For this edition of Fun Friday, a novel about drug addicts in India, an exhibit on digital fabrication, a digital Shakespeare, a chance to revisit the work of a major American architect, and Martha Stewart.
For this edition of Fun Friday, a novel about drug addicts in India, an exhibit on digital fabrication, a digital Shakespeare, a chance to revisit the work of a major American architect, and Martha Stewart.
Boredom seems like an eternal state, but that’s the nature of boredom. It has no beginning or end, just pure middle. In fact, boredom has a history, and it hasn’t always been the same. The ancients were familiar with boredom, but it was an unusual state of mind not generally encountered in daily life. Plutarch reports the Greek general Pyrrhus complained he was bored in retirement. The Roman philosopher Seneca described boredom as a kind of nausea. The Christian tradition declared chronic boredom (acedia) a sin. The Renaissance assumed a more laid-back attitude, likening boredom to melancholia brought about by studying of math and sciences too much. Eighteenth-century Quakers revived the notion of boredom as sin, constructing a prison in Philadelphia in which inmates were kept in isolation at all hours of the day. Boredom was supposed to drive miscreants to God. Mostly it drove them deeper into deviance.
Boredom became an existential condition in the industrial age. Dickens, who was probably never bored, is credited with the first published instance of the word “boredom,” which he worked into Bleak House (1852), along with a few hundred thousand other words. During his research for the Arcades Project Walter Benjamin found that boredom emerged as a social condition in the 1840s. “France is bored,” announced Lamartine in 1839. In Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina boredom is something akin to depression. Nineteenth-century boredom is a social condition in which social relations are stuck in place while technology advances. “We are bored when we don’t know what we are waiting for,” Benjamin writes. The upper classes embrace boredom because it means history has stood still, freezing their place in the social hierarchy. The working classes are bored because they can’t stop working; for them, history never changes. According to Benjamin, the gambler, the drug addict, and the flâneur are best able to resist boredom because they choose their own fates. “The more life is regulated administratively, the more people must learn waiting,” Benjamin writes in the Arcades Project. “Games of chance have the great attraction of making people free from waiting.”
The gambler is just killing time. The flâneur, on the other hand, “charges time like a battery” by continually attending to his immediate surroundings. The flâneur sees through the false novelty of fashion in one of its most famous homes. “Monotony is nourished by the new,” Benjamin observes. Modern history itself is periodically jolted by uprisings only to settle back into the status quo. The revolutions of 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871 erupted in the name of universal democracy and justice, only to end in the reconsolidation of special interests and upper class control, leaving social relations unchanged.
Nevertheless, Benjamin held out hope that boredom was a portal to bigger and better things. When you are bored you will entertain any notion just to escape boredom. Benjamin described boredom as “the threshold of great deeds.” When we’re bored, we’re ready for anything.
This receptivity to the genuinely new—a condition important to Benjamin even if he never adequately distinguishes it from the false lures of fashion and novelty—may have passed into history. The culture industry has trained us to passively entertained by constant distraction. In place of Benjamin’s metaphor of the dreaming collective waiting to be disturbed, we now think of the human condition as one of a vessel that needs to be filled. Distraction is like a drug we need to remain at the same level of satisfaction. Maybe a new set of social relations will be declared in a text message or on Twitter. We can only wait, listlessly, to find out.
Mention the Latin American novel and most likely someone will picture some form of regional exotica. While magic realism can be great in the proper hands (Gabriel García Márquez), it can also be trite and formulaic in the wrong ones (Isabel Allende).
But there's another type of Latin American novel that starts with Jorge Luis Borges and continues through Julio Cortázar and Roberto Bolaño. This strain of fiction derives from the European modernism of Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Günter Grass, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Sometimes, as in Bolaño's work, the setting is Europe, usually involving Latin Americans in temporary exile there.
In the end, and despite (or because of) its European obsessions,Traveller of the Century belongs in the quintessentially Latin American genre of the "total novel": the all-encompassing narrative bent on exploring every theme, every social milieu, every emotional possibility. I stress this because it would be both easy and wrong to look at Neuman's book in the context of "globalised fiction" – novels desperate for acceptance by everyone that end up talking about no one. No: Neuman's novel is solidly inscribed in the Argentinian tradition, advocated by Borges in a famous essay, of not being recognisably Argentinian.
Neuman's novel is an example of an international style in Latin American fiction. This style isn't about a uniquely Latin American reality, as in magic realism, but about Latin Americans in world space.
It's been busy here in One-Way Street land. I spent a blazing hot Memorial Day weekend (Fourth of July on Memorial Day, as a weatherman someplace said) camping with the family--we made it through one of two planned nights. That blast of summer was followed by a forty-degree plunge in temperature, capped off with a miserable walk across the Loop this morning in a driving rain. I did manage to pause at Wolf Point long enough to wonder, again, how the Kennedys are going to cram three buildings into that site.
These past few weeks I've been on the front lines of the monetization of content struggle faced by virtually every media outlet on the Web. But I have been keeping an eye out for interesting articles that are worth reading more in depth.
First up this week is an interview with Paul Gyford, the man behind Samuel Pepys blog and Twitter feed. Pepys was a high-ranking government official in London who started keeping a diary in 1660 to record his recovery from intestinal surgery (without anesthetic). He recorded every event big and small until 1669, when he feared he was going blind. He saw some big events: the restoration of King Charles II, both a Great Plague and a Great Fire, along with several hurricanes of spousal fury (he would follow a pretty ankle pretty much anywhere). His approach to government administration and prose style were both modern: efficient and honest. English literature during the 1660s was especially lively and witty, and Pepys' diary is one of the most important literary artifacts from the period--and among the most enjoyable to read.
Another lively chronicler is Gail Collins, the New York Times columnist. Her droll humor seems very Atlantic corridor, but she's coming out with a book-length study of how the Texas approach to conservation and energy policies (basically, turn them over to a guy named "Smokey" to eviscerate them) went national. Collins recounts the time when the nation awaited the output from Dick Cheney's infamous National Energy Policy Development Group.
“We’ll have a strong conservation statement,” the president promised as the world awaited the Cheney energy policy’s arrival. Later that day, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was also asked whether Bush would be calling on Americans to use less energy, and took the opportunity to clarify his boss’s statement a tad. “That’s a big no,” Fleischer said. “The president believes that it’s an American way of life, that it should be the goal of policymakers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one.” God, it seemed, smiled upon the Hummers in his flock. He looked upon the empty room with a burning lightbulb and found it good.
The on-again-off-again New City Reader project is back on. Architectural theorist Kazys Varnelis has decided not only to revive the printed newspaper, but also the old tradition of tacking up an issue on a wall in public space so that anyone can ready it. Varnelis and his team discovered that posting newspapers on a public building in New York City required cost-prohibitive permits. The wooden barriers around construction sites seemed promising until they were threatened by mobsters protecting construction workers, who you would think could protect themselves. Anyway, Varnelis remains committed to supporting the print edition of newspapers as a political object:
Newspapers [. . ] identify you. Reading one telegraphs the political implications of reading in space. When an adult opens one at the breakfast table, it signifies to children that news is important, something one attends to as a citizen. Reading a newspaper is not reading one’s e-mail for pleasure or profit. It is an engagement with the news, a declaration of interest in public matters. It is hardly an accident that reading has universally been a precondition of the right to vote, and that mass democracy could only take hold after mass literacy. Reading a newspaper in public, or even carrying it in public identifies you as a member of a community, often betraying your political affiliation and even, in the case of papers addressing a diaspora, your ethnicity. Newspapers are not just a public matter, common to all, they are a matter of diverse publics, joined by the common experience of reading the paper, an experience reinforced by the appearance of papers in the public realm. Reading a newspaper in public is a provocation, a call to action, to at least bury one’s nose in a newspaper of one’s own.
That's all from me this week. I'm about to hop on a train, where I will read a newspaper, via a paid subscription, on an iPad.
This year is the bicentennial of the births of the poet Robert Browning, familiar to every Into to Lit student in the US as the author of "My Last Duchess," the most famous example of dramatic lyric poetry, and probably the most mocked. Less stuffy and more romantic than his rival Tennyson, Browning is now regarded as a somewhat anodyne figure, the kind of guy who kissed his mother every night before he went to bed, even into adulthood. It doesn't help that unlike Dickens, also born in 1812, he evinced no reforming zeal in his life. He was an unreflective liberal, which in Victorian times meant exactly the opposite of what the term means today. In other words, he fit comfortably into the dominant ethos of his times.
Still, edginess and doubt surface occasionally in his poetry. In "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" Browning expresses his belief that we can sustain transformative energy only in the pursuit of ethical goals and that the martial spirit of the British Empire destroyed everything it touched. As Robert McCrum points out, "A transgressive figure like Graham Greene used to quote Browning's fascination with 'the dangerous edge of things' with approval. Perhaps it's Browning's combination of darkness and light that's appealing to posterity."
And he married well.
For this week's Fun FridayI've collected some of the best Tweets I've seen this week. Some of the Tweets linked to interesting articles. Others were worth reading in their own right.
A major prize:
I hate voicemails, too:
Oh, you left me a voicemail? Next time just tape a note to the door of the apartment I moved out of six years ago.— Kasey Anderson (@KaseyAnderson) April 25, 2012
Usually Herzog's personality helps his work. Sometimes it gets in the way. Here's the former:
LinkedIn is exactly like this:
Nothing causes a ruffle on LinkedIn. Nothing. All motionless, seriousness, no irony. All quiver, mutter sotto voce "pick me! pick me!"— Al Javieera (@AlJavieera) April 25, 2012
Stress on the weird politics:
Do campaigns really matter? Or will the economy determine who wins this fall? Michael Tomasky on our weird politics: j.mp/Jhvn2G— NY Review of Books (@nybooks) April 26, 2012
This kind of thing happens all the time:
Wait, a glitzy museum fundraising dinner/auction was decorated in the theme of... PICASSO'S BLUE PERIOD?!?! bit.ly/I8sJqZ— Tyler Green (@TylerGreenDC) April 26, 2012
So basically there's nothing about suicide, depression and poverty that a development department can't tweak into a positive? LOL?— Tyler Green (@TylerGreenDC) April 26, 2012
It's good to see Whitehead back in Twitter form:
Left 1st subway car because it smelled like boozy sweat. Next car smelled like urine. This one smells like sad. Maybe I'm projecting...?— colson whitehead (@colsonwhitehead) April 26, 2012
Every celebrity sighting comes with a disavowel. This one is particularly deft:
My lunch in LA: Ryan Gosling sighting. I'm never washing my eyeballs again.— Carolyn Kellogg (@paperhaus) April 26, 2012
I can't get enough of North Korean leader jokes. I don't know why:
Just inked a $2mil deal with North Korean Intelligence to direct Kim Jong Un's e-Harmony profile.— fake michael_bay (@michael_bay__) April 26, 2012
Walter Benjamin was all about noticing in public spaces:
Bordwell is among the most qualified people to speak on this topic:
A short guide to blogging:
...identify "ass" on body. Reach inside it. Remove head. Blog about experience. Use "Google Analytics" to measure traffic on post.— Kimberly Kaye (@Kimberly_Kaye) April 27, 2012
Another place is Pakistan:
If US Republicans want to see what "paying no taxes" (except by the poor) does to a country, they should come hang out in Latvia for a while— Valdis Krebs (@ValdisKrebs) April 27, 2012
He means Roland Barthes, I'm pretty sure:
I'm with Barthes, who writes of how a nation can "substitute with impunity the signs of charity for the reality of justice."— Teju Cole (@tejucole) April 27, 2012
I had no idea Umberto Eco was on Twitter. Too had Roland Barthes isn't alive to Tweet:
of the software (which others call the soul) which we fashion in the course of our lives, and which is made up of memories— Umberto Eco (@umbertoeco_) April 27, 2012
A proposal for another Twitter meme from the irrepressible trumpet player:
His two main social themes were a sustained protest of the abuse of children and the corruption of individual feelings. These themes ran throughout his career, intensifying and becoming more pessimistic in his later novels. In his early, more hopeful novels, the problems of his protagonists, often orphaned or abandoned as children, are solved by the benevolence of good men and women. The young David Copperfield runs away from his repressive school and the harsh Murdstones and walks from London to Dover driven by the blind hope that his Aunt Betsey, estranged from his mother at his birth, will take him in. His faith is rewarded, and David eventually forges his own path to security.
David Copperfield was serialized in 1849-1850 at a time of stark political differences, when the British Empire was at its height and political revolt broke out in Europe. (The photo above was taken during the serialization of David Copperfield.) Beginning with Bleak House, his next novel (1852-1853), Dickens' vision turned darker. The helplessness and despair David experiences in the first 14 chapters of his story become a generalized condition. The fate of Bleak House's Richard Carstone is emblematic of his author's lost faith in the ability of individuals to have any effective control over their own lives. Worse, social institutions like the judiciary in Jarndyce and Jarndyce are at best indifferent to the fate of ordinary citizens.
Despite the savagery of his social criticism Dickens never lost his popularity with the reading public. He was a classic liberal by the standards of his day, as well as by our own standards. Revolution appeared in his novels, Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities in particular, and Dickens was generally even-handed in his depiction of political rebellion.
Yet he wasn't a radical himself. He was a firm and consistent defender of the middle classes. If Thackeray occupied the border between the middle and upper classes, Dickens straddled the middle and working classes. Dickens repeatedly asserted that virtue could appear in a person of any class, but he never attacked the British class system as a whole.
Although Dickens is the quintessential Victorian writer, in many ways his world view was formed by eighteenth-century notions of sentiment, in which emotions were shaped by sense perceptions and imagination is essential to the grasping of ideas. For Dickens the problem of the class system was that it blinded its members to the suffering and virtues of other people. In place of a classless society Dickens wished for something like an empire of empathy. His novels became the lens through which his readers could see into the humanity they shared with people different from themselves.
We just had our first measurable snow in the Chicago area this morning--rather late for us. Supposedly that means we'll have a mild winter, which would be a welcome relief. December is a tricky time in the northern latitudes. The weather isn't too bad, but going out on weekends often means wading through mobs of holiday shoppers, as my son and I had to do to get to a screening of Hugo the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Speaking of Hugo, I highly recommend seeing it this weekend. The film was adapted from Brian Selznick’s graphic novel for children, and the marketing places children at the core of the intended audience, with the film history theme thrown in so parents aren't too bored. In fact, the early film references--Georges Méliès is only the most explicit--are too rich and varied to serve merely as a distraction. Kristin Thompson teases out Scorsese's early cinema references. Her observations are acute except on one point:
By the way, reviewers have made much of the idea that Hugo is not really for children, who would be bored and perhaps frightened by it. I suspect that children under about the age of 10 would be, but older children and teenagers, especially those who read books, should be intrigued by and enjoy it. Like Pixar films or The Simpsons, it’s the sort of thing that can be enjoyed by adults as well as children.
My seven-year-old son was very skeptical about the film's scariness level. It took a couple of close examinations of the trailer and a bribe of popcorn to convince him to accompany me. As soon as the film was over he admitted that he was wrong and that he enjoyed the film a lot. I later overheard him recommending it to his friends.
Scorsese also makes some literary references in Hugo. He glosses over James Joyce in a tracking shot, and Isabelle swoons over David Copperfield. That character passes in and out of London, and his evolving attitudes about the city mark his development as a person. In anticipatin of the 200th anniversary of the author's birth next year, the Museum of London is staging an exhibition about Dickens' relationship to the city. Dickens & London opens today and runs until June 10, 2012.
The writer Djuna Barnes does not appear in Hugo, perhaps because she left Paris in 1930, before the action of the film takes place. In any case, Barnes' early career as a journalist is the subject of an upcoming exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum entitled, Newspaper Fiction: The New York Journalism of Djuna Barnes, 1913–1919. Barnes is best known for her modernist novels and plays Nightwood (1936) and The Antiphon (1958), but before moving to Paris in 1921 she contributed to mainstream publications such as the Brooklyn Daily Eagle andVanity Fair. Barnes has long been overshadowed by the more prolific Virginia Woolf, so it's nice to see Barnes getting some attention almost 30 years after her death. The exhibition runs from January 2012 to August 19, 2012.
On Monday evening the Archive of Spatial Aesthetics and Praxis (ASAP) is throwing itself a launch party. The group consists of Bjarke Ingels of the Danish architectural firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group); Alex Schweder La, and architect turned artist; and Jerszy Seymour, a commercial designer who creates "life situations." The launch party and benefit takes place at the top of The Standard in New York City, starting at 6:30. Tickets and other information can be found here.
ASAP appears to have many of the same interests as the latest issue of MAS Context, ABERRATION, is now available online. The co-editors of the issue, Iker Gil and John Szot, describe the issue as an exploration of "highly provocative projects and ideas that challenge orthodoxy in order to enhance our understanding of the built environment." I've already downloaded the issue to my iPad and I'll have more on it next week. There's also an accompanying launch party for the issue on Friday, December 16 in Los Angeles. ABERRATION: LIVE is hosted by MAS Context, Woodbury School of Architecture, and WUHO.
About the reference to Zero for Conduct (Jean Vigo, 1933), here's a hint: the film historian obsessed with Méliès.
One-Way Street [Einbahnstrasse, 1928] was Walter Benjamin's first effort to break out of the narrow confines of the academy and apply the techniques of literary studies to life as it is currently lived. For Benjamin criticism encompasses the ordinary objects of life, the literary texts of the time, films in current release, and the fleeting concerns of the public sphere. Following Benjamin's lead, this blog is concerned with the political content of the aesthetic and representations of the political in the media. As Benjamin writes in One-Way Street, "He who cannot take sides should keep silent."