Category Archives: Polis

kettled

‘I don’t have the books that I need at home with me, so the theoretical interlude might be a bit scattershot and from memory. But if I am right, and I might be, there is some major rethinking ahead of us on the question of the relationship between the bird’s eye view and the secret history. (Left-oriented) cultural, literary, and political theory has for decades and decades been incoherent on this point. We fantasize about post-individuality, yet we still privilege the literature of the flaneur. We sanctify dispersed, individualized resistance, and we withhold from ourselves the thought of the structure or state, even as we at the same moment would have no time for the neurotic, bumbling avatar of bourgeois modernity, the autonomous individual.

We take up, reflexively, the cause of Michel de Certeau’s tactical against the strategic. Just think of contemporary forms of protest and the response to protest and our responses to their responses. But we do this despite the fact that the entire tide of history has washed toward the man of the street and his whims as the only arbiters of truth and efficiency worth banking on, as it were. As with so many other left concepts and approaches, we meet the opposition on their own ground, not ours. We even might say we allow ourselves to get kettled – willingly jump into the pot that they have long since set to boil.’

source- Ads without Products

“We are often reminded of the countless procedures which Christianity once employed to make us detest the body; but let us ponder all the ruses that were employed for centuries to make us love sex, to make the knowledge of it desirable and everything said about it precious.  Let us consider the stratagems by which we were induced to apply all our skills to discovering its secrets, by which we were attached to the obligation to draw out its truth, and made guilty for having failed to recognize it for so long.  These devices are what ought to make us wonder today.  Moreover, we need to consider the possibility that one day, perhaps, in a different economy of bodies and pleasures, people will no longer quite understand how the ruses of sexuality, and the power that sustains its organization, were able to subject us to that austere monarchy of sex, so that we became dedicated to the endless task of forcing its secret, of exacting the truest of confessions from a shadow. […] The irony of this deployment is in having us believe that our ‘liberation’ is in the balance.” (Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 159

The Apocalypse Project

(This has not been tested. This is ‘just writing.’)

  1. An apocalypse is a revelation, an unveiling.
  2. Joseph Donahue writes that apocalypse is “a literature of complete yet coded protest against worldly domination structures.”
  3. No one will need to have written before—in fact, the Project gears itself towards those not initiated into writerly subcultures. If one has been ensconced in writerly culture, knowledge will have to be unlearned.
  4. The Project should be in no particular place, no center, no retreat cottage out in the woods.
  5. No patrons, no benefactors.
  6. What do we find in each other’s eyes? In each other’s voices? In our hammering away at a keyboard, finger to letter? The feel of a pen in our hands when words are crossed out, the sound of the strikethrough?
  7. When we die, we cease to be able to write. At some point, we will write and read our last words. The horizon is finite. It is difficult to remember this.
  8. This involves seeing clearly (discernment) and then acting upon it (volition).
  9. Anathema: personal “development” and “fulfillment” as the end goal.
  10. The core group of the Project is the Meeting.
  11. The Meeting can take place anywhere.
  12. Ideally each Meeting should include 5-10 members, called Participants.
  13. A regular Meeting Place and time should be decided upon. Every other week is encouraged.
  14. The Meeting should have some of the trappings of a writing workshop, but it is not a writing workshop. On the outside, it will look like a combination of a writing workshop, a cell, and a support group for neoliberalism.
  15. Every Meeting should begin with food, drink and socialization.
  16. Next in the Meeting each Participant spends a couple of minutes talking about what they have seen/discerned in the last two weeks: anxieties, triumphs, expectations thwarted, feelings of helplessness, etc. as it relates to the social fabric that all Participants find themselves in, that of late capitalism and a neoliberal surveillance state.
  17. The rest of the Participants should listen attentively and give support when needed and asked for.
  18. There is no fixed self.
  19. There is only the illusion of self brought about by our interrelations with other people and our interactions with their desires.
  20. Creating an apocalyptic work is akin to creating a living organism.
  21. Capitalism thrives on its own constant death and resurrection. Every crisis is an opportunity for capitalism’s advance.
  22. The goal is to have the living organism of the apocalyptic text live, die and resurrect alongside capitalism.
  23. After the interpersonal sharing in the Meeting, the Participants should each read aloud the works they have worked on since the last Meeting.
  24. The work should be of an apocalypse.
  25. There is no critique of Participants’ work inside the Meeting.
  26. The Meeting should avoid the use of medical terminology for cultural malaise.
  27. The Participants should be localvores. There should never be national or international Meetings. The expenditure of air fuel is not worth it. Every writing conference which involves wan poems of personal expression have on their pages the exhaust fumes of 747s.
  28. The apocalypses between the Participants should be that of a Chain: able to be linked together, but able to live apart, like the Participants themselves.
  29. Each Participant’s apocalypse should unfurl the limitations of the conceivable.
  30. Verse drives concentration. Prose drives.
  31. The texts should be unacceptably open.
  32. After the reading of works, Participants look for opportunities to stitch the various works together.
  33. The works should scroll together.
  34. At the same time, the works should act as a complex, a compound organism.
  35. If any dues are to be collected, they should be solely from the Participants to buy snacks, and/or to publish the works on a regular basis, whether that be in print or in a shared space such as online, streetlamps, etc.
  36. The work should only be published under the Meeting’s name and location. At most, only first names should be acknowledged.
  37. It is unclear what will be unveiled from the Project. But its meaning will shift within the fabric of capitalism until a rupture becomes evident.
  38. The Participants write out the future catastrophe into the present; if all goes dark in the future, it must go dark for us while there is still light.
  39. If the darkness grows stronger—on account of our species’ inability to see—then this Project will allow us to see the darkness before its reckoning.

 

Icebreakers

Cold Open:

When I read this year at Wiscon, I went first. We were reading at Michaelangelo’s, a coffee shop near the hotel. I decided to read a poem–a long one that I wrote the previous year called “Blood Up to the Bridle,” a very personal (and apocalyptic) poem about my childhood, awkwardness in fitting into various communities (writing and otherwise), becoming a parent, and lots more that hopefully defies summarization. Anyway, it seemed of a moment, and to try something new, I did it.

I got interrupted about thirty seconds in by a gentleman in the back, with a group of 3 friends, essentially telling me to shut up, that he couldn’t hear the person sitting right next to him, and what the hell was I even thinking. As if the 50 people assembled there just happened to wander in, like he did, and that a public reading was so beyond the pale, so beyond what he ought to be privileged to experience on that day. The nerve. He was quickly shouted down by many stalwart audience members, I looked at him and told him I didn’t care, he spoke to management, was rebuffed, and then he sat back down. I continued. I had to continue. After another five minutes they all left. I was shaking. When I got to the point in the poem about my wife and I going to the Czech Republic for IVF, I was nearly crying.

It was a worst case scenario for a reading–I mean, right?–and I keep thinking back to it, even though I’m not viscerally upset about it anymore. But I sometimes wonder whether this is what writing is in contemporary American culture: an annoyance at best. I’ve heard anecdotes online of people who doodle in sketchbooks on buses or trains, or writing down and observing things on public transport, being accosted by police. “What do you think you’re doing? What seems to be the problem here?” And then of course, there are the “free speech zones” at public events like national political conventions or big monetary summits, which do little else to remind you that the powers-that-be have the power to not be afraid of you.

Contemplation or public utterance: the incredibly shrinking voice, the incredibly shrinking space that the voice carries. It’s difficult for the writer enough, hard to stare back at an audience, let your voice carry, treat the proceedings of a reading to be less boring than your average, well-meaning mainline Protestant church service. It’s hard to notice the world around you. It’s hard to step out of the con, or the AWP conference room, or wherever.

But simply being present in space and time with one’s writing is important. Not in a way of self-aggrandizing one’s own accomplishments (such as they may be), but to meet people where they are. The readership. There are no grand illusions about conversion here–I highly doubt that the man who interrupted me thought much about what had happened the next day (with someone so angry, it seems likely that there were a lot of impositions by other human beings that would occupy him). No, it is just as much for the writer’s sake–to be affected by other people when daring to read aloud.

And to let the dice land where they may.

“Omniscient Gentlemen of The Atlantic”

‘For all the ostensible objectivity and scientific rigor of the magazine’s questing spirit, The Atlantic’s definition of talent seems to correlate to: a current fellowship at the New America Foundation or any of the other indistinguishably centrist think tanks, though, preferably, one with a brand (i.e., “Daniel Indiviglio is the 2011 Robert Novak Fellow at the Philips Foundation”); an ability to channel one’s talent into the mastery of meritless and preposterous (“counterintuitive”) arguments, deliberately obtuse rebuttals, and miscellaneous pseudointellectual equivocation/noise on topical issues; and proven senior-level mastery of aforementioned mastery as demonstrated either by radical shamelessness or the pious and deeply felt earnestness of a motivational speaker.

The New America Foundation was founded in 1999 by Michael Lind, Sherle Schwenninger, and Ted Halstead, who explained at the time: “My starting premise was that the old ideologies don’t make sense anymore.” Because, Lind elaborated: “You look at people like Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol . . . you could make a living writing for magazines, really an upper-middle-class living, writing for purely intellectual magazines in the forties and fifties.”

This was a stretch. Both Bell and Kristol were liberally subsidized by the CIA, which financed the Congress for Cultural Freedom, whose flagship “intellectual magazine” Encounter Kristol edited in London and whose fancy international seminars were organized by Bell, who also worked a day job at Fortune and who brokered a deal with Henry Luce to promote in Time Inc. magazines (and thereby further subsidize) the intellectual output of CCF-affiliated intellects. The institutional network that supported those guys and their friends was not much different from the one that now connects up The Atlantic, the New America Foundation, and the Aspen Institute, keeping dozens of public pseudointellectual hacks in six-figure salaries. In lieu of the CIA, the funding for such ideas-synergy comes from corporations. Certainly, these think tanks are not ideologically different from those that hosted the cultural Cold Warriors of the fifties.’ (source)

“emasculating”

Sergey Brin, in a recent discussion of Google Glass, noted that smartphones are “emasculating.”

Let’s look at a more or less standard definition of “emasculate”. (I generally hate arguments by pedantics who pull out dictionary definitions as a kind of proof text for an argument, but I think this is worth it).

1. Make (a person, idea, or piece of legislation) weaker or less effective.
2. Deprive (a man) of his male role or identity: “he feels emasculated because he cannot control his sons’ behavior”.
3. To deprive of virility, to castrate.

A few things jump out at me here–it’s not much of a stretch to tie this thought, at least implicitly, to a kind of subliminal misogyny, in which a fear of (social, technological) castration can be invoked in order to create buzz for male early adopters. This is the tech field we’re dealing with after all! I’m reminded of the semi-mythic recent rise of the “brogrammer”.

This is the same smug certainty of any early adopter-speak; to try to lure men into being more virile through, er, glasses (made by FOXCONN, let’s not forget) strapped to one’s face. Here’s a good example here of the breathlessness and pliancy of a mainstream tech-press organ framing this not in terms of information, but desire: YOU WILL WANT GOOGLE GLASS (I mean, seriously, this is almost a parody on the levels of the rock journalist going to Ozymandias’ palace in The Watchmen). But this righteousness is compounded by the product itself:

Google Glass is like one camera car for each of the thousands, possibly millions, of people who will wear the device – every single day, everywhere they go – on sidewalks, into restaurants, up elevators, around your office, into your home. From now on, starting today, anywhere you go within range of a Google Glass device, everything you do could be recorded and uploaded to Google’s cloud, and stored there for the rest of your life. You won’t know if you’re being recorded or not; and even if you do, you’ll have no way to stop it.

(source)

It’s the coolness of cyberpunk with all of the Gibsonian creepiness stripped out (or at least, they are trying to strip it out), coupled with the voyeurism of the X-ray goggles sold in the back of comic books in the 70s.

That glee of being able to see what others cannot see: THAT is what is “virility” for the brogrammer-esque adopters who want to have Google Glass.

To have a form of technognosis.

Indeed, it probably goes without saying this is a real sf’nal moment: a kind of dystopian, disruptive surveillance technology being unleashed not in the pages of Analog, but in press releases, SXSW and TED talks.

It’s a true cyberpunk moment very different from smart phones, because of the closeness of the interface. (In fact I’m sure that the idea for this had to have popped up first in a SF magazine decades ago, before the possibility of it could have been even dreamed of.)

When Gibson presented this “virility” in prose in the Sprawl stories–the diamond-cut sentences, the cockiness of the cyber-cowboys–this was hardly presented as a tableaux of joyful consumption, but rather one of deep alienation, suspicion (between the characters and each other, between the characters and corporations), and even decay, “lost under superstructures of muscle graft that their outlines weren’t really human.”

But, well, we are at a somewhat different juncture now. It’s hard to know where this is going. But when we as a society have been making incredibly slow progress in ridding ourselves of misogyny in the public sphere, Google Glass is kind of a platonic ideal of an adolescent male fantasy brought to life, an almost cartoonishly dehumanizing piece of technology that posits its users as literal super-users, upsetting a power-balance through the spectacle of “augmentation.”

“gambling with the house’s money”

‘[The gambler] was, in fact, a man so delicate in manner, so judicious in his choice of victims, that in the strictly masculine part of the town’s life he had come to be explicitly trusted and admired. People called him a thoroughbred. The fear and contempt with which his craft was regarded were undoubtedly the reason why his quiet dignity shone conspicuous above the quiet dignity of men who might be merely hatters, billiard-markers, or grocery clerks. Beyond an occasional unwary traveller who came by rail, this gambler was supposed to prey solely upon reckless and senile farmers, who, when flush with good crops, drove into town in all the pride and confidence of an absolutely invulnerable stupidity. Hearing at times in circuitous fashion of the despoilment of such a farmer, the important men of Romper invariably laughed in contempt of the victim, and if they thought of the wolf at all, it was with a kind of pride at the knowledge that he would never dare think of attacking their wisdom and courage. Besides, it was popular that this gambler had a real wife and two real children in a neat cottage in a suburb, where he led an exemplary home life; and when anyone even suggested a discrepancy in his character, the crowd immediately vociferated descriptions of this virtuous family circle. Then men who led exemplary home lives, and men who did not lead exemplary home lives, all subsided in a bunch, remarking that there was nothing more to be said.’

–Stephen Crane, “The Blue Hotel”, 1899

“Jesus, Seth. Listen, if you really wanna do this with your life you have to believe you’re necessary and you are. People wanna live like this in their cars and big fuckin’ houses they can’t even pay for, then you’re necessary. The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is cause we got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off and then the whole world gets really fuckin’ fair really fuckin’ quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do but they don’t. They want what we have to give them but they also wanna, you know, play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from. Well, thats more hypocrisy than I’m willing to swallow, so fuck em. Fuck normal people. You know, the funny thing is, tomorrow if all of this goes tits up they’re gonna crucify us for being too reckless but if we’re wrong, and everything gets back on track? Well then, the same people are gonna laugh till they piss their pants cause we’re gonna all look like the biggest pussies God ever let through the door.”

–from Margin Call

epilogue to “The Blazing World” by Margaret Cavendish (1666)

“By this Poetical Description, you may perceive, that my ambition is not onely to be Empress, but Authoress of a whole World; and that the Worlds I have made, both the Blazing- and the other Philosophical World, mentioned in the first part of this Description, are framed and composed of the most pure, that is, the Rational parts of Matter, which are the parts of my Mind; which Creation was more easily and suddenly effected, than the Conquests of the two famous Monarchs of the World. Alexander and Cesar. Neither have I made such disturbances, and caused so many dissolutions of particulars, otherwise named deaths, as they did; for I have destroyed but some few men in a little Boat, which dyed through the extremity of cold, and that by the hand of Justice, which was necessitated to punish their crime of stealing away a young and beauteous Lady. And in the formation of those Worlds, I take more delight and glory, then ever Alexander or Cesar did in conquering this terrestrial world; and though I have made my Blazing-world a Peaceable World, allowing it but one Religion, one Language, and one Government; yet could I make another World, as full of Factions, Divisions and Warrs, as this is of Peace and Tranquility; and the Rational figures of my Mind might express as much courage to fight, as Hector and Achilles had; and be as wise as Nestor, as; Eloquent as Ulysses, and be as beautiful as Hellen. But I esteeming Peace before Warr, Wit before Policy, Honesty before Beauty; instead of the figures of Alexander, Cesar, Hector, Achilles, Nestor, Ulysses, Hellen, &c. chose rather the figure of Honest Margaret Newcastle, which now I would not change for all this Terrestrial World; and if any should like the World I have made, and be willing to be my Subjects, they may imagine themselves such, and they are such, I mean in their Minds, Fancies or Imaginations; but if they cannot endure to be Subjects, they may create Worlds of their own, and Govern themselves as they please. But yet let them have a care, not to prove unjust Usurpers, and to rob me of mine: for, concerning the Philosophical-world, I am Empress of it my self; and as for the Blazing-world, it having an Empress already, who rules it with great Wisdom and Conduct, which Empress is my dear Platonick Friend; I shall never prove so unjust, treacherous and unworthy to her, as to disturb her Government, much less to depose her from her Imperial Throne, for the sake of any other, but rather chuse to create another World for another Friend.”

The more things, you know…

In the wake of the election, I thought that this passage was particularly interesting:

Republicans had set out to sow fear and panic in advance of the transfer of power. It worked. The crisis hit in the last days of the Bush administration, but the Republicans successfully blamed the chaos of 2008-2009 on the Obama administration and the new Congress. The falling wages, unemployment, business failures, strikes and desperation all proved what they had always said: Democrats destroyed the economy.

As they planned for midterm elections in 2010, the National Republican Congressional Committee published a “Contract from America” promising that a new Congress with their party in charge would restore the nation’s economic health. Businessmen would no longer worry about the safety of their money, knowing that Republicans would legislate in their favor. With business safe, the economy would recover. Workers would have jobs again. This all added up to one conclusion: Republican government was the only way to ensure a sound economy.

Pretty standard stuff right?

Except this is an article about what happened in the 1890s.

Here’s the original:

Republicans had set out to sow fear and panic in advance of the transfer of power. It worked. The crisis hit in the last days of the Harrison administration, but the Republicans successfully blamed the chaos of 1893-1894 on the Cleveland administration and the new Congress. The falling wages, unemployment, business failures, strikes and desperation all proved what they had always said: Democrats destroyed the economy.

As they planned for midterm elections in 1894, the National Republican Congressional Committee published a “Campaign Text Book” promising that a new Congress with their party in charge would restore the nation’s economic health. Businessmen would no longer worry about the safety of their money, knowing that Republicans would legislate in their favor. With business safe, the economy would recover. Workers would have jobs again. This all added up to one conclusion: Republican government was the only way to ensure a sound economy.

It’s worth reading the whole article–perhaps as a bellwether for how the Republicans will treat Obama’s second term. I doubt they’re going to be any less obstructionist.

Turtles all the way up and down

An interesting Tumblr that has come out of late is Rich Kids of Instagram. Essentially self-explanatory, it captures the 1%er youth (probably more accurately .1% Youth) at moments of play, drinking, diving off helicopters into sea water–basically the ostentatious displays of wealth that you know they go all out for, but rarely see (reality television is different. That is carefully choreographed celebrification). Anyway, someone made a passing comment that it was “riot bait”, and I’m sure if Marie Antoinette had a Tumblr it would look, certainly, very similar to this.

Some of the pictures–well, okay, most–are indeed annoying. In a way the Richie Riches are performing and pantomining for the camera, with words to match. Their hashtags often dutifully list the brand names. One has an Instagram profile saying “Whoever said less is more probably never had quite enough ‘more'”.

Another says “Do you have a horse in your backyard? Didn’t think so.”

It’s the ultimate apotheosis of the “fuck you, I’ve got mine” mindset that is the rotten bedrock of our financial system, our political system, our sorely lacking sense of community.

In a related note, it’s been recently calculated that the ultra-rich have $21 TRILLION in offshore accounts to evade taxes.

As the young and asinine try to stagger with wealth, we are instead staggered just by how much the RKOI crowd’s parents have completely hoodwinked the system and fucked everyone completely, utterly over.

And in the middle class, here in America it is admittedly a precarious position–these RKOI’ers stretching up into infinity…and yet, it is easy to forget that for most of the world, middle America is itself ostentatious. The working poor, the refugees–they rarely enter our calculations. And we ourselves have more than we need. So in this middle distance we (more or less) stand, wanting to tear down those above us while at the same time keeping those below us at bay.

Today My iPhone is an Artillery Shell

Today my iPhone is not a “mobile device.” Today it is an artillery shell. I feel it in my hands, its shiny heft, and feel sick to my stomach.

Much like the iPhone is a mobile device that can perform many functions–it is not simply a phone–my artillery shell is not just an artillery shell. It’s also a key to a jail cell–secure in my pocket, I make sure never to lose it, though many times I would like to–and a muzzle.

Just like the Chinese Communist Party was so successful in muzzling and “reeducating” the youth of China–so much so that few even know what June 4 stands for. But far more than that–most don’t care. It doesn’t matter to most. Far more insiduous than Stalin “disappearing” people; the state empowering its citizens to “disappear” themselves.

And yet the con job of apathy surely extends to the entire world. There are so many willing partners with the Chinese Communist Party. Not just major corporations, for whom 1989 might as well not exist. I am one of them as well. These material goods produced in compounds like FOXCONN are surely the detrius of Tiananmen Square. It is easier to forget, or–perhaps worse–to know and not care.

How much we care isn’t a matter of intentions; it’s what we do and use, and how we act in the world.

Which is why, today, my iPhone is an artillery shell.

What will it be tomorrow?

On the morning of 5 June, protesters, parents of the injured and dead, workers and infuriated residents tried to enter the blockaded square but were shot at by the soldiers. The soldiers shot them in the back when they were running away. These actions were repeated several times.

Perhaps it will be a bullet.

From We are the 1%, bitches

The new “black is the new white” meme among Republicans is that low taxes are good–except if you’re one of those lazy freeloading 47% of Americans who don’t pay income taxes. Then you’re a grifter, and poor, and you’re not paying your fair share, and deserve contempt.

This ignores payroll taxes, state and local taxes, gas taxes, excise taxes and much more. But to hear conservatives talk about it, you’d think these people’s entire tax burden was $0.00. In April, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), citing similar data, claimed “According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, 49 percent of households are paying 100 percent of taxes coming in to the federal government.” Notice the absence of the key qualifier, “income.” And Grassley’s far from alone.

The plutocrats smell blood. The people who have labored hard to destroy this country for their own gain are going in for the kill. Presumably they would be happy that half of the country pays no federal income taxes, but the ideology of “low taxes” is, apparently, only for the wealthy. The rest is an attempt at demonization of this shadowy group of super-scary people who are lazy and leeching off the providence of the “screw you, I’ve got mine” crowd.

Ecology

“Attending to the language of my fellow human beings, I believe that many of them would never use the word “creator” but feel themselves very much included in the word “creation.” That something lies before us, a cosmos outside ourselves, makes us strangers to the world that is produced and administered and at home in the other, the created world. The more we destroy nature, the more we long for it.” –Dorothy Soelle.

The Economic Equivalent of Terrorists

Andrew Sullivan is absolutely correct about the gun the Congressional Republicans are holding to the country’s (and the world’s) head:

What you probably cannot do is negotiate with economic equivalent of terrorists. What Cantor and Boehner are doing is essentially letting the world know they have an economic WMD in their possession. And it will go off if you do not give them everything they want, with no negotiation possible. That’s the nature of today’s GOP. It needs to be destroyed before it can recover.

The fact that the Republican party is not a permanent rump faction in American politics is just a testament to just how broken American civil society is.

DC’s deficit frenzy – TheHill.com

DC’s deficit frenzy – TheHill.com.

Blood, Trapped Under the Nail

About 6 weeks or so ago I slammed the porch door into my thumb while I was letting the dogs back in. Though the pain subsided after a few minutes, I’ve had since then a little demarcation of blood underneath my fingernail, pressed flat like a rose in the pages of a heavy book.

Time is very very slow underneath my thumb. The dissipation is happening, but it will still be awhile. A few weeks ago it still had that dark violet tinge to it; now it’s more like a scumble of red paint, a bit fainter around the edges and in a few interior spots. It’s very odd to carry this mark; it’s like an amateur temporary tattoo that nonetheless was made of strong, deep, almost uncontrollable ink.

I could say it’s a nice reminder of my own clumsiness but actually I think it looks cool. It does on occasion remind me of that door, this house, which we’ve almost lived in 10 years now, which is pure unreality. Talk about time moving very very quickly anywhere except underneath my thumb. And yet it’s a struggle sometimes to have the house feel like a home. Even after 10 years. The snow and ice have been particularly vexing–problems with the vent to the hot water heater, a tiny leak over the sink (and our roof is only a year and a half old).

These are just domesticities, though. We have a roof, we are lucky, we do not have to take to the streets for cruel injustices. I worry though about suburbia (and I would have never thought I’d ever ever live 10 years in suburbia). This type of place–even an inner ring suburb–is such a historical anomaly fueled by low fuel costs and the nightmarish utopias of land developers and car dealerships, who certainly had their hand in altering American culture after World War II. These were not stupid people, though, however manipulative they were of both aspirations and geography. And so, 50+ years later…well, it’s taken some time for their vision of America to stick, to really stick. The older neighbors we have, first or second generation in this neighborhood, are really awesome; but those of my generation are disconnected, rootless, incurious. In that sense it is only half a neighborhood–and I am certainly not absolving myself on this front. Oh, sure, you go into the core cities’ neighborhoods and it can be different and well-meaning and sincere and the neighborhoods treat National Night Out seriously. But–and this trend will only be accelerating, fast–the core city neighborhoods just cost more, you will pay a premium to have that “experience”, and when gas hits $6 a gallon the people who can’t afford it are going to be living in the places they can least afford, in the outer rings, subletted McMansions, no buses, abject schools least-common denominator public services, old cars with bad gas mileage… this is the working class wasteland, this will happen when the suburbs cease to be embedded in dreams of development and merely become places to survive in the middle of nowhere. Those tipping points are all around us.

All are my brethren–of late I am trying to live by this credo and treat it as an almost physical law. But the biggest challenge for this has been out here, when it’s so easy for me to construe people as sallow, rude, clannish. Are these essences or defense mechanisms brought about by pains I don’t understand and can’t articulate? (At most I can reconstruct and write along the edges, which in the end are my own edges.) In the day-to-day it’s so easy in my own rush and bluster to respond with my own defenses. But I bank on–I have to–on the latter.

Meanwhile, spring will come, the yard will be spruced, the blood will continue to dissipate…

Trust Them

I’m sure many in the Democratic Establishment are wondering why support and enthusiasm–which had surged in 2008–is now flagging for Democratic candidates. Why the money is drying up. Why the activists are out in lesser numbers.

I might be wrong, but stories like these might be part of the issue:

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) today filed a lawsuit challenging the government’s asserted authority to carry out “targeted killings” of U.S. citizens located far from any armed conflict zone.

The authority contemplated by the Obama administration is far broader than what the Constitution and international law allow, the groups charge. Outside of armed conflict, both the Constitution and international law prohibit targeted killing except as a last resort to protect against concrete, specific and imminent threats of death or serious physical injury. An extrajudicial killing policy under which names are added to CIA and military “kill lists” through a secret executive process and stay there for months at a time is plainly not limited to imminent threats.

Awesome! It’s good that these powers are even expanded more from the Bush era. And that “oversight” is extremely comforting:

“Whether a particular individual will be targeted in a particular location,” says Koh [State Department legal adviser], “will depend upon considerations specific to each case, including those related to the imminence of the threat, the sovereignty of the other states involved, and the willingness and ability of those states to suppress the threat the target poses.” This is a long way of saying “trust us.”

This is a monstrous policy that has not gotten the coverage it has deserved. And yet I am sure that Democrats are banking on the opposition being so crazy and delusional that they will be the only choice “by default.” (I’m too lazy to research this now, but I’d be interested to play the wind-back machine on Obama’s stance on drone killings on U.S. citizens during the campaign).

The point is that the ship of the overpowerful executive branch has long since sailed, and the shore is no longer in sight.

I fear that this not a ship of state we can rely on, as passengers, even in part. We are on this boat. Half the crew is itching for mutiny. The captains want to show they’re “tough”, that they’re in control. Meanwhile those in coach and steerage are getting more restless–and hey, at least the mutineers are showing signs of life.

Meanwhile, overhead, an unmanned drone soars, making its way to a nearby boat of enemies…

Everyone back to the buffets, the shows, the waterslides!

Simone Weil and Social Media

My computer has been in the shop for, like, about a month because of a virus. I haven’t really had a backup computer suitable for blogging. UNTIL NOW.

OK, so it’s time to blog about the sorcery of social media.

This essay by Jim Grote adroitly puts together a case for Simone Weil‘s theory of “social force” as one that is extremely relevant in our highly networked times. Indeed her theories tie in astonishingly well (considering they were written before and during World War II) to how our social media works–in a manner that is almost purely reputation based. And reputation creates prestige:

Prestige “rests principally upon that marvelous indifference that the strong feel toward the weak, an indifference so contagious that it infects the very people who are the objects of it.”

In manners of trivial angst, you can see how this works with Twitter “followers”: the desire for more, and the efforts to acquire more. People aren’t necessarily “followed” for what is being written but rather for the unit of reputation that that content creator represents.

Thus, according to Weil, the consolidation of power in these forms of media (or mediated forms) only increases reputation as the main unit of currency in our society. It’s a “post-modernization” of prestige (post-modern not in the lit-crit sense, but in a sense of work-machines and systems, e.g., from ticker tape to the computer). And this prestige imbalance (provided one buys into the system) creates power disparity:

We read, but also we are read by other. Interferences in these readings. Forcing someone to read himself as we read him (slavery). Forcing others to read us as we read ourselves (conquest). A mechanical process. More often than not a dialogue between deaf people …. Every being cries out to be read differently.

*

Social force is bound to be accompanied by lies. That is why all that is highest in human life, every effort of thought, every effort of love, has a corrosive action on the established order …. The social order, though necessary, is essentially evil, whatever it may be.

This isn’t to say that Twitter is some inherently diabolical force in our culture, but rather it is indicative of how the forces in our culture operate. There is no purity in this; it’s hard to break out of seeing “beyond” social media when it is an aether that surrounds us. I get excited when someone even vaguely semi-famous follows me on Twitter. Why is that? The craving for attention, for recognition is all-pervasive. A total repudiation of this would be unthinkable for many people, especially in Generation Y and younger. The New York Times had an interesting article of late about the possible rewiring of the brain that takes place because of the prevalence of gadgetry and communication tools at our (by “our”, meaning a certain segment of the developed world-certainly cell phone usage is not a developed-world phenomenon; I would contend however that the onslaught overload of the continually new is) disposal.

He goes to sleep with a laptop or iPhone on his chest, and when he wakes, he goes online. He and Mrs. Campbell, 39, head to the tidy kitchen in their four-bedroom hillside rental in Orinda, an affluent suburb of San Francisco, where she makes breakfast and watches a TV news feed in the corner of the computer screen while he uses the rest of the monitor to check his e-mail.

*

When he studied, “a little voice would be saying, ‘Look up’ at the computer, and I’d look up,” Connor said. “Normally, I’d say I want to only read for a few minutes, but I’d search every corner of Reddit and then check Facebook.”

It’s that ‘little voice’ which interests me, bringing about complicity into the network. And, believe me, I know this pull. I struggle with it every day not only in my writing but in my everyday life. It was inculcated at a very early age (probably 8 or 9, when I got my first Texas Instruments computer?). Back to Simone Weil:

What, then, is the antidote? Weil puts forward an “out” that is neither capitalist nor Marxist. It involves attention, but real attention:

As Weil’s special vocation was to seek and find the forgotten, she considered the essence of both friendship, and social justice to be the act of “creative attention.” Her favorite parable was the Good Samaritan. The charity portrayed there she regarded as sacramental in character:

‘Christ taught us that the supernatural love of our neighbor is the exchange of compassion and gratitude which happens in a flash between two beings, one possessing and the other deprived of human personality. One of the two is only a little piece of flesh, naked, inert, and bleeding beside a ditch; he is nameless; no one knows anything about him. Those who pass by this thing scarcely notice it, and a few minutes afterwards do not even know that they saw it. Only one stops and turns his attention towards it …. The attention is creative. But at the moment when it is engaged it is a renunciation. This is true, at least, if it is pure. The man accepts to be diminished by concentrating on an expenditure of energy, which will not extend his own power but will only give existence to a being other than himself, who will exist independently of him …. Creative attention means really giving our attention to what does not exist… He who has absolutely no belongings of any kind around which social consideration crystallizes does not exist. ‘

Both love and justice perceive what is invisible to the world of social ideologies, that is, the individual sufferer. True attention literally creates personality in the sufferer. Far from leading to political quietism, Weil’s philosophy of “creative attention” leads to authentic political action.

What’s interesting about this from a standpoint of poetics or aesthetics, particularly narrative-prose aesthetics, is that fiction is also a process of “breathing life” into a stranger. The writer creates both the stranger and ground he or she stands upon–and then the stranger becomes “known.” In this, writing creates… “a ‘personal’ existence for that individual.” In the real world, in compassion, in giving life to relationship, we are in essence making that person exist for us. (How much of the day is spent amongst simulacra?) This is what is meant by the “depth” of a character–it is pointing toward the character’s character, the innate yet rather ineffable quality that comes about when a character comes alive in a book. And this, perhaps, is why the written arts are so crucial, and why I do worry that the shallowness of attention in our current culture is making the need for fiction obsolete.

Not because of length of prose, or even difficulty of reading (although that certainly plays a part) but because people would rather not get closer to each other. Even if it’s an imaginary other.

One final note, about social media and the sorcerous (I did promise that at the beginning of the post, didn’t I??). For Weil, the “Beast” of social media accretes power to the powerful by deception. Media manipulation by powerful conglomerates and spokespeople and celebrities. One of the most profound books I read in the last 12 months was Eros and Magic in the Rennaisance by Ioan P. Culianu, which involves:

how magic in the Renaissance was “a scientifically plausible attempt to manipulate individuals and groups based on a knowledge of motivations, particularly erotic motivations. In addition, the magician relied on a profound knowledge of the art of memory to manipulate the imagination of his subjects. In these respects, Culiano suggests, magic is the precursor of the modern psychological and sociological sciences, and the magician is the distant ancestor of the of the psychoanalyst and the advertising and publicity agent.”

I think the interplay between Weil and Culiano here is extremely apparent. I’ll try to touch on Eros and Magic, and Giordano Bruno, in a future post.

Late note: I have to add this excerpt from a review by John Crowley of a book about Culiano’s mysterious murder (well, it’s a long story). But this is the important part:

Culianu distinguishes between two types of polity: the magician state — such as the United States or Italy, where he lived when he came to the West — and the police state. The police state becomes a jailer state, “changing itself into a prison where all hope is lost,” repressing both liberty and the illusion of liberty in order to defend an out-of-date culture in which no one believes. It is bound to perish. The magician state, on the other hand, can degenerate into a sorcerer state, providing only the illusion of satisfaction, keeping the controls hidden; its faults are too much subtlety and too much flexibility. “Yet the future belongs to it anyway,” Culianu says. “Coercion and the use of force will have to yield to the subtle processes of magic, science of the past, of the present, and of the future.”

That sounds like the “Social Beast” to me.

Half-Centaur, Half-Chimera: Humanism and Science Fiction

Charlie Jane Anders has a very thoughtful essay at io9 entitled “Is ‘Science Fiction Humanism’ A Contradiction In Terms?”:

But is science fiction really humanist? Much of science fiction turns out to be about exploring our vast cosmos, and expanding our being. From this quest, one of two outcomes often arises: 1) We meet something greater than ourselves. 2) We become something greater than our current selves. It’s rare, and becoming rarer, to find science fiction that rejects both mysticism and posthumanism. You could even argue that if the journey doesn’t change us somehow, then what’s the point?

And if the journey does change us radically, are we still the mere humans that humanism purports to celebrate?

This might be the central question of 21st century sf, and why it’s still so essential (I talk about this in my Rain Taxi review of The New Space Opera, which Charlie cites.) I also think that this is the key point of intertwining between science fiction and fantasy, and why they are, genre-wise, in the same boat (even with fantasy currently ascendant): that search for transcendental content.

Zizek is consistently a writer I find maddening and fascinating in equal portions. But he had a passage in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce that I thought was highly relevant to this discussion, in which he talks about the threat of privatization (by capitalism) of three different “commons”: the commons of culture, the commons of external nature (i.e., the precipitation of ecological disaster) and most relevant for our discussion here, the commons of internal nature, which he defines as “the biogenetic inheritance of humanity”:

with new biogenetic technology, the creation of a New Man in the literal sense of changing human nature becomes a realistic prospect…

in other words, “the self-annihilation of humanity itself” as a definitive last act of “capitalist logic.”

He goes onto say:

we are in danger of losing everything: the threat is that we will be reduced to abstract subjects devoid of all substantial content, dispossessed of our symbolic substance, our genetic base heavily manipulated, vegetating in an unlivable environment.

What’s interesting in the field of science fiction is how many writers still fail to recognize the potential moral precipice society is on (and how we have indeed been pushed there by capitalism), much less tackle it through the art forms at our disposal, despite the rich heritage of such moral questioning in the genre. (As well as the obsession about “getting paid,” in awards and $$$ through the embrace of mediocrity, for its own sake. But that’s another post.) We are also in an age where, in fantasy, the geneticism of Monsters has been normalized. Nothing is more popular than heros and heroines as vampires, heros and heroines as werewolves, etc. We have grown more comfortable with the bioengineering science has provided us, even if they are packaged in mythopoetics. Many stories are about the recombinance of “bloodlines”–he’s a half vampire, half human, she is a were-leopard, etc. etc. (Just throwing out examples here.) These fictions are anticipatory, prophetic texts for the parahumans we might find in our global culture.

And yet, so much of our science fiction, rather than processing this march toward the inhuman, “the reduction of humans to manipulable machines” (Zizek again), is cheerleading the emulsification. A world of all objects and no subjects would be the final triumph of capitalism. Many sf writers write “against” the destruction of the first two commons (the first discussed–destruction of a common culture–having a great deal to do with intellectual property rights…and we need to say little to remind ourselves which writers have loaded for bear in this regard). No one wants ecological apocalypse. Yet many–not all, but many–would hail the totalizing vision of the anti-human, total nihilism masked inside a Singularity.

Purity is sexy, you know?

But this transcendence is, as always, a myth. Thinking realistically, how this transformation would not be under the purview of large biogenetics corporations is something I fail to grasp. The fact that this is a zone of contention within fiction proves that it is indeed a “hot spot”, in flux, and worthy of writing fiercely about.

Which many are.

But not nearly enough.

“America Is My Client” says Bryce Lefever

I nearly drove off the road when I heard this on NPR.

Just listen to the whole thing. Bryce Lefever, ladies and gentlemen.

Complete with a “sit down, shut up, watch what you say” warning to the American people who dare question his espousal of torture.

And I really wonder–the fact that many of the people picked up in Afghanistan or Iraq are picked up by mistake, by accident, or turn out to be completely innocent. Does it ever enter into their mindset? No, it does not. That gap speaks volumes.

“I have no fondness for the enemy, and I don’t feel like I need to take care of their mental health needs.”

Almost as much shame needs to be put upon NPR, who gave this monster pretty much an open mic to spout off, with zero critical thinking, processing, or countering of his sick views. Thanks, Alix Spiegel. I know you meekly said, “Now, some psychologists don’t agree!” but actually, you know, putting one of the psychologists on the air would have been–what’s the word? Journalistic?

God forbid.