“On and on and on How the alphabet boys carry on…”
- The Gaslight Anthem, Orphans
Just some flicks today of a recent rooftop by HERTS, OMENS, and, of course, NOTEEF. I should note that about half the local hits on this blog come from people looking up some combination of “NOTEEF” and “graffiti” and “Chicago” on Google, and finding the previous image I put up of a Brown Line rooftop. So here’s to driving traffic this way. I’m also unclear on the relationship between “HERTS, ROGER, and SNACKI/SNACK ATTACK, who all seem to be the same person to me, but maybe it’s different people. In any case, SNACKI is hilariously famous round these parts for these kinda awesome faces he does everywhere. He even got the attention of the New York Times, which of course sent a reporter to track him down. She does, only to realize it’s not the Jean Michel Basquiat (or fake ass banksy) interview she’s been dreaming about, but rather an interview with an actual, y’know, graffiti writer. The stark difference between his description of his own work and the overblown nonsense of every non-writer’s favorite “street artist” (i.e., fucking fake ass banksy) is just about perfect:
Soon, he was talking about graffiti the way some people talk about coffee. Or crystal meth. “It’s an addiction, honestly,” he said. “And like any other addiction, everyone starts for a different reason. At this point in my life I couldn’t imagine not doing it.”
But why graffiti? Why create art that is, by definition, impermanent? Not to mention illegal?
“When you put a gallery show together,” he said, “it’s only going to attract a certain crowd. If I paint a billboard that you can see from I-94, Amtrak and Damen, it’s going to hit a lot more people than just some college hipsters or some 40-year-old art collectors.” [MY NOTE: Amen, brotha.]
Much to my disappointment, snacki did not seem to be a lunatic genius. Very bright and slightly squirrelly maybe — but utterly lacking the self-importance I’d assigned to him from afar.
“At the end of the day,” snacki said, “writing graffiti is just acting like a little kid, and running around and having fun. It’s about not taking myself seriously.”
Wise words. If only he’d shared them with me back in December.
She wishes he could have said them back in December so that she wouldn’t have had to waste her time with the interview! Well, looks like she got took, too. So, the HERTS, I think, is this SNACKI, but I may be wrong. You might notice that GRAM, another guy who hangs with these cats, and “SNAX” are listed in NOTEEF’s fill-in (in the “N”), so maybe HERTS isn’t SNACKI. There is, however, a HERTS fill-in with one of those SNACKI faces on a garage near Diversey, so I’m just confused. In any case, enjoy.
HERTS, OMENS, and NOTEEF KWT 2NR. fill-ins, rooftop, Brown Line at Western
NOTEEF, since the one above cut him off. Brown Line at Western
1) When you fuck up the opening of a Cling Wrap box, you have to live with that fuck up for two months. When you fuck it up three consecutive times, it follows that you have six months of Cling Wrap hell on your hands. How does this happen? You know that last bit of Cling Wrap is limp, and goes nowhere, so you’re smart enough to anticipate and buy some Cling Wrap at the store, probably opting for the Glad brand because you watch Top Chef, even though the store brand does exactly the same thing, there being only one way of making Cling Wrap, really, even if it’s called Stick-To Plastic Wrap, or whatever. But you reach the end of that old Cling Wrap, and pump your fist triumphantly because you knew enough to anticipate, but then you’re all excited and the damn packaging doesn’t tell you fuck all about how to open it, so you start pulling on tabs and other loose cardboard, only to realize that you’ve fucked up the opening of the Cling Wrap box yet again. They should have a big goddamn red star on the packaging warning you not to fuck up the opening of the Cling Wrap. This is basic technical writing that any sophomore would be able to tell you.
2) The best two moments on Girl Talk’s All Day are Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Shimmy Shimmy Ya over Radiohead’s Creep (roughly 20:30-21:45) and Fabolous’ (Holla Back) Young’n over INXS’s I Need You Tonight (28:45-29:40). There are a lot of other good moments, but these are the most surprising and well-executed, I think. Ending with Imagine was, however, lame. I mean that in the most high-schoolish way. At some point, I’m going to have to admit that my preference for East Coast and specifically New York hip hop over all other varieties is mere provincialism.Two points here: a) An easy experiment: Put any “old school” hip hop song (defined here, as something produced between 1987 and 1995) up on YouTube. Let’s say, EPMD’s Crossover, for example. Within two days, you will get a comment stating that EPMD was a’ight, but Li’l Wayne is a better lyricist, followed by about 300 comments stating that Li’l Wayne is total shit, and commercialized crap, and can’t even hold a candle to the lyrics of X Old School hip hop, in this case Parrish Smith and Erick Sermon. In the first place, this is strictly speaking true: EPMD is objectively better than Li’l Wayne. But the real issue is that hip hop spoke to these commenters more when they were 15 or 16 or 20, back in 1992. Today’s hip hop doesn’t speak to me not because it’s bad (I really wouldn’t know), but because I’m not hanging out in parks, drinking beer, a twenty sack in one pocket and a can of Rusto in my coat, NYPD rolling by slow with the dash flashlight, EPMD banging out of somebody’s trunk. Funk mode, yeah kid, that’s how the squad rolls. Maybe Li’l Wayne would be just as good if that’s what I was doing now. Instead, I get a small rush from having correctly timed the running out of Cling Wrap. b) And on a related note, whenever I see something advertised at the supermarket as 2 for $5, I secretly mouth the dialogue intro to Wu Tang’s C.R.E.A.M. It’s an embarrassing admission, but that’s what blogs are for.
3) Political Axiom: Talking to the public about deficit spending during the middle of the holiday season is inherently stupid. Deficits only make sense in January.
This will be the first in the series “Kids These Days!,” in which Seven Red rants and raves about the things the kids do these days, and general problems of raising kids, well, these days. The rhetorical form is simple, and can be summarized as follows: What the fuck is this shit, now? The primary sense will be that these kids do something that we didn’t do back when we were kids, all those ages ago in the 1970′s and 80′s. With the series thus explained, I’ll proceed with the first installment, Tiny Bubbles.
So, can somebody explain to me why I have giant fucking plastic containers of bubble producing fluid all over my goddamn living space? These containers come with an implement, apparently known as a “wand,” which you dip into the bubble fluid, then blow on to produce some stream of bubbles in the air. Yes, you know what I’m talking about because we had bubble-producing shit of the same sort when we were kids. Here’s the difference: it came in a tiny little plastic bottle that held maybe 4 ounces of said fluid, and which never, ever turned up in your house after its use. The shit would appear when you were out somewhere, it would run out, and that would be the end of the effin’ bubbles. Now they come in plastic containers that could probably be used to clean up the BP oil spill. One of these has three wands and notes, I think ironically, “Three Kids Can Play!” Play? Three kids can live in that fucking container. It’s an aquarium. And because no normal kid could run through bubble fluid equivalent to a full tank of fuel for a fucking aircraft carrier in one day, these goddamn giant florescent plastic bubble fluid containers end up sitting around here and there in the house, plastic all back-alley-of-a-laundromat-oil-soap-slicky from whatever noxious shit they use to make this crap.
One of the more compelling arguments for the value of social media is Clive Thompson’s Wired piece, published – stunningly – almost three years ago, titled “How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense.” I remember reading this article when it first came out, and just intuitively agreeing with his thesis. Constant updates (on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.) allow a group to develop what Thompson calls “social proprioception,” a kind of feeling about what everybody’s up to that can spark “weird, fascinating feats of coordination.” Here’s Thompson:
When I see that my friend Misha is “waiting at Genius Bar to send my MacBook to the shop,” that’s not much information. But when I get such granular updates every day for a month, I know a lot more about her. And when my four closest friends and worldmates send me dozens of updates a week for five months, I begin to develop an almost telepathic awareness of the people most important to me.
It’s like proprioception, your body’s ability to know where your limbs are. That subliminal sense of orientation is crucial for coordination: It keeps you from accidentally bumping into objects, and it makes possible amazing feats of balance and dexterity.
Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.
It really is a fascinating article, and worth the read. And I think Thompson’s one of the best commentators on social media – and the social effects of social media – out there today, so read his other stuff, too. So that should be enough to say that I think Thompson is quite right about this, but I want to suggest that “social proprioception” also costs us something, and I hope I can do that without sounding a nostalgic or mournful tone. I really don’t want to be the grumpy Luddite on this point, largely because I almost always disagree with grumpy Luddites, so hopefully this is a sufficient qualifier.
So, what gets lost? I think to some extent, what gets lost is the art of catching up. By catching up, I mean those times when you sit with somebody you haven’t seen in some time, and you exchange stories. There is, to my mind, an art to such occasions and performances, and they require a whole set of language and mental abilities, an everyday narratology. You can’t just tick off a list of updates; you have to blend them into a well-told and entertaining story or set of stories, you have to pick up on connections, and make the particular story you tell at any one time relevant. The negative and degraded version of the art of catching up can be seen in any airport, when people who don’t know each other start talking to each other. Almost invariably, they will hit on a topic (say, their kids’ sports participation), and will then proceed to talk exclusively about themselves, not even really listening to the other people, except to the extent that whatever is being said might furnish an entry for them to talk about themselves again. It’s conversational masturbation. But the art of catching up, though ostensibly about the self in the same way, always includes a history with the other person or people, a repertoire of shared knowledge and experience that is specific to the group, maybe even care. Together with shared knowledge and experiences, you have some absence that you need to fill – that’s the catching up. But you have to tell your story in the context of these shared experiences, and you have to make it entertaining. That’s why it’s an art.
Maybe I just grew up in a story-telling culture; most of the time I spent with friends was occupied with either story-telling or insults – and both require equal shares of creativity. People make fun of the New Yawkah version of “Howyadoin’,” but it’s really not a greeting; it’s an invitation. Tell me something funny.Tell me something new. Tell it well. And you’re judged, socially, by your skill in telling a story, the way you shape a narrative, your descriptive capacity, your skill with language. This all goes on miles, metaphorically, from any creative writing or composition classes, and it’s even possible that the best storytellers would immediately flunk in either of those settings. But you’ve all seen it – sitting around in a bar, and somebody starts in on some tale, and they’re gesticulating and assuming roles, hitting punchlines with exquisite timing, saving connections for maximum impact, and you’re hooked in and laughing and the whole thing is so perfectly constructed. Good narrative is not rare. These are the sources of value in any oral culture.
What I’ve been noticing lately is that the social proprioception thesis actually seems to hold, but what you gain in positive knowledge comes packaged with what you lose in terms of that absence to be filled, the negative space that provokes catching up. Just one example, although I could post many. A bumped into a guy I know from graduate school at a conference recently. He’s one of my Facebook friends, though, admittedly, he came in several years behind me, so we were never really that close. So we’re sitting at a table, and he starts telling me how he’s gotten really into Korean cooking, and making really complicated dishes, and etc. The problem is that I know all this already – he posts about it constantly. What could otherwise have turned into an interesting conversation about Korean cooking just ends up being a recitation of the already-known. I don’t mean to pick on him; he’s a good guy, and the example should be generalized. The more “granular” the update apparatus, the more effective the installing of social proprioception, the more tedious become these opportunities for narrative. If that’s the case, it strikes me as a serious loss indeed, not least because the skills required for telling good catching-up-stories appear to me to be generally valuable. Of course, the same updating regime may lead to better stories, and it’s probably never fine-grained enough in practice to really eliminate the art of catching up. But I’ve seen it happen again and again in the last few years, and maybe this is where I’m at my most nostalgic, but it worries me.
It took dominion everywhere.
- Wallace Stevens, Anecdote of the Jar
So I had a therapy session with she this morning on the drive into work, and we reached some interesting conclusions. Here’s the deal: I am perhaps the worst person to drive with that you’ll ever meet. I constantly critique other drivers, often in loud tones, for their various failures on the road. This habit makes my wife crazy, since it becomes very stressful to be sitting next to somebody who is essentially yelling at the world non-stop. She often says this: “In all the other areas of life, you seem overly generous to people – so why is it that as soon as you get behind the wheel of a car you become this angry hyper-critic?” That’s what we were getting to the nub of, therapy-wise.
We decided that the specific personality trait is simple: I cannot stand uncertainty. All the behaviors that set me off when I drive have to do with uncertainty; it’s for this reason that my major statement while I drive is “What the fuck are you doin’, dude?” or “Where ya goin’, ya fuckin’ nut?” So, for example, some driver in front of me slowed down today next to a Starbucks on Lincoln, apparently ready to double park and run in. But the driver didn’t stop quickly enough for me. He or she just sort of rolled at about 5mph, crawling, crawling. Should I go around? Should I wait? Should I slam into the back of this nut’s car on general principle? What the fuck are you doin’, dude? This diagnosis made sense, not least because my ultimate driving hate is reserved for fuckers who don’t know how to use their turn signals. Guess what, asshole? I don’t care where you’re going, so putting your signal on after you already break is a worthless procedure; put it on before you break so I know that I will have to break! Grrr. Ah, she says, but just a little while ago you yelled at somebody who didn’t pull far enough into the intersection while making a left turn (I had to really squeeze to get around): “Nice fuckin’ left turn, you dipshit!” “Well, yes, that’s an execution problem,” I say. No, no, she says. That’s also an uncertainty problem: you know they’re going left, but you don’t know when you’llbe able to pass. It’s not, therefore, uncertainty in general, but uncertainty about my ability to go. Other people are blocking my plans! I do not have total mastery over my environment! She also decided that this pathology manifests itself when I lose something. I first fly into a minor rage, as in “Where the fuck is the X?” I search for it for some negligible period of time (the uncertainty about my ability to use the item now in full swing), but I almost immediately decide that it is gone and lost for good, finis. “That’s why you give up on the search,” she says, “Because as soon as it is lost for good, you are no longer uncertain, or rather, you’re certain that the item will not be available for you!” Agreed.
Now, all this is ironic because the major line in critical theory and philosophy I’ve read since I was an undergraduate reading Heidegger and American literature with Bill Spanos is pitched precisely against this mode of comportment. Acceptance of contingency, understanding of social complexity, critique of Subject as final arbiter, against mastery of the social ecology. And yet, that’s precisely how I operate in my driving, and probably in many other areas of life (“Does anyone know what happened to the fuckin’ stapler?”).
OK, I’m going to break my unstated and inconsistent rule about commenting on day-to-day political and media spectacle here to rant a bit about uber-dick Terry Moran, ABC news journalist. The story goes like this: Obama is being interviewed by ABC news, no doubt relating to health care or somesuch, and in an off-the-record moment after the interview is apparently chatting about stuff when he calls Kanye West, of award-show-interrupting fame, a “jackass.” Well, if it was off-the-record, how could we possibly know this? Because Terry Moran, former White House reporter, Bush ass-kisser, and Nightline host decided to tweet this little tidbit to his Twitter account. Three cheers for transparency, right? Oh, he of course added his own very professional snark to the tweet, noting “Now THAT’S Presidential!” (What’s the implication here? That Obama isn’t otherwise “Presidential” – whatever the eff that means – or that Obama is not living up to the gravitas of the office in the very serious manner of Richard “Go-Fuck-Yourself” Cheney?) Needless to say, the principle of off-the-record communications is so crucial even to a cub reporter interviewing the local dog catcher that Moran had to delete the tweet and ABC apologized (did Terry Moran?), and I guess we’re all supposed to pretend that this sniveling right wing tool simply didn’t know how to work that crazy Twitter machine, la di da.
But Terry Moran is very much a guy who demonstrates endless concern for the journalistic profession when outright propagandists and warmongers like Judy Miller and Michael Gordon want to either rev up the war-machine or keep it running, and O Lawd how sacred is the concept of a journalist’s anonymous sources when they are brutal little DC despots seeking revenge on (the non-making-a-fool-of-himself) Joe Wilson for having exposed their sicko prevarications. In this piece, for instance, Terry Moran gets all pomo on the modern-day fetish for journalistic “objectivity,” wondering how-o-how can a journalist not want his or her country to kick ass and take names, and is it really a feasible proposition that Michael Gordon should have to deny his firepower fetish when it’s his job to write news articles informing propagandizing the public about the little war he so loves? Quoth Moran, sounding for all the world like your average pomo theorist: “There is no such thing as a person who is so untethered to any community–national, racial, religious, etc–that she or he is able to gain a truly ‘objective’ view of things. We are all contingent creatures.” This in defense of a snarling jingoist like Michael Gordon, whose kooky theories on Iranian involvement in Iraq made Curtis LeMay sound like John friggin’ Lennon. Oh, the tension inherent in Moran’s profession! One suspects that this philosophical conundrum derives directly from Moran’s tendency to puff up his chest and distinguish himself from all the supposedly “anti-military” journalists who presume that “the American projection of power around the world must be wrong.” I know, I haven’t ever seen one of these exceedingly rare creatures either, but I may have been distracted by Katie Couric crushing on some Navy SEALs or something.
And this guy’s gonna tweet off-the-record statements about Kanye fucking West by the President? And say “oops, my bad?” Come on, now. I’m not all “Oh, let’s respect the Office” and all this other imperial presidency nonsense that so many liberals are now spouting, nor do I find the whole Kanye West thing anything other than a matter of monumental irrelevance and supreme unimportance. But come on, now. The great philosopher of journalistic objectivity in wartime and defender of the sacred character of the anonymous source is printing off-the-record remarks by the President of the fucking United States on his Twitter account?
ABC should fire that fucking guy effective yesterday. Come on, now.
What? My peoples if you wit me where the fuck you at? – Method Man, Triumph
Every year, the Brooklyn Famiglia gears up for one of the big events: Hooligan Day. It’s the day when everybody wears their hooligan kit, watches the FA Cup, then gather at The Gate on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope for the big doo. And every year since 2002 I’ve missed it, since I’ve been away. And even though it’s just a little afternoon beer drinking kind of thing, it’s the time that I most miss New York. I think we had such a tight community when we were there that it just stings more now that we’re not there, but especially on those real occasions of off-the-wall solidarity. And this year especially, since we’re missing not just the community, but my two nieces who I haven’t seen yet, and the whole transformation of the event into a far more family friendly sort of affair, which it pretty much had to become, all these years later.
And so you’re in graduate school in my field and you have to sign on to this idea that you can’t be very specific about where you end up. But it’s easier to sign on to that than to live it. And it all seems so temporary, until you’re looking down the pike at tenure and buying a place and thinking – is this it for us now? Are we now from here? Certainly, we’re very lucky to end up in a kind of place that’s like the kind of places that we like. But a place isn’t a people. On a night like this in Brooklyn I would call my brother and just head up to the bar to catch a game. No plans. No planes. And there’d be people, and we’d know them, even from just around. You know that guy? Yeah. How you know him? From around. All the Facebook friends in the world don’t match that, I’m coming to understand, technological evangelism and general distaste for the usual technophobia notwithstanding. So you sign on to this thing, but you only sign on to the concrete social dislocation in a very abstract way. Yes, I know this is griping. Or pitiful. Maybe both. A friend said to me last year: “We have a name for people who get jobs where they grew up: the working class.” Well, yes and no, I guess.
So I just saw these flicks on Facebook, and I wanted to say that I miss my place, and my peoples.
I’ve decided that I want to start cataloguing my general jerkness so that I can see it out there, and maybe stop being so much of a jerk. So from time to time I will describe an event from the day that had me acting like a total jerk. Hopefully, the very act of transcribing my jerk behavior will eventually force me to curtail it, even a little bit. So, my biggest jerk moment of the day.
I went to Blockbuster before picking up Ellie, cuz it’s Friday night, and my readers well know that that’s how we roll. The Blockbuster was strangely empty for 4pm on a Friday, and they had signs all over noting a special on movies, so I guess they’re hurting. In any case, there was only one other customer in there, a guy in his late-30′s, maybe early-40′s. He was walking around looking at the movies, but he had his cell phone, and was describing various options to a woman he kept calling sweetie. I know it was a woman because I could hear her voice through the cell. He was describing options in great detail. A lot of them. Madagascar 2. My Winnipeg. Miracle at St. Anna. That’s just the M’s. Detailed descriptions of each, together with explanations of the other films that the actors had been in, or recommendations from other people they both knew. It was driving me fucking crazy. I know I must have whispered shut the fuck up under my breath about three times. Then he got to the S’s, and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. Sign-doshe, he kept calling it. “Sign-doshe, New York. It’s called Sign-doshe, sweetie. Sign-doshe, New York. It’s with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, sweetie. Yeah, the bad guy in the Mission Impossible. Yeah, the creepy guy. Sign-doshe. I dunno. Sign-doshe New York. I heard it was amazing, sweetie. Sign-doshe.” He decided on the film, so returned the last copy of Bill Maher’s Religulous to the shelf, near where I was standing. “Are you looking for a copy of this?” he asked nicely. I nodded. Sure. Then it was jerk time:
“Sin-ek-duh-key,” I said. “It’s sin-ek-duh-key. Synecdoche, New York.”
“What? Oh. Thanks! Hey sweetie, I was pronouncing it wrong. Some guy just corrected me.” (That’s right, that’s right, it rhymes with “corrected me!” Sin-ek-duh-key) “I feel stupid. It’s sin-ek-duh-key.”
I guess on the scale of anti-social behavior, correcting the guy on an admittedly difficult word is somewhere lower than, say, ripping that cell phone out of his hand and smashing it under my foot. But it’s still pretty dicky. God, I’m terrible. And moments after such episodes, of course, I think, wow, I was just a total fucking dick to that person. Sometimes even during.
My colleague posted this story on Facebook, about Facebook. The premise is that thirty-somethings have a far different relationship to Facebook than “Millenials,” or whatever the fuck they’re called. The writer learns this when she finds out about her husband’s life as a teen through his Facebook friends. Here’s what she says:
And it seemed as if half of them confessed crushes on him. These were girls frozen in his memory with teenaged breasts, AP English minds, and a sense that anything was possible. Like this one girl from seventh grade. She friended my husband on Facebook and then reminisced about the day his family moved away. She had put on her favorite dress, painted her nails purple, and worked up all her courage to hug him good-bye. “Isn’t that SO funny,” she wrote, “How silly we are as kids.”
You’d think I’d be mad, or at least threatened by all this nostalgia. But I wasn’t. For a split second at least, my husband was less familiar to me, and I mean that in a good way.
Wouldn’t this story have been more interesting if the husband had turned out to have been some misogynist dick or something? And people were friending him just to tell him to fuck off, finally? Instead, she learns that he was like, totally hawt and cool and all the girls loved him. Is she experiencing nostalgia, or straight-up regression?
Going back to the governance issue and its material genesis, it is necessary to understand what making the mechanism of financialization work in the function of social production means. Like governance, the government of financialization is open to a series of antagonisms the solution of which is not so much strictly economic as political. – Antonio Negri, Goodbye Mr. Socialism
Or rather, rhetorical. CNBC has been in the news a lot lately. Interestingly, the attention is starting to turn on the network itself. This sort of attention is always bad for propagandists; as soon as their position is denaturalized, the game is essentially up. The latest blow-up stems from Friedmanite propagandist Rick Santelli’s absurdist reverse rabble-rousing on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, an event that is turning out to be much more planned than it had at first appeared. But that’s really just the most visible form of the network’s general purpose, which is not so much to present so-called “financial news” as it is to argue for Friedmanite free markets 24 hours a day. Just a house organ of an exploiter class. So Maria Bartiromo is now qualifying her rhetorical performances by noting that she is not interested in politics, but markets, as if the two are completely unrelated. That this is the core of the CNBC argument in the first place should be obvious enough. That this ultimately political conceit is more and more exposed as the politics swings away from the CNBC position is also obvious.
So I wanted to imagine what CNBC would look like if it took a different position, say, The Leninist Economics Network (TLEN). Imagine if there was a network that had twenty or thirty anchors and shows doing Leninist economic critique 24 hours a day. All the anchors would be essentially state socialists of the Leninist variety, say Ernest Mandel style analyses of production and labor, all day long. They all agree on the basic Marxist principles, and perhaps have minor disagreements on this or that “scientific” point (say, two versions of the falling rate of profit, or something like that); these disagreements develop into “debates” or “controversies” that play out on the various shows in happy banter, but none of the anchors take them particularly seriously, since the axiom holds regardless. Maybe they have a kind of kooky Leninist Jim Cramer, who discourses sarcastically with a bust of Milton Friedman while beating a copy of Capitalism and Freedom with his shoe (Cramer famously pretends to understand Leninism for having putatively read What is to Be Done?, and sports a bust of Lenin on his set). The shows have names like “Vanguard,” “The Lunch Pail,” “The New Imperialism” (their globalization show), and “Trends in Constant Capital” (their tech round-up). One of their anchors is The Labor Babe. She claims to be interested not in politics, a word she utters with a sneer, but in the extraction of surplus value. Does it sound ridiculous? It is no more ridiculous than what is happening on CNBC all day, every day. And no less discredited. One would imagine that a network spouting state socialist themes all day would be ludicrous, of course, given the general trajectory of Soviet style socialism. But the Friedmanite position is as abject a failure in practice as is the Stalinist.
This is why CNBC looks like an increasingly dubious proposition, and its various well-paid spokespersons seem increasingly unhinged as they carry water for not only failed businesses, but an ultimately failed philosophy. Turn it on at any hour of the day, and you will find some besuited clown hem-hawing that the “current situation” (which is to say, the crisis of their very social formation and privilege, the crisis in value itself) might lead to “excess regulations.” It’s a constant refrain, like the clicking of some background lever that runs the whole machinery of the network. Like these Reaganists have any credibility to speak on the matter? It’s not surprising that they would grow increasingly shrill as their program for society exposes itself as catastrophe and failure. But what may really be at stake is a form of capitalist rhetoric being exposed as rhetoric. What Bartiromo, like the Leninists before her, really insisted on was the “scientific” character of her analyses. Once it opens up to a broader series of antagonisms, she and her cohort may actually have to contest with others for their vision of a market, even at the definitional level.
2. House of Cards - In the New York Times on Friday, this article, titled “Propping Up a House of Cards,” on the continuing saga at American International Group. Caught in the center of the storm, AIG is the poster boy for systemic risk, and for good reason. The entire business strategy at AIG seems to have been one of gaming the ratings agencies and the regulatory arms (both with tacit approval, of course) by essentially distributing their once unassailable AAA bond rating to MBS junk. They called this ratings and regulatory arbitrage, both excellent financial terms for completely mystifying risk. Nocera notes the following:
If we let A.I.G. fail, said Seamus P. McMahon, a banking expert at Booz & Company, other institutions, including pension funds and American and European banks “will face their own capital and liquidity crisis, and we could have a domino effect.” A bailout of A.I.G. is really a bailout of its trading partners — which essentially constitutes the entire Western banking system.
One would think that it takes some doing to collapse a structure that’s been in place since the mid-1500′s (imagine, for example, if the fundamental theses of modern science took a header in a six-month period), but leave it to the rampant idiocy of the corporate lawyers and investment bankers to make a run at such an ambitious project. Nocera again: “Other firms used many of the same shady techniques as A.I.G., but none did them on such a broad scale and with such utter recklessness.” Here’s how the deals worked. AIG was solid as all get-out as an insurance concern, so the ratings agencies graced them with AAA, which makes borrowing cheaper and generally comforts investors. The idea is that there’s no way in hell you can default. So AIG started handing this rating out for fees by “insuring” what were essentially junk, high risk securities. Since they were insured by AIG, they subsequently earned the AIG rating (or at least improved what would be their own rating), and ta-da!, junk is transformed into gold by the pure alchemy of financial shenanigans. They were truly polishing turds over there. As a second consequence, banks were able – under the delusional “self-regulatory” regimes devised by the imbecile Reaganites and their cohort – to assess their own risk based on the safety of their securities. Since all this junk they were buying on leverage was “insured” by AIG (which, incidentally, didn’t bother to keep reserves for default events, since these credit default swaps were pure fees, and no risk!), the banks could construct completely nonsensical, but cheerily optimistic, balance sheets. Call it postmodern accounting. When people ask “Where did all the money go?,” this is the answer: There was no money. The creation of wealth for the last 10 years or so was largely illusory, a theoretical operation. Of course, it always is, but sensible people manage to keep the social contract of invented value within the stratosphere. Once you breach that barrier, as these clowns did, you’re in lala land, and there’s no air up there.
Needless to say, these uber-capitalists now need another block of cheese from Uncle Sugar, and here they come for it. There’s not a lot more comical than the CPAC conference goers yelling about “socialism” for a few days, followed by AIG coming hat in hand to the big bad government for hand-outs, lest the “entire Western banking system” collapse. Some Reaganite numbskull was at CPAC intoning that Obama was “the best salesman for socialism” – a statement that sent the requisite chills down the spines of the utterly out-of-touch attendees. Clearly, he’s wrong. The best salesman for socialism has always been capitalism itself. In any case, the so-called fiscal conservatives who invented all this bullshit can now pretend in public (at both CNBC and CPAC) that they just want the market to play itself out, since they know damn well that no government in its right mind will allow that to happen, and, in fact, they don’t want it to happen either. In an op-ed today meant to forecast the length of the recession, titled (appropriately enough) “The Long Goodbye,” economist A.Michael Spence notes the following in support of his thesis that the recovery will be drawn out:
Global growth is approaching zero, and the economies of all the advanced countries are likely to shrink in 2009. The prices of stocks and real estate continue to fall, and thus it will take more time for consumers and companies to pay off debt.
These factors have led to, first, reduced consumption and then declining investment and employment. This has lowered sales, profits, credit quality and, completing the loop, asset values. This interacting spiral is what makes this recession exceptional.
Governments and central banks are the only major sources of credit, liquidity and incremental demand — private capital and sovereign wealth funds, having experienced losses, are largely sidelined. [...]
Everyone knows this, however much the conservatives want to still proclaim their fantasies of markets. So, a long goodbye, but what are we saying goodbye to?
3. Houses in Ghost Towns
Here’s the man with teeth like God’s shoeshine
He sparkles, shimmers, shines
Let’s all have another Orange Julius
Thick syrup standing in lines
The malls are the soon-to-be ghost towns
Well so long, farewell, goodbye – Modest Mouse
This article describes the plight of the Elks Grove Promenade project, a mall planned for suburban Sacramento. Its construction, which has been stopped for months, was put on “indefinite” suspension Friday by its owners, General Growth Properties (GGP):
The mall site is a freshly paved ghost town these days. Tall chain-link fencing surrounds deserted buildings lacking the finishing touches to cover their yellow-and-gray construction materials. Blinking traffic lights greet the few travelers who drive by.
As the article goes on the discuss, an entire town incorporated behind the idea that this mall would be completed and serve as a kind of town center. Now it’s just half-completed shells and empty parking lots. You know who I’d like to hear from about stuff like this? My good friend who is probably Texas’ current leading expert on the concept and history of the suburbs. When alternative-heads and other Lefties were generally falling into the trap (like the Modest Mouse song, to some extent) of replaying the same tired critiques of the suburbs that have been with us since William Whyte (that is, since the suburbs have), this guy was thinking through the suburbs as a positive phenomena. That doesn’t mean valorized, but asking what they do rather than bemoaning how they don’t do other things. But this brings me back to the same point. The crisis does seem to follow the predictable pattern of observers returning to something like a “real economy,” with the concomitant return to a discussion of limits – where your suburban McMansions would be the chief excess, along with these newly incorporated communities and their mall centers. This is certainly the theme of the Lefty blogs. Now, it should go without saying that the crisis seems to have little to do in either its origin or operation with a “real economy” as distinct from putatively “speculative” (that is, unreal) finance capital. If anything, it shows us in the clearest way possible that such distinctions are poorly constructed for contemporary analysis. But I think the status of the suburbs is where the thing comes to a head.
It’s never been a Wall Street – Main Street problem, because there is no Main Street anymore. It’s a Wall Street – Teaberry Ridge problem, or whatever these lunatic developers were naming their cul-de-sacs during the Bush Years. Elk Fucking Grove. Come on, now. But that would seem to be the point of intersection , since the suburbs are nothing but symbolic capital in bodily form to begin with, and more so as the home shifted its accent as commodity from the disciplinary space of the family toward the investment vehicle side. If anything, the credit default swap is more real than the abandoned shell of the Elk Grove Promenade, and the whole community thus exposes itself as the actual speculative economy. They were, after all, in their so-called “real” economic behavior, investing in GGP, JC Penny’s, and Orange Julius as surely as were the traders in their exchange smocks. That these communities did so through houses and pot lucks and Little league teams rather than with equity and debt securities only intensifies the affective and bodily tilt toward speculation. They didn’t “buy” shares. They literally were the shares in both their real social location and ghostly physical existence. But now I guess a specter is haunting Elk Grove, or at least the Promenade…
Poor Hank Paulson. That’s the lesson we are to take away from the Frontline special on the meltdown that was so hyped even I bought into it here. (Don’t be fooled: I buy into 70% of That-Which-Is-Hyped). But sheesh. The doc set up a conflict between systemic risk and moral hazard, which were apparently the code words for Keynesian and Friedmanite responses to the financial crisis, where systemic risk required government intervention, while moral hazard resists seemingly incentivizing bad actors by removing the punishment for their bad behavior. Tra la la. These categories are typical enough, I suppose, and the way they played out in the doc was more typical still, with a fairly detailed discussion and definition of moral hazard, but only the vaguest notion of sudden, unforeseen “interconnection” between the big banks as a pseudo-explanation for systemic risk. The result is predictable enough: a notion of market actors comes through clear as day, while the systemic dynamics of finance capital are relegated to the hazy background of near total mystification. Would that any of us could understand such things! Silly me thought it was the purpose of the documentary to do just such explaining. Instead, the whole thing turns into some weird passion play around the yellow-toothed personage of Hank Paulson, caught in the grips of a struggle between his Free Market God and damnable exigencies of the crisis. Despite the bad effects, I must admit that it was funny to re-live the moment (hilarious at the time) when Paulson is forced to nationalize Fannie and Freddie, then returns to the Friedmanite fold long enough to send Lehman Brothers to hell, only to have to reclaim the mantle of the apostate by saving the sorry default swapped asses of AIG. Oh, the sorrows of Hank Paulson! I remember a conversation I had with a friend some years ago in which I derided all war movies for being too personalized. He’d name a movie and I’d say, no, no! No fucking characters! A real war movie would have characters at the large unit level, the company and battalion level, and would show flashes, movement: hammer and anvil sweeps in the Mekong Delta, not little morality plays about individual soldiers and their two fathers (yes, Oliver Stone only ever made one movie, which involves a guy choosing between his two fathers: Catholicism never gives up). No characters! It is the anti-Private Ryan, I said, where the trajectory of that film takes you from the utterly anonymous large unit level (undoubtedly the best part of the film as a war film), down and down until we learn Tom Hanks’ back story, and finally, with Matt Damon in the rubble, we reach the individual, the character. No. Not a good war movie, I said, except the first two minutes. I want the anti-Ken Burns style, where everybody gets to confess: I was there, and this is what happened. No! None of that. No characters. No personalities. Try, for once, to do pathos without the individual. Can we try? My friend said, sensibly, “But then it wouldn’t be a story.” Maybe not. Maybe that’s a good thing. And I’d apply the same logic to Inside the Meltdown. No goddamn characters! I don’t want to see a silly movie about Hank Paulson choosing between his two fathers, tortured by his choice. I would rather have watched a simulation of the money transfers flickering on screens in Luxembourg clearing houses, anonymous traders, the flow of documents through Lehman, through Goldman. No. We get stories about Hank Paulson and his personal struggle with his faith. Pointless.