10/29/2008

Refined Newsprint, Latin, and Wicked Hot Dark Elves

My subscribed RSS feeds generally fall into two categories; there are the constant, quick-posed comments from various mega-feeds summing up to over 100 posts a day, which I consume with a quick, channel-surf-like intensity of interest (the intensity being one of minimal depth, but excessive stimulation area). There is the inverse as well: the long, thought-provoking essays that are posted by their publishers perhaps once or twice a week. (The exception is BookForum, which drives my obsessive nature mad by posting interesting material in an incessant deluge with which I could never hope to match.)

The Times Literary Supplement (TLS) is one of the second sort, and probably a prototype for the category. It is precisely the sort of publication for people with a wide, varied intellectual interest but not a real storehouse of knowledge from most of these areas. It launches in-depth studies of topic under scrutiny, but begins at a step back, so that the interested web-scholar who has just wandered into the room has time to find a seat. It also matches reviews and approaches of very current work with topics that all classic, if not overtly classical. The TLS manages to pique one's interest without sounding too pretentious--to me, at any rate. I like the occasional foreign-language phrase inserted into my reading so that I can continue to lament all the languages I cannot read but should. And in a world where txting basd splling psuedo-conventions are making their way into writing as much as by mistake as through a sense of hipness, I don't think it's a bad thing to have at least a few bastions of "high" standards left, as archaic as they may or may not be.

Anyway, I'll ditch the vocality of a lone warrior standing alone between the barbarian horde and the library with naught but a single trusty pole-arm. Well, maybe not alone. Maybe she would help:


What was I talking about? Oh yes, after severely downgrading the High Culture quotient of this post with suggestive anime, I was going to share my recent, favorite articles I read online at the Times Literary Supplement (that is like the New York Post for English people).

In a recent post I mentioned that in a few weeks Claude Levi-Strauss will celebrate his 100th birthday. Here is an article about the publication of his Works (with a few notable exceptions) that also serves as a good introduction and summary of his life and works. Better than the faulty obituary is the celebration!


Here is a review of Rowan Williams' recent book on Dostoyevsky. Rowan Williams, apart from having amazing eyebrows, is the Archbishop of Canterbury, and quite knowledgeable on many topics. In this volume he discusses the theology of Dostoyevsky's fiction, which is no timid category. The review sums up some of the discussion and discusses Williams' own interaction with Dostoyevsky.


The piece that first got me reading the TLS online was this article about a new work on Lucretius. I know very little about Lucretius, or about Epicurus, but that first bit containing the line, "It is sweet on the great sea [. . .] to watch from the shore other people drowning,” dragged me in faster than an artist's interpretation of a nubile dark elf with a mean looking polearm.




So enjoy those, if you wish. I've had thoughts about more detailed blog posts (oh joy! they cry with unrestrained ebullience!) but I've been holding off while working on a bigger internet project. (The cheers ring up from the gathered masses afresh, thrice renewed.) More about that later in the week, perhaps.

10/23/2008

How I spend my precious evenings...?

UPDATE: In case you figured I was just being dramatic when I accused the democrats of invoking ideology to gain political power on the back of a tragedy bigger than 9/11: here's an article that is also dramatic.

I just got home from an eleven hour day at work, and now I'm listening to Greenspan's testimony today in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

What the hell is wrong with me?

Anyway, it's really cute to hear Greenspan "discover a flaw" in his free market philosophy. He makes it sound like a spelling mistake.

We "discovered a flaw" in this handgun; rather than shoot a bullet in the direction it is aimed, it triggers a fission reaction. Damn, if only we didn't see this sooner.

But seriously.

The most interesting part to me is the introduction by chairman Henry Waxman and the "response" statement by ranking Republican Tom Davis. It is nothing really out of the ordinary; Democrat praises regulation, Republican blames big government for the problem from the beginning.

But their rhetoric is most interesting. In fact, it reminds me of rhetoric I've heard before. See if you can guess what it is.

D: "In each case, corporate excess and greed enriched company executives at enormous cost to shareholders and our economy." - blaming a isolated class of villians, attributing destructive actions to moral turpitude

R: "No one is minimizing or defending corporate malfeasance, and we share the outrage most Americans feel at the greed that blinded Wall Street to its civic duty to protect Main Street. But this Committee can take a broader view of the patchwork of federal financial regulators built by accretion after each cyclical crisis, and artificially subdivided behind Congress’ jurisdictional walls. No single agency, by action or omission, caused this crisis and no existing agency alone can repair the damage or prevent the next, some believe inevitable, boom and bust. " - pleading to not reduce the discussion to knee-jerk reactions, expressing a realist interpretation over populist ideology

D: "
The Federal Reserve had the authority to stop the irresponsible lending practices that fueled the subprime mortgage market. But its long-time Chairman, Alan Greenspan, rejected pleas that he intervene. The SEC had the authority to insist on tighter standards for credit rating agencies. But it did nothing despite urgings from Congress. The Treasury Department could have led the charge for responsible oversight of financial derivatives. Instead, it joined the opposition. The list of regulatory mistakes and misjudgments is long, and the cost to taxpayers and our economy is staggering. The SEC relaxed leverage standards on Wall Street. The Offices of Thrift Supervision and the Comptroller of the Currency preempted state efforts to protect homebuyers from predatory lending. And the Justice Department slashed its efforts to prosecute white collar fraud." - blaming the opposition party's support of the transgressor for the transgression, and painting them as traitors

R: "The words “regulation” and “deregulation” are not absolute goods and evils, nor are they meaningful policy prescriptions." - please, let us think logically rather than morally! We aren't criminals for trusting them!

D: "
But this deregulatory philosophy spread across government. It explains why lead got into our children’s toys and why evacuees from Hurricane Katrina were housed in trailers filled with formaldehyde." - not only are our enemies evil, they hate children and black people!

R: "In this political season, the search for villains is understandable and in some respects, healthy. While we’re at it, we might ask ourselves why this Committee didn’t convene these hearings last March, when market turbulence first turned toxic. There’s plenty of blame to go around as we try to unravel the wildly complex tangle of people, private companies, government agencies, and market forces that is choking modern capitalism. We’ve all played a part in this crisis, and we’ve all learned invaluable lessons." - can't you see, we're the reason this happened! You and me, Waxman! Aren't we, Americans, the one's who are really to blame?

D: "But the issues we are examining are of immense importance to our nation. I am proud of the work we are doing and especially the contributions of the members of this Committee." -finish up with a good ol' 'god bless us, everyone!' That unity shit really drags 'em in.

R: "But retribution needs to be tempered by wisdom. [...] We’re learning some expensive lessons, and we should put them to good use." - for god's sake, think with your head and not your asshole!


Get it? Political party uses catastrophe beyond anyone's imagination as a spectacle to attain political ascendency, where they will make a lot of noise, but generally fuck things up for eight years until it's time to do it again.

And before you question my taste in making such a comparison, think: which event will cost the most lives and well-being--the war on terror or the collapse of the world economy (far worse in the third world than here, obviously, in both cases).

And for goodness sake, I'm not republican! I just hate the obvious use of ideology, especially right out of the playbook of those to whom you are supposed to be in opposition! It's just so obvious, it makes me want to puke.

At least the liberals are seizing their moment, and not letting it pass them by. The only thing that the average american hates as much as people of another race is rich people. I guess the environment and peace are kind of wussy causes, whereas, attacking rich bankers is like shooting... well, rich people.

All kidding aside, I would really hate it if this crisis in the economy became the liberals' 9/11. What we are witnessing is perhaps one of the most profound, real-world economics lessons for which one could hope. It is the true-to-life failure of surplus value! The one thing economists always say about Marx--real ecnomists that is, because they have read Marx, even if they disagree with him; just being rich and hating communism doesn't make you an economist, sad to say--real economists say that the theory of surplus value is not in line with the realities of venture capitalism. In other words, the theory of surplus value doesn't explain how you can make money from nothing.

Now, I'm not an economist, (but not because I haven't read Marx) but it seems as if the continuous expansion of debt economics into an endless series of derivatives shows the fallacy of investments based on surplus value. You are abstracting the future; the "promise to pay". Abstracting, and quantifying. However, as we have seen, the promise to pay often does not equal the eventually payment. Surplus (being the benefit of the contractor at the expense of the contractee) that was valued as something is actually nothing, and the large-scale evaporation of supposed "value" makes a venture just a scam. It's like in the cartoons when someone is hanging off the edge of a cliff on a rope, and the person holding the rope hands it to another person who hands it to another person who hands it to no one--everything hangs it mid-air for a second, and then the person and the rope fall down the cliff.

These are the sorts of conversations that we should be having--why is the economy fucked? Because it is an economy of debt--it is an economy where contracts create surplus value (it's called usury) from nothing, and then sell this nothing to someone else. The worker is just another contractee. And if you can't sub-contract what you sold into contract, i.e., if you've got nothing other than your hands and your boot beneath your feet, then you are the real person that suffers.

Neither Waxman nor Davis seem interested in following up that at all. Then again, it doesn't seem that either of them have ever worn workboots in their lives.


[full text of Waxman's introduction here]
[full text of Davis' comments here]
[text of other testimony from the session]

10/21/2008

How much for that fetish in the window?

UPDATE: I added a section. I thought about it more after I posted and decided some thoughts weren't quite complete.

Mental image of the week: classicist Charlie Campbell scrutinizing an ancient document on a late-night desk by candlelight; upon reaching a particular passage, he wags his bearded face and utters a disgusted commentary: "these ideological presumptions are repulsive!"

But seriously- his recent blog post on prostitution and art (sexy, sexy!) covers some interesting ground. The question: is it wrong to use a sexual relationship to further one's artistic endeavors? I was first struck by his argument in that he begins by making the equivalence of ideological and sexual purity, at least when it comes negation: to sell sex is like selling out a cause. (The true equivalence of the Left!) It seems at first that he is drawing a connection between economics of body (sex is a fair, willing exchange) and purity of purpose (art should not cater to exchanges, but represent a fair pursuit of truth). Not that this is an undesired view point; it is a nice counter from the typical liberal view that sex as an exchange is a violation of truth prima facie. In other words, in his first view prostitution or sex is not immoral, it simply should be separated from ideological/aesthetic process.

But then he continues, to say that this is not always true, which is quite valid, I think. Purity of truth is clearly as much of a fallacy as purity of body and morality. You conclude that "transcendent aesthetic meritocracy does not, and will never exist," and I agree.

I might push it further though, and say that Trotsky's point about aesthetic value "not being reducible to class-struggle," (in Mssr. Campell's words; I do not know of Trotsky's own words) is somewhat misleading--it seems to take an easy out along the lines of Marxian super-structure. That is, to parenthesize aesthetics as some kind of sideline structure; so don't worry about that little exo-structure, focus on the structure (class relations).

On the contrary, I think a certain material analysis of art might show something interesting. To cut to the chase: it's all sexual, isn't it? The aesthetic desire to view a particular piece is not much different from sexual desire. From where do our fetishes derive? A complicated question, but not very different than the question of the source of our aesthetics (and how sexy the response is depends on who you're asking).

These pathways of desire, then, that distribute art and make it desirable for owning or viewing (a sexy metaphor, that), are not much different than the strange pathways of human relations. If the way that artists and patrons sleep around (paid or not) don't resemble the vicissitudes of popular taste, I don't know what would. Is art any more than a representation of desire? Is the art world anything other than a club for sluts? Or any other so-called "humanity"? Writers, scholars, and even ideologists co-mingle their fluids almost as much as their work (and the evil twin of sex, prudery, often rears its head in these venues as well). Did you hear that Cass Sunstein and Samantha Power are hooking up?

So if you can live with my little pet theory--humanities = the pursuits of humans = the sordid lives of sex addicts--then there is only one point left to ponder. The other unfortunate truth of being human: the daily necessities of food, clothing, shelter, wine, and admission to the hippest parties. In other words, good old Darwinian success, of which artists are known for being holes to.

But, let us not forget... well, um, Claude Levi-Strauss. Structures of kinship, etc. I won't delve into it here. Did you know that in five weeks Levi-Strauss will be one-hundred years old? Amazing!

The point: that humans form bonds, often sexual bonds, to help support each others search for human necessity. Not very complicated. Artists do the same thing. In fact, if you want to talk about sacrificing oneself for art, the best place to look is at some of the spouses of our more eccentric artists. Is this wrong? Probably, in some ways. But so is marriage itself, especially when it is utilized as indentured servitude. But sometimes it is not. I don't want to say I'm a model to be followed, but take my marriage for example. My wife's job earns a lot more money than mine, and she gets good health care. (It is my opinion that any one who is anti-labor union has never known how wonderful it is to actually be in a union.) So, because she cares about my well being, we had our relationship blessed by the State so that I could also have adequate and affordable health care. In addition, we have also discussed our artistic pursuits. At some point, each of us is willing to support the other with our day jobs so that the other can pursue art (my writing, and her painting). This is really no bigger than the daily agreements that make up our kinship system: I cook, she does laundry, rent is split down the middle, etc.

So what is the sexual world of art if not a much more complicated, largely unspoken, anarchic kinship system? Rarely, rarely is it the fetishized, one blow-job = one painting hung on a gallery wall. As Charlie noted in some of his examples, it is much more complicated. Artists have relationships with patrons, and then they move on to other artists and different patrons. The choice of whom-with-whom is often bizarre, often judged to be unwarranted, and feelings are hurt. But who can say it is prostitution? I send an author $15 if I wish to own a copy of his/her book and I feel the work is deserving. I might take an interesting artist out to dinner in exchange for the pleasure of his/her company and conversation. If my interest in someone's work has sexual components, why wouldn't I sleep that person? I can say honestly, if I thought a person was not creative, my attraction to them would diminish. I think my wife's art is wonderful, and it is part of the whole of my attraction to her. It doesn't mean we exchange sex for art, company for short stories, and home-cooked meals for clean laundry, but then again, we do sort of exchange these things. Or if you ask Levi-Strauss, we definitely do.

I think the problem, as with most problems regarding value, occurs under commodification. Prostitution is the epitome of the commodification of sex. The sex is reduced to a menu of acts, and the price is firmly set in exchangeable counters. Now, this is not the problem itself; the problem is that when these securitized acts are commodified, it is much easier for oppression to occur. Perhaps the giver of the act has to agree to a price that s/he did not set; perhaps the act includes violence or power relations that would not ordinarily be securitized with the act under desired circumstances; or perhaps there is a capitalist involved who takes profit merely for packaging and marketing these securities. My metaphor here is not in topical jest; I think this is the problem. The problem with commodities from Marx's perspective: surplus value. What are you paying that you are not compensated for? In general prostitution, sometimes it is as simply as your parent's morality. Sometimes it is as dire as your bodily integrity and personal safety.

Art very rarely has these dire consequences; I have never heard of an artist being beaten for his/her art and left to die, infected on purpose with an incurable, deadly disease. I think it is disrespectful to sex workers to make the comparison.

But, to return to the subject at hand, I think that the point of contention for sex and art is not that certain exchanges occur; the point is that commodity of desire into packaged securities can give and take surplus value where it is not due. It can be capitalized. Warhol, for instance, was able to create the impression of value in his mass-produced art, where I think it was not warranted. There was a certain sexiness built in to his work via his persona, which was not only not due, in my opinion, but perhaps was accumulated at the expense of those working in the Factory (the metaphor here, is simply not a metaphor). Did the unseen, anonymous "production assistants" receive any compensation for the notoriety Warhol achieved with Blow Job?

Of course, commodification exists in varying degrees in a market that, as a point of pride, claims to despise commodification. And, as I stress over and over, I do not believe that commodification is simply alienating abstraction (nor do I believe that Marx intended commodity to be thought of in this way, despite what others may think about him). But, it is true that when something as esoteric as human desire, and its partner, value, are compartmentalized into objective units, they make themselves available to capitalization, just as an open-minded, nubile artist's assistant is party to suggestion. I joke, but that is the power of the commodity of words: to imply, to suggest, to connote, and to willingly arouse.

I think one of the biggest complaints about the combination of the art-world and sex lives comes from the point of view of fairness. If one is sleeping with a gallery owner, one has an avenue to submit art to be considered that one not sleeping with the owner does not. This is a valid complain, but at the same time, it also comes from an egalitarian, democratic perspective. The supposed conclusion to be drawn from the complain is that everyone should be considered equally. Hence, blind submissions processes. There is an episode occurring in the writing world now about this very concept; it seems that certain renowned poetry and fiction prizes are actually insider popularity contests.

But then again, so what? Art is, nearly by definition, subjective. At least any superlative qualifier is subjective. And doesn't the gallery owner have to right to choose which art is hung in his/her gallery? Why not? Of course, if one gallery develops a reputation for only hanging the art of the particular tartlet that the owner is currently housing, then that is only fair.

I think that art "communities" or circles are definite popularity clubs anyhow. It's all pop these days. I might mention my wife's art on my blog, but if I wish to be known for having a fair opinion, then I would include one of those cute little "full disclosure" notes stating, 'yes, this artist and I have had our relationship blessed by the State.' Or if I wish to showcase my friends, then I could do so, but if somebody didn't like "The Interdome Set", then I could be sure that s/he would start a blog to talk shit about me. In fact, this behavior is encouraged: it's called "networking". And a network is only a social market, that (most of the time) doesn't have anything to do with sex (as much as anything can have nothing to do with sex).

And this--the commodification, and the social relations--is what we call the market, or the "Structures of Kinship", or the relations and means of production, or the scene, or anything else. Fairness, purity, and higher notions of truth upon which the work or product or relations are based, are largely bullshit, or only utilized to fool someone into doing something.

And this exegesis on markets? What is it designed to do? What is my secret objective in entering the marketplace? Well, to entertain perhaps (fat chance!), or to spell it out so that maybe one's negotiations within such a market aren't confused and befuddled in the currents and eddies. Because of course, theory is itself an art. It can be produced, commodified, and utilized to align one's reasoning in various ways and purposes. Is it true? Not necessarily, not unless it works. Right now this theory has taken up some space on this blog, and maybe occupied some of your day, if you've read all the way to the bottom. Maybe it will illuminate the human markets a bit; mostly, I hope that it just doesn't do any harm. But perhaps this is disingenuous; I do hope that it would make those who complain in the harshest of tones about how they are not "getting any" in the art/literary/culture world to maybe think twice before opening their mouths. If there is one thing I can't stand, it is people complaining about their lack of sex life: obliquely via their other inadequacies, or directly.

I can promise one thing: this blog post is in no way designed to convince anybody to sleep with me. Purity of intent by way of boring diatribe! Success!

10/16/2008

Dear James Woods... Love, the Internet

So, I was listening to a New York Review of Books podcast today at work. I know, I know: it sounds stupid. In fact, it is stupid. But I knew that I would be binding books for at least four hours today, so I brought in headphones so that I wouldn't go crazy, nor strain my neck from trying to read ebooks off my tiny iPhone sitting near to being in my lap like I normally do.

So, I was listening to a New York Review of Books podcast, and I promised myself that I would only listen to it for entertainment, and not jump right onto the internet and write a blog post about it. But of course, this got my gears grinding, and because it was Daniel Mendelsohn, Pico Iyer, and James Wood discussing the future of reading in a "world of images", (podcast of 10/06/2008) I was brought back to my other posts about the subject, here, and here, among other various places.

And here we are. The opinions of the three speakers was not really that groundbreaking, though it was entertaining. They waxed on about criticism, how nobody reads anymore, and etc. I don't know what it is about James Woods; I don't much agree with him, but again and again I am drawn back to him in my theoretical thoughts. Perhaps it is just the audacity that one would require to write a book called, How Fiction Works. Maybe I admire that in a way. Regardless, it was a comment that Woods made about the writing process that got my wheels whirring this time.

Woods was sharing an anecdote about how the inter-web and technology changes writing. To paraphrase, he said that using a computer makes him write shorter paragraphs. He expressed the anxiety he feels once words have left the top of the screen, and noted that it drove him to compose quicker, more compressed paragraphs.

I could probably say something psychoanalytically oriented about the anxiety of unseen words on a page (could I?!?! what would it be???) or make some snide comment about old guys who simultaneously can't find the zoom setting in Microsoft Word and/or won't admit they need reading glasses. But these are all cheap shots.

What I really thought, however, was that this anecdote really sums it up. The literary establishment is afraid of the internet.

Of course, everyone says the internet is a great invention. They have to, otherwise they would admit that they don't understand it. Being a Luddite is no longer quaint, like my 8th grade history teacher that referred to computers as "demon boxes". Even classicists must have email accounts. To express dislike for computers and the internet openly would be like refusing to wear clothes.

But, the people who make up the "literary establishment" don't like it, and their anxiety towards it is expressed in numerous ways. It makes sense; you have spend a good portion of your life dealing with books, and probably acheived a certain amount of success in that line. So when some thirteen year-old shows you how quickly they can be stalked online, the first fear is understandable.

And it goes on from there. The folks in the podcast discussed blog posts in which the poster had not even read the book in question, and the "240" following commenters had not either. True, that sort of idiocy does exist on the internet. However, the academy isn't immune, either. Look at the use of "post-modern" in any undergraduate class; and even some books are written and published without proper citation.

But the highlighting of the idiocy on the internet as characteristic of its literary form is about as well-placed as spitting on books for allowing the most annoying charlatans print their tell-all novels. In other words, bad writers are hardly the fault of paper and ink.

All it takes is looking at one or two of the well-formed, talented communities on the internet to see how empty this criticism really is. The best example I have found is Slashdot, a forum for self-described "nerds". One who stumbles upon the board is unlikely to have his post read unless he is well-qualified. The system of post-ranking rivals roly-playing games in its complexity (though intentioned so). The end result is, only the most, most quality posts are read, and the crap is easily filtered out. Not unlike the academy, no?

Understanding the technology is the key to mastering the form. I've said it before, but the fact of near-universal literacy (the mastering of printed symbols) does not make literature universal. There are plenty of people who can read the dictionary, but aren't sure what to do with it. And so, the tech-nerds have some of the best publishing systems on the internet, because for pete's sake, they designed web publishing.

Another fun example is xkcd, a web comic. Written by and for nerds. It is decidedly lo-tech, with an (almost) daily post composed mostly of stick figures and gentle internet witticisms and nerd inside jokes. But check this out:


It pokes fun of the very criticism that the literaries were levying, and in one of the worst examples. YouTube comments are mostly stupid, often hateful and racist, and almost always not contributing to anything that could be called constructive. But something amazing happened.

YouTube actually created an "audio preview" function when you post a comment! This is nothing less that the incredible march of progress in action, and through stick-figure humor no less!

My point is not that stick-figures are the future, though I would not rule that possible future out. My point is that this is something that only people who understand both the technology and how it is used would grasp the genius of, and be able to make use of it. Form, function, and a bit of artistry as well. This is as much of an responsible, quality creative process as there is. Not that YouTube now equals Proust, but I would say Internet Web Comics = Writing and Critique.

Blogging is my strong suit on the internet. Other than that, I would only consider myself a "power user", and that only marginally. (I still have yet to have a comment featured on Slashdot; I'm waiting to submit until I know more about networking.) I can see how the technology of blogging has positively affected my writing abilities.

Before blogs, I would never have attempted to write an aphorism. Now, my non-fiction writing is composed mainly thereof. It may not be AP style, but I've also learned a thing or two about writing succinctly and to the point, and also about trying to maintain an audience. (Audience? Are you out there?)

In addition, there is something lovely about well-formed journal entries that can immediately be exposed to an audience. I don't receive many comments on my posts, but enough to tell me they are read once in a while. And this is more than enough, because it makes the audience real. I wouldn't say that I write "to the masses", or to any other target audience in particular, but it makes me write in a certain way when I know that others will be able to read it instantly, and although I can edit, I can never withdraw what I have posted. Each blog post is a thought, a musing; perhaps they are not that interesting, but they are too me. Each time I post I have reflected on a particular thing, organized my ideas, and composed them into a brief span of text that I am totally willing for anyone to step up and read. It's not that its some sort of amazing digital democracy, or even a second life. It's more of a voice; it is a printing press that I make and maintain myself. It gives my writing and my thoughts a body that they might not have had. Besides what this does for my skills as a writer, it's very enjoyable to myself and my psyche.

So, Mr. Woods, don't sell the internet short. If you can't make the technology do what you want, to represent your thoughts in exactly the way that you wish yourself and others to see them, ask a nerd! Most likely s/he would be more than happy to teach you about these new tools for us writers. New tools are nothing to fear, as long as you're trained.

10/15/2008

Asimov -> Seldon -> Krugman -> ?

So I discovered, via Slashdot (of course) that the most recent Nobel Prize winner for work in economics, Paul Krugman, was inspired to study economics by the Isaac Asimov series, Foundation.

This is awesome!

I don't know very much about Krugman, but now I am going to do some reading. While a factoid like this may be frivolous, or even disconcerting to some, the idea that someone might be inspired by science-fiction, to me, might be the best judge of character. All too often it is clear that people are inspired by fame, money, or the pursuit of power itself. Some individuals' attest wanton claims of inspiration via general "hope" (what IS that?), which is such a generalized idol, that in my mind "saccarined" is surmounted as an adjective of choice by images of flames and animated corpse-gods.

Anyway, the idea that, in one's youth, one might read a fictional story containing a speculative idea regarding the way that human life works, and then, extract and abstract that idea as part of one's own personal life goals for the general betterment of humanity, is something that is not only very believable, but very humble at the same time. Rather than conceiving a pie-in-the-sky legend as causal dogma, this takes what is right in front of oneself, and infuses it with one's own creativity. This is nothing less than the most idealistic hopes of literature: to inspire readers to do great things and think great thoughts, using only the simple tool of words and ideas linked together.

So, Paul Krugman: what has Mr. Asimov inspired you to do? Well, the Swedish Academy of Sciences finds it worthwhile. So I suppose I'll look into it too, though only having a basic knowledge of economic theories. Paul Krugman's New York Times blog can be found here.

10/14/2008

Spake, Spoke, Sprake

I'm reading Nietzsche's Zarathustra right now. It's not a perfect piece, but it is very lovely in many respects. As a critic of a certain source of modernism, he often gets labeled as one of the fathers of post-modernism, or at the very least, lumped in among other such characters. (The actual father of the term as it is now used, in my opinion, is Lyotard, but, like so many things, this is another story for another post). I tend to think of Nietzsche as the first humanist; though certainly others may also fit the term. Let's call it the ideal humanist then, if for no other reason than that the liberal democratic persuasions of current humanists would most likely make Frederich puke.

I tend to disagree with Nietzsche, as much as I admire the ire and, often, pure rage that is his writing. I find humanism and individualism repugnant in our time; though in the author's time it most likely would have been a welcome and revolutionary concept. (And, even in this day, I would no doubt find other unrelated admirable qualities in anyone who could honor one's own will as much as Nietzsche offers that one should.) I am reading the work currently for a project of my own that will deal with Zarathustra himself: the founder of Mazdahism (otherwise known as Zoroastrianism). More on that later.

Today I want to post this aphorism because despite its place within Nietzsche's humanistic project, it is still a lovely piece of work on Value, a fallacious concept that was very easily adopted by the individualism that Nietzsche helped bring into the world. Value is important, especially semiotic values; but this does not extend to such strict and powerful compartmentalization such as commodities. The notion of the awesome power of the individual aside, we could still learn a thing or two about such "poison flies". Especially in such a market as this one--a subject of some of my recent posts.

So without further ado, here is Book One, Chapter 12 from
Also Sprake Zarathustra. I am retyping the Thomas Common translation from Wikisource, mostly because it is free, and in ebook form (how I'm currently consuming it). The work is in the public domain.

The Flies in the Market-Place

Flee, my friend, into your solitude! I see you deafened with the noise of the great men, and stung all over with the stings of the little ones.

Forest and rock know how to be silent with you. Be like the tree which you love, the broad-branched one--silently and attentively it overhangs the sea.

Where solitude ends, there begins the market-place; and where the market-place begins, there begins also the noise of the great actors, and the buzzing of the poison-flies.

In the world even the best things are worthless without those who make a sideshow of them: these showmen, the people call great men.

Little do the people understand what is great--that is to say, the creator. But they have a taste for all showmen and actors of great things.

Around the creators of new values revolves the world:--invisibly it revolves. But around the actors revolve the people and the glory: such is the course of things.

The actor has spirit, but little conscience of the spirit. He always believes in that with which he most strongly inspires belief - in himself!

Tomorrow he has a new belief, and the day after, one still newer. Like the people, he has quick perceptions and fickle moods.

To defeat--that means for him: to prove. To drive to frenzy--that means for him: to convince. And blood is to him the best of all arguments. A truth which glides only into refined ears, he calls falsehood and nothing. He believe only in gods that make a big noise in the world!

Full of clattering fools is the market-place, and the people glory in their great men! These are for them the masters of the hour. But the hour presses them; so they press you. And also from you they want Yes or No. Alas! Would you set your chair between Pro and Con?

Do not be jealous of those unyielding and impatient men, you lover of truth! Never yet did truth cling to the arm of the unyielding.

On account of those abrupt ones, return into your security: only in the market-place is one assailed by Yes? or No?

Slow is the experience of all deep fountains: long have they to wait until they know what has fallen into their depths.

Far away from the market-place and from fame happens all that is great: far away from the market-place and from fame have always dwelt the creators of new values.

Flee, my friend, into your solitude: I see you stung all over by the poisonous flies. Flee to where a rough, strong breeze blows!

Flee into your solitude! You have lived to closely to the small and the pitiful. Flee from their invisible vengeance! For you they have nothing but vengeance.

No longer raise your arm against them! They are innumerable, and it is not your task to shoo flies.
Innumerable are the small and pitiful ones; and rain-drops and weeds have been the ruin of many a proud structure.

You are not stone; but already have you become hollow from many drops.

I see you exhausted by poisonous flies; I see you bleeding and torn at a hundred spots; and your pride refuses even to be angry.

They would have blood from you in all innocence; blood is what bloodles souls crave--and therefore they sting in all innocence.

But you, profound one, you suffer too profoundly even from small wounds; and before you have healed, the same poison-worm crawls over your hand.

You are too proud to kill these gluttons. But take care lest it be your fate to suffer all their poisonous injustice!

They buzz around you also with their praise: obtrusiveness is their praise. They want to be close to your skin and your blood.

They flatter you, as one flatters a God or devil; they whimper before you, as before a God or devil; what does it come to! They are flatterers and whimperers, and nothing more.

Often, also, do they show themselves to you as friendly ones. But that has always been the prudence of cowards. Yes! Cowards are wise!

They think much about you with their petty souls--you are always suspect to them! Whatever is much thought about is at last thought suspicious.

They punish you for your virtues. They pardon you entirely for your errors.
Because you are gentle and of honest character, you say: "Guiltless are they for their small existence." But their petty souls think: "Guilty is every great existence."

Even when you are gentle towards them, they still feel themselves despised by you; and they may repay your beneficence with secret maleficence.

Your silent pride is always counter to their taste; they rejoice if once you are humble enough to be vain.

What we recognize in a man, we also irritate in him. Therefore be on your guard against the small ones!

In your presence they feel themselves small, and their baseness gleams and glows against you in invisible vengeance.

You did not see how often they became silent when you approached them, and how their energy left them like the smoke of a waning fire?

Yes, my friend, you are the bad conscience of your neighbors, for they are unworthy of you. Therefore they hate you, and would rather suck your blood.

Your neighbors will always be poisonous flies; what is great in you--that itself must make them more poisonous, and always more fly-like.

Flee, my friend, into your solitude--and there, where a rough strong breeze blows.
It is not your lot to shoo flies.

Thus spoke Zarathustra.

10/06/2008

You Can Take That Panic to the BANK!

As I try and digest the most recent government hoodwink, in the form of the Emergency Economy Stabilization Act, several news articles have caught my eye. I could just ruminate about them to myself while sitting in the closet sipping whiskey from a jar, but I promised myself only to do that once a month. Instead, I'll share them with you!

I'll get right to the point: we done been Patriot-Act-ed. Yes, I know; my posts on this topic of late have been turning up the vitriol even higher than my normal 50% by volume cut off level. You may think that this post is shaping up to be just another rant. Let me assure you: while it does fill me with rage, I do have some actual facts in tow to back such assertions.

Check it out: terrorists (supported by the government?) kill people -> nation quakes in fear while legislation consolidating the nation's autocratic power sails through Congress. Happy Department of Homeland Security to you, the Department of Peace vulture born from the ashes of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (not a coincidence, but that's another story).

Now re-check: bankers (supported by government) screw over people trying to buy houses -> markets quake in fear while legislation consolidating the nation's capitalistic power sail through Congress. Our current door prize is the Office of Financial Stability, attached to the Treasury. You have to love that name. It doesn't quite say, "propping up our failing economic system" in the same way that "The Strong-Arm of Capitialism League" would, or the way a dilapidated FEMA trailer does. but OFS is good enough. It also lends itself to the great anti-globalization/capitalism slogan, "Fuck OFS!" My copyright certificate is in the mail.

Doubt it was fear that motivated? Well, seeing "777" written on the front page of my local paper makes it pretty clear what the average person was supposed to take away. But let's not trust an average person, let's ask a congress-person!

From the New York Times: "Fears about the economy also motivated support. 'Nobody in East Tennessee hates the fact more than me that I am going to vote yes today after voting no on Monday,' Representative Zach Wamp, a Republican, said. 'Monday I cast a blue-collar vote for the American people,' he continued. 'Today I am going to cast a red, white and blue-collar vote with my hand over my heart for this country, because things are really bad and we don’t have any choice.'" Well, Representative Wamp, you've made it pretty clear. Instead of voting in the name of your constituents, you decided to vote with your Jingoistic shirt on. Good on you.

One day, the bill is opposed because the constituents demand it. The next, it passes. Apart from a few tacked on incentives, the only thing that changes is the Dow dives by a number that is only 3 digits away from 666. What changed? They added the FEAR.

But after all, FEAR is the market. Capital is the universal unit of the irrational mob. Don't get me wrong, the mob is sometimes good. All understood signifiers derive their meaning from the linked desire of multiple individuals; linked desire is the mob. But this also means that it can get out of control. And once you link these mob-signifiers to things with actual material significance, like, say, mortgage-backed securities, a simple scream can mean that the government has a new bureaucratic entity run by good-old boys from Goldman Sachs. Or, so it seems.

Hey, and check this out too. You want to see mob-signifiers move a market? I found this story on Slashdot: it appears that a web crawling Google engine accidentally reprinted an old article from 2002, when United Airlines was just about bankrupt. Investors, thinking it was a current article, dumped the stock, which declined to $3 a share from $14, evaporating 1.14 billion in market cap. BECAUSE OF GOOGLE! Ahhhhhhhhh! That's okay, people pass laws in such ways these days. Soon enough, Google will be fact, so that won't be a mistake, it will be reality.

It happened again! Some jerk on CNN's newsTwitter thing posted that Steve Jobs had a heart attack, which he totally didn't. Too late! Apple's stock dived 9%. Now they blame this on the stupid citizen journalists who try to be real journalists, posting lies on their stupid blogs. Stupid blogs!

But wait, real journalists are just as stupid! Take the case of Gary Weiss, the BusinessWeek journalist who, it has been pretty conclusively proven, rigged Wikipedia to spread disinformation about selling "naked short" stocks, a strange market derivative that has been blamed for the current crisis almost as heavily as mortgage-backed securities. This disinformation was not accidental, but postively malicious, though the motive still remains unclear. "Real" journalists trusted Wikipedia, and blackballed CEO Partick Byrne, who was trying to warn marketeers about the dangers of the "naked short" phenomenon. Total cost: unknown. $700 billion dollars anyone?

So, what the deal? Well, it appears that is incredibly easy to manipulate large numbers of Americans and their representative leaders via the equity markets and the information markets. Effect: so-called "value" evaporates, leaving someone holding the tab. And even worse: government, as is typical in the case of panic, responds with authoritarianism, bureaucracy, and worse, which history always proves is worse for you and me.

'Adam, are you arguing that panic leads to Fascism?' Well, I would hardly be the first. But it's funny that you should ask. Apparently some one suggested to US Representative Brad Sherman that if the House did not vote for authoritarian bureaucracy as a delightful middle ground, the next step would be the end of Posse Commitus. I.E. You would have soldiers enforcing local "law and order".



Just a little something to think about. Sounds kind of familar, doesn't it? Say, about seven years ago? You, me, the president, congress, the end of civil liberties, the legalization of torture, and an ongoing, useless war?

Oh, the Dow dropped another 370 points today. Maybe its time to write your congressperson.

10/01/2008

This Museum Belongs in a Museum

I was in Seattle this past weekend--not for any reason in particular, just a little weekend trip. Megan and I visited the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, which until we drove past it, I did not know existed.

We had to go, even though it looked a bit touristy--it is actually part of the Experience Music Project, which is sort of like the Basketball Hall of Fame for music--if you have never had the pseudo-pleasure, it is sort of an Epcot Center. Lots of video-mentaries in enclosed monitors, a bit of memorabilia, and some high-tech diversions like virtual reality basketball, and such things. So, the ticket was $15 a piece for admission to both the SFM and the EMP. Pretty expensive, yes, but I had to see what a SF Museum was like.

The answer: not so bad, actually. There are good points, bad points, and missing points that could eventually become good points.

First, the bad:

It is heavily movie (read: Star Trek/Wars) weighted, in an obvious attempt to get people in the door. The lightsaber duel theme from Episode One played on a loop outside the building. Most of the memorabilia and artwork in exhibits come from SF movies, or from the movie adaptations of SF books. But, a museum is a largely visual experience, so what do you expect?

It is also small. There are two floors, with a winding trail through each. The overall size equals about one wing in a "real" museum, like the Museum of Natural History or the MOMA.

But, the good:

Among the artifacts that were not bought in studio lot/prop warehouse actions, are some actual things of historical value. Almost every exhibit that features a particular book or author contains a good-condition, first edition copy of the work in question. See the photo to the right, which I snapped before I was informed there were no photographs allowed (sorry, there was no sign, and I was taking pictures of artifacts, not works, with no flash). Behold! The entire 17,000 page manuscript of Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle! I have to be honest; I got a bit choked up while standing there in front of it. Not out of any sort of fanboy awe. (I also have to admit that the trilogy is still on my exponentially expanding "to read" list.) I felt a sense of overwhelming admiration for the amount of work that had to go into such an expansive, creative project, and the sheer magnitude of what 17,000 written pages looks like. I can't judge the literary content standing on the other side of the glass, but still, the amount of effort that went into creating these pages is obvious. I know how I feel about my own petty manuscript notebooks, and how I would feel if anyone of them ever escaped my grasp. So, to think that Neal Stephenson lent this massive, handwritten accomplishment out of his grasp is the essence of creativity indeed. Oh, and if you were curious, the little larvae looking things splayed out like armament for a stealth bomber are all the ink cartridges that he used writing the pages.

These are the things that the museum gets right. The annals of SF that are not still possessed by their creators, I would imagine, are largely in the hands of private estates or collectors, and in the words of Dr. Jones, "belong in a museum" for the sake of preservation and public display, if nothing else. This manuscript is a rare artifact of the writting process, and not to automatically conclude that Mr. Stephenson will or will not join the same canon as Shakespeare, Homer, and Isaac Asimov (chuckle), but these are things that could all too easily become lost, come the all-too-near apocalypse. I, for one, pledge to trek via zombie-sled to Seattle, to form a militia to guard these treasures of humanity.

Anyway, back to the museum. Also on the plus side is the layout. Rather than show the stuff in plot lines (the Star Wars section, the Lost in Space section, etc.) they arranged the museum thematically. You are presented, at each exhibit, with a currated view of a particular aspect of SF. For example, "dystopic stories", or "travel to mars", or "confronting social issues". It made for a much more informative and holistic experience than simply seeing A REAL STAR WARS BLASTER RIFLE!!!!!! Highlights of this aspect include the section on the evolution of fictional spacecraft design, and the behavior and motivation of aliens. This museum is laying the groundwork for college majors in Speculative Fiction Theory, so nerdy teenage males, listen close.

But there is certainly room for growth. There was alot of interesting entertainment-tech, like a hands-on computer that would present various famous spaceships through a widescreen, spacestation-esque view screen. Certainly alot more worthwhile than many other museums' hands-on offerings, but it could be better. SF has, beyond doubt, changed the way that our technology has grown in development and use by predicting and speculating on humans' relationships with their cutting edge tools. Why not do the same in the museum? I'm not suggesting lazer-tag, but maybe a little internet? WiFi units to interact with exhibits, like the audio tours in art museums, perhaps? Other Web 2.0 user particpation could not only enhance the visiting experience, but also build support for this new-concept museum. At the Hall of Fame display, one can email oneself web links for further reading about the inductees. This is a good step, but as fast as the web is expanding, the SF museum has a lot of catching up to do. Just look at the inadequancies of their web site!

One last thing that I would think critical to a study of SF is not only the holistic view point across the "genre", but also a view of it in place within the rest of culture. What does it mean that SF largely consists of marketable media such as toys, books, movies, and other associated paraphenalia? How does being a commodity shape the speculative aspects of SF "vision of the future"? And what is the relationship between speculative fiction and fiction in general? Do we expect different things from them?

Truth told, I had a great time at the museum, though it was only about an hour and a half. It's a great museum, though expensive because it is a for-profit venture rather than a subsidized entity. I suggest you check it out if you are in Seattle with an extra hour, and an extra $15. Frankly, I would love to be a currator for the museum. I can put that on my list of possible careers right between "Pocket Battleship Captain" and "Columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picaynue".

Hooray SF!