I'm not exactly closing up shop, but I'm relocating. I have a lot of affection for LiveJournal, which remains, hands-down, the least slick blogging platform available, but at this point it has also become unusable. I have to manually filter too much spam, and considering how infrequently I post, it's amazing that at least 75% of the time I try to use the site it is down. The existing blog will remain, but this is the last time I will update it here.
From now on, you'll find me a http://zugenia.wordpress.com/. I've managed to import this whole thing (minus anything in specific LJ code, like embedded videos) to WordPress, to maintain some semblance of continuity.
See you there.
Flashback by Dan Simmons
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
This is quite possibly the worst book I have ever bothered to read in its entirety. I counted myself a Dan Simmons fan after The Terror and Drood; earlier this year I struggled a bit through Black Hills, which I found a little dull, but I still found myself recommending it to people I thought might be interested. The most generous response I had to Flashback was to wonder whether Dan Simmons had had a stroke--no, seriously--and to be genuinely concerned about his mental and physical health. As a work of fiction in the hardboiled future-cop vein, the book is hackneyed and unoriginal. Every character is a sketch of a caricature. Not only do the Japanese characters confuse their Rs and Ls, but the main character notes how funny it is. REPEATEDLY. The book relies on interior monologue and dialogue not only to lay out but to repeat, absurdly, the translation of post-apocalyptic mid-21st-century culture into terms its (apparently severely challenged) early 21st-century readers will understand. "'But where are you going to going to come up with five million new bucks, or the equivalent of a thousand old dollars? No one has had that kind of money lying around since the extravagant entitlements spending of the early twenty-first century led the Arabs to nuke Israel,' he said. 'Now I have to go see a guy at Coors Field Detention Center, which used to be Coors Field, as in the local baseball stadium, you know, back when it was that, which it is not now. You know, because of the orientals.'" I just made that sentence up, but there is a good chance it appears verbatim in the book. I am simply not exaggerating here.
As a piece of political propaganda, the book is repetitive, shrill, impressively racist, and, again, unoriginal. More than anything, it is an account of how we castrated America. Unequivocally: the "extravagant entitlements spending" (this phrase does in fact appear repeatedly throughout) of a certain first African American president drove the US economy into the ground; Canadian multiculturalism allowed the Muslim horde to invade North America; and, I don't know, a bunch of other nutty crap lifted directly from the Fox News stream, like the imposition of wind turbines and socialized health care, thus, it really sucks to be a white guy thirty years from now, except in the utopia of Texas, which, having seceded from the emasculated Union, has preserved the American dream of free enterprise, no taxes, and conquering Mexico. I suppose it is kind of remarkable that the book manages to cover *every* pet peeve of the hysterical right-wing media, giving its half-baked characters plenty of time for mental meandering during their life-or-death, high stakes adventures, so they can contemplate the ways ethnic studies ruined college, environmentalists ruined industry, stupid "modernist" architects ruined that new building in downtown Boulder, and liberals ruined everything. There is an aged "left wing professor" (i.e. he taught literature and his third wife was a black woman named Nubia, no, FOR REAL) who is installed for the distinct purpose of contemplating all the ways his beliefs turned out to be utterly, devastatingly wrong about anything he ever had a liberal thought about. The narrative gives him a second chance after allowing him to confess that in his heart of hearts he would have liked to see a certain former president of the early part of the century and his administration "strung up by their necks in Washington" (NOT MAKING THIS UP); he uses this chance to fully embrace his Jewishness and recolonize the Middle East (the whole thing this time) as part of a second wave Zionism.
There's all this other stuff but there is no point in going on.
One might call it a bold move to frame such a delusional piece of work, however incoherently, as the ass's dream of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I think boldness is merely the unintended effect of writerly incompetence here. I did think, at one point, that the only thing that could redeem this book was if it ended, "And then Rush Limbaugh woke up, grinning. He was a very bad man." Spoiler: it does not. Maybe I was dreaming that Simmons's other books were good. I don't think I can bring myself to read him again.
View all my reviews
I have ten days left to read, friends. Save 2012.
So then I gave the piece a quick glance on my iPhone, and gave my dad an equally quick response: sure, I am in favor of meaningful conversation and earnest living, but already from this fleeting exposure on a tiny screen I am irritated by this essay's reliance on the tired and misleading device of Diagnosing a Generational Personality Flaw. If everyone in a generation has it, it's not a simple matter of "personal values," and it's not going to be adequately addressed by a chiding-slash-pep-talk from the Opinionator. There's something structural at work, and I'm going to guess it has to do with class and consumerism and cultures of debt and endless war of various kinds and the way the young(ish) people of the American middle class (to whom this essay is addressed, and whom it is about) are having a harder time materializing the kind of meaningful life they thought they would grow into, and how the only real skill that is so culturally embedded at this point that it seems to come naturally to them is the ability to consume—not just things but information—hence the distinct brand of "hipster" overendowment with cultural savvy that does not correspond to any of the old-fashioned markers of "true class" and "taste" that irks the author of this essay so much. You're so clever about cultural forms, but do you even own a house? A nice one? That's elegant and aesthetically gratifying and that you really love living in, really? (Another reason I avoided reading this piece: I do not enjoy being an ungenerous reader.) And if young people have become vacant, dismissive, without political convictions or moral values (or really nice things), but willing to max out credit cards on material crap that, this author complains, doesn't even mean anything, how am I going to think about that without thinking about how higher education in the humanities is under aggressive, sustained assault by this same culture—dismissed as "useless" for teaching things like how to pay attention, how to read carefully and think critically, how to talk to and listen to people, how to care about things other than things? And how am I supposed to take it, as someone who tries, quite earnestly, even passionately, day in and day out, to teach these very things to university students, knowing how difficult it is to set yourself much less other people against the grain of capitalism's dehumanizing effects, that the NYTimes thinks a smug 800-word essay on how gauche irony is will suffice? None of these contextual issues are broached in this piece, despite the fact that the author, who is my age, is also a professor in the humanities. I would prefer to read an essay called "How to Live Without Irony At The End of the World As We Know It," and I mean that with total sincerity. Someone please write that essay.
So that was my initial response. I think maybe it's clear why I'm reluctant to engage "opinion pieces" lately. But because it was my dad who was interested, and I'm no hipster, cavalierly dismissive of his interest in things like "what I think," I read the piece again and thought about it some more. I haven't changed my mind about it. I agree with some of its sentiments, kind of, but I recoil from its bourgeois complacency. Part of which is the gall with which it purports to be about political agency when it is actually quite clearly about taste. "Look around your living space. Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd?" Is this Martha Stewart Living? This is the kind of self-searching that will make me a feminist or an environmentalist again?
It's been almost 30 years since Bourdieu elegantly eviscerated the politics of bourgeois taste in Distinction, and I'm sure the author of this opinion, as a professor of French at Princeton, is familiar with Bourdieu, so this call to earnest, "meaningful" consumption can only be interpreted as a willful attempt to recoup bourgeois cultural capital from mass cultural forces that have allowed it to dissipate. The NYTimes piece holds the hipster and other "ironists" accountable for this loss:
Ironic living is a first-world problem. For the relatively well educated and financially secure, irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back. In other words, the hipster can frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime. He doesn’t own anything he possesses.In other other words, the hipster refuses to play seriously in the system of tasteful consumption that distinguishes the classy from the vulgar (which is itself arguably a sham, or possibly a scam) and this refusal ruins the effect of old-fashioned social sophistication. If I'm understanding the metaphor in this passage correctly, the "ownership" of earnest consumption is indeed merely an aesthetic effect. After all, if, like most of the "relatively well educated and financially secure" young people I know, you are accumulating the trappings of a life on top of a mountain of credit card and student loan debt that you have no hope of paying off unless some unknown wealthy relative bequeaths to you a fortune, then you don't actually own anything you possess one way or the other.
It's not bad, on a personal level, to want nice things. In our culture, it's virtually impossible not to want nice things. You cannot opt out of consumer capitalism, and there's no reason not to attempt to participate tastefully, conscientiously, whatever you want to call it. But it's delusional as well as offensive to conflate tasteful consumption with a critical political sensibility. They are not mutually exclusive, but they are not the same thing, and the former certainly doesn't lead to the latter.
If you are are a "relatively well educated and financially secure" reader of the New York Times, following the recommendations to better furnish your home, give more meaningful gifts, purify your speech of adolescent hyperbole, and stop dressing "ugly" on purpose will certainly make you seem more like the well-adjusted, socially secure, financially independent, adult person your parents probably hoped you would be by now. (If you paid for nicer stuff with credit, and so are actually a little more financially screwed in order to achieve the appearance of stability, well, if your friends are also "living without irony," hopefully they will be too tasteful to point this out.) But if you are less educated, less able to fake financial security, and less tasteful, Living Without Irony makes you a spectacle. Surely there is no more poignant example of irony-free consumption right now than Jenelle of Teen Mom 2, whose extrordinarily earnest attachment to Ke$ha is currently being pilloried on the internet. Calling on the bourgeoisie to shape up and stop allowing things like Ke$ha to make its way into respectable homes under the aegis of irony won't put a dent in Ke$ha's sales but will make sure those sales more accurately reflect a vulgar horde cut off from a progressive elite. It's a way of eliminating the perhaps unintended but nevertheless disturbing cultivation of common pleasures between economically, culturally distinct groups.
The problem with this little opinion piece's ability to think about the issues it raises is precisely that it is a little opinion piece. I find the popular currency of "opinions" much more offensive and pernicious than fashionable "irony." The essay talks about the importance of "seriousness" and "humility" and "self-effacement" but these are all anathema to the "opinion," which is a genre that allows one to hold forth on any topic supplied solely by self-generated ideas. No need to be an "expert" to have an opinion. (In fact, if you are an expert in something, as contributors to the NYT opinion series The Stone are, best to hang up your expert hat if normal people are to take your opinion as something more than lunatic ravings from the ivory tower.) No need even to consult experts, or students, or anyone, or anything! And this gives you the freedom to attack and dismiss the things you address, rather than consider them. Talk about a form that, as the author says of ironic posturing, "signals a deep aversion to risk." It certainly doesn't risk being surprised by the unintended discoveries of research, intellectual inquiry, or respect for the complexity of its object. For a much more serious, thoughtful, and respectful engagement of a similar topic, one could read Susan Sontag's "Notes on 'Camp.'" Unlike Sontag's "Notes," the NYTimes opinion, while it advocates thoughtful engagement, relies on dismissive generalities and a determined disengagement from social, historical, or political context. This allows it to be less like an essay about something, one that challenges itself and its readers, and more like an advice column, one capable of concluding reassuringly that "if the ashes of irony have settled on you ... it takes little effort to dust them away."
So, in conclusion, in MY opinion, by all means buy less crap, or more, nicer crap, or spend your money on the gas bill, or on charity, or, to whatever extent possible, not at all. Go ahead and look people in the eye and have a conversation with them, hopefully one in which people actually listen to one another and exchange knowledge and enjoy each other's company rather than just hurling opinions around in person instead of on the internet. Give more meaningful gifts, especially if you are motivated to do so at least as much by the prospect of another person's joy and comfort as by the desire to be the kind of person who gives meaningful gifts. Stop wearing that stupid trucker's cap, or don't, I don't know, maybe you really like it. It's no stupider than any other hat, really. I doubt it is holding you back from an earnest engagement with the world. I see plenty of room for irony in a life lived this way, but little room for self-satisfaction.
She's been channeling her inner Liszt.
The piano makes me feel better about letting her hair do its Romantic genius thing. One of her daycare teachers is some kind of baby hairdo wizard so she always comes home with it under control.
But sometimes we gotta roll our sleeves up, let our hair out, and see where the evening takes us.
I would like to report an instance of serious misgovernance in the security screening at Edmonton International Airport (YEG). Yesterday morning, I arrived at security around 8am to catch a 10am flight to Toronto. I was returning home from a 5-day professional conference. It was my first trip away from my 8-month-old baby, and, well in advance of the trip, I had read the CATSA’s current regulations to see if I could bring pumped breastmilk back home with me on the plane. I was happy to see that in the past few years, your agency has updated its rule to allow parents flying with or without their children to carry more than 100ml of breastmilk, as well as gel or ice packs to store it, in their carry-on luggage provided it is presented for inspection prior to screening. When I arrived at YEG, I was carrying a travel cooler filled with frozen breastmilk (the only way it could be stored over the period of time I was away) and gel packs. At the head of the line, I informed the screening agent that I had breastmilk that I would like to present for separate inspection from the rest of my luggage passing through the x-ray machine. He brought over his supervisor, who told me to put my things away and through the machine. I repeated that I had breastmilk that I was presenting for inspection and that I did not want to pass it through the x-ray machine. He dismissively shouted that the x-ray scanner is “fine” for whatever “gels, liquids, anything” I had, placed my bag of breastmilk on the conveyor belt, and left.
At the other end, another screening agent presented me with my bag and informed me that I had “a lot of something in here” that “could not go on the plane.” I told him that the bag contained breastmilk and gel packs, which I had tried to present to the supervisor for inspection, and that I was permitted to bring them on the plane. While he swabbed the bags, he told me that he didn’t think these could pass through because they were not “medicine.” I politely informed him that breastmilk was listed by the TSA as an exempt liquid along with medical liquids. Then he told me that while the milk might be allowed, the gel packs definitely could not pass through, and again, politely but firmly, I told him that the TSA allowed gel packs to cool transported breastmilk. He told me to wait while he asked his supervisor—I could not see if it was the same man who had dismissed me earlier—and he returned and told me that yes, the milk and the gel packs were permitted, and that next time I should present them at the head of the line so they do not have to go through the x-ray machine.
I then decided to go to the supervisor at security and file a complaint. My breastmilk had been unnecessarily x-rayed over my objection. I understand that there is no known danger in feeding irradiated milk to a baby, but I am also aware that radiation compromises the nutritional value of breastmilk, and that not enough studies have been done to provide conclusive data on how altered the milk is. In all aspects of caring for babies, Canadian public health stresses erring on the side of caution when “we don’t know the effects of that on the health of the child,” and that is exactly what I am trying to do when I try to keep my child’s food from being gratuitously irradiated.
The supervisor I had seen earlier was not at his post, so I spoke to the woman who had replaced him. I said I wanted to file a complaint about how the other supervisor had handled my request for inspection of my breastmilk. She asked me what happened and while I explained the course of events, she gestured for several uniformed agents to come stand close, suggesting to me that I was on the verge of being treated as a security risk. You may be aware that in the United States, there was a high-profile instance of a woman, Stacy Armato, being bullied by TSA agents under these very circumstances—a situation for which the TSA eventually apologized. I was already quite upset and eager to get home to my family, and so if the intended purpose of surrounding me with agents was to pressure me not to pursue an official complaint, it worked. The supervisor told me that there was nothing to be upset about, that people “put milk, food, all kinds of things” through the x-ray machines every day, that “no one complains” like me, and that they “are not harmful because we are family-friendly.” I asked her if it was the official policy of CATSA to x-ray all breastmilk, and, after hedging by repeating to me that the x-rays are “fine,” she finally said that “if someone is very upset, maybe we won’t make them use the x-ray.” I said that I had not been “upset” before, but that I had specifically requested to bypass the x-ray and proceed to manual inspection, and had been denied. She said she didn’t know anything about that, or why the other supervisor made that decision, but that there was nothing to be done now, so I should leave.
Unable to file one then, I am filing this complaint now. I am furious not only that my breastmilk was x-rayed over my objections, but that the supervisory staff at YEG security appears to be making up its own rules as it goes along and punishing passengers who ask them to abide by CATSA’s regulations and procedures. In contrast, I would like to note, the security agents at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport (YYZ) were thoroughly professional. When I presented the gel packs for inspection and explained their purpose, the supervisor there informed me that they could only be carried on board if they were being used to cool breastmilk in the bag. They then allowed me to leave the security area to pump some milk into a bottle to place in the bag with the gel packs, and when I returned, they allowed me to proceed straight to screening, where they separated the breastmilk out from the luggage that passed through the x-ray scanner. While this was somewhat inconvenient for me, I appreciated that they were following to the letter the rules protecting my right to travel with breastmilk. I would also like to note that I have no complaint against the two YEG agents at either end of security scanning, who followed protocol by taking the matter to their supervisor. But the supervisors at YEG were dismissive and disrespectful; they appeared either not to know or not to care what the CATSA’s rules are on the inspection of breastmilk; and, while they neglect their own responsibilities in upholding proper security procedure, they presume to inform passengers of things well beyond their professional purview, such that it is “fine” to feed a baby irradiated milk.
I look forward to your clarification on how parents traveling with breastmilk should proceed at airport security so that I can avoid this situation in the future.
In other news, the special issue of ECF that I've been working on for the past year has finally come out.
It's available on Project Muse, for those of you with institutional access, or for purchase (both online and in print) from Toronto University Press. The online version has color images, which is delightful.
Every once in a while -- well, more frequently lately, due to the increased paperwork that comes with a baby and a house -- someone makes me feel like a derelict for not being able to manage the myriad processes of certification that are part of moving to a new home, especially from abroad, or just keeping up one's membership in society. For example, I have been trying for nine months to complete our application for permanent residence, but at every turn I discover a new piece of documentation that we don't have, and then another piece expires while I'm getting the new one, and then they change the application from paper to online, and then our address changes and everything has to be redone from the start. I recognize that managing this kind of stuff is a skill, and that D and I both lack this skill. But even when I manage to get all the pieces aligned, through a concentrated exertion of effort, it remains Kafkaesque. The office where I processed this set of forms a year ago now tells me, as I try to renew them, that it is impossible that I processed these forms in this place a year ago, because these forms must be processed in another place. But it is not impossible! It happened! I go to the other place, where they ask me why I have filled out this form and not another form. But this is the form that was sent to me! With explicit and somewhat scary instructions to Fill Out THIS Form! Also, they do not know why I bothered to come to this location, when I could have gone to another location. But the other location sent me here, I say. No, that is impossible, they tell me. It is not impossible! It just happened! Usually, someone huffs at us for a while, then tells us to go get something faxed and come back again later.
The endless pressure of being only halfway done with these things, plus the added indignity of being constantly reprimanded for not intuiting how the system works, has been turning me and D into anxious, unpleasant people, so I'm trying to write it out so I can just be on the record with my complaint and not let it become a worm in my character.
Also, I'm writing this from the third hour, second queue, second location of trying to renew my health card, with husband and baby in tow, on a day when husband and I are both supposed to be working, and this is unquestionably the simplest bureaucratic operation on our list.
Posted via LiveJournal.app.
- Current Location:Canada, Ontario
Sunday we took Ruby to see the Picasso exhibition at the AGO. She is quite taken these days with trees and, after a day walking around Toronto, skyscrapers, but she slept through most of the Picasso exhibit. Apparently she is not an advanced enough baby to appreciate what all the museum posters kept impressing upon us: that Picasso is a GENIUS.
Certainly his GENIUS with the ladies is on display. There's this drawing he did of Dora "The Weeping Woman" Maar as a harpy, which he lovingly dedicated to her. But I do love how much Picasso apparently enjoyed the beach.
Me: Do you think Picasso liked the beach because he could stare at people's bodies?
D: I don't think Picasso had any trouble staring at people's bodies when he wanted to.
Okay, enough talk. Here are some pictures of the baby.
So anyway. While we're talking about fairness, let me say that the Disgrasian piece does not fall directly into the pattern of diagnosing the show's characters with whiteness, which is what I was talking about last time. Instead, it offers a formal analysis of the use of characters of colors, arguing that they remain slightly rendered and in the margins, the better to set off the full "three-dimensionality" and meaningful lives of the white protagonists. This is an actual reading, so when I guessed last time that the post would fail to recognize the writtenness of the text it took on, well, that was not fair. And yet, I disagree deeply with the reading, so I guess I'll explain why. I would like to be on the record as having respectfully disagreed with the fine folks gallantly attempting to perform a critical analysis in the midst of this pop cultural shitstorm.
The Disgrasian critique would work if Girls was a bildungsroman—if each of these characters were, in fact, a model of a full and complex subjectivity that appeared to blossom and develop through experience over time, or at least had the potential to, and that potential were set in relief by the cast of marginal and background figures who distinctly lack that fullness. Have you read nineteenth-century fiction? This is that. Race works this way all the time. But Girls is not that. (I think Hannah probably imagines that this is the genre of her life, and the show rather savagely denies it of her.) Girls is a satire, and it employs devices more appropriate to satire: instead of "full characters," we get caricatures (which can also be complex, as they are here); instead of life stories, we get haphazard picaresque trajectories. The episode where the stoner girl offers to "organize" the nannies at the park, and then loses her charges, and then channels this into a flirtation with their father? Picaresque. Absurd. Even infuriating, when you consider that the universe would not have magically opened a similar path to any of the other nannies had they lost their kids. That—THAT—is why the show does not feature a person of color in this character's role, not "exclusion." Because it is a dark, dark comedy about the momentum of white privilege in contemporary urban America, and you can't show it in action through a character who does not possess it.
I know there are viewers out there who identify with the main characters of this show, and others who want to but feel prevented from doing so by their whiteness. To this I say, god help you. Rarely has a television show succeeded in making whiteness look so unappealing, in my eyes—and to do so while emphasizing the enormous privilege that comes with it rather than disavowing it! These girls are sick with their whiteness; it makes them ridiculous; it is what saves their asses, allows them not to work, allows them not to see the racial and classed dimensions of the world they inhabit, but, in this show, it is also what prevents them from being "three-dimensional" or having "full lives." It is a social boon but a formal burden. This takes real skill. The only other show I watch these days that attempts a similar thing is "Louie," which is smart about race and gender not because it offers great female or nonwhite role models, but because it shows how the privileges of white maleness are so ferocious that they will continue to operate even in an oaf like Louie, to the amazement of no one more than himself.
Most shows are glaringly white. One shouldn't have to say it, but there it is. And most of them make you want whiteness, or at least the privileges that come with it. Have you ever watched, say, Modern Family? For all their foibles, they still live in gorgeous houses and never worry about health insurance—wouldn't that be nice? That is what it feels like to want whiteness. Girls is different, despite the fact that some people will continue to want the warped, destructive, embarrassing version of whiteness it puts on display. This is not necessarily any individual person's fault; we're supposed to want these things, to envy them, and then be told if we'd "earned" them, we'd have them—that's how capitalism works. One of the ways this show interrupts this desire, though, is through its use of marginal characters exempt from whiteness. It doesn't give them "stories"; instead, it shows them giving the "girls" of the show a wide berth, the way you would syphilitics. It shows them avoiding whiteness. Why don't the "girls" have any friends of color? Seriously? I am of color, and I put enormous effort every day into not being friends with these people.
It is true that one of the effects of formal "marginalization" is to deny certain categories of person the "full humanness" recognized in other types of people. But that is not its only effect. In this case, I think it has the opposite effect: one gets the sense that the marginal figures of color—the Asian intern at the publishing house, the nannies at the park, even the entirely invisible hotel housekeeper whose tip Hannah cavalierly steals in episode 1—that these characters, were they people, would be living more difficult, less charmed, less absurd, and therefore "realer" lives than the "girls." Lacking white privilege, the best thing they can do for themselves is not allow themselves to become active characters in the story of white people's lives, as much as that is possible. It is not entirely possible. It's a white, white world, after all.
So far, the best thing I have read on race in "Girls" is at the end of this piece by Malcolm Harris. I think it's important, if we are going to "read race," not to limit ourselves to counting the number of nonwhite faces on screen and the number of lines they're given. Whiteness, as a form of power, is much savvier than that, which means we must be too.