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Blinded By the Light, Part II

January 12, 2009

Reading Blindness, by Jose Saramago, and I’m reminded quite a bit of the chapter about the agricultural fair in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. It’s an impressionistic association as there is no direct influence. Mostly, I think of how Flaubert’s needling mention of nearby animals – to the muck, to “dilated nostrils” – as fairgoers vie for seats or eat from their picnic baskets, creates a steadily increasing tension. Just how long can people eat as the smell of shit mounts?

Blindness is the story of the “white evil” as it infects the eyes of patient zero (the white evil has landed in my eyes more times than I care to admit), his wife, the thief who steals his car, the waiting room and surgery of an optometrists office and, from there, an entire city-state. It is also the story of the optometrist’s wife, unnamed in the novel (the characters decide that without sight, their given identities are unimportant), who somehow remains immune to the plague of blindness. The “white evil” is an ever-present white light that first warms the eyes and then divests them of sight. Foucault’s insight into the similiarity between madness and dazzlement seems to be referenced by Saramago as the first cases of blindness are quarantined in an insane asylum. The optometrist’s wife is driven progressively more insane by her sightedness, constantly fighting madness off. For everyone else, shit is just a smell or a wetness on the floor. She has to see it and try to describe it to others:

[…] no imagination, however fertile, and creative in making comparisons, images and metaphors, could aptly describe the filth here. It is not just the state to which the lavatories were soon reduced, fetid caverns such as the gutters in hell full of condemned souls must be, but also the lack of respect shown by some of the inmates or the sudden urgency of others that turned the corridors and other passageways into latrines, at first only occasionally but now as a matter of habit.

Nothing seems anomalous to the characters about walking around in their own shit. Maybe this is a side-effect of Saramago’s constant use of the very medieval free and indirect speech (which he did not invent but which was mastered by Flaubert). With identities unimportant, the paragraphs are not broken up by the declarative outbursts of characters with whom we are supposed to identify. Nobody can really complain about the shit covering the floors; more and more shit is just a fact of the general environment. It’s dangerous to step anywhere. Like shit, persons sort of just blob together. Without shit in its proper place, a person no longer knows where he stands in the world.

It would not be right to imagine that these blind people, in such great numbers, proceed like lambs to the slaughter, bleating as is their wont, somewhat crowded, it is true, yet that is how they had always existed, cheek by jowl, mingling breaths and smells, There are some here who cannot stop crying, others who are shouting in fear or rage, others who are cursing, someone uttered a terrible, futile threat, If I get my hands on you, presumably he was referring to the soldier, I’ll gouge your eyes out.

In that passage, the violent threat of the blind man is effaced by its futility. “Disability Studies” should decry Jurgen Habermas, the critical theorist who laments the loss of face to face contact in the modern world. When you’re blind, how can you be a tough guy and look your interlocutor in the eye? Anyway, I always find it better to look someone in the crotch when wanting to initiate human contact. Leo Bersani thinks that gays obviate the sentimental couple-form by avoiding the sentimental portrait (think of a hetoersexual couple gazing at each other from both ends of a locket). According to him, when someone is fucking you in the ass on a roof top, then the only thing you can see is the white horizon line over the city a couple of minutes before the dawn.

Habermas and Bersani follow from the work of Hegel. The Hegelmeister felt that face to face recognition is how is how we locate ourselves in the social world; without it, our self-consciousness is riven by alienation. Alienation causes us to fight harder to obtain recognition. Of course, I don’t buy that bullcrap about people working harder because of alienation, but you can bet that the Communists ate that shit up. What it comes down to is that without sight, recognition is impossible. “I” no longer exist if I can no longer see myself seeing myself. In addition to the death of the subject, without recognition there is neither a human history (I discredited history in my last post anyway) nor civilization.

One of the best scenes takes place after the blind patients escape from the mental asylum where they have been quarantined. They find that their captors went blind themselves. The wife of the optometrist – who pretended to be blind in order to accompany her husband – sees that no one lives any longer. People only survive. In many ways, reading about survival is a lot more dystopian than reading about mass anihilation. Blindness raises the bar for books like Oryx and Crake. Holding hands, groups of people feel their way alongside of buildings. They crawl on hands and knees to taste their way through rubbish bins for edible food. During the scene I loved so much, the optometrist’s wife is aghast after a day in the town’s square, watching people listen to one another preach about comets, means of infection, doomsday, etc. Saramago’s list of cripplingly superstitious theories goes on and on. At the end of it, the wife complains that no one had mentioned self-government.

I said in Part I that Saramago writes gimmicky novels. They may be gimmicky, but they work. What if a plague of blindness were to overtake a city? As we lose our legal status as persons and civilization rapidly decays, is there another way to see ourselves? Can we conceive of new ways to organise ourselves?

A government, said the wife, An organisation, the human body is also an organised system, it lives as long as it keeps organised, and death is only the effect of disorganisation, And how can a society of blind people organise itself in order to survive, By organising itself, to organise oneself is, in a way, to begin to have eyes, Perhaps you’re right, but the experience of this blindness has brought us only death and misery, my eyes, just like your surgery, were useless, Thanks to your eyes we are still alive, said the girl with the dark glasses, We would also be alive if I were blind as well, the world is full of blind people, I think we are all going to die, it’s just a matter of time, Dying has always been a matter of time, said the doctor, But to die just because you’re blind, there can be no worse way of dying, We die of illnesses, accidents, chance events, And now we shall also die of blindness, I mean, we shall die of blindness and cancer, of blindness and tuberculosis, of blindness and AIDS, of blindness and heart attacks, illnesses may differ from one person to another but what is really killing us now is blindness, We are not immortal, we cannot escape death, but at least we should not be blind, said the doctor’s wife, How if this blindness is concrete and real, said the doctor, I am not sure, said the wife, Nor I, said the girl with the dark glasses.

The only answer proferred by the book is that without selves, without history, then what survival amounts to is preparing en masse for death. This is a good book even though the lumpy paragraphs start to hurt the eyes after a while.

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Fuck Me Songs

January 8, 2009

Blinded By the Light, Part I

January 7, 2009

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

– Walter Benjamin

I’ve always objected to the elevation of historians and critical theorists into “angels.” Since my field intersects heavily with that of the historian, I have dealt with many of them. They tend to be insufferable; not at all invested in the catastrophe before them. My experience of the practice of history is closer to that of the “fish eye,” where you peer over your shoulder while being fucked from behind. History pounds you while it stares back, seeing you glare it at it with one eye open.

Intellectual gossip was always more of a reality for me than the reified, impersonal, names you find in intellectual history. Of course, the gold standard of intellectual gossip is My Encounter With Sartre, where Edward Said transitions into a casual Victorian style anecdote that humanizes and humiliates figures he met on one infamous trip to France. He discusses Simone de Beauvoir’s immense hair, Sartre’s drool, and tells the story of Foucault escaping from Tunisia in drag. After his death, Said’s colleague, bat-shit crazy Gayatri Spivak, wrote an equally amazing essay about her working relationship with Said. After reading it, I wrote to her that the essay had brought tears to my eyes. I didn’t mention that half of them were tears of laughter. The essay detailed the way in which Said constantly made efforts to undermine her personally and institutionally, while it completely “forgot” about the many times Spivak intentionally topped him in her own work. A friend of mine was a student of them both, used as a weapon in the constant war between them. He mentioned to me once being present in the department hallway with Spivak when Said walked up to them. Addressing Spivak, who was half his size, Said patted her on the head — “nice hat Gayatri.” Furious, she turned to the department secretary as Edward walked away to loudly announce, “When Edward dies [at the time, he was receiving treatment for cancer], I want that office!” The office in question was the corner office that Said had won in an extensive campaign against Susan Sontag.

Working at an academic journal, I knew too much about my fellow academics. Gossip thickened the air, even when I simply wanted to concentrate on correcting the format of footnotes. I couldn’t read their work objectively, blind to their personal foibles — the arrogance, hubris, complete absense of humility, or without hearing even of their false modesty (such as Jacques Derrida’s fetish – his grandfather Moses’s scarf which he kept in a bag in the closet, and felt for every night with his eyes closed before going to bed). Sometimes it was because they would write about it. Derrida once wrote an essay discussing how his cat reacts to seeing him naked. Other times, it was because the embittered editors with whom I worked couldn’t stop complaining about others whose careers were different (i.e., successful) from theirs.

Intellectual history ended up being overly embodied for me. I think of the time I asked Zizek a long-winded question, and he, spastic and manic, began making a blah blah blah hand gesture at me that hit like an ice-pick. Or there was the time, after a lecture, when I questioned Spivak about reading untranslated passages of some dumb Indian language, I forget which, maybe Bengali to an audience which, at best, could only follow some French or German. Her answer involved her sidling up to me, forty years my senior in a gold lame sari, batting her lashes over her rare purple eyes, to sensually tell me ” you have a great name.” After some angry, unsolicited comments about Edward Said, she added that “unlike Arabic, Bengali is a beautiful language.”

Until recently, I could not fully understand why one would write an intellectual history as opposed to a rich, gossipy, polemic, like Ann Norton’s book about her time as a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at the University Chicago, studying with the Straussians. Intellectual history strikes me as a game of pong – a back and forth where you discuss such banalities as Adorno’s rejection of Husserl, which serves definitive evidence of “Adorno’s innate rejection of identity theory.” That sort of thing. Snore. It’s called Synoptic Content Analysis, and it’s embraced as a methodology by intellectual historians. Basically, it’s compare and contrast. Less basically, my theologian friend explained to me that the Synoptic Problem is one of the great problems of Biblical textual analysis. Theologians are on a first name basis with the Synoptic Gospels by Mark, Matthew and Luke. It’s obvious that those three gospels are interrelated, but for those who care about things like that, the open question is how so? I found a hilarious graph on Wikipedia, showing various possibilities of “originality” in the gospels. I can’t imagine spending my life playing pong to put together a theory about this kind of problem, but that pedantic exercise is the very basis of the institution of the University.

On the other hand, intellectual history is a means of attaining immortality in scholarly life. Working at a university press, one of my jobs was to sit there going through submissions to the editor. You can’t imagine all the idiosyncratic submissions we would get. Wacked out personal theories about various philosophers, literary figures, literary phenomena, etc., from folks grubbing for tenure, subsistence, basic promotion or from established scholars whose moment had passed them by. I’d type out their thank you for your submission letters at the same time as their rejection letters (which I knew would be inevitable after my editor finished with them on Friday afternoons). I was never once incorrect. On a good day, I cranked out 400 Thank You-We Are Sorry letters. Only very serious, standardized, games of pong would get attention from the boss. We published some absurdities but only by very famous people (famous in their rarefied niches). The expensive book on dinosaurs and literary theory was my absolute favorite (I tried to hock a copy once at a used bookstore, and was shocked that they offered me $3. “That much!?”) Ludicrous submissions from VIPs never passed by my desk. They went directly to the boss’s email. But if you wanted to be cited in perpetuity, though never truly read attentively, an intellectual history parsing some obscure difference between authors was always the way to go.

Martin Jay has had a stellar career writing that kind of thing. His book The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 is one such essential “guide.” It’s on the shelves of every theory inclined graduate student, a Marxian Cliff Notes. Whole dissertations are written to nitpick at Jay. To be honest, I learned a lot more from one of Adorno’s better students, who in a seminar once described Adorno’s encounter with the feminist movement. She was present in his class when “A group of female students who felt that he was deaf to the concerns of global feminism showed up and bared their breasts.” “What did he do?” I asked. Grimly, she would only answer, “he regressed.”

In approaching José Saramago’s Blindness, I reluctantly went up to one of my book cases and pulled out a lesser Martin Jay work, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century French Thought. It was a very academic knee-jerk reaction. Saramago won the Nobel Prize on the basis of several very gimmicky books. Before reading Blindness, I wanted to know what they found so appealing about his take on it. It was important to me to have some grounding in the importance of blindness to European thought. What made this dry move so academic, is that prior to reading the book, I had no basis for thinking that Saramago was deploying a wide array of cultural referents. Not everyone reaches back to Descartes to write a novel. On the other hand, they do if they want to win the Nobel Prize. Even more frightening is what else people do when they want to win the Nobel Prize; they write allegories fetishizing the Holocaust. That thought was so boring and so frightening, that I gave him the benefit of the doubt and hoped that he was simply honored for being lyrical and pedantic. Instead of being fetishistic and politically correct, I prayed he was contrived.

From Jay, I learned that blindness is heavily valued in oral, iconophobic, traditions. Calvin believed it aided access to the “voice of God.” Diderot referred to it as the “miracle of blindness,” arguing, contra idealists, that people who forgo vision possess an equally accessible source of knowledge in touch (at least he didn’t say they have “extra-sensitive hearing”). Surrealists, however, elevated the eye to iconic status within their work, so that Surrealist art critics would argue that blind eyes were “mutilated eyes.” In a reversal of the anti-iconic, anti-Catholic movements, they claimed that the blind lack the “divine spark.” Surrealists, along with many affiliated theorists such as Bataille and his groupies, always were toe-sucking, altar boy molesting, Catholic masochists, so this turn doesn’t come way out of left field.

Another famous masochist, Foucault, had surprisingly interesting and relevant things to say about blindness, as Jay shows. Foucault claimed that to “the classical mind,” insanity referred to a kind of blindness due to dazzlement from the light of reason. “The madman sees the daylight, the same daylight as the man of reason (both live in the same brightness); but seeing this same daylight, and nothing but this daylight, he sees it as void, as night, as nothing.” Foucault continued:

Descartes closes his eyes and plugs up his ears the better to see the true brightness of essential daylight; thus he is secured against the dazzlement of the madman who, opening his eyes, sees only the night, and not seeing at all, believes he sees when he imagines … Unreason is in the same relation to reason as dazzlement to the brightness of daylight itself. And this is not a metaphor. We are the center of the great cosmology which animates all classical culture.

Beside the relevance this passage turned out to have for Saramago’s book, it taught me something else. The pedant — the intellectual historian — lowers his eyes and behaves like a blind man, tapping around in a structuralist binary – back and forth, back and forth – to feel out the differences in history, instead of succumbing to the sensory overload of the intellectual gossip. We’re no longer of the Classical Mind, so what do we do? Dull our senses or walk around blinded by the light? I’m not original. G.K. Chesterton once addressed this very issue of sanctioned, willful, ignorance.

When the scientist talks about a type, he never means himself, but always his neighbour; probably his poorer neighbour. I don’t deny the dry light may sometimes do good; though in one sense it’s the very reverse of science. So far from being knowledge, it’s actually suppression of what we know. It’s treating a friend as a stranger, and pretending that something familiar is really remote and mysterious. It’s like saying that a man has a proboscis between the eyes, or that he falls down in a fit of insensibility once every twenty-four hours.

The Great De-Lurking

December 17, 2008

I’m making some changes, so I’d like some idea as to who reads this blog and why. How did you get here? Why do you stay? Reader emails indicate that I have several different constituencies. I’m working on some changes to the format (possibly even the site address), and would like to get a better sense of my silent interlocutors because we’re going to professionalize this shit. I have statcounter embedded in this thing. I know you are reading. Usually the ones googling “Arab + Penis” or “Underage Boy + Sex” or “Burqa + Virgin” come from Saudi Arabia or Iran (seriously!). The googlers come and go. My little brother has several stalkers who arrive here occasionally. I can guess who the guy is who arrives here by googling my name from Marshall, MI. I can tell some are probably academics. Is the person reading this from Berkeley, Judith Butler?! Is Terry Castle‘s girlfriend, Blakey, still reading, ready to tell me off for snarking at her girlfriend? Blakey, I love the Wikipedia entry you wrote for yourself. Listing the dogs as children was an incredibly poignant touch!

The folks linking from different blogs seem to become regulars. If my mom is reading this, I want to know! Please introduce yourselves, and if you happen to know how I can upload jpegs into the blogger header, share your knowledge.

The Pyramid

November 25, 2008

The Pyramid
by Ismail Kadare

When I was a kid, my mom would “take a break” from us every summer. She required two to three months a year to herself in order “to deal.” Once I was four years old, she no longer needed to fly with us to drop us off. Instead, a stewardess was assigned to escort us from the gate to our relatives. Sometimes, we had never met these people before. This could be a little touchy when she shipped us off to Egypt. As an Egyptian citizen (unlike my little brother), my father’s custody rights superseded my mother’s in Egypt. I had to studiously avoid his relatives whenever we visited the old country. My mother shit-talked them all the time, so we were terrified of what would happen to us if we were ever captured. When I was eleven, Ameer and I landed in Egypt and wandered off with the first guy to call out our names. His preeminent feature was his bad teeth. This didn’t signify anything other than that he was a native – God Willing he was a paternal or maternal relative. Possibly, just a native child molester. In the end, he did indeed turn out to be on the maternal side of our family and didn’t molest either of us, as far as I can remember.

On that trip, I fell sick. With a temperature of 106 degrees, it was deemed best to separate me from Ameer. He was sent to Alexandria to play on the beach with our cousins (Sod the aggro soccer enthusiast and his blond twin sisters, Dahlia and Abir, who had a crush on Ameer and would both climb all over him, tickling), while I was left in Cairo to fever dreams, to socks filled with ice held to my crotch, to daily reruns of Knots Landing. During moments of lucidity, my bi-polar cousin, Ousama, would ruthlessly drill me on the history of ancient Egypt. Studying to become an archaeologist, Ousama felt I should be able to recite the various dynasties and their chief innovations backwards and forwards. He tested me on the structure of the Great Pyramid; he explained, without historical murk or racist space aliens, how they were constructed. While my energy flagged, he would ease up and monologue-bitch about selected historians and archaeologists. Ousama was eight years older than I, but he died five years ago, drowning after the publication of his second book. I haven’t written a book yet, but I’ve blogged more than he did. When publishing porn, I even used to use his as my pen-name. Believe it or not, he drowned in the Nile. Only in my family do people drown in a desert.

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T’was most certainly true, that if the people of the Old World could have built a house up to Heaven, they should never be drowned again on Earth, and they had only forgot to measure the height, that is, as in other projects, it only miscarried, or else it would have succeeded.
– Daniel Defoe

Ismail Kadare’s take on Egypt is much less personality driven than my own, yet lacks nothing in charisma. The Pyramid is a historical novel without characters, without missing a beat of character development. The greatest historical novel ever written would be Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with Prue’s plaintiff, “I wanna die… I gwanna die.” The Pyramid is also a novel about slavery and its costs, yet it tells no one person’s story. This is a book without subjectivity; completely about how subjectivity worked in ancient Egypt.

The secret to pyramids is the open secret that they don’t exist to raise their Pharaoh’s to heaven. They exist to lay waste to his country. A eunuch invented the concept:

Rumor had it that it was Reneferef, the guardian of the harem, who bizarrely suggested looking for some mechanism that would sterilize part of Egypt’s riches. Ambassadors serving in the lands of the Orient reported huge waterworks in Mesopotamia, on a scale out of all proportion, people said, to their economic product. If that was so, and it probably was so, then Egypt also needed to find some means of consuming the excess energy of its population. To launch works colossal beyond imagining, the better to debilitate its inhabitants, to suck them dry. In a word, something exhausting, something that would destroy body and soul, and without any possible utility. Or to put it more precisely, a project as useless to its subjects as it would be indispensable to the state.

The cradle of civilization is where mankind’s early leaders attempted to commit infanticide on our species. Georges Bataille believed that many early economies were based on reckless expenditure, and, in fact, this bolstered the rule of leaders instead of undermining them. Intervening in the accepted history of world economies, Bataille argued against the utilitarian assumptions behind their recounting of events. Classical thought, from Hobbes to Marx, with their commodity fundamentalism, explained the motor of history as the interplay between desire and self-interest. From Bataille’s more anthropological perspective, desire and self-interest cannot adequately account for the complexities of inflation, for luxury, for war, for cultural traditions of human sacrifice (see his chapter on Aztec society in The Accursed Share) or for the collateral beauty and torment of ordinary acts of daily waste in a bulimic culture of scarcity. Study of primitive, non-European, cultures shows that wealth was amassed for the express purpose of wasting it deliberately in mind-boggling shows of sovereign power. According to Bataille, ancient cultures viewed sacrifice in the same way that we view working.

Cheops, who wavered early on regarding the question of ever building his own pyramid, is swayed by his advisers, who do not relate history as objective fact, but resort to unquestionable, unspecifiable, rumor. Knowing that they can’t be personally blamed for “rumor” (as opposed to direct advice and opinion), they turn one of the Pharaoh’s greatest tools of terror against him to convince him to surrender his obstinacy and order the construction of his own tomb. Rumor is the greatest weapon in the Egyptian arsenal. “… Reports revealed that everywhere in Egypt people were talking only of the pyramid and that each individual and each event was systemically thought of in its relation to the great work. Some women remained indifferent to these rumors, believing they were not concerned, until one fine morning they discovered that their husband, their lover, or all their children of school age bar none had to leave for the Abusir quarries – and then you heard tears, or shouts of joy.”

Much of the story of the Pyramid’s construction is told through these reports and rumors. One magnificent chapter tells the story of some of the thousand individual stones that constituted the various levels; where they came from, how many men died carrying them, stories of whether they were cursed or blessed, the specific number of amputations and maimings that went into lifting each one into place, and so on. The stones are named by number and level. Several were believed to have wrongfully altered the orientation of the structure; other stones were accused of fraudulent origins.

Slowly, through the biography of the atomic pieces of the pyramids, a larger story about totalitarianism comes together. Kadare’s book is an attack on the dream-work of the Albanian communist regime under which he was raised, its gestures of monumentality and its wasteful projects, with their unabashed propaganda and clear imperatives of social management. Much like that geckos book — John Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians — its allegorical nature and rich historical detail are meant to deflect censorship. Unlike Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this isn’t an intimate story, meant to frame the human cost of slavery. This is a story about how slavery works and how it attaches itself to our minds, the similarity between sacrificial victims and their executioners as their bond is triangulated over the pyramid; how it sends its victims into hysterical frenzies as they anticipate and envision punishment from above; how it pervaded the ancient world’s very sense of time.

One of the great chapters is the one where Egyptians begin to whisper treason about the “post-pyramidal era” in anticipation of its imminent completion. A wave of persecution hits the country in a search for post-pyramidal treason. Sumer itself braces for a wave of Egyptian imperialism as resources meant for the pyramid are post-pyramidally redirected.

Another chapter where the mechanism of power is explored takes place four hundred years after the pyramid is constructed; “The Counter-Pyramid” tells the story of the revolt of historians against Cheops and his pyramid; how revisionism itself becomes a way to maintain the status quo.

This is not some bleak story where you feel sorry for people. There’s no sympathy in it at all. Many of these slaves embrace their death, superstitiously throwing themselves off the ledges of the pyramid as it edges closer to completion. The book is objective and fascinating; Ayn Rand would give her left testicle to write this novel. History isn’t used as PBS/NPR-style window dressing (where, for example a gong is struck every single time a story about China is being reported) meant to draw you in and distract and passively educate you at the end of the day. A gruesome chapter on Genghis Khan’s famous pyramid of human skulls demonstrates the awe in which the Great Pyramid was held. For a time, ancient historians claimed that Khan’s pyramid existed first; it was a more authentic pyramid than Egypt’s “great” one; time had reversed itself and the Great Pyramid was seen to have been a mere modal expression of Khan’s primal pyramid of terror shining through time. A purer expression of sovereign will, the Skullstack

was unaffected by rumors or by flattery, it consumed men’s heads in a few hours, in the time it took for a qatl i amm, instead of dragging things out for years or decades and making people wade through files and investigations beyond counting, not to mention cuts in bread ration, anguish, and despair. Its diamantine density gave it its sparkle, its brilliance was in the idea that governed its construction: and the upshot of all this was that the rhapsodists and subsequently the scholars of Samarkand eventually proclaimed that the first authentic pyramid had risen in the Isfahan steppe, and that its Egyptian rival was a crude replica of a later date. Although this claim may have at first sounded somewhat bizarre, close attention to the ballads of the shamans would have informed you that, since no one could say whether time flowed forward or backward, no one could be sure of the ages of people and things, and thus their order of appearance was even less fixed. In other words, who can tell who is the father and who is the son? And so on.

Historians later changed their minds as animals began to drag Khan’s skulls out of place and natural disasters began to discorporate the pyramid. The historical novel dreams that time can flow backwards as well as forwards; that power’s roots can be traced to its flows, that the a picture of a pyramid can work as an x-ray, making it transparent, opening its secrets and holocausts as it unfolds like a horror film before our prying eyes, history’s cancers revealed.

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I stopped going to Egypt. I lost interest a long time ago. I’d like to give my mother “a break,” that’s for sure, but not the kind that involves me disappearing into the dusty crevices of Egyptian homes for two to three months. With Ousama dead, there’s even less reason to visit Egypt. Before he died, he worked as a curator at the Greek and Roman museum in Cairo (for which he actually had a great deal of nationalist contempt leavened by historical curiosity), then later he curated at the Cairo museum before taking a university post. He’d drag my tourist ass behind the scenes and put mummied faces to the names I’d memorized. Like most modern visitors to Egypt’s great monuments, Ousama was struck by the sublimity of the pyramids. For me, visiting them was a huge pain in the butt. Even as a kid, I was too tall and gangly to walk around in one comfortably. I’d have to get on my knees and crawl under stones, nearly panicking with claustrophobia. Ancient Egyptians must have been midgets. With my high center of gravity, I’d feel an imminent fall coming on while crossing reinforced bridges inside the Great Pyramid. Of course, the tomb itself is always a disappointment, raided long ago (as related by Kadare). To me, the pyramids were a family obligation. Something I had to visit, like some annoying, red-haired, pleather clad, steel hooped earinged, Egyptian aunt.

Once, though, I did feel what travelers are supposed to feel in the presence of pyramids. I had 17 cousins on my mother’s side, and many of us were born in the same one year period. One summer, Ousama dragged a number of us out to Giza at the same time. My cousins and my brother ran to the horses. I lagged behind, but no horses were left. Only a camel. While everyone raced off, I was left with a spitting, shitting, monstrosity, who would sit down every thirty seconds to take another huge crap. The odor was overbearing. The camel driver kept apologizing to me in Arabic, while I explained to him this kind of shit was par for the course with me and not to sweat it. Finally, all the horses raced around the other side of the pyramid. The camel and I reached a point where the city of Giza was entirely obscured by the Great Pyramid. All that was left was blue sky, sand, pyramid and shitting camel. To this day, I consider that moment of solitude one of the most shattering experiences of my life.

The Joy Spoiler

November 21, 2008

San Francisco is a green and pleasant land. Dat and I were driving along the road overlooking the ravine preservation of Glen Park. For six months, that ravine was a source of terror and anxiety as I thought my cat, Harry, had escaped into it and gone native. It turns out he was just walking into neighbor’s houses and eating their cat food. This weekend, I returned and enjoyed the scene without those negative connotations. We were having a nice time until Dat turned serious and said to me, “You have a tendency to spoil other people’s joy. It drives them away.” Then he patted my arm and clasped it. Softly softly now, “Thought you should know.”

Over brunch with my friend, Audrey, and my cousin, Ali, I asked if this was true. Audrey snorted, “He should talk.” Ali calmly explained, “You don’t spoil other people’s joy. You’re just indifferent to it. Like, if I’m doing a crossword puzzle, you’ll come in and ask ‘Why are you doing a crossword puzzle?'” I could understand the distinction since a true joy spoiler would come along with all the answers for the crossword puzzle.

During the visit, the Joy Spoiler label haunted me. I felt especially compromised by my cynicism over the anti-Prop 8 rage in California right now. I oppose marriage. Gays are self-righteous and smug enough without it. Dat was bored by my view: “It’s the same. It hasn’t changed.” “I’m a bit surprised that yours has,” I chastised. We went to the Sprint store so I could get a new phone and Dat could discuss our phone plan. “We’ve been arguing about marriage,” he told the Sprint representative, clasping my arm once more. The two of us bickered and carried on a meta-drama about an ill-suited relationship between two horrific bitches, as we discussed Sprint’s rate for calling cell phones in Italy as opposed to landlines in Italy. At dinner, a few minutes later, he exasperatedly summed it up for everyone at the table, “I’m for Prop 8, but I voted against it.” That settled the issue for the evening.

When Dat said this my mind wandered to when Michael used to call me “husband” during his little fantasies that what we had was a married life. Later, he decided I didn’t have the requisite income to be married to him, but when thinking of Prop 8 in conjunction with the concept of the Joy Spoiler I finally understood our relationship. He saw marriage as a kind of dewy sentimental union with its place in civic life, a place in a familial constellation and with a concrete class status. I have heard all the familiar excuses and rationalizations ad nauseum, such as hospital visitations rights, for example, with its pathetic portrait of the faggot dying of AIDS and his tearful lover clenching the handkerchief from his back pocket while locked outside in the waiting room by a big black nurse. These abstractions which California gays consider “practical” diverged from my more concrete conception of my future together with Michael. I always imagined he and I growing old with him tolerating and loving me in spite of all my actively annoying bullshit.

As I moved the Korean bar-b-que over the grill, my mind wandered to what Tao Lin once Confucianly wrote: “Love is a thing on sale for more money than there exists.” On the flight back, I thought of Tao Lin some more, and wondered if — since he is definitely a joy spoiler, but one who gives me great joy — would I ever, conceivably, be able to seduce him out of heterosexuality. I realized that seduction might be difficult since I have such great difficulty gauging his intelligence.

I, Los Angeles

November 13, 2008

I’m finally home. Roughing it in the provinces (Chicago) has been hell on earth. The Asians here don’t skulk looking like outnumbered victims. Here they constitute a population. Walking across the USC campus for a cup of coffee (USC Arabesque architecture is a beautiful rip-off of UCLA’s), I saw that it’s Gender Studies Week — there will be a Trans-Asian panel this afternoon. Even the Trans-Asians here can speak. A guy just winked at me. I listen to the delightful babble of Spanish in the coffee shop. My half-breed cousin, Ali, who works at USC tells me that there will be a REMIX Celebration on campus to celebrate our first mixed race President. Oh well, at least they’re trying.

The flight over was bumpy. Weather in the midwest is predictably horrific. As the stewardess explained how to use the oxygen masks, I turned to the guy next to me and explained, “I am a like a child, so in the event of an emergency please fix the oxygen mask on your face first.” He laughed, “I’ll make sure mine is securely fastened before putting yours on.”

Los Angeles greeted me with a breath of warm air and two traffic jams between 9 and 10 PM. One, on Fairfax, we suspected of being due to a “flash anti Prop 8 rally.” How cute! I haven’t seen a flash protest in years! The swarming LAPD choppers and cars blocking Fairfax welcomed me back into the prickly embrace of sanctioned fascism as a way of life.

At Damianos (“Mr. Pizza”), the manager who used to berate the Eastern European waitresses he picked up from the dock (threatening them with INS) no longer worked there. Instead we got a Hispanic waitress running wild, with no discipline or fear of the authorities whatsoever. She was dressed in a Target bought Run DMC t-shirt and a princessy bow in her hair, which was fitting since she was a real little fucking princess. More interested in dishing up big bowls of spaghetti to Robert Forster at the table next to us, she kept bouncing along to tell us “don’t worry. I’ll be right with you.” After taking half an hour to pull my beer out of the refrigerator, she bounced up to tell me “don’t worry. Your beer will be up in a moment.” “This isn’t my worried face, honey. It’s my pissed off face.” The whole time I was fixed on watching Forster stuff mound after mound of spaghetti and meatballs into his mouth. It was mesmerizing. There’s a reason people make spaghetti at home — no one looks good eating it in public. I kept chastising Ali for turning around to look while I couldn’t stop giving him my grossed out look in the restaurant gloom. (Damianos has no lights other than an apparantly new set of green Christmas lights strung up). I’d been eager to get some pizza down my throat for the whole flight. When I mentioned it to the guy next to me, he asked “Who goes to LA for pizza?” I explained how disgusting I found Chicago deep dish pizza. He scoffed, saying that Chicago has the best pizza in the world. I asked him where a good place to get some would be, and he answered “I come from an Italian family. We make our own pizza.” “That’s great. Since you’re not in a position to make me some, I’ll settle for some LA thin crust.”

I’m happy here. As I finish writing this, now in Westwood, I return from racing to the car with quarters only to find the meter man fixing my meter and giving me a free two hours. Exuberantly, I shouted to a silver haired woman passing by, “It’s been ten years since I’ve been in LA. God, I’ve missed this place.” She joyously welcomed me back.

Right now the city is going through The Great Shakeup exercises — the biggest earthquake preparation activity in world history. Kids are going to school with bloody make up, and have been briefed on the degree of their injuries. The community is coming together with triage on every street corner. Last night, as I looked at the Hollywood sign and Griffith Obervatory from Ali’s window, he mentioned “There was a big fire up there, over by Griffith, a little while back. The view was spectacular.”

I acknowledge that this city is hell on earth, but I fit. I never want to leave. This place shocks me an with an electric feel. I especially don’t want to leave for SF tomorrow night, but I promised some friends that I’d come visit. Since they did me a few good turns once when I was a homeless man with three cats, I feel obliged not to renege. Tonight I’ll be heading off to Meltdown Comics. Hopefully, they’ll have a copy of The Loaded Bible, which I’ve wanted to grab for some time.

Caligula for President, Or, Your Misanthropy Makes Me Hot

November 4, 2008
As a populace, you are immature and emotionally retarded. Your crazy-dreamer-style political decision making is based on a totally optimistic disregard for actual politics, the learning process and logic in general.
— Caligula

As I stood in line at 5:30 AM to get the bullshit voting process out of the way by offering myself to the abstract intellectual space of free-play that leads to wise political judgment which we Americans locate in the voting booth (now replaced by the small “voting table” and the unwieldy “privacy card”), I took note of the smugness of my fellow voters. As one woman haughtily emerged from behind her voting box to announce that she had spoiled her ballot and needed another one, I was counseled to be patient by the Church volunteer who sat there handing out pens. I snapped at her, “I am being patient!” Earlier, I gave her my voter registration card. “Don’t you want to see my ID?” “That’s not really necessary,” she said. “Yes it is,” I ordered. “My vote isn’t getting disqualified on any grounds.” I couldn’t believe these people taking their vote for granted. Yuppies. These days you have to kick some ass to make sure they process your vote.

Another overly caffeinated woman kept discussing her volunteer work for Obama while rapping a copy of The New Yorker against her knuckles. I looked around wondering, “how many of these assholes have subscriptions to The New Yorker? Jesus Christ, what a racket. They really are cleaning up.” Everyone around me felt good. Even though I was the best looking person in the polling station, they all looked good, as if they felt clean. They felt optimistic. Our nation is ready to optimistically suffer itself back into economic prosperity for the next few years, and we will feel morally cleansed as we pull out of Iraq and remain militarily ensconced only in Afghanistan.

When I heard Obama claim that our troops only belong in Afghanistan looking for the perpetrators of 9/11, I felt the bottom fall out of my stomach. What is the point of war if we are not cynically seeking an extension of our vital resources? While George Bush’s attack on Iraq was blatant, Straussian, imperialism, it had a clear goal: If our military is not going to be trolling for oil, then really what is the fucking point?! And Obama considers himself leadership material?

“Only the Intelligent Vote Obama” stickers, “A vote for McCain/Palin is evil blog posts” and other examples of moral and cognitive self-righteousness mixed in with election time platitudes have been torture to sit through. The willingness to lie, cheat, and steal — the sheer ruthlessness of the rule by might of the past eight years — has been refreshing, if not a tad depressing, in its openness about the true nature of power in this society. The Republicans used the Strauss chapbook. They channeled Machiavelli and Stalin, instead of Lenin. Since my academic interest is largely in the history of ruthlessness and paranoia, I found the past decade educational. As obviously as the moral (does anyone care about morals anymore) of Antigone is don’t fuck around with nut-jobs, the (im)moral of the Republican party’s exploits as the ruling party is that viciousness in politics pays. I don’t need my Vice-President to believe the earth is round! Obama’s speeches could pass for a high school civics class lecture. The next four years promise to be boring with the ethical platitudes and veiled corruption.

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I also found Cintra Wilson’s Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny, to be incredibly educational. The premise is that Caligula has returned from the dead and the book constitutes his campaign for the American presidency. “America is thisssclose–right on the front-yard line–of having a real, live, old-fashioned, dynastic totalitarian monarchy-cum-military dictatorship. And I intend to drop-kick America orgasmically through this goalpost.” Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, like presidents from the Bush family, the Clinton family the Gore/Kennedy family, and all the other incestuous oligarchies that have ruled America (see The House of Yes), was born into the dynastic line of power. As with their administrations, insanity and sexual perversity and poor government went together. The book gives not only a history lesson on Caligula’s rise to power, the smotherings and political assassinations, the debauchery and the rape of state, the ascension into godhood and the free for all (or, rather, free for him) of his reign, but also shows how it applies to America today. Chapters range from a discussion of dynasty in politics to domestic propaganda, perception management, state religion (monumentality), political depression, Theft (tax give-aways; bribery), “security,” and builds up to chapters like “A Hello to Arms; Or, Eternal War for Eternal War; Or, Catching Your Dick in the Zipper of Imperial Overreach,” and “The Political Animal Must Eat Itself: Paranoia, Cannibalism and Existential Angst.”

When discussing perception management, Wilson employs the anthropological concept of “interpretive drift,” the theory of how “rational thinking can gradually become irrational. It’s the way normal people become cult members, for example, or free Americans become slave labor for a totalitarian military dictatorship.” This leads her into an explanation of how Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric (and owner of NBC) used his corporate interest to manipulate NBC news’ election coverage so as to have Bush called as winner of Florida the unforgettable night of the 2000 election. While Welch’s involvement was investigated, it was hardly reported upon. And even if it had made the front pages, Caligula rejoices in the knowledge that

PR agencies like Burson-Marsteller can literally fix any reputation. You can go down to Bhopal and spray oven cleaner into the eyes of orphans for six months, just for fun, and they’ll make it look like you were trying to correct their astigmatism.

How does the drift take place? During the past eight years, every major story about the current administration’s corruptions and manipulations (when reported) has been sidelined by conveniently breaking stories about Britney Spears, Anna Nicole Smith and Lindsay Lohan. “Lindsay Lohan’s personal issues considerably helped to eclipse the dismissal of the U.S. attorneys controversy,” claims Wilson, as she tracks the news cycle on July 24 and 25, 2007. After asking “Did Betsy Ross do more for her country than Lindsay?” and “Which story do you remember happening?” Wilson cum Caligula proclaims that Lohan is a small potatoes distraction:

Paris Hilton is, in fact, a Warholian genius of media manipulation. If Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana were “candles in the wind,” and Anna Nicole Smith was a bonfire in a hailstorm, and Lindsay Lohan is an electric toaster oven thrown intentionally into a Jacuzzi, then Paris Hilton is a strobe light in an epilepsy ward.

Hilton “managed” to begin her jail sentence on the same day that Scooter Libby was sentenced. “Was this sheer luck? Pure coincidence? Or was it raw patriotism?” Hilton has been quoted in Glamour Magazine on the subject of Palin as saying “I think she’s hot and I think it’s great that a woman is running for office. … I don’t think she’s stupid – she wouldn’t be where she is today if she was stupid. I think she’s smart, and it’s just because she’s a woman people are saying she’s not.” Paris would know… or wouldn’t. I’m confused. As Caligula points out in his campaign speech, “tragedy comes from the Greek words tragos, meaning “Goat” … and odia, meaning “song.” It was basically an ancient Greek entertainment-industry term — tragoidia–meaning “goat men sacrifice song.”” Today, he points out, it has been replaced by “designated celebrity scapegoating.” It is

the prevailing cultural trope I whimsically like to call “Death to the Slut.” Admit it. America is really not so different from Somalia: You love to stone the adulteress just as much as anyone under sharia law. You just prefer to psychologically torture your fallen women to death because it takes longer. I understand… The yellow press will hound a blonde into an early grave every five years or so, and parade her bloody bedsheets through the streets, and oily black gushers of inexhaustible tabloid revenue will blast up out of supermarket lines everywhere and fall upon us all like a dirty mist.

One of the great devices of the book is the way in which Caligula constructs revenge fantasies against celebrity culture for its distracting tactics. “As punishment for cycling with members of the last administration, Lance Armstrong will be forced to wear a very tight stack of yellow rubber bracelets around his only remaining testicle for several months. For charity, of course.” Crime appropriate punishments are meted out against Tucker Carlson, Willie Geist, Bill Hemmer, Dana Perino, Ann Coulter, Ryan Seacrest (who a slut friend of mine, Meagan, once dated years ago. Yes, he is as miserable in bed as you’d expect), Jessica Alba, and more.

The scope of Cintra’s argument can be difficult to manage. She and Caligula weave through ancient Rome, back to the Clintons, the Bush family, the Sopranos and to the Hiltons. The book is a history lesson, a history of our present and its own social theory. “Realpolitik is not for the twee. If you really want to understand how worlds corrode, you have to look at the fragile web of interconnected personal relationships in top cabinet positions,” says Caligula before discussing his uncle Tiberius, as well as Bush’s recent self-awarding of classified Presidential powers, and the close proximity of Presidential statutes to actual law now that Congressional recognition has been granted to them. It’s truly refreshing, for once, to read a conspiracy theorist who writes from the point of view of the conspiracy! You really think Obama will agree to lessen his own power? If so, Caligula has an aqueduct he wants to sell you.

Anyone who’s been around the historical block a few times knows that democracies tend to mutate into either empires or anarchies, both of which tend to devolve quite handily into tyrannies, and all of which ultimately decompose into authoritarian military dictatorships. You may whine all you like, but I can’t guarantee your safety afterwards. I prefer to think that America is moving away from the stagnant democracy it has been mired in, according to stodgy, literal, Borkian interpretations of ancient documents like the Constitution (which is as risible as any literal interpretation of any document from the New Testament to The Hobbit), and moving into something truly exciting: a more Rabelaisian, “carnivalesque” democracy…

In fact, Obama may represent a considerably greater danger than McCain ever would have. The religious power Obama holds over people with the words “hope” and “change” is quite frightening. As I keep telling people, the optimism they feel when he speaks is pure ideology. Their viscera is enacted and their bodies become complicit in his (homophobic and misogynistic) opportunist political program. I am sure he will be less horrible a president than McCain (which was the only criteria I used in voting for him), however, there is something compelling about the Caligulan logic that says we should be choosing the more horrible candidate. It’s the logic of political obscenity (not political satire; there is a difference). It’s the logic that demands even greater feats of extravagant corruption to which no one will react just to see how far we can be tested. For, if Obama is our reaction, then we truly are incapable of considered reaction.

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After I voted, I trudged my way to Starbucks. I was informed that if I showed the barista my voter card, I’d get a free coffee. It’s one of the many “discounts”/bribes for voting available today. I ordered a blueberry muffin I didn’t really want along with my free grande, decaff, lotta room for cream, cafe Americano, because I felt bad just trotting in and getting only free stuff. Then I showed my proof of voting. The barista frowned and said in a baby voice, “oh, that’s only good for talls, not grandes.” I ended up spending $4.50 I never planned on spending. As I stood there, munching on my stale muffin, I felt all my hope for change slide away. It’s gonna be a long four years without you, Caligula.

Boxfresh

October 22, 2008


Guest columnist, Josef F., from the UK, discusses his latest musical recommendation – ‘Black Butta.’

Beverley Knight’s latest auditory tour de force, whilst being a vocal masterclass, disguises what can only be referred to as “An ode to being a black woman.” With the recent criticisms of certain black artists being “Too white,” such as Beyonce’s “Loreal-gate,” it is refreshing to see not only an artist embracing who she is, but to do so, with such a Boxfresh* sound. The song itself soars from a Husky verse into a rousing, belted chorus, which can only cause one response in the red blooded man – Spontaneous Dance. All in all, Beverley Knight’s latest contribution to the music world, is, quite frankly, echelons above most of the recent drivel we have been receiving.

*Boxfresh- Word originated by Danni Minogue on Saturday 18th show of X factor.

‘Let All the Poisons that Lurk in the Mud, Hatch Out!’

October 16, 2008

Cintra Wilson discusses her hilarious new book, Caligula For President: Better American Living Through Tyranny, which I am currently reading and might discuss here.