march 17–march 29

Books

Films

• All the President’s Men, directed by Alan J. Pakula
• Louis Lumière, dir. Éric Rohmer

Galleries

• “Beyond Participation: Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida in New York ,” Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College
• “Frederick Kiesler: Endless,” Jason McCoy Gallery
• “Nicholas Knight/Kat Tomka,” Hewitt Gallery, Marymount College
• “The Visible Vagina,” Francis M. Naumann Fine Art
• “Marguerite Duras by Hélène Bamberger,” Cultural Services of the French Embassy
• “Eva Hesse,” Hauser & Wirth
• “Julian Montague: Secondary Occupants Collected & Observed,” Black & White Project Space
• “Star Black: The Collaged Accordian,” Center for Book Arts

monica youn, “ignatz”

Monica Youn
Ignatz
(Four Ways, 2010)

I picked up a copy of this after a performance at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop: word came from their email list that Matmos was going to be performing with Monica Youn. Matmos is one of the few electronic groups that’s reliably entertaining (see, for example, this clip on YouTube, as well as its weirdly civil comment thread), and as I’ve been going to Matmos shows on and off for the past ten years – having first run into them at the Festival Dissonanze in Rome, where they were contact-miking each other and making music out of that – I dutifully went along, knowing very little of Monica Youn, besides having seen her name about before. The company one keeps is important, of course; and I have been to enough poetry readings to know that interesting poetry readings are very much the exception rather than the rule. This was a nice one, in no small part because of how arbitrary it seemed: there’s nothing in Youn’s book that suggests that it needs to be remixed live to make sense, my problem with a lot of mixed-media poetics. (The blurbs on the back of the book – by Cal Bedient, Stephen Burt, and Matthea Harvey, all respectable enough – don’t suggest this either.) Rather the impression was that of listening to David Grubbs and Susan Howe reinterpreting her books live (the CD version of Thiefth and a live version of Souls of the Labadie Tract are now online at PennSound): it’s a different way into the words.

The performance was rather staid as Matmos performances go: a brick was hit with a rock hammer and looped to create a rhythm; drumsticks and, and one point, a rubber duck were thrown in as well. Previously sampled voices reading Youn’s poetry (probably the members of Matmos) mixed with Youn’s own voice. A synthesizer was in there somewhere as well. One had the sense of a sonic Rube Goldberg machine being constructed: the result wasn’t pop by any measure, but it had the playfulness of pop to it. Not knowing the book going into the performance, I don’t know how many poems formed part of the thirty-minute construction; one did have the sense of a character named Ignatz who recurred, and some sections did seem to be prose rather than verse. A particular standout was “Landscape with Ignatz,” a six line poem based on structured repetition, something like Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes:

The rawhide thighs of the canyon straddling the knobbled blue spine of the sky.

The bone-spurred heels of the canyon prodding the gaunt blue ribs of the sky.

The sunburnt mouth of the canyon biting the swollen blue tongue of the sky.

This does lend itself to an electronic rendition: taking the structure “The — — of the canyon —ing the — blue — of the sky” as a spine, different recorded voices and Youn’s live voice were substituted in for the parts. Not having the poem in front of me while listening, I don’t know how much of this was improvised or whether this was a straightforward performance of the poem.

Reading the book on the subway home, I found a similar sort of obliqueness: as most readers probably will, I started by reading the back cover’s paragraph-long blurbs, then made my way through the poems from the first page to the last. The blurbs inform you of the meaning of the title: Ignatz is a character in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. I don’t know Krazy Kat, save from references: Wikipedia is helpful, but Wikipedia doesn’t exist on the subway. At the end of the book, we find an appendix with an explanation:

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strip was published in U.S. newspapers from 1913 to 1944. The strip is set in Coconino County, Arizona, and stars Krazy Kat, a feline of indeterminate gender and mutable patois. Krazy is hopelessly in love with Ignatz Mouse, a rodent of criminal tendencies, who, in turn, despises Krazy and whose greatest pleasure is to bean the lovelorn cat in the head with a brick. Krazy interprets these missiles as tokens of reciprocated affection, and the cat-mouse-brick-love cycle recurs in almost every strip. Ignatz’s repeated assaults upon Krazy incur the righteous wrath of Officer Bull Pupp, the canine sheriff of Coconino County, who is sweet on Krazy and who takes every opportunity to spy out Ignatz’s crimes and to drag the recidivist mouse to jail.

Hence, of course, Matmos’s bricks (and perhaps an antecedent to their involvement can be found in their Rat Relocation Project); from this we can start to make sense of Youn’s poetry. From Youn’s description, one might think of Wile E. Coyote’s unfulfilled desire to catch the Road Runner; but that isn’t actually what the relationship between Krazy Kat and Ignatz is. Krazy wants Ignatz; Ignatz wants to throw bricks at Krazy; but a third member of the triad, Officer Pupp, keeps the law. One realizes that things aren’t quite as they seem from Youn’s notes, which point out what she’s borrowed from Herriman’s work: the epigraph from “The Subject Ignatz,” for example, is from Officer Pupp: “Once more an urge; once more a succumb.” This is the language of desire, but played out in the world: Pupp is describing what he sees, not what Krazy (whose position the speaker in most of these poem appears to take) feels. A handful of poems here (“Ignatz Incarcerated”) lay out words in rectangular matrices, looking at how structures can be used to relate them. In “X as a Function of Distance from Ignatz,” parenthetical phrases constantly intrude in the poem to relate the position of male and female figures.

And I like the language here: sources aside, this is a satisfying book. Later in “The Subject Ignatz,” we find “Asbestos / interlude: // the rubber / button // replumps itself,” cartoonish, but beautiful in the way the “u” sounds cascade through the stanza. Or “I-40 Ignatz”: “A cop car drowses / in the scrub // cottonwoods. Utmost. // Utmosted. There is / a happy land.” A note suggests that this poem “quotes Krazy”: these might be Herriman’s words rather than Youn’s, but they’re still worth noticing.

leonard mlodinow, “euclid’s window”

Leonard Mlodinow
Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace
(Touchstone, 2001)

This is a book that arrived as a birthday present, along with another book by Mlodniow, from Aunt Chris. I am not entirely why she sent these two particular books: over Christmas, we’d been discussing the problem of math education, and she said she had a couple of books about the problem of math education, but I am not sure that they were actually these ones. But I’m always interested in math, though I don’t know very much about it, due in large part to having grotesquely incompetent math teachers for almost all of my high school education. My geometry teacher was the only competent one; he should have taught calculus senior year, but he’d been elbowed aside for a rookie teacher who was fresh out of college and probably had never learned calculus to begin with. But aside from geometry, all the math I learned was self-taught; this worked out reasonably well, and I probably could have taught myself calculus, but by senior year it didn’t seem to matter any more.

And now I am mathless. That said: I like the idea of math, and I generally like histories of mathematics, though I don’t actively seek them out as often as I should. This book, a history of geometry from the Greeks to the present, reads easily, maybe too easily. But it’s hard for me to like this book. The problems start with the paratext: the book is set in Times New Roman, which is dispiriting: math, of course, is more difficult to typeset than ordinary text, but there are plenty of tools for the job, tools which give much better looking results. These weren’t used here. Early in the book (p. 26), the square root of 2 comes up; this is displayed not with the 2 under the radical sign as it should be:

$\sqrt{2}$

but rather as the Unicode radical sign, then the 2:

√2

(Looking up the history of the radical sign in Wikipedia does point me to Antonio J. Duran, George Ifrah, and Alberto Manguel’s The Life of Numbers, which looks like the sort of math I’m interested in – one of the books I’ve always wanted is a history of mathematical typography.) But this looseness with typography bothers me mostly because of the lack of attention to detail: it seems cheap, and it makes me wonder about a math writer who doesn’t insist on this kind of precision, in the same way that misspellings make one wonder about the quality of a writer. At one point, we learn that the distance in flat space is the sum of the squares of the differences in x, y, and z: I’m pretty sure that value should be squared, but I could be missing something. Doubt has crept in.

Mlodinow’s style also grates. He’s clearly aiming for the popular audience, but that’s a hard thing to hit. There are a lot of jokes, which aren’t worth mentioning. The writing suffers from plenty of choppy declarative statements: “It sure seemed radical at the time.” (p. 217). Historical characters are given thoughts and dramatic struggles; frequently, we hear about their family life, which seems to serve as a counterpoint to Mlodinow’s own two sons, Nicolai and Alexei, who turn up again and again. They serve both as the protagonists of thought experiments and as the source of minor anecdotes; the former undercut the latter. If Alexei and Nicolai have been floating around in dimensionless space, why does it matter if they dye their hair blue to see what their teacher will say? At a certain point, they move the narrative forward by appearing in their father’s dream; at this point the reader wants to toss the book across the room. The author himself makes appearances toward the end of the book, but never to much obvious purpose; perhaps the author is a serious physicist, but it’s hard to know this from the way he appears in his text.

I critique the book’s style because it’s difficult for me to assess how accurate the book’s presentation of material might be. The book is structured as five great revolutions, as personified by five revolutionaries – Euclid, Decartes, Gauss, Einstein, and Edward Witten. Certainly the book seems to be in a rush to leave pure mathematics behind for physics. This is where the narrative loses interest for me; for whatever reason, I find myself more interested in pure mathematics than the glorious world of string theory. Not unrelated: at the same time, the examples in the book become less comprehensible. It’s hard for me to know how well this sort of focus works: I picked up the book wanting to know more about non-Euclidean geometry, never having properly had an introduction to the subject, but Lobachevsky, Bolyai, and Riemann don’t figure as major players. Klein bottles never appear, which made me sad; nor does topology, except as two paragraphs of background for string theory. Instead, we get personal narratives: a great deal of time is spent on Gauss’s relationship with his father and his teachers. And, of course, the sense that everything is leading to the present, the trap of any historical narrative. Certainly math does build on the past; but I wonder how useful this reductionist view of everything building to the present moment is.

Above all else, this is a book that needed an editor and didn’t have enough of one; it’s also unclear why there weren’t more illustrations, as the ones that do exist are generally helpful. A lengthy review by Robert Langlands tears the book apart from the opening line: “This is a shallow book on deep matters, about which the author knows next to nothing.” But this is an extremely useful review, if perhaps overly stern. “One should not ask about the scientific or mathematical achievements of Pythagoras but of the Pythagoreans, whose relation to him is not immediately evident,” says Langlands; but it’s hard to follow this advice when your project is to make Pythagoras come alive as a person. Langlands’s review is a useful corrective. As mentioned before, I do have a copy of another of Mlodinow’s book, The Drunkard’s Walk; I’ll probably make my way through it, but not without some trepidity.

against the old establishment

“As this half of the countercultural ideal originated during the 1950s, it is appropriate that the evils of conformity are most conveniently summarized with images of 1950s suburban correctness. You know, that land of church-goers, tailfins, red-scares, smiling white people, lines of commuters, sedate music, sexual repression. An America of uptight patriarchs, friendly cops, buttoned-down collars, B-47s, and deference to authority – the America of such backward-looking creatures as Jerry Falwell. Constantly appearing as a symbol of arch-evil in advertising and movies, it is an image we find easy to evoke. Picking up at random a recent Utne Reader, for example, one finds an article which seeks to question the alternativeness of coffee by reminding the reader of its popularity during that cursed decade: ‘According to history – or sitcome reruns –’ the author writes, the ‘the ’50s were when Dad tanked up first thing in the morning with a pot of java, which set him on his jaunty way to a job that siphoned away his lifeblood in exchange for lifelong employment, a two-car garage, and Mom’s charge card.’ The correct response: What a nightmare! I’ll be sure to get my coffee at a hip place like Starbuck’s.”

(Tom Frank, “Dark Age,” pp. 13–14 in The Baffler no. 6, 1995.)

baffler #6: dark age

The Baffler #6: Dark Age
ed. Tom Frank

This is the last Baffler I have: I still haven’t seen 1, 2, 3, or 5. Issue 6 is a big one: at 192 pages, it’s thicker than any other issue until the most recent one. The content of this issue seems relatively familiar: I suspect that a lot of this was excerpted or reworked into Frank’s other work. The fourth issue seemed to be a Baffler still in utero, with a nicely amateurish edge; here, the Baffler as everyone remembers emerges, with an enormous “DARK AGE” emblazoned on the cover. Maybe the transition happened in issue 5; there’s a copy of that available on Amazon used for $19.95, which seems a bit hopeful. (Not the most hopeful, however: somebody’s trying to sell a copy of #9 for$89.41, more a tribute to the ridiculousness of the Amazon marketplace for used books than any real rarity or value.)

This is still much more zine than journal: a handful of the ads from the indie labels seem to be entirely hand-written. A handful of the ads have email addresses, some of which end in .edu: it was a different era. But here we see the establishment of the equivalence of post-punk indie rock (of the sort being advertised) and the left, maybe the attitude is remembered most about The Baffler. The Tom Frank essay that bookends the issue examines how the forces of capitalism and what opposes it seem to have set in stone since the 1960s, at least for cultural studies as it existed then:

The two come together in perfect synchronization in a figure like Camille Paglia whose annoying ravings are grounded in the absolutely non-controversial idea of the golden Sixties. According to Paglia, American business is still exactly what it was believed to have been in that beloved decade, that is, ‘puritanical and desensualized.’ Its great opponents are, of course, liberated figures like ‘the beatniks’, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles (needless to say, while Paglia proclaims herself a great fan of rock music, bands like Shellac, Slant 6, and the Subhumans never appear as recipients of her praise). Culture is, quite simply, a binary battle between the repressive Apollonian order of capitalism and the Dionysian impulses of the counterculture. Paglia thus validates the central official myth of the ‘Information Age,’ for rebellion makes no sense without repression; we must remain forever convinced of capitalism’s fundamental hostility to pleasure in order to consume capitalism’s rebel products as avidly as we do. It comes as little surprise when, after criticizing the ‘Apollonian capitalist machine’ in her new book, Paglia applauds American mass culture (in that same random issue of Utne Reader), the pre-eminent product of that ‘capitalist machine,’ as a ‘third great eruption’ of a Dionysian ‘paganism.’ For her, as for most other designated dissidents, there is no contradiction between replaying the standard critique of capitalist conformity and repressiveness and then endorsing its rebel products – for Paglia the car culture and Madonna – as the obvious solution: the Culture Trust offers both Establishment and Resistance in one convenient package. (pp. 15–16)

Paglia was as specious then as now; and her arguments deserve ridicule. Certainly I’m sympathetic to this; I grew up uninterested in the Beatles and Bob Dylan in no small part because of their omnipresence. Young men with guitars and drums can’t really be said to be revolutionary after being dominant for the past half-century. It’s not obvious, however, why indie rock – a slightly different variation on guys with guitars and drums – should be presented as a valid alternative here: why is the post-punk tradition any more ideologically pure than Madonna? Because it was existing outside the corporate tradition, as do-it-yourself culture? Indie rock would be assimilated just as surely as Madonna was; looked at from this distance, it seems more of a signifier of white upper-middle-class culture than anything else. I can’t imagine that anyone became a progressive through listening to Shellac, for all their charms. (See, for instance, a recent interview with Grant Hart of Hüsker Dü where he discusses the non-proletarian origins of their band.) Later Henry Rollins comes in for sustained criticism, in no small part because of how indistinguishable his rhetoric is from business language: a classic sell-out, Rollins is readily merchandisable as a symbol of revolution. One wonders, however, what was really being sold out.

(In the same essay, it’s worth pointing out, my occasional boss turns up, not mentioned by name: the new businessman, Frank writes, “is led by vanguard capitalists like the head of the CD-ROM pioneer Voyager, a former activist whose admiration of the Shining Path, as the New York Times notes, seems somehow appropriate amidst the current ‘information revolution.’ ” (p. 177.) Bob’s business sense and his politics intertwine in a complicated way; he never got rich, though he certainly could have if he’d occasionally set aside his politics. Simply paying lip service to the Shining Path would probably have been more lucrative.)

Elsewhere in the issue, there’s an extremely good piece by Jesse Eisenger examining how business press releases work and are used by the business press. This isn’t flashy writing, but it does examine the history of the business press release (required by law after the 1929 crash) and their current usage. His description of PRNewswire is a great deal more informative than the Wikipedia page on the company; one wonders why more attention isn’t paid to this sort of infrastructure. Later he does a critical reading of the sort of language that’s used in the press release: today, we see this done occasionally in specific cases, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a critical eye turned on the systematics of the press release, especially in an extended fashion. This is why I miss the Baffler: there isn’t a great deal of critical literature on the business world that isn’t all-out boosterism. Also fantastic is a piece on Bill Boisvert on business literature:

Whether they steal fire from the Harvard Business School or find enlightenment through a long pilgrimage in Oriental lands, all popular business books share certain idiosyncrasies. They euphemise their tautologies as “common sense” and their lists of slogans as “practical guides”, as if management theories are both self-evidently true and arcane enough to require a hands-on primer and costly seminars. Like nursery rhymes, they are fascinated by numerology and alliteration, freeze-drying their “findings” into nuggets of doggerel like “the Three C’s: Customers, Competition and Change” or Tom Peters’ typically long-winded “Seven S© Framework: Structure, Systems, Style, Staff, Skills, Strategy and Shared Values.” And to make reading fun for executives, they eschew logical exposition and an organized search for evidence in favor of brief, happy anecdotes about take-charge department heads, couched always in the cajoling rhetoric of cereal-box propaganda. (p. 70)

Always I want to see more criticism of the language of business: Doug Henwood’s Left Business Observer soldiers on, but this seems like an obvious subject for a popular blog. Maybe it’s too depressing to be carried out at this sort of length.

Keith White examines Wired, still brand-new: mostly this is what you’d expect, but it’s interesting to note that in 1995, it was still taken for granted that the Internet was a right-wing creation. At a certain point, the popular idea took hold that the internet was essentially a creation of the left-wing (Stewart Brand, etc.) rather than a military/corporate funded endeavor; somebody should trace this history out. It’s interesting as well that Wired was trumpeting video games as the most culturally significant artistic media even back then, claiming that the \$6 million the industry was making then was the “single largest component of the infotainment industry,” whatever that means. Also odd to see is Jennifer Gonnerman’s “The Selling of Katie Roife,” a careful examination of the reactionary politics of Roife and how The New York Times tried to make her into a star in the early 1990s. One sees this sort of piece in media gossip circles – tracing out who knows who, and how a front-page-story gets made – but rarely in such depth. It’s also surprising how quickly this sort of thing is forgotten: Roife is still shilling her ill-sourced idiocy on the front of the Book Review. It’s similar to the examination of the creation of Donna Tartt in issue 4; but this one has more political bite.

Ultimately, the Tom Frank essay is what makes this issue. I like the anger, and I can understand where it’s coming from, but I’m not sure exactly where he’s going with it. (Admittedly, at this point, Frank would have been right out of grad school, and it’s maybe too much to ask for answers from someone who’s just been set free of the academy.) The market, the last sentence of the issue declares, is “putting itself beyond our power of imagining because it has become our imagination, it has become our power to envision, and describe, and theorize, and resist” (p. 192). There’s a certain similarity to the injunction of Sven Birkerts at the end of The Gutenberg Elegies to resist: but how? In both cases, one senses that they’re right, but it’s hard to know what to do next.

aeschylus, “the oresteia”

Aeschylus
The Oresteia
(translated by Robert Fagles)
(Penguin, 1975)

One of the problems of being an inveterate snob is finding a suitable book at airport bookstores. The severity of this problem varies from airport to airport: there’s a shop in Chicago-Midway where one can find Coetzee and a good selection of the Dalkey Archive, while I’ve seen copies of Finnegans Wake languishing in the “literature” section at one shop in Minneapolis/St. Paul. (The bleak situation one generally encounters is very much an American phenomenon: Canadian airport bookstores have very different contents. I once bought the latest Hardt & Negri in the Victoria airport.) But one always wants something new in an airport. I have a handful of books packed in my bag, to say nothing of the stack of unread Times Literary Supplements, but the second quarter of A Dance to the Music of Time isn’t engrossing me, and the idea of starting another Henry Green in the midst of so much stimulation seems daunting. Thus, a trip to the Hudson News in the Delta terminal of JFK yielded this, from the “classics” section, where it fell among that strange selection of books and authors that comprise the American high school canon. One notes that Edith Wharton is being pushed heavily right now alongside the Jane-Austen-with-monsters books.

What one particularly wants in an airport – besides the possibility of catching up on something one should by rights have read long ago so one can feel virtuous – is something with a long introduction, so it can be read while distracted: the virtue of a long introduction is that it’s likely to be digressive, letting the mind of the reader wander. Agamemnon doesn’t arrive until page 99 of this edition. This is exactly what I want in an airport book. One quickly realizes, however, that this is not actually an ideal airport book. I don’t imagine that this is the scholarly edition of the Oresteia that anyone really uses in English; but it’s not exactly an edition meant for reading. The commentary overwhelms the plays, when they finally arrive: it’s nice that there’s so much of it – there’s a note every ten lines or so, and it’s possible that there are as many words in the endnotes as in the actual text – but this isn’t very helpful for someone coming to the plays themselves for the first time. Maybe it’s too much to expect the classics to read themselves.

This is a book, then, that I read in the following manner: first, I worked my way through the introduction, then I read each of the three plays twice, first stopping to read the notes as they appeared (callouts to the endnotes don’t exist, so one needs to keep flipping back and forth to see if you’ve missed something); then a second reading of the play straight through. Finally, back through the introduction again. This isn’t the best way of reading a book, but the slowness is necessary. Fagles’s version of these plays doesn’t provide much in the way of stage directions, or clues as to what backstory might be in play. In addition, his syntax in English appears to follow the Greek (which I don’t know), so one finds passages like this, in The Libation Bearers, from a speech given by Orestes, who has just introduced himself to his mother as a stranger:

. . . I met a perfect stranger, out of the blue,
Strophios,
‘Well, my friend,’ he says, ‘out for Argos
in any case? Remember to tell the parents
he is dead, Orestes . . .
(it’s only right), it will not slip your mind. (660–666)

The quoted speech goes on for five more lines. It’s difficult for the reader who doesn’t entirely know what’s going on to scan exactly what’s going on here: on first read, “Remember to tell the parents he is dead, Orestes” sounds much more like a statement being addressed to Orestes rather than being about Orestes. I imagine this works better in an inflected language; as English prose it doesn’t work very well, though there’s a certain poetic sense to it.

It’s hard to imagine staging this translation as a drama on a stage: too many of the speeches are similarly inscrutable. This isn’t a dramatic translation: the virtue of this translation is its poetry, which does occasionally sing when it can be uncoupled from the history that entombs the works themselves. In Agamemnon, Cassandra stands out to the casual reader: she is is both a sympathetic character (abducted from her home, gifted with clairvoyance that goes unbelieved) and is given some of the best imagery. Here she sees Clytemnaestra murdering Agamemnon:

Look out! look out!—
Ai, drag the great bull from the mate!—
a thrash of robes, she traps him—
writhing—
black horn glints, twists—
she gores him through!
And now he buckles, look, the bath swirls read—
There’s stealth and murder in the cauldron, do you hear? (1127–1131)

There’s Yeats here, obviously: it’s hard for me whether that might be Fagles’s interpolation of “Leda and the Swan” or whether Yeats was taking his imagery from an earlier version of this play. Fagles’s introduction, with epigraphs from Hart Crane and D. H. Lawrence, makes me suspect the former.

There’s a foreignness to these plays that’s hard to get around. It’s hard to understand, for example, why Orestes and Electra, in The Libation Bearers should be dead set against Clytaemnestra, their mother, for having killed their father, Agamemnon; in the first play, Agamemnon himself killed their sister, Iphigenia. Both parents consorted with others; but why killing a husband should be a more serious crime than killing a child is unclear in our distance. There seems to be an internal logic to their behavior, but it’s hard to suss out exactly what that is, even with the aid of the notes: when the gods appear in The Eumenides, they seem to be as capricious in their arguments as the humans. Everything is pitched up to a phenomenal degree: everyone seems to be insane. It reminds me, working through things in the wrong order, of Andrzej Żuławski’s On the Silver Globe, where the space colonists similarly fall into paroxysms of madness, shouting about faith and duty to the family, and end up killing each other. In his introduction, Fagles describes this trilogy as being a “grand parable of progress” (the words are originally Richard Lattimore’s), describing the formation of the state from the age of heroes; one might see that, but there’s still something strange and distant here. It’s hard for me to get past that; probably that’s my own failing.