From the monthly archives:

June 2011


by Henry on June 29, 2011

A sort of postscript to my “post”: on _Embassytown_ a couple of weeks ago. Sam Thompson’s “LRB review”: had a brief discussion in passing of Miéville’s earlier children’s novel, “Un Lun Dun”:

bq. In a novel he wrote for children in 2007, _Un Lun Dun,_ a despotic entity called Mr Speaker turns language into flesh in a literal sense: when he talks each word takes animate form as a weird creature dropping from his mouth. The word ‘jealous’ manifests as a ‘beautiful iridescent bat’, ‘soliloquy’ is a ‘long-necked sinuous quadruped’, ‘cartography’ a ‘thing like a bowler hat with several spidery legs and a fox’s tail’. These ‘utterlings’ are obedient slaves, existing to do their creator’s will. Like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, Mr Speaker thinks that when it comes to words, the only important question is ‘which is to be master’: he has none of Alice’s doubts about ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things’. Miéville’s modern Alice is a pre-teen Londoner called Deeba, who, when she encounters Mr Speaker on her journey through the looking-glass city of UnLondon, delights him with fresh vocabulary like ‘bling’, ‘lairy’ and ‘diss’, spawning new kinds of word-critter. But when Mr Speaker orders his words to take her prisoner, she turns the tables by pointing out the flaw in his theory of language. ‘Words don’t always mean what we want them to,’ she says. ‘Like … if someone shouts, “Hey, you!” at someone in the street, but someone else turns around. The words misbehaved.’ Deeba’s subversive logic shows the utterlings that they don’t have to obey Mr Speaker after all, and she escapes as the tyrant is overwhelmed by his own mutinous verbiage.

It was only when I saw this quote singled out that I realized that Deeba’s response is in part a joke very specifically aimed at structural Marxism. I give you Louis Althusser, as “quoted by our own Michael Bérubé”:

bq. I shall then suggest that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called _interpellation_ or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’

bq. Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a _subject._ Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him, and that ‘it was _really him_ who was hailed’ (and not someone else). Experience shows that the practical telecommunication of hailings is such that they hardly ever miss their man: verbal call or whistle, the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed.

This is a class of an “Easter Egg”:, but also a serious point, I think. For Miéville, the delight of language is that it _isn’t_ determinative in the fashion that Althusser says it is. Not all who are hailed recognize it – and if they do recognize it, they can choose to ignore or subvert the fashion in which they are being hailed. It’s also a nice example of how a metaphor can be framed in two registers at once – most readers of _Un Lun Dun_ will have no very great familiarity with defunct Marxist theorists, but they don’t have to be to get the point (it’s more fun for readers who recognize the target of the joke, but it’s not really necessary to the underlying point).

Asks “Jeffrey Goldberg”:, in a blogpost that relies in its entirety on a column by Irish opinionator “Kevin Myers”: A cogent question, to be sure. But only one of a number of such questions which have been investigated by the indefatigable Mr. Myers. I look forward to future Myers-inspired Jeffrey Goldberg posts, asking the hard questions about why we give aid to Africa, “when Africa has given nothing to anyone – except for AIDS”:–apart-from-aids-1430428.html. After all, the “wide-eyed boy-child we saved, 20 years or so ago, is now a priapic, Kalashnikov-bearing hearty, siring children whenever the whim takes him.” Myers is indeed quite emphatic about the threat of African priapism, warning us about “violent, Kalashnikov-toting, khat-chewing, girl-circumcising, permanently tumescent layabouts,” and “an entire continent of sexually hyperactive indigents,” where politicians indulge in “voodoo idiocy” about “the efficacy of a little tap water on the post-coital penis as a sure preventative against infection.” And this is not even to mention the threat on the home front of “a welfare state”: which encourages teenage girls to “consciously embark upon a career of mothering bastards because it seems a good way of getting money and accommodation from the State.” I’m looking forward to Goldberg’s in-depth investigation of the “cash-crop whelping” scandal in a forthcoming issue of the _Atlantic Monthly._ Very likely, the Israel hating, handwringing politically correct liberals who have targeted Myers in the past will start to target Goldberg too. But I’ve no doubt whatsoever that he has the moral courage to withstand them.

Katie Roiphe recently wrote an article on the new book “Go the F#$k to Sleep.” She makes rather sweeping claims about miserable, sexless yuppies who have mollycoddled their children so extravangantly that the parents can no longer even steal enough time to watch a single episode of Mad Men together. During which they could take notes on parenting tips, one imagines!

Are our enlightened, engaged, sensitive parenting practices driving a certain segment of the population insane? Is the nice, liberal father who has just this Saturday carted his kids to soccer practice, play dates, piano lessons, made sunflower-butter sandwiches, and read Goodnight Moon three times seething with quiet desperation? The surprise ascendance of Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortés’ Go the F**k to Sleep on all sorts of best-seller lists eloquently answers that question….One wonders if this hostility [evident in the book] toward the child, who is naturally and rightfully manipulative, is just a tiny bit misplaced….The book, in all its cleverness and artfulness and ingenuity, raises certain other questions: Are they having sex, these slouchy rageful parents? Not enough, perhaps. When the father turns back to the waking child’s bedroom, we look out at the comfy, sexless, vaguely depressive scene of his wife sprawled asleep on the couch under an ugly old blanket. No wonder the slouchy dad is full of rage.

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Mercury and Anya’s Ghost

by John Holbo on June 27, 2011

Well, if you aren’t reading all the posts and comments about same-sex marriage over at the Corner – but why wouldn’t you be? wow, K. Lo – maybe you would be interested in some YA comics. Mercury, by Hope Larson, and Anya’s Ghost, by Vera Brosgol. I really have only one complaint, and it concerns Hope Larson’s art. When she draws people running … oh, I’ll just show you.

The right arm and the left leg should be forward. Or left arm and right leg. Opposites. She’s a good cartoonist. As Scott McCloud says in his blurb: “The best work to date from a powerful cartoonist.” So there! So I don’t know why she draws people running in this strange, unnatural way that the human body would never move in. The rest of the art is fine.

On we go. I bought both books for my older daughter, who is almost 10 – and for me, who am I kidding! Turns out they’re a bit too much for her. Somewhat mature teen themes – maybe PG-13 – also murder and ghosts. She can read them next year, or the year after. (Your 9-year old daughter might be harder-boiled than mine. I couldn’t say.) Well, I enjoyed them. But they sort of had the same plot. I’ll explain under the fold, thereby semi- but not really spoiling the plot(s). [click to continue…]

I was listening to NPR’s All Song’s Considered, because whenever life seems jittery, the dulcet tones of Bob Boilen make it alright. They played a track by Motopony which quite earwormed me into buying the album. Turns out it contains several excellent tracks, in my humble opinion, and a few duds. Belle, my Facebook wife (that’s sort of like a cross between a common-law wife and Tron, as I understand the legalities), likes them, too. So she checked them out on Facebook and, apparently, they need a ride from L.A. to San Diego. Hope that works out for them. I’ll link to two tracks I particularly liked. First, “Seer”. That’s the one they played on NPR. I can’t quite peg it. Like … Jethro Tull, “Cross-Eyed Mary” meets … something that’s … pleasantly cheesy/grungy/Queens Of The Stone Age in a non-Jethro Tullish way, and no flute? But in a good way. Definitely no flute. You tell me what it sounds like. I also really like “June”. Because my favorite album is Fleetwood Mac, Tusk, and “June” – especially the ‘Hold on’ chorus bit – has a very Lindsey Buckingham Tusk era thing going on. I like the moog-as-bass on a lot of the tracks. Is it moog? Some other vintage electric organ sound? (Oh hey: here’s a live version of “Seer”. And a live version of “June”.)

I got the new Bon Iver album and it, too, has got some solid tracks but also some that make me fear that, in 5 years, Bon Iver is going to sound like Bruce Hornsby and the Range. I hope I’m wrong about that.

Marxism without revolution: Crisis

by John Quiggin on June 25, 2011

I’m writing series of posts examining the question – what is left of Marxism, as a way to understand the world, and as a way to change it, once it is accepted that capitalism is not going to be overthrown by a working class revolution. Last time I talked about class. This post is about crisis. As before, the shorter JQ is “there are lots of valuable insights, but there’s a high risk of political paralysis.”

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I haven’t logged onto Facebook in, like, 5 months. (So if you tried to friend me or poke me or whatever, and I didn’t respond, it’s nothing personal, man.) However, when I got a request to marry Belle Waring, I figured I might as well accept. Sudden and unexpected, to be sure. But what have I got to lose, marrying my own wife? To keep a short story short: reader, I married her!

I woke up this morning, in my own bed, beside my sleeping wife. It’s working out great. I am a devoted husband, with no pending invites to stray. Now I don’t need to log onto Facebook for, like, 5 more months.

I’m in Madrid at the moment for the annual meeting of SASE, the “Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics ” (the main organization for economic sociologists). One of the panels tomorrow is an author-meets-critics session on Gary Herrigel’s recent book, _Manufacturing Possibilities._ While I won’t be on the panel, I have written a review of the book, which Gary has in turn responded to – both are below the fold. The review and response are also available in PDF form if you prefer to read it that way.

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Silent Film You Love?

by John Holbo on June 23, 2011

Of course, there’s more to life than stuff with big words aimed at early readers. There’s stuff with few words aimed at early viewers! Here’s a good deal on a nice, quite comprehensive collection of the very earliest silent films, Landmarks of Early Film, Vol. 1 [amazon]. I lectured about some of this stuff in my Philosophy and Film class last semester, because I focused on sf – crossroads of speculation and spectacle. It’s a common critical complaint that Lucas/Spielberg-style special effects blockbusters killed a lot that was great about American cinema, in the 1970’s. Then again, film was industrial light and magic from the start, pioneered by the industrious likes of Edison and Georges Méliès (stage magician). No film could be truer to the authentic roots of the medium than whatever Michael Bay is working on right now. Probably that new Transformers movie or something. Maybe that explains why so many of these early films are boring. But in a fascinating way.

What are your favorite early/silent films? What early cinema do you really, honestly, just love to watch. No grading on a curve or so-bad-it’s-good ironizing. I watched quite a bit of Charlie Chaplin, while I was reading Sunnyside. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I’ve posted before about loving Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. I’ve never watched any Buster Keaton; never watched The General, for example. Should I? I love Metropolis but I recently watched Fritz Lang’s Woman In The Moon and didn’t really get into it. It veered between dull and draggy self-seriousness and extreme silliness. Although Fritz Rasp (a.k.a. The Thin Man, from Metropolis) was fun.

Who do you think should get the moon gold, should it exist? Defend your answer. (Maybe that inter-title should be an inspirational poster.)

Pinkwater – Little Pitchers Have Big Ears

by John Holbo on June 22, 2011

Pursuant of my previous post, the Wikipedia entry for The Big Orange Splot notes that the book uses big words, as books for 4-8 year-olds go. Yes. Words like ‘baobab’ and ‘frangipani’. This is standard Pinkwater operating procedure. Compare a passage from Irving and Muktuk, Two Bad Bears, likewise officially aimed at the 4-8 set. “FWOP! FWOP! FWOP! Oh no! It is the helicopter! FWOP! FWOP! FWOP! Adieu, Irving and Muktuk. Once again, you have failed to obtain muffins by stealth and subterfuge.” My limited acquaintance with the world of children’s book leads me to believe authors are typically editorially compelled to write much less trisyllabically. Pinkwater, being a big fish in this publishing pond, can get away with it. But surely he’s doing it right. Kids are engineered to pick up language from adults, who frequently talk to other adults, so if you write a bit over kids’ heads, they’ll just learn what ‘subterfuge’ means 5-10 years earlier than they might otherwise. Surely there is no harm in that. Kids find it interesting. What do you think? What are your favorite books for very young children that really pour on the vocabulary, apparently on the theory that little pitchers have big ears?

Missed Opportunities For Culture War

by John Holbo on June 22, 2011

Quick thoughts in response to Yglesias’ ‘against character’ post. Zoning laws are a perfect example of an area in which it is hard to come up with good, principled, liberal answers – classically liberal, that is – that don’t reduce to absurdity. Richard Epstein philosophizes with a hammer about this, with the air of one delicately operating with a scalpel. Pretty much everything the government does should count as a ‘taking’. For a more winning defense of zoning libertarianism, see Daniel Pinkwater, The Big Orange Splot [amazon] – video here. It’s interesting that conservatives have never sought to open a permanent culture war front against zoning regulations. It seems like a perfect opportunity for a toxic mix of dog-whistles, pandering to bad actors, and all-around irritable gestures seeking to resemble ideas, while managing to be wedge issues. All this irritation, around a grain of truth, can produce scholarly pearls, such as Epstein’s classic book, which in a certain sense expresses an all-American conservative dream. Because, after all, Yglesias is quite right that it doesn’t make much sense, either in philosophic principle or economic practice, for zoning regulations to be so conservative a lot of the time (in the etymological sense of ‘conservative’, not the American political sense.) Possibly only the fact that Pinkwater’s Plumbean is obviously a Big Hippy has preserved us from an Epsteinian slippery slope, in polemical, culture war practice. Conservatives could do with astroturf Joe the Plumbeans, if only they could find them. Someone who can dump a big orange splot of pollution, while declaiming, like Walt Whitman, “My backyard is me and I am it! My backyard is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams!” Take that, ‘neat street’ zombie liberal clones! That would substantially confuse the issue, in ways that are really philosophically unresolvable. (Bonus style points if you can somehow connect Plumbean with Pruneyard without looking like you are trying way too hard, as I clearly am.)

Defenders of Epstein will note, correctly, that his view is very nuanced and he wouldn’t by any means say everyone gets to dump whatever toxic splot they want, so long as it’s their land. Quite right! Epstein’s philosophy would give a much more sensible resolution to the ‘nuisance’ posed by the Plumbean case than probably any existing zoning laws in the land. Granted. My point is different. Epstein combines exquisite theoretical sophistication with crude anti-New Deal contrarianism (in my opinion). Given the bottomless appetite for the latter, among American conservatives, it’s interesting that there isn’t a dumbed-down, popular talk radio talking point version of Epstein’s philosophy, minus the intellectually worthwhile bits, in constant circulation. It seems like a missed opportunity for debasing the discourse. Again, maybe it’s just that Plumbean is a Big Hippy. What do you think?

UPDATE: I suppose I should have linked to the Wikipedia summary of the plot. For the busy, executive reader of CT who needs the bullet point version of Pinkwater’s classic children’s picture book.

You say you want a revolution (updated)

by John Quiggin on June 19, 2011

As promised in my previous post, I’m setting up a separate thread for discussion of my premise that a socialist revolution is neither feasible nor desirable. My own thoughts, taken from an old post are over the fold.

UpdateI’ve updated to link to the earlier post remove an unjustifiably snarky reference to aristocratic sentiment and to include a para from the previous post, on situations where revolutions are likely to turn out well.
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Sunday Free Music: Jesus Fever

by John Holbo on June 19, 2011

Why not? It’s a great Kurt Vile song. You can download it free here. Here’s a video of a great live performance in freezing weather.

Marxism without revolution: Class

by John Quiggin on June 19, 2011

I’ve mentioned Erik Olin Wright’s Envisaging Real Utopias a couple of times, and I’ve also been reading David Harvey’s Enigma of Capital and Jerry Cohen’s if You’re an Egalitarian How Come you’re so Rich. In different ways, all these books raise the question: what becomes of Marxism if you abandon belief in the likelihood or desirability of revolution[1]? To give the shorter JQ upfront, there are lots of valuable insights, but there’s a high risk of political paralysis.

I plan alliteratively, to organise my points under three headings: Class, Capital and Crisis, and in this post I’ll talk about class

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Titus Awakes

by John Holbo on June 18, 2011

When I was but a callow lad, the Gormenghast novels were among my favorites. Now that I am grown into a strapping, callow man, they are still among my favorites. I do so hope that Titus Awakes [amazon] turns out to be good. It was written in the early 1960’s by Maeve Gilmore, Peake’s wife, and only discovered last year in an attic by their grand-daughter. Gilmore based it on notes and an outline by Peake himself. Here’s a Telegraph piece about the rediscovery.

It won’t be released for a few more weeks, but you can listen to the first bit of the audiobook here. Simon Vance is the reader.

Quite a bit of Peake stuff is being reprinted right now, or has come back in print only in the past few years. Just in the next couple months: Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake; Mr. Pye; A Book of Nonsense. Poke around if you like Peake. I haven’t checked out Boy in Darkness and Other Stories yet. My daughters have enjoyed Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, and my vintage copy is rather falling apart. So it’s nice to know new ones are available.

Let’s discuss our hopes and fears for Titus Awakes.