Monday, September 26, 2005

Surrealism & the everyday

Lately I feel like I'm living in a surrealist painting.

The last time I felt like this I was in graduate school, after Hurricane Fran landed full-force on Chapel Hill, NC in autumn 1996. Almost everything stopped, and what little that moved moved very, very slowly. Many roads were flooded, obstructed by trees, or they were impassable for other reasons having to do with the storm. Power was out everywhere for days, as was the TV. Most of the grocery stores were closed, at least for awhile, and because of the power outages their inventory quickly turned rancid. The water was untrustworthy for a time. In short, everyday life downshifted abruptly. There were fits, starts, and jerks; everything--everything--seemed out of sorts.

I'm fortunate not to live on the US Gulf Coast right now, though the images I see and the reports I hear take me back to my time in Chapel Hill--only far worse. The main effects many of us living outside the region feel (other than a continued loss of faith in our government's ability to act and a profound sorrow for those who've lost everything) is the rising price of gas. Rumor has it that it may reach $4/gallon. That, of course, is a deeply everyday concern, given how much petroleum makes the economy--indeed, everyday life itself--go. Everyone living in the US has been touched to greater and lesser degrees by the recent maelstroms.

Lefebvre once said that a breakdown in everyday life's usual routines is precisely that which precipitates fundamental change. Are we indeed living through just such a time? If so, who will direct the change, and to what ends?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Of the cliche

I finished reading Deleuze's "Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation" a few weeks ago. In it, he talks about artistic production as a process, in the case of painting, of ridding one's canvas of cliches. I'm both intrigued and vexed by this argument. On the one hand, it sounds perfectly sensible. Isn't the inventional process of art precisely that--invention--or the artist's more or less deliberate effort to dissociate her or himself from the familiar or cookie-cut? On the other hand, I'm persuaded by the work of Henri Lefebvre, who sees the mundane, the ordinary, the banal, the everyday--the cliched--as precisely the source of the extraordinary within the ordinary. Art or originality, for Lefebvre, consists of repeating the same thing all over again, differently. I wonder, then, if art isn't a process of painting (writing, sculpting, building, etc.) over cliches as much as it is a process of repeating the cliche in a new or novel way. Deleuze's book on Bacon very well may be a case in point. Deleuze sees Bacon as someone who has, in effect, unpainted the generic form of the portrait. But isn't Bacon still, at some level, a portraitist? Perhaps rather than unpainting the portrait, he's repainted the form in a fundamentally new way. The cliche is, I believe, more our friend than Deleuze would care to think it is.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

"Socialism for the rich"

What follows is a brief excerpt from an address Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. gave on September 10th, 2005 at the National Sierra Club Summit in San Francisco, CA. It's a compelling and provocative look at contemporary life in the US and the "infrastructural" role the environment plays therein. The transcript is long but worth reading. I cannot recall the last time that I encountered such a savvy, informed, and well-reasoned account of why *everyone* should fight to preserve the environment.

"[T]his is an administration that represents itself as the White House of values, but every value that they claim to represent is just a hollow facade, that marks the one value that they really consider worth fighting for, which is corporate profit-taking. They say that they like free markets, but they despise free-market capitalism.

What they like, if you look at their feet rather than their clever, clever mouths, what they really like is corporate welfare and capitalism for the poor, but socialism for the rich. They say that they like private property, but they don't like private property except when it's the right of a polluter to use his private property to destroy his neighbor's property and to destroy the public property...."

You can read the complete text of the transcript at:

Sunday, September 18, 2005

'Tisn't quite the season, but...

I'm in the process of reading Stephen Nissenbaum's book "The Battle for Christmas." Actually, I've been reading it on and off since last Christmas, though my episodic reading shouldn't be taken as an indictment of its quality. It is, rather, the kind of book that's so richly detailed, textured, and layered that you can read it in one pass or in bits and pieces and benefit either way. More than anything, what's striking about "Battle" is the way in which Nissenbaum reads the 18th and 19th centuries through changes in the Christmas holiday. It's as much a history of those centuries, then, and of the dramatic political-economic and social transformations that took place, as it is a history of Christmas per se. His reading of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is exemplary in this regard, and perhaps the most astute interpretation of the story I've encountered. I may use Nissenbaum's book next time around in my graduate seminar on the theory and history of mass culture in the US. By all means, check it out. It's a lively read and fiercely smart--and did I mention that it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Poisoning the dispossessed

The US Environmental Protection Agency has overhauled its guidelines on pesticide testing making them, in effect, more industry-friendly. Although the agency "regard[s] as unethical and would never conduct, support, require or approve any study involving intentional exposure of pregnant women, infants or children to a pesticide," the new guidelines stipulate several notable exceptions including:

(1) The testing of "abused or neglected" children without permission from parents or guardians.

(2) "Ethically deficient" human research if it is considered crucial to "protect public health."

(3) More than minimal health risk to a subject if there is a "direct benefit" to the child being tested, and the parents or guardians agree.

(4) EPA acceptance of overseas industry studies, which are often performed in countries that have minimal or no ethical standards for testing, as long as the tests are not done directly for the EPA.

Has the EPA forgotten the shame of Tuskegee?

(This post is adapted from an Andrew Schneider article in The National Sun and an email circulated by the Sierra Club.)