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. . . 2002-10-03

He governs best who governs leased

Kevin Phillips throws all the busy bulk of Wealth and Democracy behind two central points:

  1. There ain't no such thing as a free market. From colonial days to tomorrow, the great fortunes of America have been created and maintained with government aid, and policy has been steered by the rich whenever they weren't forcibly kept away from the wheel. The wealthiest citizens-to-be when Adam Smith wrote were Revolutionary War profiteers, and we're still paying big for the oil subsidies that fueled the Bushes and their friends.

  2. Booms, balloons, busts, and recoveries follow a similar pattern through the centuries and across leading economic powers. Wealth pours into the financial sectors; the middle class, although they hardly notice in the hullabaloo, work more, gain less, and take on debt; industry and agriculture weaken; the tariff setters of yesteryear suddenly insist that uninhibited global trade is an essential human right.... Post-bust, the middle class regains control of politics, and part of whatever's left of the upper-five-per-cent's plunder is redistributed. (Did you realize that the Eisenhower administration kept the New Deal upper-tax-brackets in place funding the nation through all those Republican-idealized good old days? I didn't, not in so many words.)
As might be expected from an old Nixonian, Phillips's prose stumbles the gamut between flatfooted and clownshoed. And while one copyeditor labored over his sentences, another might have been profitably employed in rationalizing the book's unnecessarily complex and repetitious structure: it's almost impossible to guess where a particularly pressing bit of information might have landed.

But that's really only a problem because particularly pressing bits of information land on virtually every page. Wealth and Democracy became an indispensable reference somewhere during its first chapter, and I've found occasion to refer to it in every other extended conversation of the last few weeks, online and fleshy, from the Bay Area to rural Missouri. Even if written by a mere best-selling TV-guesting pundit, it's that rarest of secondary (or, in this case, tertiary and popularizing) sources: the one I'll buy for my own library.

Which is how I discovered an Amazon game new to me, though not to hundreds of satisfied players. A mob of dittoboys dogpiles on an insufficiently right-wing book, posts extremely negative reviews, and then boosts their own reviews' rankings. The results stand out (and are made easier to remove) by the outrageously high number of "found this helpful" votes (over a hundred instead of the usual ten or less) and by the absurd blatancy of the reviewers' lack of first-hand knowledge. I'm sorry I didn't save a few samples before Amazon cleaned the joint up; the ones calling Nixon-loyalist Phillips a Communist were particularly refrigerator-door-worthy. No, Phillips's concern is the middle class, pure and simple and unspoiled.

That's what makes the book useful and even, with reservations, hopeful, this being America and all.

. . . 2002-10-04

Look Away, Look Away, Look Away

Tom Matrullo responds to Richard Godbeer:

By some weird-ass coincidence too odd to ignore, I happened across this today in McCullough's bio of Adams:
"A cartoon published at Newburyport, titled 'A Philosophic Cock,' pictured Jefferson as a rooster strutting with his dark hen Sally. In October [1801] the Boston Gazette ran the words to a song of several stanzas, supposed to have been written by the sage of Monticello to be sung to the tune of 'Yankee Doodle':

Of all the damsels on the green
On mountain, or in valley
A lass so luscious ne'er was seen,
As Monticellian Sally.
Yankee Doodle, who's the noodle?
What wife were half so handy?
To breed a flock of slaves for stock,
A blackamoor's a dandy."

Apparently one of Jefferson's own polemicists turned against him and broke the Hemings story, which "spread rapidly."

Jefferson "made it a 'rule of life' not to respond to newspaper attacks."

Jefferson's precepts were typically high-minded, reasonable, and a source of justified ridicule. In this case, though, he also followed a regional habit: the would-be aristocrats of eastern Virginia took a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to rape and to the ambiguous role of the slave.

Slave owners further west were less guarded. Godbeer quotes a horrified traveler's account of breakfasting with what passed for polite society while they traced the lineaments of their host in the face of the slave serving their food, and excerpts a jocular debate in a newspaper's letter column over whether a new shipment of women from Africa was more enticing than the local white girls.

Sex with male slaves offered no equivalent financial reward for female owners, of course: only the risk of pregnancy and, later, legal prosecution. Still, availability would occasionally out....

. . . 2002-10-05

Not to be confused with the good USS Catastrophe, 'cause I did and that's why I clicked on Aaron's link

Can you spot a difference between talk about the evil of "Arab culture" or "Arab nations" and talk about the evil of "aggressively intolerant fundamentalist theocratic governments"?

[Hint: Which terms correspond more closely to "Vichy France" or "the Axis," and which to "Europeans"?]

. . . 2002-10-07

Happy Hour for Depressives

For a limited time only, you can punch back those Ba-lue Mun-deii Ba-lues-Are with the big hit of the Comics Journal message board, "It's a Great Life (If You Don't Weaken)," recorded by Sam Lanin & his Orchestra on November 26, 1929. That same day, long-time Hearst columnist Arthur Brisbane assured his readers that "All the really important millionaires are planning to continue prosperity." Six days earlier, he'd predicted "It ought to be a good year"; by January 1931, he was looking at the bright side: "Sometimes when things go wrong, it is a comfort to be reminded that nothing matters very much. If the earth fell toward the sun, it would melt like a flake of snow falling on a red-hot stove."

If you don't lose heart,
The hardest part
Is the first hundred years....

. . . 2002-10-09

Streets of Braymer
Photo by Ray Davis

Are you tired of traffic jams and road rage? Are you sick of breathing smog and polluted air? WELCOME TO CALDWELL COUNTY!!! As Economic Development Director, it is a pleasure to sell our county to prospective employers. Since September 11, 2001, many businesses have begun to look differently at where they want to locate their plants. Most want a "SAFE" place for their employees and their families. WE HAVE JUST THE PLACE!!!

Our dedicated workforce is both loyal and productive. Most of them have been raised on farms so they have learned to work hard and long hours. Our taxes are low.

- Your Guide to Historic Caldwell County Missouri

Photo by Juliet Clark

. . . 2002-10-11

Two's Negation, Three's a Cloud
  or, Three Pints Defy a Plane

Open Letter (H) to the Happy Tutor

Ironist Nails Ran In

I may not agree with what I say, but I'll defend to my death my right to say it.

Open Letter (V) to Turbulent Velvet

Good reason for the popularity of communicable disease

A very amusing and well tailored and well crafted piece of writing becomes widely distributed? People derive pleasure from something and share it with their friends or with all and sundry, whichever they have easier access to? And you're creeped out by that? Maybe your creepometer's adjusted too sensitive. Or you can play it like that old guy what pretended horror at language period, there's always folks who'll pay for that show: "Gawldurn, I hate articulation too! This faggot's all right!"

I showed your rejection letter to everyone I seen since I seen it, and if I'm so viral, why ain't I rich?

Open Letter (C) to the Campus Community

To live outside the law you must be harmless

In the square, I've heard Replacements imitators and Platters and Piaf and Daniel Johnston imitators. In the subway, I've heard Howlin Wolf imitators and Joni Mitchell and Eddie Hazel imitators. Why is it in every campus everywhere I ever been all I hear are Bob Dylan imitators? Why never Elvis Presley imitators? Or James Brown imitators? I'm not requesting exactly. I just want to know why Bob Dylan and why won't they fuck off like he did?

Also, that girl who was yelling "We will not allow this war to happen!"? I'm not sure she really intends to keep her promise.

. . . 2002-10-13

An army of masochists cannot be beaten

Life and times and Three-Strikes overcrowding seem to have constricted my exercise yard options to a shoulders-width corridor of anger, hate, and fear — pace, pace — while more social impulses find relief in the bumptious sardonicism traditional to my people, as if swinging a butcher knife becomes an act of friendship when we clutch it by the blade.

If I were a libertarian or some other type of mystic, this might be enough. But personally, I'm feeling a bit pinched.

. . . 2002-10-14

Only a void in a guilty cage

The Gospel According to Buffy (via AKMA) rightly points to the revelation of Buffy's post-resurrection nostalgia as one of the most affecting moments of last season. Rightly, but misleadingly, since its "heaven" was more a leap off the wheel of suffering, and Buffy returned less as comicbook Christ than as comicbook bodhisattva.

Oddly, another effective episode-closer much more evocative of Christianity goes unmentioned: the confession. Although not exactly endorsed by canonical law, hysterical refusal of atonement is common enough in Christian melodrama from the ascetics through Graham Greene.*

TARA: Do you love him? I-It's okay if you do. He's done a lot of good, and, and he does love you. A-and Buffy, it's okay if you don't. You're going through a really hard time, and you're...

BUFFY: What? Using him? What's okay about that?

TARA: It's not that simple.

BUFFY: It is! It's wrong. I'm wrong. Tell me that I'm wrong, please... Please don't forgive me, please... (sobbing) Please don't... Please don't forgive me...

Could be, though, that the emotional power of both scenes has less to do with deep-rooted theological instincts than with the narrative medium.

In a television series, we can be sure that the regulars will return, no matter how much crap they're dragged through, and we can be sure that they'll stay together, no matter how dreadfully they may have behaved towards each other.

Previously on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," our hero suffered death, betrayal by her first love immediately upon her loss of virginity, killing her first love, betrayal by a fellow slayer, betrayal by the second guy she ever slept with, being left by the third guy she ever slept with, the death of her mother, at least six apocalypses, and death again. Frankly, she was in a rut. Life hadn't much new to offer -- as is being proved redundantly by the current season -- and the only possible reason to be strapped into another cycle of pain was contractual obligation. Given Sarah Michelle Geller's movie-star ambitions, she could really put her heart into lines like "I was finished. Complete."

Similarly, it's not all that hard in real life to achieve non-forgiveness: people refuse to forgive each other all the time. Only on a TV show would Murray Slaughter and Ted Baxter survive in the same office for seven years. Only on a TV show would a character murder, torture, attempt to destroy the universe, and then work his way back into the gang by dint of heavy squinting. Trapped in such an obvious facade, one can understand straining against genre constraints toward some sense of reality.

In both cases, a narrative construct attempts to escape her defining narrative. For viewers who have willingly surrendered their empathy to the fiction while maintaining knowledge of its absurdity, this technique intensifies our identification with (and investment in) the character while reinforcing our own (shared) doubts. Simultaneously threatened and reassured, it's no wonder we feel our chains yanked.

As support for that secular explanation, I offer the third most affecting episode of last season,** in which the show's wobbly plotline was explained as the junk-culture-sodden megalomaniacal fantasy of a nearly catatonic young woman who'd been institutionalized since 1996: as direct an attack on suspension of disbelief as one could imagine.

Of course, it's possible that "deep-rooted theological instincts" are also a matter of "a narrative construct attempting to escape her defining narrative" -- but investigating such a synthesis might well lead us outside "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" proper.

* Adolescent panic when facing the moral relativism of adult life may be less culturally specific.

** But my favorite single scene of last year -- the fourth episode confrontation between bristling mentor Giles and waveringly "nice" Willow -- was just well-executed genre stuff.

+ + +


Speaking of chain-yanking and savvy use of narrative conventions, I've been seriously outclassed by responses at UFO Breakfast and Wealth Bondage. Although not strictly Bellona Times business, perhaps it's also time to publicly acknowledge the extremely informative messages my blunders have occasionally elicited from Alex Golub. It's a great medium if you don't weaken.

. . . 2002-10-16

... the abyss also plunges into you.

We haven't heard from our aging acquaintance Anselm Dovetonsils for a while, and his latest submission statement, scrawled on the back of a postcard of the Grand Canyon, may hint at why.

The 12 Step Program

To the beautiful view.
Or maybe it was 11 Step.

+ + +

Jaw bone connected to the war bone

Another reader on the road comments bipartitely:

I. I'm guessing it's a long ways to Carnaval these days. "And Taj Mahal is old", yeah, yeah.
II. More WAR WAR WAR less jaw jaw jaw! Whoop whoop whoop ow-owwwwwwww

. . . 2002-10-21

The enemy of my friend is confused; the friend of my enemy is instructive

I write to work out problems, and the stories of Karen Joy Fowler rarely leave me anything to say except "Read this."

Attacks on the stories of Karen Joy Fowler are a different matter. Richard Butner recently referred me to an appetizingly al dente specimen authored by Dave Truesdale and inexplicably incited by "What I Didn't See." (Not that the story doesn't push buttons; it's just not clear how it pressed these.)

To me, what makes Fowler's work mainstreamish is not (just) her emphasis on character, but her story structure. I would love a story in which I get to sit there and read about a richly developed character going through a significant change (or many changes). That is what I expect from an author -- to be shown such an evolution of a character on the page which I get to observe. Giving me that opportunity to observe is fair exchange for my investment in reading time, and for the money I may have spent buying the publication or subscribing to the website, etc.

But Fowler doesn't give us characters that change. Her characters are who they are. What changes is our perspective on them. She gives us information and, over the course of the narrative, we see the charactres differently. The change is in _us_. We're not observers; we're participants. That's what is mainstreamish about it.

I don't care for this technique. It makes me feel manipulated. It makes me feel lectured at. ("See those people? _This_ is how you should feel about them!") I want to be given access to a world, not be tricked into doing the labor that I expected the author to do.

Making the change happen in the reader, rather than "on the page," obviously causes some people to be impressed. They tout the virtues of the writers who do it. Fair enough. You're entitled to your opinion. But do all of you see how what's being served up is, to use my metaphor of a few days ago, a meatless entre which may please the vegetarians, but is of no appeal to a carnivore? There is simply no way talespinning of this -- call it "mainstreamish" -- type has a chance to favorably impress me, because it's not living up to my basic expectations of what a story is _for_.

This is absurd on the face of it down past the hypodermis, but there's something about it that interested me.

Face first:

  1. There's no genre activity less productive than defining the genre. No, not even masquerade contests. And when play cartographers start policing their delusionary border, they're promoted from nuisance to the rank of actively destructive parasite. Determining the worthiness of an individual work on the basis of its typicality is like choosing friends based on how closely they match the traits on a eugenicist's chart.

  2. Truesdale's fervor seems particularly misplaced here, since "What I Didn't See" is clearly science fiction: Where else could the Bride-of-the-Gorilla theme be treated seriously and realistically?

    Intragenre call-and-responsiveness also anchors Fowler's story. Its title points to James Tiptree Jr.'s "The Women Men Don't See," its setting and voice point to Alice Sheldon, and its acerbic mix of escapist eco-fantasy and repressive violence points to effects characteristic of both Tiptree and Racoona Sheldon, while the focus on those left behind is pure Fowler.

    A story, like it or not, which could only exist inside a genre and which has been published in the genre is pretty securely part of the genre.

  3. The supposed specifics of Truesdale's discomfort make no more sense, since the episode described by the story was a pivotal experience for the protagonist and her husband, pivoting the latter right into his grave. The characters change significantly, all right. They're just not necessarily happy about the change.

  4. The reader modification that Truesdale purportedly wishes to chase away is instead a long-time distinguishing trait of science fiction. What's "sense of wonder" if not a change in perception and what's "world building" but a way to accomplish that without character development? What romance authors have become successful cult leaders? How many libertarians were birthed by Mencken and how many by Heinlein? Is the New Yorker as responsible for Westchester as Astounding is for NASA?

  5. And if allowing the reader's understanding of characters to grow more complex over time counts as being "lectured at" and "told what to feel," what coercive terms are strong enough for writing that tells you exactly what attitude to take toward every character from the beginning (or even before)?

  6. No, what bothers Truesdale isn't lack of incident, or lack of change in the characters, or being bullied by assumptions about the characters, or even reader modification, but lack of expectedness. The revelations gained by Fowler's characters aren't the ones that intrepidly well-meaning white explorers are supposed to end up with. And it's not just a matter of pessimism: a Harlan Ellison story might climax in far splashier violence and much louder breast-beating without tripping up readerly expectations in the least.

    This question of fulfilled expectation has helped bisect the bookish world before, into "readerly work" and "writerly work," "passive recipients" and "active recipients," "text de plaisir" and "text de jouissance," "easy" and "challenging,""childish" and "mature," "novelized" and "novel." But it would be absurd to claim that the line divides "mainstream" from "science fiction" when both types of reader and both types of writer are also found, to their mutual irritation, in mysteries, thrillers, horror, porn, romance, and every brow level of mundane fiction.

    He has confused the genre and the generic.

  7. Given the nature of Truesdale's indigestion, a better analogy than "vegetarian meal for a carnivore" would be "offputtingly exotic meal in place of comfort food." Or, if we take the insulted host's point of view, "preparing gaeng kiao wan ped from scratch for someone who refuses to eat anything but popcorn shrimp."
What interested me:
  1. Like Fowler, "I like stories that only fall into place when you've read them." Obviously, you can't experience crystallization unless you've kept expectations in suspension. When I'm enjoying what I enjoy, I'm not thinking about how moral and intelligent and shit I'm being; "writerly," "active," "challenging," and "novel" are just the labels for what I need to stay entertained instead of bored and disgusted.

    But you may have noticed a hierarchy behind those dichotomies. As usual, academics and critics haven't been shy about exaggerating the importance of their trades' minor differences, and Truesdale's preferred mode of consumption has been blamed for such ills as global capitalism, the formation of subject-identity, and compulsory heterosexuality.

    Villainous though that makes him, I can't suppress a sense of fellowship with anyone who complains about feeling manipulated. After all, when not stunned by tedium, my reaction to "readerly" texts ranging from Steven Spielberg and Mike Resnick to Mark Amerika and Robert Hass has been a straight-from-the-gut "Get your filthy hands offa me afore I call a cop."

    A sleepy dog and a fidgety cat have different notions of fun and of irritation, and the switch between pleasurable "play" and aversive "manipulation" isn't always clearly marked. As Truesdale correctly insinuates, what I enjoy is also manipulation -- it's manipulation that provides the illusion of interaction rather than the illusion of being catered to, but it's manipulation all the same.

    As for the question of "maturity," every writerly writer I can think of started readerly and then switched teams; often, as with the Brontës, at the end of adolescence. My own childhood preferences weren't just readerly but speed-readerly, and I grew extremely annoyed when the work exhibited any bumps that might impede my progress. At puberty, bumps became more interesting and my reading slowed to its present Karloff-like lurch. But that doesn't so much imply that readerly readers are immature, as that the maturing of writerly taste is dependent upon having gained a certain amount of readerly ease with the conventions being disrupted.

    Regarding the broader brushwork, I'm sure I hope that a certain flexibility and a certain suspicion of narrative patness are healthy for the species. But is it necessary to be flexibly suspicious all the time? About everything? Would Franklin D. Roosevelt really have achieved more as President if he'd spent his free time reading Proust instead of gobbling murder mysteries like candy? Would you vote for Harold Bloom? Heck, I wouldn't even vote for Ralph Nader!

    To return to the dining room, some people find it unappetizing to have their attention drawn to the food they're eating, and others find it unappetizing to ignore the food they're eating. One might guess that the latter type of person is more likely to become a cook, and one might therefore call their approach to dining "cookly" as opposed to "eaterly," and think them handier in some circumstances, but that's about as far as my value judgments could stretch.

Not that this deflation of "writerly" self-aggrandizement is an entirely new idea. In fact, I think I first encountered it courtesy of Karen Joy Fowler:
... the escapist aspect is something to think about. It's seldom admired, and yet it seems to me often that if people's lives are hard and a book takes you out of it for a few hours, what's wrong with that? Why isn't that an admirable thing for a writer to have done?

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

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