“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, December 15, 2001

Limited Inc, with our unholy talent for screwing up -- there must be an equation for this showing that Limited Inc's single life of screwing up is equal, in number of screwups, to the total of at least three other people put together (one named Larry, one named Mo, and one named Curly) -- made a mess of our income, survival chances for winter, and mental health yesterday. We've been writing on money laundering, we've been on the phone to fabulous Paris and London -- and by the way, the British phone service has gone the way of so many things in Post-Thatcher England, from convenience to nuisance -- we've talked to investigators and libertarian freaks and friends of the Somali peoples and what happens, what happens with this overload of carats? We come in with a piece that is too long and too late. We don't know yet if the newspaper that commissioned it on spec is going to throw it back at us, but we are afraid, very afraid. And the worst part is that we very much wanted to bootstrap from this article to another article about Mexico's dirty war, the secrets about which are now starting to spill.

Limited Inc's excuse for this state of affairs is so piss poor it doesn't deserve to survive in prose. But we will no doubt return to our private Tora Bora, our cave of misfortune and chaos, at another time.

In the meantime, the News! Yes, we are aware that crazy Sharon is staging a firesale of Israel statehood (everything must go!); we are aware that bin Laden might be captured any minute now; we are aware that the first collateral damage from Enron's collapse is hitting; but none of these things move us, no, enchant us like Robert Gottlieb's review, in the NY Obs, of Uplift: The Bra in America


Is this the way to begin a review or what?

"You may have worn a brassiere, you may have helped a friend or two take off a brassiere, but have you ever really thought about the brassiere? It�s not too late. �Brassieres must do more than fit a multitude of bodies �. They must accommodate the same body as it changes through the monthly cycle and through the life cycle. They must provide for movement of the torso and arms in many directions without chafing or binding and without slipping out of position. As if that were not enough, brassieres must also retain their own structure through multiple wearings and launderings; must not abrade in contact with clothing; must remain, as a rule, inconspicuous beneath the outer clothing while harmonizing with the desired silhouette; and must be priced to sell to many customers. No wonder hundreds of attempts have been made to design the ideal breast supporter over the past 140 years.�

Wednesday, December 12, 2001

Remora


Definitely check out ALEX KUCZYNSKI's article, in the NYT, on how the elite go to prison. Ah, the rich are imprisoned different from you and me - they employ prison consultants, of course, to get the best penal deal. Post-conviction consultants, excuse me, is what they call themselves. Does Limited Inc find it ironic that the sharpest criticism of capitalism you are gonna find in the NYT comes in the Style section? What do you think, honey? Although let's be fair: the style section of almost any newspaper from a fair sized metropole is going to have news of more stunning import, re the class war, than a year's subscription of the Progressive. It is the nature of the beast to be beastly, and where else is it going to show itself in full stretch, all the odors, the fur, the claws, the stinking maw, and the rest of it on parade? Conspicuous consumption includes conspicuous odiousness -- there's an analogy between the status one accrues by wasting magnificently and the status one accrues by wasting the moral codes magnificently.

This is one of those articles that suffers, bleeds, from being parceled out for your pleasure. But here, just a taste, as they say in the cocaine trade:

"Does the client play tennis? There's a federal prison camp for him in California. Will she volunteer for community service, or has the client given generously to charitable organizations? It might be grounds for a reduced sentence from a federal judge, who can choose to make an influential recommendation to the Bureau of Prisons. Will the client admit to a drinking problem? Then he can be admitted to an alcohol rehabilitation program in prison, which also serves as a way to reduce total sentence time."

and a few grafs down:

"Like a crazy riff off a Suzanne Somers infomercial, Mr. Sickler's literature [Mr. Sickler is the Dickensian name that runs the penal search consulting firm] showcases bright testimonials from happy customers. One client, Charles Ravenel, is a former South Carolina gubernatorial candidate who pleaded guilty to conspiracy in October 1995 for his role in the failure of the Citadel Federal Savings Banks, which prosecutors described as one of the biggest bank frauds in the state's history."

And... but you can get Ravenel's story yourself. Limited Inc has written a little review of a book about the Rikers Island prison in the New York Observer (July 22), and with our beady collagist's eye, we see the irresistability of the juxtaposition of ourselves and the style article. Bad habit, you say, to start quoting yourself? Admit it, we don't do this much. Now:

"Imagine this scenario: The young Al Gore�who, we know from his own mouth, possessed and used illegal drugs on "rare and infrequent" occasions during the 70�s�is living in the South Bronx in the 1990�s. Strip him of his family and money and paint him another color; let him then be captured in a drug sweep by the police and accused of selling an ounce of marijuana�a prison offense. Alternative Al has the typical characteristics of a Rikers Island newbie: 92 percent of the Rikers population is black or Hispanic; one quarter can�t afford, or can�t find somebody else to put up, bail of $500 or less. The predominance of blacks and Hispanics in the system doesn�t mean that whites never encounter the criminal-justice system�on the contrary. The large majority (71 percent) of under-18�s arrested by the police are white, but even in that age group, the selection bias is tilted against minorities: apply the alchemy of the justice system, and two-thirds of the under-18�s who actually end up in jail turn out to be black or Hispanic.

After Al exchanges the clothes he was arrested in for the Rikers greens worn by his 20,000 or so fellow inmates, he�ll discover that he has an official commissary account with a $150 charge against it. He has to come up with that sum before he can purchase such luxuries as deodorant or cigarettes. If he leaves the island without paying it back, he can be arrested for it. However, he can discharge the debt with 10 weeks of menial labor. Mind you, at this point he hasn�t been convicted of a crime�he�s merely being detained for trial, like three-fourths of the Rikers population."

Tuesday, December 11, 2001

Remora

"But what Franzen and like-minded critics seem to have forgotten is that the novel's very form has resolutely middlebrow origins; the early novels of the eighteenth century were the Sopranos and ER of their day. Moreover, middlebrow culture�as opposed to truly lowbrow culture, like teen movies or trash TV�has always been the route by which the educated middle-class (and sometimes, this being America, the uneducated underclass) travels to high culture. I read Stephen King before I read Shakespeare..." Yes, and it shows, darling, it shows.

Thus Scott Strossel in the Atlantic.

The idea that Franzen has 'forgotten' that "the novel's very form has resolutely middlebrown origins" is unlikely -- every pornographer, screenwriter, and extra on Gilligan's Island has at one time or another told us that Dickens and Shakespeare were bestsellers. They always say it, too, with this appealing brightness, as if here's a plum of a fact that nobody has gnawed on before. Dickens! As if they were all sitting around reading Little Dorrit in Oprah's green room.

The idea that the Sopranos and Jane Austen are just all part of the same rich stew, ain't they --- shows no appreciation for either Jane Austen or the Sopranos. And very little sense of the historic context -- because, frankly, middlebrow culture wouldn't recognize itself in the early nineteenth century. Then, the culture was still heavily clerical -- middlebrow Volk were prone to read sermons much more than either Jane Austen or Dickens. They were also fond of Latin tag ends. And as for knowledge, any knowledge, of the science/tech complex -- knowledge that allows your average burger in Pittsburgh to sound off about genes at the dinner table, smugly replete with misinformation from Time Magazine -- that didn't have any authority. To pretend that there was an equivalent is to misunderstand how large a part the discourse of science has in establishing who is and who is not educated, and how small a part, say, Calvinist theology now plays in the status system. One could go on and on, but the point, for such as Strossel, is that Franzen's comments on Oprah don't really lead us to some epiphany about where the culture is today.

Furthermore, the idea that Oprah is a populist rests on the very shaky premise that out there, out there in the grassroots, nobody is playing the game of distinction. Since The Corrections is about just those games, played at all levels, I can see why Strossel would diss it. Although he isn't dumb enough to diss it all the way -- otherwise, that early taste for Stephen King would start to stick out a little more.

Strossel's envoi is as, well, obtuse as the rest of the essay, which bears the marks of squeezing out the last juice from the Franzen controversy:

"...it is one thing to be elitist in your aesthetic taste, and another to want to exclude the uninitiated from reading your work�from breaching the high-culture barricades, as it were. Yet this is the message Franzen is sending with his anti-Oprah comments."

Strossel should go out into the real world and have a beer with a middle brow marketer. Or maybe watch the ads on TV, as well as that ER. He'd notice that no company advertises middle browness. Why? Because advertisers aren't as dumb as literary critics for the Atlantic. They know a clueless strategy when they smell one. People want the Lexus, the blond, the less than egalitarian benefits of wealth: crimes you get away with like O.J. druguse like an Interscope record exec, sex with J-Lo, and the waste, and the life of potlach, and the volupte, etc., etc. Fantasy, Strossel, fantasy. Win the lottery, you don't go to Walmart anymore. You think that's limited to Franzen & Co.?

Mr. Strossel, get out of the office and take a good whiff of the hoi polloi before you tell us how Jonathan Franzen has wounded their tender hearts.

Monday, December 10, 2001

Remora

Sierra should be a better magazine than it is. It goes for the faux John Muir touch when it should go for the jugular. Granta has better nature writing, Mother Jones, of course, better investigative writing. Take this article, by Dean Rebuffoni, about the Mississippi As far as it goes, it is unobjectionable. It tells us a bit about the Army Corps of Engineers dastardly, eighty year project to channelize the most unchannelizable of rivers. It goes on a bit, at first, about Mark Twain. It mentions the inevitable result of Mississippi River pollution (propulsed by the afore-mentioned Army Corps of E., who have the idea that the river is a big pipe that can shoot water into the Gulf of Mexico without consequences). Here's a nice graf about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico:

"By the time the Mississippi reaches Louisiana, it carries the collected municipal, industrial, and agricultural wastes of the nation's largest river basin--and keeps on going. Beyond the Mississippi delta, the pollutants and nutrients borne by the river have created the infamous Dead Zone, an oxygen-deprived region in the Gulf of Mexico in which fish, crabs, and other aquatic creatures cannot survive. This summer, it grew to the size of Massachusetts."

Still, there's no mention of one of the great public policy puzzles we are eventually going to have to face about the Miss: keeping it in its present channel, instead of letting it naturally divert via the Atchafalaya, is starting to exert a terrific environmental cost. On the other hand, letting it divert means killing New Orleans and the strip of industry all the way to Baton Rouge. In other words, it means letting Louisiana hang out to dry like a tired work shirt. Do you want to tell those people, sorry, had to let the river do its thing? Nobody wants to talk about this, because the ideology, for one thing, doesn't give you clues. Is it left wing or right wing to say no to the Corps? Meanwhile the mudbanks underlying the coastline of Louisiana are slipping, slipping, slipping, and the Gulf is rising. I suspect that the world's greatest diversion project and this mud-tectonic event are connected. But you won't find a nice account of that in Sierra. You'll find it in Ocean's End -- and here's an enthusiastic review of that book. Why can't Sierra get off its duff and do some real magazine work on an article about the Miss? Because that would scare contributors. They want to row gently, gently gently down the stream, so Sierra obliges. It is sooo sad.

Remora

Peter Beinert has always passed the litmus test for editing the New Republic, as far as Limited Inc was concerned. That is, he's oafish, smug, and prone to Democratic center thinking. The liberalism of the fundraiser, in short, with a foreign policy right of Bushypoo's. But his column about the Right's embrace of civil liberties is, we must admit, pretty on target. Here's a graf and a half:

"... since September 11, George W. Bush and John Ashcroft (who quickly forgot his record in the Senate) have proposed stunning infringements of basic American liberties. An administration that vowed to oppose racial profiling is interrogating thousands of Arab-Americans solely because they are of a certain gender, age, country of origin, and came to this country at a certain time. Thousands of others have been detained indefinitely--their names kept secret--mostly for minor immigration offenses that have nothing to do with terrorism. The administration claims that its proposed military tribunals will be fair because military courts already fairly try American soldiers--willfully ignoring the fact that those courts contain safeguards that the proposed tribunals almost certainly will not.

Liberals have been screaming about this for weeks now, and they should keep on screaming. But they don't matter to this administration. The people who do are on the right."

Compare this with simplistic Christopher Hitchens, who is carrying his Diogenes of the Left act to a comic extreme (he scatters his lamp light looking for uncrazy lefties, or critics of Clinton, or whatever stance he has decided is the most daringly heterodox since Mencken came out for Darwin, and he finds himself, to his great satisfaction, alone, surrounded only by decent right-wingers and members of the staff of Reason Magazine). Here's CH in the Nation:


"Near the bar I ran into Grover Norquist, one of the chief whips of the Reagan revolution. He's also the man who arranged to take the President to the Washington mosque, and he has been very active in opposing Attorney General Ashcroft's megalomaniacal plan to turn the United States into a national-security garrison. Norquist's question to me was, in effect, What happened to the liberals? In meetings in the House, the supposed "USA PATRIOT Act" had been somewhat declawed by conservatives like Bob Barr of Georgia, Darrell Issa (an Arab-American Republican from California) and Chris Cannon of Utah, ably assisted by Bobby Scott, a black Democrat from Virginia. Some of the most extreme proposals of the bill were either diluted or struck out or subjected to a four-year time limit related to the course of the war. But then the White House tried to resell the original bill to the Senate. "That's the Democrats, right?" said Norquist. "But we were assured there would be a fight up there. Instead all the liberals just rolled over."

An assessment with which CH agrees, in spite of the fact that the rest of the press was touting the odd Bob Barr-Barney Frank partnership. But Frank is getting in Hitchens' territory by palling around with a right-winger -- only a daring guy like our contemporary Orwell would even dare...

What isn't being said, and Limited Inc is trying to find a place that would pay to have it said, is that there's a multiplier effect going on: those "gun nuts" who have fastened to the Second Amendment like leeches are starting to appreciate the context of that particular amendment -- the bill of rights. Since we are rather gun nuttish here at Limited Inc ourselves, we view this as yet another reason to keep the american people armed and considered dangerous.

Sunday, December 09, 2001

A O Scott, we've been told, is a seriously endearing guy. But Limited Inc has really not been endeared. Reader, we have tried. We read the dissing of David Foster Wallace last year in the NYRB, and lame came to mind -- teenspeak always seems appropriate for the NYRB approach to American fiction, which is bloodless unto death, and twitters with the ghost of Gore Vidal, whose essays in the seventies about fiction for the magazine had the cranky brilliance usually associated with some man proving that Shakespeare was really the Earl of Oxford -- missing the point was never so strewn with epigrams. Scott, of course, doesn't bring Vidal's career with him to the essay, which is why he can't quite convince us that his dismissal of Infinite Jest is even ... important. Then we come upon bits like today's, in the NYT Magazine: Beauty is back. Although we know the titles of articles are chosen by editors hurrying to get to the bar before happy hour ends, there is something appropriate about the silliness of that title. It is at once anti-fashionable and an appeal to fashion. A headline congealing in its own resentment, in other words, like an old issue of the New Criterion. Then shift through the entrails of this piece (since it is all entrails, it isn't hard to find em there, slimy and wet) trying to imagine the cultural mandarin A.O. will be in ten years, and the signs are bad. Watch out for death by drowning in your own intellectual drool is the vibe we get from our fave entrail shifter, Madame Sosostris. Here, for instance, is a two-fer graf that a cultural mandarin of the caliber of Dwight MacDonald would stare at in disbelief:

"Artists from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst, with their grisly subject matter; filmmakers from Godard to the Dogma 95 school, with their assaults on the audience�s expectation of pleasure; musicians from Sch�nberg to Johnny Rotten, with their dissonant squalls: the recent art that has received the most attention has been that which challenges traditional canons of beauty � and which, at times, challenges its audience�s ability not to flinch.

This kind of confrontation may now have reached the end of the line. In ��Venus in Exile,�� a provocative book published last summer, Wendy Steiner discerns something of a return to beauty, citing the reassessment of previously unfashionable artists like Bonnard and Rockwell ..."

Yes, that is Bonnard and Rockwell in the same sentence, being "reassessed" by critics. Like the guys in gas stations who align the tires on your car , these critics are standing by for reassessment, just bring in your favorite class noun (beauty, truth, justice) and we will oblige. I don't know how to express the ghastliness of the 'and' that connects Bonnard with an illustrator of the Saturday Evening Post, but if ever there were a conjunction to sound the death knell for beauty, this is it. Beauty, here, is not the thing it was for the ancients, or for the Renaissance, or even for the Moderns (A.O. assures us in a previous graf that the moderns turned against beauty in Paris in the 1850s -- which, of course, they didn't. There were two lines in modernism, one which resented the ugliness of modernity, and did its best to bring into relief that ugliness in art as a criticism of the lack of beauty in modern society (Flaubert); one of which sought a beauty particular to modernity (Baudelaire). Now you, my reader, who passed eighth grade, know this, and I presume Mr. Scott knows it, but why dicker with details? Here's a great critic who would have known his Bonnard from his Rockwell:

"Qu'�tait-ce que cette grande tradition, si ce n'est l'idealisation ordinaire et accoutum�e de la vie ancienne; vie robuste et guerri�re, �tat de d�fensive de chaque individu qui lui donnait l'habitude des mouvements s�rieux, des attitudes majestueuses ou violentes. Ajoutez � cela la pompe publique qui se r�fl�chissait dans la vie priv�e. La vie ancienne repr�sentait beaucoup; elle �tait faite surtout pour le plaisir des yeux, et ce paganisme journalier a merveilleusement servi les arts.

Avant de rechercher quel peut �tre le c�t� �pique de la vie moderne, et de prouver par des exemples que notre �poque n'est pas moins f�conde que les anciennes en motifs sublimes, on peut affirmer que puisque tous les si�cles et tous les peuples ont eu leur beaut�, nous avons in�vitablement la n�tre. Cela est dans l'ordre.

Toutes les beaut�s contiennent, comme tous les ph�nom�nes possibles, quelque chose d'�ternel et quelque chose de transitoire, - d'absolu et de particulier. La beaut� absolue et �ternelle n'existe pas, ou plut�t elle n'est qu'une abstraction �cr�m�e � la surface g�n�rale des beaut�s diverses. L'�l�ment particulier de chaque beaut� vient des passions, et comme nous avons nos passions particuli�res, nous avons notre beaut�."

I won't translate this tonight -- I'm too tired. But the particular beauty of this epoch seems to escape Mr. Scott. I must quote him in fine flourish one more time:

"As didactic texts of postmodernism give way to less dogmatic textures � to cloth and ceramic, lush pixel painting and digital collage � the pleasures of medium are beginning to displace the duties of message."

Wow. The lush pixel painting is excellent, since lush, there, must mean something else to Mr. Scott than it does to the common run of humanity, but I love, just love, the closing phrase. You can't end better than on a generalization in search of a truth. Of course, there isn't a truth to be found in this micro-essay. Shall we propose banning, for a while, the "As... give way to" structure in cultural journalism? What it means is, I'd like to definitely say, x is a trend, but I'm a little afraid that I'll be held responsible if x doesn't turn out to be a trend. In fact, it is only a trend because last night I saw a lot of things that reminded me of x. So I will instead describe x as if I'm scientifically confining myself to a process. Oh yes, a transition, better. And if the pixel painting scene (what pixel paintings do you suppose Mr. Scott is referring to, by the way?) implodes, I never said it wouldn't. I just said it had these less dogmatic textures, see.
Hmm, I wonder about these dogmatic textures - are ribbed condoms more dogmatic than the other kind? Or less?