May 30, 2007
Book Expo, Here We Come
I'll be in the crowd at the NBCC event on Thursday mentioned at the top of my column today. Hope to meet a few of you.
At one point, I was, it's said, to be part of the panel itself, but evidently this changed when Joyce Carol Oates became available. And so my obscurity continues, albeit at a somewhat higher level.
Book Expo is one of the busier few days of the year for me. No blogging probably until early next week. I probably won't even check comments until we get back Sunday.
Posted by smclemee at 7:01 AM
May 28, 2007
Invasion of the Pod Person
I've read quite a bit of work by and about Norman Podhoretz over the years, and am looking forward to an updated edition of DSM (the diagnostic handbook for psychiatrists) that will define the precise nature of this puzzling impulse.
Well, that's not quite fair. I take it back. Some of it anyway.
Doings and Undoings -- his first book, a collection of critical pieces, published circa 1965 -- is one that I used to study pretty closely, twenty years ago. If ever the chance comes up to conduct a seminar on whatever the hell it is I do for a living, selections from that volume would be among the assigned readings.
People who are semi-informed tend to insist that the New York Intellectuals (of song and legend) never paid attention to pop culture except to complain about it. But Podhoretz's essay on TV drama in the early 1950s is quite good. The piece on Updike still strikes me as on target.
Then there are, of course, the memoirs. His first two are of considerable value for understanding the emergence of neoconservatism proper (not to be confused with the essentially meaningless way that someone like, say, Matthew Continetti gets called a neocon). The last one, Ex-Friends, was an exercise in treading water. It did little besides reminding the public that Norman Podhoretz was still alive and that the names he can drop are impressive names indeed.
(My piece on it for the now-defunct Boston Book Review moulders in a stack of photocopies. It will be made digitally available if, and only if, Quick Study gets an intern. Holding of the breath is not advised.)
Ex-Friends was eight years ago. One suspects there will be another such opuscule any day now. But if so, for the love of mercy get the man a copyeditor.
Posted by smclemee at 11:37 AM
May 27, 2007
It's an armada of motorcycles, thousands of them, the mufflers removed from every one, it seems, so a low steady cyclical growl floats over the whole city -- and from the horizon, for the bikers are across the river as well, in the neighborhood close to Arlington National Cemetery, which is the magnet pulling all this metal to Washington, D.C. each year during Memorial Day weekend. It's called Rolling Thunder (which was also, not so coincidentally, the name of a bombing campaign during the Vietnam war).
The usual tourists wander around, of course, taking the usual pictures of the usual monuments. But more awe-inspiring is the temporary installation of artwork on the streets downtown. There are long rows of parked motorbikes, customized to the point of mutation, parked at angles that seem like a temptation to gravity and the domino effect. The place is full of sweaty, beer-swilling, heavily tattooed bikers. And you should see their husbands.
A Book of Dreams
The small boy was an officer in the Cosmic Engineers. He helped his father with the machine they used to send beams of mysterious energy into the upper atmosphere, causing rain to fall during a drought. Their ray gun, called a "cloudbuster," had other uses as well. The UFOs that seemed to be keeping track of activities around Daddy's laboratory would try to avoid the beam. You could chase the flying saucers across the sky with it.
Did any of this really happen? When Peter Reich published A Book of Dreams in 1973, his father, Wilhelm Reich, had been rediscovered as, at the very least, a prophet of the sexual revolution - but also quite possibly the discoverer of a hitherto unknown form of energy, called Orgone. (These aspects of his work were related: Good sex makes the Orgone flow.) The older Reich died in a federal prison in 1957, prosecuted, or by some account persecuted, for claiming that Orgone technology could cure cancer. Peter was 12 at the time.
Answering the basic question about Reich - i.e., "genius or madman?" - isn't really the point of A Book of Dreams, which is the most haunting memoir I have ever read. The son says he has no competence to judge his father's claims about Orgone Energy. In the preface to an edition reissued in 1989 (the last one, and now unfortunately out of print) he admits to "still hedging" on the matter.
What certainly was real, in any case, was the aura of discovery and adventure radiating from his father - as well as the sickening terror of watching the laboratory ransacked by G-men, and the complex experience of mourning a father rediscovered by others as a counterculture hero.
This is a book about growing up with a magician: a loving but mysterious father, powerful in his command of the secrets of the universe, but also vulnerable in ways that a boy of 8 or 9 could never imagine. I trust A Book of Dreams, not as a definitive statement of the truth about Wilhelm Reich, but for how it captures the feelings of childhood, when the frontier between reality and imagination can be easily crossed. In the son's own words: "Perhaps the story, released now and no longer secret, generates some energy of its own."
my piece for "Recommended Reading: Critics' Picks," Newsday, 27 May 2007
May 23, 2007
Karl Marx: The Pre-Beard Years
The Hollywood Reporter, uh, reports:
Haitian auteur Raoul Peck will direct "Karl Marx," tracing the young adventures of the German philosopher and revolutionary, producer Jacques Bidou said Thursday.
The picture will cover the period 1830-1848, including Marx's time in Paris before being expelled to Brussels and culminating with the publication of the Communist Manifesto. "Marx was considered a young genius at the time, but it was also a period marked by the birth of a great movement in thinking," Bidou said.
The story also will encompass Marx's love for his aristocratic wife Jenny von Westphalen, and his friendship with Friedrich Engels, with whom he co-authored the Manifesto.
No cast is yet attached, but Bidou said the principal characters will necessarily be young....
Well, yes, I would say that is probably true, given that Marx was 12 years old in 1830.
The budget is $20 million and shooting begins in February. More:
The screenplay is co-written by Peck and Pascal Bonitzer, who previously collaborated on "Lumumba," the former's biography of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, also produced by JBA. A first draft of "Karl Marx" is due to be ready for the Festival de Cannes.
I look forward to the "scribbling in notebooks during 1844/gnawing criticism of the mice" montage.
Beach Blanket Bingo
This week's column:
Entertainment is in the eye of the beholder. Consider the case of what are usually called "beach novels" -- bulky sagas of lust, money, and adventure, page-turning epics of escapism that are (it's said) addictive. I've never been able to work up the appetite to read one, even while bored on vacation in a seafront town. Clive James characterized the dialogue of one such novelist as resembling "an argument between two not-very-bright drunks."
Which might be fun to witness in real life, actually, depending on the subject of the dispute. But reading the transcript seems like an invitation to a bad headache.
Diversion doesn't have to be mind-numbing, let alone painful. With the end of the semester at hand, then, a few recommendations of recent books and DVDs that are smarter than your average bar fight -- and more entertaining.....
May 22, 2007
Advertisement for Myself
In principle this blog should serve the world-benefiting purpose of allowing me to self-promote my own published work on a regular and indeed constant basis.
Yet I often forget to mention in a timely manner that my column has gone up at IHE. Almost a week has passed, for example, since the one about Zygmunt Bauman's "secret Stalinist past" (not).
In the future I shall attempt to be more diligent about hawking my wares.
The problem is not modesty. The problem is being distracted -- not to mention more than half persuaded that it makes no difference either way. After all, I'm writing about Zygmunt Bauman and postwar Polish Stalinism, for heaven's sake. I live in Washington, DC but you'd never know it most of the time. Chances are more people read my stuff in Estonia than around here....
(Leaves the room, as he entered it, muttering.)
Bible Punching Heavyweight Evangelistic Boxing Kangaroo
I'm a longtime fan of the Rutles, a.k.a. "The Prefab Four." Since we're coming up on the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love, why not celebrate with the best cut from their neglected Tragical History Tour album?
I'm glad to see that my old hometown, Austin, has given birth to a Rutles tribute band, Ouch! For live clips, go here.
An Idea Possessing a Certain Elegance
Someone commenting at Kevin Drum's blog over at Washington Monthly has just suggested that the best way to improve Alberto Gonzales's memory might be a little waterboarding.
At this point I must pause to reflect on the distinction between aesthetics and ethics.
May 16, 2007
Surely in Need of Much More Argument
Evaluating a recent book about Derrida at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, Nancy J. Holland says:
One wonders, for instance, about the statement that philosophy in America "has the role of legitimating the US government and the scientific enterprise" leading to the suggestions that analytic philosophy "has as its telos the establishment of a universal culture for a static, totalitarian universal civilization" (pp. 124-125). Intriguing, and possibly even largely justified, but surely in need of much more argument.
Brian Leiter has responded with a post called "How Can Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews Publish Nonsense Like This?" He points out that, for one thing, there is no such thing as analytic philosophy, which I did not know. Some discussion ensues over whether the phrase "intriguing, and possibly even largely justified" might be an oblique put-down (what is called, I believe, a "piss take," though I only learned that expression yesterday and cannot be quite sure of using it correctly).
But the best thing in the comments section is a report by Tad Brennan, a former student of George Bealer, who would probably be called an analytic philosopher if analytic philosophy actually existed. Which it doesn't, so none of that. Anyway, here is Brennan's testimony:
I'm afraid I have to rat him out on this. The fact is, he was *constantly* legitimating the U.S. government. "The US government is totally legitimate!" he'd say. "Never question the legitimacy of the US government!"
Every now and then he'd say something about the bankruptcy of set theory or the ineliminability of propositions in the ontology. But if you questioned him about whether that was really the best set of primitives to work with, he'd get all, like, "You're questioning the legitimacy of the US government! Don't question the legitimacy of the US government!" And then he'd make us say the Pledge of Allegiance again.
As for the telos of his views being a static, totalitarian civilization, I mean, yeah, probably, but I never took his advanced course. I got scared off by people saying it was really hard-core and techie--a lot of manifest destiny and exceptionalism, shining-city-on-a-hill stuff and all.
It sounds like ACTA should give out a George Bealer Prize.
I have never understood why anyone would play internet poker. Why not just go the ATM machine, take out all the money your bank or credit card will allow, then set fire to the bills one at a time? I imagine that would be more fun. And yet even online gambling seems sensible compared to watching people play poker on cable. I'm completely flumoxed by that one.
So can anything be more "here, stupified viewer, consume your own passivity and alienation by proxy" than that? Why, yes, there can. This seems like it ought to be a joke, but I do not think it actually is a joke:
It makes me want to burn some money.
May 15, 2007
In Memory of Jerry Falwell
Thanks to Chris Phelps for letting me know the news and suggesting the soundtrack....
May 11, 2007
In Search of the Great 9/11 Novel...Or Not
Jerome Weeks, writing at the next blog over, ponders the sources and consequences of the expectation that our novelists will produce topical narratives on major events (and in a timely fashion):
In part, it was the growing self-consciousness of American culture and American authors after World War II -- our assumption of world leadership in politics and the arts, the perceived need to explain and advance our values against the Soviets' -- that led to this peculiar and unexamined expectation, especially on the part of critics, that novels are a kind of "wiser journalism." We now regularly anticipate that major authors, like competing news networks, will eventually weigh in on significant events, to extrapolate, to pronounce, to tell us why they're significant.....
It's certainly true that the "novel of information" -- to use Larry McMurtry's term for the hefty tomes of earlier writers like James Michener and Herman Work, popular social novelists who reported back from foreign lands or historical periods -- has been supplanted by cable TV, by the History Channel, the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. No one seems to write something like Michener's Poland or Chesapeake anymore, or if they do, they're not read at the volume that Michener was. Thank God: Who says art doesn't progress?
But now, "the novel of higher punditry," the expectation that a Didion or a Foster Wallace will explain events to us, may have passed its effective prime, too.
It's easy to go all aestheticist and claim that reportage and commentary are not the proper functions of the novel, etc. But that is simply a matter of dismissing certain kinds of fiction you don't like. (In the conflict between Henry James and H.G. Wells, I'm not at all disposed to assume that James's victory was as clearcut as it's sometimes made out to be.)
I think Jerome makes some good points here and urge this piece on your attention, if you aren't already reading him regularly, which you should be.
PS. A case in point is Terrorist, John Updike's novel from last year, which I reviewed for Newsday. Although the text was duly placed on my website, it seems that I failed ever to link to it there -- so no search engine ever noticed it, making it in some ways the equivalent of Helen Keller falling down in a forest.
Anyway, here at long last is a link to it.
May 10, 2007
The Movement of History
"The movement of history is heavy, and slow. The movement of history always takes place behind one's back. As your gaze is fixed upon something immediately in front of you -- the object of your anger, for example -- history makes a slight, almost imperceptible slither, or shudder, in a direction of its own choice. The distinguishing mark of this direction is that it is not the one you had anticapted. How history does this is not known. Because history is made up of the will of all individuals taken together, because these oceans of individuals are mostly, or always, in conflict, the movement of history is at one and the same time tightly bound, and outrageous....Study of the previous behavior of history does not prepare one for these shifts, which are discomfiting in the extreme. Nothing prepares you."
Donald Barthelme, "The Angry Young Man," Guilty Pleasures (1974)
Posted by smclemee at 10:06 AM
Sex! Politics! Dubious Footnotes!
May 9, 2007
"Other Relative Unknowns"
The Huffington Post launched two years ago today. It has the fifth largest audience of any blog in the United States.* I know this, or think I do, because it is so reported at the pertinent Wikipedia entry, which then goes on to say:
In addition to regular (often daily) columns by Huffington and a core group of contributors (such as Harry Shearer and John Conyers) , the HuffPost has featured notable celebrity contributors from politics, journalism, business, and entertainment (Norman Mailer, John Cusack, and Bill Maher, to name a few), as well as other relative unknowns.
Turns out I am now among the "other relative unknowns." Or will be, anyway, once we track down a photograph (for the contributor's note) in which I do not wear a pained expression. This could take a while.
* Plugging the Post's URL into Alexa, I see that it ranks within the top 500 American websites for traffic. That does not contradict the statement about it being the fifth ranked blog, of course, since the categories are slightly different. Others in the top 500 would be the sites of The New York Times, CNN, and some of the more prominent companies selling either lingerie or the sort of video in which it is removed.
Over the past couple of days, I have become immoderately fond of Patti Smith's new album, Twelve. (First mentioned here last week, before I actually had it in hand. It is now, as a b-day present from my better half, and I'm on probably the dozenth listening, which seems appropriate.)
None of the songs on it come close to the effect of her early covers, which were William Burroughs-ian transformations of rock standards -- her "Gloria," with its cut-up of Van Morrison song and Baudelaire, for example, or the Symbionese Liberation Army reworking of "Hey Joe" (the B side of her debut in 1974, the great "Piss Factory" single).
That's okay. I really don't want her to try to do the same thing again. The wrenching surrealist duende of those recordings was great, and they still blow me away. But there's a lot to like about the texture of Twelve, which is much more gentle. There is a warmth and closeness to her voice amidst the arrangements. I feel tremendous affection upon hearing it again. As many times as I've ranted/chanted/declaimed along with her while listening to Easter --
what i feel when i'm playing guitar is completely cold and crazy, like i don't owe nobody nothing and it's just a test just to see how far i can relax into the cold wave of a note. when everything hits just right (just and right) the note of nobility can go on forever. i never tire of the solitary E and i trust my guitar and i don't care about anything. sometimes i feel like i've broken through and i'm free and i could dig into eternity into eternity riding the wave and realm of the E. sometimes it's useless. here i am struggling and filled with dread--afraid that i'll never squeeze enough graphite from my damaged cranium to inspire or asphyxiate any eyes grazing like hungry cows across the stage or page. inside of me i'm crazy i'm just crazy.....
-- it means a lot to hear her at the age of sixty, sounding happy and in her element, connecting with the music that made her (just as her songs helped so many other people fashion themselves) and that she honors.
One song here that I particularly enjoy (that is an understatement: we're talking serious endorphin emission at some point) is her cover of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World." You can listen to it here. There's also video of her performing it live in April:
Now, a gloss on this rendition, by way of a statement of the terribly obvious: It is not the least bit cool to like Tears for Fears, although I guess there might have been some self-conscious and arch/twee "1980s revival" exception to that rule attempted at some point in the past twenty years.
Man, does that shit ever get old. The really lovely thing about Patti Smith is that she has never indulged in it, not for one minute. I feel a kind of awe when thinking about this.
More on that some other time, perhaps. But for now (and as evidence) here she is, in 1979, talking to preteen kids and singing "You Light Up My Life," no doubt with Fred Smith in mind:
May 8, 2007
Career Opportunities Are the Ones That Never Knock
There is a neutral and generic sense of the term "career" that I've seen in sociology and ethnography -- one that does not necessarily relate to a profession or a particular kind of work. A career is something that goes through phases of deepening involvement, more precise role definition, recognition by peers etc. That broad usage can apply to the "career" of a heroin addict, a Jehovah's Witness, a Communist organizer, or whatever, just it might to a CEO or a famous actor.
So I've sort of been playing around with the questions of what it might mean to speak of a blogging "career." What would be the stages, transitional moments, marks of distinction, occasions for exit, and so on?
And to be blunt, I'm encouraged to pursue thinking about this by the sheer stupidity of some of the comments on literary blogging lately. (Sample.) This topic might be worth revisiting at some point. It's kind of tangential, but I find myself puzzling over it.
I hear a distinct note of anxious dread in the voices of some colleagues at magazines and newspapers whenever they talk about the future. This is understandable. And yet, while just about as prone to anxious dread as anybody can be, I've never felt the need to take a whiz on the bloggers to shore up my status as Serious Writer (dicey as that status may be).
No valid generalization can be made about blogs, any more than you can make one about all magazines or all films. The insistence on "othering" bloggers seems like a strange product of defensiveness and ignorance. It a real puzzle to me why some people who presumably ought to know better (or at least be capable of manifesting a certain noblesse oblige) are indulging in this.
Meanwhile, Adam Kotsko has a blog post up called "My Career as a Blogger." Which makes me wonder if that initial hunch isn't worth pursuing in any case.
May 7, 2007
Reader's Digest for the Hyper-Literate
As noted here before, Bookforum and Political Theory Daily Review have merged. Now the process has gone to the next stage.
May 6, 2007
I've been on a kind of sabbatical from writing for newspapers. This was a purely personal decision, one having nothing to do with the kinds of factors making the National Book Critics Circle campaign necessary.
Well, now I'm back in the fray. My review of Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome? ran in today's Newsday, and it also available here.
More to come, probably. And in about a week, I will spend a day running a workshop on book reviewing for young journalists in the Art Critics' Exchange Programme sponsored by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. (This does not involve going to Belfast, unfortunately. They are all coming to DC.)
It would appear that I am becoming a tribal elder. Either that or the principle "those who can, do; those who can't, hold workshops" is starting to kick in.
Posted by smclemee at 3:38 PM
Sailing Out From the Blogipeligo
The cartoonist known as XKCD has created a map of online space that is attractive, useful, and otherwise incredibly appealing.
Much too large to post into this entry, but it pops up here:
Posted by smclemee at 1:54 PM
May 5, 2007
My cold is getting better -- should be fully verbal again soon.
In the meantime, for anyone else who hasn't seen it, a clip of the figural-language throw-down between Sean Penn and Stephen Colbert, moderated by Robert Pinsky:
Via MaryDell at BookBlog
May 4, 2007
Here We Are Now, Entertain Us
From Twelve, Patti Smith's new album of cover songs:
The last three minutes are dead air for some reason. For footage of her performing this live, go here.
Posted by smclemee at 4:10 PM
Jean Baudrillard: The Art of Disappearing
Video clip of an interview (in English) from 2000:
Posted by smclemee at 2:31 PM
From This Week's Column
When Jacques-Alain Miller pontificates, it is, verily, as a pontiff. Besides control of the enigmatic theorists's literary estate, Miller has inherited Lacan's mantle as leader of one international current in psychoanalysis. His influence spans several continents. Within the Lacanian movement, he is, so to speak, the analyst of the analysts' analysts.
He was once also a student of Louis Althusser, whose seminar in Paris during the early 1960s taught apprentice Marxist philosophers not so much to analyze concepts as to "produce" them. Miller was the central figure in a moment of high drama during the era of high structuralism. During Althusser's seminar, Miller complained that he had been busy producing something he called "metonymic causality" when another student stole it. He wanted his concept returned. (However this conflict was resolved, the real winner had to be any bemused bystander.)
Posted by smclemee at 10:51 AM
May 2, 2007
The Altmouse Files: A Portrait in Non-Partisanship
Evidently some webcams are more flattering than others:
May 1, 2007
Psychlo Babble; or, Get Behind Me, Thetan!
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney revealed his favorite novel yesterday on a television network that I cannot watch even while feeling healthy, let alone with a bad cold. Per the Times:
When asked his favorite novel in an interview shown yesterday on the Fox News Channel, Mitt Romney pointed to "Battlefield Earth," a novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology....A spokesman said later it was one of Mr. Romney's favorite novels. "I'm not in favor of his religion by any means," Mr. Romney, a Mormon, said. "But he wrote a book called 'Battlefield Earth' that was a very fun science-fiction book."
Let's take this opportunity to revisit the plot via from my review of the box-office-imploding screen adaptation from seven years ago (can that be right?):
Battlefield Earth displays that unique fusion of simplicity and convolution found in the kind of open-ended saga, often with a faintly Oedipal tinge, that a 5-year-old might tell himself when he is supposed to be taking a nap. The resemblance is strengthened by the name Hubbard gives the hero: Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper). Jonnie is a member of the remaining tribes of cave-dwelling Caucasians who are what is left of humanity in the year 3000, following Earth's colonization by evil invaders called the Psychlos: a mildew-covered race of beings who are nine feet tall, dreadlocked, have six fingers and wear codpieces. They are terribly greedy, and busy themselves raping Mother Earth through technological operations of some not-very-well-defined nature.
Chief of security is a disgruntled Psychlo named Terl, played by John Travolta, who is obviously having a very good time. Terl's responsibilities include blackmailing fellow Psychlo Forest Whitaker and laughing at his own jokes. Once Jonnie leaves the caves to make his way in the world, he and a couple of other "man-animals" are captured by the Psychlos and imprisoned in subterranean holding pens. These scenes are murky and have the feel of a documentary about hippies filmed in a closet.
Impressed by the intelligence of rebellious Jonnie, Terl decides to experiment using man-animals for skilled labor. He straps Jonnie into an unused dentist's chair (the aliens having long since abandoned oral hygiene) and blasts him with a concentrated ray of Pure Knowledge. In short order, Jonnie speaks fluent Psychlonese and begins offering his cave-man peers introductory lectures in trigonometry and molecular biology. They gaze at him in wonder, and he becomes their unquestioned leader, which only seems fair.
Terl then takes Jonnie to one of the larger branches of the Denver Public Library - and leaves him there, in the ruins, to contemplate the futility of resisting the Psychlo empire. This scene is what Aristotle called perepetia: a moment of reversal in the plot. For by the time Terl returns, Jonnie is examining a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence.
At this point, about an hour into Battlefield Earth, the slenderest threads of coherence and plausibility are finally brushed away. We suddenly learn what the Psychlos are doing on Earth: mining gold! Fortunately they never noticed Fort Knox. So Johnny and his friends have no trouble meeting their work quota. Meanwhile, they concentrate on learning to fly thousand-year-old fighter jets, and soon master the post-Einsteinian technology necessary to transport a bomb across the intergalactic void to destroy Planet Psychlo on the first try.
The cavepeople greet each new challenge by declaring it a "piece of cake": a haunting idiom, since they have spent the last few centuries as hunter-gatherers. The closing scene shows Terl caged by the earthlings - in a vault at Fort Knox. Which is kind of ironic, see, because he's so greedy. A sequel looms.
We never got it, alas. We are not worthy. (Full text of review from In These Times here.)
UPDATE: Check out a still from the film showing Travolta and Whitaker at Big Head DC. (Given how bad my cold is, and how hard that makes any serious effort just now, I may actually watch Battlefield Earth again for laughs.)
Celebrate May Day!
May Day with the Lovestoneites, circa 1931:
The workers' flag is deepest red
It's shrouded oft our martyred dead
But ere their limbs grew stiff and cold
Their heart's blood dyed its every fold.
So raise the scarlet standard high!
Beneath its shade we'll live and die.
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer
We'll keep the red flag flying here.