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. . . 2002-08-05

As one Somnambulist to another
our sleep could be more perfect.

Jan.-Feb. 1935
    To give heat is within the control of every human being.
Lorine Niedecker means a lot to me. All the Objectivists mean something to me, 'cause of their class, and their politics, and the long breaks they took to make a living or a political commitment -- well, I guess maybe those aren't uncorrelated -- and their simultaneous (if often interrupted) commitment to poetic artifact as artifact instead of as ego-puffing walrus-teared persona. (Which may also be not so uncorrelated.)

And I still gnaw and lipsmack and tonguecluck Zukofsky's confections with delight, but Niedecker's my infatuation. I whine about how hard it is with a full-time job, or without one, and folks ask how someone who's not a grad student could possibly maintain an intellectual life, and then I think about Niedecker and I can't decide whether to crumble or melt or be pleased to be human, though I'm grateful that Niedecker prods us toward option 3.

It's been a long wait for the collected Lorine Niedecker. It's still not completely collected, like for instance her reviews (though it includes "I'd sit on a quiet fence / and sing a quiet thing: sincere, sincere. / And that would be Reznikoff."), and her letters you should get too, and I agree with Bob Arnold it's a lousy shame the book designer decided to wedge short poems into the bottom of the page and then split them into splintery messes with a swing of her mighty axe, I guess she might have been trying to save paper but this was the writer of "My friend tree / I sawed you down" so you have to wonder....

But it's better than before, being so much more than before. All the previously-unpublished work seems lovely to me, like this two-weeks-and-one-trite-affirmation per page 1935 calendar someone gave her, all twenty-seven pages of which she pasted over with her own affirmations. (Under this particular paste-job I can make out "...people in...neighborhood...better place...they...")

Later affirmations aimed at an even later date:

I fear this war
Will be long and painful
and who
  No matter where you are
you are alone
and in danger — well
            to hell
with it.

. . . 2002-08-12

Nobody Knows I'm Dear

Turbulent Velvet is right that mean-spirited uncivil attack is the discursive norm in contemporary American culture, and that any public discourse left to its own devices will veer in that direction.

Alex Golub is further right that that same corporate-made-flesh norm drives us, mooing and ineffectually kicking those pressed close behind, to infinite extension, followed by suffocation, of copyright.

"Ideology" is too figureheading a word to reliably take a stand on any one ground, but there should be some term for a culture's mostly unspoken, slavishly followed, and clearly inadequate notions of human effort and pleasure: for that which is expressed and maintained passively through (paraphrasing T.V.) exhaustion and impatience as much as actively through fear or vanity or ignorance. In some cultures, altruism is the standard rhetorical stance and people are hypocrites about everything else. In ours, aggressively selfish he-with-the-most-toys-wins competition is the standard, and it's anything other than playing-to-win that's seen (and hidden and dismissed) as perverse.

My optimism (such as it is) rests (or exerts itself [such as it does]) in my knowledge of the failure of that norm to fully satisfy or explain human realities. There are delights and desires outside the purely competitive; even here and now, some people can sometimes share that recognition.

  Lest you think me insufficiently bitter and cynical -- I'm not, honest! -- I hasten to protest that sympathetic, kind, companionable, or harmlessly intrigued intentions in themselves are no guarantee of followthrough, success, coherency, or even sincerity. It's just I'm bitter and cynical enough to think the same caveats hold when people express intentions like greed, vindictiveness, power-grabbing, or lust. Most straight guys, for example, can't tell the difference between lust and a hole in the ground -- but that's another topic for another day. For today, it may be enough to remember how often vehemently expressed greed leads to bankruptcy. All motives are unreliable -- so why selectively repress sociable motives in favor of the sociopathic?

For every 19,800 announcements of eradicated Mr. Nice Guys, we gain only 75 restored or replaced Mr. Nice Guys. Since Mr. Nice Guys are, in fact, a defining comfort of civilized existence, what are we to do?

One of the things I like about the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology is, after they diagnose some way we're fucked up, they try to hack a workaround. (But that's social engineering! Yes, and just talking is social engineering. Coming up with the original hypothesis and putting experimental subjects through the embarrassment and publishing the results are all social engineering. And when newspapers rabidly seize upon some stereotype-reinforcing abstract and caricature it in headlines, that's primo social engineering.)

In "Norm of Self-Interest and Its Effects on Social Action", Rebecca K. Ratner & Dale T. Miller summarize earlier (North American, I presume) studies: Contrary to selfish assumptions, having a personal stake or vested interest in an issue doesn't unduly affect a person's attitudes or opinions about it. Stakes and interests do, however, make it more likely that one's attitudes will be acted on.

The easy, passive, explanation is that this reflects the miraculous power of selfishness.

Instead, it turns out to be caused more by a presumed injunction against altruism. Volunteers insist on explaining, no matter how unconvincingly, their motives as selfishness ("It gets me out of the house," "I like the people I work with"). Non-volunteers -- notably those who remain silent while others are slandered, or passed over, or pushed in -- point out that "It's not my place to interfere," "People will wonder why I'm making a fuss." It's like they'll be perceived as rude.

Horrifyingly, their presumption is right. Among the (North American, I presume) subjects of these studies, public action and public protest truly are likely to draw disapproval when there's no obvious self-interest involved. "Naturally," on the other hand, when there is obvious self-interest, the dominent whatsit is confirmed and strengthened.

But Ratner & Miller, tinkering with this awful machinery, found that if the action is framed to make it seem more legitimate or less objectionable (e.g., through anonymity, or by explicit inclusiveness, as in "everyone wins, it's a win-win, don't worry, people will think you're being selfish"), even nonvested citizens become much more likely to act on their beliefs. Once they grow accustomed to that luxury, who knows what might ensue? Multiple-issue politics even? A boy can dream.

Have we come to this? Imaginary vests and an underground of good intentions? Very well then, if that's the best we can manage....

Act on! Divested, invested, join us, who are not you! You have nothing to lose but your shirts!

. . . 2002-08-13

Fudger Rotunda

I don't understand why some of the same Yankees who'll gladly order plaintains with black bean sauce from an upscale Caribbean restaurant nevertheless mock our more luscious domestic equivalent, peanut butter and banana sandwiches. But when even the English sneer at a food, my mind goes suspicious.... (link via LinkMachineGo)

(Admission: I'm upwardly mobilized enough to prefer grilled [margarine on the outside and sandwich on the skillet] to fried, to usually choose plain bread or toast or bagel over grilled, and to slice-and-tile rather than mush [allowing for interstitial fragments of chocolate].)

. . . 2002-08-16

Le bateau ivre

Drunk Boat

As I went down on the impassive Rivers,
I didn't smell myself any more....

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My sincere thanks go to the anonymous reader who pointed out the typo in our recent tribute to the Art Gallery of Ontario:

I don't why some. I don't have the had-known that AINE held The Damned Thing
One might almost believe the message came from the King himself!

+ + +

I have, thank God, a pretty large mouth....

And in another wonderful act of generosity, Olaf Simons adds to our notes on the Count de Grammont:

I read the first English translation in the British Library {L:} some years ago. The French original had (by the way) been first published a year before in 1713 at Pierre Marteau's Publishing House in Cologne (the real publisher was probably situated at The Hague or Amsterdam). Mémoires de la vie du comte de Grammont; contenant particuliérement l'histoire amoureuse de la cour d'angleterre, sous le regne de Charles II. (Cologne: P. Marteau, 1713) - I saw the a copy of this edition at the British library {L: 614.b.2} as I had the curious pleasure to read practically all the gallant entertainment published in English and German between 1710-1720. (The first readers, by the way, supposed Grammont to be the author - not Hamilton his brother in law - see the second English edition published in 1719.)
  First English edition

. . . 2002-08-20

Movie Comment: My Brother's Wedding

Forget hanging off a cliff. Even with the aid of rear projection or CGI, you can only hang so long -- and then pfffbt! to suspense.

But a decent person trying to live a decent life? Now that's suspenseful. Soon as they get 'round one obstacle, there's another. Sometimes success is the next obstacle. Even giving up doesn't necessarily stanch the adventure.

All the expensively engineered, rehearsed, and (if we're lucky) edited thrill-rides on which we accompany our movie heroes and clowns merely approximate the tension of a decades-long struggle against becoming a worthless creep. That pinball-POV story's such a surefire grabber, the only explanation I can find for its scarcity onscreen is that Hollywood writers don't want to do the research.

In life, if not in movies, the premise of Charles Burnett's second feature, My Brother's Wedding, is familiar edge-of-the-seat stuff: A young man's hard-working church-going lower-middle-class family is as well off as anyone in their neighborhood can expect to be. A lateral move -- from the family laundry business and into a garage, for example -- seems pointless to him. The only ways up -- higher education and a white-collar career, for example -- would take him out of the community1 (and apparently into atrociously robotic acting). All other roads lead downhill with exhilarating speed.

Given choices like that, he's understandably decided not to choose. As the movie starts, his life has gone stagnant, and, over two hours, we watch his further attempts to avoid an irrevocable decision slowly, discursively, drive him into an irrevocable stunning pen.

The slowness and discursiveness are necessary, I think, if one is to feel both the warmth and the claustrophobia of the over-extended homebody: the small and redundant defeats, the victories whose pettiness nags like humiliation. One sequence -- a confrontation between the protagonist's mother and two would-be thieves -- beautifully conveys by structure alone how a "miraculous escape" can also feel like a traumatic demonstration of one's own disposability. Filmic structure and rhythm are the saving graces of Burnett's movie, and they're good graces to depend on.

The post-synch-dubbed acting and sound are less gracious. For most parts, Sunday-best stiffness seems appropriate to the dignity of the occasion. For the remaining parts -- the upperly-mobile caricatures -- the best I can say is what Earl Jackson Jr. said: that Jean-Luc Godard manages to get similar performances even out of big stars.

In a way, Burnett is telling a shaggy dog story; by definition, then, some might see it as overblown and overextended. I understand that makes it not for everyone, and tomorrow I'll present evidence to that ineffect. But for those of us who fully expect the last words we hear, as blooming buzzing confusion drowns all, as we rush toward and are turned away from the light, to be, in patrician saintly tones, "When we said shaggy, we didn't mean that shaggy" -- it's probably fine for us.

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1[For more on this subject, see Social Class in America, from the collection of Mr. Rick Prelinger.]

. . . 2002-08-23

Movie Comments Comment

So many folks boiling over with critical insight and political acumen! And post-movie Q&A sessions provide an irresistable opportunity to lance those boils.

  1. My Brother's Wedding at Pixar, Emeryville, CA

    Lots of great Qs here, including "Does the director know Martin Scorsese? Because [long demonstration that if you've never seen a Cassavetes movie, you'll think that anything with talkative city dwellers is ripping off Scorsese]" and the always popular "How much did it cost?" (Wrong answer, guessed at by the hapless host of the evening: "I'm not sure -- one point five million?" Right answer: $80,000.)

    Best of show:

    "You always hear about how African-Americans have absent fathers and single-parent families. But that didn't seem to be a problem in this film. So I can't help wondering: Just what is the real story here?"
    Which reminded me of someone at DEC who was talking about some political dispute in the news and concluded, "How can black people expect to get anywhere? They can't even agree on a candidate!" Except that guy at least had the excuse of being from New Hampshire and I at least got the relief of answering him. At Pixar, I was the guest of a nonprofit institution hoping to impress potential donors, so decorum was called for. And was maintained by my companion hustling me the fuck out of there.

  2. What Have I Done to Deserve This? at New Directors / New Films, NY, NY

    1985. Pedro Almodóvar's first movie in the States. Disgruntled director on stage, dressed to the nines and stoned to the gills. An extremely wealthy, old, and frail-looking lady in the audience, with a grandmotherly smile:

    "You wouldn't have been able to do this when General Franco was in charge, would you?"
    ... I have nothing to add to that.

  3. Prelinger Archives selections, and other movies, and songs, and books, and TV shows, and paintings, and photographs at PFA, Berkeley, CA, and other places

    A young academic male:

    "Paradoxically, though, I feel that [artifact] actually is subversive in a way, since [earnest explication of some detail of the artifact]..."
    This may be unheimlichly gauche of me to admit, but not all pleasures are, strictly speaking, subversive.

    For example, you know that warm feeling you get from someone agreeing with you? Or when you feel clever for working something out? Well, that's not actually called subversion.

    In fact, as a fellow comfortable guy, I'd say that the only context in which it makes sense for a comfortable guy to apply the word "subversive" to anything is when he's trying to have it banned.

. . . 2002-08-27

But I'm always true to you, darling, in my fascism

Her Majesty's decentered subject Paul McEnery bellies up to the bar:

Matt Ridley's The Origin of Virtue weighs in with a good Darwinian argument about altruism as an optimal strategy (so long as you're sufficiently snarky), which I've probably mentioned in passing before. For him, it's all about ownership (personal or collective) as opposed to the tragedy of the commons. Linking economic and social concerns to a project means that people actually care, funnily enough. Same problem as with running an underground magazine: if you don't engage with real fiscal issues, the content runs out of steam and spirals into solipsism.

My feeling is that liberals get things typically wrong by posing it as an issue of disinterested virtue. For a start, then you get a bunch of limp-wristed Marys doing all the charity work and turning into a sexless, gutless business which is in denial of basic, grubby human nature. Whenever you don't have skin in the game, you don't play as if you mean it. Hence PBS and NPR being a load of dookey compared to the BBC.

I'm led back to Crowley's analysis of the three mystic traditions: the grim, the detached, and the engaged. Liberalism has led us up the blind alley of the detached, while the underground holds fast to its antinomian rejectionism. To really make an impact calls for getting your hands dirty, I think. Not that I'd know...

I agree that engagement seems necessary. I'm merely suggesting that the range of human engagement is wider than our dominant rhetoric can handle.

PBS and NPR have to beg for donations from corporate sponsors; I don't think you could make a case that PBS is livelier now than no-strings-attached NET was in the late 1960s. Some unfunded magazines die because the publisher is broke, some because it only took one or two issues to say everything they had to say, and some through a combination of slaked desires and straitened finances.

I haven't read Ridley's book, relying on his unseductive Atlantic piece and a second hand slap that sounded solid enough. Intersect the gappy guesswork of evolutionary theory with the fad-ravaged cultural specificities of psychology, and you only get metaphors, anecdotes, generalizations, and wild leaps of common sense -- the tools of popularized science writing. No wonder it has such a vogue. I'll stick with phrenology.

At any rate, I'm not interested in trying to explain unselfish behavior. I just want to acknowledge that it exists, and that it isn't necessarily any more deceiving, half-baked, half-assed, unnatural, or disinterested than grind-the-bastards-down competition.

When and where I went to college in the late 1970s, liberals were a major social annoyance. That changed with Reagan and Thatcher. Since then the leading pain suppliers have been libertarians, fundamentalists, crybaby greedheads, fashion anarchists, golfing CEOs, passive-aggressive identity politicians, superconsuming cyberutopians, trust fund artists, doltish enforcers of political incorrection, and obsessive self-helpers. Dragging the sad old liberal corpse out for another spray of spittle is like trying to beat down wantonness with photos of tertiary syphilis.

But the shameful impulses will have their way. It doesn't take much questioning before "I have to make a living" falls back to "I do what I can stand to do," where the unexamined indefiniteness of "what we can stand" is the big fig leaf.

. . . 2002-08-28

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must gesticulate wildly

"Wittgenstein left out the philosophy, Richards suggests, but was himself unwillingly left in. His 'torment' of expression spreads empathy, wrapping others in the pathos of his missing meaning....

"The ferocity of Wittgenstein's analyses and the drama of his speech alike perceive in routine words the dignity of potential loss. It is Wittgenstein's peculiar talent to dramatize this potential: language is so gripping because it can always fall short, because someone is always losing a language game."

"Philosophical Self-Denial" by Rei Terada in Common Knowledge 8.3

+ + +

Two paths
"Odd that they should both be uphill!"

Thirty-one years ago, C. Barsotti comments
on our reading of My Brother's Wedding

+ + +

"If it's truly against the community standards, won't people in the community just not buy it?"

James Kochalka on obscenity

. . . 2002-08-31

Our Motto:

Waffle while the iron is hot.

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Sweet Gene Vincet

Paul McEnery's genetic programming remains unaltered by me and the Orrs I rode in on:

Orr is a world class point-misser. Ridley's story is as convincing a piece of post-Dawkins biology as you can find, and for that matter, he's not saying anything that isn't bloody obvious when you think about it. Granted competition, some version of altruism will emerge inevitably as a strategy. Which kinda goes without saying, since altruism has emerged, and therefore must have present some sort of adaptive advantage.

Orr's criticism is one of those "romantic liberal attachment to the enlightenment individual" pieces of crap. Unable to face the brute truth of sociobiology, he skirts it, skates over it, pokes at it, examines it trunk, leg and tail, and does just about anything but call it an elephant. I bet he's a Catholic. And certainly not an anarcho-socialist.

NB: "But these theoretical worries pale in comparison to the empirical problems besetting tit-for-tat. Animals just don't seem to do it. With a few exceptions, experiments have simply failed to find tit-for-tat--or any related form of reciprocity--in nature."

Um, exactly what the book does in fact establish. Or rather, slightly more complex versions. Vervet calls. Chimp meat eating. Fish who investigate danger with first one, then the other getting closer. The wolf who leaves the pack to investigate. And so on. Plus Orr's rather annoying moment when he can't see that selfish genes would like social cooperation. The numbskull can't grasp that it's the distribution of selfish genes across first a family, then a tribe, that leads to any form of cooperation, like the bloody non-breeding ants and bees.

Ridley only gets weak when he gets up to the more complex levels of business, but it's a typical weakness of not taking his theoretical basis seriously enough. Taking it the extra step myself, I come up with:

Big businesses work on linear logic, nature works on non-linear logic, therefore the approximations of business wind up with a mess. The only method to bring reciprocity back into the game is regulatory organs with their own stupid linearity so that the interaction between them restores non-linearity.
Um, and so on.

As a morbidly religious child, I found no behavior untainted by the sin of pride; as a complacently carousing adult, I find no sustainable way to remain purely acquisitive. Social impulses are neither strictly selfish nor strictly altruistic. I'm content to rest at that rather than insist on the validity of a Personal Darwin.

To me, biological reductionism seems as transparent an ideology-rescue here as when eighteenth-century slaveholders called rape betterment of the primitive races.

As transparent but not nearly as evil, and so I'll leave you to it -- with thanks for your answer to Ridley's free market bias. (On second thought, with thanks for the whole thing. Given JP&SP's findings, we need all the "It's not really altruism..." defenses we can get.)

I'd still rather my political world wasn't divided between those who deny the nonselfish and those who are out to kill us, but maybe secular Jesuitism wouldn't be that nifty either.

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2002 Ray Davis.