Saturday, January 31, 2009
An important theorist of nationalism, Gellner explains the development of nationalism as a functional response to the Great Transformation from the Agrarian-Literate society, with its High and Low cultures, privileged guilds, and cultural specificity; and Advanced Industrial Society, with its unversal, standardized, context-free communication. This creates a standardized high culture for everyone. Social positions are mobile. Economic growth is based in constant innovation. There is one culture for one state. Gellner sees nationalism as a phase in the transformation; nationalism works to destroy pluralism and then diminishes- it is part of a transitional phase. To create One Culture, people can be changed, they can be killed, they can be moved, or borders can be moved.
''It is nationalism which engenders nations, and not the other way round.''
Gellner differs from Mirolslav Hroch, who he often is associated with, because he doesn't believe that the nation ''really exists'', nor that the transition made was as simple as Feudalism to Capitalism. Also instead of seeing the scholarly work of remembering as central to the formation of a nation, Gellner follows Renan in seeing forgetting as being of equal importance. Gellner also notes the connection to class conflict. As compared to doctrinaire Marxists who see class conflict behind everything, Gellner notes that class conflict only really took off when aided by cultural differences.
Bauer defines natinal character as ''the complex of phyisical and mental characteristics that distinguishes one nation from others...'' It is not an explanation, but something to be explained. It's is not physical, or 'natural', but cultural- the precipitation of a specific history. Capitalism levels people, uprooting them and homogenizing them through popular education, military service, and equal suffrage. It also limits the growth of national communities in order to protect its own privilege. A community of destiny therefore creates the nation, a community of character.
Instead of there being an eternal Volksgeist, Bauer believes that nations are products of history, and built on the sexual and social mingling of different groups. History in that a shared destiny specifies the direction of a shared will. Specifically, the nation is a product of the Great Transformation which produces an industrial society with a solidarity rooted in an abstract, literacy-based culture.
But capitalism also prevents the access of these people into the upper and middle-class created cultures. ''Since the national cultural values are not in the possession of the proletariat, national revolution is not in the proletarian valuation.'' It is therefore socialism's historical task to help them break out of this darkness to Enlightenment. But Buaer doesn't think that socialism will produce flat cosmopolitanism because all nations experience industrial production in similar ways, but not in common. Commonality, linking specific groups together in a 'community of destiny', creates national character. This is cultural and so separate from the State, which it is assumed will wither away. Neither Nation nor State is natural.
Friday, January 30, 2009
With an article published in 1862 in The Home and Foreign Review, the great historian Lord Acton became one of the first thinkers, if not the first, to publically attack nationalism. He did so from a universalist Enlightenment point-of-view; Acton saw the 'nation-state' as residue from the French Revolution ''a variant on the 'modern' tendency to found the state on abstract, speculative, monistic ideas.'' Acton felt that intelligent men had always sought to remove abuses in the conception of an ideal society. This usually happens via religion. The French Revolution, however, ''taught the people to regard their wishes as the sole criterion of rights.'' In such a situation, ''only the attraction of an abstract idea or an ideal state'' can unite people. Three main theories had thus arisen: equality, communism, and nationality; attacking the aristocracy, the middle class, and sovereignty; their prophets, respectively, were Rousseau, Babeuf, and Mazzini.
Acton explains that, in the Old Regime, the rights of nationalities were not considered. But the vicious partition of Poland by the absolutist powers awakened the theory of nationality. The French Revolution was founded on an ideal of the state of nature; not nationality. But in Latin countries, Acton believes that revolution always involves throwing off a foreign power- feudalism was always an import in France. The Revolution meant the elimination of intermediate powers. But it contained the germ of the national idea. Men like Stein and Görres, Humboldt, Müller, and de Maistre would sew the seeds for insistence on national rights. Nationality then suffered its greatest blow at the Congress of Vienna. Metternich's Austria tried to suppress it; meanwhile, it sprung up in Ireland, Greece, Belgium, and Poland. Metternich is important because of the ''anti-national character of the restoration in Austria''.
''Exile is the nursery of nationality, as oppression is the school of liberalism...'' Mazzini's revolution made the Austrians stronger, and more hated, in Italy. The Revolutions of 1848 also meant the triumph of the democratic principle in France. Nationality now animates revolutions. The collective will of the nation becomes tyrannical. Whenever a single definite object becomes the supreme end of the State, it inevitably becomes absolute. Therefore, diversity in the State is a sure barrier against the intrusion of government beyond the political sphere. Moreover, Acton writes, ''The combination of different nations in one State is as necessary a condition of civilized life as the combination of men in society.''
Then there is the ''moral and political country'' that Acton points out is often distinct from the geographical nation, and sometimes collides with it. Nationalities realize their political capacity by uniting in a political nation, and the state recognizes political liberty by recognizing nationality. But making one race commensurate with the State makes all other groups inferior races, without political rights. Subject races are exterminated, outlawed, reduced to servitude, or put in a position of dependence.
Besides, the theory of nationality is a chimera- its goals are impossible to obtain. It marks the logical end- the exhaustion- of revolutionary doctrine. It doesn't aim at liberty or prosperity. It doesn't even allow for change. Its only real value is in putting an end to the absolute monarchy and to the revolution.
We all have some idea of what a nationalist is: that's someone who hasn't done anything right since being born. But, what is nationalism, and where did it come from?
I agree with Eric Hobsbawm's distinction that nationalism is primarily a political program. ''It holds that groups defined as 'nations' have the right to, and therefore ought to, form territorial states of the kind that have become standard since the French Revolution.'' Various ideas of nationality existed before this time- Herder and Montesquieu were influential in terms of theory- but the political program of nationalism really emerges in the nineteenth century. It is a new way of putting forth collective claims, particularly the claim to statehood. It's worth noting that these claims were most successful in crumbling empires, such as the Habsburg and Ottoman.
There are actually two nationalist programs: the first is the claim that an ethnic group is distinct enough to require the formation of its own state; the second is that a particular 'nation-state' needs to somehow free itself of 'foreign influences'.
This gets to the problem with nationalism; while there are ethnicities in an anthropological sense, it does not follow that 'nations' even exist, and certainly not in the ways that they are often characterized by their members. And there are absolutely no states that are ethnically-pure in the modern world.
So, states that are defined by nationality eventually have to limit the political rights of minority ethnic groups: by legislating against those groups, killing them, making them part of the nation, moving them out, or suppressing them. In an evocative passage, Katherine Verdery writes: ''National symbolization includes... the process whereby groups within a society are rendered visible or invisible. For the project of nation-building, nonconforming elements must first be rendered visible, then assimilated or eliminated.''
Or, as Massimo d'Azeglio said after the unification of Italy, ''We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians.''
I spent the morning in the struggle to take Lola to the vet. In the end, victory was mine, but she very nearly outwitted me, and we arrived there thirty minutes late as a result.
Anyway, today I'll be trying to get a handle on the current critical writing about nationalism. I'm not actually studying nationalim in my dissertation; but it might come up in places. Also, it's generally good to know what people in the field are saying about Big Topics, if only so that you have something better to say in conversations with other history people than, ''Nationalism... that's like some... crazy shit, huh?''
I will blog the results.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has gotten together a petition to criticize radio song and dance man Rush Limbaugh, who recently said that he hopes the President fails in his economic programs. They're going to add a provision that he not steal their lunch money or break their glasses. Republicans, in turn, have vowed to keep talking about radio personalities, so that the country doesn't forget they still exist.
The problem seems to be that some Democrats think it's inappropriate to dislike the President and want him to fail; that it's somehow rooting for the downfall of the country. So, for the last time people- 'the President' and 'America' are not coterminous. You can downright hate the President without having the slightest ill will towards the country that hired him. Okay? I've been doing that for the last three decades. So, if Rush Limbaugh hates Obama, that's his right in a democracy. Incidentally, he's also perfecty free to hate America, whether or not that bothers you. Christ, we just got done with eight years of assholes saying that anyone who wasn't thrilled about having Little Lord Fauntleroy as commander in chief was ''anti-American''. So, let's drop the loyalty oaths, okay?
Secondly, enough with the stark choices- either you support X, or you want the country to suffer some great catastrophe. Wasn't that the deal with the Patriot Act? Congress was supposed to sign off on this huge program, without reading it, because the whole world was about to explode! If you don't say yes, you want the terrorists to kill us all! So, now, if you don't say yes, you want the economy to kill us all?
Just a suggestion here: how about people argue about the stimulus plan, negotiate, make changes, drop some things and add others- you know, what happens in a democratic government.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Writing in the New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope decries ''the myth of rampant teenage promiscuity''. A bit less than half of all high school kids haven't had sex, and the percentage is on the decline. Also, there are more virgins and less oral sex among virgins. Lastly, parents just need to understand that kids don't date in the traditional way- they fool around and then they might or might not date. What does this have to do with the ''generation sex'' story I just posted? Well, nothing really. But it adds some perspective.
Writing in the Daily Mail, Olivia Lichtenstein worries about the future of ''generation sex'', and then goes on to describe a wide variety of sexual behaviors that don't really strike me as being sex. 13 year olds film themselves having oral sex to share with others. Empty symbols that become celebrities by appearing nude. Rape and assault posted on Youtube. Claire knows therapists whose clients describe ''rainbow parties''; something I took for an urban legend. There's also a lot of what I'd call oversharing. Lichtenstein writes ''Sometimes, they’re so busy creating drama and tension in the movie of their own lives that they’ve forgotten to be human beings.''
Ah, but one has to learn to be a human being, usually from parents or other authority figures. Lichtenstein vacilates on the question of parental influence, sort of thinking it would be a good thing; but, only if we don't come across as Mary Whitehouse. In response, the comments section features a cross-section of angry Americans who blame vaguely-defined ''liberals'' for killing Christ, and say we need a return to ''shame''. The answer's always more cops, isn't it?
What's striking to me in a lot of these stories about teenage libertines isn't that they're having sex at age 14- historically, that was the norm. What's strange really isn't the sex; it's the utter lack of affect. There's an inability to see others as fully human, as different than images on a screen, that strikes me as bizarre. It's dissociative- narcissism taken the point of being a personality disorder. Relationships with others are instrumentalized. I also disagree with the idealized notion that mysogynistic boys are inflicting empty sex on girls, who are taken for natural born romantics. I'd say there's a pretty even distribution of pathology. Lastly, even the prevalence of emotionless hook ups doesn't strike me as the problem. There's something to be said for meaningless sex. But the inability to also have meaningful relationships when they're called for is what strikes me as the pathology.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Okay, so we're all sort of adjusting to the fact that the "radical chic" President Barack Obama is really kind of... well, a square. Writing in the Guardian, Gabriel Paquette argues that he's "also the embodiment of conservatism." Before we make any lazy jokes about "conservatism" to a European meaning only lukewarm support of the Baader-Meinhoff Gang, it's worth reading what he writes here. It's fairly easy to argue that the last President was not a conservative in any traditional sense, and I think there might be an aspect of restoring tradition to this Presidency just by necessity. Anyway, it's food for thought.
Monday, January 26, 2009
I've been wondering aloud on this blog since, oh, well since Hector was a pup, what would be a good working definition of cultures. The reason for this is that I have a sense when discussing cultures throughout history that I'm not talking about anything I can really relate to. There's not really an American culture or a Western culture anymore, at least not in the sense that we talk about the 'Roman culture' or 'Greek culture' or 'the culture of Medieval Christiandom'. So what is a culture?
Let's see if this works as a definition:
A culture is a symbol system [i.e.- stories, art, literature, language, dance, music, etc.] that explains to a group of people how they relate to the world [i.e.- explains life, death, love, God, the afterlife, where each individual belongs, and how they should structure their life- in other words, it mediates their existence in the world] in order to protect them [psychologically].
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Steven Landsburg is worried about the ''Brave New Deal'' being proposed to save us from the econolypse...
''In the long run we have nothing to fear but fear itself--and the rush to poor judgment that is the spawn of fear. Poor judgment makes people say things like "Hey! This new guy in town seems likable and right-minded. Let's give him everything he's asking for so he can take care of us." We've been down that road before. I'm hoping for some change I can believe in.''Amen. I'm really starting to wonder about this economic ''crisis''. It seems to me that it really amounts to a wildly overinflated standard of living and all-too-easy access to credit being deflated after a painful run-in with reality. But, so what! What we're seeing now is possibly just what happens with bubbles- they pop. Life returns to normal. Markets go up; markets go down. I do think Landsburg is way too optimistic about the endless march of GDP into the heavens- step with us now, into the future! But, again, so what! Is it crazy to think that maybe the world's economies are just going to reach a more reality-based level of liquidity, GDP, standard of living, etc. and that what's crazy is acting like that's a catastrophe?
Claire and I just got back from the local Book-Related Superstore, Indigo, a bookstore for people who really don't like to read. It's an odd place- packed 'from the ceiling to the floor' with scented candles, and lifestyle magazines, and titles in the ''for dummies'' series- which are written ''for the rest of us'', a cookie kiosk, Starbucks, and so forth. There are some rows of actual books there, but never anything too challenging; look, Poindexter, if you want to read your 'Kant for Nerds', or whatever it is, you can just take your snooty ass to some pretentious 'book nook', and leave 'the rest of us' alone to drink our chi tea, read He's Just Not That Into You, and bask in the warm, scented glow of high self-regard.
What's amazing to me about these places is that they are built on the assumption that you can actually sell books in bulk to a public that reads less and less each year. I imagine them filling the store via mechanical pallet trucks from a massive pyramid of books in the back. The unsold ones would be thrown in some massive furnace from Metropolis. Atop all of this would be some sort of robot king.
What's even weirder is the sense I get that publishers are putting out entirely too many books. Reading an article in the latest Vanity Fair about the ''winners and losers'' in the last election, it sounded like every single ''winner'' had a huge book deal. Sarah Silverman? Paid a ''huge advance'' to write about her, you know, critical role in the election. Some guy who crunches statistical data on his blog? $700,000 advance, for a book that five lucky people will truly cherish. Joe the Plumber? Another huge advance for a book that will likely have the cultural staying power of the collected wit and wisdom of the ''Where's the beef?'' lady. You don't have to be a wall street genius to think that publishers don't have the best business model here.
It seems to me that the publishing world is willing to throw huge amounts of money at anyone who has achieved any sort of ''buzz'' in any other field in a desperate attempt to draw new readers to a dying medium; this instead of trimming their sails and only publishing books that actually have literary merit and building a reputation for cultural authority. In other words, like everything else in the current culture, it's a matter of faddish celebrity over actual cultural weight.
Am I nuts for thinking that, if publishers continue this way, places like Indigo will be selling nothing but scented candles and mawkish baubles, and no books whatsoever, in ten years time?
Saturday, January 24, 2009
As you know, the French criminal underworld is different. You know you're in a bad neighborhood in France because there are young hoods hanging out on the street in last year's fashions. And, if you're on a block without any pâtisseries, run! And then there's the seediest part of the French crime syndicate- underground poodle fights. In some neighborhoods, many a basement is nearly filled with bloody clumps of billowing, cottony white fur. In some of them, it looks like Bea Arthur's head exploded.
One standout in terms of French crime was Jacques Mesrine, a voyou whose career puts most other criminals in the shade. After a stint in the French Army in the Algerian War, he turned to crime. He was first arrested in France in 1962 before a major bank robbery, released, worked briefly, then arrested in Spain for robbery, and released. He tried to open a restaurant in the Canary Islands, but soon turned to robbing hotels. He then fled to Canada, where he tried kidnapping, failed at that, and then fled to the US, where he was arrested and sent back to Canada. He then broke out of prison and started robbing banks in Montreal. He also killed some park rangers there. I should also note that, for all these failures, he succeeded in an impressive number of robberies, and actually prefered to rob two banks per day.
Mesrine fled to Venezuela in 1972, and then to Canada, and then back to France in the same year, where he returned to robbing banks. In 1973, he was arrested, but fled the court during sentencing, taking a judge hostage. He was finally arrested in 1974, and had time to write an autobiography, L'Instinct de Mort, before escaping jail in 1978. After he kidnapped the millionaire Henri Lelièvre, collecting 6 million francs, Mesrine became Public Enemy No. 1, and lived in hiding, while still finding time to give interviews to the press. Finally, in Nov. 1979, the police killed him at the Porte de Clignancourt outside of Paris, firing something like 19 rounds through his windshield.
If all of this sounds like it should be a movie, it's been released last year as two movies: Mesrine 1: L'instinct de mort and Mesrine 2: L'Ennemi public n°1. Here's the site, and you'll notice that the films look like a French version of a Scorcese epic. Also, it looks really good. Anyway, the César 2009 nominations have come out recently. The Césars are just like the Oscars, although the statue, you'll notice here, looks like a gold-plated turd. Anyway, this year the most honored film, in terms of nominations, is the 2-part Mesrine biopic. So, old Jacques might just pull off one last heist.
Emily Rems points us towards this compulsively-watchable site- Europa Film Treasures. The site aims at preserving and exhibiting some of the great silent films and shorts created around the world, and now stored in prestigious archives, in the interest of celebrating our collective cultural patrimony. Cultural patrimony is one of those buzzwords in Europe- I've no idea why it isn't in North America.
The films are remarkably entertaining. For instance, this 1907 Italian short is just beautiful; watch it in full-screen. Here's a 1937 French art deco cartoon that looks like what GE must dream at night. This 1948 American film of a nearly-nude woman reclining and drinking a coke is like surreal subliminal advertising by David Lynch. Here's a 1907 French short that shows the clever 'special effects' of the era. Here, you sense the ''wonder'' of early cinema that people talk about.
Anyway, you get the idea- one could watch this stuff all day.
Friday, January 23, 2009
On the other hand... it's manipulative as all hell.
I find myself concerned and annoyed to think that someone wants antlers in a vase to be the next hip decorating style. It's irksome to think that trends are created by seemingly innocuous photographs in advertisements. It's especially annoying to think something at ignorant as trophy hunting is being pushed this way. (I say trophy hunting because, although many people eat elk after they've hunted it,and I think the big antlers are elk antlers, the antlers in the back are from an oryx or something. Exotic big game hunting is usually more about the trophy and less about the steaks and leather.)
But it does make me laugh to think that there are people out there with antlers scattered around the house, who will now suddenly realize that if they just had an enormous vase to put them in, all would be right with the world.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
An of-the-moment documentary is going around the Internet, entitled something like How Obama Won the Election, and it features interviews with average people whose minds were largely created in a media environment talking about what they know about the man who is now President. The punchline is that they know very little about the man himself- the image is the thing. So the film could be called You Didn't Vote for Our Guy Because You're Stupid! And, naturally, in the resentment-drome of the Internet, this video is quite the thing.
Now a secondary punchline to this cri du coeur is that it was produced by people whose minds were also created in the media environment- in fact, by a talk radio host who responds to Obama in much the same way that old timey entertainers once responded to Elvis- it's the cheek of the thing that bothers him. And, so the truths that he thinks these interview subjects should have affixed to Obama the Avatar are just as shallow and trivial as the things they know! They are supposed to pick up on buzzwords like: friend to terrorists, corrupt real estate deals, closet radical, socialist, and so forth; as opposed to the buzzwords that they have picked up on: Hope, Change, Leader, etc. In other words, this is one television demographic criticizing another television demographic for choosing Pepsi over Coke.
The Elvis example actually works well here because Obama the Avatar is completely misunderstood by baby boomers generally, and conservative talk show hosts specifically. They attack the image by refering to memories of their own youth- Black Panthers, Weather Underground, and so forth, that people my age find as emotionally engaging as The Byrds. Oddly, enough though, Obama is referring to a more retro archetype than any from the 1960s.
In fact, I finally placed the archetype- forget the Black Panther nonsense; he's playing Jimmy Stewart. That has nothing to do with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington- a fine film, by the way. What I'm talking about is the image of masculinity that Jimmy Stewart represented. It's very much a 1950s, post-war model of masculinity- power without overt presentation. Quiet power.
People think of Jimmy Stewart as sort of corny nowadays, but what you spot- and I think Hitchcock spotted it- when you watch his dramatic roles, is that Jimmy Stewart represented a very American sort of power that never announces itself. It's more yeoman farmer than commando. The great George W.S. Trow describes Stewart's reference to, ''this kind of straightforward, brave man with enormous power, in a way, wherever he went, whether he was a hospital administrator, or a doctor... or a man on Wall Street- these American men educated in the liberal arts, but not very deeply, securely lodged in an American success construct, which they perfectly understood and moved forward in with considerable confidence...'' Well, that's it.
Understand here that I am speaking of this as an archetype, not taking into consideration what sort of person Obama is in reality. I'm not saying that the man is brave or straightforward- just that this is what he's evoking. What the documentary people don't get is that Obama presents himself as the Jimmy Stewart archetype, the 1950s school principal, the masculinity of these figures who moved in a matrix that was designed to protect them. Power that never announces itself. Remember that these men lived in a society that valorized well, men, and industrial production; both of which were reaching a sort of historical peak.
I was curious to see if anyone else had made the rather-obvious connection, so I did what you do now- I googled 'Barack Obama' and 'Jimmy Stewart'. The only thing that came up was great though- a story about Obama's favorite actors: Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon and Angela Bassett. Notice that all of the men were actors who peaked before the 1960s. Susan Sarandon is perhaps the closest we come to Spencer Tracy these days. But, the important thing here is that Mr. Obama is, perhaps unconsciously- although that's hard to believe- evoking these quietly powerful male actors whose dominance peaked before the Baby Boom.
And I think that's the rub of it- he's a figure that evokes Eisenhower's America. There's a real sense among people my age that the Baby Boomers were essentially rudderless- they appear bristling, historyless, unsure of themselves, ironic, and cynical. We have a feeling that the 1950s, which most of us have heard were 'conformist', 'racist', 'sexist' and so forth from Baby Boomers, had something to them that wasn't worth getting rid of. Especially since we turned out to be just as bristling, historiless, rudderless, decontextualized, ironic, and cynical as the 1960s generation.
But as far as masculinity goes, we have this choice between insecure milquetoasts like Al Gore and big babies like George Bush, and sense that something was left behind. In films, the choice is the same- between little boys like Leonardo Dicaprio and wounded homosexual brutes like Vin Diesel- it's no choice at all. Masculinity is taken as something to apologize for, or something to camp up like a George Bush or John McCain pretending to be Rambo- another lost boy character.
The Avatar Obama is an image of non-tragic masculinity, a masculinity that is not self-consciously masculine. The zeitgeist at his back is an attempt to flush the last four cultural decades down the toilet and return to Eisenhower's America. Most of us are Big Babies and fairly sick of ourselves. Jimmy Stewart never seemed to think of such trivial things.
Holger Pooten's web gallery mixes personal and advertising shots to show you a variety of fascinations blended together, with very little commentary. No titles, no statements with the pics. In no particular order, I believe his interests to be: women in their undies, speed, airborne things, breaking things, clarity, the human form, bodily functions, fashion, and what's on the inside of things.
Click to go see the gallery at holgerpooten.com
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
A humanitarian crisis in the United States? Apparently so. The village of Emmonak in Alaska had a bad year, between a spike in the local cost of heating fuel, an unusually cold winter, and a sudden drop in their fisheries- and given what's happened to cod, I'd be skeptical that things are going to improve any time soon. Actually, I think they might want to consider relocating.
Right now, they're cold and starving. Here are the food items they need. You'll notice that it's really just the basics. If anyone out there is feeling all ''servicey'' after all the talk about hard work and giving back to the community at Obamastock yesterday, here is definitely your chance to give.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
One thing occurred to me today, while watching the inauguration with a crowd of students in the hall of our University. Here's the President's oath of office:
"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
For the last few years, I've heard many people, incorrectly, claim that the President swears to protect the American people or to protect the country in his oath of office. He doesn't; he swears to protect the Constitution. I think that part of the oath is actually very shrewd. Our ancestors knew what they were doing. Now, let's make sure the new President actually fulfulls his oath.
I've been enjoying all of the Obama memorabilia that people are now selling. I'm not really sure what to call it- ''Obamanna'' ''Obama-anna'' Barack-kitsch If you've ever been to D.C. you'll find that they sell this junk on every other street corner no matter what the political event or public figure. I might still have the Michael Jordan Incense I bought a few years back.
So far my favorite is this item, a commemorative dildo, the ''Head-O-State''. They come in blue and gold, for some reason, and will soon be entering oval orifices nationwide.
Monday, January 19, 2009
For many years I have wondered "why are people so excited by diamonds?" since excepting the really big blue ones, they are the least interesting looking gem stone. I have always thought of de Beers as a criminal cartel and their business practices as nothing more than hydraulic despotism with a fictitious need. Dark Roasted Blend recently linked to this rather fascinating Atlantic article from 1982 which covers the subject in some detail and is definitely a worthwhile read.
For completeness, I feel compelled to include this short related Family Guy clip.
I’ve been meaning to write about this Theodore Dalrymple article on J.G. Ballard’s novels for some time now. I like Dalrymple quite a bit, and in general, I think he gets Ballard right. His point is that Ballard offers a lot to conservatives in understanding the breakdown of modern society, while not being a conservative himself. I think that’s right, but that it illustrates the limitations of terms like "liberal" and "conservative".
The problem with using these terms when dealing with culture is that they seem to be arbitrarily assigned. Certainly, if you live in contemporary urban centers, it’s not hard to be somewhat dismayed by trends within the larger culture; by things such as: widespread vandalism, crime and criminality, compulsive profanity and a constant undertone of violence to much discourse, multiple quasi-legal predatory businesses and outright scams, child abuse and neglect, a certain mainstreamed misogyny, pathological drug and alcohol abuse, the bizarre sexualizing of children, an inability to decouple sex and violence, and what Ballard has referred to as "the death of affect" in mass society. What’s not clear is why liberals or progressives shouldn’t have a problem with these things. The general coarsening of culture is worrying, not just because it’s unpleasant, but because it makes greater violence more likely.
Ballard's point has often been that all the things I listed are now just as prevalent, if not more so, in the sububrs and rich enclaves. Ballard writes- ''The suburbs dream of violence''. Dalrymple writes- ''He is suggesting that, absent a transcendent purpose, material affluence is not sufficient—and may lead to boredom, perversity, and self-destruction.'' And so, what we can expect in the future is not necessarily more violence, but more random and meaningless violence, and no real escape from violence. It’s not clear to me though why acknowledging these things is particularly ''conservative''.
Okay, now, please read the article and report back here when you’re done, so we can discuss it.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
His paintings look like they come from the coolest, scariest Natural History Museum in the world, and indeed Alexis Rockman works with scientific experts in researching them. But they're quite a bit more clever and surreal than the usual Smithsonian fare. Like nature itself, the paintings can be ugly and lewd in places, while still teeming with beauty.
Rockman's work seems a bit more pointed as of late- concerned a bit more with environmental devastation than his older works, with their visionary waves of organic life. His recent piece Manifest Destiny is a frankly terrifying cityscape tableau noyant; like Bruegel meets global warming. But his draftsmanship and skill are everpresent.
This is a pretty interesting idea- Kiva is a website that allows you to make loans, of small amounts if you like, to specific entrepreneurs in the developing world. This is the first person-to-person microlending website in the world, and it seems to be fairly popular. The way it works is that you scan the profiles and find one that seems interesting to you- for example, Zrawarshah Khan, a farmer in Afghanistan- and then pledge a certain amount, using Paypal, debt or credit. The organization works through local microfinance partners, who seem to distribute the money something like a small business loan; they provide some assistance, and there is a repayment schedule. Also, as this is a U.S. 501(c)3 non-profit organization, I'd imagine that loans are tax-deductable. What's interesting to me is that the system is totally transparent- you can see who needs what, who lent to them, and how much they have repaid. It's interesting to me that so many loans go to Samoa, although that might have to do with the local aid organizations. And I'd have to actually try it out to know how quickly all of this works, or how effectively; but it definitely strikes me as a very clever idea.
Garrett Leather is the world's largest, individually-owned, distributor of Italian uphostery leather. Located in Western New York, they service a number of industries, including hotels, airlines, automotive interiors, and home upholstery. Their client list includes Bill Clinton, Harrison Ford, Four Seasons Hotels, and wizard shoes for Harry Potter. I also found their glossary interesting- the right term for old leather is ''distressed'' or ''antiqued''.
Garrett Leather has a nice location in Buffalo, and seems to be thriving despite the national recession and the neverending recession in Western New York. They recently recieved a prestigious contract with the GSA.
Their website is here.
Friday, January 16, 2009
Three maladroit voyous kidnap an innocent nymph to extort money from her father, the well-off manager of a jewlery shop, only to find out that he's not willing to pay for her return. The Candy Snatchers has all the grimy, sleazy, criminality typical of 70's grindhouse cinema; underlined with a certain caustic black humor that elevates it slightly above other drive-in epics. It reminded me of a Coen brothers film in that it centers on a crime and nearly every character is cluelessly corrupt. I suspect its cult status comes from the weird humor and downbeat tone.
I should note that the film itself is nowhere in the same league as the Coen brothers' movies. Gordon Trueblood directed for television; this was his only film, and for the most part, the direction is flavorless. The filmmakers did make good use of limited locations to give the film a claustrophobic feel. Mostly though The Candy Snatchers is notable for its persistent sleazy undertone and its [somewhat heavy-handed] message that money can make people do horrible things.
Rufus can tell you that I am a big fan of volunteering. I like that feeling of giving back and all that, but I find I meet some of the neatest people in doing so. Also, the experiences I've had volunteering in my life have not only helped contribute greatly to my present set of professional skills, but have actually led me to be where I am today.
So it should come as absolutely no surprise that I fell in love with this idea. The reason it works is simple, and I'll draw a quick scenario. R and I don't have tons of money to buy nice art for our house, but we both loooove art, all kinds of art, we want to fill our house with interesting things. They don't need to be expensive, but for now, art is not generally a priority purchase here. This set up gives us the opportunity to do three things:
1) do something great for our community that we will both enjoy and be proud of--more valuable than throwing down cash.
2) perhaps choose a charity that is in our field that will help us build professional skills (or not! whatever!)
3) at the end of the year, collect the art we chose and be able to hang it and be reminded of our positive experience, without ever spending a dime.
There are no losers in this arrangement. The artists win, the organizations win, and so do the participants.
This, is so cool.
A young woman in a lousy relationship, working at a French circus, gets impregnated by a strange life-form and ends up carrying a monster who commands her to kill men and drink their blood by communicating with her telepathically from within her womb. In some sense, pregnancy involves a parasitic being controlling its host from within; and the film takes this idea to its Cronenbergian extreme. The fetus turns its mother into a killing machine in order to satisfy its strange cravings; probably worse than late-night pickle and ice-cream binges.
All of this is as loopy as it might sound; after all, the fetus-monster isn't an alien, but a primordial aquatic squid-thing that wants to return to the ocean. Also, the girl seems to be able to kill and mutilate men across France with relative impunity. And every time she tries to escape the predicament by killing herself, the fetus just revives her body.
Luckily, the filmmakers treat this material with the right amount of humor, turning the final reel into something like a particularly bloody Road Runner cartoon. Not surprisingly, the film became something of a cult classic in France, and was recently sequalized with a film called Lady Blood that I will no doubt wind up seeing at some point.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
"Taking nude pictures of yourself, nothing good can come out of it," -so says police Capt. George Seranko of Greensburg, Pennsylvania; a man who clearly has very little life experience.
Three teenaged girls in the town, who took nude pictures of themselves with their cell phones, and the three teenaged boys who recieved those pictures are now being charged with child pornography. So, clearly, 'you show me yours and I'll show you mine' is now a serious criminal offense that requires the law ruining some dumb kid's life.
I assume that most people are opposed to actual child pornography. But using the law as a hammer in search of a nail just produces these situations in which the punishment is far worse than the crime. Branding the kids as sex offenders? And, why would the school officials that confiscated these kids' cell phones go directly to the police instead of calling in the students and their parents to raise their concerns?
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
In an amusing online tirade, an anonymous Parisian says, ''J’abandonne mon téléphone portable'' and explains why. I also got rid of my cell phone; not for any idealistic reasons, but because I never really used the thing. However, having gotten my fill of clueless young people obliviously blabbing on their cell phones in public places, I am in support of anyone who wants to get rid of theirs.
I keep hearing about this video in which Sarah Palin says that the press was harder on her than it has been on Caroline Kennedy due to ''class bias''. A few things:
1. I find Palin excruciatingly boring, which is why I didn't write about her during the election. Some people love her; some people hate her; I just don't care one way or the other. I will listen to this interview at some point in the future, perhaps in lieu of anaesthesia before a root canal.
2. Secondly, I can't say if the media is too soft on Caroline Kennedy, or if they were too hard on Sarah Palin, because I would frankly rather watch leprosy-related pornography than any of the news programs.
3. However, I'm willing to bet that Governor Mooseburger is dead right on this one. We've talked here before about how vacuous journalism, particularly cable journalism, has become. There's a reason for this. In the old days, a journalist was essentially an outsider with a relatively antagonistic relationship with those in power. Now we have a situation in which Washington politicians and journalists run in the same packs. They go to the same bars, take their kids to the same schools, and generally come from the same socio-economic group. They pal around. Journalists are now insiders, which is why so much journalism reads like celebrity puff pieces, or what you might have once read in Pravda.
4. It's likely that Palin was an outsider in that world and so didn't get the usual sucking-up, which she apparently expected.
5. Liberals complain about a ''sycophantic corporate'' media; conservatives complain about the ''elitist liberal media''; ultimately, they're talking about the same thing. I think they would prefer something like what you have in a banana republic, in which the party props up a pretty face and has them go through a series of correographed photo ops. I'd imagine that's what Palin would have prefered to ''media scrutiny''.
6. Sadly for Democrats and Republicans, the United States is a democracy, in which we need the press to rake people like Sarah Palin and Caroline Kennedy- and remember that it's New York that is having this empty shell of a carpetbagger thrust upon us- over the coals. They need to grill public officials- all of them, because none of us proles can do it for them. This tendency of the press to treat politicians like celebrities, until the public complains loud enough, is not helping their dying industry.
I tell ya'- it's a bunch of savages in this town. Someone stole our snow shovels. It would be upsetting, if it wasn't somehow funny. I have an image of a mangy dude running down the street with a snow shovel and diving into a runaway van.
See, in southern Ontario, we shovel a lot of snow. And so, most people keep their snow shovels on the front porch. Alas, this did not work for me and Claire, who woke up a few days ago to find our shovels missing. I think I screamed, ''My shovels! My beautiful shovels!'' So, we had to go to Canadian Tire and buy some replacements, which are now stored in the basement.
I guess there's some drug addict selling our snow shovels in a dark alley somewhere in Hamilton. Our neighbor tells us that there used to be a guy roaming around Hamilton stealing lawn ornaments. So, clearly, our town has a theif who cares very much about the appearance of his front lawn- the Home and Garden Bandit.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Nope, Florida is still the mental nadir of America, it seems...
''The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office says a heavyset man with a visible potbelly and a ninja costume unsuccessfully tried to steal two different ATMs over the past two weeks.''
''… one has many layers, many levels of experience going on at the same time. On one level one might have the world of public events, Cape Kennedy, Vietnam, political life, on another level the immediate personal environment, the rooms we occupy, the postures we assume. On a third level, the inner world of the mind. All these levels are, as far as I can see them, equally fictional, and it is where these levels interact that one gets the only kind of valid reality that in fact exists nowadays.''
-J.G. Ballard, describing better than I could something I've tried to describe here.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
1. As far as I could tell, the film was historically accurate. It would be instructive to compare Milk to the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk.
2. A bit unique for a biopic film, there is nothing about Milk's childhood- the film begins on the eve of his 40th birthday. I liked this because the obligatory childhood scenes in these films often strike me as unnecessary. Milk's time in the Navy and previous political work- for Barry Goldwater- might have been interesting though.
3. The film actually begins with footage of a gay bar being raided in the 1950s. One of the interesting things about Milk is the way that Van Sant weaves together staged footage and documentary footage. In the end, I would have to listen to the DVD commentary track to know if this sequence was staged or not. It's an interesting reminder of a time when homosexuality was most often defined by agents of the state- vice squads and judges.
4. Remembering this, Milk's early Republicanism makes sense- he wanted the state out of people's private lives. Remember this was also before the rise of the Religious Right and the decision by some Republicans that having the state regulate private relationships isn't such a bad thing. To put it bluntly, civil libertarians and the religious right have almost nothing in common, aside from often voting for the same guy. Milk ran for office as a Democrat.
5. Good for the filmmakers for noting that Ronald Reagan- citing the threat to civil liberties- opposed the Briggs Initiative- Proposition 6- which would have fired any teacher who was gay, or who supported homosexuals.
6. One historical error- Milk wasn't the first openly gay elected official in the United States. I believe he was the third.
7. But, Harvey Milk ran as part of a gay rights movement, something that would have been impossible before Stonewall. And it's amazing that it took him three tries to win election as city supervisor, considering that he was running in San Francisco and in the Castro.
8. The film is best at showing just how much has changed since the late 70s. I sometimes joke that, when I was a kid, nobody was gay. But it's amazing to think how little gay visibility there was as recently as the 1980s. There is an entire aesthetics of passing that we catch glimpses of in the film, and which has become archaic.
9. The film, then, is about the birth of the gay rights movement in tandem with- and in a sort of dialectical call and response with the rise of the religious right. It's hard to remember a time in which Christian fundamentalists didn't have the political power they gained with Reagan's election; nor is it easy to remember a time in which next to nobody was openly gay. In some sense, neither development would be possible without the other.
10. And the film is also about the crippling psychological toll of living in the closet. When Milk notes that the majority of his lovers have attempted suicide, it's a painful reminder that, for many gays of that era, not living was less painful than living as a homosexual in a heterosexual society. The gay teens who contact Milk to thank him for saving their lives are also startling.
11. I think many people will watch the film and look at the success of Proposition 8 in California, and feel that gays are fighting the same struggles over and over. How many times will gays have to explain to straights that their objective is not to seduce children? When will society finally be enlightened? It seems so obvious- gay people exist; get over it.
Yet, ultimately, people are never going to be purely rational or 'enlightened'. All of us will, at one or many times in our lives, believe something that is untrue, even ridiculously so. Education isa life-long undertaking. So the progressive enlightenment of society- a goal in democratic societies since the French, Haitian, and American Revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century- will never be fully accomplished. It's an ongoing concern.
What the film is best at showing is that, in order to change things in a democratic society, it's necessary to get out in the streets and convince others of the rightness of your cause. What's amazing about the film is that it shows that, in many ways, Harvey Milk was just a typical politician; but that being a typical politician can be a humanist enterprise.
Thursday, January 08, 2009
De Castro Sisters at Harrah's Stateline Lounge, 1964
Originally uploaded by Roadsidepictures
You can hear the De Castro sisters here...
"They see each other at Chuck E. Cheese, and before you know it an argument turns into something physical."
-A police officer quoted in this article- perhaps the best article ever written- on increased incidents of violence between adults at a Chuck E. Cheese restaraunt in central Pennsylvania.
I believe that I can stop reading now, forever.
“My grandmother always said: ‘God has a plan for all of us.’ I should have went along with his, not mine, my plan sucked.”
-Mickey Rourke, who is having something of a revival over his starring role in the forthcoming film The Wrestler. It's good news- he's always been a good actor in my opinion. Barfly is still one of my favorite movies. But, Rourke left acting at his height to become a boxer, which didn't work out; and hasn't done as much lately.
Greg: wow CNN is shit
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Sunday, January 04, 2009
Everyone else seems to understand the conflict between Israel and Palestine better than I do. It must be nice.
Some people are very angry at Israel. They say the bombing and this invasion were unprovoked acts of aggression by Israel aimed at crushing the Palestinian people. Some talk of ''genocide''.
And yet, Hamas has been firing rockets at Israel for some time, which strikes me as a tad provocative. My friends who support Palestine unconditionally seem to ignore that fact. Why? Doesn't it matter? And all the suicide bombings. Are the Israeli civilians who are targeted less deserving of peace and security for some reason? What could justify killing children?
Don't the Palestinians recognize Israelis as human beings?
And if you fire rockets at civilians in a country with a very strong military, you have to know that you're endangering their people and your own. Was Hamas hoping for a massive military response to turn public opinion against Israel? If so, aren't they part of the problem here?
I have friends who say that we outsiders can't comment on the democratically-elected party in Gaza. But, can we point out that Hamas has made no bones about the fact that they see the deaths of Palestinians as a propaganda victory, if not a military victory? It seems to me that they're hoping to either kill Israelis, or that Israelis will kill Palestinians. Imagine a party getting elected in the United States that saw the deaths of American civilians as beneficial for ''swaying world opinion'' and welcomed those deaths. Can we at least say that Palestine could do better than Hamas? How about saying that, if Israel is committing crimes against the humanity of Palestinians, Hamas is their willing accomplice in those crimes?
Now, other people are very angry with Palestine. They argue that Israel's response has not only been ''proportionate'', but has not gone far enough. They often say things like ''force is the only thing that Arabs understand''. However the theory that using force against Arabs will make them bend to your will must surely have been disproven in the last century, right?
Also, why are Palestinians, as human beings, undeserving of peace and security too? Is the assumption on the part of Arab warmongers that Jews are not entirely human; and on the part of Western warmongers that Muslims are not entirely human? Don't human beings ultimately 'understand' motivatiors other than force?
If I was going to play therapist, I'd imagine that those in the ''kill 'em all'' camps, on either side, are lumping all Palestinians, Israelis Muslims, or Jews together because it's simply painful to see children getting blown apart in schools, or neighborhoods, or riding the bus by explosives. It's senseless, and inhumane, and stupid, whether or not it was provoked. And even if you're detonating those bombs, this must be evident.
And, by now, hasn't everyone in the Middle East been provoked? Doesn't everyone have a legitimate grievance of some sort? Will anyone ever be provoked to forgiveness, or is that something that has to be self-generated?
Also, given that Hamas is firing rockets at Israel, those rockets seem to be nothing like what Israel has responded with. So how does this action provoke this response? Has this sort of massive firepower overkill ever worked against entrenched guerrilla fighters anywhere in history? Doesn't Israel care at all about world opinion, which is quite opposed to their response? What could this sort of aggressive response possibly gain them? It won't help the situation in Gaza, in Israel, or in the rest of the world. Hamas might lose, but Israel can't possibly win.
Don't Israelis recognize Palestinians as human beings?
So, as a complete naif in this conflict, it seems to me that you have two groups of people that have suffered great historical wrongs who are living right next to each other. Both of them want and deserve security and peace. Both of them are living in miserable, terrifying circumstances. Most importantly, they are both made up of human beings- full human beings- who have nothing to gain by this sort of life and nothing to learn from being bombed or shot. Sadly though, both of them have cultures that have been seemingly hijacked by a minority of bloodthirsty warmongers, which they need to rid themselves of before they can live together.
Good luck taking sides on that one.
Postscript: Actually, okay, here is who I could side with on this conflict- if there was a group called 'Jews for Palestine' and another group called 'Muslims for Israel', I'd join both of them.
Well, I certainly don't think they belong in a poubelle, but Vera and Barbara Ann Duffy wrassle as 'The Poubelle Twins', the terrors of Paris. They have calendars, music, short films, etc. And they've even travelled to Tijuana to wrestle in the rings of Mexico. All of these activities are cooler than anything I'm doing.
Saturday, January 03, 2009
Man, am I always behind the curve, or what? It seems like I hear about the best shit ten years later than everyone else.
Anyway, it was just today that I heard of Mulatu Astatke and his 'Ethio-jazz'. So, I've been listening to whatever I could find of the man and, damn if his music doesn't burn like the heat of a thousand suns. Yep, another rekkid to put in the ''whenever I get some damn money'' ledger.
Mulatu Astatke music on Youtube:
For sale- along with a huge amount of interesting music by other artists- here.
Governors of five US states are asking the federal government for $1 trillion in aid for education, welfare and infrastructure. One of these states is New York, and I can see what is meant by ''infrastructure'' since I spend a bit of time driving through New York terrified that a chunk of crumbling overpass is going to fall on my car.
However, allow me to sputter- $1 trillion?! Holy sexy Moses! Do you have any idea how much money that is? Supporters of the aid- or 'loyal Democrats'- are going to say that it's only about 3.5 percent of the economy; after World War II, the government ran up a debt that went over 50 percent and, if I'm not mistaken, might have been more than the entire economy at a few points, with the result that the 50s weren't bad. And yet, the federal debt was nothing remotely close to $10.6 trillion at that time.
So it's pretty ballsy to ask for this money when the federal debt is already $10.6 trillion- higher than it's ever been before [thanks, by the way, to Bush spending like a drunken sailor, and ''conservatives'' and ''libertarians'' deciding they're just fine with that so long as it's a Republican robbing the till]- and the recession is expected to contract the economy by, you guessed it, about $3 trillion next year alone. How does this sort of make-believe economics make sense to anyone? President Obama is expected to support this kind of spending- basically spending a ton of money now in hopes that we'll make enough money in a brighter future to pay it back- should we call this ''hope-based'' economics?
I loved this explanation from Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey: In light of the $700 billion provided to bail out the financial industry, "It's not shockingly large," he said.
So at what point do we just run out of money to borrow? And what happens then?
Friday, January 02, 2009
While in cottage country for New Year's Eve, Claire and I stopped in at the Art Hive in Haliburton, Ontario.
Everything there was great. Some of the art- very nice hand block-printed cards- you can buy online, if you can't brave the cold and snow right now. Visit Darby Bayly, the Crafty Red Fox, online. And check out her blog, which details her life as an artist and new mother.
Others have noted the same thing about dinner parties. In his writings, Peter Lamborn Wilson has revived the idea that the dinner party is the model of an ideal human society, and pointed the way to nineteenth-century texts arguing the same. As Stephen Pearl Andrews writes in ''The Science of Society'':
''The highest type of human society in the existing social order is found in the parlor. In the elegant and refined reunions of the aristocratic classes there is none of the impertinent interference of legislation. The Individuality of each is freely admitted. Intercourse, therefore, is perfectly free. Conversation is continuous, brilliant, and varied. Groups are formed according to attraction. They are continually broken up, and reformed through the operation of the same subtle and all-pervading influence. Mutual deference pervades all classes, and the most perfect harmony, ever yet obtained in complex human relations, prevails under precisely those circumstances which Legislators and Statesmen dread as the conditions of inevitable confusion and anarchy. If there are rules of etiquette at all, they are mere suggestions of principles admitted into and judged of for himself orWhat is most fascinating about the dinner party is that is functions without any human legislation: chaos giving away to an instinctual, or at least unplanned, sort of order. Everyone eats what they want. Everyone talks to every other person in turn. People instinctively take turns and share. Somehow, all the work gets done without any one person guiding things.
herself, by each individual mind.''
One might argue however that it is the exclusivity of the dinner party that allows it to function. If the group let in everyone, it would be more susceptible to conflict and division. While this party was not explicitly exclusive, we did stick to inviting people that we knew. This creates something of a closed order. We might ask if a social order without hierarchy, laws, or administrators could really function with more than say ten to twenty people- or basically a tribe. It's hard to imagine that a mass dinner party wouldn't fall apart, so our ideal society is very tiny.
And yet, the appropriate response is so what. If a secret society is required, let's make the most of it! Maybe we can't run the world as a dinner party. But, at the least, we can try to incorporate as many friendly gatherings into our lives as possible, and let our group efforts function like dinner parties.
And, if the econolypse doesn't kill off globalization, it might at least be expected to create a space of legitimacy for tiny, convivial, non-hierarchical relationships to flourish. This could be a golden age for the renaissance of secret societies, tribes, orgies and dinner parties. They certainly work as well as any other human societies, and their failures are happier than those of states and corporations.