Total Pageviews

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

John Prine


There are the songs you love, the bands, the singers. And then there is that special subset that you sing. You sing in your head, or you sing outloud. You sing in the kitchen, cooking. You sing on the bike, biking. You sing in the car, all alone, at 2 o’clock in the morning, heading home.
My mom sang in the kitchen. In my memory, most of her songs involved Jesus. My Dad, on the other hand, seemed singularly untouched by popular song culture. It was one of those things that made him an isolato in America. He was also singularly uninterested in sports – I sometimes wonder what kind of American male reared me. I believe the only lyrics he knew, or that he would come out with (save for mouthing the words of Christmas songs) were: “Red sails in the sunset/far over the sea”. Which he would sing mock crooner style, as though singing were an inherently bogus occupation.
All my family followed Mom, in liking to sing.
My life with song really begins when I reached the age of 12. That was when I was given my own room. Before that, my brothers and me all slept together. Since there was five kids, that made sense – but finally as a present my Dad knocked a room out of the part of the basement that was used for storage and as a play area. It was a huge gift to me. My Mom gave birth to me, and I am bound to her in my heart; my Dad, I’m not bound to so much. But I have to remember that, in a sense, giving me that room, he gave birth to the person I became. For good and ill, my adolescence was defined by that room. Virginia Woolf is your best guide to spiritual real estate – she’s damn right, everyone needs, at one point or another, a room of their own.
As we all know, adolescence -m in the U.S. at least – is when we find our own songs, our own soundtrack. Our own singers.
Or never.
Alone in my room (at last!), I furnished it with a clock radio, which I kept tuned, always, to WREK. WREK is the Georgia Tech station. WREK taught me the canon, from Bob Dylan to Frank Zappa, from Leadbelly to Herbie Hancock.
WREK gave me John Prine.
The songbook in my head consists of songs by great singer songwriters and lesser ones. It contains the entirety of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” a song which has been experimentally proven to last on a ten speed bicycle around the entirety of the Lake Austin bike and hike trail. It also contains numerous Donna Summer songs from the Bad Girls album (from post WREK days). It contains many songs I don’t sing and wish were not in there, but that the internal voice repeats when it hears them, from Lynnard Skinner and Elton John.
In this repertoire, John Prine stands in the upper ranks, next to, say, Neil Young.
At some point in my teenage years, by folks bought a bigass Sears stereo, which was a real piece of furniture, long, wooden (probably pine wood when I think of it, dyed mahogany) with a lid under which there was a record player. You could stand your albums up in a space that was closed by a sliding door. I don’t remember when I bought my first John Prine album or from where (probably from a long lost store called Treasure Island up on Memorial Drive), but I remember what it was: Common Sense. That album I can almost play in my head.
This isn’t to say that Common Sense is absolutely superior to, say, Diamond in the Rough, or other Prine albums. It doesn’t have, for instance, Paradise, a song that is all about the old sadness of American culture, right up there with Woody Guthrie’s Deportees. It doesn’t have the hymn, Diamonds in the Rough, which I like to sing outloud, my own “Red Sails in the Sunset”. It doesn’t have Christmas in Prison.
But its first three or four songs are almost perfect. For instance, the line from Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregaard, about the passing of the strange American counterculture, “and you talk about/ a paper route/ she’s a shutin without a home” I could put on my resume. Or the line from Common Sense: “it don’t make much sense that common sense/don’t make no sense no more” – which I think about frequently in the age of Trump. And then Middle Man, a song-patter with the usual excellent Prine similes (“Flo talks slow like she’s slow dryin’ paint”). And there is the great, chilling, He was in Heaven Before he Died, with the perfect line “a person can’t tell his best friend he loves him/till time has stopped breathing/ you’re alone on the hill”. Part of having a practical, singing relationship with songs is that these lines are quoted as I remember and heard them. There are two schools about this: one is literalist and insists that departure from the text is an error, and one school that holds that variants are the life of song – it is what inflated a little ditty about a scandal in Troy to the Iliad.
I’m in the latter camp. Elvis Costello in some interview commented about how much he liked Dylan and how much he felt certain of his words were too mumbled, and he quoted an example – which, the interviewer pointed out, was not correct. Costello had the song “wrong”. But he had the song.
All of which is to salute John Prine as he struggles with Corona Virus. Cause I don’t want to wake up some day and realize that part of me – of us – is gone and I said nothing.

Pick through the ashes/
Of the torch singer’s song…

Monday, March 30, 2020

complete article: the stock market and its problems


In the wake of two major bailouts, a decade apart, following on a crash in 200-2001 and overshadowed by the twin phenomena of de-industrialization and an enormous increase in wealth inequality that should be compared not to the U.S. in the twenties but to Ancien regime France in the 1730s, the question arises: why do we have stock markets?  And, more broadly, why have we allowed, or even encouraged, the burgeoning of financial instruments  in the post Bretton Woods period? The so called shadow markets, or the other kind as well, that advertise themselves as security for other financial instruments, but always not only fail in that responsibility, but always crash themselves, bringing about chain reaction crashes?

Peter L. Bernstein, who was an investor, journalist and economist in one, observed that stock markets have increased in the post-war period from around 50 in 1948 to around 125 in 1998. This speaks to something attractive in the current period about the stock market. He examined the common defense of the market in a great paper entitled Liquidity, Stock Markets and Market Makers, published in 1987 – on the brink of Black Monday, 1987, when the great Reagan stock boom crashed.
Bernstein considers the standard defense of the stock market – that it allows liquidity and is an instrument for efficiency. Stocks, in this story, reward innovation and that kind of efficiency that squeezes profits from enterprises, allocating capital accordingly. On the other side, they punish enterprises that stagnate and that fail to be “efficient”.

Bernstein does not leave the story there. In his paper, he notes that the stock market system is embedded in  and necessary to the corporation system: “One of the great features of that legal creature we call the corporation is how readily it facilitates transferring ownership in business. Perhaps the most impressive consequence of that feature has been the development of organized stock markets.”
From that premise, Bernstein considers a tension – what a Marxist would call a contradiction – between the two poles of efficiency and liquidity:

“There is a tension between liquidity – a market in which we can buy and sell promptly with minimal impact on the price of the stock – and efficiency – a market in which prices move rapidly to reflect all new information as it flows into the marketplace.”

Hark ye at the information talk. One of the fruits of the ‘cyborg revolution” (to use Phllip Mirowski’s phrase) was the recasting of managerial and speculative activity in terms of information. Bernstein’s essay quotes amply from a lecture by Fischer Black entitled “Noise”, which is permeated with the information paradigm. It refers to Claude Shannon’s distinction between signal and noise. Primitively, these terms are just what they seem: if you broadcast a message, there is an amount of static – noise – that adheres to it. If you write down a message, there is a distortion in your handwriting that may make it hard to read. “Noise” is the ‘friction of information. If you exchange information with a person, the tone of your voice and expression on your face, your properties in the socius, all of these come with that information. We realize this at some Piagetian point in youth. Five year olds know how to say ‘yes’ to their parents in a tone that signifies ‘no’ – this is the noise of raising a kid.

To return to the handy information paradigm in economics (and observe my restraint: for those worried that I would get on the warpath about Hayekian ideology, which rode piggyback on Shannon’s communication science, rest assured – that isn’t my concern here) – Bernstein usefully takes from Black the idea, paradoxical as it may seem, that ‘noise’ provides us with the practical solution to our contradiction. Noise traders are essential to the liquidity of the market. In fact, they are as essential as information traders. Noise traders (“who trade on noise as though it were information”) are essential for information traders to have to sell to or buy from: why? Because information traders are, as it were, grouped at the efficiency end. Their “information capital” restricts the incentive to trade “They are reluctant to trade with one another, because, as Black puts it, “a trader with a special piece of information will know that other traders have their own special pieces of information and will therefore not automatically rush out to trade.” The P.T. Barnum principle (there’s a sucker born every minute) has a systematic effect that often rewards suckers and makes them useful, unbeknownst to themselves.

Bernstein’s use of the dichotomy between information traders and noise traders serves as a foundation for making some curious observations.

The one that concerns me is the “orderly” market. The theoretical defense of the stock market is that it discourages “unnecessary” volatility. Prices of stocks should point to some equilibrium valuation of the enterprise that has issued the stock. But there is a problem:

“What happens if the fundamental value or equilibrium level changes, however? In an orderly market, that change may take a long time to appear, as the price meanders rather than leaps to its new equilibrium. In that case, an orderly market is inefficient, in that its price information is giving false signals to potential buyers and sellers. Here is where we would want the noise traders to shut up and where market resiliency is a disadvantage rather than an attraction. In other words, orderly is not always a desirable property of a market.”

It is easy to read over economist’s prose, which seems to be iced over just to make the laiety glide slip and tumble, never noticing the enormities beneath his or her feet. Bernstein’s caveat here is basically that, in solving the paradox posed by liquidity and efficiency, we slip out of the true information defense of the market and admit that it is laced with false information – or false “signals”. Because these are not immediately corrected – because the market is constructed to slow volatility (especially going down – an asymmetry that comes with wanting to sell stuff), over time synchronous and chronic missignalling can and will happen. Whether the signaling is about the value of Latin American mines (the cause of one of the first stock crashes, in 1830, when the Bank of England nearly went bankrupt) or the supposed risk insured construction of mortgage backed securities, something is going to be going wrong. This is not a contingent truth, but simply a result of the rules of the market. It is as if you constructed a board game in which the very rules incentivized cheating and covering up the cheating.

  II.


Bridges sometimes collapse. Yet few people would argue an anti-bridge position from that fact.
But what if bridges collapsed in unison? What if one bridge collapsing in the U.S. caused half the bridges in the U.S. to collapse, which in turn caused bridges to collapse in China, Japan, and Europe? Would this change how we thought about bridges?

In 2008, according to D. McKennie, the collapse of the NY stock market caused other markets to collapse as well, so that at the end of 2008 35 trillion dollars worth of equity wealth was wiped out. This is rather like my case of the bridge. The bridge is probably the most efficient means to get people across rivers and abysses, but we would certainly want them to be built with maximum attention to safety if they threatened to bring about world-wide catastrophe if just one collapsed.
In actual fact, unlike bridges, there is one market more than any other that has the capacity to bring all others down in its fall, and that is the NYSE. However, this doesn’t really effect too much my parallel: we would in fact seemingly want to make sure the NYSE is the best secured stock market in the world given the structure of the international economy. And we would want a clear idea of what it does best.

That idea is not helped by a theory that says: bridges always operate efficiently, so that we don’t want to interfere with their building. Or the idea that if bridges went down and killed millions of people, but millions more than that theoretically flowed over them, everything is cool. 

My analogy is straining at the bit, or has broken the leash, at this point. The point, this point, is that we don’t know if stock markets are the most efficient ways to allocate capital if we don’t include in our overview the fact that markets collapse. 

When they collapse, there are always economists to say that the collapse only costs unreal money money in excess of the value actually destroyed. Which is another way of saying that the efficiency of the market is paid for by each stock by some speculative prime – some effect of the  famous price to earnings ratio. That is, for most companies listed on the stock exchange, the value of the companies assets and revenue are exponentially less than their capitalization. This is the root of Piketty’s theory of the inequality structurally produced by capitalism.

In terms of efficiencies, the premium put on capitalization seems oddly inefficient – do we really need to attract investment by creating these chances for extraordinary wealth for the speculators? It is a question that has been posed before, in the progressive era, when laws were considered to put a cap on the amount an enterprise could be capitalized over its non-capitalized value. This progressive proposal has fallen in the dust, along with so many others. But as the financial markets both increase inequality and seem inherently prone to massive government supports due to the crises endogenous to their structures, we have to start dusting off these proposals again. We have to start thinking about the abnormal size of the financial market in proportion to its function, and the price we want to pay for this system of corporate ownership. A question should haunt us: Does capitalism have to be this way?    

Thursday, March 26, 2020

why do we have stock markets


In the wake of two major bailouts, a decade apart, following on a crash in 200-2001 and overshadowed by the twin phenomena of de-industrialization and an enormous increase in wealth inequality that should be compared not to the U.S. in the twenties but to Ancien regime France in the 1730s, the question arises: why do we have stock markets?  And, more broadly, why have we allowed, or even encouraged, the burgeoning of financial instruments  in the post Bretton Woods period? The so called shadow markets, or the other kind as well, that advertise themselves as security for other financial instruments, but always not only fail in that responsibility, but always crash themselves, bringing about chain reaction crashes?

Peter L. Bernstein, who was an investor, journalist and economist in one, observed that stock markets have increased in the post-war period from around 50 in 1948 to around 125 in 1998. This speaks to something attractive in the current period about the stock market. He examined the common defense of the market in a great paper entitled Liquidity, Stock Markets and Market Makers, published in 1987 – on the brink of Black Monday, 1987, when the great Reagan stock boom crashed.

Bernstein considers the standard defense of the stock market – that it allows liquidity and is an instrument for efficiency. Stocks, in this story, reward innovation and that kind of efficiency that squeezes profits from enterprises, allocating capital accordingly. On the other side, they punish enterprises that stagnate and that fail to be “efficient”.

Bernstein does not leave the story there. In his paper, he notes that the stock market system is embedded in  and necessary to the corporation system: “One of the great features of that legal creature we call the corporation is how readily it facilitates transferring ownership in business. Perhaps the most impressive consequence of that feature has been the development of organized stock markets.”
From that premise, Bernstein considers a tension – what a Marxist would call a contradiction – between the two poles of efficiency and liquidity:

“There is a tension between liquidity – a market in which we can buy and sell promptly with minimal impact on the price of the stock – and efficiency – a market in which prices move rapidly to reflect all new information as it flows into the marketplace.”

Hark ye at the information talk. One of the fruits of the ‘cyborg revolution” (to use Phllip Mirowski’s phrase) was the recasting of managerial and speculative activity in terms of information. Bernstein’s essay quotes amply from a lecture by Fischer Black entitled “Noise”, which is permeated with the information paradigm. It refers to Claude Shannon’s distinction between signal and noise. Primitively, these terms are just what they seem: if you broadcast a message, there is an amount of static – noise – that adheres to it. If you write down a message, there is a distortion in your handwriting that may make it hard to read. “Noise” is the ‘friction of information. If you exchange information with a person, the tone of your voice and expression on your face, your properties in the socius, all of these come with that information. We realize this at some Piagetian point in youth. Five year olds know how to say ‘yes’ to their parents in a tone that signifies ‘no’ – this is the noise of raising a kid.

To return to the handy information paradigm in economics (and observe my restraint: for those worried that I would get on the warpath about Hayekian ideology, which rode piggyback on Shannon’s communication science, rest assured – that isn’t my concern here) – Bernstein usefully takes from Black the idea, paradoxical as it may seem, that ‘noise’ provides us with the practical solution to our contradiction. Noise traders are essential to the liquidity of the market. In fact, they are as essential as information traders. Noise traders (“who trade on noise as though it were information”) are essential for information traders to have to sell to or buy from: why? Because information traders are, as it were, grouped at the efficiency end. Their “information capital” restricts the incentive to trade “They are reluctant to trade with one another, because, as Black puts it, “a trader with a special piece of information will know that other traders have their own special pieces of information and will therefore not automatically rush out to trade.” The P.T. Barnum principle (there’s a sucker born every minute) has a systematic effect that often rewards suckers and makes them useful, unbeknownst to themselves.

TO BE CONTINUED



Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Santa Monica 2012


What’s escape to the mapless girl
Lugging earbait on Wiltshire and Fifth
Jilling the edge of tonight’s magnesium splendor?
Disappear, baby, down the convenient alley
To end up in someone’s car.
All that suck n fuck machinery
-- Set in motion to produce this drop?
… as ratcatchers in prowlers come howling to a stop.
- Karen Chamisso

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Rachel Kushner's Mars Room take 2



At the dawn of movie-making, there were no stars. Indeed, as film historian Michael Newton writes, the actors were:

“… puppets, mannequins, and not expected to reveal through their external image a complex inner life. Those early bioscope models were anonymous, subordinate to the piece of film itself; indeed, the earliest films were ‘performed by people who were anything but actors’, sometimes literally just folk picked up in a café.3 Erwin Panofsky remarks that the cast of a prestige 1905 production of Faust are ‘characteristically “unknown”’.

“Even then, however, the camera seems to pick out certain people. Newton cites a short story by Rudyard Kipling, Mrs. Bathurst, in which the narrator sees a film that documents a London crowd crossing a bridge and sees someone he knows, Mrs. Bathurst: ‘There was no mistakin’ the walk in a hundred thousand’ and ‘She walked on and on till she melted out of the picture – like – like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle.’ The film transmits the unique ‘blindish look’ she has, preserving in light that something that was hers, while not being her, merely a trace, both a mere picture and a mock-up of the real thing.”

It is a commonplace to say that Mary Pickford was the first star. Newton accords that honor to a French comedian, Max Lindner. It is clarifying,however, to remember 19th century  theater and opera, for definitely there were divas and “stars”. By the end of the 18th century, the great actor or actress had even become respectable. Before the 18th century, theater was, technically, a demi-monde for the Church – both Catholic and Protestant. In one of those moments in the French Revolution that seem to cast shadows down to us, the Assembly debated making actors and executioners full citizens – and ended up adding Jews to that list. Clement-Tonnerre made the speech introducing the civil rights bill.
Passing to actors, he demonstrated that, in their regard, the prejudice is established on what they are under the dependence of public opinion. “This dependence makes our glory and it flays them,” he cries. “Honest citizens can represent on the stage the chef-d’oeuvres of the human spirit, works filled with the healthy philosophy that, thus put in a position where every human can appreciate it, has prepared, successfully, the revolution that is now in operation, and you tell them: you are Comediens du Roi, you occupy the national theater, and you are criminal (infame)! The law must not let this crime subsist.”” (from Gaston Maugras’ Les comediens hors la lois).

What was the eeriness of the actor about? I’d suggest that we look at a doctrine made famous by Ernst Kantorowicz’s study, The King’s Two Bodies. The Sovereign was invested with a pollical body as well as one of flesh. Similarly, the actor is both the actor and the “part” – an uncomfortable parody, perhaps, of the miracle of the Eucharist. There was a “star system” in the 19th century, in which opera and theater were the great popular as well as high cultural arts, but it was metaphysically different from what happened with the movies. Though Rachilde [Proust’s composite portrait of the great diva] played the part of Berenice, people did not go to the theater to see Rachilde, they went to see Rachilde play the part of Berenice.

But in the movies, the character – with the character’s name – is swept up in if not identical to the actor. Even as the actor is more than the part. Jake Geddes is different from Jack Nicholson, but it is forgivable if people substitute Jack Nicholson for Geddes when they talk about the movie. A theater part lives on – Hamlet did not die with Garrick, nor with Olivier – but the movie part is a more ambiguous kind of aesthetic creature.
I am pulling all this out to try to explain my impression of the cinematic quality of Rachel Kushner’s novels. We still use the old Greek system for thinking of the novel, with the hero or protagonist and the secondary characters – the rounds and the flats, to use E.M. Forster’s terms. The roundedness is supposed to refer to some psychological completeness, some depth that can be evoked but not, if the round effect works, exhaustively shown. Myself, II think it might be more interesting and capture more of the way we read novels – or the way I read novels, given all the cultural syrop I’ve absorbed through every medium – by referencing the star system. I’ve read many novels with round and flat characters, but the novels that mark me with being of my time, so to speak, have stars. Both Reno in The Flamethrowers and Romy Hall (named for a star, Romy Schneider) in The Mars Room are bit parts, extras, but both are written as stars. The seem at once to be perfectly integrated into their parts and to be playing them – a sovereign shuffle. They are unknown celebrities.
I would like to be able to explain this quality by reducing ii to its devices. 
 ....

In The Man Without Qualities, an important Habsburg official, Count Leinsdorf, is shown in relation to Ulrich, the MWQ himself, and Diotima, his cousin, a socialite who is determined to be a “spiritual” force in Austria by holding a salon in which she mingled noteworthies of various types from finance, art, academia, and politics. Count Leinsdorf is the main attraction in the salon; he goes out of friendship, but, as well, because he thinks of Diotima as holding an “office”:
“Every person,” he would say, “performs an office within the state; the worker, the prince, the artisan, are all civil servants.” This was an emanation of his always and under all circumstances impartial way of thinking, ignorant of bias, and in his eyes even the ladies and gentlemen of the highest society performed a significant if not readily definable office when they chatted with learned experts on the Bogazköy inscriptions or the question of lamellibranchiate mollusks, while eyeing the wives of prominent financiers.”

The duality of the person and the office – which is extended here indefinitely – is structurally like the difference between the actor and the part in a movie, or like the “vehicle” and the gene in neo-Darwinism, or like the King in his body and the King as the body politics in early modern theory. There are enormous variations in the signifying of these dualities. For the novelist, there is always the temptation to make the character stand in for the type – to give the character, as it were, an “office within the state”. This way of reading character is mainstream among critics, I think, who suffer from an obscure embarrassment with regard to stories – it seems that the story can’t justify itself, except with children. The story has to be justified by reference to its “office” in the state – to its illustration of ethico-political principles.

There is that. And there is ordinary life, in which people do indeed take characters as role models, but mainly in terms of excitement: it is some taste of existential excitement that ordinary life craves in music, in movies, in novels, in poems.

Movies, I think, long ago became the central aesthetic object in the West due to the way that the part and the actor seem to merge and separate – the dancer could and could not be told apart from the dance, either on the screen or in “real” life, which unrolled like a movie itself, in celebrity-centered media.

The axis of the Mars Room is just this kind of duality: Romy Hall, as a stripper named “Vanessa”, attracts a mook, a fan, who becomes her stalker: Creepy Kennedy, as Hall thinks of him. How can we tell the stripper from the strip? Creepy Kennedy can’t: he can’t understand his own relationship, as stalker, to “Vanessa”.

Reno – another nickname, or star name – in The Flamethrowers takes a job at a film lab as a “China girl” – that is, she is used, filmed, in order to get the fleshtones right for films in something called a “film leader” – all artefacts of analogue film of the period. She is anonymous, her job consisting of looking as “representative” as possible – which means Caucasian and “comely”, in spite of the name of the “official function”.  

“Most people didn’t know China girls existed. The lab technicians knew. The projectionists knew. They had fovorites, faces of obsession, and evn if I liked the idea of my own fleeting by, I knew the technicians looked at the frames more closely, and I liked that, too. I was and was not posing for them. Pieces of film leader were collected and traded like baseball cards. Marvin and Eric preferred a polished look. “The problem with the girl-next-door thing”, Marvin said, “is that with recent Kodachrome its actually the girl next door. Her name is Lauren and we grew up together in Rochester.” The girls, mostly secretaries in film labs, weren’t exactly pinups, but the plainer-looking China girls were traded just as heavily. The allure was partly about speed: run through a projector they flashed by so fast they had to be instantly reconstructed in the mind. “The thing suppressed as an intrusion,” Eric said, “is almost always worth looking at.” Their ordinariness was part of their appeal: real but unreachable women who left no sense of who they were. No clue but a Kodak color bar, which was no clue at all.”

The China girl is the anti-star, the bit player par excellence; at the same time, the China girl, too, has a double existence – shares, on the most miniscule scale, the division between the actor and the part. This is the abyss – molecular, suppressed – which Kushner finds worth looking at, and elevates into a principle of character construction.

As well, into a principle of form. In the Flamethrowers, the form of the monologue – the characters are always telling stories, giving the novel a sort of “All about Eve” feel, without Eve here having any ambition at all – surrounds the substance, which is about an art scene in which film has a central role. The New York art scene of the 70s. In The Mars Room, while there are many movie references, the whole movie motif is absent. This is an underworld, a dangerous classes, novel, split up between the monologue and the quasi-indirect mode of discourse, which Pasolini hailed as an important resource of film. These characters are just the type who do not “fulfill” a state office, who flee from the office – strippers, drug dealers, chiselers, mooks, dopers, uncared for children, careless parents, growing up in the interstices of society and waiting – not to be discovered by Hollywood, but to be discovered by the Incarceration state, as they inevitably will be. 




Sunday, March 22, 2020

Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room - take one


Emily Rust, in “Hitting the "Vérité Jackpot": The Ecstatic Profits of Freeze-Framed Violence(Cinema Journal 2011) has remarked that:

“… a number of American films from the late 1960s and early 1970s conspicuously employ freeze-frames in scenes of protracted brutality. The documentary In the Year of the Pig (Emile de Antonio, 1968) as well as the fiction films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969), Joe (John G. Avildsen, 1970), and The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974), in addition to the primary subjects of this essay - Gimme Shelter and Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968) - are but a few examples.”

Rust, shrewdly, conjoins violence at the highest levels – John F. Kennedy’s assassination as the prototype – to the popularity of this technique. The assassination films – in particular, the Zapruder tape – have been obsessively scanned and stopped, as though an explanation lurked in the absolute stillness imposed by the freeze frame. A stillness that, in good old high modernist fashion, comments on its own medium – since film is, after all, a sort of mirage, the movement being of the strip of film conveying a sense of the seamless jointing of the object. Zeno’s arrow at the boxoffice.

Rust’s makes a useful historical comparison, leaving adrift, however, the question of why violence and the freeze frame waited for the 60s:  “Like the slow motion and superimposition of experimental works of the 1920s, the early use of freeze-frames signaled the transformative power of cinematic vision, which promised to unveil alternatives to conventional perception and experience. Freeze-frames from the late 1960s and early 1970s share this revelatory spirit, but the relationship between photography and cinema that they mobilize also reflects and reaffirms the quest for authenticity that animates the period's preoccupations with ecstatic practices and violence.”

Left out of Rust’s catalogue of freeze frames in narrative film is Truffaut’s famous ending of The 400 Blows. In Truffault’s film the interest is less forensic than narrative – or, to make a distinction that is less confusing, the position of the freeze frame at the end of Truffaut’s film gives it a narrative weight that is absent from a freeze frame that allows us to gaze, say, at Kennedy’s head being blown apart. The motive force that drives the movie resolves itself here by – not resolving itself. The arrow stops, to reflect on the impossibility of its stopping.

All of this freeze frame rap has to do with something that isn’t a film: it is Rachel Kushner’s Mars Room, which I recently finished and am thinking about. As in The Flamethrowers, Kushner’s book ends with a woman going into the mountains and coming to some kind of endpoint to a theme in her life – to, in a sense, her narrative position in the story. All the references I’m making to 60s and 70s films are relevant to Kushner’s practice – her novels are startlingly cinematic, not in the sense that one feels that they are simply props for a future screenplay – which is what most action novels aspire to (I should say used to aspire to – now they aspire to being video games), but in the sense that they are thought through in a cinematic way. Just as the freeze frame in the sixties and seventies films so often meant: there’s nowhere else to go in this society – so, too, the ”freeze frame” that ends The Mars Room means: stories like these have an energy that finds no outlet – just as people like these have an energy that finds no outlet. Spinoza, somewhere, says that if a thrown stone could think, it would think, I'm doing this of my own free will. Imagine that stone having doubts. The story of Romy Hall, the main character in The Mars Room, is a correlative to the society of deaths of despair, which is the epidemic that was occurring, in the States, before our current epidemic.

I’m gonna continue this on another post.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Buddha's parable of the burning house - Brecht


This is a  good time to read Brecht. Here’s a translation of my own of Brecht’s Buddha’s parable of the burning house - Def plaguetime reading


Gotama, the Buddha, taught
the doctrine of the wheel of lust, on which we are broken
and advised the undoing of desire
and going wishless into Nothing, which he called Nirvana.
One day a pupil asked him,
What is this Nothing, Master? We all wish
To
throw off all desire, as  you advice, but tell us
If this Nothing in which we will enter
Is something like being one with all creation when one lies in water, floating, in the afternoon,
Almost without thought, at ease in the water, or like
Falling asleep, hardly knowing one has
Tossed away the blanket, quickly sinking –
Whether this nothing is joyful, a good nothing,
Or whether this nothing of yours is only simply nothing,
cold, empty and meaningless.
The Buddha was silent  for a long while then he said
There is no answer to your question.
But
towards evening when that crowd all went away
The Buddha sat under the fig tree and told the others
Who had not asked a question the following parable:
Recently, I saw a house burning. The flames licked the roof.
I saw
that there were people still inside it.  I stood at the door
And
called them, that it would be best to act quickly and get out because
There was a fire under the roof.  But the people seemed to be in no hurry.
One asked me, while the heat was already singeing his eyebrows,
What
it was like outside, for instance, was it raining or windy?
Was there some other house to go to?
Without answering, I went away.
These, I thought, have to burn before they stop asking questions.
In truth, my friends, to those whom the floor is not so hot
That they would rather exchange it for any other than remain there, to those
I have nothing to say.  
Thus spake Gotama the Buddha.
However, even we ourselves, who are
Not concerned with the art of enduring all things,
But are concerned with the art of not-enduring them
Of offering all kinds of earthly suggestions and teaching people
To
cast off human pain -we too think that
In the face of those who, seeing the bomber squads flying over the capital cities
Are still asking questions like, what do you think, and how are you conceiving this
And what will become of their savings accounts and best clothes
If everything is thrown upside down
We have nothing to say.


Pictures, trophies, America by Karen Chamisso


Description won’t save you Marianne
Playing possum in a still life
“in tolerably good light” drawing what I can
every Popeye with an Olive Oyl wife

is the dollhouse dream. I dream it too
though my skin and bones were built on killing
not on visits to the zoo
or Audubon’s bird book whilst I’m chilling

out in bed after seeing the doctor.
Audubon hired a boy to search out nests and
 “assist in skinning birds” – wh/ wouldn’t have shocked her
haunter of antique shops and

flea markets and amateur of all the freaks
 – I recognize myself, a skinned thing
as freak as any carved out of teak
trailing a disease from my wings

or: “a small spotted bird, standing a little pigeon-toed
with a waiting expression…”
Waking, I find the taxidermist has sewed
my mouth shut, like the last passenger pigeon.


Saturday, March 14, 2020

Poems in Prose: what are they?

In times of crisis... as stocks of toilet paper get low... as one realizes that one is in the higher danger age set... one thinks: have I really made my views on prose poetry clear? Which is why I've been writing this, first of two parts.
What is prose poetry? Part 1
Definitions, like stories and songs and jokes and explanations, do play a role in ordinary life. Usually, however, their role is to be enlisted in argument – not argument as per the ideal case of philosophy, where a case is presented for a certain thesis against other theses, but argument as in emotionally fraught disagreement between two or more people. Philosophy and ordinary life overlap: there is always a bit of a case being made in ordinary life, and there is always a bit of an accusatory edge in the philosophic use of definition. Gorgias, that wonderful dialogue, makes this overlap emerge. Out of the pocket of Gorgias, I’d like to say, came the entire existential novel.
But I digress. Say I am asked to define the spoon, fork and knife that I see before me at the table. I’d say something like the spoon is a handle with a scoop at the end, the fork a handle with tines at the end, and the knife a handle with blades at the end – in other words, all are elaborations on the handle. This being ordinary life, I’d probably add what they are used for, even though I’d recognize that you can eat peas with a fork as well as a spoon, and that you can stir sugar in your coffee with a knife blade as well as a scoop, etc. The particular use of spoon, fork and knife have to do, eventually, with their design genealogy: definition at this point spreads out and becomes a portrait, a “biography”.
These might seem like miserly concerns: we all know what a spoon, a knife, and a fork are! Yet in the law definition often becomes a tricky way of gaining advantages one way or another. Take the definition of a truck. We have an idea of what a truck is, as opposed to a car. Yet “we” are not automobile manufacturer lobbyists and executives. This is from the Wikipedia entry on sports utility vehicles:
“In the United States, many government regulations simply have categories for "off-highway vehicles" which are loosely defined and often result in SUVs (along with pick-up trucks and minivans) being classified as light trucks.[3][16] For example, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations previously included "permit greater cargo-carrying capacity than passenger carrying volume" in the definition for trucks, resulting in SUVs being classified as light trucks.[17]
This classification as trucks allowed SUVs to be regulated less strictly than passenger cars under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act for fuel economy, and the Clean Air Act for emissions.[18] However, from 2004 onwards, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to hold sport utility vehicles to the same tailpipe emissions standards as cars.[19] In 2011 the CAFE regulations were changed to classify small, two-wheel drive SUVs as passenger cars.[20]
However the licensing and traffic enforcement regulations in the United States vary from state to state, and an SUV may be classified as a car in some states but as a truck in others.[21] For industry production statistics, SUVs are counted in the light truck product segment.”
So I hope we can all see, before we get into our SUVs tonight, that definition is more than “mere semantics”. No, definition is part of human life itself. Semantics can be denigrated as you like, its mereness a kind of excommunication from seriousness, but it returns again because – well, I have to use words when I speak to you. And so the definition figures in that image and product of human life itself, literature.
Take this, from Notes from the Underground, which is in the direct line of descent, I’d like to claim, from the Gorgias. Here the Underground man confronts the abstract notion that runs through our ordinary lives, our governance, our place on the planet, our relation to the cosmos: advantage.
“Advantage! What is advantage? And will you take it upon yourself to define with perfect accuracy in what the advantage of man consists? And what if it so happens that a man's advantage, SOMETIMES, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous. And if so, if there can be such a case, the whole principle falls into dust. What do you think--are there such cases? You laugh; laugh away, gentlemen, but only answer me: have man's advantages been reckoned up with perfect certainty? Are there not some which not only have not been included but cannot possibly be included under any classification? You see, you gentlemen have, to the best of my knowledge, taken your whole register of human advantages from the averages of statistical figures and politico-economical formulas. Your advantages are prosperity, wealth, freedom, peace--and so on, and so on. So that the man who should, for instance, go openly and knowingly in opposition to all that list would to your thinking, and indeed mine, too, of course, be an obscurantist or an absolute madman: would not he? But, you know, this is what is surprising: why does it so happen that all these statisticians, sages and lovers of humanity, when they reckon up human advantages invariably leave out one?”
The underground man is right to think that definitions often fall into a listing of properties – we even think of definitions, vaguely, as inhabiting that great list, that cultural monument, the dictionary. And he is also right that as we plunge into definitions we come to strange contradictions. As for instance: the prose poem.
Ah, the prose poem, that puzzling platypus of a thing. While Baudelaire was not the first person to write one, I believe that – give or take Gaspard le nuit – he was the first person to write a collection of them, Spleen de Paris (1869). It is a collection that he fronted with a letter to his publisher, where he wrote perhaps the most famous definition, of a sort, of the prose poem:
"Who among us has not, in his days of ambition, dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple enough, bumpy enough that it adapts itself to the lyrical movements of the soul, to the undulations of daydreaming and the summersaults of consciousness?
It is chiefly of the frequenting of enormous cities, the crossing of the innumerable relations that this obsessive ideal is born. You yourself, my friend: haven’t you ever want to translate into song the strident cry of the vitrier, to express in lyric prose all the desolating suggestions that this cry sends up just to the rooftops, high above the level of the street fog? "
In the Petit Parisien of October 29, 1897, a “Jean Frollo” – pseudonym of some of the writers of the paper – wrote an article on street cries that traces them from the thirteenth century to the late 19th through mention in various broadsheets and poems, as well as books of drawings. He reproduces some of the cries – the vender of almonds, the huckster of a bathhouse, etc – and tells this anecdote about two glaziers – vitrier:
On this topic, you know the story about the two vitriers. One, possesses a sonorous organ, threw out his vibrating cry: ohe! Vitriiii!... while the otyher, who followed 15 paces behind him, timidly, profited from the lungs of his comrade by merely saying, softly: me too!”
Baudelaire, one notices, does not give a definition of the prose poem but, rather, gives us a certain atmosphere in which to accept the prose poem – to justify it. That justification is linked to doing it: Baudelaire asks his publisher if he has not himself dreamt of something like a prose poem, had it evoked or provoked in him by the chances of the day, street encounters, the sound of merchant cries, the huckster’s shuffle. The prose poem such as Baudelaire wrote em becomes central to French poetry: Lautreamont, Rimbaud, Mallarme, Max Jacob, Michaux, Ponge, Char, Jacottett, Jabes, all worked in the veins of the prose poem, some exclusively. At the same time as the verse poem disappears from newspapers and magazines, a sort of observing essay, the chronicle, appears there, with features that are indistinguishable from the prose poem. All of which tends to frustrate the searcher for definitions, for the hard and fast, for the base of the argument, the principle of the accusation or the defense.
TBC

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Depoliticizing Trump

It is difficult to wipe away our images of things and see the things themselves. Take Trump.
If America was simply a white nation, Trump would have an approval rating in the high fifties. This has an effect on how Trump, whose approval rating has never broken fifty percent and is usually around 45, is seen in the press, which is dominated by white people. And it has an effect on the rump group of whites who are very anti-Trump.
One has to pull back and understand how segregated America is, both by race and income. Take the latter. The collapse of African-American wealth – and to a lesser extent, Latinx wealth – is one of the great stories of our time. And it is pretty uniformly not known to white America.
A 2018 survey found that whites severely underestimate the racial wealth gap. They think that black wealth is about 80% that of whites. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveals that black wealth is about 7% that of whites.
In 2014, the median net worth of non-Hispanic white households was $130,800. The median net worth of black households was $9,590. It was $17,530 for Hispanic households. Native American wealth has not even been measured since 2000. At that time, their median household net worth was just $5,700.
In seeming contrast, Asian American households have more wealth than white households. But that apparent success story hides a wealth gap within the minority. The richest Asian Americans held 168 times more wealth than the poorest Asian Americans. It’s a greater disparity that white households, where the richest 10% owned 121 times more than the poorest 10%.
The gap is worsening. Between 1983 and 2013, white households saw their wealth increased by 14%. But during the same period, black household wealth declined 75%. Median Hispanic household wealth declined 50%.”
One has to begin here. Segregation in the neoliberal era is performed by the market as much as by redlining banks. It is a world that thrusts together people who share an income band. The forty some percent of white Americans who disapprove of Trump live, for the most part, in a world where that is a minority opinion. In that world, it seems like Trump is a much more powerful figure than he is. You can always place an oped piece in the NYT lamenting that one’s parents now watch Fox and support Trump. These stories are almost always written by white people. It is the rare African-American who has to contend with his or her parents supporting Trump. Outside the Hispanic communities in Southern Florida, it is a rare Latinx writer whose parents are afflicted with the Trump cult mentality.
The racial and economic segregation has an enormous effect on the way politics is reported – how the narrative is woven – in the U.S. In certain subgroups – for instance, in academia – there is a curated diversity that serves, to an extent, to create an image of an America that doesn’t exist – rather like the placement of token African-American actors in Little Women to create an illusion that this isn’t all just about white settler descendants.
The diversity mirage is not an entirely bad thing. There is something utopian about it, something that speaks to how things could be. But it has the pernicious effect of marking itself as real, instead of utopian. In that falsely real world, white pundits can confidently pronounce about the black community as though they know all about it. These pundits rarely pronounce about the Latinx community because they ignore it almost entirely. One thing we do know for sure: when these people go home from work, they do not go home to the houses owned by those with a lifetime accumulation of 9,500 dollars to retire on. They go home to their stocks, bonds, and health insurance. They go home to the residential asset that they will someday sell for half a million to a million.
One of the effects of this segregation is that the hatred of Trump is oddly not political. It is a hatred of Trump’s tweets. It is a hatred of Trump as the tool of Putin, which is simply absurd. In that hatred, everything is about defeating Trump, and little is about the future of the country and how to change it. Frankly, from the viewpoint of those sitting in the over 100 thou range, why change? Meanwhile, the income band of all ethnicities below the 100 thousand range are facing changes that will all go against them. In the neoliberal era of nudgery, the government “helping” lower income people – say with the EIC, an idea that comes out of Milton Friedman – is immediately followed by the government hassling lower income people, as the IRS devotes more resources to auditing the janitor who claimed EIC than the CEO whose tax deferred compensation in ten millions of stock is going to be taxed, if at all, at a laughably low rate by an IRS that has radically retreated from auditing the wealthy.
Once one has a real grasp of how desperate things are for the majority of Americans, and how non-desperate things are for a large minority, the weird de-politicizing of the political starts to make sense. I have read many pro-Hilary Clinton pieces, since her documentary came out, that woozily include laments for Elizabeth Warren, as though the real importance of Warren was being a woman just like Clinton. In a trice, identity here simply erases Warren as a political person, who ran on a raft of proposals that HRC has mocked and derided since she was first elected to the Senate in 2000 up through her post-presidential race career. Warren presented a serious and thorough critique of Bill Clinton’s political economy, up to reversing all the “reforms” Clinton signed off on in 1999-2000. And she proposed a billionaire tax that is anathema to Clinton and her allies. Elizabeth Warren proposed eliminating student debt on her first day in office as president. Yet from the viewpoint of the +100 thousand dollar seats, all that one can see is: Elizabeth Warren is a woman, Hillary Clinton is a woman. Voila.
This de-politicizing move is masked by being ostensibly all about politics, just as Hollywood diversity is ostensibly about reality. But it isn’t.

Monday, March 09, 2020

my query letter

This is the year I intend to publish my novel, Made a Few Mistakes: a chapter from the Bush years. I have been sending out query letters, but have not had a nibble. So I thought, okay, people read my blog. Some people, at least. So maybe I should crowdsource editing suggestions on how to make this letter work. When I used to write freelance, I had a sense of how queries worked, but this is apparently not my world. Two thousand words on a topic, well, it doesn't take that much commitment. 208000 words, which is how big my novel is - around 550 pages - well, that takes effort. I know this. I've edited the thing down, but it has large bones.
 So I need help.

I've sent out many query types. This is my latest. I've incorporated an insane number of suggestions, overdosing on books dealing with queries and agent interviews dealing with queries. So I am lost in the maze. 

So, if you have suggestions, please mail me at rogergathmann@gmail.com. Or leave me a comment. 
Thanks

Dear x,

May 1, 2003 was an auspicious day. President Bush gave a speech announcing the end of hostilities in Iraq under a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.” This was the first mistake. The popular conservative Governor of Texas, Hutch Sterling, went to a victory party that night. There he was captured on a telephone camera making out with one of the beauty contestants of the organization that threw the party, the Patriot Foundation. That was the second mistake. The Governor’s wife, Holly, pulled into the parking lot of Austin Wines, popped into the store for a bottle, and brought it back to the car. Later, at around 11:00, her mutilated body was found in the back seat of her car, which was parked at the side of Lake Austin Boulevard up where it runs past the golf course. That was the third mistake. The next day, Joan Malcolm saw it on the news. Malcolm knew Holly, slightly, had interviewed her. Malcolm was well known writer – most known for her first book, Your Enemies and Mine: Notes on the Goth Aesthetic, a surprise best-seller in 1984. Malcolm decided right away that she had to do this murder. In fact, as the months dragged on, Malcolm, it turned out, would have more success than the police in tracing the line that lead from Holly’s body to Hutch’s seeming culpability. That was the fourth mistake.

“Auspicious”. Auspicious comes, according to one daring etymology, from haruga, the entrails of the victim, and aspicere, look. The Roman aruspice would examine the sacrificed animal’s innards, and find there signs of the future as legible to his experience as the signs of the Zodiac in the sky. The case of Holly Sterling did have a victim, one could even say a sacrifice, but what were the signs signifying? In 2003, they signified the confluence of many social forces: the growth of cable tv stations, often reflecting some billionaire’s predilections, where the content was 24/7; the growth of internet media of all type, where content was 24/7; the global war on terrorism complex, taking over a spot that was once filled by the Cold War complex; an economy that was in recovery from the tech crash by means of a mortgage bubble that was growing and growing, debt creating affluence rather than affluence creating debt. Joan Malcolm, who’d made her bones on finding enemies and attacking them, found this new world as full of enemies as the eighties or the nineties, but somehow they had sunk below the old levels. Even the Iraq war, that spectacular fraud, was not up to her level. But the murder of Holly seemed to be something symbolically more, some final revelation of the era’s infâme, and she threw herself into it with a sort of relief. The story traces both the many paths that led all the characters to their moment, on May 1, 2003, and the paths that led some of them out of it.

My novel, Made a Few Mistakes (208,000 words) is a variation on the usual crime novel (for instance, it never comes to the firm conclusion about who done it and why that anchors most crime novels). It is, as well as a crime novel, also a political novel, a state of the nation novel, like Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted or Susan Choi’s American Woman.  It has an admittedly large word count, but one that encompasses a multitude of Shandian turns, giving a sense of the zigzag that pulls the reader – Joan herself, going over her notes, for instance – further and further in.
I am looking for an agent with highbrow tastes in literature and lowbrow tastes in American marginalia. 

I would like for you to represent my novel. [Put in here some relevant info on why]

I’ve published a non-fiction book (Everyman’s Marx, Mark Blatty, 2012), and a translations from German (The Basho of Economics: An Intercultural Analysis of the Process of Economics, Ontos, 2007), as well as numerous reviews and essays for a number of magazines (American Scholar, Poets and Writers, Salon, Feed, etc.) and newspapers. I was the academic book reviewer for the Austin Statesman from 2008-2011.

I am sending the first chapter with this letter.
Yours sincerely,
Roger Gathmann


Made a Few Mistakes
By Roger Gathmann

Chapter 1
Order out of disorder – A shocking crime– Some bit players –
Consciousness and creepiness.

In Rudolf Arnheim’s dense and fascinating Entropy and Art, the famous art historian makes an extended attempt to translate the thermodynamic definitions of order and disorder into the realm of aesthetics. Arnheim was a crossroads savant, a man who liked the idea of viewing, say, aesthetics through the prism of physics and physics through the prism of aesthetics. One of those polymath European refugee types that were knocked around the twentieth century, ran out of cigarettes in refugee camps in France, died lice-ridden in concentration camps in Galicia or Siberia, or escaped the various traps and cattle train cars to spend quality exile time in the US archipelago of colleges where they were as awed by the raw animal beauty of the students as they were non-plussed by the astonishing childishness of their references and mores. The sororities. The fraternities. The football. The chewing gum. In his book, Arnheim introduces his entitling duality with an illuminating example from one of the great rituals of everyday life: shuffling cards.
The usual interpretation of this operation is that by shuffling, say, a deck of cards one converts an initial order into a reasonably perfect disorder. This, however, can be maintained only if any particular initial sequence of cards in the deck is considered an order and if the purpose of the shuffling operation is ignored. Actually, of course, the deck is shuffled because all players are to have the chance of receiving a comparable assortment of cards.

Now, to tell the truth, I was so struck by this passage that I tossed aside Arnheim’s book for the day to absorb its full implications. Day followed day, semester semester, until the need to read until the end died one of those deaths well known to ambitious but promiscuous readers, those who are always seeing in the book they hold an obstacle to the book they really should be reading. It was years ago, but in looking through my notes about the Sterling case, Arnheim’s example leaped out at me from some shadowy corner in the brain. I hope the Master – or his shade, for consulting the Internet, I find that Arnheim is no longer with us, his death surprisingly recent – will not mind if an unfaithful reader such as myself filches it. Shuffling, to be all structuralist about it, contrasts with another image of order and disorder in our contemporary quotidian – the switch. The switch and its rituals. We live in a world of switches, and probably use them dozens of times a day. I counted once myself, one day, in the interests of precision, and got to fifty-five by cocktail time. They have created an unconscious but powerful idea among us that disorder and order are mechanical. They are perfect antitheses. On/off, live current/dead current, the universe/chaos – such is the model. A chicken, in fact, can be trained to operate a switch. But shuffling! Ah, shuffling has something pathetically human about it, something characteristic of our ambiguity-seeking, ambiguity-fearing species! Order in disorder, disorder out of order. Our public lives we like to think of in terms of switches, our private life in terms of shuffles. Ha! I have my doubts.

We all wish that the case of Holly Sterling conformed to our model of the switch. Guilty/not-guilty, victim/murderer, good/evil – we would prefer to find these things at the base of it. The trial, or trials, were constructed, after all, to satisfy this desire. The system is built on these switches: the system of justice, and of our sentiments, and of our newspapers, and of our moral impressions. But those of us who have considered the case as a whole, with its larger ramifications, keep coming upon a shuffle at the heart of it – in fact, a sort of diabolical shuffling of motives, facts and factoids, as though the game that was being played might be crooked, and not at all, finally, a homogeneous order/disorder satisfactory to each player. Order in disorder, disorder out of order – this is what we keep coming back to, as we grope in the dark for some master switch.

So do we begin the case of Holly Sterling in 1991? That was, you could say, her big media debut. Standing on the Circle City courthouse portico next to her husband, Hutcheson, she was making the prim smile of the picture perfect political wife as her husband announced that he was running for the District Attorney post in Williamsberg County. Because he was a Sterling, there was a bigger than normal crowd for such an announcement. And because this was his maiden speech, Hutch was nervous. Becoming more seasoned, he’d use a teleprompter, but on this occasion he made the rookie mistake of reading from his notes. When he got to the phrase, I will put the full force of my fortune behind my duty, he said: I will put the full force of my duty behind my fortune. He paused, knowing he’d bobbled it. Then Holly did an astonishing thing. Her prim smile became a guffaw. She balled up a fist and playfully whacked her husband on the shoulder. He looked at her, she looked at him, and they both laughed. Holly then leaned over and said into the microphone, ooops! The crowd loved it. They loved all of her at the moment, from her bobbed blond hair to her black Gucci pumps. Later, the newscast of the event was broadcast not only in the Austin area, as local news, but on news programs all over Texas.
Or should we begin two years later, on February 10, 1993, two weeks after the burial of Holly and Hutch’s only child, when the couple stood, again holding hands but this time a little more desperately, clutching hands is more like it, as they gave their lives “back” to Jesus, a transaction presided over by the telegenically beatific gaze of the “Wagon Master” of the Frontier Fellowship, the rangy, ‘g’ droppin’ Jebulon McCord?
Or do we push the case back further into their youth, contrasting Hutch’s Houston opulent youth, full of those intimations of future greatness that were a prominent part of his campaign literature, and Holly’s rags to riches story, in which the omens were more ironic and the smoothing hand of the publicist more challenged?
Well, as far as the public was concerned, the Holly Sterling case proper begins with a conversation between an ACP cycle cop and a police dispatcher. Maury Lockwood, the man with the police scanner who caught this transmission for the world at large, was eventually hauled into court to defend himself re the doubtful legality of the tape, and fined at the end of his trial, but nominally, his lawyer having made several pertinent points about freedom of information and the evident disparity between the law’s prosecution of Lockwood and the blind eye it turned to the media; and what with the sale of the thing to KXOX, Maury about broke even. KXOX did better, selling it at a considerable markup to their national network. From there it was picked up by all of the others. By May 02, 2003, the nation, if it wanted to, had heard it ten times on the regular channels, and some exponentially greater amount on the news cable stations. As a result, this is a very well-preserved tape, and it is now archived by many an amateur on YouTube, where you can find it if you need to refresh your memory. Expert listeners have been here, as well as cranks, whose comments are also available on YouTube and a number of conspiracy web sites that I will leave it to the reader to find on his own. Cleaners of data, clearers of interference, scraping down to the vocal thrust through the matter, the levels of noise, the friction of magnetic flicker rubbing magnetic flicker. The tape is all neatly transcribed, except for one controversial burst of static that gave rise to the well-known rumor… Well, about poor Holly’s head, which has joined Marie Antoinette’s and Jayne Mansfield’s in a very special pantheon -- although Holly’s does not belong there, according to the official version.
            And if we can’t trust the official version? But really, isn’t this what the whole Sterling case was, on one level, about?
The female voice in the dispatch office of the APD is anonymous, and some would say Southern, although the brisk pace, the verbal speed, indicating that she had been trained, at least, in getting straight to the point in the least amount of transmission time possible; on the other hand, the Southern slant of the ACP cycle cop’s voice belongs, as we know from TV interviews since, to Paul Strange. Perhaps it is appropriate – or at least more fun, and what is a media circus without fun? – to enter this case via the small fry, the essential bit player. Paul Strange fits the type. Oh, does he fit the type! Poor Paul. When he was picked up on that transmission, Paul was a twenty-three-year-old who’d moved to Austin (“back to Austin”, he insisted) in 2000, a good year for inflow to the booming Central Texas metropolis. He was short for a cop, in fact that was one of the problems he had to deal with when applying to the Accelerated Cop Program, but at some point, his height gained an inch in the official dossier, and he was in. He was baby faced, with droopy eyelids, sleepy, shadowed eyes. Loose about the mouth, and distinctly lacking in the facial hair department – Paul took out his Bic razor only once a week, and then the lather floating about in the pooled water in the sink disclosed a discouragingly thin scum of dark shavings that would cling for days in a ring around the sink until his girlfriend would tell him it was disgusting and she wasn’t going to clean it up again. He’d been educating himself at the Community College in all the arts necessary for the career he’d dreamt of: criminology, psychology, English 101, and management science, which he imbibed sitting, as he invariably sat, in the back row, staring under those somewhat bluish lids at his instructor with no light of intelligence in his eyes, apparently waiting in vain for the strings of sentences and bullet points to cohere into a possible exam answer. The bullet points were new, but the stare, the scribbled scramble of his essay answers, the pity C, were old news, known (and now forgotten) to Old Mr. Maier (geometry), Mrs. Snail (geography) and Miss Annie Mackeral (reading) in, respectively, high, middle and elementary school. These schools were located in Duluth, Georgia, and so at that time was Paul, much to his chagrin. At the age of two, he’d been stored next to his sister, Amee Lea, and a box bearing the title, “Misc”, in the back seat of the Malibu, and hauled to Duluth, with his mother, Bonnie, controlling sibling rivalries  from the front seat as she nervously navigated the speed on the highways going from Austin to Atlanta, treating herself during the one night stopover at the hotel in Natchez to approximately four martinis (which, she estimated, were the equivalent of the usual one valium) to relax the knot she felt in her chest, the stifled fright accumulated from estimating crash opportunities as they opened up constantly on either side of her. Bob and the furniture were already waiting for her in Duluth. Paul blinked at all this, sucked his thumb, cried when Amee Lea poked him (out of boredom more than meanness – Amee Lea was mostly protective of her Boo) but didn’t think much of it until later. Later began when he was six, which is when he was thrust from the warm blanket and snack of kindergarten into the harsh glare and hard seats of elementary school and began his quest to find an edge. Miss Mackeral, using the most up to date theories in psychology (she’d aced her course at Georgia State) wrote a note to Bonnie describing Paul as “lacking in self-esteem.” By sixteen, the lack had been filled somewhat: by smoking pot, by a fanatical devotion to certain cop shows and to the Stone Temple Pilots, and by weaving around himself a story of being really from Texas. In the crowd of freaks he hung around, he gradually acquired the name Tex. He loved that.
What really closed the self-esteem gap, however, was his discovery, as the end of high school came into view, that a certain kind of girl was just wild about heavy lidded, baby faced boys. This type of girl, he was happy to find, was often “kranked” to “do it like they do it on Discovery channel.” Doing it made him simply happy. Paul was very good at the lineaments of satisfied desire, which set him apart from many of his friends, male and female, although he didn’t know it.
Here is an excerpt from the KXOX broadcast, May 2, 2003:
PS:  DHQ, I’m ACP Paul Strange here. I have a bit of a what you call a tricky, uh, situation here … There’s a car here, silver, 02 Lexus, let’s see ... and I’m knocking at the windows. Over.
DHQ: I’m reading you, PC 40, coordinates please, over ...
PS: And you know I have been told that if I run into….
DHQ: Where are you, PC40, over
PS:  Easing the car door open. Its unlocked…
DHQ: That’s a negative, PC40. Coordinates. Coordinates officer! 
[Various background noises:  something metallic, a muffled what the…  Jesus (expletive) …  oh, god damn, a whooshing sound, expletive shit, a rushed sound of bootfalls on pebble]
DHQ: Did you open the door? Tell me you did not open the door.
PS: Door is open. And this woman, this woman, I think I have a part of her on my
[Background sound of croaking and spilling]
DHQ: Are you all right? Officer…
PS: Paul.  My name is Paul Strange. I’m ACP. Get somebody the (expletive) here... Somebody, some sick, oh man, her (static) head.
DHQ: I’m getting a lock on you. A cruiser is coming. Back away from the car.
PS: My dinner come up.

This transmission gives us these for-murder-fans essential anchoring points: a car, a place, a body. Paul Strange had found the night a little too hot, and at a certain point had taken off his gloves, which is why his prints were on the window, the door, the seat, Holly Sterling’s boot. And Paul’s digestive fluids mixed with food were in the foot area of the back seat. This was unfortunate from the point of view of the clean crime scene, as was made evident at various trials. It was not an encouraging start for a candidate officer, either. And when the Austin Chronicle picked up on the fact that Paul Strange was out there that night with a minimum of training, due to a program that had been run on the quiet for two years to increase the police department’s manpower at a low cost, the ACP program was quietly folded. As for our bit player, Strange, he got into a fight in a bar three months later, and was suspended from the program. However, being interviewed three times on television and at the trial gave him the idea of starting his own private security company, which he did. He went bankrupt in 2006.
As soon as the murder squad came on the scene of Strange, the cruiser, and the Lexus, the license plate became an issue.  Detective Chuck Reilly left his partner to debrief Strange again and personally made the drive back to HQ, calling Ludlum at home on his cell. ‘See me at the office,” Reilly testified later, “something like that. That’s what I told him.”
 When Bennett Ludlum got to the scene at 11:30, he’d had his talk with Reilly.

“I just told him that it was the Governor’s car. No sir, I didn’t tell him we got a bomb on our hands. No, I never used the words bomb, explosion, any of that, to my recollection. No, I don’t know why they printed that, sir. I figure they got the wrong end of the stick.”

Everybody at the scene by 11:30 p.m. was aware that this was on a Need to Know basis.
Everybody at the scene did not include Strange, who was getting tired of going through the same story over and over down at HQ.
Not that the body was identifiable with 100% certainty. For instance, there was no purse or wallet in the car. The contents of the glove compartment had been cleaned out. As for the monuments of our mortal decay – for instance, the smell in the car, which had been modified when Strange opened the door but still preserved the overheated smell of blood, Chanel No. 5, urine and feces – these are general enough to form no reliable standard of identification. The woman, on the back seat, was face up. In a manner of speaking. However, a certain circumstance altered the immediate recognition this face would provoke in the observer – if the observer was minimally interested in state public affairs, or fashion, or the society pages of several Texas newspapers. Just that year the cover story in the Texas Monthly. Three cover stories in the last four years. As a matter of fact, Ludlum had known her, in life, in a manner of speaking, enough that she remembered him the last time he’d been up at the Capital[MOU1]  and she’d spotted him. Her memory for names and faces was definitely an asset, they said so in the Monthly article. 
By 12:00 a.m the car had been hauled down to the APD-HQ. The Austin Police Department had located its headquarters on the shadow line between East Austin, where the shadows were poorer and darker, and Sixth street, which was a contact zone for the collegiate and the vagrant, lined with buildings that, under the raw Austin midday sun, looked dirty and in need of repair, but were lit up at night with neon lights that gave them collectively a shadowy allure, to which was added the amplified music broadcast into the street from every other door, making the entire arrangement seem momentarily legendary if you were in the 18 to 22 demographic. The ten story, rambling building, built between two one-way streets and always seeming to be blocked by construction work on one of the streets, barely accommodated the needs of a force perpetually losing its race with the growth of the city it served, as the loser in the last mayoral race – who used the lack of a police force to tout his “concealed weapons for all” theme – liked to point out. Ludlum had been with the force long enough to remember the old HQ, which was made of brick – rather than the fake slate cladding wrapped around the new HQ – and was now inhabited by the Association of Retired State Employees. He’d liked his old office, which looked out on a block of those central city houses that had been converted into lawyer’s offices or get out of jail bail shops.  His office on the third floor of the new building didn’t have an exterior window. The Lexus was docked in a pen in the back of the building, preparatory to a thorough going over. Ludlum had supervised the transfer of the corpse to a stretcher, and watched three men roll it through the metal doors (with the cringeworthy bang, as if the sad dead meat of the corpse could still feel the indignity of this treatment) which would lead to an elevator, a long underground corridor, and the “toyshop”, the domain ruled by Travis county coroner Dr. Bill Herndon. 
Then Ludlum turned to the business of getting in touch with Sterling. That Ludlum did not as of yet have the first clue proves that Ludlum was not a big fan of local tv news.

The pertinent agencies were alerted: the Austin branch of the Texas Rangers, the Protective Detail attached to the Governor’s office, the Austin D.A.’s office, and as was disclosed in Contrarian.com four months later, King and Crockett, a limited liability corporation with an image management mission in politics, and a long and complex – or in the words of Frank Crockett, a “mutually fruitful” – relationship with the Sterling administration. The quote is from an article in Contrarian.com. One of several. Joan Malcolm’s articles. The one that topped Contrarian’s “most emailed articles” list for 2003.
James Loveless was at the center of this one. James Loveless was the man Ludlum approached in the hall that night. Loveless was connected to the APD as a consultant in, of all things, hypnotherapy. Ludlum had conflicted feelings about hypnosis. It was an issue he thought about a lot in high school, when he’d reached a plateau playing baseball, and began to explore around, reading Zen and the Art of Archery, experimenting in self-hypnotic suggestion, applying certain suggestions about forgetting the monkey mind and being in the ball as it left the pitcher’s hand, and this had paid off in elevating his batting average by one hundred points and making him a quicker, more responsive third baseman, not just simply catching the ball but understanding it as he flipped it from glove to hand to throw to out. This had landed him on the bench at U.T., where he was just below the grade that was good enough to start, and where the whole baseball thing had petered out in pinch hitting and pity substitutions at the bottom of the ninth, when it didn’t matter. But at the same time he’d developed other collegiate interests: namely, popular science books and girls from the art department. Going out with the latter, he learned about Mayan prophecy, Neuro-linguistic programing, tarot and lithium. Reading the former, he gained a surface knowledge of quantum fluctuations, the selfish gene, Schrödinger’s cat, the n+ dimension of strings, and the fact that the human retina receives ten billion bits of information per second, but by the time this information is processed by the brain, we operate on one hundred bits. I am, therefore I edit. Of these two world views, Ludlum put hypnosis in the arty girlfriend category. And yet, he’d worked on cases where hypnosis worked, where witnesses – like Lana, the seventeen year old girlfriend of the killer in the South Congress MacDonald shooting – would, unconsciously, reveal information that they had supposedly forgotten – edited out with the 9 billion 999 million some bits they’d trash at every glance.
There was that. And there was that hypnosis had a very creepy aura.
He also didn’t like the idea of letting the unconscious contaminate a nicely constructed case connecting one material evidence to another, which was the most righteous way to go to court. 
So these conflicts came up and expressed themselves in this instinctive shrinking back whenever Ludlum came into contact with the tall, cadaverous Loveless, with his parchment white skin, that white hair, that skull like face, sporting those bespoke linen suits, bending his way through the halls of APD HQ, confabbing with the D.A.  And this, too, put Ludlum off, because he never knew (”it really pisses me off that I don’t know!” he told Maureen, his girlfriend) who Loveless was working for. The man worked for several masters – the D.A., the new Texas Department of Homeland Security, and of course King and Crockett.  When Ludlum joined the APD in 1993, there was an obvious distinction between the state and business. In those days, while the politicians were forever praising “private enterprise”, there was no notion that business could or should take over the functions of the state: taxing, imprisoning people, teaching, fighting wars. This was, of course, no longer the case in 2003, either at home or abroad. The definitions of graft, insider dealing, of equality before the law, of transparency, had been put on the back burner. Now Ludlum was always bumping into some private consultant, some contractor, demanding information they had no right to or providing ‘advice’ and ‘resources’ that you, a) weren’t going to follow because it was bullshit and more paperwork, and b) that you had to be nice about so the guys at the top saw that you were ‘on board.’
Tonight, however, Ludlum was not so irritated by the thought of dealing with the draculine Loveless for the simple reason that he needed to find someone to entrust with the delicate task of telling Governor Sterling that his wife had been murdered and her eyes… well, he needed to be told, and then later they could fill him in on the details. Loveless, Ludlum knew, was connected to Sterling. Somehow. How was unclear, but everything having to do with Crockett and King was unclear. Everything having to do with the new homeland security mandate was unclear, too, but Loveless was connected to that. Thus, when Loveless’s long, slightly clammy fingers clutched Ludlum’s wrist – the man was a wristclutcher rather than a handshaker, which Ludlum imagined he must have gotten from hypnotherapy – Ludlum did not shake him off, but told him that he needed to see him, that they had a problem.
“I’m glad we are finally interfacing Ben,” Loveless said. 
Down in the toy shop Herndon was saying, “bet you it was an ice pick. She should thank God, I guess, that he didn’t pull out the knife for these (and he pointed) until she was probably beyond mortal consciousness.”