Mar 31, 2010

The work of transgression

Magic tricks, today, are transgressive. They have to be: that's how they work.

Note how they solicit disbelief, rather than belief. With the claim of a miracle, for a counter example, the public is asked not to try to understand, encouraged to accept and told to attempt to believe rather than figure out how it could have happened, since God, the argument goes, can do anything. In this way, the violation of normal, of the the way the world works, the apparent rupture, is smoothed over again. Magicians and magic, on the other hand, ask you to attempt to understand and the trick can only work if you try. There's a pretense of empiricism, as the audience is asked to examine the apparatuses involved in the trick, and the public is encouraged not to believe, but to try and fail to understand, to demand an explanation that will not be given.

A magic trick would completely fail if the audience responded by accepting what they'd seen as normal.

The transgression works in two ways, though, and it's ultimately the instability of each transgression and the way a viewer oscillates between the two that makes an act interesting. First -- "seeing is believing" -- an act seems to defy laws of nature, defy the reasonableness of the universe (e.g., it is not possible for a woman to be sawed in half and live). Second -- "a magician never explains a trick" -- the reasonableness of the universe reasserts itself in the viewer's mind, yet the trick still seems unexplainable, i.e., to be a trick, and thus defies and seems to violate the viewer's sense of the viewer's own reasonableness. Each site of irrationality, here, contains within itself the proof of the other and the disproof of itself (following the form of vicious circularity, as in, "The next sentence is false. The previous sentence is true").

This makes it interesting that the two most popular magicians in America today are so different, stylistically.

David Blaine is laconic. He acts like an accountant on his day off. Almost not caring, always calming the viewer down to preform his next trick, he is mellow and casual, stating with his demeanor and style that this is normal, which means 1) the audience's reaction stands out in relief against his own (sometimes with the audience seeming to freak out for him) and 2) the transgression of the act is heightened in contrast to his normalness.

Criss Angel is the opposite. He fully takes on the style of transgression, which actually serves to undermine the transgressiveness of his acts. He dresses like a rock star, with the piercings and tattoos and the trappings of "freaky," and sometimes screams close-up into the camera, or does his own schtick of being shocked, which actually functions to allow the audience not to react, since Angel is reacting for them. One of his shows was called "Mindfreak," another, "Believe." His prologues and set-ups often involve invocations of the weirdness of things, the unknown, whereas Blaine is more likely to spend his time explaining things that aren't tricks at all, emphasizing the complete reasonableness and understandability of what he's done. Angel emphasizes his own transgressiveness, but the audience readily grants this, and it was never really the question, thus the violation and violent oscillation caused by a trick disappears.

The form of transgression replaces the substance. The magic is displaced by the magician. There is, here, as with some of the new atheists, a juvenile need to be transgressive, which weakens the whole thing.

The work should disturb for itself.

Mar 30, 2010

Temporary forests

The trees look permanent. Even though, in the parking lot, they are obviously not, the stands of spruce and cedar and pine induce an assumption of permanence.

They come down in November, temporary forests, and are erected at the Home Depot, the Kroger, and at the farmers' market, where there keepers attend to them with hoses and saws, rope and netting. At the market the men and women who watch the trees, tend to them and sell them, are the same people who grew them, and they come with the trees. Perhaps for them the temporariness of this forest is obvious, the cyclical part of it, they way they're all already drying out and dying, the contrast between the trees here and they way they were, spaced out, up in the open spot in the mountains where they were grown. When I talk to these people, though, the families that grow trees, the dwarf from Tennessee or the airplane engineer who does this now that he's retired, they talk as if even those forests, even trees planted in the ground, are really only temporary.

They plant them, and they cut them, and in their minds, in the long view farmers have, the trees are not a part of the unmovable earth, the background, or nature, not a part of the make-up of things as they are, but only a change that will change again. The man who started the first cut-your-own farm on the south side of Atlanta said there was no such thing, 100 years ago, and most of the breeds of trees you see now didn't even exist when he began, and those that did were unknown here.

He keeps a row or two of trees just for grafting. Just for experiments. Because the trees aren't permanent, and everything is in flux.

Mar 28, 2010

"[Joe Biden] told another story about a quarry swimming hole where, as a boy, he used to go diving from nearly 100 feet up a rock wall:

The frightening part was you go down really far, I mean literally really far. So deep it's totally black. Your chest constricts, you panic and you don't know whether you're swimming down or up.

But when you get about 12 to 14 feet from the top you see light and everything is OK. You're still 12 feet underwater, but it's OK. You see light.

That's the American people, man. We've gotta give them light.

Mar 27, 2010

Connection coming

Mar 24, 2010


The way the homocide detective described it was this:

If you never confess, then you might be innocent.

If you deny and deny and deny -- say it 116 times, you didn't do it and don't know --but you confess once, then you're guilty. Even if that one time is only as sort of saying you're sorry, which you phrase as "I didn't mean for it to happen," and does not involve you taking responsibility for what you're saying you're sorry about, you are guilty. You confessed. You said it: You're guilty. Though the detective disbelieves all the denials, all the lies, everything else you've said, and though you might of confessed because he told you there were witnesses against you and a video tape and your DNA was there (though all of that was tactic and none of it true), and he kept saying that -- saying, do you understand? We have you're DNA and we know, we know you were there. We just want you to have a chance to explain -- then even though all the other times you were lying, that one time was the unshakable, unmistakable truth. And you're guilty.

But do you think, I said, anybody ever confesses when they didn't do it?

No, he said.

Which made me guess there was no Calvinism in his childhood. No strick Catholicism or Judaism either. No welling up need, as Graham Green, for someone to say you're sorry to. No childhood lessons of fire that never goes out or being dirty before God, dirty in your heart, sick and sick and sick and bad in a way that was going to make your mother cry when the kingdom of God came and everybody went there but you, or before then if you were found out and sent away to a city where sick things happened and dirty things belonged -- because you were guilty, and it was a secret, and you were sick.

No, the detective said. To something they didn't do? No. Put it this way, he said, I would never confess to something I hadn't done, would you?

All the time, I said. I don't mean to.

Pictory: your best photo stories
Jon Stewart's epic impression of Glen Beck
The shrine down the hall: dead soldiers rooms as they left them
Physicist: the universe is binary bits of information
SKIN & Shelly Jackson's other experimental writing
Tyson: The heavyweight champion of pigeon fancying
James Wood reads Wallace's Brief Interviews
Eagleton's nostalgia for the socialist 70s
7 years in Iraq: month by month history
The greatness of unstable nonfictions
Compare Infinte Jest and Wikipedia
The GOP's health care Waterloo
When preachers do not believe
The revolutionaries' dilemma
Caught in a grip of paranoia
Walter Mosley's brand reboot
Interview with John Milbank
Brazilian priest sex tape
Lady Gaga taken seriously
Wendell Berry's latest
The use of "hey guys"
Health care, at last
5 from Nat King Cole
Cigarette pack books
A new kind of canon
Writers' day jobs
GOP loses ugly

Mar 23, 2010

Outside the art museum on a Saturday
The rhetoric of original and the original

When Andrew Campbell began to talk of a creedless church, it was new and experimental, yet he spoke of it in precisely the opposite terms. He didn't try to argue that this was exciting and an opening of new possibilities or that new ground was going to be broken, but specifically that it wasn't new, that it had all been done before.

It's hard to imagine he and his experiment of Restoration could have been successful otherwise. The argument, in America, had to be that this wasn't original, but a return to the original.

When Joseph Smith, for example, read hyrogliphed plates with Urim and Thummim, those angel-given glasses, he appealed to the wrongness of the present (implying, here, that it was known, that the wrongness would resonant as something one knew but had not admitted) and appealed to a reclaimation of the past, the original, to the idea of something old and lost, rediscovered but not invented. Mormonism is very American and very new, and is interesting for its newness and American-ness, yet it has to rehtorically ground itself in a sense of not being new at all.

American Christianity really has a history of radical experimentation. It's character is of one newness, openness, Messianic moments, Events where all sorts of impossible things are possible. From the Shakers to the Mormons to the creedless Disciples of Christ, from the Quakers not calling themselves Christians to the Pentacostal's ideas about religious life, from the communes of the 1840s to the to those of the 1970s to the house churches to the Emergents of the 1990s and now, from the Pope Pius X Catholics with their Latin dogma to the preterists and presuppositionalists, from Jewish-Christian hybrids to Buddhist-Christian hybrids and Racist-Christian hybrids, from the circuit riders to the revivalists to radio preachers to TV preachers to the ministers who sit on stools and wear jeans and just talk to you, American religion is marked by a freedom of and even a need for experimentation.

And also, almost without exception, this is experimentation that denies its experimental nature, rhetorically couching itself as less new, less experimental than everything else.

This isn't just religion in America, though. This happens in politics all the time and you see it in even advertising (why should I want the original Levis more? Haven't they learned anything about how to make jeans since 1853?) Almost every radical eating plan or program, for example, describes itself as a return to some sort of pre-corrupt diet, returning followers back to how God or nature intended us to eat, how everyone used to eat, or how thin and disease-free peoples from some past or exotic place eat; that is, radical and experimental diets characterized themselves as not being experimental at all.

But why? What's so persuassive to us about claims to being old? Of being original? Why couldn't Alexander Campbell or any of the above say, here's a new idea, which no one has ever tried but which, using what we know and what we've learned, we will try? Why wouldn't it work for American conservatives, for example, to argue that of course the constitution doesn't ban abortion, or that the 2nd ammendment obviously didn't originally apply to concealed weapons (e.g. and etc), but it should, and that America would be more perfect if it did? Why not claim newness? Experiment? Originality?

My question isn't about the actual historical truth of the claims being made -- in part because an idea's copyright date isn't, by itself, an argument either way -- but about the need for and the funciton of the rhetoric.

It functions, first and obviously, as an appeal to authority that conceals the weakest part of a proposal (its untriedness, audacity, etc.) and shifts the argument, so the existing and established views have to defend themselves. I think it's here that the claim is fundamentally dishonest, and is more like a magic trick than an argument.

The rhetoric acts, second, to ease or even erase the anxiety that comes with newness. This might, actually, be why this appeal, this argument against originality and for the original, is so prevasive in America, a country kind of condemned to newness and made by experiment. There is a panic that comes with realizing that everything is untried, everything is new, that there is no ground and no just natural way of doing things, and so there's a strong attraction to arguments that offer the assurance of not being new (cf arguments that the Declaration of Independence and founding of America were not revolutionary, or that the market really is free, or the assume that interstates and suburbs are unplanned).

Third, and this is where I think it gets amazing, the rhetoric functions to liberate thinking. By claiming not to be new, but to be from before all that is known, the table of our thinking is completely cleared and we can do something radical. We can start anew. It can operate the other way, of course, and often does, being used to limit rather than open, as an insistance on reactionariness, but this seems to be the weaker function, which is also regularly undone by newer, more experimental movements claiming a more thorough return to the original. This apparently conservative standard is actually a guise for radical thinking, though, for a freedom that ought to be celebrated rather than hidden. With this move, previously unthought things can be thought, new realities can be envisioned, assumptions can be questioned (even if it's only ever some of them), and there is, at least in that moment, an openess to the depth of questions and the true width thinking.

There is a point, then, where the two uses of the word "original" collapse, so that "the original," which is fictional, opens the horizon of the imagination, allowing the freedom for originality.

Mar 22, 2010

Liebe meines lebens

One year married: LIEBE MEINES LEBENS, love of my life.

Mar 18, 2010

Derrida and ethical force

The first sophisticated critique I read of Derrida and deconstruction was Andrew McKenna's. He argues that Derrida has a "preoccupation with formal structures," and that deconstruction, ultimately, is "flashy sterility." That is to say, it lacks ethical force. Or that the ethical efforts being made are all so focused on language and writing processes -- technicalities! -- that humans are ignored. At first this critique seemed strange to me, this is not how I read Derrida, but now I see it's a pretty common critique. Deconstruction is rejected for being apolitical, ahistorical, and a-ethical, which is to say, entirely technical. It is parasitic and, if not nihilistic, then too passive in the face of real crises. This is the way Cristoph Reinfant explains the need for post colonialism, feminist theory, new historicism, etc., and why he thinks deconstruction finally fails.

The critique of endless impracticality is, interestingly, undercut by another critique, a kind of common one that works more as an insinutation, a sly sleight, than an actually argument. Derrida, it is said, was more popular in America than he was in Europe or his native France. This is, of course, a historical fact, but we're meant to take it as meanning something specific, adding our own extrapolation, specifically that Derrida was only really exciting to those who really weren't good at theory. It was only the Yanks, the practical, hands-on, Yanks, whose only really important national philosophical acheivement was, after all pragmatism, who were dazzled by Derrida (the con man, the sham seller, the abaradabara distraction). Those who know theory, the argument implies, who were more theoretical, weren't taken in.

Leaving aside the debatable cultural claims and forgetting the stupid, archy snobbish anti-Americanism of the above, the contradiction between the two arguments is intesting. Deconstruction, we're told, is too impractical, and also only accepted by people who are too practical to know it's impractical.

There is, too, in both of these claims, arguments within arguments about reception. Where exactly is one supposed to find ethical force? If it's lacking, who brought in that lack? If one really is practically reading an impractical philosophy, isn't that called a correction? And doesn't that show that the text can, in fact, have ethical force, depending on how it's read? That is, if Derrida can be read as ultimately ethical and, indeed, actionable, or he can be read as impractical and basically a matrabatory farce, then isn't it incumbant upon us, isn't the way we read it, actually, going to say more about us than it says about Derrida?

Mar 17, 2010

“It was A Clockwork Orange which convinced [Arthur] Bremer that he must shoot George Wallace [because he couldn’t get close to his first choice, Nixon], and Bremer’s assassination diaries then inspired Paul Schrader to create the character of Travis Bickle. So: without Bremer there would be no Taxi Driver, and without Taxi Driver John Hinckley Jr. wouldn’t have become so obsessed by Jodie Foster that, to prove himself a worthy rival to Bickle, he shot Ronald Reagan.”

-- Francis Wheen, Strange Days Indeed.
A game in the afternoon

Broder: To a sensible country, Obama would be moderate progressive reformer
Tim Holland, backgrammon master, dies at 79. May he rest in peace.
Gingrich still a rock star, a hope, a tourist attraction
Scenes from Allen Ginsberg's last three days on earth
Questions about the morality of war photography
Texas rewrites history to Republican standards
When Terry Gilliam's style became full-formed
Contemporary Christianity and "Loss aversion"
Abortion = racists killing black children?
More health care would mean less abortions
Heidegger and the ready-to-hand computer
Comparing Google's translation software
Pictures of girls taking girls to proms
Sherwood Anderson: Read T.H. Lawrence
CIA's LSD in French bread experiment
American religion is experimentation
Lady Gaga should make silent movies
Blue whales sining at a lower pitch
Trying to preserve digital archives
David Pearson's book cover design
Georgia wants more backyard farms
Addiciton as a disorder of choice
The problem with war films today
A body on the gears: Mario Savio
The queer career of Johnny Depp
Radio station's forbidden words
Why does Glenn Beck hate Jesus?
Who really cares about bauhaus?
Sprawl is planned by big govt.
1970s: a decade of craziness
A conspiracy of seed prices
Health care fighting words
C-Span archives now online
The importance of drawing
States rights rides again
Twain's 450-page vendetta
Jazz covers of Radiohead
Son House's Death Letter
America's missing people
Ways to stop prison rape
Free audio books online
Bob Dylan's Jewishness
Christoph Niemann maps
When Lowell met Borges
Cormac McCarthy covers
Melville's marginalia
13 novels about drugs
Man vs. Afghanistan
Writing about work
Borges at UBUweb
Book sculptures
The top hatted
Spies and sex
On epigraphs

Mar 16, 2010

Things to remember when reporting corruption:

1. Just because some bad guys lost, that doesn't necessarily mean good guys won. There might not be any good guys. The game is often zero-sum.

2. The corrupt do not fall because they're corrupt, but because someone benefited from the falling. You will be one of the ones who benefited.

3. You will not report the whole story, nor does anyone want you to. At the point where the story is confusing and what would be considered justice is complicated, the reader will neither read nor care. What you will feel you know, afterwards, will be unconfirmed and unconfirmable, indistinguishable from mere suspicion and disillusionment.

4. Stories carry weight. Whatever you write will weigh as a finger on the scales of events to come, and it's also unpredictable, so your story might not tip things like you would have wanted.

5. There is no resolution, only change. No innocence, only choices.
Note book monster: Jochen
I'll have yah understand

Works of Dada and Surrealism -- art of displacement and misplacement, surprise and juxtaposition -- might best be understood as jokes. They often can't, though, because of their frames, their placement within the context of Art with a capital A, burdened as they are by the hushing authority and serious pronouncements that are carried in the context of museums and art books.

If one say one of Dali's lobster phones in a movie, it might be funny. If one saw a bicycle wheel screwed upside down into a stool at a friend's apartment, one would laugh, not be moved to the serious, somber contemplation that is normally the case, or at least the expression seen on faces at a museum, where the wheel-on-stool is presented, lit and mounted, and signed by Duchamp. On the other hand, though, the joke only works because of the contrast between the thing and its frame, its presentation. A toilet in a museum can be funny in a way a toilet on a sidewalk would never be funny. When, in Roberto Bolano's mega-book, 2666, an old man hangs a book on an outdoor clothes line to watch it weather, it's taken as a sign of his oddness, and no one laughs.

I wonder, though, if the art doesn't have a sort of singularness that contributes to the problem. David Pearson, talking about book cover designs, says cover designs often don't work if they try to communicate more than one idea. They have to be reductionist. They're trapped in that. Works of Surrealism and Dada seem to be constrained by this same simplicity, to be stuck to one idea, and so either the work is funny or not, good or not, serious or not, but never more than one thing.

Contrast this, though, to the sort of American surrealism that isn't and couldn't be put in a gallery, an art that is also about jokes, juxtaposition and surprise, but is, more than that, exuberant. It is not an art of one idea, but a piling up of images and crashing them together and never leaving one alone long enough for seriousness. I'm talking about Terry Gilliam and David Lynch, Richard Linklater's Waking Life, Tom Waits and especially Bob Dylan, artists I love and who all seem to be surreal and surprising without seeming always condemned to constantly eliciting the misunderstanding and misapprehension of museum surrealism.

Because of the exuberance.

Dada seems to lend itself to misunderstanding, and Surrealism seems to ask for seriousness, and then laugh at those who give what was asked. Contrast that to this:

I repeated that my friends
Were all in jail, with a sigh
He gave me his card
He said, “Call me if they die”
I shook his hand and said goodbye
Ran out to the street
When a bowling ball came down the road
And knocked me off my feet
A pay phone was ringing
It just about blew my mind
When I picked it up and said hello
This foot came through the line

Because of the exuberance there is this multiplicity. It's irreducible, and the art isn't in service of something else. Because of the multiplicity, the piling up, the work is never about a point at all. The art doesn't serve as a shorthand polemic or as an example for something that isn't art, but instead it is a construction and a vision of a whole world.

Mar 15, 2010

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something Gilliam

The best scene in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus comes early: Tom Waits, typecast as Mr. Nick, the bowler-hatted Devil, sucks the stories out of devout, story-telling monks in a Tibetan-like monastery, using an instrument that's half vacuum, half ear-piece from an old telephone. Hear that? Waits says. Silence.

One imagines this is a version of what Terry Gilliam fears, as the director seems fated, or at least prone, or at least characterized by all his reviewers, to bad luck and disaster, and he has to struggle with the studios and the fiancers for the money and freedom to make each film. The image is, in this sense and also maybe for each viewer, familiar. It resonates. It's also delightful, though, because it's surprising. I haven't seen this before, it isn't pasted in here as a stock image from somewhere else and it seems, if not exactly original or ex nihilo, then newly evolved, weird and organic and surprising.

Gilliam gets reviewed like he has two styles: free or restrained;trusted by the financers or not trusted by the financers. There is, of course, some historical truth to this, but watching Parnassus, which I really wanted to like, and even parts of Tidelands, which was supposed to be an almost impossibly free and a creatively unrestrained film, there seemed to be an infliction of tiredness, which has nothing to do with money.

Really, I asked when I watcted Tidelands, creepy doll heads?

Oh, right, I said to Parnassus, a dwarf. Never saw that coming.

Some of Gilliam's most commercial successful work, such as 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, seems to share the creative spirit of his better work and even his masterpiece, Brazil. And some of his worst work, like the meant-to-be-commerically-successful Brothers Grimm, is not as limited by budget as it is just weiged down by exhaustion.

Parnassus was tired, with enough borrowed images and obvious ideas and enough of a cut-and-paste feel that I stopped, when I was done, and wondered what it was that I liked about Gilliam in the first place.

I think it was the surprise. His best work surprises me. In his best work, watching is like having a conversation with someone who's significantly better read than you and can always pull in some detail, some argument or angle, from a fascinating book or time or era that you know nothing about. Instead of always citing the same one book, or using Hitler as an example. And Gilliam's surprises, too, were revelations, so that when one saw them and was surprised it also felt familiar, or there was this recognition, not of something you already knew or saw somewhere else but of a feeling, unarticulated until know.

When, in Time Bandits, a boat turns out to be a giant's hat, it works not only as a joke, but also as an articulation of the feeling there was more underneath the surface. When, in a live-action short, old employees make their manager-overlord walk the plank and then turn the insurance building into a pirate ship, it is crazy and fanciful and elicits a "ha!", but also the desire is exactly like that.

Maybe Gilliam forgets that there are more things than financial restraint and fiscal accountability that can suck the story out of you. He might think the question is, as Heath Ledger's Tony says in Parnassus, "can you put a price on your dreams?" but would do better to take as an answer what Waits says, as he waves the smoking hose of his surreal hoover: Well, we're still here.

Mar 12, 2010

The Workin' Man

The call came every night. Every night between 3 and 4, or sometimes as late as 5, the manager would get on the loudspeaker system at Wal Mart and all the night workers would have to go out into the parking lot and corral the carts. We'd all stop whatever we were doing and meet up in a bunch by the doors, looking out to see if the night was wet, or cold, snowing or clear.

There were two opinions about the carts, about going out into the night: For some it was a pain, a chore, and they wondered aloud and with a whine what they were being punished for; for others it was an excuse to go outside. You got, for a moment, to leave the flickering lights the big box store and the rows and rows of shelves to stock, and go out into the night and look up at the sky, even if it was spitting ice in your face.

When I think about it, though, these were the same two opinions the night crew had about everything.

Half of them complained and bitched, acted as if and felt as if there were there because they lost. This was the half that didn't show up on time if they didn't have to, didn't want to work, left early if they could or slept in a back room or sometimes snuck out for a smoke of something. This was the half that got yelled at for a low box count and always had a manager mad at them, both they and the managers seeming to enjoy the snippy bitterness of an ongoing fight. This was the half that was lazy and unreliable, shiftless, and irresponsible. The worst thing was to have to work with someone for 7 hours while they griped and fucked off and found ways to fight with a manager.

The other half were hard workers. They were glad and had what gets called "a good work ethic." They were grateful for the opportunity, and thought the extra 50 cents for graveyard shift, having the job at all, or going outside or getting an extra row of shelves or an extra hour of work was better. Better than what was always a question of personal, particular history. But better. Though of course this meant that being glad, being grateful, was only an expression of desperation, an appreciation for a little relief from the way that life was brutal. So they showed up and tried to do the work they were given to do, but sometimes still the brutality would come down, the reprieve would end, and the night worker would panic for a night or two, manic in trying to find a way out, a way to pay a medical bill or keep a house, and there was angry then, impatience with the bullshit, more swearing and saying "bullshit, all of this is bullshit," the worker having lost that sense of zen, and then he or she would suddenly be calm as the crush came.

A lot of times we talk about the Workin' Man. We talk about the working class, or Labor and Alienated Labor, and always it's ennobled in our theories. And maybe it is, okay, in an abstract way, but in my experience that's not what it feels like. In my experience the real world we talk about in college and in theory isn't somewhere where anyone wants or should want to go. The real world feels rigged, like you already lost and don't know why and have to keep playing. The people there are shiftless or desperate, all them thinking they're better than this and right about it too. But no one there is noble and the market doesn't feel free. The consumer who also always works at nights at Wal Mart doesn't have any actual choice, and can't afford to buy organic and local at the farmer's market, and the hike in the minimum wage doesn't effect anybody who got the 25 cent raise after 6 weeks probation, and you're still broke, even though it's supposed to be a victory for the people who work in this state. It doesn't feel noble, or particularly proud or American, or like talking about alienation is really going to help.

But, "look," the store manager told me when I left for Georgia, "no one wants work at Wal Mart when they grow up, but sometimes it's just reality."

Mar 10, 2010

False spring and fallen origami flowers

Mar 9, 2010

Lex, Rex

The old joke -- What do you call 100 dead lawyers? A good start -- is, it turns out, more like a policy proposal for the past and present Cheneys of this world.

This isn't terribly surprising or discouraging even, but it has been good to see some established and mainstream Republicans come to the defense of the rule of law. There have been, in recent history, too many times when the American right has disregarded, found inconsequential or said nothing to defend this foundation of democracy and the Constitution. Now they seem to have found their inner John Adams, and good for them.

Mar 8, 2010

The evidence of ourselves

After the election, after the count, after we'd gone door to door all over town and put up signs, answered questions and passed out literature, after we'd said the candidate's name so many times to ourselves and each other, after we'd met with the state officials in the back room of the roadhouse off of the highway and the county official late at night at the Taco Bell and to talk, after all of the that it was over, and we had lost.

I remember the day or a few days after the votes were counted my partner on the campaign turned to me said he still couldn't believe it. "I really thought we were going to win," he said.

"Why," I said.

"I just really thought this was our year."

The truth was there was no way we could know if we were winning or not. We had no way to know. We were insulated. Our only evidence was ourselves.

In the end of "The Boys on the Bus," Timothy Crouse talks about how the some of the reporters following McGovern in '72 believed the candidate had a shot, at least a shot. They thought he had connected and they called back to the editors and said that, and to their families and folks who weren't living on and in a campaign, and all of them thought the reporters were crazy, or biased. Crouse says yeah, maybe there was a little bias, and also exhaustion and desperation and career motivations and just the need to be writing about a winner, but mostly he thinks they believed when they believed because they were isolated. The only reality they really knew was the one they were wrapped in.

He says "the reporters were as isolated as a bunch of submariners, trapped in the world of the press plane, seeing the enthusiastic crowds at the rallies and living with the intermittently manic McGovern staffers. This isolation nourished their atavistic urge to be with the winner, to write the upset story of the century. They kept talking about the election of 1948, of how the campaign reporters with Truman had been blind to the meaning of all those cheering crowds ... "

I wonder if this isn't a thing of politics, though, but human. I wonder if the contamination is deeper. Maybe we all isolate ourselves, get wrapped up in the realities we make, and extrapolate too freely.

Last month, an important Christian college got a new president, and a whole fight erupted over how it was announced. It was vicious, and aggressive, and most everybody know nothing about it. Tom Wolfe once pointed out that the "art world," if you did a head count, really was more like a village. In the last year, I've seen an entire new school of philosophy appear to rise up, backlash, split up, blow up into little blog rants and comment threads. I'm still not quite sure I know what it was about, or why it seemed to make sense. Even those who study contemporary philosophy will probably, for the most part, never hear about it now.

And maybe all this is honest and we do what we can, with the limitations we have -- and of course we take ourselves as evidence, what else could we or would we extrapolate from? -- but I worry it isn't. When we think only within our isolation, when we insulate ourselves, it's not just innocent and not just innocuous. Our thinking is all shot through with solipsism.
Carving again

The importance of Walt Whitman's glasses
Marshall McLuhan online
Recruiting games
Which Marx?
Seed library
DFW audio
Folk America
The dogs of war
50 years of SETI
DeLillo can't win
A speaking piano
Typeface your face
Young me/ Now me
Barry Hannah's faith
Remember Alan Sokal
Pelican cover archive
Obsolete occupations
Map your urban forest!
Why no Jewish Narnia?
There is a Jewish Narnia
Good stuff at BLDG BLOG
Is it so great being Rahm?
The fable of Rahm the great
Joanna Newsome, changeling
Why Oscar's best movie isn't
Lessons of the torture memos
Animating the uncanny valley
How Punk was mainstreamed
Writing at a ratty coffeehouse
The new Norman Mailer prize
Underwater church rises again
Movements of mass innocence
Slate seeking hand drawn maps
Cosmology and the arrow of time
Newspapers won't love you back
The end of Germany's terror trials
How to become a real Oregonian
How librarians can save the world
Freelance writers win online rights
Mapping the sound around Toronto
Are there untainted jurors anymore?
Solving a murder with Google Earth
Thank you for not expressing yourself
I bet you think this earthquake's about you
Does the free market erode moral character?
The new landscape of the religious blogosphere
Louis Fabian, presidential portrait photographer, dies at 92. May he rest in peace.
The mistake on page 1.032: the trouble with translating 'Infinite Jest' into German
Historic photos of Boston's porn shop, peep show, strip club strip
Journalist's narrative authority in a fragmented world
Recession struck street 'revived' with fake shop front
Johnny Cash + Rick Rubin = American communion
We must remember to forget in the digital age
RNC memos say what everyone already knows
The internet's becoming a one-company town
DeLillo: Language is the final enlightenment
The White House and the news cyclone
Cleveland mall made into greenhouse
Starts orbiting black holes

Mar 5, 2010

Tumbling into openness

It was impossible to see the border. In the night, our headlights only lit the road and the moon only showed the silhouette of the mountain, jaggedy firs and bare boulders, signs for coming zig-zags and falling rocks.

“Do you think this is it?” my brother said. He had to shout. “Do you think we passed it?”

We had the windows rolled down and the air was getting cold as we climbed, sharper as spruce and fir grew thick. My brother was staring out into the wind as we went up the mountain and I was driving, watching where the road disappeared out in front of my headlights. We had lived, most our lives, on the American west coast. Born, both of us, within sight of the Pacific, the mythical West was always behind us, back there somewhere, the frontier just a feeling, and we could always see where the Japanese and Chinese jetliners left contrails in the sky, tracing ached lines East. So when we left we went that way. Out of the Olympic Mountains and into Seattle, we went through the city and out, through a tunnel, opening out into farmland. We went through the fields, past great, dinosaur-sized rolls of hay, and past Spokane, which seemed to be a series of brick buildings all about to crumble. We went up into Idaho, into the mountains, making for the Continental Divide.

Read the rest of the essay @ catapult magazine
The choice of theory

Literary theory, even back when it was just a theological thing, has always started with the idea that theory is not an option. You can't choose it or reject it. There is no un-theoretical, there's only the explicit or the hidden, the explained or the dishonest.

Terry Eagleton probably put it simplest when he wrote, "Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people's theories and an oblivion to one's own."

This is pretty well understood and accepted -- even Rick Warren, when he interviewed McCain and Obama, was using this argument ("Everyone has a worldview") as a way to legitimize his evangelical Christianity -- but part of the idea here is one that doesn't, I don't think, really get laid out very well or very clearly.

The thought, here, is that readings which deny their own theory will tend to be self-confirming, the yes-men of thinking, and that theory really fails unless it's self-reflexive, so that it's thinking about thinking, and to do that it has to be self-critical.

Theory, then, offers a choice, though not the one we might have thought. We choose not between theory or no theory, but between hermetically sealed dogma and self-aware, self-critical thinking, or, to switch the values laden in the terms, between complete, finished theories and anarchistic, nihilistic, unraveling ones. The choice is between self-affirmation and self-criticism.

This cuts, though, not between theories, but through them, through each one. If you're a Deconstructionist, for example, you have a choice. Either you will read so that everything everywhere confirms Deconstruction -- hey look! right again! -- proving endlessly and repeatedly your own goodness and rightness, or you'll use the theory as a tool of humility and careful thinking.

This is also the choice we face with religion, which is how Derrida drove me to faith.
"Rather there is a theme: displacement, restlessness, homelessness, the comic worry of a 'a people,' as Constance Rourke wrote of Americans as they were when the Civil War began, 'unacquainted with themselves, strange to the land, unshaped as a nation.'"

-- Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic

Mar 4, 2010

Experiments at night
NOTE: Sorry for the continued format changes and tweaking. The old one wasn't working anymore, in part technically, since it had developed some bugs, and in part for what I want to do with this now. Turns out I'm not quite sure what I want, though, so there's some adjusting going on.

Mar 2, 2010

Do you remember the Shire?

It seems so strange now that the Lord of the Rings trilogy came out when it did. Seen in retrospect, it looks like the praised and popular epic promoted and held up the best ideals of American conservatism at the very moment -- the exact time -- that conservatives chose to abandon them for good.

The trilogy has to be among the most conservative films ever produced, with its platform the twin planks of distrusting power -- the corrupting, warping force of power -- and valuing the life of simple labor, communal spirt, and peaceful living (this imagined and idealized agrarianism). This is, I think, the best of what American conservatism had to offer,* but the conservative epic came out in theaters in 2001, 2002 and 2003, right at the time that even the most conservative of American conservatives seemed to gladly embrace power, get giddy with it, love it instead of anything simple or peaceful, and insist, even, on using it in every horrible way possible.

To paraphrase the words of the movie's Aaragon, the day came when the moral courage of men failed.

Or, put it another way: Dick Cheney was Gollum and we gave him almost all the power he wanted.

*Watching it again, now that I'm not a conservative, I also see that the trilogy is deeply marked by one of the worst and most insidious and insistent elements of conservatism, a deep racism. I had heard this critique in 2001, but totally did not see it at the time. Now it's unavoidable: the Aryan images, which are held up as glorious ideas, the species-based social divisions and identities, the grotesqueness of the hordes who always fit into groups of racial stereotypes, and even the imagery that gets used (Gandolf, describing the afterlife, says you go "to the white shores") all adds up to an ideology of white power. I realize, for me, that this was difficult to see, but now pose my past self the question: what part of this depiction of a society would a white supremacist have a problem with?

Reporter's roladex

'It scares me when I think about it,' he said. 'I have more experience at this thing than most of them, and I don't know anything about it.'

-- Dick Stout, political reporter, qtd. in The Boys on the Bus

The first thing you do in a new news room is the tour, which normally involves an editor or someone pointing at the vacant, trash-piled desks of reporters who haven't shown up to work yet, and the editor or whoever it is says their first names and beats as if that will be meaningful. Then there's a general gesticulation towards the paginators, who won't be in until after 4, and maybe at the old lady who types up obits faxed over from the funeral homes. You find out where the coffee is, see the phone has 15 messages that are password protected, and then there's a roladex.

Here's the thing about the roladex: It's a mess.

It's scribbles. It's names and names and numbers and there's no context for anything, or if there is it's cryptic, coded for memory. Jan, it says, Murphy trial background. Phyllis, it says, no on bond measure. And there are business cards. They're stapled in and stuffed in and coming out like clumps of hair and each one might mean nothing, but how would you know?. They're for lawyers and little shops, tow truck drivers and repair men, politicians who aren't even running any more and people who've since been promoted, or moved on, and you don't know what they have to say or about what and would they even talk if you called them. You see a card for a dry cleaner on a busy corner and you don't know, does the man have info about the crime on that corner, or is he secretly passing along secrets he wants the paper to use to sink the mayor, or is this the oldest business in town, or there's a synagogue that meets in the back of the place, or is this just where the last reporter who had this desk had his dry cleaning done?

And that's the thing about the roladex: it's worthless without memory. It looks like it's got valuable information, good leads and sources and story ideas, but there's nothing in there that means anything without the memory of the person who put it together. Each name in there, each number and reference, is so irregular, so particular, so formed by the relationship with the reporter and tied to the tangle of connections that you would have to have to break the cryptic, scribbled code that a reporter's roladex only works if there's a reporter there to explain it all. Even take you're own roladex -- it only works if you remember, if you're reporting and you can make the connection in your mind, oblique or oddball or sideways or whatever, and without any help or prompting, between the subject you're working on and a name, a person who said something sometime in the past and might say something now that connects -- somehow -- to what you're writing.

It's meaningless without the memory to put parts together.

The roladex gives you the first lesson of journalism as practice, the first one you get when you get out of class and into an actual newsroom: you've got nothing to go on; there's no experience to draw from; you're going to have to start from scramble and scratch.

When you walk into a new newsroom and there's the tour, when you see the fax machine spits mimeo-looking press releases form weird lobby groups and you wonder if the florescent lights always make that sound, when the boss says things like how his "door's always open" and you see the sport reporter's got a typo in his headline and the school reporter keeps a collection of gas station soda cups, you always hope someone's going to point to someone in the newsroom and say this is the person who's been here forever. Say, institutional memory. Say, this is the person who knows what's happened and where and how and how it relates and mostly, especially, the one who can take a little bit of long view and can say, past the deadline, past the next edition, what things mean.

But this almost never happens. Or the "institutional memory" is an editor with a few years who likes to chop copy and warp stories for pre-imagined narratives, or a guy in the back who always knows names but can't quite remember them, or someone in the front, one of the white shirts, who is always asking favors for friends and financial interests, feigning not to know how any of this works but knows exactly when a leak will help a special business interest. So you're on your own. You're starting with nothing but a blinking phone and a blank screen and press 9 for an outside line.

You just got to be lucky. You just got to scramble.

You got to make your own roladex and try not make mistakes while you try to get some sources you can trust to give you some history without burning you or using you too bad. Even later, though, when you're the one with experience, when you're the one with the tip for the other reporters on who to call, you know that and it scares you 'cause it's still mostly scramble and luck and cold calls and coaxing to try make up for the lack and the fact that news is mostly all surfaces and you're always just skating over the cold, dark lake of what it means.