Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

Fetus in Fetu

December 9, 2008

In a dream, I had emigrated to Germany and taken a job delivering the results of DNA tests. On one assignment, I rode a train out to a field of identical apartment buildings under thick nimbus clouds and informed a woman that her 3 year old son was not hers. She was overjoyed, but the woman to whom I delivered the child was so upset that she got everyone in her building to leave in protest and to cover their floors with coconut shavings before they did so. On the train ride home, I was musing over my experience when I told another rider about what I’d just done. “Did I do the right thing?” I asked her in German. “No matter what you would have done, they wouldn’t have been pleased,” she replied. She was an American who had lived in Germany for 40 years.

Suddenly, I found myself at a concert or festival in France. Green lights swept across the crowd as word spread that I had just had a dream about emigrating to Germany and taking a job delivering the results of DNA tests. Everyone was so interested in my dream that I was being impelled towards the stage where I would recite it for them all. My first translator was Sparrow, a poet who does speak French; but as I tried to organize my dream into some kind of coherent story, he disappeared. My second translator, a young brunette, disappeared in the same fashion. The crowd grew restless and actually began to chant in anticipation of my dream, so a hip-hop act was sent out to appease them. I was flustered by this point, and I told the director that I not only didn’t speak French, but was having terrible stage fright. He nodded and said only, “They’re used to people stringing words together.” Looking over the stage at the crowd, I gathered my courage.

The Fourth Month Sky

December 8, 2008

“There was something indefinably pleasant about the Fourth Month sky and the trees were a lovely expanse of new green.”
The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu (trans. Seidensticker)

I reread this phrase several times, wondering why I found it more affecting than I would have found a statement about an April sky — wondering how a Westerner is supposed to parse this reference to the lunar calendar, which would have been invisible in the original. I hate to think, of course, that it’s just the use of a different name and a foreign system of time-keeping that gave me pause. Borges said, in reference to Genji, that “what interests us is not the exoticism — the horrible word — but rather the human passions of the novel.” So if the Fourth Month piques me, it’s not, I hope, simply by giving me reason to reflect on some mysterious essence which the name “April” had shielded from my view, but that the ordinal system of naming months reveals a view of time in which noticing the pleasantness of the sky and the “new green” is especially touching.

I wonder whether giving months the names of ordinals is more appropriate in a society given to nostalgia. References to the Heian Period as an age of decline occur regularly throughout Genji, with some characters saying that even the ability to play music — but how could they even pretend to know this? — had suffered sadly since its height among the ancients; likewise, nearly every conversation labelled “intimate” is later said to be about old times. Giving months numbered names would allow a more easily gauged distance between the past and the present, even within the space of a year, just as numbered years almost inevitably make us ask, “Has it really been so long?”

The business of putting distance between the past and present — objectifying it enough to make it suitable for nostalgia — means making a linear story, and the ordinal names of months seem to demand a certain clarity in the order of events. And if we’re able to spread analogies across onomastic fields, we can say that the Japanese naming system for months makes our own system seem as whimsical as the Indian system of giving proper names to single-family houses does today. When we consider how converting names to numbers is always touted as an increase in efficiency, it’s worth considering that the ordinal system for naming months might seem positively bureaucratic. The affection a Westerner might feel for the quote that began this entry, then, might stem from an apparent contrast between lingering enough to notice the sky and the relentless ordering of time within a system that denies any essence to a month outside of its numerical position.

This is the easiest way that the humane, perhaps, can appear to modern people: as the exception, even as the ineffectual.

The bland of the free

July 23, 2008

Health food, in particular, seems especially prone to the recent trend of placing lists on food packaging declaring all the substances of which the contents are “free.” These litanies can run up to half a dozen items, and are often placed in colorful boxes or even starburst designs — all of which adds an air of celebration and relief to the product.

Of course, celebration and relief are emotions appropriate to freedom (a word now so loaded it can perhaps best be approached through its use on food packaging) as it pertains to a heavy yoke having been lifted, or a burden which one learns that one does not have to bear after all. The idea of freedom, though, is rather meaningless without the possibility of oppression and necessity, which leads me to wonder what the opposite of these alimentary appellations might be: would a product which is not dairy-free be dairy-laden? or something which is not soy-free be held soy-captive? or be soy-sullied?

The degree to which these antonyms are ridiculous is the same degree to which it’s ridiculous that food manufacturers seem to hope that their “gluten-free” products will be greeted with a certain joy, whereas a phrase like “no gluten” on a label might look sullen by comparison. This, though, is only the rational way of looking at it — the side of us that knows the two phrases are perfectly equivalent — while consumption is a thoroughly irrational undertaking, containing as it does elements of both identification and aspiration. What we must consider is the idea of health food consumers as a discrete group with characteristic ideas about themselves and the modern world.

With brand names like “Back to Nature” (which I can’t help but interpret as a command in want of an exclamation point) and “Eden Foods,” it’s clear that health food manufacturers (and therefore the consumers [I should point out now that this includes me]) seek to distinguish themselves by their purity — the converse of this distinction being, of course, that mainstream manufacturers are estranged from nature and despoilers of what is otherwise Edenic. Collectively held ideas about what foods are polluting emerge, which means that we should refer to the anthropologist Mary Douglas; explaining her idea of food taboos as symbolic ways of maintaining the integrity of the body politic by closely guarding each body’s orifices, she writes, “I suggest that food is not likely to be polluting at all unless the external boundaries of the social system are under pressure.” This she writes specifically about the Brahmin caste and about Jews, both of whom are minorities the lapse of whose vigilance could quickly bring about their end as a distinct group.

This, to me, explains in large part why health food consumers seem to respond well to the notion of their food being “free” of various (and occasionally dubious) taints; rather than being a demographic, a certain sense of aspiring to be a fully functioning “social system” has developed among likely consumers of health foods — one that I think I can safely label environmentalist. The “freedom” from certain ingredients, then, becomes a way of creating in one’s body the idea of freedom from a mass culture where finding virtually anything without high-fructose corn syrup is a chore.

Later in her book Purity and Danger, Douglas writes that if a metaphysical system has no way of tilling the evil and tragic facts of life back into its system, it not only stultifies itself by creating a too-static environment, but risks asking its members to go through life with a forced smile and eyes closed to the easy falsifiability of its ideas and rites. This is what concerns me — that environmentalists want their freedom too free, and will continue to move the bar of purity from organic to biodynamic to local, from gluten-free to GMO-free to soy-free. These are the marks of coolness straight out of any high school, not the marks of sustainability.

The Bookseller’s Pique

July 12, 2008

It’s no secret that publishers often ask authors to change the names of their books in order to fit what their market thinks of as an appropriate title for a book. But those expectations of appropriateness can create some rather humorous bottlenecking as publishers flock to a certain onomastic scheme and then, once they’ve surfeited the public on that trope, abandon it. I’d like to point out the two naming schemes that seem most prevalent today as formulas for the naming of books.

The first is one that I’ll call The Occupation’s Female Relation, and its members fit into the formula suggested by my own meta-title perfectly. We can only speculate on why no nieces or grandmothers seem to be named, but here follows a few examples of this genre:

  • The Zookeeper’s Wife
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife
  • The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife
  • The Astronaut’s Wife (There seem to be no fewer than three separate books and a film bearing this title.)
  • The Bonesetter’s Daughter
  • The Abortionist’s Daughter
  • The Gravedigger’s Daughter

A second trend is one I’ll name The Eccentric Conflagration; its titles are a little tougher to pin down, and my Google skills failed me somewhat when I was searching for examples. Nonetheless, all of them concern a grouping whose purpose (or at least name) is somehow, as the following show, triangulated between nonsensical, paradoxical, and quirky —

  • The Tea-Olive Bird-Watching Society
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  • The Master Butchers Singing Club
  • The Buenos Aires Broken Heart Club

— all of which exude an almost pained specificity that, even if it doesn’t explicitly include hyphens, begs silently for them to be added in the mind of the reader. (I would add that, in the case of the second title on that list, hyphens would save it from being parsed as concerning a society that bakes or eats both literary and potato peel pies, rather than one that concerns itself with “literary [things]” and “potato peel pie[s].”)

If it seems obvious that there would be trends in the naming of books, it’s somewhat less obvious why — for surely not all of these were altered by the publishers, but were voluntarily named by their authors. If it is a case as simple as the now chronic appendage of the lowercase “i” to the beginning of tech products — a case of hoped-for high sales simply by association with a single best seller — it’s an explanation that is simple in itself, but somewhat more complex and not at all heartening in the explanations for which our specific examples seem to beg. For in the first, we seem to be reverting to a way of referring to women by their relations to (almost certainly) male characters; and I would point out, too, that this is a reversion to, really, pre-novelistic schemes of reference, since novels featuring female characters were previously named, primarily, by eponymous means (Jane Eyre, Pamela), and secondarily, either by a place name (Bleak House, Wuthering Heights) or more abstractly (Sense & Sensibility, The Wings of the Dove) — never by that character’s relation to a male.

And in the case of the books which fall under my meta-title of The Eccentric Conflagration, I can only suggest that the frantic specificity of their titles lies in stark contrast to the realities of a nation in which people cannot seem to gather for anything other than the most officially sanctioned, banally celebratory functions. If their titles are any indication, it seems that these books contain a myth of a non-internet world so packed with clubs and societies that there is room for niches and sub-niches. But isn’t the whole idea of a common naming scheme for popular literature mythological in nature? Doesn’t it appeal to a sort of folk consciousness of some unarticulated desire?

Without comment

June 10, 2007

“The Ohio Air Force lab proposed that a bomb be developed that contained a chemical that would cause enemy soldiers to become gay, and to have their units break down because all their soldiers became irresistibly attractive to one another.”

(via Eyeteeth)

Hive on the mind

June 4, 2007

Let us begin with the simple animals who only have a few affects, and who are neither in our world, nor in another, but with an associated world that they have learned how to trim, cut up, sew back together: the spider and his web, the louse and the scalp, the tick and a small patch of mammal skin: these and not the owl of Minerva are the true philosophical beasts. That which triggers an affect, that which effectuates a power to be affected, is called a signal: the web stirs, the scalp creases, a little skin is bared. Nothing but a few signs like stars in an immense black night. Spider-becoming, flea-becoming, tick-becoming, an unknowns, resilient, obscure, stubborn life.

– Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues II

hive-victory.jpg

Hive is a game that I discovered through Crystalpunk, who describes it as “better than looking for a job.” My actions of late show that I cannot help but agree.

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The rules are simple and chess-like, with each of the pieces having a unique way of moving. But instead of having a standard board like chess, this game involves the creation of a hive through the strategic placement of tiles. Once placed, a tile can be moved again, so long as no portion of the hive is broken off from another. No piece can be removed from the board once placed, but there are various ways of immobilizing pieces: creating a peninsula so to move would be illegal, climbing on top of another piece with your beetle (the only unit which can climb on top of others), or by making the adjacent spaces too small to move into.

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I’m quite addicted and itching to play something other than the bot. I might end up having to make my own set, though, since it seems pretty difficult to find this for sale; its creators seem more interested in making the game available online than in making much money off of it.

Fresh from the factory

May 8, 2007

Apropos of my prior entry, Fresh from the orifice, I found the website for a new book called nonobject today. It contains the following:

The state of things now: sameness sits on assembly lines; sameness lives on shelves; sameness is in hands of consumers. Need it be this way – where color is the only distinguishing feature? Why not tackle design in more interesting ways? Rather than considering a product as one of many, diversify the multiple existing molds and consider product a little more freely. Need each be a clone of the other? Why not envision production methodology anew, as a result of more organic processes? Just imagine: a near future where we still make a single product in large volumes, but we do so more randomly, intuitively, eclectically. This way, with advanced manufacturing techniques, consumers are offered more choice within a single product category.

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I don’t know yet how this “design fiction” interacts with the points I made about the commodity of human labor. I’m eager to hear what you have to say about it.

Graffiti from the Man

May 4, 2007

Usually, the reclamation of the urban text consists of the dismantling of desire – letting the city’s miasma waft over ads that seek to provoke our greediest tendencies. But I’ve noticed something lately which might be easiest to describe by beginning with a name: disciplinary graffiti.

These are the cruel, impromptu markings made on otherwise sincere texts in the urban environment. Far from blackening the tooth of an airbrushed spokeswoman, disciplinary graffiti sets its teeth against other citizens and the most benign institutions. The picture below is just one example. Two others also come to mind. In the Humanities building at school, there was an informational flier with the heading “Attention English majors,” to which somebody had added, “Do you realize that your existence is worthless?” In that same department, there was a bulletin from somebody looking for a roommate; that individual had the misfortune of describing herself as “quiet and studious,” which garnered the anonymous response, ” = boring as hell.”

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It may be that these anonymous additions provide the same outlet for maliciousness that flame wars on the internet provide. This is nastiness without any consequences, bent on pure release rather than sadism.

Instead, I see in the phenomenon of disciplinary graffiti the recursion of the presence of the commercial in such a way that it cannot be dismantled by any but the most radical reclamations. The idea of commercial space – blank canvas that can be bought for a price commensurate with its visibility – has accustomed individuals to thinking of their eyes as that which must be competed and compensated for. Internet access can be free if you put an ad-bearing toolbar on your desktop; logos are the currency of coolness; and magazine subscriptions can be cheap because they contain ads.

The victims of disciplinary graffiti seek to poach on commercial space, to benefit without being able to give to everyone who looks at their postings. But the anonymous scrawls of disciplinary graffiti reject this. It’s not the lesson of, say, burning important notes onto CD that these people want to teach; it is that nobody encroaches and cheapens their visual real estate without a tiny sting or salt in their wound.

Fresh from the orifice

May 1, 2007

When a friend showed me the new tumblers that he bought, I slipped quickly through aesthetic appreciation, slid almost immediately past desire, and found myself lingering on their description as “mouth-blown.” The invocation of some laborer’s anatomy – especially a bit of anatomy as intimate as the mouth – seemed utterly vulgar in comparison with the seamless, Platonic images presented on that Amazon site. I seek to understand why being “mouth-blown” makes a tumbler more desirable. While I’m at it, I seek likewise to understand why being “hand-painted” or “hand-woven” adds to the appeal of other objects.

Let me begin (as many superior endeavors have also begun) by invoking Barthes:

It is obvious that the new Citroen has fallen from the sky inasmuch as it appears at first sight as a superlative object … [I]t excites interest less by its substance than by the junction of its components. It is well known that smoothness is always an attribute of perfection because its opposite reveals a technical and typically human operation of assembling: Christ’s robe was seamless, just as the airships of science-fiction are made of unbroken metal.

The New Citroën, 1957

Fifty years after Barthes wrote this about the DS, we have the “human operation of assembling” invoked by marketers and concretized through reference to the anatomy of the product’s assemblers. And although “mouth” and “hand” are, in these cases, clearly metonymies, they do not extend so far as, say, the worker’s rights or the circumstances in which his job places him. Products are, after all, never advertised as “laborer-assembled” or “proletariat-made.”

No, instead, the mouth that blows glass (and, through that motion, gives a product to the marketplace) is a symbol of receptivity. Disembodied even from the skilled hands, watchful eyes, and capable lungs which power and control the mouth-blowing, the mouth seeks employment – filling – according to the demands of the public. Hands that weave or paint are likewise filled with the implements of production to the exclusion of other, personally-chosen implements. To say, on the contrary, that a machine fills its time and its capacities with the creation of a product is simply absurd; created for the purpose of production, the machine has no alternative except a working existence.

Think, then, of the receptiveness of the mouth or the hands of the worker as the baptismal font into which a product is dipped in order to gain its identity. Here is what I mean: the market demands and specifies a product; existing only as idea, though, the product as yet has no reality, and, were it to be produced by machine, it would lack identity (e.g., my plastic trashcan could be replaced with any other plastic trashcan of the same model and I would never know the difference); having been designed, the product is passed into the oral meatus or the open hands of the worker in order to gain that individuality.

If the Citroën DS belongs to the apparatus of museums in its apparent seamlessness, the modern home – consisting mostly of mass-produced, machine-made products – is also such a setting. The “mouth-blown,” “hand-woven” products are the imperfect, diverse filler gleaned from anthropological expeditions or from history (i.e., relics of our own history in the present economic backwardness of colonized regions of the globe), which are used to fill its pristine, white display cases.

Labor’s vulgarity

April 27, 2007

Let me sketch a stigmatized metaphor by installing a tiny loom next to your toilet – a loom, perhaps, mounted to the wall with hinges such that it can swing out over your lap when you sit.

Then, at some later date, as you do your duties to self and society, think back to this entry and the matter I give you to chew on. Think, for example, of the similarity between the mindless working of your fingers and the tiny vaginations of your intestine which propel your waste to its final end. These are examples of pure process – method rotely applied without regard to your identities or cogitations. Compare these activities with the common habit of bathroom reading, which seeks to enrich the mind as possession, even as the body unmistakably declares its allegiance to the material and the impossibility of your possessing it.

Weave, perhaps over the course of several weeks, a trivet which has emerged from you as passively as an egg from a chicken, and just as anonymously. Notice how your closest observation of this trivet’s weaving only makes it more difficult to weave; for the trivet cannot take any bit of you with it as it supports the weight of a steaming stew or risotto.

But if you cannot install a recognizable sample of yourself in this trivet, you can accomplish a recognition of your type in that trivet if, say, you choose one pattern of colors over another. Then you could at least say that your tastes are of a certain sort, just as 19th century Germans would classify the qualities of their bowel movements to glean facts about their health.

More than any of this, though, treat yourself by being sullied completely. Do not attempt to retain your dignity in the face of this work. The markets wait for your trivets.