Saturday, November 20, 2010

freedom's just another word...

Finally finished Franzen's Freedom. It took me six weeks to read it in dribs and drabs because I've been so crazy with work and just life itself. My feeling about the book is that it's very good, but it's premature to call it great or to say whether it heralds the voice of my generation. There were definitely parts of the novel that dragged in the same way that parts of The Corrections dragged, but Franzen has a great ear and eye for the world we live in today. I like the way the novel traces a historical period of about 35 years by focussing on the life of one family's odyssey, but it perhaps lacks the philosophical depth one finds in other authors who use the same storytelling device, like Tolstoy, or Mann, or Flaubert. I suppose it's ridiculously unfair to take an author to task because he's not as brilliant as Tolstoy. In any case, as I mentioned, it's too early to know the real impact and significance of Freedom. That it's beautifully written with lovingly drawn characters is not in question. But does it really have anything of sustained importance to say? Ask me again in 15 years time...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

how'd we get here?

I don't pay much attention to politics these days, but I heard an interview with Michael Moore on Democracy Now last week that got me to thinking more deeply about some things. For all of the faults one can find with his movies - they tend to be rants that lack sustained coherence -he's such a sharp guy and a real hero, in my opinion. I have nothing but respect for him. Listening to him discuss the implications of the midterm elections was fascinating and steered my mind back into areas I've avoided for quite some time now. My thoughts are still pretty rough, and none of them are especially original, but the big question for me is how we've gotten to the political juncture we're at today in the US. How is it that corporate money has so completely corrupted both political parties? Why is it that President Obama seems to care so much about appeasing the right when he could not have been elected without an energized progressive coalition? The cynical answer - and, by the way, the largely correct answer - is that he's banking on progressives having nowhere else to turn when we get to the 2012 re-election campaign. But this begs another question: Why is there no real progressive alternative to the triangulations of the Democratic party? This is a variation on the question Werner Sombart posed more than 100 years ago in his classic, Why is there No Socialism in the United States? He pointed to a number of historical conditions as proximate causes - the absence of a feudal past and thus the weakness of class consciousness in American history; the availability of land on the western frontier, which turned would-be workers into independent proprietors with a stake in markets and capitalism; the divisive effects of slavery and its aftermath within the ranks of American workers; ethnic and national divisions due to the the absorption of immigrants from Europe; and so on and so forth. Sombart constructs a perfect storm in terms of the making of a relatively conservative working class. All of which is well and good, but the U.S. has nevertheless had periods of genuinely progressive upheaval in the face of crises and unsustainable social conditions. How did the Progressive Era occur starting at the end of the 19th Century as a response to the staggering inequities of the Gilded Age? How did the New Deal happen in response to the Great Depression? And if these progressive periods could occur in an American historical context that would otherwise seem to militate against them, what is preventing a similar progressive period from happening today? The conditions are certainly in place, are they not? The economy has crashed and is likely to stagnate indefinitely. Unemployment is high and showing no signs of coming back to earth. America is stuck in two unwinnable wars. Many of the largest states and municipalities in the country are more or less bankrupt. A quasi-authoritarian movement is ascendant in the form of the Tea Party. The concentration of wealth at the very top is becoming more obscene, and levels of inequality today have not been seen since the 1920s... If ever there was a time for progressives to be fired up about making fundamental societal changes, it should be right now. And yet, the left is completely disorganized and dispirited, while the right is talking about more of the same laissez faire tax cuts and deregulation that caused all the problems we face today. I've had my head in the sand for months now because looking at newspapers and watching the news on TV is just too damn depressing and scary. The level of debate and conversation is utterly infantile. It upsets me. I can't take it. I'd rather drink some wine, smoke a little doobie wah, and pretend like it's not happening. But it is happening, and it'll only get worse if people like me - educated, concerned, humane people - don't get involved. But how does one get involved? What does one do? I can't face the prospect of phone banking for MoveOn or of holding some kind of potluck at my house to raise money. I don't want those fucking people in my house, freaking out my cats, tracking their dirt all over my nice hardwood floors. Isn't there something else I can do that doesn't involve spending lots of money and/or interacting with the public? I guess there isn't, really. Maybe I'm not the right person for the job. I'd rather think in broad generalities and report my brilliance here on my blog, even though nobody reads it... So getting back to the initial question, what is missing today that existed at the turn of the 20th Century and again in the 1930s? The only answer that makes any sense to me is a strong union movement. A quick check of the facts reveals the following: In 1953, more than one-third of the American workforce (35.7%) was unionized. In 2008, only a little more than one in ten American workers were unionized. Between 1983 and 2008, the level of workforce unionization in the U.S. dropped from about 20% to 12%. There's no organized political force in place to pressure the Democratic party and hold Obama's feet to the fire. In order for anything drastic to happen, someone or something will have to encourage and facilitate unionization. I don't know who or what it will be - maybe another even more cataclysmic crash? - but it's the only way I can see things really changing in a meaningful way. ...When I was a graduate student I read a great essay by Claus Offe about one of the fundamental structural differences between capitalists and workers. Capitalists, Offe argues, have a built in means of coherent organization simply by virtue of being capitalists and being governed by nothing other than profits. The profit motive places them fundamentally at odds with workers. Workers don't have this built-in structural advantage. Their interests are at odds with those of their employers, but only to a certain degree because if capitalists don't achieve profits they shed workers. So from the point of view of the worker, which is it? Should they be anti-capitalist? Should they be pro-capitalist Or should they somehow straddle the divide? The ambiguity of working class interests necessitates voluntary organization and political struggle within the class itself. The intra-class struggle within the class struggle, as my dissertation advisor used to call it. Unions have traditionally been the organizations carrying out this dual struggle. Without unions, workers don't know what their interests are beyond doing what their told to do and keeping their jobs. This to me is the situation we find ourselves in today. There is no coherent working class in America. The political landscape, along with the culture and all other aspects of the public sphere, are completely and totally dominated by the corporations. To the extent that workers even reflect on their interests, they assume them to be identical to corporate interests. And as they become increasingly exploited and alienated and scared, there's no organization in place to help them both articulate and understand why their lives are so fucking hard. They have no real way of developing class based solidarity with other workers So they find answers to their questions in a media edifice that presents the corporate point of view as self-evident, and they find a modicum of self-esteem in religious fairy tales, gun ownership, and feelings of superiority over the Other. ...There are those who will say that voting is the way to make change, and if you don't vote you can't complain. This line of reasoning was always simplistic, but it's never been a more asinine thing to say than it is today. Voting really doesn't matter much when the choice is between two parties completely beholden to the corporations. Of course Obama has moved to the right. Should we really be surprised? There's nothing pulling him in the other direction. Voting will only matter when the workers in this country begin to get organized again, and who knows whether, when or how that will happen?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

she comes in colours

I want to take a moment to rhapsodize in a free associating manner about a marvelous woman who's been helping me with my cats for a number of years now, the lovely Trudy Walker. My older cat, Polly, is a sweetheart, but she is preternaturally shy and scared, and her delicate emotional composition seems to spill over into her physical well being. A friend of mine complained once that Polly is a one-person cat. I don't really see what the problem with this is, as long as the one person is me. Without warning, however, she stops eating every few years and loses a bunch of weight. Aside from the emotional toll this takes on me - Polly and her nephew, Vito, have often felt like all I've got in this world - Polly's hunger strikes are especially vexing because doctors tend to stress her out mightily, which in turn makes it even more difficult to get her to start eating again. It's a very unpleasant cycle. I've learned over the years that Polly should only see a vet if the situation is critical. It's best for me to try and nurse her back to health myself when it's at all possible. Trudy has helped me do this on several occasions, and I would be a basket case without her. Often times the at-home care involves giving Polly subcutaneous fluids, which I would never be able to do myself because it requires sticking a needle into her scruff. I can't do that. So I end up holding Polly in my lap while Trudy applies the needle. ...Each time this refusing to eat thing has happened, my mind has traveled to my default option, i.e. the worst-case, catastrophic scenario, and I've found myself contemplating what my life will be like without my sweet Polly, the seemingly massive void her passing will leave in my life, not having her around when the world seems so crazy and fucked and the only source of comfort available to me is the tenderness I feel when she and Vito are asleep with me on my pillow, buzzing in my ears in beautiful, mesmerizing stereo... But during each of Polly's hunger strikes, Trudy has been there for me, with her kindness, her responsiveness, her empathy, and her serious know-how in matters of feline health. I know there will come a time when Polly will check out for real, and I try to prepare myself for this as best I can, but so far Trudy has managed each time to pull something out of her top hat that gets Polly back on track. Today I rushed home and met Trudy during my lunch hour so we could give Polly some fluids. Polly hasn't eaten much in the last week and she's been looking very thin and frail. Trudy brought this special food. It's extremely pungent. I don't know what the hell is in the stinky stuff, and frankly I don't want to know. Trudy suggested I try feeding some of it to Polly. I was skeptical and feeling a bit morose about the Polly's prospects, but I put the plate down next to her and looked away for a few moments.
When I looked back at her - presto magico! - she was chowing the stuff down with a furiousness that caused an overwhelming wave of relief to wash over my whole body. I felt like skipping down my block, like some Angus Young. Polly still has a long way to go. She's not out of the woods yet. But I am so grateful to Trudy for this breakthrough that I don't even know how to express what I'm feeling with words. And what's even more amazing to me is that Trudy always seems embarrassed when I pay her what she apparently thinks is too much for the inconvenience of coming to my house in the middle of the day. She doesn't realize that she could ask me for 10 times as much as I pay her and I'd still feel like I was getting a great deal. You just can't put a price on providing your pets with loving care. I told Trudy today that she is quite possibly the only person I know who is not motivated by money. It's a remarkably appealing quality for a person to have, especially in this world we live in, and in these times. I feel so lucky to have a friend like Trudy. God bless her. This is my small way of saying thanks...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

an assignment

I've got this long-term homework assignment I need to do over the next year or so for a photography exhibit my mother is putting together at a museum in New York City. The theme of the exhibit is New York at Night, and she's asked me to write a piece about music. I don't know whether this is her way of throwing me a bone - surely there are better writers than me to do something like this - or whether she's genuinely interested in what I mihgt have to say about music in the context of nighttime New York. I guess it doesn't matter one way or the other. It doesn't feel like a bone because I really wouldn't care if she asked somebody else to write it. It almost feels like I'm doing this for her instead of vice versa. There would have been a time when I'd feel ashamed of doing something that might be construed the result of nepotism or whatever, but I'm so removed from my mom's professional life at this point that the only real question left for me is whether or not I want to write the piece. And I do, provided I can do it on my own terms. This is actually a big if because I'm not sure my mom is at all familiar with my writing style - my voice, as it were - at least when it comes to writing something like this. I have a sneaking suspicion that she would want me to write the kind of piece that draws attention to the confidence, well roundedness, and erudition of the writer, when, in fact, my style tends to do the exact opposite, not because I'm a sad sack or because I have some irritating need to wallow in my own frailty and misery, but rather because I find it easier and more appealing to be true to myself, as opposed to sounding like some overeducated asshole who writes for the New Yorker. At the same time, I don't want to write something that embarrasses my mom, nor do I want to recreate the mother-son dynamic I've worked so hard to eradicate from my life, wherein nothing I ever do is quite what she wanted or good enough to exist in the rarefied air she breathes on the upper Eastside of Manhattan. ...I think what I will have to do is tell her that I intend to write something that might be a bit different than what she'd expect, and she can use it or not. In the meantime, I can use the space I have here on my blog to work out my ideas. At the very least, I'll have something that I hopefully like at the end of it all. It'd be pretty cool if my mom decides to use it since there will, I assume, be a book for the show, and the piece I write could potentially be included. But that's getting way ahead of the game...

Some random ideas to get the ball rolling... The Velvet Underground were the ultimate New York at Night band. There's very little daylight in their music. I first became aware of them in 9th grade. I had a massive crush on a 10th grade punker girl, Ingrid, who wore a Velvet Underground pin on her herringbone winter overcoat. I was still strictly a Van Halen-AC/DC-Led Zep kinda guy at this point, probably late 1982 or early 1983. I had no ready-made entry point with Ingrid, but I was obsessed with her. I liked the way she always seemed to be alone. I identified with it, and it also made her seem available. I figured buying a Velvet Underground record might be a smart investment, one that would pay dividends if I really applied myself. So I went to the Tower Records on Broadway near NYU and purchased a reissue copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico. I think I want to build the narrative from here. Whatever my initial motivations may have been, hearing The Velvet Underground and Nico marked a definite turning point in my life, one in which my ear moved away from conventional rock - today it's called Classic Rock - and towards punk rock. The VU oozed an attitude I'd never really experienced in listening to the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles... It was more detached, critical, cynical and arty, but it was all these things before they became the annoying postures they are today, where there's nothing but posture, nothing, as Baudrillard says, that isn't a simulation of a simulation. They were part of a much darker milieux, the flip side of the 60s I had known via Jimi Hendrix, Crosby Stills and Nash, and the Jefferson Airplane. It's hard to believe that The Velvet Underground and Nico came out several months before the Summer of Love. I didn't really think of things in these terms when I first heard it, but I knew it was a 60s record and that it was different from the 60s I had known and reverred growing up. Heroin, be the death of me... The record made me want to explore more, learn more, and become more conversant with punk. It also made me fall more hopelessly in love with Ingrid. ...I think that's a good start. I need to tie it in with New York at night. I also want to show the VU''s 'spiritual' connection to the New York punk explosion of the 70s. This will require some research.