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“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Thursday, December 14, 2017

why I hate writerly writerly stuff

I've mostly liked Jennifer Senior's time at the Book desk at the NYT - it is definitely not her fault that the editors have decided that books are passe and not worth a really quality section any more. Newspapers are run by the mostly illiterate country club set, who own the papers, and they think the way back to relevance is to diss reading and up the coverage of celebrities - which ignores the fact that reading is the act that the newspapers are selling. If you don't have a strong book culture, you don't have newspapers. But hey, go ahead and cut your throats and call it relevance. See if I care.

However, Senior's farewell NYT piece is sorta what I don't like about writer-talk. It makes the writer out to be a special species, the cuddly curmudgeon, and so on. Myself, I like to think of the writer as an intellectual worker, on par with workers in the sphere of plumbing or asphalting. I've copped my view from the Soviet 20s attitude. Rodchenko, be my God! or something like that.

Alas, Senior is all about the inner circle that can read, say, the acknowledgements in a novel and spot the fact that the author was in a writing class with some famous names. Which is, to my mind, an exercise in so-whattery - unless one is trying to establish some larger point. So much of writing about writers takes the so-whattery route - like, what is your routine for daily writing? Now, I think routines are important, really important, but writers seem to be the only people who are asked this question. Actors, models, waitpeople, bartenders, politicians, etc. are never asked this question - which would be much more interesting in their cases. I would love to see an interview with a Senator that asks, so what is your routine for the average day? So far as I know, nobody asks this question to politicos.
Except of course Studs Terkel. I miss Studs Terkel.
Here's the link

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

on filler in narratives

The first appearance in print of the word “filler”, according to the OED, was in a pamphlet by Robert Greene on lowlife, published in 1591. It was a term of art among a certain kind of crooked merchants of coal in London, who bought coal in sacks that contained four or five bushels and transferred them to narrower sacks that took two and a half, which they claimed contained the standard amount. “Tush, yet this were somewhat to be borne withal, although the gain is monstrous, but this sufficeth not, for they fill not these sacks full by far, but put into them some two bushels & a half, laying in the mouth of the sack certain great coals, which they call fillers, to make the sack show fair, although the rest be small willow coals and half dross.”

Thus, filler enters the world as the child of conmen, and it carries that air of the spurious with it to this day, even though filler is now used in dozens of more or less honest ways, particularly in packaging and in admixtures to building materials like concrete, which are produced by more or less honest companies – more than seven hundred by Wikipedia’s count.

Interestingly, the rhetoric of literature has never accorded a place to filler. Every reader knows it, but the critics – not the book reviewers, but those working in the higher reaches of theory – lack a theory of filler. Filler is generally dismissed as false weight, or a con; or it is ascribed to sheer incompetence. The closest we come to a theory is in Barthes’ The Reality Effect, which considers that certain items or descriptions in a narrative can be simply remplissage: 
“… these authors (among many others) are producing notations which structural analysis, concerned with identifying and systematizing the major articulations of narrative, usually and heretofore has left out, either because its inventory omits all details that are "superfluous" (in relation to structure) or because these same details are treated as "filling" (catalyses), assigned an indirect functional value insofar as, cumulatively, they constitute some index of character or atmosphere and so can ultimately be recuperated by structure.”
Barthes thesis is that this structural angle doesn’t suffice – which makes sense. After all, there must be a dynamic axis that the structure serves.

Barthes notion of the dynamic is a lot like those “game books” for children that are popular in France, where a situation on one page can be resolved either in one way or another, with the suggested solutions leading to different pages – if the dragon is killed, go to page ten, if the dragon eats the knight, go to page 12. Barthes thinks of these solutions as choices, and the narration as a “huge traffic-control center, furnished with a referential (and not merely discursive) tempora1ity.” In other words, narratives do not run on arguments, even if they are allegorical. This makes description into something that either enables the narrative movement or impedes it. However, to continue with the traffic metaphor, traffic can slow down either according to the rules, with stop signs, or because of other encumbrances – the quantity of cars on a given route, an accident, a slow driver, etc. We are still, in other words, far from a total theory of filler.

What Barthes does see beautifully is that descriptions have an internal teleology of their own, which he traces back to the Greek tradition of the “beautiful”. There are epochs in which the beautiful is elevated above the dynamic of the text – there is a whole tradition, from the Alexandrian school to the Renaissance, in which emblematic descriptions, regardless of their referential fit in the text, would be inserted in the narrative. In our day, this has become the easy out for reviewing novels: find the beautiful passage. On his off days, James Wood, the NYer reviewer, plays the part of little Jack Horner, taking out plums from the books he is reviewing favorably, with nary a comment about how the “beautiful writing” works. Myself, I am as touristic as anybody else, and do like me a postcard phrase. But I do know that the trip is not made to pick up postcards, and that generally, pretty writing – at least of the Wood type – is often the mark of a pisspoor novel. You gots to scratch it, you gotta rough it up, you gotta mock it – such is the fate of beautiful writing in this fallen world.

Nevertheless, due perhaps to the reviewer attention to beautiful writing and the notion that the novel, like the product of a microbrewery, is a matter of craft, filler becomes something other than waste or deception. Yet, in as much as it exists within a narrative, it cannot escape being part of the traffic. 
That double function produces something Barthes doesn’t talk about much: suspense.

Suspense is attached to genre fiction,  but it is encoded in the very model of narrative as a decision tree. Although prose may aspire to some ideal simultaneity, it bears the burden of its own material elaboration in time in the hunched trudge to the end – for the text ends. One of the key facts about a narrative is that it has, at least as a finished product, a beginning and ending. This means that it takes up a certain amount of time to read. For those who hate reading (and all of us hating reading at one point or another) the prospect of this amount of time is irritating, or even unbearable. The time that it takes to read x cannot be recuperated, or exchanged. The equation of time and reading is an enormous fact that impinges on all the sites of reading – classrooms, libraries, the internet, etc.  And the common funny phrase that I wasted x amount of time on reading it that I can’t get back is, actually, not funny at all, but a cold fact. You won’t get it back. Whether it was a waste or not.

This perception of reading is internalized in texts in terms of suspense. In police procedurals and mysteries, it is not just that the chaser is frustrated by the ruses of the chased, the police detective by the criminal – but it is also the case that a certain amount of filler must be passed through. The filler has a secondary character – it lends color, it informs (this function is more and more important) – but its primary effect is to impede.

You can’t have suspense without filler, which stand in relation one to the other like the tickle to the tickler. And in its supreme form, in a novel like, say, Ulysses, where the suspense is not so much about chaser and chased, but about – among other things – a man avoiding confronting the love affair of his wife – the quantity of filler is so increased that the book becomes about it, about where it takes place in time and space. That it is constructed in terms of a reference to the myth of Ulysses and Homer’s poem releases the enormous work of having gotten this filler right – the work of research – from the category of the beautiful and gives it back to the mythopoetic, or to history, as it were. It is in this sense that Ulysses is connected like no other novel to everything that went before it and everything that came after it.  

Monday, December 11, 2017

Robinson Crusoe and Figaro walk into a bar... official and unofficial culture

When I was a little boy I learned about American history as a parade of heros in colorful situations: George Washington stoicking it out at Valley Forge, Benjamin Franklin and the kite, Abe Lincoln walking twenty miles to return a borrowed book while his Mamma wilted away with the mysterious “milk sickness”. No women save for Betsy Ross, and no African-Americans down to the very name. It was all so long ago, but this version of America runs like muzak in the veins of heartland patriots, so there is that. In the meantime, history got sexy: there was the civil rights movement, there was feminism, there was Foucault, there was deconstruction, there was the new historicists, chorus chorus chorus.
This has revised our view of the American Revolution by broadening it, for one. It is not in the context of a number of Atlantic Revolutions – the French, the aborted Irish, the Haitian – and it is now something much greater than the sum of battles the Yankees fought with the redcoats. Among other things, we are learning to see creole diasporas – the black diaspora, the English, the Irish, the Spanish – interact with each other. The connections between black slaves in South Carolina and, say, Jamaica, or St. Domingue, is still not fully explored, but one has a much stronger sense of networks and movement than the older, static picture of the state of the 13 American colonies.
Of the innumerable historiettes that show these hidden connections, I am fascinated by the trajectory of a pantomime that combines in itself a number of zones of contact: Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Robinson Crusoe or Harlequin Friday.
Sheridan was a violent Whig. Unlike his fellow Irish whig, Burke, he supported the French Revolution when it broke out, up through the Terror. Unlike Burke, he felt that the excesses of the Revolution were the fruit of the old regime that it overthrew, “that dealt in extortion, dungeons, and tortures; that set an example of depravity to the slaves it ruled over." Sheridan had already entered politics by the time he created the Robinson Crusoe pantomime in 1781. It was a creation of the left hand – a pantomime, after all, built for guffaws and a few songs, which was immediately successful in England.
The pantomime at first seems to stick to the story we know, with a few extra dashes. Crusoe is shown rather comically building his little solitary place on his island. He sees the famous footprint. He witnesses the “savages” commence to prepare a meal of their captive, Friday. He fires his gun, and the savages flee. Friday is so grateful he dumbshows his willingness to become Crusoe’s slave. But at this point there is an intervention from the side of Whiggery: Crusoe refuses that role, and gives Friday a gun. The two use it to free two captives, the harlequin characters Pierrot and  Pantaloon, and then help a captain take back his ship from mutineers. Act One ends with the cast going back to Europe. Act two opens in Spain. Here something new happens. Crusoe leaves Spain, and the next bit of the panto concerns the romance of Friday, a black man, and Columbine, a white woman.  Columbine seems to be Pantaloon’s daughter, and Pantaloon throws Friday out of his house. Here another theme sounds, as a Prospero like magician proposes to help Friday to spite his enemy, Pantaloon. A Cupid comes down from the sky, gives Friday a sword, a purse and a cap, and re-christens him Harlequin. After this scene, there is the usual tumble of slapstick towards the inevitable conclusion. Pantaloon and his people give chase through many changes of scenery to Halequin and Columbine until finally, due to the magician, he gives his permission for them to wed.
This crossing of themes from the Tempest with those from Robinson Crusoe has a mighty modern feel. But we don’t, perhaps, feel so much the Figaro element. It is, though, surely there. Beaumarchais enjoyed Sheridan’s plays when he visited London; the Barber of Seville was staged by David Garrick in London in 1775, six years before Sheridan’s pantomime. Here, then, is a text in the crossroads. But even more so when one follows its performance history. It was first performed in Montego Bay, in Jamaica, in 1785. Jamaica was England’s great slaveholding colony, and was, due to its sugar production, the single most valuable asset in the British empire of that time. It was performed by Hallam’s American Company, a theater troupe that fled to Jamaica from New York City when the Continental Congress, mimicking Oliver Cromwell’s legislation, shut down theaters in the American colonies.  Hallam’s company put on many of Sheridan’s plays – which were popular among the plantation owners. Still, it is interesting to think about the divided reception of a pantomime that implies such interesting things about slavery and race. Here is James Scott’s theory of hidden transcripts set in motion.

Perhaps the panto was destined to sow double meanings wherever it went. The play might well have a Figaro-like dimension in presenting, in comic guise, erotic equality between blacks and whites; but it continues the tradition of the savage, ending with a Savage Dance. Yet here’s the moment of social contradiction, which history turns out like the abattoir turns out sausages,  that amazes me: when Hallam’s company came back to New York, they put on the panto, and it was a great success. So much so that when the “the Indian chiefs of the Oneida Nation” came to New York City in 1786, it was the Sheridan panto that they were invited to see.

Scott’s theory of the relation between the big and little traditions – elite urban culture and peasant local culture – has the defects of any big dualism. But it does allow us to find moments in which cultural messages seem to be split at the very moment of their emission. It is not just dual culture, but a culture that is scratched at the root: “What may develop under such circumstances is virtually a dual culture: the official culture filled with bright euphemisms, silences, and platitudes and an unofficial culture that has its own history, its own literature and poetry, its own biting slang, its own music and poetry, its own humor, its own knowledge of shortages, corruption, and inequalities that may, once again, be widely known but that may not be introduced into public discourse.”

The problem here is resides in “its own”, for this too severely segregates official and unofficial. The unofficial is always there to appropriate the official culture, to fill it with fan fic and juxtapose it in liberating or ridiculing samples. And official culture is as recuperative – which is how such things as “cool” become prisons in America. Which is why I think the career of this obscure and forgotten panto shows a lot about the secret tracks that lead through a history we don’t fully understand, yet. Or maybe I should say: ever.    

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

the origin of the phrase, "american dream"

The term “American dream” seems to have come into currency in the thirties. It is often attributed to James Truslow Adams, who used it in a book in 1931 to refer a certain American style of thought. However, it was used at least a year earlier to refer to the movies. According to the Literary Gazette, movies were characterized as dreams by a French critic, Bernard Fay, who claimed that they were, pre-eminently, "American dreams".
It makes sense to me that American dream would emerge from the intersection of the analogy of movies to dreams and the crisis of American capitalism, for the dream metaphor is, otherwise, a curious one. It implies, among other things, a collective sleep – yet it is supposed to speak to an overall  waking purpose. It lacks the abstractness of an ideal. It is sexier than a project, less religious than a vision. It is not a mission - which is the French myth, the mission civilisatrice. It contrasts with the British pride in absentmindedness - that smug "absentmindedness" by which Britain acquired an empire.
Movies, through a persistent analogy – the moving picture seen in a dark room, the dream seen under closed eyes – were dreams that violated the limit of the dream, which is the rule that dreams are private, one person only affairs. The metaphor dispenses with the condition inhering in the term referred to. Historians, who often are amazingly clumsy philologists, have a tendency not to care about the conditions of the emergence of a phrase, but brandish it around as though it were implicitly in the thoughts of the founding fathers, or the Pilgrims, or immigrants, etc. But this kind of procedure is, to say the least, extremely unhistorical. We wouldn't attribute an electric razor to the Pilgrims, and I see little reason for attributing the American dream to them. Both are material devices.
If this is right, and the movie metaphor established the rhetorical conditions for the political metaphor, then we can see the American dream as a uniquely modernist invention, and the discourse around it as, among other things, the way in which American modernism sought to understand itself. And like many modernist inventions, it immediately seeks to naturalize itself, to produce bogus roots in a much larger history, to invent a tradition for itself.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

silver lining and an opportunity

There's a silver lining and an opportunity in what has been happening in Congress.

The big steal effected by the GOP necessitated blowing up the obsolete protocols of the Senate and the House. You remember those protocols from 2009, when we were all told that we couldn't have a nice public option and a much more extensive ACA cause we needed sixty votes to do it in the Senate. As the GOP has shown, if you have the majority, you make the rules. When the Dems are the majority in the House and the Senate, or even just one chamber, they will no longer be able to toss the progressive promises that put them there out cause of 'bi-partisanship", or some fuckwad rule made up in 1980. The GOP has accidentally liberated Congress and made it more democratic. This is a definite huge advance.

The opportunity is for the Dems to get rid of their Herbert Hoover complex. Until the 90s, the one D. advantage was that they understood the business cycle. The GOP, having a religious faith in the market, can't admit to market failure. The D.'s then were the adult party. As adults, they realized that the question about the deficit is when we should have one and what it should do. Among the many "problems" with the Clinton administration was the way it hustled fifty years of experience out there door, passing de-regulatory legislation that was implicitly founded on the impossibility of market failure (hence that piece of TNT, sponsored by Phil Gramm and endorsed by Bill C., called the Commodities Modernization Act of 2000, which basically primed the depression of 2008) and by fetishizing deficit reduction. The latter resulted in the idiotic politics of 2000 - an election year in which the signals were that a recession was here - in which the Clinton policiy of protecting the budget surplus turned into the politics of putting an "iron box" around social security, which was what happens when you lose the justification for a policy and you pick one ad hoc. Bush, proving that a stopped clock is right twice a day, actually addressed the oncoming recession by proposing a tax cut. It was an awful tax cut, and the deficit it caused was a very distant stimulus, but at least it recognized that a stimulus was necessary.

In 2009, Christine Romer, Obama's economic advisor, told him that the stimulus should be twice as big - about 800 billion dollars bigger - to really lift the country out of the depression. There has been talk about whether Larry Summers cut that figure in half, or whether Obama just rejected it - in any case, Obama, taking up the Herbert Hoover cross, allowed the Fed to loan the banks and Wall street much much more than that 800 billion while he introduced and the Congress passed a stimulus of around a trillion dollars. If Romer's advice had been followed, we would have had a much quicker recovery, and we would not have witness wage stagnation for six years for the majority of the working class. In combination with an ACA that was much more like the one O. promised in his presidential campaign, there's a good chance we would have seen D.'s triumph in 2010, instead of failing epically. 

By coincidence, the deficit proposed by the GOP is equivalent to Romer's proposal eight years ago. But it is a deficit that is being unloaded at a time when the economy is near full employment. And it is going to the least likely sector when it comes to economic stimulus. These are the points I am hoping the D.s press. If they press the "deficit! horrors!" button, they really have learned nothing.

Friday, December 01, 2017

The Yokels - part one

It used to be the case that journalists from NYC only went out to the boonies to report on crimes. If the crime or scandal was big enough, they’d be there. For all other cases, there was the news services. It was the New Yorker (and, to an extent, Mencken’s magazine, the American Mercury) which first started sending writers out to take the temperature, so to speak, of the boonies. The New Yorker established the U.S. Journal format, with its man on the courthouse steps or in the coffeehouse interviews to establish the temperament of the burg that the reporter was passing through. At the same time, the scandal and crime driven impulse was also, understandably, cultivated. A merger of the two types takes place in the essays that Calvin Trillin collected under the title, Killings. The book came out in 1984; it has recently been reprinted, to some well deserved hoopla. The pieces cover the period from the late sixties to the early eighties. Not all of the pieces are from small towns – in fact, most of the venues where this or that person was dispatched were mid sized cities: Knoxville, Savannah, Riverside, etc. However, during this period Trillin could have stayed in NYC and written about any variety of homicide you care to ponder. These killings have an interest beyond the events that brought together victim and perpetrator, and that interest is very much the social setting – the different cultures of the provinces. They are, as it were, litmus tests of the spirit of the age, as it was bottled in these places.

The New Yorker also sponsored the project of another writer at about the same time, which ended up in the book Special Places: In search of small town America. This was penned by Berton Roueché, who was better known as the New Yorker’s medical writer. Roueché went and spent time in various small towns – towns of less than 20,000 people – in a swathe of America that included the Midwest and Texas. His travels (which bear the title of a search, instead of, say, an investigation, or a survey – a search being less prosecutorial and more open-ended) took in the towns of Stapleton, Nebraska, Welch, West Virginia, Hermann, Missouri, Crystal City, Texas, Corydon, Indiana, Pella, Iowa, and Hope, Arkansas. In other words, his search brought him to small towns in Anglo America. The partial exceptions are Crystal City and Hope, Arkansas, but Roueché never traveled to a small town that was mostly black. The overwhelming whiteness of his search is not something Roueché, or his editor, William Shawn, who prefaced his book, thought about.

The book has never, to my knowledge, been reprinted. It has no reputation, unlike Killings. But to my mind it is a counterpart to the more famous book. It encodes a way of reporting on what we see, now, as Red America, that huge transcontinental swamp of GOP voters, where the lines are about inauthenticity and urban formlessness that still rules the narrative. Even though it is now the NYT rather than the New Yorker that now supports this kind of thing, the archetype of small town America still weighs us down. It is white, it is mannered, the flowers bloom there and everybody meets and eats brunch at the Pancake house on Sunday. And of TV, and its pervasive influence, there is nary a whisper.

In the list of towns that dot Roueché’s “search”, the one that stands out today is Hope, Arkansas, which is now famous as the town where Bill Clinton was born. But when Roueché visited, in 1982, Clinton was not a name to reckon with or recognize. He was just another southern Democratic governor, apt to drop an aw shucks or a gosh when showing emotion, who’d been removed in the last election. The most interesting politician in town for Roueché was the vice-mayor, Floyd Young, who was black.  Roueché interviewed him, which is almost as far as Roueché went on the politics of the small town places he was searching – evidently, he was not in the business of finding politics. It found him, though, in the sermon he attends in the Hope Baptist Church, where the minister defends war and capital punishment on an Old Testament basis. And then there is a comment that resonates retrospectively, made by a rather slick businessman he interviewed – Vincent Foster, still kicking at that time – who confides that he knows where to get liquor in this dry town, and it doesn’t involve driving to Texarkana, either: “All I got to do is pick up the phone over there and dial a certain number. And I’m not talking about moonshine.” Thus spoke the voice of Clintonism avant le lettre. It is all about pull, man.

Roueché’s reporting style is of a dense descriptiveness that was favored during Shawn’s tenure at the New Yorker. There is not a store on a main street in the towns he stays in that remains unnamed: in Welch, West Virginia, he observes six automobile agencies including  Hall Chevrolet-Oldsmobile, he stays at the Carter Hotel and eats at the Mountaineer Restaurant. He notes that Herman, Missouri has two funeral homes and registers them for the reader (Toedtmann and Grosse and Herman Blumer). He tells us that there are four chief business streets in Corydon, Indiana, and that the Corydon State Bank, the Town and Country Shop, Nolan L. Hottell insurance, the Corydon (weekly) Democrat, the sherrif’s office and the county jail, and the Corydon Dollar store are all on one of them.  Roueché specializes in the approaches to a town – he favors towns that have rolling hills on the outskirts, have a river, are found in a pleasant valley, and are attached to the life of the land. To give him his due, when he pretty good at giving  vent to the stray rhapsodic sigh, in the great American tradition:

“I spent the better part of a month in deep southwestern Arkansas – in Hope (pop, 10,290), the seat of Hempstead County – and the sun shone every day of my stay but one, and the nights were mild, and many of them were moonlit, and almost every night I fell asleep to the long, slow faraway whistle of a freight train. I arrived in mid-March, in the first full rush of spring, and the day I left, in the second week of April, the pell-mell Southern summer had begun. I saw the jonquils bloom and fade, and the azaleas and the yellow bells and tulip trees, the wisteria and the redbuds, the peach trees and the apples, and I watched the big willow oaks that line the streets burst almost visibly into shading leaf.”

Those “ands” come from Hemingway, who took them from Twain, who took them from the common speech, who took them from the Bible. That affection for the flowers, that landscaper’s inventory, is strewn about the discovery literature – every “searcher” of the American landscape falls for the flowers and the fruits. And why not? I do myself. In fact, while Roueché was in Hope, I, unconscious of his very existence, was very probably working on my part time job for a landscaping company one hundred twenty miles South of him in Shreveport, strewing grass seed. Nature, remade, is what we are about, we Americans, we invasive species.

It is interesting, or irresistible, do a where are they now? with Roueché’s towns – to note, for instance, that the country of which Welch, West Virginia, is the county seat has the distinction of having the highest drug overdose mortality rate in the country at the moment. Roueché, in his quest for small town life, was too good a human to ask the question I always ask when passing through East Texas and country Louisiana and the rest of it: aren’t these people bored? Too good a human – but certainly lacking something as a reporter if this question never came up.
It comes up in Trillin’s book.


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

a history without dates

There’s a certain magical attachment in the histories we read in books – or the magazines, or the newspapers, doing their own kind of fashion work, articulating the spirit of the age as the well to do see it - to years. A year serves not only as an organizing principle, but also as a spell – it gathers around itself a host of connotations, and soon comes to stand for those connotations. Yet, what would history be like if you knocked out the years, days, weeks, centuries? How would we show, for instance, change? In one sense, philosophical history does just that – it rejects the mathematical symbols of chronology as accidents of historical structure. These are the crutches of the historian, according to the philosophical historian. Instead, a philosophical history will find its before-after structure in the actual substance of history. In the case of the most famous philosophical history, Hegel’s, a before and after, a movement, is only given by the conceptual figures that arise and interact in themselves. To introduce a date, here, is to introduce a limit on the movement of the absolute. A limit which, moreover, from the side of the absolute, seems to be merely a superstition, the result of a ceremony of labeling founded on the arbitrary, and ultimately, on the fear of time itself, that deathdealer.