Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine Flu - Tumor Circus

This song has been stuck in my head for the last week or so!
Pretty much every time I hear something about swine flu, the first thing to pop into my head is Jello Biafra singing. (Happens with a lot of diseases, actually...) Anyway, it's actually about an irritating cat named Swine Flu that I think belonged to the artist Winston Smith.


Mr. Gloomy

Topic: Recession

One of the weird things I keep hearing from people about the current US recession is a paradoxical combination of sentences that goes something like this: 1. The state of the US economy during those years that seemed to be the height of prosperity was illusory, unsustainable, and amounted to a huge bubble that was bound to burst. 2. Now that it has burst, let's hope we get back to the way things used to be!

But why would we want to? The President talks about rebuilding the economy on a stronger foundation, and different commentators have different ideas about how to return to the "good old days", varying from government meddling to doing nothing and letting the Market fix everything. And yet I don't hear a lot of talk about the possibility that the US economy just can't ever return to former levels of growth.

Now, I assume that the recession will eventually run its course; and I would be the first to say that anything is possible in the future. However, there are two serious reasons to suspect that the economic slump that the US is in will last at least a generation:

1. The ongoing collapse of the manufacturing sector. The first issue is this shift over the last few decades from an industrial economy to a "service-based" economy: economists have talked about this as if it was a historical fait accompli, akin to the transition from feudalism to industrial capitalism. However, it's not at all clear that a "service economy" is remotely tenable. In fact, this recent collapse might be a sign that the equation: import goods/export services simply doesn't work- we'd need to sell a lot more services- some estimate 300% more- in order to pay for all the goods we hope to import. So a lot more Americans need to be making the beds of European tourists!

Dean Baker, writing in Dissent, argues that the "claim that the U.S. economy can be sustained without a sizable manufacturing sector is an... absurd proposition." So, how did it seem to work for the last few decades as manufacturing was declining? That's easy: by patching the holes with debt. We know that.

It seems to me that the jury is still out on the service-based economy. The 90s saw reams of books promising that the younger generation would revitalize our nation with their creativity- degraded cities would become bohemian meccas in which hipsters sold each other screen printed tee-shirts and saved the country by surfing the Internet. Instead, a lot of us live in towns where one generation ago, young people would have had good-paying factory jobs; and now, they work at the GAP until they can afford to leave. Or, they end up as a manager at the GAP and accept a less-rewarding life, downsizing their dreams, perhaps skipping out on having kids.

2. The Baby Bust. This brings us to the second big problem. Nobody is talking about population decline. An article in First Things warns that we also have to think about the "declining demographics of the traditional American family": essentially, the American population is not replenishing itself. There are too many single-parent households, "single-person" households, and young people who don't particularly want kids. The result is that a lot of houses built for nuclear families will go unsold when the next generation comes along and prefers to live alone in condos, and many public services simply won't be covered by that generation, or the even smaller generation that comes after them. (Well, unless we allow a lot more immigration.)

Actually, native-born population decline is happening everywhere in the Western World for a number of reasons. First Things, understandably, focuses on the culture wars- and it is worth visiting a Catholic or Mormon Church on a Sunday and seeing just how many kids religious couples are having! However, some of us who are of breeding age just can't afford to have children. So the solution to the problem isn't clear.

It just doesn't seem like it's happening in the United States. This is because unprecedented levels of immigration have made up the difference. And the country might well find itself- like Canada and much of Europe- supplementing its declining native-born population with easy immigration. I've said here before, that's absolutely fine with me. But I wouldn't try to sell that idea to the American public. If the public really does insist on restricting immigration- and a declining economy will help on that front- the declining native population will become much more noticeable.

So, honestly, I hate to be Mr. Gloomy all the time. But I'm at a loss as to how a nation with a vanishing manufacturing sector and a population that really isn't reproducing itself can ever hope to achieve the "heights of prosperity" that it once bought with foreign debt and maxed out credit cards.

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel that I'm not seeing here?


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The High Suburban

For reasons too trite to recall, I found myself the other day meandering about the suburbs of Oakville, Ontario. These are much more developed suburbs than the one that Claire and I inhabit; if the suburbs are a style, this was High Suburban. Our neighborhood has people smoking on their front porches all evening, we do our own lawn work; it's a vulgar Low Suburban enclave.

The High Suburban style is very clean plane geometry. The grass looks frosted on and the houses have a military regularity to them. This is the triumph of central planning over environmental contingencies. The landscape has been rationalized, standardized, and stripped bare (by its grooms) of anything eye-catching. It is an amazing accomplishment. These houses are very well-maintained, often by various crews of day laborers. They're as much homes as they are enterprises.

There is also something uninhabitable about this neighborhood; like living on a golf course, it doesn't seem possible. These people feel like tenants in a vast hotel that would as easily exist without them. The place seems somehow sterile and inhuman; alien even. Overplanned.

People often talk about the "conformity" of the suburbs, but the homes tell you nothing about how these people live; the landscaping is what conforms. What is more noticeable here is a sort of vast, oceanic boredom leveling everything out. Life is done here. You can leave if you so choose. There is, literally, nothing to see.

The suburbs often represent normalcy in art, but nearly as often artists use them as ciphers for some sort of hidden evil. The psychotic is supposedly always ready to strike here, like a sleeping adder. On one hand, this often strikes me as the snobbishness of urban artists portraying a world that many of them avoid at all costs; American Beauty struck me as false.

On the other hand, when you wander through a landscape denuded so completely of anything remotely fascinating, the mind turns quite easily to thoughts of violence and perverse sexuality- in order, I think, to assert its selfhood, as well as avoiding imaginative brain-death. Sex and violence jolt the central nervous system. J.G. Ballard wrote that "The suburbs dream of violence". What else is there to think of here?


Saturday, April 25, 2009

KJ Sawka - Montreal (from Cyclonic Steel)

View here.

The music's not quite my thing, but damn if the animation's not impressive.


Plus ça change (plus c'est la même chose)

AP News: ''The Obama administration is asking the Supreme Court to overrule a 23 year-old decision that stopped police from initiating questions unless a defendant's lawyer is present, the latest stance that has disappointed civil rights and civil liberties groups.

While President Barack Obama has reversed many policies of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, the defendants' rights case is another stark example of the White House seeking to limit rather than expand rights.''

Well, yeah, it's disappointing. I didn't actually vote for Obama, or anybody for that matter, but you always hope for the best. I will repeat what I said during the campaign when I'd meet people with stars in their eyes about Obama: let's remember that he did vote for the PATRIOT Act. In general, it's good to keep a large grain of salt handy when dealing with political actors. Also, complain frequently and loudly, no matter who's in office.


campari ad from Italy

View here.

Art deco eroticism from Italy- advertising as high art.


Same Story, Different Illustrations

I know this is a well-traveled road, but I never really get tired of seeing these examples of how lowering other human beings is a gold standard for making people feel good. I don't get tired of it for the simple reason that having it called out can only help to raise awareness... otherwise we all sink into tolerance and cognitive dissonance. "Of COURSE I'm not a racist! I totally have a black friend!" Frankly, even saying stupid shit and calling it good medical advice is a means of lowering other humans. Stupid people can't actually help being stupid; apparently that makes them the ideal target audience for your brand of cigs...

Mmmm. Cigarettes for asthma! The treatment of the future. Not suitable for children under 6....


Friday, April 24, 2009

Notes on Torture from a Lapsed Catholic

1. I am not a believer; however, I was raised by Catholics. What remains from that is a certain ingrained morality: I believe that certain acts are morally wrong, without question, and that committing them harms the person they are committed against and the person who commits them. An example, would be lying. I believe it hurts the person lied to by deceiving them, and degrades the soul of the liar. As you can imagine, I am not tolerant towards plagiarism.

Even in the case in which a morally unjust act prevents a greater tragedy- lying to protect a potential victim of persecution, for instance- I believe that the transgression must ultimately be atoned for. In the "ticking time-bomb scenario" I would likely torture the terrorist who knew where the bombs were hidden: and I would expect to be prosecuted. This, I think, is the distinction between justice and power. It's also why I think mixing politics (power) with religion degrades any sort of ethical thinking.

2. In the case of torture, I am intolerant. Torture is ethically wrong. Full stop. The example that some people site- fraternity hazing- actually points to what is so evil about torture; a frat-house hazing victim can leave. He has autonomy over the safety of his body. Ultimately, he can determine his existential fate. Andrew Sullivan notes that the Catholic Church considers several injuries against a person to be "infamies", including, "whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself."

Another example is that of prisoners. Most societies imprison people, and there is an agreement made when we put people in jail: we can remove your freedom of movement as a punishment, but we cannot remove your autonomy over your own body. We cannot remove your right to protect yourself from violence. In fact, violence may not be done to prisoners. This is what distinguishes the loss of freedom in jail from that in the system of slavery: the slave did not just lose his freedom of movement, but the freedom to protect himself from violence, and in the basest existential sense, to determine his own fate. In some sense, this ability to be tortured at the will of another is what made him a slave. It set the psychological stamp of slavery.

3. The fact is that you cannot "untorture" someone. Torture makes the clear statement- you cannot defend your body from attack- should I choose to, I can hurt you, I can kill you, and you have no means to stop it. You have no power to determine the fate of your body. In the most basic sense, it is a removal of will. This is the most concrete sort of unfreedom, and the psychological results of torture are therefore akin to those of rape.

Therefore, I honestly do not care if we're discussing tearing out fingernails, waterboarding, slamming people into walls, physically degrading them, or psychologically terrorizing them- the message is simply, "you have no autonomy over your own body, and therefore no say in your own fate." This is imprisonment tending towards the condition of slavery.

4. This is also degrading to those who were pressured to commit the act. I remain convinced that, God or none, all healthy people retain an innate sense of right and wrong. A child could recognize torture for what it is. Party functionaries perhaps lack this ability. I do not know if Alyssa Peterson really killed herself because she was pressured to torture. But, I hear Kayla Williams, who witnessed torture as a Sergeant in a military intelligence company, and writes:

"If soldiers -- or CIA personnel, or anyone -- spend months demeaning, mistreating, or even torturing other human beings, what does that do to them in the long run? How do these people treat their spouses or small children when they come home? Do they have nightmares later? Do they begin to doubt themselves? In all of the high-level discussions, the debate on whether or not these documents should have been released, let us not lose sight of this: those who were encouraged by our highest levels of government to commit torture and told it was legal to do so -- they too are victims."

Ultimately, I would be loath to prosecute people who were put in this sort of position. But, I think this displays, if anything, the complete corruption of their higher-ups who told them torture was now acceptable and then hung them out to dry as "a few bad apples".

What is to be done? I have no idea.

5. Lastly, I think this gets at the true dangers of what people now call "political polarization": this sort of madness that views every aspect of life through a political prism succeeds only in erasing all ethical questions from the board. Political parties- all of them- exist in order to secure power for themselves. This is a moment to step back from that. I have no doubt that there were Democrats as well as Republicans who sanctioned or supported torture, just as I have no doubt that many of them will make any justification they can to condone torture. In fact, I can easily imagine a situation in which a Democratic administration sanctioned torture and Republicans argued that it is always morally wrong. These people believe in nothing- they are power people, not ethical people. They are the true postmodernists. The civilians who carry their water are lickspittles.

But this also points to a certain degradation of the mass media. CNN, FOX, MSNBC- all of them have and will continue to discuss torture as if we live in a universe without any ethics whatsoever, in which the only considerations we have to structure our decisions are "What would a Republican do? What would a Democrat do?" This is not just a matter of missing the point- it's a matter of arguing that the point does not exist.

The explicit message is that ethical considerations do not exist. It's astonishing that so many "religious" people allow themselves to be sucked into the miasma of politics and mass culture. Something wicked this way comes.

6. The key fact here: Western Civilization after the Enlightenment is founded on a Lockean idea of innate human rights that cannot exist if there are some people who are tortureable and some who are not- not just some people in America, but some people on earth who we take as such. The right to be free of violence, fear, and coercion is the basis of our civilization.

Hannah Arendt noted the contradiction here- rights are innate, but most be ensured by political powers. And yet, we trudge on. This is the ideal- it has never been fully achieved. At times, it will break down. I have no doubt that horrible things will happen in time of war. But, if we make those things the norm, our civilization as it has hitherto existed, will cease to be. If we ultimately abandon the never ending effort to live up to the ideals of the Enlightenment for reasons of power, we will have ceded civilization to a sort of technocratic barbarism, and we will we become the sort of people fit to live under such barbarism.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Citizen of the World

''If what philosophers say about the kinship of God and man is true, then the only logical step is to do as Socrates did, never responding to the question of where he was from with, 'I am Athenian', or 'I am from Corinth', but always, 'I am a citizen of the world'. After all, why say, 'I am Athenian'? Why not just identify yourself with the exact spot your sorry body was dropped at birth? Clearly, you prefer the higher designation because it includes not just that insignificant spot, it also includes your parents and all your ancestors before you; and it is on these grounds that you characterise yourself as a Corinthian or an Athenian.

''But anyone who knows how the whole universe is administered knows that the first, all-inclusive state is the government composed of God and man. He appreciates it as the source of the seeds of being, descending upon his father, his father's father- to every creature born and bred on earth, in fact, but to rational beings in particular, since they alone are entitled by nature to govern alongside God, by virtue of being connected to him through reason. So why not call ourselves citizens of the world and children of God? And why should we fear any human contingency.''
-Epictetus, Stoic philosopher of the second century, A.D.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Plastic Surgery Art

If the human body is an artistic medium, should time be considered its great artist or its leading critic? At least the plastic surgeons are getting their due- I Am Art: An Expression of the Visual & Artistic Process of Plastic Surgery is now on view at Apexart in TriBeCa, NYC. The show consists of photos and videos taken before, during, and after plastic surgery.

It is a bit hard to think of this as high art- the goal, after all, looks to be achieved in standardizing people and making them, in some sense, less interesting to look at. The results in the show are certainly prettified, but also anodyne and banal: it's sort a surgical kitsch, isn't it? And given how widespread the project to alter the human body by means of technology has become, shouldn't plastic surgeons be considered as local technicians (or even perhaps akin to the village pastor)?


Monday, April 20, 2009

R.I.P. J.G.B.

Well, it's not like one couldn't see it coming- J.G. Ballard has been dying of prostate cancer for the last few years; actually, he apparently completed a manuscript on the subject, which one hopes will be released soon.

And yet, it's sad to think that we'll never get to read another new J.G.Ballard novel. There were a few imitators, but nobody who could quite replicate his visionary writing style. He was 78.


Thursday, April 16, 2009


Should the public stop hoping for change? Glenn Greenwald explains why today is a big test for the Obama administration. And Andrew Sullivan explains why this is a "moment of truth" for the President. It's also, frankly, a big test for the rule of law in the United States. We shall see how this shakes out, eh?

Update: Good news- President Obama passed the test. The memos are released, along with a clear statement. This is what qualifies as a "good first step". I'm actually glad that I didn't make bets on that happening in the original post. I was not at all optimistic (to say the least) that these memos would be released today, much less so unredacted. But, I decided to suspend judgment, because I'm starting to wonder if my usual cynicism isn't a little blinding.

Greenwald: ''Obama did the right thing by releasing these memos, providing all the information and impetus the citizenry should need to demand investigations and prosecutions. But it is up to citizens to demand that the rule of law be applied.'' Damn straight.


Movie Notes- Stroszek

The key to drama is conflict between the individual and the larger human society, be it the tribe, family, or the state. Incidentally, according to Freud, this is also the key to neuroses. Werner Herzog's characters, however, seem to be in conflict with the entire universe. Bruno S- here playing Bruno Stroszek comes off as a more anguished version of Charlie Chaplin's tramp character, going from life in an institution to a free life in which he's stalked and beaten repeatedly by the pimps whose prostitute he's sheltering, and finally to discover a new life in the American Midwest, a journey that also ends badly. In the end, it's hard to see how it could have gone differently.

In real life, Bruno S. was institutionalized and worked intermittently as a street busker, as does the character. He worked with Herzog in creating the character and this blend of real life and fiction is typical of Herzog's films. Herzog has admitted to staging scenes in his documentaries and argues that blending fact and fiction leads to what he calls an ''ecstatic truth''.

Herzog often gets at this sort of truth by capturing images that are somewhat random and bizarre. Stroszek has several such images that are unforgettable: an old German man trying to measure the ''animal magnetism'' of a hunter's prize deer, an insufferably ingratiating bank man talking to the German Stroszek who doesn't understand a word he's saying, a mechanic who spends his weekends searching frozen lakes for a missing farmer and his tractor, Stroszek riding a ski-lift painted with the question ''Is this really me?'', and most memorably, a striking image of a chicken ''dancing'' on a hot plate, seemingly forever.

Herzog calls the chicken one of the most important things he's ever filmed, and he's actually not being that hyperbolic here. The film casts a jaundiced eye at the immigrant experience in America, but it's pretty hard for any American, especially now, to miss the truth in Herzog's critique of petty bank men who smile while they drain your assets and seize your mortgage. And we've all felt like that chicken at one time or another.


When it rains...

Some people are now saying that the recession has hit its lowest point and is just about done. Actually, on MSNBC they're supposedly telling people that the recession is over. Little old me has been telling people (in my everyday life) that this is all nonsense because commercial real estate is due to crash tout de suite, given all the problems in the retail sector.

Et... voilà! Reuters- ''General Growth Properties Inc, the second largest U.S. mall owner, filed for bankruptcy protection on Thursday in one of the biggest real estate failures in U.S. history.''

It sucks to be right.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The jig is up!

Ah shit, they've found out about the "brainwashing books"!


Meet the new Dungeon Master

Just when you thought you were safe from Guantánamo... now you just get thrown in Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The New York Times Editorial rightly attacks the Obama administration on this:

"In February, the new administration disappointingly followed the example of the Bush White House in opposing judicial review for prisoners who have been indefinitely detained at Bagram without any charges or access to lawyers. The administration has now added to that disappointment by appealing a new federal court ruling extending the right of habeas corpus to some Bagram detainees."

Habeas corpus doesn't generally extend to theaters of war. So, the military has been transferring prisoners from hell and gone- including Guantánamo, and most importantly, including people who were not picked up on the battlefield- to Bagram to avoid due process. So, once again, you can be arrested in America, held indefinitely in Afghanistan, and never have the chance to defend yourself, or even stand trial. We (those of us who were paying attention) came to expect this sort of abuse from the Bush administration. But the Obama administration has no argument whatsoever for defending and extending these policies, aside from: a. being unduly fond of the Bush regime, or b. being not so fond of civil liberties.


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Verdi - Traviata


Monday, April 06, 2009

Let a thousand monies bloom

The protesters in London have been chanting "Abolish money!" But, maybe there's a better way to avoid the global market quicksand. Douglas Rushkoff says to "program your own money". The answer isn't no money, but our own new currencies outside of the centralized currency monopolies. In other words, let a thousand currencies bloom.

"Once we accept the fact that the money and banks we have grown accustomed to using are not the only ways to generate capital, we liberate ourselves and our businesses from a finance industry that has enjoyed a monopoly over our commerce for much too long. They have not only abused our trust through corrupt self-dealing, but abused their privilege through systemic usury. Businesses are only obligated to support their employees, owners, and customers -- not an entire finance industry."

Sound crazy? Maybe, but only until you realize that a number of communities are already doing just this. USA Today reports on all sorts of local currencies that have sprung up: Ithaca Hours, Detroit Cheers, Plenty in North Carolina. They support the local economies and are not traded on the stock exchange. The real trick will be creating currencies that aren't tracked by any government. Of course, we can imagine that this is happening already, outside of the eye of USA Today.

And it's happened elsewhere. "In 1995, as recession rocked Japan, unemployment rose and currency became scarce. This made it particularly difficult for people to continue to take care of their elderly relatives, who often lived in distant areas. The Sawayaka Welfare Foundation developed a complementary currency by which a young person could earn credits for taking care of an elderly person, and then spend them on the care of their own relatives in distant towns. At last count, the alternative currency was accepted at 372 health centers throughout Japan, and all administered by a simple piece of software. Close to a thousand alternative currencies are now in use in Japan."

Something like this also exists on the 200 person island that my father lives on. There's no bank on the island, so nearly all exchanges are swaps- for example, my father will fix someone's car and get a dinner in exchange. Most business on the island is part of this gift economy. Not only does it work better than money or credit; it's also considerably more convivial.

I think a lot of people are looking to keep doing business, while getting off the grid. Fixing a car should have more value than betting on other people's debt. Why let the market (and its attendant jackoffs) decide value? Perhaps the trick is in creating home-grown currencies and invisible exchanges- aiming not for market visibility, but total invisibility. What's encouraging about it is that for all the people who will say, "Nope, never gonna happen!" there will be just as many who will be quietly making it happen.


Sunday, April 05, 2009


What Russ Meyer was to tits, Tinto Brass is to ass. Starting with avant garde films and then erotic epics like Salon Kitty and Caligula, Brass has steadily positioned himself as the poet of posteriors, the documentor of derrieres, the rhapsodist of rumps, the... well, you get the idea.

Not to psychoanalyze too much, but it seems to me that the foot fetishist idealizes a dominant woman who likes to have a man under her heel looking up. The ass fetishist seems to desire a powerful, but not necessarily dominant woman, in order to look up at her strong legs and globular buttocks as she strides across the world like a Colossus, walking away.

The main character of Monella (Frivolous Lola in the Anglo world) is indeed powerful, and powerfully sexual, but she's stuck in a provincial 1950s Italian town that seems compelled to stick her in the Black Iron Prison of married monogamy to a dull sap, while she just wants to get rid of her virginity a.s.a.p. Said beau is full of patriarchal claptrap about sacred love, so the film becomes an inversion of puerile American sex comedies- here it's the young girl who just wants to get laid.

Brass seems to recognize the sexual superiority of the female, and to be arguing that no woman need settle down with one man, the cock being inferior to theclit after all. So, for an "erotic film", it's got a surprisingly feminist slant, and some decent dance sequences!


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Mauled Shopping

Seemingly along with every other industry, American shopping malls are slipping into the Slough of Despond that they helped to create, leaving Romero's zombies and incompetent teenaged cashiers with nowhere to go and nothing to buy- the American equivalent of nihilism. This news would mark a gala day for me, were it not for the depressing note that a dead mall, "can devastate the surrounding community". Many small towns are at risk of going belly up without the local mall anchoring their economy, huge swaths of the nation having gone from farms and factories to Abercrombie & Fitch in just a few decades.

Think I'm kidding? One of the characters in Dawn of the Dead has to have a shopping mall explained to him because the 1978 audience couldn't be expected to have seen one yet. Three decades later, and European friends tell me how amazed they were to travel the country and see nothing but vast exapnses of these cubic shrines to consumption.

According to the article, something like 400 malls have gone under, and there's now only one big mall being built- what its developer refers to with the non-term "shoppertainment" complex, although it's not clear if that word came from his mouth or the other end. And from the sound of it, there might be no end to the collapse of malls. Admittedly, my natural response to that is to squeel ''Oooooh, yes!!''

Malls are the natural habitat of a bourgeois middle class that might well be vanishing in the United States. Wal-Mart is now thriving. For the most part though, malls offer very little of real value, outside of a certain ''experience''. Experiences have been the common currency of bourgeois life since the 1800s. This is the story of modernity- separated from any real political objectives, the middle class tries to live as if they're dreaming- cultivating experiences- the more theatricalized the better- becomes more important than satisfying real needs. So, maybe this hollowing out of the middle class and their malls will mean a return to seriousness. On the other hand, the idea of Americans experimenting with seriousness makes me as uneasy as a monkey experimenting with a handgun.