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notes on violence and justice

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1) Rewatching the first season of the Sopranos (can it really have been a decade since?) and amongst all of the wonderful (and wonderfully woven) thematic threads is one that I’d forgotten. In S01E09, which is best remembered for the Uncle Junior “South of the Border” sequences, Tony and the boys decide to punish their daughter’s soccer coach when it’s discovered that he was sleeping with one of his charges. What follows is a sequence in which the males are frustrated in their plans through the reasonable intervention of several women, especially Artie Bucco’s wife (who identifies the egotism inherent in the planned action – the fact that the coach would die more than anything else for the collective satisfaction of the mobster fathers) and Jennifer Melfi, Tony’s shrink, who asks the critical question: Why is it that Tony feels that it’s his job to exact justice in every case?

2) The stage is set for the anti-climactic ending by playing the potential climax out in advance, only in small scale and in a banal setting. Artie Bucco and Tony are out for dinner, and they see a young guy wearing a baseball cap in this relatively swish restaurant. After a conversation-that-aging-white-guys-like-to-have about declining social standards and the like, Tony gets up from the table, walks over to the becapped diner, and tells him to take off the fucking hat. The kid does so, embarrassing himself in front of his girlfriend in the process.

3) I’ll admit, I have a little bit of a problem with this sort of thing myself. It’s important, I think, to draw an immediate distinction between calls-to-action that really are yours (your wife / your daughter / your son / your husband is in trouble and its up to you, and only you, to respond) and this other category of events that the Sopranos episode is highlighting.

I’ve ended up in problem after problem in life by throwing myself into frays that were not mine – always, always, on the side of “justice,” or at least what seemed just to me at the moment – it ways that might seem absolutely baffling to someone wired otherwise. They would ask me, just as I am now asking myself, “Why is it your business, business that you actually have to bring to some sort of conclusion, if for instance some young kid hits on a girl in a bar over-aggressively? Why is that your fight to fight?”

4) I don’t like spitting on the street. The other day I was walking down the road when the kid in front of me hocked up a huge one and sprayed in on the pavement. I was just about to tap him on the shoulder to ask why the fuck London seemed like him the right place to blow his brown sputum around when I realized it was one of my tutorial students from last year, one of my favorite ones. I ducked away without him seeing that I was behind him.

5) What exactly is my problem with protest? I’ve been trying to sort it out this week, obviously in the wake of the big demonstration in London on Wednesday. I hate going to them, though often have. Obviously they have to happen, but for some reason (just being honest here – perhaps in the tradition of Orwell on the sense that he could never quite overcome that poor people smelled – and hopefully in service of some larger claim) I can’t help but walk around incredibly fucked off at everyone around me. Whether self-satisfied later-day liberals or kids who don’t seem to know what they’re actually protesting, whether anarcho-thugs bent on violence for its own sake or annoying academics taking a break from skimming the New Left Review – I am an equal opportunity hater, even if – as is generally the case – I am fully on-board with the cause in question.

6) When I was in grad school, I attended one of the anti-WTO protests in New York. After I proudly reported this fact to one of my smarter and more pragmatic friends, he asked me – quite simply – what it was exactly I was protesting. I could not coherently answer.

For whatever reason of bearing or position, people don’t often ask me questions like that, questions based on an assumption that I simply am too ignorant to answer. It was an awkward 30 second exchange whose import I’ve never quite shaken.

7) I was in my office meeting with students during the early stages of the protest this Wednesday. I’d check the BBC News video feed on my computer and as things heated up at the Millbank Centre I decided that I really wanted to go down there. I mean like viscerally.

8 You really learn what it means to live in a country without a revolutionary tradition when you watch the news media – and even various student representatives – go into an absolute fucking flutter over the destruction of a rather incidental amount of property. America gets panicked about a lot of things, but christ, I can’t imagine the response to some equivalent act of group vandalism taking quite this tone and intensity. Sure, the building housing the Conservative Party HQ isn’t some random Starbucks or Gap outlet, but still….

9) The left response to the seizure of the building has been incredibly incoherent, incoherent in the guise of semi-reasonableness but really wearing the hairshirt of fear and irresolution. For instance:

Why couldn’t Solomon explain her actions? One assumes that she and the other who participated in this event actually did have reasons for doing what they did. One further assumes that she here on Newsnight she wanted to avoid falling into a trap that she presumed Paxman (and the British media in general) was laying for her, but ended up blundering into a far worse situation in the end. In refusing to answer directly, what ends up filling the gap where the reason should be is not the presumption of violent intent. It’s the presumption of stupidity, collective stupidity.

Even worse, some sort of on-message conspiratorial stupidity – which becomes the global effect when one considers many of the articles and documents written in support of the occupation. Again and again, the occupation is explained as an effect of amorphous “student frustration” – which only again begs the question of what, exactly, this act would do to assuage or ameliorate this frustration. It doesn’t get much better in things like the now infamous “Goldsmiths Lecturers Letter” (full text here):

We also wish to condemn and distance ourselves from the divisive and, in our view, counterproductive statements issued by the UCU and NUS leadership concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ. The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts and privatisation that will follow if tuition fees are increased and if massive reductions in HE funding are implemented.

Well OK. That’s pretty carefully worded, but ultimately says not much more than “look over there not here!,” which doesn’t really amount to a serious appraisal of the actual event that the letter is ostensibly focused on but which it ultimately skirts. As such, it opens itself even more flagrantly to the exact sort of co-optation that it ultimately and quickly suffered from. Co-optation without side-effect, as there was nothing in the statement to poison with reason those who would use it irrationally.

Again, assuredly there were reasons, even if uncomfortable ones, for entering the building. It’s my hunch that they would in fact play better than this sort of thing that we’re seeing from the left on television, in the papers, and in a series of petitions and collective letters. If occupations and the like are going to be conducted, if windows are, yes, going to break (as Solomon vaguely promises during the programme), mightn’t it be a good thing to be able to describe why in fact they are happening? The collapse of the London Eye is nothing compared to the wholesale destruction of Higher Education in the UK. The collapse of the London Eye is a deeply-felt expression of student frustration. I don’t want to talk about the collapse of the London Eye, even though I planted the charges. I want to talk about student fees. I’m afraid it didn’t play well this time, and will play even worse next time.

10) At the end of the Sopranos episode that I mentioned above, Tony actually bows to the reasonable arguments advanced and decides to call off the hit. He ends up rolling on the floor of his house, in a drink-n-valium fueled stupor, only able to say to his wife “I didn’t hurt nobody.” He’s restrained his impulses for once, thought something through for once, let the “system work” for once, and ends up an incoherently frustrated mess, basically a very large child in a semi-coherent state.

While most of us are able to step back comfortably from an endorsement of mafia-style vigilante violence of the sort dealt with there, I still think that the episode serves as a very vivid and ambiguously wired political or ethical allegory. That is to say, the crossing of ethical demand and psychological need, the complex relationship between instantaneity and process, and in particular the very complex question of impersonal involvement, even violent involvement, in the pursuit of justice of one stripe or another, are persistent ones, insoluble but worth seeing (I hope, I hope) presented vividly.

11) Why did I want so badly to go down to Millbank? Was it simply because there was the possibility of violence? Why didn’t I go down to Millbank? Well that, my friends, is a longer story than I can possibly tell here.

It’s bad form in even a vulgarly dialectical essay like this one, but I hope that you can see the aporia that’s looming over this piece.

12) Of course some of the impulse to violence in the service of justice is hardwired, written into our basic codes and structures. Interesting to think so, though. Seems an animalian holdover, something quite primitive, but on the other hand: do animals commit vigilante violence?

I suppose the question of vigilantism comes down to an issues of numbers, sets. Family – herd – neighborhood – any random victim on the street.

13) Of course it’s hardwired, but it’s also an impulse I clearly learned from my father. Such vivid memories from my childhood – the time at the baseball game when teenagers were carrying on behind us, using foul language and generally being loud, and my father…. turned around on them. A scene that I’ve been repeating my entire life, along with many others of the same, my entire life: in thought and dream and often enough action. When one is a child, a boy child enamored with his father, these scenes seemed like living allegories of bravery and abstract justice, arbitrary interventions on behalf of justice for its own sake.

Now, while some of the sheen of those moments has been retained, I increasingly want to ask – him, the him in myself – the very question that Melfi asks Tony:  Why was this sort of thing his job? Why is it our job?

14) Under-interrogated psycho-social issue: What is the effect of having a father who went to war when you yourself did not? A grandfather who did while your father did not? I suppose I could ask some of my friends whose fathers served in Vietnam…. Mine was Canadian so (fortunately) missed the show. I suppose I could ask some of these friends, but would risk wandering them into the high traumas of parental alcoholism and violence that I know understand were going on behind the scenes, at night when I generally wasn’t there.

15) The numbered, thetical form that these personal-cum-political blogessays that I write often take allows for a certain halting stream of consciousness, not unlike that which is supposed to obtain during psychoanalysis, to take place. Just write what comes next, from whichever frame of reference it comes.

Of course, this tactic (tactic?) inevitably results in a document useful only as a clearing house for further thought – it is not thought itself. It is a smooth, empty concrete floor where one spills out all of the contents in the hopes that once out one might put them back together again with coherent form.

16) The hidden non-sequitur incoherence of Benjamin’s “Work of Art” essay… The madness of the ending – as an ending to that piece – despite the brilliance of the observations arriving at cinematic pace throughout…

“Fiat ars – pereat mundus”, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of “l’art pour l’art.” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.

17) Theory and what it excuses: if I were to put myself back in the frame of mind that I once briefly held – during the coursework time, I suppose, of my PhD – I could allow myself to wrap this up in a theoretical aporia, a full-empty question or request for further thought that allows me to step away without solving anything out. We must interrogate the complex entanglements of personal desire and public good, personal perversity and rational action, that informs each and every act of political violence, in this context potentially liberatory political violence. I could glibly ignore the performative contradictions inherent in my piece, expecting that mystified readers would leave off the contradiction inherent in everything that they exuberantly label performativity.

Identifying knots of over-determination but doing so in a tone that seems to indicate that you are announcing a political program is something like treading water while selling slickly-packaged books to the passing tourist boats.

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November 13, 2010 at 2:36 pm

“it would be wonderful if we became part of a socialist chain”

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Last night, the wife and I were watching Mad Men S3E10 when, at a certain point, she turned to me and whispered: I think you missed your calling. Of course she’s right, in a sense. Or lots of senses – what she was referring to in particular, given the scene at hand, was the fact that the boys at Sterling Cooper drink their way through their “creative” work all day… And, um, let’s not go into that now.

But it is true that I have long harbored a very real fantasy of working in advertising. Mad Men isn’t helping, nor is the fact that people think it’s quite funny / apt to compare me to Don Draper (Americano-effect over here in part…), but the fantasy extends way back before this program first aired. (Check the title of this blog, just for instance….) I doubt that I could ever leave the soul-protecting fortress of public sector work, and advertising is awful, right? To try to get into the business in an ethical and politically-useful way would probably be as successful as all of those friends of mine who went to law school,  you know, in order to work for the Southern Poverty Law Center, and now defend white collar criminals in Washington.

So forget the career change, I guess… Definitely going to write a book about advertising, one way or another, once I’m done with the Monster. Advertising and socialism. But then again….

In the third season of Mad Men, one of the major subplots involves Don Draper meeting, befriending, and then getting a contract to work for Conrad Hilton, the eccentric founder of the Hilton Hotels chain. (It hadn’t occurred to me until just this minute that Conrad Hilton is Paris Hilton’s great-grandfather. Hmmm… Nice touch, Mad Men writers…) Hilton has messianic hopes for the chain, believing that it is in itself an materialized advertisement for the virtues of American capitalism vs. the austerity of the godless Communist menace. Don does his damnedest to deal with his increasingly weird client, but eventually just stops trying under the pressure and instead turns his attentions to an affair with a clingy local school teacher instead.

Well and good. But today I read in this in the Guardian:

What used to be the Caracas Hilton today soars over Venezuela’s capital as a bold symbol of Hugo Chávez’s leftist revolution, a 36-storey, state-run declaration of intent.

The government took it over from the US hotel chain two years ago as part of a sweep towards greater state economic control. Renamed Alba – “dawn” in Spanish and also the acronym of Chávez’s regional alliance, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas – the hotel hosts summits which condemn US imperialism and chart a brighter, leftist future.

“We are the first socialist hotel but hopefully not the last,” said Katiuska Camaripano, its general manager.

Last week it acquired a sister: the government seized the Hilton on Margarita island, Venezuela’s tourist playground. It had angered Chávez during a meeting of African leaders he hosted at the hotel. “The owners tried to impose conditions on the revolutionary government. No way. So I said, ‘Let’s expropriate it.’ And now it’s been expropriated.”

A presidential decree transferred its assets, including 280 rooms, 210 suites, shops, restaurants and a casino to the tourism ministry. A Hilton spokeswoman said the chain was “evaluating” the government’s action.

Now that’s the spirit! Chavez does have a knack of fulfilling fantasies of mine.   And check it out: red branding!

The state’s Margarita acquisition may also be renamed Alba, consolidating the brand name. Venezuela has also partly funded a small Alba hotel in Managua, capital of its leftist ally Nicaragua, said Camaripano. “It would be wonderful if we became part of a socialist chain.”

It only gets better from here:

There are some striking changes. Gone are the American and European managers and well-heeled foreign guests who used to snap up jewellery and cosmetics in the shops. Red-clad government officials and Cuban delegations have largely taken their place. “Business is dead. All we’ll sell is chewing gum and antibiotics,” lamented one store owner.

The Italian restaurant now serves more Caribbean fare such as chicken in coconut sauce and cachapa, a corn-based pancake. The gift shop offers a range of ceramic Chávez mugs and sculptures ranging from $20 to $240.

The bookshop which sold glossy magazines and Dan Brown novels has been replaced by a culture ministry outlet offering political tracts such as Transition Towards Socialism and Venezuela: a Revolution Sui Generis.

The titles are all subsidised, with some costing the equivalent of just 50p. “The problem is people buy the books and sell them on for profit,” said Nicola Castilla, the bookshop clerk. “It’s not easy instilling a socialist conscience.”

Jesus! I’m now wondering if Chavez would consider taking over some of those dingy Bloomsbury hotels, which already have a certain circa-1983 Bucharest about them. I’d stop by for cachapas and 50p books every day if he did!

Anyway, on a night when the BBC is hosting fascists on Question Time, nice to have an alternate fantasy – of Alba Hotels everywhere, of ad campaigns in a yet-to-come workers’ paradise – to fall asleep to….

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October 22, 2009 at 10:58 pm

Posted in ads, socialism, teevee

immediacy lost

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Not the same, watching the Yankees playoff games on my DVR the evening after. I used to be able to stay up late for things like the Canadian Olympic hockey team playing on the other end of the world, but that period is long gone now and for reasons age and child and work-related. Sports sometimes seem to be the only source of contingency left, certainly the only form left on television. Knowing that I can fastforward, and actually fastforwarding so as to turn the 4 hour plus contests into something I can watch in an hour-and-a-half, takes about 70 percent of the fun out of it. But letting in play out long form, with commercial breaks, seems a bit insane.

Following from and sadder than that, what a development it is to make a decision between downloaded Mad Men and DVR’d Yankees-in-the-playoffs. Obviously I went with the latter, and will save the former for another night. But how unimaginable twenty months ago. Ah BST! Ah five hours earlier!

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October 8, 2009 at 10:54 pm

Posted in teevee

sequinedglove revolution

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CNN International is doing crossover pieces on Iran and Michael Jackson. Why not?

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June 26, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Posted in teevee

in treatment: genre and psychoanalysis

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Gaby Wood a little while ago in the Observer on In Treatment:

The American series has been such a success that all the major TV buyers around the world have taken it up, with one prominent exception: Britain. (It will be screened at the Edinburgh Festival, though, this summer.) France, Portugal, eastern Europe, Sweden… Levi begins to reel off the countries that have bought it, and interrupts himself, mystified. “What do you think? What’s different about England? Maybe the British are too discreet for this.”

“Too repressed,” I suggest.

“Well,” he sighs, “that’s another way to put it.”

Ha! That’s something, isn’t it. When basically every country in the world shows the thing, except this one, the diagnosis slips from “just not interested” to “please, seriously, I don’t want to, I can’t, see that.” Anyway, enough for now on that line…

We loved the first season, chez Ads, and are currently twenty half-hour episodes into the season currently showing back home. (Thank god, really really, for bittorrent…) It’s a softly terrific show, humanely soft, and nicely written throughout. Unlike The Sopranos, which certain American therapists got hoodwinked into thinking was saying something positive about their line of work, In Treatment is, I think, an advertisement for the practice and value of therapy. *

But there’s something interesting about what it has to negotiate in order to be this. Almost all workplace narratives shown on television, whether of a dramatic or comedic turn, depend upon sexualization of said workplace in order to function as entertainment. And further, the particular form that this sexualization takes when inserted into the workplace might be called the erotics of hierarchy. Doctors sleep with nurses, patients, and other doctors. Ad men sleep with their secretaries. Partners at law firms sleep with junior attornies. It’s a tic of the genre, but admittedly the interplay of power and desire does make for interesting drama. (This is probably why no one’s ever made a good TV show about academia – showing teachers sleeping with students would probably be titilating but a bit too disturbing, even for HBO…. I am a bit surprised Showtime hasn’t taken up the concept yet… **)

But the funny thing about it, in the case of In Treatment, is the fact that unlike the law firm or the hospital, sex and its prohibition are actually the defining characteristics of the workplace in question. Hospitals aren’t built to keep doctors from fucking nurses, but as Adam Phillips has said (quoted here, which I found via this),”psychoanalysis is about what two people can say to each other if they agree not to have sex.” It’s an astoundingly smart description, though it tempts one to wonder if the formula is reversible: when people talk after agreeing not to have sex – happens all the time I imagine – is it automatically psychoanalysis? Hmmm…. Perhaps you need to sign a contract, or maybe it’s a question of the couch, the carafe of water positioned just out of reach, the tissues on the table.

On the other hand, as we all know, the prohibition of contact propagates – as prohibitions will do, psychoanalytically speaking – the very desire that they aim at countering. Thus transference and counter-transference and all the rest. So sex, according to the conventional wisdom of the business, is all over the place but also nowhere, held off on the sidelines – everywhere present but nowhere manifest, as long as things proceed as they should.

So we end up with a situation, when we’re thinking about In Treatment, where something interesting happens vis a vis genre and theme/scene. In its terminal reliance upon the sexual tension between analyst and analysand, a reliance that comes at once of the genre (sexualized workplace fiction) and the predispositions and market awareness of the means of distribution (think: mandatory Bada Bing scene in every episode of the Sopranos), the show ends up speaking some sort of secret but not-so-secret truth about the scenario that it’s taken up.

Every once in awhile, the interference of form is in fact the key to a sort of distorted realism – and revelatory distortion is always what was meant by the word realism right from the start. And furthermore (and sorry to be so telegraphic, but I’m getting tired) this relationship probably tells us even more about the genre of psychoanalysis itself, the sort of story it tells and it tells itself its telling, than it does about HBO programming and the anglo-telenovela.

* Can somebody explain to me what happened to Big Love? It’s our filler when we run out of In Treatments to watch, and while it was never a great show like the others, it was at least watchable. Now, jesus, not so much. A shame, really….

** Actually, you know, it’s not like I haven’t thought about writing up the made-for-cable campus dramocomedy. In fact, I talked to some colleagues about this, who have media connections, and perhaps another drink and we all would have started writing the pilot. Still, their connections are British, so the damn thing’d end up on the BBC, and thus likely in period costume and with all too many significant pauses and general overacting… Ah me.

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May 4, 2009 at 10:52 pm

Posted in psychoanalysis, teevee

vertov in the cheesestate

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How strange is it to see that again. Watched the show when I was a kid, hohum, but now decades later and well entangled in left modernist ostalgic aesthetics, it looks like the lead-in to a very sexy bit of Fordist Realism or something even better than that.

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April 30, 2009 at 9:38 pm

Posted in teevee

wish there was fookin titles on the telly

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Ha ha ha ha ha! British people watch The Wire with the subtitles on. So funny. Sometimes they tell me this, when they’re brave and confident, sometimes I just overhear it. Ha! My wife and I can’t get over that. Silly British people! It’s juss Baldimore, sheeeeeet.

Tonight, though, we watched the first hour of the first episode of the Red Riding triology on Channel 4, which is based on a series of novels by David Peace. Was excellent! Best British TV we’ve seen! But, um, the Yorkshiremen, wtf? It’s like barely a discernable language they’re speaking sometimes. * I provided semi-simultaneous non-translations (based on information gleaned from a review I read yesterday) that went something like Um, he’s being sarcastic, um, about the fact that the other guy, um used to work in London and I think this is, like, somewhere else.

* I understand that if a proper English person said this it might be construed as offensive. I can’t be offensive in this way, as I am luckily an American, and we weren’t around when the fights started. Or we left just after… Bad scene…. Happened to ask my class today why sometimes “tea” is, like, tea and sometimes it’s dinner. People got a little upset, tensions unusual at my uni flared up momentarily. It was refreshing but also scary. Try asking that question, Americans, when you’re working a room of class and geographically mixed Brits. It’s interesting! Preview: posh ones categorically deny that tea every means anything other than tea and biscuits. Other ones will respond, “yeah that’s because your grandparents ate more than one meal a day.” Sheeeeeeet.

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March 6, 2009 at 10:48 pm

Posted in britain, teevee