Friday, July 27, 2001

Today's article to get upset about - and what else is the newspaper for? has to be this one:

Panel Tones Down Report on Fuel Economy Increases

Apparently, in the current Bushsphere, panels have to be supersensitive to corporate need and greed. When the Times leaked the story that the Panel on Energy efficiency in Automobiles might actually recommend measures to bring about better fuel economy in the next 4 to 6 years, the panel was "contacted" by concerned automakers. You know how concerned those automakers can get. And hey presto - the measures now have a different time window - just a little nudge. Just 6 to 10 years. Sounds like what happened in the early nineties with the California Air Resources Board, which battled the big three about emissions and lost - but the auto companies are acutely aware that they can't simply crush an emission standard, since that would not look good. Instead, you move the time frame up - it is sort of like Zeno's paradox of the tortoise and the hare.

The hare, here, is a real clean air standard. Let the tortoise represent the auto companies. And let father time be represented by a bunch of greedy s.o.b.'s otherwise known as congressmen, senators, and the president of the united states. The tortoise, in this revised version of the paradox, bribes father time with millions of dollars, and father time obliges by issuing a time edict that makes the hare hop faster and move forward slower. Isn't that a wonderful fairy tale, kids? And it is true.

Ah, and as to the members of the panel who are showing such concern, such touching concern, for the automakers, here's the quote:

"E. William Colglazier, the executive officer of the National Academy of Sciences, said he was confident that the committee would resist all such pressures. Environmentalists have complained that the panel has many engineers linked to the auto industry and no consumer advocates, but Mr. Colglazier said the panel needed technical expertise and was balanced."

The need for technical expertise is important. You have to have that expertise to explain why Ford, for example, needs bigger and heavier platforms to sell bigger and more monstrous SUVs. Sympathetic heads nod on the panel, and everybody goes out for a cigar and a scotch. Shucks, it is a shame, a damned shame, that technologies that were developed, say, ten years ago, using carbon fiber body parts, can't be used to lighten the chassis of these monsters, if they must be produced at all - because, gosh darn it, Detroit just doesn't want to do that. The thing to do when pesky innovators come up with these crazy ideas for reducing car weight and getting better gas mileage is to call upon mysterious technical difficulties, requiring technical expertise by people whose expertise is in designing heavy body, gas guzzling vehicles - and so you see the problem. Now go to sleep.

Here's a nice link for more information about SUVs.
And, as always, I'm the Editor.

Wednesday, July 25, 2001

Ah, since I started the day with a book review, let's go on to the topic of criticism in general, shall we?

I went to get my usual dose of media news at Poynter org and was pointed to this article, by a Sean Glennon.
Valley Advocate | Arts. Now, Mr. Glennon is not a heavyweight, but his article does reveal a very American response to the word critic. Critics seem to open some obscure anti-intellectual toxin in the American body. The idea that one's whole job is criticizing - with the implication that one can do better, and the evident disdain for really doing so - goes against both the native pragmatism and that boosterism which is a thread running all the way back to colonial times.

Mr. Glennon has structured his article on a series of denials - by which I mean denials in the psychoanalytic sense. A denial is embedding an assertion in a grammatical negation - a "not... but." As in, "Not that I am saying you are a liar, but you do have a problem with the truth." This advances propositions behind an ostensible denial that one is advancing a proposition. Of course, the "not...but" structure is not to be taken as the only way denial works - but it is at the core of denial, and one can reduce most denials to sentences of that form. In Mr. Glennon's case, the series of denials goes something like this:

-Not that I read the critics, but here's what the critics are like.
-Not that I care about the critics, but really they should be forced to be reporters before they are critics.
-Not that I think we should have critics.

This kind of logical series is, classically, coordinate with a certain kind of resentment.

We begin, then, with Mr. Glennon denying, first, that he is ever influenced by film reviews:

... I almost never read reviews of movies I haven't already seen. I just don't find most film criticism particularly helpful when I'm trying to decide whether to see a movie.

That's a fair enough position. But, having made it clear that he is not very acquainted with film criticism, he has no problem going on to tell us about film criticism. He tells us his opinion of film criticism without reflecting on the fact that he has just proclaimed his ignorance of film criticism, which, presumably, should undermine his credit with his readers. That is, if they believed his account. It is one of the odd but compelling features of resentment that statements made under the sign of this intellectual mood are not to be taken at face value. We aren't, in other words, to believe Mr. Glennon is as innocent of film reviews as he claims. This rhetorical game of making claims that the speaker presumes the hearer won't quite believe has a name - demagogery. Editors usually block that kind of thing when it comes to, say, a consumer report about cars, or a business story. But when it comes to the arts, editors don't really care. This is an odd but telling fact about newspaper life.

To get back to Mr. Glennon. In the paragraph succeeding his preliminary denial of any concern for or persuasion by film critics, he goes on to analyze the types of film critics - revealing that he does, indeed, read film reviews. This presents us with a conundrum. If he doesn't read critics before he sees films, presumably he reads these critics after he sees films. But why would he do this? It goes against the normal way of treating film reviews, which is to read them not only for the opinion of the film reviewer, but as a guide to what movie one is going to see. It is a very common phenomenon: you are with some friends, you want to see a movie, and somebody pulls out a supplement from a newspaper and starts reading out bits from selected film reviews, and somebody else vets the movies - I don't want to see that, I want to see this, etc. Mr. Glennon is immune to this middle class ritual. But he is also, apparently, secretly obsessed with film critics, since after he sees a film, he collates the reviews from newspapers and magazines to the extent that he has even developed a typology of film reviewers. Otherwise, how would he know enough about them to make the following generalizations?

"What I end up reading most of the time is the work of "critics" who aren't really critics at all -- the ones who don't seem to understand the difference between a review and a plot synopsis. Then there are the dry, tedious, self-aggrandizing, academic essays tendered by critics who think of themselves as "writers" rather than journalists (people who regard the word "reporter" as a slur), and whose main interest seems to be showing off their knowledge of film. And, most infuriating of all, there are those breathless, fawning and utterly shallow raves about movies that almost invariably turn out to be just more of the Hollywood same. "

Notice that critics attracts the scornful quotation marks. Really, to be a critic, in Mr. Glennon's estimation, is something secondary, and vaguely disgusting. The quotation marks, here, prolong the logic of denial. And then there is the positing of the critic and the reporter - both are given scare quotes, but it is interesting that the "critic" lends the scare quotes to the "reporter" - which in a sense negates the effect of the scare quotes. Two negatives, after all, make a positive.

This is all leading up to Mr. Glennon's proposal:
"At the very least, I propose that no one should be allowed to work as a film critic who hasn't logged at least three years as an actual, honest-to-god reporter. Not only would that serve to weed out the bulk of the "writers," the glamour critics and the not-actually-a-critic critics, but it would ensure that the people writing about film have some real-world perspective. Spend a couple years covering fatal shootings and city hall shenanigans and it becomes hard to forget that most movies aren't actually all that important."

At this point the logic of denial breaks down - or perhaps it would be better to say that the revenge of logic on the demagogue is to undermine his point. Because surely Mr. Glennon's admiration for reporters isn't premised on the fact that they make hard subjective decisions about which stories are important and which ones aren't. Or does Mr. Glennon think that reporters who are dealing with some story they think is unimportant - say the shooting death of some vague poor person - should research and write about that event carelessly? Actually, as anybody who has read a regular local paper can attest, this is how the news is reported - with a bias towards the powerful, and an incredible carelessness towards inconvenient facts, if they concern the "unimportant."
From the "Where does Richard Bernstein come from?" department.
Bernstein and Janet Maslin have always puzzled me. Why are they reviewing books for the Times? And why do they chose the books they chose to review for the Times? Bernstein writes as if he had somehow got lost in a wool sweater on some small New England campus in 1958. In today's book review is a pretty typical example: Bernstein discovers - ta da! the police procedural. Let's see, this genre has been around how long? Since the sixties? Here's the quote: Bringing the Real Police to a Police Procedural Procedural � it sounds like something that might happen to you in your dentist's office rather than in your book club, but never mind

Monday, July 23, 2001

Genoa's over. Some of my friends might wonder why I have spent so much time on the jockeying of the Tories in these posts. One reason is because - I wonder if I've said this before? - the remaining left in the Anglo world (the US and the UK) has almost completely died out. Being a leftist in Britain, now, is like being a monarchist in Paris in 1840. It gives you a unique point of view (witness Balzac), but it is a point of view sharpened by the impossibility of the political success of one's views. In the UK, right now, there is only one real ideology - Thatcherism. As Hegel once said, or perhaps didn't, the first time around in history is tragedy, the second time is farce. Tony Blair is the farcical Thatcher - Thatcherism absorbed in a cup of cocoa to make it go down better. But it is still a rabid ideology. Here's what Mr. Blair said about the police in Genoa:

'To criticise the Italian police and the Italian authorities for working to make sure the security of the summit is right is, to me, to turn the world upside down,' Blair said yesterday.

'Of course, it is a tragedy that someone has lost their life. But it's very difficult for the police when they are faced with people throwing petrol bombs and using extreme forms of violence.'

The only thing the police can do, in the face of such violence, is, I suppose, go raid the hq of the non-violent organizers of the protests. And, while they are about it, club some heads. Even Mayor Daley was more sensitive to the situation, in 68.
And this is the man who is the head of the so-called Labor party.
It has fallen to the socialist parties in Europe to play the undertaker for socialism. This has been their role since the Mitterand days - it didn't start with Tony Blair. It is just coming to its comic and shameful end with him, as he privatizes the rest of the transport system and cracks down on civil rights. Of course, anybody with any sense can predict that the transport system will eventually have to be re-nationalized, or junked altogether in favor of the American system - which is to have no system. When that time comes, don't be surprised if it is a conservative government that does the nationalizing - just as it might well be conservative Republicans from the West Coast that bring a halt to privatizing power.

But enough of that. Yesterday I read Sven Lindqvist's History of Bombing. I read it because I am writing a review of Body of Secrets and Suspect Identities for the Austin Chronicle, and I am researching. Also, I read it because I'm procrastinating writing up this profile article I have to finish pretty soon. The important thing is, I read it, and found it, in a grisly way, quite fascinating. I went to two reviews of it, one in the Financial Times, and both of them said essentially the same thing: the problem with the book was that it made our boming morally equivalent to their bombing.
Which comes down to saying this: it isn't as bad to burn the flesh off of a four year old German girl, or to boil out her eyes, or to crush her ribs and skull, or to let her die in a burning building, as it is to burn the flesh off an English or American girl. It's odd - Lindqvist is attacked for moral relativism, for not distinguishing between one side and the other, when the moral relativists are actually those who can distinguish one use of a petrol bomb from another, one slaugher of civilians from another.
Ah, but there is more to say about this book. Maybe I'll get to it in another post.
Write me at Editor

The New Yorker site, which used to be a big joke, is now a really nice place to steal a read - although I still have to go to the library to see the cartoons. Speaking of which, I liked the profile of the zine cartoonist, Clowes, in the current issue:

Sunday, July 22, 2001

Enough and more than enough about Trollope. For at least the time being.

Sometimes the NYT makes me despair for the souls of its editors - for instance, the coverage of the G8 conference. Did you notice that the Times was the only major paper in the world to put the number of protestors at 50,000? Even the Italian police estimated 100,000 - Le Monde put the number at 150 - 200 thou. Washington Post settled for the 100. The Times, however, has always been protective of globalization, and the editors must have decided that 100 thousand people, not to mention 200 thou, was unseemly. So they downed the number. In fact, I'm surprised they didn't take off another zero - what the hell, why not have 5,000 people, mostly anarchists, making whoopee in the streets of Columbus' home town.

On the other hand - I always read the Times. Today, the article of note is on coal, in the Magazine. How Coal Got Its Glow Back. The article should make us send letters to our congressmen - or e-mails - in support of the current EPA regulation of CO2 emissions.

The article ignored completely the people who mine coal, talking instead to industry spinmeisters and environmentalists. This isn't a-typical - the labor aspect of business is routinely ignored in articles of this sort. It is one of those silent omissions that is countenanced, too often, by environmentalists, who should make it a point to tell journalists to talk to workers. A lot of times, they are going to hear a fairly un-environmental message from the guys and gals on the ground, but too bad. In the end the environmental issues should be folded into the issue of economic justice - of who bears the social cost of business activity - but I think there's a lot of working class suspicion that really, the people who are going to bear all the costs are the ones who always bear the cost - the employees. IF this isn't addressed, environmentalism just becomes complicit in the corporate mentality. It isn't as if the NYT Mag article is an exception - too many times, journalism splits the world into a dialogue between two groups the journalist can identify with - college educated environmentos, on the one hand, and executives, on the other - whcih leads to a lot of anger on the part of working people. What they see is that they are simply dropped from the process. Justifiably they ask, why is this guy from Greenpeace or whereever talking like I don't even exist? It is as if the work was being done by nobody. This is especially disconcerting in an article on coal mining, of all things - for in no other industry has the war between labor and management been so fiercely fought, so close to a real war.
Yesterday�s post about Trollope�s The Prime Minister ended just as I was about to get into the first chapter � the marvelous first chapter. Anyone who doubts Trollope�s artistry should read the first chapter of this novel, which has the clean unswerving course and direction of a well aimed pistol shot. He begins the chapter with one of those authorial interventions that fascinate my friend Sarah, the woman I mentioned in yesterday�s post. Her dissertation, in fact, is an attempt to get at these moments in the classic 19th century novel and look at what they really do. The authorial intervention, according to Sarah, who I hope won�t be mad if I borrow one broad feature from her upcoming diss, finds itself most at home in the generalization. At least in Trollope, this is certainly true. He love these authorial asides. It is no use ignoring them, because they are a very real part of the text's structure. But we should ask - how can we talk about them?

First, let's recognize that these generalizations are modeled on that most political rhetorical form, advice. They fall into topics common to what Kant called prudence - hedged truths about society, sex, age, or status. This is an old tradition, running through sermons and moral essays (going all the way back to Seneca), and reiterating the truths of egotism. French moralistes, like La Rouchefaucauld, turned this into the maxim. And the maxim, in turn, was systematized by the ideologues - I mean, the ideologues proper, in the French Revolution, Tracy Destutte and the like.

Because our tendency is to think, oh, here�s the author, a real being, interfering in his story, which consists of made up beings doing made up things, we have trouble reconciling these moments, on a theoretic level, with the basic premise of fiction � that it be fictional. That's why Victorian fiction sometimes seems so moralistic to us. On a reading level, however, we don�t have this problem. That�s because stories don�t emerge in self-selected contexts � reading a novel, I don�t myself become novelistic. The reader, unconsciously, recognizes the maxim as a passage between the reader�s world and the fiction�s world. The generalization, in other words, is, on one side, a reader�s ritual, and gives us those kinds of truths native to ritual � performative truths. On the other side, for the fictional character, the maxim is fate, and the authorial intervention always has a slight whiff of destiny. This, incidentally, should remind us that the mythic root of Kant's counsels of prudence is found in the oracle. In fact, if we see this textual mode as originally home in the essay, and migrating to the novel in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, we should think a little bit about the importance of oracles for the ancient essayists - Plutarch, Cicero, and Seneca. What distinguished them as essayists, rather than philosophers, was their fascination with fate - with the irrational arrangement of the life of rational beings. Stendhal, who was very consciously close to the ideologues, picks up this thread in La Chartreuse de Parme.

So here's one way to think about these moments of authorial presence. In them, fate speaks. If our fates could, in fact, speak, they would speak in just these kinds of generalizations. We would, then, understand our luck.

Well, we don�t, and neither do fictional characters, who never hear what their authors have to say.

But Trollope does not make heavy going of the oracular mode. He simply paints a picture of Ferdinand Lopez which tells us he is ineffably foreign, that his origins are mysterious, and that gentlemen, according to Samuel Johnson, are distinguished in one thing above all others � that their origins are never mysterious. Ferdinand Lopez is no gentleman, then. Trollope takes, at least consciously, the normal position of the privileged class with regard to gentlemen � they are the summit of English civilization, the vital difference between the Anglo-Saxon race and all lesser breeds without the law. A man with the name Ferdinand is, of course, going to be especially suspect. King Ferdinand was a notoriously Machiavellian ruler, much disliked by Whig historians.

So we have a moral sketch of Lopez, and then we see him going into the City by an almost hidden, dark route, to the office of a vulgar man vaguely connected with finance, Sextus Parker. We are never told Parker is a moneylender � we assume he is a jobber, a man who makes his money work in many different and hard to pin down ways. Perhaps an unsightly man, perhaps an unethical man, but certainly a necessary man. Lopez pops the question to him right away:

�Then he [Lopez] continued without changing his voice or the nature of his eye. 'I'll tell you what I want
you to do now. I want your name to this bill for three months.'

Sexty Parker opened his mouth and his eyes, and took the bit of paper that was tendered to him. It was a promissory note for 750 pounds, which, if signed by him, would at the end of the specified period make him liable for that sum were it not otherwise paid.�

Notice that sum, that beautiful sum. A thousand pounds would have been too much � Parker would never have gone for it. Five hundred pounds would be too little � our sense of Lopez� largeness would have been dampened. But 750 is just right. It is the kind of sum that inevitably turns up in political scandals, which never seem to be about really large sums � how much did Spiro Agnew take, something like 10,000 dollars? No, they are always those awkward, intermediate sums � and Trollope has that down. It is that 750 pounds which makes us trust him.

Oh well, I�m probably boring those of you who haven�t read, and don�t care for, Trollope.
Write me at Editor.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...