Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Is Academia Suited for Us Weirdos With Catholic Tastes?

I often wonder if I'm right for the world of academia. How do people crank out manuscripts every few years? How do they work in the same basic field for decades? I can hardly stay on task for a full week. Let me walk you through my day in the library...

I wake up around seven a.m., eat something anonymous, and walk towards the bus stop. As I approach the stop, a very crowded bus pulls up and I decide that I would rather walk to the library instead.

I start out. Within twenty minutes, I am walking through the ''downtown'' area of this rusting steel town. There are swarms of elderly people on motorized scooters out for their morning travels; I am the only one on the sidewalk who is actually walking. A torn slip of an ex-flier clinging to a wall reads ''You're Missing Something''. I consider this for a moment. A mentally-ill man attaches to me and follows me for several blocks explaining why the city's construction workers should all be fired. I pass a series of brick store fronts; about half of them are abandoned, but still haunted by the ghosts of their former businesses.I am fascinated by every shop I pass, from the nameless one that seems to be filled with mounds of old action figures to the convenience store that also sells Persian rugs. This city is anonymous; its randomness and eccentricities aren't affected. They're not trying to impress anyone. Hamilton's idiosyncrasies fire my imagination.

I arrive at the library around nine-thirty. Today, I am supposed to read one of the books on my exam list. I have to take my exams at the end of the summer; after that, I'll officially be ABD. I have myself on a book-a-day schedule, which seems to be working. Happily, the book for today turns out to be shorter than expected, mostly because it has a great amount of illustrations. This also reduces the ill effects of my bibliomania- generally, the library is the quietest place for me to do my reading, and the worst place because it's filled with books. Almost every topic interests me on some level. Today I am sitting in the German section, and so, in between chapters of the book that I'm supposed to be reading, I read a collection of translated postwar German Expressionist plays, a translation of Gregorius the Good Sinner, and a collection of Susan Sontag essays. None of these have anything to do with my dissertation topic or any of the things I study, but what can I say? The books at the library fire my imagination.

Keeping my focus is difficult. I often wonder if I was cut out for academia. There seem to be two sorts who wind up in academe- people who love the academic environment and thrive there and people who love to research different things and who are generally interested in everything. Those of us who fall into the latter category- call us people with catholic tastes- tend to have a much harder time with day to day tasks. Department meetings, deadlines, grading exams- all of these things are bewildering to me. And not because I think that I'm above them; although I do find many bureaucratic tasks to be a bit pointless; but because they require attention over extended periods of time.

I worry often that the academic schedule, with its endless hoops to jump through, is just not the right place for someone like me. As often as I think to myself, whenever I see a professor who seems to have given up the ghost, ''Well, at least I love both teaching and researching...'', I still wonder if I have the patience to put together journal articles, stick to a publishing schedule, and go through the paces. And forget about conferences! Going to an academic conference is a steep price to pay to get free deli sandwiches and some warm Coke. I'd much rather putter away at various and sundry topics for twenty to thirty years, alone, and then publish a grand, sweeping text. But, that's not the way it's done anymore.

This also makes me wonder, strange and pompous though it might sound, if academia might not end up stunting my intellectual growth. A good gardener knows something I've just recently learned myself- plants grow best when you leave them alone as much as possible. I think that curiosity needs to wander wherever it will, but I'm not sure that academic life is really suited for wandering at all. Keeping up with publishing, conferences, journal articles, and so forth is professional, but I'm not sure it's intellectual. I'm not sure that there isn't a sort of bureaucratization of thought going on here. I hear talk constantly in the humanities about 'breaking down the bariers between specializations' and 'striking out new paths', but how is that possible in a publish-or-perish environment?

I guess my questions are: Is academic specialization, which seems inescapable to some extent, really a form of intellectual growth? Or is it just intellectual fine-tuning? And if it's the latter, instead of the former, does taking a career in academia really amount to a betrayal of your own intellectual development?


The Best Defense is a Paris Hilton Defense

As you may remember, Ward Churchill is an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado and an activist of some sort who angered a number of people by calling the victims of 9/11 ''little Eichmanns''. Anyway, a whole bunch of people complained to the University that he is an extremist, a plagiarist, and a bad researcher besides. Under pressure, the university had a panel look into his work and they found all sorts of problems, including plagiarism, falsification, fabrication, and repeated use of the word 'Dude'.

Anyway, the President at UC Boulder has now recommended firing him, and the university has started the process of firing him, which should be done by this fall. Churchill and his supporters have been arguing that this was all a politically-motivated witch-hunt. The President's response amounts to ''Okay, but you are a witch.'' But it included this beaut, which I swear I am quoting directly:
''He characterized the Churchill argument of late as a “Paris Hilton defense” — arguing that the professor and the socialite both blame their troubles on being famous, instead of accepting that famous people have to follow the rules just like others do.''

Okay, now I've read the report about what Churchill did wrong in his work, and posted here that I thought it was enough to fire him for, regardless of who hates him or doesn't hate him. I can't stand serial plagiarists; in fact, I think they're little Eichmanns. And I know that I'm going to sound like an elitist snob, once again, for saying this. But, man, I also think they should fire that University President simply for being a University President who would use the phrase ''Paris Hilton defense'' in an interview. There's just something so wrong about that.


Nope, Not Orwell...

Who coined that irritating euphemism 'enhanced interrogation' that we're now using instead of the word torture? Do you really want to know?


Mighty Morphin' Painted Ladies

At the risk of clogging up this page, I feel compelled to call attention to this nifty video which depicts a series of women in paintings over the years. The morphing is done rather artfully I think. Also, I have not seen a real woman do this since the last time I had too much LSD.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007


''The companies have scattered. The companies, battalions, armies. The great armies. Only the armies of the dead, those still stand. Stand like vast forests: dark, purple, full of voices. The canons, however, lie like frozen primordial animals with stiff limbs. Purple with steel and overpowered rage. And the helmets, they rust. Take off those rusted helmets – we’ve lost.''
-Wolfgang Borchert, That is Our Manifesto (Das ist unser Manifesto) 1946.

It's quite a powerful and moving poem. Read the rest here.


Here we go again...

Venezuelan protesters upset over Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chavez's decision to ''democratize'' the airwaves by shutting down a privately owned station that criticizes him and promoting instead the state television station that praises him. Tyranny is boring, isn't it? How bloody obvious it seems for an authoritarian strongman to try to stifle free speech. Not even remotely imaginative. And how totally pointless in the era of the Internet to shut down the nation's commercial television station. Power may well corrupt, but it seems to do so by shutting down neurons. Madame de Staël called her enemy Napoleon Bonaparte an ''ideophobe''- it would seem to apply here as well. Power is boring.


The Eyebrows Have It

The Museum of the Fine Arts Palace in Mexico City is hosting a major retrospective of Frida Kahlo to mark her 100th birthday. Kahlo is an artist whose reputation has been inflated all out of proportion to the actual level of her work; it speaks more to how people are educated about art than anything else that she's considered a ''legend'' these days. But, she is a decent surrealist and anything that gets people out and experiencing art is worth mentioning.


Monday, May 28, 2007


"There are segments of this city where you go to an estate sale and find five TVs and three books."

- Frustrated Kansas City, MO, used bookstore owner Will Leatham, whose business partner Tom Wayne has recently started burning the thousands of books that he can't sell or even give away in Kansas City.

Wayne calls this the ''the funeral pyre for thought in America today''. Okay, but let's be fair here- nobody in Kansas City, Missouri wants these books; not nobody in America. I mean, the point of the article is basically that people in Missouri are idiots, which isn't exactly newsworthy. (I'm sorry, we're not supposed to call them 'idiots'- the polite euphemism is 'people who choose to get their information from television or the Internet instead of books'. So, you know, idiots.) But there are certainly at least a few places left in the United States where people still read books, right? Why not send them to NYC. And if not, he could always send them to us readers in Canada- the only time we ever burn books is when it's really friggin' cold outside!

Anyway, most used book places just throw the books they can't sell in the trash, but good for him for not going quietly into the dark night... A few rabble rousers are good for everyone, especially in this time of complacent indifference.


Movie Notes: The Battle of Algiers (1966)

A cinematic painting that forms rough hewn shapes from masses of human beings, Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle for Algiers presents the viewer with the first, and still one of the most important, images of the Algerian nation during its tumultuous birth. The fact that the film's 'main characters' are actually huge groups of people is still unique in narrative filmmaking and the success of this method is a testament to the abilities of the late Pontecorvo.

The film deals with the fighting that took place in the city of Algiers from 1954 to 1957, focusing on the attempts of the French military to suppress the FLN in the casbah. These attempts ultimately resulted in a Pyhrric victory for the French; as the film makes clear, the anti-colonial movement returned with a vengeance a few years later. Several sections of the film are indistinguishable from documentary footage, and indeed a title card at the beginning informs us that there is no documentary footage in the film.

The documentary effect is maintained by a certain directorial distance- there is nothing cloying or precious about this film. It shows the facts of guerrilla warfare and military repression without sentimentalizing them. While it's clear that Pontecorvo supports the decolonization struggle, he is remarkably even-handed- when the Casbah is bombed we hear the same melancholy music cue as we do when the French bar is bombed later- the point being that all loss of life is tragic. Pontecorvo's is a deeply humane Marxism- Pauline Kael called him the most dangerous kind of Marxist; a Marxist poet.

Where Pontecorvo is especially humane is in his treatment of the French troops, who incredibly enough, relied on repression and torture mere years after experiencing the same under the Vichy regime. Pontecorvo doesn't excuse their actions, but still shows them as having been warped by the larger system, and forced into what can only be called a lousy job. He isn't entirely sympathetic, but in his lack of sentiment there is a certain fairness to all parties. He is showing us what happened, and the tragic breakdown of a society that led common people to do horrible things.

The distance also gives emotional resonance to several scenes- during the torture sequence, Ennio Morricone includes an organ cue that is sharply reminiscent of one of Bach's fugues, giving the scene a semi-religious atmosphere that is simply devastating. The scene is particularly effective because it comes at the end of a film that has shied away anything so emotionally evocative. Many viewers will weep at this scene.

Pontecorvo left the Communist party after the invasion of Hungary, and his Marxism isn't particularly doctrinaire. What we see in this film isn't a proof of an economic theory, but a deep interest in the ways that people try to improve their lot in life. While the film is often discussed now in relation to Islamic political movements and terrorism, what it shows through its distance is both the specificity of the Algerian war (which I would suggest isn't really a perfect match for any current wars) and the universal human dreams and weaknesses that formed its foundation.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

This Just In...

The Cannes Film Festival has given the Palme d'Or to Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's low-budget film, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days'', which has been favored to win. The film deals with a girl's attempt to secure a secret abortion for her friend in communist-era Romania. One of the great things about the film was that it was a shoestring production that, nevertheless, went on to win the top honor at Cannes. According to the film's director, Cristian Mungiu,

"You don't necessarily need a big budget and big stars to tell a story that everyone will listen to."

Trés bien.


Today's French

Factice: adj. Imitation, artificial.

A comment that I enjoyed from one of the Yahoo groups I'm on...

''Je trouve l'image du festival de Cannes donnée par les media de moins enmoins glamour et de plus en plus factice avec même un je ne sais quoi deprofondément creux, limite pathétique par moments.''

She feels the over-mediated image of Cannes is becoming progressively less glamorous and more artificial, which is an interesting distinction, I think.


The Algerian War of Independence

The two most popular topics in French historiography, understandably, are the Revolution and the Vichy regime; however, the war in Algeria is increasingly coming in a close third. It is still a sore topic in French politics and could even be called a 'current event'. It also central to the French twentieth century.

The French decided to take Algeria in 1830, under Charles X. At the time, Algiers was known as a 'pirate utopia', and the justification for the French invasion was to free the Mediterranean of pirates. However, this was during the era in which la gloire was seen as a worthwhile reason for colonization and it certainly played a major role here as well. The actual colonization of Algeria took the next forty-or-so years and was plagued by uprisings from the start. Surely, the French must have wondered if it was worth it at some time during the nineteenth century.

The colonization of Algeria was given a push by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, in which France was deprived of most of Alsace and parts of Lorraine. Many of the French inhabitants of these regions moved to Algiers, greatly increasing the population of French inhabitants of Algeria, the so-called pieds noirs. The pieds noirs would be central during the war as a reactionary force calling for ever-harsher measures against the Arabs, and forming the backbone of right wing terrorist groups such as the OAS (Organisation de l'armée secrète) in Algeria.

It's worth noting that Algeria had a different status than the French colonies by the twentieth century. Instead of being a colony, it was actually considered a department of France (perhaps we could compare a department to a county); therefore, it was actually considered a part of France. This caused all sorts of tensions because the Algerians were considered French, and yet didn't have the same rights as French citizens. They didn't have any say in the government and the situation in Algeria was akin to the Aparteid system in South Africa- there was definitely a pied noir section of the city of Algiers and a far inferior section for the musulmans.

Another major impetus for anti-French resistance was provided by the second World War. Not only was the French fate in the war seen as a sign by many Algerians that the French had lost any sort of baraka that they had once had; it was also believed throughout the colonized world that those colonized peoples who had fought alongside the Allies to liberate Europe now deserved to be liberated themselves. Similarly, Algerians had fought alongside the French in World War I and believed the French should accept Wilsonian self-determination in Algeria. On May 8, 1945, the first volley of the Algerian War, the Sétif massacre, took place when a VE Day celebration in the market town of Sétif turned violent. 103 Europeans were killed, and in reprisal the French killed a number of Algerians, which has been estimated around 6,000.

The war began on All Saints' Day 1954 when the C.R.U.A. or the Comité Révolutionaire d'Unité et d'Action, launched a series of attacks across Algeria. The main resistance group to form from the C.R.U.A. was the FLN or Front de Libération nationale, who became the main focal point of the Algerian War, going from being something of a fringe terrorist group to the most popular resistance movement in the country by the late 1950s. The war lasted until 1962.

The FLN strategy involved guerrilla attacks on police, French civilians, public utilities, and so forth. It is somewhat amazing that they fostered as much support from the populace as they did, but some credit must go to the French military's attempts at 'pacification', which involved widespread reprisals against the Arab population; the so-called 'ratissage' or raking over of the people. The French paratroopers were caught in a bind, between DeGaulle, who began calling for Algerian self-determination and the pieds noirs who called for more violent reprisals Many disgruntled soldiers joined the OAS. An example of how ugly the 'savage war of peace' became was the 1955 Philippeville Massacre, in which the FLN brutally killed 123 French civilians of all ages, and the Governor General Soustelle launched an all-out campaign of reprisals, killing 12,000 Algerians. The war progressed by these sorts of 'tit for tat' measures.

The most controversial of these measures was the French paratroopers' widespread use of torture. While torture gained the French some information about the FLN, it was a tactical and moral failure. The FLN simply instructed its members not to reveal any information for the first 24 hours after their capture- giving the FLN time to flee. Also the French admitted that, for every 100 Arabs tortured, only 2 or 3 would turn out to be FLN. The effect of such widespread and well-publicized torture was that the neutral civilian population turned against the French and towards the FLN. Horror over the use of torture similarly turned many French citizens at home against the soldiers and against the occupation. It could even be argued that the use of torture was decisive in losing the war for France. The war itself was a factor in the collapse of the Fourth Republic in 1958.

The war lasted until 1962, and were formally ended with the Évian Accords and Algerian independence.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

"Dirty Bird" Done Dirt Cheap

Bleary-eyed and with a headache ricocheting around the inside of my skull, I make the long and arduous drive back from London, Ontario at three a.m. Claire and I have successfully avoided a major argument over the directions, which is a marriage milestone I think, and I am deciding whether or not I should pull over and sleep. We have made this two-hour trip to sit in a movie theater with a handful of drunks and watch 60s nudie flicks. Was it worth it? I'd say so.

London, Ontario is a shithole town. I mean no ill will here; Hamilton, Ontario is also a shit hole town, for the most part. From what I can tell though, London is a bit higher income than Hamilton, and because of its university, totally overrun by frat boys. Claire warned me about this when we first drove in, and sure enough, the downtown shopping district resembled the back lawn of a frat house during rush week. The scum of the earth.

Happily, the crowd that arrived to see Dirty Bird was more freaky than fratty. Vagrancy Films has been showing these films in Ontario for about two years now. Conceived over beers and Jess Franco videos, their scheme has been to show authentic grindhouse films in a movie theater to the usual midnight movie crowd. Even better, they don't project DVDs, which would be easier, but actually spool 35 millimeter films, including a reel of exploitation trailers. I have no idea where they find these things, but the effect is rather like the Rodriguez/Tarantino film Grindhouse, but totally authentic. They also sell DVDs and have created a brilliant fake trailer for an exploitation film called The Pussy Pound, which they will hopefully expand into a full-length film.

I've seen more of these movies than I'd like to count, but I'd never even heard of Dirty Bird. Actually, that was an alternate title, and in true grindhouse fashion, the film actually had a different title The Sidewalk Cowboy quickly replaced by a title card reading Dirty Bird. The film was shot in the late 60s in New York and is sort of a coming of age (emphasis on the coming) about a young man who is in love with a nymphomaniac, but who can't perform because his mother beat him as a child for masturbating. The story, which was probably about ten pages in script form, includes lesbianism, voyeurism, masochism, and alcoholism. And a lot of walking around. In fact, entire sequences consist of our hero walking down sidewalks with guitar music on the soundtrack. They didn't call this one The Sidewalk Cowboy for nothing.

Anyway, the film was terrible, but a suitable distraction, and the audience was very entertaining. There were also a bunch of trailers that were even more obscure and entertaining, and a short film about lesbianism, murder, and betrayal in Hollywood. And a raffle- so pretty damned good for ten bucks.

Unfortunately, this might have been their last showing in London. Apparently, they're not pulling in enough money to put these shows on. They are planning a grindhouse night in Toronto, and it would be really great if they just started booking films in T.O. especially for Claire and I. But, it's sad to see these sorts of projects fall apart. The midnight movie is perhaps a product of the 1970s, back when the communal experience was more common. Now, the communal experience takes place on the Internet, in a no-place that doesn't exist. DVDs have made exploitation films respectable, but also more solitary. You can watch trashy movies at home, on the couch, with friends. Somehow, it's more fun though to listen to drunks yelling lewd things at the screen in the real world.

Well, maybe not the real world, but better.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Buzzword Bingo: Framing

I thought of another buzzword...

Framing: I'm not even sure what this one means. However, Mall University is building a new 'campus center' downtown (otherwise called a 'campus') and they want suggestions from its stakeholders as to what that campus center should be like (per usual, they have no idea whatsoever what a university is). At any rate, they've asked us to help them 'frame' the new University, which either means to conceptualize it in some way, or pin a murder on it.


Buzzword Bingo: Stakeholders

Mall University is currently trying to overhaul its system, as part of its ongoing effort to erase any indicators that it might still be a university. What this means is that every time I'm on campus, I get inundated (irradiated perhaps?) by jargon and buzzwords. I'll try to chart the evolution of corporate-speak here and its steady absorption by the university system.

Today's buzzword?
Stakeholders: That's right- they're no longer calling us "students" at our university. From now on, we're "stakeholders". Since they're now modelling the academic world after the corporate world, it makes more sense to think of us as stakeholders, and ergo this university as an enterprise. It's strange- on one hand, it's a very flattering thing to call us; it suggests that we have a part to play in this enterprise. On the other hand, while it's flattering to us, it's vaguely insulting to the University itself... Or, I think it's still called a University-I'll let you know what they decide to rename that.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Movie Notes: Apocalypto (2006)

Fate is cruel.

Make no mistake- this is a brutal, bloody movie and I'm sure that it will make many viewers more than a bit queasy. However, I'm rather fond of brutal and bloody movies myself, when they're done well, because they have a certain visceral power to them that is lacking in almost all other sorts of films. When pressed to decide what it is that compels me to a film like the original Friday the 13th, I'd have to say that it's the sense of merciless fate throughout the film. I really think that Friday the 13th works like a Greek tragedy. There is a subtext to certain horror films, and The Birds is another example of it, that corresponds to classic notions of fate- the universe as a pitiless killing machine, tripped by careless individuals and their thoughtless transgressions against its underlying order. The classic reading of slasher films was that this transgression involved teenage sex, and was therefore reactionary, but the few classics of the genre, such as Halloween, seemed to suggest that the transgression couldn't be understood, and therefore couldn't be prevented. As in all tragedies, once the lever of fate had been tripped, things roll on to their inevitable, horrible climax.

Apocalypto is a film whose visuals are nearly silent era and whose ideas are distinctly pre-modern. The Mayan civilization depicted in the film is visually stunning, but it has transgressed ethical behavior through conquest and human sacrifice, and therefore is fated to be destroyed. The instrument of fate in the film is also the hero Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), whose tribe has been enslaved and massacred, with the exception of his wife and son who he has hidden in an underground cave and has to save. In his escape, which is helped along every step of the way by the interventions of nature, he begins the destruction of the decadent Mayan civilization, whose ultimate collapse is foreshadowed in the last scenes.

So, on the other hand, the film also works as a classic action film. Jaguar Paw's tribe is established and enslaved, they are brought to the Mayan temple, and the last act is a chase in which Jaguar Paw returns to his family with help from various twists of fate. As an action film, it is a stunning visual spectacle that reminded me of silent films such as Metropolis and particularly D.W.Griffith's Intolerance in its portrayal of a decadent but magnificent society. And the chase sequence was particularly exciting, although as with all such sequences, the hero seemed a bit indestructible.

Of course, he's supposed to be indestructible; he's an instrument of fate. I would say that the only problem that I had with the film was that the characters are a bit too archetypal- Jaguar Paw reminded me of Rama in the Ramayana in that he essentially follows his single path throughout and is protected by the cosmos for doing so. As with Rama and Ulysses, his is a quest to return to his beloved, who is little more than a plot device herself. This has deep resonance, but archetypes aren't exactly nuanced, and they can be hard for us mere mortals to relate to.

On the other hand, the nice thing about myths is that they're vague enough to fit most people and eras. Aside from some rather obvious swipes at the current war and administration, there's nothing about Apocalypto that could prevent it from becoming an enduring myth, and film making that aspires to the level of visual mythology is a rare thing these days.


Parachuting With Satan

From the Fatwas Say the Darndest Things Department:
"I can assure you neither of us meant any harm to cultural or societal norms. It is not un-Islamic or unpatriotic to jump from a plane with a parachute, as the clerics have indicated in their fatwa."
-Pakistan Tourism Minister Nilofar Bakhtiar, who had to quit her job after she recieved a fatwa for skydiving and hugging her trainer in Paris.


White Lions

Four white snow lions born in a zoo in western France over the weekend, boosting the world population of a rare species.


Cannes- No Country for Old Men

One of the films at Cannes that I'm most excited about is 'No Country for Old Men' by the Cohen brothers. I haven't liked the last two Cohen films really, and honestly I think that they don't write real people as often as they write patronizing portrayals of cute accents. Of course, their silly stereotypes work fine for farce, and both Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski are extremely funny. Also, les frères Coen tend to work best in the noir mode and these films (Blood Simple, Fargo, and The Man Who Wasn't There especially) are where they bring out the real people. So I'm expecting a great characterization from Tommy Lee Jones in this film, not to mention the fact that it's based on a Cormac McCarthy novel who is just fantastic. Anyway, this is one that I wish I was in Cannes to see. The rest of us have to wait until November.



''Since complementarity is essential to the success of eternally regenerative Universe, the phenomenon identified as the opposite of positive cannot be negative, nor can it be bad since the interposed phenomena known heretofore as good and bad are essential to the 100 percent success of eternally regenerative Universe. They are both good for the Universe.''
-Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Radiate the children

A British health official has called for an inquiry into the use of wi-fi Internet in the classroom because of the risk that it might expose children to radiation.

Another risk involved- uh, that children might be surfing the fuggin' Internet in a goddamn classroom! I'm just saying...



''The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement. Maybe most reviewing, whatever its venue, fails that ideal. But a purely "democratic literary landscape" is truly a wasteland, without standards, without maps, without oases of intelligence or delight.''
-Richard Schickel, celebrating cultural elitism and bashing bad writers, particularly bloggers. Be still my beating heart.


Idiocracy comes to life (again)

So, uhm. This is depressing. This video is pretty much the harbinger of the addition of "Ow My Balls" to the NBC prime time lineup. Apparently horse racing is not the sport of kings anymore.


Monday, May 21, 2007

From the Makers of 'Irony'

Finally, an answer to that age old question, what is philosophy? It's a line of cosmetics, apparently.


Support Your Local Stoned Police Officer

This is perhaps the funniest thing I've seen in a month- a police officer called 911 after having eaten marijuana brownies with his wife and becoming convinced that he was dead. Watch the newscast here, and note that the newscasters can't stop laughing either. The complete tape is even funnier. Charges haven't been filed against the cop, but I'm guessing he's not going to live this down for a while.


Graz Update Week Ending May 19

Here's the latest fun from Austria:

This past week contained some firsts. For instance, Thursday was the first time Greg had off work for Ascension Day. He'll also be off next Monday for Whit Monday. It takes some getting used to, having holidays off that we have to look up the meaning behind.
To celebrate a day off, we had Alfio and Melanie over for dinner. Alfio is the professor who hired Greg at Uni Graz. (He prefers not to be called The Boss, but that's what he gets called, anyway.) Melanie is his partner in crime. This was the first time we'd had guests (not counting the guys who delivered the furniture, or the guy who fixed the power, or the guy who fixed the phone line. They didn't bring us any interesting desserts.) Sorry about the poor quality of the picture of our guests, apparently the camera was maladjusted. Alfio and Melanie taught us (or tried to teach us) an Italian card game and an Austrian card game. The cards are very different--different number of cards, different designs, different sizes, different names... and then the rules are complicated. And also, they both speak Italian, and German, and English--sometimes at random intervals. Needless to say, we will not be winning the next tournaments for these card games that we come across. We taught them a game we like, and they both took to it like fish to water. Possibly better. Fortunately, it's only for 2 players, because if we tried to play against them, we'd get walloped! They've already announced their intention to get a deck of American style playing cards and add this game into their repertoire.

Dessert at dinner that night was another first--Alfio and Melanie picked some Hollunder flowers and battered and fried them, and after dinner, we ate that, sprinkled with a little bit of powdered sugar. (This is not a particularly poor picture--it's just that Austrian food is surprisingly unappealing to photograph. We have yet to see a single enticing picture of Austrian food. It is one of life's great mysteries, because the food here is fantastic!) These are the flowers of a bush that is growing all over town, with big bunches of little white flowers. We'd seen people picking these in the park, and thought they were just decorating their houses, but it seems they were either frying and eating them, or possibly soaking them in water and sugar to make a pleasant juice beverage. For those of you playing at home, these are elder bushes, but not the ones that edible elder berries come from. Those are other, and people will (later) be picking those berries. Apparently everyone knows that if you pick all the flowers off the other ones, you don't get any berries. So, they don't.

Another first this week was drinking Radler, a mixture of beer and lemonade--known in the British Isles as "shandy." Which is not as gross as it sounds. In fact, it's not gross at all, except for one of the brands we tried, which was just downright bad--but the beer of that brand isn't especially good, either. The great thing about the way beverages are sold here is that almost anything is available in a single can or bottle. Easier to enjoy, less commitment if it's bad. (Sadly, we accidentally bought two of the really bad one. Oops.) Radler is the German word for "bicyclist" -- apparently this beverage was invented by a bar owner who was, one hot summer, completely overrun by bicyclists, 10,000 of them or more, and was running out of beer. So he started mixing it with lemonade, and told everyone he'd invented it specifically to be more quenching for a hot day. Surprisingly, he wasn't lynched about that, and it instead became very popular. We have not yet tried the Lemongrass Radler (the one in the bottle) but we are very curious.

On the weekend, we made crepes for the first time. This isn't particularly interesting or novel or .... Austrian. But, man, that was tasty. We tried crepes filled with strawberry preserves, and we tried crepes filled with tart, fresh cheese, smoked ham, and chives. Yummy. We'll probably be doing that again, it's surprisingly fast and easy. We would've made a picture, but all the crepes... uh ... went away. ;)

This picture is of a candle on display in a window down in the Altstadt. The shop is apparently quite classy, a famous porcelain house. We wondered what unique piece of unidentifiable porcelain this thing could be, that we were too uncultured and non-worldly to even know about. Then we got closer, and it turned out to demonstrate the rather un-worldly necessity of wooden display candles in a hot window.

The Schloßberg has gotten quite lush over the last few weeks. The last photographs taken up there were in the snow. Now it looks positively summery. With good reason, the temperatures keep getting into the 80's... at least we're getting a little bit of rain now and then. It is supposed to get into the 90's this week, sadly.

The garden near the top looks rather different than it did when we first photographed it, it was quite bleak then. Even with a mild winter, January is a tough time for fancy gardens...

Our language skills improve slowly, in that we rarely leave restaurants or the grocery store wondering what just happened, and have started listening to German news broadcasts on the internet, with something less than completely befuddled looks on our faces. The grower's markets are starting to be open on weekdays. And the mosquitoes are out in force already.
That's about it for this week.


Holly & Greg


Sunday, May 20, 2007



''Entertainment is important because it is all-pervasive. Many people nowadays are growing up as if it were a gas in the atmosphere. They walk into the streets and vast plasma screens flash fast-moving images before them; their ears are stopped with iPods; at home, the television, or some other electronic entertainer, is on most of the time. People now grow uncomfortable, and even agitated, if they are left to their own thoughts for any length of time. When I was still in medical practice, more than a few patients used to ask me for pills to prevent them from thinking.''
-Theodore Dalrymple, back in fine form in the L.A. Times


The State of the Documentary in the Age of Ressentiment

Will we ever be able to escape reality?

In recent years, there seems to have been a reality glut, with reality television programs and documentary films being the only real growth industries in mass media. With 24 hour news programs and Internet access, many of us feel a gnawing responsibility to be informed about every damned thing going on in the world. However, the more information you obtain, the less understanding you have of that information. Many feel like they know a great deal of trivia with little ability to make sense of it. Perhaps this is why so many people become mouthpieces for religions or political parties- ideologies offer a sort of editing program that gives shape to the flow of sense data, largely by removing irritating counter-information.

But can we really argue that reality has triumphed, marching victoriously over the ruins of illusion? It has become a tired joke to say that reality television bears no relation to reality whatsoever. Less commented on is the fact that this is a boom age for documentaries that aren't really documentaries at all, at least not in the sense of a non-fiction film that seeks to document some aspect of lived human reality. We could perhaps say they're semi-documentary films that seek to convince their audience of a political point, but this is already the definition of propaganda. Indeed, Daniel Wood has called these films "docu-ganda''. In terms of the old cinéma vérité dream of letting the camera roll and hopefully capturing something authentic about people's lived experiences, these films are to documentaries as whistles are to plows; there's just no commonality.

The problem with these documentaries isn't with accuracy; being accurate is the easiest way of lying. Besides, documentaries have always been subject to the sort of mild inaccuracies that come from their having been shaped by sentient individuals. And some of the greatest practitioners of the form, such as Warner Herzog, have never let the facts get in the way of the truth about lived experience. There's something petty about picking at documentaries like chickens, desperately looking for inaccuracies, mistakes, or bloopers to blog about.

The problem is that the latest batch has been made by filmmakers who seem relatively uninterested in other people's lived experiences, or at least uninterested in their points of view. Documentarians like Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore seem more interested in hammering their opinions home over the course of an hour and a half than listening to people outside of their own reality tunnels. In this sense, their films resemble blogs or the other self-centered media of a generation that just isn't that into in other people, or the world outside of its own late capitalist empire of indifference. However, they're a bit more pernicious because their films, let's call them bitch-u-mentaries, are nominally about something in the outside world, and in fact claim to be very important statements about the outside world.

These bitch-u-mentaries have revived the documentary form in some way, even if they had to warp it beyond recognition to do so. Our neighborhood video store's documentary section is a virtual grab-bag of gripes. And it perhaps speaks to how callow and trite these films are that one can guess their content simply from their names. Oh, well you don't like McDonald's, do you?... And you're upset about peak oil... And you hate Wal-Mart... And you don't care for Michael Moore... Okay. Guess I'll just rent Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars again.

Perhaps it's unfair to say that these filmmakers are uninterested in other people; they simply lack empathy or good will towards those people who have committed the sin of disagreeing with them. Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbot, and Joel Bakan actually anthropomorphized The Corporation and made the case that this theoretical person should be locked up. Actually, documentarian Kirby Dick was so interested in the members of the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board that he does things in his film This Film is Not Yet Rated that amount to stalking. In fact, the ambush/interview is a common trope with these films, which often resemble Candid Camera without letting the prank victim in on the joke. Michael Moore set the standard for this sort of behavior by interviewing GM honcho Roger Smith and then making a film about 'unsuccessfully' attempting to interview him. Since then, he's made a cottage industry out of take-down bitch-u-mentaries and various take-down artists have followed in his wake. Unlike kino-pravda or cinéma vérité, which sought to capture reality warts and all, these films are just about the warts.

Perhaps the problem is with us. Maybe the ill will that animates these films comes from our own feelings of powerlessness, particularly strong among liberals, but diffused generally among Americans across the political spectrum. It's possible that the revolution will be televised simply because it couldn't possibly happen anywhere else but on TV. And certainly we should remember that issues of social justice have always been the themes of documentaries. But, there's a world of difference between Agnès Varda and Morgan Spurlock. Varda took marginalized figures and humanized them, while bitch-u-mentaries take human beings and attempt to reduce them to cartoons. To watch Harlan County, USA back-to-back with Roger and Me is to see how far we've gone, from attentive, curious and passionate to callow and glib. In fact, to watch Barbara Kopple's most recent documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing is to see how far she's gone; but she's still heads above most documentarians working today. Maybe each generation gets the documents it deserves. However, when we watch Harlan County, USA or Hearts and Minds again, and we should, I think it becomes clear that the problem isn't really with the subject matter of the gripe-u-mentaries at all.

It's a problem of form. In terms of the form of documentary film making, this boom is probably a bust. Many of these things are just ugly films, in style and tone. The dumbed-down, mean-spirited, shallow and cheap bitch-u-mentary has become the template for a genre that once, not so long ago, aimed much, much higher. What is troubling is that this generation will likely come to equate the documentary art form primarily with character assassination, balanced by occasional hagiography. And, in seeing 'reality' chronicled this way, they will further come to understand human beings as being roughly divisible into good and evil. The films foster public discussion, but only by giving their viewers portable simplistic talking-points to use against the enemy, whoever that is this week. And yet, the sort of society that expresses itself through the take-down is not indicative of a healthy democracy.

In a sense, we could say that the bitch-u-mentaries collectively chronicle a reality that they do not intend to: namely widespread Ressentiment. But, if we can't escape reality, we could at least admit that reality deserves better.


"De l'autre côté"

I'm not sure how you embed You Tube videos within the new Blogger. So, I'll have to link to this trailer for Crossing the Bridge, which looks to be the most entertaining film in competition at Cannes. It definitely has the most entertaining trailer, for what that's worth. Still not entirely sure what it could be about. Music in Istanbul perhaps?

Update- Yep, apparently that's exactly what it's about.


Coming Soon...

Sometime, in the near future, when I can take five minutes off from work, I'll make some notes about the lineup at Cannes...


Friday, May 18, 2007

India's Crisis of Democracy

According to Martha Nussbaum:
''What has been happening in India is a serious threat to the future of democracy in the world.''

From the sound of it, she's right. What has been happening? Religious nationalism, rioting, all the sort of horseshit that seems to be so popular lately. India's actually been having these sorts of problems for some time- the horrifying Gujarat riots took place five years ago- and what's more than a bit disturbing is how often the mobs act with relative impunity, as if India is headed towards some sort of mobocracy. It's also a tough situation for Indian historians, who have been frequent targets of mob violence for things they've written. I remember talking to a historian who came to America for just this reason and thinking to myself, ''Thank God nobody cares that much about Chateaubriand!''

Nussbaum's larger point is astute as well:
''The real "clash of civilizations" is not between "Islam" and "the West," but instead within virtually all modern nations — between people who are prepared to live on terms of equal respect with others who are different, and those who seek the protection of homogeneity and the domination of a single "pure" religious and ethnic tradition. At a deeper level, as Gandhi claimed, it is a clash within the individual self, between the urge to dominate and defile the other and a willingness to live respectfully on terms of compassion and equality, with all the vulnerability that such a life entails.''

There are a few points that I think she hits a bit too hard but, overall, these sorts of articles are why public intellectuals like Nussbaum are so valuable.


Grafitti in Hamilton that I Enjoyed



Graffiti Seen in Downtown Hamilton

Lif your life!


Overheard in the Library

Frat boy to two girls: (In a derisive tone that can only be described as expressing ''those stupid books think they're so smart''.) You know what I love about the library? The fuckin' crazy titles these books have. Look it! This one is called ''Whichever Way the Wind Blows''- dude, that's a Creed lyric! Here's one called ''What Goes Up''- dude, that's a fuckin' Tom Petty song! (chuckles to himself at all those crazy, crazy books.)


Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Ennui is Fine

In recent weeks, the line ''Come on in- the ennui is fine!'', aside from being a nice tag line suitable for putting on tee shirts and coffee mugs, has started to ring a little too true for me. I have been experiencing the sort of spiritual exhaustion that the French Romantics called the mal du siècle, or 'spleen', or simply ennui. Perhaps the simplest way to explain it is that it's not quite depression, boredom, or indifference, but it's a little of each. I feel like sitting in a cafe, smoking gitanes, drinking black coffee, and scoffing. Ennui is sort of like the blues, but more pretentious.

Reinhard Kuhn wrote a solid book entitled The Demon of Noontide in which he detailed the history of ennui in Western Literature. The Greeks wrote very little on the subject, and Reinhard believes that ennui really became a subject in literature with the early Christian writings about 'acedia', the dangerous state of mind that leads to all other sins, but also likely to redemption. It can be defined as 'sloth', but this doesn't quite get at the disengagement of ennui. The world is emptied of meaning, but it's not a necessarily painful state at all. The world simply seems strange and foreign. In many ways, it's pleasant. However, it's the indifference of acedia that leads to sin.

The French writers who dealt with 'spleen' treated it as a sort of world weariness. The post-Revolution generation not only had to live in a world without immanence, but they felt like they had been born too late, having just missed the revolutionary upheaval. The mal du siècle was a certain lassitude in regard to the state of the world. The feeling of being born too late is surprisingly common with ennui; I personally don't think I should have reached adulthood any later than the 1970s, and preferably before the 20th century. I don't know how one solves that particular problem. Ennui provoked many of the French post-revolutionaries to travel and write and smoke opium, but because it often relates to the state of being human- that is being mortal and without God- and not some external state, it tends to travel with you. Ennui is internal, and generally not provoked by external factors.

In a sense, my ennui actually does relate to the idea of mortality, and I've never found it at all reasonable that humans should be the only animals to live with the awareness of our own impending deaths. But a more banal cause of my ennui is simply that my schedule has been altered, from teaching and reading to simply sitting in the library and reading every day. The semester went fairly well, and my students seemed happy to take the final, and in spite of the fact that most of them did lousy on that final, the course was weighted so that most of them had good grades overall. I don't think many of them learned anything, and I'm increasingly skeptical of the possibility of education as a transformative experience in this time and place, but I'm not dwelling on it. I do think that my current schedule, basically working whenever I have the energy, probably isn't healthy. Another reason for the tag line is that I think ennui is the stereotypical affliction of the grad student. We're insufferable.

Strangely though, I'm not completely disengaged. I find myself interested in the buildings of Southern Ontario, Longinus, and this box of free VHS tapes that I've come into. I'm interested in my wife and our cat. In fact, I think I'd be quite happy just walking around all day, were there no people. As long as I could walk around some part of North America that isn't filled with loud, angry, boring, ill-informed binge shoppers and their electronic gadgets, I'd be quite happy. A place with no noise. But I don't know where that is. I sort of feel like I've wandered onto an alien planet, and I would rather not walk around places where there are other people.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Accents of the world

Yesterday, I came across this interesting site at George Mason. The project is cataloging and analyzing the accents of people all over the world as they read (or attempt to read) the same sample paragraph in English. One thing I was struck by was the fact that some of the accents in the US and UK made me crack up a bit.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Today's French

These are probably some good words for Claire and I to know when we live in France next year! Not quite sure why I didn't learn them before today...

Facture: Invoice; bill.
Facturer: To bill.
Payer les factures: To pay the bills.


Meet the Von Bismarcks

Somehow, I'm not entirely surprised to find that Judi Giuliani is as much of a batshit crazy authoritarian bully as her beloved husband is. Vultures of a feather and all that.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Dr. Movie Notes: The Legend of Rita

Old revolutionaries never die; they just go into hiding. Somehow, it's hard to imagine an old revolutionary anyway. You see the confused and tepid middle-agers who were once the Weather Underground on CNN and wonder if there wasn't a mistake made somewhere. And just imagine Che Guevara in the retirement home, complaining about his lower back pain. How would the Baader-Meinhof gang have adjusted to neighborhood committee meetings and office parties? One imagines that the PTA would frown on the use of revolutionary violence to achieve their goals.

And how might they have atoned for their sins? Volker Schlöndorff's 1999 film, The Legend of Rita imagines a New Left terrorist forced to live in the purgatory of East Germany during the 1970s and 1980s and discovering that the 'people's' state isn't all that she imagined it would be. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss. The real wonder of Bibiana Beglau's lead performance here is that she conveys the deep disillusionment and cynicism of the character without overtly expressing it. One scene towards the end of the film, and in the storyline towards the end of the Soviet satellite states, is the most overt expression of the angry faith of the ardent believer, still burning after all these years.

Along the way, the character goes from a pop fiction bank robbery opening to a dreary existence in the worker's paradise, protected by a Stasi agent, played by Martin Wuttke's, and loved by co-worker Tatjana (Nadja Uhl) and a young student (Alexander Beyer) respectively. Because she is wanted for the murder of a Paris policeman, ''Rita'' cannot stay still for long, and is shuffled through a variety of jobs in which she is inevitably more fond of communism than her East German co-workers. Above all, what makes the film work as well as it does is Begalu's performance; she convinces as a passionate idealist whose vision of a just world stays with her as the reality slips further away from the ideal.
Film Notes Archive.


Dr. Movie Notes: The Genocide Factor

Note: I recently received a number of videotapes from a professor who was cleaning out her collection and switching to DVDs. I've agreed with Claire that I will watch each tape once and throw them out. So ''Dr. Movie Notes'' refers to the movies in this grab-bag from someone else's movie collection. The fun part is that I've never even heard of many of these films.

The Genocide Factor- Episode 4

Never mind ''never again''. Genocide had something of a renaissance in the 1990s with major 'ethnic cleansing' campaigns waged in Rwanda, Burundi, and the countries formerly known as Yugoslavia. On one hand, the difference between 'ethnic cleansing' and 'genocide' is relatively minor; ethnic cleansing is when you force a group of people off of a piece of land, killing them indiscriminately in the process; genocide is when you surround them and kill them. Since this is a difference of intent, though, the terminology is extremely important in legal terms. Genocide is the crime above all crimes. Since 2002, with the foundation of the International Criminal Court, it is considerably harder for those who commit war crimes to escape conviction. Sad to say, Idi Amin and Pol Pot died of old age in relative freedom.

While variations of genocide have existed since Biblical times, the legal term was coined in 1933 by Raphael Lemkin. Sadly, it has been an applicable term several times since then. This film is actually part four in a series and deals with the mass killings in Uganda, Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda, and the countries that once made up Yugoslavia. Chillingly enough, Sudan is mentioned only at the end as one potential future 'hot spot'- the film was made in 2002.

I've actually spoken with Alison Des Forges, who is interviewed throughout the film. She is an African historian and an expert on the Rwandan genocide and is often called to the Hague as an expert witness in genocide cases. It's impossible to tell in the film, but she is a tiny woman with smiling eyes who seems an unlikely sort to spend her life studying mass murder. I asked her how she spends so much time on this subject without wanting to kill herself. She never really explained it, but I think she simply understands the importance of her work, a grace that not many people have. It can clearly become overwhelming stuff though; witness Iris Chang, who herself bore witness to the Rape of Nanking, before eventually shooting herself.

An interesting aspect of the film for me was that it was the flash point for a mini-controversy at Mall University. One of our professors showed the film in a class and a student became upset over the sections dealing with war crimes between the Israelis and Palestinians. As is often the case with these sorts of things, the student's response was to go to administration and to push for the professor to be 'held accountable', whatever that means. The student got some more-Israeli-than-thou group in California on her side in a crusade against the ''anti-Israel and anti-Semitic professor'', who was a bit taken aback by the whole matter, as she is both Jewish and Israeli. I think what bugged me about the whole thing was that it could have been handled more productively by having some sort of open discussion on the film. The college community at large could have discussed whether or not the film is controversial. But, the group in question wasn't making the case that it was a controversial film so much as that it was a controversial film to them. So it wasn't open for discussion. I honestly think most 'politics' boils down to groups of people trying to make other people do what they want.

When the film reached the controversial section, I was expecting something... I don't know... a bit more inflammatory, or at least noticeably slanted. But the section in question was five minutes long, and it argued basically that war crimes have been committed by both the Israelis and the Palestinians, fueled by implacable hatred for each other. Well, fucking duh.

I also think the reason there are so many of these mini-controversies on college campuses isn't because of any particular ideology, but because students have come to expect that their education should be tailor-made for them specifically. For all of the rhetoric you hear from the politically correct right and left, their arguments often boil down to 'the customer is always right'. Well, fine. But isn't college the one time in your life in which you should want to be pushed, challenged, and shaken up a bit? A customer might always be right, but a student who is always right has no real need to be educated.

Film Notes Archive.


Weekly Graz Letter #3

It rained a bit this week, which flushed all manner of snails and slugs out of the grass and onto walkways all over town. The snails here come in 3 kinds, large and brownish, medium, smooth, and yellow with black racing stripes, and very small, pointy snails that look like aquatic snails. Some of them are terribly cute. Here's pictures...

We went to a local pizzaria Friday night, a pub with a choose-your-own-adventure pizza ordering sheet. You get a list of toppings on a small sheet of paper, and mark what size pizza you want, you mark the toppings--cheese, tomato, oregano automatically, 4 more toppings included with the price, but have as many as you want for extra cost--and then eventually a crispy thin crust pizza with the toppings of your choosing comes wafting your way from the kitchen. By then you've had half a beer, and suddenly all is right with the world. This is not such an unusual undertaking, but some of the 39 toppings were a bit unusual to us. The toppings categorize roughly into: Normal Pizza Things, Abnormal-but-not-unappealing Pizza Things, and Things Which Should In No Circumstance Come Into Contact With Pizza.

Category A includes: Ham, Onions, Olives, Peppers

Category B includes: Corn, Capers, Tabasco, SardinesCategory

C includes: Curry (powder? sauce? chicken curry? we don't know), Tuna, Arugula, Weinbergschnecken (we had to look it up)

* A word about the arugula, before we come to that last thing. The arugula is fresh, cold, uncooked. Apparently after the pizza is cooked, the chef arranges a very generous double handful of arugula on the top, thus providing the bitterness and dietary fiber pizza has always been lacking. We saw one of these delivered to the next table over, and were slightly alarmed. (It probably IS good, but it's not what we look for in pizza.)
* OK, so Weinbergschnecken... Schnecken is the German word for snails, but we were kind of wondering if that was a euphemism for something. Because they wouldn't REALLY put snails on pizza. Not really. So we looked it up when we got home. Apparently it's a euphemism for The Large, Adorable Snails We've Seen By The River Path All Week Since It's Rained A Bit. Sooooo. That's nasty. Our pizza was good, though. It was composed of "boring" toppings, like artichoke and garlic...
* An amusing further note about the pizza pub... when we ordered our beers, we asked the waiter what they had on tap, since they had 5 taps we couldn't see from where we were sitting... he very tentatively said "Murauer...?" as if this was a trick question. It's possible there were 5 different Murauer beers on tap, or, he was subtly not-recommending the other 4 beers. Either way, the Murauer was good.
* Holly's brother, Matt, has revealed the existence of a handy inter-time-zone scheduling tool, that lets a person check the time wherever they are, versus the time wherever else in the world someone is. This is handy if (for example) one were planning a Skype call with someone in the Central European Time zone... Here's the link:

This supercool lamp was spotted in the window of a downtown lampery this week. We made a wrong turn and passed a place with many interesting lamps in the window, and had to stop and get a picture of this one. Having always made a habit of touring through the lighting options at hardware stores and such in the U.S., we can safely say Austrians have far more extreme taste in lighting fixtures than Americans. There are dozens of lamp shops, and each has weirder fixtures than the next. (This one is by no means the wildest, but it was reasonably easy to get a good photo.)

Greg's former PhD advisor was in Austria last week for a conference, not in Graz, but in Bad Ischl, so they didn't get to meet up. But it's hard to imagine there were too many other New Mexico residents here last week.

Some experimental foods this week: Gurktaler Alpenkräuter, an herbal liquor that claims to contain 59 herbs and 14 things that look like herbs, a product of the neighboring province, Kärten. It's apparently considered medicinal and/or an impulse purchase necessity, because it's frequently sold in the .04 litre bottles at the grocery store checkout, next to the Professional Mints ("Mouthcare for in-between!") and little wads of dextrose pressed into the shape of cell phones, or whatever passes for novelty shaped candy with the kids these days. It's very easy to imagine Austrian parents giving their fussy toddler a little schnort of this to help 'em settle down at bedtime.

<--Professional Mints. NOT Amateur Mints!

Greg's keen eye spied a manner of marzipan treat we'd not tried before, which promises Edel Marzipan, which in one interpretation means "Noble Marzipan". Mmm. Nobel marzipan. Which reminds us of some pictures we saw of a marzipan fruit stand in Sicily, which was selling solid marzipan fruits, hand-made to look just like real fruits, full-size or more... there were a dozen half-bushel baskets filled with each kind of fruit. When we asked the person who'd taken that picture what one does with that much marzipan, the answer was "Uh... you... eat ... it?" as if it were a trick question of some sort. Clearly some people have a higher tolerance for marzipan than we have.

Another experiment this week, XXX Fresh Freaky Lemon Zahncreme und Mundwasser (toothpaste + mouthwash in one product). It smells *exactly* like a product we have for decalcifying the toilet bowl... so that's not encouraging. But sometimes a person can't resist the siren song of the deep discount table at InterSpar. (It actually doesn't taste too bad, but Holly only tried it in a homeopathic does. Greg has not tried it, and probably will never.)

At the grower's market, we discovered that it may already be a bit late for the delicate, mild radishes of spring, in that the bundle we bought this week included one the size of a racquetball (or, as you'll see, nearly the size of a cat's head), which was fiery. (Although, surprisingly, not pithy.) We've been trying not to put so many pictures of the cat, but she HAD to have the radish roots, so she's making a little cameo. Of course, she also tried to have the Edel Marzipan wrapper, and the string that keeps the camera lens cap... she was in a bit of a state because we'd just sampled some really excellent garlic salami, and apparently we hadn't given her anywhere NEAR as much of it as she wanted. The problem with cats is, they don't understand when you explain that the dietary requirements of cats for garlic-things is actually quite little.

That's about it for this week. Hope you had a great weekend!

-Holly & Greg


Sunday, May 13, 2007

The No Bomb Turks

Like many people, I have to admit that when I hear the word 'demonstrators', I reach for my flask. But, I'm glad to see 1.5 million marching in Turkey under the banner: "No to Islamic law, no to military coups: a democratic Turkey." I think they're right- the cure for fanaticism isn't militarism- it's democratic humanism. It's good to see the survival of all of those silly old ideas that Voltaire and Diderot wrote about in the modern world.


Friday, May 11, 2007


Marxism, and Other Faiths

Today, I'm sitting here trying to figure out why this essay by Theodore Dalrymple leaves me cold. I like Dalrymple quite a bit and, as I've said before, think he's the only conservative that should be required reading for liberals. In the essay, he draws comparisons between Marxism and the writings of Sayyid Qutb, showing the flaws in both. I think his points are correct, as they stand, although not especially deep. But, I'm not a Marxist, nor am I a radical Muslim, so his critique of both doesn't bug me. So, what's the problem?

Maybe it's just how shallow the essay seems, which is odd given the depths of Dalrymple's other essays. This one feels ghost-written. He speaks at great length about Qutb's dreadful book Milestones, which he is now reading, and compares it to the writings of Karl Marx. Here is where he gets cursory and glib. To be blunt, I don't get the sense that Dalrymple has ever read Capital, I think he might or might not have read the Communist Manifesto, and I can only guarantee that he's read Karl Popper's critiques of Marxism. Must one read Marx? Well, probably if they're going to write a critique of Marx's thinking. Or to fight insomnia.

I have read Capital, god help me. It seems to me that Capital can be read in two ways:
1. As a critique of capitalism.
2. As a defense of Marxism. (And it should be read as both.)

Indeed, the text tends to vary between passages of extremely dry economic modeling and analysis, and muckraking vignettes of life in a capitalist/industrial society. Most people, myself included, struggle to stay awake through the former and find the latter to be much easier reading. In general, I think Marx's diagnosis of the problems 'inherent' to capitalism, the bulk of the text, are fairly shrewd. But, he didn't really foresee things like the minimum wage, OSHA, or the fact that capitalism would grow wealth as well as it does. In other words, the problems are there, but it's not clear that they're as 'irreconcilable' as he thinks. On the other hand, he did foresee things like globalization.

In the larger sense, Marxism requires us to take Marx's analysis of the phenomena inherent to capitalist societies (the raw data, if you will) as evidence that he has uncovered the underlying laws of historical development, which can be roughly called Dialectical Materialism, taking Hegel's more spiritual Dialectic of History and turning it on its head. (In Marx, material conditions are the base that determines the intellectual/ cultural superstructure, and in Hegel it's the opposite.) He has supposedly seen the stages that societies pass through, the dialectical struggles that make it possible for them to pass through these stages, and the endpoint of history, which is forthcoming. Lucky him.

So, is it possible to accept Marx's critique of capitalism, but not his defense of Marxism? Of course. But, not if you're a Marxist. That sounds glib. My point is that a Marxist cannot get around the dialectic, which is the motor by which Marxist theory 'works'. If there is no dialectic, there are no 'laws of historical development', or at least we can't spot them, and therefore Marxism is suited to predict the future of capitalist societies only as well as anything else.

Perhaps it's not revealing much to say that I don't accept the Dialectic. In general, I don't believe in laws of historical progress at all, I think Dialectical Materialism is quasi-mysticism, civilizations are likely guided more by chance and chaos than material factors and 'struggle', and that Hegel, that house philosopher of Prussian militarism, was an ill wind that blew no good. I am not a Marxist. This doesn't mean that Marx isn't worth reading or thinking about. But, kids, no book is ever going to give you all the answers to understanding the world around you. Remember: ambiguity and ambivalence are your dearest friends.

But, if there are vulgar Marxists, then there are certainly vulgar anti-Marxists. I've read too many articles about Marxism that are as deterministic as vulgar Marxism can be! The poor naive fellow picks up Capital and reads it, and then the mind-control ray zaps him! (Oh, if it was only so exciting to read Capital!) Anti-Marxists describe Marxism as a 'disease' or a 'poison' with all of the nuance of a Maoist describing Capitalism. After all, the danger is in reading Marx uncritically, not in reading him at all. The danger is in reading anything uncritically. Alas, we've now got people compiling lists of the Most Dangerous Books Ever. Like I've said before: Left-wingers see the world as basically unjust, while Right-wingers see the world as basically unsafe.

I think Dalrymple is right in seeing that Qutb borrowed from Marx; but I think he misses the reason this was so easy, namely the eschatological roots of Marxism. Hegel was trying to show that Christian theology is visible in the 'unfolding' of history and therefore to prove the inevitability of the forthcoming end of days. Marx tries to root this in material conditions, and so to make it scientific instead of spiritual, but he never really escapes the metaphysical aspect of Hegelianism. Bertrand Russel's comparison: Yahweh = Dialectical Materialism, The Messiah = Marx, The Elect = The Proletariat, The Second Coming = The Revolution, The Millennium = The End of History & Communism, etc.- works so well because the atheist Marx is modeling his theory after Hegel, who was anything but an atheist.

Therefore, it would make sense that a religious fanatic would borrow from Hegelian ideas. I think the value of Dalrymple's essay is that he sees the implications of there being quasi-Marxist underpinnings to a religious movement- namely, if the 'direction of history' is more important than the lives of us mere individuals, such ideologies can quickly turn authoritarian and murderous. Strangely though, Dalrymple doesn't seem to understand that religious eschatology was already bred in the Hegelian bones of Marxism. And he doesn't see (or doesn't indicate awareness) that all eschatological religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, carry the same danger, and most religions have, at one time or another, brought about the same disastrous results as the Marxist faith. And it's more than a bit interesting that Francis Fukuyama's great book The End of History, which argues that Hegel's Dialectic of history instead indicates that liberal capitalism will be the endpoint of history, and not communism, is required reading in the Bush White House. Especially given the way that the ends justify the means in all Hegelian philosophies, including Marxism. Why isn't this the subject of a book yet?

All ideologies that put some far off ideal or 'the future judgment of history' above the lives and destinies of real-world contemporary people can quickly turn disastrous, and should be rejected. (Actually, let's just play it safe and reject all belief systems. Whaddya say?) Such was the case with the Marxist utopia. Such was the case with Islamic radicalism. And such was the case with the plan to create a free and liberated utopian Middle East with bombs. People who say 'History is on my side' should be locked in rubber rooms; not followed. Remember: Never, ever trust anyone who seeks to undertake large programs of social engineering with heavy artillery.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

In for Repairs

My computer is in for repairs, so the postings will be more sporadic for a while. I will post little things when I'm in the office or at the library, but nothing too big for a while. In the meantime, anyone who would like to can tell me what they make of this article, which is not entirely dissimilar from my own experience at Mall University a few semesters ago...

You know, I hate to say this, but my life is generally much more enjoyable when I have little to no Internet access. I am more aware of the passage of time. When I'm online, I can spend four hours on You Tube without noticing it. Maybe most people don't do that. But, it's nice to not have easy access to a computer and have to find ways to fill my time. Yesterday, I read two books, cleaned up the garden, did housework, played with the cat, and watched a movie!

So, maybe it's for the best that the computer is in the shop for a while.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007


"The most extravagant idea that can arise in a politician's head is to believe that it is enough for a people to invade a foreign country to make it adopt their laws and their constitution. No one loves armed missionaries..."
-Maximilien Robespierre


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Best Restaurant in Thunder Bay, Ontario


Tonight's Episode: Pizza Man of Death!

Since I don't watch the television news, I can only assume that what they're blowing all out of proportion today is the news that a gimcrack paint ball squad of pizza delivery men in New Jersey was arrested for plotting a savage and stupid attack on Fort Dix. Per usual, this terrorist cell could best be described as 'bearded losers' with big dreams of killing strangers. Not too different from alienated losers throughout history. And were these fellows particularly religious? Mais bien sûr! It's good news that they were caught and arrested.

It's interesting that they were fans of terrorist DVDs, which might well be a handy political tract for the illiterate public. It's also interesting that they were caught using the same techniques that the FBI uses to catch mafiosi, and not the tough guy fantasy methods of torture and electrodes. There weren't even any wiretaps. Jack Bauer would have been bored senseless! Additionally, the affidavit suggests that the 'terror network' isn't exactly made up of criminal masterminds. The guys got caught when they tried to get a DVD dubbing place to copy their disturbing home-made propaganda video! Imagine if the Lindbergh baby kidnappers had gone to a professional calligrapher to write their ransom letters! One has to be underwhelmed. Six idiotic pizza delivery guys? This is the 'existential threat to America'?

Perhaps the most interesting section of the affidavit, for what it reveals about the terrorist underground, and also about its unintentional comedic value, is this: "Because as far as people we have enough, 7 people. And we are all crazy." Of the seven, one was an undercover officer and four were brothers. Otherwise, it doesn't sound like the group had ties to anyone, aside from pepperoni wholesalers. For all the talk of the 'millions of Islamic extremists' that are supposedly waiting in the wings and sharpening their scythes, their actual arrests are consistenly underwhelming and suggest that the war on terror is suffering from a severe problem of scale. However, I'm guessing that isn't how CNN is narrating this particular story.