Saturday, August 16, 2008

the firefly revolution

It was obvious that the Great Fly’s foreign policy would end up as comic opera, following the laws of Marx (Groucho, that is) . And so we’ve been treated to a week of amazing neo-con barking in the American press – although to be fair, neo-connerie is now an international language, and Le Monde feels obliged to publish Robert Kagan for his “opinion” about Russia. Georgia, a state that experienced a kleptocratic financed “revolution” which installed a mini-Bush who has squandered 70 percent of the state’s income on military spending, has faced off against Russia, a state that experienced a kleptocratic financed “revolution” a bit earlier – we all remember the good old days, when Clinton and Co. decided to make one last effort to re-elect a notorious drunk and one of the most corrupt politicians of modern times, Boris Yeltsin, don’t we? Or has that fact become officially a non-fact? The mouse that roared was thoroughly squashed, and it was just like Munich, the Hungarian Revolution, and that time Coca Cola replaced the classic Coke, all wrapped into one. The cause: two pieces of property that are “symbols” of Georgia’s “territorial integrity” – it is hard to even type the bogus phrases.

In the meantime, though, our governing elite has been busy trying to destroy the “territorial integrity” of Bolivia, because there a virtual dictator, a madman, and the newest Hitler – or so it seemed, before Putin became Hitler, trickily won an overwhelming plebiscite that will make it all the more difficult for the oil oligarchs to pry the eastern part of Bolivia, where the majority of the natural gas is, from the rest. But I have no doubt they will continue to work at the project, and their work will receive the unction of the American MSM, as it appears that Evo Morales can’t be democratic because (oh, I am in tears even reporting such a heinous thing!) he doesn’t believe in (sob) free (sob) markets! The sad and oppressed people of Bolivia – how can we leave them to suffer so with such a leader! It would be much kinder, I think we can all agree, to manage a split between Freedonia and Evildonia pronto.

LI used to be all about analyzing and shaking our fist at the combo of thuggery and stupidity which is the alpha and omega of the Narrative in the era of the Great Fly, but it has gotten sooooo hard, campers, to even fuckin' care. There is nothing that whittles away dissent like pointlessness. And besides, reality is doing an excellent job of shrinking misused power. The vast majority of Americans can give a fuck about the elite class’s Russophobic woody. And the elite can give a fuck about any interference with the Narrative. What is odd is that they even care, at this point, to justify the unjustifiable. But they are moral mavens all, and can’t make a step without patting themselves on the back for their morality. Morality is very important, especially as, without it, murdering people you don’t know looks oh so nasty. Robert Kagan could just as easily write in telegraphese: “Need to attack X. Money for defense industry needs to grow grow grow. Lie lie lies. Freedom. Free markets. Democracy.” The to and fro of opinion among a small circle – the liberal interventionists on one side, so against genocide, don’t you know, and the neocons on the other, so for that there democracy - is so stale that it is a wonder.

However, it does look like a decade of ulcerous imperialism is fresh out of resources. Squandering the military was partly the point – one does need some excuse to spend a couple trillion on useless military equipment. But we seem to have come up against a certain limit. Thus, this week’s spectacle, one to make the angels fart. (And speaking of squandering resources: although LI is no deficit hawk, even we were stunned that the U.S. ran a plus 100 billion dollar deficit for June. That can start to run into real money – and makes the current projection of a deficit of 480 billion dollars seem utopian. I predicted, in January, an employment rate by the end of the year of 6 percent – when the economists were predicting, at most, 5. Now my estimate is in the middle. So I’ll just haul off and say, if the U.S. doesn’t run a 600 billion dollar deficit this year, I’ll eat my baseball cap.)

As we know, war is the health of the post-WWII economy. But as the US has been popping wars like Hugh Hefner on a viagra jag, the effect has gotten muted. Sure, Iraq has been very very good to us – the excuse for vast government spending, the pipeline of unsupervised money flowing out to a great network of greedy, incompetent corporations to pay for some of the shoddiest work ever to bear the fine name of Brown and Root. In one of the numerous ironies of the Great Fly’s era, the money has actually benefited the Democratic demographic the most. Since these have been the years of the financial sector and the tech sector – which are concentrated in liberal urban areas – we’ve witnessed a pretty funny spectacle – red states voting for their own destitution, and Blue states, awash with cash, voting for virtue. But we are now feeling the rough edge of short term gains - you know, if you are going to have a tax holiday all the time, brew up fine, fine wars killing masses of unimportant people, and borrow money like there is no tomorrow, circumstances tend, after a while, to the red line. Which is why, much to the MSM’s amazement – who among the “thought leaders” is not, after all, a millionaire? – the country is stubbornly resisting the call to manliness. While the GOP has barely found its mojo with the stupid demographic this year – destroying the American environment on a deeper and more extensive level to bring oil into the market ten years from now at a price that will be determined by the demand in that market, which ain’t gonna be ten dollars per barrel, is just the kind of pisspoor, redneck thinking that is a winner among the exurban crowd – it seems to be having a trouble exciting the gonads of the outliers with its visions of ultraviolence. Luckily for Raytheon, the Dems, in a perfect position to take away the monopoly on foreign policy which they ceded, at the beginning of the Clinton years, to the GOP, have displayed the instincts of cowering puppies and tried to bark as loudly as toothless McCain about this farce of an issue. Somebody around Obama needs to read White Fang – an excellent tale about the consequences of breeding dysfunctional aggression, although, of course, larded with London’s social darwinism.

“Bound down a prisoner, denied even movement by the plaster casts and bandages, White Fang lingered out the weeks. He slept long hours and dreamed much, and through his mind passed an unending pageant of Northland visions. All the ghosts of the past arose and were with him. Once again he lived in the lair with Kiche, crept trembling to the knees of Gray Beaver to tender his allegiance, ran for his life before Lip-lip and all the howling bedlam of the puppy-pack.
He ran again through the silence, hunting his living food through the months of famine; and again he ran at the head of the team, the gut-whips of Mit-sah and Gray Beaver snapping behind, their voices crying "Raa! Raa!" when they came to a narrow passage and the team closed together like a fan to go through. He lived again all his days with Beauty Smith and the fights he had fought. At such times he whimpered and snarled in his sleep, and they that looked on said that his dreams were bad.
But there was one particular nightmare from which he suffered -- the clanking, clanging monsters of electric cars that were to him colossal screaming lynxes. He would lie in a screen of bushes, watching for a squirrel to venture far enough out on the ground from its tree-refuge. Then, when he sprang out upon it, it would transform itself into an electric car, menacing and terrible, towering over him like a mountain, screaming and clanging and spitting fire at him. It was the same when he challenged the hawk down out of the sky. Down out of the blue it would rush, as it dropped upon him changing itself into the ubiquitous electric car. Or again, he would be in the pen of Beauty Smith. Outside the pen, men would be gathering, and he knew that a fight was on. He watched the door for his antagonist to enter. The door would open, and thrust in upon him would come the awful electric car. A thousand times this occurred, and each time the terror it inspired was as vivid and great as ever.”

Friday, August 15, 2008


I know that kind of man
its hard to hold the hand
of anyone
who's reaching for the sky just to surrender

Amie, in the comments, writes that she has a question about my last two posts about the image of the limited good:

“It relates to the question of time and when wishes still "worked" and the limit where they seemingly went away - for good. Did they ever, "really"? I wonder if there is not always a non-contemporarity of time, a multiple and disjointed time, in which wishes and hopes still hold sway, return and burst forth.”

This is an excellent question, in as much as it makes me realize that I might have given a too hasty impression, in the last two posts, that I’ve seized a key to all history or something. My goal from the beginning has been to make it possible to ask the question: why did happiness take on the tripart form of an emotional norm, a judgment on life, and a reference that justifies political and economic arrangements? And all the themes I have been pursuing have been related to both making that question possible – that is, attacking the notion that man self evidently wants to be happy and human social structures self-evidently are judged on whether they facilitate happiness – and showing how the self-evident came into being. I’ve wanted to avoid a totalizing history – which means that I don’t think I can explain everything by simply showing that one set of dominant economic attitudes or practices gave way to another, or one episteme gave way to another – because, well, the time in which wishes still work is still part of our time – that is, as the past in which wishes still worked and the future in which wishes will work again. In fact, the triple function of happiness both occludes and supports itself on a disjointed sense of time.

To put this in terms of my obsession of the month – the war between enlightenment and superstition – that superstition is perennially being driven out and perennially coming back should warn any historian against taking his or her periodizations as natural laws, or stages in some predetermined, unalterable progress. Zatorski’s article (from my August 6 post), which gathers together several of Lichtenberg’s comments about superstition, nicely binds together the notion of discovery, science, and the peculiarity of the “again” – the Wiederkehr:

“The philosophy of the common man is the mother of ours, out of his superstitions we make our religion, just as we make our medicine out of his home remedies.” Even the concept “science” itself is observed to be highly unclear: “Where in the past one found the borders of science, we now find its middle.”

This demands a high degree of judgmental foresight. A quantum of distrust is evidently indispensable, but this means, at the same time, a certain distrust against dogmatic laws of reason. One would rather “neither deny nor believe.” For even the offerings of “rational” philosophy is nothing other than a treaty of peace that has come to stand “in the “counsels of men” – “superstition is itself a local philosophy, it also gives in its voice.” For this reason, even reason must remain continually conscious of the relative and time conditioned character of knowledge. Thus it would be adviseable to be very careful in labeling certain beliefs as superstitions, because what counts as such today can be transformed tomorrow into a serious theory: “There is thus a great difference between believing something “still” and believing it “again.” To still believe that the moon effects plants betrays stupidity and superstition, but to believe it again shows philosophy and reflection.”

Foucault’s Les mots et les choses has been both a great help to me, figuring out the 17th and 18th century, and a great target. In MC, he writes, in the section on exchange, something which I’ve pondered a great deal:

“Une réforme de la monnaie, un usage bancaire, une pratique commerciale peuvent bien se rationaliser, se développer, se maintenir ou disparaître selon des formes propres ; ils sont toujours fondés sur un certain savoir: savoir obscur qui ne se manifeste pas pour lui-même en un discours, mais dont les nécessités sont identiquement les mêmes que pour les théories abstraites ou les spéculations sans rapport apparent à la réalité. Dans une culture et à un moment donné, il n'y a jamais qu’ une épistémè, qui définit les conditions de possibilité de tout savoir.”

“A monetary reform, a banking protocol, a commercial practice can very well be rationalized, develop and maintain itself or disappear according to its own forms; they are always founded on a certain knowledge: obscure knowledge which doesn’t manifest itself for itself in a discourse, but of which the necessities are identically the same as for the abstract theories and speculations without apparent relation to reality. In a culture and at a certain given moment, there is never more than one episteme, which defines the condition of the possibility of all knowledge.”

I have to kick against this. In order to make this claim, Foucault has to systematically diminish the moments in which abstract theories, or real practices, are openly self reflexive. Knowledge isn’t just endlessly productive – that is, one discovery after another founded on a certain obscure knowledge – but it is also controversial. That’s why superstition is so important – here you can see that there is, in fact, more than one episteme, and that the past is not quietly and submerged, to form an archaeological strata, but persists and returns. Thus, Foucault’s emphasis on representation as the dominant episteme of the classical age simply doesn’t explain the strategic aspect of the enlightenment – there are no other powers at play, here. Self reflection leaps out of philosophy and into real life when it becomes apparent that there are other powers at play. One shouldn’t shy away from self reflection out of Hegelophobia.

cooking liberally

Good old Julia Childs. In my roll of liberals who softened American manners and humanized its politics, Childs is up there, along with Rachel Carson and John Kenneth Galbraith and William Whyte and C. Wright Mills and James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, the Abstract Expressionists, Rauschenberg, the Black Mountain poets... oh, all under the shadow of the missiles. So now it appears that she, like Marcuse, was in the OSS.

Currently, my roll would include Amy Trubek, whose book, Taste of Place, I just reviewed. I don’t know if I expressed my true and heartfelt love for Ms. Trubek in the review – but I did my best. Here’s an interview with her. Somebody should give this woman a tv show.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

In which I stick my tongue into the mouth of world history

Ah, LI felt a sort of roast beef-y satisfaction about our last post. At last, we said at the editorial staff meeting, we are getting somewhere! meeting our thesis quota! taking world history by the hand and giving it a big french kiss! Then we passed out cigars and crystal meth and had ourselves a ball and a biscuit, sugar.

However, it may be that others did not have such feelings about our last post. Tedium and mal de mer might have been the more common response.

Well. Here’s the deal. We have long had the intuition that the mystery of how a number of apparently interlocking phenomena – the rise of natural philosophy, and of the industrial system, and of a market centered economic system, and – most crucially – of the free labor market – came together at the same time in certain societies in Europe could not be explained by projecting back upon pre-capitalist societies categories that were developed to explain capitalist ones.

In particular, we have thought that there was a fundamental difference in the way that wealth or treasure was perceived by pre-capitalist societies. We find Bataille’s notion of expenditure extremely helpful here. Foster’s image of the limited good simply outlines the conditions in which sovereignty, on Bataille’s model, exerts its power – a power that is based on a radical externality.

All of which points to a fact that is consistently underplayed in the intellectual histories of the 17th and 18th century, even by Foucault. That is the fundamental shock given to European societies by the discovery of the New World. That discovery is the true before and after in world history – before, there simply was no world history. Really, 1492 should be the year zero.

Before world history was the time when, as the first line in the first Grimm brother’s tale accurately puts it, wishes still worked. That is another aspect of the image of the limited good. When labor and wealth are radically disassociated in an economy that is static, one just over its Malthusian line (that line determined by the ratio of population to the resources that can sustain it), wealth is a matter of accident, or magic, or deception, or predation. The poor fisherman can fish his whole life long, but he will remain pretty much a poor fisherman – unless he pulls up a talking fish that is really an enchanted fish who can grant wishes. Otherwise, though, the fisherman might as well behold the lillies of the field, for he wasn’t going to ever be arrayed in such splendor, no matter how much he, or his wife, spun and toiled.

This static society is defined by its closure. And it is just that closure which was opened up by the discovery of America. Which jolted - “disoriented” – every thing. “Discovery” is a pleasingly dialectical term, on the border between two systems of production. It implies, on the one hand, the finding of something pre-existent – which is of course well within Bataille’s restricted economy and Foster’s limited good. But it came to be used for inventions – that is, additions to the stock of what is. That internal shift parallels the systematic social shift that is the condition of the happiness culture.

In the 17th and 18th century, these shifts could still be envisioned under an older system of categories – magically, as it were. A system in which the older exchanges were all governed by an essential and irresistible scarcity. When Ricden Ricdon gives Rosanie a magic wand to spin as much cloth as she wants to, it turns out to be a magical deception, a ploy for an exchange – one in which Rosanie has to give her soul. That form of exchange disappears, but leaves a trace – we do give our souls to the company store, but souls, in the new world, aren’t currency.

If we are looking, then, at the conflict between the “cognitive orientation” fixed by the image of the limited good and the cognitive orientation of the expanding economy – ruled over by the certainty that God was Man all along – we can get a better sense of why, for instance, the struggle against “superstition” was conducted with such ferocity in the 18th century. We understand its meaning not on the level at which it was framed by the philosophes – as a question of truth – but on a more fundamental level – the level of the human limit.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

where does wealth come from?

My commenter Chuckie D. is none too happy with George Foster’s phrase, “"cognitive orientation" - as he says, what does that even mean? Myself, I obviously have a different take – which is why I introduced Kant’s essay on orientation as a fundamental indication of the subject’s effect in the world – for Kant, the way human’s orient themselves can’t be explained by the Lockean/Newtonian sensualists of the time. Foster spends some time on the question of the meaning of cognitive orientation, all of which is theoretically interesting – but not too much. Foster is not important for his work in theorizing attitudes, but, rather, for his description of a particular set of attitudes that are related to peasant life.

As I have been saying for the past year, it is impossible to understand the emergence of a happiness norm that governs not only one’s personal affective life, but that is, somehow, a collective social ideal and justification for political and economic arrangements without looking at the structure of the early modern political economy in Europe. My crude position was that the class immobility that had been the political ideal began to fragment in the 17th century. But why? Certainly the industrial system had not been put in place, nor do we see the hallmark of capitalism, which is a labor force mobilized by capital. Yet something is happening in the ‘classical age.’ It is something that changed Europe massively, yet has been weirdly underplayed among historians of Europe's intellectual history. It was called the discovery of the New World. Discovery, colonization, exploitation - these, I think, opened up the rigid hierarchies in the European economies. I think one of the factors that come into play, here, has to do with what Foster calls the limited good. Foster does not invoke Malthus, but surely the notion that goods are limited, so that to have a good requires that someone else not have that good – the zero sum sense of wealth – would be a rational response to a society in which the Malthusian limits were tight and visible – a society, for instance, in which famine was an ever present possibility.

I find the connection that Foster makes between the limit good, luck, and a certain image of wealth – wealth as treasure – to be highly suggestive. Foster came to his theory through his field work in Tzintzuntzan. He found it interesting that the peasants in this Mexican village divorced wealth from labor – wealth came from the outside, in the form of treasure. According to Foster, the idea of economic growth that underlines the capitalist ethos just doesn’t penetrate this world: “In fact, it seems accurate to say that the average peasant sees little or no : relationship between work and production techniques on the one hand, and: the acquisition of wealth on the other. Rather, wealth is seen by villagers in the same light as land: present, circumscribed by absolute limits, and having no relationship to work. One works to eat, but not to create wealth.”

It is at this point that the attack on superstition gains its salience. The attack on superstition is an attempt to change the behaviors that group around the limited good. Without changing those behaviors, the project of modernization - the mobilisation of labor, the industrial system, the genesis of this myth called the market - wouldn't have occurred.

Foster points out that the limited good system changes if it opens up – a very important point for anyone trying to assess the affect of the colonization of the Americas and the East Indian trade on Europe:

“I have said that in a society ruled by the Image of Limited Good there 'is no way, save at the expense of others, that an individual can get ahead. This is true in a closed system, which peasant communities approximate. But even a traditional peasant village, in another sense, has access to other systems, and an individual can achieve economic success by tapping sources of wealth that are recognized to exist outside the village system. Such success, though envjed, is not seen as a direct threat to community stability, for no one within the community has lost anything. Still, such success must be explained. In today's transitional peasant communities, seasonal emigration for wage labor is the most available way in which one can tap outside wealth. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican peasants have come to the United States as braceros in recent years and many, through their earnings, have pumped significant amounts of capital into their communities. Braceros generally are not criticized or attacked for acquisition of this wealth; it is clear that their good fortune is not at the direct expense of others within the village. Fuller finds a similar realistic appraisal of the wealth situation in a Lebanese community: "they [the peasants] realize . . . that the only method of increasing their incomes on a large scale is to absent themselves from the village for an extended period of time and to find work in more lucrative areas" (1961:72).

These examples, however, are but modern variants of a much older pattern in which luck and fate—points of contact with an open systen—are viewed as the only socially acceptable ways in which an individual can acquire more "good" than he previously has had. In traditional (not transitional) peasant communities an otherwise inexplicable increase in wealth is often seen as due to the discovery of treasure which may be the result of fate or of such positive action as making a pact with the Devil. Recently I have analyzed treasure tales in Tzintzuntzan and have found without exception they are attached to named individuals who, within living memory, have suddenly begun to live beyond their means. The usual evidence is that they suddenly opened stores, in spite of their known previous poverty (Foster 1964a). Erasmus has recorded this interpretation among Sonora villagers (1961:251), Wagley finds it in an Amazon small town (1964:128), and Friedmann reports it in southern Italy (1958:21). Clearly, the role of treasure tales in communities like these is to account for wealth that can be explained in no other manner.”

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

the malthusian afterlife

He came home from the war with a party in his head

One day, in December 1704, Margaretha Schütterin, the wife of a stonemason in Schwaikheim, saw a ghost. The ghost asked her to help him and 16 other souls (who also, apparently, appeared to her) who had been walking for 240 years by finding a treasure they had deposited in Schütterin’s house, hiding it from rampaging soldiers. They were monks in life, and needed the release in the afterlife which would follow upon Schütterin uncovering the treasure and using it, in part, for charitable works.

One of the monks explained that she had been chosen to do this because she had the same horoscope as Christ. Schütterin did what she could, which was to gather money from her friends and family to comply with the various tasks that would free the ghosts and lead to the treasure. This included paying for masses to be read, buying candles, and giving alms. By these means she extracted 912 Gulden out of a local baker, David Fischer.

“When he doubted her assertions, she made him believe that there was a competition between potential creditors. Margaretha Schütterin managed to establish a sort of `investment trust’ of treasure-hunters by promising them profits of up to 100,000 Gulden. The use she allegedly made of the money given to her, i.e. to donate it to pious causes in Catholic churches, could not easily be checked by the creditors. She finally left her husband whom she probably managed to deceive with her ghost story, too, and fled with the money. When Fischer denounced Margaretha SchuÈ tterin after her flight, he was sentenced to a fine of 14 Gulden for unlicensed treasurehunting, although he maintained that she had assured him that the treasure hunt had been permitted by the duke.”

This story is reported in a fascinating article on Treasure Hunting in Wurtemburg by Johannes Dillinger and Petra Feld, Treasure-Hunting: A Magical Motif in Law, Folklore, and Mentality, Württemberg, 1606 –1770 in German History (20:2). Following my theme of superstition as the jagged edge where a proto-capitalist mentality met a pre-capitalist mentality – or, to put it less schematically, where a weak notion of the human limit meets a strong notion of the human limit - I fell in love with Dillinger and Feld’s footwork among the legal archives. It turns out that the kind of magician Lichtenberg laughed out of Gottingen often made side money helping out in hunts for treasure. Dillinger and Feld turn here, to explain the obsession with treasure, to George Foster’s work on the limited good – or the zero sum economic attitudes of Mexican peasants. Luckily for us, George Foster’s major article is up on the web: Peasant Society and the Image of Limited Good*. This article, published in 1968, is, I am starting to recognize, crucial to my Polanyi-ish leanings, which I am following as I uncover the roots of the happiness culture.

I have to quote this bit from the Foster’s article, about which I am so overwhelmed with things I could say that I will just... not, for the nonce:

In this paper I am concerned with the nature of the cognitive orientation of peasants, and with interpreting and relating peasant behavior as described by anthropologists to this orientation. I am also concerned with the implications of this orientation-and related behavior to the problem of the peasant's participation in the economic growth of the country to which he may belong. Specifically, I will outline what I believe to be the dominant theme in the cognitive orientation of classic peasant societies,* show how characteristic peasant behavior seems to flow from this orientation, and attempt to show that this behavior—however incompatible with national economic growth—is not only highly rational in the context of the cognition that determines it, but that for the maintenance of peasant society in its classic form, it is indispensable.4 The kinds of behavior that have been suggested as adversely influencing economic growth are, among many, the "luck" syndrome, a "fatalistic" outlook, inter- and intra-familial quarrels, difficulties in cooperation, extraordinary ritual expenses by poor people and the problems these expenses pose for capital accumulation, and the apparent lack of what the psychologist McClelland (1961) has called "need for Achievement." I will suggest that peasant participation in national development can be hastened not by stimulating a psychological process, the need for achievement, but by creating economic and other opportunities that will encourage the peasant to abandon his traditional and increasingly unrealistic cognitive orientation for a new one that reflects the realities of the modern world.

2. The model of cognitive orientation that seems to me best to account for peasant behavior is the "Image of Limited Good." By "Image of Limited Good" I mean that broad areas of peasant behavior are patterned in such fashion as to suggest that peasants view their social, economic, and natural universes—their total environment—as one in which all of the desired things in life such as land, wealth, health, friendship and love, manliness and honor, respect and status, power and influence, security and safety, exist in finite quantity and are always in short supply, as far as the peasant is concerned. Not only do these and all other "good things" exist in finite and limited quantities, but in addition there is no way directly within peasant power to increase the available quantities. It is as if the obvious fact of land shortage in a densely populated area applied to all other desired things: not enough to go around. "Good," like land, is seen as inherent in nature, there to be divided and re-divided, if necessary, but not to be augmented.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Family pictures

What are finer – or more boring to strangers – than pics from a family get together?

As LI was recently in Chicago with my family, and as my family obsessively photographs everything, I thought I’d post some pics.

So first, here we are, or here we are excluding my sister Jenny's side of the family - hmm, we never did take a complete picture, now that I think of it - all dressed up to go to the reception. My older sister, on the left, is very proud of the shawl she purchased in Ecuador. I don’t know how I ended up in the back, looking quizzical... too bad. I purchased a very rocking suit from Goodwill for this occasion. My niece Megan lends a little color to our drab grays and blacks.

Then a Lake Michigan pic, with my two brothers, Dan and Doug, and my about-to-go-to college nephew, Whit.

And finally, a failed theatrical pic of me crawling on a dune. This shot was supposed to be remind us all of the classic New Yorker cartoon showing a guy crawling in the desert. I failed, however, to look like a guy crawling through the desert. If I had only taken a pair of scissors to my clothes and shredded them, I think this pic would have worked. Well, next time.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Destructive destruction

Let others debate whether that movie about a guy in a mask and a cape is the greatest political event since October, 1918 or merely the second greatest political event. Alas, I have a feeling it will go onto the roll of films that LI will never see, which includes almost all of the Star Wars films, the Indiana Jones films, 300, Titanic, the rest of the Batman films, etc., etc. I can only fill my eyes with so much shit, and then I get so tired. As one of my avatars said, restin’ her dogs, 'I have come from Alabama: a fur piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking.”

Myself, this has been my year of Sergei Parajanov.
About which, here’s a sad story.

Economists love the phrase creative destruction. They love it so much that they have labeled all the sick shit that ever happens in the capitalist world creative destruction. But however much we are told to rub up against the word “creative” and purr, the modifier doesn’t do much to clothe the dark goddess it consorts with. Destruction is destruction. And thus it is with my little pipeline to Sergei Parajanov.

Which was a small video store, Waterloo videos. It was an excellent store for me, since it was directly on my route to Whole Foods. The Whole Foods on Fifth street in Austin is maybe a mile from my apartment. I can bike there without breaking a sweat – well, not in the summer, but most other times of the year. And the route back is sixth street. Fifth street, at present, is a bubble casualty – up the length of 5th street they are putting in high price condos. It is evident, to me, that these condos make no economic sense – they are way too expensive for the Austin market, in which the median house costs 190 thou. Compare that to condos starting at 300. It would be different if there was some kind of land shortage around Austin, or if Austin’s downtown was a big employment magnet. Just the opposite is the case. The people who can afford these condos will, presumably, be working in Austin’s high end industry, which is tech – but the tech industry headquarters are fifteen miles from downtown. Which means that, absurdly enough, space for (as the mayor of Austin has put it) 25,000 high income people is being prepared in an area in which they will have to navigate traffic back up to the peripheries of the city. And of course navigate that same traffic back home. In return for which, they get zero land and striking views of ... other condos.

My brother has told me, often enough, that I take sour views of opportunities, and of course I am no urbanist, but I fail to see the rational design here. I see a daisy chain.

Of course, whenever the papers interview the owners of the condo projects, they are assured that sales rates are tremendous. Myself, though, with my evil eye, have wondered why, if these are sales to residents (rather than speculators), the traffic on 5th seems to be generated by construction vehicles; why there is no burst of overflow businesses – restaurants, for instance – to take care of urbanites who, presumably, are paying premium prices for an urban vibe. All of which brings me to the death of Waterloo videos.

Two months ago, I overheard two clerks talking about how the store was going out of business. I was astonished. But the clerks told me all about it. Except for the part they didn’t know – the reason.

Independent video stores are becoming rarer and rarer around the country. Here’s a story about my old stomping ground, New Haven – where the Tommy K videos are going under.Tommy K, in the spirit of creative destruction, is aiming at the new tanning market.

“Kelleher says he's not sure how long his remaining three Tommy K's stores will remain open, but predicts they will close within a couple of years. He is expanding the Tommy's Tanning chain, which he operates along with his brother Ed. The 12th Tommy's Tanning outlet is set to open in Vernon this month.”

Ah, tanning – now there’s a contribution to our general health and welfare!

So, why the collapse in the video store business?

“Independent video stores and major chain video stores are closing all around the country as more people watch movies via cable TV pay-per-view, computer downloading and online delivery services such as Netflix. Other factors cited include competition from video games and other types of online entertainment, the downturn in the economy, and the generally poor quality of movie releases in recent years.

"We're closing because our product has been commoditized," explains Kelleher, pointing out the wide availability of DVDs in retail stores and grocery store kiosks. "The profit has been squeezed out of it."

That’s an interesting pot shot of a list. Myself, I think the closing of video stores feeds into the increasing ignorance of the video consumer – this is destruction destruction. When studios build movies that cost about as much to make as it costs to run a small city for a year, they require those movies to dominate. However, as we all know, most other movies really depend on vid sales and rents to turn a profit. The vast majority aren’t batmans. However, as batmanian discourse drives out talk of other movies – which is what it is meant to do – it infects the vid business with the same monocultural tendency as the movie release business. Everybody wants to buy the batman vid, and nobody wants to take a header on the Parajanov vids.

Getting me back to Waterloo videos. I have three sources of information about movies I trust: Amie, our frequent commenter on LI; Masha, a Russian film prof I work with occasionally; and what I see at Waterloo. As it happens, Waterloo had what I thought was an insufficient section devoted to foreign films. But now that Waterloo is gone, I realize that its selection was monumental compared to even the one local vid store left, Vulcan video.

As I now know. I bicycled up to the Vulcan on South Congress yesterday, entered the store, and was immediately depressed. The shelving and display was not clean and well lit, like Waterloo – rather, the lighting, old crammed shelves, and smell in the air reminded me of adult vid stores I visited when I was in my horny twenties. I had to get used to a different classification system – and such is the conservatism of my first impressions that it struck me as not so hot. On the plus side, there was more Asian films, and on the minus side, there was such a paucity of German films as to fill me with grief and anguish.

However, I imagine I’ll get used to Vulcan eventually. But what happened to Waterloo video, which arose as a result of capitalism, was not a triumph of capitalism. It was a pure downer. A mercantile space is not just an arrangement of goods into which the consumer, a blank thing with a stock of blank appetites, enters to retrieve a commodity and leave a bit of dough behind. It is a primate’s nest, like any other. The clerks at Waterloo whose judgments I learned to trust, the contest (which consisted of a free video if you could guess from which movie came the phrase chalked up on the white board – I scored five free vids!), the milling of a certain clientele and their interactions, the way the classification system would navigate me to new things I didn’t know, all of these are not things that can be substituted for. In economics, there are only variables – there are no constants. In the real world, there are only constants.

We are ruled by the variable world. And every time it rips you apart, it shouts: creative destruction.

Okay, enough gloom. This is Sunday, which is LI’s day to do the weekend wrap on what is really important, what transcends even Batman – I’m talking, of course, about Britney Spears. The big news here, as we all know, is that Tarantino wants Spears to play in his remake of a Russ Meyer film. A remake of a Russ Meyer film... Of course, the anti-Spears press is announcing this like this is some big privilege for our Brit – it will “revive her career.” Well, we can just say Fuck you, media! to that. The career in need of revival here is that legacy of the nineties moment, Tarantino. That he desperately needs the vibe coming off the uber-popular Brit is something that Britney herself knows well – she sees them all come begging around, joking, like they are doing her a big favor. The MTV awards show (which is guaranteed shit ratings if they don’t make Brit a headliner), the washed up director. Her mother, god bless her.

“A source said: "Quentin is convinced Britney will be brilliant. She's delighted. She thinks it could turn her career around.
"It is perfect Tarantino material. He wanted to get Britney first. She's playing the most important character."
Spears had her first starring role in the 2002 film Crossroads, portraying a high school graduate on a road-trip to find her mother. But despite grossing $60 million worldwide the movie, and Britney's performance, was panned and she received Razzie Awards for Worst Actress and for Worst Original Song.”

"A source said" – how cheesy and disgusting.

Southern California Death Trip

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