Monday, June 30, 2008

The Man Without Qualities: The Movie!


Groucho Marx as Ulrich!
Margaret Dumont as.... Diotima!

Maybe Groucho's a bit of stretch, but for all the many times she's described as a great beauty (a large, tall, plump beauty, we should note) I cannot erase from my mind, in every scene where she appears, Margarete Dumont as the perfect incarnation of Diotima.

Is Bonadea meant to sound like a French pun? What does one call the invention of a nymphomaniac who won't leave your protagonist alone... if not a good idea!

Something about Musil's humor--so broad and generous, with this wonderfully restrained, yet almost Vaudevillian undercurrent. Maybe Groucho isn't such a stretch...

... only with humor, do we rise to the truly sublime.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Politics, Literature, Critical Theory

Here are the opening paragraphs of a long and welcome exploration of the relationship between (a simplification to be sure) politics and critical theory, in the form of a review and analysis of Sean McCann and Michael Szalay’s essay “Do You Believe in Magic?“

Sunday, June 29, 2008
'The Shape of Things To Come: On ‘Literary Thinking and the New Left’

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 06/29/08 at 03:28 PM
on The Valve

X-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes

What follows may appear to be a discussion of the 1960s in America; it is not. Reading through Sean McCann and Michael Szalay’s indispensable essay “Do You Believe in Magic?“, cited and quoted by Scott Kaufman here and here (with follow-up in the comments by Sean), it is clear that more than the Sixties, McCann and Szalay are out to expose “a cherished and ultimately comforting folklore” that still commands respect today: the idea that “the analysis of [symbolic or cultural] forms itself constitutes significant political action, or that the ability to affect culture is, independent of other means, also therefore politically efficacious,” and that “to provide, as [C. Wright] Mills put it, ‘alternative definitions of reality’ could itself be the most radically political of acts.” McCann and Szalay identify this idea with almost the entire canon of postmodern thought, from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault to Jean-Francois Lyotard and Susan Sontag.

McCann and Szalay’s essay splits down the middle. On the one hand, it is a legitimate attack on currents of fuzzy thinking and complacent libertarianism within the New Left and academia. On the other, it is part of a contemporary movement that seeks to deride what the Sixties accomplished, which was reviving society-wide conversation about the relationship of politics to the rest of life.

For my own part, this is the right occasion to explain what I believe “the analysis of symbolic or cultural forms” can accomplish, including through the academic work of scholars and teachers of literature. I hope it will become clear how I understand the political implications of what McCann and Szalay call “self-realization”—deliberately (and justly) echoing the wretched tide of self-help manuals—but which one might also call “self-fashioning.” I also hope to clarify the charges of defeatism that I leveled in my post “Look Back In Anger,” and to explore what alternatives exist: the shape of things to come.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Poetry in Wood

Craftsmanship to inspire any worthy cook: handcrafted cutting boards--beautiful work.

If you haven't seen this on Pas Au-Delà, click

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Right Brain Left Brain, Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight

Thoughts on Jill Bolte Taylor's My Stroke of Insight

But what about animals...

Who has done brain scans of animals in different moods? Which hemisphere rules when the cat is hunting? When he lies at rest in a pool of sunlight? When she carries her kittens to safety by the scruff of the neck?

Right brain would be
a Zen monk,
Francis--conversing with the birds

Left--a fearsome Jesuit, yeshiva bocher parsing
pil-pul, Sean Carroll in another

Right brain
sips tea
levitates, tastes
the coming storm and smiles.

Left brain wants to know
the Right to be

Left asks, Where?
we came from, what we are--

Right drifts left
Left drifts right... gathering

memories, resentments, enemies
like zebra muscles on a sunken hull

Jacob Russell, 6/24, 2008

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Workspace, Suburbia and Establishment Literary Fiction

I read on Nigel Beale's Note Bene HERE that Bud Parr has dedicated a Flicker group for photos of writer's workspaces.

... It seems I'm still Flicker-challenged. Couldn't figure out how to upload a photo to the right collection. Until I get this right, here's my desk--two moves ago. Still South Philly.

Doesn't look a lot different now, 'cept I have a new LCD monitor and twice as much space. This was a single room in a shared house, not much more than 10x12 feet. I slept on a blanket roll. No room for a bed. Submarine efficiency required. Now I have an Army cot!

The desk was on sale: $13. Holding up pretty well.

My Sheng Fooey Literary Idea: Maximum in the minimum. Pack it in. And so do I like to live. I have few "things" ... other than books. Let them surround me, as much as possible, within reach of the desk where I work.

Like my neighborhood. Can walk everywhere I have need. If you need a car for what you need to live: by my definition: uncivilized. We live surrounded by Mechanical Barbarians, despoiling the countryside, which is better left to fallow space and raising food. Cities are for people.

The modern American suburb, with its lawns--erasure of natural environment, of sense of place, its covert apartheid politics, its fascistic minute-by-minute control of childhood (which, like the American Christmas: a denial of the reality of childhood ... suburbia--the better part of what has gone wrong in the world, and for sure in the USA, can be traced to the cumulative decisions that have led to the creation of the modern American suburb.

You think this has nothing to do with literature? What is ELF? but a soothing drug of choice for suburban middlebrow America? ...
that is, for the few who still have managed to free themselves a few hours a day from indentured servitude.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Poetry: Short Notice, Joseph Lease, Broken World

Silliman's recommendations don't always appeal to me, but from the excerpts on Silliman's Blog, Joseph Lease's Broken World is a book of poetry I plan to buy and read.

Monday, June 16, 2008

What Do Scientists Want (from art)?

From my favorite science blog, Sean Carroll on Hidden Structures. Almost touchingly naive... but gets to the heart of how we talk about judgement in art and literature, what it's possible to say, and what it's not--is there hope of finding a common language?

When it comes to art (considered broadly, so as to include literature and various kinds of performance, not to mention a good bottle of wine) I am a radical subjectivist. If you like it, great; if you don’t, that’s your prerogative. There is no such thing as being “right” or “wrong” in one’s opinion about a work of art; what’s important is the relationship between the work and the person experiencing it.

Nevertheless, there’s no question that one’s attitude toward a work of art can be radically changed by outside information or experiences. You might come to understand it better, or conversely you might be overexposed to it and just get bored.

Scientists, in particular, love it when they discover that some boring old art thing that they had previously perceived as undifferentiated and uninteresting actually possesses some hidden structure. If you were ever caught in the unfortunate situation of teaching an art- or film-appreciation class to scientists, the right strategy would be to reveal, insofar as possible, the underlying theories by which the work in question is constructed. And if you think there are no such theories, you’re just not looking hard enough.

Read the rest

New Ideas on Literary Readings and Networking

Also linked on Chekhov's Mistress, Bryan Miltenberg offers some thoughts on finding new venues for readings and literary networking on The Millions.

Leaving the Bedside: Creating a DIY Literary Scene
Bryan Miltenberg is 22 and he lives in Brooklyn.

On occasional Friday and Saturday nights, my otherwise highly domestic living space (couches, TV, dining room table) is transformed, with the help of roommates and friends, into an impromptu artspace/music hall. For anywhere between five and zero dollars, anyone can come in and enjoy the show. And as with any regular apartment gathering, there are no age restrictions, and attendees are free to bring their own preferred methods of bacchanalia.

Read the rest HERE

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Thursday, June 12, 2008

On Being Born... goodbye, Zeke

I'm taking care of my son's dog for a few days while he's on some island off New England. I've known this dog almost since he was a pup.

Almost 17 years old. Aged well up to about a year and half ago... so sad. Arthritic, haunches and ribs bone thin. This is hard for me. I have to ask myself--why? This is a dog. This is not one of my species. An animal. I eat other animals... though not that often.

Two thoughts come to mind. The first: how emotions don't have neat borders. It isn't just this's all the other losses in my life--an aunt I was very close to, withered away for 17 years from MS, my parents... thoughts of what will become of me--all these experiences channeled, concentrated. Then there's the purity of the emotional bond with a domestic animal. Human relationships are so goddamned complicated--to preserve them you have to keep a lid on the emotions to a certain degree--just because you almost never know what it is those feelings are actually about--and when they're the strongest, it's almost always about something else!

With Zeke, I mostly do understand--to see his Joie du Chien burnt down to a barely discernible ember--holding that against a memory of a few years back, a greeting at the door, the tail going and the barks and the doggy kisses... he doesn't bark anymore. I look at him and want to burst into tears. Foolishly, I know.. but it just wrings my gut. I loved this dog--like a dog. Well disciplined and cared for. Not a Disneyfied anthropomorphic projection.

Just for what he was.

A dog.

And there it is. So uncomplicated compared to my human relationships...

All this, a lead on to a post on being born by Richard Crary--channeling Lloyd Mintern.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Real Work Is Play... the rest is labor...

From The Psychoanalytic Field. This is part of a series on work and play--a post too good not to quote in full. I take this as another opportunity to call for a new reading of Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition.

The method of free association was Freud’s response to one of the most challenging tasks with which psychoanalysis has had to grapple over its history: the elaboration of a system of contact, traversal, and translation between the primary and secondary processes as two ways of thinking, and hence as two ways of being, that are radically alien to one another.
In their elaborations of the unconscious, Lacanism and Ego Psychology seem to stand on the opposite ends of a conceptual scale that pits the ineluctable foreignness of the symbolic against the domesticity of development. One recognizes the effects of such theorizing in the tone of the texts as well: from the turgidly undecipherable to the rigidly banal. What a shame it is to have reduced the workings of the unconscious to the structures of language or the chronologies of development, and to have colonized the former with the disciplines and strategies of either of the latter.
While relying heavily on Klein’s notion of unconscious “phantasy,” Winnicott articulates the fact of an in-between that facilitates and organizes the passages between subjective and objective, self and other. Neither a hallucination nor a concretization, the “transitional” object is the site of infantile illusion and, by extension, adult creativity. It is neither simply given nor autocratically created; it is a found object in the sense that, while belonging to an external reality, it is invested with the qualities that suit the momentary psychodynamic purposes of the individual that “finds” it. It becomes “transitional” at the very moment of its finding.
Of all the principal figures in the psychoanalytic pantheon, and in spite of the ideological restrictions of his parental metaphors, Winnicott is perhaps one of the most faithful of Freudians. Rather than upon the uncovering of history, the enunciation of truth, the resolution of conflict, or the mastery over anxiety, it is upon the capacity to “find” and re-deploy creatively one’s own objects, in other words to play, that Winnicott bases his principal mark of health. Instead of merely a tool for analytic inquiry, the capacity to associate freely has now been clearly identified as the goal of that inquiry and, ultimately, as a necessary strategy for “healthy” living. (I think there is a bridge here between Winnicottian play and Deleuzo-Guattarian bricolage.)
This makes a lot of sense to me. And yet, rare indeed are those that undertake an analysis because they want to “play.”

My year or so in therapy was brought on by a crisis, and though I wouldn't have stated it that way, there was never any question but that what marked the end of my need, was a restoration of my capacity for play... something my therapist fully recognized.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Anti-Golden Mean

More from Musil:

This one, as the Quakers say... speaks to my condition:

Psychiatry calls great elation "a hypomanic disturbance," which is like calling it a hilarious distress, and regards all heightened states, whether of chastity or sensuality, scrupulosity or carelessness, cruelty or compassion, as pathologically suspect--how little would a healthy life mean if its only goal were a middle condition between two extremes! How drab it would be if its ideal were really no more than the denial of the exaggeration of its ideals!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Heated thoughts: Musil, weather historical ... whatever...

Being somewhat enervated by the heat (I have an intense dislike of air conditioning: after a winter of being sealed up I want my windows open to the sounds of the birds, the hiss of tires on the street, sirens, the tink-de-diddle ee dum dee-dee of the Mr. Softee truck, passing drunks... the works. It strikes me as a kind of crime against the season to pull the windows shut, draw the blinds to keep out the sun... and then there's the drone, which, unlike the soft hum of my box fan, doesn't mask my tinnitus but seems rather to amplify it) ... where was I going with this?

Ah yes..

... an excuse for not reporting on my reading of The Man Without Qualities. There's hardly a page I couldn't find something to quote. My copy has sprouted dozens of red and blue sticky markers. I'm impressed by how timely, or should I say, timeless, Musil's observations. Joyce's language in Ulysses breaks new ground, but the people and social conventions belong to an another era. Musil has found something in pre-WWI Austria so central, something so much at the generative core of the modern mindset that the particular features of the Austrio-Hungarian bureaucracy and class structures in this book feel anachronistic--as though this were really a book written in and about, not the early 20th, but the the early 21st Century, but--for some inexplicable reason written like one of those "historical novels" at some arbitrarily chosen date in the past.

I've only read 300 or so pages, so am far from being able to grasp the whole of this never-completed novel... but realizing, page by page--as it began to come to me in my attempt to "review" New Yorker short stories--that I am not, and never will be, a "reviewer." Those books and stories and poems my thoughts turn to, and turn... like a plow in fertile soil, over and over, and return to, over and over--are never the books or stories or poems I've most recently read, but those that come back to me on their own. Why I prefer to buy books, rather than borrow from the library.

There will be times, late at night, I'll remember--vaguely--a passage, an episode--in a book I read a year or two or three ago. I turn on the light. I take the volume from the shelf... and the whole book will come back to me. If I were to write reviews--it would have to be like that, books I'd read years before--long after the "market" had pulled up it's shutters.

This is not to say that I don't know what's good when I see it. Not ten pages into Svevo's Zeno's Consciousness, I knew this was a book that would alter my mind, change my sense of what I liked and what I wanted next to read--forever. But I couldn't have explained it then... couldn't have explained why.

A trivial quote--but to make a point: how timeless--not in the usual idealist mode--but timeless: in as, how little we have changed since then, and timeless, in how a relentlessly subversive attention (Simone Weil's sense of what that word implies (Attente de Dieu) to our surroundings can mean.
The thesis that the huge quantities of soap sold testify to our great cleanliness need not apply to the moral life, where the more recent principle seems more accureate, that a strong compulsion to wash suggests a dubious state of inner hygiene.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Lost in the Wilderness: II. Realist Fiction etc

MAITRESSE wrote in a comment to Lost in the Wilderness :
"If you set out to tell a story you quickly find that you cannot go just anywhere."

But that's the art of it-- finding freedom in the constraints, keeping the imagination wide open even as the words multiply on the page.

... I was thinking of something else, really--not the matter of defining limits, the aesthetics of form. Rather, something closer to the grammar of narrative, if you will. If you write 'which' or 'how' or 'when' at the beginning of a sentence, those words won't be relative pronouns. They'll be interrogative pronouns, and the sentence that follows will be a question. If you begin a story with a certain tone, style, voice, the narrative that unfolds will have to 'fit' that tone, style, voice. Changing it midstream will be jarring. If there is a dramatic change in the personality of a character, you will be expected to demonstrate cause. Nothing remarkable about this observation: pointing out the obvious--until you start to think about how this affects your subject--the subject that is more than words, more than language, the subject present before you began to write, that impelled you to begin to write. It's what you want the words to be true to--even if that 'something' is not a thing, but a process, a record of a conversation. If you're a "realist," you think in terms of representation, mimesis. You imagine you are guided by the laws that govern in the real world--but that's the joker in the deck: Reality is not made of rules and laws--certainly not as they function in a story; in fiction, these rules are simply conventions we use. Writer's of "realist' fiction follow them because that is what readers expect.
The moment you begin to write (and I think writing is different than speech... though we sometimes speak as though we were writing)... the moment you begin to write, conventional expectations threaten to take over, to high-jack the subject, the "real" subject (forgive me... I don't know what else to call it at this point). I think this is what makes endings so often problematic. The writer gives up--surrenders to the conventions, resigns authorial responsibility. This is related to what I was thinking about in my post on ads and propaganda.
I realize I'm babbling... these are the kind of thoughts that run through my mind when I go to bed, that keep me awake wondering what it is that's gone wrong this time in my novel, wonder how I'm going to rescue it from looming disaster.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Blog Connections: A reality check

Thursday night I saw a report on the news of a tornado in Kearney, Nebraska. A double grabber for me: tornadoes (see HERE ), and books... Kearney was the site of Richard Powers' The Echo Maker.

I average around 30-35 visits a day. Now and then, 50-60. Once--72. That night, I had more than 200 visits in the next two hours. Next day: 270.

Easy to be impressed by such numbers. How many people do you see or talk to in any given day? Over a relatively short span of time--visits from hundreds of cities spanning the globe. Aren't we special, we members of this virtual global community. How old fashioned the old publishing model...

But then, those old fashioned publishing houses, now and then, will sell a million books in the course of a year. That's 2,740 a day (rounded off). My 270 hits on a single day? If every one was a sale... not even 100,000.

The weblogs that get millions of visitors: politics (Daily Kos), or technical stuff... porn sites, collectively at least.

Literary blogs? Book blogs? Small fish...

Think about it...

Two Excerpts touching on the Aethetics of Process

March 17, 2008 by Claus Krogholm

Process Aesthetics, or, The Aesthetics of Process

Originally Posted on Circle4

At this summer’s seminar we would like to focus on process and the role of process within the field of aesthetics. Papers can be on the theory or theorization of process, methodological questions regarding process and aesthetics, or analytical approaches to works or objects with emphasis on process.
According to A.N. Whitehead, the world consists of events or happenings rather than solid permanent objects. Nothing comes into being once and for all. Objects can only persist insofar they renew or recreate themselves in an infinite process. “The community of actual things is an organism; but it is not a static organism. It is an incompletion in process of production. Thus the expansion of the universe in respect to actual things is the first meaning of ‘process’; and the universe in any stage of its expansion is the first meaning of ‘organism’. In this sense, an organism is a nexus.” (Process and Reality, p. 214-15). To Whitehead there is no ontological difference between physical objects and mental or subjective acts. There is no essential distinction between mind and matter, subject and object, human and non-human, living and non-living. All pertains to the same process. “Secondly, each actual entity is itself only describable as an organic process. It repeats in microcosm what the universe is in macrocosm.

For the rest: --> CFP: Process Aesthetics, or, The Aesthetics of Process - First draft

June 1, 2008

From Conscious Entities

Picture: Ouroboros. Knud Thomsen has put a draft paper (pdf) describing his ‘Ouroboros Model’ - an architecture for cognitive agents - online. It’s a resonant title at least - as you may know, Ouroboros is the ‘tail-eater’; the mythical or symbolic serpent which swallows its own tail, and in alchemy and elsewhere symbolises circularity and self-reference.
We should expect some deep and esoteric revelations, then; but in fact Thomsen’s model seems quite practical and unmystical. At its base are schemata, which are learnt patterns of neuron firing, but they are also evidently to be understood as embodying scripts or patterns of expectations. I take them to be somewhat similar to Roger Schank’s scripts, or Marvin Minsky’s frames. Thomsen gives the example of a lady in a fur coat; when such a person enters our mind, the relevant schema is triggered and suggests various other details - that the lady will have shoes (for that matter, indeed, that she will have feet). The schemata are flexible and can be combined to build up more complex structures.
In fact, although he doesn’t put it quite like this, Thomsen’s model assumes that each mind has in effect a single grand overall schema unrolling within it. As new schemas are triggered by sensory input, they are tested for compatibility with the others in the current grand structure through a process Thomsen calls consumption analysis. Thomsen sees this as a two-stage process - acquisition, evaluation, acquisition, evaluation. He seems to believe in an actual chronological cycle which starts and stops, but it seems to me more plausible to see the different phases as proceeding concurrently for different schemata in a multi-threaded kind of way. (Emphasis mine, what it feels like to me to write a novel. )
Read the rest HERE