Late Victorian Holocausts, by Mike Davis

The kind of book that comes along and blows away all your expectations about what a book can do for your understanding of a thing, whether an idea (Graber’s Debt), or a philosophy (Harman’s Prince of Networks) or a period of history, is few and far between. Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts has just blown out of the water my mental picture of the 1800s, the level of evil (lets not hedge bets here) was propagated during the first century-or-so of global capitalism. Looking at the three global famines that occurred along with the El Nino events of 1876-79, 1891-92 and 1896-1902 in which just the first and last (aka the 1870s and the late 1890s) estimations of the number of deaths from famine in just Brazil, India and China ranges from 30-60million. Davis looks at the role of capitalism, imperialism and the newly implemented global grain markets (crucially, free markets), with his’ thesis distilled into the two following paragraphs:

“At issue is not simply that tens of millions of poor rural people died appallingly, but that they died in a manner, and for reasons, that contradict much of the conventional understanding of the economic history of the nineteenth century. For example, how do we explain the fact that in the very half-century when peacetime famine permanently disappeared from Western Europe, it increased so devastatingly throughout much of the colonial world? Equally how do we weigh smug claims about the life-saving benefits of steam transportation and modern grain markets when so many millions, especially in British India, died alongside railroad tracks or on the steps of grain depots? And how do we account in the case of China for the drastic decline in state capacity and popular welfare, especially famine relief, that seemed to follow in lockstep with the empire’s forced “opening” to modernity by Britain and the other Powers?

We not are dealing, in other words, with “lands of famine” becalmed in stagnant backwaters of world history, but with the fate of tropical humanity at the precise moment (1870-1914) when its labor and products were being dynamically conscripted into a London-centered world economy.19 Millions died, not outside the “modern world system,” but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed, many were murdered, as we shall see, by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham and Mill.” p.8-9

Fantastic BBC interview with Kanye West

This is just part 1 of 4, I haven’t watched the rest yet.

West talks about being a black artist, in fact the biggest black artist, and encountering the ceilings and barriers that the likes of Michael Jackson didn’t manage to break down thirty years ago. It’s a passionate, and powerful talk. Here’s an excerpt, but the whole thing is well worth watching:

“They classify my motivational speeches as like rants and this, like ‘Why’s he saying that? Why’s he doing that, blah blah blah.’ Well I’ve reached a point in my life when my Truman Show boat has hit the painting. I have got to a point that Michael Jackson did not break down. I have reached the glass ceiling, as a creative person; as a celebrity. …and I’ve been at it for ten years, and I look around and say wait a second, there is no one around here in this space that looks like me… and if they are, they’re quiet as FUCK.”

Yet another thing about responsibility (woah almost like a theme is emerging or something…)

The NY Times has a piece up called ‘The Busyness Trap’ which is half-good, half-typical-bullshit-NY-Times-op-ed. (“Not long ago I  Skyped with a friend who was driven out of the city by high rent and now has an artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France” ugh fuck off) But there’s one line that is interesting as evidence of just the sort of thing I’m really interested in:

It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

These kinds of pronouncements of collective failure, or failure-by-group are really weird. They have a weird mereology about them I think. Like which one is more real – individuals, or the collective? Or are you proposing a flat ontology? Which way does causality run, upwards or downwards; from individuals to collectives or from collectives to individuals?

One criticism of my analysis might be that I am ascribing too much perception to this shitty NY op-ed and to popular pronouncements of this kind in general. But I don’t want to privilege intentionality. Why can’t they accidentally (algorithmically, as a function of their own language and rhetoric?) stumble upon a popular flat ontology? That’s part of the beauty of autonomy and agency anyway, right? The accident and the surprise (serendipity) are its primary attractions. This is what I liked most about Michel Chion’s work on film sound, and why I wrote my undergrad thesis on it.

Sudden realisation: this same aesthetic (?) concern has animated most of my work since at least 2007 (and I’m now thinking of examples form even earlier! I wrote a chat bot in High School! I’ve been a Bot Love forever!!).

A quote about responsibility

I’m reading a tiny bit of Emmanuel Levinas to try and pilfer some ideas, and I stumbled upon this quote:

“To leave men without food is a fault that no circumstance attenuates; the distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary does not apply here” – Rabbi Yochanan

This quote is really, really interesting to me. For several complex reasons. 1) How is this order of responsibility distributed, or how does it deal with distribution? When one human (I am substituting ‘men’ for the more general ‘human’) is left without food are we “all” responsible, in that no circumstance including our lack of both knowledge and proximity assuages us? 2) What form does that responsibility appropriately take – guilt, action, grief, spiritual damnation, etc? 3) Why does this order of responsibility seem to implicate nonhumans also, such that the circumstance of (say) “Being a grain of wheat” but not spontaneously and circumstantially comporting oneself into a loaf of bread along with ones comrades seems not to be forgiven? 4) This seems rather pointed an implication of God for a Rabbi to be making, especially as one with sovereign domain over all circumstance.

Of course Levinas’ application of this quote (of a Rabbi from an unknown point in history – the quote just references the ‘Treatise Sanhedrin’ book of, what I presume is the Talmud?) is  isn’t writing from the same frame as me whatsoever, he’s responding to the phenomenologists and the particular situation of post-WWII philosophy, etcetara. But it’s interesting just how tied up in knots this kind of ethical imperative gets as soon as I begin to include or ascribe agency to nonhumans.

Also we could say that the good Rabbi was limiting his address to human readers… still, it’s incredibly interesting to think about, and a powerful quote. Even limited to just humans, it makes a case for a strong ethical force that binds all humanity together to one another. It makes a case for a total knowledge of all humans via all-seeing surveillance, too I would suppose…

But obviously it’s not proposing any of those things and it’s hyperbole and rhetoric and polemic and a damn good example of all three.

My favourite moments from the preview of SELFIES

I read the preview of SELFIES that is readable online. The bit that made me laugh out loud hardest:

I take a black krink pen out of the inside pocket of my denim jacket and make my mark on the bathroom wall. I write SHE SHE. That’s been my tag ever since I moved back to the city. Fuck. I hate people who call it the city. I watch the ink dry and wonder why I do this. I used to know, or at least pretend to know, but now  it’s just a habit. I take out my cell phone and snap a photo of my  tag. Another dumb habit.

“WHAT THE FUCK YOU DOING IN THERE, JERKING OFF?!”

I am alarmed to realize that the crappy shoe dude never left the
room. He’s standing outside the stall. I am confused.

“I know what you just did, man. I can smell the ink,” he says,  quieter this time.

“I’m jerking off,” I say and suddenly he hoists himself up and
peeks over the wall.

“WHAT THE FUCK?!” I stutter. I’m not very good at being aggressive. Also, it’s difficult to sound tough with your pants  around your ankles. He lets himself fall back down.

“You don’t even have a boner, you flaccid fucking liar. Who the  fuck pretends to jerk off at the library?”

This is so weird.

“This is so weird,” I say, “Please go away.”

“No.”

I’m kind of freaking out. This dude is pretty young. I don’t think he’s really mad about the tag, but I guess he might snitch if he’s an asshole. I would rather not get into trouble for tagging again. I am old now. That would be pathetic.

I’ve read this passage several times over now, and each time I have giggled at the pure perfection of telling a strangely aggressive person in the library bathroom to “Please go away”. I suspect it’s entirely a coincidence, but the line is the same as the tag from the fantastic Sexpigeon tumblr that Steve Swift introduced me to a long time ago now. The same aesthetic is present in both, though. Something strange and weirdly confected but in a way that is kind of true to life. Or truer to life, like a Werner Herzog film full of all its little invented lies that collectively add up to more truth than capital-T truth would ever tell.

Anyway, this little anecdote is exactly the kind of thing that is so fucked up and perfect (which happens to be a running theme of the stories in SELFIES) that it either actually happened, or was an amalgamation of several real things that happened. Whatever the case, it has the ring of truth – and hilarity – about it. Even if it were entirely invented  by the author, Robert Duncan Gray, it remains just really good vignetting (which is another feature of the short stories in the preview).

Another excerpt, from the short story ‘HAZEL’ by Hazel Cummings:

in the blink of an eye you are twenty-four and you’re working temp jobs, answering phones, inputting data, and no one is fucking you, and the emptiness you feel in your vagina seems to stretch up into your stomach and then into your chest and you feel like a shell of a person, like a mannequin or a scarecrow or a deflated fuck doll left out by the dumpster.

you start writing again after a year and a half of ignoring the urge, fiction this time, but you show no one, convinced that you never had a lick of talent to begin with, writing just for you.

you meet a guy, but when he takes you home his dick doesn’t
work and he blames you and you agree with him.
one of the offices that you’ve been temping at offers to hire you on as an actual employee, and you accept the gig even though you’d rather jump off a bridge.
you work five days a week, 9 to 6, with a forty-five minute
commute on the bart each way.

you drink a lot, alone, and watch things on the internet, and take quizzes (omg you fucking love quizzes, love knowing which muppet you are and which mad man and which simpson character and which types of men you should avoid and which sex and the city girl you are most like in the bedroom). you get a facebook, and a tumblr, and almost instantly you find a whole network of people who claim to be poets and authors, except just like you they are talentless, but unlike you they don’t seem to know it, or they pretend not to know it, an entire community of naked people claiming to be dressed in the finest of fabrics, all of them pretending that posting things on facebook is the same thing as being published. there is a part of you that sees how empty it all is, a part that recognizes the futility of this thing they call “alt lit”, but you find that you like the lies that the kids tell each other, and you decide that you want to be a part of it.

The spectre of autobiography hangs over the whole collection – how much of an autobiography are each of these stories, really? How much is actual (the emotion described by each is utterly felt, at least by me, the reader and I suspect also by the authors) and how much is an idealised what if? The stories inter-relate in (so far) slight ways, but it seems like something of a fairly massive undertaking to line up seven authors to co-create something like this, which makes the project seem more speculative – what if this online community wasn’t just a Facebook/Tumblr/Twitter thing, and what if we all did live in the same city (i actually haven’t checked but I would bet the authors do not all live in SF) – would anything be different? It seems to speak to a yearning for community and connection in the (quote-unquote) real world… while also (at least in the case of HAZEL presenting as an explicit critique of the practises of ALT.LIT (which I have also made here on this blog and in MEAT CONFETTI vol1).  There is also no gesture to the political dimension to cohabitation and proximity, as in the #occupy movement and the direct democracy struggles of 2011-12. But ALT.LIT is rarely, if ever, explicitly political and the refusal to acknowledge the politics of their own refusal to be political seems to be the cause of a lot of grief within and without the community (HAZEL gets towards some of this; expresses the aimlessness of directing critique at the ungrateful – what is a critic but one who truly cares enough to criticize?). HAZEL gets real pointed right as it switches from second person to first, in the kind of stylistic gymnastics that most writers could never dream of pulling off mid-article:

except, of course, this isn’t you. this desperate person, this failed poet, this unloved daughter, this woman filled with hate. there is no you, only me. i was the one who was 18 and then 22 and then 24, and now i’m even older, like 25 and a half or something, and my whole existence takes place on the internet, because as much as i hate it i just can’t look away

Apparently it’s going to be a proper novel. This teaser is kinda good, though certainly a few of the authors are stronger and their voice stands out more than others. Some of the other stories have the feeling of trying a little too hard to find meaning in ennui, which is slightly safer, less interesting. But even these tend not to wear out their welcome, whether the format and collaboration can survive book-length treatment will be interesting to see.

SELFIES the pdf preview is free and NSFW for both images and words.

Angel Haze on women in hip-hop

Only just discovered Angel Haze like pretty much right this second but I already really, really like her, and her music – check out the amazing clip for ‘Werkin Girls’ above. The thing that really impressed me, however, was a little section from another video in which she discusses growing up in a cult, and hearing music for the first time at age 16. Crazy stuff. Her comment is about women in hip-hop:

‘I have a specific problem, especially with women in hip-hop, because they don’t… not they, but certain people don’t know how to market women without pitting them against each other. Like they’ll sign you and say, “She’s your competition, what are you gonna do to beat her?”‘

Also great, following that she talks about how a certain conflict between her and Azealia Banks was less a “beef” and more about ‘just two people deciding they don’t really like each other.’ Which is a remarkably mature way to describe it, by the sound of things.

I’ve also been madly diggin Kilo Kish’s stuff lately, having downloaded her first (free) album Homeshcooled a while back but only really getting into it recently. She’s also got a new album out, K+ which is even better.

So we have a new PM

Just a quick blarg to note something I observed: on the same day as I saw calls for more academics to engage with the public, to demonstrate their “relevance” and safeguard their research funding in the face of Tone Abet’s razor-gang set to slash “waste” in ARC grants… I also saw a “really great” blog post on why blogging and specifically the injunctive to “blog your research” is a trap by which capitalism captures our thinking, rhythms, affective labour, etc. etc. in line with Jodi Dean’s critique of communicative capitalism. Blogging as “expressing your individuality and worth,” the author suggested, was a Berlantian Cruel Optimism, actually impeding our achieving a better future.

To the former I wanted to say, “Miyamoto never had to work for press like this” and I very nearly left an angry comment before thinking better of it (close call). And to the latter, I guess I wasn’t sure what to say because I skim read it and then went and did something else instead on the net. Hey look its the internet, go play.

Darshana is getting rock hard abs instead of getting into fights.