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March 30, 2007

Mediated and/or Medicated

An entry here a few days ago gave evidence to my rather belated discovery of political blogger/law professor Ann Althouse.

And now (as if in strange exemplification of cultural tendencies that I've been puzzling over since starting to read Thomas de Zengotita) there comes a video of Ann Althouse watching American Idol.

What would make anyone do this sort of thing? The desire to watch American Idol is itself a mystery (one I prefer not to fathom) but this seems to be carrying it all well beyond questionable taste, into regions uncharted even by Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism.

Perhaps she is best understood as performing a (blotto?) approximation of Baudrillard's notion of "fatal strategy" -- pushing the logic of the system to its extreme. To exponential levels, at which things implode.

It could be time to do a YouTube video of me complaining about Ann Althouse and American Idol while watching the YouTube video of Ann Althouse watching American Idol.

Those complaints might best be presented in song....

(Link via TBogg)

Posted by smclemee at 5:19 PM | Comments (2)

Mänÿ, Mänÿ Lïnks

In Austin, long ago, friends and I discussed starting a metal band to be called Mötley Ümläüt. Nothing came of it, alas. Though there's a chance one of the guys still has a tape from our other side-project, the Dead Belushis.

In any case, the topic of music-related gratuitous-umlaut usage is extensively covered at Orgtheory.

Posted by smclemee at 5:00 PM | Comments (1)

A Fresh Triumph of the Will

The trailers for 300 made it look so much like a video game (a cultural form with no appeal for me at all) that actually going to it never crossed my mind, even though I'm interested in the history.

Subsequent critical commentary on the film has only reinforced that decision -- while adding a layer of incredulity at the idea of the Spartans being portrayed as some kind of Republican focus group, a bunch of freedom-loving homophobes engaged in a joint campaign of the Culture Wars and the War on Terror.

If you know even a very little about the culture and regime of Sparta, this is totally bizarre. But it isn't just bizarre, since it sounds like the movie's propaganda offensive includes treating Athens as some kind of contemptible, effete Blue State. An audience of young, impressionable, historically clueless viewers is going to walk away from this film even more thoroughly out of touch with the past than when it went in.

Gary Brecher, a.ka. the War Nerd, faces the inconvenient truth:

What had me really wanting to puke is that this movie tries to make Sparta into some kind of Land of Hallmark Card-givers. There's about an hour's worth of perfume-ad scenes where Leonidas and his lovey-dovey wife, a feisty lady in one of those bondage-lite Greek dresses, cuddle and make eyes at each other and say patriotic stuff by way of foreplay. Yeah, that's why you see those bumperstickers, "Sparta was for lovers."

Fact: Sparta was about as romantic as North Korea. Give or take a little egalitarianism, Sparta WAS North Korea. Spartan laws did everything they could to break down the family. Sparta was more anti-nuclear family than any Hollywood liberal could ever be.

Wanna know what a Spartan wedding night was really like? It's pretty hilarious, in an insane way. As soon as a Spartan girl got her first period, they grabbed her, shaved her head, dressed her as a boy, threw her down on her new husband's bed, and then, well, he had his way with her. What way was that? Since hubby had been in an all-male dorm since age seven, I'm betting that that night of lovin' was more like a skinny white boy's introduction to San Quentin after lights-out than it was like a chick flick. So when this movie shows the Spartan hero saying to his wife, "Goodbye, my love," I just had to laugh.

No Spartan ever told his wife he loved her. That would've been like treason, because the Spartan rulers wanted family ties snapped, so the only bond left was to the state. They left room for folks' natural urges by letting the women drink, which they did non-stop, and the men form what you might call close comradely bonds with their fellow soldiers.

In the ancient world, gay was a matter of who was on top. If you were a topper, that was fine; if you were the one getting in the ass, not so cool. In other words, prison rules. Sparta's leather-bar ways were a running joke to the ancient Greeks. The Spartans were stone killers - but they also preened like teenage girls before a battle. They grew their hair long, and before a fight they'd comb it, oil it, try out fetching new styles, put little baubles in their ears, anything to die young and leave a beautiful corpse.

None of that in this movie. Just the opposite. The script even has Leonidas taunt the Athenians calling them "boy-lovers." Athens, the true hero of the war against Persia, gets dissed time and again in this movie. You won't hear a word in 300 about Salamis, the real decisive battle of the war - because it was Athens, not Sparta, that destroyed the Persian fleet at Salamis.

This isn't just a matter of overlooking some detail that would get in the way of exposition. Look, we can denounce the limitations of franchise in Athens until we all feel suitably indignant at the idea of calling it "the birthplace of democracy" -- but at the end of the day, it was the birthplace of democracy. In 1955, when C. L. R. James wanted to write about the shape that a revolutionary democratic-socialist order ought to take, guess what his reference point was?

Conversely, in the early 20th century, when right-wing authoritarians in Europe looked to antiquity for a model, they, too, had an example in mind. Brecher is not being alarmist when he says:

Only amateur fascists admire Sparta guys; they're still pissed off because people like me dared to warn them the Iraq war was going to be a disaster. Now the neocons have gone so over the deep end of delusional thinking that they've resorted to fantasizing about Sparta, where nobody ever argued, where everyone yelled and stabbed and otherwise kept their mouths shut.

It's downright hilarious the way this movie punishes every smart character. Every time someone wants to argue with the war party in this movie, he's evil. Everybody who talks in a normal tone of voice is evil. Snyder shows two scenes where the Spartans murder Persian envoys arriving under a flag of truce. And both times, you're supposed to cheer.

Since when do Americans cheer when truce parties are murdered? Well, that's pretty easy to answer, actually: since Iraq. These diehard neocons have gone insane because there's no way they can argue for an invasion of Iran any more. But they still want it, bad. So they've taken a crash course in fascism, jumping all the way to cheering for Sparta and booing for Athens - because Athens stands for brains and flexibility and talking things out. They can't win the argument, so they want to kill anybody who tries to argue.

Thanks to Tim Burke for pointing out Brecher's salutary article.

(Crossposted to Cliopatria)

Posted by smclemee at 11:49 AM

March 29, 2007

And Now Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA, Would Like To Sing For You a Little Song

Posted by smclemee at 6:59 PM | Comments (1)

Comic-al Parapraxis


Should that be "parapraxises"? I mean, there are fifteen of them. Maybe "parapraxi"?

Whatever. Thanks to Fade Theory for the tip.

Posted by smclemee at 2:35 PM

March 28, 2007

The Art of Cinema Considered as "a Taquito Buffet That You Puke Up After Getting Hit With a Motorcycle"

It takes a talented writer to convey the thought processes of a bad writer. And so, now, some excerpts from the finest piece of prose I have encountered in a while -- Neil Compstun's review of Grindhouse, the pastische of exploitation films directed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

It isn't even a movie - it's TWO movies with some trailers and stuff at the beginning, and also between the movies. The directors - more about them in a second (there's TWO!) - wanted to recreate the way movies were back in the 1920's, when you could sell a script that was one page that just said, "TITS THEN A MONSTER THEN MORE TITS THEN AN EXPLOSION THEN BONUS TITS" and everyone knew what you were talking about.

Also, there's zombies getting killed by a helicopter, which is not only cool to look at, but shows how the movie-makers did some research, to make things realistic.

To continue:

....they show a trailer for a movie I need to see RIGHT NOW with my eyes (I already saw it in my head when I was driving last week and Van Halen's "Panama" came on the radio and I'd just started eating a Payday). It's called MACHETE, and it's got that Mexican guy who's always in movies where there's people who really need knives stuck into them, and he's always, "Here, let's get those knives in you". Danny something.

Whatever his last name is, he should change it to, "Fuck-a-dilly" because everyone says that automatic when they see him, because he's going to bring the fuck-a-dilly to the movie, which will probably involve a foot, a face, and foot-face-fuckup. Also, Cheech from Cheech and The Chong is in the trailer, and he's a priest and he's shooting people, which is ironic, I think.

Then the first movie starts. It's called PLANET OF TERROR, and it's about a planet (which looks a lot like Earth) that's made of pure terror. Here's how shit-scream terrorizing it is: there's these mutated kill-monsters, but even BEFORE they show up there's all this fucking terror. Like a doctor who wants to kill his doctor wife, and the doctor wife is always sticking these three needles into people which fucks them up, and there's a sheriff who's played by that Reese guy from TERMINATOR robot. The sheriff looks like he's always going to kill someone by crushing a bunch of walnuts in his mouth and spitting the shells through their skull.

Half of criticism, as someone once said, is a knack for aptness of characterization.

(via Unfogged)

Posted by smclemee at 10:58 AM

Reconfiguring Borders

Last week, the Borders chain -- which in 30 years has grown from a single used bookshop largely serving students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to a global empire, with stores in the U.K. and Australia among other places -- announced that it would be undertaking a major restructuring. Its new strategic plan will (in the words of a press release) "revitalize, refocus, and ultimately reinvent the company to achieve its mission to be a headquarters for knowledge and entertainment."

So much for the usual nourishing corporate baloney....


Posted by smclemee at 7:01 AM

March 27, 2007

The Rise of Fordism

The redoubtable Phil Ford has a new post that takes off from a parsing of "postpunk" *(as that periodization is narrated in Rip It Up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds) and then goes on to propose what Ford calls the genre of the "listening biography." The latter he defines, in his own case as "the individual, peculiar, contingent path by which which I, like anyone else, come into my mature (?) musical tastes."

While much of "rockist" discourse is rooted in stories about "scenes," the postpunk experience was much more dispersed and mass mediated:

Reynolds is interested in how a kind of music (like postpunk) can exist outside of a local communities. Because of his own personal experience, he is acutely aware that a new musical movement doesn't have to be wedded to a particular place, time, and subcultural milieu. Which is to say, it can be mediated: the lines of influence between bands, and between bands and listeners, can flow out from city centers to the suburbs and small towns by way of radio, records, TV, etc. If the rockist narrative posits an ideal listener who is also a participant ("I was at Woodstock, man," or "I saw Richard Hell at CBGB in 1976, man"*); if the rockist narrative privileges being at the right place at the right time; then postpunk is marked by the decline of subcultural prestige. Growing up, I was into Devo, and I lived in Sudbury, Ontario. The fact that my experience of Devo was entirely mediated -- I experienced them through media channels, never as a participant in their "scene" -- doesn't change anything. Postpunk is only a virtual scene.

But this notion -- a scene without a scene, if that's how to put it -- poses all kinds of problems:

The problem is, what allows you to group all these musicians and say that they form a broad front of something called "post-punk"? If you were to say, it's the music that originated in a six-square-mile area of downtown Pittsburgh for a few months in 1981 or something, you might have narrowed your definition too much to be very helpful, but as an intellectual gesture it has a certain feeling of rightness, because in making such an argument you are doing the hipster thing of grouping some small unit of cultural production into a little bulls-eye of authenticity from which radiates successive rings of increasingly impure, commodified, co-opted, mediated stuff. (The gesture is aimed at establishing the power of the critic, who affirms his own taste in defining the center and his authority to bestow subcultural capital on the contenders, pretenders, and also-rans.) But when you see through the gesture and reject it -- perhaps for the very good reason that a band, like, say, the Beatles, can make great music without ever being anywhere close to its models -- you are left with a much less secure ground on which to base a claim for generic identity.

One shortcut solution, of course -- beloved by almost everyone, and almost inescapable -- is to conjure up the Zeitgeist as some kind of explanatory principle. (Which is pretty much a matter of begging the question.)

Phil has been doing some serious, thoughtful work on the cultural logic of hip from bebop onwards. I suspect he'll have more to say on "listening biography" and scene-dom. Keep your eyes and ears open.

Posted by smclemee at 7:06 PM

Argument! Character Assassination! Breasts!

Every once in a great while, something I've written gets picked up by what might be called -- not entirely oxymoronically -- the "mainstream blogosphere." The latter seems to be very much a star system made up of people who are partisans of one of the two major political parties. That rules me out a priori.

For that matter, I don't even have much of a role in left-wing blogchat, ever since the dissolution of the Vanguard Workers Revolutionary Marxist-Leninist Labor Party USA (Bolshevik-Reconstructed). As some of you may recall, I was the Central Committee member responsible for Proletarian Hammer newspaper, as well as being the party's one cadre. The meeting where I expelled myself was bitter and scarring.

Most of what happens in the mainstream blogosphere passes me right by, and it seems that I have missed many the tempest. What, for example, was the "Jessica Valenti Breast Controversy"?

I have no idea. And in fact I am totally okay with having no idea. Don't feel obliged to submit an exposition or appropriate link, thanks. Yet it seems that Jessica Valenti Breast Controversy has now led, in turn, to the following extraordinary meltdown at BloggingHeads TV (a site my friend Henry Farrell has been involved with) and so it must be of truly great significance, in certain teapots anyway.

The woman on the left is named Garance Franke-Ruta, and the one on the right is named Ann Althouse. Both are, it would appear, major figures in the mainstream blogosphere. All I can say is that this exchange makes me want to rejoin the VWRMLLPUSA(B-R).

Posted by smclemee at 10:16 AM | Comments (8)

March 26, 2007

A Modest Example of the Dwindling Forces of Cognition Under Late Capitalism


The Vanity Press breaks it down:

Well, you see, that would be because just shortly after the story broke she was not covert anymore because just shortly after the story broke her cover was blown. And once your cover is blown, it's blown for good.

So, before the story broke her cover was not blown and she did not appear in any Vanity Fair articles. When the story broke, it blew her cover. And then after the story broke, her cover stayed blown, Vanity Fair article or not. That's what we call linear time. I'm sure you can all think of examples from your own life.

The problem with this argument being the assumption that we are still living in linear time. As opposed to inhabiting some Philip K. Dickian scrambled-egg simulacrum thereof, which would actually be my best guess, and worst fear.

Posted by smclemee at 4:44 PM | Comments (1)

World of History

It feels like ages -- though it has only been weeks -- since I commented on Sam Tanenhaus's essay about the state of contemporary American history writing. (See this earlier post for the links.)

At the time, I came pretty close to mentioning a few names of people whose work strikes me as doing just what Tanenhaus said historians didn't do now: bridging the gaps between the general public and specialist research, between the texture of the past and the concerns of the present, etc. One that came to mind was Eric Rauchway -- interviewed for my column last year, the exchange available here.

Now Rauchway has, in turn, written an extremely smart response to Tanenhaus. Perhaps I am unduly impressed because he makes reference to James Harvey Robinson, who is (1) a major concern of mine for reasons it would take too long to explain and (2) almost completely forgotten by contemporary historians (who know who he is, but that's about it, for the most part).

But no, that's not it. Rauchway is on to something:

As James Harvey Robinson noted back when he was president of the AHA, he had to revise his 1907 history of Modern Europe after World War I--suddenly, the stuff about imperialism, nationalism, and industrialization had a new and urgent focus in the war. Robinson had a nice phrase for his version of presentism--"framing a coherent narrative making close connections with the morning newspaper."

So far, it's easy to agree with Tanenhaus, but no farther. Because, though Tanenhaus blames "younger historians" for junking Schlesinger, he mentions only gentlemen like David McCullough, Gordon Wood, and James McPherson--all of them more accurately described as nearer to retirement than farther from it. (Tanenhaus also mentions Peter Beinart, who is young but not so much a historian.) But recent years have seen a resurgence of Robinsonism among younger historians.....Among people my age, there's less confidence that one can avoid writing history that speaks to the present, and nearly no insistence that one should.

I'll stick by the gist of my earlier comments -- i.e., that the center of gravity for any very powerful and comprehensive "presentist" practice of historical writing has shifted, so that Schlesingerian efforts to define the history of "our country" are going to mean less and less, while narratives about "our world" (with "our country" grasped as part of it) will become far more important.

On reflection, Rauchway's work was a major catalyst in forming that opinion. Also important: Thomas Bender.

Posted by smclemee at 2:38 PM | Comments (1)

Until the Desired Constellation Appears

Over at Wax Banks, Walter Holland writes: "Bjork's mostly a capella album Medúlla isn't consistently enjoyable, to me; I find the most outré vocal styles unbearable, and feel unable to judge its worth as avant garde art because I (frankly) can't make it through the damn thing."

Well, fair enough -- me neither (though I don't think of Bjork as being especially avant garde, which in music I tend to associate with the kind of composition that involves the amplified sound of a trombone being cut up with a hacksaw). Still, I'd also concur with his enthusiasm for one cut on Medúlla, "an infectious bit of skittering yearning out-on-the-savannah dance-pop called 'Who Is It,'" which Holland goes on to describe in loving detail.

But while much of the album leaves me cold, I think there's a lot to say for her rather sublime "Desired Constellation." (If only I had the vocabulary and command of the Dial M folks to discuss it.)

I don't know that it was written as a protest song of the traditional sort, but the lyrics sure don't rule out that possibility:

It's tricky when
You feel someone
Has done something
On your behalf.
It's slippery when
Your sense of justice
Murmurs underneath
And is asking you:
How am I going to make it right?

In some ways I like this live performance of the song even more than the version on the album:

Posted by smclemee at 11:24 AM

March 25, 2007

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Blogging

An entry on "Blogging and Identity" at Frank Wilson's Books, Inq has generated an interesting discussion. But it would be richer for a reference to Erving Goffman's work -- especially the essay "On Face Work" in Interaction Rituals, or just about anything in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

I'm too distracted by the looming piles of clutter in my study to do more than point out this item on the latter book. It's an adequate if by no means compelling overview, no substitute for reading the original. (Goffman himself wrote so well that it is amazing he could find employment as a sociologist.)

Seems as if there ought to be some classic Goffman-influenced analysis of the blogosophere out there somewhere. I am not aware of one. If you know otherwise, please chime in.

Unfortunately it doesn't appear that any of his work is available online. For that matter, I can't even find any discussion of "On Cooling Out the Mark," in which Goffman builds an insightful account of social psychology out of a description of what happens when a group of con artists must deal with the danger that their scam might blow up in their faces. It originally appeared as a paper in a professional journal and was reprinted in The Goffman Reader.

I reread it every year or so, amazed at how rich it is. Whatever its status may be in sociology or psychology, "On Cooling Out the Mark" really ought to be honored as one of the great essays in post-WWII American literature.

More from Josh Glenn at Brainiac.

Posted by smclemee at 1:30 PM | Comments (3)

March 22, 2007

The Greatest Generation

From The New Yorker, the quintessence of the 1960s, as conveyed to children of the Baby Boomers:

--Mr. President! Did you hear about Woodstock?

--Woo-- Woodstock? What in God's name is that?

--Apparently, young people hate the war so much they're willing to participate in a musical sex festival as a protest against it.

--Oh, my God. They must really be serious about this whole thing.

--That's not all. Some of them are threatening to join communes: places where they make their own clothing . . . and beat on drums.

--Stop the war.

--But, Mr. President!

--Stop all American wars!

--(sighs) Very well, sir. I'll go tell the generals.

--Wow. It's a good thing those kids decided to go hear music.

This could well be an opportunity for me to discuss being in the cohort of people born too late to be classed as Boomers and too early to be interpellated as Generation X -- doomed forever to listen to them talk about themselves (by talking about one another). But maybe not just this moment.

It just gets more fascinating, not a whit more tiresome, every year. That much I can tell you.

Posted by smclemee at 2:14 PM

Cosmopolitan Shout Out, No. 1: The Sequel

As mentioned here a month ago, my friend Richard Byrne was a finalist in the First Annual Prague Post Playwriting Festival. In the meantime he's been there overseeing the production of the one-act version of Burn Your Bookes, a work-in-progress.

Well, he won. The award includes a prize of $900, which sounds even more impressive when tallied as 20,000 Czech crowns.

You can read an article about Rich -- and/or listen to a podcast from the English-language service of Czech Radio -- here.

Posted by smclemee at 11:57 AM

March 21, 2007

The Mysterious World of the Unconscious Mind

Shortly before waking up this morning, I dreamt that I was a writer for Dragnet.


(One comma too many can ruin everything.)

Posted by smclemee at 1:51 PM | Comments (1)

March 20, 2007

On the Occasion of a New Volume by Clive James

The new collection of essays by Clive James seems to be getting a lot of attention. No review copy of it has arrived, and I cannot spare the blood it would be necessary to sell in order to purchase a copy. Genteel poverty sucks. As the expression "sucks" here may suggest, the genteel part does not come naturally, and the rest is a bore as well.

Anyway, I did review the last huge compendium of essays by Clive James a few years ago. Looking the piece over now, for the first time in more than three years, one passage stands out -- a quotation:

"[C]ontributing to a periodical designed to be thrown away," he writes, "the essayist composed his piece as if it were meant to be kept. There was always the chance that he might be the only one to keep it, but if he failed in his aim of bringing permanence to ephemerality, he could always congratulate himself on having respected his disrespectable work by devoting his best efforts to it."

Hear hear! I reread this after having just spent a solid 10 hours working on a piece that will be read in five minutes by people who will then forget it immediately.

"If he failed in his aim of bringing permanence to ephemerality, he could always congratulate himself on having respected his disrespectable work by devoting his best efforts to it." And then he could slip into a comforting and comfortable straight-jacket.

Posted by smclemee at 8:17 PM | Comments (2)

Free Stuff

Last month I mentioned that Political Theory Daily Review had found a sponsor -- the magazine Bookforum. As it happens, the new issue just arrived in my mailbox yesterday, even before it reached the newstand, which doesn't always happen.

Well, now you can read it, too. As of the April/May issue, nearly all of the contents are online for free. It looks like a couple of items are print-only, out of about 45.

I'm still partial to the paper version. Easier on the eyeballs, for one thing; plus, the ads in a book publication actually count as information that I actually want to see. But at a time when most newspaper review sections are shrinking when not disappearing, it's good that one publication seems to be doing well enough to make its content available to the largest possible readership.

(crossposted from Crooked Timber)

Posted by smclemee at 7:16 PM

March 19, 2007

A Modest Proposal

At Brainiac, there's a discussion underway (here and here) about the early days of the cell phone.

So I will take this occasion to link to one of the handful of columns I've written that really struck a chord with other people -- namely, the one proposing that cell-phone users in libraries be shot. Or listen to a podcast discussion of the piece here.

Posted by smclemee at 9:49 PM

Square, Man. Really Square.

Having just recently watched several episodes of the first season of Adam-12, it feels like I'm halfway to ready to draft an essay about Jack Webb as auteur. One obsessed by the differences between bachelorhood and domesticity, it turns out, at least as much as he is with crime and punishment, or freaks and squares.

Speaking of squares....Let me work out a set of Greimasian semiotic charts on this and the cultural-studies paper would just about write itself.

Posted by smclemee at 11:05 AM | Comments (4)

March 15, 2007

Many People Would Love to Be Writers, If Not For All the Writing

There are mornings when facing the notepad is even more of a burden than usual, simply because its blankness corresponds only too clearly to the state of my own mind. But it doesn't matter. The one thing I have learned after all this time is that it doesn't matter how I feel, that isn't actually necessary to want to write in order to do it. Actually writing something is point of honor -- and usually, after a while, something creditable starts to take shape.

If I've been reasonably well organized about it, I'll have some drafts with me to rework. Or notes to look over. Something, anything, just to get the process started. I have no trust in inspiration and sometimes think that talent alone is greatly overrated. Neither is sufficient.

So it's interesting to read, in last Sunday's Times (London), some thoughts by W. H. Auden on the abundance of young people who declare that they aspire to be writers:

Among this host of would-be writers, the majority have no literary gift. This is not surprising in itself. A marked gift for anything is not very common.

What is surprising is that such a high percentage of those without a marked talent for any particular profession should think of writing as the solution. One would expect that a certain percentage would imagine they had a talent for medicine, a certain percentage for engineering, and so on. But this is not the case. In our age, if a boy or a girl is untalented, the odds are in favour of their thinking they want to write.

When so many untalented people all express a wish to write, the public must be labouring under some strange misapprehensions as to the nature of literature. They must imagine, for example, either (1) that writing requires no special talent but is something that any human being, by virtue of his humanity, can do if he tries, or (2) that writing is the only occupation today in which one is free to do as one likes, the only one in modern society where one can act as an individual, not as a depersonalised cog in a machine, or (3) that writing -- and this idea, is, I think, particularly prevalent in regard to the writing of poetry -- is a kind of religious technique, a way of learning to be happy and good. In my opinion, the public is partially right as regards (2), namely in thinking that the writing of art is gratuitous, ie play, but precisely because of this, their other two ideas must be wrong.

I think Auden was quite wrong on the first point -- that people think talent is unimportant. Rather it's simply that, in most cases, they have no standards, and take the ego's wish for the thing itself.

That in turn feeds into a romanticized notion of the kind of freedom that Auden refers to in his second point: the belief that writing is a line of work in which "one is free to do as one likes, the only one in modern society where one can act as an individual." Well, yes and no. Insofar as this implies indulging certain adolescent promptings towards "self expression," the results are usually pretty awful. The self is material, at least potentially, but it's not an infinitely rich vein. Besides, you have to learn to refine it.

As for the idea that writing is "a way of learning to be happy and good," I can only report (based on a sample base of N=1) that it doesn't seem to work out that way.

Lots of people seem promising at the age of 20. Far fewer seem talented at 30, and fewer still at 40. This is probably not a case of mortality thinning the ranks. Not literally anyway. A number of writers I knew several years ago seemed far more ambitious, more capable, and possessed of far greater reserves of social capital than me. And yet most of them have disappeared, like the cloud left by a warm breath evaporating from the surface of a mirror. No doubt they found other things to do.

Posted by smclemee at 3:22 PM | Comments (3)

March 14, 2007

More on Baudrillard

My column on Baudrillard has been noticed by a blogger who points to it under a headline reading "Chronicle of Higher Education Article about Baudrillard."

Well, not quite. Let's put it this way: Were it possible for me to write that sort of thing at the Chronicle, I would still be there.

But then we get into counterfactual history -- a complicated subject.

I've heard from one reader who was interested in the reference to Baudrillard writing in fragments -- in particular, to my indication that there is a history of treating "the fragment" as a literary form.

This is a rich topic, though unfortunately I can't think of a quick reference for someone who wants to read up on it. But there's a syllabus for a course on "Theory and the Fragment" here (you have to download the document, it's not a webpage) that seems like a good place to start.

I'll probably write about Baudrillard again, here or elsewhere. The column was what I could pull together under the given time constraints, particularly as spurred on by that less-than-thoughtful piece in The National Post linked to yesterday by Arts and Letters Daily.

Posted by smclemee at 8:02 PM | Comments (1)

March 12, 2007

Monday Morning Miscellany

I'd like to think everyone visiting Quick Study is also aware of the group history blog Cliopatria (of which I have been a member for a while). But you never know. So now I will do some advertising.

Recently Manan Ahmed organized a symposium there to discuss an article by Sam Tanenhaus about why there are no longer major, influential historians of the calibre of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. My response will probably annoy some people. Such is life.

Anyway, the symposium (with link to the original article) is here, and Tanenhaus's reply is here.

On a completely unrelated note, see my recent item at Crooked Timber regarding donuts, sex, and journalism.

Posted by smclemee at 1:58 PM | Comments (1)

March 10, 2007

Apologia Pro Vita Sua

John Leonard (once my editor at The Nation, now simply a friend) just won the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle.

An excerpt from his acceptance speech:

At an average of five books a week, not counting all those sighed at and nibbled on before they go to the Strand, I will read 13,000. Then I'm dead. Thirteen thousand in a lifetime, about as many as there are new ones published every MONTH in this country.

It's not enough, and yet rich to excess. The books we love, love us back. In gratitude, we should promise not to cheat on them -- not to pretend we're better than they are; not to use them as target practice, agit-prop, trampolines, photo ops or stalking horses; not to sell out scruple to that scratch-and-sniff info-tainment racket in which we posture in front of experience instead of engaging it, and fidget in our cynical opportunism for an angle, a spin, or a take, instead of consulting compass points of principle, and strike attitudes like matches, to admire our wiseguy profiles in the mirrors of the slicks. We are reading for our lives, not performing like seals for some fresh fish.

Well, by contrast, I only get through three or four a week....But words to live by, otherwise. The full text is here.

Posted by smclemee at 1:45 PM | Comments (2)

March 9, 2007


In the words of a comment at Posthegemony signed "Serena":

occasionally you come across an image that causes the seizure of a feeling that passes before you can describe it, for you have already stared at the image for too long, but is usually in reaction to a previously unimagined cruelty, something that makes an unexpected and affecting connection to someone else's tragedy. this is one such image.

I have nothing to add. The image in question is here.

Posted by smclemee at 12:33 PM | Comments (1)

The Hits Keep Coming

Upon starting QS, there was no particular plan for me to become a part-time video jockey.And yet the impulse seems to be there. I stopped keeping up with new music sometime in the early 1990s (long story) so my instinct when looking around (whether for something to listen to while working, or for performance clips) is to find things from earlier decades. One of the few exceptions to this normally arriere garde mode was discovering the Toronto-based musical collective Broken Social Scene a few years ago.

That was well after everybody else had heard of them, so perhaps my record of un-cutting-edginess remains consistent after all.

An article from last year by one Nick Southall -- who otherwise sounds way more plugged into the contemporary than me -- contains some reflections that square quite well with my own experience:

Back in 2003 I ignored Broken Social Scene because I didn't think I "needed" (yeah, I know) a Canadian multi-piece postrock oligarchy in my life, but earlier this year I finally bought You Forgot It In People, and was thoroughly impressed with it. The thing is that people had spent a sizeable chunk of 2003 telling me explicitly to get YFIIP, and I ignored them. Why? I dunno. Well, I kind of do. Getting YFIIP two years after the hype had died down and my friends had stopped saying "you need this" meant that I was able to listen to it with fresh ears, so to speak. I'd been told by all and sundry that it was packed with transcendent moments, flashes of punctum, etcetera. But when you get told that so often and find yourself listening to something about which that has been said, you can find yourself straining too hard to hear those moments of transcendence and punctum, so hard that you miss them. Why do you miss them? Because they belong to other people, firstly, because you need to find your own moments for yourself. Hearing "Anthems For A 17-Year-Old Girl" four months ago was incredibly evocative and moving because I'd forgotten what I'd been told to expect, and the tune floored me on its own merits, sans hyperbole. I often find it easier to appreciate records after the initial rush has died down.

I'll second that. You Forgot It In People is on the short list of my all-time favorite records -- one that I listen to with a sense of mystery and fascination that is hard to put into words, not quite sure sometimes how to name the emotion that a particular song on it evokes. Southall refers to "Athems" and that's certainly at the top of the list for evocative inexplicability:

It's followed on the album by a very different, but also quite cryptic song called "Cause=Time," the mood of which defies paraphrase, at least by me:

Some of the lyrics make me guess that this is a satirical comment on lefty activism as lifestyle niche. But the feel couldn't be more different from, say, "California Uber Alles."

See, now I'm back to wanting to listen to the Dead Kennedys. Didn't think I'd stay in the '00s for long....

Posted by smclemee at 10:45 AM | Comments (2)

March 8, 2007

Live from New York

...it's the National Book Critics Circle awards for 2007.

Posted by smclemee at 9:34 PM

Free Baudrillard -- Take One

The full text of Mark Poster's edition of Baudrillard's Selected Writings is available in PDF here. (Thanks to Farhang Erfani's excellent site Continental Philosophy for the tip.)

It was originally published by Stanford University. The online version doesn't give the publication date, but I read it in 1989 and it can't have come out more than a year earlier than that.

Could go check the copy on the shelf in the living room, but I have a bad cold now, and typing this is about the limit of what seems possible at the moment.

Posted by smclemee at 5:33 PM | Comments (1)

March 7, 2007

Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007)

Might write on Baudrillard again later (esp. if an editor so requests) but for now will indulge in the vice of quoting myself. From a piece that ran six years ago:

No one ages less gracefully than a hipster past his prime -- unless it's a prophet of technological revolution, once his vision reaches the sell-by date. Roll them into one and it's a miserable spectacle all around. The books Jean Baudrillard started publishing in France about thirty years ago ran selected concepts from Marx and Freud on an operating system cobbled together from Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler. The result: a dense yet scintillating philosophical prose-poetry, evoking a cosmos of endless mass-media feedback loops, where all human interaction had been perfectly digitized, and reality itself was a by-product of cybernetic simulation. Heady stuff, daring and improbable. And rendered all the more alluring by such literary efforts as America, which projected an image of the theorist as hard-eyed psychic outlaw, adrift in a post-apocalyptic landscape (a.k.a. Southern California). Baudrillard's latest book in English, The Vital Illusion, has the quiet desperation of a comeback tour. But it also presents a new line for Baudrillard. The smirking futurist of yesteryear now assumes the posture of sage for the new millennium.

Thanks to his status as exemplary postmodernist intellectual -- his ideas explored in numerous monographs, plus a couple of comic books -- there is a sort of Baudrillard-for-dummies familiar even to people who have never read him. In short, he's the thinker for whom "reality TV" is a redundant expression. Baudrillard himself does little to discourage this kind of oversimplification. (As the title of his book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place inadvertently suggests, being talked about is a high priority in itself.) Yet there is more to Baudrillardisme than the notion that reality has imploded, destroyed by information technologies that have taken over the universe. The flipside of his metaphysics is, if anything, far creepier.

more here

Posted by smclemee at 6:25 AM | Comments (3)

March 6, 2007


It's now been three decades since Poly Styrene (who looked younger than her nineteen years) took the microphone to announce:

Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard but I say, Oh bondage! Up Yours!

-- which was definitely a case of a new musical form making it possible to express a thought that hadn't been expressed before. Certainly not in those terms, anyway.

I don't think X-Ray Spex ever had much of a following among American punks, at least at the time. You can blame this on sexism, but chances are it was also discomfort with the presence of a saxophone in the band. The punk-rock taste police could be pretty rigid about that sort of thing. Call it sax-ism.

Anyway, "Identity," one of my favorite X-Ray Spex songs, is available in a video from circa 1978. I'm going to try to track down interviews with and articles about the band before long. If anything seems particularly worth a look, feel free to recommend it....

Identity is the crisis can't you see?
Identity, identity....

When you look in the mirror
do you see yourself?
Do you see yourself
on the t.v. screen?
Do you see yourself in the magazine?
When you see yourself
does it make you scream?

When you look in the mirror
do you smash it quick,
do you take the glass
and slash your wrists?
Did you do it for fame.
did you do it in a fit,
did you do it before
you read about it?

Posted by smclemee at 7:19 PM

March 3, 2007

Bad Penny

In 1987, I lived in a group house with the other guys in my band. All of them were named Michael. We ought to have exploited that fact by having me change my name and just calling ourselves The Michaels. Oh, the benefits of hindsight.

Anyway, one of the Mikes -- in this case, Mike Lee, who a few years later served as best man at my wedding -- was a devoted reader of Forced Exposure magazine. Between 1982 and '85, I had been more or less totally immersed in (1) poststructuralism and (2) arcane texts from the history of Marxist organizations, leaving me totally out of touch with new music. So borrowing Forced Exposure had a huge influence -- particularly since Steve Albini was writing for it then. You might glean some sense of the magazine from this blog entry.

One of these days, someone will scan Forced Exposure and give it the digital approximation of immortality it deserves. But for now (and since I'm on this nostalgia trip anyway) here's a video of Albini's band Big Black performing shortly before the release of their final album, Songs About Fucking -- as good a case of truth in packaging as anyone could want:

Posted by smclemee at 12:16 PM | Comments (1)

March 2, 2007

News on "The Wire"

Enthusiasm for The Wire came to this household rather late (last summer, I think) but when it did hit us, it hit plenty hard. All the superlatives are appropriate.

The show does what Lukacs thought only the classic realist novel could -- that is, portray a social totality and unveil its inner coherence. (Again with the Lukacs!)

It also demonstrates what the medium of television, in particular, is capable of doing. One of the writers said somewhere that The Wire was not so much a series as a film that runs for sixty hours. That strikes me as apt; and it's a brilliantly executed movie, one that demands your concentration. But that in turn underscores the point that The Wire is something that could only be realized on TV.

Anyway, we recently finished watching the fourth season (the one following a group of kids through the Baltimore school system) and so are now fully caught up. Which is frustrating. Each of the seasons has looked at a different layer of Baltimore while also mapping out how it is inserted into the whole. So there's something to say for watching the whole thing over again at some point. But now I really want to see what happens in the next (and final) season. It will focus on the media -- paying particular attention to the reduction of staff at a newspaper and how this affects the way the city learns about itself.

In the meantime, a brief bulletin from the writers' quarters:

This final season will be a shortened one - just 10 episodes. They'll start filming in a few weeks. I cannot reveal anything about the storyline, except to say that it'll surely be the funniest season ever of "The Wire"... if you like your humor dark. We're talking the "Dr. Strangelove" of police procedurals here.

See also Undercover Black Man's interview with David Simon, the show's creator -- the first part of which suggests that the Lukacs reference above is not just my imagination after all:

If you look at the themes of "The Wire" going back through all seasons, there's been an argument that the triumph of capitalism is the creation of wealth and the diminution of labor. The corner boys are more and more expendable; the cops who know their business are more and more expendable; the longshoremen are more and more expendable; the East European and Russian prostitutes who are coming in in boxes - Every day, human beings are worth less. That is the triumph of capital. ... The more we become post-industrial, the fewer we need. Every minute, human beings are worth less.

Not that Simon is a Marxist, let alone using History and Class Consciousness to shape the scripts:

No, I'm a social democrat. I believe in capitalism as the only viable motivating force to create wealth. But I believe that there have to be certain social frameworks that allow for a distribution of a share of that wealth throughout the classes....That is not to say that I think they should get an equal share. Or "to each according to his needs." The impulse towards Marxism is not there. But I do believe that raw, unencumbered capitalism, absent any social framework, absent any sense of community, without regard to the weakest and most vulnerable classes in society - it's a recipe for needless pain, needless human waste, needless tragedy, and ultimately a coarsening of our society.

Part two of the interview is here.

Posted by smclemee at 12:08 PM | Comments (4)

March 1, 2007

Problematic Neologism

I am intrigued, even persuaded, by Whimsley's thought that it would be useful to have word meaning "skepticism about blogging" -- but not convinced that "ablosticism" will quite cut the semantic mustard.

For one thing, fusion of "blog" and "agnosticism" should probably yield "ablogsticism," just for consistency. This coinage sounds hideous, but not much more so than "blog" itself.

The deeper problem is that the root of "agnostic" is "gnostic," meaning "one who has knowledge." (In particular, the higher, secret knowledge of the nature of God that various forms of gnosticism claimed to make available.)

Agnosticism is the perspective that no definite knowledge of God's existence (or nonexistence, for that matter) is possible. Correspondingly, it seems as if an "ablogstic" -- or "ablostic," if you must -- would be someone who refused to blog on principle.

Yes, yes, I am being picky. In any case, I fully endorse Whimsley's sentiments:

If you aim to gain an audience you have to pick up on what other bloggers are writing about and respond within hours. So really, blogging just isn't my thing. The arguments go nowhere, no one changes their mind, and the signal/noise ratio is very low. The blogging world is a world built for quick-typing extroverts who don't go in too much for second thoughts.

Damn straight. Whereas I almost never have a thought that isn't a second thought -- or a second thought about a second thought. The word for this is melancholia.

Posted by smclemee at 5:11 PM | Comments (4)