Saturday, April 24, 2010

Half a Real Good Time (Together)

"We are born crying, live complaining, and die disappointed." -- Thomas Fuller.
Fuller's statement is one of my favorite aphorisms. It's one of those great efforts at summing up the human experience in terms vague enough that no one can disagree and pointed enough that no one can repeat the statement without being in the author's own mood. In fact, Fuller's statement suffered reiteration in the 1980's as, "Life sucks, and then you die." That, however, misses the power and nuance, and so I offer up the following:
For immediate release
Order to printing press for vinyl bumper sticker run
Distribution: all truck stops and Affiliated convenience shops:

"Life sucks, and then you die, and you never got what you asked for on your birthday."
Well, be that as it may, there are umbrellas people walk around with -- little devices they have that offer shade and dry, where they can believe that what is inside in aspiration is outside in reality, where they can know that the other people -- the very ones most often known as "Them" -- are exactly the same. It's a vital piece of equipment in a post-imperial age. When you are a member of a group that reaps the benefits of the whirlwind of trade, when the colossus of your state plants its boots on the peoples of the world, when you are secure and know what it means to be a proud member of your national group, then you are most in need of reassurance, most nervous, most afraid, most jealous, most impoverished, most a twitch, and sun struck.

Speaking of which, I have some bad news and some good news about the near future for you all. First, the bad news:
1. Someone is writing, right now, a Twitter novel.That person is writing a novel where Twitter is a character or setting or metaphor or theme, and the magic of Twitter will be the motivation behind the largely bankrupt author, if not the complete thoughts.
The good-bad news:
2. That novel will fail on artistic and commercial grounds and will not last.
Samuel Johnson famously showed himself a blockhead who allowed his personal distaste for an author to overshadow an appreciation for what was in a book on more than one occasion. One was dismissing Gulliver's Travels as just requiring imagining big people and little people. The other was saying, "Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last." However, there was, perhaps, a deeper truth in his crankiness. No one could, after all, really imitate Sterne -- even Sterne. The structural complexity of Gulliver's Travels is far less spectacular than A Tale of a Tub, even if the satire is sharper and more philosophically interesting and developed from a position of simple defiance. Thus, any person who attempts to celebrate the lightning's flash and write an ode to it while it is yet splitting the sky is ... well ... a fool.
Don't worry, though: I have no praise for the Tweeties. I have no interest in explaining why, in particular, your great Twitter novel is going to flop, or why your deep fantasy novel about Wikipedia is an abortion, or why your novel comprised of faux Facebook pages is a wreck in ruin. If you don't understand why already, then I place my muddy mitt on your head and give you my nicotinic blessings. Instead, in my fey way (Fey Wray?), I want to wander around the subject of why people, despite never being inclined to read anyone else's celebration of new sensations, still think to themselves, "You know what? This... this right here... this is great! This is the new Woodstock, or Eden. I need to write about it, sing about it, paint it, sculpt it, and bore the stuff out of everyone talking about it, and then I must convert them."

Answer the following question:
When more than ten people gather together, they will behave:
A) Like apes in a small cage
B) Like ladies and gentlemen
C) Like a community
D) Like people on an elevator: striving to get away from one another as quickly as possible.

When more than a thousand people gather together, they will behave:
A) Like a small town
B) Like a club that needs to black ball members
C) Like a tribe at war
D) Like independent individuals cooperating as little as possible.

That, friends, will explain all. If, to the first question, you answered A or D, then you are probably incorrect, depending on case. Presume that the people "are gathered." Some thing has provided an access point for convergence. The greater the power the individuals have over the access and collection, the less coercively they will behave.

Right now, the mania is Twitter. I say "right now," but I could, of course, be out of touch. After all, Marx argued that any superstructural artifact is ideologically meaningful only so long as it is not reified and objective. (What? You're surprised to find Grundrisse here?) In other words, by the time someone can say, "Hey, there is a great music scene in Athens/ Austin/ Chapel Hill/ Seattle," the scene is dead. It was active only so long as it was so puzzling that no one had a name for it. The moment it has a name, it has borders, and when it has borders, it has a place in the cultural lexicon. The Twits are a little different, but I'll come back to that.

See, when people gather and begin to subvert or play -- and play is subversive by its nature -- and when people gather together and cooperate (and cooperation is subversive, because it is also offering up a goal that is in miniature or distinction or separation from the ideological), they get a big rush. The thing is happening, and, while it is happening the people stumble along. As soon as they stop stumbling, as soon as they meet a threat, they have to defensively come up with a name for what they're doing. They have to have a "vision" that the threat is not.

While a thing is underway, the activity attracts society. However, there is an irreducible Bozo percentage (sometimes including the Zoso percentage, which is made up of people who believe that they're on a vision trip). Marx never discussed this, and neither did Freud, but there is a percentage of humanity that is a dick. Sometimes these are participants who fail, sometimes "outsiders" who want the energy for their own, sometimes "enemies" who oppose what they believe to be the ideology served by the activity. It doesn't matter. They are attracted to joy as surely as a flea is attracted to blood.

The music scene gets flooded with immigrants "just like REM/ Windbreakers/ Superchunk/ Pearl Jam." Trolls show up at the Usenet group. They then show up in web forums, as soon as they're invented. "Jimy issogay" articles appear at Wikipedia. SecondLife gets filled with porn. The various user-generated dictionaries fill up with private, elementary school physical impossibilities and slander. YouTube gets evil troll raters and "memes" of derision. The original activity, whatever it was, might attempt to fight back by adopting power or regimentation -- both of which being the white flag of defeat. When it's all over, the corpse in the grave, the grave paved over by a super highway, Hollywood will make a movie about the hot new scene.

Twitter is Citizen's Band Radio, in other words. CB was Ham radio. In each case, these were "fun" and "addictive," and the remarkable thing was that "everyone is nice." There were no evil people there, and "experts were shocked" that humanity was nice. CB radio was, for me at fifteen, what Twitter is now. "It allows the People to be free," the mantra went. "Look at the oppressed expressing themselves," the voices said. Ubi sunt?

The difference between a music scene, an art scene, a film project, or a theater project and Twitter or Wikipedia or CB Radio is not in what makes us go. We go because something contra-ideological is taking place. The difference is in the precondition of the technology. CB needed the radio, and Wikipedia and Twitter demand the servers. Each has a ticket price and a location, and therefore each attracts the inevitable irreducible dick percentage that will make it unpleasant and force the community into staleness, and each also has a magnet for the equivalent of that Hollywood movie. Each dangles a lure for investors, states, power trippers, and owners of thought, claimants of benefit. (Listen to Jimbo Wales take credit for Wikipedia some time. The Twitterers haven't done that, yet. Give them time: venality is a disease.)

We will jump at Twitter, and the next thing, because ideology is one of those rooms in a horror movie where the ceiling and floor move toward each other, crushing us.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Whole of the Ass

"Positive ideals are becoming a curse, for they can seldom be achieved without someone being killed, maimed or interned." -- E. M. Forster

With apologies to the delicate Mr. Forster, it seems that positive ideals are all the world these days, but one should in no way believe that for being "positive" that they are designed to add, to supplement, or to achieve progress. They are, instead, ideals of certainty, ideals of propulsion. They are creeds, banners, slogans.

On my desk, I have a photo, framed, that I got from I recommend the site, and I will link you directly to the place, so you can buy your own. It says, "It's best to avoid standing directly between an ambitious jerk and his goals." That's a motto, for me. The people who come in see it, smile or laugh, and share a sympathetic nod, even the ambitious jerks whose paths I am avoiding. This is not merely because, "Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover every body's face but their own," as Swift wrote in A Tale of a Tub, but because, in this case, the satire and the satirist seem to apply generally to the folly of the world.

You see, if you look about your work place, you will notice a great many jerks, ambitious and otherwise ("otherwise" includes bitter, vindictive, small minded, guarding, shredding, and oblivious), but you will notice one central thing about them: there are those who cause reactions and those who react. The ones who make everyone else react and compensate are the asses. (I do not mean that in the vulgar Usonian corruption of "arse," either. I mean it the way a dictionary would mean it.)

Back in the 1980's (beginning in the 1970's, I suppose), business manuals and business schools began advising, training, praising, and paying people to become "Leaders." Dingleberries of all flavors began reading Musashi and fancying themselves Samurai. They taught themselves the "art of the kill" and looked for "Human Resources" and "assets" and other junk. They sought, in short, to be not testosterone infused -- all of my feminist friends with their analyses of the homosociality of the corporation have valid observations, and all of the feminist analyses of the boardroom's hostility to the female are accurate, if historically bounded -- but asses.

The Scythians were set in flight by the braying of an ass, according to Roman historians congratulating themselves on defeating Mithridates.

An ass is excellent at going the direction it is already heading. It is not so good at adapting to circumstances, however, but the ass is not particularly interested in those circumstances in the first place. Alternately saturnine and sullen, so long as its actions are unhindered, the ass goes forward or kicks back.

Look at your workplace, I say, and you will see that you are reacting to a jerk. The person you spend all of your time trying to make up for, trying to compensate for, trying to mitigate, is almost certainly an ass. If you are not doing so, then you are an ass. If you feel that things are pretty much in good shape, except that people won't do what you tell them to do or want them to do, then you are an ass. The ass has a direction.

In the political sphere, we are in a pathetic place right now. We have a technocrat President. The last Democratic Party ass we had as president was Lyndon Johnson. Bill Clinton was something else. He was a negotiator, a mediator. I'll get to these people. In some ways, they're the worst of the barnyard. The technocrats are extremely competent. Competency is the new loyalty, one D.C. insider quipped (reversing a satire of W. Bush, who substituted personal loyalty over knowing how to do one's job). He is also a great orator, of course, but he's not an ass. His opponents, though, are filled with "positive ideals." They're positive that an ideal world will have "no government" and a strong military, and pure state's rights, with the federal military giving them Predator drones to shoot brown-skinned immigrants, positive that the ideal society will be "free" with more prisons and dissent will be "free" and arrests for communists will be a matter of course, along with phone tapping. Their positive ideals make no sense whatever, but that's because they're ideals. They're not real and not designed to be real, or even in contact with reality.

So, what do you do, if you're not an ass, and you are deafened by the braying?

I don't know. Why would you think I would? I put a sign on my desk that I purchased on the Internet, so obviously, I haven't a clue.

I can tell you some things that don't work, though.

One of them is to believe that the ass is really a dog. If you believe that the animal is expressing reasonable demands that simply need to be heard, decoded as cries for help, and addressed in a meaningful way, then you are going to get your head stove in or staved in. I know a person like that. He keeps attempting to mitigate. By avoiding all anger, especially his own, he believes that it can be averaged. This is how he was raised, no doubt. "All of us are equal, and all are alike," the dictum goes, "and no one is bad."

That's true, but people do bad things, and people resist improvement, and, while you are getting your catcher's mask and the rubber bullets and the sticky foam, they're gnawing at your leg or burning down your farm. This is a high price to pay for the "virtue" of not being positive, yourself, of not being aggressive.

This deluded person is not the negotiator. He is, instead, so passionately afraid of the jerk, the ass, that he is refusing to admit that he, too, is a beast, that there are beastly qualities. The negotiator, on the other hand, knows full well what an ass is. He's a jerk of a different stripe, because he's an advertiser, a pitch man, a confidence man. He is running numbers while he's counting change and talking about the weather. If he's complimenting your shoes, he's wondering how to convince you to make yourself naked. He wants to use Aikido on you. Your own impulses will be channeled gently so that your jerks become his impulses. If they can't, then they render you neutral.

The negotiator is a jerk with a smirk.

My method is more common, more defeated. I take Pascal's advice and try to tend my garden. I cannot, though, because the asses are tromping up and down the halls and trying to bellow at me. Therefore, I opt for a separate peace. Each time, I look at their positive ideals and try to negotiate harm reduction. My day is spent in a constant calculus of injury prevention, seeking the grand prize of inertia against all of these unbalanced forces.

My method does not work. It requires constant worry. It also means reaching inside for every resource: aggression, resentment, satire, isolation, and positive ideals of my own. I have to rummage through the entire quiver for whichever tool, whichever prick, will turn the beast aside that is at my door. Most of the time, though, I try to stand off to the ass's side.

Asses have lousy peripheral vision, what with the blinkers and all.

Such as me are the worst. We are worse than the people who lay down grease, trying to figure out the best trajectory for the kicking noise box to go when it begins its charge. We keep suing for peace on terms of our own, keep ditching our allies. We do so either because we are exhausted or because we are wise, because we are clever or because we believe it is not worth the bother to try to grab the reins, because we're missing fingers from those squared teeth already or because we're Scythian savages who want to ride the plains unhindered, but we do so. We strand our friends. We leave the creature to hoof up and trample down everyone else's garden, so long as our precious carrots bloom.

An ass cannot get a good head of steam up, unless timid or grizzled people like me duck out of the hall. The positive "reformers" who want to "take our country back" (from whom they do not know, exactly, except that they are sure that once it was theirs and now it is not, and they feel the loss, even if they cannot measure it) need the freshmen in Congress who want to be unnoticed, the veterans who want to calculate that these groups come and go, the compliant reporters who feel that the crazy sells and the fact checking bores (and takes up time). The office jerk cannot make everyone react unless "everyone" decides that hindering that creature's momentum is certain to be an effort without allies and, in so doing, assures the next victim that blocking the beast will be done alone.

As for positive ideals, there is one:
Isaiah 11:8: And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den.

An ass or an asp. Either way, it would be the New Jerusalem.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Lost in Hammanchia

If you see the newly released-to-DVD "Defendor" and do not recognize that you are watching a pure adaptation of Don Quixote, then it is not your fault, nor the film makers.

Let me exonerate the film maker, first. Peter Stebbings wrote and directed the movie, and that's a pretty good sign that he had something on his mind. When one encounters a film with a writer/director, it usually means that there is something literary or otherwise hermeneutic going on. Some surfeit of signification is going to be either on or behind the frame. In this case, the adaptation is lovingly crafted and detailed. The film shows the sort of obsession to Cervantes and brief, synecdoctal allusion that only a man in love and meditation could come up with.

"Defendor" is note for note, beat for beat, refrain for refrain, Don Quixote. Perhaps other directors went mad chasing the mad don, but Stebbings managed to capture him complete in his audience interaction, if not his social significance.

You see, the problem with Don Quixote is that he refuses to be actually heroic. He loses his fights. He refuses to be a voice of virtue, too. His notions of virtue are based on hyperbole Romance conventions. He is nuts. His side kick is the hero, but he refuses to be heroic, even in his anti-heroism. The villains are villainous, but not special. The audience is required to laugh at the ... this is hard ... are you prepared? ... disjunction between the real and the language. What's funny about Don Quixote is the perception of reality held by the player(s) and the author and the audience. The three different voices (and they are at odds with each other) change places in levels of seriousness and virtue, but they always present a gap, and that gap is ridiculous and satirical. In Don Quixote, we are sometimes satirized, as readers, for reading junk, sometimes satirized for letting the world be messy, sometimes satirized for being a mob, sometimes satirized for overlooking peasant wisdom, sometimes satirized for trusting in titles, sometimes satirized for our use of wealth, sometimes satirized for not trusting more. There isn't one message involved, but a dozen.

"Defendor," believe it or not, manages most of that. Arthur, our "Defen-don," is retarded, and that is the greatest difference, and the most troubling problem, with the adaptation. (More about that later.) Other than that, he is a man who has taken his comic books and comic book movies seriously. This is a film that gets to parody film's own excess, and in film's own language, but with a character that gets to be Cervantes's narrator. He loses his fights. His "hooker with a heart of gold" doesn't have a heart of gold at all, but she doesn't have a bad heart, either. She smokes crack, but, in the film, it's called "Bling." Bling is not simply a random substitution, either, but a clever comment on what fills the wound. She's normal, and that means unrepentant. Defendor's villains are villains, but they're not super villains. His arch-enemy, like the wizard that Don Quixote chases, is an amalgam of lost hopes and disappointments that points at a real arch-villain.

We, the audience, are put through the same knots of emotional response with "Defendor" that we are with Don Quixote. More to the point, we have to laugh mainly at ourselves. We have to recognize that we ignore the construction workers holding the sign saying, "Slow" (as if a label or badge pointing at themselves). We have to recognize that Captain Industry is, indeed, an arch villain who is destroying mothers, even if there are more immediate villains, like the bad dry cleaning store owner who knows he is bad. We have to admit that we built castles in the air out of wishes and castles in Spain out of denial.

The film's Sancho Panza is a man who, like the book's Sancho, knows what he is: he is decent. He reaches out and takes in Arthur Poppington ("Defendor"), and he receives no island for his efforts (except the island universe of a small house with a family in it). His normal world and normal life is a deviation from Don Quixote, as is Defendor's retardation. This film's theme is more concerned with the subject of virtue and vice (in the law enforcement meaning, as well as the theological meaning) than Cervantes's was. Our Sancho tells his updated idol that there is no need for illusion, no need for delusion, that ordinary heroism is sufficient. This Sancho does not follow: he rescues, and he counterposes a separate world, a genuine separate peace.

This message gets rejected, at a critically important moment. Rejecting ordinary heroism means rejecting ordinary methods of heroism as well (including ordinary preparation), and Defendor must have his illusion to define him, as the Don must have his madness. However, because Defendor is compromised by retardation rather than delusion, some of the power of the message is lost, and a good bit of the moral sting is lessened. There is too much of an opportunity for an audience to say, "He couldn't help it: he was retarded."

I applaud the film. It is amazing. Except for the fact that some audiences could excuse themselves from being better by saying that Defendor was compelled, "Defendor" is a vital movie.

Here is where it goes all pear shaped, though: why didn't you see this movie at the theater? It stars Woody Harrelson and has other well known character actors.

Well, it would have come out near the time that "Kick Ass" was coming out, I suppose. "Defendor" is Sony, and "Kick Ass" is Lionsgate, and I will allow the people who think about Hollywood things to think about those things. "Hollywood" is not a place: it is a business model, and I, personally, do not care for it.

"Kick Ass" is a juvenile wish fulfillment movie, and, as such, it is designed to compete for the acne creme and Twinkie audience. "Defendor" is art house. This Venn diagram shows no overlap at all. I understand that the marketeers have no concept other than Pez dispenser tie-ins and clothing lines for toddlers, and "Defendor" seemed to have its own clothing line built in (just as "Don Quixote" would), but that's not, I think, the reason.

I suspect that the reason is that you, the audience, are being calculated again. You are intelligent, but your intelligence does not show up in the counterweight of their scales. They believe that 100 intelligent people per 1,000 is not good business. More to the point, they do not understand Don Quixote and are certain that you do not, either.

You can be forgiven for not understanding Don Quixote. You've probably never read it, at 800+ pages, and you've almost certainly never seen it. Filming a novel is iffy. Filming a novel and capturing its aesthetic or aesthetic action is rare indeed. Worse still, there are "movies" of Don Quixote that stand between you and the novel.

First, we have the attempts at recreation of the novel. Recapturing and recreating the novel, of filming it, are valuable. However, filming all of it would be the sort of project that Eric von Stroheim and Abel Gance would have to have teamed up on. Additionally, there would be no way at all to capture the narrator in a film. Finally, the disjunctions that created an entire genre (the mock-heroic) would be absent, as the audience would simply see an old man being whooped upon by mean people. Nevertheless, there are attempts at such recreations. People have seen them.

I have no bad words for these films. If you know the novel, the films are nice.

Secondly and more destructively, though, we have the appropriation of the novel's aesthetic by The Man of LaMancha. That musical and film has utterly obliterated the novel. We cannot even see or hear the don for its dreamer dreaming the impossible dream. From a mad fanboy, the don has gone to hippie dreamer on a quest for self-actualization. Try to imagine making fun of him, and see how far you get.

I have greater admiration for "Defendor" than you may imagine because the writer/director had to fight against preconceptions and a miasma of appropriation to retake the don. That he did so by actually adapting Don Quixote instead of filming it is even more to be admired.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Just because...

Just because you don't see a post, that doesn't mean one isn't here. It just means one isn't published.

Just because you can't see yourself, that doesn't mean that you're invisible. It means that your face is too swollen to allow eye movement.

Just because you don't hear any news, that doesn't mean that you have peace of mind. It means that you are unaware of what your enemies are doing.

Just because you found a way into the mirror, that doesn't mean wonder awaits you. It might mean that the reflection meeting the object will result in complete negation.

Just because you're not guilty, that doesn't mean that you're innocent. Many people are blameless and entirely worthless, both.

Just because you have to pay an income tax, that doesn't mean that you are taxed then. You were taxed anyway, and always farther away from the point of your daily needs, the more affluent you are.

Just because you cannot hold down a job or complete a sentence or maintain a regional dialect for more than a few weeks at a time, that doesn't mean that you're not a "star of the Republican Party." There is a good chance that you are, in fact, a star of the Republican Party, and, with three colleges to get an associate's degree, superior to a law professor when it comes to the U.S. constitution, superior to Ph.D.'s in climate science when it comes to global warming, superior to Nobel Prize winners in economics when it comes to taxation, and far ahead of people getting the daily nuclear threat briefing and non-proliferation reports when it comes to nuclear weapons policy.

Just because people tell you that you're a lumpen monster, that doesn't mean that you're not entitled to run the joint. If your name is Caliban, Prospero's books might have made you, but that doesn't mean that you have to listen to him.

Just because you're sore between all of your hinged parts, that doesn't mean that you've done something wrong. Debauchutantes are the new entertainers on all levels of society, and they're widely