Weeknotes 2

1. Parallel Histories of Art and Banking / Diplomacy of Antiquities

A great article in the Believer that begins roughly with the injection of temporality into both arenas in the early 14th century.
This new kind of painting is concerned with contingency—it is based on an idea of sequence not eternal but human. The little Duccio suggests something about its own future from its present point of view.
Ending with Damien Hirst's famous diamond-ised skull, For The Love of God:
 ...what the work represents, specifically, is not our artistic, or not only our artistic, but our financial life. As Blake Gopnik pointed out in the Washington Post at the time the skull was unveiled, it’s the purchase of the work that is the work. Sale at outlandish price, just as was true at Lehman Brothers, is what defines and confers the value.
One particularly striking analogy is in the comparison between Picasso and the cubists breaking time into fragments to present it as one piece (i.e. the front and side of a woman's face simultaneously) and the way that companies began to be valued on predictions of future growth based on present earnings. I'd take issue with the theory that art only became expensive once people possessed liquid cash in the 19th century. Liquid cash was in great abundance since the 16th century, it was one of the reasons for the rise of stock markets and the middle class and is directly attributed to the tulip crash of 1637. Although perhaps not much of this cash was spent on 'art'  and accounted for the eventual explosion of the art market:
Suddenly people began to see paintings as representations not only of age-old values but of future values. And once they began to look at them that way, it mattered less how much time they’d withstood the test of. What people became interested in was not what the pieces were worth a hundred years ago but what they might be worth tomorrow.
There's even some parallels with this article on the relationship between diplomacy and antiques. Obviously we all know about the Elgin Marbles but I didn't realise there was such a booming trade in illegally imported Afghan collectibles from the Kabul museums.

2. Genetics of Politics

This article in Nature and this one in the Economist both approach the same studies on the influence of genetics on political ideology. As this is kind of pointing toward my next area of study I was somewhat giddy to read them but the early assumptions of both articles are withdrawn quite rapidly. Rather than directly attributing political make-up (in the sense of the human social construction of politics) to genetics, the articles link political leanings to personality traits and these traits to genetics. Which we already knew.
many political psychologists agree that political ideology can be narrowed down to one basic personality trait: openness to change. Liberals tend to be more accepting of social change than conservatives. Some studies suggest that liberals tolerate more ambiguity and uncertainty, whereas conservatives are more decisive, conscientious and attracted to order.
So the articles go on to speculate how an individual's genetics makeup might inform their decision making and thus their worldview, and thus the way they vote. The interest here lies in speculating on more extreme ways that this could play out when it comes to the 2016 elections - genetic testing at polling stations or chemical devices for eliciting response from opposing individuals (the olfactory response is cited in both articles.)

Survival in Suburbia through The Hollywood Lens

In Douglas’s circles, people talk about “the end of the world as we know it” with such regularity that the acronym Teotwawki (tee-ought-wah-kee) has come into widespread use.
There's a post on the New York Times Magazine website about the new mainstream strain of survivalism amongst suburban Americans. The article outlines how the survivalist 'cult' - for want of a better term - has spread beyond right-wing 'nuts' and secessionists looking for conspiracy in the world order and into the suburban way of life. 
He doesn’t have a mountain stronghold or a 20-acre spread. He doesn’t have a bunker or anything resembling a barn. Instead, he, his wife, Heather, and their six children, ages 4 to 16, inhabit a typical American suburban home
There's a lot to be read into this, in particular the nature of the hero of the piece - a suburbanite called Douglas who runs an expo and web resource of survivalist info. With the financial siege being inflicted against America's suburban middle class it's not a hard leap to see how Douglas might suddenly have a very visceral grasp of the apocalypse striking his home town and it's a view that is made clear as something now not uncommon amongst his own class. But the survivalist movement, as it was called at around the time of the Millennium Bug paranoia and Obama's 2008 election, is now more generally called the 'preparedness' movement. This notional semantic shift from a lifestyle currently under threat and to be defended with barbed wire, attack dogs and paranoid nationalism to an impeding and unstoppable threat, again, speaks volumes about the nature of this 'threat'.

'Prepareds' are notably hazy about what the threat is. We could read into the idea that the first survivalists were born out of the Cold War fear of MAD and just continued to latch onto whatever they could - technology, liberalism, Islam - as a way of continuing an increasingly secluded lifestyle. The 'prepareds' on the other hand don't see their lifestyle as under threat currently - living as they do in normal homes rather than castles - but fear that a threat is coming and that they must be prepared for it. 

To draw a brief comparison, one of the most praiseworthy parts of Max Brooks peerless apocalyptic fiction, World War Z, was the study of suburban America's reaction to the apocalyptic crisis gripping the world. With half of the rest of humanity wiped out, the coddled suburbanites had desensitised their fate, putting misguided faith in the American way of life to overcome any obstacle. They literally refuse to even pay lip service to the idea of global catastrophe until it is quite literally smashing through the French windows and ripping their children in half. (pardon the lengthy extract)
Oh yeah, I was worried, I was worried about my car payments and Tim's business loan. I was worried about that widening crack in the pool and the new nonchlorinated filter that still left an algae film. I was worried about our portfolio, even though my e-broker assured me this was just first-time investor jitters and that it was much more profitable than a standard 40l(k). Aiden needed a math tutor, Jenna needed just the right Jamie Lynn Spears cleats for soccer camp. Tim's parents were thinking of coming to stay with us for Christmas. My brother was back in rehab. Finley had worms, one of the fish had some kind of fungus growing out of its left eye. These were just some of my worries. I had more than enough to keep me busy. 

Did you watch the news? 

Yeah, for about five minutes every day: local headlines, sports, celebrity gossip. Why would I want to get depressed by watching TV? I could do that just by stepping on the scale every morning.

What about other sources? Radio?

Morning drive time. That was my Zen hour. After the kids were dropped off, I'd listen to [name withheld for legal reasons). His jokes helped me get through the day.

What about the Internet?

What about it? For me, it was shopping; for Jenna, it was homework; for Tim, it was . . . stuff he kept swearing he'd never look at again. The only news I ever saw was what popped up on my AOL welcome page.

At work, there must have been some discussion . . .

Oh yeah, at first. It was kinda scary, kinda weird, "you know I hear it's not really rabies" and stuff like that. But then that first winter things died down, remember, and anyway, it was a lot more fun to rehash last night's episode of Celebrity Fat Camp or totally bitch out whoever wasn't in the break room at that moment.
One time, around March or April, I came into work and found Mrs. Ruiz clearing out her desk. I thought she was being downsized or maybe outsourced, you know, something I considered a real threat. She explained that it was "them," that's how she always referred to it, "them" or "everything that's happening." She said that her family'd already sold their house and were buying a cabin up near Fort Yukon, Alaska. I thought that was the stupidest thing I'd ever heard, especially from someone like Inez. She wasn't one of the ignorant ones, she was a "clean" Mexican. I'm sorry to use that term, but that was how I thought back then, that was who I was.

Did your husband ever show any concern?

No, but the kids did, not verbally, or consciously, I think. Jenna started getting into fights. Aiden wouldn't go to sleep unless we left the lights on. Little things like that. I don't think they were exposed to any more information than Tim or I, but maybe they didn't have the adult distractions to shut it out.

How did you and your husband respond?

Zoloft and Ritalin SR for Aiden, and Adderall XR for Jenna. It did the trick for a while. The only thing that pissed me off was that our insurance didn't cover it because the kids were already on Phalanx.
If the Times article is anything to go by it seems that a significant minority of the suburban populace might actually be ready to pick up tools and tackle the threat instead of the traditional American reliance on anti-depressants. Just take a glance at the part marketing, part tongue-in-cheek Gerber Apocalypse Survival Kit or in fact just Google search for 'apocalypse survival kit' - the price tags some of these kits carry imply more than just rampant marketing and fanboyism. 

Of course there's no doubt that commercialism will always steal some part of the public and cultural conscience to sell back to it, but this tie between TV and film production and a very American apocalypse goes deeper - it's a feedback process. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been an explosion of US film and TV work speculating on an apocalyptic America that has accelerated with every successive crisis. This explosion hasn't been seen in such nationalist drive since the explosion of British dystopian literature in the first half of the twentieth century. Zombie and monster dirges such as The Walking Dead, I Am Legend and The Mist (though adaptations) lend a weight to the zombie ending (still somewhat comical) but take it away from the teenage fear-mongering of Day of The Dead and co. and into an impression of the life and moral struggles of a zombie apocalypse. Others - Blindness, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Children Of Men, even Wall-E take broader but more human-led paths to destruction while being box-office hits. We only in fact need to look at the Wikipedia list of apocalyptic films almost double over the 90s to 00s decades.

This is now the lens through which the 'prepareds' see the endtimes as coming. Not through a red scare or a liberal conspiracy as popularised in the literature of the Cold War and Bush years but in a very level-playing-field human based natural end. As Douglas himself says:
...since Sandy, Douglas has been considering putting on an expo in New York or New Jersey. “This is exactly what we’re trying to prepare people for,” he told me. “Everybody talks about doomsday, the end of the world — apocalypse nonsense. This is New York’s doomsday right now.”
They may still tread carefully around environmentalism, and the article never once mentions global warming or natural disaster, only ever referring to a vague sense of 'what's coming.' But the idea of natural disaster is seeping into popular conscience through film and TV and the response is being prepared in the same way. 

This new form of survivalism could be read as being the right-wing response to the environmentalist movement. Less of the emphasis is placed on the science and the politicians as 'big government liberals' see as the main path to global warming, but the same 'each man for himself' onus of the right is put on surviving the 'coming global catastrophe.' Whether this interpretation and response is right or wrong is largely irrelevant because both forms of response engage the same issues. One of the interviewees is the owner of Sun Ovens who make solar-powered ovens:
“I refinanced my home three different times just to eat,” Munsen says. But in time, business began to improve, thanks in part to Barack Obama’s presidential victory four years ago, which alarmed many on the right worried about everything from his economic policies to his middle name. “The day after the election was one of the best sales days we ever had,” Munsen says. “Some people were just so upset about the election that they said, ‘We had better be prepared.’ ”

Year Of The Flood


Year Of The Flood is the direct sequel to Atwood's Oryx and Crake, one of those core texts of biological science fiction. In the original we see the lead up to a virus-led apocalypse through the eyes of Jimmy aka Snowman and his friendship with Glenn aka Oryx and their joint infatuation with Crake. In this one the shift is away form the main characters and onto some of the supporting cast. We follow the Gods Gardners - a nonviolent environmental cult - as they prepare for the 'flood' that will wipe out all mankind and follow a few of the main characters involved. 

There's not so much of a focus on science and responsibility in Year of The Flood as there is on consumerism, religion and man's place in the world. And of course it suffers because, essentially, you already know what's happened and what's going to happen if you read Oryx and Crake. There are still twists and surprises but the action feels muted without the powerful characters of the first part and sometimes it seems that most of the shock is in the vivid descriptions of the brutal underworld in Atwood's dystopia.

There's supposed to be a third part coming out soon and I guess we'll have to see if that completes the story in some way or simply adds another dimension that we can read into it. Most of the story of Year of The Flood was driven by the machinations and troubles of the leading characters and very little was done to actually add further substance to the world that Atwood created beyond a little more exposition of life in the 'pleebs.' However, I don't know how much more could be done to the world without over-saturating it - the awkward portmanteaus that serve as company names and the almost comic violence has reached an undeniable and explicit peak here.

Weeknotes 1

I've been finding it hard to write anything lately, mostly because I can't seem to focus on one thing and I spend so much time reading much better written things from much cleverer people that I don't see any point to it. However, I do value the process of writing things out as a we of re-translating and it's something I've been doing for 7 or 8 years now so stopping would seem just farcical. I'm going to try out a 'bulletin' system where I can briefly outline a few points I've been thinking about recently to try and kick up a response and allow me to distill my thoughts.

1. US Elections - The Republican fallout. 

I did end up staying up until the very early hours last week to watch the US election and of course felt the same sigh of relief that most of the world felt when the US narrowly decided not to let Gordon Gecko's best but most maligned tribute band take office. Nice one.

But, coinciding with the publication of this XKCD chart, a nagging doubt about the future of the Republican party began to creep in. Ian Hislop quipped that the US has a 'right wing party, an extreme right wing party an the Tea Party' on Have I Got News For You, but when you truly consider the scope of partisanship between the Republicans and the Democrats it is actually a little concerning. We all know that to save the US economy Obama needs to win round the support of the House of Representatives who are still Republican dominated. It's now up to the Republicans whether they go full throttle on the crazy motors and allow the psychos and bigots who sealed their defeat this year a firmer grip on the reigns or whether right now there is a quiet cull within Republican ranks. Most indications would point to the latter.

2. Austerity Measures

I've never actually managed to find an example of where austerity measures have resulted in growth. They seem to buffer the public purse to some extent against a recession, especially important in welfare-heavy states like ours - where the public sector is in fact bigger than the private sector (a deadly paradox on it's own). We're seeing very few results as people being to talk about a 'Triple-dip recession.' And the IMF retracts it's belief in the healing goodness of cutting back on funds despite essentially butchering and raping most of the world's most long-suffering economies with impossible demands.

Also some nice reasoning here from Quartz.

3. Amazon, Google, Starbucks - consummate professionalism.

Representatives of Amazon, Google and Starbucks went in front of the Public Accounts Committee to explain why they don't make any tax. To surmise - the Amazon guy said he didn't know anything, about anything, really at all to do with his company. The Starbucks guy said that they only ever made a loss and have never made a profit and Google said that they didn't pay much tax but never broke the law.

It was pretty good and they all came away looking a bit silly but most importantly, they gave nothing away at all. Reminding me of two of my favourite clips of BBC television:

So while it's easy to criticise them for being buffoonish, it's a lot harder to notice that they got away with telling the Public Accounts Committee absolutely nothing about their dealings. 


OMA are a giddy favourite of mine. Koolhaas' bluer-sky think-tank produces some examples of exceptional research work and fascinating and beautiful alternate architectural ideas. Recently everyone was a little let down after THAT fashion campaign so I was excited to see that they'd abandoned attempts at cutting edge montage visuals for an examination of classic European post-war public buildings.

Putting aside the ham-fisted graffiti wall coverings, meant to evoke a feeling of loss at the desecration of the holy buildings presented the exhibition was quite stunning. 15 buildings were selected with choicest plans and photographs to demonstrate that unique era when civil servants designed buildings to suit function over form which in itself is celebrated now as the form.

OMA's tribute to classic Public Works buildings.

OMA's tribute to classic Public Works buildings.

OMA's tribute to classic Public Works buildings.

OMA's tribute to classic Public Works buildings.

Robert Burghardt's work at the Arsenale is another, different memorial to the same breed of building making. His proposal for a Monument to Modernism draws on various tropes of these public works buildings - outside staircases and ramp, raised ground floors, and that odd modular design that seems to draw inspiration more from a careful arrangement of stationary and books than from practicality. His work is equally as admiring as OMA's but looks to an impossible future instead of a databasing of the past.



Recent Photos

From Venice. Sorry.

Cyborg carnival masks


Communist HQ


Sci-Fi Scene (A'la FFIX)

The Second World War

I picked up Anthony Beevor's Stalingrad in a charity bookshop a few years ago and spent about a week experiencing the shock and awe that Operation Desert Storm never quite got together. Part of that was Beevor's sheer ability to present anecdotes and analysis side by side with recorded facts without the story becoming jumpy or in fact leaving the realm of story and entering the worlds of either Top Trumps or a trainspotting mentality of weaponry and troop movements. 

Regrettably, on average the entire Second World War involved more troops being moved around than the battle of Stalingrad alone - with the battle of Stalingrad still being perhaps the most horrific clash of the entire affair. So a lot of Beevor's new book on the 1931 - 1945 world conflict (he makes the convincing argument that the Invasion of Manchuria was the true beginning of events) DOES involve countless and untraceable divisions and army numbers and the names of the Polish villages they're in / leaving / going to which can become dizzying if you decide to mentally trace these movements by and large without the use of any maps (a big oversight in such a story.)

No, if you read this colossal volume just skim over the lists of movements as the framework around which Beevor hangs the horror and intrigue of the war. 

It truly is fucking horrific. There is simply no other word. We all know the imagery of D-Day, perhaps Dresden and of course the stories of the Holocaust but it's the hidden and lesser known stories that were perhaps to terrifying to make it seventy years in public conscience. The rampant cannibalism from the Japanese army - just the general insanity of the Japanese army actually, quite probably more perverse in their ideology and more extreme in their methods than the Nazis. The en mass rape committed by the Red Army - even of their own liberated female POWs and then the fact that most of them were banished as traitors on return at the risk that word of the riches of Europe spread. The appalling suffering of the people of eastern Europe, first persecuted by Nazis then the USSR and the Chinese taking the same place in the eastern world. The anecdotes of individuals and stories from journalists like Solzhenitsyn suddenly make it real, I realised before the end that death and the prospect of extreme pain was a part of life for six years for most of the world's population.

Above the curdling terror that Beevor portrays is the political intrigue - the stubbornness of Churchill and De Gaulle and the cosiness of Roosevelt and Stalin. It's interesting to think that Roosevelt's biggest post-war concern was British imperialism, not communism. The warring tactics of generals trying to adapt to new technology and a new scale of death were responsible for some of the most flippant losses, including the British policy of blanket bombing cities. 

I can't really recommend this book, that would be irresponsible - you have to want to know the depths that civilisation is willing to plum and that requires an inner demand, not the recognition of others. It's probably for your own benefit that it's too big to carry anywhere.

Salaryman 6

One of those great little short films that sometimes slips through the net and stylistically bearing many similarities to Tati's Playtime, one of my all time favourites.