Archive for October, 2012

Freckles’ first fan reference

October 12, 2012

Those cranky postmodernists couldn’t have anticipated Freckles’ first fan reference, when they were prognosticating about the hyperreal. Yet I now know my dog is a Bruce Spence fan because she fished a sock out of the laundry basket just after we watched “Puppeteer” with the actors’ commentary on (her usual tastes in smelly clothes run more toward underwear).

I’d gotten used to her being a dog who takes no interest in television apart from to be annoyed with mine, and who finds life without squirrels boring and thunderstorms frightening every single time. I’d decided her consistently nervous reaction to an interrogation scene in The Recruit was a fluke.

I hadn’t noticed how unwelcome a common interest like fandom would be between me and my dogs. I used to be the one who enjoyed special effects in surround sound, and now kicking them out of my room just leads to a huddle across the hall openly plotting further intrusions on the life of my imagination.

Proud music of the storm,
Blast that careers so free, whistling across the prairies,
Personified dim shapes –

Would a beagle-border collie cross be taken in by the seduce-and-destroy ploys of the sort of dystopia imagined in Fahrenheit 451?


Or would she just disassemble their working parts to prove she knew where the wires were hidden in the walls?

When scapegoating modernism for alienation did nothing for our burdens of privacy, technology created “networked communities” with global reach for our search for sympathizers with our most idiosyncratic interests. The scholars of culture saw nothing reassuring about this, and ran to scapegoating postmodernism for our loss of intimacy.

They understated the case. We’ve progressed from deluding ourselves, each and every one, that we are popular, that being popular means being liked for ourselves and for “being ourselves” without remorse – and progress meant waking up to a habit of wallowing in the filth of isolation and self-pity in the extreme.

Apparently, awareness that no one was really looking had been dawning for quite some time.

They hadn’t expected us to start generalizing from our relationship with the television to our relationship with other household objects, with wild birds, with the attitude of the wind in a tree visible through the window, a pinwheel in the back yard.

They hadn’t predicted that we would ultimately find our household pets squarely in the middle of our own interpretive space, casually taking over. I suppose it makes sense as the next thing that would have to happen. Why wouldn’t they be smug and assertive about their status?

The pets inherited a realm so affected by hallucinogenic isolation and dread that they now seem able to use anthropomorphic sign language “better than we do” – or rather, with the directness of mid-sized children who haven’t tired of pointing out what adults do wrong according to their own standards.

In the manner of biology news announcers, naturalisms have been framing all such recently formalized observations about our own behavior as normative by default. There must have been a reason, and adaptative rationales don’t need to be self-evident to be discernible, when your commentators hail from a species with a special gift for rationalizing.

Should I fear the “performative” life that replaces privacy with unquiet daydreams about starring on reality TV, if my dogs stop playing tag whenever their audience stops watching?

Attention seeking could be natural; a lot of things are. But no one likes to meet the audience unprepared.

Please please please
No more melodies
Give me something familiar
Somethin’ similar
To what we know already
That will keep us steady
Steady, steady
Steady going nowhere

Access to “the big tent” audience is kept carefully in scarcity, an easily maintained regime once in place since broadcast media giants maximize profits by producing the work of the shortest list of performers capable of holding the crowd, reproduction and distribution being vastly cheaper than producing the content itself once infrastructure is installed.

This emboldens us with envy, if all else fails.

The internet, never short of forgettable embarrassments that make it easier for any of us to feel forgiven without asking, promises to help us each carve off a piece of the “long tail” of the attention economy. But the attention we crave can actually be even more fleeting than usual, in virtual space.

The duration and credibility of interest documented in a tracking statistics unit (a page view) can be thinner than passing hints that one might have been acknowledged somehow, look for look, by a fellow pedestrian on the street – whether for a shared mood in the same scene, or a confrontation held and released before you lost sight of each other’s faces.

So culture scholars warn against an excess of individualism, each locked in escapist personalized worlds of simulation, hiding from the social costs of neoliberalism.

But he’s been pretty much yellow
And I’ve been kinda blue

 And it’s dangerous work
Trying to get to you too

 I’ve been watching all the time
And I still can’t find the tack
And I wanna know is it okay
Is it just fine
Or is it my fault
Is it my lack

Having tried using denial as a resistance strategy for as long as we could manage, now we’re emotionally prepared to allow the scholars to give directions on another course of collective action: notions like reembodying the body, reasserting a politics of place, reembedding time in space.

We are told to try relating to the built environment – where it clings as a social convention of dress code on the skin, and where it casts a shadow the size of a skyscraper’s – as an expression of nature that we may or may not be satisfied with, but have the only means to modify among ourselves. Find a role to play.

If anyone could, in fact, do better using virtual space to reach out, to step forward, than they would using the front door, it would be clever to know the difference.

If scholars of culture have been trying to focus more of our collective attention on failures of love lately, and the pervasive anxiety about belonging to the ranks of “the working dead” spawns an entire zombie apocalypse genre, maybe the new fear is of stepping out, and finding out what people would really think if you had an audience.


Self-advancing technology certainly hasn’t always seemed like a good place to look for the love that would be needed to close the gap known outside family courts as affective inequalities.

But hype about the democratizing potential of the internet has done its best to change all that, and sideline the technology-as-enabler-of-evil discourse altogether.

The question is, how long will we want to live with autopilot on its own terms?

To buy or not to buy

October 10, 2012

“You are what you buy” sounds like a grim yardstick, even for karma. But postmodernist theories of fandom seem to hinge on this concept of consumerism having spawned a rather unexpected but energetic cultural life form, the consumer cult.

Whether you cling to cult classics like the soundtrack to Magnolia and its isolation-friendly grasp of “the social rhythms of ambivalence,” or collect and exchange the tokens of anime fandom among friends, access to a market that knows your past is part of identity in a world that imposes choppy life transitions on relationships with family and those you meet at and between various work places and places you’ve lived.

Fan references evoke nostalgia and a retained currency of values from which your point of view could be triangulated. It could be, to remind those who were not always strangers of how they do know you. After however many transitions through roles in social circles and spatial dislocation have passed since your last meeting, “fandom could be the integrating factor for one’s multiple personal identities that change over time … to integrate an idealized past with the present, in a pleasurable way.”


What the audience knows to expect? What would you believe?

If you have confidence in your guides, at least. The artists sometimes startle the audience, whether gorging on honey and shattering goblets after they finish the wine, or teasing out cognitive dissonance, where they knew they would find it and embarrass you for not being surprised either.

There are formulae even for acts of the carnivalesque. And the tools of the trade are not lightly used.

The audience wants to believe it is transgressive for the performer to create a crisis of identity in the individual spectators, that this is an exception to the rules of consumer culture, that a fixed border is so violated between art and the reality of life, between aesthetics and ethics.

There is an illusion that such a border can be forced and the spectators dragged across it in a carnival without showing them a way out of the crisis, but that this is not the way most days.

That everyday life is untouched by the transformations and recursive reveals of what already was exactly so that ensue.

Mass market broadcast media challenge the audience to evade such things any day of the week. Can they tell the difference?


Intertextual, subliminal, and still positioned just there.

The intimate details that film “can convey of performance” need no knife fights to find their way under the skin. An embodied real is quick to invade the home theater and include the spectators in a scene, when their attention holds and self-consciousness fades into identification with the substance of the scene.

But we are most easily persuaded such intimacy with a stranger, an artist, is gained at a price. Perhaps at knife’s point.

Introducing a chapter of film criticism about David Cronenberg in The place of breath in cinema, Jean-Luc Nancy writes it is in experience of harm that the body

“reveals its interiority, its depth, the secret of its life. Unity is given only to be broken, releasing the infinitely fragile secret that the soul and the breath, the desire, the passion for the unique and the infinite are the same as the wrenching of the body from itself, .. disjection exposed in the raw.

In every sense, the soul blows through the body.”

The same illusion of dismemberment, as the impressions of bodies are decontextualized in close-up or audible small movements, a caress from which the object of touch withdraws as living forms would, can be produced with breath alone in many ways, when breath is even noticeable within cinema.

It may be noticeable in horror genre, and easily mapped out in its devices there, but it is pervasive in music, in theater, in film, and in every performance art – ascertainable even from the balcony in ballet. Genre is no safeguard against the effects of technique used to situate literature in performance art that spares no reader the understanding deemed fit for the audience by the players so prepared, and where they are subtle, effects may be deeper than the audience suspects.

The book explores several examples in ways that are easily grasped without reference to the films in question, such as L’Intrus, described by Beugnet:

“as the text unravels .. its rhythm also recalls that of irregular breathing or a heartbeat: hurried passages, where a series of short interrogative sentences collide, are followed by clauses using elaborate phrasing and long sentences between parentheses that create suspended moments of reprieve.”

According to Irigaray, the rhythm and shape of a breath in a series of breath can be specific enough in emotional or dramatic content that a breathing pattern can be interpreted as using or showing a syntax of psychological content that contributes directly to an artistic text apart from words spoken in the breath.


The cinematic gaze is elevated compared to the usual audience of a live stage, but to privilege dramatic elements over crude visual control of attention and framing, as film necessarily does to create drama in composition, is not naturally authoritarian, and does not spare the spectator’s gaze a risk of confrontation with the artists looking straight back.

“It was full of money – that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it .. high in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl….”

Hesitation is not for the audience. It is an illusion in which they are trapped. The timing of confrontation is not then theirs to control, nor would it be if the actors had their way, for the secret to comedy is timing, and the secret to drama is comedy, and the secret to irony is to know your position within the scene and the movement on your part that, in time, completes it.

Cities without death

October 9, 2012

Despite the reputation of our government for militarist imperialism, Americans are, by and large, people who feel reasonable and fair-minded and pay no attention to foreign policy. They are self assured about practicing non-violence without incident in their own private lives.

When it works for each of those who practice it, the exceptions made by our peers have not touched us yet.

Americans mean no violence by the indifference of isolationism. They entertain a bright eyed curiosity about the far away and its easily hidden unknowns.

They want picture postcards.

They are perplexed by the intermittent news of further genocides, since the introduction of the refrain “Never again,” concerning the atrocities ended by victory in World War II. Susan Sontag puts forward a strange explanation for the unique impression the Nazi Holocaust made on post-war generations in her book Regarding the Pain of Others, a short volume on the photojournalism of atrocities.

She cites the exceptional conditions under which the death camps were liberated and photographed by Allied soldiers and journalists. Remnant camp guards maintained order in camps cut off by retreat from supplies, and watched the captives slowly succumb to the most horrifying extremes of starvation and disease while waiting on the arrival of the Allied forces. Then pictures were taken.


Capuchin crypt, maintained since before World War II

Starving is a slow and gruesome death. In a living sufferer it is a depraved condition, so unnatural that a naïve observer of a photographed starving child with a lilting head, outstretched eyes and a distended belly may give an involuntary laugh.

The grotesque effect hunger has on the body gives the image a surreal quality and provokes the laughter of astonishment and disbelief, cold in an innocent sense, reacting but not comprehending.

On Devenish I heard
.. the keeper’s recital of elegies
Under the tower. Carved monastic heads
.. crumbling like bread on water.

gravedigger’s poem, “At the Water’s Edge”

The emotional recoil effect is instinctive, and to withdraw one’s sympathy from the human form when it is reduced to such a morbid spectacle of vulnerability is not even properly evil, for it is done without cruelty unintentionally.

But dissonance fills the brain regardless of how quickly one recoils from the sight in search of disbelief, as if the old habit of denial is instinctively refused in the face of a dire image of dying underway.

Your fear outweighs your unsteady hand’s remorse looking on the phenomenon of death, silently testifying to its own history of making steady progress, like a ferryman threatening to accept your fare since you are there, and requiring no more particular reason.

Americans like to live in the manner of the inhabitants of the mythical city where the Buddha was raised, the city where death was made invisible by sending the old, the infirm, and the sick outside the walls, so that suffering was literally unknown to those not yet expelled from the charmed life inside. It was only when he ventured outside the walls that the Buddha found cause for seeking and teaching enlightenment.

The Nazis who guarded the death camps are said to have pitied themselves for what they had to see in carrying out their duties, for the fact that they had to observe the suffering of their captives first hand.

What about those last weeks of war? The concentration camps had not been their idea in the first place. Would they have thought it was not their responsibility to decide their aftermath in the chaos of an unraveling war effort?


Kieran, a Seeker of Truth and war wizard (episode Revenant)

Shakespeare dramatizes the “double-blinding” of organizational conscience in a monologue given by Henry V, about passing down or following objectionable orders. It is a celestial abstraction from cause for war to say such things of politic violence, and yet it is never untimely in the meditations of a commander the night before battle can be fully expected, whatever the odds to be revealed by the full light of day.

A king may privately absolve himself of the crimes of his followers, but all followers sleep more peacefully knowing the fault in their actions, if ordered upon them, originates in the intentions of another. Their peace of mind in the privacy of sleep is as much an artifice as his, and reflects on his, so that those with blood on their hands and those without live the same lies and disavow the same burdens.

There is always a disgraceful hesitation to break ranks when group behavior goes wrong.

It is the illusion of security in being given orders, a regression into childish trust and like a minor protected from criminal courts, the moral impunity of the follower if the intentions of the leader are misguided or impure. Coetzee’s prison guard in Waiting for the Barbarians says merely, “I cannot save the prisoners, therefore let me save myself.”

“There is nothing to link me with torturers, people who sit waiting like beetles in dark cellars. .. I must assert my distance .. I will not suffer for his crimes!”

Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the experience of collusion in those Germans who avoided getting blood on their own hands. That phrase alone seems to have popularized reference to “the banal” for distinguishing condoned and commonplace evils from the other kind, since the writing of her Eichmann case study.


Art disapproval aside (episode Sanctuary)

We are bored with the banal. We would like to hear about something else. We decide we would like to be tourists on days that remind us of the word banal.

“That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation .. every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this.

Every native would like to find a way out, .. But some natives – most natives in the world – cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. .. they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom [and] turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

– Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place

If it comes to that, we would rather develop a fascination with the hand-me-downs of the torturers we know, their broken ankles, and repress the guilt that spills over into the lives of bystanders like ourselves, for excitement.

This is a refusal to be punished by failure with an unsolicited education, the comfortable habit of ours that keeps attacking the obvious ineffectually as if intending cruelty, as if waiting for it to get out of the way.

I have plans for my ego, you’ll see

October 9, 2012

When the ego argues with its perceived enemies, its argument is carried along mostly by momentum and enjoyment of pursuit, even if the nature of the desired intellectual victory is preconceived rather than a hope of pure discovery.

True, you entered Babylon
perfect and loved by all, crowned
king of the known world, roses
spread under your magnificent march
through the blue gates, Bucephalus
solemn, crowds in awe, cheering.

Inside, you accepted this, its cost,
chose not to shirk success.
You could want everything
and give away the great wealth
achieved, even to Persians

whose beauty in perfect
strangeness you knew could
reconcile Greek and Eastern ways,
not penance but duty, toward
mankind and accounting science.

This at all costs. You made yourself more
completely alone than a king dare be,
Hephaistion the only one,
could never survive without him.

I do not know how your dream
of him ended, but you reached
for death with a gift in hand:
the great ring, love the last thought.

“But of all these men,” meaning poets like Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Coleridge, critic William Empson warns there is an element of inane violence in their spirit of romance –  their energy – “an imposed excitement, a sense of uncaused warmth, achievement, gratification, a sense of hugging to oneself a private dream-world, is the main interest and material.”

Ideas are the motives of our crimes and wars, as much as material needs have ever been a cause of armed robbery or a slave revolt. And ideas drive oppressors too, both towards gluttony in acquisition and paranoia about their rivals.

These are two sides of one illusion, an exaggerated sense of their own vulnerability to destitution should they hesitate to seize everything they can for themselves.


Owning an idea, investing it with motives that are personal, and so harnessing one’s person to the inter-textual lives of the words that make it up and their indifferent fate as “other than a constellation,” does produce motion.

Why do we believe we even know what we’re trying to do, in these instances? The ego’s self-serving bias to credit oneself with every success and blame others for every failure internalizes as confidence all the effects of good luck and avoids a loss of nerve in the event of bad luck.

This bias is an excellent source of “forward” momentum when one is trying to pick up speed with which to bulldoze obstacles, but once your desires have been conclusively thwarted, the worldview collapses around you in paranoid ideation about why the universe is suddenly out to get you.

Whereas the insights that appear to you out of a private silence can truly surprise you, instead of reinforcing your enthusiasm for what you thought you already knew better than anyone else.

Sometimes it is out of rest that an insight arises that will transcend those very enthusiasms that have been keeping your mind on the offensive, they bring abrupt peace from the strain of the imagined yet deeply felt conflict.

“what I am in the music – buoyed and supported above dreams .. the starred peacock .. cancelling my forgotten fear of strangeness and catastrophe in a destitute world.” – Palace of the Peacocks

You have to know these things: where the birds are to be feared for enchantment, where the swallows are laden, whose are the peacocks and the swans, and what season marks the passing through of the thrush where you live.


You have to know better, this time, than to back away from the tropical canopy in trepidation having noticed that the flattery is not what is answered or was spurned by the birds you have so long admired from the middling branches. Neither did they scorn in particular at the dirty jokes you told about them in resentment of such ostentatious and forgetful charm.

“The main things which to me are important on their own account, and not merely as means to other things, are knowledge, art, instinctive happiness, and relations of friendship or affection” (Bertrand Russell).

What else is freedom good for in the hands of the solitary individual? Late walks in uptown Vienna, early afternoons by a window with a book, music in your own home, company of your choosing if they also choose you.

Any image of the European tradition too stern for this notion of luxury on a small scale as the fitting pinnacle of civilization is a bad mood provoked by the disappointment of no other ideal than this, an ultimatum about what else there is if not this much for all.

It is an affront and a spitting sense of impatience that alleges to Athens “more fitting, I ween, for an oily sardine, than for you or your city the phrase is” – of epithets “brilliant” or “shining” – and says to us now of the lazy urbane, “a strange disease of modern life .. its sick hurry, its divided aims.”

And the retort it deserves is given in the same voice, Matthew Arnold’s “nursing the unconquerable hope .. clutching the inviolable shade …” There is a defense to be made for the ego’s active stance, especially when its appetite for violence is turned against illusions of credibility surrounding entrenched misunderstandings that enslave the mind.

Activity keeps despair at bay, whether you keep a garden in a prison camp or in a fort abroad. Macedonians built rose gardens at the borders with Scythia too.

A confiscated farm leads to a caterwauling fit for Virgil’s “little domain” built and left to unfamiliar hands, that belonged “between the hills and the marshes, with its coolness and its springs, its wide pools and its swans, its bees in the willow-hedge,” for even bystanders can say as Sainte Beuve did, “we see it from here, we love it as he did..”

A Roman might generally know better than to believe in a dream like the one that possessed Ennius, of being inhabited by Homer’s soul himself, yet not know better than to write. “The motive for writing poetry and for reading poetry is the desire for Heaven before the time. It is Roman to wait patiently for Heaven, as Scipio was told in his dream. But this patience in waiting pent up a poetry deeper than poetry of Greeks.”

W.F.J. Knight says all this of the appetite for hexameters in Latin, despite every obstacle to suppressing vernacular verse forms in favor of those from an older language. They could not resist a chance to “become a student of style.”