Sep 30, 2010

Bible Game 7

Fincher's credits
Hipster consumption
The Self in fiction
Tea Party protest art
Improv as a way of life
The Circus: the photographs
6 artists on Blood Meridian
A literary map of Manhattan
Worshiping the constitution
Tweeting Wittgenstein's life
Grammar doesn't equal thought
Trying to understand Pavement
Pavement makes a come back now?
PEN interview with Don DeLillo
Maps of race in American cities
Jack Anderson, journalist as spy
William Burroughs reviews The Who
Source material for Blood Meridian
Write your own Raymond Carver story
James Wood is wrong on Blood Meridian
Eddie Long and the end of black homophobia
New Chicago Manual of Style is +1000 pages
Will Woodward's book be as bad as its cover?
What does physics tell us about metaphysics?
Tao Lin: Great American Novelist (by Tao Lin)
How to write on science for a newspaper, a guide
The most accurate sci fi, according to scientists
Caputo's philosophy lectures online (complete list)
Caputo's last lectures on continental philosophy online
Caputo's syllabus on the future of continental philosophy
White rockers in search of soul salvation (& authenticity)
Franzen acts like he's presiding over literature's funeral
You have to have the courage of your artistic restrictions
The journals of Elias Hicks, the Quaker who inspired Walt Whitman
Don Bean, prankster and journalist, dies at 82. May he rest in peace.
Into the anti-Semitic psychosis of Ezra Pound's authorized biographer
Arther Penn, who directed Bonnie and Clyde, dies at 88. May he rest in peace.
Germany to make final reparations payment for WWI 92 years later

Sep 29, 2010

Wittgenstein on Wednesdays 002

Wittgenstein, the crazed
from Logicomix, by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou

Auf Deutsch:
1.2 Die Welt zerfällt in Tatsachen.
1.21 Eines kann der Fall sein oder nicht der Fall sein und alles übrige gleich bleiben.
2 Was der Fall ist, die Tatsache, ist das Bestehen von Sachverhalten.
2.01 Der Sachverhalt ist eine Verbindung von Gegenständen (Sachen, Dingen).
2.011 Es ist dem Ding wesentlich, der Bestandteil eines Sachveerhaltes sein können.

1.2 The world disaggregates into facts.
1.21 One can be the case or not be the case and all that remains stays equal.
2 What is the case, the fact, is the existence of states of affairs.
2.01 The state of affairs is the connection of objects (entities, things).
2.011 It is to a thing essential that it can be a component part of a state of affairs.

Sep 27, 2010

A moment in lit. history

Paris, 1953:

The Paris Review interviews its first author, E.M. Forster, inaugurating its "alternative to criticism," in a series that developed and popularized a form of discourse giving authors ultimate authority to pronounce on (and foreclose) the meaning of their texts.

Roland Barthes publishes his first book, Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, "examin[ing] the arbitrariness of the constructs of language" (according to the Encyclopedia Britannica), beginning a career that developed and popularized the school of thought that pronounced authors dead, i.e., unable to authoritatively foreclose the meaning of their texts.
Falling to pieces in public

Falling to pieces in secrects

Sep 24, 2010

The anti-rule of politeness

The rule is actually an anti-rule: it is always possible that you are wrong.

Politeness, according to pragmatics*, used to be thought of as a thing of rules. If you followed the rules, you were considered polite. If you said "thank you" when you were supposed to, said "please" when you were supposed to, said nothing when you were supposed to, and followed the cultural rules, you were polite. This is the standard way we think about politeness, of course, both when we teach it to children and when we enter cross-cultural situations where communication's hidden rules seem obvious.

This old idea had two problems, though. First, it couldn't account for over-politeness, situations where, by following the rules, meticulously and excessively adhering to the please-and-thank-you conventions, politeness itself becomes rude. Second, it couldn't account for the instability of politeness, the way that it's always possible for politeness to be taken as impoliteness.

Consider what happens when a designer is eliminated from the show Project Runway. Heidi Klum announces the judges' pronouncement, "you're out," and then, in proper German, says, "auf wiedersehen." This is the German farewell most Americans know, but it is actually too formal for everyday use. You don't, today, at least in Southern Germany, say auf weidersehen to a friend or someone you know. Except possibly as an overly formal, jokey farewell, what you would say to a friend would be Tschüß or ciao or schönen tag! Though the formal farewell literally translates as something like "until we see each again," it's formality or over formality could imply, in the context of Project Runway eliminations an over-politeness. It can be taken as a rude dismissal, the kind of very formal brush-off an official gives to someone who has no social standing. The rudeness or possible rudeness of Klum's farewell is seen in some promotions of the show, which ask, in a Denglish pun, "Who will be Auf'd next?"

Of course, most of the designers, in the seasons of the show I've seen, don't take the auf wiedersehen to be impolite. Many of them actually try to respond with auf wiedersehen too. The phrase doesn't seem impolite because it isn't taken as impolite. Regardless of the rules of politeness there may or may not be for a word in Germany or America or on TV, it's not impolite when it's not taken as impolite, though this also means the reverse, that no matter how polite something is intended to be or how closely it aligns with the articulated or unarticulated rules, it's only polite if the hearer hears it as polite.

Politeness, according to pragmatics, is now understood not to be about rules at all, but a matter of the hearer's evaluation.

This means a negative evaluation is always possible. There is nothing the speaker can do to foreclose the meaning of a remark. There is no court of appeals of politeness, no rule that can act as neutral judge in negotiating a dispute between people. If something is taken as impolite by a hearer, the speaker cannot insist that the hearer is wrong and it really was polite, but must appeal to the hearer to hear it a different way. (If the speaker refuses to recognize the hearer as the evaluator of the statement, of course, and insists the hearer has no right to say what it was that was said, then the rudeness is compounded by rudeness).

There are two direct connects here to Continental Philosophy: first to Hegel's idea about the master and the slave, where the master is actually slave to the slave and the hierarchy is unstable, and second to the Levinasian idea that ethics originates with infinity of the Other, and one must recognize the uncontainable, un-closable alterity of the Other, glimpsed in the face of the Other, who has a freedom and an authority (even, re:Zizek, a terrible, frightening power) that one can only be humble before.

What interests me especially here is that pragmatics, through a study of language, has come to same conclusion or kind of conclusion as Continental Philosophy after the ethical turn. As Rene Girard might put it, it is an issue of humility. One cannot force someone to accept what one says as polite; instead one has to actually give up the claim to being right, submit, he might even say, one to another, readily recognize and cede to everyone else's claims, always being willing or ready to admit that one is wrong.

The only way to be polite and the only way to be ethical is to be always ready or willing when asked to apologize.

And isn't this the basic, ongoing struggle in American cultural the goes under that name "political correctness"? Conservatives feel they're following the rules of the dominant culture but that that's being held against them and that they're being forced to submit to minorities' demands. Which, in a way, they are. Which is, in fact, the only way to be ethical, and the only way to be polite. Insisting on the rules results in the weird situation where, supposedly in the spirit of Christmas, people get belligerent in wishing everyone Merry Christmas, as if Christmas could be forced on people who don't want to celebrate it.

There is this frustration, of course, that one can't know whether, for example, a white person should say "black" or "African American," or whether a man should or should not hold open a door for a woman, that there is no rule that one can follow and always be right. That frustration is understandable. We want there to be a rule to which we can appeal, but we only have each other. We want there to be a rule by which we can guarantee with some certainty that we're right and by which we can be justified.

It doesn't work that way though. The only rule we have is this anti-rule, we have to be humble, because it's always possible we're wrong.

* Thanks to Annick Paternoster and Christiana Gregoriou, both of the University of Leeds, for telling me about the developments of ideas of politeness in pragmatics. Any misunderstandings or misrepresentations of ideas within pragmatics, however, are most certainly my own.
"Today, it seems, the virus [of paranoia] is self-generated. Distrust and disbelief are centered in a deep need to raise individual discontent to an art form, often with no basis in fact. In many cases, people choose to believe a clear falsehood, about President Obama, for instance, or September 11, or immigrants, or Muslims. These are often symbolic beliefs, usable kinds of fiction, a means of protest rising from political, economic, religious, or racial complaints, or just a lousy life in a dying suburb."

-- Don DeLillo

Sep 22, 2010

Wittgenstein on Wednesdays 001

The task of philosophy

I suspect I'm drawn to Wittgenstein for the wrong reasons.

You're supposed to like him, I think, for his epic genius and rigorous logic, his insane claim to have solved all the problems of philosophy, and the tightness and thoroughness of his thinking. A lot of people seem attracted to the challenge of reading the Tractacus, too, which has a kind of cachet, in some circles, as an accoutrement of genius (like Go, or astrophysics), and I'm not insusceptible to that attraction, but that's not really why I keep coming back to Wittgenstein. You're supposed to like him, I think, because there's a feeling, reading Wittgenstein, that when you get this, you will have gotten it, "it" being an answer, an explanation, a full and complete picture of the world.

Even the most discursive bits of Wittgenstein read like a math problem, and you feel, when you're reading, like you're almost on the verge -- if only you can follow, if only you can concentrate -- of a solution.

You're supposed to like him, I think, because he's concise, and because he's cryptic, and has this intense, almost religious drive towards clear logic and thinking.
I've been thinking about it, though, since I went to see the house he built in Vienna, remembering late nights at the Lake House in Hillsdale where three of us played chess and taught ourselves Wittgenstein and talked philosophy and the Tractatus and Investigations all the time, and I think I've been drawn to him and drawn back to him for different reasons.

I like that for Wittgenstein, both early Wittgenstein and later too, philosophy was a struggle, a struggle he frames in moral terms.

I like that for Wittgenstein philosophy was about language.

I like that language is this space where this ongoing ethical struggle takes place.

I like it that, with Wittgenstein, language is something with very high, and very personal stakes.

Sep 21, 2010

Market and green

Wittgenstein and the hard-boiled
How to photograph an atomic bomb
Where is Gen. George Custer's remains?
We are hungry for beauty. There is a void.
Billy Collins, you douche, lyrics are too poetry
The 50 most influential progressives in the 20th century (starting with Debbs)
Ronald W. Walters, scholar who led first lunch-counter sit-in, dies at 72. May he rest in peace.
Why are video games the medium of choice for depicting current US wars?
What is it about right wing women leading political insurgencies?
Jean-Luc Godard: There is no such thing as intellectual property
Search engines keep you from finding more than you want to know
Howl: the best exposition of a poem in a major motion picture
Pentagon tries to buy up book it doesn't want you to read
Franzen's moral clarity and the indictment against cool
Derrida interviews free jazz musician Ornette Coleman
"Original Civil Rights Photographer" was FBI informant
The problem with prescriptivists: they can't be wrong
Tom McCarthy and the future of the avant garde novel
We want to call these fringe candidates ... but ...
Benedict co-opts John Henry Newman for his own power
The Limbaugh Rule vs. The Buckley rule for voting
America is littered with really large things
World's largest signature is Manhattan-wide
Tao Lin: stealing books is good for business
Hayek and the crisis in American capitalism
Looking for Grizzly bears in Wash. state
Why do we read and write popular fiction?
Burning Quran's and scapegoating of Islam
Vatican library to reopen after remodel
Mitch Daniels makes moves to run for WH
Mitch Daniels & fiscal special olypmics
Can a Mormon lead the Christian right?
Republicans ride the tea party tiger
David Foster Wallace: the archives
Alinksy's rules: for conservatives?
Ten years with Jon Stewart's jokes
Wittgenstein's television debut?
Write so as to become primary
The chess model of sacrifice
The comics criticism canon
Paintings of bookshelves
The present tense novels
Inside America's mosques
John Lindsay in New York
Massimo Vignelli's desk
English spelling reform
The Pale King is coming
Crime blotter fashion
Polka dots, a history
Photographs in pairs
Franzen on Fresh Air
100 miles per gallon
The cyberpunk canon
Get a real degree

Sep 20, 2010

"David Markson can now take his place in a long and distinguished line of writers whose personal libraries were quickly, casually broken down. Herman Melville’s books? One bookstore bought an assortment for $120, then scrapped the theological titles for paper. Stephen Crane’s? His widow died a brothel madam, and her estate (and his books) were auctioned off on the steps of a Florida courthouse. Ernest Hemingway’s? To this day, all 9,000 titles remain trapped in his Cuban villa."

-- Lost libraries: the strange afterlife of authors' book collections
That's a damned answer

I have resisted the argument that David Simon is fatalistic, but now, reading The Corner, I might have to change my mind.

The Corner basically reads like source material for The Wire: here we meet earlier permutations of what will become Bubbles, Bodie, Pooh, the corner kids, the shorties, the teachers and school administrators, and the few addicts who make it on to the show. The lower level police -- the rollers, knockers, Western District's finest -- are here too, and Omar, here Odell, is mentioned, though he never makes an appearance.

My personal frustration with the book is how weak the narratives are -- the stories just kind of dribble along, dramatic moments are underplayed and never really set up for any impact. Everything, the way Simon and Ed Burns tell the story, kind of just is.

At first I just wondered where the story-telling talent so evident in The Wire actually came from, since it's not apparent here. But now, as I'm almost done with the book, I wonder if it's not that the book is just infected with fatalism.

The authors do kind of seem to believe that the corner is the natural state for these people. When characters in the book find it within themselves to hope, to believe that change is possible, the authors don't bring us into that belief, that hope, but present it as freakish. As self delusion. Where they could have written the stories in such a way that the reader hopes with characters and then is crushed by the tragedy when it goes sideways (which is what happens when this is translated into TV), here Simon and Burns seem just shrug and say, "what did they expect?"

Hope, if anything, is presented as a delusion, a kind of willed blindness: it's what makes you think that little things you do can actually could make a difference.

"She chooses to believe," the authors write of one character, and they say she chooses, against evidence that should be obvious, because "if these things are true" "everything she does here has a purpose." It's all delusion, and delusion-supported delusion. And yet the woman will be shocked when someone's gunned down, locked up, or dies of an overdose, but, seriously, what did she expect?

The way The Corner is written, meaningless confounds everything. What Cornell West calls nihilism -- "the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most importantly) lovelessness", "the murky waters of despair that now flood the streets of black America" -- and argues can be/should be countered not (just) with liberal politics of improving social structures and not with conservatives' (culpability-avoiding) moral condemnations of behavior, but by art, music, religion, philosophy, and other things that overcome the colonized mind, The Corner see as just the way the world is. There is no answer to meaninglessness that they can conceive of as actually possible.

They imagine, at one point, a newly clean, recovering addict, confronted with this meaninglessness: "So welcome back to a culture that still hasn't found a use for you or your kind," they say.
"You were born for Fayette and Mount, you went there, and, at this point, the only real surprise is that you survived long enough to want something more. If you went back there now -- a last visit, perhaps -- if you walked twenty blocks due west from the city's downtown to Mount Street and found the sage idiot manning his post, then you should state your case:
'I been a dope fiend,' you'd say.
'I'm tired,' you'd say.
'I'm trying to stop,' you'd say.
And the idiot on the corner would surely look at you and offer a cold question that points very close to the truth.
And damned if you could answer."
This seems to be the end, for Simon and Burns, burned out and damned if they can answer the meaninglessness. It seems to me that this is why they can't quite tell these stories as stories, instead of just strung-together facts: they've given up, and the stakes are so low, so non-existent, that none of it actually matters. There's only really any energy in the book when the authors get worked up in a sermon on the stupidity of various political responses to the problems of the corner, the drug war, welfare, etc. Sometimes there are glimpses of promising narratives, elements of stories that could come together to be really moving, like the opening lines, where "Fat Curt is on the corner ... lean[ing] hard into his aluminum hospital cane, bent to this ancient business of survival," but then they're overcome by lethargy.

They seem to me to hold back, to be, like someone who's burned out, unwilling to risk, anymore, the pain and hurt of hoping. I find it frustrating, though, as I read, and I want to quote back to them the Kafka they use as an epigraph: "You can hold back from the suffering of the world. You have free permission to do so .... But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided."

I guess I only noticed this, though, when I kept coming across scenes and story lines in The Corner that feel like they should feel tragic, but instead they're flat, they're fatalistic.

When two addicts walk out onto the street high and it starts to rain, for example, what should feel tragic, what should, I think, be written in a way to make you want to cry, ends instead with a shake of the head:

"Out on the street, large fat drops of rain begin slapping hard at them, slowly at first, then gradually accelerating until Gary surrenders and ducks into a vestibule. Ronnie follows and the two of them ride out the high, waiting for the downpour to slow.
'Something I'm ...'
'I got something I can't remember,' says Gary.
'You just high.'
'No, it was ...'
Gary stares up Fulton, his pupils wide, trying with all his might to bring something to mind. The rain slows, they walk on, and by the time he reaches Vine Street, it comes.
'Oh man. What day is it?'
Ronnie shrugs.
'Tuesday,' says
Gary, answering himself. He counts forward on both hands, coming first to ten, then counting again and coming to eleven.
'Eleven days. I'm still okay.'
'For what?'
'My county case. I got a notice that I have to go ten days in advance of court to talk to the public defender.'
'Where you got to go?'
Ronnie shakes her head, then pronounces Gary doomed."

Repeatedly, in the book, tragedy isn't written as tragedy, but as something normal. The authors seem to shake their heads, and pronounce these people doomed. The authors take the conrner-cynic's position, and seem surprised that anyone would expect anything different. They take the position where, hearing of Langston Hughes' dream deferred, they might ask what the fuck he was dreaming for. Didn't he know he was a nigger in Ameirca? When Fat Curt, an old addict who is easily the book's best character, begins to weep for himself, and says, "I look like a damn freak and I can't do a got-damn thing about it," the authors are incredulous. "Curt actually begins crying," they say. They seem surprised he hasn't just accepted that this is what happens, has imagined he might somehow hope or change his way out of the despair he was born to. Didn't he know "that the old corner axiom still holds: No one gets out alive"?

Even in scenes where the people who live on the corner are shocked by the corner, Simon and Burns take it as normal, natural. In the summer, a horse pulling a produce cart pees on someone's ground stash of coke and heroin. The dealers badly beat the man selling produce, and then the horse. The corner-dwellers are shocked by this -- "'Why beat the horse?' says Pimp. 'Horse don't know.'" -- but the authors assure us that this is just the way it is. Their answer to why is, "Why not? The violence roams and fluctuates with its own rhythms."

But is that supposed to satisfy us? Is that supposed to be our answer?

Sep 19, 2010

What we woulda said back then

Though I love the show, I don't personally care about the "authenticity" of the language in Mad Men -- "authenticity" being a lost leader, I think, realism a red herring for critics and viewers and apparently Matt Weiner too -- but John McWhorter and Benjamin Zimmer's clear critique of the language's historical accuracy brings up, I think, two interesting problems:

1. If it were more authentic, it would feel less so.

If Mad Men actually were a show where people spoke like they actually did, those contractions and "gonna"s and "woulda"s and "shoulda"s would signal a kind of sloppy casualness to us today. It would feel anachronistic, even at the moments it was most historically accurate, because we've constructed the past as feeling a certain way, and because, semiotically, what a contraction stylistically communicates has changed.

This problem came up before with Deadwood. If the curing in the show had been historically accurate, if the characters had cursed the way people cursed in the American West in the 1870s and '80s, modern audiences would have laughed. "Gosh darn," and "tarnation" don't carry the weight or the force they did. What they mean, of course, hasn't exactly changed, but the context-constructed emphasis of the words is totally different now. The show chose to try to maintain the right mood using contemporary cursing, figuring that feeling authentic was more important (and achievable) than being lexicographically correct.

Both shows, I think, walk themselves into situations where it's not possible to not be anachronistic.

2. Imaginations of idyllic pasts persist on many levels.

We know the 1950s weren't the white bread, GOP-fantasy land we've been told it was. We know the myth of good, pre-60s America, where there were no abortions or social unrest or tensions, no gay people or pornography or "deviance," where families just loved each other and women were women and men were manly men, where there was no debt or or poverty or despair, just simplicity and honest, American-dream hard work, is a complete and total crock. A vote-getting fantasy.

Yet, still, we imagine they, in those halcyon days, spoke more properly.

Sep 18, 2010

Wood turning

Sep 16, 2010

Protecting art from thinking

There are a lot of reasons to reject the high/low art divide. Here's another:

When we mark something as low art, we make it so it won't have to be considered seriously. Even if it's a big part of our world, our culture, our lives, the designation acts as an exemption: it's not serious, it's just a guilty pleasure/trashy pop.

Of course, part of what makes low art low art is that it gets to operate under the guise of unseriousness -- it's not literature, it's fiction; it's not cinema, it's a movie; it's just TV, a commercial, a plot boiler, a bit of kitsch -- but it's precisely because these things are protected from criticism, free from careful consideration or a sense of self projection and responsibility that they're so valuable to analysis. This is what might tell us most.

It's impossible to imagine, by comparison, that an archaeologist wouldn't look at the sewers of old Jerusalem. Or that an anthropologists wouldn't want to know how food was cooked in the fertile crescent, or kids entertained on the trip across the Alaskan land bridge.

Interestingly, though, the high/low divide that protects low art from serious consideration doesn't, in the reverse, guarantee that fine art, high art, or the classics are thought about in any thorough way. It should work like that, but doesn't. High art, given that distance, becomes a mark of taste and class and actually can't be discussed but only praised. Discussion, if you do this, is mere iconoclasm, or else you have to preface everything with declarations of fealty to the masters.

Maybe this isn't true everywhere. Art, the capitalized kind, the kind that tends to be modified with "great" and "fine," tends to be a middlebrow pretension in contemporary America, and one surrounds oneself with Rembrandt and Bach, Rodin and Chopin, T.S. Eliot or Shakespeare not as a challenge, not as a way of opening up thinking, but just as a cultural mark or superiority. The works are put up out of reach, by the designation, put under glass, sealed away in a room, in a hush, ensconced in hard plastic.

The argument, as I've heard it, when someone wants make that division, that divide, is always, "let's be serious ...."

But the result seems to be exactly the opposite.

Sep 15, 2010

Economic culpability in Mickey Spillane's The Big Kill

There's a spectre of economic culpability haunting Mickey Spillane's The Big Kill. The detective, the humourless Mike Hammer, a man from the Nixon-McCarthy wing of hard boiled fiction, isn't ultimately involved in an investigation at all. Instead it's a cover up.

He's covering up his own guilt. His own culpability. His own participation in the system of money-making and oppression, capital and it's associated violence. The narrative inside the narrative is that Hammer is confronted with innocence -- a bundled-up baby boy, a father's willingness to sacrifice himself -- and he feels this guilt, this responsibility, and it haunts him. But he shoulders past it. He finds someone else to take the fall for him.

There are several moments when he comes close to discovering his own culpability in this system, but he obliterates the thought of the possibility of his guilt, avoids the moments where there might have been revelation of his responsibility.

There's a moment, for example, when Hammer sees his face in a mirror. He has just ranted about revenge for the death of the working stiff, William Decker, and Hammer has ranted about how he's "still a citizen and responsible in some small way for what happens in this city," but then he's placed all that responsibility on someone else, someone as-yet unidentified, "the guy who made somebody decent revert back to a filthy crime," he says. "I want him right between my hands so I can squeeze the juice out of him."

Almost as soon as he says that, though, there's a flicker: "I just sat there with the beer in my hand and stared at myself."

It's almost a recognition. He could be the guy he's hunting. He has been a citizen and a participant in the system that does this; he is involved in this.

"I started thinking of something that was like a shadow hovering in the background," he says. "I thought about it a long time and it was still a shadow when I finished and it had a shape that was so curious ...."

There's something he recognizes, but can't quite ever see. Even when a whole subplot revolves around someone in the police department feeding information to organized crime, and there are all these injunctions to "investigate yourself," Hammer can't see it. His own space in the system that created this crime he's supposedly investigation has been erased. But he comes, again and again, to this spot, and finds it erased, and he's troubled.

"I was cursing myself," he says, "and the whole damn mess long before I was finished because it was ending in a blank."

It's not just that he doesn't see it, though, that he investigates and finds the site of his own culpability blank. He has worked to make that erasure. Hammer goes to some lengths to disavow, for instance, any financial interest in the case, even though he is pretty clearly financially involved with the crime and the criminal reality of the city. Asked, apparently innocently, who's paying him as a private detective to investigate this case, Hammer says he doesn't stand to gain anything here. "I'm just sore, that's all," he says. "I'm on my own time and my own capital."

This is a feint, though. Hammer can't quite disentangle himself so easily from the economics of death he despises. The villains, in this book, the gangsters in Spillane's smoke-rain-and-dames New York, are bookies. The economic engine of the city is one where big shots lure in working stiffs with promises of pay offs. Everyone in the novel (with the possible exception of one old lady) is a part of this system: the gangsters profit off the in-over-their-heads gambling of working class men, but the cops make their living off the gangsters who make their living off the working people, and so does the DA, and so does Mike Hammer. Maybe he's not getting paid in this case, but this is how he gets paid. The bar tenders are complicit in this, and the priest is too, and the boarding house manager is as much a part of this as anyone else. All of them are making money off the system that left Decker dead. All of them are part of the reason the man, who didn't have health care and couldn't afford to pay for his dying wife's cancer treatment, went down to the race tracks with a tip about a sure thing.

So when Hammer growls, near novel's end, "I cursed the widow-makers and the orphan-makers and every goddamn one of the scum that found it so necessary to kill because their god was a paper one printed in green," his crypto-anit-capitalist critique includes himself. But he can't see it, and his investigation, a frantic pursuit of someone, some one person, to take the punishment, continues at an increasingly frantic pace.

Hammer is a conservative, of course, but even as it never occurs to him that systems and social structures can bear responsibility as much as individual actors, the suspicion that there's a system of something at work occasionally emerges to bother his consciousness. He imagines, for example, that the case he's investigating is just one in a city where this is happening every day, that the death he saw is just one, an iteration of what's happening every day in the city. He can't conceive of the idea, though, that in this repetition, there's a system at work of which involves him. He can't conceive, though, the evil isn't only a question of agency. It's not always or only about will.

The closest he can get to thinking a social system could be eveil is when he does condemn the people who are guilty of tacit or passive support for the system -- "They ought to take a look," he says, in a rant about the evils of illegal gambling, "at a corpse with some holes punched in it" -- but he doesn't see how he is doing this too. Or course he has seen such a corpse, and it has caused these spasms of guilt in Hammer, but it's sent him on a frenzied quest to find someone else who's guilty. Someone he can punish.

There is one moment where Hammer comes to face his own culpability, where he's almost forced to admit he's at the center of this investigation he's doing. But then, like a Freudian subject faced with the knowledge he wants to have sex with his mother, he turns away from his own guilt, and concocts a story about other evil people. The guilt is displaced. It's an almost classic fantasy about the evil forces "out there." It happens, of course, in a dream: Hammer imagines all the characters in the story, all the characters involved in the crime, are dressed up in Roman togas and doing an elaborate dance:

"When the players moved it was with deliberate slowness so you could watch every
move. I stood there in the center of the compound and realized that it was all
being done for my benefit without understanding why .... I tried to concentrate
on the players until I realized I wasn't the only audience they had. Someone
else was there in the compound with me. She was a woman. She had no face."

There's an almost deliberate turning away, here. Unable to cope with the realization that he is at the center, that he's the one who benefits from this, that the guilt is his, Hammer imagines a woman who can take the guilt. A woman who can be pursued and punished.

Most of these revelations, these moments of disturbed conscious, are never returned to, in the novel. The readers are left to assume the shadow, the faceless woman, the guilty party, is in face the woman who's punished for the crime in the end. There is, though, in the end, a few sly admissions that maybe this ought not be accepted as the conclusion. "There was a lot of detail stuff there," Hammer says, "that I didn't pay any attention to."

Hammer hurdles past the finer details, though. Straight to the big kill. The faceless woman's got to get it in the end. Even that, however, is haunted by this ghost of economic guilt: the title of the book, in what is the novel's one real bit of word play, has three meanings. It refers to Hammer's quest to kill the person who killed the working man/father, and William Decker's death at the opening, and gambling, that moment in which one over-bets, imagining one's self to be a special case, exempt from the logic of the system. It's that moment when the chips are down, the cards are down, the money's down, and there's that delusion that one can play the game to get out of the game. There is a recognition, in the play on the phrase, that there's a system at work here, and the game can't be won, but when you think you're somehow above it, that's when the harsh rules of the game really kick in.

Hammer knows this, that he's a part of it too, even as he covers it up:

"Something in my chest hammered out that this, too, was the end of a cycle. It
had started with rain and was going to end in the rain. It was a deadly
cycle that could start from nothing, and nothing could stop it until it
completed its full revolution.

"The Big Kill. That's what Decker had wanted to make.

"He made it. Then he became a part of it himself."

Sep 13, 2010

Do you know what he's talking about dead bulls for?

Mickey Spillane: Hemingway hated me. I outsell him and he was steamed. One day he wrote a story for Bluebook berating me. So I'm going on a big TV show in Chicago and I don't get it, that's sour grapes...I mean if you can't say something nice about someone why say anything at all? So I go on this show and the host says 'did you see what Hemingway said about you in Bluebook?' and I say "Hemingway who?"
That killed him.

Interviewer: Not literally?

Spillane: Oh boy no. Every summer I went down to Florida on treasure hunts, and there's this great restaurant called the Chesapeake and they had a picture of Hemingway behind the bar. So one day the owner asks if she could have a picture of me to put up there, and she puts one there. One day Hemingway comes in and sees my picture and says 'what's he doing next to me? Either take his down or take mine down, so they took his down and he never came back to that restaurant. (Laughs) I don't like to tell that story cause you're talking about a dead guy can't defend himself...but he was a great reporter, but he got carried away with all the other stuff, the bullfighting...I'm always on the side of the bull, I hope the bull blows the hell out of that crazy guy in the clown suit out there. I don't like to see animals hurt, not deliberately. If they're putting the bull out there, don't stick the things in him first....I saw a bull once, charge a bison eating in a field. And the bison just drops his head, the bull hits in and BOOM, he's out, and the bison goes back to eating. I went to college out there, in Fort Hayes, Kansas, where they filmed Dancing with Wolves. I used to love to watch the bison. One day an old male died, and the rest, they stood around him, and they did this for two, three days, no one could get to the body out. Finally it's was as if they decided, OK, you people can come get the body out. It was amazing. It always surprises me, how animals seem to have an instinctive what am I talking about dead bulls for?

Interviewer: You were raised a Catholic, right?

Spillane: No I wasn't raised either one (Catholic or Protestant). I'm one of the Jehovahs Witnesses.

Read the full interview @
Gathered here today

Meditations on maps
Lee Friedlander in a car
The Roland Barthes diaries
Sherman Alexie banned in Missouri
They say in Harlem County ... a documentary
Roberto Bolano's rules for writing short stories
So advanced, so connected, and yet: a review of Social Network
George Hitchcock, "dictator" of lit mag Kayak, dies at 96. May he rest in peace.
Clerks and the political polarization of the Supreme Court
A Dylan-writer and professional historian's rightward turn
In opposing mosques, Christians undermine their own faith
Careful analysis of underground comics: The Imp
A lesbian confesses to her Christianity problem
Help the economy: let more immigrants in
What Dylan did with Blind Willie McTell
John Grisham: on hard work and writing
The Black Keys in their analog studio
Threats to the Appalachian Trail
The art of Guantanamo prisoners
In defense of jumping the shark
FBI finds fake funeral frauds
Top 10 book stores in the US
The double lives of dictators
Allen Ginsberg, photographer
Anthropology of our garbage
Life imitates Franzen
Blood and philosophy
Book collecting

Sep 7, 2010

The Complicated Story of the Death of Carlnell Walker
An introduction

It’s almost impossible to predict the social forces of corpses.

Some seem to have the mass of a sun, and exert this great gravitational pull, pulling whole solar systems of communities into an orbit. Dead soldiers are often like this. Dead police officers, and sometimes people killed by police officers are like this. Black people killed by white people or white people killed by black people – any corpse that has a clear racial-conflict story. Victims with certain stories, certain simple narrative accounts that seem to almost create communities around their corpses. What happens, here, is that the death seems to evoke or invoke an account, a story that is told or that the community can tell itself, and this story constructs the community. There’s a narrative identity formation that happens around the deceased.

Other corpses, though, can’t quite be transformed so simply into stories, or the stories aren’t so simple. They’re deeply complicated and conflicting narratives. These corpses have very different social forces.

Carlnell Walker was one of the complicated dead. In 2006, in July, in a rental house just south of Atlanta, Georgia, homicide detectives opened the rusty trunk of a broken-down sedan and found his body, bloated, bloody and rotting. The body was badly decomposed. The detectives told me the smell, the stench, was overwhelming. I had just started working for a little newspaper, there, where I ended up writing and reporting on 100 murders, which occurred during the 2 ½ years I was a crime reporter there. Carlnell Walker was the first murder, though, and I really struggled to figure out how to write a story around this corpse. Sometimes, I would find, writing such a story would be fairly simple – a neat narrative would just offer itself, there was a story that was apparently just there, that the community was telling to itself as it orbited around the body – but sometimes, as with Walker, everything was complicated, and the narrative would seem, whichever way I wrote it, to break down.

I’m particularly interested in what I think of as narratological break downs. In cases where to be accurate – to be honest – the story has to become overcomplicated, the structure of the narrative has to be broken, the unity we want with stories and usually get with stories has to be folded back on itself, or frayed, or fragmented. I’m interested in cases where, in order to work, a story has to not work.

Sep 6, 2010

Freedom isn't about a subculture; it's about the culture. It's not a microcosm; it's a cosm.
-- Lev Grossman

All novels are about certain minorities.
-- Ralph Ellison

Sep 1, 2010

You'll become like a moron

Journalists who are doing their job are required, semi-regularly, to make an argument against governments' rights to keep secrets. Why should public information be public? Why should people know what's going on?

The arguments I've heard made generally fall into two categories: the public's right to know, and the nature of democracy.

I agree with both of those arguments, but have often found them tactically lacking. The public sometimes wants to waive their right and just give the authorities control. And one who is not convinced that a free society requires a free press and free information will not likely be convinced by Jefferson annecdotes. Either you believe it or you don't.

It's interesting, then, that Daniel Ellsberg, the country's greatest leaker of information and the only real precedent to the current phenomena of Wikileaks and Julian Assange, made a very different argument about the problem of government secrets. He told Henry Kissinger:
It will be very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn't have clearance. Because you're thinking as listen to them: 'What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know?' .... You'll become something like a moron ... incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have.
Rick Perlstein characterizes this as an argument about the narcotic effects of secrets, but really it's more of an argument that keeping secrets necessarily leads to what has been called "epistemic closure." The idea is that keeping secrets locks goverments into their own ignorance -- it makes them morons, and it's bad for the governments' themselves.

Obviously the argument didn't persuade Kissinger. Maybe it's no more effective than the usual two arguments. But there's a stark truth to the claim Ellsberg made that's worth remembering when those who struggle to free information are cast as the enemies of goverment.
French in the morning