Archive for December, 2003

Book on Display

Monday, December 29th, 2003

My new book on display at the MLA convention. (U of Minnesota Press booth in the book exhibit).

Looking Ahead: 2004

Saturday, December 27th, 2003

Warren Ellis is running a year-end series on his blog, where he asks various people to give their visions, or predictions, for 2004. Here’s my entry:
Surprise me.
That’s what I ask of 2004.
Some of the things I can predict for the year to come are good. Personal things, mostly. (Moving on to greener pastures, for one thing).Others are bad. Political things, mostly. (The re-election, coronation, and Ascension — in the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” sense — of George W. Bush).
But nothing’s more dreary than predictability, the linear playing out of cause and effect.
Time passes: and that means that things can go off track, change course, suffer a phase transition, enter the orbit of a chaotic attractor.
Of, course, there’s no guarantee that these changes and surprises will be happy and fortunate ones. Sometimes they are, but other times they are tragic, unbearable, hideous.
But a world without change, in which everything is predictable, is a world that’s already dead.
So surprise me.

A Phat Death

Thursday, December 25th, 2003

Norman Kelley‘s A Phat Death, or, The Last Days of Noir Soul is the third in his series of Nina Halligan detective novels (following Black Heat and The Big Mango). Like the others, A Phat Death offers a convoluted mystery plot, with ample doses of murder, mayhem, and steamy sex. This time Kelley focuses on the music business, with an ample assortment of murdered hip hop artists, thuggish black record company owners, and slimy, corrupt white politicians and media moguls. Nina Halligan, the detective protagonist and first-person narrator, is a strong black woman – but an emotional and impulsive one, deeply angry as any thoughtful black person in America will inevitably be, able to kick ass when the need arises, and NOT one of those “Mammy” figures who “endures,” and who is filled with comfort and wisdom. (Also, while Nina herself is straight, her close women friends are straight, gay, bi, and hermaphroditic).
But what’s most noteworthy about A Phat Death, and its predecessors in the series, is Kelley’s hard-hitting analysis of the crisis of Black America, and his exceedingly, wonderfully sharp and nasty satire. All the characters in the three novels have invented names, but the books are virtually romans a clef. It’s not hard to recognize the venomous portraits of African American businessmen, intellectuals, political and religious leaders, and musicians and entertainers (with a few powerful white figures thrown in for good measure). Kelley’s vision is a bracing and disturbing one: he portrays a devastated black America, in total social, cultural, and economic collapse, being torn apart and peddled to whites for profit by entrepreneurs, charlatans, and self-appointed saviors, all wanting only to “get paid.”

Morvern Callar

Wednesday, December 24th, 2003

Lynn Ramsay’s Morvern Callar (after the novel by Alan Warner) is elliptical, opaque, and utterly gorgeous. The eponymous character (played with an almost alien blankness by the brilliant Samantha Morton) is a young, working-class Scottish woman (she works in a supermarket by day, and goes clubbing at night) who wakes up on Christmas morning (or the day before, I wasn’t sure) to discover that her boyfriend has killed himself. He’s left her a mixtape (which becomes the movie’s soundtrack, with music that ranges from Aphex Twin to Nancy Sinatra to the Velvet Underground to the Mamas and the Papas), and a suicide note with two requests: that she use his bank account to pay for his funeral, and that she send his novel to a publisher. Instead, she covers up his death, uses the funeral money to buy her and a girlfriend a vacation in southern Spain, and submits the novel under her own name.
That’s about it, as far as plot is concerned. And character motivation is entirely inscrutable.What we are left with, instead, is a film of atmosphere, drift, and escape. And it’s great.
Morvern Callar has very little dialog; besides the brilliant soundtrack music, there is lots of silence. Visually, there are lots of close-ups without establishing shots, odd angles, unexpected cuts, and continually varying lighting, which ranges from Scottish winter gloom to Spanish blinding sunlight, and from flashing neon and disco strobe lights to the fluorescent glare of the supermarket.
The start of the film looked almost Bressonian to me. (Interestingly, in an interview about the film, Ramsay speaks, not of Bresson’s framing and editing, but of his use of sound). But just as the light modulates from scene to scene, so the overall look and feel of the film modulate too. Morvern Callar simply drifts so beautifully, that it is not until a good way through that I realized that it was not in the least about aimlessness and anomie (which is how it seemed at first); rather, it is about escape. Morvern is looking for a way out, and she finds it. Although much of the movie is sad or disturbing, it is really a passionate and affirmative film. Though this affirmation-in-the-face-of-what-might-seem-to-others-as-deprivation is not spiritual in the manner of Bresson, but something even harder to give definition to. Morvern Callar is subtly, but powerfully, subversive, all the more so in that it never gives up its punk blankness and lack of direction, but turns these into positive qualities. What’s so moving about the film, finally, is something that I can only express oxymoronically: the way it gives palpable presence to the most evanescent of feelings, without them ever losing their evanescence.


Wednesday, December 24th, 2003

Christmas/Chanukah, 2003.

Mobile Blog

Wednesday, December 24th, 2003

A few months ago, I started a WAPblog — accessible via net-enabled mobile phone — but I haven’t written much for it.The entries are still available, but I haven’t written anything new for it in quite some time.
Now I am going to try again. This time, I will make the entries from this blog available via net-enabled mobile phone, using Winksite (I learned about all this from Abe).
Just point your mobile phone browser to

Killing Freud

Wednesday, December 24th, 2003

From a review of a forthcoming book, Killing Freud: 20th-century culture and the death of psychoanalysis by Todd Dufresne:
“Dufresne suggests that the upshot of Freud’s moribund triumph has been, intellectually, little short of catastrophic. Psychoanalysis subverts the essence of western rationality, substituting a bastard discourse for the fact-honouring conventions of dialogue that, intermittently, have served civilization well since Socrates. Rightly, Dufresne identifies the excesses of post-structuralism and postmodernism as Freud’s progeny, without wholly condemning all such movements. Yet his basic point rings true: wherever the bearded shadow of Freud falls, something unwholesome festers.”
This is precisely why, for all my suspicion and distrust of psychoanalysis (on grounds that have been worked through by Foucault, Deleuze, and others) I still consider it to be necessary, indeed indispensable.

This Is Not A Test

Monday, December 22nd, 2003

Missy Elliott‘s new album, This Is Not A Test, probably isn’t the best thing she’s done. I’d even say it’s the first album she’s done that hasn’t at all surprised me in some way; which implies that she has finally reduced what she is doing to a formula.
Nevertheless, I still like This Is Not A Test. There are the monster beats, courtesy of Timbaland, of course; the best songs on the album are the ones in which the arrangements are most minimal, the beats most spare, and at the same time, most booming (“Pass That Dutch”, “Let It Bump”, “Pump It Up”). The R&B numbers, on the other hand, are relatively weak.
But it’s Missy’s charisma, her “flow” (to use that overused and underdefined hip hop word) that still makes me want to listen, even when I feel that I’ve heard it all before. I mean, it isn’t what she says, so much as how she says it. Even when she’s boasting, her voice remains in a strange way conversational, and matter-of-fact. It promises an impossible intimacy, as if she was best girlfriends with each and every one of her millions of listeners; as if there were some way we could join in the gossip and laughter. It somehow seems the most straightforward and “natural” thing in the world, how she segues from celebrating vibrators and other sex toys in one song, to complaining that sex with her man is no longer as good as it was the first time, to mourning Aaliyah (still) in another. The closest she comes to a message is in “Wake Up,” where she tells black people that it’s OK not to have a gun, not to have a cell phone, not to have to strip for a living. (Oddly, or maybe not, this is the song where Jay-Z, who has made his living by peddling the fantasies that Missy dismisses here, makes his guest appearance – he says he used to think like his friends who ended up in jail, but doesn’t any longer). But all in all, as I already said, it isn’t the words that matter here, but the way that Missy says them, and the rapport she establishes with her listeners thereby. A fiction, of course; a fake utopian vision of the everyday, no doubt. There’s no ecstasy here. But the conjunction of Missy’s voicings, and Timbaland’s beats, set up a resonance that works, and that moves me almost in spite of myself.

Zizek on Deleuze

Sunday, December 21st, 2003

I always find Slavoj Zizek alternately (or simultaneously) enthralling and infuriating, and nowhere more so than in his new book Organs Without Bodies in which he takes on Gilles Deleuze.


Friday, December 19th, 2003

Peter WattsMaelstrom is the sequel to his Starfish (which I discussed here). Maelstrom envisions the possible extinction of the human species, and indeed of all terrestrial life, due to the competition of a nanobacterium brought back from the deep oceans. But the book is much more sympathetic to Lenie Clarke, the woman (from Starfish) who is the (not entirely unwitting) vector of this infection, than it is to the “corpses” (people with power, money, and influence) who are trying to stop it. Emotionally, the book emphasizes victimization, on the one hand, and bitter revenge on the other: these seem to be the only alternatives – since rebellion is largely futile, and not much more than a fashion statement anyway – to craven collaboration with the dominant powers.
But the book’s larger vision is more technopolitical than psychological. It envisions a world in which travel restrictions and other suspensions of civil liberties are the norm, less for explicitly political reasons, than for environmental ones, in order to contain the various biomedical and chemical disasters that Watts presents as a regular feature of mid-21st-century life. (This also includes the control of refugees, who have fled to North America to escape environmental disasters in Asia and other parts of the world). Foucault showed how our ubiquitous technologies of surveillance and control arose, in part, out of efforts to contain things like plague; Watts envisions these technologies returning to their roots, as it were, as a result of our rapacious destruction of the environment (as well as of continued terrorism in a time of extreme technologies).
There’s also a lot about re-engineering the human body, not just to allow physical adaptations to extreme conditions, but also to control behavior; this ranges from the implantation of false memories (of things like having been abused as a child), to implanting triggers for violence and aggression (very useful for breeding and training assassins), to neurochemical manipulations of emotions like guilt. The novel asks us to consider what “free will” might mean under such conditions (and it doesn’t allow us any easy answers).
And then there is the book’s vision of Maelstrom itself, which is the mid-21st-century descendant of the Internet. Instantaneous, worldwide wireless communication is the norm; but cyberspace is infested by “wildlife”, rogue programs of all sorts that are the rapidly-evolved descendants of the spam and viruses and worms of today. There’s a whole online ecology in Maelstrom, and it isn’t pretty: it’s characterized by vicious Darwinian competition. This “wildlife” doesn’t stop people from using the Net for information or for social contact, so much as it insinuates itself within those human uses. blurring lines between fact, rumor, and innuendo, and making all communication rife with suspicion and conflict. (Not to mention Watts’ brilliant and wholly original take on the nature, and the possibilities, of “artificial intelligence”…).
What makes this all work is the way Watts grounds his overall vision of apocalyptic dread (or better, vengeful, don’t-give-a-fuck bitterness) within a wholly concrete framework of techno/bio/politics.