31 August 2011

Langue and Parole

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:01 pm

Would anyone like to hear about either: (a) my thoughts on Embassytown, the latest novel by China Miéville; or (b) my calling the cops to report a car that didn’t give me, the pedestrian, right of way in an intersection?

Okay fine:

(a) The story is pretty good, based on some high-level linguistic theories. Still — and this won’t mean anything to anyone who hasn’t read the book — I don’t believe that “Language” really works. If the Ariekei use words to refer to things, then I don’t know how they aren’t using a symbolic, signifying means of communicating and thinking. Also, if Language can be understood by the Ariekei only as a direct channel to the speaker and not as a mere sequence of sounds, then how is it that they can understand tape recordings of Language? I mean, I appreciate that Miéville is trying to break out of structuralism and the Lacanian Real into a theory of language based on the joint referentiality of speaker and hearer pointing at the world together. And, presumably because we humans can only speak referentially and symbolically, it’s not possible for us truly to grasp this other way of talking. But I tend to agree with Spanish Dancer when, after he has learned to speak like humans, he tells his fellow Ariekei that “You have never spoken.”

(b) I returned Embassytown to the library on my afternoon run. Getting close to home, running south down Toedtli Street, I approached the intersection with Grinnell Avenue. This corner has caused me troubles before: cars heading west on Grinnell typically drive through that intersection without stopping or slowing for bicycles, walkers, or runners like me. And it happened again this time: I could see the car coming, he could see me coming; I reached the street before he did; he did not slow down, and I had to stop in order to keep from being hit. I watched the car intently as it whizzed by. I shouted out the 6-digit license number as I read it off the back plate. A lady standing in the driveway at a house on the corner whooped as I shouted: she had seen the near-miss and was clearly on my side.

When I got home I called the police; the dispatcher took my number and asked if an officer could return my call. About twenty minutes later Officer Trujillo called. I explained what had happened; he reiterated that in a residential area it’s the car’s responsibility to stop for pedestrians even when the intersection isn’t officially marked off as a crosswalk. He asked if there had been any sort of confrontation between me and the driver; I said no, other than my shouting out the license number. He asked if I wanted to press charges, or if I would be satisfied if the driver was given a verbal warning; I said that a warning would be fine. He said that he had already looked up the name and phone number of the vehicle’s owner, and wanted to know if I’d like him to call me back after he’d issued the warning; I said no, that I would rely on his handling the situation. I thanked Officer Trujillo and hung up the phone.

17 August 2011

B.S. in Eccentricity

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:59 pm

Stephen slipped off his shoes. “Yoohoo! Anybody home?”

“Upstairs.” Lynne had started painting again, and she had outfitted one of the spare bedrooms as a studio.

“Where’s Avery?” Stephen asked, and Lynne pointed out the window. Two yards over, across the cul-de-sac, a girl was laughing as she chased a friend and her dog between the still-spindly trees sprinkled through the new subdivision. In the distance a line of jagged foothills angled toward the right, like giant dominoes falling. Beyond, the high peaks showed white. The house backed into a section of the greenbelt that surrounded the town, affording great views all around: location, location, location. They had bought this executive home when they were on a roll financially and professionally. Now that Stephen had jumped the track they really couldn’t afford the mortgage payments any longer. Stephen had the sense that they needed some tangible alternative dream to keep them from feeling that their best days were already behind them. The Salon had seemed to offer that alternative, but now he wasn’t so sure.

Stephen looked at the table under the window: on her sketchpad Lynne had watercolored a variety of abstract shapes, overlaid with precisely engineered black lines, probably executed in ink. “I’ve been trying to make a copy of this Kandinsky,” she said, pointing to a postcard-sized reproduction taped to the wall.

He inspected both versions carefully, point by point. Lynne’s variant, much larger, deviated only slightly from the postcard. She began applying a dark purple smudge of paint to her rendering of the masterwork.

“I’m not sure which one I like better,” Stephen said, though truth be told he didn’t really know what to look for. “Listen, suppose I have a client who believes things that are sort of nutty. Surely I don’t need to go along with everything the client believes?”

Concentrating, she extended the purple shape out and down. “You mean that young guy with hemophilia? Can you give him your opinion without sounding like you think he’s a little off center?”

“I guess not. Still, it seems dishonest not to, or at least disingenuous.”

Lynne put her brush down. “See this painting? Kandinsky had synaesthesia. When he saw colors he heard music. Literally. He painted like he was playing a keyboard, like he was playing his audience. He believed that each brushstroke would set off sympathetic harmonies in people’s souls. Kind of odd, but also kind of true. Before Kandinsky there was another Russian, a composer, Scriabin. Scriabin believed that if he played a certain chord, and if at that precise moment a certain pattern of colors was displayed, then — right then — the world would come to an end.”

Maybe Scriabin was right, Stephen thought: maybe some day somebody will hit the right combination. Maybe Scriabin already did it a century ago, and since then we’ve been living in some other world. “So,” he asked asked his wife, “would you have told Scriabin and Kandinsky you thought they were nuts?”

“I’d have told them I admire their work very much. Besides, only Scriabin was really nutty. Kandinsky was just eccentric.”

Stephen looked again at the Kandinsky postcard. A work of exuberant precision, the picture looked to him like a mapmaker’s rendition of a dreamscape. The fragments of geometry incorporated into the work: were they engineered segments of an intricate scaffolding being erected around the fantasy in order to contain it? Or was something uncontrollable smashing through the gridwork, breaking it to bits? “One more thing,” he said to Lynne. “If you’d had the chance, would you have encouraged Kandinsky to pursue his eccentricity to the limit, even if it took him all the way into madness? All for the sake of genius, for the sake of art, for the end of the world?”

“I wouldn’t have had to,” Lynne replied as she picked up her brush. “Kandinsky had Scriabin. I’m not sure who Scriabin had – maybe Rasputin.”

*   *   *

If the characters in this novel are at least partly autobiographical, then tomorrow Stephen and Lynne will be driving halfway across the country to take their daughter Avery to college. Time’s arrow and all that. Avery’s friend still lives in that cul-de-sac, as do the dog and all the other neighbors who don’t make an appearance in the story. While there are some visitors to this blog who teach college, and others who go to college or grad school, and still others who still think about their college days with some frequency, I’m guessing that not many of you are parents of college kids. Maybe even that will happen to you some day.

14 August 2011

The Wrestler by Aronofsky, 2008

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 9:57 am

Cassidy the stripper stands up and straddles Randy the Ram, gazing soulfully at the scar.
CASSIDY: “He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that
brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we were healed.”

RANDY: What’s that?

CASSIDY: It’s from “Passion of the Christ”. You never seen it?

Randy shrugs no.

CASSIDY: Dude, you gotta. It’s amazing. It’s, like, so inspiring. They throw everything at Him. Whips,
arrows, rocks… Just beat the living fuck out of Him for the whole two hours. And He just takes it.

RANDY : Huh. I’ll have to check it out.

CASSIDY (lightly tracing a finger along Randy’s bicep scar): The sacrificial Ram…

13 August 2011

Post Post

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 11:33 am

The US Postal Service lost $8.5 billion in 2010 and $20 billion over the past 4 years. The news articles report that losses have been mounting primarily because mail volume has dropped 20 percent. The USPS has already laid off 100 thousand workers and they propose to axe another 120 thousand. They also propose to withdraw the entire remaining workforce from Federal government health and retirement plans.

What percent of all pieces of mail are sent by businesses? I couldn’t find the statistics, but at least 95 percent of the mail that shows up in my box is either an ad or a bill. So here’s a service run by the Federal government largely for the benefit of private industry. UPS and FedEx, the two biggest private-sector delivery companies, are both making profits. Is it because they’re so much more businesslike, so much more efficient, so austere? I’d say it’s pretty austere to lay off almost a quarter million workers. Or is the Postal Service losing money because it’s underpricing its services? Instead of charging its corporate customers the full cost of its services, the Post Office is shifting costs to the taxpayers.

It may well be that physical mail is becoming obsolete, and consequently that some significant percentage of postal workers really ought to be doing something else for a living. I’m also not persuaded that I want the government to run a delivery service on behalf of corporate interests. But having the Postal Service cut benefits for its workers in order to keep its corporate customers from footing the full bill for services received? I don’t think so. How about this: run it like a business and raise the rates.

Soon the Postmaster General will deliver his proposal to the Postal Workers’ Union for accepting draconian cuts in benefits, including reduced pensions for already-retired workers. What should the Union do with this proposal? I asked Elvis when I saw him at the Denver Greyhound station the other day. Here’s what Elvis had to say:

10 August 2011

Taking the Dog

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:30 am

Yesterday Anne and I drove a guy down to the Greyhound bus station in Denver. Our passenger was a cordial and responsive conversationalist who thankfully didn’t feel the common urge to fill silences with talk. He did start humming to himself as we approached downtown, probably signaling his increased anxiety as we approached our destination. This guy, who is homeless, is heading back to his home town of New York City for the first time in ten years. He had all his stuff with him — a pack, a sleeping roll — but I think he expects he’ll come back West sooner or later. He’s going back to visit his aging mother — possibly, he believes, for the last time — and his younger brother, whom he had not spoken to in at least five years before Anne arranged a phone call last week. He gave himself a haircut in preparation for his return home, though the raggedness of the job unfortunately gives him the wild look of the untreated schizophrenic, which is one of the things this guy also happens to be. It’s going to be a long ride: a day and a half with two or three transfers. But Greyhound is cheaper than a plane, and you don’t need to show personal identification to “take the dog,” which is a good thing if you don’t happen to have any ID.

Instead of parking in the lot and paying the $4 fee, I drove around the block a few times while Anne helped her friend pick up his ticket and get oriented. On my first lap my attention was drawn to a guy standing at the corner of 20th and Curtis, evidently waiting for someone. Shortish and paunchy, he was decked out in full Elvis regalia: red-and-black bell-bottomed polyester pantsuit, pointed black boots, high bouffant hairdo, black plastic sunglasses. I watched as several pedestrians passed him by without giving him an obvious second glance. When the light changed and I made my left turn I rolled my window halfway down. “Lookin’ sharp!” I yelled out to the Elvis impersonator as I passed by. In my rearview mirror I saw him executing a long, full-bodied theatrical fist-pump. I suppose even the King himself, before the private jets and the limos, had to take the dog from gig to gig and wait for somebody to pick him up at the downtown station. When I came back around on my second lap Elvis was gone.

8 August 2011

The Brief History of the Dead by Brockmeier, 2006

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 11:16 am

When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had traveled across a desert of living sand. First he had died, he said, and then — snap! — the desert. He told the story to everyone who would listen, bobbing his head to follow the sound of their footsteps. Showers of red grit fell from his beard. He said that the desert was bare and lonesome and that it had hissed at him like a snake. He had walked for days and days, until the dunes broke apart beneath his feet, surging up around him to lash at his face. Then everything went still and began to beat like a heart. The sound was as clear as any he had ever heard. It was only at that moment, he said, with a million arrow points of sand striking his skin, that he truly realized he was dead…

*  *  *

Recently a friend told me about Textermination, a 1992 novel by Christine Brooke-Rose, in which a bunch of fictional characters gather at a convention to figure out how to keep themselves from dying off. The premise is that these characters live in the imaginations and memories of their readers. If people stop reading the books, then the characters contained in those books stop existing. So I was surprised the other day while browsing the library shelves to find this novel by Brockmeier. After you die you live on in people’s memories: surely you’ve heard that supposedly reassuring alternative to a real afterlife. Brockmeier’s story populates this sort of afterlife in his story: you go there after you die, and you stay for as long as there’s someone still alive who remembers you. After everyone who remembers you is dead, then you disappear from this particular afterlife.

The premise is intriguing, and the first chapter is engaging, but my thought when I reached chapter two was that there wasn’t enough here on which to build a whole novel. I did find the novel disappointing, and it turns out that the first chapter had previously won awards as a stand-alone short story — maybe that should have been the end of it. Having finished, though, I no longer regard the premise as intrinsically limiting.

5 August 2011

Thoughts on the Latest Stock Market Panic

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:38 am

So… Private industry wants to maximize profits. How? Increase revenues; decrease costs. This basic strategy has been going great for US companies: for the past year or so profits have reached record highs.

One of the biggest costs to private industry is employee wages. Keeping costs down means keeping wages down. But lower wages means less money to buy things, which reduces corporate revenues. What’s to be done?

Get people to spend money they haven’t earned; i.e., instead of paying them more wages, encourage them to borrow more.

People borrowed more and more, secured by the rising value of their houses, in order to keep buying. A few years ago this source of spending money dried up: real estate prices stopped going up; wages went down and jobs went away; mortgagees began defaulting. While the crisis to the lenders was immediate — and fixed via government bailout — the crisis to mortgagees has gotten worse. Prices of houses continue to go down; wages are still declining; unemployment has doubled since the housing crisis began.

So now the private sector loses its best strategy for keeping spending high while keeping wages low. What to do? Find another source of consumer borrowing. It’s the government. The government increases its borrowing, paying workers and contractors money they can spend on private-sector products. Meanwhile the private sector continues to keep its own labor costs low while keeping sales up.

Now the financial industry starts getting nervous. What if the governments start defaulting on their loans, just as the home buyers did? And isn’t the government, which on average pays higher wages than the private sector, becoming a problem for private employers that want to drive wages even lower in order to reduce costs? Isn’t it time to put a limit on government borrowing?

So now the companies get nervous. Both of the big sources of money for keeping spending up — real estate borrowing, government borrowing — are drying up. The rich have more money than ever, accounting for 50% of domestic spending. But because of widespread privatization in government, much of the government’s borrowing is spent on private-sector contractors rather than on government employees. So reducing government spending has a direct effect on reducing private revenues, which threatens to reduce the wealth of the very rich who drive spending.

No wonder the stock market is jittery. The only way to keep people buying the products without paying them more is to keep them spending borrowed money. But now both big sources of borrowing — first private, then public — are drying up. It seems inevitable that companies are going to have to spend some of those record profits on higher wages. At least in the short term, costs will go up before revenues do. That means corporate profits are likely to go down. And so their stock prices go down.

Maybe companies will hire more American workers now. If they do, unemployment has been so high for so long that people will likely be willing to go back to work at much lower rates of pay than they formerly earned. Or else companies will continue to shift jobs from the still relatively high-priced American workforce to other cheaper sources of labor. But in order to keep revenues up on a global scale, they’ll have to raise prices in other parts of the world to make up for declining sales and margins in the US. But since other countries’ governments aren’t borrowing either, than means raising the pay scale for those other countries’ low-wage workers, so they can afford to buy more of what they’re producing. Either way, the companies — and their rich investors — are going to have to spend money to make money. I expect they’ll find a way.

ADDENDUM: The latest budget showdown in Washington yielded only one tangible result that I know of: they raised the debt ceiling. Possible austerity measures for reducing government spending were mostly deferred, having been assigned to some special commission to figure out later. I wouldn’t be surprised if that commission eventually decides to impose only the smallest spending cuts. Keep borrowing, keep spending, keep corporate sales up and wages low. Maybe raise interest rates on Federal bonds a point or two to make the investment bankers happier and richer.

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