Monday, August 31, 2009

On a treadmill

This blog is mired in a serious malaise, one that at times feels terminal. Though I don't have any desire to quit, lately I have been finding it extremely difficult to finish writing posts that I begin. Part of the problem, as ever, is my tendency to link too many ideas together, resulting in so much rambling, bad writing. Just when I think I've gotten the hang of it all, I invariably hit a snag, writing slows down, ideas dry up. Or they come to me, but on the train, in whole paragraphs, good ones I'd like to think, but who can write on the train? (The Marc commuter train is not the smoothest ride in the world, and my handwriting is poor enough as it is.) And if I wrote on the train, anyway, when would I read? (Never, by the way, is the answer to that one. I don't think my reading at home this calendar year has added up to more than a few hundred pages.)

One problem, I realize, is my reluctance to just put it out there. I persist in thinking that I should have read this or that before expressing an idea. When it comes to the actual writing itself, the germ of the idea gets buried, in fact unwritten, as I bog myself down in shaping the introductory remarks or the background. A bog that weighs me down, when what I desire, what I value, is lightness. (God, I looked at my numerous posts in draft status, and there's an earlier unfinished whinge about how I can't write... I'd naturally forgotten all about it.)

All this is to say that I have a lot that I've been wanting, and failing, to say here. Here are just a few topics I hope to get around to finishing posts on in the nearish future, though I make no promises:

  • J.M. Coetzee (on Diary of a Bad Year, naturally, while everyone else's moving onto Summertime...)

  • Flannery O'Connor and politics and literature

  • Evelyn Scott (again)

  • Art and Ontology

  • Chomsky, an appreciation, and more

  • Conservatism and relational political spectrums

  • Modernism and post-Modernism

  • a line or two about Gayl Jones' Corredigora (in connection with Modernism)

  • ideas about primitive accumulation and lost social orders

  • more on Blanchot, possibly finally getting into his ideas on communism

  • communism as the original human, cultural state (circling back on Art and Ontology, touching on Chris Knight and Heidegger and more)

  • the role of play in the former, as well as in art, and what that means for us, moving forward (combining, if possible, Knight and Josipovici, among others; in truth, this feels like my main unwritten book)
  • Friday, August 21, 2009

    We Are the Ones

    Big events are unfolding in real life (not bad news), so the blog has necessarily suffered (though in truth, I admit, it was suffering already). I hope to return to more semi-regular posting soon-ish, when I expect to complete some interesting posts in the works. I recall, too, that I'd intended to post a follow-up entry to my recent mid-year music review (I can only assume this is what I meant by including "part one" in the title), but even something as simple as that has eluded my powers of late. Maybe later.

    In the meantime, some political song lyrics! (Why not, right?)

    I once described music of the Coup (you may remember their 2001 album Party Music, the original cover art of which featured a shot of our rappers blowing up the World Trade Center) as "danceable, left-wing agit-rap". They are unapologetically political and groovy. Well, I've been listening to them a bit lately and thought I'd share the words to "We are the Ones", from Pick a Bigger Weapon:

    We - we are the ones
    We'll seal your fate, tear down your state, go get yo' guns
    We - we came to fight
    It's yo' disgrace, smash up your place, that's just polite
    (Check it out now)

    Once upon a time when crack was gold
    And hip-hop was not yet platinum sold
    I scoured the streets for stacks to fold
    My mood like my hair was relaxed and blowed
    I hated police and my teachers were beasts
    My heat in the trunk of the classic Caprice
    The one university, I knew was Yale
    So I cooked it, bagged it, put it on sale
    Now philosophically you'd be opposed
    to one inhaling coke via mouth or the nose
    But economically I would propose
    that you go eat a dick as employment had froze

    And I felt like an abandoned child
    Left to fend for myself in the wild
    While every courtroom, judge and gavel
    were there to bury me under the gravel
    Or at the bottom of the finest malt ale
    Observe; you'll find without fail
    That in every neighborhood and penitentiary
    There exists many others who are similar to me and

    We - we are the ones
    We'll seal your fate, tear down your state, go get yo' guns
    We - we came to fight
    It's yo' disgrace, smash up your place, that's just polite
    (Check it out now)

    In later years I lost some peers
    Who mixed burners with Belvedere
    And took shots from gung-ho cashiers
    The world was cold yet hell was near
    So I seek for a kilo
    And my stack got a little bit taller like Skee-Lo
    A street CEO
    There was all of this heroin and not one hero
    The intensity was fortified
    As I clenched five digits on the forty-five
    Barely down at the retail store I would detail more
    But I don't wish this action to be glorified
    There was a plan I was eager to listen
    To not sleep in the park in the fetal position
    Having to wipe off canine fecal emission
    Otherwise I'd survive without legal permission
    It's an equal division and then we go to prison, which is a little decision
    All I wanted was a Regal to glisten
    And my kids would have meat in the kitchen and complete ammunition
    It's a given once the people are driven that

    We - we are the ones
    We'll seal your fate, tear down your state, go get yo' guns
    We - we came to fight
    It's yo' disgrace, smash up your place, that's just polite
    (Check it out now)

    Get your work up! Get your work up!

    We are born from the mildew, the rust, the heathenous lust
    The dreams in the dust, the evidence flushed
    The grieving is just, they're thieving from us
    Insulted and cussed, this evening we bust
    Appears unstable and under the table
    We like free speech but we love free cable
    We're taught from the cradle the Bill Gates fable
    Which leads to high speeds in Buick LeSables
    We have no excuses just great alibis
    And poker faces you can't analyze
    Our politicians sell our soul and our cries
    With blood on their hands they can't sanitize
    We're the have-nots, but we're also the gon'-gets
    Not just talkin 'bout the Lex with the chrome kits
    You can get that by yourself with the four-fifth
    Let's all own shit then toast with Patron hits

    Update: Since this is the Internet and everything, it occurs to me I should include the actual song. Here goes:

    Friday, August 14, 2009

    Not so focused thoughts on politics and government. . .

    lenin is typically great on health care and the evil totalitarianism of the National Health Service in England. . . speaking of fears of such horrors, Dennis Perrin observes that "Over the last quarter, the number of clueless white Americans rose by thirty-seven percent." White people. What can you do with 'em? (Among the heartening take home messages of the public discourse surrounding the Gates Affair is how eagerly white people embrace the logic of the police state. Remind me again why I read comment threads?) In innocent moments, one is tempted to wonder where such widespread ignorance and stupidity comes from. It's not that there aren't legitimate criticisms of Obama's "plan" (Black Agenda Report offers a few here), but people are just bonkers. Socialism? Really? No, not really. As Tim Wise points out, the cry of "socialism!" is invariably coded racial language and always was. Not that we haven't seen plenty of non-coded racial language.

    Racially coded or not, though, there is a weird fear or distrust of government. Many white people have been conditioned to believe that government is this evil thing, as well as necessarily incompetent, bumbling, bureaucratic, and so on. Bitch Phd writes yesterday about the things government provides for us and the ways in which we personally benefit from all the government does. It's a useful reminder, or should be, for all those who so often forget. She includes a photo which identifies and labels various government-provided items or services shown; also, the picture is of an anti-taxes rally, and one woman is holding a sign that reads "Cut Taxes Not Defense". It's not clear where such people think the funds for "defense" comes from if not taxes. But that point leads into a couple of things about Bitch's post that struck me (aside from the very good point she is making with it). First, the list of items gives the impression that "government", in its benevolent wisdom, has simply provided these things, from on high. As if every one of the positive functions of government, outside of basic infrastructure, wasn't the result of pressure from below.

    This leads me to the next thing: how deeply militarized even her short list is. The very jumping off point for it is her observation that the Internet is not only a governmental creation, but that it came out of DARPA. She mentions her husband's various DoD-related jobs over the years and their VA-financed mortgages. I don't mean by highlighting these points to sound critical of her at all. My own job depends on there being a continual supply of disabled veterans, and I spent most of the first eight years of my life living on Naval bases. The point is that so many of us, regardless of our political outlook, work in situations that directly depend on massive spending on "defense". Our lives are intertwined with the military-industrial complex to an enormous extent, an extent to which most of us are generally unaware. Much of the technology we drool over came out of military research. Countless regional and local economies would all but collapse without the presence of the military. This is the process that has happened without the public's consent, which has warped the very fabric of society for decades without anyone seeming to notice. The ongoing threat to democracy, and obstacle to necessary change, should be obvious. Instead people are afraid of some mild liberal reforms of health care and, still, always it seems, black people.

    Monday, August 10, 2009

    Mirah at One Year

    I hope to get my act together soon and get some posts up, but in the meantime, we celebrated our daughter's first birthday yesterday. Happy Birthday, Mirah!

    Here are two recent pictures, one from last week, one from yesterday's party:

    Sunday, August 02, 2009

    Notes on Evelyn Scott's Migrations

    So, you ask, how's that whole Evelyn Scott project coming along? Not quite as smoothly as I'd hoped, but then whoever said literature was supposed to be smooth? I still have another Escapade-related post in the works, but in the meantime I've been looking into a couple of her novels.

    In the wake of my happy discovery of Scott and my fruitful reading of Escapade, I checked Migrations and The Wave out of the library with some excitement. Some of this excitement was dissipated upon opening the two volumes, both of which are historical novels of sorts and on first blush appear to be much more conventional than I'd hoped. But then they were both published, still, in the late 1920s, so what seems conventional now may not have been then. Migrations is the shorter of the two, by far, and is the earlier novel, so it was no contest which one I'd attempt to tackle first. In addition, Migrations is subtitled An Arabesque in Histories, which sounds much more interesting than narratives of the Civil War, the subtitle to The Wave. Having now read Migrations, I'm not entirely sure what to make of it, though I certainly enjoyed large portions of it.

    "Arabesque" is one of those words I've always avoided looking up, preferring instead to just let it remain suggestive in its strangeness. (I think I first encountered it used by a writer describing the music of the Throwing Muses: "Zep arabesques" he wrote; the phrase seemed to capture something elusive about the band's music, though I really didn't know precisely what he meant. But I digress.) I did finally look it up and, with all apologies to Andrew Seal, it means, when applied to the fine arts, "a sinuous, spiraling, undulating, or serpentine line or linear motif." Here I'd say it means a more or less free indirect prose and stream of consciousness narrative, in the multiple-character Mrs. Dalloway sense (assuming my memory of Mrs. Dalloway is remotely accurate). A species of "pyschological realism". Only occasionally does it appear as if the third-person descriptions of the external world are not also reflected in the direct experience of a character but belong to an outside observer, one who objectively knows, and, indeed, the one occasion when a new character's back story is extensively filled in by a narrator's voice, it feels gratuitous.

    The novel takes place in the 1850s and is divided into three chapters, each with several sub-divisions, with interrelated characters but no real plot or narrative arc uniting them other than the theme hinted at by the title. In chapters one and three, we're among slaveholders and slaves in Tennessee. Some of the slaveholders are ambivalent about owning slaves, though not usually for any discernible moral reasons; they all think they treat their slaves well. In both chapters, a slave runs away; in chapter three this leads to a confrontation between mob justice and a suspected abolitionist--who nevertheless owns slaves of his own--and his scandalously mixed-race ("quadroon") wife. Chapter two is considerably longer than the others and traces the journey to San Francisco (in the wake of the gold rush), by way of Jamaica and Panama, of a married couple who've left the town in Tennessee in search of better opportunities.

    The book is interesting as a depiction of aspects of life in the antebellum South, but I admit that my attention occasionally flagged the closer it veered to reading like a semi-objective historical narrative, however unresolved. The characters are much concerned with the nature of their own existence, and Scott invests her female characters especially with rich, complicated inner lives, bound up in questions of class, gender, and race. We are also treated to the slaves' thoughts and inner struggles. Beyond The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I have no direct experience with fiction from this time or earlier that deals with slavery and slaves, so I can't say anything about how "progressive" this may or may not have been, but I thought it was worth noting. And it appears that Evelyn Scott aspired to be as "realistic" as possible, so she attempted to render the speech of the slaves in dialect, as well as that of poor whites, or other characters not of the slaveholding class predominant in the book. The language and thoughts of that class is, perhaps inevitably, the more or less standard English of the main, free indirect narration. I get the sense, in some of what I've read about her, that in many ways Scott positioned herself as a writer in opposition to the Southern Agrarian critics of her day (by the way, there is a connection here with the New Critics, such as Cleanth Brooks; more on this in another post, I hope), and thus, I gather, wished to break down the romantic Old South narrative dominant in her youth. I have little doubt, then, that she thought of herself as in sympathy with the former slaves, as well as with Native Americans. Nevertheless, some of this speech is difficult to read, as such rendered speech often is, regardless of the author's best intentions. Also, I probably don't need to tell you that the characters make liberal use of the word "nigger" (or, in the slaves' case, "niggah").

    Of course this isn't any kind of review, and obviously there is a lot that could be said about any one of these issues, which I'm not going to delve into here. However, before closing I do want to leave you with some sense of the writing. This is towards the end of chapter one, Captain George is dying, and his wife Miss Sara has rung the bell for help, but everyone is out looking for Silas, the runaway slave (italics in original):
    But the lane to the Quarters continued to open an abandoned perspective. Uncle Blossom did not move. Miss Sara was conscious of her ineffectualness, could almost see herself, her thin face under her crushed cap, her diminutive body, her wide sedate lady's petticoats, and her arms upreaching. Why had she not been born a man. Why had the men been sent away on other missions when the Captain was sinking and in a state like this. They should have come to her for their orders. What did anything matter but this--this last struggle against the--but was it inevitable. Her wrists slackened exhaustedly, and she half reclined herself against the long deal table upon which, in the morning, her precious bowls of milk were set out evenly for her to skim the cream from them.

    No one had heard her. Staring across the stripped stubble of the brownish tobacco fields, she began to weep silently, her mouth, penciled in its fine lines of age and pain, quivering, her bleared gaze reproaching the distances. Thomas and Edwin do not know. They can not know. A long life--all over--and what for. But there was no need for the 'what-for.' Living-being-alive--was sufficient. We require no explanation of it. In God we trust. A long life. Ah, how she hoped yet to live a long time.
    And this is from towards the end of the book. Bosh has also run away, but he hasn't made it very far. He's made it to the Gilbert property, where his mother is a slave and he basically gives up; she has hidden him away, tried and failed to get him to leave in advance of the inevitable mob justice (the mob is after him not only because he's escaped, but because he "attacked" a white women--really, he scared her; he was hungry and trying to get some food):
    "Dey's free whut the law sets free," she answered acidly. She was shaking as with palsy, and felt herself in danger of another nervous seizure such as she had experienced in the afternoon. In her flat ponderous countenance, her small eyes sparkled with that constant glitter of anger, aroused from the first instant in which Bosh had thrown insoluble responsibility upon her. She began to set the room to rights, rearranging her small belongings so that they might appear orderly. Some rush baskets and similar odds-and-ends, she stacked in a nook by the chimney, leaving, between the baskets and the wall, a space in which Bosh could, if necessary, secrete himself. The single unbleached sheet on the bed was smoothed out nearly, but she removed her fine quilt of many-colored patchwork and held it in readiness. Surely, as she listened, the tramp of strange men drew nearer.

    [...] Ready to expire, she gave up her efforts to shift the bed. It was too late now, truly. Footsteps were indeed audible, and some, as yet, indistinguishable cries. "Snuff dat candle, Bosh," she whispered, but, anticipating his uselessness, did not wait on him. Rushing forward, she laid her broad palm upon the wick. The candle guttered, went out redolently, and, from beneath the door, sagging above an uneven sill, the flat moonlight gushed suddenly, in faint blue traceries. Save for the vivid relief of a spot on the floor just before the door, the room was pitch-black. Mammy Mary, her fists clenched and shaking, sank on her knees, half suppliant, half defiant with a desperation which she recognized as futile. In the night invisible, the sound of shouting voices grew always louder. She could not see Bosh, and only guessed that he was beside her.