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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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About Aaron Bady

A graduate student in real life at UC Berkeley, Aaron is a graduate student in virtual life at zunguzungu.

Email Address: aaronbady@berkeley.edu


Posts by Aaron Bady

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Letters and Literary Notes

Posted by Aaron Bady on 03/25/09 at 08:39 PM

The first volume of The Letters of Samuel Beckett have been published, and it was no small accomplishment, as Nicholas Lezard at the Guardian notes: “The breadth of allusion, and the allusive and elusive wordplay you might have expected between intimate and highly educated correspondents (“‘nastorquemada nyles’ has not been identified with certainty,” say the editors, and I can’t say I blame them)” made transforming the corpus of correspondence into something readable a daunting task. Apparently he even had terrible handwriting, which he called his “foul fist.” But since the writer’s famous privacy didn’t stop him from writing a staggering number of letters, the idea of “the authentic early Beckettian tang, straight from the source, unmediated by artifice,” is a wonderfully attractive prospect. Kevin Jackson at the Sunday Times observes that his “immature voice,” is still, “highly entertaining...[that] these letters are crammed with unexpected treasures, including displays of his dazzling erudition as an amateur art historian and his charmingly impractical ideas for the alternative careers he might pursue.” And while Anthony Lane, in the New Yorker, notes that “Beckett was no Byron,” and that “nobody could maintain that the letters brim with a zest that exceeds the range of the printed works,” Lane still can’t turn away: “The correspondent’s phrasing has a natural, gusty soar to it, but the novel takes it higher.” Yet “if you want to trace the tributaries of that book’s mournful wit to their source,” he writes, “the letters are invaluable...”

Continue reading "Letters and Literary Notes"

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

In Withdrawal from Modernity: The Western and the West Side in The Wire

Posted by Aaron Bady on 03/10/09 at 11:36 AM

This is a (slightly expanded) version of a paper I gave this weekend, which had its original germination in this Valve post on The Wire last May. What a difference a year makes!

Last September, David Simon gave a talk here at UC Berkeley entitled the “Audacity of Despair,” and his take-home message was bluntly apocalyptic. Citing Camus and the honor of going down fighting, he told us that his title referred to the need to commit without hope of success, the fact that while the end was predetermined, “you might as well scream about it on the way down.” Most of the criticism on The Wire has more or less taken Simon at his word, seeing The Wire as showing (as Simon put it in an interview with Nick Hornby) “that our political and economic and social constructs are no longer viable, that our leadership has failed us relentlessly, and that no, we are not going to be all right.”

It has been, I think, Simon’s pithiest and least nuanced statements about the show that have tended to set the tone for the show’s critical reception. Eliding the broad differences one might draw between “our political and economic and social constructs,” his angry critiques of the failures of “the system” and “institutions” have gotten reproduced in statements like James Poniewozik’s that, for example, “All The Wire‘s characters face the same forces in a bottom-line, low-margin society, whether they work for a city department, a corporation, or a drug cartel.”

It isn’t the pessimism of all this that bothers me, but the reductiveness of it as a reading, its rhetorical insistence that there is no future grounded in a blanket denunciation on all our houses. After all, it almost seems so obvious as to not be worth saying, but there always is a future of some sort; history is a thing that has a way of continuing. And The Wire, ironically, illustrates exactly this fact: the show not only portrays Baltimore from the get-go as a place where the apocalypse has essentially already happened - and life has gone on - but it also aspires to an almost Geertzian thick description of the complex post-apocalyptic social world in which its actors live.

Continue reading "In Withdrawal from Modernity: The Western and the West Side in The Wire"

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

“a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit…”

Posted by Aaron Bady on 03/04/09 at 03:45 PM

Continue reading "“a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit…”"

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Worlds of Literature

Posted by Aaron Bady on 02/25/09 at 09:50 PM

From now on, I’m going to post a weekly round-up of links which may be of interest to the larger community of literary types, or whoever it is that reads the Valve. That’s you, right? So let me know if you see anything you think I should include.

The great Sudanese writer, Tayeb Salih, passed away late last Tuesday. He’s best known for his 1966 novel Season of Migration to the North, which Edward Said called “among the six finest novels to be written in modern Arabic literature.” I want to know what the other five on that list were; it’s a remarkable novel, and one that only gets better and more interesting with re-readings. Obituaries in the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Sudan Tribune. Mustapha Marrouchi writes a more personal remembrance in Arab Comment and in a lovely memorial, the editors of AllAfrica hope that Tayeb Salih went “with a heart full of song and a face awash with a huge smile.”

Continue reading "Worlds of Literature"

Monday, February 16, 2009

Our Tautological America

Posted by Aaron Bady on 02/16/09 at 09:31 AM

What I like most about Walter Benn Michaels’ Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism is the underlying claim that “nativism...is simultaneously a modern and a modernist phenomenon.” This is one of those arguments that has to get made again and again, so powerful is the “March of Progress” narrative: even when we acknowledge that racism (or whatever -ism we’ve chosen to focus on) isn’t merely a fragment of a broken past that we can rely on the passage of time to wash away, the very metaphors embedded in our very language tempt us to oppose “retrograde” and “reactionary” prejudices to ideas which are more “progressive” or “advanced.” And the quietism and complacence this allows, too, is tempting; after all, if racism were somehow limited to parts of the country which haven’t yet been blessed with the fruits of modernity, ignorant hicks who haven’t yet been brought into the modern world, then we can simply wait for it to be washed away by the natural progress of time, resting easy while the March of Progress takes care of what would otherwise be an uncomfortable and difficult project. Formulations like “race is still with us” or “post-racial” encourage us to think this way, to think of “Race” as a thing perpetually on the decline.

Michaels’ claim that American nativism and modernity are mutually constitutive is incompatible with this narrative, and he coins the shotgun-marriage term “nativist modernism” to express his sense of the structural intimacy between. But there’s a begged question at the root of this nags at me: how to locate this “nativist modernism” in actual, you know, history.

Continue reading "Our Tautological America"

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Work of Christmas in the Age of TBS’s Twenty-Four Hours of A Christmas Story

Posted by Aaron Bady on 12/30/08 at 07:50 AM

If you’re like me, and A Christmas Story is its own kind of Christmas morning tradition, it’s become a unique cinematic experience. I’m not exactly sure when TBS started playing it back to back for the entire 24 hours of Christmas, but when they did, it was transformed from the movie that originally flopped in the theatres into something much more interesting. It was already somewhat formless; originally pieced together from a collection of Jean Shepherd stories (from In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash), the film gets unified as a narrative only by the looming end-times of Christmas, the child’s version of the rapture. Yet piling one screening after the other takes this formlessness to the next level: if you missed Flick putting his tongue on the flagpole the first time around, wait two hours and it’ll come around again. More to the point, the Christmas morning where Ralphie gets the gun is no longer a climax or a telos but simply the still center around which the entire thing turns, always present, always coming or going and coming again. If you know every line, the whole script will play over and over and over again, but thanks to TBS, it will even if you don’t. You can go outside and walk off that turkey if you want, and catch the flag-pole scene on the next viewing. 

Continue reading "The Work of Christmas in the Age of TBS’s Twenty-Four Hours of A Christmas Story"

Friday, November 21, 2008

Just a couple of dudes…

Posted by Aaron Bady on 11/21/08 at 02:57 PM

After he was done being President, Teddy Roosevelt decided to unwind by going on safari in East Africa and blasting the living bejeezus out of everything he could find. Ostensibly, he was there to get natural history specimens for the Smithsonian, but his heart was really in the simpler pleasures of hunt. Whatever else TR was, he was a man who like to shoot things. A lot.

He also took his son Kermit with him, but other than dedicating African Game Trails to “My Side-Partner,” he’s interestingly reluctant to frame the trip as the big father-son picnic it was. Instead, he displaces the problem of the father-son relationship (which is a problem for him for various reasons) onto the African landscape itself. Teddy’s epigram kind of says it all: “He loved the great game as if he were their father.” Because nothing says paternal love like a bullet to the brainpan.

Anyway, I find this photograph of the pair incredibly great:

Continue reading "Just a couple of dudes…"

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Quantum of Solace: Guilt Flavored Ice Cream

Posted by Aaron Bady on 11/18/08 at 08:45 PM

Observing that James Bond is misogynist is like observing that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves: it’s such an important fact that it can be easy to forget how spectacularly obvious it is. I’m not going to say that the new Bond film isn’t misogynist—that’s a sucker’s game—but I want to start by observing something interesting about this new Daniel Craig version. Since Bond’s narrative arc now defines his character by the trauma of a particular loss/betrayal in Casino Royale*, the inherent misogyny of the character gets re-framed less as a natural attitude towards women (and thus a masculinity which implies an anti-feminine attitude) and more as a defensive, individual, and contingent response to that personal trauma. These two movies are, in other words, prequels in the most extraverted sense, for by providing a specific explanation for what has otherwise been taken for granted (and thus naturalized), they transform the misogyny of all the other movies. Or at least they do to the extent that we buy the fiction and let Daniel Craig function as a prequel for past Bonds.

In any case, Quantum of Solace is an interesting and strange Bond movie whether or not we let it retroactively re-narrate the franchise. After all, the franchise’s main misogynist institution is the “Bond girl,” the conceit that being a secret agent naturally implies having a lot of sex with a series of women defined by their replaceable uniqueness. To put it one way, this plurality is necessary to dis-imply any measure of personal attachment on the part of Bond himself, and to put it another, it’s a seriality that commodifies difference, transforming the “individuality” of each girl into the difference between flavors, like blonde flavored ice cream. More ominously, however, seduction in the Bond film has often suggested rape—especially when it involved “turning” enemy agents by overpowering them with sex—and the number of times it resulted in the women’s deaths is part of that logic**. The Pierce Brosnan Bond not only embraced this paradigm, it perfected it; I found it deeply disturbing when Pierce Brosnan killed Sophie Morceau in The World is Not Enough, and while you can partially rescue that film by emphasizing the extent to which it makes plain what is usually mystified, you can’t really argue that there is any alternative in the universe of those films. Women are a threat, increasingly the threat.

Quantum, on the other hand, adheres to this convention in a pointedly agonistic way. After all, there are two living Bond girls in this film, one who he doesn’t sleep with (and who is essentially his narrative double), and another who he kills by sleeping with, a guilt he both addresses as such and suffers from. In other words, both serve precisely the opposite function as we have been taught to expect of them: instead of using guilt-free sex as an expression of masculine power over women (and an expression of “free world” supremacy in the cold war), the main relationship of the film is a celibate one, and the other only illustrates Bond’s impotent inability to use sex in a constructive way.

Bond’s character arc within the film is therefore a progression from a position of hatred towards the woman he loved and who betrayed him towards a position of what the movie narrates as understanding, catharsis, and transcendence. At the start of the movie, he is a homicidal maniac who has displaced his rage onto the a series of similarly different bad guys—making every kill an expression of sexualized rage. By the end of the film, however, his choice not to kill the man who is most directly responsible, at the same time as he “forgives” the woman that this bad guy is in the act of seducing out of her duty, is an indication of narrative closure. Perhaps more importantly, a classic Bond movie ending involves having sex with the good Bond girl while headquarters tries (in vain) to locate him, yet this movie ends with Craig and Kurylenko having parted ways, and with (something like) this exchange between M and Bond:

Dench as M: “I need you back”

Craig as Bond: “I never left"

If the classic Bond ending emphasizes the simultaneity of sexual power and duty—and even subordinateds the latter to the former—then Quantum explicitly places sex in opposition to duty, and Craig sacrifices the former for the latter. And while so much of the Bond movie is a touristic fantasy of never-ending summer vacation in exotica, Quantum’s Bond chooses to “come home,” and go back to work.

It’s worth noting, then, that the ending is made possible by this willingness to be brought home, by M’s decision to trust him, and finally by his proving to be worthy of that trust. M is a mother figure—it even sounds like “mum”—and while his earlier response a threat on her life had been psychotic homicidal rage, the ending is a “happy” one only because his response has changed: instead of expressing the problem of attachment to a female by displacing it onto an object of violence, he embraces her. In this sense, M is by far the most important Bond girl in this film, or she would be if it were possible to call Dame Judi Dench a “girl,” which it is not. And this is the thing I dig most about the film: the most important female character in the film, occupying the space where the Bond girl usually goes, is a person who really explodes the series’ most cherished fantasy. While the Bond girl represents guilt-free sex, power, the fantasy of freedom from attachment, and an infantilized femininity, Judi Dench’s asexual M voices his guilty conscience as a powerful (and deeply respected) maternal figure he cannot disavow, and he denies ever trying to do so. What makes the Bond franchise most questionable, in my mind, is the thing this movie works the hardest to stand on its head. and that’s something.

Yet, all that said, I want to push the argument a little harder. After all, where is home? Who is M really? And what kind of work is it their duty to do?

Since I wrote my Shirley Temple post, I think I understand better what bothered me about The Littlest Rebel: not merely that the movie is racist, sexist, and pedophilic (again, importance makes us overlook obviousness), but that its address to these characteristics is explicit, and that it tries to exploit them. The Littlest Rebel is not a movie that hides what it is; instead, it takes pleasure in being what it is, and by mounting an argument that this pleasure is legitimate, it invites the viewer to take part, even moralizing on its behalf. The fact that this film becomes a source of affective pleasure in ways novels traditionally aren’t thought to be—with the key exception of, for example, the sentimental novel tradition—makes the particularly passivity of the movie-viewer an even more significant site of meaning; not only are we urged to sit back and enjoy the spectacle, but that very “sitting backness” of it is the thing itself. This is something I’m thinking about after reading the late great David Foster Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” and I wonder if the general point he makes about TV and fiction doesn’t translate nicely into why I distrust Shirley Temple’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: filmic/televisual media have the power to affect us in exactly the ways Harriet Beecher Stowe wanted her novel to do, but which novels are less good at doing. Reading brings pleasure, but it’s an active one and you have to work at it (at least by comparison with film). What makes me so suspicious of a film like The Littlest Rebel, then, is that its medium and message converge: it doesn’t just teach you to how to be enjoy being passive, it does so as you enjoy it passively.

Quantum of Solace is not as different from The Littlest Rebel as one might expect. While The Littlest Rebel works to transform guilt into pleasure, Quantum is a movie that urges us to take pleasure in guilt. Or perhaps it’s the reverse? After all, The Littlest Rebel transforms the spectacle of the civil war and southern guilt into a kind of joyous subjection, but the more I think about it, the more I find myself disturbed by the analogous pleasure Quantum teaches us to derive from Bond’s guilt. A friend called this the most “Christian” of Bond movies, in a largely pejorative way, and I think he’s at least partially right: this is a movie in which there can be no pleasure without guilt, and the sprezzetura and panache of the franchise has disappeared (if you’ll pardon the expression) into a Bourne from which no traveler returns. As in the Bourne franchise, the special service suddenly stands revealed as an agent of disorder and tyranny, less the fun-loving defender of the free world than an economic hit man, a sin which Craig can only seem to expiate by (improbably) fighting against American hegemony on behalf of Evo Morales and Bolivian peasants.

Part of me both welcomes the change and sees why it was inevitable. During the cold war, the pleasure loving Bond always stood in implicit contrast with a pleasure-less totalitarianism, and even the Brosnan Bond managed to burden the character with an imperial “free world” hubris. No more. As Juan Cole points out, this Bond is a radical departure from those older Bonds in both ideological context and intervention; the “lurking presence” of George W. Bush “appears to have almost single-handedly pushed Bond into championing the indigenous peasants against the white-tie global elite,” and “Craig’s Bond is an intimation of the sort of Britain that could have been if Tony Blair had stood up to Bush and refused to be dragged into an illegal war of choice.”

Yet the many critics and fans who have complained about how un-fun this new Bond might have a more serious point; however ideological the Bond-as-jouissance fiction may have been, it’s a powerful one precisely because it only champions “The Free World” as the free world, less the Anglo-American axis as it was than as it was imagined to be, thereby positioning the better Angels of our nature against a totalitarian command to enjoy as little as possible.” Put ins such terms, I’ll take the better angels. And while I think we should be careful about how the Bond films naturalize a misogynist performance of masculinity, as Lauren Berlant pointed out some time ago, sometimes attacking hypocrisy has the effect of damaging the ideals in question; after all, does rejecting misogyny have to imply rejecting love as well?

This, I think, is the danger in taking the movie on its own terms, for while it explicitly attacks the pleasures of the old Bond films, it also revels in the darkness of this very vision, transforming the very guilt by which its sins are remembered into a pleasurable aesthetics of ascetic denial and righteous denunciation. And if the movie’s politics are anti-right, they aren’t exactly left either; as a commenter at Juan Cole’s blog rightly pointed out, it is a massive exaggeration to say that Kurylenko is “so organically a figure of the left that no distinction can be made between her private quest for vengeance on Medrano and the salvation of the pro-peasantry government of Bolivia.” In fact, she is the daughter of a good soldier within a dictatorial junta, “a cruel man” whose death has left her with no option but a pleasure-less revenge, nothing to fight for but self-denial followed by self-destruction (from which Bond saves her).

But Bond is in the same predicament, and it would be just as much of an exaggeration to make Craig’s Bond into an organic anything. While it’s true that he fights (at one remove) both against the CIA and in defense of a nameless Bolivian president, that president is less an Evo Morales who nationalizes industry and redistributes income than simply a bugbear used to frighten right wing children of all ages. As a figure of revolution and opposition to US hegemony, he has been emptied of his content, less a Che Guevara than a Che Guevara t-shirt. And a re-investment in M as embodiment of maternal virtue only helps obscure that Bond is still working for the same slime balls he’s supposedly fighting against, a valorization of an empty “duty” that will endlessly defer the problem of why. And this, I think, gives a new meaning of Bond’s lost love: “Vesper Lynd” is a pun on “West Berlin,” a signifier of the lost cold war, when things made sense. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bond’s jouissance no longer works in those old terms. “That Bush’s America now appears in a Bond film in rather the same light as Brezhnev’s Soviet Union used to,” as Cole puts it, is a loss that he can mourn but which he can never, quite, let himself understand. The same is true for his audience: we can enjoy denying ourselves the pleasure of empire, but only as long as we forget to think about the cipher that comes to replace it.

* As Erich Kuersten puts it, “One of the many things which makes Daniel Craig the best Bond since Connery is his pain. He’s aware of the lost sense of intimacy that came with having license to both kill and “be a sexual heel.” In that vein, you can find an interesting “Bond Blogathon” over here.

** As Lance Mannion puts it in his “Dame Judi Dench as the ultimate Bond Girl", “Bond Girls are eye candy, pure and simple.  Their role in a Bond film is to get naked, as naked as a PG-13 rating allows anyway, get laid, and then get dead.  They manage all three tasks efficiently by the single method of setting out to get Bond killed.  Either they are bait dangled by his would-be assassins or they are would-be assassins themselves.”

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Shirley Temple’s The Littlest Rebel: No One Gets Out Clean

Posted by Aaron Bady on 10/23/08 at 10:58 AM

The curious thing about Shirley Temple in The Littlest Rebel is not her highly sexualized performance, nor the extent to which her “Miss Virginia” is used to glorify a particular kind of subjection (the wife figured as slave) by using a child as its principle embodiment; if you’ve read Uncle Tom’s Cabin or especially if you’ve seen the movie, you already know a little bit about how that works, how in the sentimental imagination of that “mob of scribbling women,” as an envious Hawthorne styled them, the infantilized African could be used to figure the childlike state of total subjection to masculine authority to which every Christian wife should aspire.

Continue reading "Shirley Temple’s The Littlest Rebel: No One Gets Out Clean"

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Epigrammatic Accumulation

Posted by Aaron Bady on 10/08/08 at 09:56 AM

Mario Puzo’s The Godfather begins with the following epigram:

“Behind every great fortune is a great crime"


So “Crime” and “Fortune” are not only foregrounded at the heart of the book, but this oddly Marxist quotation makes a particular claim about the relationship between: the legitimate power of wealth, it implies, is always derived from an act defined by its social illegitimacy.

The relevant piece of Marx would be this, on the idea of primitive accumulation:

“The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production...The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation."

More poetically, he writes elsewhere that Capital comes into the world “dripping, head to foot, with blood and dirt from every pore,” and more to the point, his argument was that the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of capital (be it monetary or social) breaks down if we look at it close enough. All great fortunes, in other words, have their origin in some kind of crime.

Still, Balzac? Wikipedia confirms that the sentence comes from Le Père Goriot, p115, which in the 1896 translation reads: “The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been discovered, because it was properly executed.” That qualifier “for which you are at a loss to account” seems key, for with it we lose the Marxian certainty that all capital accumulation is, as such, a form of expropriation, and the more fundamental conceptual argument that all social modes of legitimation are, at their roots, sublimated forms of violence.

With some cheap internet sleuthing, I found some information in Ralph Keyes’ The Quote-Verifier, which has both the original French and an alternate translation that I like better ("The secret of a great fortune made without apparent cause is soon forgotten, if the crime is committed in a respectful way"), and hypothesizes that Puzo found the pithier (which is to say, pithily mis-quotated) version of Balzac in C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite.

Neither Balzac nor Mills fall under my pay grade--so if anyone has any insight into the genealogy, I’d love to hear it--but the interesting way the former has to be transformed by the latter before it can be adopted by Puzo not only reveals some of what is at stake in The Godfather (the necessary interrogation of social legitimacy by crime), but contains its own kind of literary irony. The secret of a great quote for which you are at a loss to account is a strategic omission? Literature comes into the world dripping blood and dirt from every pore? Behind every great epigram, perhaps, is a great mistranslation?

Monday, September 08, 2008

What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate

Posted by Aaron Bady on 09/08/08 at 10:58 AM

“Masks! O Masks!
Black Mask, red mask, you white-and-black masks
Masks of the four cardinal points where the spirit blows
I greet you in silence!
And you, not the least of all, Ancestor with the lion head.
You keep this place safe from women’s laughter...”
(Leopold Sedar Senghor “Prayer to Masks”)

“...they had faces like grotesque masks”
(Marlowe, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness)

A few pages before that one is my favorite line from Heart of Darkness, Marlow’s description of Roman imperialism as “men going at it blind--as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.” I think it’s only superficially a throwaway line: not only does it pinpoint the specific utility of a certain kind of ignorance, but illustrates exactly what kind of darkness it is that Marlowe was exploring; a thing can be unseeable, too, because you have your eyes closed.

I was reminded of that line when I showed my class the Sembene Ousmane film Black Girl last week. It’s a powerful film, almost a polemic, and in telling the story of a young Senegalese woman lured into a life of domestic servitude in France, it bears a certain resemblance to a Free the Slaves documentary. Looking to live a dream of la belle france that she seems to have found in fashion magazines, she follows her employers to their home in the Riviera, where she discovers instead a life of drudgery from which she lacks any of the tools to escape. Apparently unable to speak French, she can neither engage with the environment in which she finds herself, nor does that environment make any efforts to connect with her (her employers essentially diagnose her problem as a modern version of Dysaethesia aethiopica). And she eventually kills herself.

(If you care to, you can view the opening and ending of the movie via the magic of youtube)

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dubois at 90

Posted by Aaron Bady on 07/29/08 at 12:21 PM

In the opening paragraphs of W.E.B. Dubois’ last autobiography, written in “the Last Decade of its First Century,” DuBois tells an ostensibly simple story. For almost a decade, he says, “I had been refused a passport by my government,” which used the bureaucratically opaque excuse that “it was not considered to be ‘to the best interests of the United States’ that I go abroad.” The US’s interests and his have diverged, it seems, and as a result he has been deprived of that most basic of civic identities, the right to be interpellated as American while abroad. Since the government had suspected--correctly!--that he would criticize the United States for its “attitude toward American Negroes” if released, he had become--as he dramatically analogizes--a convict. An unrepentant old committer of dissent, he is an almost certain recidivist, and his hope of parole, it would seem, is dim.

But through an unexpected twist of fate, he tells us, he managed to acquire a passport and depart his country, “like a released prisoner.” The Supreme Court ruled that Congress had not yet given the State department the right to do what they had done, so before the President was engineer a bill to zip up the loophole, DuBois jumps ship and is gone, traveling to Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. Like a criminal accidentally paroled, he savors every drop of what he no doubt expects will be his last trip abroad. And then, he says, simply, “I came home.”

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Blocking Out The Wire

Posted by Aaron Bady on 06/20/08 at 01:22 PM

One of the things that makes The Wire what it is, I think, is that it combines an incredible level of detail in portraying the local with a radical disinclination to address the larger context in which the “local” is located. This, of course, would hardly be a criticism if the show’s accomplishment in one kind of realism didn’t draw attention to its failings in another; after all, can you name a television show that does a better job in displaying the functioning of international capitalism than The Wire? In any case, “better” and “worse” are precisely not the right way to adjudicate this question. Instead, I would suggest that The Wire can’t see anything outside of Baltimore for the very simple reason that it carefully (and strategically) avoids looking.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

“What William Faulkner implies, Erskine Caldwell records”

Posted by Aaron Bady on 06/02/08 at 01:28 PM

A reviewer for the Chicago Tribune made that comparison, and it feels apt, whatever one takes the difference between “recording” and “implication” to signify. Caldwell and Faulkner do seem to be doing something strikingly similar, even if they go about it quite differently. While novels like Sanctuary are as close as Faulkner comes to producing “the South” as the lurid object of the reader’s voyeuristic gaze, the calculated way that Caldwell produces voyeuristic fantasy after fantasy would seem to take this to a whole other level. Peer through the hole in the fence, for example, at a typical sex scene in God’s Little Acre:

“Take me, Will—I can’t wait,” she said.
“You and me both,” said he.
Will got on his hands and knees and raised Darling Jill’s head until he could draw her hair from under her. He lowered her pillow, and her long brown hair hung over the bed and almost touched the floor. He looked down and saw that she had raised herself until she was almost touching him.
He awoke to hear Darling Jill screaming in his ear. He did not know how long she had been screaming. He had been oblivious to everything in the complete joy of the moment.
He raised his head wide after a while and looked into her face. She opened her eyes wide and smiled at him.
“That was wonderful, Will,” she whispered. “Do it to me again.”
He tried to free himself and arise, but she would not let him move. He knew she was waiting for him to answer her.
“Will, do it to me again.”
“Damn it Darling Jill, I can’t right now.”

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

You Know Who I Blame? The System!: The Wire, Barack Obama, and Omar for President

Posted by Aaron Bady on 05/20/08 at 12:11 PM

Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation opens with the figure of John F. Kennedy being nominated to run for president and invoking the “New Frontier” as his vision for the country. As Slotkin observes, it might seem odd for a candidate so heavily identified with the Eastern seaboard to invoke the Wild West, but then, of course, this is exactly why Kennedy did it: by tapping into what Slotkin calls “a vein of latent ideological power,” Kennedy managed to be “intelligible to the widest possible audience--to Brooklyn and Cambridge as well as Abilene and Los Angeles,” by employing a set of symbols that were also an “appropriate language for explaining and justifying political power.” In Slotkin’s words, “The ‘frontier’ was for them a complexly resonant symbol, a vivid and memorable set of hero-tales--each a model of successful and morally justifying action on the stage of historical conflict.”

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