Monday, October 31, 2011


(By H.P. Lovecraft, 1919)

In the valley of Nis the accursed waning moon shines thinly, tearing a path for its light with feeble horns through the lethal foliage of a great upas-tree. And within the depths of the valley, where the light reaches not, move forms not meet to be beheld. Rank is the herbage on each slope, where evil vines and creeping plants crawl amidst the stones of ruined palaces, twining tightly about broken columns and strange monoliths, and heaving up marble pavements laid by forgotten hands. And in trees that grow gigantic in crumbling courtyards leap little apes, while in and out of deep treasure-vaults writhe poison serpents and scaly things without a name.

Vast are the stones which sleep beneath coverlets of dank moss, and mighty were the walls from which they fell. For all time did their builders erect them, and in sooth they yet serve nobly, for beneath them the grey toad makes his habitation.

At the very bottom of the valley lies the river Than, whose waters are slimy and filled with weeds. From hidden springs it rises, and to subterranean grottoes it flows, so that the Daemon of the Valley knows not why its waters are red, nor whither they are bound.

The Genie that haunts the moonbeams spake to the Daemon of the Valley, saying, “I am old, and forget much. Tell me the deeds and aspect and name of them who built these things of stone.” And the Daemon replied, “I am Memory, and am wise in lore of the past, but I too am old. These beings were like the waters of the river Than, not to be understood. Their deeds I recall not, for they were but of the moment. Their aspect I recall dimly, for it was like to that of the little apes in the trees. Their name I recall clearly, for it rhymed with that of the river. These beings of yesterday were called Man.”

So the Genie flew back to the thin horned moon, and the Daemon looked intently at a little ape in a tree that grew in a crumbling courtyard.

(Image stolen from SnakeToast.)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

#occupy on the ground

Well sports fans, I'm still sick -- somehow. Your guess is as good as mine. I've been directing what little energy I've had towards the completion of a few different long-term projects (and to answering email, Formspring questions, reader comments, etc.) so I'm once again short on a substantial update. Fortunately, shutterbug and patriot James is stepping in to give us a close-up look at the Occupy Wall Street protests that have been making the headlines lately. Most are thumbnails; click to see higher-res versions!

I've taken an interest in greywater systems ever since moving to the Quaker Farm. It's some interesting (AND EXTREMELY PRACTICAL) stuff.

"I'd occupy HER Wall Street," a friend commented when I showed him this photo. (Only he didn't say "Wall Street.")



This would be the Zuccotti Park you've heard so much about.

For the correlation between foreign wars and economic injustice, please see Martin Luther King's "Beyond Vietnam" address.

Correction: It was actually FDR.

However good its author's intentions, this sign is mistaken. The quote is from Whitman's "Song of Myself," which (as the title might suggest) is not about Lower Broadway. If Walt does have a poem about Lower Broadway to his name, I'm having a hard time finding it. There are these two pieces, but they're obviously not what the person drafting the sign had in mind.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fossilized Footprints & Relic Radiation

And I'm sick once again. Great. I've already hit the point where all I feel like doing is sitting and staring at the wall, so today I'll just post a few photographs from my trip back to Jersey this weekend because it means having to think that much less.

First: dinosaur footprints at the Riker Hill Fossil Site!

Mammal footprints at the same location:

Next, we visited the Horn Antenna behind the Lucent Technologies building in Holmdel!

(Behind that first door are many tubs of lubricant.)

To save you the trouble of typing it into Google yourself: what's the cosmic microwave background?

Meanwhile, across the street: a volleyball net.

Good god, I've got to lie down.

Jason C. says he can whip me up a concoction of garlic juice, ginger, and some other wholesome plants that will cure me right up if I can drink it and keep it down. We'll see how that goes.

Friday, October 21, 2011

#occupymuseums: Counterpoint

i just read your blog post on occupy museums and was going to comment there, but it seems that i can't from my work computer, so i thought i would email you my response. i was actually really surprised that as a maker of creative work who so far has not been completely embraced by the mainstream, you could reply in such a forcefully condescending way to the issues raised. of course you are entitled to your opinion and i completely understand what you are saying about how this reflects on OWS as a whole. and admittedly, getting in the faces of innocent museum visitors is not the most effective way to get a message across, i agree there. but i thought you might be interested to hear the thoughts of someone who has worked in museums but who also agrees to some extent with the issues raised by these protesters.

to begin with, of course the manifesto itself is flawed, but a lot of what OWS churns out is rushed and flawed; there isn't time to workshop these statements too much. the sentiment, however, is worth listening to.

museums have always existed to help educate and create models of sociability for people (i can cite my primary sources here if you'd like), and they are not making good on those responsibilities in this very crucial moment (this has been going on since the rise of late capitalism in the 80's, actually, but it is more important now that it has ever been before for museums to listen up, as there is so much momentum being generated by people speaking out against the capitalist machine and all of its far-reaching effects). when an important swath of the art being made today is responding to shitty socioeconomic conditions in an activist-inspired manner, museums--and here i'm talking about institutions that exhibit contemporary art, such as MoMA--should not only be planning blockbuster shows featuring established artists (who likely have workshops and apprentices creating their art for them). museums should be listening to their surrounding communities and finding ways to work into their agendas art that speaks to contemporary social needs, so that they can provide forums for relevant discussion as well as valuable models of sociability for their unmoored constituents.

naturally, museums have a hard time turning a profit, due in large part to a lack of federal funding--which is in no way the fault of museums themselves (MoMA and the Guggenheim are notable exceptions in that respect). thus, one deduces, they have to put on blockbuster shows and hike up their admission fees. however, i don't think that's the entirety of what these protesters rail against (and with a bit more thought, i wish they would have been more eloquent about this point). the art world--like the publishing world, like the music world; we all know this is happening in every creative field--has created a celebrity system, in which art dealers, financial backers, (some) artists, and hotshots on the boards of museums rake in most of the profits, leaving museum programming, maintenance, administration, etc., to suffer. that is something that those who are higher up in museums could do something about, but it is taken as a given part of museum structure and left in place. if anything, many people working within the structures of museums hope to get to the point where they are the ones at the top reaping the benefits, leaving the needs of their constituencies to be dealt with by those at the bottom (idealistic, passionate, and underpaid), who have no control over what ends up being shown and how the museum communicates its image.

yes, these protesters could band together to put on small group shows or something along those lines, as you suggest (assuming they haven't already been doing that, though i imagine that's a road they've been down...), but that is not only an almost impossible way to get one's message across on a broader scale--who, after all, besides the artists' artist friends would pay attention?--it is also reifies the existing structure in which established museums are off the hook when it comes to showing art that reflects how many of their constituents actually feel.

yes, it is hard to take something like art seriously when there is so much else at stake right now (careers, lives, basic freedoms), but blowing this off as some whiny kids who feel entitled to have their art shown in public is ignoring an important symptom of our society's deplorable condition. with art education chopped from public schools at an alarming rate, we should at least be able to depend on museums to help us build our identities through cultural expression.

full disclosure: i've been slaving away over a phd program application these past few weeks and had been making zero headway on my personal statement until reading about the occupy museums movement, the basic sentiment of which (the unfulfilled social responsibility of cultural institutions) has always been at the heart of my academic research. so i have a whole mess of emotions tied to all of this and i'm sorry if that becomes increasingly evident as my rant goes on. but i stick with what i said, though i respect that people who are passionate about seeing OWS succeed could see this splinter movement as a hindrance. OWS and OM (does that work?) are not completely parts of the same whole. but they are related and i wish more people would give that connection the time of day.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

#occupymuseums: An Excercise in Imbecility

This is exactly the sort of thing I was hoping the Occupy movement would not get itself into. An #OWS splinter movement (apparently with the approval of the main group) is sticking it to the Man at one of the main nerves of his plutocratic body politic: ART MUSEUMS.

Wait, what?

Let's try to wrap our heads around this one by taking a gander at Occupy Museums' call to action/manifesto:

The game is up: we see through the pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism controlled by the 1%. No longer will we, the artists of the 99%, allow ourselves to be tricked into accepting a corrupt hierarchical system based on false scarcity and propaganda concerning absurd elevation of one individual genius over another human being for the monetary gain of the elitest of elite. For the past decade and more, artists and art lovers have been the victims of the intense commercialization and co-optation or art. We recognize that art is for everyone, across all classes and cultures and communities. We believe that the Occupy Wall Street Movement will awaken a consciousness that art can bring people together rather than divide them apart as the art world does in our current time…

Let’s be clear. Recently, we have witnessed the absolute equation of art with capital. The members of museum boards mount shows by living or dead artists whom they collect like bundles of packaged debt. Shows mounted by museums are meant to inflate these markets. They are playing with the fire of the art historical cannon while seeing only dancing dollar signs. The wide acceptance of cultural authority of leading museums have made these beloved institutions into corrupt ratings agencies or investment banking houses - stamping their authority and approval on flimsy corporate art and fraudulent deals.

For the last few decades, voices of dissent have been silenced by a fearful survivalist atmosphere and the hush hush of BIG money. To really critique institutions, to raise one’s voice about the disgusting excessive parties and spectacularly out of touch auctions of the art world while the rest of the country suffers and tightens its belt was widely considered to be bitter, angry, uncool. Such a critic was a sore loser. It is time to end that silence not in bitterness, but in strength and love! Because the occupation has already begun and the creativity and power of the people has awoken! The Occupywallstreet Movement will bring forth an era of new art, true experimentation outside the narrow parameters set by the market. Museums, open your mind and your heart! Art is for everyone! The people are at your door!

Okay. Right.

Since I am once again short on time this evening, we'll just be looking at a few quick points.

1.) If the artists of the 99% don't want to deal with a corrupt hierarchical system based on false scarcity and propaganda concerning absurd elevation of one individual genius over another human being for the monetary gain of the elitest of elite, they can just, you know...find other places to exhibit their work. Small urban galleries, perhaps? Public parks? Universities? The Internet? How about their own apartments? They could clear the furniture, distribute flyers, hang work on the walls, hand out wine and cheese on platters. That definitely seems like a more constructive use of their time to me.

This immediately strikes any reader who isn't a struggling artist himself as a personal gripe disguised as a political statement. "The false hierarchy of the cultural wing of the oligarchical puppet state won't exhibit my work, so their very existence must be wrong!" One might also suspect them of hitching a ride on a highly-publicized political movement to buy themselves some media attention.

2.) For the past decade and more, artists and art lovers have been the victims of the intense commercialization and co-optation or [sic] art, he says. How? This is not exactly a self-evident statement. Details, please? Explanations? Examples??

(When a truly persistent artist finds no market for his work, he takes it elsewhere instead of trying to burn down the market.)

3.) Why the fuck are you protesting the MoMA, of all places? It's not exactly turning tremendous profits. In fact, last I checked, it barely breaks even. What's these folks' beef, anyway?

An organizer tells a journalist that the place isn't necessarily bad, and the art isn't necessarily bad either, but he doesn't like having to pay $25 to get in.

The admissions price is a direct consequence of the MoMA's not receiving any government funding. Even if you want to put your fingers in your ears for the conversation about the United States' tremendous federal budget deficits and national debt, are you really willing to blame an institution for not wanting to exist at the mercy of Congress?

And before you bitch about its entry fee, why don't you go look at its membership plans? Hey, look! You can pay $75 a year for a membership, which allows you to support an establishment that offers great works of art for public viewing (which would probably otherwise be locked up in some billionaire's mansion), come and go as you please at no further cost, and bring a friend along at an 80% reduction in price!

Maintaining an art gallery of the MoMA's size ain't cheap. The "exorbitant" entry fees help pay for staff salaries, security, site maintenance, power (climate control is equally important for the art is it is for the comfort of the visitors), property taxes, etc. But that's what it costs to keep so many pieces by so many highly-sought artists under the same roof for public exhibition.

4.) The members of museum boards mount shows by living or dead artists whom they collect like bundles of packaged debt. Shows mounted by museums are meant to inflate these markets. They are playing with the fire of the art historical cannon while seeing only dancing dollar signs.

Oh! He played on the homonymity between the words "canon" and "cannon." Cute! (Or maybe he actually misspelled "canon" and I'm giving him too much credit.)

But still, what? I would think that an effective manifesto should give detailed reasons for a party's grievances than just assume everyone is already aware of them -- especially when they're so abstract.

5.) If you don't like the records the mainstream labels are releasing, stop buying them and look for music elsewhere. If you don't like what the museums are displaying and promoting, PATRONIZE DIFFERENT MUSEUMS. Better yet, start an art blog, find some like-minded contributors, and promote stuff that's beneath the museums' radar. (Something similar worked pretty well for a little music blog called "Pitchfork," didn't it?) This would also be much more productive (not to mention tasteful) than taking advantage of a public protest about economic injustice to draw attention to yourself.

6.) Okay, wait. Maybe what he's saying is that the wealthy have a disproportionate influence on what's hot and what's not in the art world. Probably -- but first of all, that's nothing new. If you're in the business of art and want to make money, you make art that appeals to people who have money. Otherwise, you make art for the love of it and be grateful for the chance to do it. And secondly, who gives a crap? Find different patrons, go to different museums, blah blah blah.

Economic injustice is a matter of widespread concern because all aspects of a nation's life exist in the context of its economic state. This is why #occupy is important and necessary. Not being able to find a job after ten months of looking is a pretty good reason to take to the streets. Not being able to see your and your friends' paintings on display in the Museum of Modern Art because of the pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism kind of, well, isn't. And it's really no reason to get in someone's way and make a lot of noise when they're taking the day off to visit the MoMA with a friend from out of town. That's not going to endear them to your cause, and it certainly won't make them look at #occupy in a positive light.

I wouldn't care about this in the least if it didn't reflect so poorly on #occupy as a whole.

The Occupy movement actually seems to be endorsing these people, which has the potential to be extremely counterproductive (provided Occupy Museums doesn't just fizzle out in a week). If #occupy wants to affect serious policy changes, it needs mainstream support, and not just the reliable backing of the young and far-left. Frivolous side-projects like Occupy Museums only add discordance to a movement that already receives enough criticism for its lack of a unified message and set of actionable demands. (Side note: a specific demand may be forthcoming.)

Having an #occupy endorsement stamped on self-indulgent abstractia like Occupy Museums just provides the CNN and FOX News personalities with ammunition. It exposes the movement to ridicule after all the work it has done to demonstrate that it represents more than just the usual protest crowds (kids, hippies, academics, privileged hipsters, etc.).

I brought this up on Occupy Wall St.'s Facebook page earlier today, but it scrolled out of sight within ten minutes. One response I got (before my post was buried) went like:

We really don't care if msm takes this seriously. Our seriousness isn't dependent on their interpretations

No, but your results are. Unless you want all your time and effort to amount to nothing more than a three-month street fair, you damn well better care how the wider public perceives you.

Occupy needs to stay on message. Economic Injustice. Economic Injustice. Economic Injustice.

The movement can't afford to be defined by the pet causes of its fringe elements -- I seem to recall something like that happening to the Tea Party around the same time it began to sink out of favor with the silent majority. Once the public begins tuning out #occupy as a bunch of manifesto-touting, overacademized weirdos, the conversation will change, policymakers will turn their attention elsewhere, and that will be that. And I don't want this to happen.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Wisdom & Woe; Light & Darkness

(Image stolen from Eric Mongeon's old blog.)

So! By some strange ricochet of causality, I now find myself now employed and residing at a Quaker retreat in western Pennsylvania. Who saw this one coming?

(For the record: QuakersAmish.)

Friends from home and elsewhere have reacted with some surprise when I tell them no -- no, I'm not living on a farm (though the garden is very nice), I haven't run off and joined a cult, and actually, nobody here has even once tried talking to me about Jesus.

I do sometimes feel a little out of place in this crowd, but I knew that would be the case, arriving as a materialist (in the sense that I do not see any convincing reason to believe in the soul or spiritual energy except in in the metaphorical sense) and an atheist at a sojourn for the faithful. However refreshing it is to hear an older gentleman reply "the day shimmers with divine presence" when asked "whatsup" on a cloudless autumn afternoon, it nevertheless feels odd being placed in a group whose attitude and worldview consist of an indefatigable optimism.

I consider myself a pessimist -- but one for whom it is always a pleasant surprise to be proven wrong. Just because experience has taught me that one can usually expect people to act cruelly, deceitfully, greedily, and/or ignorantly (we are apes, after all) does not mean I feel at all glad when they do so, or that I am not moved by acts of kindness and grace.

My belief is that civilization and humanity are probably both fucked in the long run, which is a difficult opinion to express at the lunch table in a place like this. But to add that I also think human beings are astounding, brilliant creatures and that civilization's unsolvable problems are well worth trying to untangle might give the impression that I'm juggling irreconcilably opposing viewpoints.

I've come to reside in a community of people who cherish and look toward the light, while I maintain my preoccupation with the shadow. Most of my fiction is about flawed people living in a screwed-up world. My verse work (when I do produce it) is never especially cheerful, unless it's touching a subject that has nothing to do with human beings and their affairs. My comics are pretty much all about disappointment and violence. And yet I never really think of my work as being oppressively, gratuitously negative.

Maybe one way of explaining myself would be to analogize that one who is on familiar terms with the darkness is less likely to find himself lost when the sun is gone. Another might a reminder of the myth of the ancient king who habitually swallowed poison in order to cultivate an immunity to it.

I think this apparent paradox might best be illuminated by one of my favorite chapters in Moby-Dick. (Honestly, I'm surprised it has taken me this long to do a post about that book. It's no secret that I'm kind of obsessed with it.) Not only shall I post it here it its entirety for your reading pleasure, but sprinkle it with footnotes to help make it a bit more manageable for the novitiate. (Calling Melville a "dense" writer is a tremendous understatement.) I would be pleased if somebody cared to share their thoughts after reading.


Besides her hoisted boats, an American whaler is outwardly distinguished by her try-works. She presents the curious anomaly of the most solid masonry joining with oak and hemp in constituting the completed ship. it is as if from the open field a brick-kiln were transported to her planks.

The try-works are planted between the foremast and main-mast, the most roomy part of the deck. The timbers beneath are of a peculiar strength, fitted to sustain the weight of an almost solid mass of brick and mortar, some ten feet by eight square, and five in height. The foundation does not penetrate the deck, but the masonry is firmly secured to the surface by ponderous knees of iron bracing it on all sides, and screwing it down to the timbers. On the flanks it is cased with wood, and at top completely covered by a large, sloping, battened hatchway. Removing this hatch we expose the great try-pots, two in number, and each of several barrels' capacity. When not in use, they are kept remarkably clean. Sometimes they are polished with soapstone and sand, till they shine within like silver punch-bowls. During the night-watches some cynical old sailors will crawl into them and coil themselves away there for a nap. While employed in polishing them —— one man in each pot, side by side —— many confidential communications are carried on, over the iron lips. It is a place also for profound mathematical meditation. It was in the left hand try-pot of the Pequod, with the soapstone diligently circling round me, that I was first indirectly struck by the remarkable fact, that in geometry all bodies gliding along the cycloid, my soapstone for example, will descend from any point in precisely the same time.1

Removing the fire-board from the front of the try-works, the bare masonry of that side is exposed, penetrated by the two iron mouths of the furnaces, directly underneath the pots. These mouths are fitted with heavy doors of iron. The intense heat of the fire is prevented from communicating itself to the deck, by means of a shallow reservoir extending under the entire inclosed surface of the works. By a tunnel inserted at the rear, this reservoir is kept replenished with water as fast as it evaporates. There are no external chimneys; they open direct from the rear wall. And here let us go back for a moment.

It was about nine o'clock at night that the Pequod's try-works were first started on this present voyage. It belonged to Stubb to oversee the business.

"All ready there? Off hatch, then, and start her. You cook, fire the works." This was an easy thing, for the carpenter had been thrusting his shavings into the furnace throughout the passage. Here be it said that in a whaling voyage the first fire in the try-works has to be fed for a time with wood. After that no wood is used, except as a means of quick ignition to the staple fuel. In a word, after being tried out, the crisp, shrivelled blubber, now called scraps or fritters, still contains considerable of its unctuous properties. These fritters feed the flames. Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body. Would that he consumed his own smoke! for his smoke is horrible to inhale, and inhale it you must, and not only that, but you must live in it for the time. It has an unspeakable, wild, Hindoo odor about it, such as may lurk in the vicinity of funereal pyres. It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.

By midnight the works were in full operation. We were clear from the carcase; sail had been made; the wind was freshening; the wild ocean darkness was intense. But that darkness was licked up by the fierce flames, which at intervals forked forth from the sooty flues, and illuminated every lofty rope in the rigging, as with the famed Greek fire. The burning ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful deed. So the pitch and sulphur-freighted brigs of the bold Hydriote, Canaris, issuing from their midnight harbors, with broad sheets of flame for sails, bore down upon the turkish frigates, and folded them in conflagrations.2

The hatch, removed from the top of the works, now afforded a wide hearth in front of them. Standing on this were the Tartarean shapes of the pagan harpooneers, always the whale-ship's stokers. With huge pronged poles they pitched hissing masses of blubber into the scalding pots, or stirred up the fires beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling, out of the doors to catch them by the feet. The smoke rolled away in sullen heaps. To every pitch of the ship there was a pitch of the boiling oil, which seemed all eagerness to leap into their faces. Opposite the mouth of the works, on the further side of the wide wooden hearth, was the windlass. This served for a sea-sofa. Here lounged the watch, when not otherwise employed, looking into the red heat of the fire, till their eyes felt scorched in their heads. Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul.3

So seemed it to me, as I stood at her helm, and for long hours silently guided the way of this fire-ship on the sea. Wrapped, for that interval, in darkness myself, I but the better saw the redness, the madness, the ghastliness of others. The continual sight of the fiend shapes before me, capering half in smoke and half in fire, these at last begat kindred visions in my soul, so soon as I began to yield to that unaccountable drowsiness which ever would come over me at a midnight helm.

But that night, in particular, a strange (and ever since inexplicable) thing occurred to me.4 Starting from a brief standing sleep, I was horribly conscious of something fatally wrong. The jaw-bone tiller5 smote my side, which leaned against it; in my ears was the low hum of sails, just beginning to shake in the wind; I thought my eyes were open; I was half conscious of putting my fingers to the lids and mechanically stretching them still further apart. But, spite of all this, I could see no compass before me to steer by; though it seemed but a minute since I had been watching the card, by the steady binnacle lamp illuminating it. Nothing seemed before me but a jet gloom, now and then made ghastly by flashes of redness. Uppermost was the impression, that whatever swift, rushing thing I stood on was not so much bound to any haven ahead as rushing from all havens astern. A stark, bewildered feeling, as of death, came over me. Convulsively my hands grasped the tiller, but with the crazy conceit that the tiller was, somehow, in some enchanted way, inverted. My God! what is the matter with me? thought I. Lo! in my brief sleep I had turned myself about, and was fronting the ship's stern, with my back to her prow and the compass. In an instant I faced back, just in time to prevent the vessel from flying up into the wind, and very probably capsizing her. How glad and how grateful the relief from this unnatural hallucination of the night, and the fatal contingency of being brought by the lee!

Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man!6 Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. To-morrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp —— all others but liars!

Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia's Dismal Swamp, nor Rome's accursed Campagna,7 nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth.8 So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true —— not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon's, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe.9 "All is vanity." ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon's wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing grave-yards, and would rather talk of operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils all of sick men; and throughout a care-free lifetime swears by Rabelais as passing wise, and therefore jolly; —— not that man is fitted to sit down on tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.10

But even Solomon, he says, "the man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain" (i.e. even while living) "in the congregation of the dead." Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

1. See: the Tautochrone Problem.

2. This one took me a few minutes to figure out. "Hydriote" refers to an inhabitant of the island of Hydra, off the coast of Greece. "Canarsis" is an alternate spelling of (Constantine) Kanarsis, a privateer, admiral, and statesman from Hydra who distinguished himself as a fire ship captain in the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire.

3. Incidentally, Captain Ahab is a Quaker.

4. Note: Ishmael/Melville does not begin describing this revelation until the next paragraph. This initial paragraph details the circumstances which fostered this "eureka" moment. I think that all of us, at least once (more often if we happen to be a bit "touched" in the head, unusually spiritually or analytically-minded, or in the habit of using psychoactive drugs) have had at least one experience like this -- when we witness an event under such circumstances and in such a state of mind that the fleeting physical occurrence makes contact with the immutable ream of Idea (metaphorically speaking, of course) and we descry in the event the demonstration of a universal principle. Melville was particularly susceptible to such moments.

5. Since many of us probably aren't too familiar with these nautical terms, the tiller is a steering mechanism. Essentially, Ishmael dozes off in the Pequod's driver's seat.

6. The "fire" metaphor is not limited to this one chapter. Captain Ahab, on a previous voyage, presumably fell in with a sinister set of Parsis (Zoroastrians), who were propularly regarded as fire-worshippers. Ahab speaks at length about the significance of "the fire" in Chapter 119, "The Candles."

7. Melville misreads or disregards the 19th Century conception of the The Roman Campagna. He perceives it as a place of disease and ruin; as representing the "dark part" of the Earth encroaching on and consuming the works of man, whereas the cultured folk of Europe regarded the Campagna as an integral stop on the Grand Tour -- a spot of picturesque beauty and natural splendor. The Great Dismal Swamp probably needs less explanation to the American reader, but Melville's assessment of the place is quite different from today's ecologically-minded consensus. (Historically, post-pagan Western authors have a tendency to treat raw nature with antipathy rather than reverence. Melville's feelings are somewhat...complicated.)

8. Hey, haven't I read somewhere that the human body is two-thirds water?

9. The King James version of Ecclesiastes, for your convenience. Post-update note: In the original text, the Hebrew term that the King James Bible translates as "vanity" means something closer to "vapor:" as in, "vapor of vapors; all is vapor." Before the English word "vanity" came to connote intemperate self-admiration, it indicated worthlessness, triviality, pointlessness, etc. ("All is meaningless. ALL.")

10. Most readers should probably (hopefully?) have a general awareness of the first group of thinkers/writers mentioned, but Rabelais is a bit more obscure. The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia's (heavily-editorialized) Rabelais entry is a lot more telling than Wikipedia's.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Words for a debt-free college senior

This has been making the rounds on the Face-Book tonight and I find it really irritating.

(2:12:06 AM) pitchyfork: i wish i could tell her she's missing the point.
(2:12:50 AM) lakenessmonster: i wish i could make her black.

It's late and I don't want to turn this into a dissertation, so just a couple of points. 

1.) Despite presumptions to the contrary, the "99%" crowd is not asking for a free ride. Any of them who are certainly deserve censure, but they do not compose the majority. It isn't that these people don't expect or want to work hard. (I've visited the demonstrations. The staffers are working very hard.) They don't believe everything should be handed to them, either. What they want is a more even playing field. What they want is the personal accountability that this girl flouts to apply to the people who crashed the economy and brought the national underemployment rate to 20%. 

2.) In times of economic turbulence, it often isn't someone's own decision whether they are successful or unsuccessful, employed or unemployed. When the mass layoffs are announced and your name comes up, the executives probably won't care how hard you work, what you've contributed, or how many hours of overtime you put in. They see only a job title, and they put the axe to it.

3.) She's still in college. In case she hasn't noticed, a whole bunch of these Occupy Wall Street kids are college graduates suffering from long-term un/underemployment. I'm sure many of them had excellent grade-point averages and worked between classes, too. It doesn't seem to have helped them find gainful employment or pay off their loans. (Not everybody is able to secure grants, sister.) 

4.) Wait a second. Owns a car, pays for gas and insurance, pays rent, buys food, school supplies, basic amenities, etc. -- working thirty-something hours a week and earning "barely above" minimum wage. Where the fuck is she living, because I want to move there. Where I'm from, forty hours a week on minimum wage buys you someone else's couch to sleep on. 

5.) I would be very interested in knowing her economic background. Could her family afford to send her to SAT prep courses? Did she live in a wealthy neighborhood with a correspondingly well-funded public school system? Did she perchance come from a one-parent home in which she was expected to contribute to the household finances (hah!)? Can she be assured of her family's financial backing in case she loses her job and can't find another? 

6.) "Getting by" in the wealthiest nation on the planet should not require leading a life without ever making mistakes, nor should it require a superhuman effort. I don't think this is a particularly radical or unreasonable statement.

7.) Not to sound spiteful or cruel, but I sort of hope her employer decides to reduce payroll hours, putting her down to 20 hours a week at "almost" minimum wage. Then I hope she totals her car and has to have extensive surgery on a severely fractured leg. Going into debt isn't always a choice, kiddo. 

8.) If she doesn't understand why some people might be cranky about having to work two jobs to keep a roof over their heads and pay off their medical bills while their bosses' bosses get to pick which mansion they want to spend the summer in, she really needs to go back to school.

Monday, October 10, 2011

#occupywallstreet: Arguments, Ruminations, Photographs

As Occupy Wall Street endures, so too does the "web blog sphere" chatter about Occupy Wall Street. If you're sympathetic to the movement (I think it has lasted for a sufficiently long time, attracted enough supporters, and spread to enough cities that we can appropriately refer to it as a "movement"), you will not mind. If you're trying to tune it out, I'm afraid you'll have to put up with it for at least a little longer.

The fact that Occupy Wall Street is calling attention toward a fundamentally broken component of American society is reason enough to at least pay attention to it, even if you can't totally support it. After all, the United States is a nation that doesn't snap out of its mass media and toy-induced coma very often, and this is especially true of its young people. The "Occupy" movement suggests that maybe Generation Y does in fact have a pulse, and despite whatever reservations I might have about the demonstrators' means and ends, what we're seeing is definitely preferable to watching the thousands of them shrugging, going back inside, and tweeting their minute-by-minute reactions to the new episode of Jersey Shore.

Yesterday (Sunday) afternoon I stopped by Zuccotti Liberty Park with James to drop off some food, clothing layers, and bedding for the campers before heading back toward Pennsylvania. Apart from mentioning the almost unbelievable increase in the demonstrators' numbers since my first visit, there is little I did or observed that some other local blogger hasn't already discussed himself, or that the photographs James has been taking throughout the week (some of which you can see below) can't illustrate with less verbiage and more eloquence.

Right when Occupy Wall Street began making the news about two weeks ago, my friend Jen and I shared our views on the matter over dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant, and really got on each other's nerves. It spilled out into an email exchange that tapered off after we both got tired of being mad at each other, but Jen did raise some points to which I never had a chance to respond. I'd like to take a look at a few of them here -- but it bears mentioning that this isn't a case of me wanting to pick a fight and revive a disagreement (sup Jen). I just think some of Jen's points make useful starting lines for discussion.

Let's begin! 

Most of the corporations out there are providing commercial products/services or are supported by the public in some shape or form.

Again, personal responsibility.

It's good that they're out there voicing their opinions and making their concerns heard, but they probably don't consistently patron companies that are socially and economically responsible. If they did, these companies wouldn't be struggling to make a profit and this whole corporate-greed thing wouldn't be a problem.

Before we start looking at the legitimacy of her main point, I have a bone to pick about the "personal responsibility" chorus. Why should it only cut one way?

I worked at a Borders store for three years. When the company started having financial troubles, employee hours got cut; the worse things got, the less we worked. Perks were systematically eliminated. There was a "temporary" freeze on employee wages that ended up lasting for the remainder of the company's existence.

This in itself isn't the reason why many former Borders employees are so bitter. After all, when money is tight, everyone in the house has to make sacrifices. But in this case, it was the store employees who were made to absorb the splashback resulting from executive incompetence.

My friend Anna (a former member of the management staff at Borders' King of Prussia Mall location) can give us a few names and numbers, since her ear was much closer to the wall than mine:

(11:27:19 PM) annatheclamma: hmmmmmm
(11:27:22 PM) annatheclamma: well
(11:27:58 PM) annatheclamma: I think our wage freeze started in 2007
(11:28:18 PM) annatheclamma: in that time, we had george jones as a ceo
(11:28:28 PM) annatheclamma: who got ousted, but got a bonus when he left
(11:28:32 PM) annatheclamma: then ron marshall came in
(11:28:43 PM) annatheclamma: got a bonus upon being hired, and one upon being fired
(11:29:06 PM) annatheclamma: then mike edwards came in, who got a bonus with the promotion, and a severance package even after the bankruptcy
(11:31:09 PM) annatheclamma: I know everything was filed with the sec
(11:31:50 PM) annatheclamma: mike edwards got 125,000 in severance
(11:32:27 PM) annatheclamma: wait the top 4 execs each got $125,000
(11:32:32 PM) annatheclamma: just in severence
(11:32:47 PM) annatheclamma: from a bankrupt company that gave its workers nothing in severance
(11:33:51 PM) annatheclamma: george jones got 2.09 million in severance
(11:35:05 PM) annatheclamma: I was there for 5 years and made $10.75 an hour
(11:35:10 PM) annatheclamma: completely fair

Why do I get the feeling practices such as these aren't especially unusual, given how similar it sounds to reports of lavish post-bailout bonuses across the financial sector? And why is it that only the wealthy are allowed to lecture the lower classes on the issue of personal responsibility?

But we've already veered from Jen's main point, which was about how it is upon the concerned consumer to patronize the right businesses and eschew the "wrong" ones, and I cannot dispute this. Nor can I argue with the fact that we essentially voted in Exxon, Bank of America, and Wal-Mart, despite never actually pulling a lever for them in any ballot box. None of these huge corporations with questionable ethics would have ever made it big unless large numbers of people hadn't willingly directed portions of their incomes toward purchasing their services or swag.

Participating in public demonstrations, getting the word out, making yourself heard, and, yes, even voting in public elections are all important toward creating the momentum that carries reform.

But all of these are relatively easy and quick methods of trying to foment social change -- and real change is never easy, and it most certainly isn't quick, especially not where systemic reform is concerned.

A tremendous majority of the population adheres to a lifestyle that pumps money into the coffers of multinational corporations, many of which don't necessarily behave in ways a responsible, respectable person should be expected to. (If corporations want to be treated as "entities," i.e., people in our legal system, I see no reason not to hold them to the standards to which we hold any United States resident.)

We can bitch about the evils perpetrated by oil companies, but our whining doesn't make a difference if, for all our righteous umbrage, we're driving fifty miles back and forth to the office every day and taking the car to cover any distance greater than half a mile. We can lament the decline of the manufacturing sector, the death of locally-owned shops, and the rise of wage slavery, but our grievances ring hollow when we willingly support businesses like Wal-Mart (which contribute to these problems) out of frugality or convenience. 

Smaller retailers exist, just like better companies do. You and most Americans are too lazy to seek them out, or refuse to spend extra money to buy them. It's not worth your effort or the inconvenience to look on the internet for a small bookstore (despite your claims, they do exist - like the Strand, and a couple of ones in New Brunswick, there's one that i go to in Watchung Plaza), research the companies that you choose to buy products from, or utilize the services of many smaller independent companies on the internet, but its easy to blame the worlds woes on something bigger and more powerful than you.

I actually think this speaks for the necessity of the changes for which Occupy Wall Street's anti-corporate core is pushing.

Let's say you're living out in the suburbs somewhere. You want to buy a new pair of shoes, but would also like to keep true to your newfound sense of social responsibility. You establish a small set of criteria for the shoes you buy and the store from which you buy them. First, it is necessary that you can be completely positive that the shoes were not assembled by child laborers or sweatshop workers, and you would also prefer that they were made in America. You consider yourself an environmentalist, so you want to invest in a company you can be assured isn't just offering consumers a shallow "we've gone green!" platitude and is actually taking significant, proactive steps toward curbing their emissions. And since you yourself are an unpaid intern, a retail worker, or are attending graduate school, it is no less important that these shoes are affordable.

So: where do you go to buy these shoes?

Even if somebody wants to adopt more responsible purchasing habits, it is EXTREMELY difficult to practice them. Finding an accessible business that's committed to screwing over as few people and leaving as small an ecological footprint as possible can be flat-out impossible, unless you happen to live in a major urban center.

("Where do you find them? The Internet, duh!" someone has suggested. Hm. Well, remember that we are making our imaginary purchase as environmentalists trying to minimize our carbon footprint, and the jury is apparently still deliberating the emissions output of a shopping trip vs. the emissions output of home delivery, but excellent point. That duh was well-deserved.)

On Sunday evening, James recounted an argument he had with someone who got a kick out of pointing out that he supported Occupy Wall Street despite keeping a checking account with TD Bank, carrying a BlackBerry in his pocket, and stopping by Subway for lunch. James argues that there is no double standard: he can patronize particular businesses, he argues, and still lobby for tightened regulations and business reform. This makes James something of a moderate within the Occupy Wall Street ideological spectrum: he doesn't believe the whole commercial landscape needs to be altogether bulldozed, but nevertheless requires some overdue pruning and edging.

But let's assume James is incorrect, and the only ethically consistent path of action is for him to withdraw all his money, cancel his credit cards, get rid of his phone, eat only organic, locally-prepared foods, patronize only locally-owned business, only purchase products that he knows were manufactured by companies concerned about human rights and environmental impact. What can he do? 

I'm sure there are people who would be fine koombayaa-ing around a campfire and hanging around drum circles in their free time, good for them. But you can't expect everyone to want to live like they did in the olden days in simple housing constructs eating vegetables that they pick from gardens that they grow themselves.

Individual conclusions will vary -- but if we really are looking at a binary choice, it seems tragic that it must be one.

I've met and spent time with a handful of people who, when faced with this one-or-the-other dilemma, chose The Other. These are the people who go completely off the grid. They drift, they join communes, they squat, they get their food and clothes from dumpsters. In brief, they effectively sever themselves from society. They can't "vote" with their dollars to support sustainable and ethical businesses because they have no money. No mainstream politicians represent their interests. They are pretty much excluded from public discourse; after all, who cares what some dirty, dreadlocked bums have to say about anything?

We have wandered into a point where we are essentially required to support multinational, profit-fixated, too-big-to fail businesses in order to participate in mainstream culture. When the thinking man's pair of alternatives is either enduring the prickings of his conscience (which consumer spending can nicely numb) or self-imposed exile and asceticism, what's the easier choice to make? (Thus, we call the ones who make the hard choice "crazy people.")

The media has been mentioning an announcement made by Occupy Wall Street's "organizers" -- even though, in reality, the person responsible is not affiliated with OWS's planners and corrallers -- encouraging supporters to simulataneously withdraw all their money from the Big Banks on November 5. I'm not sure precisely how much the banks might stand to lose from something like this this (it's not as though the people supporting Occupy Wall Street control a big slice of the national wealth, which is sorta why they're protesting to begin with -- but never mind that), but let's say, for argument's sake, that for some reason enough people do cancel their checking and savings accounts, taking enough money out of the banks to do them some serious damage. (Again, this is not likely.)

What would happen then?

Probably nothing good. Shockwaves would diffuse throughout the economy; companies enact another round of layoffs, consumer spending decreases, more companies begin laying off more people as a result, the stock market plunges, wealth is lost across the board, and the threat of a double-dip recession stops being just a threat. (Or maybe nothing happens at all? Who knows?)

But we'll imagine that this is a real and likely possible result if enough people follow through and stop patronizing the Big Banks on November 5th. Upon first glance, threatening to derail the (agonizingly slow) economic recovery in order to make a point might seem irresponsible and perhaps even terroristic -- but remember that these people are not threatening the government, civil institutions, or the populace itself. They are threatening to stop patronizing a set of for-profit commercial institutions. Free market logic not only gives this sort move the okay, but actually encourages it: everyone has the right to take their business elsewhere, after all. This is one of the very pillars of our economic system.

But where are we when, by taking their business elsewhere, a crowd of discontented consumers could actually endanger the public good? (Remember Too Big to Fail?)

Something is undeniably rotten when we have to support certain commercial institutions in order to preserve the welfare of the state. It is equally vile that we must make a choice between patronizing these businesses or otherwise living on the fringes of society (if that is indeed the reality of the situation).

Economic inequality remains the issue on which Occupy Wall Street keeps its focus. But, really, this isn't just an economic problem: the culture itself is in need of reform. 

Granted, most corporations certainly need a massive slap in the face, but if those principles were applied to everything (even good businesses), there wouldn't be much of an incentive left to take risks and start a business if there's a massively oppressive cap to how much they can gain from it and if the chance of going bankrupt is dramatically higher.

Again, this implies the duplicitous narrative that only two alternatives exist: either business becomes almost totally deregulated and everyone gets to have money again, or else excessive and pointless regulations will make it impossible for anyone to ever make money again.

I refer to you a cartoon that has been making the rounds lately:

We've been imposing regulations and reforms upon businesses for years, and it doesn't look to me like business is doing all that horribly -- at least, not where the multinationals are concerned. It is more accurate to claim that excessive regulation can hamper small businesses, which is why regulation cannot be one sided: the legal reforms that compel businesses to behave more responsibly must be drafted, implemented, monitored, and, if need be, modified with the utmost diligence and responsibility. (After all, it is no less duplicitous to suggest that all regulation is necessarily helpful regulation.)

There is no recipe or guidebook for such procedures; no universally-applicable principle by which we can strike that balance between too much or too little regulation in every case. But it is counterproductive and pointless to squabble over whether it should be all or it should be nothing instead of putting in the difficult and necessary work of finding a suitable mean.

And now, in the interest of the public good, I am going to step down from the soap box and turn the rest of this update over to James and his camera.

More pretty pictures might come later. I'll point you toward higher-res versions as soon as James makes them publicly available.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Occupy Wall Street hasn't fizzled out. Not only does it continue to grow, it is spreading across the country. The media is starting to take notice, and so are the politicians: Mitt Romney has already begun deploying the "class warfare" epithet, while Herman Cain is saying that the unemployed and homeless have only themselves to blame.
Though my recent move to Pennsylvania has prevented me from watching or participating in events at Wall Street, it did give me an opportunity to attend the organizational meeting (pictured above) for the Occupy Philly event, which begins tomorrow (9:30 a.m., City Hall).
Since these demonstrations are receiving an increasing amount of publicity, it would be superfluous to repeat the content of the meeting or reiterate the essential concepts fueling the demonstrations. Instead, I've got two smaller morsels for you: the first are the latest additions to my growing collection of protest literature:
(click to enlarge)
The other thing I'd like to share is a small worry of mine.
As you can tell, I fervently approve of these demonstrations, despite the movement's (current) lack of a focused message and a set of practical demands. Critics contend that the bulk of the participants are aimless, ignorant kids who don't really know what they're doing. Where the organizers are concerned, this is definitely not the case.
But at last night's meeting, when I took a seat up on the rafters (the United Methodist Church probably hasn't hosted such a large crowd any time in the last hundred years), someone took a seat on the stair behind me a few minutes later. I turned around to find a girl who couldn't have been any older than twenty-two, leaning against the rail and sipping from a McCafe cup -- which seemed somewhat out of place at an anti-corporate gathering formed as a sister movement to a demonstration originally conceived by AdBusters.
When everyone broke into small groups to discuss and debate possible demonstration sites before putting it to a vote, the girl kept insisting that it had to be City Hall, because corruption. It couldn't be at Love Park because Love Park would be lame. It could only be City Hall because, you know, all the corruption and stuff.
After City Hall was chosen as the demonstration site, the girl left. When the meeting concluded and I stood up to get in line for the exit, I almost stepped on the empty coffee cup she left behind for somebody else to deal with.
I truly hope she represents the only smallest possible segment of the Occupy [blank] demonstrators. Having too many such people on board will only lead to problems: they're the least likely to take this seriously, and the most likely to validate detractors' claims whenever a microphone is placed near their mouths.

Housekeeping note:
been pretty busy with the move and getting adjusted to the new gig. I'll respond to comments, emails, and Formspring questions over the weekend, I promise.