Saturday, February 02, 2008

keeping this blog alive

I'm loving Pingu...

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

dance with me?

I really like Nouvelle Vague. They do not just make amusing "easy listening" covers of punk and new wave songs; they really do interpret them, make the songs anew. It lets me indulge in a bit of nostalgia while still listening to something creative, new and interesting.

I'm experimenting here with a link to YouTube, where I saw a short film of "Dance with me" from Bande A Part. If anyone knows what film the clip comes from, I'd really like to know. It looks like Godard, maybe?

Excuse me, now I have to go practice dancing...

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

another blog

As indicated in my profile, I'm an uneven blogger. I think that for me, part of the reason for this is that I've not quite worked out what I want to use the blog to do. This one started out as an accident, more or less. A friend had set up a blog and in order for me to comment on it -- or at least as far as I was able to figure out -- I needed a blog identity myself. So I set this one up and used it as a joke for myelf.

I've tried a few different things with it but I've never really gotten the hang of blogging. Much of what I'd be tempted to post here is personal, personal enough that I'm pretty sure I don't need for it to be available to the universe to read. So a blog is not exactly a journal. And writing does not come easily to me so I have tended to keep the drafts of things I am working on very private, circulating them only to people who I know and ask specifically for responses.

Anyway, I've decided to try another tack. I'll keep this blog for writing that is not part of my working-writing but not overly personal. Anyone who checks in from time to time, thanks and feel free to send encouragement or kudos or complaints (I have a special file for the last category). But I'm also starting (very soon, I hope!) a new blog where I will try to work on ideas that are related to my work. That blog, What I'm Reading, will basically be my annotations on books and articles that I am reading, as a way to work out or 'test run' some ideas. I hope that if you found your way here, you'll also look there. My first post will explain a bit about what kinds of ideas I'm interested in, so you can decide if it's worth your browser time.

Monday, May 22, 2006

What's a materialist to say?

A couple of interesting discussions came up on Self-Portrait As and after communicating about them with Holly, she asked me to write something up as a guest-posting to her blog. I was very flattered because, since she actually updates her blog regularly, I figure people might actually read it. I am posting it here as well -- even though I only update my blog occasionally, if there is a discussion about things I'm trying to say it might be more appropriate to use my bandwidth rather than hers, especially if comments are not about her blog or her projects.

In the comments to From the Perspective of a Man and Carnival of Feminists XV, two criticisms of Holly's statements made the error of confusing physical properties with culture. Timothy was concerned that while the thread of the comments under "From the Perspective of a Man" emphasized the importance of not damning a whole category of people when insulting a particular individual, this concern ran against the grain of what he felt was Holly's critique of "straight white men." Holly's response has already made the point that criticizing the dominant perspective is not the same as criticizing a group of people. What interested me was the way Timothy collapses a cultural or ideological category (the dominant perspective of the straight white male) with a biological category (men).

In the discussion of the Carnival, a similar, but slightly more complicated error led Jay to question Holly’s use of a Chinese character in the design of her web page: he was concerned about the appropriation of Asian culture by non-Asians. It seems to me that Jay’s concern also rests on a conflation of a cultural or ideological category with, here, a geographical one. This mistake is a bit less obvious than Timothy’s so I should explain why I think Jay makes it. Jay suggested that it was ironic that Holly included a link to Jenn’s piece Unbound Feet in the Carnival, when Jenn had also posted a little rant (Jay’s term) about Western appropriation of Asian culture, since it would appear from the top right of Holly’s page that she’s a white woman but she includes a Chinese character. (Holly and Jay have already had an exchange about this over the issues of etiquette and the reason Holly has the character on her blog so I won’t belabour these points.)

Now it may be a bit unfair for me to discuss Jenn's writing here – it's not her blog, I don't even know if she's reading this – so I will stress this qualification: I am not attributing any intent to Jenn, I'm only commenting as a reader. I have read both of the posts that matter here. The first thing to be noted about the "rant" is that it is a rant. It is not a thoughtfully crafted argument about the point she wants to make – unlike the elegant piece she wrote on "unbound feet," which is a careful and powerful argument. Now ranting is quite important and I would encourage more of it. But I suspect that the tone of the rant is part of the reason Jay felt he had license to question Holly's use of the Chinese character: the rant reads like a defence of the integrity of Asian culture against Western power. It would be possible – but I believe it would be very ungenerous – to suggest that this goes against the argument made in "unbound feet," which is a powerful claim for feminist resistance to female identities imposed by Asian American men on Asian American women.

So the problem that lies under Jay's use of the rant from Reappropriate is this: what is "Asian culture," that has some kind of identity that needs to be defended? Asia is a big place, with lots of language groups, many different religions, different rates and forms of urbanization, different histories…one could go on. These forms of diversity even mark a single country like China.

And Asian nations and cultures have fairly fraught relations with each other due to the region's long historical experiences with conquests and empires. Consider the experiences of Chinese, Korean, or Filipino immigrants in Japan. Or consider the attempted colonization of Korea by Japan and by China. Or China's occupation of Tibet, or its invasion of Vietnam in the late 1970s. Asia does not look like a homogeneous entity from a cultural, political, social, or economic perspective. Asia is a geographical term, not a cultural entity. Indeed, to the extent that we can even refer to a notion like "Asian culture," it is the product of orientalism: a colonial project to construct an "other" to secure "Western" identities.

I said that I think a notion of "Asian culture" would stem from an ungenerous reading of Jenn's writings cited here because I think both pieces, in different ways to be sure, are demands to be allowed to make of herself the person she would be autonomously. So to the extent that Jay would have no problem with Jenn's autonomy before pressures from "deranged and cranky" Asian American males ("DACs"), he ought not have had any issue to raise with Holly's autonomy. The problem for Jay comes up because "Asian," as a subordinate identity within the West, and Asia, for a couple of hundred years a subordinated region internationally, come to feel like something to be asserted and defended as a way of redressing these injustices. I get that, but I also suspect that as a political project it is doomed to fail because "Asia" can be no less an artificial unity, imperially papering over important cultural and political differences, than "the West" is. These geographic entities only become cultural unities through acts of domination.

Why do these category errors matter? There are a lot of reasons I could give: for example, I'm very interested in philosophical materialism. I have been trying to work out a way to think about consciousness that situates it in relation to and as a part of the material world without the kinds of reductions that I see in Timothy's and Jay's assertions. But I think there is also a larger political stake here. Holly's student in "From the Perspective of a Man" asked Holly simply to invert her perspective – if he could see the world from the point of view of a woman, could she try to see it from a man's perspective? That would be equality, right? Well, no it wouldn't, as Holly points out, because she has to see the world from a man's perspective all the time: the dominant perspective contributes to domination by making itself appear natural and inevitable. The subordinate perspective is, please forgive me for saying so, the Freudian repressed: it cannot go away but it cannot easily be expressed.

When we reduce culture or consciousness to geography or biology, we make the cultural forms or ways of thinking appear to be natural. And by becoming "natural," dominant perspectives define nature and, in turn, justify themselves through category errors: biology or geography become destiny. So it's not just a matter of giving "equal time" to subordinate points of view. The dominant ideologies have to be denatured in order to be overthrown.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


Holly posted a fun meme, so I thought I'd try my hand...

: grave today, acute tomorrow.

Booze: seventeen year old Ardbeg. Or beer.

Chore I Hate: I can’t say I hate chores, but I can’t say I’m very attentive to them either.

Dog or Cat: Definitely Cat.

Essential Electronics: Whatever I am using to play music, plus my laptop.

Favorite Cologne(s): I don’t use them. The human body smells most pleasant just after bathing.

Gold or Silver: Neither. I find jewelry uncomfortable.

Hometown: I was born in Albuquerque; I spent the longest amount of time in Denver; I currently live in a suburban village in Northern England.

Insomnia: Yes, a terrible bout last Fall but I’m sleeping better now, thank you.

Job Title: Lecturer in International Politics.

Kids: Imminently.

Living arrangements: I share a rented house.

Most admirable trait: I think the trait I would like to be admired for would be a combination of gentle humor and sharp intelligence. I think that the trait people tend to admire in me is that I’m nice. Ouch.

Number of sexual partners: Not telling.

Overnight hospital stays: Several as a child; most recently about five years ago for dehydration after a serious case of food poisoning.

Phobias: None, really. Of course I have fears but none of them paralyzes me or keeps me from functioning.

Quote: This one is tough. So much depends on my mood. How about: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” (Karl Marx, 1844)

Religion: see above.

Siblings: one delightful sister.

Time I wake up: varies. See Insomnia.

Unusual talent or skill: I can touch the tip of my nose with my tongue.

Vegetable I refuse to eat: Beets. Eewww.

Worst habit: watching bad television as a solution to brain fatigue. I should just sleep.

X-rays: More than needed, I suspect.

Yummy foods I make: Green chile. Check back some day for a recipe.

Zodiac sign: Aquarius. Like you didn’t know already.

Friday, April 14, 2006

More Books

Holly posted some thoughts about this article from the Guardian concerning the influence of novels in men’s lives, more particularly, “what do men read to get them through life?” Part of what was important in the article was the notion that men would not use reading this way, that men were “suspicious of the question,” that we “did not seem to associate reading fiction with life choices.”

This kind of struck me as strange because in a recent job interview, a very similar question was put to me: what are the five books that have most influenced my way of thinking? I am proud to say that I answered without hesitation:

1. Raymond Williams’ Marxism and Literature

2. Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, vol. 1

3. Jeff Harrod’s Power, Production and the Unprotected Worker

4. Marx’s Capital, vol. 1

5. Isabel Allende’s Of Love and Shadows

Raymond Williams’ book literally changed my life. I was an undergrad when I read it and I fancied myself a radical even though I was extremely undisciplined in my work habits and very self-indulgent. Williams showed me not only that Marxism need not be an orthodoxy, an ossified system to be mastered, but a very supple, and changing, theoretical system. Its value could be and needs to be confirmed in the analyses it can produce and not merely inherited from the masters to be repeated by acolytes. If I were ever to teach Marx or Marxism, I would use Marxism and Literature as a core text.

At the heart of Marx’s arguments is the observation that the process through which the market becomes the dominant force in people’s lives, in the sense that people must satisfy their wants and needs through the market and must provide something of value in the market in order to do so, is extremely violent. It turns people into commodities and it displaces the old forms of authority and power, concentrating these increasingly in the hands of those who wield economic power – the capitalist class. For Marx, and for Marxists, this has consequences not only for the organization of the economy and the polity, but also for social life, spirituality and philosophy, and ultimately for the “whole ways of life” (to use Raymond Williams’ description of culture) of the whole of humanity.

Of course, the world has changed in the 150 years since Marx wrote and the analyses of contemporary situations modify the theory as well as our understanding of the world. So Lefebvre and Harrod were obvious choices because these books are at the core of the work I am doing now. But they are important to me because they are such amazing books. Lefebvre claimed that his biggest contribution to Marxist theory was the concept of everyday life. He was a sociologist and also a philosopher, so he set out to understand both how the capacities for reflection and critique of the philosopher came to be separated out of the mundane and repetitive practices of daily life, and how these might be reconciled. Everyday life is not merely the description of what we do on a daily basis; the concept is intended to account for the peculiarities of the divisions of daily life into fragmented spheres, and how the programming of living and of desires becomes more possible thanks to this form of alienation.

Of course, Marx’s work is not beyond critique. Some of the conclusions Marx drew about the tendencies of capitalism have not come to pass. Very notably, his notion that capitalism would tend to concentrate people into two distinct classes (workers and capitalists) that would have an ultimate confrontation does not look like a very good description of what has happened over the last century and a half. Harrod argues that Marxism has taken this theoretical postulate and reified it. Harrod looks at power in the social relations of production and finds that instead of two classes in confrontation, these social relations are very multifaceted and that the various patterns of power relations can connect to each other in different ways. One conclusion that could be drawn from this – similarly to some observations of Lefebvre’s – is that the progress of commodification and capitalist development might displace the older forms of power and domination but not necessarily: capitalism and commodification are often constructed upon and reinforce the old forms. The persistence of patriarchy would be an obvious example.

In the interest of honesty, I did indeed choose Marx’s Capital in the interview but if I had a chance at further reflection, I would pick instead Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. Capital is an amazing book – not an easy read by any description, but both sophisticated in its arguments and passionate in its prose. But really, Gramsci taught me how to do political analysis. There is a lot that is very wrong in the Prison Notebooks but, well, they were written in a fascist prison and were the work Gramsci did to clarify his own thinking.

The article in the Guardian was interested in the novels men read and observed that for many of the men who responded to their survey, non-fiction played a more important role in their lives. I’ve lived more or less up to type in my list. But I did include a novel in my list, in part because I would like to be able to write elegantly and in part because I love to read novels, even though lately I have not been able to give them the time I would like. I chose Of Love and Shadows in part because in my view, it was Allende’s best novel. I should give a defence of this claim; indeed, to be true to the spirit of the original, I should make a new list of the five novels that have “got me through life” – but I’ve gone on long enough.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

My bedside table

I have eight books on my bedside table. I am reading all of them. In anti-alphabetical authorial order, they are:

Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City. I started reading this book some time ago as something I could read on public transport and before sleep. Williams is one of my intellectual heroes; I still remember how sad I felt when I learned that he had died, because it had been one of my ambitions to meet him. He’s not only a subtle thinker, but he’s also a good writer. This book looks at the changes in English letters related to the transition from the countryside as the place where power lies to the rise of the cities as centres of power. The book gives me a cultural perspective on the problems of urbanization that are part of my current research interests, which have been focused on social and political economic analysis.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World. My interest in urbanization derives from a broader interest in poverty and poor people in world politics. Vargas Llosa’s novel is about the millenarian community established at Canudos, in the drought-stricken Northeast of Brazil in the late Nineteenth Century. The settlement was squatted on an abandoned estate but it took a strongly anti-Republican political stance and thus was attacked both by the traditional landed elite and the new government based in the south of Brazil. The followers of the religious leader of the community included both the pious poor and bandits and others, and they resisted three military onslaughts. On the fourth time, the whole community was wiped out. The site now lies at the bottom of a lake created by a dam.

Terry Prachett’s Thud! I’m reading this because I felt like I needed to read something that would make me laugh out loud. Pratchett is good at small things, well-crafted comedic language, so it’s a tickle to read.

Rachel Pollack’s Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom. I have an interest in Tarot and there is a lot of dreck written about it. This book is not dreck. Pollack’s take on the Tarot is sophisticated and draws on a series of both spiritual and psychological sources to analyse the Tarot deck and she draws from it a very interesting reading of the whole deck as a philosophical statement about human life and development.

Caroline Myss’s Anatomy of the Spirit. This book was recommended to me by a friend who took an interest in my physical and spiritual well-being, in part I think because Myss sees these as deeply connected. I confess I find some aspects of her book annoying: for example, the notion that health depends on submission to the divine plan for life. But what is really wonderful about the book is the series of questions for self-examination Myss puts to the reader. Her argument about the seven chakras as expressions of and links to different parts of one’s physical and psychological connections to the world certainly departs from any shallow notion of spirituality as “personal” space and I have found that addressing the questions she poses, even when I disagree with her premises, is a wonderfully eye-opening exercise.

Henri Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution. Lefebvre is so important to me for so many reasons. Like Raymond Williams, this is a small book I have been making my way through very slowly. Lefebvre argues that power and accumulation are now organized by a process he calls urbanization. Urbanization is not just the migration of people to cities; it is the way that social (and political economic) space is increasingly driven by forces that are themselves located in and organized by cities: cities exercise power over the territory and are themselves organized by the power they exercise. This book examines the analytical tools needed to come to grips with urban phenomena; it lays out many of the concepts that were explored in more abstract terms in The Production of Space.

Tracy Hogg’s The Baby Whisperer Solves All of Your Problems. Well, not all of my problems. I read this to ramp up my anxieties around an imminent event to the appropriate levels.

William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Along with Patti Smith and Arthur Rimbaud, Blake is one of my favourite poets. He brings many of these threads together: spirituality, urbanism, Raymond Williams and Vargas Llosa. The first two verses of “London” read:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice; in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

Mind-forg’d manacles. I am reading eight books before sleep each night. A long time ago, as an undergraduate, I learned two important lessons about books. First, it is important always to take a book with you wherever you go. You never know when you will be spending time standing in a queue. Second, it is a good idea to be reading two books at once. This opens the possibility for chance perspectives on one of the readings coming from the other. But eight books, that means something completely different to the possibility of fertilizing the imagination. I think I am running in eight different directions at the same time, which means, of course, getting nowhere.

I need to simplify but I think that all of the books I am reading – and all the tasks I am trying to accomplish – are important. I think the best strategy for me is to set priorities. But how do you do that? Which of these tasks is most important, and at what part of the day?

Ivor Cutler, R.I.P.

A poet of the marvellous in the everyday lost...

Ivor Cutler