Commentaries - December 2007
I love reading early beat journalism about the beat phenomenon. It seeks to make sentences Time can publish with yet just enough rhythmic lingo, idiomatic verve, and phrasal nihilism to certify itself as beat. Beat-written mainstream journalism is a real art, a subgenre that had to be mastered.
Here are phrases pulled from an article by Clellon Holmes, then 26 years old, that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 1952.
the wild boys of today are not lost
it is precisely at this point that the copywriter and the hot-rod driver meet
a disturbing illustration of Voltaire's reliable old joke
there is no desire to shatter the "square" society, only to elude it
the valueless abyss of modern life is unbearable
their flushed, often scoffing, always intent faces
A fuller excerpt is here in my 1950s site.
In "Toy Boats" Carla Harryman argues that narrative is not something to believe in but something that is there. So we do things with it. In a way this was a rejoinder to all the anti-narrative posturing of her colleagues and contemporaries, but it is at the same time a piece written in the revolutionary-manifesto spirit of those who thus postured.
Here's the opening of "Toy Boats":
The enemies of narrative are those who believe in it and those who deny it. Both belief and denial throw existence into question. Narrative exists, and arguments either for or against it are false. Narrative is a ping-pong ball among blind spots when considered in the light of its advantages and defects.
Narrative holds within its boundaries both its advantages and defects. It can demonstrate its own development as it mutates throughout history. This is its great advantage. I.e., in accomplishing its mutability, it achieves an ongoing existence.
Narrative might be thought to be a character and its defects lie in his "potential to observe his own practice of making falsehoods." If this narrative is imitating anything, its intention is to convince the audience to enjoy the imitation, whatever its lack of truth or reasonableness.
"Otherwise known as reverse shoplifting, shopdropping involves surreptitiously putting things in stores, rather than illegally taking them out, and the motivations vary. Anti-consumerist artists slip replica products packaged with political messages onto shelves while religious proselytizers insert pamphlets between the pages of gay-and-lesbian readings at book stores. Self-published authors sneak their works into the “new releases” section, while personal trainers put their business cards into weight-loss books, and aspiring professional photographers make homemade cards — their Web site address included, of course — and covertly plant them into stationery-store racks."
The photo here shows, at a Whole Foods in New York, Jen Armstrong and Ryan Watkins-Hughes stocking a shelf with cans carrying art-infused labels.
Somewhat related is the droplift project.
In today's "Science Times" section of the Times there's a long story about the ecocide end of the genocide spectrum - and about other ways in which societies have historically led to their own demise. Reading along, the piece seems innocuous, another collage of curious is-that-so? socio-biological factoids. But at heart it's an account of the reactions for, and mostly against, the Guns, Germs and Steel theses in Jared Diamond's best-selling book. A chart offered alongside the text shows that of five examples of societies that went extinct, all five "failed to solve social problems." And we are reminded that in a section of his book called "Collapse," Diamond argued that a "precipitating" cause of the genocide in Rwanda was Malthusian. The country had let its population outstrip its food supply. This is controversial stuff, to be sure.
Along the way we are reminded of "Yali's question" and fortunately get two opposing interpretations, that of Diamond and that of his detractors. Among the latter are anthropologists who have written a book length rejoinder all about "Yali's question."
Yali was a political leader of an ethnic group in Papua New Guinea, a people who had gotten used to the bounty of supplies delivered from the air by the Allies during World War II. In the immediate postwar years a cult arose among this people, a "cargo cult." They built ritualistic landing strips and control towers and wore faux headsets carved from wood, trying to summon back the packaged food, medicine and weapons that Yanks, Brits and Aussies had flown in during the early to mid-1940s. Yali asked Diamond this question: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" I urge readers to consult the Times for a good summary of Diamond's interpretation of Yali's question and of his critics', but I'll say here that everything depends on what you think Yali meant. That there could be a connection between understanding Yali's question and contending the alleged socio-biological causes of Hutus killing Tutsis is, to me, earth-shattering. I'm glad the counterargument against Diamond gets such play here. Quite a Christmas Day feature for the Times.
If fifteen conditions must or do exist that led to genocide, fourteen of them are matters of conscious political will combined with conscious political neglect or avoidance and conscious political failure of will (to negotitate, to compromise, to re-arrange borders, etc.). We focus on the fifteenth - the climatic, the evolutionary, the catastrophic [e.g. drought] - at the peril of letting social will and action (those taken and those we fail to take) off the hook.