Something that’s always new, that’s immune to habit, that never gets old. That’s something worth having. Because habit is what destroys the world. [. . .] Trees, stop signs, people and books grow old, crumble and disappear inside our habits. The reason old people don’t mind dying is because the time you reach eighty, the world has basically disappeared. (Michael Clune, White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin. Quoted in Miranda Critchley, “Don’t Be Dull.” London Review of Books 36.21 [November 6, 2014]: 41.)
Some stories, sites, photographs, and articles on modern ruination:
A few pointers to some more or less recent articles on contemporary higher education:
The Wednesday quotation, part XX: Gary Indiana’s fantastic take on the relevance of William Burroughs, and the irrelevance of most contemporary US fiction, in the London Review of Books:
The radically anti-authoritarian, left-libertarian notions he espoused probably look like irresponsible nihilism (or “antinomian morality,” in Schjeldahl’s solecism) to many of those ensconced at their computer screens during most of their waking life, or bedazzled by mobiles and ubiquitous electronic signage in a society overloaded with information yet drained of authentic experience. It now seems almost logical that the insight Burroughs offers into the brain-scrambling technical synaesthesia spreading everywhere would be precisely what brands him a crackpot, rather than the silly religions and fatuous disciplines he so often became fascinated by. Still, I feel it’s necessary to say how stupid this inverted logic is.
[. . .]
Yet it’s a fact that Burroughs, one of the very few American novelists of the last fifty years who actually mattes, has had a negligible influence on “mainstream” American literature, while his effect on popular culture has been incalculable. It may be comforting to some arbiters of aesthetic fashion to write Burroughs off as a perennial enthusiasms of “the young,” but they might consider that several generations of these young have since occupied key positions in film, TV, the recording business and advertising, to cite only four sectors of the consciousness industry that seem far more familiar with our internal wiring than the current literary world, which becomes ever more parochial and conservative as its importance in the culture shrinks.
(“Predatory Sex Aliens” London Review of Books 36.9 [8 May 2014]: 26)
The Wednesday quotation, part XIX: I’ve been reading Felisberto Hernández, a very striking Uruguayan writer from the first half of the twentieth century who is practically unknown, especially in English. Some of his short stories have been translated, in a collection entitled Piano Stories (introduced by Italo Calvino, which should give a sense of why they might be of interest), but so far as I can tell this book never sold well and is now long out of print.
“The Stray Horse” is a story that begins by giving life to very concrete things: a marble bust, for instance, or furniture, or a pencil that “was anxious to be allowed to write” (17). Before long the narrator, a child depicted with his grandmother and with his piano teacher, Celina, with whom he is obsessed, can say that “the objects were more alive than we were” (18). As the story progresses, however, it takes on the perspective of the man that the child has become many years later and turns into a long disquisition on memory and on aging in which abstract ideas are presented with surprising vividness, as though they were tangible objects. It is as though the two halves of the story were mirror images of each other: the life of things, and the things of life that unite in (or divide) the narrator’s consciousness.
For in time, with the effort to recollect the past, the narrator finds himself multiplied, fragmented, transformed. He imagines a shadowy partner, who follows him wherever he goes and whom he dimly discerns to represent or incarnate the world of others around him. Though the two are often depicted as at odds, they also make common cause in the narrator’s adventures in consciousness and memory. This leads to an extraordinary passage that ultimately proves to be about something like creativity:
I have to thank him for the times he followed me at night to the edge of a river where I went to see the water of memory flow. When I drew some water in a jug and was saddened at how little and how still it was, he would help me invent other containers for it and comfort me by showing me its different shapes in the different vessels. Afterward we invented a boat in which to cross the river to the island where Celina’s house was. We would take along thoughts that fought hand to hand with our memories, knocking over or displacing many objects in the house. Some of the objects may have rolled under the furniture, and others we must have lost on our way back, because when we opened the bag with our hoard it was always down to just a few bones, and the small lantern we had been holding over the soil of memory dropped from our hands.
Yet the next morning we always turned what little we had gathered during the night into writing. (43-4)
Meanwhile, here is something I wrote a few years ago specifically on “The Daisy Dolls” (“Las hortensias”).
The Wednesday quotation, part XVIII: More on TED, from a quite damning review of Parag Khanna and Ayesha Khanna, Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization:
I take no pleasure in declaring what has been obvious for some time: that TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas “worth spreading.” Instead it has become something ludicrous, and a little sinister.
Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”
[. . .]
Since any meaningful discussion of politics is off limits at TED, the solutions advocated by TED’s techno-humanitarians cannot go beyond the toolkit available to the scientist, the coder, and the engineer. This leaves Silicon Valley entrepreneurs positioned as TED’s preferred redeemers. In TED world, tech entrepreneurs are in the business of solving the world’s most pressing problems. This is what makes TED stand out from other globalist shindigs, and makes its intellectual performances increasingly irrelevant to genuine thought and serious action. (Evgeny Morozov, “The Naked and the TED “. The New Republic [August 2, 2012].)
The Wednesday quotation, part XVII: Nathan Heller on TED:
TED may present itself as an ideas conference, but most people seem to watch the lectures not so much for the information as for how they make them feel. (“Listen and Learn: The TED Talk Phenomenon”. New Yorker [July 9 and 16, 2012]: 73.)
I really dislike TED. For what it’s worth, there’s nothing I dislike more about it than the cult of the nauseous Sir Ken Robinson. But that’s just a symptom, one among many. We could put it this way, rewriting TED’s trademark slogan: they’re not ideas, and they’re not worth spreading. They’re merely balm for the neoliberal soul, a cynical veneer of supposed intellectualism to leaven the effects of the market.