“The watch being advertised is almost invisible.”

watch ad















Because postmodernism?

This comes at the end of the “Postmodernism” chapter of David Harvey’s The Postmodern Condition, in which Harvey’s clear moral disappointment in everything he’s describing as postmodern comes to a head. The oddest thing about this particular moment is that Harvey, in the snarky finger-waving aside he closes this picture caption with, seems to inaugurate a nostalgia for the days when advertising would just directly display its product (the sin here is that the ad is so distracted both by the naked woman and by its clever postmodern ‘superimposition of ontologically different worlds’ that it forgets to even actually advertise its product) and seems to attribute this specific depravity of advertising to postmodernism in exactly the same way he’s earlier attributed Foucault’s morally disappointing abandonment of classical Marxism to postmodernism. That is, he disapproves of it, and it seems potentially postmodern, therefore this is what postmodernism is.

Harvey concludes his chapter with this truly hilarious “Note”

The illustrations used in this chapter have been criticized by some feminists of a postmodern persuasion. They were deliberately chosen because they allowed comparison across the supposed pre-modern, modern and postmodern divides….All the illustrations make use of a woman’s body to inscribe their particular message. The additional point I sought to make is that the subordination of women, one of the many ‘troublesome contradictions’ in bourgeois Enlightenment practices…can expect no particular relief by appeal to postmodernism. I thought the illustrations made the point so well that no further elaboration was necessary. But, in some circles at least, these particular pictures were not worth their usual thousand words. Nor, it seems, should I have relied upon postmodernists appreciating their own technique of telling even a slightly different story by way of the illustrations as compared to the text. (June, 1991.)




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…I saw and once more I knew that a creator is contemporary, he understands what is contemporary when the contemporaries do not yet know it, but he is contemporary and as the twentieth century is a century which sees the earth as no one has ever seen it, the earth has a splendor that it never has had, and as everything destroys itself in the twentieth century and nothing continues, so then the twentieth century has a splendor which is its own and Picasso is of this century, he has that strange quality of an earth that one has never seen and of things destroyed as they have never been destroyed. So then Picasso has his splendor.

Yes. Thank you.

From Picasso by Getrude Stein, 1938.

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And where do you find them?
Dreams? Nightmares is more like it. What’s not right?
We were in Samoa. The sea will wash over us.
He came like the Johnstown flood.
It was worth waiting around for.
And the women who smiled majestically.

Give us silly, damaged things,
felony cruisers, and hours after the moon.
I lay there dumber than a dead house sparrow.
It was intentional. Snails and scales we read,
and it all ties in with Grandma, the businesses,
the absolute stench of romance. Don’t even think about it.
We’re very into whatever it is we’re doing,
I say.

From “Laughing Creek,” in Quick Question, by John Ashbery, 2012.


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Roussel: The Death of Jizme

The storm had already drawn near; bolts of lightning followed each other in quick succession, followed by increasingly loud bursts of thunder.

Rao, who had gone on ahead, soon reappeared with his men, who were straining under the weight of a curious litter that they set down in the middle of the esplanade. By the flashes of lightning, we could examine the strange composition of this object, which looked at once comfortable and terrifying.

A bed frame, raised off the ground by four wooden feet, supported a soft white mattress entirely covered in fine individuated designs, in shape and size not unlike the tailpieces that close the chapters of certain books. The most varied subjects were gathered in this collection of minuscule, independent, isolated images; landscapes, portraits, starstruck couples, groups dancing, ships in distress, and sunsets were treated with a naive and conscientious  art by no means lacking charm or interest. A cushion was slipped under one end of the mattress, raising it to support the sleeper’s head; behind the place nominally reserved for the occiput stood a lightning rod, its shining stem rising high above the long berth. A metal skullcap, connected by a wire to the base of the tall vertical needle, was apparently intended to encircle the forehead of some convict sentenced perish on the lethal couch; at the other end, two metal shoes, placed side by side, communicated with the earth by means of another wire, the tip of which had just been sunken into the ground by Rao himself.

Having reached its peak with the meteorological rapidity peculiar to equatorial regions, the storm no unfurled with extreme violence; a terrible wind shuttled fat black clouds, from which burst an incessant cataclysm.

Rao had opened the prison to release Jizme, the graceful and beautiful young native, who, since the triple execution earlier on, had remained alone behind the dark bars.

Offering no resistance, Jizme lay down on the white mattress, placing her own head in the iron skullcap and her feet in the stiff shoes.

Prudently, Rao and his aides edged away from the dangerous contraption, which then stood completely isolated.

Jizme grasped with both hands a parchment chart hanging by a thin cord from her neck and stared at it at length, taking advantage of the occasional flash of lightning to exhibit it to everyone with a defiantly joyous expression; a name in hieroglyphics, inscribed in the middle of the supple rectangle, was underscored at a distance, to the right, by a small triple drawing depicting three phases of the moon.

Soon, Jizme let go the chart and shifted her look away from the front of the red theater, settling her gaze on Nair; the latter, still imprisoned on his pedestal, had abandoned his delicate labors since the appearance of the beautiful convict, whom he devoured with his eyes.

By then the thunder was rumbling continually, and lighting flashed often enough to give the illusion of false daylight.

Then, with a horrible roar, a blinding zigzag of fire jolted across the sky and struck the tip of the lightning rod. Jizme, whose arms had begun stretching toward Nair, was unable to complete her gesture; the electricity coursed through her body, and the white litter soon supported nothing more than a cadaver with staring eyes and inert limbs.

During the brief silence the storm observed after the next deafening clap of thunder, heartrending sobs drew our attention to Nair, who shed tears of anguish while keeping his eyes fixed on the deceased.

The porters removed the apparatus without disturbing Jizme’s corpse, and we waited in pained stupor while the elements gradually receded.

The wind continued chasing the clouds southward and the thunder moved swiftly away, losing more of its force and duration with each passing minute. Little by little the sky cleared and the moon shone brightly over Ejur.

From Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel, 1910. Trans. Mark Polizzotti, 2011.

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One thought about Django

I watched Django Unchained last night and I thoroughly enjoyed it, which, for a violent revenge fantasy, is either the whole point or else basically like giving in to the movie. The audience I was with didn’t seem especially uncomfortable by it much at all: there was lots of audible enjoying of Django’s one-liners, and the loudest cheers came when Stephen (Samuel Jackson’s Uncle Tom character) got his. Game, set, match: Tarantino.

My one thought (spoilers, kinda):

Django’s best line: As Django and Dr. King Schultz are being led by Calvin Candie to the Candie-land plantation, their party runs into some of the overseers who have trapped an attempted runaway in a tree. Candie stops to toy with the slave, and Schultz makes the mistake of trying to buy him off so they’ll leave the slave alone, which raises Candie’s suspicions enough that he decides to have his dogs tear the slave apart so he can gauge Django’s and Schultz’s reactions to the violence. Candie, watching Django’s eyes while the gore happens mostly offscreen, notes aloud that Django seems unfazed while his partner Schultz appears to be getting a bit green, clearly uneasy with the violence. Django’s response is maybe the most interesting line in the movie (and I wish I remembered it exactly): “He’s just not as used to Americans.” This is not subtle. If the whole point of our ability to enjoy the violent revenge we know Django is going to wreak (some of which we’ve already delighted in) is that we can easily place ourselves on the side of the hero, treating the villains as already exorcised foreign objects, this line, spoken about what is probably the most horrific violence we see being committed upon a slave,[1] assigns the violence the status of a characteristic of Americans. It’s difficult to resolve this statement, actually. But I think it disallows a contemporary American audience from uncomplicatedly assuming their own position to be firmly on the side of Django, even as we enjoy his revenge just as much as he does. From there it seems it might be possible to wonder what subject position the film has maneuvered its audience into: in order to fully enjoy the parts of the film it most clearly wants us to enjoy, we have to enjoy it on behalf of some other subject, one that occupies no stable point within the world of the movie or within our world, one that we almost surely have no right to claim.[2]

[1] Not that I’m trying to rank the horrors: the movie itself recalls this moment to us later, the flashbacks of memory giving us the most graphic depictions of the violence right at the moment that the narrative turns single-mindedly toward its goal of violent revenge.

[2] To an extent, Django implicates himself with the ‘Americans’ statement as well, something that underscores his earlier explanation to Schultz that this is his (Django’s) world.

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Popular Left

The thought is that left-wing thinking is growing more popular:

From The Communist Hypothesis by Alain Badiou, Verso, 2010:

The word ‘communism’, together with the general hypothesis that it can imply effective political procedures, is now back in circulation. A conference under the general title of ‘The Idea of Communism’ was held in London on 13-15 March 2009. This conference calls for two essential comments. First of all, in addition to the two people behind it (Slavoj Žižek and myself), the great names of the true philosophy of our times (by which I mean a philosophy  that is not reducible to academic exercises or support for the ruling order) were strongly represented. Over a period of three days, the conference heard contributions from Judith Balso, Bruno Bosteels, Terry Eagleton, Peter Hallward, Michael Hardt, Toni Negri, Jacques Rancière, Alessandro Russo, Alberto Toscano and Gianni Vattimo. Jean-Luc Nancy and Wang Hui had agreed to speak but were prevented from doing so by external circumstances. All had carefully read the proviso to which all participants had to subscribe: whatever their approach, they had to agree that the word ‘communism’ can and must now acquire a positive value once more. My second remark is that the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, which hosted this event on a temporary basis, had to hire a huge lecture theatre holding one thousand people in order to accommodate the audience, which consisted mainly of young people. This shared enthusiasm on the part of both the philosophers and their audience for a word that was sentenced to death by public opinion almost 30 years ago surprised everyone.

According to Pew Research Center, among Americans age 18-29, positive views of Socialism outweigh positive views of Capitalism:

(via “The Next Left,” an otherwise also very good Boston Review interview with Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of Jacobin)

Based on my own experience, it does seem to be much easier to find a variety of sources (especially sources outside of the academic world) to go for actual left-wing thinking, though I’ve always thought it was because the Internet made it easier to make writing and ideas public. The flip-side to that idea has always been the suspicion that it’s probably growing easier in the same way for people so inclined to find radical right-wing stuff, which then plays into the rather mainstream press (or Jon Stewart) idea that everyone is becoming more radicalized, and what public discourse needs is a resurgent moderatism. But maybe that two-sides-of-the-same-coin way of seeing it isn’t the most valuable. I’m not old enough to know experientially, though, if left thought really is experiencing some kind of flourishing that’s substantially different from, say, the 1980s.

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Raymond Roussel’s Cat Battle

“The child carried in his arms, on his shoulders, and even on top of his head a collection of young cats, each wearing a red or green ribbon around its neck.

With the edge of his heel, he drew two lines in the sand about forty to sixty feet apart, parallel to the side occupied by the Stock Exchange. The cats, jumping spontaneously to the ground, posted themselves in two equal camps behind these conventional boundaries and lined up facing each other, all the green ribbons on one side and all the red on the other.

At a sign from Marius, the graceful felines began a frolicsome game of Prisoner’s Base.

To begin, one of the greens ran up to the red camp and three times, with the tips of its barely unsheathed claws, tapped the paw that one of its adversaries extended; at the last tap it swiftly ran away, chased close behind by the red, which tried to catch it.

At that moment, another green ran after the pursuer, which, forced to turn back, was soon aided by one of its partners; the latter lit upon the second green, which was forced to flee in turn.

The same maneuver was repeated several times, until the moment when a red, managing to tag a green with its paw, let out a victorious meow.

The match halted, and the green prisoner, entering enemy territory, took three steps toward its camp, then stood stock still. The cat that had earned the honor of the capture went to the greens‘ camp and began anew, by sharply rapping three times on a tendered paw, freely offered. 

At that point, the alternating pursuits resumed with gusto, culminating in the capture of a red, which obediently stopped dead before the enemy camp.

Fast-paced and captivating, the game went on without any infractions of the rules. The prisoners, in two symmetrical and lengthening rows, sometimes saw their number decrease when a player’s skillful tag was able to deliver one of its teammates. Such alert runners, if they reached the opposing camp unhindered, became untouchable during their stay over the line they’d crossed in glory.

Finally, the group of green prisoners grew so large that Marius imperiously decreed the red team the victors. 

The cats, without a moment’s delay, went back to the child and scampered up his body, taking the places they’d had on arrival.”

From Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel, 1910. Trans. Mark Polizzotti, 2011.

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