Hiatus

Posted September 2, 2012 By amy ross

Life is busy, I have a new job, etc. so I probably won’t be posting here for a while, until things settle down a bit.  In the meanwhile, though, I’m still active on twitter (@danziger_ross) and I’ve started up a tumblr to document my adventures cooking my way through an entire lamb (lambalot.tumblr.com).

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Andy Warhol eats a burger

Posted July 15, 2012 By amy ross

Via Kottke.

This video does pretty much what it says on the package, and I found it strange and unsettling in unexpected ways. My first reaction was, “ech, I don’t want to watch anyone eat a hamburger. That’s disgusting.”

I don’t know if that’s a normal response or not. I realize, I watch people eat hamburgers all the time — at lunch today, for example, but I was eating one too, and I wasn’t *watching*, exactly, so it didn’t feel weird. Also in advertisements for burger joints, but that’s really watching someone *acting* like they are eating a hamburger. Even if they really are eating it, there is so much of the performative involved that it hardly feels like you’re witnessing a bodily function. Sitting there, watching someone eat — especially eat with his hands — is actually not something most of us do regularly, and I’m probably not the only person who feels shy about it.

My next thought was, “well, that’s presumably the point of the video — to force the viewer to undergo this unpleasant experience, and maybe make him wonder why exactly it is so unpleasant.” So, since I’m a good consumer of conceptual art, that decided me: I’d watch the video.

But what surprised me was how not disgusting it was. Warhol does not chew with his mouth open, or talk while he eats, or make smacking noises, or get ketcup on his chin. He eats slowly, politely, looking a little bored throughout. It is — strange to say — a convincing performance. I can believe that this video pretty well approximates what was like to sit across from Andy Warhol while he ate lunch. His hand movements are a little delicate, but I’m also slightly surprised at how normal he seems, fright wig and all. He doesn’t come across as particularly dramatic or self-conscious or effete or provocative. Just a man with relatively good manners, eating a hamburger.

What is even weirder is that this, somehow, makes it even harder to watch. I couldn’t resist the compulsion to look away a couple of times, or focus on some other part of the screen than Warhol’s face. His very normality makes the performance all the more vulnerable, compared to if he were being either deliberately or thoughtlessly gross. There’s a slightly uncomfortable intimacy at play that is, in its own way, quite shocking.

This all without even getting into the tropes of celebrity, branding, and commodity that are obviously present here as well.

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Now, I know (along with everything else) that I am a know-it-all. I avoid contests of knowledge—word games, Trivial Pursuit, Celebrities—because they bring out an omnisapient swagger in me that I despise. I also try to steer clear of puzzles, because I have a tendency, in the solving of them, to lose perspective. There was a broken combination padlock lying on a coffee table at a party I attended not long ago; though my hosts knew the correct combination, the lock refused to open. At this party—or so I was afterward informed—one might have enjoyed excellent hors d’oeuvres, premium alcoholic beverages, the company of witty and attractive human beings. I spent the whole time wedged into a corner of the couch, fiddling with that lock.

from an essay by Michael Chabon on the unreadability of Finnegans Wake.

No but seriously, I highly recommend this essay. Even if you have no interest in Joyce or Finnegans Wake, Chabon gets some insight from this project that is relevant to all readers and writers.

As my year of diving languorously into the murky waters of the Wake wore on, I came to feel that it was this failure, this impossibility, this grand futility of the Wake, that constituted its secret theme, its true aboutness. The Wake’s failure to render up a true account of the experience of dreaming, of the unconscious passage of a human consciousness across an ordinary night, was only a figure for a greater failure, a more fundamental impossibility… The idea for a book, the beckoning fair prospect of it, is the dream; the writing of it is the breakfast-table recitation, groping, approximation, and ultimately, always, a failure. It was not like that at all.

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Better Reading Through Food

Posted July 3, 2012 By amy ross

During phase two, it is difficult to take a full breath or to exhale around the obstacle of cloth in the mouth. Oxygen restriction while fasting (ORF) forces the body to derive oxygen from within itself, particularly from memories and extraneous behavior (which are highly combustible); unnecessary emotions are cleansed from the system through its natural furnace, and the body learns inner breathing. The primary use of feelings, in this book, will be as energy seeds for the body to burn, although the body, when gagged, needs to be trained to view these conditions as flammable. Fainting again becomes a danger here, so netting and helmets should be used to prevent injury. Indeed, a helmet should be worn the entire time this book is being read, and during any foray you might make into the world at large.

Ben Marcus’s Notable American Women might be the weirdest book I’ve ever read, but it’s also kind of awesome. If you squint, it could almost be a sequel to Paul Auster’s City of Glass (New York Trilogy).

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Fiction, History, and HHhH

Posted June 25, 2012 By amy ross

One criticism of Laurent Binet’s HHhH that I’ve seen frequently, and do not understand, is that it should just straight forwardly tell the story of the assassination of the Final Solution architect Heydrich.

– Jessa Crispin, Bookslut

Yeah well, that’s not my criticism. God knows, the last thing I want from any book is a straightforward story of anything to do with the Final Solution.

If anything, I decided to read HHhH: A Novel in spite of its historical content, not because of it. I make it a habit to avoid WWII books, since I find them in equal parts boring (who doesn’t know this story, at least on some basic level?) and upsetting (probably don’t need a parenthetical to explain why I find them upsetting, but it’s nice for symmetry).

What drew me to HHhH were any number of reviews (including Bookslut’s) that described it as a historical novel that critiques the idea of historical novels — a kind of meditation on the complex relationship between fiction and history. And I do admire the nods Binet made in that direction: the best parts of the book are when the author slips into self-conscious metafiction, questioning his own motivations for writing, delineating his philosophy of narrative, undercutting his penchant for romantic or cinematic details, etc. Ultimately, though, I found that these metafictional flashes failed to seriously engage the issues at hand. And while Binet did raise a few interesting questions, he gave far too many numb-skulled answers for my taste.

What bothered me the most is that Binet is obsessed with the idea of representing “truth” in the form of a novel. And he finds this… weirdly unproblematic, even though this should appear self-evidently problematic to pretty much anyone, shouldn’t it? Novels are fiction, fiction has no obligation to represent truth. Definitionally. So demanding that a novel speak only in historical facts makes Binet seem… not real clear on the concept of “novel”, on a very basic level.

But even if we granted that the form of a novel could be repurposed to tell a literally true story… well, first of all, that story would look a lot more like In Cold Blood than this book. Capote already laid the groundwork years ago for the so called “nonfiction novel”, and if there’s anything we learned from that, it’s that facts are slippery. Constructing a narrative out of carefully selected facts (meanwhile suppressing others) is inevitably a kind of fiction… or at best, an incomplete truth. Not to mention the way an author’s perspective winds up coloring his narrative, no matter how “factual” it is. And this repeatedly happens here, with Binet unable to represent Heydrich as anything but a total monster, and his heroes as anything but mythically good. And Binet seems entirely unaware of any of this. As far as he is concerned, he’s just a reporter, spitting out indisputable facts, and castigating every novelist chooses to do otherwise.

(Flaubert’s Parrot would be another fine example of a novel that deals with the role of fiction in history and history in fiction in a playful yet thoughtful way.)

Which raises another question for me — if that’s what he really wants to be, why is he writing a novel at all? Or perhaps more accurately, why is he calling this book a novel? We have a genre that at least attempts to give neutral, impartial, fact-based narratives of historical events: it’s called “history”. Why isn’t Binet writing a history book? Because in fact, HHhH doesn’t pass muster as a serious work of history, anymore than it functions as a novel. History books, after all, cite their sources. Historians give their readers the tools to double-check facts, and draw their own conclusions. Binet is generally not willing to do this — he insists on being the master story-teller, and demands repeatedly that we trust everything he tells us, even as he admits that his facts are often hazy. But we only learn about this haziness when he wants us to.

And as I’m writing this, I can feel his defenders rebutting me, telling me “oh, but he did all this on purpose, to make you question the reliability of facts and problematize historical narratives.” But I just don’t buy it. Metafictional showboating aside, at no point does Binet convey the kind of self-awareness that would make that sort of reading credible.

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How to whitewash a history of racism to kids

Posted June 18, 2012 By amy ross

I’m kind of horrified at this article in the nytimes from the other day, How to Read a Racist Book to Your Kids.

Although some lip-service is paid to the idea of using these books as “teachable moments”, where parent and child can engage in serious conversations about the history of racism, for the most part the author seems to feel perfectly justified in “cleaning up” objectional texts so his children will never know they contain racist elements. And yes, this includes whitewashing the word “nigger” out of Huckleberry Finn.

The is the most insidious kind of revisionism, in my opinion. Shall we tell our children slavery never happened? Shall we protect them from the realities of segregation, colonialism, the abuses of the class structure? I can’t tell that this approach serves any purpose, except to pretend that dominant groups have never committed any crimes, and to reinforce the notion that power structures exist because they are natural and inevitable, and certainly not an artifact of historical acts of oppression.

It also helps build the lie that genius is immune to immorality, and that great evil is never done by people you admire. Which helps ensure that these children will never feel the need to interrogate their own motives because they’ve been taught that racism is something other, something Bad People do, if they’ve even heard of it at all.

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Party Rockin’ the Body Without Organs

Posted June 14, 2012 By amy ross

[LMFAO] may as well have taken cues from Baudrillard when creating Party Rock:  “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real…”

– Leah Caldwell in The New Inquiry

…the BwO is also full of gaiety, ecstasy, and dance.

– Deleuze and Guattari, How do you make yourself a body without organs?

Before Caldwell’s New Inquiry piece, I only had a vague sense of who LMFAO were — the “Sexy and I Know It” dudes, right? A pleasant enough rehash of Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” the most overplayed song of my high school experience.

Then I checked out “Party Rock Anthem”.

An homage to zombie movies throughout the ages, the basic plot of the video here is that LMFAO have woken up in an empty hospital only to discover that the rest of the world has been zombiefied. Only instead of eating brains, the contagion here is spread via an insidiously catchy pop song that demands of its listeners mindless dancing, aka “shuffling”.

Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen pop music and zombies get into bed together. Indeed, Party Rock Anthem contains a visual quotation of the moment in Michael Jackson’s Thriller (itself a quotation from movies like Romero’s) when MJ is surrounded by a swarm of attacking zombies, who step aside at last to reveal that MJ has become one of them, and they begin their danse macabre.

(compare Thriller at 8:15 with Party Rock at 2:05)

In that case, it seems that zombies function mostly as inspiration for cool dance moves. Significantly, however, the “shuffle” in Party Rock Anthem has much less in common with the slow-moving lurch familiar in the zombie movies MJ is riffing off — it’s more like The Electric Slide, or the Macarena, or any number of silly, harmless line dances popular through the years. LMFAO themselves wonder aloud in the video if it might be the Watusi. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Dancers aren’t like zombies because they look or move like them. Dancers are like zombies because have given over their individuality to become part of the horde.

This gets at a key philosophical difference between the two. While the idea that music and dancing will suck away your identity isn’t exactly new, in Thriller, zombie-dancing is exciting (“thrilling”), but still terrifying. It’s a temptation, but it remains a clear threat, as we are reminded by Ola Ray’s screaming and running. This is simply a new version of Romero’s zombies-as-consumerist-critique.

In Party Rock Anthem, on the other hand, the idea of succumbing to the zombie horde quickly turns from threat to celebration — at the price of subjectivity, of personhood, there opens the possibility of ecstatic pleasure in the place where the party does not stop. As Deleuze and Guattari observe (PDF), “They swirl, go north, then suddenly east; none of the individuals in the crowd remains in the same place in relation to the others. So I too am in perpetual mo­tion; all this demands a high level of tension, but it gives me a feeling of violent, almost vertiginous, happiness.”

Far from wanting to consume brains, LMFAO’s dancing zombie yearns only to be the perfect Body Without Organs. Pop music is the virus you can’t resist, but why would you want to?

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Why Is Fiction So Afraid of Theory?

Posted June 4, 2012 By amy ross

I love novels. I love stories. I love characters. I love themes and texts and subtexts.

I also love theory. I love analysis. I love surprising ideas, troubled assumptions, power relations problematized, ideologies made visible.

How do I get this peanut butter into my chocolate? It seems to me that these wonderful things should go together very well. Don’t great novelists want to upset assumptions? Don’t they want to surprise us? Make us see our environment in an entirely new, often troubling way? Of course they do. So why isn’t there more theory in novels?

I’ve been on a hunt for the perfect hybrid for some time now, and I have found some worthy candidates. Teju Cole’s Open City engages directly with philosophy and history, and is generally pretty successful (i.e., fun and interesting to read), though it left me hungry for more. Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye
is a novel written by an actual theorist, but I’d describe it more as an interesting experiment than a fully engaging work of fiction.

Most recently, I read Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot because I’d heard it made explicit reference to Barthes and Derrida and semiotics. I heard, too, that Eugenides had been a semiotics concentrator at Brown back in the 80s, which suggested to me that he might not be raising these specters only to ridicule them.

But in fact, that’s mostly what seems to be going on here. Early on, there were a few passages that gave me some hope.

“Madeleine began hearing people saying “Derrida.” She heard them saying “Lyotard” and “Foucault” and “Deleuze” and “Baudrillard”… after three solid years of taking literature courses, Madeleine had nothing like a firm critical methodology to apply to what she read. Instead she had a fuzzy, unsystematic way of talking about books. It embarrassed her to hear the things people said in class. And the things she said. I felt that. It was interesting the way Proust. I liked the way Faulkner.”

Okay so that’s more namedropping than actual engagement with the texts metioned, but it did seem like Eugenides was aware that theory might have something useful to say to literature. Then later:

“Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution. It drew a line… it dealt with provocative subjects, with torture, sadism, hermaphroditism — with sex and power.”

I wasn’t sure how to read that. I wanted to be like, yes, that’s what’s exciting about theory! Provocative subjects! Power, Revolution.” But there is also the sense (especially if you read the words I hid behind that ellipsis) that the author smirking a bit at this concept. Still, there was a lot of book left. And the author puts just enough words that make sense in the mouth of one minor character that I hesitantly was willing to believe he (the author) had read and understood the people he was namedropping. Plus there is quite a lot of quoting from Barthes, which I guess proves he read it.

But I kept hoping that the author would start actually using some of these theorists, not just namedropping them but showing us a world through the lens of their theories. That would be a really interesting way to update the 19th century marriage plot novel — to critique and problematize it from within, using the tools of literary criticism within the novel itself. I decided didn’t mind if the more ridiculous aspects of theory took a gentle ribbing here, as long as the big ideas came through in the narrative itself.

But The Marriage Plot does not do that. Instead, all the theory stuff disappears completely around page 50. And what replaces it is pages and pages and pages about one character’s diagnosis of manic depression. And every time it comes up, we are reminded that it is a Disease that results from Faulty Brainchemistry and that the Disease is totally separate from the Real Person afflicted by it.

But I’m like, hey Eugenides. I know you must have read Foucault. And the character as you have written him probably has too. Wouldn’t he have at least heard of a little text called Madness and Civilization? Wouldn’t he maybe spend a minute or two thinking about the ways our understanding of “madness” are culturally constructed? Even if he wound up saying “Boy, I understand now how completely wrong Foucault was”, it seems just… bizarre not to mention Foucault at all, when it was clearly so relevant and appropriate.

Maybe Eugenides’s whole point is that people passed through Brown semiotics classes totally unchanged, and never gave them another thought, no matter how relevant the ideas were to their own lives. But if so, that’s a dumb and untrue point.

So anyway, that was my last experience looking for theory in fiction. Next up is Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which has been getting rave reviews despite being about Nazis. And so the search continues.

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Tetris Fanfic

Posted May 30, 2012 By amy ross

“Fanfiction.net… has 87 examples of Tetris fan fiction, which are a showcase for the resourcefulness of writers spinning stories from the thinnest of threads: “L-block has just found out that his life partner, Square block, was cheating on him with his brother, Inverse L-block …”

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,2081784,00.html

This vaguely reminds me of my Battleship-inspired plan to make a blockbuster movie out of the game Connect Four.

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A List of Articles Sitting in My To-Read Pile

Posted May 29, 2012 By amy ross

…many of them since before I turned in my thesis. All of these articles look super interesting, but most of them are on the long/dense side, which is why I’ve been putting them off.

How Harry Potter Became the Boy Who Lived Forever — A long article about fanfic and the fanfic community. I don’t read (or write) fanfic, but I have an anthropological fascination with the whole concept.

Lonely Highways in the Land of Jail — Foucault and Art Bell! Two great tastes I had not expected to ever see combined. I love when my theory obsessions speak to my pop culture obsessions, so I’m very excited about this one.

William Burroughs interview — Burroughs and shamanism, two more of my favorite things.

This is your brain on shrooms — Speaking of shamanism… I normally resist neuroscientific interpretations of human experience, but hallucinogenic drugs are a fascinating tool for investigating mind/body questions.

The Proletarianization of Sensibility — About how Duchamp got into making Readymades, by way of Benjamin, Kant, Freud, Hoffman… I generally don’t find a lot of good writing about art on the web, so I don’t want to let this one slip by.

Star-Crossed: Edith Wharton and Julian Barnes — An exercise in juxtaposition, comparing Barnes and Wharton just because they have similar birthdays. But I love both authors, and I’m interested to see what unlikely connections the author finds.

Proust and his Mother — One of the richest, most discomfiting, and yet somehow most perfecty human of relationships in literary history.

The Material Existence of Ideology — Featuing Marx, Althusser, Butler, and other goodies… The novel in progress is all about the tension between the material and the ideological, so we can call this research. But it also looks like fun — ooh, diagrams!

The Loves of Lena Dunham — HBO’s “Girls” is my new guilty pleasure, which might get a whole blog post of its own at some point. This article about it is very long and from the New York Review of Books, so that’s promising… I do love when smart people talk at length about dumb things.

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