Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

Mar
03

Find me @ Brutish&Short

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Jun
27

The context:

What’s described below happened a few minutes ago (about 3:25–I’m writing this at about 3:50), as I was walking down Yonge on my way from the Queen streetcar to the Go Bus terminal at Union Station, intending to catch the 3:40 back to Markham. I’m wearing a forest-camo tee, new jean shorts, Blundstones and my headphones, and carrying a Penguin satchel in which I’ve got my laptop and some books. At King, I pass a group of eight police officers. I’m listening to a podcast. Halfway down the block I realize that two of them are calling after me and jogging lightly to catch up, a man and a woman. I stop and take off my headphones.The female officer asks, not in an unfriendly way, where I’m going. I tell her Union Station to catch a bus up to Markham. She says she thinks the station is closed (it isn’t, but I don’t know this for sure at the time).”Really?” I ask. “You sure? I figured the subway would be, but I didn’t think the Go Bus terminal was.” She says that she isn’t sure. She asks me if she can search my bag. I ask her if she’s asking. She says she’s asking. I say alright, but that I’m not thrilled about it. I open my bag. She asks me to take out my laptop. I do. Satisfied, she says I can put it back. In addition to my laptop, I have 4 books in my bag. She takes out the fourth book, which is called Antwerp. It’s a small, black hardcover, plain except for two gold strips cut like stencils to outline the letters of the words “Antwerp” and “Roberto Bolaño.” On the back, in gold print, is the translator’s name and a quote from Bolaño about the book.

“Ansterd?” She’s trying to read it upside down.

“Antwerp. It’s a city in Belgium.”

She reads the quote from the back out loud: “The only novel that doesn’t embarrass me is Antwerp.” She hands it back to me. “You’ve got a lot of books in your bag.” Her voice is still cheerful but that statement carried an air of judgment, or it reminded me of the possibility of judgment.

“Yep.”

She pulls out another book—this one has a pull-quote from “New Republic” at the base of the cover declaring the author to be “The most dangerous philosopher in the West.” Beneath a title like  Living in the End Times, there’s no doubt that that seemed ominous. I feel culpable as I see her eyes tracking the line and her expression tick a notch towards concerned. And then I’m upset that I feel culpable for carrying a book on Yonge Street for reasons completely independent of the G20. I resolve that I’ll refuse to justify myself if she says anything, but she doesn’t comment. Instead, she hands the book back to me and asks, “What have you got in your pockets?”

“My wallet, iPod and cell phone.”

“Can I see?”

I’m really finding this invasive. I say as much.

The second police officer: “You know there are 20 presidents in the city right now, right?”

I’ve started to shake a bit. I want to tell him something like “Can’t do anything about that, now, can we?” but I don’t. Instead, I say something like that I do know there are a lot of world leaders in the city, but that I’m over a block from the security cordon and am not going to get any closer to it, that the terminal is right at the bottom of the street and that they’ll be able to see if I go anywhere else, and finally that, considering our distance from the security area, my understanding is that they need reasonable grounds to demand to search a private citizen.  He says something vague about how there have been “incidents.” I ask him if there have been more today. I’m actually curious about this and concerned, and I think my tone conveys it, at least judging from the reaction of the first, more friendly police officer. She replies conversationally, saying something like “unfortunately, yes.”

The other guy isn’t down for small talk. “So, can you show us what’s in your pockets?”

I ask him if he’s asking. Throughout the whole exchange I’m very conscious of staying polite and keeping my voice calm. The friendly police officer clarifies that they’re asking, and so I say that I would prefer not to. She asks me if, in that case, I would mind if she accompanied me to the bus. I say that I wouldn’t, so we start walking.

As we’re walking, I ask her what happened at the incidents she mentioned. Before she has a chance to answer, her superior officer, K Hancock, badge # 5793, catches up to us and takes her aside to berate her for leaving her post “just like that.” I ask the hostile officer, who’s run up with K Hancock, 5793, if I can keep walking since my bus leaves at 40 minutes after the hour and that’s only ten or so minutes from now (I take my cellphone out of my pocket to show him). The hostile police officer says no and tells me to wait.

Missing the bus means I’ll have to wait around the station for an extra hour, and I think my frustration at the prospect comes across in my expression. The officer says something like that he doesn’t like my attitude. I don’t really know how to respond so I just shrug. I wasn’t a fan of his attitude either, in case that hasn’t been clear.

K Hancock, badge # 5793, comes up to me and starts to explain in a friendly but authoritative voice that there have been “incidents” and that he would like to search me because “people wear clothing.” This was how he put it: people wear clothing. It’s not that his meaning wasn’t obvious to everyone present, but jeesh. Had I been 18, I would have been all over the opportunity a statement like that presented. I might have launched into an argument that his having to put it in such a lame way betrayed a recognition that what he was doing was problematic, or I might have just said something smarmy like “You’ve noticed that, have you?” Alternatively, I might have just been a total puss, and submitted meekly to the search from the start. He was probably thought he was being diplomatic.

I point out that while it’s true that I’m wearing a forest-camo tee, I’m also wearing Bose headphones, which are attached to an iPod, carrying a Penguin shoulder bag, which contains a Mac laptop which I’d shown them all earlier, and that that’s not exactly anarchist wear. K Hancock, badge # 5793, agrees blandly but asks to see what’s in my pockets anyway. I say something like, if you’re asking, then no. K Hancock, badge # 5793, says “I’m not asking.” I say something like that I don’t think he has reasonable suspicion and remind him that we’re a ways away from the cordon. K Hancock, badge # 5793, tells me that people carry knives in their pockets. I tell him that I’m not carrying a knife, only my wallet, iPod and cell phone. K Hancock, badge # 5793, asks me if I have drugs. No. K Hancock, badge # 5793, makes a jerking head motion towards  a nearby alcove and says, “if you want privacy, we can go in there.” It probably wasn’t meant to be threatening, but in the moment, it was hard to keep myself from reading it that way. An image flashed through my mind of myself in the alcove, hands on the wall being shaken down by K Hancock, badge # 5793, and his hostile associate as passers-by avoid looking. Yes it’s melodramatic, but again, it’s not everyday in Toronto that one is picked from the anonymity of the sidewalk and confronted with the kind of suspicion I was being confronted with in a climate as tense as that of this weekend. But I’m still not really sure why I would need privacy to empty my pockets. I tell him again that I don’t think he has reasonable suspicion to demand a search, and that if he does have the right to demand that I submit to a search, that he explain to me the basis for that right. K Hancock, badge # 5793, says that he just explained to me that he did. It hadn’t been at all clear to me that that was what he was doing. “Yes,” he continued, “I’m demanding a search.”

I say I’ll submit to it if he gives me his badge number. K Hancock, badge # 5793, says that’s fine (obviously). So I reach into my pockets and pull out my wallet, cell phone, and iPod. I also discover a pen. I take the cap off, hold it up to them, and say something a bit petulant (in hindsight) about how it’s just a pen. I think I sighed as if I was sorry to disappoint them. If I could take anything back from the exchange it would be that, but, to their credit, they didn’t react.

The hostile police officer patted my pockets lightly, which seemed to me to be pushing the rules of engagement we’d implicitly agreed to, though at this point I wasn’t going to make a fuss.

I put my wallet cell and iPod back in my pockets, but keep the pen in hand. I pull a piece of paper out of my bag and remind K Hancock, badge # 5793, that he owes me his badge number. “5793.” As I write it down, my hand is really shaking. I’m surprised. I don’t feel like I’m as upset as the shaking suggests. On reflection, I’m kind of happy about it though. I hope it dramatized to them that being submitted to quasi-arbitrary searches on the implied threat of arrest isn’t an emotionally neutral experience for anyone. All three were watching me try to get my hand under control as I formed the numbers, the shaking making my writing even worse than it usually is, and they at this point knew I wasn’t hiding anything.  “Your name is K Hancock?” I ask, reading his nametag. He says yes. I write “K Hancock” above the badge number on my piece of paper.

“Am I okay to go?” He says yes. So I go.

At this point it’s about 3:39. Lucky for me, the bus ended up being delayed. I got there just a few seconds before it pulled out.

I’m writing this from the DVP.

The question:

In light of these circumstances, did K Hancock, badge # 5793, have the authority to demand that I submit to a search?

Update: From CTV today:

Civil libertarians were fuming after hearing Friday that the Ontario cabinet gave police the power to stop and search anyone coming within five metres of the G20 fences in Toronto for a one week period.

However, the Ministry of Community Safety says all the cabinet did was update the law that governs entry to such things as court houses to include specific areas inside the G20 fences — not outside.

A ministry spokeswoman says the change was about property, not police powers, and did not include any mention of a zone five metres outside the G20 security perimeter.

When asked today if there actually was a five-metre rule given the ministry’s clarification, Blair smiled and said, “No, but I was trying to keep the criminals out.”

I submitted a report to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Jun
27

The burning police car images have worked out very well both to publicly legitimate the cost of the security apparatus mobilized for the G20 events, and to divert the media from covering the substance of both what’s going on inside the fence, and the valid critical positions that are being represented outside of it (since that was obviously what they were going to do otherwise).

The mystery is how “10,000 uniformed police officers, 1,000 security guards, and several Canadian military forces” (wiki) arrayed against a few hundred kids (a) couldn’t protect two squad cars in the heart of the financial district and right next to the fence from being vandalized, and (b) once they were vandalized, couldn’t even get it together to spray the fire with an extinguisher or twenty. In the emblematic cultural image of a rioter, he has his arm pulled back to throw the molotov cocktail which is alight in his hand. Did they somehow not think of the contingency of having to rapidly respond to fire? Whoever made that oversight should be recognized as PRWeek’s PR Person of the Year (I made that award up for rhetorical flourish).

(hat tip for Margaret Christakos who called it yesterday)

Now let’s round up what’s what:

1. 200-or-so (update: less than 100, according to Wikipedia now, though it’s not clear where any of these estimates are coming from) kids with sticks and lighters are not that scary.

2. These 200-or-so (update: less than 100) kids are obviously both politically unsophisticated and in the wrong for exploiting the opportunity provided by the event for legitimate protest in order to destructively dramatize their fantastical self-images as badasses who are above the law.

Point 1: There’s not really much more to be said about them, no matter how many pretty pictures they were allowed to stage.

3. Inside the fence, decision makers are rounding dollar figures to higher multiples of ten than can even register the damage the vandals did.

Point 2: There’s a lot to be said about the decisions being made within the fence, both analytically and critically. So lets get over dumb people being dumb, and direct our energies to getting powerful people not to be dicks.

UPDATE: I’ve heard the “bait car” theory repeated today by a detective for York Region. No details beyond that the person said the cars had been stripped by the police of valuables (computer equipment, weaponry, etc.) before they were left. This isn’t necessary a solid source as the person wouldn’t specify how they knew this. But it’s enough that I would really like to see some of the security organizers’ strategic planning documentation. On the likelihood of that being released any time soon, see this Walrus article from January. Sample quotes:

Filing an ATI request is supposed to be straightforward: fork over $5 and petition the appropriate government agency to release specific files. Requests can be submitted by any Canadian seeking the kind of hard information rarely found in the press releases and talking points favoured by communications personnel and high-ranking officials. In the past few years, the law has been used, for example, by the Vancouver Sun to show how a suspected carcinogen banned in pesticides is still available in some bottles of lice treatment shampoo used mainly on children. Another recent ATI-based report by the Canadian Press revealed that abandoned explosives from bygone military training exercises (including World War II–era bombs, anti-tank mortars, and even torpedoes) might be scattered across more than two dozen native reserves countrywide.

When an ATI petition is filed, it initially goes to an access coordinator. The ATI officer’s job is to work with the department holding the documents, in order to decide how much information must be released. When amber lighting happens, the request works its way to the minister’s office, where it stalls until approval is granted — or not. When Hodgins worked as an adviser with the Treasury Board Secretariat, he often dealt with access coordinators. “They were very much under stress to redact information that could be politically embarrassing,” he says.

The backlog of complaints about departmental delays has grown so large that getting the information commissioner to resolve an access grievance can now mean a two-year wait. And in the absence of a ruling from the information commissioner, petitioners have no recourse to the court system either. “There’s less information being released by government than ever before,” says former information commissioner Robert Marleau, “and that’s alarming.”

May
25

This response by Popper to the Frankfurt School critique of his approach in The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology was recently posted to the philosophy sub-reddit, under the title “Could someone help me find an article by Karl Popper mocking the Frankfurt School?” (subtitled “It was posted here a few months ago and I believe it was by Karl Popper, poking fun at Frankfurt School philosopher’s terrible writing style”), which seemed really gross to me. More so after I actually read Popper’s article. I put enough work into my response to his response that I thought I’d post it independently.

~

Responding to The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, Popper sustains, to use Habermas’ description of the positivists’ attitude, “a systematic pretence of inability to understand” (see this article from the book Popper is responding to). This pretense is nowhere better animated than in his snarky, obtuse, and wrong interpretation of a phrase by Adorno which he takes as his principal example.

Adorno says, as Popper translates it:

“Societal totality does not lead a life of its own over and above that which it unites and of which it, in its turn, is composed.”

Popper claims to think the sentence is just making the obvious / deliberatively inert claim that…

“Society consists of social relationships.”

Generously, that captures half of it. What Adorno is actually saying, is something like…

“Society IS its constitutive social relationships. Its “life” is defined by them, but at the same time, these social relationships are shaped into a coherent totality by it. Neither society, nor its constitutive relationships have any /external/ reference point from which to found self-criticism.”

I’ll grant that that’s a lot to read from this sentence, but if you actually read the article, without pretending to be stupid as a textual interpreter (which is how Popper seems to understand being “objective”), you’ll see that these ignored meanings absolutely have a seat in the above sentence. But to break things down, there are two key elements of Adorno’s original meaning that Popper loses:

  1. The implicit time dimension. The relationship between society and its constitutive relationships is a dynamic, dialectical one (meaning that it’s shaped by ongoing implicit and explicit debates). Saying “society consists of social relationships” does nothing to capture this time dimension that’s so critical to Adorno’s thinking.
  2. That there’s nothing else that defines society’s ideational dimension but its internal, dialectical relationships’ interpretations of material reality. Popper’s formulation leaves open the possibility that we may stumble on interpretive “hypotheses” emerging spontaneously from nowhere really at all (“”We all get our values, or most of them, from our social environment; often merely by imitation, simply by taking them over form others; sometimes by a revolutionary reaction to accepted values; and at other times—though this may be rare—by a critical examination of these values and of possible alternatives.” p. 159). He has no proposed account of what could found these “rare” “critical examination” of values, and no interest in seriously “critically investigating” the “possible alternatives” for what might motivate such critical examinations when they occur (a project that, by contrast, is at the heart of Frankfurt School Critical Theory—Habermas’ Public Sphere book is exactly a critical examination of this problem).

Stripping 2 follows naturally from stripping 1. You can’t provide an account for the rise of criticism without admitting a historical dimension. Popper has no interest in incorporating history into his positive thinking. Why? Because it complicates matters too much, revealing the social world as that much more dynamic and complex than the nicely controlled lab conditions of the natural sciences that he fancies to emulate.

His quasi-fetishistic elevation of the natural sciences above the social sciences is obvious, and obviously not particularly rationally grounded: “In the so-called social sciences and in philosophy, the degeneration into impressive but more or less empty verbalism has gone further than in the natural sciences.” (160) — Even taking his “more or less empty” accusation at face value, why, Karl? Because, for whatever reason, social scientists are more concerned with impressing people than natural scientists? Why is that? Because they’re just worse people? No investigation, or recognition of a responsibility to justify the claim is forthcoming. How scientific.

By contrast, any Frankfurt Schooler will tell you right away: the here operative difference between the natural and social sciences stems from the reality that social problem are rendered that much more complicated to study because the social scientist herself is implicated in them. While the natural scientist has the luxury of looking at her object through the microscope’s viewfinder, the social scientist is in the petri dish. She must therefore do as much work to control for herself—understand her place within the dialectic, and the biases that her position introduces—as she must actually analyzing the social phenomena that interest her.

I encourage those interested in this debate to actually read what Popper is responding to (translations of the relevant essays from the book are available here). But don’t follow Popper’s lead and pretend to be stupid as you do so.

It’s also a straw man to claim that Habermas and Adorno have no interest in the natural sciences (as Popper strongly implies in his concluding paragraph). If Adorno wasn’t interested in the natural sciences, why would the Dialectic of the Enlightenment begin with a broad and serious engagement with Bacon? If Habermas wasn’t interested in science, would he have used it as a model how we should respond to post-modernism? Adorno and Habermas, like Marx and Engels, recognize science and technology as essential tools for social emancipation in the context of modernity, but they have a real concern, following Weber, about ideology that raises these tools above the human subject.

Ultimately, Popper’s response, IMHO, is pretty flimsy. He may like to be breastfed, but I don’t think it’s a mark against the Frankfurt School that they don’t oblige him. Our social discourse plays enough to the passified and lazy who read only to affirm their preconceived ideological views.

I tend to think of the best of the Continental thinkers as taking the attitude described by William Carlos Williams in January Morning:

All this — was for you, old woman. I wanted to write a poem that you would understand. For what good is it to me if you can’t understand it? But you got to try hard —

[hat tip to Starnino for that]

To paraphrase, if we’re going to talk, let’s talk like adults, and like it’s worth something. Amirite? Amirong? Why?

~

Find the pretty limited but interesting discussion the above provoked here. The most substantive exchange was this one:

Snuki: So would it have been OK for Popper to paraphrase Adorno as saying: ‘Society is constitutive societal relationships and no more. These develop in time”?

Discursor: “… These/—meaning society AND its constitutive societal relationships—/develop /dialectically/ in time” might be okay, provided he was prepared to then offer a fair definition of what dialectics are to Adorno.

Snuki: I do think that Adorno is needlessly obscure. I mean, if the paraphrase I gave is OK then he really could have done it in a simpler way. Of course, he admits to obscurity, but claims it is a feature, not a bug. I think it is a bug.

Discursor: His concern is that it’s very easy to obliviously or exploitatively misunderstand something that’s put too simply. Readers are not challenged to actually reflect on the text critically. Considering the vulgarization of Nietzsche’s much more readable philosophy at the hands of his sister and the Nazis, I don’t blame him.

Snuki: I know, he wants the reader to experience interpretation as a creative act. (Derrida stole that justification from Adorno). Personally I think clarity leaves you less likely to be misunderstood, not more. But anyway.

Discursor: I don’t think it’s prudent to generalize. For some things, yes, simplicity (clarity is a pre-loaded word) does reduce the odds of being misunderstood, but I think for complex and politically charged topics to which readers can be expected to bring very powerful preconceptions and biases, simplicity often amounts to vulnerability to interpretive exploitation. EDIT: As a sidepoint, “interpretation as a creative act” isn’t really what Adorno’s about. He’s still a modernist. He’s more about interpretation as a critically engaged act.

May
13

It was built to be a stealth tank
but it wanted to be a princess
but no prince ever noticed it—
upon shining white stallions
they just rode right by

Because it was a stealth tank
it was too stealthy to be a princess

It killed itself
but nobody noticed
it was too stealthy

/poem

(Dedicated to thiscrab)

May
11

Last week for Influency we read Sachiko Murakami’s Governor General Award-shortlisted book The Invisibility Exhibit. The book is, as described by Jon Paul Fiorentino…

…one woman’s fiercely intelligent response to one of society’s most tragic and pressing dilemmas. Murakami reveals and dismantles the rhetoric of the all-too-familiar missing woman narrative. The Invisibility Exhibit is an articulate and expertly rendered protest against the violence of erasure.

It made me think of another writer who chose to engage the topic of the women caught in the path of, and mangled by the underside of the global economic system (the side of urban poverty and the worst blight of drug dependency linked to prostitution and criminalization): Roberto Bolaño in 2666—epigraphed “an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” and whose English translation was published, like the Invisibility Exhibit, in 2008. The fourth part of Bolaño’s book begins with the sentence, “The girl’s body turned up in a vacant lot in Colonia Las Flores,” and from there is less a narrative, more a machine-gun assault on the reader with disappearance or rape or death after disappearance or rape or death, each clinically described and accompanied by personal background (all drawn from actual police records of disappearances and murders in Ciudad Juárez, “where more than 400 women [had] similarly disappeared in the [previous] 15 years“) rapid-fired at the reader for almost three hundred pages, interrupted only intermittently by accounts of the everyday lives of people in and around the fictional Mexican border city of Santa Theresa. The only person who both grasps what’s happening and seems to respond appropriately, is a mystic on a daytime talk show on state TV, who, late in the segment, goes into a trance and begins wailing:  “It’s Santa Teresa! It’s Santa Theresa! I see it clearly now. Women are being killed there. They’re killing my daughters. My daughters! My daughters! She screamed as she threw an imaginary shawl over her head and Reinaldo felt a shiver descend his spine like an elevator, or maybe rise, or both at once. The police do nothing, she said after a few seconds, in a different voice, deeper and more masculine, the fucking police do nothing, they just watch, but what are they watching? What are they watching?” (436-7 of the English hardcover).

I wondered if Murakami might be playing, in real, Canadian life, the role that that mystic plays in the universe of 2666. A woman of esoteric craft articulating in human terms what has needed to be articulated in human terms, what we as readers—alert (bullet-ridden) observers with our hands tied—have been thirsting to have articulated in human terms, but that hasn’t been because of systemic cynicism and/or numbness and/or belief that everyone would rather talk about other things and wouldn’t it be an imposition not to comply with their presumed wishes?

To me the analogy of poet as mystic is useful in the sense that both contemporary poet and contemporary mystic speak from a position of eroded power, but are in some sense strengthened in their commentary for that marginality. They’re less corruptible for being less attractive to those people and things that tempt, more able to empathize with, for being closer to, those so marginalized that they can’t really speak on their own behalf at all—the invisible women Murakami is prodding both herself and us to empathize with by entering the Invisibility Exhibition ourselves: “you can actually feel like you aren’t even there” (76).

Poets and mystics also might share a kinship in their distrustful relationship with economic rationality as an externally imposed, ordering force. Their antagonism to the compartmentalizing and reducing power of the system’s instrumental rationality pushes them to pick up objects that are difficult for the system’s instrumental rationality to categorize and systemically reify; things, for example, that are hard to call large or small—the phenomenon of the disappearing women of the downtown east side / Santa Theresa. From a certain vantage point (that of the women and the people who actively empathize with them), nothing could be bigger. But from the vantage point of the mainstream discourse, it’s the tragic but regrettable crime of a crazy dude with a pig farm out in the suburbs, and aren’t we glad to have solved the problem of him!

The one-foot-in and one-foot-out quality of Murakami’s position seems to me to be highly analogous to the position of the mystic as public actor. We may be uncomfortable with the mystic analogy for its association with booga booga, because the women Murakami is writing about aren’t disappearing because of booga booga, and it’s offensive to even suggest as much. But doesn’t part of us wish that the terrifying significance of Murakami’s object was just booga booga? That it could all just be explained away in terms of an inhuman monster (Pickton) now safely declawed and locked away? Murakami was insistent throughout the night that while Pickton is a part of the story, he certainly isn’t the story. Women continue to disappear.

/

YouTube recently took down a number of Hitler parodies made by remixing the subtitles on a scene from the film “Downfall.” They were taken down in response to DMCA claims by the film’s production company. This was met with glee from the ADL’s Abraham Foxman, who saw the parodies as a trivialization of Hitler. Contra Foxman, on this week’s “On the Media,” Ron Rosenbaum argued that, in fact, the parodies were picking up something already “cartoonish and trivializing” in the film itself. He makes the case that the original film served as “an exculpation of the German people by making Hitler into a kind of comic psycho monster and thus blaming all the evil of the Holocaust on Hitler and the other people in the bunker.” The relevance of this is that just like Pickton is imprisoned, Hitler is dead, and yet genocide and antisemitism as phenomena persist. And as is illustrated by the parallel rise of Fascism in Italy, Vichy France, and in movements throughout the West, it’s foolish to think that irrational (from the standpoint of any universal concept of justice) nationalism was really just a Hitler problem. But that doesn’t stop us. Our wrapping of the injustice Murakami is responding to into a tidy conceptual box and burying it with Pickton is why screams of protest against this artificial-blindness (effective invisibility) are so important, and so painful for us. We’re implicated.

/

To step back for a second, one of the first things I wondered, opening the book was what could motivate someone to take the crucial step through the unspoken social sanctions and into this universe? Murakami isn’t a super woman. As is clear in this interview, the catalyzing elements that propelled her into this issue were circumstantial and human. Not the least of which was…

…my mother has lived down there for some years.

The book is dedicated to her mother “with fierce love.”

Finding out about this direct personal connection left me feeling a bit disappointed. Part of me hoped that she was a super woman, and didn’t need the motive / sanction of having an a priori personal connection motivating / licensing her to engage this issue and bring it into the public square. If she could do it, from the same disassociated position as the rest of us, then couldn’t her example embolden us all to drop the taboos, to muster the motivation to engage this reality? But that person would have been as false as all-causing comic-psycho-monster Hitler; comic-psycho-monster Pickton.

/

But to tie it all back to the original thread, the universe that Murakami has put her foot into scares us exactly because at some level we know that it’s not just booga booga. Laid out for us on the page, we see that it’s too big to encapsulate and dismiss as booga booga, and we’re implicated in it. And isn’t the sense that they have their foot in something real and huge and powerful and unconceptualizeable and incriminating exactly what gives mystics their authority? We want to dismiss them as frauds (and many of them are), but I think that the limits we run up against as speakers in the public discourse, and their artificiality, make us all potential believers in some mystics’ claims to privileged knowledge of something hidden. I guess what I’m saying is that while a mystic might have their foot in booga booga, what interests me is the suggestion that they also might not.  Many poets, like mystics, are frauds. But the possibility that some aren’t is too important to ignore. Approved public discourse is too unsatisfying for something to not be of interest if it makes a claim to having access to something unspoken, hidden behind the curtain of liberal-bourgeois norms of politeness. Murakami makes such a claim, and its promise bears out, but I’ll get back to that. But, to stay in the realm of the general, it’s exactly this foot in what might be booga booga but what might also be real and particular and invisible-to-me-as-6-foot-6-white-male-graduate-school-educated-member-of-the-privileged-class-but-maybe-visible-to-her that gives the poet the standing to be potent in the roles, mentioned in discussion, of “embattled warrior, war resistor, … guerrilla, … terrorist, … agitator, … critic, … shit-disturber… spy, magician, trickster, acrobat.”

At the other extreme, it’s Christian Bök’s eschewing of this claim (see in particular 3:35 – 7:15ish1) to having a foot in the less quantifiable, more particular, present and subjective, might-be-booga-booga-but-might-not-be universe that accounts for why, while I share in the initial ooh and aah at the spectacle of Eunoia (that is until it occurred to me that going adequately “hard at that task, what cat can’t rant adamant, a la Bäk?”… I cheated a bit at the end there), why, the initial shock wearing off, I lost interest pretty quickly, plowed through each successive chapter / vowel with an increasing feeling of labouriousness, and have no desire to return to it ever again. Bök to me is poet as battle-scarred warrior without the mystical claim / legitimation that would stand him up as potentially anything more than just another Don Quixote, crusading so energetically (how many times did he read the dictionary?) but so fucking ineffectually against exactly those windmills the system has set up for us to rage at, goading us to the point that, like Bök seems to, we forget to care about the particular and the human; for example, the experience of witnessing the systemic creation of invisibility with as little distancing abstraction as can be managed. This is why it seems absurd to me that Bök holds himself up as Avant Garde. How can one who’s work proudly represents an exceptionally pure distillation of every means-dominating-ends, abstract-dominating-particular thing that’s Iron Cage2-entrapping in our culture, lay any credible claim to being Avant Garde? It’s a powerful critique of feudal traditionalism-for-the-sake-of-traditionalism, but in that sense, it’s maybe Arrière Garde (?)—still important if we accept what Habermas highlighted in the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere as the creeping “refeudalization” of public discourse in late capitalist society (which I, to a point, do)3—but certainly not Avant. Or maybe it’s all meant ironically, in which case, I still think my reaction is legitimate in that it would be exactly the one he’d be trying to provoke.

By contrast, Murakami’s book is powerful and provocative and mercilessly immediate in exactly the ways it should be: in its reflections on the compromised, discomfiting, and only quasi-legitimate experience of being witness, and through that, with the world that she’s witnessing, not as a crime or public health statistician or as a technocrat of some other sort, but as a poet and present human being. So buy that shit and read it. Here’s the link again.

/brain-dump

——

1 Parenthetically, check out the comments below the video for a great example of the bourgeois sadism discussed a couple of posts ago. Two of the three commenters, placing themselves firmly on the side of the Bök—not coincidentally, by far the dominant commercial actor among Canadian, if not North American, poets this side of Atwood, Cohen, or Ondaatje (am I wrong?)—revel in using Starnino’s “”….um,..uh, um,..er….um'””s as grounds to dismiss the validity of what he’s saying… so much easier than revealing themselves enough to argue substance (not that I think his idea of his poetry in history is particularly more robust than Bök’s, but that’s a whole different thing).

2 From Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (pages 181-2 in the edition I linked to):

For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic condtions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment”. But Fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

…To-day the spirit of religious asceticism—whether finally, who knows?—has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer… Where the fulfillment of the calling cannot directly be related to the highest spiritual and cultural values, or when, on the other hand, it need not be felt simply as economic compulsion, the individual generally abandons the attempt to justify it at all…. the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport.

No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”

3 Also parenthetically, in response to Bök’s cri de coeur in the “cage match” that we don’t contemplate microwaves adequately, in general he’s probably right, we probably don’t do a good enough job incorporating into our vocabularies the most current technological words, but it struck a chord of personal irony for me, having written a quasi-parodic meditation on the microwave a solid half-decade ago (originally for a cultural studies elective). Generally though, this sentiment about the lack of poems about the moon landing or the microwave seem very Arriere Garde to me, critiquing the resurgence of feudal, un-self-reflexive, passified being from the standpoint of our powerful tools. It seems to me that there weren’t great epics about the moon landing precisely because the post-war 20th century was an era of a consolidated mass culture; when the refeudalizing forces Habermas was writing about were truly at their shameless peak (he wrote the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in ’62, which was really before the fragmenting culture war hit its stride with the student, civil rights, anti-war, and women’s movements in the late decade).

May
05

Not sure if this adds up yet, but I need to get to Murakami, so I’m just going to send it.

—-

Though there were a number of clues (the back cover comes right out and says it), on first reading it didn’t really occur to me to think of Susan Holbrook’s Joy is So Exhausting as a work whose politics should be taken seriously. I caught many of the references to queerness, and the name-drops of Peter Mansbridge and Ian Hanomansing (23), of our Prime Minister in the insistently Sudoku-ed headline “Harper proposes free vote on same sex marriage issue ” (36). I caught how insistently themes of sex and sexual identity made their presence felt in the book. Still though, the presence of references to sex and politics isn’t enough to persuade me that a cultural artifact’s politics should be taken seriously. And in the case of this book it was especially difficult for me because it seemed so silly in so many instances.

I think that that was the reason why, on first reading, I had a hard time buying into the work; why I found myself often skimming forward in the longer poems, jumping to the end searching for the epiphany that would tie everything together, unlock for me the deeper meaning structuring the progression within the poems, and maybe structuring the book as a total work. It occurred to me that it might be that Holbrook’s political beef might lie with something pre-narrative (not quite the right word), probably language itself, which could account for the lack of what I might intuitively recognize as an exoterically available meaning structure (how’s that for ugly?). But I didn’t trust her enough yet to trust myself to invest the labour it would take to read her for it, not confident that I wouldn’t just be projecting patterns. And the possibility seemed to be belied by the work having been framed by Holbrook by joy (exhausting as it may be) and filled with silliness. Most of the most brilliant figures I know about who famously saw and really felt the oppressiveness of the power structures embedded in language had also been famously bleak, and if funny, only wryly so. That language dominates us is a bleak thing to acknowledge unless looked at just so.

“I saw in this book an anarchic paradox in which the constraints and repetitions imposed on the poems by the author became their vehicles for freedom and uniqueness” (Mooney’s talk, par. 2).

Both for its contents and for the enthusiasm of its delivery, Jacob Mooney’s talk was an eye opener. As in the quote above, he advanced the idea that Holbrook’s procedures were not limiting, but vehicles for free artistic expression. He pointed out how easy it was to miss the labour and thought that had to go into every one of the mountain of decisions her procedures confronted her with.

I buy that, but still it seemed to me that it was those poems that were the least obvious about their procedures that read as the most free, or “serious” as another participant put it, referring to “Really Just,” the collection’s opener. But that they were also the least thigh-slappingly funny. To account for this, Mooney said something like that we’re either laughing at the humiliation of the poem, or we’re in a position of sharing the uncertainty and hazards with the poem, and don’t laugh. Interesting but unsatisfying. This may be true for Mooney. It seems very plausible that a poet would be in the habit of personifying the concept of the poem in general, and as a result, be delighted by its humiliations, or empathize with its struggles. But I don’t think most people are so comfortable with the form of “poem” to do that. And stepping back, why should we care about the abstract form of “poem”? Am I wrong to suggest that “poem” is completely meaningless without its content? Undeserving of anything from us? I don’t really think that’s controversial.

I propose another interpretive route. Surveying American mass culture in the 40s, as refugees from Germany, Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno observe:

Laughter, whether reconciled or terrible, always accompanies the moment when a fear is ended. It indicates a release, whether from physical danger or from the grip of logic. Reconciled laughter resounds with the echo of escape from power; wrong laughter copes with fear by defecting to the agencies which inspire it. It echoes the inescapability of power… To moments of happiness laughter is foreign; only operettas, and now films, present sex amid peals of merriment. But Baudelaire is as humorless as Hölderlin… What is infernal about wrong laughter is that it compellingly parodies what is best, reconciliation. Joy, however, is austere (Dialectic of the Enlightenment, 1987 ed.: 112-3).

What’s described is a structure of three related distinctions: laughter versus not laughter, and good (reconciled) laughter versus “wrong” laughter, and the entire structure, for being fundamentally reactive to fear, is shown to be in contrast with joy. I find this persuasive. and I suspect, based on her response to my question about the political implication of the laughter in her most transparently procedural poems (something like “I’d imagine its quite disturbing”), that Holbrook might share a proclivity to find it persuasive as well. As a side note, in contrast to Mooney’s account, this approach puts power structures explicitly implicating people front and centre in its understanding of humour.

How do we account for the simultaneous presence of joy, laughter, and politics in her poetry, using this typology?

Maybe she’s not trying to subvert language generally, but really only language forms that carry with them some kind of implied institutional authority (corporately-written instructions on how to insert a tampon, or train a puppy; professionally written things like the home-inspection document and writing guide mashed together with Walt Whitman’s authoritative voice in the poem on page 61, etc.) Taking as a case “Insert,” which seemed to generate the most discussion in class: there’s delight, but it’s very pointedly and not subtly subversive. Can it be said to be a joyous poem? She certainly takes satisfaction in the sculpted details, notably the line which she underlined last week “The tomboy should now be comfortably inside you” (15), but that line, even now, strikes me like a particularly sharply constructed sandcastle juxtaposed to the receding destructive power of a tide. The the poem seems so overwhelmingly to be about and for the subversion of the piece of  symbolically charged tampon instruction text, that the beautiful little things built in its wake are hard to appreciate on first read. But they are beautiful and rich, and not really funny, or at least not funny in the same way as the humour of the poem’s conceit (which is mostly, I think, delight to see the poet overcome the frightening power of the original text). The funny machine generates destabilization in language and opportunities that Holbrook seizes expertly. She then sculpts these shards of loosened clay into truly joyful monuments of free expression, which you can only see once the shadow of the machine recedes, or, maybe more accurately, when your eyes adjust to its continued looming presence.

To put it more simply, I take slight issue with one of Mooney’s characterizations: I don’t think that the procedures are the “vehicles” for Holbrook’s freedom. I think that it’s with the detritus left in the procedure’s wake that she’s comes alive as a free creative subject, using them to express things that come from her life, from outside of the poetry itself. In these spaces she expresses something lived; something notably including but not limited to the experience of new motherhood, which animates “Nursery,” the poem that I think was both the most joyful, and in some senses austere–a document of roving one-sentence impressions of her world through time through the simple but significant lens of moments breast feeding.

Apr
30

Eric Sasson, from my writing group in Brooklyn, recently published a short story we workshopped called “The Margins of Tolerance” at the Nashville Review. It’s awesome and about being gay in New Jersey. And other stuff. There’s nudity. Teaser:

We used to have sex on the dining table. We used to drop to our knees in the kitchen, fuck like convicts against the bathroom walls. The curtains of our apartment in Chelsea would be only half-drawn in whatever room we were in, a mocking gesture towards modesty. It made Parker hot to think one of our neighbors might be watching.

Read it.

This is Eric btw ->

Apr
28

2010 UPDATE: I originally posted this on July 16th of 2009, but am refreshing it for its relevance to the conversation at the Influency salon this week, spurred by Susan Holbrook’s Joy is So Exhausting, about the power dynamics of humour in poetry. I’ll elaborate on this suggested relevance in my response to her book, which I’ll try to post by Sunday.  ❤

~

Confronted with a laughing audience at a Charlie Chaplin film, Theodore Adorno is profoundly disturbed. As he writes to his friend Walter Benjamin in 1936:

“The laughter of the audience at a cinema—I discussed this with Max [Horkheimer], and he has probably told you about it already—is anything but good and revolutionary; instead, it is full of the worst bourgeois sadism” (Adorno, 1973: 66).

Why does it strike him as such? What does he mean?

Adorno and Horkheimer develop this idea in some detail in their theoretically expansive masterwork, The Dialectic of Enlightenment. They write:

“The triumph over beauty is completed by humor, the malicious pleasure elicited by any successful deprivation. There is laughter because there is nothing to laugh about. Laughter, whether reconciled or terrible, always accompanies the moment when a fear is ended. It indicates a release, whether from physical danger or from the grip of logic. Reconciled laughter resounds with the echo of escape from power; wrong laughter copes with fear by defecting to the agencies which inspire it. It echoes the inescapability of power. Fun is a medicinal bath which the entertainment industry never ceases to prescribe. It makes laughter the instrument for cheating happiness” (1987: 112-3).

In one sense then, such laughter is a means by which the dominated respond to the stresses of  their domination in the post-liberal capitalist system. Inversely, this laughter is induced through industrially produced amusement as a valve by means of which the dominating system depressurizes the mass experience, which is strained by the irrationality (from the perspective of living life) of the demands the system puts on those it dominates. The point is that such laughter is neither spontaneous, nor meaningful, nor free, though it is disguised as such. And it’s certainly not beautiful. As they say, the system has triumphed over human beauty.

But why label this laughter sadistic?

Individuals are distracted from the artificiality of their domination by a systemically fostered agonism. The dynamics of this agonism are described in this passage:

“The less the danger to the one on top, the more unhampered the joy in the torments he can now inflict: only through the hopeless despair of the victim can power become pleasure and triumphantly revoke its own principle, discipline. Fear averted from the self bursts out in hearty laughter, the expression of a hardening within the individual which can only be fully lived out through the collective” (1987: 88).

The system fosters a feeling of smallness and isolation, which translates into a sense, in the bourgeois subject, of real vulnerability and fear, especially from the threats to what position they’ve managed to scrape together that might lurk looking up at them resentfully below. From this position of felt vulnerability, any victory over anyone (since in a world of scarcity, there is a threat potential in any fellow consumer of resources) is cathartic. We end up with a society of people motivated, at a pre-conscious, emotional level, by a materially self-interested blood-lust that the system is set up to satisfy intermittently with these cathartic simulated victories.

This struggle is symbolically and safely played out in the banal context of a movie theatre, the victories shared in “hearty laughter” that, engaged in collectively, reinforces a kind of solidarity of victors; a solidarity that simulates the kind of kinship that is eroded through the alienating pressures inherent to capitalism, but a solidarity that is pre-linguistic, and thus pre-rational. The group is bonded not on the basis of their conscious mutual recognition as subjects, but strategically, at a brain-stem, survival-instinct level, on the basis of the elimination of a shared threat.

This bond is too ephemeral—rapidly fading and dependent on the culture industry’s products to be renewed again and again, laughing along with the crowd at movie after movie, with laugh tracks at show after show—to bear the deliberative genesis of an intersubjectively recognized critical framework (which requires trust, openness and time). In this way the mass is critically anesthetized outside of the context of productive work where its violent energy, if unified and structured by a deliberatively established critical framework, could otherwise be destabilizing or even crisis-inducing. The mass is anesthetized, and the system is immunized.

Need all laughter be sadistic?

This question is partially addressed here:

“To moments of happiness laughter is foreign; only operettas, and now films, present sex amid peals of merriment. But Baudelaire is as humorless as Hölderlin… What is infernal about wrong laughter is that it compellingly parodies what is best, reconciliation. Joy, however, is austere” (1987: 112-3).

They don’t want to condemn the entire category of laughter, and they avoid doing so by creating a distinction between sadistic “wrong” laughter, and “reconciled” laughter (also apparent in the first DoE quote above). What’s “wrong” about wrong laughter is its elevation to a status that ought to be occupied by the true joy of free human experience, bearing the pretense of itself representing some kind of existential pinnacle.

Reconciled laughter, as quoted above, “resounds with the echo of escape from power.” It is a laughter that is not staking an aggressive claim, and that is not “appropriate” before it is a reaction to some particular emancipatory thing or occurrence; an escape “from power,” over and above danger.

This “ambiguity of laughter” is very well explored in a passage Lizzie just pointed me to from the Excursus on Odysseus:

Indeed, the motif of forcing the gates of hell, of abolishing death, is the innermost cell of all antimythological thought. This antimythological element is contained in Teiresias’s prophecy of the possible placation of Poseidon. Odysseus is to wander even farther, carrying on his shoulder an oar, until he reaches a people “who know nothing of the sea and never use salt with their food.” When he meets another traveler who refers to the oar on his shoulder as a “winnowing fan,” he will have reached the proper place to offer a sacrifice to Poseidon. The core of the prophecy is the mistaking of the oar for a winnowing fan. This must have struck the Ionian as completely comic. However, this comic effect, on which the reconciliation is made to depend, cannot have been directed at humans but at the wrathful Poseidon. The misunderstanding is meant to amuse the fierce elemental god, in the hope that his anger might be dispersed in laughter. That would be analogous to the neighbor’s advice in Grimm, explaining how a mother can rid herself of a changeling: “She should carry the changeling into the kitchen, set it on the hearth, light the fire and boil water in two eggshells. That would make the changeling laugh, and if he laughed then that would make an end of him.” If laughter up to now has been a sign of violence, an outbreak of blind, obdurate nature, it nevertheless contains the opposite element, in that through laughter blind nature becomes aware of itself as such and thus abjures its destructive violence. This ambiguity of laughter is closely related to that of name; perhaps names are nothing but petrified laughter, as nicknames still are–the only ones in which the original act of name-giving still persists. Laughter is in league with the guilt of subjectivity, but in the suspension of law which it announces it also points beyond that complicity. It promises a passage to the homeland. It is a yearning for the homeland which sets in motion the adventures of subjectivity, the prehistory of which is narrated in the Odyssey, escapes the primeval world. The fact that–despite the fascist lies to the contrary–the concept of homeland is opposed to myth constitutes the innermost paradox of epic.

But it’s important to remember that the escaping “resounding” in reconciled laughter isn’t a creating of meaning. It’s simultaneously an acceptance of reality and a shrugging off of oppressive abstractions, which has the effect of freeing the subject to be able to move forward, but the laughter is not itself a step forward. It’s reactive. And for that reason, reconciled laughter is certainly not equivalent to joy. To Adorno, the joyful act of creating meaning through free experience is austere. I think this poem by Baudelaire provides some insight into Adorno’s use of this word, “austere,” with reference to joy:

BEAUTY

I AM as lovely as a dream in stone,
And this my heart where each finds death in turn,
Inspires the poet with a love as lone
As clay eternal and as taciturn.

Swan-white of heart, a sphinx no mortal knows,
My throne is in the heaven’s azure deep;
I hate all movements that disturb my pose,
I smile not ever, neither do I weep.

Before my monumental attitudes,
That breathe a soul into the plastic arts,
My poets pray in austere studious moods,

For I, to fold enchantment round their hearts,
Have pools of light where beauty flames and dies,
The placid mirrors of my luminous eyes.

To finish things off, from Adorno:

“I have no hobby. Not that I am the kind of workaholic who is incapable of doing anything with his free time but applying himself industriously to the required task. But, as far as my activities beyond the bounds of my recognized profession are concerned, I take them all, without exception, very seriously” (Adorno, 2001: 188).

Funny guy.

~

Adorno, Theodor W. “Free Time,” in The Culture Industry, ed. J. M. Bernstein, trans. Gordon Finlayson and Nicholas Walker. (2001). Routledge Classics: New York.

————————. “Letters to Walter Benjamin: 1935-1938” New Left Review I/81, (September-October 1973).

Horkheimer, Max & Theodore W. Adorno. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. (1987 ed.). Stanford University Press: California.

The Poems and Prose Poems of Charles Baudelaire. Ed. James Huneker. New York: Brentano’s, 1919.

Apr
28

Ben attempts poetry criticism, take 2. This week, “The New Layman’s Almanac” by Jacob McArthur Mooney (of Vox Populism fame).

~

Jacob McArthur Mooney

Reading their work, seeing them, hearing them read, hearing them interact informally with each other and the class, I got a real sense of internal coherence from the two poets we’ve so far engaged with. This is a broader response than just to Mooney’s work (and thus, probably beyond the scope of the assignment), and one that’s going to place me in the type of patronizing anthropological observer position that absolutely demands to be roped back into the fray and garroted. That said, I do want to elaborate on this observation because, as a creative subject in the world, the question “do I make too much sense to people?” is one that I struggle with. Who wants to be reduced to a concept? To a type? And at what point does one invite that kind of reduction?

First, to elaborate on why i think that these two poets provoked me into this line of thought, they each struck me as being deeply committed—again in their self-presentation, their ways of speaking and reading, but most importantly, in their work (the poems themselves, as well as their formal presentation, and even the collections’ titles) —to a very particular attitude towards their audience (broadly understood); in Starnino’s case that attitude is assertoric, declarative, agonistic; in Mooney’s case, that attitude is self-deprecating, conclusions almost always presented as open questions, their vulnerabilities laid bare.

To start with the most superficial and spiral down to the poetry itself, Starnino, both weeks, dressed like a crown prosecutor on not-so-casual Friday. Crisp business clothes are what we wear into battle in modern Canadian life, and their chic edge lent him a swagger, decreased his approachability. Mooney presents himself in a way that’ s much less imposing. He dresses casually. He wears a lip stud, but I didn’t read it as associative with combat and aggression, designed to provoke—as I would the piercings of anarchists or metal-heads—but almost as a pin preemptively pricking his own balloon. His jeans and local-team baseball cap said “I’m just a guy, you know?”

The tone of their speaking, responding to questions, and especially their readings matched these characters. Starnino was always declarative and firm. Provocative. He ended his sentences with a steady confidence. Calling you out. This matched the tone of the title “This Way Out” which could easily have been subtitled “Follow me!”; matched the assertiveness of the poetry (“meat is not semblance, meat is baroque”), which presents even the poet’s deepest felt emotional vulnerabilities with, what seemed to me, a defiant refusal to be ashamed or diminished by them (though this seemed to crack a bit in the poems of Part III, which was one of the reasons why Part III was so interesting; even the rigid and confident typesetting broke down with the touched-on-in-class-but-still-unaccounted-for decision to amateurishly—by the assessment of several of the poets in the room, including Starnino—center his lines).

By contrast, all of the major units of the poems Mooney chose to read seemed to resolve themselves in question marks, despite there almost never being a question mark on the page. The “New Layman’s Almanac,” as a title, proclaims the work’s awareness of its own contingency and dubiety; makes a joke out of it. To go quickly over already well-trod ground, not only are almanacs associated with pastoral mysticism and superstition and are therefore, though we may play at romanticizing them, ultimately unreliable, the book’s claim to authority is further weakened for being the almanac of a layman—someone who is explicitly not an expert. The wink of the title is carried through and made almost absurd by the commitment to the calendar form, and the grandiose “guide to” poem titles of the first section. It starts to break down a bit, though, with the actual words on the page, where we get to the real substance of what Mooney is interested in showing us, in engaging us about (from things as personal as the experience of his father’s alcoholism as a child, to things as large as the dynamics of national political power). These things are explored with a conspicuous lack of self-mockery. And confronted with the substance of the work, it occurred to me that there is a boldness that emanates from it, out through the accoutrements of the poem titles, the book’s formal presentation, Mooney’s way or reading and dressing as he presents himself as its creator; there is a boldness to the way the Mooney presents his uncertainty about these less essential things that gives him a certain authority when he gets to what, to him, is real and serious. There is as such a strategic seriousness about his un-seriousness which might almost seem paradoxical; a principled and consistent adherence to an openly fallibilistic attitude. But it’s not paradoxical, because it paints a big fat arrow towards the poetry on the page which is presented straight up. The poetry on the page is what Mooney wants to convince us with. Not the foofaraw of the book cover, of the calendar format, of the way he reads (he suggested last week that he isn’t so interested in sound as a unifier, but in logic, which he, it seemed to me, defined very broadly), no more the cosmetic ephemera of his own physical presentation, trivialized by his deliberate casualness, and pierced by his lip stud.

I suppose I should probably have spent a bit more time talking about whether the poetry itself lives up to the formal billing that Mooney gives it. I’m just going to say that by-and-large, my impression was that it does. But I’ve already written too much, so I won’t elaborate.