Turkeys and other fouls

November 30, 2003 at 12:44 pm | In yulelogStories | 3 Comments

Where have I been the past few days? Up a turkey? Not really, but somehow the all-enveloping fog of …something… has been similar to being in the empty pod of an eviscerated creature. Came across this — Minding the body: stress & self-sacrifice can lead to chronic & serious illness, which seemed rather obvious, but coming from an establishment source, I suppose it means more. Maybe it gets attention because it’s coming from a man, who says it affects him (and his sons: the buzz-acronym ADHD is used!). If it came from a woman, it would probably be filed under “uninteresting psychosomatics.” One of my sisters caught Lyme Disease about 10 or 15 years ago, and her doctors told her for years that she was imagining things. Bruce at The River pointed to this book, The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think For Themselves by Curtis White. Much to read, with Bruce’s additional link to these pages on Center for Book Culture where most of the book is available. I haven’t read it all myself, but of course Bruce’s teaser about this appealing to Adorno fans got me interested…
And speaking of Teddy… In one of White’s essay’s, he sums up Adorno’s idea of the Dialectic of Enlightenment as consisting

substantially of the movement between the universal and the particular. In art, the universal is the Law of Genre, a “collective bindingness.” On the other side, the particular (or the individual and subjective) represents the theoretically boundless world of human possibility and play (which Adorno attempts to capture through the word “spontaneity”).

The Law of Genre relates specifically to portraiture or landscape or history painting, for example. There are rules that have to be internalised and followed, if a work is to be recognised as an achievement within a specific genre. Truly innovative work manages to interrupt or even break open those laws however: suddenly, the genre of history painting, until then seemingly forever dependent on the heroic, Classical male nude, is disrupted by the appearance of a hero dressed in contemporary clothes. Instead of a Hercules or a Jupiter, we see a Napoleon, say. Or instead of an idealised nude, we see a photomontaged modern representation. Get it? Well, never mind, it’s a 19th century art thing, but you can get the general idea, yes? If you haven’t done so already, come with me now to visit a couple of recent posts, by Shelley on BurningBird and by Misbehaving.net, especially this one, too, because the comments they generated, too gross to ignore, are relevant to this exploration of the particular and the universal. Now back to the Adorno-related quote: let’s substitute “female-centered collective” for “art” for a moment, and note that here, too, there is a Law of Genre, namely gender codes, a collective bindingness. And let’s assume for a moment that “human possibility and play” — also known as what Adorno called “spontaneity” — is the critical particular that sets itself against the binding — nay, blinding! — universal of gender expectations. Play, ok? Spontaneity, right? Which might involve women getting together and talking about things they care about, in a quest both to play within the stultifying Law of Genre as well as to put it into question. But what happens when that happens? Some types of men come along and tell the women what to do: get back into the Genre boundaries, girls, here are the rules, these are the laws, this (according to the Laws) is what matters, this is how the game is played, and we don’t want your way of playing messing up those nice lines we’ve drawn in the sand. And girls, whatever you do, don’t play seriously. Play nice. And stop paying attention to yourselves, to your game, ’cause it’s our game that matters. Because of course, when the men play, it’s called avant-gardism and innovation and it’s celebrated as another way to move the particular forward and make it all even more terrifically universal. But it’s always the male-controlled particular that’s advocated, it’s that particular which is allowed to modify the universal or collective bindingness. The female particular is brushed off as …well, as too particular. So tedious. So …male-bashing: this latter epithet is supposed to be the kiss of death, the ne plus ultra, but it’s really the final reveal of the man who has nothing left to say, sort of like a sad codpiece covering …nothing very much. If you’ve been reading anything on this site, you’ll know that I don’t get too excited about technology (it’s not my sandbox), and that I feel an almost visceral distrust of the rabid stupidity I sense encapsulated in Culture Industry, which Adorno relentlessly dissected. White, in this essay, sums up Adorno’s critique as follows:

The most powerful and sinister gambit of what Adorno calls “administered society” is to promise the freedom of individuality while simultaneously prohibiting it. For example, consumers have been promised the “freedom of the open road” by automakers for the last half century, but with each passing year the realization of that freedom becomes more unlikely for all the familiar reasons (not least of which is the perverse insistence of other ‘individuals’ to use the same roads promised for your freedom).

Because I agree implicitly with the critique of “administered society,” I haven’t paid attention to the launching of a blog devoted to women getting ahead who did not endeavour to crap on the administered society’s head. And, as I said, technology isn’t my sandbox. But when I read some of the retorts being shot at Misbehaving’s authors by some of the male commentors, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Who needs a glass ceiling with a “cheering section” made up of men like this? Some men clearly can’t let go of their castration anxieties, and they’ll try to make sure you never even get out of the basement. They will continue to have their version of play, and their triumphs they’ll continue to call avant-gardism. They will allow women to work with them; they will allow women to live with them. But they seemingly cannot allow themselves to let a woman play with them because they can’t not be the centre of attention: they’ll tell you it’s the wrong game, it’s stupid, it’s male-bashing, and if all of that doesn’t work, they’ll build a bigger sandbox for themselves and ignore you totally. In that sense these men are half-people, incapable of playing fully, half-men who cannot love, and who cannot move the world forward. Regardless of what they do, they are part of the “administered world,” shackled to the Law of Genre. And this proves that the feminist project is about liberating women and men — god knows some of these guys need it.

Essence not desired

November 26, 2003 at 11:48 pm | In yulelogStories | 6 Comments

Near the beginning, as an opening to Chapter 2 of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami writes,

Is it possible, finally, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another?

We can invest enormous time and energy in serious efforts to know another person, but in the end, how close are we able to come to that person’s essence? We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?

It’s unnerving me a bit to realise that I have never desired “perfect understanding” of another person, nor considered it desirable to strive for closeness to another’s “essence.” It’s discombobulating me to realise that there are people who want these effects. Am I too casual in thinking that we’re all changing constantly, that our “essence” is a condition of our relationship to other people and things and events and social structures, and that it’s therefore pointless to seek perfect understanding or essence? Is it a mark of insanity? Shallowness? Comfort? Alienation? Or is it a guy-girl thing, viz. that guys keep believing in some essential beingness? I don’t mind that my children keep changing on me. This is ok, it’s their right. I couldn’t imagine fixing them, and part of my love for them is expressed through the constant dance I have to execute to keep up with their changing coordinates. And vice versa. It’s a form of movement that keeps our lives lively, that keeps us literally on our toes, and young. If I’m really lucky, I sometimes forget how old I am because I have to move.

I recently watched the movie Das Boot, which ends in a bloodbath whose context is quite ironic: after months of escaping dangers at sea, after surviving a disabling sinking, the crew of the submarine, along with various other marines and dignitaries, are mowed down on land in an air attack. The young hero — a journalist — had cried at one point that he wanted, just once, to feel “real” life in its fullness, without the shielding hand of a nurturing mother, without a gentle maiden blurring its outline for him, diluting its essence, or muffling its sound. And then, physically ricocheting through the carnage at the film’s end, he realises that his quest for reality and the reality itself have merged and simultaneously exposed themselves as a materiality (death, mayhem) that never ever will alchemically transmute or transfigure into some “real” or heroic “essence” which the women supposedly were preventing him from accessing. The quest for a higher essentiality was all in his head, and projecting its inaccessibility (or its accessibility) unto women was a self-deluding ruse.

Wars have been fought with this quest as a subtext. I’ve heard that in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle there is a flaying, presumably another quest to reach into the soul. Pain, torture: I suppose that presents a baseline for “essence”-quests, but for anyone who has survived it, we know it ends with just another air attack, from the head this time, with shortcircuits and fainting. Not more life, just less. The other Murakami books I’ve read were full of relationships that kept the stories’ balls in the air, countering or questioning essential conclusions, and I’ll read on in this one. But if it gets too essential, I might not make it through the whole book….

Monia Mazigh

November 26, 2003 at 8:21 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Monia Mazigh

In case you missed this when it came out, on the 23rd The Toronto Star had a wonderful tribute by journalist Haroon Siddiqui to a remarkable woman: Monia Mazigh, who fought for her husband Maher Arar‘s human rights while he was held (and was being tortured) in a Syrian jail after the Americans inexplicably deported this Canadian citizen to Syria. Dr. Mazigh, who holds a PhD in financial economics from McGill University, is currently a stay-at-home mother, which didn’t stop her from raising a ruckus to get her husband released. At a Toronto mosque, a volunteer imam told the congregation that Mazigh “had turned public perception of a Muslim woman on its head.” Mazigh responded by saying that she hoped she had used her public role well, and she urged Muslim men to “encourage their wives and daughters to raise their voices, and be outspoken.” Hear hear.

Scylla and a fighting chance

November 26, 2003 at 7:10 pm | In yulelogStories | 2 Comments

Yesterday I bumped into an old friend with whom I’d shared an apartment in Montreal many years ago. He has many, many ideas, many really good ideas, too. I suspect that he sometimes reads my blog, ’cause he knew I’d mentioned his idea about the sad actors here. I asked him about difference, and how he deals with the requirements of differentiating, because, you see, he has intimate experience with mental illnesses, with being institutionalised, with battling every single day against the suck and pull of the whirlpool pulling him under. He told me that once, for a long many years, there was a man (let’s say not him, let’s say a stand-in) who was involved with a woman who also was right off-centre, and that this man couldn’t tell anything apart anymore because he and the woman were relying on being codependent on each other. He needed her to be a mess so he could be a mess, and he needed to be a mess because she was a mess. That was the story, to an extent. But if codependency is a danger, part of a whirlpool sucking you under, there are other dangers at hand: the rocks upon which you can smash your head…. or kick against, as the case may be. (This is of course ancient Greek history: Scylla and Charybdis, a favourite trope of Adorno & Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, embody this idea.) Of the two, I prefer Scylla, even though she is just as dangerous as Charybdis. But she’s more anger-directed, more masculine, which is how I’ve behaved to stave off Charybdis’s lure. My weakness is getting hung up on the overt, covert, lurking, advancing, stupid, clever aggressiveness of the culture, not on the sad pulls sucking at my heels as I walk through the world. (I have an engraving of Scylla — the one here, by John Flaxman, hanging in my dining room. Scylla is the one pictured here: rocky, angry; Charybdis, not pictured, is the sucky, pull-you-under one. Click on the image for a better view on another page.)

As we talked about this and that — success, work, failure, being extinguished — I mentioned Patricia Barber in passing, whose work he didn’t know. So, just in case he visits this blog again, here are the lyrics for “A Touch of Trash (Homage to Beauty)”, Barber’s brilliant dissection of modern success, the kind that has everyone wondering who is really crazy here:

the perfect shade of lipstick
a red that belies
carefully weaved into a style
eyeliner drawn with an artisan’s hand
replication makes perfection
she’s just a button short of trash

matching toes and fingers
the peek-a-boo shoe
as subtle as the perfume
a south beach tan under a sun-streaked do
orchestration and precision
the girl works harder than you

primitive inspiration
packaged in modern disguise
permitting a glimpse of the thigh
masculine resolve with a feminine plan
domination and submission
she smells the gas then lights the match

stylish deliberation
the chattel of Calvin Klein
calculation of color and design
glamour defined by supply and demand
education and graduation
she’s just a culture short of class

a moment of indecision
cool wind from the edge of the cliff
feels like love when it looks like this
if truth is the price for a superficial charm
the night is laughing
watching us turn absolutely nothing to form

I think Patricia Barber is a genius, the way she charts a course through the straits inbetween the monsters… So David, choose your poison: Scylla or Charybdis, one or the other is going to be too close for comfort. I don’t have to the strength to resist Charybdis, her massive interiority, her crushing single-mattered weight, I’ll take my chances sailing closer to Scylla.

Quelle heure-est-il?

November 26, 2003 at 6:51 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Quelle heure-est-il?

How did it get to be Wednesday evening already? Incroyable! No blog yesterday since I didn’t go to the UVic library for my usual Tuesday evening serendipity forage in the stacks while Emma’s in choir. She went to choir, but I went to a School Planning Council meeting. It always cracks me up that I’m a homeschooling parent whose kids use distance education materials, and that I’m on the Parent Advisory Council of the distance school. Considering it’s just a few kilometres up the road, it’s not so distant…

Did you see/ do this?

November 23, 2003 at 7:28 pm | In yulelogStories | 10 Comments

It’s Sunday and I haven’t blogged for some days. I started this one on Friday night, when I had lots to do, thinking it would be one of those quickie “Did you see this one?” blogging moments. But it turned into a way-too-complicated topic, Saturday was busy, too, as was the evening, and so was Sunday all freaking day, and now it’s still busy, but I’m going to hit the “submit” button. This is an unfinished blog entry, consider it a bunch of entrails from which you can draw your own conclusions, but by all means read the Martin Amis review I point to first. Anyway, I began the “did you see this?” like this: Two items via Arts and Letters Daily: Did you read Christopher Caldwell’s review of Martin Amis’s new book, Yellow Dog? According to the reviewer here, Amis takes pornography apart by being pornographic himself. And while I’m not sure I want to read Yellow Dog, it’s probably recommended reading for any who think porn is just one more “cool,” “free,” “freaky — loosen up!” consumer item. From the review:

It is Amis’ point that with the digital proliferation (and the widening cultural acceptance) of pornography, sexual equilibrium has become even more elusive. Pornography’s hidden viciousness is that it wreaks its worst damage on those who follow that most noble of precepts: “Know thyself.” (…)
But those who reach this knowledge through porn are less lucky [than one of the main characters who reaches it through the ministrations of his real-life mistress]. The king’s assistant, Brendan “Bugger” Urquhart-Gordon, assumes he’s asexual until he watches a movie in which an actress tricked up to look like the pubescent princess is violated (“Brendan attended to the ordeal of his own arousal. You’d better hope that this doesn’t happen, he thought, when you’re watching the one about the oversexed undertaker, the coprophagic pigfarmer, the ladykilling ladykiller …”). Since much modern porno involves recherch� sex acts and twisted relationships, men (it is always men) who are turned on by it are left with only two self-destructive choices: perversion, if they give in to their desires; self-deception, if they resist them. Porn-enhanced masturbation, as described here, is an actual addiction; for Clint’s sessions, the term “self-abuse” is not metaphorical:

He knew that the distance between himself and the world of women was getting greater. Each night, as he entered the Borgesian metropolis of electronic pornography—with its infinities, its immortalities—Clint was, in a sense, travelling towards women. But he was also travelling away from them.

As readers of Time’s Arrow will remember, Amis is at his most brilliant when exploiting paradoxes like these, those moments when life seems to make as much sense if it’s run backward or turned inside out. As when Karla White says of herself and other X-rated stars: “When we watch porno, we fast-forward through the sex to get to the acting.” Or when the gangster Joseph Andrews describes Britain’s postwar economy: “Things opened up beautifully after the war, with all the austerity.”

Check out the full review, it’s really interesting. A while ago I surfed around a bit on some of the sites (like erosblog) where porn is just another fun thing to indulge. Naomi Wolf was getting skewered (no pun intended) for her argument that (real) women can’t compete against the spectacles set before porn-viewing men. How silly of Naomi, the bloggers said; any man would prefer a real woman, they said. What a bunch of stupid dopes these people are, I thought: they prove that human intelligence can be in very short supply. Amis’s argument is far more complex than the erosbloggers: he has gone the route of “know thyself,” and is willing to show us what an aporia pornography is. And by the way, Wolf is really smart:

By the new millennium, a vagina—which, by the way, used to have a pretty high “exchange value,” as Marxist economists would say—wasn’t enough; it barely registered on the thrill scale. All mainstream porn—and certainly the Internet—made routine use of all available female orifices. [more…]

Georges Bataille, the brilliant marxist theorist obsessed by heterogeneous sex, might agree; his solar anus is a veritable pot of gold in the eros-sphere, while the vagina is but a cheap trick. The other item that really caught my attention this last week: Jean-Paul Sartre is making a comeback. Sartre’s dialectical critiques deserve another look, especially today when we sometimes think we can “fix” something by piling an exacerbation, an excess, an addition on top (“fix” the status of women, say, by exacerbating girliness or “sexiness” or beauty products). For example, let me reach back to the 80s and my own studies of Existentialism. Researching an article on post-World War II French modernism, I came across Sartre’s critique of Surrealism, subsequently published as What is Literature? The essays first appeared in Les Temps Modernes, the Paris magazine started by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in 1945. Here Sartre argues (in 1947) that Surrealism failed really to destroy anything (including bourgeois morality), despite its emphasis on shocking or discombobulating the viewer:

Quite the contrary; by means of the symbolic annulment of the self by sleep and automatic writing, by the symbolic annulment of objects by producing evanescent objectivities, by the symbolic annulment of language by producing aberrant meanings, by the destruction of painting by painting and literature by literature, surrealism pursues this curious enterprise of realising nothingness by too much fullness of being. It is always creating, that is, by adding paintings to already existing paintings and books to already established books, that it destroys.

A year earlier (1946), Simone de Beauvoir published her essay Pour une morale de l’ambiguit� in the same magazine. She analysed the Existentialist paradox that it’s necessary to destroy in order to exist. Using the example of spontaneous street celebrations after the Liberation of Paris from the Nazis in 1944, De Beauvoir noted that people were affirming their existence through (reckless) celebration. At the time, some cautioned against the (irresponsible) joy expressed in these festivals by reminding people of the very real problems facing them. De Beauvoir argued back that in the very sense of choosing to celebrate — regardless of possible negative consequences — there is attached to the confirmation of one’s being (expressed through celebration) a component of destruction in which existence is confirmed. The morality of Being is the morality of saving; there, one hoards in order to attain the immutability of in-itself. The morality of existence, however, implies squandering; one knows that one’s existence is linked to destruction. It sounds a bit like Amis’s dialectical turns, and I can’t help but be pleased by a renaissance of critical theory that possibly shows another way to (#1) dissect pornography the way Sartre dissected Surrealism and (#2) get a different (if troubled) perspective on political violence.


November 20, 2003 at 10:50 am | In yulelogStories | 12 Comments

Thanks to wood’s lot for the pointer to Netwoman’s interview with Jeneane Sessum. What Jeneane says here in response to the question, “What has been your biggest challenge in the Blogosphere?”, made me pause more than anything for the way it rings true:

Not letting it take over my entire life, because if I could, I think I would live inside my blog. That is, except for the weeks that I despise it. (rest of interview here…)

The weird way that blogging can pattern your day-to-day life is akin to an obsession, or even a martial art. If you’re not very good, you can hurt yourself — sort of like a Ninja getting whacked by her own sword, or like an Animal Slave scratching at hives for others’ amusement. There is artistry in this, and it’s not easy to learn. I don’t have it down at all: my blog has been out of control (to my mind) and too much in control (of my mind?), as seen from where I’m sitting. I think of it this way: that there are the control freak bloggers who make the A-lists, the Aces of Mastery; and there are “the voices” who spend a lot of time digging into materiality (typically their own flesh) for the right pitch. Crazies, dreamers, desirous of unclassifiability because they write in part from pain, and who wish to kick against the pricks. Wanting to escape the web of preformed meaning. And sometimes playing with very sharp blades. You start to blog, sometimes making sense because you sound like everybody else does, sometimes making no sense at all because, while flesh is flesh indeed, yours is still different from mine.

Perhaps it’s love and passion that shows the way, though. If you write about the things that spark your sense of love and wonder more than about those that spark your anger or outrage and fury, perhaps you can find a pitch to work with. To do so wouldn’t mean condemning yourself only to “fluffy bunny” posts, since love can be fierce. And there’s no reason to stay consistent at all times: if something really “picks your ass” (as they used to say in one of my old junior high schools — it was a very picturesque place…), let it rip. Passion is good. However, my response to self-diagnostic tests, for example, which I despise because I see them as so many little strings in the preformed web of meaning — and I’m just paranoid enough to resent even imagining anyone having control of those strings — was informed at least as much by furious resentment of the instruments of control as by a passionate faith in diatribe facilitating escape from the web. And at a certain point — when furious resentment gets the upper hand — play, the natural expression of love, is pushed under. As a writer, the game is to facilitate a different reality. Liberation comes in many bodies, shapes, and forms. A “thing-in-itself” essentialist pseudo-reality, on the other hand, never changes shape, which is why it comforts the authoritarian soul, and drives the rest of us crazy. In the essentialist scheme of things, there is a telos, a kind of purpose or “natural” trajectory, however, which to me looks like a human-constructed belief system designed to keep everyone in line. Imperialists of political and psychic stripe want you to believe in essential realities, never questioning the layers of relationship and meaning, because they rely on the telos** to cut through everything as it streaks toward its goal. Hence my attraction to the absurd and the ludicrous, and my allergy to fundamentalism, theology, and “big picture” explanations.

And anger. There’s so much to get pissed off about, and we have so many ways of amplifying the GPO (“Get Pissed Off”) factor so that we can GPO even more. I even GPO over the counter-forces to GPO, all the ameliorating pablum, the advertising that tells us that the next gadget will fix everything, the idiotic political speeches: all of it. I GPO to the point where I work myself up into a spiral of self-inflicted hives. And what, I’d like to know, is the point of that? Like, on my deathbed will I say, “I wish I’d worked harder,” or, “I wish I’d worked myself up even more”? Or will I say, “I wish I’d played more,” as in, “Man, that was a great game”? Authoritarians will tell you that the game has an essence, summed up as, “the name of the game is winning.” But that’s not true. We all end up in the same place, in the end.

[** this link, a Sam Vaknin page, does an interesting job of talking about the differences between teleological vs scientific approaches to explaining the world. But I strongly feel that his error lies in raising both to ontological status. Both approaches have to be contextualised, otherwise you’re once again back to Plato and his noumenous forms. And miles from play or love.]

[And apologies to Jeneane & Netwoman for hijacking a perfectly wonderful interview; you’d think I was a pilot for Skyhigh…. ]

Take a bow

November 19, 2003 at 6:12 pm | In yulelogStories | 2 Comments

And for Sheila Lennon, recently blogrolled here, a song, Sheila Take a Bow:

Sheila take a, Sheila take a bow
Boot the grime of this world in the crotch, dear
And don’t go home tonight
Come out and find the one that you love and who loves you
The one that you love and who loves you

The Smiths‘s song for Sheila: appropriately to the point: keep booting the grime of this world in the crotch!

It’s a dog’s life in today’s world

November 19, 2003 at 5:41 pm | In yulelogStories | 3 Comments

The other day we were persuaded that our dog appeared to be in need of having his anal ducts manipulated. I had no idea dogs had anal ducts or that these could be in need of manual intervention (and all I can say is thank god for latex gloves, too). As it turned out, his “scooting or dragging the anal area” around the grass or rug was a red herring — nowhere near his bottom, incidentally — as his glands or sacs turned out to be in fine working order. At any rate… Before I took him to the vet, I checked the web for information. It seems that searching for [dog “anal gland”] turns up only humour sites, such as the Wacky Sayings Archive, and while this page wasn’t at all helpful in explaining what might be my dog’s problem, there is some funny stuff here, including outgoing telephone answering machine messages such as:

This is not an answering machine. This is a telepathic thought-recording device. After the tone, think about your name, your number and your reason for calling, and I’ll think about returning your call.

There are several other headings here (Label Instructions, Signs and Notices, Product Warnings), including Bad Headlines, which reminded me of Sheila Lennon‘s recent chortling over nonsense headlines (and sorry I can’t make the exact link to Sheila’s entry — something to do with registering — but it’s better to go to her main page, anyway, and read from the top):

Lawyers Give Poor Free Legal Advice
Autos Killing 110 a Day — Let’s Resolve to Do Better

… and, my favourite:
Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

Given our “progress” I hope that last one doesn’t turn out to be prescient. (Check out Frank’s expose of the views of James Leon Holmes, a Bush nominee to the Federal Bench: Mr. Holmes appears ready to take incarceration to a whole new level of pre-Bastille standards….) And speaking of the Bastille, which “was a prison where kings and queens usually locked up people who didn’t agree with their decisions. To a lot of French, the Bastille prison was a symbol of the corrupt system run by the kings and queens. On July 14, 1789 the Revolution began when a large group stormed the Bastille prison,” you have to check out Betsy Devine‘s entry on the establishment of “Free Speech Zones.” Science fiction today, reality tomorrow?

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