Friday, December 18, 2009

Ancient Scenes of Celebrities Past

I wrote that title without intentionally intending it to be a Dickens* reference, but decided to leave it there once I noticed because I thought it sounded good. These videos that I found, with very little effort, are the results of my procrastination as I work on conference papers for the Canadian Philosophical Association meetings in Montreal this June.

I’ve liked Eric Bana ever since I saw Munich: his was the best performance in the whole film. I had seen him in Black Hawk Down, but he was just one soldier character among others in that movie. Munich was where he stood out as an actor of intense emotion. And I thought of him after that as a dramatic actor, yet to recapture the intensity of Munich, but one can’t make a film like that every year. And I thought his work in Star Trek as Nero was the best villain of the entire film franchise since Khan.

Then I found his wikipedia page and discovered several things I hadn’t known before. For one, he’s of Croatian heritage, with the full last name Banadinovic. I learned more about the Australian films he’s done, particularly his dramatic debut Chopper. And most surprisingly, I discovered that he began his career as one of the lead actor/writers on a sketch comedy show, Full Frontal, that ran for six years. I knew from Funny People that he could do comedy, but I never realized that it was where he spent such a significant portion of his career. And he’s hilarious. He does a pretty good impersonation of Arnold Swartzenegger, but I think this sketch, showcasing his most famous character on the show, Peter the most stereotypical Australian in the universe, is his best old material on youtube.

And today is the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Second City theatre in Chicago, the venue which can legitimately claim to have invented modern American comedy. The list of people who have gone through Second City is so long as to require a great deal of dedicated research which I don’t want to do. So I’ll just post this sketch from 2001 featuring Steve Carell as an unassuming man doing his laundry. Carell has really grown on me over the years, but it’s fun to see him before he had a professional stylist keeping his hair in control twenty-four hours a day.

*A minor confession to my readers: Despite my regular screeds against VicLit, I have never read any Dickens.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

It's Really Only the Music that I Hate About This Holiday

Patton Oswalt explains everything that drives me insane about the holiday season, mostly having to do with schlocky stories and terrible music. I was in the grocery store the other day, and the combination of Saturday afternoon grocery store cart traffic jams with the most horrifyingly awful Xmas songs drove me close to the point of mass murder. Donovan, my cashier, agreed.

The really terrifying part about this song is that there's a tv-movie adapted from its story, starring Rob Lowe. It was made in the middle of his run on The West Wing, so he can't fall back on the excuse that he needed the paycheck.

Philosophical Friendships, Wordplay, and The Monster of Foxy Conservatism

After a few comments I made last week about my philosophical and fictional development, a series of duelling comments between my old friend Bernie Wills and my newer friend Ben Wald has started on my facebook page. Bernie teaches at Grenfell College, Memorial’s west coast campus, and Ben is in the last year of his MA at McMaster. I think if they were to meet in real life, they’d get along quite well.

Both are extremely argumentative when it comes to philosophy, but neither of them are abrasive about it at all. They can just congenially dispute a point for hours, constantly coming up with new angles and evasions and rhetoric. I usually run out of steam and do something else after a while, but I think if Bernie and Ben were in the same room talking philosophy, they wouldn’t leave again until they ran out of food. And the argument would continue over lunch.

Ben can always find an angle to refute or critique pretty much any philosophical statement in a conversation. It will be very productive for him, even though it’s sometimes frustrating for me. The way I do philosophy, I pursue an idea starting from a very strange place, which can sometimes begin in a state resembling Orson Welles lying face up at sunrise on a beach in southern California wearing nothing but a pair of mysteriously stained boxers and tripping out of his mind on salvia. And I end up with a coherent and intriguing conceptual investigation. On the good days.

Bernie I met when he was teaching at Memorial’s St John’s campus, at a philosophy department mixer. It was 2005, as I recall, and I walked over to say hello to Jim Bradley, the department head and a good friend, who rapidly introduced me to Bernie. Unfortunately, I was standing against the wall, and Bernie is much taller than me, so dominated my field of vision as he spoke about the invasion of Iraq for the next half hour until I, like Jim, could finally find an excuse and go somewhere else. We since became good colleagues and friends, exchanging ideas on a wide range of topics from Deleuzian ontology to Curb Your Enthusiasm.
An amusing Hamilton non-sequitor. There is a bar downtown called Liquid Kitty, that is constituted from a large basement dancefloor underneath another bar, almost as wretched, called Tailgate Charlie’s. Tailgate Charlie’s is just kind of lame; Liquid Kitty is a terrifying meat market for the 30-55 set (to which I approach closer with every passing day, so I have to mock them while I still can). It is so awful that you can smell the syphilis as soon as you get past the mandatory (seriously, it’s mandatory!) coat check.

My friend André habitually calls it Liquid Pussy. I don’t know if this is a purposeful joke, or if he just misheard it on the first terrifying night we ended up there. But it’s hilarious.
Another amusing piece of Hamilton information. Sarah Palin is coming here in April as part of a fundraiser for two hospitals in the city. If George W Bush was the Arnold Swartzenegger Terminator, then Sarah Palin is the T1000 come to hunt down the pre-teen John Connor called political sanity. And she is coming, by invitation, to a fundraiser in one of the most left-leaning cities in Canada, a country with a real left-wing party that holds solidly almost every Hamilton seat in both levels of government.

Sarah Palin coming here better stir up at least a few women’s rights and anti-Republican protesters. I might even go myself with a sign and some of my friends from social work and sociology.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Not Too Long Journey in Search of a Method

My pleasure reading over the last month or so included mostly Bolaño, as you could probably tell from the previous few posts. After reading 2666 again, I started Nazi Literature in the Americas, his fake encyclopedia of the mostly melancholy and marginal lives of the men and women who constituted a century-long literary movement built around fascist ideas. Of course, these people were all fictional. It was, as I’ve considered everything else I’ve read by Roberto Bolaño, brilliant.

But after finishing Nazi Literature, I started The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, and the transition between the two authors in my reading was jarring. It’s made me think about the development of my own writing style, which, even though I owe a lot to the modernists like Joyce and Woolf, now is more aligned with the easier language of Bolaño and Nabokov. The idea I had today was that the reason for this transition has to do with my philosophical development more than my tastes as an author.

What fascinated me about modernist literature when I first discovered James Joyce and Virginia Woolf was the technique of stream-of-consciousness writing, language that inserted the reader into the thoughts of the character as they drifted along an associative train through time and space, sometimes focussed on the colloquial, sometimes on flights of memory, sometimes intimate moments of self-reflection, and sometimes into fragmentary thoughts that completely dissociated one from reality and could lose track of what is typically thought of as the narrative altogether. Plot became secondary to character study with this technique.

And it had none of the irritating omniscience that so annoys me in so much nineteenth century literature. The narration of Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, and Maryann Evans (George Eliot) knew everything about their characters and displayed them on the page for you to read. Every facet of their characters were laid out in the text like the terms of an anatomy lesson. It wasn’t so much character study to me as character explanation. The narrator displayed all the psychological properties, and they collided in the mechanical necessity the parts dictated. I could almost call it mechanical realism.

This stream-of-consciousness technique offered a teenager with pretentions for a career in writing a way of exploring a character-constituted narrative, but kept the mystery and paradoxes that I saw in actual people. The mechanical realist technique put every facet of their characters’ psychologies on display, each one fitting together into a consistent whole. A character revealed through stream-of-consciousness could embrace inconsistency, as the character itself could become just as lost in its own stream as the reader. Surprise was possible.

My philosophical development began just as I was turning 19, with my first course in the subject from Jim Bradley, to whom I owe lifelong thanks. When I first began, I was fascinated by the problem of how the subjective could be bridged with the world, how thought could become objective and no longer distort the world in order to understand it. But over the following years, I began to understand how flawed this entire philosophical setup was. If a human subject’s knowledge of the world was so radically distorted as this setup says it is, then no creature with such a flawed perceptual apparatus could survive. In all the ways I had studied of how people tackled the question of how we could overcome the distortion inherent to subjectivity, no one had seriously questioned whether subjectivity was inherently distorting of reality at all. And I abandoned most of the philosophy that refused to pose this question.

And this is why, as I’ve developed this stance of radically rejecting the subject-world problem and all the ways this pseudo-problem crops up in other philosophies (mind-body, thought-reality, certainty-doubt), I’ve come to abandon the stream-of-consciousness as a fruitful literary technique. Reading Faulkner has just made this even more clear to me. I’m only reading him for the first time this year, having picked up a box set of three novels cheaply at a used bookstore in Windsor this March. He’s a master of the technique, taking it to what looks to be an extremity of fragmentation. The story of The Sound and the Fury is nearly impossible to discern from the constant shifts in time, mood, event, perception, and thought. These shifts are structured along the narrative of the decline and fall of the noble family of Compson. But that narrative is far from apparant in the words themselves and their organization.

The stream-of-consciousness technique is a story told from deep within a single character’s subjectivity. And taken to its extreme in Faulkner, I can see now the presumption in the technique as to the nature of a subjectivity: a distortion of the plot playing out in the real, outside, world. There is no place for the world itself to be mysterious in its constitution of itself, no place for a conspiracy between a character and her world, no way to turn a narrative into a plot against the reader. The only way for confusion and mystery to arise in stream-of-consciousness writing is in the distortion consciousness creates in trying (and inevitably failing) to apprehend the world.

The realism of Nabokov, Bolaño, Vonnegut, DeLillo, and Pynchon (these are my favourite examples; I know I must read more women) can create grand structures of multiplicity through a simple structure: realist writing with a narrator who doesn’t know everything, and who sometimes might not know anything. A stream-of-consciousness can flow in only one direction: down the black hole of a distorting subjectivity. Myserious realism can build an entire world with a quick suggestion.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Who on Earth Are All These Romanians?

One particularly unusual discovery I made on the internet this weekend was the wikipedia page for Romanian Philosophy. I stumbled on this during a typical bout of procrastination while I was editing one of my essays. Sometimes, I look up random countries on wikipedia and see what our semi-democratic encyclopedia has to say about them. I noticed that the page on Romania had a link to a separate item on Romanian philosophy. I decided to check it out, expecting a brief summary of university growth in the country, perhaps a paragraph on restrictions under the Ceausescu regime, and a list of a few people writing today.

When I got there, I discovered a page that described, in chronological order, every figure who made some original contribution to philosophy in Romania from the 17th century to the present. Each figure got at least one paragraph describing their basic concepts, publications, and place in the philosophical societies and divisions of Romania. The entire article was easily 10,000 words long. The grammar was sometimes mildly sketchy, as if every now and then an English sentence would be written with a Romanian word order at the beginning. But these were rare enough that I could tell this incredibly comprehensive page was written by a fluent English speaker. English was certainly a second language, but the writer was fluent.

The page was first created in summer 2007, by an editor named Bogdan Rusu. And I must say that I am impressed. Not only is this page clearly the summation of a great deal of research, but it strikes me as having a sense of futility about it. I was fascinated to read through such a detailed summary of the development of the philosophical institution about which I previously knew nothing. But as I read through the article, what struck me was how none of this sometimes very creative philosophical activity ever made it outside Romania to any degree.

There’s an engagement with Hegel and Kant that has travelled in entirely different directions than in the regions more mainstream to a philosopher in Canada, the English, French, and German languages. This has lasted just as long in Romania as in Germany, because many of Hegel’s students were Romanians who returned to work in philosophy departments of their home country. From what I can gather, Heidegger was appropriated into the Romanian scene in the way I’m used to seeing, but there are a couple of idiosyncratic engagements with his ideas. Analytic philosophy never made much headway, aside from a few smaller groups of logicians and knowledge theorists. I think this might be because it took a long time for Russell and Wittgenstein’s works to be translated into Romanian. And the continental traditions, with its roots in Hegel, would have found a fertile conceptual ground in Romania, which already had quite an affinity with Hegel anyway.

What I think about most, though, is the degree to which a thriving philosophical scene can be isolated by political and linguistic factors. Romania spent much of the twentieth century isolated from the philosophical revolutions happening in Germany, France, Britain, and America. So their philosophers weren’t able to enter a dialogue with the vanguard in those countries. The English language attacks on Hegel made no impact there. And now we’re left with a country that has had a fascinating philosophical development, but that has made no contribution to what we in North America think of as ‘mainstream’ philosophy. Accidents of development and politics have made an intriguing tradition practically irrelevant.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Few More Thoughts on Unadulterated Terror

So as I finish reading the fourth, most brutally violent part, of 2666, I discovered this piece of news about one of the latest killings in Juarez. In this example, a 28 year old man and his 7 year old son were both shot, execution style, in their car. The BBC writes about it here. Even after the descriptions of constant violence in that fictional, yet accurate, book, I think this even pushes the limit past what Bolaño was writing about.
In other political news that provokes my utter disgust, the Canadian government has been slandering one of its leading career diplomats, Richard Colvin, because he's whistleblowing over our complicity in torture. After all, when the government's complicity in violence we would never condone in our own country is discovered, our leaders should act like real professionals and try to buy off the whistleblowers and cover it up. Instead, they act like spoiled bullies in an elementary school insulting a tattler.

I'm against torture and violence as political activities myself, but if you're going to break the ethics of your culture, society, and country, then the least you could do is understand that what you're doing is wrong. Attacking those who call you on your reprehensible acts adds ignorance to your list of offenses. Reacting as if the one who denounces torture is wrong implies that you think torture is right. If you think you should commit crimes for the sake of national security, you should at least be aware that you've made yourself a criminal.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Because, as You Know, Time Is Unreal

This is something funny I say lately when people ask me to be philosophical, even if it’s after 8.00 in the evening or I’ve had my second pint or equivalent wine or liquor. That’s the subject of an essay I read a couple of weeks ago by John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart, which was incredibly controversial at the time, because no one could deal with the idea that time wasn’t real. He wrote that we can never identify time itself, only the relative succession of events in order. Once I realized that was the point of his essay, I understood that it wasn’t controversial at all anymore, and that he only anticipated the conceptual leap of special relativity physics, just without the math. When I use that phrase at a party, I usually follow it up with, “But that doesn’t matter anyway.”

The reason I bring it up is that I started reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 again just after I got back from Edinburgh. The story had stuck with my memory, involuntarily popping up in my consciousness ever since I read it last winter, and no novel had done that to me before. I’ve been able to see a lot more of the interconnections and callbacks among the different parts now that I hadn’t noticed the first time, which has made it a much more rich reading experience. But just now, I was thinking about why the parts are arranged out of chronological order as they are in the book, and I came to an idea that makes an incredible amount of sense. Whether it was Bolaño’s or not doesn’t matter, but it’s a fascinating idea.

The Chronological Order of 2666
One: 1998-late 2003
Two: 1980-2000
Three: early 2003
Four: 1993-1997
Five: 1920-2003

I never really understood why a writer would arrange their work out of chronological order (unless it was actually a time-travel story, in which case the concept becomes kind of laughable, or at least it should) before I wrote A Small Man’s Town, which is told out of chronological order. You could say that I organized the events of my book not in chronological order, but in emotional order. My book is organized in a series of arcs in which my characters mature emotionally. Some of them move more chronologically than others because those characters don’t have as many setbacks in developing their maturity. I found that kind of structure to be more significant than a simple order of events from 2001-10, because none of the events in that book are really all that significant. So that’s why I never adhered strongly to chronology.

Just before I started writing this, I had this idea about why Bolaño didn’t adhere to chronology. 2666 is a novel about the abyss, a maelstrom of violence and death bubbling underneath the surface of the ordinary life we think is so secure, but that when we least expect it can swallow us whole (or chomp us up in pieces) and spit us back out days, months, years later reduced to a bloody pulp. This is not an uplifting Mitch Albom style story where everything is alright because we love each other. The problem with the abyss is that it’s a void, it’s so terrifying that it’s unspeakable. So all we can do is approach as close as we can without falling in.

And that’s what the order of the five parts of 2666 do. The protagonists of each part, as you progress from part one to part five, become better able to approach, perceive, and understand the abyss. The four literary critics of part one- Jean-Claude Pelletier, Manuel Espinoza, Liz Norton, and Piero Morini - are sheltered, cultured western Europeans of the 1990s and 2000s. They understand it only through art, particularly the literature of Benno von Archimboldi (whose work we never actually read or have described in any detail), and perceive it only through their incomprehensible dreams.

Oscar Amalfitano, the protagonist of part two, is a philosophy professor in Santa Teresa, the ficionalized Juarez where the killings of hundreds of women takes place. He perceives the abyss through his estranged wife’s madness and death from AIDS, and the voices he hears as he edges into madness himself. Oscar Fate, the American journalist visiting Santa Teresa by accident to cover a mediocre boxing match for his magazine, meets up with some low-level gangsters in the city, one of whom is dating Amalfitano’s daughter Rosa. He sees the violent criminal culture that renders the murder of hundreds of women so ordinary, and understands it well enough to know that he and Rosa are both in way over their heads.

The fourth part is about the killings themselves, or at least the first few hundred of them, and the investigations that the police, narcotrafficers, and gangs get involved in. This part puts us in the thick of the massacre itself, with only one young cop, Lalo Cura, standing out among a large ensemble cast this time, as the only one who believes that the police can solve the crimes, and actually working towards this himself.

And part five tells the life story of Benno von Archimboldi: how a young German boy who loves to swim gets enlisted in the Nazi army, fights on the Eastern Front, is shot in the neck, recuperates in the reclaimed cavern of a long dead Jewish sci-fi writer whose works inspire him to begin his own literary career, plucking his pen name from random thoughts at the time, falling in love with a slightly mad girl after whose death he wanders Europe as an itinerant even as his books becomes increasingly famous, while he himself embraces life for its impermanence, instability, and finitude, and all the small moments of joy that come throughout it if you’re ready to receive them, until one day he hears from his sister, an ordinary woman with a son who moved to America to start a business and found himself roped into this terrible matter of these murders in Santa Teresa. So Archimboldi flies to Mexico to help.

I think it’s intriguing that the character of Prof Amalfitano turns up in the most parts. I think, and this is entirely unfounded speculation, that if the rumours that a sixth part of 2666 exists or was planned or prepared, it would feature Amalfitano finally succumbing to complete insanity. It would perhaps involve Archimboldi as well, and perhaps an older Lalo Cura, though I cannot say if he would be jaded by then or just as determined to stop the killings even if he understands them as deeply as my reading suggests.

Monday, November 9, 2009

An Ancient, Subtle City

Well, the strike lasted a little over a week, and the deal we ended up with was pretty mediocre. The membership voted 58%, according to the union leadership, in favour of the university administration’s latest offer, even though there’s a practical pay cut across the board. I suppose it’s pretty hard for people in a position as prestigious as graduate students to realize when their contracts are terrible. The role of an academic is still held in high esteem. To most people, academics included, the idea that we’re exploited is pretty laughable.

I met one workman waiting at the Cootes drive picket line this afternoon who asked what we were striking over, and when I explained our issue with the high benefit charges for teaching assistants with families, he told me he had no sympathy for us because he had never had a benefit plan at all for his entire working life. It puts us in the absurd position of trying to argue that we have a right to strike when we already have better privileges than many other unionized people, like merely having a benefits plan at all. We’re in training to become one of the elites of society, and it’s very difficult to explain that trainee academics are considerably underpaid, and that an increasing number of professional academics have low-paying insecure university and college positions. The social prestige in which university professors and graduate students are held, I think, prevents us from making our case that we are shafted with growing frequency.

I hope the irony of this situation is appreciated.
It’s one thing to read that a city is several centuries old, and another experience entirely to walk through such a city, like Edinburgh. I have never been in a city built of stone, and it was immensely surprising to wander along a cobblestone street down roads flanked by some of the oldest skyscrapers in the world, huge grey apartment buildings the same colour as the streets themselves. For the three days of the conference, I walked there each morning, usually chilly, with the sun hanging low in the sky, often obscured by centuries-old masonwork stuffed to bursting with shops selling pastries, curry, fish and chips, secondhand books, and novelty hats, the last of which I meant to pick up for my Halloween costume, only to drop the ball again.

My friends Ray and Erin, who I stayed with, live in a comfortable if slightly drafty apartment on High street, the centre of the old town of Edinburgh, the district that was over five hundred years old. I spent the bulk of my time in the city in this neighbourhood, a decision I think was for the best. The whole neighbourhood is a dense maze of streets winding into each other in three dimensions. It was the easiest city to get lost in that I’ve ever experienced, and for the most obvious reason. Going in the same direction as you started the previous day could take you to an entirely different destination, which would be underneath where you wanted to go. Many streets are bridges leading over other, even older, streets, and I would not be able to tell you how to get back to the level on which you began.

One of the walking tours the conference booked for us took us to the large stone apartment complex that used to be the most prestigious place to live in all of Edinburgh. David Hume and Adam Smith once lived in that very building only a short distance away from where I was staying for that week. It is now University of Edinburgh’s most prestigious, and expensive, student residence. As our tour guide was telling us stories about Hume’s particularly crazy parties, a notably nerdy young Chinese man was taking his garbage out.

Stories about J. K. Rowling’s coffee shop, the ubiquity of kilts, and the best chicken vindaloo I’ve ever had in future entries.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Strikes and Music Leads to Thoughts on My Political Art

The expectation after my post last week was that this would be about some of the rest of my University of Edinburgh trip, but I’ve found myself in the middle of a labour action by the McMaster teaching assistants this week. I’m doing my twenty hours per week on the picket lines, though despite the university administration’s stonewalling, I don’t think the strike will last very long. This is more of a tangent about my art and the ideas that motivate it than the strike itself, which is being covered to death.

When I talk to people in cars giving them news about the negotiations and what our demands are, one piece of information that I’ve found especially compels them is the amount of money that TAs with families of their own have to pay for their family-rate health insurance. It’s too high, and TAs’ pay scales are mediocre enough without having these expenses on top of it. I can afford it, but I have no dependents, cheap rent, and no real expenses other than basic life.

So even though I’m on the picket lines to help the TAs who need help more than I do, I can’t help but feel disingenuous precisely because I’m fine. Who am I to speak for people in genuine financial trouble? Who am I to speak for people who go to sleep every night wondering if they’ll be able to feed their kids the next day, or next week? It’s condescending for a comfortable person to speak for someone in that situation.

Tonight, I’ve been listening to a free mixtape K’Naan (in my view probably the best rapper in Canada) and J.Period made, The Messengers. It’s a series of remixes of songs by Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan, interspersed with K’Naan discussing the role these artists played in his life, and in the political, social, and personal movements they sparked at the height of their careers. I downloaded it a while before I left for Edinburgh, and its music has stuck with me for weeks. K’Naan has crafted these remixes into duets, linking the African democracy movements, global anti-poverty activism, and the civil rights movements of the twentieth century to the political conflicts of the current time.

Among of the most affecting and powerful songs are a duet on “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” where Dylan’s verses alternate with K’Naan’s raps about global poverty, African gangsterism, and endless cycles of violence; and his remix of Bob Marley’s “Jonny Was a Good Man,” where K’Naan creates new verses between Marley’s chorus, describing a traumatized Iraq veteran who refuses to follow his orders and return to yet another tour, including graphic scenes of children mutilated and killed by the bombing raids of the soldier’s own army.

K’Naan grew up in Somalia through the collapse of the government. He fell in with gangster life in Baltimore, and only survived after the American INS chased his family to Toronto, where he discovered his musical talent. He can tell these stories because these are stories of genuine violence and hardship that he overcame. As a novelist, I want to write about these stories: these are the stories that matter today. Just as Bolaño can write about the crimes of the Latin American dictators because he lived there, and fled from there; just as K’Naan can write about the violence of Somalia because he lived that violent life: these are the stories of our era.

Contrast this to me. I’m a white male from an upper middle class background. The only stories that I can legitimately write about are breakups and love stories, tales of other rich white people who don’t get what they want. This is the situation of a great many artists in the West who want to tell important stories about the violence and injustice of our world. But our affluent lives insulate us from this injustice: we don’t have the rights to tell stories that really matter. The only pain in our lives comes from breakups; we know nothing of violence. I would be condescending to try to tell these stories, and I would probably get it all wrong precisely because I haven’t lived it.

I understood my solution as I wrote my first novel, A Small Man’s Town, my book about Newfoundland. My characters, especially in their youth as leftist student activists, interacted with people from genuinely violent regions like Palestine and Colombia. And I worked out how a person like me, who has never known violence or had to overcome it, can write about that violence. The very quest to avoid condescension itself, striving to escape being part of the problem, straining against the indifference that comes with wealth, is the awakening political consciousness of the wealthy.

It’s a kind of political shame that we have lived for so long without knowledge of our luck, and our unwitting roles in the exploitation of others. The political task of the affluent in this world is to become mindful of the suffering of others, and accept that this cannot be our world. I don’t think I’m articulating this concept well, but I want at least to try, to make one first attempt to understand this political consciousness the longs for redemption for his mindlessness to suffering, yet accepts that it is impossible.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

An Epic Journey Through the World's Most Insane Airport

At long last, I’ve returned to blogging after my week in Edinburgh. And I hope over the next week or so to tell all my remaining readers about it. But really, the most epic part of my voyage was the first part. It’s a story so harrowing, so chilling, so fraught with suspense and danger that it could be fatal to the faint of heart. I am speaking, of course, of having to transfer flights in Heathrow airport.

I arrived just over three hours early for my flight from Toronto airport. I spent those three hours figuring out where the international check-in and terminal was, drinking Starbucks coffee for lunch, writing an outline for my doctoral thesis, and wandering around the duty free shop. After a ludicrously long lineup for boarding, we finally got in the air only twenty minutes late. Because we were travelling five hours into the future, my six and a half hour flight would last almost twelve hours.

One thing I certainly learned about myself going through those long airport terminal corridors was that I can’t get on a moving pedway without starting to sing Feist’s “My Moon My Man,” and sometimes even dance too if it isn’t too crowded.

I noticed that my flight included a large tour group on their way to Israel to visit various Christian shrines. Thankfully, they kept their religiosity to themselves, as I find it very irritating after being awake for long hours. The multimedia entertainment systems in the backs of our seats were quite impressive, though. As well as being able to listen to Bob Dylan’s new album (still nothing as good as Time Out of Mind), they had quite a selection of movies, even a few independent ones. Though I mostly concentrated on trying to sleep, and quieting my digestive tract after ordering the beef dinner, much to my regret.

The major problem with the film selection was what my immediate seat neighbour, an elderly woman who was part of the Christian tour group, had herself selected. The Sandra Bullock / Ryan Reynolds vehicle The Proposal. Even though she had her headphones in and I couldn’t hear any of the atrocious dialogue, I could still watch the moronic set pieces and humiliating performances. This piece of celluloid vomit was like a particularly awful car crash: I couldn’t look away, and the bodies were already beginning to rot, the smell being especially disgusting. By the smell, I mean Bullock and Betty White butchering an Alaskan First Nations tribal dance. Why this happened, I have no idea. Perhaps because their god hates me.

But the real adventure began when I got to Heathrow. I had just less than two hours before my connection took off on the original schedule. The twenty minute delay at Toronto was no help, plus the Captain informed us that “We have a situation on board and some people will be getting on the plane before you get off.” I was concerned and confused at this, until I saw five uniformed London Metropolitan police officers striding down the airplane corridors and disappearing into the back section of the plane. I could only hope that their suspect had an aisle seat so they could grab him quickly. They apparently vanished out a back entrance, because we were given permission to leave just a couple of minutes later. I had ninety minutes to reach my connection.

I followed the signs that said flight connection, and stood in line for an interminable time waiting to go through security, removing my jacket and belt, and taking my computer from my briefcase. After moving through security, I found myself back in an international check-in terminal. Upon asking someone at a rental car stand, I was told that I was still in Terminal Three, and had gone through security unnecessarily, thinking that I was going to Terminal One to connect to my British Midlands (bmi) flight to Edinburgh.

Cursing my confusion, I got permission to duck back through a gate in the Terminal Three security (because you always get permission in an airport if you want things to go smoothly), and was given directions to the bus to Terminal One. I arrived at the bottom of Terminal Three at the bus stop just in time to get on board. The bus itself played a catchy piece of mild British techno reminiscent of a theme from BBC News while it drove us to the domestic terminal. I got off with just under an hour to spare and rushed along to the customs desk.

After many long corridors, I at last reached a long accordion-folded line for UK entry. Thankfully, there weren’t too many people in line, and there were almost a dozen customs officers at the check-in kiosks. However, after standing in line for almost ten minutes, I saw a sign that the ‘UK entry’ sign had obscured as I had approached down the corridor: it was for the line to connecting UK domestic flights. I was standing in the line for people getting off in London.

Ducking back through the polymer ropes, I stood in a much shorter line for foreigners connecting to flights going elsewhere in the UK. However, there were only three kiosks serving this line, so we were moving even more slowly than the larger UK entry line. When I eventually reached the front, I had only a few minutes until my flight to Edinburgh began boarding. I took the kiosk number, 37, as a good omen because of the Clerks reference, but I was to be denied. The flight attendants on my plane from Toronto had neglected to give me a UK customs card, so I had to fill one out on a bench next to the kiosks, nervous from the ticking clock and sleep deprivation.

Thankfully, it allowed me to forget my stomach still rumbling from that awful airplane beef dinner. Unfortunately, it also allowed me to forget the address of my friends Ray and Erin, who I was staying with, and which the customs card demanded I write in all caps. I don’t know why customs agents want us to scream at them on their cards, but I imagine that by the time my generation takes over this bureaucracy, we’ll get rid of that silly rule, as all caps are becoming increasingly rude.

Anyway, I handed my customs card in at kiosk 36, and was then asked a series of questions about what the hell I was doing in this country. After giving a very confused summary of my conference paper on the stifling affect orthodoxy has on creativity in academic peer review systems, my passport was stamped and I was told to proceed to biometrics. I stood in another line, waiting to be scanned by a set of small round black cameras, which I thought was some kind of molecular scan like on Torchwood. But after waiting for a further five minutes, I simply had my photo taken by a webcam. The image would then be sent to the security gate for Terminal One, which would be used to verify that I was still me. I was quite underwhelmed, as I was expecting some kind of eight dimensional quantum scanning device. Perhaps in the future.

After standing in another line and removing my belt, jacket, and computer again, I was informed that I may proceed to my gate. I asked one of the security officers how to get to Gate Eight from here, and she told me that I just had to turn left leaving security, and it was just down the hall. I think working at Heathrow eventually skews one’s sense of distance, because what she called ‘just down the hall’ was five hundred metres through a full shopping centre which included two duty free shops, three Starbucks, a clothing store, and three giveaway contest for giant gas guzzling cars that won’t even sell in America anymore.

With barely fifteen minutes to takeoff, I finally reached Gate Eight, but saw that it was subdivided in to gates 8a-e. Fortunately, I saw a small line of people boarding a flight, asked one of them if they were bmi flight 052 to Edinburgh, and when she said yes, I asked if I could cut in line. She acquiesced gladly, and I was on the plane within minutes, ordering £1.60 worth of ginger ale to calm my stomach, which was on the verge of rupture after that terrifying beef dinner on the overseas flight.

Overall, it had taken me 75 minutes to get through Heathrow airport. If I ever have grandchildren, I’m going to tell them this story, and they won’t believe me. When I touched down in Edinburgh airport, I stopped at the duty free shop to ask about what the rules were for scotch purchases, and the first music I heard was one of my favourite Stone Roses songs being played as background music in the shop. I felt like I was in paradise.

Actual Edinburgh stories later this week.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Strange Erotic Journey from Milan to Minsk to LA

Walking around my neighbourhood is one of my most productive times to think. A wandering mind on an absent-minded walk is a very fertile field. This is not to be confused with my walks around a supermarket, which raise my blood pressure to the degree that I’ve become convinced that if I ever have a fatal heart attack, it will be while navigating the condiments aisle.

But I actually wanted to describe an idea I had while walking to the bank and the supermarket this afternoon. You may remember a running gag in Seinfeld, continued in Curb Your Enthusiasm: a mediocre art film called Rochelle Rochelle, the story of a young girl’s strange erotic journey from Milan to Minsk (later adapted into a Broadway play starring Bette Midler). It ocurred to me this afternoon that the story of Rochelle Rochelle would be perfect for a respectable pornographic film. The fictional art film apparently has just as much nudity.

Feature-length pornographic films are ideal for these kinds of stories, literal road movies. What little plot there is in most pornographic films exists to link a variety of graphic sex scenes. A feature length porno is a picaresque erotic comedy, a series of emotionally gripping and touchingly funny scenes as a young girl experiences her sexual and social awakening on a strange and occasionally surreal journey from Milan to Minsk. The Rochelle Rochelle plot also offers an oddly ironic layer as well: a repressed innocent in sexy, liberated Italy transforms herself into a supremely confident vixen as she approaches grey, oppressive Belarus.

Here is where my thoughts this afternoon took a turn for the meta. I realized that in order to produce such a film, I’d need to secure the rights to the story, which are controlled and owned by Larry David. So I would need to go to Los Angeles and ask his permission to make Rochelle Rochelle into a feature length pornographic film. I would have to convince him that I and my fellow producers were serious artists aiming to make a modern Last Tango in Paris. It all sounds rather like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

So I thought, why not make it one? Fly to LA to convince Larry David to give permission to make the feature length pornographic Rochelle Rochelle, then promote the film by building an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm around it. I would play a parodic version of myself, convincing the fictional Larry David to give permission to make the Rochelle Rochelle porno. Throughout the season, David would be periodically roped into the production, feeling uncomfortable yet titillated all the time. The arc would end with the film a huge success, and Larry David and I sharing an AVN Award for the film.

I think this has great artistic, comedic, and financial potential. Mr David? Are you reading this? Contact me if you’re interested.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

And Sitting on a Flatbed Truck Was a Giant Black NO

Saturday night was the most impulsive trip to Toronto I’ve ever made, where I found myself wandering among a downtown peppered with esoteric art and flooded with people out to gaze at it all. I was suddenly invited to Nuit Blanche Saturday night by my friend Justine to meet her and Mallorie (who I had met the previous night at a drunken haze at Gallagher’s on Augusta. I was actually paying more attention to the end of Beetlejuice playing on the bar’s lcd tv. She said Saturday that she understood perfectly.) at the GO station down the street. Whether you see me walking up Bay street in Toronto flanked by two beautiful women, an uncomfortable third wheel on a platonic girl-date, or on a simple night-trip with two friends will depend on how sexually insecure you are.

I think I was most disappointed by the vodka pool, though I’m not sure what else they could have done with it. It was just a large artificial puddle of vodka, an irregularly shaped black container roughly ten square metres in area and maybe an inch deep, sitting in the lobby of a bank’s office building. All we could really do was stare at the pool. So we did. Leaving the lobby, I discovered the title card explaining the concept behind the vodka pool, an insufferably pretentious commentary about a critique of black market capitalism through its more frequently used currency, alcohol. The tone of the paragraph was what I could call mid-rectum Marxism. I laughed myself inappropriately sick.

On our way to several other installations, after having passed a stand selling fresh corn cobs, we discovered a flatbed truck sitting on the side of a street with two fifteen foot high letters sitting on it spelling NO. This basically encapsulates Justine’s personality. It was the simplest piece of art we saw all night, and the easiest piece to understand in that what it was, was clear to you: a giant word NO. How you took it was entirely up to you.

Later, we saw a performance art piece of Toronto celebrities playing Monopoly with real money in a locked glass room. By the time we got there, it was approaching the end of one shift, and K-OS was flaunting his winnings over Maggie Casella and the other playing, throwing money in the air and, I hope, calling them out from Park Avenue.

One installation we definitely wanted to see was set up in the hallway of an artfully designed shopping centre in Liberty Village: a network of loudspeakers suspended from the ceiling playing recordings of hundreds of different kinds of crying. At the end of the hallway was a separate installation, which consisted of about thirty people dressed in knee-length paper bags covering their faces who would apologize to you while you walked through. I was slightly freaked and amused at first, but just as I was about to leave the crowd of the besacked, five of them stood around me in a circle, and sent me surround-sound “I’m sorry”s. After that, I was actually kind of disturbed.

You can probably figure out the basics of my philosophy of art through these examples, but I’m going to tell you anyway. This has its foundations in some of my rants as a much younger, pre-blogging man, about the futility of overly complicated gestures of protest, so complicated that the political issue in question and how the symbolism articulates it has to be explained to you before you can actually understand the symbolism. Patton Oswalt has a routine about moronic hippies knitting the world’s smallest pair of pants, putting them on a mouse, and setting it loose in WTO headquarters.

Art makes itself laughable with long, pretentious explanations of symbology, and representations so abstract and obtuse as to become ludicrous. That’s why I laughed so hard at the idiotic pseudo-Marxism explaining what the vodka pool “meant.” Art (and philosophy, and literature) is effective when it is ambiguous and clear. That is, it should not require esoteric theory to understand, and it should be open to many different kinds of understanding. Art must provoke thought, and the only way to do that is to open a space within people for them to develop their own thinking and exercise their own creative powers.
One thing Pitchfork’s countdown of the best albums of the 2000s did was remind me of how awesome J Dilla is. I found his best beats to alter your perception of sound just by listening to them, an awesome power (awesome in the sense of inspiring great awe). That list also taught me how to listen to the Donuts album properly. Because the first track is the completion of the single song that is the last, then first, track, Donuts is essentially not an album with a beginning and an end. It's a continuous loop. So I listen to Donuts by putting the album on repeat, beginning at a random track, and listening until I decide to change albums.

Call it the eternal return of the Dilla.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Time and History Don't Finish: They Stop

I should stop apologizing for going longer than a week between updates. I don’t do so normally, but I warned that when the blog began, there would be longer gaps between entries, and I would do my best always to have something to say. The first few weeks of this semester are considerably busy, although I don’t feel hectic or swept away by events as I did sometimes around this time last year. Because while I have a lot to do, I know exactly what I’m doing. And busy-ness is never stressful when you know precisely what you have to do.

One of the rather fascinating things I’m working on this Fall is the last lecture course for my breadth-of-knowledge requirement in my degree: Nick Griffin’s History of Analytic Philosophy. We’re concentrating in the lectures and planned course reading material on the birth of analytic philosophy in the rebellion of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore against the British neoHegelians.

As I’ve learned more about the philosophy of the king of 19th century UK neoHegelians, Fred Bradley, I’ve realized that this movement barely deserved the name neoHegelian. That implies that they were strong followers of the philosophy of Hegel. While they thought they were followers of Hegel, I find the way Bradley approaches certain concepts like reality, appearance, and the Absolute to be completely different than Hegel’s own. Bradley seemed to have taken the catchphrase from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, “The real is the rational, and the rational is the real,” far too literally. Bradley takes this to mean that the only true reality is the immediately logically consistent, and that all else (eg. matter, space, time, self) is illusory or unreal. And he takes the Absolute to be the only reality, that about which we can say nothing because to say is to introduce distinctions, and reality is without difference.

I was slack-jawed listening to this, which to my thinking, is a total anathema to Hegel’s thinking. He never should have written that catchphrase, which has been so stupidly misinterpreted. All this means is that thinking, thought well, can work out the nature of reality without confusion. And Hegel thought we could know plenty about the Absolute, which covered all the contradictory and inconsistent in the universe. The unity of all this craziness was achieved in thought that became flexible (like a gymnast is flexible) enough to encompass it all in systematic thinking. Reality is discovered and systematized through thought.

Much of this last is quite similar to my own philosophical thinking, which also owes debts to Wittgenstein, Deleuze, Merleau-Ponty, Nietzsche, and Humberto Maturana as much as my quirky readings of Kant and Hegel. I was first taught the Hegel of Alexandre Kojève, even though he was never credited as a source. My own issues with Hegel have to do with the pervasiveness of necessity in his understanding of the universe, which gives rise to the kinds of moronic raving visions of the End of History that we saw coming out of Francis Fukuyama in the 1990s. And we all know how that little utopian vision turned out. That reliance on the necessary rather than the contingent is what prevents me from even leaning towards self-identifying as a Hegelian. But even if I did, my philosophical ideas would be closer to him than I think Bradley’s were.

Monday, September 14, 2009

"Nobody Ever Wants to Fight," said Dalton

The two big entertainment news stories right now are Patrick Swayze being dead, and Kanye West being a drunk arse. Edgar Wright already said everything that needed to be said about how awesome Swayze is, and I can contribute no more than the title of this post. But Monday morning, looking through my tweets and facebookings about Kanye’s interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, I had a moment flashing to another possible world where I was a writer for Saturday Night Live.

My imagined sketch making fun of Kanye goes like this. Barack Obama is delivering an important speech about nuclear weapons reduction treaties, universally accessible health insurance, and why domestic violence is bad. Then Kanye West storms the stage and starts yelling into the microphone about how Obama is the greatest president of all time, and will be until Kanye himself is elected to the post. The secret service men grab Kanye and are about to pull him offstage when Obama asks them to hold him. And the president very nicely asks Kanye why he interrupted him, Taylor Swift, and Vladimir Putin. But Kanye says he doesn’t want to talk about Putin.

Some wavy lines flash back to Vladimir Putin making a speech about why Russia is awesome, choking Ukraine dry of oil, and bringing Europe to its knees. Then Kanye West storms the stage and starts yelling into the microphone about how Beyoncé released a better video than Putin this year, when all the Russian PM could do was cavort with a horse in the countryside.

As Putin judo chops Kanye in the neck and puts him in a headlock, some more wavy lines flash back to Putin’s video shoot. Putin has his shirt off, and while feeding a horse, talks to the camera about how he is the only man manly enough to rule Russia. Then Kanye West jumps into the shot, talking about how boring his video is, that Barack Obama is in better shape than Putin, and that Hype Williams could have made a better propaganda video. For one thing, Hype would have included a man dancing in a panda suit for no reason. Having surprised Putin, Kanye is able to steal Putin’s horse and ride into the distance.

Some wavy lines bring us back to the press conference in Russia, where the still headlocked Kanye admits that he gave the horse to Jamie Foxx as a birthday present. Putin throws Kanye to his own phalanx of bodyguards, and says they are going on a little trip to Los Angeles, to visit one Jamie Foxx.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Basterd's Work Really Is Never Done

So after over a week of classes starting again, the first-day party, having to wake up four hours after the first-day party for a class for which I’m a tutor, then hitching onto the Dave Campbell PhD defense party train, I was completely unable to blog. My ideas about Inglourious Basterds have been stewing in the back of my brain ever since then, and now I finally get the opportunity to lay them all out in a place where they might actually be read.

When the movie first came out, I remember some reactions saying Tarantino was anti-Semitic because it was so ahistorical. There’s always the temptation, because the Second World War carried out violence on so massive a scale that humanity itself could have approached destruction, to treat the period with reverence. To play with its history on anything more than a minor scale, like inventing fictional units that still conformed to the major sweep of the period which every such film did, could have been considered blasphemous.

But the only thing remarkable in the Second World War was the technological growth that made such mass mechanized slaughter possible. Humanity is always this brutal, and if the technology to do so had existed in any war in the past, it would have been used. The wars Hitler and Hirohito started were motivated by the same drives as any war of conquest and hatred throughout history. To fear the war as an absolute exception to humanity is to ignore its reality, to forget that it can be repeated and most likely will. The likelihood of the war’s repetition increases as we dehumanize its practitioners into figures of pure monstrousness, because we forget that the Nazis were people too, and as such we share their violent potential.

I think that’s why I was so refreshed by Inglourious Basterds. Daniel Mendelson’s review at Newsweek put the point very clearly when he said that Tarantino has turned Jews into Nazis. His mistake was that he considered this a negative point about the film. Inglourious Basterds explores the drives that make all people violent. Leil Leibowitz in Tablet talks about the Manichean worldview of good and evil that makes the Basterds the team you root for, while they are equally violent as the Nazis. But the trend among reviewers seems to be that while everyone remembers the massacre and fire at the cinema that destroys the German High Command, no one thinks of the girl who set that fire, Shosanna.

Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna barely escaped the murder of her family by SS Colonel Hans Landa at the start of the film, and when circumstances lead her, years later, to be the owner of the theatre where the entire High Command will gather for the premiere of Goebbels' masterpiece, she takes the initiative on her own. She and her lover, Marcel the projectionist and the only black person in the film, formulate their own assassination plot alone. They never intend to survive the massacre themselves, and Shosanna herself meets a pathetic end.

The soldier/actor Fredrich Zoller (in my opinion, an even more disturbing sociopath than Landa, because when he acts innocent, you believe him) she finally guns down in her projection booth. And in an act of mercy, she leans down to comfort him as he lies dying on her floor, but he pulls a gun and blows massive holes in her abdomen as his last act. She doesn’t even get to see the footage she’s recorded and spliced into the propaganda film where she gloats over the High Command as the Jew who murdered them. However much we admire mercy, the merciful will always be taken advantage of and crushed by those who feel no pity.

As a final point, one thing I’ve noticed in discussions of the film from reviews and interviews is that many people don’t know why Tarantino misspelled Inglorious Bastards in his title. But the reason is clear if you can watch the film with an eye for detail that Tarantino himself has: visible for less than a moment, scrawled on the butt of Brad Pitt’s rifle in the central scene of act two, is the name of their unit: INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.

The semi-literate Lt Aldo Raine misspelled the name of his own outfit. The wood being too tough to carve curves, he wrote the letters with jagged straight lines. The ‘s’ that ends both words is written just as is the logo for the SS, jagged lines that resemble lightning bolts. The message is clear, if distasteful to people who expect violence to be conquered with peace. We may admire people who refuse to bloody their hands in the face of their own death. We may admire those who refuse to compromise their peaceful morality and hide rather than fight. But those people are dead.

Christof Waltz as Landa makes a chilling speech at the beginning of Inglourious Basterds, talking with a farmer sheltering Shosanna’s family at his house about the image of the Jew as rat. He admires was he sees as the rat-like qualities of Jews, the ability to hide and cower their way through the hostility of their enemies. But this strategy always fails eventually, because someone will always get absolutely sick of a rat and call the exterminator.

Aldo Raine and Shosanna refuse to live under the floorboards any longer. They become just as brutal as their enemies, but when your enemy is as powerful as the Nazi state, the first to compromise with mercy or pity is the first to die. The Nazis weren’t defeated by the Jews, Roma, and gays who died in the gas chambers and killing fields. They were defeated by violent resistance movements, and the brutal Russian and American armies. It’s hard to admit that sometimes survival is a matter of your own violence and mercilessness, but truth hurts.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Summarizing Proust in Fifteen Seconds

I should apologize again for not updating until so long after I went Jacques Derrida on Meghan McCain’s twitter account. What “going Jacques Derrida” means is that I took a few phrases and elaborated huge conceptual systems beginning from those phrases as basic principles. In this case, I took her having to overcompensate the enthusiastic statements she made about her friendships with gay men and her enjoyment of a Levi’s Jeans ad campaign featuring Walt Whitman’s poetry, and spun together an entire ideology of patriotism centred on civil rights. You can do this with any twitter account if you think hard enough.
And last weekend, I finished Proust, and have been thinking over the past few days of how I can summarize my views of the work in fifteen seconds. I think what most stands out for me is how In Search of Lost Time sidestepped all my expectations. I had read praise of the madeleine sequence a long time ago, and was frankly underwhelmed. However, this did lead me to understand that most people never make it through the first book, because all the stereotypical Proust scenes take place in the first hundred pages of Swann’s Way.

The sections that I found frustrating were not so because of the more typical reasons of the prose being reduced to an onerous slog. The narrator was simply such a repulsive character during these sections that I spent the entire time yelling at him to get over himself. The section of The Guermantes Way when the narrator enters high society for the first time was difficult because he was such a reverential worshiper of this pathetically snobby scene. Of course, in the context of the entire work, that was the point. He frets so much about getting his aristocratic manners right (he spends so much time worrying about bowing properly that it becomes hilarious) because he’s immature enough to think that these people are better than him due to their titles.

The volume that I think was the best was also the most surprising, Sodom and Gomorrah, which explored in great detail the lives of the necessarily closeted gay men and women of fin de siècle Paris. These people and their relationships are crafted with an incredible detail and an eye for paradoxical characterization. Proust creates a strange social atmosphere too, as the aristocrats are almost all gay and bisexual, but are always described as such with suggestions. There is only one, brief scene even suggestive of gay sex between men. The rest is all implications and off-page (like off-screen, but for books) action.

I plan on reading some literary critics of Proust at some point, to get a better sense of how the book was received, and its place of influence in literature. If you haven’t tried, you should take six months and read In Search of Lost Time. It’s an incredible experience. I’d recommend giving yourself some breaks, though.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Images of What I Hope Will Be the Future of American Conservatism

This started off as a post about Meghan McCain of all people, but between drafts, Ted Kennedy died, and buried within the endlessly repetitive news bluster are a couple of very intriguing ideas about American politics. One is the idea that American political culture has become so ideologically rigid that lawmaking is a matter of reversing the opposition predecessors’ policies, and that such lifelong public servants no longer exist.

I laugh at this last point, because whenever people say something doesn’t exist anymore in a human society, it appears again in a new guise. Perhaps the career politician of the future won’t be the one who sits in the same Senate seat for decades, but the one who goes from lobbying to think tanks to legislature to punditry to legislature again. But career politicians will always exist. But ideological rigidity is certainly the defining attribute of American politics today, especially among conservatives.

It must be hard being a moderate Republican in America today. Their leading figures are Mitch McConnell, who apparently still doesn’t believe that Reagan’s insane market deregulation schemes are a bad idea; Michael Steele, a black Alex P. Keaton who isn’t quite as suave or sophisticated; Dick Cheney, who wouldn’t be out of place in fascist Bolivia in the 1960s; and Sarah Palin, crazed arch-conservative Beat poet. Arlen Specter realized that the only way he could get anything done for his constituents was to switch his affiliation from liberal Republican to conservative Democrat. In the middle of this polarized environment is the most fascinating twitter account I follow: Meghan McCain.

Meghan McCain’s twitter constantly and loudly reminds her followers that she is, in fact, a Republican, even though she’s okay with homosexuals. Her self-declared mission is to show a different face to the Republican party, even though her savvy progressive conservatism is barely understood by the actual GOP levers of power. She also tweets about True Blood and her guilty pleasures of reality trash tv. She also loves The Big Lebowski, Wes Anderson, Walt Whitman, and shoes.

Even though I think twitter is the venue that could revive the art of the aphorism in philosophy, McCain doesn’t cover a lot of deep thoughts here. But she’s very good at projecting the image of her personality, the Sexy Progressive Republican™. I think that’s the only thing she’s actually able to do at this point in her political career. If she does eventually go on to add the McCains to the list of American political dynasties (Bush, Clinton, Kennedy, and going back very far, Adams), she will eventually have to bulk up on policy.

But I can see it taking shape in a very vague way, even just a month or so into following her twitter. There will be rhetoric with an ear for intelligent American patriotism, cribbing from Whitman’s poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” Again connected with Whitman will be a conservationist environmental agenda, the necessity of the climate crisis transforming her father’s vague statements on the subject into a top policy imperative. One point that’s already clear from her twitter posts is an agenda to safeguard gay rights, including marriage, nationally, under the philosophy of an agenda to enforce civil rights and freedoms. There’s legal precedence for this being set in conservative American circles now as well.

Probably her only major problem is that she isn’t really taken very seriously. While she’s filling in for Elizabeth Hasselbeck for a week on The View next month, in terms of that show’s format it amounts to little more than replacing their token blonde conservative with another. However, I do expect her to deliver some more intelligent thinking than the blandly reactionary Hasselbeck. But other than this, the major piece of news generation she’s done in the last year is to get in a fight with Laura Ingraham, another token blonde conservative reactionary, about her weight, which is that of an average healthy human. This contrasts with typical American ideals of a healthy, attractive body, which is that of an emaciated anorexic barely able to breathe.

Being slotted into arguments about superficial nonsense is where a lot of rigidly ideological conservatives think women should go anyway, so the fact that she has managed to move beyond such idiocy is to her credit. Despite the ghetto of unintelligent, patronizing debate she found herself in last year, she's actually displayed intelligence and worldliness, through her Daily Beast writing and that twitter account. She's just under two years younger than me, and has already accomplished far more than I've even tried, even if being the daughter of a long-serving senator and a Presidential candidate has given her some help.

But I wouldn't be surprised if in thirty years, we're talking about the political career of McCain the younger, always in politics but going from one job to another, advancing the same goals of fiscal and foreign policy conservatism wedded to social liberalism and civil rights. As much as I love surrealist poetry, when it comes to women in the conservative party of the country next door, I'd take her running for President in 2028 over Sarah Palin in 2012 gladly.
Heidegger essays and Burial go together extremely well. Almost too well. I’m reading him for my thesis research, mining for ideas that have been picked up by deep ecology and looking for alternative interpretations. It is some of the most dense philosophical writing I have ever read, especially the essays from later in his career, trying to create a new kind of philosophy by sheer force of will.

Burial is an electronic musician from London, slotted in the category of dubstep, though like all good musicians and all good philosophers, he doesn’t fit into categories. Until recently, he was entirely anonymous, creating music in his room and releasing it through his pseudonym. They are dark, strange, immense, and beautiful soundscapes, constructed around weirdly timed beats, sparse instrumentation, and vocal samples. It’s another example of music that I haven’t heard anything quite like before, even though I’m about two years late jumping on the Burial bandwagon. Sorry, Pitchfork-heads, but I just haven’t bothered.

UPDATE: 20.45. This article at The Daily Beast, reviewing Sam Tanenhaus' new book The Death of Conservatism, makes my point about American politics much better than I do here.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

History's Disconnection

It is an immensely weird experience to read Time Regained in 2009. The last volume of In Search of Lost Time is Proust’s portrait of Paris during the First World War, though in all fairness and accuracy, I should call it The Great War. Proust died in 1922, and wrote most of Time Regained while the war was ongoing. So he never saw the catastrophic development of the German economy, the resurgence of nationalism, or the Nazi Party and the Second World War.

His Paris of 1916 is utterly traumatized and largely broken by the bombardment and the slow, dragged out terror of the war. I think people today, or even people from the 1950s onward, really appreciate how horrifying the Great War was to the people who were living through it. We see the war historically, as a prelude to the greater cataclysms of the Holocaust, the rape of Nanking, the massacres of Slavs on the Eastern Front, the nuclear bombings, and the firebombings. The almost worldwide destruction of the 1940s made the bloody trenches in France and the years-long artillery barrage of the Eastern Front look like a scuffle at a bar.

But the characters of Proust, and the man himself, are watching the collapse of their entire world, quite literally I think. The quaint, mannered lifestyle he described in the entire rest of the story simply don’t make sense in a world where every night brings the constant fear of Zeppelin bombings, and there’s a stupendous chain of trenches and battlefields barely a hundred miles away from your city. At this point, I begin to see In Search of Lost Time as cataloguing the history of a forgotten, innocent world. Where I’m reading right now, one of the major characters has just died, shot in the face with a machine gun while covering his regiment’s retreat. It makes the narrator’s previous anxieties over what arrangements to meet for a restaurant date seem nonsensically trivial.
In other, awesome, news, The Kids in the Hall are back together to produce new material. It’s a murder mystery in a small Canadian town called Death Comes to Town, which will play on CBC in January 2010. It will be an eight part miniseries, and will include such scenes as Mark McKinney’s Grim Reaper taking a Greyhound to the town of Shockton, and Bruce McCulloch playing a 600 pound man. I am, needless to say, quite excited.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Quite a Paradoxical Steel Town

So I went to a suburban mall this afternoon to buy a new watch, and ended up missing the bus back downtown. Suburban Hamilton is an area called The Mountain, a name which my office-mate Jessica from the interior of British Columbia considers laughable. But the suburbs are cleanly divided from the city’s interior by an escarpment that goes up several hundred metres.

Sick of waiting for another bus in the heat of August, I started walking in the general direction of my home with no idea if any of the roads back down the escarpment even had sidewalks. As it turned out, they didn’t, but I had no need to wait for another bus. Crossing the road before the highway-style street began, I walked through a small park with a modest stone pavilion, a series of bright grey arches covered in ivy along one side. Looking out the pavilion, I could see the road, as well as a sidewalk that ran along a thick grove of trees, protected from the road by a waist-high cement barrier.

I crossed the road at one of the gaps in the barrier, and after walking along the protected sidewalk for a few minutes, discovered a metal staircase that led all the way down the escarpment. It was deeply shaded by a canopy of trees and lit by old fashioned black streetlamps that needed to be on to light the way even in the middle of a sunny afternoon. It was a swath of dense forest in the middle of a busy road system, and a pedestrian was so deeply hidden that I couldn’t even hear the traffic until I left the woods and got back out onto James street.

Think of that when anyone calls Hamilton a dirty city again.
In other news, the latest Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice, has been released this week, though it'll be a while before I get around to reading it. It'll take me about a month to finish In Search of Lost Time, and then I have my courses starting again, that I'm taking and helping to teach.

Inherent Vice is a detective novel, basically, except that it's written by Thomas Pynchon. It takes place in 1970 in Los Angeles, with a stoner private detective Doc Sportello as the protagonist. This teaser trailer from Penguin Press (which might even be narrated by Pynchon himself) lays out the whole book for you, or at least as much as can be sanely summarized without actually reading it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Grief and Forgetting: A Positive Proust Update

So many of my posts about Proust lately have been so mean-spirited, a reader would probably wonder why I was continuing with the book for any reason other than stubbornness. While it is true that the narrator’s selfish, jealous, manipulative behaviour has made me scream at him through the pages, my frustration has given way to admiration again. It’s not a matter of brilliant creation of paradoxical and consistent characters, which was the highlight of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Much of The Fugitive is the narrator dealing with the fact that Albertine is never coming back to him. It’s a process of grief that shares elements with what I think is how many people get through the permanent and painful end of deep friendships and intimate relationships. The Fugitive is the shortest novel in the series at less than 400 pages, and suffered from the most difficult editing because it was the farthest from total completion when Proust died. But his insights into the grieving process and, even more poignant, the process of forgetting about who you’ve lost, is some of the best psychology I’ve ever read.

Because I think this engagement with grief that Proust’s narrator goes through is, detail for minutely rendered detail, is an engagement that is shared by anyone who has ever lost someone who was immensely important to you, whether through death or breakup or any other kind of irreparable split.

Reading these reflections, which are the main focus of the first half of The Fugitive, and recur throughout the more story-focussed second half, I’m reminded of the old friends that I’ve had who I’ll never see again. No one very close to me in an intimate personal manner has ever died, but I did lose some of my closest friends a couple of years ago.

For the first year or so after that last catastrophe of those relationships, I couldn’t walk around St John’s without feeling depressed, because every piece of that city’s geography reminded me of something I did with them. It was a sorrowful rage because I was depressed that they were out of my life, and angry that they had cut me out of their lives with such callousness. I think that state of my thinking contributed to why I leapt so enthusiastically into moving to Ontario in summer 2008.

Since then, my former friends have sometimes entered my thoughts, and when that happens, they bring that melancholy anger with them. But that happens with less and less frequency now, so that I only think of them when I purposely recall those memories. Just as Proust said, you don’t accept the end of a deep intimacy. You simply forget it, and live every day as if it never existed. I think the influence of those friendships and those splits is still part of my personality. I think very differently about how I act and what I want out of life because of those experiences.

But the memories themselves simply fade away. It’s entirely possible that one day, I’ll forget about them as individual people, and only a few last echoes of the emotions they inspired will be still carved into my brain. They’ll probably be overwritten soon enough, if not already.

In a few sentences, the process sounds pedantic and clichéd. But over the course of the 100 plus pages Proust focusses on it, it feels fresh, insightful, tender, and utterly sad. I now understand why some critics have said that all of human possibility is captured in In Search of Lost Time. Even though the story is about an upper class French intellectual in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I now understand how those critics could be right.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

My Views Are Validated by Agreement with People Who Have Larger Audiences

Den of Geek has an excellent essay, which they published only a few days after mine, on why Ianto Jones should stay dead to preserve the aesthetic triumph of Torchwood: Children of Earth. We each have our central points in common, though I do focus more specifically on the character development of Captain Jack over the past four years. Either way, I’m glad to see that I’ve tapped into a flow of clear, critical nerd thinking.

People who want to bring Ianto back to the show just because they liked him so much always make terrible television, simply because they become so distracted by the big shiny thing they love so much that they forget about the importance of the story which that shininess should service. For an illustrative example from Doctor Who, see Warriors of the Deep and every Master story from 1982 to 1986.
Having begun The Fugitive, I am already tired of dealing with this petulant moron of a narrator. He has spent the first fifty pages of the story pining over Albertine’s having finally left him, but instead of honestly coming clean to her about his indecisive and anti-commital attitude, he cooks up a scheme to manipulate her into coming back to him while still making it seem as if he doesn’t care about her all that much.

This narrator is trying to save face for no reason that I can discern, and all he has done is make himself absolutely miserable and wave it in the reader’s face for the past three volumes. At least Sodom and Gomorrah had enough subplots and philosophical digressions to keep me interested. Albertine was an intriguing character when the narrator wasn’t hoarding her in his house like a favourite pet that he didn’t want to escape. His jealousy was ironically interesting when it was impotent. When she was in his power, it became frustrating and a little disgusting.

Perhaps The Captive and The Fugitive are slightly more sloggish because Proust never lived long enough to expand them to the size of the earlier volumes, which had enough variety in their plots to keep the narrator’s mysoginistic obsessiveness from weighing too heavily on a reader. While the earlier, longer volumes had more material, they never felt long because there was more variety, and more shifts of emphasis and mood. Thankfully, Albertine will fade into the background of the story as The Fugitive continues into the sections I’m whimsically calling, ‘Catching up with the Swanns.’

Apologies for the whimsy. I’ve been reading some Stephen Fry lately as well.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Tragic Immortal Life of Captain Jack Harkness

The best new sci-fi I’ve seen in a while was the last Torchwood series, Children of Earth, and even though I ordered the dvd, I’m not sure how often I’ll watch it. The five-hour miniseries was brilliantly made, but terribly bleak. We weren’t quite in Requiem for a Dream territory, but it’s certainly far from a happy ending. Basically, everything that could go wrong does go wrong, and just when things are looking hopeful, it gets a whole lot worse.

I mean, the secret sci-fi superbase underneath Cardiff is blown to bits at the end of the first episode, as a means of setting the stage. By the time Jack, Gwen, and Ianto regroup at the beginning of episode four, the aliens known only as The 456 are set up like kings in the MI5 building, and the government is preparing to completely acquiesce to their demands for a cull of about 35 million children from Earth. The children will then be inserted alive into the aliens’ bodies, where they will live fully conscious inside the alien, causing chemical reactions that get the aliens high as kites.

The loudest fan reaction about the series is the death of Ianto Jones, a very popular character and Jack’s lover. There’s a letter writing campaign organizing to bring him back to life, but here’s why I’m against such a move. The quality of this series came from the development of its central character, Captain Jack Harkness.

When we first met Jack in the 2005 series of Doctor Who, he was a singular version of the caddish rogue. He was a decent person, but with a past that has remained utterly mysterious. Jack had been a Time Agent in the 51st century, but left the Agency when he woke up one morning and discovered that two years of his memory had been wiped, and in that time, he could have done anything in the employ of a somewhat shady space-time intelligence service. He told Rose, “Your friend over there doesn’t trust me. For all I know, he’s right not to.”

Jack’s friendship with the Doctor inspired him to become a better person, and not let himself be haunted and defined by his missing two years. Or at least, I’m understanding it that way as I think about the character. We discover throughout Jack’s time on our televisions that he has tortured people while working as a Time Agent, and during Children of Earth, we discover that he initially gave up twelve orphans to The 456 under government orders on their initial visit to Earth in 1965. Jack knows he is capable of terrible acts, and justifying those acts. His work travelling with The Doctor and running Torchwood is an attempt to prove to himself that he is a good person.

At the end of Children of Earth, Jack understands that he is not a good person, and he cannot leave his ability to justify his terrible acts. Jack, on his own, is simply not as good at fighting hostile invading aliens as The Doctor. When Jack is in charge of a situation, he frequently has to make moral compromises to defeat the hostile forces. He also makes tactical mistakes, some of which lead to the death of the people he’s trying to protect. Ianto dies because he and Jack confront The 456 at their headquarters on Earth, and he makes a big speech of ultimatums to the aliens and lines drawn in the sand.

And The 456 nonchalantly release a virus into the building that kills almost everyone inside, including Ianto, who dies in Jack’s arms pleading with his immortal lover not to forget him over the next few billion years of his life. The death of Ianto, and the hundred or so people in that building, is Jack’s fault because he was trying to be like the Doctor. But the Doctor never confronts an alien without knowing enough about them to protect himself and the people around him. Jack barged in knowing almost nothing about the abilities of The 456, and got a lot of people killed.

Jack is utterly shattered by what he had to do because his own arrogance and ignorance backed him into a corner where the only course of action to save the Earth was a terrible, cruel act that only a monster could have made. He ends the story facing up to his inadequacy as both a hero and as a moral man. He flees Earth because he has given up hope in himself. He cannot escape his cruelty, or his propensity for violence. And he leaves Earth because he cannot live in the place he discovered that fact for the next five billion years of his life.

Torchwood has been renewed for a fourth season. But I don’t think any of the old cast should return, except Gwen and her husband Rhys. Ianto is dead, and should stay dead, because if he’s brought back to life somehow, that will give Jack hope again. And Jack should never have hope again. It would cheapen the power of Children of Earth, Russell T Davies’ masterpiece, the grandest tragedy in all of Doctor Who.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Loudest Band in the Universe

I’m a bit of a latecomer to Sunn 0))), but I’m glad I’ve finally arrived. I’ve rarely heard music as intricate and quite simply massive as theirs before in my life. What I find really impressive is their patience in constructing their music, letting a theme repeat and reverberate for well over ten minutes, and letting that repetition actually be the song. There are so many instrumental subtleties in the music that I find myself discovering some new aspect every time I listen.

The slow pace allows a song to morph almost unnoticeably from one dominant set of instruments to another. “Alice” begins as a guitar-heavy drone and ends with a horn-dominated clarion. The transition between the two sets of instruments moves at such a slow pace that they literally melt together through much of the song, most of which consists of guitars and horns congealing together. I wish I lived in a larger house so I could play it at the fully recommended volume of as loud as possible.

If you know The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you might remember a band called Disaster Area, apparently the loudest band in the universe. I imagine a Sunn 0))) show would be about as much like one of their concerts as you could possibly get without actually causing severe structural damage to the city in which the show was played.

In Search of Lost Time has reached a somewhat frustrating point. I’m almost two-thirds of the way through volume five, The Captive, which I launched into reading after completing the 700 page Sodom and Gommorrah. Volume four I thought was the best book of the entire series, so good and so affecting that I immediately began the next volume. Lately, I’ve read another book in between volumes so as not to overdose on Marcel Proust.

The Captive has the narrator and his on/off girlfriend Albertine now living together at his house in Paris. And even though he was completely and stupidly in love with her at the end of volume four, by the thirtieth page, he announces to the reader that he doesn’t care about her anymore, and is motivated to stay with her almost entirely out of jealousy. So the first half of this book describes his obsessive plots and manipulations to keep her in his sight and under his control at all times.

Oh, I see! She’s a captive in his house, and he’s a captive of his own jealous impulses. How witty, my little Marcel!

Hell, now I’m even blogging like Proust. This cannot continue. I’ve borrowed The Unbearable Lightness of Being from my friend Johnny’s empty apartment, and will be reading it after I finish volume five, before I start volume six. It’s called The Fugitive, or as I’ve taken to calling it now, Albertine Finally Smartens Up and Dumps His Sorry Ass.

Not quite as poetic or French, I don’t think.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Perhaps a New Concept Has Been Made

I was listening to the BBC’s Start the Week podcast this morning, and their central guest was Amartya Sen, who was promoting his new book, The Idea of Justice. He talks in the show about how he departs from the traditional ways of discussing justice as a guiding ideal. Instead, justice is an understanding of the world as one lives in it. One sees justice and injustice in the order of the world around you, if only you pay attention. You could call it a concept of justice as imminent to the world, instead of a transcendent ideality.

This is especially intriguing to me, as the transcendent character of most approaches to justice is exactly what alienates me from them. Transcendent justice has that flavour of the absolutely perfect to which we mere mortals can never attain. Implicit within it is the devaluation of the world in which we live and the valorization of that which is not human, even though they are our ideas. It separates thought from action, dismissing action as mere empirical imperfection. Transcendent frameworks of ethical ideals I think contradicts the very point of ethics, which is worldly action.

But Sen’s concept of justice as he articulated it on Start the Week was especially intriguing, and could very well revolutionize the way the philosophy of justice and ethics is done, if he achieves in it all that he claims to achieve. Of course, there will be some who don’t understand his concept of imminent justice, because they have become so used to thinking of justice as a transcendent ideal that their minds are closed to any approach that denies a premise so fundamental to them. Of course, that would seem, at this cursory stage, to be the very point of Sen’s concept of justice. You will only understand justice if you pay attention to the world and what the world can offer. If you persist in what you have learned and do not take seriously the novel or the strange which is present around you, then you will know nothing.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

After Five Years, The Same Film Can Be Completely Different

So Sunday night, I watched Sideways again for the first time since I saw it in theatres back in 2004. When I first saw the movie, I laughed almost all the way through. The reason for that is because the relationship between Miles and Jack in the movie was very much like what I thought the relationship between me and one of my old friends would be like by the time we hit our mid-thirties. I’m not going to say my friend’s name because I’m Miles, and I wouldn’t want to make him have to make any unnecessary explanations to his partner(s).

As if anyone actually reads this blog. But I’ve made that mistake before.

Anyway, when I watched it again after five years of being alive, I had a very different reaction. First, I was able to notice a lot more of the little details in the film, the hidden aspects of Miles’ life that I didn’t remember from the first time. I didn’t remember the trip to his mother’s house at the start of the film, or his taking a pile of her money. And I certainly hadn’t noticed in 2004 the extra moment Miles spends looking at the picture of his father on the desk. And that made me pay more attention to what I could call Miles’ hidden story.

It’s a term I stole from Roberto Bolaño. He used to say that all his novels were not about what the main points of their narrative were, but that they were driven by a hidden story, some event or set of events that drove all the action of the obvious narrative while rarely if ever being explicitly mentioned. For Sideways, that hidden story is Miles looking after his father after the older man is badly debilitated by a stroke, and the mysterious circumstances of his death. Being able to spot that hidden story and understand it gave me a very different appreciation of the film than I had before.

Now here is where it gets a little emo. While I was smiling all the way through, I found it so much more depressing, and Miles was even more like me. In 2004, I saw similarities between us in the way he related with Jack. I saw his drinking his best wine at the fast food joint as embracing the joyful advice Maya had given him, that a wine this good is a special occasion. But this time, his depression and loneliness was much more evident and affecting to me. He was pathetic the way he slept with Maya even though he knew he was lying, and I don’t even think he felt bad about Jack’s deception by the time he went home with her.

Since I first saw that movie, I had gone through an even longer amount of time than Miles without a woman, and had become similarly torn up and spit out over someone just as Miles was over a woman. I had become a much more bitter and less forgiving person. The selfish aspects of Miles were even more evident in the way I thought about myself and about other people.

Not only that, but we had also both written bittersweet novels with considerable autobiographical input, and I’m becoming equally pessimistic as he was of ever getting it published. And even though I’ve been successful so far in my career, I’m growing increasingly pessimistic about actually being able to get a professor’s job once I’m on the market in a few years, and about whether anyone but me will see any value in my philosophical work. As I learn more about the professional academic scene, the less I think I’ll fit in. And rebels are not tolerated in academia.

Yet even while Miles and I have converged so much in all the most depressing and pessimistic ways, I love this film even more. It’s because I can see so much more of the hidden story now than I could, and because Miles is so much more flawed, mean, and beaten-down than when I first saw him. I think that happens to all of us eventually.

When I first saw Sideways, I was young and hopeful, thinking that my goals would come to me fairly easily. Now I’m still young (but spotting my first grey hairs on the sides of my head and chin), but quite a lot more jaded, and accepting of the fact that chances are I won’t succeed to the degree I want, and that I’ll have to fight much harder than I thought I would.

Sideways is now going on my list with Five Easy Pieces and À Nos Amours as the movies that I love because they’re brilliantly made and speak to how I think of my life. Alexander Payne needs to make another film.