Archive for July, 2004

The Politics of Book Reviewing

Monday, July 26th, 2004

For The New York Times Sunday Book Review to have Francis Fukuyama review Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s new book Multitude is like having Kenneth Starr review Bill Clinton’s autobiography. Since Fukuyama has long claimed that globalized, “free-market” capitalism is the End of History, the ultimate realization of human social and political development (albeit an achievement that is threatened by fundamentalism, narrow nationalism, and posthuman science), of course he will be blind to Hardt and Negri’s vision of an alternative to capitalist domination. I haven’t read Multitude yet, and there was a lot I found to disagree with in Hardt and Negri’s previous volume, Empire, but Hardt and Negri are profound thinkers whose ideas are a necessary starting point for anybody who wants to think about democratic alternatives to the current world order. I’m not in the least bit surprised that The Times Book Review should seek to foreclose such a discussion from the get-go, by commissioning Fukuyama’s predictable review; but it’s important to make a point of this, precisely because The Times is so influential, and so central to what passes for mainstream book and intellectual culture.

The X-President

Saturday, July 24th, 2004

Philip Baruth’s The X-President is a science fiction novel about Bill Clinton. It’s a hoot. The novel is set (initially) in the year 2055. The narrator, Sal Hayden, an historian specializing in the twentieth century, is working on the authorized biography of the (still-living, thanks to prosthetic enhancements) 109-year-old former President (referred to in the text exclusively as “BC”).
As Sal toils away on her project in Litle Rock, however, the United States is slowly but surely losing World War III. And the ultimate cause for the war turns out to be a trivial (and at the time scarcely noticed) act of Clinton’s Presidency: in return for submitting to stringent restrictions on cigarettes at home, and agreeing to pay reparations for cigarette-related deaths, the tobacco companies were given free reign, with US government support, to peddle their product in the Third World.
The only way to avert disaster is to change the course of history, using the dangerous technology of time travel. So Sal is sent into the past, to meet the 16-year-old Clinton in 1963, as well as the mature President in the mid-1990s.
That’s the set-up. Such a manic and loony framework allows Baruth to throw out extended riffs on such matters as Clinton’s character, the ways American popular culture has changed over the years (and the ways it hasn’t), and the paranoid mentality of the national-security/surveillance/military state. Baruth plays around a bit with the inevitable paradoxes of time travel (how changing the past changes the present from which we started out to change that past, leading to a destructively self-reflexive feedback loop), but this is mostly in order to think about what it means to look at things historically, and to not take the seeming obviousness of our surroundings for granted. We see the near-present, in which the book was written and is being read, from a perspective of extreme distance.
But mostly, we get to see Bill Clinton from a bunch of different angles, from adolescence before he had made his mark, to a future in which he is scarcely more present in peoples’ minds than Harry Truman, say, is to us today.
The X-President is really about how impossible it is (unless you are a hard-core hater from the Far Right) not to love ol’ Bill, even though you know that he’s a rascal and a scalliwag, whose vision never extended past the reports from the latest focus groups, whose accomplishments were at best disappointingly meager, whose political favors were always for sale, who always supported the military-industrial complex and the interests of multinational capital, and whose libido always overcame his judgment (though this last quality is, of course, rather endearing). But Clinton’s charm and charisma, his odd combination of narcissism and cynical calculation and genuine empathy and desire to help, are such that none of this matters. The book allows Clinton to seduce us all over again, all the more so in that we really should know better by now.

Detroit

Tuesday, July 20th, 2004

I haven’t been writing much in this blog lately, because I am in the middle of a move from Seattle to Detroit, and I don’t have most of my stuff, and it will be a while before I get net access in my new home.
Detroit couldn’t be more different from Seattle. For one thing, there are all the black people here, in sharp contrast to Seattle, which is overwhelmingly white with a smattering of Asians.
For another thing, the gap between rich and poor, which is largely dissimulated in the Pacific Northwest, is glaringly evident here. Seattle has its homeless people, and (in surrounding areas) its poor neighborhoods (both working poor and desperately-no-prospects poor, people of all races) but for the most part these poor people are out of the way, and hence out of the view of your typical white middle-class liberal Seattleite. Whereas in Detroit, the poverty is evident, in plain view: blocks and blocks of devastation, masses of people on whom the government and mainstream society have turned their backs, and left to sink or swim on their own resources.
It’s quite grotesque, actually, the way the central city is devoid of resources, compared to the lily-white suburbs that have all the sorts of places I take for granted (Starbucks, Borders, etc) as well as the ones I turn up my nose at (Nordstrom and Nieman Marcus and Pottery Barn and “Pan-Asian” bistros).
I did go to a nouvelle cuisine sushi bar in downtown Detroit the other night, with hip all-black decor and an almost exclusively white clientele, but such places are few and far between, and seem almost hidden. There’s lots of construction in downtown Detroit these days, amidst the abandoned buildings, in preparation for the Super Bowl in January 2006, but they have no commercial prospects, really, and once the Super Bowl is over and has departed, they will quietly stay empty and go into bankruptcy: the builders will have pocketed their profits (including tax-abatement bonuses) and moved on elsewhere, too bad for those who are left holding the bill. The lives of the vast majority of impoverished Detroiters will not have been affected by these developments at all.
There’s been some effort to declare Detroit as a new center of hipness, the way Seattle was a decade ago. But it’s bullshit. Good lattes in Detroit are few and far between, and the White Stripes are certainly not Nirvana. The hookers in Seattle are kept out of the way, on ugly, distant parts of Aurora Avenue North and on the SeaTac strip. In Detroit, they ply their wares on the main avenues, on Woodward and on Michigan for instance.
What this means for me, as an old, white Seattle hipster (a designation I cannot escape, however much I despise it, and despise myself for conforming so fully and so easily to a stupid stereotype), is that the life of Detroit is something that is now utterly invisible to me, outside of my categories and expectations. It’s something that I am simply unable to see, it is so contrary to all my habits and comforts. I will have to search it out, slowly and patiently and with much difficulty — that is, if I am able to make contact with it at all. I have to accept the unpleasant possibility that I just may be too old and too inflexible and too narrow, too ensconced in my own comforts, too solitary, too bourgeois and too pleased with myself for the ways in which I am not bourgeois, to be able to see clearly (let alone interact with) what lies all about me. The only thing in my favor is that at least I know that I don’t know anything about Detroit.

Warren Ellis miscellany

Saturday, July 10th, 2004

I’ve caught up recently with a bunch of Warren Ellis “graphic novellas.” (Or, less pretentiously: comics). These are all short, compressed narratives: a complete story in 72 or 96 pages. Each one packs a punch and explores just one mind-blowing idea. Comics like these deliver entertainment + technophilosophy in a package that Hollywood (due to its high budgets and consequent need to play it safe so as to attract the largest possible audience) can’t match.

  • Dark Blue, drawn by Jacen Burrows, is a horror/crime story with a VR setting. The main character’s psychotic world, in which he is a vengeful and violent cop, turns out to be a collective hallucination generated by a DMT-like drug. A virtual place “is encoded within the drug itself.” The drug shapes consciousness, even as consciousness shapes the drug. But strange and gruesome things start happening when consciousness at the point of death is caught within the drug’s feedback loop. A terrific, and terrifying, anti-utopian nightmare. If anything is possible in virtual reality, or in heightened psychedelic consciousness, then we’d better watch out for the worst.
  • Red/Tokyo Storm Warning. Two stories back to back in a single volume, like those old SF and crime cheap paperbacks.
    Red, drawn by Cully Hammer, is about the stupidity of the CIA, and the last dignified stand of a retired hit man. It could also be read as a premonitory fable about the current Iraq morass. You can always develop more destructive weapons, but watch out or they will blow up in your face: you are never really in control of them. Here the weapon is a human one, a highly skilled and ultra-powerful killer; so we get to feel the emotions of the “weapon of mass destruction” itself. We empathize with the killer, whose very real anguish contrasts with the lack of remorse or humanity on the part of the powerful people who set him into motion.
    Tokyo Storm Warning, drawn by James Raiz, is all about cool monsters and robots in an alternative Tokyo. We know that Godzilla was invented in response to the trauma of the atomic weapons dropped on Japan. But Ellis literalizes this idea, bringing us to the very heart of one of the twentieth century’s great traumas. Childlike fantasy confronts the unimaginable horror of total annihilation, with strange results. Can there be poetry after Auschwitz? Can there be comics after Hiroshima?
  • Orbiter, drawn by Coleen Duran, is in contrast deliciously light and upbeat. The romance of space travel, the mystery of First Contact. The aliens don’t want to take us over or anything. They simply want to meet us, and hang out with us; if only we could get over our panic aversion. We can’t really understand them — or vice versa — but that only adds spice to the encounter. The unknown is neither a threat of annihilation, nor a transcendent resolution of our problems, but rather a transversal dimension to explore. If we are children in the cosmos, the aliens are not benevolent parents (as they are in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and in 2001), but kids like ourselves, who just “want us to come out and play.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: comics writers like Ellis, and Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore, are really thinking about our culture, and our future, in ways that mainstream novelists and academics and critics cannot match. I get far more from them than I do from “serious” writers like Martin Amis and Richard Powers and Don DeLillo, good as the latter sometimes are. Comics are an oddly marginalized form, even in “popular” or “low” culture (think about how few people actually buy and read Spiderman comics, compared to how many go too see the movie version). But comics, with their low budgets, their innovative mixtures of text and vision, and their unabashed genre thrills and chills, are thrashing out the metaphysics of the twenty-first century.

Flyboy Action Figure Come With Gasmask

Friday, July 9th, 2004

Flyboy Action Figure Come With Gasmask is Jim Munroe‘s first novel. Although I didn’t like it quite as much as Munroe’s subsequent novels Angry Young Spaceman and the brilliantEveryone In Silico, it’s still a pretty good read.
Flyboy is set among a group of 20-something not-quite-slackers (well, they are too counterculturally committed to just be slackers; they range from artists to political activists) in contemporary Toronto. Ryan, the narrator, a sensitive and somewhat socially awkward dude, has the power to turn himself into a fly (and back again). His girlfriend Cassandra, an ex-riot-grrl-punk-rocker single mom, is able to make objects disappear. (These occult powers are never explained; the protagonists don’t know why they have such special abilities, they simply find they have them, and figure out how to use them). Ryan and Cassandra decide to become “Superheroes for Social Justice,” using their powers to fight against sexism, rapacious corporations, and government oppression. The book alternates between humorous satire, naturalistic depiction of countercultural mores, coming-of-age anguish, and right-on action narrative (among other things). This mix of genres is what gives the book its charm; it’s low-key, modest, and unassuming, but it keeps on coming out with memorable scenes and passages you don’t expect.
My favorite passage is the one where the narrator turns into a bee (instead of a fly), and escapes human anguish for a while (but only a while) by getting absorbed into the calm rhythms of working for the hive. Munroe manages to endow such surreal flights as this one with the same matter-of-factness with which he describes the narrator and his housemates teasing one another with dumb, frat-boy insult humor.
Munroe is also politically committed without being pious, something I value quite highly.
Jim Munroe self-publishes all his fiction, and offers some of it (including Flyboy) for free download on his website as well. He’s managed to get widely read and noticed, without having recourse to the usual corporate channels: which is an ethical and political decision and stance on his part. He supports other writers and artists as well, through networking, organizing reading tours, and putting out CD-ROMs.
Risking oxymoron, I’m inclined to call Munroe a pragmatic utopian. He’s an idealist, who does his best to avoid the compromises that most of us find ourselves making time and time again; but rather than high-mindedly preaching his ideals, he finds ways to actually make them work.

Fahrenheit 9/11

Wednesday, July 7th, 2004

I’ve finally gotten to see Fahrenheit 9/11. Michael Moore has said he has no problems with anyone downloading his film for free — and so I did.
I got my copy via BitTorrent; the file you need to open in a BitTorrent client in order to get started is this. (I don’t know how long this url will be good, but if it isn’t, you can easily locate a copy elsewhere via Google, or Suprnova). The quality of this copy of the film is not great — it was made by somebody videotaping it off the movie screen — and 8 minutes are apparently missing, a segment about the Patriot Act, but it’s good enough to get the general idea of what Moore is doing.
The film is now also available for download directly in various formats from archive.org (link via BoingBoing) — I don’t know if this is the same copy I viewed, or if it is better.
In any case: It strikes me that all the people who are arguing about whether Moore’s arguments hold water, or if they are flawed in some way, are simply on the wrong track. Fahrenheit 9/11 isn’t a film-essay, or political commentary via film, in the manner of Jean-Luc Godard or Chris Marker. It’s a piece of rabble-rousing agitprop. I mean this descriptively, not pejoratively. Moore is making an emotional or affective film, not an intellectual one. There’s room in the world for both. In terms of actually having a political effect, an affective film is arguably more valuable than an intellectual one.
(Think of everything Noam Chomsky has written post-9/11: usually he is right on an intellectual level, but his essays are totally off the mark affectively. Chomsky remains so unable to comprehend why so many people, myself included, were freaked out and terrified and crushed and upset by 9/11, regardless of our disapproval of the frequently vile foreign policy of the US government — Chomsky remains so incapable of grasping this, that his writings are utterly worthless for all of their intellectual insight, and accuracy as to what the US has actually done to the rest of the world. Moore, in contrast to Chomsky, understands how people feel, and shares these feelings).
So: Moore’s film is about feelings, not about analysis. And to this extent, F9/11 is pretty successful. Trying to convey artistically just how loathsome George W. Bush actually is, and how harmful and destructive his administration’s policies have been, is a thoroughly worthy endeavor. And Moore succeeds to a considerable extent in doing this (though I am inclined to agree with my mother that, if anything, the film understates just how awful and despicable Bush actually is). And to the extent that the film sets the record straight, by refuting some of the Big Lies that Bush and his administration have systematically deployed over the last three and a half years, it is doing an important civic service.
So it’s in F9/11‘s own terms, as an affective staging rather than a critical analysis, that I see both the film’s successes and its failings. The successes have to do with Moore’s ample demonstration of Bush’s callousness, and his fundamental upper-class agenda. And especially with the segment where Moore shows us Marine recruiters in action, and thus drives home the way in which the new volunteer armed forces are largely a miliatry of the poor, driven into the Service because they can’t find any other sort of decent job. And shows how Bush et al are betraying these young men and women, by having them risk life and limb for no good reason beyond power lust and greed. A Marxist analysis would no doubt back up all that Moore is saying here, but he isn’t pretending to make such an analysis; he is showing effects rather than causes, and he is leading us to feel the affects of these effects.
The weaknesses of the film, however, are also located in this affective register. The film is pretty xenophobic for one thing: not just America-centered (which is fine, since that is simply how the film is addressed, and where its hoped-for political effect is located), but perilously admitting, and making positive use of, the idea that people from other parts of the world are sort of “funny” and not really like “us.”
There’s also a kind of “personalization” that I found both irritating and lame. Moore spends far too much time trying to trace personal links between the Bush family on the one hand, and the Saudi royal family and the Bin Laden family on the other. What this does is to mystify power relations, by turning the everyday functioning of capital into an arcane conspiracy of family connections and nepotism. Presumably Moore does this, at least in part, because personal graft and corruption are easier to envision than are, for instance, the very abstract workings of international monetary flows. But in a very real sense it trivializes what has been going on. It’s not that Dubya’s policies don’t help make his Dad even more millions than he had already; but to turn this into his central motivation is to ignore such things as the workings of class (Marx always emphasized that it was not a matter of capitalists being individually bad people, but of the consequences of a full-fledged social and economic order of things), and the fundamental ideological investments of the neoconservatives on one hand, and the Christian fundamentalists with whom Bush is allied on the other. It’s not because a few Saudis sit on the Carlyle Group’s Board of Directors that the Bush administration is trying to convert the United States into a one-party theocratic police state, with wealth redistributed to the wealthiest 5% of the population from everyone else; and it’s not just in pursuit of Halliburton profits that the Bush administration has allowed its delusive fantasies of world domination to drag us into a quagmire of escalating misery and mortal danger, and to recruit more fanatical cadres for Al Qaeda than Bin Laden himself ever could have done.
These limitations are serious ones, precisely because the issues in question need to be injected into popular consciousness and public debate, rather than just being left for discussion in narrow academic and blogging circles (such as the ones that I inhabit). Moore ends up being not much more than the left’s answer to Rush Limbaugh; and though we certainly need one — and though it is good that the left has gotten at least some foothold in documentary film, given how completely the right dominates talk radio and cable news — it’s not enough.

Playlist

Tuesday, July 6th, 2004

I haven’t posted anything about music in way too long, so here’s an annotated playlist of songs in heavy rotation on my iPod. Most of these are things I would never have heard of, let alone heard and obtained, if it weren’t for the numerous music blogs currently available. It’s not as easy to find out-of-the-way things on today’s P2P networks as it was in the time of Napster and AudioGalaxy… but I am hearing a far wider range of things now than I was able to then.

  1. Kelis, Trick Me (Basement Jaxx remix). This sounds more like Basement Jaxx’s last album Kish Kash than it does like Kelis’ other songs. Irresistibly catchy, and at the same time wonderfully headstrong.
  2. M.I.A, Galang. So far, my favorite song of 2004. Equal parts grime and Timbalandesque beats and late-70s girl-punk. Clang clang clang. Infectious, ridiculous, ferocious all at once. M.I.A. is a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee in London, under 20 I think. The other songs of hers I’ve heard (“Sun Shower” and “Fire Fire”) are also great.
  3. Shystie, One Wish. Grrl grime, not quite as mindblowingly original as M.I.A., but powerful, aggressive, angry, take-no-shit feminist assertiveness rapping.
  4. Mya, Fallen (Zone remix, featuring Chingy). OK, this one ain’t exactly feminist self-assertion, but the swoony romanticism of the original version (with a creepy stalker edge in the video) is transfigured by the remix into a propulsive beat utopia.
  5. United States of Electronica, La Discoteca. Good mindless fun.
  6. Girl Talk, Bodies Hit the Floor. Screaming, glitchy mash-up that’s both violent and playful, and whose samples include what seems to be an Alvin and the Chipmunks version of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River.”
  7. LBR, Monda’s Beat. Another mash-up appropriating Mr. Timberlake, this time for what sounds like a robots’ dance orgy.
  8. Sia, Breathe (Four Tet remix). A gorgeous cry of despair, pain, vulnerability, and living on.
  9. Pixies, Bam Thwok. Their new reunion single is just a throwaway, but I love those slashing, buzzing guitars and Kim Deal embracing the universe.
  10. Kleenex/LiliPUT, Split. The only “oldie” on this list, but it still sounds utterly fresh. Late 70s girl-punk assertiveness, totally ecstatic, with pounding guitars, wailing saxophone, and gleeful call-and-response vocals mostly consisting of screamed-out words beginning with the letter “H” (hopscotch, harakiri, hugger-mugger…). (I’ve been meaning to get the 2CD set of this band’s complete works, reiussed on Kill Rock Stars, but I am pissed off that downloading it on iTunes is more expensive than buying the hardcopy on Amazon).
  11. Electrelane, I’m On Fire. Beautiful, atmospheric, but also pulsing and fast, cover of the Springsteen song by a band (with woman singer) that sounds a bit like Stereolab and a bit like the aforementioned late-70s girl-punk bands
  12. Rekha, Good To Go. Sexy, bouncy dancehall number , but from the woman’s point of view. Rekha, like Missy Elliott, wants to be the one in charge, wants her sugar, and won’t stand for a one-minute man; and she moves fluidly between come-on and mockery as she states her case.
  13. Ce’Cile, Hot Like We. More women’s dancehall, raunchier than Rekha. Ce’cile is so high-energy I can’t imagine her finding a man who could keep up with her.
  14. Nina Sky, Move Ya Body. A big hit on “urban” radio, I am told, though in Seattle I’d have no way of knowing. Fortunately I’m moving to Detroit in a week. Infectious New York (Puerto Rican via Queens) take on dancehall. And you don’t stop…
  15. Jadakiss, Why (featuring Anthony Hamilton). Jadakiss transcends his own thug cliches, and gets both political and metaphysical, which is a great thing. The song still has some of the same old stupid boasting and sexist posturing, but it also addresses racism and rigged elections and the American gulag and existential emptiness and mortality. “Why they let the Terminator win the election? C’mon, pay attention.”
  16. Ghostface, Sun. Love and praise for the glory of the star whose expenditure without return is the source of all life and energy on Earth.
  17. Shing02, Suck On My Dub. Japanese rap. I have no idea what the words mean, but the rap sounds ferocious and it is accompanied by a heavy beat with insane surf guitars (???).