Occupy

Noam Chomsky is no doubt the most famous left-wing academic in North America–perhaps, in the English-speaking world–and also surely one of the most unusual. For his politics seem, at least at first glance, to have little to do with his academic work. He is, in other words, a “left-wing academic” in a very different way than (say) Eric Hobsbawm, Fredric Jameson, Ernest Mandel, or Howard Zinn, or whoever else may have been claimants to this title over the years. Hobsbawm, for instance, was a historian whose writings on History were infused with and informed his commitment to laying bare the working of Capital and the progress of global class struggle. Chomsky, by contrast, is a Linguist whose academic work has little obvious bearing on his political commitments. He is a left-wing academic in the way in which one might be a left-wing electrician or postal worker. He does his politics on the side. He is, in short, more activist than theorist or researcher.

Chomsky, Occupy

At the same time, there is no doubt that Chomsky benefits from his academic prestige and pedigree. His short book, Occupy, is less a monograph than a collection of speeches and interviews, in which he is frequently addressed as “Professor Chomsky,” with all the dignity and weight that such an appellation confers. At one point, someone even calls him “Sir” (43). So much for the egalitarianism for which Chomsky himself otherwise advocates! Yet to be fair, he is keen to play down any heroic role for himself, and quick to point to other academics (in this book, above all the University of Maryland political economist Gar Alperovitz), whose work he champions and recommends. Indeed, Chomsky would surely be the first to note that there is little particularly original in his contribution to political debate–even his best-known popular book, Manufacturing Consent was co-written by the economic historian and media analyst Edward Herman–and that his role is more as a conduit and synthesizer of the ideas of others. And in this work of relaying and popularizing what others have done, he happily turns to his advantage the renown he has gained as Institute Professor (now Emeritus) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As such it is perhaps unsurprising that, for all his reputation as a radical, Chomsky takes positions that are remarkably pragmatic. He recognizes his own limits, as well as those of the causes he supports. Of the “Occupy” movement, for instance, he has little time for the notion that it is a “precursor to revolution” (58). He argues, instead, that “to have a revolution–a meaningful one–you need a substantial majority of the population who recognize or believe that further reform is not possible within the institutional framework that exists. And there is nothing like that here, not even remotely” (59). And for all his critiques of the established political process, not least what passes for democracy in the USA, let along the party that calls itself “Democratic,” he has hardly insists on ideological purity. Several times, for example, he points approvingly to the Spanish worker-run conglomerate Mondragón, while noting that “of course, it’s part of an international capitalist economy which means that you can argue the ethics of it, since they do things like exploit labour abroad and so on” (166). But it’s clear that Chomsky himself, for now at least, has no interest in “argu[ing] the ethics.” The point is that it’s a step in the right direction.

This surely also explains Chomsky’s celebrated anarchism. More precisely, this is a rejection of Marxism. About Anarchism itself he has very little to say beyond the notion that it “has a very broad back. You can find all kinds of things in the anarchist movements” (64). But fundamentally, and despite being a thinker of systems (if not always in the most effective or interesting ways), and even despite his reiterated emphasis on the centrality of the Labour Movement to any wholesale change, his stress is always less on systematic transformation–on revolution, in other words–than on building connections and improving social relations, if in a piecemeal way. This is what he repeatedly singles out for praise from the Occupy movement: “the bonds and associations being formed” (74). And it’s perhaps no wonder that Chomsky sees this as a welcome change from the stress elsewhere on the potential powers of social media, which he sees as “very superficial” (117). By contrast, “one of the main contributions of Occupy [. . .] was that it brought people together in face-to-face contact. People were actually working together to do something in common, with mutual support, with solidarity, and that’s something that’s pretty much missing in this society” (117).

Ultimately, then, there’s something strangely conservative in this firebrand of the Left. He ends up sounding oddly like someone like Robert Putnam, whose celebrated Bowling Alone was fuelled largely by nostalgia for a postwar heyday of so-called “civil society” in which people were supposedly much more involved in (what were then often highly segregated) religious groups, volunteer organizations, sports leagues, and the like. Chomsky doesn’t have the same affection for the 1950s–for him it was when, with the onset of the Cold War and the growth of the military industrial complex, everything started going downhill–but there is enough similarity between the twin critiques of contemporary atomization and social anomie to give us pause. And so perhaps Chomsky’s linguistic postulates, which propose a “universal grammar” common to all human language, have more relevance to his political stances than one might imagine. Is he not, after all, imagining a world before Babel, before the mythic division of mankind into mutually incomprehensible and uncomprehending language-based groups?

Infinite Jest

David Foser Wallace

David Foster Wallace’s novel, in installments. See also Infinite Test.

The Aesthetics of Dirt

[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]

One of the more interesting reviews of James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand is by Richard Gehr who, writing in the Village Voice, sets up a comparison between Ellroy’s novel and Don Delillo’s Underworld. For Gehr, Ellroy is “the anti-DeLillo of American lit. Disarmingly shameless and mediagenic, he is the ambitious, hard-boiled materialist to DeLillo’s elegizing modernist.” Both, however, cover “much the same ground”: they are sprawling attempts to catch the Zeitgeist of mid to late twentieth-century America. The difference between their visions is encapsulated, Gehr argues, in their opening and closing lines. The Cold Six Thousand begins: “They sent him to Dallas to kill a nigger pimp named Wendell Durfee.” Underworld starts: “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” And where Delillo’s novel ends with the single word, “Peace,” Ellroy’s concludes with apocalyptic Oedipal violence: “His father screamed. Blood sprayed the panes.”

UHID

I wonder what would happen if we added Infinite Jest into the mix. It, too, is a long novel that cuts between a large cast of characters in multiple settings, slowly drawing the threads between them so as to say something about the country (and the culture) as a whole. Foster Wallace’s concern may be more late- than mid-twentieth-century, and he is more prone to satire than the other two (though in other novels, such as White Noise, Delillo shows a taste for the absurd). But perhaps what unites all three is an interest, bordering on the obsessional, with waste, surplus, and detritus. This, after all, is surely Underworld‘s central theme, from the baseball hit out of the park (in the “shot heard ’round the world”) to the aeroplane graveyards of the Mojave Desert or Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. Among his characters are “waste managers” (113), “waste brokers” (102) and even a “waste hustler” (287) and a “waste theorist” (285). Ellroy, in his own way, is both fascinated and distressed by sleaze (note that The Cold Six Thousand is a sequel to American Tabloid), dirt, and the seamy underside to America’s glittering postwar successes, from mob violence underwriting the bright lights of Vegas to the squalid politics and private shenanigans behind the moral triumphs of the civil rights movement. Here, the key term is dirt, not least the dirt that some people have on others: “Mr. Hoover held dirt. Mr. Hoover leaked dirt” (197); “Pete wants new dirt. Pete wants hot dirt” (128); “He stacked piles. He skimmed sheets. He read fast. He rolled in dirt” (469).

In Infinite Jest, the dystopian cast of the novel’s near-future setting is sparked by the presidential election of one “Johnny Gentle.” Gentle is a “famous crooner,” chronic germophobe (“world-class retentive” [381]), and political outsider who has founded the “Clean US Party,” which sweeps to power “in a dark time when all landfills got full and all grapes were raisins and sometimes in some places the falling rain clunked instead of splatted” (382). It is Presidential Gentle who engineers the formation of the “Organization of North American Nations” and who converts much of New England into an uninhabitable toxic swamp (the “Great Concavity”) that he persuades the Canadians to annex to their own territory. By the time the novel is (mostly) set, it seems that waste is catapulted or otherwise thrown from long range into this wilderness, while vast fans ensure that foul fumes do not contaminate cities such as Boston. But the Concavity is not simply one huge rubbish dump. It is also the site of what appears to be an extraordinary means of generating power called “annulation,” by which a process of “natural fusion” converts the toxins into energy. This then produces an equally hideous environment, “the eastern Concavity of anxiety and myth” that, devoid of any pollutants, is “so fertilely lush it’s practically unlivable” (573). There is therefore a periodic lurch from poisoned wilderness to verdant rainforest, depending on the timings of the annulation process and the aerial bombardments of toxic rubbish: “from overgrown to wasteland to overgrown several times a month. [. . .] As if time itself were vastly sped up. As if nature itself had desperately to use the lavatory” (573).

In all three books, dirt is less “matter out of place” (in Mary Douglas’s famous definition) than the very fabric of society itself, or at least what pervades that fabric and cannot be excised from it except at considerable cost. Waste is everywhere, between everything, and as such it is as much a medium of transaction as it is a thing in itself. Dirt is traded or exchanged in all three books, if in different ways: bought and sold, acquired and leaked, catapulted and converted. More fundamentally, it is as though dirt (rubbish, waste, garbage) were what enables exchange in the first place: it is not so much excessive, surplus to requirements, as essential to human sociability. More abstractly, it is what enables bodies to interact with and encounter each other. Infinite Jest has a particular interest in bodies–its first line is “I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies” (3), which is as “materialist” an opening as one could desire. Here, people are treated as things, as objects, albeit objects with a life of their own, with the capacity to surprise. (Note the motto: “Do not underestimate objects!” [394].) Some of these bodies, such as those of the Academy’s young tennis players, are chiseled and honed; others, such as those of the inhabitants of the halfway house down the hill are bloated and abused. These bodies seldom interact, but where they do the point of their intersection is a subterranean commerce in drugs or unmarked video cartridges (objects apparently discarded) or via the omnipresent dumpsters that line the streets and the tennis courts. There’s a constant movement between and around these locales as “garbage from the overfull receptacles blows out into the yard and mixes with the leaves along the fences’ base and some gets out into the street and is never picked up and eventually becomes part of the composition of the street” (583). President Gentle’s dream of perfect hygiene is not simply a fantasy (which, if realized, the example of the eastern Concavity shows would soon become nightmare). It is an aversion to life itself.

Where Foster Wallace perhaps differs from Delillo and Ellroy is in his interest in the aesthetics of dirt. This, I think, is the point of his fascination with the deformities produced by exposure to toxic waste: for instance, the boy without a skull, a “Concavity-refugee infant,” who’s worshipped at a South Boston Orthodontist’s house (559). Hence also the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, whose members take the veil, Joelle van Dyne tells us, because they are no longer afraid to hide: “completely up-front and unabashed about the fact that how we appear to others affects us deeply” (535). Dirt is an eyesore or blemish in increasingly plain sight: after all, the title of Gehr’s review is “Ugly America.” But just as life is unlivable without toxins, so perfect beauty is also a deformity: “I am so beautiful I am deformed,” Joelle tells Don Gately. “I’m so beautiful I drive anybody with a nervous system out of their fucking mind” (538). Again, we have a hint that the mysteriously deadly “Entertainment” involves Joelle is some way: its secret is perhaps a beauty that is so entrancing that it reduces its viewers to a shell of their former selves. In Infinite Jest it is purity or perfection that is the ultimate threat. A little dirt, a little ugliness, is far from superfluous or regrettable. It is the lifeblood of society.

Modern Ruins, Malls, and Their Explorers

Hawthorne Plaza Mall

Some stories, sites, photographs, and articles on modern ruination:

  • Matt Stopera, “Completely Surreal Photos Of America’s Abandoned Malls”. Buzzfeed. April 2, 2014.
  • Dying shopping malls are speckled across the United States, often in middle-class suburbs wrestling with socioeconomic shifts. Some, like Rolling Acres, have already succumbed. Estimates on the share that might close or be repurposed in coming decades range from 15 to 50%. Americans are returning downtown; online shopping is taking a 6% bite out of brick-and-mortar sales; and to many iPhone-clutching, city-dwelling and frequently jobless young people, the culture that spawned satire like Mallrats seems increasingly dated, even cartoonish. (David Uberti, “The Death of the American Mall”. The Guardian. June 19, 2014.)
  • DEADMALLS.COM.
  • Jim Waterson, “19 Haunting Pictures Of The Abandoned 1984 Winter Olympics Venues”. BuzzFeed. February 19, 2014.
  • Vitaly Chevchenko, “The Urban Explorers of the Ex-USSR”. BBC News. February 11, 2014.
  • “Tall Storeys: Lucinda Grange’s Daredevil Photography”. The Guardian. February 18, 2014.
  • The truth is that we’ve probably got rather too many ruins in the world already, and certainly more than we can preserve as we would like to. Left exposed to the elements, ruins just get more and more ruined. That’s the iron law of ruins. And it takes superhuman effort (and vast resources) to halt that natural process. Why add to our problems by excavating more of them? (Mary Beard, “A Point of View: Is the Archaeological Dig a Thing of the Past?”. BBC News Magazine. May 2, 2014.)
  • The pleasure the human mind takes in ruins is not easy to explain. It has something to do with time. In JMW Turner’s sketches of decayed abbeys that come like Soane’s broodings from the Romantic age, the artist lingers over the details of each crumbly, broken stone. Looking at his studies you get a powerful sense of the time he spent on them and the escape from daily care this involved. A ruin, in other words, is a time machine that releases the mind to wander in nooks and crannies of lost ages – and ages to come. That is why John Constable finds the ruins of Hadleigh Castle so grimly consoling in his painting of this medieval heap quietly decaying, the wars and oppressions it once embodied long forgotten. (Jonathan Jones, “Ruin Lust at Tate Britain Review: ‘A Brilliant but Bonkers Exhibition'”. The Guardian March 3, 2014.)
  • Nikki Hatchett, “Ruin Lust: Our Obsession with Decay: In Pictures”. The Guardian. March 3, 2014.
  • The lure of ruins is complex. Ruins inspire the imagination, incite pleasantly melancholy thoughts, and humanise a landscape. Only in the wildest places can we walk without coming across some kind of ruin – some human trace of enigmatic predecessors on the remote pathways. Even in the highest mountains in Snowdonia, you constantly come across quarry workings, abandoned huts and tumbledown walls. The marks of human industry are everywhere. Modern ruins are the strangest of all. (Jonathan Jones, “The Ruin-Hunters who Drove a Car down Mexico’s Forgotten Railways”. The Guardian. June 11, 2014.)
  • La enorme ruina, a pesar de su abandono y antigüedad, resistió sin problemas el terremoto de 1985, pero aún con estas favorables referencias, no se hizo nada por retomar su construcción. Como suele suceder, motivos de índole político, de planificación social y las eternas mezquindades económicas en la precaria redistribución de los dineros fiscales complotaron en contra del proyecto. Al contrario, el lugar originalmente destinado para salvar y cuidar la vida, se transformó rápidamente en sinónimo de muerte, destrucción y abandono. Numerosos delitos, robos, violaciones y asesinatos, se arraigaron por muchos años tras sus muros derruidos, con lo que ya a fines de los años 80, el edificio era un vergonzoso foco de delincuencia e inseguridad; un “elefante blanco” que día y noche ensombrecía al vecindario y entristecía el paisaje. (Sebastián Aguilar O., “Reportaje: El olvido del Hospital Ochagavía, nuestro elefante blanco”. Neurona Musical. February 11, 2014. Publicado originalmente en Revista Evavisión Cultura 7, Septiembre 2013.)
  • Gastón Gordillo, “The Politics of Ruins: What’s Hidden Under Rubble?”. Conversation with Léopold Lambert. Archipelago. May 20, 2014.
  • “brain-scrambling technical synaesthesia”

    William Burroughs

    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)

    Ramiro Gómez, “Happy Hills”

    Ramiro Gómez, "Yoselin and the glass of water"

    Thanks to Kinsey Lane Sullivan in PolicyMic for her profile of Ramiro Gómez, a Los Angeles artist and (ex?)nanny whose ongoing project “Happy Hills” is devoted to “documenting the predominantly Hispanic workforce who work tirelessly behind the scenes to maintain the beautiful imagery of these affluent areas.”

    Gómez’s technique involves a) installations featuring cardboard cut-outs of otherwise overlooked service workers (leaf-blowers, cleaners, nannies) in public places and so plain sight and b) interventions into images of pristine homes, taken mostly from magazines and adverts (but also occasionally high art) to reinsert the figures of domestic labour that have been erased or marginalized but without whom none of this would exist.

    I particularly like this image, “Portrait of an Affluent Family”:

    Ramiro Gómez, "Portrait of an Affluent Family"

    The funny thing is that, according to a note on Gómez’s Facebook page, so does the man pictured with his family. I’m not entirely sure what we can gather from that.

    Detroit in Ruins (Again)

    Detroit is in ruins again. Here’s Juan Cole on the recent petition for bankruptcy, on the relationship between the city and the country as a whole, and on the fact that Detroit’s crisis is contemporary, not merely historical:

    The 1% did a special number on southeast Michigan with its derivatives and unregulated mortgage markets; the 2008 crash hit the region hard, and it had already been being hit hard. The Detroit area is a prime example of the blight that comes from having extreme wealth (Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Pointe) and extreme poverty (most of Detroit) co-existing in an urban metropolitan area. It doesn’t work. The wealthy have no city to play in, and the city does not have the ability to tax or benefit from the local wealthy in the suburbs. These problems are exacerbated by de facto racial segregation, such that African-Americans are many times more likely to be unemployed than are whites, and to live in urban blight rather than in nice suburbs.

    Meanwhile, the Guardian took this as the opportunity to publish yet another slideshow of the city’s fabulous ruins. Their aesthetic appeal is meant, I think, as some kind of compensation for the devastation that they document. But it’s not insignificant that these images are depopulated, empty of all but material detritus: the human toll of this ruination is registered and elided at the same time. Here’s “the ballroom of the 15-floor art-deco Lee Plaza Hotel, an apartment building with hotel services built in 1929 and derelict since the early 1990s”:

    Detroit ballroom