Archive for February, 2004

OS X

Friday, February 27th, 2004

Well, my new PowerBook arrived today, and this is the first post that I am making with it. (I’m using ecto as my blogging client).
I was a Mac user for a long time, from c. 1991 to 1998; I switched to Windows because I wanted to have a really small laptop, 3 lbs or less — which didn’t (still doesn’t) exist for the Mac. But I missed the elegance and simplicity of the Macintosh aesthetic. Especially as OS X was developed, I felt that I was missing out on something I really wanted (though arguably — or just say, obviously — I didn’t need it, given that Windows XP does just about everything you need, albeit much more clunkily).
So finally, after looking at the state of my finances, and convincing myself through specious arguments that I could afford the additional charge on my credit card, I took the plunge.
The 12″ PowerBook is still too heavy (4.6 lbs) but I’m determined to carry it around with me everywhere anyway.

More About Marriage

Wednesday, February 25th, 2004

An interesting article by Eli Sanders in The Stranger (Seattle alternative weekly newspaper) this week points out that King County Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels have the administrative power to do what San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome has done: authorize marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples, and go to court to force the state to recognize the validity of such licenses. Of course, as Sanders also points out, Sims and Nickels are probably too lame and spineless to actually do this.
But it’s something they really ought to do, they really need to do. One thing that hasn’t been pointed out enough in all the press about the weddings in San Francisco is that social change never happens in a vacuum. Change comes when there is a cascade of events promoting it; it’s only at the very end of such a cascade of events that the law actually changes. The women’s suffrage movement of the early twentieth century, and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, both exemplify this.
Recent events suggest that we have the chance of reaching a similar flash point, or tipping point, for equal marriage rights. Which is why I think that it’s imperative for Seattle, and other cities and localities throughout the country, to follow the lead of San Francisco (and Massachusetts and New Mexico). Politicians who say they want to wait for a more opportune moment (or whose mealy-mouthed equivocations, as in the case of John Kerry, imply such reasoning) need to realize that this is the opportune moment. If we don’t act now, Bush will probably get his odious constitutional amendment.
Not all injustices can be rectified overnight. Women’s suffrage did not eliminate sexism, and the civil rights movement did not eliminate racism. Nor will equal marriage rights eliminate homophobia. But when there is a rush of events opening up the prospect of (even partial) freedom, it’s inexcusable not to seize the moment.

Nader etc.

Tuesday, February 24th, 2004

Like everyone else, I kind of wish Nader weren’t running this year. I voted for him last time, but this year the only priority is to beat Bush, with no illusions as to the wonderfulness of whoever replaces him. At this point I am what used to be called a “yellow dog Democrat”: somebody who would even vote for a yellow dog over a Republican. I’d certainly prefer my own yellow dog as President to George W. Bush.
Considering only the major candidates, at this time I prefer Edwards to Kerry, only because Kerry is a walking corpse with zero charisma, and I think that Edwards has a better chance of winning. But it won’t happen; Kerry has the nomination locked up. As I’ve written here before, it’s a peculiar pathology of the Democratic Party that they try to make things as hard as possible for themselves, by going out of their way to nominate the least appealing (indeed, least competent) candidate they can find. Hence Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and now Kerry. Bill Clinton is the sole exception.
Still, though I wish Nader would hang it up instead of making a fool of himself (since his totals are almost sure to be far lower than they were in 2000), I was sickened by Chris Matthews on Hardball last night, who basically told Nader that he was unqualified to run for President because 1)he is unmarried and has no children; 2)he doesn’t drive and doesn’t own a car; and 3)he rents an apartment, instead of owning a house or a condo. I guess parenting, driving, and home ownership constitute the minimum definition these days of what it means to be a “true American.”
And while I’m ranting: has anybody commented on how, at the same time that Bush is trying to stop people from getting married who desperately want to, he is also proposing spending $1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money in order to bully people into marrying who don’t want to?

Grey Tuesday

Tuesday, February 24th, 2004

You can find a list of websites that are making Danger Mouse’s Grey Album available for download at greytuesday.org. WIll EMI Records really be able to shut down all these sites? Illegal Art has had it up for several weeks now.

Vilem Flusser

Saturday, February 21st, 2004

Vilem Flusser (1920-1991) was, after Marshall McLuhan, one of the most important media theorists of the late 20th century. He’s still not very well known in North America; but I find him far more profound and rewarding than, say, Baudrillard or Virilio (let alone Neil Postman or Paul Levinson).
Towards a Philosophy of Photography, originally published in 1983, is a brief and trenchant discussion of how photography (even before it became digital) serves as the prototype for a fully programmed, post-industrial, post-historical, informationcentric world. Flusser is less sentimental and melancholy than Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida), and more concise and rigorous than Susan Sontag (On Photography). He argues that photography represents a higher degree of abstraction than the writing which it has to a great degree supplanted, even as writing represents a higher degree of abstraction than the painted and drawn images that it supplanted several thousand years ago. Photographs do not render the real; rather they transform it into a highly codified sort of “information.” A photograph doesn’t represent the scene, person, or object being photographed, so much as it represents, and fulfills, the program of the photographic apparatus itself, a program that (like any entity under conditions of Darwinian competition) seeks nothing more than its own perpetuation and extension. Where handmade images promoted magical thinking, and writing promoted conceptual and historical thought, photography and all the technical forms of reproduction that have arisen in its wake actually work to program thought, to anticipate it ,and to mimic and contain it in advance. To simulate thought, in sum.
But unlike other critics of the rule of simulacra, Flusser evidences no nostalgia. He has no Baudrillardian yearning for a “real” that would have supposedly existed prior to photographic reproduction. And he explicitly criticizes the Frankfurt School, for the humanist nostalgia behind its attempts “to unmask the [class] interests behind the apparatuses.” Such approaches merely seek to reinstate the humanistic subject that photography and other post-industrial technical apparatuses have destroyed once and for all.
For Flusser — and this is part of what is so great about him — the only way out is the way through. “A philosophy of photography must reveal the fact that there is no place for human freedom within the area of automated, programmed, and programming apparatuses, in order finally [italics mine] to show a way in which it is nevertheless possible to open up a space for freedom.” It is only possible to invent a new practice of freedom, in other words, when we plumb technical programming (starting with photography, and moving on, today, to digital computing and communications) to the depths; when we take the full measure of what it has accomplished; when we give up our illusions of recovering a supposed pre-photographic, pre-technological mode of being.

Bruno Latour

Wednesday, February 18th, 2004

I’ve long felt a bit ambivalent about Bruno Latour, and I feel all the more that way after reading his book Pandora’s Hope. (I’ve previously read We Have Never Been Modern, plus a good number of essays).
I like the way Latour focuses on the details of actual scientific practice, and how he uses these details to argue for a complex set of mediations and links in the course of which humans are bound together with nonhumans – a model that he cogently argues is far preferable to the common one that simply confronts a linguistic statement, or a mental model, with a state of affairs in the world, and asks whether the statement representationally corresponds with, or accurately points to, the state of affairs. Latour is right to say that this dualistic, correspondence theory of truth (or its inversion, the deconstructionist abyss of language that cannot reach out beyond itself to the world) ignores the way that things like scientific theories, statements, and models are themselves actions or events or performances in the world. Latour is not the first thinker to resituate language in the world in this way, but he is the one who has applied it to the understanding of science, and specifically scientific practice.
Latour thus cuts the Gordian knot of the dispute between realism (‘the facts of science exist independently of us’) and constructionism (scientific entities are “socially constructed”). He says that the fallacy shared by both sides to this dispute is to think that “constructed” and “real” are opposites, when in fact they go in tandem: the more something is “constructed” (socially or otherwise) the realer it is, because the more it is interconnected with other things, the more it operates with and upon, and affects, other things, and so on. This seems to me exactly right
(It’s also a point that is consonant with Ian Hacking’s arguments, in The Social Construction of What, about the use of the phrase “social construction.” Hacking shows how many different meanings this phrase has; he suggests that it really functions as a marker of difference. We say that gender is “socially constructed” in order to argue against claims that it is entirely “in the genes”; we do not say that a bridge is “socially constructed,” because nobody argues that the Golden Gate Bridge somehow arose by itself).
Nonetheless, I am enough of a realist that I am made uneasy when Latour says, for instance, that yeast did not cause lactic acid fermentation until 1864, when Pasteur established this action in the laboratory. I agree that Pasteur’s experiments did not just reveal an always-existing truth; since those experiments mobilized the yeast, made it interact with human interests, both by establishing new scientific doctrine, and by making the commercial exploitation of the fermentation process possible on a scale and in a manner that it was not before. In pragmatist terms, Pasteur’s experiments, and his theoretical extrapolation from those experiments, made it possible for us to predict and control the fermentation process, and the life history of yeast, for the first time.
But it still seems disingenuous to me for Latour to say that it was only after 1864 that the process took place, or (to put his point as precisely as possible) that it is only after 1864 that the process of fermentation by the action of yeast (rather than fermentation as a byproduct of organic decay, as was previously believed) can be said to have taken place before 1864. In one sense, Latour’s statement is a tautology; but I think that Latour is trying to pull a fast one, by using this tautology to insinuate a deeper meaning, according to which the change in the world that took place in 1864 affected something more than certain instrumental activities of human beings with yeast.
Latour says that he is simply including yeast as well as human beings in history, rather than seeing yeast as unchanging and ahistorical “in and of itself.” But this begs the question of how the actions of yeast in fact affected human beings well before Pasteur mobilized yeast into what Latour calls the “collective.”
Latour’s sleight-of-hand becomes a still more serious matter when he presents his grand view of science and politics. He wants to repeal what he calls the modern “settlement” that radically separated subject from object, as well as Truth from Opinion, Knowledge from Power, Right from Might. He cleverly suggests that the Platonic and Cartesian dictatorship of Reason shares common assumptions with the view of the Sophists, of Hobbes, and of Nietzsche, that would seek to deconstruct it. He suggests that both Socrates and his opponents, and more recently both the scientific rationalists and Nietzsche, both the positivists and Foucault, distrust the “people” or the “mob”, and disagree only on whether the violent imposition to reign in this “mob” should be that of a hypostasized Reason or that of a more naked Power.
It’s not that I would want to defend a renewed elitism against Latour’s populism here. But Latour idealizes what a fully engaged politics (as opposed to one governed from without by the forceful imposition of scientific reason) would actually be. He idealizes and sentimentalizes the civility and consensus of a “body politic” uninfected by the dictatorship of an abstract Reason. One can observe the intractability of many human disputes and political conflicts (having to do with such things as class and other forms of privilege, wealth, and prestige, or with the control of the regime of productivity and the distribution of whatever social surplus there may be) without believing, as Latour accuses defenders of rationalism from Socrates to Steven Weinberg of doing, that “scientific” objectivity is the one thing that saves humankind from descending into barbarity and a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” One can agree that the rage of modernist iconoclasm often produces the very dehumanizing phenomena that it claims to be waging war against, without sharing Latour’s piety towards “fetishes” and “icons.”
In making “modernism” and its “settlement” his enemy, Latour can’t help reproducing modernity’s own logic, in the form of an idealized depiction of that which preceded the modern. Although he rightly says that the unalienated “pre-modern” is nothing but a modernist fantasy, he himself reproduces the very same fantasy, in his picture of a world uninfected by modernism, as well as in his assertion that “we have never been modern,” that modernity has only given greater scope to nonmodern “mixtures” in practice, by refusing them admission into theory.
In short: we must add to Latour’s account the additional awareness that we have never not been modern, that we have never been free of modernist divisions and impositions.
(This is a more Derridean conclusion than I wanted to get to; I think the way out is to ask different sorts of questions, and indeed this is what Latour says we should do; but Latour doesn’t ask the right different questions. He doesn’t quite succeed in pointing the way to his self-confessed goal, a Whiteheadean account that does justice both to science and to other modes of human experience of the world).

Apropa’t

Monday, February 16th, 2004

Apropa’t, by Savath and Savalas, is the latest album by Scott Herren, who is better known for the music he releases under the name Prefuse 73. (You can purchase it digitally from Warp Records online, for considerably less than it costs as a CD. Also, the download is in the form of unencrypted mp3 files).
This music is very different from Prefuse 73. It’s slow, dreamy, and somewhat folkish, with no glitches and not much of a beat. Herren is collaborating here with vocalist Eva Puyuelo Muns, who sings ethereally in Catalan and Spanish.
What I love about this album is how it evades attention,and never quite coalesces. The lovely melodies never quite come into focus. The music slips and slides right past my center of awareness. It’s as if I’d been (oxymoronically) hypnotized into distraction. And no, I haven’t the faintest idea how, musically speaking, Herren accomplishes this.

Thirteen

Sunday, February 15th, 2004

Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, about the sex and drugs experiences of a 13-year-old girl, is a powerful movie, with great acting and interesting, lively direction. Digital camera, often handheld and shaky, lots of pans, lots of quick edits, manipulation of color to be supersaturated in druggy, decadent scenes and washed out in tragic family ones: these are all the kinds of things that many critics condemn as facile and gimmicky, but for me it works, it crackles and jumps, it moves; although it seems at this point less like auteurial expression than a style as codified as classical Hollywood ‘invisible’ editing ever was.
But I was bothered, finally, by how conservative and moralistic Thirteen is, once you get past its lurid will to shock (or, perhaps, such moralism is the inevitable correlate of a lurid will to shock). The film presents its thirteen-year-old protagonist’s giddy experiences (hedonism as a mask for despair) as a veritable descent into hell: Pleasure Is Bad For You. (Nothing she does would be all that shocking for a 16-year-old white girl in southern California: pot, beer, sniffing aerosol cans, heavier drugs only on rare occasions; shoplifitng, slutwear, piercing; going down on slightly older boys who — oh my god — are black; and a little scarification when the pain gets too great; but the movie wants to magnify it all by playing on our thoughts that thirteen is way too young).
And the anatomy of why she does what she does is pretty cliched, once you look past the great performances: broken home, a mom who doesn’t spend enough time with her daughter, an absent father, a manipulative slut of a best friend, etc: a “family values” analysis that is totally consonant with the Republican Party platform.
The film probably gets the teen slang and mores down (as far as I can guess; no way I could really know, since I’m 50 and my daughter is only 1 1/2). But alas, there is no Bataillean excess here. And as a portrait of teen girls’ folie a deux, Thirteen is far inferior to Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (his best movie, LOTR notwithstanding) or Rafal Zielinski’s almost entirely unknown and utterly brilliant Fun.

The Mission

Friday, February 13th, 2004

Another brilliant Johnny To film: The Mission. This one is less extravagant than the others I’ve seen; but it has the same fragmented narrative, and the same gorgeously oblique nighttime cinematography. Only this one is more about things that don’t quite happen, about waiting for things to happen. A team of bodyguards is assembled to protect a crime boss from assassination. They succeed; the boss remains safe, and the rival responsible for the assassination attempts is found. But then, the group has other problems to face….
The memorable parts of this film are those poised on the brink of action. It’s all about waiting. The bodyguards frozen in posture, waiting for the next assault; or bored, since nothing is happening, they idly kick around a wadded-up ball of paper as if it were a soccer ball.
The assassins may come from anywhere; gunfire breaks out suddenly, with no chance of preparation. A sniper shoots from the top of a tall office building. Or shots ring out, seemingly from nowhere, in a largely deserted shopping mall. Or an ambush is launched from a seemingly deserted warehouse.
Johnny To sets up these scenes, their angles of vision and of shooting, with all the precision of John Woo (and before him, of Peckinpah, of Fuller, of classical action cinema); but the spaces in which these sightlines and shotlines are so precisely articulated, are the topologically twisted, non-Cartesian spaces of postmodernity.
Time is contorted as well as space; the moments of action are almost evanescent, you can’t keep them in mind, as they are surrounded and engulfed by the motionless stretches of before and after.
This is not the modernist waiting for a future that never arrives (as was the case in Waiting for Godot, in Blanchot’s novels, and for that matter in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo); it’s more that the action itself forms part of the waiting, the future is already enveloped in the present time of waiting, so that you are not waiting for something to happen that never does, but rather waiting precisely because it already is happening, it is here, it is now, and you have to wait in order to play your appointed part in it.

The Grey Album

Friday, February 13th, 2004

DJ Danger Mouse‘s Grey Album is, at the very least, an audacious conceptual coup. DangerMouse combines the unchanged vocal tracks of Jay-Z’s Black Album with instrumentals derived from the Beatles’ (so-called) white album.
Musically, I’m not convinced this re-engineering really works; voice and music don’t really go together convincingly, but neither do they clash in ways that seem particularly meaningful. There’s no real “dialectical interaction” here; and, as a commentary on race, or on black and white music, nothing in the actual sounds goes beyond the initial idea.
Still, the results are weird enough to deserve a couple of listens. The Beatles material is cut up and rhythmically manhandled, in order to line up with Jay-Z’s raps.
Predictably, Danger Mouse received a cease and desist order from EMI Records for this stunt. Yet another example of the way that copyright is inimical to creativity. Sampling and recombination are what music (and culture in general) is about right now. The paradox of art today is that originality comes out of repetition: from altering, and doing violence to, what already exists. To ban sampling is not to protect original art, but to make sure that only derivative and unimaginative works ever get made.
Fortunately illegal art still has the album for download.