Friday, August 27, 2004

Portrait of Lord Byron by Richard Westall

John Kerry, April 1971 by Elizabeth Peyton

Thursday, August 26, 2004

An article in the LA Weekly, Zealots on Parade, about the protest I mentioned on August 12, gives equal time to the substantial cadre of Bushies in attendance.

Facing north, it was Bush people to the right, anti-Bushes to the left. The veritable standoff had Genevieve Peters beaming. The 41-year-old teacher and Beverly Hills resident founded L.A. for Bush. “It started out with eight people around a table, and it’s grown to hundreds — hundreds and hundreds,” said Peters. Democrats, she explained, “stand for hate and for vengeance and a globalization that has no strength or character or anything that’s for America. America, from the beginning of time, had an identity and culture. And they’re trying to decimate our identity and culture . . . to some melting pot like Europe.”
She added, “Democrats have gone in and said, ‘We’re just all one. Every culture has a place here.’ No! We’re an American culture.”

I didn't detect this sort of anger among the Bushies in attendance , but then again, I didn't talk to any of them. They were grinning like Cheshire cats.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Iraq's (only?) heavy metal band, Acrassicauda (Latin for Black Scorpion) has a little trouble getting gigs.
Check out the trailer for Wes Anderson's new film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, starring Bill Murray.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Just returned from a huge protest RIGHT NOW outside of my office building. Bush is landing at the Santa Monica Airport right across the street in about an hour. . . several thousand people lining the streets, mostly Kerry supporters and other leftists but some pro-Bush. Some signs: LGBT Equality Now, Billionaires for Bush (in full tuxedos n' top-hats), Palestine Will Be Free: Support the Right of Return, Pink Slip Bush, a drawing of Schwarzenegger squeezing Kerry and yelling "Girlie Man!", Fire the Liar, Occupation Is Not Liberation, Bush: A Weapon of Mass Deception, Free Iran: Bring Back the Shah, Bush Lying Troops Dying, and my favorite, Nuke the Whales for Jesus. A group of teenage anarchists yelling, "No Bush, No Kerry, Revolution is Necessary." This morning I saw Kerry's motorcade pass us going the opposite direction on the freeway (he's speaking at Cal State Dominguez Hills). At least 50 motorcycle and other-vehicled cops, several dark-windowed cars, unmarked vans. They pretty much had the north-bound traffic at a stand-still. Things are revvin' up.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Malevich's Black Square

About a year ago, I made a brief, wry comment concerning the immanent demise of both the social-networking site and the then-popular flash mob trend. I thought the enthusiasm my friends felt for these phenomena was na├»ve (“revolutionary” was the word most commonly used to describe both trends), and that, given time, we would throw them into the same embarrassing, slightly campy trash bin now reserved for Hands Across America and We Are the World (despite the noble aims of both 80s events – food for the homeless and aid for Africa, respectively – they left a legacy of horrible pop music. Additionally, they traded on the idea of chic activism: we’re holding hands for the homeless, don’t you want to join? Then you can go back home; help Africa, buy this record. Activism as consumption, see John Powers: “Take Michael Moore, for example. Back when he made Bowling for Columbine, one of the weird things was to watch the audience cheer at the end as though they had done something. All they had done was to choose to go see Michael Moore sort-of do something. That is activism as consumption.”). Once you’re connected to one million people through 85 friends on a network that asks you to list your favorite items of cultural consumption, then what? Once you’ve made silly gestures at the Macy’s shoe department with 100 other clued-in people, then what? Now the LA Weekly profiles Friendster and flash-mobs together. In Make New Friends…but beware of Fakesters, Scott Lamb chronicles the fall of Friendster:

I signed up out of curiosity — Dubin was very enthusiastic about the site, but couldn’t really explain what she did with it. At first I did exactly what you’re supposed to do: invite other friends, look for high school classmates, fret over the wording of my profile, and take awkward digital self-portraits in the bathroom mirror. I exchanged messages with people I haven’t spoken to in years, which was both pleasant and awkward. When I ran out of people to look up, I invented profiles for my favorite GI Joe characters (who remain far more popular than I, and have far more interesting profiles).

And then, like a summer fling, it was over. I pretty much stopped using the site after a few months, unsure of what I was supposed to be doing there.

Same here. Exciting: having all your friends (and friends of friends) connected to each other in one virtual space. Frustrating: perpetual potential. It was difficult to find any real use for so many connections. Lamb concludes, “If it’s true that we go online looking for connections that we haven’t made in real life, perhaps the connections themselves can’t bear up under all that weight. Meanings come from relationships, not just connectivity, and Friendster can’t just give you a meaningful relationship.”

Then Alec Hanley Bemis interviews the inventor of flash mobs (“Friendster writ large”) in My Name is Bill…A Q&A with the anonymous founder of flash mobs. “Bill” sees flash mob predecessors in Situationism, Reclaim the Streets, Chengwin, the Madagascar Society, S-A-N-T-A-R-C-H-Y, Spencer Tunick, and Stanley Milgram. Some of his thought is a bit contradictory (“You didn’t have to feel like you were cool. It got a lot of people to do something that was a little punk, and a little oppositional, just because they thought it was a clever idea and they wanted to see what would happen,” and “The events I did in New York had an undercurrent of poking fun at everyone for being such a herd. Most of them had some dimension of obeisance or self-congratulation…The participants would feel that they were cool just for participating”) but it’s interesting to see how “Bill” re-theorizes the project as it evolves. What started as something “a little oppositional”, a “performance project” and a “prank”, turns into a “compelling idea” about “disrupting the flow of people in a city.”

I’ll be honest. When I started I really saw it as a gag that had an artistic dimension at the end. I expressly tried to make the mobs absurd and apolitical — in part because I wanted them to be fun, in part because I didn’t want anyone to see them as disrespectful of protest, or as parody. What I didn’t expect was how many people would see the mobs as political statements…And the more I did them, the more I realized the mobs actually did have a deeply political value. The nature of public space in America today has changed. It’s shopping malls, large chain stores, that kind of thing. The presumption is that you’re going to purchase something, but once you try to express yourself in any other way, suddenly you’re trespassing…At first, I denied any political interpretations, but eventually I became won over to the political power of my own project.

Elsewhere, Slavoj Zizek describes flash-mobs as protest reduced to minimalism:

Is not the ‘postmodern’ politics of resistance precisely permeated with aesthetic phenomena, from body-piercing and cross-dressing to public spectacles? Does not the curious phenomena of ‘flash mobs’ represent aesthetico-political protest at its purest, reduced to its minimal frame? In flash mobs, people show up at an assigned place at a certain time, perform some brief (and usually trivial or ridiculous) acts, and then disperse again – no wonder flash mobs are described as urban poetry with no real purpose. Are these flash mobs not a kind of ‘Malevich of politics’, the political counterpart to the famous ‘black square on white background’, the act of marking a minimal difference? (Zizek, pg. 124, Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle)

“Bill” also speaks of the “non-existent” center inherent to flash-mobs: “For example, in the third mob, we lined the banister of this hotel and stared down into the lobby for five minutes. Two hundred people lined this huge, city block-sized balcony, and after five minutes we just applauded. The idea being it was just this crowd of people, but at the center of it was a vacancy.” Doesn’t this image strangely recall the Malevich painting, with the black square as the the non-existent, vacant center of the hotel lobby?

Well, I’m thinking out loud, still sorting out the clues. Question: how does the “non-existent center” relate to Zizek’s “minimal difference”? (Also recall Zizek’s “absent center of political ontology”).

Monday, August 02, 2004

Reading Kevin Killian's wonderful account of the Orono Poetry Conference, I was struck by this passage:

At this point in my notes, which I transcribed from notes I wrote on my jeans, I see that Wallace Stevens somewhere said, "In the face of an overwhelming actuality, consciousness takes the place of the imagination." Was this something J. Hillis Miller shared with me? Or was it someone in the audience at my panel? I wrote the word AIDS next to the quote, thinking, what? That this was the overwhelming actuality that had occurred in my lifetime. Had consciousness then taken the place of the imagination, I can't decide. Sometimes I think yes, sometimes no.

Struck, because only a few hours previously I had coincidentally read the quote Killian kicks around, and it's deucedly different. It appears in Opus Posthumous, a short essay called "Poetry and War":

The immense poetry of war and the poetry of a work of the imagination are two different things. In the presence of the violent reality of war, consciousness takes the place of imagination. And consciousness of an immense war is a consciousness of a fact. If that is true, it follows that the poetry of war as a consciousness of the victories and defeats of nations, is a consciousness of fact. If that is true, it follows that the poetry of war as a consciousness of fact, but of heroic fact, of fact on such a scale that the mere consciousness of it affects the scale of one's thinking and constitutes a participating in the heroic.

It has been easy to say in recent times that everything tends to become real, or, rather, that everything moves in the direction of reality, that is to say, in the direction of fact. We leave fact and come back to it, come back to what we wanted fact to be, not to what it was, not to what it has too often remained. The poetry of a work of the imagination constantly illuminates the fundamental and endless struggle with fact. It goes on everywhere, even in the periods that we call peace. But in war, the desire to move in the direction of fact as we want it to be and to move quickly is overwhelming.

Nothing will ever appease this desire except a consciousness of fact as everyone is at least satisfied to have it be.
(emphasis mine)

Now it may be true that violent reality is an overwhelming actuality, but I find it interesting that Killian would misremember (or mishear, or perhaps it was misreported to him by J. Hillis Miller) the particularity of "the violent reality of war" for the more general (and less threatening sounding) "overwhelming actuality", while "war" goes missing from the quotation altogether, replaced by AIDS, which of course is a different kind of violent reality. But is this the imagination at work?