Sunday, January 31, 2010

Poverty Is Claiming the Suburbs

The image of the city as the place where the poor lives has to be changed because this masks the rapidly-growing poverty in the suburbs, where poverty will continue to become a pernicious problem. Over the past ten years I've said to myself that the nouveau-riche suburbs of Atlanta are going to be the Golden Ghettoes of the near future. If we're lucky we'll see more areas like the international sections of Buford Highway in Chamblee: alive with diversity (some of the best eating in the city is here), but clearly starved of critical infrastructure (this should be the most pedestrian-friendly area in the city, but it's a six-lane highway lined with apartments).

According to the new Brookings Institute report, suburban areas in the U.S. grew at a rate of 25% between 2000 and 2008, this is five times faster than the rate in primary cities. By 2008, one-third of the nation's poor lived in the suburbs.

We have to keep in mind that this is data as of 2008, we're still awaiting official unemployment data for 2009. I've written a bit about poverty in the U.S. here (a central concern for me).

Below I am embedding a video featuring David Shipler. I wanted to link to a Nightline episode (On the Edge: America's Working Poor, 2004) but I can't find a link. Their report was based on Shipler's work for the New York Times so it's like going to the source in some ways.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

On Dogs

The always-awesome Robert Cheatham shared a fascinating article this week and I want to share with you. I've been marinating on some ideas about dogs and humanity for a while no: here, here, and here. In part this has been sparked by reading Coppinger's Dogs, but also from Jason Wirth's essay on Milan Kundera where he stated dogs, "are Nature's mute cipher." Great.

Anywho, here's the article about Moscow's subway-riding strays.

New Post at The Avant Guardian

Please checkity-check my new piece over at The Avant Guardian and leave me some feedback. I greatly benefit from your conversation.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Something's Cookin'

I'm writing my new piece for The Avant Guardian, it will be available this Friday.

It's going to be good, I hope you like it.

It's about Lil' Wayne.

Listen up:

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Poverty, Healthcare, & Agriculture

To somewhat flesh-out some of what I was saying yesterday about how the poverty level is determined, today I am sharing some great reads.

My friend from the AccionUSA days, Tina Valverde, pointed me to a great article asking, "Why are libertarian rightists defending a dysfunctional, state-engineered food system?"

While I'm not at all interested in Libertarian politics (I'm vehemently opposed often), it's a great article chock-full of excellent links to articles offering a history of food subsidies and pointing out the unintended harms of maintaining this corporate welfare.

An oldy, but goody, from the CATO Institute presents a case against Archer Daniels Midland (ack! two links to libertarian-aligned articles! what strange bedfellows).

Then there is this great article form the New Yorker from last year that discusses the intersections of health care policy and agricultural policy.

And to be fair, here's a public relations piece "a farmer in Missouri who will spend the next 6 weeks on a combine." But the piece reeks of lobbyist-talking points and slicker than subsidized-corn oil.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Responding to Thinking About Creativity

Thanks for reading, Matt.

If we're attached to the idea that everyone in a society should be able to voice their opinion, then it matters if they feel their voice is their own.

You ask, "if we want people to buy us...what's wrong with that; what does that really mean?" Now working with refugees I can assure you that millions of people are trafficked across the U.S. and the globe, as sex workers, as migrant workers. They are slaves by another name.

While you might be able to afford the idea that some people would want to be considered as simply a commodity to be purchased, no different from a sack of flour, I can assure you millions of people don't enjoy that luxury. Here I will quote the International Rescue Committee (where I am currently doing an internship):
Anywhere from 700,000 to 4 million persons worldwide are trafficked across or within national borders every year. Virtually every country is affected by trafficking, whether capitalized by traffickers as a source, transit or destination location. Generating roughly $7 billion to $10 billion annually, human trafficking is the fastest growing global criminal industry, with high profits, low risks, minimal capital investment, and a "commodity" that can be used over and over again.
If we're reduced to "just commodities sold in a market" then we are faced with conditions that would undermine the validity of democratic or republican representation.

And, let's face it, some sort of Libertarian utopia à la Ayn Rand would have to condone this burgeoning commodities market above described, and the existence of this market eats away at a notion of a commonwealth like an acid.

While it's true we might reduce all of life to quantiles of energy exchange, this would ignore and abnegate the other 98% of life that is qualified by how these exchanges occur. To reduce living to a quantifiable exchange is to literally live without meaning.

Why eat anything other than high-fructose corn syrup if the purpose of eating is simply to facilitate the exchange of electrons? By the way, what's been among the most subsidized industries in the U.S. for going into 40 years now? Corn. Guess how the Federal Poverty level is determined - by how much it costs to acquire calories. Guess what the poorest people eat in the U.S. That's right, food slathered in high-fructose corn syrup, because it's cheap.

This is what Marx stated; in Capital, vol. 1:
"As use-values, commodities are, above all, of different qualities, but as exchange-values they are merely different quantities, and consequently do not contain an atom of use-value. If we leave out of consideration the use-value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labor."

Why would a capitalist ever want to eradicate protections if it were possible to ensure that some portion of the population was always willing to be sold on the marketplace so as to escape the wretchedness of life unprotected by the commonwealth?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Thinking About Creativity

It's going to seem kinda weird, but almost all of my formal training on the nature of creativity to this point in my life has come from studying Classical Chinese philosophies, Confucianism and Daoism.

The title of this blog comes from my thinking about a Classical Confucian text, the 中庸 (Zhongyong) and my reception of that text in light of contemporary Continental philosophers. I'm specifically interested in the works from Roger Ames and David Hall.

Although I recognize that theirs is a somewhat specific and at times controversial project, I can't shake the feeling that even were their translations wholly wrong (which no one seems to say), what they have to say about the nature of humanity, living, the universe, etc. is what needs to be promoted today.

Today we have this amazing capability, broadly distribute, to create through the appropriation of others' work (the mash-up, DJing, etc.) in a manner that just wasn't possible thirty years ago. To this Ames & Hall have already written:
One must be creative to take full advantage of appropriated culture, both in shaping it for his own place and time, and in using it as a structure through which to realize his own possibilities. He must labor assiduously to acquire the culture transmitted from ancient times but must be able to take it a step further in maximizing the possibilities of the prevailing conditions....Thinking Through Confucius (48)
Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky) has written a bit about this appropriation activity in his book Rhythm Science where he states, "today, the voice you speak with may not be your own." An uncanny feeling, that I might not be who I state I am; to this Ames & Hall say:
The dynamic of becoming whole, construed aesthetically, is precisely what is meant by a creative process. It is thus that cheng (誠) is to be understood as creativity. Creativity involves both the realization of the focal self and of the field of events, the realization of both particular and context. Self-actualization is a focal process that draws upon an aggregate field of human experience. And the field and focus are reciprocally realized. Focusing the Familiar (32)
The problem of who I am and what is the nature of art are not so distant, it's been discussed and debated by Baudelaire, Breton, Brecht, Benjamin, Adorno, Heidegger, etc. The problem is this: if who we are is subject to capitalist economic relations, then everything we do, ultimately is a question of how to turn what we do into a commodity to be sold on the marketplace. Don't believe me? Then how do we account for the phrase, "I don't buy it," when we don't believe something? What aren't you buying? Is it that my sincerity is questioned?
The virtue of the term “sincerity” is that it describes a commitment to one's creative purposes, a solemn affirmation of one's self-actualization....Since all selves are constituted by relationships, integrity means being trustworthy and true in one's associations....integrity is the ground from which self and other arise together to maximize benefit. It is not what you are, but how well and how productively they are able to fare in their synergistic alliances. Focusing the Familiar (33)
The world changes and we must respond, but what is typically neglected in that response to change is the creativity necessary to change with the times.
Not only is change an integral characteristic of things, but real creativity is a condition of this continuing transformative process. That is, our immediate experience is composed of fluid, porous events that entail both persistence and the spontaneous emergence of novelty, both continuity and disjunction. In this evolving order, there is at once familiar rhythm to life, and the newness of each moment. Dao De Jing (16)
This cosmic unfolding is not “cyclical” in the sense of reversability and replication but is rather a continuing spiral that is always coming back upon itself and yet is ever new. Dao De Jing (28)
Who we are, fundamentally, is a creative event:  
Cheng (誠) [creativity], then, is the extending of the specifically human activity of actualizing genuine personhood from man himself to all constituents in the process of existence. Thinking Through Confucius (58)
Wolfgang Schirmacher calls this "artificial life."

Saturday, January 23, 2010

History of the VCR

Thomas Kasulis from the Ohio State University (they insist on the the) is the man. No one can write the way he does. He has a way of communicating what on the surface seems too complicated to be explained or to be interesting and makes it very accessible. His books on Japanese philosophy are game changers: after reading his Intimacy or Integrity: the Philosophy of Cultural Difference, like Rilke said after viewing that bust of Apollo, “you must change.”

Kasulis has a great story about VCRs that illustrates something really important for understanding what is possible in forming an identity. He says that he's married to someone related to a big wig at RCA, or something, and one day at a get-together he got to talking about the VCR. “Why did the Japanese beat the Americans at developing this?” Kasulis asked.

The VCR was professionally available, they were large and expensive and so only television studios could justify the purchase. But they were just too large and complicated for the average American home. The quest became to reduce the size of the cartridges and thus make a smaller machine. The U.S. Strategy involved teams of engineers crunching numbers and based on these developing mock-ups.

The chief problem for the engineers was getting that strip of tape to run across the head. They did the numbers, considered the velocity, the structural needs of the cartridge in relation to the head...the engineers concluded that the tape would hit the head and bounce off in another direction; the tape just would travel in the direction they needed. For their calculations to work, they said, there would have to a drastic redesign.

Then, Sony did it. They made it work. What's interesting is how.

According to Kasulis' story: The Japanese engineers also did the numbers and saw there was a problem. But they also set up a team to explore ways of making it work.

This team would watch the tape go from one side to the other, as the tape moved it would hit the head and bounce off. They continued to do this. And watched it. Played with it.

Then one day it occurred to the team that the tape wanted to travel in a certain path, there needed to be a little something that would just slightly bump the tape and, voila! All it took was a little paperclip from off the desk.

It's an interesting illustration of a principle central to Kasulis's work, that there are basic cultural questions that reiterate like fractals and cause people to behave in different ways across cultures. In the West tradition the first question asked when encountering the unknown is "what is that?" But in China (according to Roger Ames) the question would be, "how do you cook it?" as in, how do I work with this?

In the U.S. the problem was addressed abstractly and with a mathematical kind of reasoning. In Japan the problem was addressed more as a personal relationship with a different kind of reasoning.

Friday, January 22, 2010

New Post at The Avant Guardian

It's that time again, folks. My weekly installment at the fine slice of Internet called The Avant Guardian.

Please take a read and leave a comment there.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Read a lil' bit about Haiti, and how the U.S. almost got Canada

That's what I've been doing today.

It all started with Žižek's review of Peter Hallward's Damming the Flood, here.

That got me to reading a review by Michael Deibert, here. Pretty informative, but not sure that Deibert was considering Hallward's thinking (he was considering Hallward's historicizing).

I wanted to read Hallward's reply, but had a hell of a time finding it (the Monthly Review wasn't very revealing).

So I read Deibert's reply to Hallward's reply, here, hoping that would be informative. Sorta.

Then, I finally found Hallward's reply to Deibert, here. This wasn't particularly informative.

But this was - Hallward's review of Dupuy's book about Aristide.

So, now I feel like I have a sense of some of the Aristide years. I remember as a kid hearing on CNN that burning tires were employed; so I got confused when the U.S. was once again going after Aristide in Haiti. Now I get why I was confused:

Aristide was elected in 1991, a popularly elected man that seemed to juice the poor. He was deposed in a coup in 1991 by the military (backed by the West). He was reelected in 2001 and deposed in a coup d'etat during 2004. Apparently he's still very popular among the people.

This points out an important feature of Haitian politics: there are two majorities - the qualitative (intellectuals and powered elite), and the quantitative (the poor).

Haiti became independent upon a slave rebellion. This terrified the U.S. (because the U.S. had millions of slaves) and so the U.S. did not recognize Haiti until 1864 (and the Civil War).

France insisted that Haiti had to pay compensation for all the freed slaves. The last payment was in 1947 and this was made possible by loans from the U.S. that are still being paid. Hmm. Don't worry, the U.S. (officially) occupied Haiti from 1915 until 1934.

Back to the Civil War.

The last surrender of the U.S. Civil War, by the way, was in 1865. In Britain.

The CSS Shenandoah had been cruising the Pacific Ocean and sinking Union whaling ships for about a year. The U.S. sued the British for their double-crossing us, this was called the Alabama Claims.

In these claims the U.S. requested damages of $2 billion, or surrendering Canada to the U.S.

The result of this arbitration was to establish a precedent for international arbitration and the codification of public international law.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Mourning and Loneliness Readings

I'm somewhat cheating here, I wrote this back in October in preparation for the Poncey-Highlands Reading Group. But, it's probably new to you. And, I am working on something for The Avant Guardian check there this Saturday for my new piece.

We are reading two texts that are grappling with how we understand ourselves and how this self that is developed relates to absence. In Freud's "Mourning Melancholia" is discussed the effects of unintentional separation from our love objects; with Melanie Klein's "On the Sense of Loneliness" is asked the question, can we ever overcome our sense of loneliness that is the result of our separation.

(Pictured: Fritz Lang's Metropolis, an example of monumentality)

I've further also suggested reading Nancy Burke's "InVisible Worlds: On Women and Solitude" as well as Judith Butler's "Melancholy Gender - Refused Identification." Burke's essay briefly outlines some developments in contemporary (as of 1997) feminist thinking on the parameters of what it means to have solitude and gender, discussing Chodorow's suggestion that women experience solitude in a manner fundamentally different from men. The essay we've read by Freud has played a crucial role in the development of Judith Butler's thinking. In her 1995 essay she attempts to elaborate her discussions of gender performativity as first discussed in her career-making book Gender Trouble. These suggested readings by Burke and Butler I've put forward so as to enhance our insight into the Klein and Freud essays. But there is an obvious question: why read about mourning, melancholia, or any senses of loneliness? What are the benefits of discussing these topics in a group that has, at least initially, intimated a desire to discuss politics and economics in light of current events unfolding?

Louis Theroux of the BBC recently made a documentary The Most Hated Family in America which seeks to elaborate what is the Westboro Baptist Church and why they are traveling the U.S. protesting the funerals of soldiers that are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan with signs that state "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for IEDs". If time permits we can view this documentary, as it's relatively short at 45 minutes. Suffice it to say, the members of Westboro Baptist have their rationalizations. According to the membership, it is Biblically-sound and necessary to do the work they do at these moments of public mourning.

In Freud's essay he develops a theory of mourning as well as makes speculations about a term he calls melancholia. The work of mourning, according to these theories, is to assist in the development of the ego character, which I take to be synonymous with a sense of self.

Last Night a DJ Saved my Life

Here's an oldy-maybe-goody. I found this while I was poking around for something else. I recently mentioned the pivotal role of the VCR in our shift from the kind of capitalism that Marx wrote about to the spectacular economy (spectaclism) that Guy Debord wrote about. Girl Talk's Night Ripper, while certainly not the announcement of this shift, has been the best example of this shift.

That album continues to be an inspiration. Some dance albums date themselves, get tossed out, then reappropriated by the kids twenty years later (please, please, please: not all of you hipsters should be wearing skinny acid wash jeans, this is the lesson that your twenties will instill in you). But some dance albums tap into something...more. Now, a few years earlier there had been the Avalanches' Since I Left You, which is also an amazing album, and also chock-full of samples. But having a bunch of samples, that's not so unique. De La Soul was having problems with this when I was a kid.

In his book, Rhythm Science, Paul D. Miller (you might also know him as DJ Spooky) states, “Rhythm Science uses an endless recontextualizing as a core compositional strategy….” A very significant distinction is made here by Miller about the nature of virtue. The DJ is the music presented and in so being is able to bypass “the notion of ‘critic’ as an ‘authority’ who controls narrative, and to create a new role that’s resonant….”

This is a call for a re-sounding (in the nautical sense, plumbing the depths) of the individual-as-performer, very much a Deleuzean rhizomatic self, where the constant unraveling of the layers of who we think we are reveals no core self, no kernel of me-ness, only a constellation of relations. If this attempt at bypassing control (or creation) of the narrative others experience is going to work Miller’s rhythm science requires the understanding that, “Music like hip-hop and electronica is theatre – it’s about how people live the sounds they hear.” This is the distinction between being an authority and being authoritative and it is this distinction which forced the American Congress to discuss just what to do about Girl Talk and how to control culture by extension.

What was really amazing about Night Ripper was that it collapsed all of the music of my life, Boston from when I was a kid, Nirvana from my adolescence, and all the snap and crunk from when I was working in a restaurant kitchen. Everything all together all at once. It was so intoxicating. It was around this time that I saw Graham Parkes present his video essay on Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project. This was my introduction to the flâneur.

Benjamin didn't originate the flâneur, he appropriated it form Baudelaire. I like that word, appropriate. Baudelaire's world wasn't Benjamin's world, and so Benjamin had to make flâneur appropriate to his context. Where Baudelaire's flâneur was beginning to sense that art had yet to understand the city, Benjamin's flâneur was much more like how we see the revolutionary avant-garde of the 20th century: his flâneur was not simply a botanist of the city sidewalk, Benjamin's flâneur was stirring the stew - very actively critiquing and experimenting with the aesthetic experience.

Baudelaire described the perfect flâneur as one “[who] is like a mirror as vast as the crowd itself, or a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness, which with each one of its movements represents the multiplicity of life and the dynamic grace of all life’s elements.” As such, we experience through his film overlap and superimposition of all that has happened in this place, all at once. The effect is a delirium of being human in humanity. This is precisely the effect produced by Girl Talk’s album. Where the success of Benjamin's Arcades lies in its investigation of place-ness, Girl Talk’s album is successful by its investigation of time. Being a DJ, a rhythm scientist, is all about time-ing.

Nietzsche in his preface to The Birth of Tragedy, “This book should have sung.” This is what a good DJ is about – reading the crowd for the right tune to play next, the right context in which to insert another influence, and this is what a good philosopher does. The self-overcoming of nihilism may make the most sense in DJ culture, because a good DJ understands that playing the same track over and again, or simply going through what has been deemed au courant is equally as crushing to the party.

The DJ, to be the proper rhythm scientist, must be an authoritative performer rather than the authority figure. What kind of fun is the party if the person running the show is a cop? The DJ must learn something about overcoming the nihilism that comes with being 24 hour party people - to quote a recent Chemical Brothers song, "the pills won't save you now." Night Ripper is such a danceable album for the same reason that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra must dance: the self-overcoming of nihilism is best expressed in the affirmatory act of dance; that is, to will something eternally is to affirm all that has lead to this point, not simply to repeat ad infinitum. To successfully DJ one must note that distinction. The endless repetition of the same is the history of authoritarianism; the collapse of the history as only passing (the opening of today to those that are to come) is the way of the authoritative performer. Music is the ideal manner in which to transmit this truth.

The performance of this music is not only the performance of notes on a scale, but an opening to a discussion of what is worth transmitting in culture and this is made manifest by the virtuoso’s act (a virtuous action). Music performance bears a significant truth by being true to those that have come before and this musical truth continues to be truth-full if it is performed in a manner that can be trusted by those to come. This musical truth is the same truth of culture. The real absurdity of the current entertainment regime is their insistence that culture can be, like wind in a bag, controlled by their agents.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Responding to Paranoid Android...

As I mentioned over the weekend, I have a new post at The Avant Guardian. Look there weekly for my writing on relational aesthetics and be certain to also read the other talented folks there.

I am very fortunate to have already received some comments from folks and here I'd like to respond to one of the readers, Mike. You can read his comments, here.

And here is my response:

@Mike: Thanks for reading! We probably get more in this situation from Heidegger's thinking on technology than from Nietzsche. The abyss in the Nietzsche you're referencing is less illustrative of a relationship with technology and more the fundamental interrelatedness of reality. "Tat tvam asi" - thou art that - in the Upanishads.

Heidegger, similarly, states that our Dasein can be revealed in an attunement of profound boredom. Not that I am bored and from this discover my richest possibilities as a person, but that the universe itself is capable of being completely disinterested in my project because the universe itself is busy with its own project.

But, we should be really clear that Heidegger's thinking on technology was really, really critical to understanding his oeuvre. A primary concern for Heidegger was that modernity in Western Europe, and the Colonies, had facilitated conditions wherein how we related to one another and to the universe at large was completely alienated. We were not only alienated from the products of our labor, as Marx stated, we are alienated from each other to the extent that we don't even understand morality, as Nietzsche stated, but we are also fundamentally alien to ourselves, as Freud stated. Heidegger, as the inheritor of these thinkers, takes this in and says that among the attitudes driving these modes of alienation is also our societies' zealous absorption of efficiency-seeking technology.

If we pursue the most efficient path for too long, we find ourselves, the grossly inefficient things that we are, no longer fit to operate in that context.

Now, if you reread what I wrote you'll see that there is no need for a fetishized object to be alive (although I suspect Nietzsche and I are agreeance that everything is alive if we are just willing to extend ourselves toward it). A fetishized object is simply a relationship. We have relationships with everything thus the Abyss is able to stare back at us. Not anthropomorphized, but, uncannily, we see that Abyss that we've taken for granted and now we realize that it's ubiquitous presence and thrumming life has proceeded without my attention. It's like realizing one day that you've never noticed how many stairs are in your house, or that there has been a bit of graffiti on your bedroom closet wall for years and you never saw it. The Abyss staring back at us, in this moment from Nietzsche, reveals not only that the Abyss (all that empty, unexamined space in our lives) is actually full of life, but that this unexamined and intensely living space is integral to my being.

You're right to ask, why must it be sexualized? That's why I wrote that essay. My response to the question is to ask, generously, if, maybe, in the wake of the tragic loss of a friend Douglas Hines grasped at any and all straws to find a container for his deceased friend. That's what he said he was doing, at least. So, if Roxxxy is supposed to serve as a container, the next question must be, is it appropriate for me, as an outsider, to only see Roxxxy as a sexualized object - shouldn't I also consider Roxxxy as something more than that?

I mean, shouldn't all people, regardless of gender (and let's extend it to all reality), be thought of as more than sex objects - that's why I included the Cindy Sherman and Andrea Fraser photographs. I look at those "art objects" which, in any other context would be see as only sex objects, and I suddenly have something like that Abyss moment: the world has become much larger than I previously thought it was. The world is much more interesting than I previously suspected, and shame on me for having assumed I have the only proper measure of the world, thus reducing the world to it.

Never mind the thorny problems of consciousness and the moral calculus that you seem to suggest in insisting that whatever we might have sex with must meet this requirement of enjoying it as much as me. I'm not saying that sexual encounters shouldn't be enjoyable, but I am saying that if when I'm having sex I'm wondering if the other person is enjoying it as much as me then I am probably entertaining a fantasy.

That is the problem of sex, isn't it? It's supposed to be this moment of dissolution between two people, where we are obliterated in bliss, but sometimes you might find yourself, opening your eyes and saying, "My God, I look like an idiot, this is not sexy." Ridiculous, right? That even when we are engaged in the sex act we would still say that this is not sexy. I refer you to Žižek on this particular matter, here's another good place to start.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Exchange-Value in Marx's Capital, Vol. 1

Not feeling too well today and I'm not really able to think (which is an odd feeling). So, I'm posting something I started to write about in November. Just a quick note.

I'm watching and reading along with David Harvey's seminar on Karl Marx's Capital, vol. 1 and we've just come to page 127 (which is actually only at the beginning of the the book) where we are thinking through the exchange value of commodities. Harvey says something to the effect of the commodity is a bearer of value but value is not some kernel within the commodity that if we dissected the the commodity we would see why it has this value in exchange; in effect, we could keep exchanging and exchanging, and so on. This got me thinking about One Red Paperclip. Where a guy does, in fact, exchange a commodity over and over again until he gets himself a house (and a book deal).

Saturday, January 16, 2010

New Post at The Avant Guardian

I've just started writing with the awesome folks over at The Avant Guardian, many, many thanks to Tracey Duncan and Ari Gratch for the opportunity. I'll be writing a weekly bit about relational aesthetics for them.

This week's post, "Paranoid Android, or How I Learned to Love Life and Just-Let-Go" was somewhat touched upon earlier this week.

Friday, January 15, 2010

martellpedro44 and Giving an Account of Oneself

How to read this?

here's what got me started. Back in December someone had posted this on Facebook.

I was reading Judith Butler's Giving an Account of Oneself at the time and so this seemed like an amazing coincidence.

Here's an awful large block quote, but I feel like these two videos (above and below) are excellent proof-of-concept, if you will. Really fabulous illustration of what Butler seems to be trying to bring to our attention.
I would suggest that the structure of address is not a feature of narrative, one of its many and variable attributes, but an interruption of narrative. The moment the story is addressed to someone, it assumes a rhetorical dimension that is not reducible to a narrative function. It presumes that someone, and it seeks to recruit and act upon that someone. Something is being done with language when the account that I give begins: it is invariably interlocutory, ghosted, laden, persuasive, and tactical. It may well seek to communicate a truth, but it can do this, if it can, only by exercising a relational dimension of language. [....] [T]he structure of address conditions the making of judgments about someone or his or her actions; that it is not reducible to the judgment; and that the judgment, unbeholden to the ethics implied by the structure of address, tends toward violence. [....] To hold a person accountable for his or her life in narrative form may even be to require a falsification of that life in order to satisfy the criterion of a certain kind of ethics, one that tends to break with relationality. (63)
Here's Pedro Martell's exercise in giving an account of himself:

What follows are some annotations to the video with time signatures (Beginning - 0:16) and then the Butler text.

(Beginning - 0:17) 
The moment the story is addressed to someone, it assumes a rhetorical dimension that is not reducible to a narrative function. It presumes that someone, and it seeks to recruit and act upon that someone. Something is being done with language when the account that I give begins: it is invariably interlocutory, ghosted, laden, persuasive, and tactical.
(0:20-0:36) To paraphrase, "I've been trying to only show my face and now I want you to know that I have a birth defect."
Something is being done with language when the account that I give begins[....] It may well seek to communicate a truth, but it can do this, if it can, only by exercising a relational dimension of language.
(0:36 - 1:00) Showing the body, giving an account of difference
[T]he structure of address conditions the making of judgments about someone or his or her actions; that it is not reducible to the judgment; and that the judgment, unbeholden to the ethics implied by the structure of address, tends toward violence.
(1:00-1:30) We can relate, if you only understood why I am as I am
To hold a person accountable for his or her life in narrative form may even be to require a falsification of that life in order to satisfy the criterion of a certain kind of ethics, one that tends to break with relationality.
Check it out. Marinate on it. AA-style, or 12-Step-type, groups always have you announce yourself in a new way: I am Paul and I am an internet/critical theory addict. Why? There's power in trying to take control of the narrative, the story, of who I am. But it's not as easy as simply telling stories about ourselves. These stories get hijacked, people get implicated in these stories. "Tell it to the Judge," is the dismissal we hear on the streets. But the unspoken truth is that even if we went before the Judge at the Courthouse, or Heaven, we'd still be there, judging ourselves. This is origin of Satan's name, "The Accuser." Know thyself.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Commodification of Memory or Learning the Appropriate Use of Appropriation

It's a fascinating question, what are the politics of touch in spectacular economic relations? A touch here seems to mean the use of photographs of people, when we edit the photograph (to, say, make it a profile picture on Facebook), are we committing some form of violence? The Department of Biological Flow asks in the final, "dear you, did i engage this particular politics of touch based on prior flesh relation?"

I have it on good authority that a certain Edward Cullen living in the Cascadia region stated that the human memory is like a sieve. So...yeah, prior flesh arrangements have to be invoked for this sort of kinetic extension.

This is probably because we've entered a new phase of economic development, something that Michael Hardt had mentioned at his evening lecture last summer. Marx saw a shift from renting (with serfs doing the bidding of the land owner), to broad ownership/entrepreneurialism (I am Capital, and So Can You!), and now a seeming hybrid of these two modes.

As evidence of this shifting mode, what Guy Debord called the spectaclist economy, consider the current Intellectual Property rights debacle. In part this cannot occur without the concomitant rise of multinational corporations. In order for these to promulgate there has to be the transmission of certain basic ground rules: this factory needs to be filled with employees, those employees need to use these machines with these techniques, etc. So this was a question of cultural pedagogy. You gotta teach the people that are getting there clocks cleaned how to operate within this context. To this end there has been a somewhat one-sided transmission of what is called entertainment.

That's why, when you go to the developing world, kids are wearing "Coke Is It!" t-shirts and can quote Ice-T songs, and have copies of Jungle Fever (but still on VHS). There seems to have been a slow ebbing of the hegemony of Hollywood, not to say that it's isn't still critically important in the world. But as further evidence, consider the soft power push of Japan. Over the past three decades Japan has become the second largest economy (but now China has overtaken them, last year) in the world and subsequently has the second largest entertainment industry in the world. Subsequently, Japanese entertainment has become de rigeur for the youth in a way that I think most did not anticipate in the U.S.
(By the way, the photo on the left here is from an article in Foreign Policy by Carolyn O'Hara and it's pretty amazing.)

The key moment for this "Turning Japanese" phase was the battle over VCRs. VCR technology was pioneered by the Japanese (Thomas P. Kasulis has a great story on how the Japanese engineers were able to accomplish what the U.S. could not). Broadcast television in the late 70s and early 80s did not want the VCR available to the U.S. public, (in no small part, I'm sure, enhanced with xenophobia and racism, but also) because then people would no longer be locked into leasing their attention to the tv at the times that TV advertisers have promised their sponsors. The VCR would be a serious abrogation of this power that broadcasters had (the control of the spectacular). Of course the VCR was allowed to develop in the media ecosystem, but not without being appropriated in such a way as to benefit TV as much as possible.

Today we must consider the Internet in the same manner. There is the faux-problem of piracy and similarly today we've got the faux-problem of the Great Fire Wall of China. The Olympics in Beijing in 2008 made it clear that the West was more than happy to include China in the Game (and what was that most popular trope from that most spectacular of the spectaclist economic relations that in the U.S. we call hip hop? oh yeah, "don't hate the player, hate the Game.") The real problem, as we see today with Google, was not access to information, but rather that the established Internet authorities needed to have the access to the market. It should be no surprise that at the same time when Baidu (the indigenous Google) signals the ability to overwhelm Google, the Internet is now going to be available in languages that are not based on the Roman alphabet. While there might be high-wire-type espionage involved in Google v. China; we have another example of the spectaclist economy in the acquisition of Friendster. Remember Friendster? Yeah, it's huge in Southeast Asia, apparently.

The commodification of your memory. This is the problem with piracy and with social media. As the spectaclist economy develops we will continue to delineate what is the appropriate use of appropriation. Perhaps we have a precursor in the French language and the practice of vergonha? While in France this led to near-linguicide, the same won't be true for digital piracy. The Internet requires this free transmission, not because "content is king" but because the Internet sine qua non, as Debord stated it, "The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification [....] it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness [....] the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Coco UPDATED: 01/14

I'll be brief since I don't own a tv and I haven't watched any of these shows involved at any time in over a decade.

NBCs just rattling your cages to drum-up some ratings and hopefully secure an audience.

I understand that Andy Richter is back with Conan. That's great.

And here's the ever-emotive Hitler with his thoughts on the matter:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Little Lingua Trauma

This is the post where I get nailed to a tree: if I've learned nothing else it's that Lacanians will be certain to correct your reading of Lacan and they will be adamant in announcing the insufficiency of one's poor reading. But I gotta start some where and what's below is from the floor of the editing room of a piece I've recently submitted at another blog. That said, I apologize for the [egregiously] disjointed nature of what follows and also apologize for the glaring inaccuracies and superficial understandings that likely will be found below.

In his essay “Obscene Abject Traumatic.” October 78, Fall 1996, Hal Foster seeks to present an understanding of postmodernist art of the 1990s. He sees the tendency within contemporary art practices to unite both the imaginary and symbolic against reality. Foster sees this conflict as possible because of the wide-reception of Jacques Lacan's work.

Lacan, another early psychoanalyst and perhaps the first incarnation of the philosopher-as-rockstar (he was something of a national treasure in France before 1968 where he was even on TV). In Lacanian psychoanalysis the human psyche is vulnerable to impingement from the world (as we have read in Melanie Klein elsewhere), but for Lacan reality itself is a special kinda terrifying all its own. Somewhat similar to Freud's suggestion in his essay “The Uncanny” that which is most terrifying is what is most familiar but never quite seen.

As illustration to Freud's point: that moment in the film The Grudge when the woman, being pursued by the angry demon, runs into her apartment, locks the door, runs to her bedroom (SAFE!) and hides under her sheets. Is there nowhere more safe than your own bed? The real horror comes when the demon slithers its way up the bed, just under the sheets making that awful croaking sound.

It is a horrifying scene because the bedroom has ceased to be that familiar place of rest and now is revealed as a place that contains more than we thought it did. The bed prior to the demon had been only so big, and now the demon has revealed to us that it is much more than just what we thought.

But for Lacan this is not impressive – literally child's play – an attempt by children to mask the horror of the Real by covering reality with signs and symbols. The symbolic order, “Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning To Work” signs, the size of notebook paper, all that culture stuff – all of this is to mitigate the ever-present danger of the psyche being left vulnerable to the Real. If Lacan is correct, we never experience the Real because of the terror that the Real reality provokes in us.

Again, if Lacan is correct in explaining the symbolic order, then the artist is clearly implicated and perhaps has a unique responsibility to consider the question, “what is the nature of the Real and how might we come into contact with it?” This is the base assumption in Hal Foster's essay and he finds an excellent example in the photographs of Cindy Sherman. (Untitled Film Still no. 21. 1978. above right)

Foster finds effective illustration of the terrifying gaze of the Real and the subsequent investigations into the nature of the Real through abject imagery in the work of Cindy Sherman:
[Sherman's] subjects see, of course, but they are much more seen, captured by the gaze. Often, in the film stills and the centerfolds, this gaze seems to come from another subject, with whom the viewer may be implicated [….] Sherman shows her female subjects as self surveyed, not in phenomenological reflexivity (I see myself seeing myself) but in psychological estrangement (I am not what I imagined myself to be). (110)
As Foster points out in his exploration of themes in '90s art practices, “Today there is a general tendency to redefine experience, individual and historical, in terms of trauma: a lingua trauma is spoken in popular culture, academic discourse, and art and literary worlds.” (123)

(Left: Untitled Film Still no. 92. 1982)
Perhaps the best representation of this lingua trauma can be found in Atom Egoyan's 2009 film Adoration. Egoyan's film explores this phenomenon, perhaps to point-out that trauma has become the new authenticity: one cannot be trusted without having publicly discussed and exposing one's traumatic experiences.

This is well presented with Simon watching as the passengers of a flight that had, not unlike the “underwear bomber” incident of December 25, 2009, been the target of a potential bombing. Those, now middle aged, passengers argue over the possibility that one can be traumatized by an event that did not occur, after all, no one was even aware of the potential attack until they had landed. Can we call this a new trauma? Is trauma not an impingement in this moment that we must then learn to contain? Or is the traumatic something that happens in our minds alone and expresses itself corporally as we recall and meditate upon the event now remembered as traumatizing.

(Right: Untitled 1531. 1981.)

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Look at the New York Times

Tonight we had an excellent meeting of the Poncey-Highlands Readgin Group where we discussed our readings of Breton's first "Manifesto of Surrealism" as well as the first chapter of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle.

We can see a moment from the Debord text played-out today in the New York Times' "Most Popular" section. In the article "Multicultural Critical Theory. At Business School?" we read that business students need
to learn how to think critically and creatively every bit as much as they needed to learn finance or accounting. More specifically, they needed to learn how to approach problems from many perspectives and to combine various approaches to find innovative solutions. [...]Learning how to think critically — how to imaginatively frame questions and consider multiple perspectives — has historically been associated with a liberal arts education, not a business school curriculum, so this change represents something of a tectonic shift for business school leaders. Mr. Martin even describes his goal as a kind of “liberal arts M.B.A.”
Reading I can't help but think of Debord's line in §25, "The modern spectacle, on the contrary, expresses what society can do, but in this expression the permitted is absolutely opposed to the possible. " And then further in §26, "The success of the economic system of separation is the proletarianization of the world." You might have an MBA, but you're still going to have your clock cleaned by those that exploit the rest of us.

Also, I'd like to address something in another article in today's NYT, this time in another article "Race Riots Grip Italian Town, and Mafia Is Suspected."

In this article we learn that Africans are being illegally trafficked into Italy so as to work in the orchards, picking fruit. This is a job seen as beneath the average Italian today, according to the article. Apparently an undisclosable number of immigrants have been picked up by the Italian Authorities and sent to detention centers. The situation for these immigrants, according to human rights workers in Italy is not dissimilar from slavery and these Italian Authorities have been using bull dozers to raze the encampments where these "semi-slaves" lived.

The article breezily then reports, "It was not entirely clear if all the immigrants left willingly for the detention centers, or if some were forced to leave."

I can answer that for you: they were forced.

Anytime the phrase "semi-slavery" is used to describe the lives of those at the bottom of an economic system and bulldozers are employed to raze these semi-slaves' "encampments" - that means the entire society there is blatantly using coercive maneuvers to get what they want. Those Africans have the two forms of freedom Marx outlined in Capital, vol. 1: they are free to use their bodies' abilities to labor and so enter, freely, contracts to sell their labor-capacity; but, they are also free of control of the conditions under which they will labor.

Just sayin'.

Place Holder Post

I've made a resolution this year to post something on the blog here everyday. So far so good.

Tonight, I'm a little compressed for time as I am also writing-up a piece for another blog, The Avant Guardian.

So, I will simply leave a little taste for you; a quote from Hal Foster's “Obscene Abject Traumatic.” October 78, Fall 1996.
In a sense Breton and Bataille were both right, at least about each other. Often Breton and company did act like juvenile victims who provoked the paternal law as if to ensure that it was still there-at best in a neurotic plea for punishment, at worst in a paranoid demand for order. And this Icarian pose is again assumed by contemporary artists who are almost too eager to talk dirty in the museum, almost too ready to be tweaked by Hilton Kramer or spanked by Jesse Helms. On the other hand, the Bataillean ideal-to opt for the smelly shoe over the beautiful picture, to be fixed in perversion or stuck in abjection-is also adopted by contemporary artists discontent not only with the refinements of sublimation but with the displacements of desire. Is this, then, the option that abject art offers us-Oedipal naughtiness or infantile perversion? To act dirty with the secret wish to be spanked, or to wallow in shit with the secret faith that the most defiled might reverse into the most sacred, the most perverse into the most potent? (118)
This seems to fit-in nicely with this week's consideration of the first "Manifesto of Surrealism" and Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Society of the Spectacle: Toward the Postmodern

My long-time buddy, Ryland Johnson, was kind enough to respond to my recent posting on Society of the Spectacle, Chapter 1 and what follows here is a reply to him.

Kudzu Kongzi is primarily a space for me to germinate my thinking. So I greatly benefit from your input on what is written as I am not an authority on any of it. Below is my reply to Ryland

Thanks for reading, Ryland.

There are some great things in your response, thanks. I'll only just briefly address only a few, not because I disagree with you, but only to kind of elaborate a little more on why I said some of these things here.

First, the blog's really just an off-the-cuff response to what I read today. The blog here serves in some capacity as a place holder for my thinking; but when folks, such as yourself, supplement this with your thinking I get greatly enriched. So thanks, again!

As for invocation of Dasein above: yes. I said it up there, only for the most superficial associative reason - because Dasein is an historic dasein and Debord seems to want to include some of Heidegger's thinking in §11. I agree with you, I think, that Debord, if he writes any more like this later in the book (I'm only reading Chapter 1 here), he's going to have a problem talking about Dasein in a proper way.

This should be said also, about Debord: in reading his works and what I've read about him as a person, I don't get the sense that he's a thorough scholar nor is he particularly interested in giving credit where credit is due.

As for Žižek: yes. I'm sure that there are many other people between 1967 and the rock star Žižek of the past decade, that have written about this advertisement stuff. The obvious place to start, since both Žižek and Debord are very open about their affinity for him is Lacan. I've not climbed the Mt. Doom of Lacan as yet.

At this point, with the minimal exposure to the other SI texts, and largely based on Lefebvre's account in that interview I've linked to here (from the journal October (79), Winter 1997) I'm not sure that the Situationists really had a good idea about the situations they wanted to achieve. In many ways the movement sounds like a collection of very creative, interesting, and angry people. The anger probably fueled their kinetic behavior, but it also probably contributed to the brevity of their moment.

One avenue I'd like to explore more thoroughly would be to better understand something that Ranciére was telling us this past summer: that there is a disconnect between Lyotard and (probably have to include Hal Foster, Bois, et al.) Baudrillard's account of the postmodern and the avant-garde of the early 20th century.

Ranciére seemed to be suggesting that the claims to postmodernity in Lyotard and Baudrillard are problematic in that they fail to account for the work that had been done in montage, surrealism, perhaps futurism, and so on.

So, part of my motivation to read Bréton with Debord is to consider the latter's inheritance from the former and to ask whether Debord has offered something more innovative in light of that inheritance. And also, to some extent, I want to apply what I'm learning in that Harvey lecture course on Capital. This last item is really not remarkable since nearly everyone worth reading from France during the 20th century was a (Neo)Marxist, so there is no surprise to see whole chunks of Marx inserted in sections and just presupposed as true. Were I better read in Marx I might argue some of the finer points of how Capital gets used, but I'm not an authority at all.

A place that I really should develop is at the end there, in talking about the current economic crisis. It's really too simplistic to accept the often-invoked, and largely class-war inspired, trope that it's because too many people were flipping properties that global capitalism started stuttering. That's just not true. What's seems to me more true is that most people on Wall Street don't understand what Value is.

But, beyond this intuition that Debord might be able to help us understand the moment, I'm not sure I've got more than a tenuous gleam. I'd say 30% of me suspects Debord might, but 70% of me thinks that Debord was a bad student and a loudmouth. Here's to learning that I'm wrong.

Friday, January 8, 2010

(Economic) Notes on Society of the Spectacle

So let's finish-up the first chapter, ね?

We got to §21 the other day. But I'd like to assert some things that I did not in that previous posting: Chapter 1 of Society of the Spectacle is an economic text.
  1. Debord here is announcing this new term he calls "the spectacle." This is important to keep in mind because the temptation is there to misconstrue the term. Thus we would read this text as Debord as making value judgements, something to the effect of him saying contemporary society is simply being spectacular and indulgent. What he seems to be doing in this first chapter is defining terms. Thus, when he states, in §21, "The spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion." he is not describing either religion as illusory in a pejorative sense nor that the process that has led to this contemporary social arrangement that he earlier defined as "the spectacle" (in §4, "The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. Or also in §24, "the spectacle, taken in the limited sense of 'mass media' which are its most glaring superficial manifestation....")
  2. Debord seems to be building from the presupposition that the reader has also read Marx's Capital, vol. 1 at a minimum. Over and over again we get definitions and phrases lifted from Capital.
I think it's important to mention this because Marx's book was an attempt to analyze and explain a new social reality whose, though it has been developing over centuries, functioning continues to be mysterious.

In §7 we are reminded of the fundamental alienation that accompanies the mass production which capitalism requires.

With §11 we sense that Debord is attempting to unite Marx with Heidegger's Dasein, "the spectacle is nothing other than the sense of the total practice of a social-economic formation, its use of time. It is the historical movement in which we are caught."[itals original] Or perhaps thrown?

This is a text that attempts to describe the fundamental nature of all human interactions in the late capitalist period, as such this text must discuss economics. Whereas Marx sought to explain the dialectical nature of commodity generation and defines capitalism as the movement of commodities as capitalism, Debord's spectacle (qualified in §1 by the statement, "Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.") is the, "autonomous movement of the non-living" (§2). What is the spectacle? "It is no more than the economy developing for itself." (§16) It is, "the main production of present-day society." (§15) Marx saw the commodification of the proletariat's labor and the commodification of money itself; Debord attempts something similar, "The society which rests on modern industry is not accidentally or superficially spectacular, it is fundamentally spectaclist."

Debord gives us a brief genealogy of how we came to be in the spectaclist economy, and he does this by sketching a shift in social ontology:
The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of being into having. The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy leads to a generalized sliding of having into appearing, from which all actual "having" must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function. (§17)
What are the symptoms of this new arrangement of social relations? Not simply advertisements for the commodities of capitalism, but advertisements as something more than suggestions. Advertisements as rules:
I think that Žižek has spoken about this in several places, this injunction to, Enjoy!" Debord puts it this way in §25, "The modern spectacle, on the contrary, expresses what society can do, but in this expression the permitted is absolutely opposed to the possible." This echoes a theme in §6 where the we are told that the spectacle is "the affirmation of the choice already made in production and its corrolary consumption." For an elaboration on this affirmation of the choice already made, consider George Ritzer's McDonaldization of Society. Here's a great site for all your McDonaldization needs.

§26 provides a summation and reiteration of the alienation principle from Marx, but Debord extends this alienation, as nothing can escape this process, "The success of the economic system of separation is the proletariatization of the world."

For this proletariatization to be possible, the consummation of the process of rationalization must occur. Once every task had been made automated and efficiency achieved, the worker would be liberated from the workplace, free from toiling in exploitative environments. With no employees to exploit, the managers would be liberated as well. Lefebvre, in an excellent interview discussing the origins of the Situationists, states that his Critique of Everyday Life was inspired by a science-fiction story wherein all the humans have killed themselves because they have nothing to do after the robots took over their work, leaving dogs to exploit the robots. Debord finds this liberation from work suspect:
[T]his inactivity is in no way liberated from productive activity: it depends on productive activity and is an uneasy and admiring submission to the necessities and results of production; it is itself a product of its rationality. [...] Thus the present "liberation from
labor," the increase of leisure, is in no way a liberation within labor, nor a liberation from the world shaped by this labor. None of the activity lost in labor can be regained in the submission to its result. §27
§s29-34 reiterate, once more, the alienation inherent in capitalist production. But where Marx saw it as perverse, this freeing of the serfs to enter contracts, but free from the ability to control the means of production; Debord repeatedly emphasizes that today nobody is free from the spectaclist economy:
The economic system founded on isolation is a circular production of isolation. The technology is based on isolation, and the technical process isolates in turn. From the automobile to television, all the goods selected by the spectacular system are also its weapons for a constant reinforcement of the conditions of isolation of "lonely crowds." The spectacle constantly rediscovers its own assumptions more concretely. §26
Further still, "The spectacle within society corresponds to a concrete manufacture of alienation. Economic expansion is mainly the expansion of this specific industrial production." §32 The chapter ends with simple statement, "The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image." §34 
(remember this show on A&E? Oh, yeah there was that show on Discovery also
Is this how we arrived at the current economic crisis? One of the principle causes of the current meltdown of global capital is that the American real estate market tanked. This, then meant that all that value that Wall Street had created in the last few years immediately evaporated. How? Value, as Marx stated in Capital (1867), is manifested socially-necessary labor-time. You get enough of these suburbanites buying these properties and mistaking the menu for the meal, and, poof....

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Surrealists Won Their Revolution, and We Slept Right Through It

The difficulty with reading the “Manifesto of Surrealism” is in remembering that to write in this way, to think these things was to verge on revolution. In 1924. Surrealism in the popular imagination conjures images of Dali maybe, perhaps a Duchamp readymade (probably not), but it's an art movement when it's remembered. Not political action, that's not really what surrealism was about, right?

But, y'know, you read the first “Manifesto of Surrealism” full of gusto, vim and vigor, and the calling-out of soft-ass-bustas. That's what Breton's “Manifesto” did – he called Dostoevsky a chump. He quotes Crime and Punishment and sets it up with,
[T]he purely informative style....[T]he descriptions! There is nothing to which their vacuity can be compared...he tries to make me agree with him about cliches....(7)
But you know, read Nadja, read “Manifesto of Surrealism.” It's tediocrity. Why?

'Cause the surrealists won, their revolution was a stunning success.

The pioneering of automatic writing that Breton lionized, it's everywhere. This glossolalia that Breton induced in 1924 was the ground conditions for the Internet to occur. Breton's first surrealist manifesto begins with the assessment that the conditions of living in Modern times has become stultifying and a stupid proof of Marx's alienation of humanity (which is the result of the capitalist mode of production).

Breton sees the problem as a profound lack of imagination in the everyday dealings of human interaction. Perhaps, if, when we arrived at work in the factory, we halted the assembly line (composed of one routine movement codified and reiterated ad infinitum, thus and ossified - the nightmare of the Eternal Return), and instead of doing our preassigned tasks (over and over and over again), what if instead of cars being assembled with steering wheels they were instead given a fish? Imagine what the downstream effects would be if people had to re-imagine their relationships to the world, all the time!?

Breton's surrealist project is to align what he hopes Freud will find in psychoanalyzing dreams with the transformation of society in Marx and communism;
When will we have sleeping logicians, sleeping philosophers? […] Can't the dream also be used in solving the fundamental questions of life? […] From the moment when it is subjected to a methodical examination, when, by means yet to be determined, we succeed in recording the contents of dreams in their entirety (and that presupposes a discipline of memory spanning generations [….] I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak. It is in quest of this surreality that I am going....(12-4)
The other day I pointed out that Guy Debord, in his Society of the Spectacle, puts Breton and the surrealists squarely in his cross hairs for this faith in the saving powers of sleep.

Here's some wild speculation on my part. Breton makes four reflections in his manifesto. First, his theory that dreams are continuous. Second, dreams are just as reliable (as in real) as lucidity. In the third he seems to be describing Evercrack, World of Warcraft, or Second Life, or...(you name it), the MMORPG ecosystem:
The mind of the man who dreams is fully satisfied by what happens to him. The agonizing question of possibility is no longer pertinent. Kill, fly faster, love to your heart's content. And if you should die, are you not certain of reawaking among the dead? Let yourself be carried along, events will not tolerate your interference.
Perhaps even more interestingly, the Surrealist revolution's victory is indicated with 4chan and the Pirate Bay, "You are nameless. The ease of everything is priceless." (14)
"You are nameless."
Here is a photo of the group Anonymous, apparently taken during their battle with the Church of Scientology (see their video declaration of war below).
4chan, some call it the asshole of the internet, is also responsible for most of the memes that preoccupy netizens, such as Lolcatz and the ever-fun Rickrolling (see the Encyclopedia Dramatica for more on that).

"The ease of everything is priceless."

The Pirate Bay, although perhaps the imprisonment of its founders may spell the end of this site, they are the avant-garde of the copy left movement. Wildly popular, the Pirate Party now has two seats in the European Union's Parliament.

Of course, were the Pirate Bay to cease to be, there has nonetheless been a cultural shift, at least in terms of the music industry. It's historically been the case that the music industry has not been kind to its musicians. Consider Little Richard, the father of rock n' roll, who received half a penny for every album he sold. Better still, read how Steve Albini (the man) broke it down for us in his excellent, "The Problem With Music" over at negativland (also awesome).

The "Manifesto of Surrealism", Nadja, these surrealist texts are hard to read today, in large part, because their written in such a familiar style: it's like wandering into livejournal in 2002. All that stream of conscience stuff, all that free association, makes me scream for a reasonable copy editor.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

R.I.P. 山口 彊 (Tsutomu Yamaguchi) - Double Atomic Bomb Survivor

山口様 (Honorable Mr. Yamaguchi) has crossed to the other side, according to the AP, succumbing to stomach cancer.

Can you imagine it? He was walking to his work when the first bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In
"When the noise and the blast had subsided I saw a huge mushroom-shaped pillar of fire rising up high into the sky. It was like a tornado, although it didn't move, but it rose and spread out horizontally at the top. There was prismatic light, which was changing in a complicated rhythm, like the patterns of a kaleidoscope. The first thing I did was to check that I still had my legs and whether I could move them. I thought, 'If I stay here, I'll die.' Two hundred yards ahead, there was a dug-out bomb shelter, and when I climbed in there were two young students sitting there. They said, 'You've been badly cut, you're seriously injured.' And it was then I realised I had a bad burn on half my face, and that my arms were burnt."
He and his two colleagues were from Nagasaki, but had been sent to Hiroshima for several months to complete a project in the shipyards. Yamaguchi had forgotten his 印鑑 (inkan) and had to run back to get it before saying goodbye to his Hiroshima colleagues. Just as he starts to walking, the above explosion. He and his two Nagasaki colleagues set-out to find survivors:
The three took a motor launch to try to find a way back into the city and to their lodgings. "From the boat we could see the city burning," said Mr Yamaguchi. "Every branch of the delta was burning. The sky was dark, so you could clearly see these pillars of flame. I thought that all of Hiroshima was finished." But it was only after they began the walk to their lodgings that they understood what this new kind of bomb had done. These are the scenes that every survivor remembers, the images that crawl through their dreams. To Mr Yamaguchi, there seemed to be children everywhere, some running, many limping along the side of the road. "They didn't cry," he said. "I saw no tears at all. Their hair was burnt, and they were completely naked. I saw so many of these children. Behind them, big fires burnt. Miyuki Bridge, next to our dormitory, was still standing, but all over it there were burnt people, children as well as adults, some of them dead, some of them on the verge of death. They were the ones who couldn't walk any more, who had just lain down. None of them spoke, none of them had the strength to say a word. It's funny that during that time, I didn't hear human speech, or shouts, just the sound of the city burning. Under the bridge there were many more bodies, bobbing in the water like blocks of wood."
The three of them returned to Nagasaki. Yamaguchi reported to work after having received some treatment for his burns. As he is telling his boss what has happened in Hiroshima, another.atomic.bomb.explodes.


It's an amazing story, Parry tells it well.

Hiroshima City University offers an amazing Peace Studies Summer Course for undergraduates as well as graduate students. The tuition is nearly negligible, about US$200, and includes a home stay.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Reading Society of the Spectacle

I'm preparing for next Monday, when the Poncey-Highland(s) Reading Group is meeting to discuss Andre Breton's (First) "Manifesto of Surrealism" (1924) as well as Chapter 1 from Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle (1967).

In my reading I am coming across some ideas that I want to put out to the internetz as well as keep me in the practice of daily writing:

In Debord's watershed treatise we read, "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles."(§1) Okay, so keep in mind that modern conditions of production must prevail in order for spectacles to exist. First and foremost we read this and have to recognize that Marx and Weber have offered authoritative analyses of the capitalist mode of production, which is the dominant mode of production over the past 400-500 years. The worker in the factory is doubly alienated: first, because the worker is no longer a craftsman (building an entire cabinet, say) but one worker on an assembly line and so makes only one section of a product - the worker is alienated from the very thing that is made all day at the factory; second, in order for the factory to operate it must attract workers from far away to come work there and so there is a rise in urban living (where, contrary to Cheers, nobody knows your name) rather than the previous mode of living in small towns where everyone knows everybody else. As Marx points out in Capital, vol.1, (Ben Fowkes translation, Penguin Classics, 280) the worker is doubly free as well: 1) he freely owns his body and so can enter labor contracts, and 2) he is free of control of the means of producing. He is free to slave-away at that factory.

Debord goes on to say, "The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images." (§4) He further clarifies in the next section that the spectacle is a Weltanschauung, a comprehensive world view(ing). Leo Apostel has said that a world view should have seven elements (thanks, wikipedia!):
  1. ontology - a descriptive model of the world
  2. an explanation of the world
  3. a futurology - answering the question, "where are we going?"
  4. Values, answers to ethical quetions
  5. A theory of action, answering the question, "How do we attain our goals?"
  6. An epistemology - what is true/false
  7. An etiology - the building blocks that then answer the question, "What are our origins?"
Then, in section 7, he reiterates that the spectacle that he is defining in this text is not a decoration or a phantasm, it, "is the present model of socially dominant life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choice already made in production and its corollary consumption....The spectacle is also the permanent presence...since it occupies the main part of the time lived outside modern production." That is, since the mode of production today requires a long supply chain involving supplies and people from all over the globe interacting in a ballet that they are not even aware of on a daily basis (I don't have any clue who is the exploited worker in the Hanes factory in Cambodia that made my hooded sweatshirt, or who drove the truck that delivered it to the Target store down the street, nor do I know the person that acted as the cashier when I bought it, let alone who is responsible for making sure that the debited amount comes from my bank account and not someone else's).

This leads him to say that "Separation is itself part of the unity of the world..." (§7) Which is not too controversial a hypothesis today to say about the State since we've got Althusser discussing it at the same time as Debord in his "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses", but shortly after Philip Abrams, in his essay "Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State" states it so:
It is first and foremost an exercise in legitimation - and what is being legitimated is, we may assume, something which if seen directly and as itself would be illegitimate, an unacceptable domination. Why else all the legitimation-work? The state, in sum, is a bid to elicit support for or tolerance of the insupportable and intolerable by presenting them as something other than themselves, namely, legitimate, disinterested domination. (1988) Journal of Historical Sociology. (1)1. 76.
It would seem fair to paraphrase Debord here such, "the spectacle is an ideological activity in the same sense that the State is." But of course Debord is talking about something bigger than just the State and politics, he's trying to put his hands around the whole magilla. "Lived reality is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle while simultaneously absorbing the spectacular order, giving it positive cohesiveness. Objective reality is present on both sides." (§8) This is exactly how reality tv works, isn't it? The people on the show are fully aware that they are being recorded, we are fully aware that they are aware.

We've come to see these last 10-20 years as an age of irony, but perhaps the real irony has escaped us, as Debord states, "This reciprocal alienation is the essence and the support of the existing society." Thus, no matter how skeezy we might think the people on these shows are, we are complicit in maintaining and facilitating these conditions that produce these shows. "The spectacle presents itself as something... indisputable and inaccessible. [...] The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply..." (§12) And then further still, "all individual reality has become social reality directly dependent on social power and shaped by it." (§17)

This spectacular production that society has become is, again, all encompassing, including the overcoding of the religious. "The spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion. Spectacular technology has not dispelled the religious clouds where men had placed their own powers detached from themselves; it has only tied them to an earthly base." While this may not serve as proof of his theorizing, we certainly can't help but nod when reading the science-fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law of Prediction, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Now imagine having an iPhone 40 years ago ans ask yourself if it wouldn't seem to be, effectively, magic.

Now here's what really got me writing today:

"To the extent that necessity is socially dreamed, the dream becomes necessary. The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep." (§21) This section has two items that got me excited: first is the phrasing of social necessity (because this is a key phrase in Marx's Capital, vol.1) and, second because this seems to be a critique of Breton's "Manifesto of Surrealism":
[D]reams give every evidence of being continuous and show signs of organization. Memory alone arrogates to itself the right to excerpt from dreams, to ignore the transitions, and to depict for us rather a series of dreams than the dream itself. [...] When will we have sleeping logicians, sleeping philosophers? I would like to sleep, in order to surrender myself to the dreamers[....] Can't the dream also be used in solving the fundamental questions of life? (4)
Is Debord pointing-out that what Breton failed to appreciate in his revolutionary writing was a proper economic understanding? I've fixated on this social necessity phrasing because Marx claims that Value is the coming together of use-value and exchange-value in the form of socially-necessary labor time. It is in this way that commodities are at all possible. Without this socially-decided necessity commodities are only products, and without commodities there is no capitalism.