Friday, October 26, 2012

An Extended Metaphor on Reading and Bowels

Weird observation: on the one hand, books are the object of solitude par excellance. When you read, you read alone. Chuck Palahniuk has a whole essay about how to escape the lonesome writer's shack and how being a successful author is composed of a cyclical flight from, and then return to, being alone. Jonathan Franzen's essay anthology How to Be Alone is titled after the reader's solitude as a kind of political/spiritual attitude: the question of preserving one's integrity amid mass-culture is the same as the question of how to be alone. Neil Postman writes of the breakdown of individual, critical thinking under the force of mass media. We've all had the experience of trying to read Dickens or Tolstoy or Wallace in the library or a cafe and found ourselves utterly incapacitated by the jabbering gossip spewing from some guy on his cell phone, one table over. Everyone's read the same sentence twelve times without it registering, as we try in vain to tune out lady behind us on the bus as she narrates, to no one in particular and everyone in general, the minutia of her day. We've all flown, like substance-starved refugees, from the toiling, yowling masses into the blessed silence of churches, single-stall toilets, locked cars, and after-hours offices. To read. In peace.

But then over on the left hand is the fact that reading cum books cum writing cum bibliophilia is a fundamentally communal thingy. Let's skirt past how books are basically conversations (okay, monologues; but still, it takes two people) on prostheses. Let's ignore the publishing industry, libraries, book clubs, lit. classes, the canon(s), and the new, infinite psuedo-book, the Internet. Forget all that. I want to concentrate on one particular aspect of how books are social objects.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The best moment in last night's Prez debate

If you missed last night's second presidential debate, I advise you to remedy that mistake post-haste: you can catch it here, here, or here. Obama's lethargic lecturing from the first debate was nowhere to be seen last night. The POTUS came in swinging, and gave plenty of that no-holds-barred political knife-fighting ninja-technique which Dem supporters (such as your correspondent) eat up like candy or red meat or high-quality illegal substance.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

ABA Opposes Proposed Swipe Fee Settlement

By Dave Grogan
Created 10/11/2012 - 11:32am

The American Booksellers Association announced this week that it is joining the National Association of College Stores (NACS), the National Retail Federation (NRF), the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), and other trade groups in opposing the proposed $7.25 billion settlement of a federal antitrust lawsuit [1] over skyrocketing Visa and MasterCard credit card swipe fees, which was announced in July.

“The ABA Board of Directors has determined that the proposed swipe fee settlement is not in the best interest of independent booksellers,” said ABA CEO Oren Teicher. “Because the proposed settlement is one-sided and preserves MasterCard and Visa’s anticompetitive practices, ABA is urging the class plaintiffs in the case to reject the proposed settlement. Ultimately, we believe that the adverse long-term effects of this settlement far outweigh any short-term monetary gain it might bring retailers.”

While $7.25 billion is the largest antitrust settlement in U.S. history, it amounts to less than two months’ worth of swipe fees, based on the estimated $50 billion in swipe fees collected by the credit card companies on an annual basis, as reported by NACS.

Among the reasons ABA objects to the proposed settlement is that it fails to introduce competition and transparency into the credit card swipe fee market. Under the settlement, Visa and MasterCard will be able to continue to fix prices for thousands of bank members. Furthermore, the settlement would not allow merchants to opt out of restrictive new rules set forth in the proposal and gives Visa/MasterCard the ability to keep market forces from working by keeping prices hidden. The settlement additionally limits innovations that could bring meaningful competition to the marketplace.

In a press release, NACS said it believes the “proposed settlement lacks any meaningful reforms that would introduce competition, transparency, and affordability into the credit card swipe fee market. The net result of a short-term apology in the form a small cash payout for the average merchant, is inadequate compensation for the proposed settlement agreement, which will lock in and protect a system that is harming NACS member stores and their student and parent customers through ever increasing swipe fees and arcane and unfair operating rules.”

RILA President Sandy Kennedy stated: “While Visa and MasterCard’s decision to pursue a settlement affirms the legitimacy of retailers’ claims, the flawed proposal upholds the networks’ anticompetitive practices and fails to provide retailers and their consumers with meaningful relief from tens of billions of dollars in hidden fees. We urge class plaintiffs to reject the proposal and send a clear message that a settlement that fails to engender competition and fix the broken electronic payments market is unacceptable.”

“The National Retail Federation categorically opposes the proposed settlement,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a press statement. “It does nothing to curb the anticompetitive behavior of Visa and MasterCard, and instead ensures that swipe fees paid by retailers and their customers will continue to rise while barring any future legal challenges. The proposal is a lose-lose-lose for merchants, consumers and competition. NRF will take any and all steps necessary to oppose the settlement as it is currently proposed and will work toward real reform of the swipe fee system.”

Class plaintiffs who are in favor of the settlement are expected to ask the court for preliminary approval as early as October 12, at which point, merchants will have 30 days to write to the court to object to the proposed settlement. More information regarding how booksellers can make their views on the proposed settlement known to the court will be available soon in Bookselling This Week.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Book Review Pt. 2: Air Guitar, by Dave Hickey

This is the second half of my review of Dave Hickey's Air Guitar. See part one here.

Probably the biggest insight your correspondent owes to this work is a plausible definition for art/explanation for why art matters, in "Frivolity and Unction." Answer: it doesn't. Art is a luxurious waste of time through which extremely important issues get worked out. Hickey's analysis is, again, gorgeous, so I'll quote it here at length:

So here's my suggestion: At this moment, with public patronage receding like the spring tide anyway and democracy supposedly proliferating throughout the art world, why don't all of us art-types summon up the moral courage to admit that what we do has no intrinsic value or virtue--that it has its moments and it has its functions, but otherwise, all things considered, in its ordinary state, unredeemed by courage and talent, it is a bad, silly, frivolous thing to do. We could do this, you know...

...We could just say: "Okay! You're right! Art is bad, silly, and frivolous. Movies are bad, silly, and frivolous. Basketball is bad, silly, and frivolous. Next question?"...

...What if works of art were considered to be what they actually are--frivolous objects or entities with no intrinsic value that only acquire value through a complex process of socialization during which some are empowered by an ongoing sequence of private, mercantile, journalistic, and institutional investments that are irrevocably extrinsic to them and to any intention they might embody?...

...Because the art world is no more about art than the sports world is about sport. The sports world conducts an ongoing referendum on the manner in which we should cooperate and compete. The art world conducts an ongoing referendum on how things should look and the way in which we should look at things--or it would, if art were regarded as sports are, as a wasteful, privileged endeavor through which very serious issues are worked out.

Because art doesn't matter. What matters is how things look and how we look at them in a democracy...

Why I think this is valuable: if you're anything like me, you've wasted countless hours and cigarettes agonizing over whether and how art is valuable. This is a serious problem: the value of art is in no way self-evident. What is self evident is how it relates to other stuff. Like class: GED-graduates are not the major demographic for reprints of Shakespeare or Dostoevsky, poor people don't flock to the theater, and loudly-played classical music is used to discourage homeless people from hanging out in public areas. Great art tends to be friendly toward the upper classes, while pro-wrestling and MTV and the Twilight books score with lower classes. (I'm not saying always, and I'm not endorsing this fact; I'm just acknowledging a broad demographic trend.)

Plus, in a world full of injustice and scarcity, why spend time on art? Why not use that energy for activism? Children die every day from starvation, and you're going to spend your time reading the thoughts of Tristam Shandy? I don't know about you, but for me, it seems that spending one's time teasing out the significance of narrative voice in Joyce's Dubliners while my neighbors suffer and die is, to be precise, vulgar. To rephrase this point as an argument: Art is a luxury activity, and it's wrong to luxuriate while others lack necessities, and others do lack necessities. Thus, it's wrong to spend time and energy on art.

So two excellent reasons to turn your back on art are 1) it's classist and 2) it's a waste of precious resources.

What I love about Hickey's analysis is that it wholeheartedly accepts both of these facts, yet still finds value in art: to wit, as an ongoing referendum on how to look at things in our society. If you see that 'How we look at things' is powerful and important, then you'll see how art has an indirect but fundamental influence on our society (and thus on class, justice, ecological awareness, etc.). Hickey is right that art does not promote virtue in the way that grant-seeking museum curators say that it does--exposure to high art does not, by and large, make people better or smarter or more empathetic. Art has no intrinsic value. What art does have is influence on how we live together, influence on the shape and texture of our society. Art, like role models and traumatic experiences, teaches us how to see. And since we're social animals, how we look at things influences pretty much everything else that we do care about (justice etc.). Art is a wasteful luxury through which important issues get worked out.

So by this point, whether you read Air Guitar or not, you've gotten a heavy taste of Hickey's writing and a summary of (what is in my view) the most important point in the whole book: art is not intrinsically valuable, but it is a social activity, and social activities have important effects.

In summary, your correspondent can report that Hickey's anthology is smart, funny, and extremely insightful. and the questions he asks guarantee interesting answers.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Book Review Pt. 1: Air Guitar, by Dave Hickey

One of the really big, basic questions that pops up in pretty much every arena of human activity is, How hard should I think about this stuff? When do I loose my critical thinking upon a subject, and when do I rein it back in? Let me give you an example: if you've ever taken a class outside of your field of expertise, you'll recall how most of your "introduction" to the subject consisted of learning what questions not to ask. For me, learning about special-relativity physics mostly involved learning to ignore questions like "What do we mean by an 'object'?" and "How can causality make sense vis-a-vis non-linear time?" Part of an education means learning what questions to ask, but most of it is learning what to take for granted.

This seems to be a basic epistemic (not to mention neurological) principle: in order to think about some subject, you have to ignore everything else. And by the process of concentrating on X and ignoring everything else, you end up defining X before you've even begun to consider it. It's a real pickle: you want to think about something in order to understand it, but in order to think about it at all, you sort of need to already understand it. (Incidentally, Plato formulates this problem in Meno's Paradox, and getting around it is one reason why Socrates posited that all learning is really just remembering.)

Another problem is part of the problem is existential--that is, the "Why Bother?" which occupied mid-twentieth-century French intellectuals and depressives of all stripes. Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus is the definitive investigation into correlation between 1) thinking too much and 2) suicide: "Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined." We'll only skirt the issue here by noting that, in fact, being well-adjusted involves avoiding lines of thought which lead to bad outcomes (or in other words: pragmatists are healthier than ruthless seekers of truth). As DFW puts it, healthy people "get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't."

But so okay: there are excellent reasons to be suspicious of careful thinking. To wit: it's epistemically impossible, practically inefficient, and emotionally dangerous.

Still, the opposite doesn't look too promising, either. One of the boons of human storytelling is that we get to see how stupid other people are, how oblivious they are to their own stupidity, and how directly their stupidity leads to woe. You've surely got your own favorite examples; mine are 1) reality television and 2) Anna Karenina. Through effective portrayals of human thought and behavior, I get to see how Anna's history, hopes, habits, etc. lead her to act in particular ways, and how these actions lead to particular outcomes. Anna is oblivious to all this: indeed, it's her profound mis-understanding of what she wants and how to get it which determines her tragic destiny. Were she more aware, she'd likely meet a better end. So the absence of critical thought is also not a promising avenue.

All that being said, here's why I love Dave Hickey: Hickey excels at ignoring the unhelpful and invading the productive. Half of good thinking is asking the right questions, and that's what he does in this anthology of his art criticism:

-How are hope and social hierarchy related to the mystique of Las Vegas?
-What is the connection between desire, community, art, and social norms?
-"What we did not grasp was just exactly why the blazing spectacle of lawn-mowered cats, exploding puppies, talking ducks, and plummeting coyotes was so important to us."
-In what sense was Liberace in the closet, or not? And what about his fans?
-How was American car-culture born? And what does us tell us about the business of art?
-Why would Chet Baker walk away from the chance to become the next James Dean, for a life of heroin and jazz shows?
-Wadda'ya mean, masculine culture vs. everything else?
-How the hell could M. Foucalt make it all the way through the Sixties without once dropping acid?
-How do boredom and stimulation work in cinema and art? Why bother with limits?
-Wait, wait: you're telling me that people who sell art aren't just craven vultures?
-What did Perry Mason and Mission: Impossible tell us about their audience?
-What's the relationship between officious museums vs. art as a social practice? Wait: how is art a 'social practice'?"
-How did Julius Erving re-invent basketball, and what does that tell us about art?
-Why the hell would anyone write art criticism?
-Seigried and Roy?

You get the picture. Hickey's investigations are gorgeous, but one suspects that a trained monkey or even a bureaucrat could have carried them out, once Hickey'd framed the issue and formulated the questions for them.

Check back Sunday for part two of this review, where I'll discuss the most important insight in Hickey's book.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Book Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carre

(Note: this article was originally published in two parts on

An obvious fact: Great literature connects the particular with the universal, the banal with the sublime, the mortal with the transcendent. The alchemy of fiction bridges little, familiar things with big, awesome things.

Without thematic transcendence, Moby Dick would just be an extremely long story about a crazy guy trying kill a whale. And without the particulars of Ahab, Starbuck, Ishmael, the Pequod, etc. it would have just been a tortuous, poetical, inscrutable essay on Fate and Mortality and, uh, stuff: half Schopenhauer, half Walt Whitman: the most turgid BS conceivable. Or take Demons (aka The Possessed): like a grown-up version of Ayn Rand, Dostoevsky's characters explicitly discuss the very themes (i.e. Atheism, Justice, Faith, etc.) for which they themselves are metaphors. Lose the themes, and the story becomes an espionage soap opera; lose the plot and characters, and the story become a long, pompous essay.

Or consider Camus' The Plague: it's all very well for him to write in his essay The Rebel that "When he rebels, a man identifies himself with other men and so surpasses himself..." But this cannot convey the moral authority with which Dr. Rieux, physician to the plague-ridden town of Oran, states:

There's no question of heroism in all of this. It's a matter of common decency. That's an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is--common decency...[I]n my case I know that it consists in doing my job.

For a Europe still in shock at the atrocities of the second World War (not to mention a present that's got plenty of its own atrocities), the struggles of Dr. Rieux and the townfolk of Oran provide an all-too-apt metaphor for the human situation. And we know--because The Plague and The Rebel are essentially the same book, except that one's fiction and one's an essay--that Camus simply couldn't get at the big issues of Meaning and Death and Solidarity in the same way without the slippery, associative logic of fiction.

This is how fiction tricks us: by connecting the particular to the universal (in the same way that, say, a photograph can connect a small object in the foreground to a large landscape in the background), meaning is created.

So it is with le Carre's spy stories. Sure, his plots are wound as tight as Swiss watches. Sure, questions introduced in the first chapters get pulled higher and higher, dangling over the reader's head, tantalizing. And, yes, sure: any spy story with nighttime pistols, tragic loves, and Shakespearean power struggles is surely somewhat escapist. Pudgy, old, meditative George Smiley may not be the anti-James-Bond so much as the believable James Bond, in the same way that 'realistic' films like Black Hawk Down and Gettysburg seduce the audience into the fantasy of Glorious War more effectively than GI Joe or Red Dawn precisely because of their putative accuracy. As the audacity of a protagonist's adventures decreases, their plausibility increases.


Still, I tell you this: le Carre is a writer for the ages. Le Carre is our Joseph Conrad.

In Lord Jim, for instance, themes of guilt, redemption, courage and chance are woven into the story of the titular Jim, whose moment of youthful weakness haunts him to the ends of the Earth. When we see Jim sweating at his trial, or hopefully growing into the hero he wishes to be, or caught between the story of who he was and the story of who he's become, we see a discussion of big, important questions about how to live as a human being, a discussion that isn't reducible to an expository essay. And this discussion is built up within a straightforward adventure story: a dashing hero fights natives and pirates in an exotic locale. Conrad uses the nautical adventure story as the scaffold on which he builds his high-fallutin' Literature.

Le Carre does the same with spy stories. In Tinker we see a straightforward plot unfold from a simple premise: there's a mole in the highest echelons of British intelligence, and a retired genius quietly returns to give chase. Let's be clear: this is the same plot as the first Mission: Impossible film. This plot could not be more recognizable.

And yet in le Carre's hands, it sheds gold: Percy Alleline and his cabal of usurpers echo Julius Caesar's Brutus and his senators; the mole, orphaned by his own society, a latter-day Richard III ("...since I cannot prove a lover, to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain..."); the inscrutable Karla, lord of Soviet intelligence, fascinates with his 'immoderate fanaticism' and seemingly-bottomless resources.

And George Smiley, le Carre's best-known protagonist, sniffing around the circumstances of Control's ouster like an unsexy Hamlet. Smiley, to my eye, is basically a contemporary moral hero: in the amoral world of Cold War espionage, he fumbles through, trying to do what's necessary or, failing that, to at least not make things worse. See this scene in which he lies in wait for the mole he's hunting:

Like an actor, he had a sense of approaching anti-climax before the curtain went up, a sense of great things dwindling to a small, mean end; as death itself seemed small and mean to him after the struggles of his life. He had no sense of conquest that he knew of. His thoughts, as often when he was afraid, concerned people. He had no theories or judgements [sic] in particular. He simply wondered how everyone would be affected; and he felt responsible.

Smiley's good at exactly one thing, and that's his Zen-like approach to intelligence. Everything else in his life--from his marriage to his retirement to the simplest social meetings--is a mess. Yet for all that, he accomplishes much more than his peers--mostly because he doesn't make things worse. Slowly, methodically plodding through his work, courteous to a fault, without a vindictive bone in his body, Smiley strives to understand. Only then does he act.

If that's not moral, I don't know what is.

Monday, October 8, 2012



"Columbus" Day
Old Oregon Territory

          The world began in a scream
June 8, 1952 and it was Today until 1954.
The world became very old
          for the first time    when I was four,
standing on the banks of the Columbia.

          This is  my homeland--
Its roads and rivers my roots.
My grandmothers' stories sing in my blood.
--  My children were born in the Blues.

          I see the world through Ancient eyes and New.
I discovered America, and I discovered Columbus too !

(so did you.)

German immigrant pioneers
   murdered my grandmother's great-great grandfather.
The Church adopted his orphaned children
To Save them from Pagan hands.
-- His lands,
                   They fenced . . .
                             (and later, fetched a profit.)

My great-great-grandmother ran away from the Forced Relocation.
Hid in the hills of Tennessee.  She was 13.

Two and half years later, she married a German immigrant
pioneer, a farmer widower with kids. 
They moved to the Ozarks, homesteaded,
had, among others, twins.

They called my great grandpa "half-breed" and "hillbilly"
and made my gramma cry when she was only three.

They took our grandmothers' handmade baskets
in trade
for shoes her children didn't want to wear.

Young Conquistadors raped me for my gold,
and stole my Gods with their greed--
          --Four and half centuries AFTER Cortez.

          The world began in a scream,
I will not whimper.

Cowboys and Indians,
drummers and dreamers,
settlers and soldiers--
my ancestors
were murdering and marrying my ancestors

not so long ago;

                   mixing blood,
          -- in more ways than one.


          This is our air,  our land along the length
          of our own Trails of Tears to today.
The New World is ours, and I claim it for the Future !

Keep your poisonous lies out of my skies,
and keep your hands OFF my heritage.

These rivers ran deep
                   long before your damning.

 Take care.
           Or beware;
                  --my outrage at broken treaties can be savage.

 -         maggie halfacre
  Walla Walla
  (the town, not the tribe.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Living after the end times

A lot of the weirdness of contemporary life can be laid at the cyborgian feet of media technology. We don't just live in a world of the talking, life-like facsimiles of Dan Rather and Bill Clinton and Tom Cruise--a veritable Hades of talking ghosts. No, our lives are set within a history of fake-live personas. That is, we live in a world where television and film aren't just real; they're even dated. For most of human history, the idea of literally listening to dead people, with them visibly standing right there, in front of you, was the stuff of magic: a sacred, or at least ethereal, experience. Now, it's still magic, but our all-consuming drive for technology has multiplied the number of talking ghosts so far that they now outnumber the living. Our ghosts are common and banal.