This should be self evident to all who have the time and the stomach to follow the decision-making processes that thornily evolve at all levels of our government. So too have they been foregrounded by the confluence of new and old ideas that swirls around the broad Occupy movement. Anyone who has taken part in one of their General Assemblies has seen first hand an example of how long, frustrating, and ultimately invigorating large scale deliberation can be. Consensus emerges.
As some have begun to question where these proposals come from, how they are phrased, they’ve been directed to join working groups and other bodies ancillary to the main Assembly that have been set up to facilitate finer-grained discussion. A system of governance is beginning to emerge. It is, in its design, a critique; a pointed alternative to the existing government. There is little that is so seemingly hierarchical, so arcane as the bureaus of the Federal apparatus, or even that of a large municipality. It is phenomenally easy for those working closely with these systems to feel alienated, and with very good reason. In cases of monumental legislation that might have hugely detrimental effects upon one’s own life or the lives of millions around the globe, sending a letter to one’s Congressman feels almost insulting. The Occupation is, in so many ways, successful or not, an attempt at building a better, more participatory and direct system.
Here in San Francisco though, like in most cities in this nation, there is a system of direct democracy in the form of initiatives and referenda. These are issues put to vote to the population at large that live or die based on the will of the people. Roughly half of the United States have a system for this at the state level; in major cities in this country, it is the norm. In many countries around the world there are mechanisms for national referenda — in the extreme case of Switzerland, where three or four national referenda are held annually, it is a fundament of governance.
Just this month, San Francisco voters came out to vote not only for a new mayor but also to approve three new initiatives that give money for schools, roads, and enacting a large restructuring of city pensions.
“Last year, the city began a campaign against [traveling kids] because they were allegedly harassing residents and tourists for cash on the street. Despite city-wide protests, a law came into effect that actually prohibited sitting on the street.”
The above was published in the first issue of the n+1 sponsored Occupy Gazette, and while it is a short excerpt, it is nonetheless an ugly blemish upon the entire publication. It is indicative and not to be overlooked. With it, writer Adriana Camarena flourishes some of the worst attitudes toward democracy that I believe have been embodied within the Occupy movement. The initiative and referendum process is far from perfect; decisions affecting the whole population can be made by narrow margins. It is nowhere near as right-minded and theoretically neat as consensus; it is, however, extant at a scale that matters.
I voted against the proposition, and I still don’t think the law was the best way to deal with the problems in the Haight. Whatever one’s feeling on the issue, though, to write of “a law coming into effect” — to clearly imply that it was passed from on high, rather than decided by citizens directly — is mercenary, selfish, and dishonest. It devalues the entire democratic process for the betterment of one’s own position. To know the phrase to be untrue requires an only passing interest in or knowledge of local politics and to publish it brings into sincere doubt the veracity of every other detail printed in the publication. Assuming that the writer is not woefully ignorant of the process by which this measure was passed, it must be understood that she chose to obscure that fact. In turn, it must be the case either that the editors did not check the veracity of the claims, or that, knowing it was misleading, chose to publish it anyway because it supported the sway of the publication.
We deserve better media, and we must demand from it, at every turn, a commitment to openness and to factuality. It is not enough to only gleefully skewer the media of the right for its own inaccuracies; it behooves us on the left to to keep our own media — the one that echoes and shores up our own beliefs — honest. This feedback loop of political slant in the media is truly regrettable, contributing as it does political polarization, to a lack of common ground on which discussion can be held. But it is at least justifiable when the reporting and commenting is done with a modicum of good faith and respect. Here it was not.
The matter raises for me some serious questions as to the willingness of the movement to accept the defeat and (more often) the compromise that make up any successful democratic process. In this case, a writer with sympathy for one side of a contentious issue — the sit/lie law in San Francisco — has written the other, ultimately more populated side of the debate from existence. For a movement that supposes to speak for a vast, vast majority of the population, for one that has a purported commitment to a more equitable, just, and open democracy to allow this sort of misinformation is deeply troubling.
It gives me cause to ask aloud a question that I’ve so far kept to myself: if there had been a general vote in Oakland as to whether or not to let protesters camp in front of City Hall, what would have been the result? What about a vote in New York or even nation-wide on the question of Zuccotti Park? More importantly, if the majority asked them to, would they go?
A few nights ago I was at a bar when the topic of Murakami’s new book 1Q84 came up. My friend (who is determinedly reading the 1000 page tome on her iPhone) said that while she’s enjoying it, she doesn’t think Murakami writes women well. Most of his main female characters are cold and cruel, and just don’t seem like real people.
In the ensuing discussion, it came out that the same friend, who recently finished a novel from the POV of a man, thinks that she writes “like a guy.”
This made me wonder—how exactly does one write like a woman vs. a man? Is there any way to measure this, and does it always make the writing more authentic?
The questions—the first two, at least—have indeed been answered. In his new book, The Secret Life of Pronouns: What our Words Say about Us, James W. Pennebaker uses his research in computational linguistics to break down the differences in the ways women and men speak. And in one fascinating chapter, he explores how this relates to writers.
The quick and easy answer is that women use more personal pronouns than men—14.2% vs. 12.7%, which (he tells us) is a huge statistical difference. They also use fewer articles and more social words. Of course this changes in various settings—most formal settings tend to bring out “male” talk, while casual, relaxed settings are more typically “female.”
Pennebaker became interested in how this affects writers, specifically in how they create dialogue. He wondered if talented authors write men and women’s dialogue more accurately. After he and a research assistant analyzed over 110 scripts from more than 70 playwrights, they came to some fascinating conclusions.
• Writers whose women talk like women and men talk like men include Spike Lee (for Do the Right Thing), Thornton Wilder (Our Town) and Joan Tewkesbury (Nashville).
• Writers whose women AND men talk like women include Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle), Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise) and Woody Allen (Hannah and her Sisters).
• Writers whose women AND men talk like men include Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction–surprise!), Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous), and…uh…Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet).
Pennebaker makes a point to say that he’s referring to characters speaking like “prototypical” men or women. He also notes that the first category isn’t always the ideal—for example, he thinks the men in Thelma and Louise are “so interesting” because they speak like women, which “reveals a deep interest in other people as opposed to concrete objects.”
I was surprised by Shakespeare, as I’ve always admired him for writing complex female characters. After reading the balcony excerpt that Pennebaker provides, though, I have to admit that despite the intimate, romantic setting, Juliet does muse more about Romeo’s options and the meaning of a name than share her personal thoughts. But perhaps these two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Not all women and men are “prototypical,” so not all characters have to be, either.
Pennebaker concludes that in the end, even if an author does write more like one sex than the other, it might not necessarily matter. “If the content is compelling,” he says, “we will probably not notice it.”
If you weren’t introduced to the Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai this past summer by James Woods’ New Yorker piece, now would be the time to turn your attention to him. If you want to read someone that isn’t debasing themselves to be part of the stroller-pushing high-brow entertainment industry, read Krasznahorkai. If you want to read a writer who, as de Tocqueville put it, prefers “success to glory”, then do not read Krasznahorkai.
His river of sludgy prose and psychotic breakdowns work when they do, and (if you’re not used to writers who prefer to strike out swinging) might make you cringe when they don’t. But — and what a relief — he tries to accomplish a lot more than most contemporary American authors have the bad taste to.
If arguments from authority appeal to you, then you’ll be happy to know that W.G. Sebald is a fan, and that Susan Sontag compared him to Gogol and Melville. Basically, Krasznahorkai is the shit.
The other day I came across an interview with him from 1985. I think it’s probably the best introduction to Krasznahorkai, maybe even more so than James Woods’ piece:
In a situation like this, what do writing and literature give you? What do books mean? Obviously, not the way out. Nor does writing function as a form of personal salvation for you. Then, shall we say it is the gentlest form of rebellion? Or does it play the role of issuing certain signals?
Whenever I manage to state my view in its full extent, my partner in conversation, anywhere in the world, invariably reminds me, “If you paint such a gloomy picture of the world, then why write?” This is a subtle way of asking why I don’t shoot myself in the head right there and then, and indeed, why I hadn’t done so a long while ago. My critical remarks do not mean that I think or have ever thought that literature could directly interfere with the workings of the society it criticises or rejects. The impact that a writer can exert over his or her own society is far more subtle, almost indecipherably complex and indirect, working through a number of transformations. I even doubt whether at such a degree of remoteness you can still call this an impact and an influence. In Oriental cultures, this question has found an almost radical solution: art had absolutely nothing to do with the direct, palpable reality of its own age. On the contrary, real artists were not “members” of their own society, in the same way that saints never are. This way, the art they produced did not exist as an integrated, definable, graspable part of society. Instead, it found its place in an emphatically spiritual space which nonetheless was still perceived as a part of reality.
Here’s a taste of his fiction. Go read him! Not because he was finally mentioned in the New Yorker, but because he would have been just as great if he had never been.
“Highsmith’s notebooks written in the fifties reveal her struggle over understanding the social reality of being gay, one which informed her depictions of gay characters in her psychological thrillers involving murders, forged identities and double lives. A few years before she wrote Strangers on Train, which centers on a homoerotic bond and a murder pact between two men, one entry in her journal reads “Yes, perhaps sex is my theme in literature – being the most profound influence on me – manifesting itself in repressions and negatives, perhaps, but the most profound influence.”
I have watched the video of Azealia Bank’s song “212” approximately seventeen times today without getting sick of it. Unsurprisingly, I would recommend you take a listen.
You know how everyone is saying We the Animalsby Justin Torres is a phenomenal novel? They are right. It’s phenomenal. It’s also under 150 pages long so you have no excuse to not read it on the subway, or wherever it is you NY motherfuckers read your books.
Tumultuous days like these call for expert agitation, for fighting words to defend the bike-locked bodies, for articulate expressions of collective frustration.
Matt Taibbi can churn out a fantastic polemic. And although not all situations call for a rhetorical baseball bat, sometimes he hits the perfect balance of anger, humor, and pointed criticism. The piece he wrote recently in Rolling Stone is one of the best articulations of the Occupy movement I have read. Taibbi writes,
“This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. If there is such a thing as going on strike from one’s own culture, this is it.”
My fist rises in the air as I read it. It’s an anger that inspires.
If you don’t know about the publication where Matt Taibbi got his polemical sea legs, you should. The Exile, started by Mark Ames with Matt Taibbi in 1997 was an English-language newspaper published weekly in Moscow until 2008, when it was shut down by the Russian government, something its editors had long expected. Full of machismo, always seeking to offend, the Exile embodied a particular kind of bitterness bred in Russia better than anywhere else. I used to read it when I studied abroad in Moscow in 2007, and its takedowns of Putin and the Siloviki, of raging post-Soviet Capitalism, its furious exposure of Moscow’s underbelly, was often as infuriating as it was cathartic. A fascinating piece in Vanity Fair describes the newspaper’s birth this way:
“Ames had put out the first issue in a torrent of outrage at the sharpies and frauds who insisted that post-Communist Russia was a new democratic paradise, at the liars in the Kremlin, the dreamers in Washington, the academic careerists, Wall Street, the World Bank…”
Somehow all that outrage feels hauntingly familiar. The Exile did anger like nobody else, and it’s nice to have Taibbi on Occupy Wall Street’s side.
But speaking of tumult, Cairo is in chaos. When I walked home Saturday evening through the quiet winding streets of Garden City, the central Cairo neighborhood where I live, a faint teargas-filled breeze made my eyes water and my throat close. There was a distant echo of canisters being fired, some people running towards the corniche.
When I got home I closed all my windows to keep out the gas. In my apartment all I could hear was the buzz of the building water pump and some stray cats whining outside.
I stay far away when there are clashes. I’m not very brave, and the battles in the streets are also not mine to fight. But reading about friends in the United States, like Full Stop editors Jesse Montgomery and Max Rivlin-Nadler, who have gotten their hands dirty Occupying America, I wish I could join them. For now I’ll just lend my support in words.
It’s a curious thing hearing about books being adapted into films. You wonder how closely the director will stick to the book, and what gets cast aside in favor of making the story more film-friendly. There’s no formula for making a successful film adaptation, so the results are wildly uneven when it comes to representing the source material. Adapters have different intentions for undertaking this kind of project, running the gamut between striking while the iron is hot and bringing a story to a new audience in earnest. As an idea, though, it makes sense, either for purposes commercial or artistic. Twilight on the one hand, No Country for Old Men on the other. Either way, I’m curious to see where the recently-announced Ender’s Game film falls on this continuum.
It got me thinking about books I’m curious to see adapted into films. Watching the action on the page play out in my mind’s eye is something I’ve always enjoyed about reading, and I can’t help but wonder what certain books would look like on the screen. Here are a couple books I’d be curious to see adapted:
Valis, by Phillip K. Dick. Dick’s stories have lent themselves well to films in the past: Minority Report, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, it’s a long list. Blade Runner managed to capture the spirit of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep without sticking right to the letter, and is an essential companion to Do Androids Dream (and vice versa). In the right hands, Valis could be just as fun. I picture John C. Reilly as a poker-faced Horeslover Fats, the protagonist who becomes something of a prophet after he’s shot by pink lasers from space. He’s subsequently plagued by the sight of history literally superimposed upon itself, and then has to make sense of some of the craziest theological/historical conspiracies this side of Dan Brown. Of course, he teeters on the edge of sanity, alienating his family and friends in pursuit of some Truth.
Stone Arabia, by Dana Spiotta. Few people have written as astutely about rock music as Spiotta in Stone Arabia. It’s clear that she loves it, but that she understands part of that love is not being afraid to be deeply critical. She has an eye for the aesthetic, and an ear for the sound. She also has an ear the Rock n’ Roll Lingo, and as it relates to the way people actually talk and behave. Rock music aside, Spiotta’s characters lend Stone Arabia the kind of gravity that, paired with the book’s Rock chic, could really work. Someone who has a similar sensibility to hers (your guess as to who) could do great things with Stone Arabia.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss novelizations here. They’ve always perplexed me, honestly. That said, I haven’t read much in the way of novelizations of films or video games (unless Shadows of the Empire counts, but I never got through it). Here’s a novelization I’d like to read:
Anaconda. Reframed a little bit, it could be like Moby-Dick, but with a snake instead of a whale. And J-Lo as Ishmael. And Jon Voight as a snake-hunting, two legged Captain Ahab. This novelization would abandon the film’s conceit of a poacher (Voight) commandeering a group of documentarians on the Amazon so he could find, kill, and get rich off of the Anaconda. Instead, they’re a pack of strays looking to tangle with the Gods of the swamp (and then sell their remains), no quarter asked and none given. An epigraph for Anaconda (or the Whale):
“All men will be sailors then / until the sea shall free them / or until they’re eaten by poisonous snakes.”
These are kids who were barely aware of the latent violence ready to burst out into their protest. One video of the events, for instance, shows one of the students laughing at the absurdity of a policeman’s threats–because these threats were absurd, for the circumstances–only to be pepper-sprayed in the face two minutes later.
Chancellor Katehi should take responsibility for what happened. As an assistant UCD professor wrote to her,
You are responsible for it because this is what happens when UC Chancellors order police onto our campuses to disperse peaceful protesters through the use of force: students get hurt. Faculty get hurt.
Afterwards, Katehi and the campus police chief refused to even remotely take responsibility for what happened. According to Gawker,
UCD Police Chief Annette Spicuzza told the Davis Enterprise that she’s “very proud” of her officers. “I don’t believe any of our officers were hurt,” she says, “and I hope none of the students were injured.”
“The students had encircled the officers,” [Police Chief Spicuzza] said. “They needed to exit. They were looking to leave but were unable to get out.”
The absurdity of this excuse is obvious in every video of the event, because Lt. John Pike steps over the students’ line to start the pepper-spraying. Pike appears to provide the vast proportion of abuse by himself, staining the reputation of his colleagues.
Katehi has organized a “task force” to report back to her with recommendations in 90 days. Does it really take 90 days to understand that this was unnecessary? Does it take 90 days to say, “I was wrong”?
I know Katehi’s lawyers must be advising against admitting culpability, since the university could be held liable for costly court cases. But has our society become so litigated to death that we cannot admit that such brutality is just a wrenchingly awful mistake?
Sadly, this kind of overreach happens every day, by a very small but not negligible number of people. As Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us,
Not to diminish what happened at UC Davis, but it’s worth considering what happens in poor neighborhoods and prisons, far from the cameras.
Since Katehi will not say the one word she must say, UCD students have left her in eerie, stunning silence, protesting her with a silent vigil that shows all of the discipline and moral force that she and one of her policemen lack.
Full Stop Managing Editor Jesse Montgomery was arrested last night while participating in a march that aimed to draw attention to the decrepit state of Philadelphia’s infrastructure, and the failure of congress to create jobs for working people. Montgomery was arrested with 23 others as they refused to leave the Market Street Bridge.
“The Market Street Bridge, which is in as bad a state of disrepair as the collapsed Minneapolis bridge, is a vivid example of the many roads, schools and other infrastructure sites in need of repair.
In fact, more than a quarter of Philadelphia’s bridges share the same classification from the Federal Highway Administration.”
This march was part of a National Day of Action in support of the #ows movement. Over 250 people were arrested in New York City, with scores others arrested around the nation who were demonstrating for a better, more equitable America. Over 1,000 marchers in Philadelphia rallied Congress to “create jobs, stop cuts and Make Wall Street banks pay.”
Here’s hoping for a safe stay and speedy release. Godspeed, Montgomery.
It’s a difficult truth about being a member of a special-status group, a group that has to deal with its identity politics, that you have to make a decision about how to participate in a troubled and often troubling discourse. Not participating is, of course, a decision, and a reaction, whether you like it or not. These decisions don’t always get to be yours; the world you’re born into isn’t one of your making. Sometimes you get to see people who shape these relationships to their demographic categories with a fierceness and grace that subsumes all the doubts, fears about how you’ll fit in and worries about being a threat. These moments, and these people, shine in a way that can reignite the people they come into contact with.
I got to see one such person tonight. I went to see Alice Notley read some of her new work. Notley is a poet with years and volumes of work and praise behind her. She’s well known for her 1996 book The Descent of Alette, which one of her introducers tonight called a kind of feminist epic. Her work is challenging, political and personal, as good poetry is, often speaking with a strong if fractured narrative voice searching for its identity. She’s well respected for being very much a poet, having identified and stuck with her calling.
Notley’s newest book, A Culture of One, published this year by Penguin, is a story of a woman named Marie, living in Southern California, in a town which the poet said is like the one she grew up in. Marie’s life is a collage—as another introducer said tonight, “pieces of narrative and possible narrative.” The excerpts we heard from A Culture of One did well what collage is meant to do—build a whole out of disparate pieces, not just of images, but of pieces of an embattled psychological landscape. My favorite of Marie’s lines: “my mind’s too textured for this crappy story.”
Seeing Notley read was a great energizer, not just in the reminder that there’s good poetry out there to be read and heard, but that there are meaningful things to be said in the conversations we still need to have about gender, among other things. And in any conversation, there’s going to be a lot of crap, but there’s also a good number of people who will speak with clarity and with vitality.
The best two essays I’ve read recently both concern Van Morrison and can be found in an semi-obscure tome of rock criticism published by Knopf and edited by Greil Marcus called Stranded: Rock and Roll For a Desert Island, initially released in 1979. The idea behind Stranded is a simple one: get twenty rock critics to pick and write about their ‘desert island’ record. Only one artist had more than one record chosen: Van Morrison; M. Mark (then Arts editor of the Village Voice, now Professor of English at Vassar) opens the collection with a beautifully sprawling take on Van Morrison’s 1974 live album “It’s Too Late to Stop Now”, and later on immortal rock critic Lester Bangs (memorably portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous) champions the seminal Astral Weeks in one of those essays that are perfectly personal.
Both of these writers are essentially trying to hammer home one overwhelmingly explicit point: you can talk about Van Morrison, the man, or Van Morrison, the recording artist, but what you should really be talking about is Van Morrison, the poet. Throughout her essay M. Mark maintains a discussion regarding the relationship between Van and W.B. Yeats; Bangs ends his with a juxtaposition between the opening lines of Astral Weeks and a section from Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Ballad of a Small Plaza.” These are both compelling comparisons: Yeats and Morrison share an Irish sense of romantic wilderness (brilliantly described by Marks as a lion’s howl), and one does get a strange sense of serendipity analyzing Lorca’s poem alongside Van’s lyrics, but ultimately neither of these come close to encapsulating the beauty of Van Morrison’s music.
Conan O’Brien once said that the problem writing about comedy is that “it’s like trying to hold a gas – the tighter you squeezes, the more it dissipates.” The same idea applies to music: the more you try to cage meaning the less likely you are to ever catch it. This is not to say, however, that Marks and Bangs wasted their time; if anything, it’s to say the exact opposite: these essays, like the best music criticism, are aware of the inherent impossibilities of the form, and, rather than shying away, embrace this futility. These essays, after all, aren’t academic dissertations – they are letters from fans.
And still, with that all being said, I am finding it hard to fight the impulse of comparing “Into the Mystic” to a John Ashbery poem, or the exuberant chorus of “Caravan” to the wild ecstasy of “Kubla Khan”, but I will not give into these urges, and will leave you instead to these two thoughts: one – if you’ve never heard Astral Weeks, download it illegally, or listen to it on Youtube, or Spotify, or whatever, and do it today, right now, and, two – if I could live anywhere it would be within “Brown-Eyed Girl”, somewhere between the cracks of infinite space in sha la la la la la la la la la la te da.