Friday, January 20, 2017

Between funny ha ha and funny peculiar: Trump and the incarnation of the american grotesque

In No Go The Bogeyman, Marina Warner takes, from the mouth of (very English) babes the distinction between “funny ha ha” and “funny peculiar”. It is an inherently unstable disjunction, having the structure of a booby trap or a slapstick routine. Between Punch the puppet and Gacy the clown serial killer, between “locker room talk” and sexual assault, there exists a subsurface resemblence, a vicious hilarity, to which we are both drawn and repelled. Warner’s book is about the large social region of the grotesque that is minimized by social scientists and made a footnote by literary critics, but that actually intrudes in our lives in a big way. The grotesque is generated by funny ha ha and funny peculiar, much as the two ends of funny pull at each othe.r
I’ve heard many people say that they can’t believe that the president we inaugurated today is really the president. That unbelievability is cousin to the grotesque, and haunts the seriousness of the ocassion. Downfalls are rarely so much like bad jokes. Rep. John Lewis called Trump an illegitimate president, which is a nice beginning, but hardly goes through the entire career. Trump is illegitimate as a public figure in every way: he’s a bogus businessman, a bogus playboy, a bogus politician, and a bogus reality tv star. He’s bogosity on a monstrous scale, sort of like some sexting Paul Bunyan, some underground comic marrying kitsch and obscenity. And in this he is an apt symbol of the American moment post – neoliberalism, post Iraq, post post –racism.  It is as if Robert Coover’s The Public Burning leaped off the page and realized fiction in cold fact. We are inaugurating a dirty joke, and we will all carry a little flake of that dirtiness with us as Americans. Between “make America great” and “America is already great”, we have chosen the compromise of making America a great horselaugh.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

toy story 2 and the communist manifesto

Not having children in the 1990s, I looked down with complete disdain at kid’s movies. Or, actually, I didn’t look at them at all, but I’m sure I would have shown some sort of snickering adolescent attitude towards them, and covered it up with a buncha five dollar words.
Now, of course, I am immersed in children’s movies, videos, tv shows, and general Youtubealia. Which brought me with a bump of recognition to Toy Story 2. I promised Adam we’d watch it, and we did, Saturday.
It surprised me. Talk about a savage attack on capitalism!  For those who haven’t seen it, the toys are dream figures of the proletariat. On the one hand, for capital, represented in the movie as white kids and parents, toys are lifeless. Whenever the gaze of some parent or adult is present, the toys fall into a dead faint, in poses characteristic of toys that are scattered across the floor on a Saturday evening (insert here picture of our floor after Adam has finished with it). In reality, though, they have a separate life of their own, a life of precarious solidarity.  Yet that toy life is riven by the attitude towards Capital.
Interestingly, in the 90s, the upper administration decided that the work force needed the inspiration of new age therapies and Harvard business school lingo to “incentivize” them.  In the Working Life, Joanne Ciulla cits a study  which polled managers about the most efficient incentives for building employee commitment: "The researchers found that most senior managers believed that celebrations and ceremonies and non-cash recognition were the best incentives for non-managers... But for senior managers, they responded that the best incentive was cash rewards tied to quality performance." The heartbreaking thing about celebrations and ceremonies is that they substitute for an intangible yet evident cure for alienation that long frustrated Marxists in the 20th century: employees really do become loyal to their companies.  As witness the phenomenon of 401ks, in which employees, given choices to invest across the spectrum, have a distinct preference for investing in the companies they work for – in touching contradistinction from their CEOs, who as often invest betting against their companies, if they aren’t loading them up with debt in order to LBO them. Similarly, the toys confess to each other that when they are selected by the kids, when they are “loved”, they feel alive. Of course, the only time they are alive is when they are with other toys. Such are the cultural contradictions of late capitalism.
Two sequences in particular have a startling realism. In one of them, Woody the cowboy toy is torn by his “owner” – in much the way say Monsanto carelessly poisoned its asbestos workers, then sold that division to haliburton. Woody’s owner is bummed about the torn arm: he drops Woody to the floor, and all sick at heart, leaves him behind as he goes to Cowboy camp. Which, it is easy to see, represents Davos. Woody, falling asleep, has a terrible dream in which his owner – Capital – tosses him in the garbage, along with all the other wounded toys, who drag him under as he is calling to his owner. Of course, here, in living color, is the whole reserve army of the unemployed,  demonized by Capital and viewed with loathing by the same workers who are simply a drop away – a profit loss away, or an “efficiency” away – from joining them.
The second sequence even gets a song. Here, the gender note is struck. Jessie the cowgirl lived in perfect love and harmony with her owner, Emily. Obviously, she thought of them as bound up forever, such is the burden of the song. But Emily turns out to be intent on cracking that glass ceiling. Yes! Instead of shaking up the patriarchal order, she’ll simply assume a higher function in it and pretend that this is equivalent to shaking up the patriarchal order. In order to make cruelly clear how this works, Emily doesn’t just throw Jessie away – she stores her in a box labelled “donations”. Of course, it is a good work, giving little Jessie to charity. One imagines Jessie will be one of the lucky “poor” people uplifted by our trade treaties so that she can go to a dangerous factory, work 16 hours a day for 18 cents an hour, and whip inflation now in these here states. This sequence is such a painfully accurate satire of Clintonism that I am surprised the film made it past Pixar’s censors.

When the film was over, Adam pronounced it his favorite movie. Mine too, for the moment.  

Monday, January 16, 2017

slaves of the map, arise!

I like my friend Seth Grossman's crusade to modify the electoral college - but my heart belongs to another vision of America in which we redraw the friggin' states. During the French revolution, districts that had a much more historically concrete identity as Duchies, former kingdoms, etc., were broken up and redrawn. I think the goal should be to enclose that comprise around 11 million people OR to enclose areas that comprise around 2 million people - to create many more districts or many fewer. But all of the districts should be about equal in terms of persons. This would, at one stroke, abolish the absurdity of a senate in which 2 members from California with forty million people meet on equal terms with 2 members from South Dakota, which has ten people and a goat. The problem with the electoral college is, of course, the same problem we have with the Senate. The senate has already been reformed once, when at the turn of the century we abolished the system of Senators being appointed by state legislatures and instituted direct elections. If we had, say, one hundred states with two hundred senators, or thirty states with sixty senators, or x states, all of about equal population, with x x 2 senators, that would all work fine. Even finer would be discarding the states as the basis for senator representation at all. We could continue with the states as they are, with their reps, their petty state capitals, and their corrupt state legislatures, and keep the House of Representatives as it is. The senate districts, then, could transcend state borders - basically, they would be imposed on the grid of the US to create equally populated districts. This last idea, which wrenches the federal government away from its captivity to states that are, mostly, platforms for the movements of different people within the US, would be the best.

read, digest, throw up

Trump's America will look like, unfortunately, what America has looked like for some time. This article, in which an ex drugdealer pins his hopes tenderly on Donald T. as he attempts to inject people with BMPEA through his supplements, looks both forward and backward . The ex drug dealer, Jared Wheat, the owner and CEO of Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals, is confident that his expensive slander suit will discourage others from investigating him, even though he lost it. He told the FDA to just piss off when they told him to recall several products. True, Hi-Tech is a piker in the industrial effort to poison America. We all remember that Syngenta has outfaced studies about atrazine by presenting their own funded studies, and that nobody is too concerned, in DC. about a statistically abnormal excess of birth defects in Iowa, where atrazine is used to kill weeds in the cornfields. What's a birth defect compared to Syngenta's bottom line? Even pre-Trump, the old idea about American history that emphasized such milestones as progressive legislation against patent medicines and the like has to be changed: the trendline has reversed, and the courts and legislators could care less about the health of the less useful population of mere people.
Read, digest. throw up: the three stages of information processing in America

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 ...