David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: January 2003 (page 3 of 5)

Slavoj Zizek in Ha’aretz: I’m living in a coo-coo clock!

Noam Yuran of a Ha’aretz gamely interviews Slavoj Zizek on the occasion of his visit to Israel. I planned to stay away from theorists like him, but I’ll bite when he steps out to speak to the reading public of a leftist Israeli newspaper. Arguably, being published by Alexander Cockburn’s Verso also counts as more of a political gambit than an academic one, but one look at The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology will convince you otherwise.

As background, Boynton’s Lingua Franca article on Zizek is here, which partly misrepresents him as a wackier version of Hans Magnus Enzensberger, but offers Zizek’s great account of his botched psychoanalysis:

In addition to being Zizek’s teacher, adviser, and sponsor, Jacques-Alain Miller became his analyst as well. While familiarity between analyst and analysand is discouraged by Freudians, it was not unusual for Lacanians to socialize with their patients…Lacan’s sessions ended the moment he sensed the patient had uttered an important word or phrase–a break that might occur in fifteen minutes or less. Miller had fine-tuned the logic of therapy to the point that few sessions lasted more than ten minutes…As the head of the main Lacanian publishing house, Miller was in a position to turn Zizek’s doctoral dissertation into a book. So, when not presenting his fabricated dreams and fantasies, Zizek would transform his sessions into de facto academic seminars to impress Miller with his keen intellect. Although Zizek successfully defended his dissertation in front of Miller, he learned after the defense that Miller did not intend to publish his thesis in book form.

But how does he speak to the public? Yuran says:

Zizek’s prose style has a rebellious and highly compelling side that brushes up against the most critical intellectual trends of our day like cultural studies, contemporary feminism, post-colonialism, and post-modernism.

When filtered down for the common man, here’s what it sounds like:

What fascinates me about disaster films is how circumstances of vast catastrophe suddenly bring about social cooperation. Even racial tensions vanish. It’s important at the end of Independence Day that everyone pulls together – Jews, Arabs, blacks. Disaster films might be the only optimistic social genre that remains today, and that’s a sad reflection of our desperate state.

I think what’s going on today in the name of a war on terrorism shows that liberal democracy is not the transparent, simple political system is it often understood to be.

We should summon our courage and ask the fundamental question – `what is democracy today?’ What are we really deciding? You in Israel, perhaps you are lucky in that on some level you still have a real choice to make. Perhaps a more radical version of a solution for the Palestinian problem would have meaning.

The sad result of this collapse is that we have returned to the concept of history as fate. Globalization is fate. You join it, or you’re out of the game. In any event, there’s no way to influence it.

I’m not saying that there are answers – I’m just saying there will be huge problems. And then maybe we’ll find the answers. Or we won’t.

There’s not much to say about the quotes; I don’t like them. My point is that Zizek, being a mischievous sort of person, is celebratory of the fact that his self-involvement has led to considerable personal success, but when presented with a popular platform, he can’t say anything. I don’t mean that he doesn’t try to make points; I mean that he concertedly avoids saying anything even remotely germane to Israel (the third quote above and his comments on Nazism not excepted). This sets him a far ways off from Edward Said and Stanley Aronowitz, theorists with more readable soapboxes. His mention of American disaster movies in an Israeli newspaper is absurd, but he doesn’t seem to be able to help himself.

So Zizek relegates himself, happily it seems, to the status of entertaining clown. His most popular analogues seem to be Charlie Kaufman (for building fluffy Escher castles in the sky) and Dave Eggers (for shameless shamefulness). But since he gives the game away so baldly, maybe that’s his intent.

(Dated tangent: do you think Nader supporter Alan Sokal voted for Aronowitz? All signs point to yes!)

The Flames, Olaf Stapledon

The Flames (1947) was Stapledon’s last major work of fiction before he died in 1950. After having narrowed his scope from the huge cosmic histories of Last and First Men (history of humanity) and Star Maker (history of the universe, Dante-esque cameo by God at the end) to the earthbound Odd John (super-man) and Sirius (super-dog), The Flames reads like an attempt to stuff them all into a 50-page novella. It’s supremely confused, but the evident moroseness of an author who, in the face of a second world war, has decided that his imagination will not help, gives The Flames an immediacy that you never see in other top-flight fantasists like Borges.

It is written in Stapledon’s trademark stiff prose, which places it stylistically closer to H.G. Wells than to any contemporaneous science fiction originating from the United States’ pulps, and if Stapledon had read any of them, it doesn’t show. Even though Stapledon had rejected Wells for being too cynical, The Flames has a sludgy melancholy that allows joy only in the most ironic way.

The story consists of three segments, each of which undercuts the last. In the first, the sensitive narrator talks to a “flame” in a burning stone who tells of life on the sun and subsequent exile when the planets were formed, with a polite dispassion not so far from that of Hal Clement. Despite some ill-fitting foreshadowing, the revelations in the second part that the flames are hellbent on manipulating humanity to help them thrive and pursue their spiritual aims, through mind control if necessary. To this end the flame reveals that he and his comrades caused the narrator’s wife to commit suicide, so the narrator could devote himself fully to his studies and establish contact with the flames. This is all vaguely silly and melodramatic, and trivializes the first section. I don’t know if Stapledon read Charles Fort, but he treads on similar territory here, and with no better luck than Fort or Eric Frank Russell in The Sinister Barrier.

But in the third segment, Stapledon plays down the mind-control aspect and the particulars of the flames’ existence to focus on their religious history, which is a rewrite of the tail end of Star Maker: advanced beings, including the flames, join into a single cosmic mind that then searches the total vision of reality. This time, though, the revelation of the total indifference of the Maker (who, while not quite absent, is not as personified as it is in Star Maker) is catastrophic and the cosmic mind collapses. Star Maker ended with a little homily on the significance of humanity’s efforts; “The Flames” ends with the flames deciding that a Loving God is such a great idea that He must exist, and stupidly start the whole process up again, killing the narrator in the process for questioning them.

All this comes as a shock after the first two parts, which had alluded to the flames’ abstract spirituality but had only used it as a differentiating point between their minds and human emotional experience. Stapledon suddenly seems possessed by a need to rewrite his previous optimism from fifteen years before. The only hint of this comes late in the first segment, where, after receiving a noetic emotional experience from the flames (a great idea that Stapledon abandons), the narrator thinks he’s seen God, and the flame responds, in what sounds like a rebuke from Stapledon to his younger self:

Just because you have had an exciting and clarifying experience you persuade yourself that you must have had a revelation of the heart of the universe.

It’s tempting to see the later inversion as indicative of narrative unity, but it just doesn’t make sense. The entire cosmic mind comes out of nowhere, and Stapledon is so driven to drive it to cosmic despair that he converts the flames into religious devotees. As with most everything Stapledon wrote, there’s enough high-minded ideas flying off to distract from the incoherence, but the main message is one of repudiation of his earlier self, a rejection of human aspiration, and an embrace of Wellsian darkness. But Stapledon doesn’t have Wells’ detachment, and “The Flames” is ultimately more miserable than anything Wells wrote. Stapledon’s self-flagellation over believing in his own imagination’s “exciting and clarifying experiences” is evidently an overreaction, but it marks him as a brave, if defeated, man, and an antecedent of an entirely different tradition of science fiction.

Whiteness Theory

Claudio Puebla delivers a very extensive examination of Whiteness. Much of the site is intensely technical, but some of his broader observations bear quoting.

The “ideal white” is defined by a perfect reflection value for all wavelengths of light: “No losses means that the reflectance values are 1 for the whole wavelength range (or 100%); this defines the ideal white, a body rarely encountered in nature.”

As described on the Theory page, the “whiteness” of a shade is determined by three elements: base white, shaded white, and fluorescent white. Though observers cannot distinguish the elements in a shade, differences in any of the three elements will result in colors not matching under some lighting conditions (“metamerism”). Two colors gauged at the same level of “whiteness” may be metameric along any of three axes.

White’s lightness makes it extremely useful where visibility and contrast are important. Puebla states that this has led to “the use of color mixing techniques as a means to increase the perceived whiteness is quite widespread in the industrial areas of paper, textiles, detergents and plastic.”

On the Assessment page, he describes how mixing varies amongst cultures:

Considering now the personal taste for certain whiteness it can be said that this varies with cultural background of the observer as well with the final application of the white object.

As such people with a cultural background of the Far East prefer a reddish white, Europeans prefer a neutral white, while in Latin America shaded bluish whites are preferred. On the other hand neutral bluish whites are preferred for objects suggesting freshness (like bottles for mineral water) but a reddish white are favored for white underwear garments.

Bill Dixon, Vade Mecum

The archive doesn’t seem to work right, but if you scroll down to the 12-10-02 entry of Melting Object, and you’ll see him salute trumpeter Bill Dixon. Dixon’s a great and underexposed figure, coming out of the 60’s avant-garde jazz movement and following his own path from thereon out.

I believe it has something to do with his melding of a very respectful classicism (he cites Webern especially along with the rest of the serialists) with an interest in pure timbre outside of the realm of explicit “notes.” His embrace of Austrian trumpet abuser Franz Hautzinger speaks to how open he’s been to abandoning structures of notes for pure sound. You can even hear it on his early (1964, I think, and it sounds like nothing else of the period), and rather unavailable Intents and Purposes, where his playing is far more linear, literally, than it became, but the relation of it to the bed of musicians beneath him shifts drastically and often.

But more specifically, just take the two Vade Mecum cd’s, from the early 90’s. Dixon works with two bassists, Barry Guy and William Parker, who come out of two drastically different backgrounds (English free improv and American free jazz–okay, if you like records like these, they seem drastically different). Parker plays with tonal and rhythmic ideas fairly often, while Guy is much more inclined towards extended techniques, more traditional “classical” playing, and noisy outbursts. The relationship seems to progress as the recording goes along (I’m with MO; the second disc is better), but my favorite moments are when Guy and Parker play at complete odds with one another, but Dixon bridges them. It’s beyond my ability to articulate without imprecise metaphor, but Dixon provides a well around which both Parker and Guy’s orbits can be independently sustained without crossing.

Dixon records sparingly, and the lack of flash in his playing has probably cost him as much as his personality has. But his structural concerns are, as far as I know, very different from anyone else’s, and only recently are younger musicians seeming to pick them up. (Two albums that strike me are GratHoVox and Wing Vane, but who can say?)

Saul Alinsky: Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?

The rather hermetic Wealth Bondage salutes relentless and tireless agitator Saul Alinsky. It’s always hard to take Alinsky’s writing at face value since his entire life strategy revolved around manipulating people into doing what he thought was in their best interest.

If you ask me, he was often fairly on the mark, but he was not one to waste time ingenuously explaining his agenda, unless it was going to further it. In Rules for Radicals, he seems much more interested in presenting his strategies for leading and guiding undirected masses of people than he is in explaining what particular direction he’s taking, or why. His tactics look great if, unlike me, you have an a priori political orientation, but in rejecting the concept of independent thought, he always depressed me.

Since he was determined to work with people’s existing preconceptions and value systems, which hardly cause them to act in their own best interests, the best that can be managed if two people deploy Alinsky’s tactics is a stalemate, or an arbitrary victory. And so the most recent huge of radicals remaining within people’s own experience is described in Josh Green’s “The Other War Room, as skillful a deployment of Alinsky’s tactics as any.

[PS: I think I’ve changed my mind.]

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