Friday, November 30, 2007

Cooking with Claire and Rufus

This is a recipe that is very tasty and serves as good comfort food. That is to say, if you eat this every day, you will eventually die of a heart attack. Also, I should mention that I think we learned how to make this from the Food Network. Hopefully, they will not sue us.

5 strips of bacon
1 tbsp butter
1 onion- chopped
2 garlic cloves
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
3 waxy potatoes- peeled and cubed
salt and pepper to season
1 cup grated Gruyère cheese

1. Basically, everything gets fried here. The first thing to go in the frying pan is the bacon. You want to cut the bacon into 1-2 inch pieces. It's not the most elegant method, perhaps, but I found that it's hard to cut bacon with a knife, and quite easy with kitchen scissors!

2. After frying the bacon, you want to save about a tablespoon of fat.

3. Using that tablespoon of fat and a tablespoon of butter, you next want to fry the onions.

Here we have the onions in the frying pan. You want to cook them until they turn clear. I personally love the smell of frying onions.

At the end of frying the onions, add the two cloves of garlic to the pan and cook them for a bit.

4. Remove everything from the pan, deglaze the pan, and add balsamic vinegar. Now add the cubed potatoes to the pan. Cook the potatoes until brown without stirring much. This takes about fifteen minutes.

5. Once you've cooked the potatoes, return the other ingredients to the pan. Here we have the browned potatoes, onions, and bacon.

Sprinkle on the grated Gruyère cheese, and cook on medium heat for an additional 10-15 minutes, and it's ready to go.

And this is what it looks like when it's done. I don't know if it's obvious from the picture, but it really is delicious.

Like I said, it's not exactly health food, but if you're hungry, it does the trick!


Bill Brandt and Cecil Beaton

Two photographers who, it is said, were forever altered by the experience of photographing the Second World War, Cecil Beaton and Bill Brandt are also interesting for how compelling and creative their non-war related work is. They could clearly shoot artifice as well as reality and there are some interesting echoes across the genres for both photographers.

Bill Brandt is perhaps best known for his war photography. Stephen Brooke calls Brandt ''perhaps the most important British photographer of the twentieth century.'' His wartime images of Londoners camping out in the Underground or sleeping in church crypts during the Blitz have become iconic.

It's worth noting that, as a young photographer, Brandt studied briefly under Man Ray. There is a surprising amount of surrealism to his war photography, which is especially striking given its documentary nature. His photographs of an abandoned and darkened London seem like something out of the dream world. In fact, Brandt was best at recognizing that there's something surreal and disorienting about a world at war and capturing that strangeness in his wartime photographs. They're most striking as postings from a world turned upside down- like a brief glimpse into the subconscious.

After the war, Brandt shot a series of nudes that are also iconic, as well as similarly surreal. In contrast to the London war photos, which highlighted the dearth of private space, the nudes are often posed in private spaces, the interiors of darkened rooms and homes. The women are somber and sullen, and tend to be very brightly lit, in contrast with the rooms, which are often quite dark. The women stand out like a beacon in this shadowy private world.

In many cases, they actually stare out at or reach towards the viewer, breaking the third wall. Brooke says that they challenge the ''male gaze'', but I'm a bit uncomfortable with that. The idea of the male gaze, which comes from writings by John Berger, and particularly Laura Mulvey seems a bit overstated to me. Clearly, Brooke was a male who was gazing at nude females, but theories of the male gaze also tend to assume that the audience for these works of art is also male, which seems more than a bit presumptuous. Scopophilia is a human pleasure after all.

But Brooke is right in arguing that there are continuities throughout Brandt's work. Not only do we see a surrealism running through the war documentary photographs and into the strange nudes, but there is also a connection between flesh and death in these later nudes that comes from both the war and the surrealists. As Brandt's war photographs highlight in an extreme way how all of us live with death, the nudes often seem like erotic memento morii, highlighting the connections between Eros and Thanatos that are central to surrealism.

Cecil Beaton always claimed to have been changed by the war, and this narrative has been commonly accepted. He was one of the ''bright young things'' of the 1930s, making up for his modest background by working for Vogue, photographing high fashion and the demi monde. He became a leading photographer of what he called the ''pleasure class'' and would, during the war, consider this subject matter to have been trivial. However, for those of us who are aficionados of this sort of glamour photography, it is among the greatest art of the century.

In 1943, the reviewer Henry Saville argued that,''Cecil Beaton can be considered today to symbolize the revolution the war has brought to Britain.'' Where Beaton's subject matter had previously been shimmeringly superficial, he now focused on the blood and iron of the working class military and civilians. His image of wounded Blitz victim Eileen Dunne clutching her teddy bear is one of the most famous British images from the War. Martin Francis detects what he calls a ''romantic Toryism'' to Beaton's wartime photography, and others have identified a newfound seriousness and egalitarianism in the work.

Of course, romantic Toryism relies more on hierarchy than egalitarianism, and one could argue that the same applies to aestheticism and celebrity as well. Francis sees a hierarchizing tendency in Beaton's war photography as well- a tendency to valorize soldiers while remaining aware of their place. Many of the photographs are also framed in a theatrical sort of way- his image of tank remains at Halfaya Pass reminds one of an abstract work of art or looking through a broken telescope. Francis also sees a ''queer eye'' in the photography that troubles the romantic Toryism, although one should note that many conservative snobs have been gay. Also, it is difficult for me to imagine how Beaton, a bisexual male, could have photographed male soldiers without his photographs being read as ''queer''- Francis notes how tender and feminizing the images are, but surely strongly masculine images would also seem homoerotic.

It's important to note that Beaton, by all accounts, survived the war with his snobbery intact. He also turned from the stark realism of the war imagery back to creating artifice. His post-war celebrity photography is as brilliant as his early Vogue work and his shots of Marilyn Monroe are deservedly famous. Beaton also worked on Broadway, designing costumes and sets for plays such as My Fair Lady. His costume design for the film versions of Gigi and My Fair Lady won Beaton two Academy Awards for costume design.

It's interesting to consider the theatrical aspect of war photography and we might consider whether the dramatic aspects of war influenced Beaton's theatrical work. In his war photographs, we can see the aesthetic and theatrical aspects of patriotic imagery. In both Beaton and Brandt's war photos, I think we see the imaginative and creatively fertile aspects of war, patriotism, and national narrative.

Another Sky.


Artful Looking

Spiritual siblings of Richard Ross's Architecture of Authority, several artists are working in the medium of citizen surveillance. I'm sure there are many more than are presented here, but Wired has collected 12 of their favorites in The Art of Surveillance. I'd particularly like to see Adam Rifkin's film Look (that link goes to a NSFW trailer which will start playing immediately, with clangorous music), and I thought the personal space indicators were cool, although it would be far more interesting at cocktail party, for instance, than on a 12x12 floor panel.

Synchronously, I'm currently reading William Gibson's latest novel, Spook Country, where one axis of the plot revolves around some people in the business of "locative art." This involves creating virtual images of events or other scenes, and then placing them at particular GPS coordinates. For instance, you could see River Phoenix passed out on the sidewalk near a club in Hollywood. Folks with the right equipment (VR helmets) can go there and see the thing. Everyone else is totally ignorant to it. It's a neat concept, and like most things in Gibson's books, it is almost certainly a real thing, already happening, or will happen. Possibly because he wrote about it.

And, further synchronicity, or maybe I'm just subconsciously culling the universe at this point, like finding money on the ground after hearing that people find money on the ground all the time... Reuters is running this article about using the GPS in your cell phone to find the nearest public lavatory in London. Which seems great, if you're in a hurry to heed the call of nature. But it's kind of creepy if you think too long about how They Know Where You Pee. I suppose ultimately that sort of demand/response interaction with public facilities (of all kinds) could lead to better targeting of money spent on improvements and signage. If there's one specific street corner in London where people are always checking for the nearest loo, maybe it needs a sign...

I find myself wondering if this is just part of the process of society getting the constant surveillance assimilated? Or if it's actually opening a door to a deeper level of surveillance, something on the order of microchipping your children, implanted medical histories, passports, and so on. Probably that door is already open, and soon a convoy of trucks will be driving through it.

Another Sky.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Consensus Reality

Okay, so this isn't going to be exciting, but I've got to mention a few things about the Internet that I still can't get my head around. These aren't complaints, but they are things that bewilder me and which I wonder if it's worth thinking about.

First, one good thing on the Internet- The Sartorialist.

Now for the weird things. I think the first would be the sort of ''consensus reality'' that the net creates. It seems to me that, if you're a person who believes that a third of all people are Martians in disguise, something about everyday social life will force you to realize that this is a minority opinion. But, I think with the Internet it's easier to find a whole lot of people who also believe that 33 percent of all people are Martians and become convinced that this is an opinion whose legitimacy is growing and whose time has come.

For example, I recently read a Zogby poll stating that 78 percent of Americans questioned believe that global warming is a problem that should be addressed as soon as possible. Now, of course, we all know how unreliable polls can be for determining anything. Yet I was gobsmacked by that survey because I had gotten the impression from reading blogs, message boards, and the like that roughly 70 percent of Americans firmly believe that ''global warming is a hoax perpetrated by algore and those asshole liberal climate scientists to take away our cars.'' In other words, I had fallen for a consensus reality that doesn't really exist in the real world.

Secondly, I've noticed that I myself avoid commenting on certain articles due to the tone of the other comments. Here's a funny, interesting article about something called ''Islamofascism Awareness Week'' by Scott McLemee. I don't entirely agree with his points, but I was tempted to comment on them and join the discussion. The I read the comments that are already there... Do you notice anything strange about those comments? Well, for one thing, none of them actually address the arguments made in the article. Oh, they discuss things like the evils of capitalism, whether Scott McLemee wants to surrender to terrorists, the genetic basis of evil, Stalinism, quite a bit on self-criticism within Islam, and even school busing; they're often very interesting in themselves, and a few come within spitting distance of the actual article. But they never actually respond to his points in any serious way. In many cases, you wonder if they even read the article at all.

So, I decided to sit that one out. What's the point? And, look, my point isn't to say that these people are stupid, because they're clearly not. But I wonder if there isn't another sort of consensus effect that comes from all of us lurkers who keep quiet because we don't think anyone else will care to listen.


Wednesday, November 28, 2007


If you're looking for books this holiday season, you could do a lot worse than ordering them through BookWoman, a feminist bookstore in Austin, Texas that is 33 years old and currently trying to raise money to find a cheaper location before they lose their lease. Or you could just chip in a few bucks towards saving the store- good community bookstores are hard to find.


Picture of the Day

President Yudhoyono of Indonesia is shown planting a tree during a mass tree planting this afternoon. Indonesia plans to set a record by planting 80 million trees today. The President was quoted as saying that the country needs to ''get its act together''. According to Greenpeace, Indonesia currently has the fastest deforestation rate in the world.


Notes on Benvenuto Cellini

Currently, I'm reading Chateaubriand's Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem for ''work'' and the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini for pleasure. It should also help with teaching World Civ at some point. I don't focus on the sixteenth-century or the Italian Renaissance in my research, so there are a number of things that I've learned from Cellini's autobiography:

1. By the 1520s, Europeans are using a firearm called an arquebuse, similar to a musket. It seems to have the same problems as early muskets- Cellini blows a hole in his hand firing it.

2. Cellini worked as goldsmith to a number of people, including Alessandro de Medici, the first Duke of Florence, who was killed by his cousin Lorenzino in 1537.

3. There is a surprising amount of violence in the autobiography. Cellini is something of a hothead anyway and he kills a number of people, including an untold number fighting off Charles III's siege of Rome in 1527. We're used to thinking of the Renaissance artists as kindly and patient, but they were anything but that. Camille Paglia has attributed this misconception to the fact that studies on these artists have been written by kindly and patient humanists who projected themselves onto their subjects. These artists had posses, vendettas, and street fights.

4. In spite of working for a number of Popes and seeming to be relatively Catholic, Cellini is a big believer in astrology and tries to summon demons to lead him to treasure with a necromancer who, if I'm not mistaken, is also part of the clergy! So the beliefs are not mutually exclusive at this time.

5. The plague is also a regular occurance. In one horrifying episode, Cellini returns home to discover that his father and everyone in the house have died of plague, and he himself suffers numerous illnesses. Medicine of the era is fairly crude. One amusing line- ''Meanwhile, I came to life again by the means of more than twenty leeches applied to my buttocks, but with my body bored through, bound, and ground to powder.'' Certainly a mixed outcome!

6. Spontoon- A European lance that came into use after the pike and which was widely used by the 1600s. It was first used by the Italians. Cellini is attacked with one sometime around 1540. Cool pictures here.

7. The French crown apparently paid Leonardo da Vinci five hundred golden crowns for his work. Cellini holds out until they pay him the same amount.

8. 1539- Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and troops take Tunis.

9. 1544- During the Italian War of 1542-1546, the HRE's Imperial Army gets as far as Epernay, twenty leagues from Paris. This is settled with the Treaty of Crépy. However, France and England keep fighting until June 1546.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Iceland, Iceland, very, very Nice land!

Iceland is now the best place in the world to live, edging out Norway, who we can expect to give Iceland wirthering glares in the future. One of my favorite punk songs was a goofy diatribe entitled ''Fuck you Norway'' by a Boston band called the Showcase Showdown. It was a very silly song, but apparently, the absurdity of anyone actually hating Norway is somewhat lost on some Norweigans. The band's old message board contained a number of comments along the lines of, ''I am from Norway. Fuck you Showcase Showdown!'' Hopefully, Iceland will not get too uppity about their Number One status. Do not anger Norway.

Anyway, the U.N. Human Development Index is based on life expectancy, educational levels, and real per capita income. Canada came in number four, after uppity Iceland, embittered Norway, and Australia, who was largely too drunk to notice. Seriously, I'm kidding! Please don't send me angry emails along the lines of Fuck you grad student madness!


Monday, November 26, 2007

A Case Against Blogging

A blog that I have enjoyed, The Dilbert Blog by Scott Adams, is being curtailed. He has posted regularly for two years, and today announced that he will be cutting back, for several very concrete reasons, which you can read here, if you're interested. What caught my eye is that he has come to the conclusion that having a blog is actually hurting his Dilbert sales. He says he gets a lot of email and comments saying that a long-time fan has read something disagreeable in the blog, and will therefore never read Dilbert again, not ever. He'd thought that blogging would drum up interest in Dilbert, but it seems like the folks who *already* like Dilbert read it, and then get offended and go away. Highly counterproductive.

After struggling a few minutes trying to figure out what prompted me to post this here, I have come to the conclusion that it's related to the reasons that some people make an effort to obscure their identity when posting op/ed to the internet. It's obvious that it can have a direct impact on "real life" earnings and so on, not only for academic folks.

I guess what is less obvious is that the efforts one makes can be perverted, and actually be detrimental to the goal. For instance, Adams was trying to drum up interest in his main businesses (he has several, and he mentioned them often in his blog), and he was trying to do some expressive/creative writing that isn't allowed in the confines of a widely syndicated comic strip. While he certainly did those things, he also has paid a price for it. I get the impression that his blog was fairly time-consuming for him, and that's another reason he's backing off it.

Adams hasn't been posting anonymously, of course. He's been posting as who his is: The creator of the wildly successful Dilbert comic franchise. The Dilbert comic wouldn't be what it is without Adams being how he is, but people don't really want to know, sometimes. Most people want to be liked for who they are; celebrities rely on being liked for who they appear to be. Journaling often tells people who you are, whether you mean it to, or no. The internet creates a strange pseudo-celebrity status for a lot of people, where they are sniffed & inspected by strangers, and then behave as though they know the person, and they engage in weirdly personal, even intimate conversations.

This may be the number one argument against writing internet op/ed in any professional context. Worse than that, the internet affords little true anonymity, which means that whatever you participate in, whatever you write, about whatever you think, can probably be made available to someone who is really interested. No matter how well intentioned you are, ultimately you are opening yourself to a raft of judgment and negative consequence that is essentially uncontrollable the moment you click the PUBLISH POST button. All of which is pretty ironic if you consider that what most people are looking for, most of the time, is approval in one form or another.


The flowers of Chinese Art

Clearly, another cultural revolution is afoot in this country of 1.8 billion people. Awakening from the slumber of decades of isolation and cultural levelling, communist China is quickly positioning itself as a leader in artistic and cultural worlds that are anything but egalitarian. As recently as a decade ago, the idea of a Chinese art boom would have been unlikely at best. Now it's a strange reality, and an increasingly profitable one. Chinese artists are learning that the road to the Western subconscious runs through the wallet.

Hopefully, it's obvious is that this artistic flourishing is the result, first and foremost of compelling work. Chinese art is booming because so much of it is startling, stunning, and attention-grabbing. And for every great artist that I've highlighted here, there are a dozen that I've left out. Great art calls itself out and demands to be discovered.

It is less clear what role the Chinese government's loosened restrictions play in all of this. Will the government crack down yet again on art, or give up entirely to focus on restricting the Internet? Does the flourishing art scene serve state purposes by drawing attention away from China's dismal human rights record and environmental devastation? Does the art call attention to the problems in modern Chinese society, or palliate movements towards improving them? Ultimately, I think the question is whether there could be a totalitarian country that tolerated complete free speech, and if not, why not?

And what is the relationship between culture and capital? It seems a bit ironic that artists who are so often ambivalent, if not critical, about the effects that global capitalism is having on Chinese culture are, themselves, flourishing largely because of global capital. Contemporary Chinese art is often sharply critical of state communism, while being created under state communism, and critical of capitalism, while being fueled by an international art market. It stands outside of East and West in this regard and reveals a bit of how the two worlds see one another. Here is the real irony though for the time being, it is global capital, and not the communist revolution, that is allowing a thousand flowers to bloom.


Wang Qingsong

When East meets West they switch places.

Like Pierre et Giles or David LaChapelle, Wang Qingsong creates photographs that are extravagantly staged and artificial, challenging the idea that photography is somehow truer to life than other sorts of art, while paradoxically showing the effects of Westernization on Chinese culture in the most appropriate manner. Wang intends his vivid colors to evoke rapid modernization, while their painterly composition recalls his formal training as a painter. Witty references to Western painters like Ingres or Corbet call into question how well cultures blend into new environments.

To give some sense of how haphazard the changes in official response to art have been, Wang was questioned for two days earlier this year after a model complained about the use of nudity in his work. Meanwhile, he is currently shooting a series for the 2008 Olympics.


Lin Tianmiao

Much of Lin Tianmiao's work deals with the strands of daily life that connect us to one another. Since 1998, she has undertaken the Braiding installation, a series of eerie photographs of herself, printed on transparent screens and stitched across the surface by threads that trail out behind the screen. Lin's father was a traditional Chinese painter and her mother was an expert dancer. She is one of a handful of contemporary female artists in China and part of the growth in photography since the ban on non-Communist photography has loosened in the last 25 years. As pictured, Lin is also an accomplished sculptor with a farmhouse studio in the Songzhuang Artist Village in Beijing.


Luo Brothers

The only way to describe the vivid eye candy of the Luo Brothers would be rococo-meets-pop art-meets-acid flashback. Their images of babies, hamburgers, soft drinks, and eye-popping Chinese propaganda sunsets look like the hallucinatory version of a world in which Chairman Mao survived by becoming Walt Disney- a world not unlike contemporary China. With their robustly patriotic names, Luo Weidong ("defender of the Orient"), Luo Weiguo ("defender of the country"), and Luo Weibing ("bodyguard") seem poised to provide the propaganda muscle to a surreal future in which the Little Red Book is less influential than Facebook.


Zhang Xiaogang

Did people dream in black and white before the development of photography? Zhang Xiaogang paints surrealist family portraits that hearken both to photographs from the past and the dream world, which are perhaps experienced as the same place. Zhang's parents were sent to 'study camp' during the Cultural Revolution and he himself was sent to re-education camp as a teenager. His portraits evoke the blank stares of those exiled from the world of the living, waking life as a re-education regime.

In the early 90s, the government found his paintings to be unfit for cultural display. Now they are sold for millions of dollars, following Charles Saatchi's 2006 purchase of the painting A Big Family. Zhang is part of an ongoing Chinese artistic revolution, slowly invading the Western mindscape in a silent coup.


Yue Minjun

With the sound turned off, a hearty laugh becomes a manic rictus of pain. No artist has explored this paradox in quite the same way as Shanghai-based Yue Minjun. For more than a decade he has painted and sculpted the same laughing figure- a self-portrait repeated ad infinitum. The effect is to create an instantly-alienating world of mindless, conformist ''joy'', ironically commenting on government propaganda. So far, the Chinese government has allowed Minjun relative leeway, at odds with their censorious reputation. It probably doesn't hurt that his prices and reputation have soared in recent years, along with a rising Chinese art scene. His painting Execution sold for £2.9 million, the highest price ever paid for a Chinese work of art.


Friday, November 23, 2007

No Tenure for You

No need to worry about ''tenured radicals'' anymore. According to the NYTimes: ''Professors with tenure or who are on a tenure track are now a distinct minority on the country’s campuses, as the ranks of part-time instructors and professors hired on a contract have swelled, according to federal figures analyzed by the American Association of University Professors.'' What percentage of people teaching in colleges and universities are adjuncts? According to the report, about seventy percent, although that's a bit hard to believe.

Apparently, university administrators are trying to recreate the striking success of American public high schools in the university sector. Judging by the article, it sounds like adjuncts make approximately $2,000 a course and teach about five courses a semester. They say you should spend two or three hours outside of class preparing for each hour in class, not to mention the time spent grading. So, now we're talking about a PhD getting about $20,000 a year to work 50-60 hours a week, or more, with no benefits or job security. Higher ed is starting to sound like a Ponzi scheme.

Why are administrators phasing out tenure? I'd guess so that they can treat instructors like temps. According to the article ''The shift from a tenured faculty results from financial pressures, administrators’ desire for more flexibility in hiring, firing and changing course offerings, and the growth of community colleges and regional public universities focused on teaching basics and preparing students for jobs.'' Or, basically, so they can treat instructors like temps.

The public has yet to catch on to the fact that their kids are being taught by part-timers, graduate students, and temps without PhDs. It's not clear that they'd be unhappy with the situation anyway. As one provost puts it, “We have to contend with increasing public demands for accountability, increased financial scrutiny, and declining state support.” The
public, apparently, has yet to notice the ridiculous cost of maintaining a top-heavy, needless glut of administrators at most universities. And usually a money pit sports program on top of that. But it's easy to appeal to their knee-jerk animus against ''elitists'' and ''eggheads'' and ''hippies with tenure''. What was that Joe Biden line? ''Don't tell me what you value; you show me your budget and I'll tell you what you value.'' No shit.

As for the tenured professors, to say that they don't worry about the non-tenure track untouchables would be unfair- they'd have to notice them first.

As for the students, we'll see how long universities can keep short-changing them. I'd give it another decade, at most. But, understand this, my dear undergraduates,- when you have a grad student like myself teaching you, while trying to finish a dissertation, you are not getting an education anything like what you would recieve from a full-time professor who has years of experience and the time to develop a rewarding or enriching course. And that's what you should be expecting from a university education.

The silver lining to all of this crapola? According to this study, and others like it, Canadian universities will likely have to replace about half of their faculty in the next decade as the baby boomers retire. And, from what I can tell, they still value education in Canada. (dirty commies!) Besides, the Canadian economy is booming and it's really not that cold here. So, I'd suggest that American grad students, PhDs, adjuncts, and instructors leave the Ponzi scheme behind and move north of the border.


More on Mysticism

William James:
''The overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which brings it about tht the mystical classes have, as has been said, neither birthday nor native land. Perpetually telling of the unity of man with God, their speech antedates languages, and they do not grow old.''

A bit more from The Varieties of Religious Experience on mysticism. Is this what we should call these states? I'm leaning towards calling this gnosticism. It's worth noting that James had a similar experience while on ether. Also, it's well worth noting that these experiences generally seem to happen outside of religious organizations or institutions.



Thursday, November 22, 2007

Grindhouse: Thanksgiving

In the spirit of the holiday, here's one of the more entertaining bits from the movie Grindhouse.


Picture of the Day

A drummer at the opening of the World Toilet Association conference in Seoul. The Association is attempting to improve sanitation across the developing world.



The last time I complained here about how few public spaces are quiet anymore, I felt a bit strange. What if I'm the only one who thinks that's the case? Can other people hear themselves think when they're in public? Maybe I'm a cranky old man with sensitive ears... Maybe I'm just being irrational...

Happily, the British just had a No Music Day for precisely these reasons. Kevin Berger thinks the Americans need it too. ''What it's really about is not escaping the incessant and unwanted drone of music in public. It's about learning how to listen again.'' And to think.

Good news all around.

And here's a great line from the Salon letters section- ''Actual atmosphere has been replaced by a simulacra of atmosphere.'' Yes, I think so too.


Turkey Day

For the Americans out there...

Happy Thanksgiving

As you might know, Greg and Holly are in Austria, where they don't celebrate Thanksgiving, while Claire and I are in Canada, where they celebrate Thanksgiving in October. So, we're skipping all of that today. Although I do plan to eat a pumpkin pie in the near future...


Wednesday, November 21, 2007


The latest NEA report arrives like a volley of cannon fire. Young people read very little! Almost half of them never read books for pleasure! A surprisingly high percentage of American adults couldn't read a book for pleasure, even if they wanted to!

Perhaps that last fact requires some clarification. Most American adults are ''literate'' in the sense they can read ''the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy brown dog,'' and they know what most English words mean. They are not illiterate. However, only about a third of US college graduates are ''proficiently literate''- this becomes even more shocking when you understand that prose proficiency is defined as the ability to read a newspaper article and understand what it says. About 70 percent of American adults could not read a ten-page article and summarize it for you. In other words, they simply cannot read at an adult level.

These findings don't really bring the shock of the new for those of us who teach in the United States- we've seen all this before. I would actually be surprised if as many as 30 percent of the college freshmen that I see can read an article and summarize it.

It took me some time to understand the depth of the problem. My first semesters were often spent becoming quietly annoyed with my students for their ''refusal to read''. We would assign them 3-5 page articles to read, and have them answer a fairly easy question on the readings, often simply asking what the article said, as homework. Inevitably, very few of their papers would demonstrate any understanding of the readings. If a horse was mentioned in the third paragraph, they thought it was a reading on horses. Sometimes they understood the subject, but thought the writer was making the opposite argument from the one they were actually making. I assumed that none of the students were actually reading the articles, until it finally occurred to me that, perhaps, many of them are just unable to comprehend what they read.

The factory process of American education leaves little room for the necessary interventions that we must make when we realize that young people cannot read in any serious way. Should we hold them back? Should we flunk every college student who lacks reading comprehension? I'm not exaggerating when I say that, were we to flunk out every student we see who is not really prepared to do college-level work, we'd lose at least half of our student body. I would be okay with that, but most university administrators would not. Universities are a cultural institution rooted in the close study of texts and unable to deal with the fact that reading has become vestigial in American culture.

At first, it's easy to brush off the non-readers as otherwise intelligent people who simply lack a taste for the written word. Hell, some people like broccoli and some don't. Eventually, however, you come to understand what a gulf separates readers from non-readers. Having observed them in their natural habitat, it seems to me that non-readers are often confused by spoken arguments as well- they often seem to miss the point. You tell them that you think dog-owners should have to keep their dogs on a leash when walking them, and they respond, ''So you think that dog owners should never be able to take off their dogs' leashes?!'' They tend to be rash and easily annoyed, and their own opinions have an unreflective quality to them. Often, they seem to be repeating other people's opinions with little concern as to the accuracy of their statements. They see every question of life in terms of ''pro'' or ''anti'', and constantly want other people's thoughts to be boiled down to ''yes'' or ''no'' positions. They are indifferent to truth and judge arguments solely by the vehemence with which they are delivered.

In truth, we might not be able to tell if these are the characteristics of non-readers or simply character traits that make active reading impossible. But, certainly, active exposure to literature works against these character traits, diminishing them over time. Certainly, it makes us more thoughtful.

Literature, at its best, is the guide to an inward empire- it cultivates inwardness in its readers and reveals something of the internal, otherwise invisible, states of human subjectivity and consciousness. It fortifies and enlarges an inner life, which is perhaps the reason that totalitarian governments are so often most terrified of poets. The freedom to follow a thought wherever it may lead is the basis of all other freedoms.

Inwardness is the precondition of meaningful action. It is also the precondition, as well as the product, of active reading. Have you ever noticed how few public places you can actually read in? Between the piped-in music, the security guards, the cell-phone conversations, and the barrage of advertising, very few public places, even few libraries, are actually reader-friendly. This sort of environment facilitates binge shopping, but not contemplation. One might suggest this is intentional.

Maybe those of us who worry about literacy should stage public ''read ins''. If it's possible to get a hundred strangers to congregate in a mall by posting a notice on the Internet, how hard could it be to get them to sit in a mall and read books? Reading is not a public activity in America, which is strange when you see how public it is in other countries, or notice how public television-watching has become in the US. Part of the problem is that reading is treated as a rather esoteric hobby in this country, instead of as an important dimension of one's life. Reading is vestigial in American culture because it is hidden. Perhaps we should have a national ''coming out day'' for readers.

Note: Holly here makes an interesting suggestion about another way we can encourage people to read, or at least not reward them for not reading. It's something I'd never thought of.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A la recherche du Proust perdu

Was Proust a neuroscientist? Jonathon Keats is pretty cranky about the whole idea. Balderdash! Balderdash! he says. I'm paraphrasing.

I'm of two minds about these sorts of books- let's call it the Picasso was really a physicist genre- which have come up here before. The first mind thinks that these books are great fun, really freakin' cool, and would make great Christmas presents for geeks like myself.

The second mind bristles at the idea that Proust, who wrote what's only the greatest novel ever written, needs to be proved to have given a crap about neuroscience. Alas, many members of my own family will likely never be impressed by the sort of brilliance that creates great art, while being superstitiously reverent of those 'geniuses' who can do high school calculus. So, I anticipate getting emails like, ''Hey, I never knew why you were into Proust. But I just heard that he might have had a passing understanding of something scientific. Now I get it!''

Note: Incidentally, I've not read one of these Picasso-in-the-lab-coat books, so if I'm mangling what they actually say, I'm sorry. I have read A la recherche du temps perdu, for what that's worth.


Busy bee

Holly has been extremely busy these days. Here she shares some really cool marks on paper that she made recently, in addition to working on a novel, while Greg diligently solves the mysteries of mathematics. Meanwhile, here in the Great White North, we've ordered pizza repeatedly and debated whether we should rake our leaves at some point or not.


Graz Update, Nov. 20

Hello! Greetings from Austria.

It's snowing here now. Yes, this picture (taken last week) shows some snow on the top of the mountains north of here, but it is literally snowing outside, right this minute. Not a serious snow. It's the kind of snow that sticks to cars and grassy areas, but sidewalks and roads stay wet but basically clear. Very pretty, from inside with the windows closed... Most of the rest of Austria has gotten a tremendous amount of snow this week, and although complaining about the weather is as much a national pastime here as anywhere else, people generally seem pretty content, that it's snowing. All is right in the world, more or less. The Christmas markets open up this week, and a little snow goes a long way toward making it all seem seasonal and appropriate. The roasted chestnut vendors are out in full force, the ice cream vendors have closed up shop... it must be just about winter.
It's been a while since we sent an update, and it's mostly because we're boring. Greg continues to work very hard solving the mathematical mysteries of the universe, and Holly has been painting and working on a very, very bad novel for National Novel Writing Month. German for non-native speakers class continues twice a week, and the most exciting thing to happen in the last month was buying a full-size dictionary. (Whee!....) They were roused from their boring-ness by Regan's visit, which was divided between seeing bits of Graz and bits of Vienna. We tried a bunch of new restaurants, and saw some fantastic sights and architecture.
As usual, any-excuse-to-try-random-foods.... The chocolate bar pictured here had a layer of tomato and olive paste between some fine milk chocolate. It was better than you'd think. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it was actually good. We didn't make it out to the Zotter production facility, which is about an hour east of here, but they're apparently very nice people. Holly traded some email with them, about how to best get there without a car. They advised letting the bus driver know where we were headed, so he could let us off directly in front of the door. We'll get there eventually... Here's their web site, there is probably a list of the many odd flavors of chocolate, possibly even in English:

And, of course, pastries. Like the Weichseltorte, a sour-cherry and chocolate mouse arrangement. The Konditerei that made this had a foil-wrapped truffle bigger than a basketball showcased in the stairwell, and a number of fantastically complicated cakes in the cases, and in the stairwell (is this a traditional place to display cakes??) No pictures of all those, but it's really just a sly excuse to go back there sometime. You know... to take pictures of the pastries... yeah, that's it. It's not just to get another prize from the torte case...
Pictured, graffiti of the week. From an enormous series of murals down by the river, under a bridge. There were quite a lot of graffiti pictures taken this week, if you want to see them, go to Flickr and look at this photo set:
If you have problems with Flickr, do please email us and we'll help you get into it. The pictures should be available to you, whether you have a Flickr login or no. We've been forced to move away from Photobucket, because there's too much hourglass and not enough displaying of photos. (In fact, we haven't been able to get Photobucket to accept new photos for a while.) Anyway, all our earlier photos are still there, but they'll be in Flickr in the future. A fancy alley down in the Graz old-town. Nothing really to say about this, except it took a surprisingly long time to get the shot with not many people in it (there's just two or three...)
This is another example of the Austrian concept of "salad"... a big pile of meat and onions, propped up by a tiny amount of lettuce. (Don't worry vegetarians, Austria has vegetarian food. We haven't *tried* any of it, but it's here. It's still a little surprising to see it is necessary to designate "vegetarian salad" on a menu...

That's about it for now. Happy Thanksgiving, have some turkey dinner for us, since it's not a holiday here...

-Holly & Greg


Monday, November 19, 2007


"The poorest Americans who read did twice as much volunteering and charity work as the richest who did not read. The habit of regular reading awakens something inside a person that makes him or her take their own life more seriously and at the same time develops the sense that other people's lives are real."

-NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. This line is a bright spot in an article about reading rates among young people, which have been in a nosedive for the last 20 years.


I'm Unconscious

Dr. R.M. Buckle, 1901:
''I had spent the evening in a great city, with two friends, reading and discussing poetry and philosophy. We parted at midnight, I had a long drive in a hansom to my lodging. My mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images, and emotions called up by the reading and talk, was calm and peaceful. I was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment, not actually thinking, but letting ideas, images, and emotions flow of themselves, as it were, through my mind. All at once, without warning of any kind, I found myself wrapped in a flame-colored cloud. For an instant I thought of fire, an immense conflagration somewhere close by in that great city; the next, I knew that the fire was within myself. Directly afterward there came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe. Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life. It was not a conviction that I would have eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life then; I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the work, of all the worlds, is what we call love, and that the happiness of each and all is in the long run absolutely certain. The vision lasted a few seconds and was gone; but the memory of it and the sense of the reality of what it taught has remained during the quarter of a century which has since elapsed. I knew that what the vision showed was true. I had attained a point of view from which I saw that it must be true. That view, that conviction, I may say that consciousness, has never, even during periods of deepest depression, been lost.''

Dr. Buckle was the Canadian psychiatrist who first described a state that he called ''cosmic consciousness'', coining the phrase. Needless to say, I've never achieved cosmic consciousness and have had no experiences like the one Buckle describes here. Sometimes I get the feeling that we're supposed to be dismissive of such experiences after we've gone to college. You expect me to buy this stuff? I've read Nietzsche!

Instead, I often think that I've missed out on a whole realm of human experience. Call it mysticism, gnosticism Sufism, cosmic consciousness, or whatever you want, it's been a locked door for me. I often think that there is a whole other sort of wisdom from the sort I'm supposed to be cultivating in academia. Does anyone have any experience with this sort of thing, or interest in it?


Screened out

From Margaret Soltan comes a Globe and Mail article about professors who are banning laptops in the seminar hall. Once or twice, I've sat in the back of World Civ and looked around at the students on their laptops. As far as I could tell, a single lonely soul was taking notes on his laptop; others were checking email, reading blogs, downloading music- the kid next to me was watching Star Wars! So, I don't really see why professors allow laptops in the classroom.

I know, here I go bashing the Internet again. But I think it's realistic to say that the Internet is good for a number of things, and still acknowledge that it doesn't really add much to the classroom. And I think my position on the matter has evolved a bit- after all, I'm not arguing for the Amish lifestyle any more. Besides, the reason I get so cranky about the Net in the first place is that so many of its paladins go so far out in the other direction. One of the experts interviewed, who not surprisingly sells software to help Profs use the Internet in class, is quoted- Instead of banning laptops, professors should adapt because “banning is not going to work with this generation because that is how they learn,” she said.

This encapsulates two arguments that irritate me:
1. The argument that ''this generation'' has a unique and special relationship with the Internet that the rest of us cannot really understand. It's beautiful really. Come with me now, into the future...
2. The argument that, when you're surfing the Net, you're not really surfing the net- you're learning, making lifelong friends, engaging with the political process, painting your house, and doing a bunch of other things that maybe you are really doing, but probably not.

Look, there's probably nothing wrong with surfing the net on a regular basis. But there's something to be said for not letting that invade the other parts of your life. The article talks about students who freak out upon being told that they can't use their laptops for an hour and a half twice a week. There's talk about their ''lifelines'', and their ''right to bring laptops to class'', and how they were ''even a little panicked'' about turning off the computer, and you start thinking maybe it's not such a bad thing that Mean Professor Anti-Laptop is trying to make them engage with the world around them for an hour and a half.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

A bit more from the Joyce collection- here's a first edition Ulysses signed by Joyce ''to Nora''.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Glasses under Glass

Anyone want to guess whose glasses these might have once been?

A clue: he was Irish.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Theory of Everything

Big news today: Someone's theory of everything is undergoing peer review... or something. It seems like he'd have to have it reviewed by other semi-homeless, over-educated athletes. Is he a nomadic genius? Is he a crank? Is his work going to get a fair shake, or will it (and its originator) be discounted because they're coming from outside The System?

As I understand it, folks with a theory of everything are typically referred to as "The crazy guy who roams campus barking at people for cigarettes," and I find it curious that, in this case, it's international news.

Anyone want to talk about academic mavericks?


Like a Hole in the Head

Anyone recognize this? Well, hopefully not from personal experience! This is a vintage trepanning kit. Trepanation was a sort of surgery in which a hole was drilled into the skull in order to "release pressure" and treat psychological ailments such as depression. Trepanation does work for certain types of blood clot, such as epidural and subdural hemotomas, and is still used by surgeons. Outside of medical science, trepanation is still practiced as a sort of ''alternative treatment'' or ''body modification''.


We will be totally safe when...

every Muslim in North America is under surveillance.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tancredo Ad - Tough On Terror

Vote for me, or you're dead!


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Pictures of Hamilton


We we be totally safe when...

we have fully surrendered our outdated notions of privacy.


Rusting Missile Silos

One of my favorite web pages, partly because it makes the space age seem gothic (and, of course, it already is gothic, isn't it?) is this fascinating tour of an abandoned underground missile base. It's strange to think that these are our catacombs, the forgotten temples of a twentieth-century cave-dwelling faith. This is our monumental architecture.


We will be totally safe when...

we've locked up all of the microbiologists who mail harmless bacteria to each other.

Reassuring, right?


The Nuage Towers

Looking a bit like a 60s sci-fi book cover, this is actually an image of the Aillaud Towers in Nanterre, France. Also known as the ''nuage'' towers, they were designed by French architect Émile Aillaud. Aillaud's designs were intended to break up the uniformity of building in the years after World War II.


Monday, November 12, 2007

Pictures of Hamilton

A glimpse at the industrial structures that dominate the sections of Hamilton nearest Lake Ontario. The steel mills give the town much of its character.


Jackin' Jill

Like the dude asked, how're you going to keep 'em down on the farm once they've seen Karl Hungus?

Pam's House Blend has an article about the ''growing crisis of sexual addiction among Christian women''. Oh my! It's fairly striking proof that the Internet has mainstreamed porn to hear that evangelical Christian women are claiming to be addicted to online smut, in fact something like 34 percent of them according to Christian Woman magazine. Online sexual addiction often leads to serious problems like masturbating and... um, napping. Maybe carpal tunnel syndrome.

I don't know how sexual addiction works- it's fairly hard for me to see a biological imperative as an ''addiction'' in the first place. But, I'm guessing that the standards for ''sexual addiction'' are a lot lower among fundamentalists than they are among the rest of us, no? And, indeed Pure Life Ministries, who claim to cure Christian women of sex addiction via a $5,1000 live-in treatment program, consider masturbation to be seriously out of bounds. I don't know how much of a 'crisis' online sex addiction is for some people, but you have to wonder if it's really worth giving up five thousand bucks and half a year of your life to learn how not to diddle yourself.


The Rufus Economic Report

Right now, times are tough for the American economy and some experts are already predicting the "worst recession since the 1930s." Is the prognosis really this gloomy? Your intrepid reporter visited an economic expert... okay, just kidding. My father-in-law is a CFO at Deloitte, which makes him sort of an über-accountant. So, I asked him what the economic future holds, in his professional opinion. Here's what he told me, in paraphrased form. If there's anything here that sounds completely wrong, blame it on my lousy memory, not him.

Basically, the world economy will face the following shortages in the future: oil, natural resources, food, and population. The US is uniquely fortunate in the last regard because the US population is not declining. There is a sort of zero-sum mentality that sees population growth as a strain, but it's also not particularly true. More workers means more production means a stronger economy.

Where the United States has trouble is in the sub-prime housing market and in the high amount of debt that the country has taken on. So, basically national debt and individual debt will make times tight in the near future. However, the weaker dollar is not necessarily a bad thing because the national debt is held in dollars and so is lessened. Also, a weaker dollar will spur American exports. In fact, I've seen just this happening; when I cross the borer into the US now, I often have to wait in a long line of Canadians traveling south of the border to go shopping. So, the weaker dollar is troubling, but not necessarily terrible.

Overall, he said, and this is quoted by memory, "The American economy is the strongest and most dynamic economy in the world, by a long shot. And it’s been one of the most dynamic in the world almost since the founding of the country. So, I wouldn’t place money on the idea that the US economy is going to collapse any time soon." Basically, we should expect tight times, but not catastrophe. So, now you know.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Reading the Turner Diaries (Miserably)

The Turner Diaries is a 1978 fictional work that was adapted for the worldwide television news audience by Timothy McVeigh in a 1995 production of complete theatre of cruelty in Oklahoma City. In this case, the real story was far worse than the fictional; but they both came from a place of psychopathic resentment against the real, the non-fictional. The book has actually served over the years as inspiration for a number of psychopaths and murderers, perhaps rivaling Sayyid Qutb's text Milestones for popularity in the terrorist market.

The book was originally sold at gun shows and through mail order, but is now readily available on the net, where I read it, as well as through a regular publisher. It was written by William Pierce, the leader of a neo-nazi group called the National Alliance. Pierce was a physicist who later became an extremist. I've often wondered why so many terrorists and extremists come from physical science or engineering backgrounds. Pierce described himself as having, ''a turn of mind that leads me to exaggerate and oversimplify things for the sake of better understanding''. This probably served him well as a racist; I have no idea if it helped with physics.

As far as I know, there have been more warnings published about the book than actual reviews. The fact that it's a malignant hate-text is fairly well-documented at this point. And I agree completely. However, what's fascinating to me is that a book that has inspired such violence is so horribly written. This was not a case of good people being seduced by evil; being seduced by this novel would be like falling under the spell of barbecue pit assembly instructions. I suspect that the people who were influenced to kill by The Turner Diaries were ''looking for a sign'' before they read it, and that, if it wasn't this book, it would have been the neighbor's barking dog or a change in the weather that set them off. It wasn't inspiration so much as validation.

So, let's look at the book, shall we?

The prose is colorless, appropriately enough.

Sample ''I am really uptight. I am so jittery I can barely sit still. And I'm exhausted.'' It goes on like this for several pages. As if mixing adjectives with verbs and nouns was a sort of miscegenation. Adjectives are as rare as punchlines here.

The only rhetorical flourish is a tendency towards strange pseudo-historicizing capitalization. So, this is the story of the Organization, which is fighting the System, which is undertaking Gun Raids, manned by Negroes. This stilted Writing gets to be a Nuisance after about five Pages.

The story takes place in the dystopian future of 1991. The government has taken away citizens' guns by the Cohen Act- nice touch, right?- and arrests people for racism. There is a sort of creeping state surveillance, mollified by mass media and consumerism, while affirmative-action is weakening state institutions. Liberalism is making society effeminate when it needs to be tough to survive. For the first chapters, this sounds like typical right-wing boilerplate. Limbaugh does Orwell.

What you soon realize, however, is that the author intends for this to serve as a sort of training manual for racist right revolutionaries, or even a religious text. There are a number of lines like, ''Only by making our beliefs into a living faith which guides us from day to day can we maintain the moral strength to overcome the obstacles and hardships that lie ahead.'' One can imagine Mohammad Atta saying things like this.

Essentially, this is a book about terrorists and how to commit terrorist acts. The main character is an electrician who joins a racist terror organization and begins killing Jewish store owners. This group, the Organization, moves on to bombing the FBI headquarters, and then to acts of sabotage and assassination. Eventually, they take over Southern California, ethnically cleanse the region, and start a nuclear war. Along the way, we learn how to make fertilizer bombs, secret codes, and slit throats. It's like Boy's Adventure Stories for psychotic children.

Except there's no real adventure, and any tension that the book inspires is akin to having a bad case of constipation and tensely waiting for an eventual end to it. In both cases, the end result is much the same. The plot is mechanical and the characters are cogs- Peg A goes into Slot B, and it just goes on and on and on. To call these characters one-dimensional might exaggerate their dimensionality. Eventually, I skipped at least half of the chapters. My Grandfather didn't fight the Nazis so I could let them bore me to death.

Oh, there are attempts at Higher Meaning- we discover that the Organization cannot fail because they are instruments of God in His Grand Design. There is also a love story, although, since the instruments of God are cardboard cut-outs, it's hard to get involved with their romantic issues. Also, the female character is even flimsier than the rest- one gets the feeling that she doesn't really belong in this boy's club- it's not so much a homosexual world as a pre-sexual one. Like Never-Neverland in which all the parents are murdered for attempting to socialize their children.

Eventually, the main character flies a suicide mission into the Pentagon and dies. Then is hailed as a martyr. One is relieved to reach the end. It's grinding to read the thing. Generally, authors have a fascination with people, but this is a book about tactics. All written in the terrorist voice, that strange prose style that narrates acts of shocking violence in a completely dispassionate way. It's not a particularly hateful work, or a particularly loving one; in fact, it has nothing animating it that one might characterize as human emotion at all.

In fact, as with all of these sorts of extremists, one gets the feeling that they wish for nothing grander than to play army men for the rest of their lives without having to include the children who aren't like them. They resent the adult world and all of its strictures, because it's a place that they haven't adjusted to and probably never will. Terrorists are simply the sullen losers who have had their toys taken away by the adults and want a chaotic non-place where they can live out their childish fantasies. They want to bomb the world back into the pre-adolescent age.

Another Sky.


In Flanders Field

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
— John McCrae

Today is Veteran's Day in the United States, and Rememberance Day in Canada. In Canada, you will see a fairly good number of people wearing poppies pinned to their lapels, including me and Claire. As Claire puts it, it's not a matter of being pro or anti-war; it's more a matter of being pro-Grandpa.


Norman Mailer is Dead... and he's Pissed!

In other Orgone news, novelist, pugilist, Reich-enthusiast, and two-fisted tough guy of letters Norman Mailer is dead at 84. I can't say much about Mailer- I've only read The Deer Park, and I thought it was pretty stiff. On the other hand, Mailer fans have generally told me, ''Yeah, The Deer Park is pretty lousy. What you need to read are The Executioner's Song, The Naked and the Dead, or An American Dream.'' I did read some of his later essays, in which he seemed to be fighting with about half of the general population, and a number of essays about his books. But, otherwise, I'm out of the loop.

Anybody read much of Mailer?

Mailer's interview with the Paris Review is here.


Friday, November 09, 2007

Let's Hear it for Drug Companies (seriously)

Incidentally, this psoriasis medicine is working like gangbusters! Within a week, areas that were cracked, swollen, and bleeding for months became more like smooth birth marks. And now those are starting to fade down to little red dots. So, if this continues, the medicine will have worked as well as the doctor promised, but twice as quickly.

Anyway, I hear people complain about something called ''Big Pharma'' quite a lot, and I would agree that the drug companies run a few too many ads in the US (interestingly enough, you rarely see them here in Canada), and maybe charge a bit too much. However, I think it's worth noting that they also undertake some pretty astonishing research, and come up with some very good medicines like Dovonex.


I'm gobsmacked

Um.... holy shit! What else to say? Actually, holy shit pretty much covers it.

The numerous pieces of DNA evidence have now been collected, and tested, and absolutely none of it links the West Memphis Three to the scene of the crime. Anyone who has seen either of the documentaries- Paradise Lost or Paradise Lost 2 - about the three young men, who were convicted of murdering three children in Arkansas in 1993, knows that they leave the viewer with a sinking feeling. You don't finish the films thinking that the three men are necessarily innocent- at least, I didn't. But you leave not really knowing who killed the three kids and that's particularly unnerving, especially as one of the three, Damien Echols, is on death row.

At the time, I thought was that the trial was a joke, that the three defendants were largely railroaded because they fit a ridiculous profile of ''teenage Devil worshippers'' that made sense in the early 90s imagination, and that someone needed to conduct a better trial. However, I wasn't ready to decide they were conclusively innocent, mostly because I'd seen a number of people do that with Mumia Abu Jamal and I think he's guilty as sin. Having read the West Memphis Three website over the years, I've become much more convinced of the young men's innocence as evidence has piled up exonerating them.

And now, DNA testing gives no indication whatsoever that they were ever at the scene of the crime. And, even worse, a hair found under the ropes binding one of the victims belongs to Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of another victim, whose ex-wife has accused him of committing the murders. At this point, I think you'd have to be an idiot to think that the WM3 are guilty.

So, now what?


Wilhelm Reich

There really aren't a lot of people with the distinction of having been officially condemned by the Nazis, the Communists, and the United States government. Somehow the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich pulled off this unfortunate trifecta, having been hounded by the Nazis who burned his books, formally drummed out of the Communist Party, and finally arrested by the US government, who also burned his books. I doubt many of us would want to share these particular accomplishments.

Reich is a controversial figure in the history of psychoanalysis, a field that is itself controversial. As an undergraduate at the University of Vienna, he met Sigmund Freud and soon became a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Association. His early work is most important because he argued for treating the character en tout instead of focusing on individual symptoms. He also developed the concept of character armor and indicated how neurosis could lead to distinct physical symptoms. Incredibly, Reich was one of the first psychoanalysts to study the body language of his patients as well as what they said.

In The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Reich deals with fascism as the result of sexual repression. The book is still worth reading for Reich's perceptive analysis of the erotic content of fascist rituals, costumes, and culture, which prefigure Marcuse's writings on repressive desublimation. After reading Reich's book, it's impossible to watch Triumph of the Will in the same way again.

Reich published the book in 1930 while in Berlin. The Nazis were, understandably, upset, and he fled the country while his books were being burned. At the time, Reich was a Marxist; he believed that sexual repression was at the root of all neuroses and was bourgeois in character. He famously wrote that, ''if you control their genitals, you control the world.'' He fell out with the Communists however because Reich advocated measures such as abortion on demand, free sex ed, and coed housing for sexually-curious adolescents. The Party expelled him in 1933.

He also fell out with Freud, which happened to a number of Freudians. Reich was not a believer in the Death Instinct and believed in adding touching to the talking cure. According to Reich, sexual repression was at the heart of human pathology and possibly made one sick. In the 30s, he was already attempting to measure and quantify the energy of orgasms, and in 1936, he first discussed the idea that there are death-promoting and life-promoting organisms. At this time, he also put forth the idea of primitive life-forms called bions, which are animated by an energy known as Orgone energy.

Orgone energy is central to everything that Reich wrote from this point on, and for non-believers, this is the point at which Reich went off the rails. He literally saw Orgone energy everywhere. It colors the sky, controls the weather, and in humans is the bio-energy that gives life. Reich called it the ''universal life energy''. Charles R. Kelley defined Orgone as ''the creative force in nature'' and compared it to Bergson's ''elan vital''. Supposedly, orgone energy can be easily measured; however, it has so far only been measured by Reichian researchers.

Sickness results from depletion or blockages of orgone energy. To harness this energy, Reich developed a chamber known as the Orgone Accumulator, that one sat in. The Orgone Acculumator is built from alternating layers of ferrous metals, insulators, and wood, and the subject sits inside to harness positive Orgone energy. William S. Burroughs conducted several experiments with an Orgone accumulator and believed that it worked. Albert Einstein did the same and believed that it did not work.

Reich decided that the anti-matter to Orgone Energy was a life-destroying energy called Deadly Orgone Radiation, or DOR. Having relocated to the United States, Reich began experimenting with an instrument called a ''Cloudbuster'' that he believed could cause rain during drought by directing positive Orgone Energry. He also claimed to have done battle with UFOs using a Cloudbuster.

By the 40s, Reich was increasingly paranoid and had insulated himself with a core group of devotees in Rangeley, Maine. At this time, he rewrote his earlier work to include the Orgone and remove any Marxist content as he had become extremely anti-Communist. In 1947, a freelance writer named Mildred Edie Brady wrote an article entitled ''The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich'' for the New Republic arguing that the ''growing Reich cult'' was claiming to cure cancer, which it could not do. In 1948, Reich wrote Listen, Little Man! one of the all-time greatest rants committed to paper.

The Federal Trade Commission got involved and the Food and Drug Administration started considering the Reichian Orgone Accumulators as constituting a large-scale fraud. Reich fought the feds and accused Mildred Edie Brady of being a Stalinist agent. The US Attorney for Maine filed an injunction against Reich, who then failed to appear in court, and so Judge Clifford ordered all published materials that mentioned Orgone be destroyed.

In 1956, Reich was arrested for a technical violation of the injunction when an associate moved some Orgone equipment across state lines. In March. 1957, he was jailed in Danbury State Prison. As has been pointed out, Reich was soon moved however to the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. He died in this penitentiary, of heart failure, on November 3, 1957.
Reich has continued to compel as an example of a persecuted thinker and, perhaps mistakenly, as an advocate of free love. It is possible to visit The Wilhelm Reich Museum in Rangeley, Maine at the former site of his Orgonon retreat. Patti Smith, Kate Bush, Pop Will Eat Itself, and Hawkwind have all written songs inspired by Reich. Robert Anton Wilson wrote a play about him, entitled Wilhelm Reich in Hell. The Yugoslav filmmaker Dušan Makavejev made a classic film about Reich, entitled W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, which is pictured here, in case you were wondering.

While Reich's Orgone ideas seem far-fetched, it's hard today to understand the vehement reaction they provoked. Having found a few articles on Reich in 50s men's magazines, it seems that he was widely perceived as an advocate of free love and ''orgasm boxes''. Similarly, when you read about the investigation against Reich, what you notice is that they seem to focus on the idea that he was taking sexual advantage of women; a sort of concupiscent Cagliostro. Meanwhile, he was widely shunned by the scientific community and considered to be something of a cult leader, although many of the charges against him could also be leveled at any number of psychoanalysts. He was seen as a charlatan, although he clearly believed what he was saying. Ultimately, if he was wrong, he went to jail for it. In the end, it seems that what most enraged the 50s prosecutors was not the idea that he was a con artist or a crank; it was the idea that he was a pervert.