Wednesday, October 25, 2017

About Benjamin (again)

More classroom antics. We’ve been nosing around the lower reaches of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a massive, unfinished tome that’s superficially about Paris in the 19th century but manages to pull in Marxism, surrealism, postmodernism, flânerie and more; I’m tracing lines from here to Borges, Perec and more. It’s delightful and frustrating in equal parts that what we have left is a vast selection of fragments, but it does occasionally give a hint of the average writer’s working method. For example:
Play on words with “-rama” (on the model of “diorama”) in Balzac at the beginning of Pere Goriot.
which is essentially a placeholder, a comedian’s [INSERT JOKE HERE]. Another particularly appealed to me with my restaurant reviewer’s hat on, although this is one I’m almost glad he didn’t finish:
There is, to speak once more of restaurants, a nearly infallible criterion for determining their rank. This is not, as one might readily assume, their price range. We find this unexpected criterion in the color of the sound that greets us when [broken off]

Friday, October 20, 2017

About Adorno’s friends

And in the space of a few days, I change my mind. Way back in the mists of last week, I mused over some people’s lack of curiosity when confronted by something they don’t know or don’t understand. But then, as part of my coursework, I read a piece by Adorno that made passing references to Karl Kraus and Paul Valéry and I was all at sea. In fact, I’d heard of both of them, although only vaguely: Kraus, I seemed to recall, had some connection with Frank Wedekind, the creator of Lulu (not the singer); Valéry I knew because Pierre Bayard had described his hilarious tribute to Anatole France, his predecessor at the Academie Francaise, which he delivered despite clearly not having read a word of France’s work. And if I hadn’t been aware of these molecules of fact, I could have Googled them, right?

But it’s not that straightforward. Adorno refers to “The strictures of Karl Kraus against freedom of the press”. What strictures? When? Where? Then: “If cultural criticism, even at its best with Valéry, sides with conservatism...” Well, that’s all very well, but could you give some examples, Theo? Of course, Adorno simply assumed his readers would know what he was talking about and in his time and place that was probably a valid assumption. There would have been a comfortable fuzz of connotations about Kraus and Valéry so that simply mentioning their names would have triggered the relevant context. And that’s not something that can be replicated by a mere search engine; not a search engine I've ever used, at least.

One thought though; if I’m expected to follow accurate MHRA-style reference guidelines when I’m writing about Adorno, wouldn’t it be nice if Adorno reciprocated?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

About Weinstein

Slightly off-topic in the context of all the decades-old pus oozing from the freshly-lanced boils in Hollywood and beyond, but this passing comment, from a New Yorker article by Molly Ringwald, makes a lot of sense.
I was always a little mystified that Harvey had a reputation as a great tastemaker when he seemed so noticeably lacking in taste himself. But he did have a knack for hiring people who had it, and I figured that’s what passes for taste in Hollywood.
I think we’ve all seen more than enough of Mr Weinstein’s face in the past few days, so here’s lovely, wise Molly instead.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

About Ophelia etc

Storm/Hurricane Ophelia has battered Ireland, but in its slipstream yesterday came a shower of meteorological weirdness over parts of England. The morning was strangely warm for October; and in the afternoon Saharan sand in the wind turned the sun and sky various shades of red and yellow.

It was one of those moments when you had to be there. From inside at about 3pm, it looked as if storm clouds were gathering; stepping outside, everything was suffused with a weird, tawny light; the closest thing I can compare it to was when I was in Stockholm at the height of summer and it was still light past 10pm, but the city was starting to fall asleep anyway. Inevitably, many people took photographs but this was one phenomenon to which mere smartphones could not do justice. For some reason (sorry, ask someone more tech-savvy than me), the odd ambience wouldn’t translate to ones and zeroes and pixels. So, rather than commit the ultimate 21st-century solecism and leave an event unrecorded, many people tweaked their images with various filters so as to give the pictures the appropriate hue. Despite the fact that many of the people who saw those images were looking at the real thing themselves. The simulacrum was momentarily imperfect and had to be nudged back to perfection, especially because the original was still there for comparison.

And then, because it was so difficult to communicate in words or images exactly what was happening, even to people who were experiencing exactly the same thing, we all started talking about Ragnarok and the Book of Revelation, which is much easier.

(John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851-53)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

About criticism

Walter Benjamin died in 1940, so I guess we should excuse his tendency to gender-specific pronouns:
Regarding the terrible misconception that the quality indispensable to the true critic is “his own opinion”: it is quite meaningless to learn the opinion of someone about something when you do not even know who he is. The more important the critic, the more he will avoid baldly asserting his own opinion. And the more his insights will absorb his opinions. Instead of giving his own opinion, a great critic enables others to form their opinion on the basis of his critical analysis.

Friday, October 13, 2017

About Austin Rogers and knowing

A successful contestant on the game show Jeopardy is apparently getting attention because of his on-camera gurning but he also says something that rather chimes with my own thoughts about knowing stuff:
I like reading and consuming knowledge; it’s almost irrelevant to my education. If I don’t know something, it visibly perturbs me and I have to find out. Back in the day, that meant dropping everything and finding a newspaper to find out exactly what I was looking for. But now, we have supercomputers in our pockets, which confuses me when people don’t know something and they go, “Well, I guess I’ll never know!” I’m like, “You have a supercomputer in your pocket, you can know right now.” You have all of mankind’s knowledge in your pocket. If you don’t know something, why not find it out immediately and close that chapter? I don’t know, people are weird. They’re not curious.
PS: Vaguely connected: Quentin Letts (the theatre critic for the Daily Mail) has been annoying again, which is as good a reason as any to resuscitate the moment he referred to “the death of Banquo’s children” in Macbeth; and Will Gompertz (the arts editor for the BBC) announced on a recent episode of Pointless Celebrities that Vivaldi wrote La Traviata. Now, it’s always a bit awkward bringing up solecisms such as these in polite society because there’s no fixed cultural canon any more and you have no idea whether someone else may or may not see anything wrong. (For the record, it was Macduff’s children who were murdered; and Verdi wrote La Traviata.) But even if you don’t know (or care), surely you’d expect the theatre critic of a high-profile newspaper or the arts editor the national broadcasting organisation to be better informed. Wouldn’t you?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

About making stuff

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

About Miffy and Tom

In class yesterday, we had a sort of cultural studies show-and-tell, where we each brought in an object and got a bit theoretical on its arse. My piece was a Chinese pencil case that I picked up in Bangkok in 2001. The main design revolves around iterations of Miffy (aka Nijntje), the rabbit character created by the late Dick Bruna in 1955 and (to his chagrin) something of an inspiration to the Japanese Hello Kitty.

But what’s special about this slab of turn-of-the-millennium cross-cultural kitsch is the slab of text on the right; some very slightly mis-spelled lines from the last section of TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. Now, I have no idea why these two elements were juxtaposed. I’d guess that whoever designed the piece wasn’t a devoted fan of Modernist poetry; it was just a chunk of the English language and could just as well have been the Shipping Forecast or a recipe for pesto. Serendipitously, though, it tied in with one of the readings we’d been assigned for the class, Andreas Huyssen’s plea for students of culture to get beyond notions of “high” and “low” art and become aware of more significant distinctions (geographical, political, economic, etc). Here were two manifestations of culture, which most people in the room (and reading this) would define as “high” (Eliot) and “low” (or, less pejoratively, “mass” – Miffy); but to the anonymous individual who actually created the thing, there was probably no such distinction.

So, in one piece, high meets low and east meets west. But it gets better. One of my classmates turned the case over and pointed to a few Chinese characters, explaining that they were a reference to the scholars who passed the rigorous civil service exams in imperial times, the only way for poor, unconnected people to make any kind of social advance. So, in addition to high/low and east/west we had ancient/modern. And crucially, in these death-of-the-author days, all of these connections/collisions were pretty much accidental.

And you can even keep pencils in it.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

About Blade Runner 2049

Some disconnected thoughts about the Blade Runner sequel that may, one day, make their way into a coherent review (but probably not). Oh yeah, SPOILER ALERTS.
  • It cannot sensibly be described as short.
  • The horse. The dog. The unicorn in the original? Maybe?
  • People who think Ryan Gosling’s a great actor, and then take the piss out of, say, Keanu Reeves, really ought to take a long, hard look at themselves.
  • Lots of weather.
  • Baudrillard. Baudrillard Baudrillard Baudrillard. Baudrillard. Baudrillard Baudrillard. Baudrillard Baudrillard Baudrillard Baudrillard Baudrillard Baudrillard Baudrillard Baudrillard Baudrillard. Baudrillard. Baudrillard. More about that by Steve Rose.
  • The enormous naked lady with blue hair is meant to be funny, right?
  • Less overtly noir than the original; a bit closer to Star Wars-style space opera (flying out to big domes in the desert, etc).
  • In 2049, the United States will still not have got to grips with metric measurements. (See also Fahrenheit 451.)
  • How many more times can Harrison Ford return to a role from several decades previously in grumpy dad mode? What’s next? A Witness sequel where he finds out he’s knocked up Kelley McGillis?
  • The blonde hooker is very Pris. But is that relevant?
  • I mean, *lots* of weather.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

About Ishiguro

Will Self on Kazuo Ishiguro winning the Nobel Prize:
“He’s a fairly good writer and surely doesn’t deserve the dread ossification and disregard that garnishes such laurels.”

PS: Just seen this: the Harukists gather to mark their man’s perennial Nobel disappointment.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

About Trump/Amis

Toby Litt on The Orange One as a fictional construct with a very specific heritage:
The reason I’m writing this now is that President Trump (I’m sure it’s been said elsewhere a hundred times) is – for me – an Amis character rather than an any-other-fiction-writer-in-the-world character. It’s Amis’s novels – yes, Money – that were on the money about this ludicrous, strutting, wad out, greasy kind of masculinity. Others had stopped taking it seriously, or investing it with pathos and power. It had no future, why bond with it? But for Trump (the name is 1980s Amis) to be up there, in government, using the phrase ‘warmest condolences’ in referring to the Las Vegas Shooting – I feel the need to acknowledge Martin Amis here, to bow in his specific direction. Yes, you were right. This is his reality, as surely as Princess Diana’s death was J.G.Ballard’s, pre-scripted. In that phrase, and in every murderously clumsy verbal gesture and grandiloquent self-serving parp, Trump has been pre-scripted by Amis. Amis pre-understood him. This suggests it’s time to re-read.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

About Isaac Newton

Preparatory reading for my MA course, which begins properly tomorrow, is happily reinforcing my obsession with the notion of an epistemological canon — essentially, what can/should we be expected to know; or, to put it another way, what prompts a disapproving glance from Richard on Pointless?

For example, re-reading Barthes’s Mythologies, I come across this in the introduction:
...which also has echoes of Bachelard and Hjelmslev...
and assume I’m just *meant* to know who they are. I mean, I know there’s Google (although there wasn’t the first time I read Barthes) but the throwaway feel to the phrase implies, you know, Bachelard and Hjelmslev, those guys... And then, in another book, I find:
...the scientist Isaac Newton...
and this annoys me for the opposite reason. Oh, right, the *scientist* Isaac Newton, as opposed to the plumber, the travelling salesman, the serial killer.

But of course, my annoyance is pretty solipsistic; my gripe is that the authors’ assumptions, in both cases, fail to correlate with what I (don’t) know. Although deep down I rather hope there’s someone who’s a mirror image of me, who’s fully conversant with Bachelard and Hjelmslev and all their works, but doesn’t know who Isaac Newton was.

And in other news, I think I’ll give up on social media, because the best Instagram name has already been taken.