all around us, elements that we would never willingly part with. The emergence that a better synonym for “socialism” would be “universality,” rather than “Stalinism” or “gulag” or “bread-lines” that it’s usually equated with, when it’s mentioned at all, in the US. The revelation of the fact that “socialism” in fact provides very simple, but persuasive answers to issues that only at first seem incredibly complex, impossible to repair, and as if natural, inevitable features of our sociopolitical landscape.

In short, I think this little episode renders abundantly clear why exactly socialized medicine is such an important – perhaps the important – issue today in the US. Just as the right has own Overton Window games that they’ve long played with school prayer and vouchers and the like, a nation with a public medical system funded by even a large fractional amount that the US currently spends on health care today would be a nation on its way, I believe, toward a whole branching set of public sector reinvestments.

And it further, Moore’s appearance on Oprah puts to shame ten thousand cute and clever forms of aestheticized intervention – simple, spirited explanation may have set us on a path toward improvement that no act of detournement or deconstruction, no dialectical ruse, nor metatextual abyssalism could accomplish.

This is a sobering, yet inspiring thing to realize, if you’re someone who does what I do for a living.

I’ve really liked Michael Moore for a long time, but he is now officially one of the patron saints of this blog.

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June 5, 2007 at 11:05 pm

left hook

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A nice piece on the future of the left and the “social state” from Zygmunt Bauman in the journal Soundings (not a journal that I’ve seen before… but it looks interesting…) I’ll give away the end:

Contrary to the assumption of ‘third way’ advocates, loyalty to the social state tradition and an ability to modernise swiftly – with little or no damage to social cohesion and solidarity – need not be at loggerheads. On the contrary, as the social democratic practice of our Nordic neighbours has demonstrated, the pursuit of a more socially cohesive society is the necessary precondition for modernisation by consent. The Scandinavian pattern is anything but a relic of the past. Just how topical and alive its underlying principles are, and how strong its possibilities for inspiring human imagination and action, is demonstrated by the recent triumphs of emergent or resurrected social states in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil and Chile. Gradually yet indefatigably they are changing the political likeness and popular mood of the Western Hemisphere. They bear the hallmarks of that ‘left hook’ with which, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, all truly decisive blows in human history tend to be delivered. And though this is a truth that is hard to perceive in a Britain that is sunk in the murky dusk of the Blairist era, it is the truth nevertheless.

Still, aren’t both Sweden and Denmark currently run by center-right liberalizing governments? Shouldn’t we be anxious that the Scandinavians themselves are starting to feel that the “Scandinavian pattern” is a relic of the past?

UPDATE: Uh oh…

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May 14, 2007 at 11:11 pm

the other modernism

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So you end up broken in half, as a student of modernism, by the split in the period and in its emblematic works. On the one hand, the hyper-psychologized dystopias of individual complexity and political ineffability. On the other, the union of form and function under a banner of progress (even real progress). The former is the reflexive stance of the modernist literary text; the later, of modernist architecture and design. Think Joyce vs. Corbusier. Woolf vs. Niemeyer, Kafka vs. Tiege. You find the architectural / progressive motif more attractive – more potentially useful today – as a seed for revivification. But, on the other hand, you work with literature – this is what you do for a living.

It is tough to mine the latter from the former, the simple from the complex, the beautiful utility from the gratingly indifferent. It is tough to find, in short, the other modernism in literary texts. After all, literature doesn’t love hopeful contentment, and work (vs. dark dreamlife) toward that end – and most of all, it does not love utopia, whether actual or anticipated, whether exuberant or fadedly just OK.

Or maybe it’s just you, er, that is, me, as Owen Hatherley has found it hiding in plain sight in a J.G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands.

[T]here is only one instance of a speculative community approaching a Ballardian ideal – a site where we definitively leave the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the cautionary, anti-Modernist dystopia – and that is in Vermilion Sands. This is a 1971 collection of stories spanning his first published story, ‘Prima Belladonna’ (1956) to 1970, all set in the same community: a dead or dying desert resort, populated entirely by the elegantly, wanly idle, most of whom are involved in strangely calm psychodramas. Vermilion Sands is a synthetic and synaesthetic landscape of psychotropic houses that respond to their inhabitants’ desires and fears, singing sculptures, and a place where everything in sight seems to glitter, to take on the qualities of crystal, a flickering chromaticism suffusing everything from stairways to hair colour and eye pigments. It is, as Ballard writes in the 1971 introduction, a picture of an ideal he wanted and expected to see realised. The dystopian tradition is refuted in this introduction: ‘very few attempts (in SF) have been made to visualise a unique and self-contained future that contains no warnings to us. Perhaps because of this cautionary tone, so many of science fiction’s notional futures are zones of unrelieved grimness.’ So could there be here a sort of affirmative retort to the insistence that all Modernist or utopian communities inevitably end up in dystopia?

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May 9, 2007 at 12:14 am


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

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

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May 3, 2007 at 11:01 pm

lucky me

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

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

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

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

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May 3, 2007 at 1:32 am