Thursday, April 29, 2010

May Day Celebration

I've been reading in Capital about the struggle over the length of the working day and its intensification for the enhancement of relative surplus value and, of course, the capitalist mode of production more generally. To step outside of the book for a moment, it seems appropriate to note that Saturday is May Day. For all the workers on the front lines, still fighting the good fight while many of us seem to have forgotten, in remembrance of all the workers killed earlier this month in the mining disaster in West Virginia and the oil rig explosion in the Gulf Mexico, for all the workers who are unemployed and about to lose unemployment insurance, for all the workers working two or three jobs to make ends meet, for all the union members, for all the shift workers, for all the custodial workers and service employees, for all the teachers and nurses, for all the workers with horrible commutes, with long hours, with dangerous conditions, for all the workers: Happy May Day.

And in that spirit of May Day, I'd like to draw your attention to an event being held by United Workers, an organization of low-wage workers here in Baltimore that has been doing amazing work for several years now. They first came to our attention a couple years back during their (ultimately successful) fight for a living wage for workers at the Camden Yards stadium. The group was formed in 2002, as their site puts it, "by homeless day laborers meeting in an abandoned firehouse-turned-shelter . . . inspired by past human rights struggles, such as the fight to end slavery, the struggle for civil rights, calls for immigration with dignity, the labor movement, the fight for international economic justice and other human rights and justice movements." They spent years learning about this history and the roots of poverty, which led directly into the Camden Yards campaign.

This Saturday, for May Day, United Workers is hosting Our Harbor Day, an event they've been planning for more than a year:
a day of neighborhood plays and parades, including a march to the Inner Harbor. We’ve made giant puppets, rehearsed musical performances, and been developing a series of art and community actions. Everyone is invited to join in the writing of Baltimore’s history by taking part in community and cultural action together!


The first three acts of Our Harbor Day explore different themes related to economic and social justice. ”Earth” explores issues of environmental justice, especially in relation to development and sustainability. ”Work” explores issues of economic and social justice, focusing on fairness and equity and also on the power of our work to shape history. ”Education” explores the intersection between education and justice, between cultural creation and social movement. Together we will explore the themes of earth, work and education as we think of ways to assert a positive vision for our city.


The final act connects the themes of earth, work and education, and the many histories of our city, to the current struggle for fair development at the Inner Harbor. Just as with the B’More Fair and the Human Rights Zone March last spring, we see our community as interconnected, requiring a diversity of approaches as we work together for the common vision of a just and fair Baltimore for everyone. We’ll finish Our Harbor Day with the final act, culminating at the Inner Harbor and launching the next chapter in our fight for fair development by creating a Human Rights Zone for all workers in heart of our city.
Maybe you live in Baltimore and haven't heard about this but would like to come and participate. Or perhaps you're in Delaware or Philadelphia or Washington, DC, or Virginia? Why not give it a whirl? Well, anyway, we're planning on being there for a good chunk of the day ourselves (of course, I have Aimée to thank for getting us involved; I usually have to be knocked over the head to get it in the mix; it does me good). It begins at 11am, at 2640 (where else?).

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Notes on Capitalist Realism

I've been kicking around a variety of thoughts in connection to Mark "k-punk" Fisher's Capitalist Realism, but it turns out that most them have to do with things that have been said, by him and others, in the meta-commentary surrounding the book, at his blog and elsewhere. Before I get to those, I wanted to post something brief about what I liked about the book.

The subtitle to Capitalist Realism is "Is there no alternative?" This, of course, intentionally calls to mind Margaret Thatcher's famous expression, "There Is No Alternative", the neo-liberal slogan par excellence. "Capitalist Realism" is Fisher's apt phrase for the widely held belief that, in fact, there is indeed no alternative, the depressing sense that people have that this is simply the way it is, that there is no way out. In his book, he does a nice job of observing and diagnosing certain aspects of the current situation. His focus is, perhaps too heavily, if understandably, on Britain, in particular the manner in which neoliberal reforms have transformed higher education there into a bureaucratic nightmare. (But see Ads without Products for a useful complication of this point, observing this process as, effectively, the pseudo-marketization of British socialism—that is, a public welfare sector much more extensive than any found in the United States. Given this focus, Ads wonders about the relevance of the analysis outside of Britain. Though in my working life, exclusively in the private sector, I have plenty of personal experience with the kind of mind-numbing bullshit paperwork Fisher seems to be talking about. It does have a demoralizing effect, though it's difficult to separate it from the demoralizing effect of the work itself. At least in academia, in theory presumably there is something of value you're being kept from by the paperwork.)

For me, the best aspect of the book is the attention paid to mental illness as function of this belief in capitalist realism rather than as exclusively the result of bio-chemical imbalances. The chemical imbalance paradigm of mental illness has long troubled me, even as I could plainly see people benefiting from the use of drugs to contain depression. The book aside, this was one of the themes I appreciated most as a k-punk reader, so it was nice to see Fisher expand on the idea here. In early February, Levi Bryant had an excellent post at Larval Subjects exploring this theme in Capitalist Realism. I recommend you read it. For now, this is a key passage from the book on this topic (to save time, I'm actually copying this from Bryant's post):
The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low seratonin. This requires social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism.
I've left in bold the same words that Bryant bolded, because I think it is worth making the very emphasis he is making.

As indicated above, I'll be returning to this book, more specifically the discussion attending the various reviews, in future posts. Consider this post, then, a space clearing in anticipation of what I expect will be more detailed and more interesting arguments.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Notes on The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940

I've finished reading the first volume of Beckett's Letters and now eagerly await the publication of the second (of four planned volumes). Till then there is much Beckett-related material to hold me over, not including his own work, much of which still remains for me to read. So I'm now reading James Knowlson's enormous biography of Beckett, Damned to Fame. I can see now that some of the letters might have meant more to me had I been more familiar with certain details of his life. Even so, reading the Letters was a very pleasurable experience. I have excerpted from several letters in previous posts (here, here, here, and here), so I won't include any samples here. Instead, these are my thoughts on the overall project and the presentation of the current edition.

Beckett's main directive was that any volume of his correspondence must include only those letters having bearing on his work. And the introduction tells us that the sheer number of letters in existence necessitated further selection even beyond Beckett's dictum. I had forgotten this last point and have been somewhat frustrated while reading Damned to Fame, with its numerous references to several letters that do not appear in The Letters but which seem to have direct bearing on Beckett's work. But returning just now to the introductory pages in the Letters, I not only remind myself that it wasn't meant to be a "complete" Letters (with Beckett's rule in mind), I notice again this paragraph:
The editors [Martha Dow Fehsenfeld & Lois More Overbeck] believe, especially because the several biographies of Beckett make liberal use of the letters in quotation or paraphrase, that there remains very little reason to exclude a letter, or part of a letter, because of what Beckett says about himself. To take one example, it is the editors' view that Beckett's frequent, at times almost obsessive, discussion of his health problems—his feet, his heart palpitations, his boils and cysts—is of direct relevance to the work; with this The Estate of Samuel Beckett has disagreed.
This is unfortunate and, I think, represents a lost opportunity. Anyone who has read Beckett's fiction should, I would think, be able to see the connection between the author's own health issues and his attention to the problems of the human body, the absurdity of being alive with a body that fails us. In fact, echoing the editors' point about the existing biographies, Knowlson shows just such a clear connection, identifying, for example, Beckett's experience in the hospital to have a cyst removed from his neck as the likely source for some of the details in his fiction written soon thereafter (however much one may want to take issue with Knowlson's at times excessive, though eventually tempered, interpretation of fictional details through the lens of the biographical). A related lacuna could be Beckett's experience with psychoanalysis and his fascination with its theory and practice. The Letters do record various references to Beckett's therapist, Wilfred Reprecht Boin. But there is very little, if anything, about the actual therapy itself. Of course, it's entirely possible that Beckett did not write about his experience in letters. Knowlson does, however, make reference to the considerable quantity of notes that Beckett took about his own analysis and about the various theories in general, some of which made their way into Beckett's fiction, as Knowlson also shows. I wonder, then, if potentially valuable letters regarding Beckett's analysis were excluded on the basis that the Estate does not view them as relevant. Given Beckett's own interest, evident in the Letters themselves, in somewhat unpleasant biographical details of Samuel Johnson's later life, one would think that a looser interpretation was in order.

That said, the editors have done a very fine job with what was evidently an extremely difficult undertaking, and is indeed a major literary event. My only other complaint is with the footnotes that accompany virtually every letter. The edition itself, published by Columbia University Press, is attractive, though quite bulky. It's a very heavy book. The size could have been reduced considerably with fewer notes, many of which are, to this reader, plainly irrelevant, needlessly repetitive, pedantically detailed, or, on rare occasion, comically tone-deaf (as when it appears they've missed a joke). Josipovici addresses this point in his excellent review of the book last May in the TLS:
A word in conclusion about this edition. One cannot but be grateful to Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck, and to the associate editors George Craig and Dan Gunn, for persevering with their project in the face of what must at times have seemed like dispiriting opposition from the executors, understandably concerned to protect Beckett’s privacy. But one must question their method. Though they describe their annotations as light, there appear to be as many pages of notes as there are of letters, and since the notes are in small print there must be double the number of words. Why was it necessary to gloss Beckett’s passing mention of Hardy: "Thomas Hardy (1840–1928)"? Are there any other Hardys? Do we need to be told that A. A. Milne was Alan Alexander Milne and Elgar a "British" composer? And is it really necessary, when Beckett reports that he went to an uninteresting concert, to have ten packed lines giving us every item played, complete with the full names of the composers and the precise opus numbers? This is not just neutral: it gets in the way of the letters and makes for an unwieldy volume. The Beckett who lives with such intensity in the letters risks being entombed in the annotations. On the other hand the decision to quote in the notes from the acceptance and rejection letters Beckett received reminds us of the acumen and courage of those, like Charles Prentice at Chatto and T. M. Ragg at Routledge, who took on and encouraged Beckett while others were turning him away. And the notes would be worthwhile just for the sensitive and tactful unpacking, by George Craig, of Beckett’s games with French expressions. I doubt if I would have worked out that "fuck the field" is Beckett’s literal translation of the dead French metaphor for making a quick exit, or that "Dear Reavey, Herewith 2 Prépuscules d’un Gueux" is Beckett’s little joke with the French for "Twilight of the Gods", "Crépuscule des dieux", and thus means: "Herewith two little foreskins [prépuces] of a beggar (with a nod to Wagner)".
I was indeed grateful for the translations, in the notes, of Beckett's playful use of several other languages. And there are indeed many notes that add much to the experience. But way too many involve details that any reader of the volume would already know about. We are told not only who Thomas Hardy was (with unnecessary dates), but who Dostoevsky was and Samuel Johnson and so on. There are several letters in which Beckett refers to a painting called Morning by his friend Jack B. Yeats; the notes repeatedly explain the reference, as though readers cannot be expected to remember details from page to page. We are told countless details about the art Beckett viewed during his strange visit to Germany in 1936. Etc. This is a relatively minor complaint, except insofar as the notes do indeed intrude on the letters themselves (I fairly quickly started skipping most of them) and make the book itself heavier (and perhaps more expensive?) than necessary.

Friday, April 02, 2010

"After all one is always flattered"

Not quite up to the effort of moving on to the next chapter of Capital (that's chapter 9, for those of you scoring at home), or paying sufficient attention to David Harvey's relevant lecture, yesterday I read a significant chunk of Beckett's Letters. And so this impromptu week of Beckett blogging can continue. Turning now, then, to his efforts to get his work published, one of several themes running through the volume.

In 1936, Beckett sent out his novel Murphy to various publishers. His earlier publisher, Chatto and Windus, reluctantly rejected it on the grounds that business was tight. Another publisher rejected it because "On commercial grounds we could not justify it in our list." Beckett writes flatly to Thomas McGreevy, "And of course what other grounds of justification could there be." Quite so. And he doesn't hear from Simon & Schuster at all, at least not by November. It's clear that Beckett would rather drop the whole thing than deal with such matters. And, true enough, though he expresses much annoyance with his sort-of agent George Reavey, he decides to have him deal directly with the publishers instead. Not that things go much better.

So Murphy is sent on to Houghton Mifflin. Via a letter to Reavey (and the accompanying notes), we learn that Ferris Greenslet, editor at Houghton Mifflin, has requested that Beckett make some cuts to the novel. November 14, 1936, from Hamburg, he writes about it to his friend Mary Manning Howe:
Reavey wrote enclosing a letter from Greensletandhindrance. I am exhorted to ablate 33.3 recurring to all eternity of my work. I have thought of a better plan. Take every 500th word, punctuate carefully and publish a poem in prose in the Paris Daily Mail. Then the rest separately and privately, with a forewarning from Geoffrey, as the ravings of a schizoid, or serially, in translation, in the Zeitschrift für Kitsch ["Magazine for Kitsch", non-existent - RC]. My next work shall be on rice paper wound about a spool, with a perforated line every six inches and on sale in Boots. The length of each chapter will be carefully calculated to suit with the average free motion. And with every copy a free sample of some laxative to promote sales. The Beckett Bowel Books. Jesus in farto. Issued in imperishable tissue. Thistledown end papers. All edges disinfected. 1000 wipes of clean fun. Also in Braile for anal pruritics. All Sturm and no Drang.

I replied, dear agente provocatrice, that I would not have a finger laid on the section entitled Amor intellectualis etc., nor on the Thema Coeli, nor on Endon's Affence, nor on the last will and fundament, but that so far as the rest was concerned I would willingly remove all ties and supports, dripstones, keystones, cornerstones, buttresses, and, with especial pleasure, the entire foundations, and accept full and entire responsibility for the ensuing detritus. The owls, cats, foxes and toads of the higher criticism could be relied on to complete the picture, a romantic one.

After all one is always flattered. It is only from the highest unities that a third can be negligently carved away and the remainder live. The amoeba's neck is not easily broken. Nor his countenance put out.
I think my favorite part is the dry "and accept full and entire responsibility for the ensuing detritus". And I was immediately reminded of David Markson's experience with his great book Wittgenstein's Mistress, which was famously rejected 54 times. In this interview with Joseph Tabbi, Markson mentions that he'd read that Murphy was rejected 42 times (so it seems our man Sam has much to look forward to in the rest of this volume of the Letters). Tabbi asks, "For a novel that well thought of since? Wasn't one editor in fifty-four capable of seeing 'something' in it?":
DM: Obviously it wasn't all black and white. Oh, about a third of them didn't like it at all, and perhaps another third made it inadvertently evident that they didn't understand a word. And ok, you can't fault the totally negative responses—or the vapid ones either, since they pretty much correspond with the percentage of editors you know are C students to begin with. But it's the other third that really cause grief. I mean when the letters practically sound like Nobel Prize citations—"Brilliant," "Twenty years ahead of its time," "We're honored that you thought of us". . .

JT: And?

DM: The predictable kicker, of course. It won't sell. Or worse, we couldn't get it past the salespeople. Actually acknowledging that those semiliterates don't simply participate in the editorial process, but dictate its decisions. God Almighty.