Thursday, February 26, 2004

Phrase of the Day

'Dingbat Kabuki'. Puts the White House's last week or so in precious perspective, I think.

A First

There is a first time for everything, I guess. This truism extends even to linking to inexplicably conservative Andrew Sullivan. His thoughts on The Passion, upon seeing it, though, seem in line with my own, having not seen it.

Truth In Humor

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine sent an email that he undoubtedly received as a foreward -- fortunately, he was kind enough to drop the FW: tag, and at least pretend it was something he put a little more thought in that one click of his mouse -- that went something like this:

Do you fancy working for a company that has a little more than 500 employees and has the following statistics?:

  • 29 have been accused of spousal abuse

  • 7 have been arrested for fraud

  • 19 have been accused of writing bad checks

  • 117 have directly or indirectly bankrupted at least 2 businesses

  • 3 have done time for assault

  • 71 cannot get a credit card due to bad credit

  • 14 have been arrested on drug-related charges

  • 8 have been arrested for shoplifting

  • 21 are currently defendants in lawsuits

  • 84 have been arrested for drunk driving in the last year

Can you guess which organization this is?

It's the 535 members of the United States Congress. The same group that cranks out hundreds of new laws each year designed to keep the rest of us in line.

Har har. Funny enough, I suppose. Ah, but the true punchline came home this morning while reading the New York Times.

Senators' Stock Beat the Market By 12 Percent

US senators' personal stock portfolios outperformed the market by an average of 12 per cent a year in the five years to 1998, according to a new study.

"The results clearly support the notion that members of the Senate trade with a substantial informational advantage over ordinary investors," says the author of the report, Professor Alan Ziobrowski of the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University.

[. . .]

"The results suggest that senators knew when to buy their common stocks and when to sell."

First-time Senators did especially well, with their stocks outperforming by 20 per cent a year on average - a result that very few professional fund managers would be able to achieve.

[. . .]

A separate study in 2000, covering 66,465 US households from 1991 to 1996 showed that the average household's portfolio underperformed the market by 1.44 per cent a year, on average. Corporate insiders (defined as senior executives) usually outperform by about 5 per cent.

The Ziobrowski study notes that the politicians' timing of transactions is uncanny. Most stocks bought by senators had shown little movement before the purchase. But after the stock was bought, it outperformed the market by 28.6 per cent on average in the following calender year.

Returns on sell transactions are equally intriguing. Stocks sold by senators performed in line with the market the year following the sale.

When adjusted by the size of stocks, the total portfolio returns outperformed by 12 per cent a year on average. The study used a total market index as the benchmark for comparison.

Har Har Har.... ah, the sweet sting of humor.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Inevitable, but Infuriating Nevertheless

By now everybody's undoubtedly heard that Bush has finally and officially come out in full support of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. How in the world do Republicans think they're on the correct side of this particular issue? Do they really and truly think that the test of time is going to prove them right? Likely not -- since political expediency seems to be the name of the game these days.

For a long time I was totally fine with homosexuals civil unions, but only on the condition that the State let go of the 'marriage' concept altogether. Which is to say, that all couples, hetero- or homo-, when wed, were officially considered a civil union; and that 'marriage' would be afforded its sanctified position outside the realm of simple legality (i.e., for instance, in a church, mosque, or any secular equivalent that one might wish). Realizing, of course, that this would never happen in America, because of its undying love of half-arsed theocracy, I quickly decided that the 'compromise' of letting homosexuals have civil unions, while heterosexuals have marriages, was a pretty egregious class system. All the same, I was willing to live with it, thinking that it might be a step in the right direction -- i.e., that when enough people see that (a) homosexuals can love their partners just as much, if not more, than any heterosexual can, or (b) that their congregations will not be legally required to wed homosexuals, the reason for the civil union / marriage distinction would be mooted entirely. With Bush tossing his hat into the fray, though, especially with this amendment being the one on the table, any hope of even a resigned compromise is out the window. Make no mistake, the Federal Marriage Amendment is a not-too-subtle offensive, and not simply a defense of marriage's so-called sanctity. (As is made pretty clear by Yale Law professor Jack Balkin.)

Whether the Democrats like it or not, this issue will not go away by November. My fear is that Kerry / Edwards / whomever will continue their mealymouthed support of civil unions, in hopes of holding the rabid Right at bay for a while, and in the process lose a vital percentage of their progressive-left vote (again) to this guy.

UPDATE: Thankully, there are a few people, like Nick Confessore, who, unlike me, may be able to see the forest for the trees in this whole mess. I hope he's right on this one.

Relating to a Conversation...

Contrary to the standard idealist argument that conceives ugliness as the defective mode of beauty, as its distortion, one should assert the essential primacy of ugliness: it is beauty that is a kind of defense against the Ugly in its repulsive existence -- or, rather, against existence itself, since, as we shall see, what is ugly is ultimately the brutal fact of existence (of the real) as such.

The ugly object is an object that is in the wrong place, that "shouldn't be there." This does not mean that the ugly object is no longer ugly the moment we relocate it to its proper place; rather, an ugly object is "in itself" out of place, on account of the distorted balance bertween its "representations" (the symbolic features we perceive) and "existence" -- being ugly, out of place, is the excess of existence over representation. Ugliness thus . . . designates an object that is in a way "larger than itself," whose existence is larger than its representation. The presupposition of of ugliness is therefore a gap between an object and the space it occupies, or -- to make the point in a different way -- between the outside (surface) of an object (captured by its representation) and its inside (formless stuff). In the case of beauty, we have in both cases a perfect symmetry, while in the case of ugliness, the inside of an object somehow is (appears) larger than the outside of its surface representation (like the uncanny buildings in Kafka's novels that, once we enter them, appear much more voluminous than they seemed from the outside).

Another way to put it is to say that what makes an object "out of place" is that it is too close to me, like the Statue of Liberty in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent: seen from extreme proximity, it loses its dignity and acquires disgusting, obscene features. In courtly love, the figure of die Frau-Welt obeys the same logic: she appears beautiful from the proper distance, but the moment the poet or the knight serving her approaches too close to her, she turns to him her other, reverse side, and what was previously the semblance of a fascinating beauty is suddenly revealed as putrefied flesh, crawling snakes and worms, the disgusting substance of life, as in the films of David Lynch where an object turns disgusting when the camera gets too close to it. The gap that separates beauty from ugliness is thus the very gap that separates reality from the Real: the kernel of reality is horror, horror of the Real, and what constitutes reality is the minimum of idealization the subject needs in order to be able to sustain the Real. Another way to make the same point is to define ugliness as the excess of stuff that penetrates through the pores in the surface, from science fiction aliens whose liquid materiality overwhelms their surface (see the evil alien in Terminator 2 or, of course, the alien from Alien itself), to the films of David Lynch where (exemplarily in Dune) the raw flesh beneath the surface threatens to emerge. . . .

In the case of beauty, the outside of a thing -- its surface -- encloses, overcoats, its interior; whereas in the case of ugliness, this proportionality is perturbed by the excess of the interior stuff that threatens to overwhelm and engulf the subject. This opens up the space for the opposite excess, that of something that is not there and should be, like the missing nose that makes the "phantom of the opera" so ugly. Here, we have the case of a lack that also functions as an excess, the excess of a ghostly, spectral materiality in search of a "proper," "real" body. Ghosts and vampires are shadowy forms in desperate search for the life substance (blood) in us, actually existing humans. The excess of stuff is thus strictly correlative to the excess of spectral form: it was already [Gilles] Deleuze who pointed out how the "place without an object" is sustained by an "object lacking its proper place" -- it is not possible for the two lacks to cancel each other out. What we have here are the two aspects of the real: existence without properties and an object with properties without existence. [my emphasis] Suffice it to recall the well-known scene from Terry Gilliam's Brazil in which, in a high-class restaurant, the waiter recommends to his customers the best offers from the daily menu ("Today, our tournedo is really special!"), yet what the customers get on making their choice is a dazzling color photo of the meal on a stand above the plate, and on the plate itself, a loathsome excremental lump: this split between the image of the food and the real of its formless remainder exemplifies perfectly the two modes of ugliness, the ghostlike substanceless appearance ("representation without existence") and the raw stuff of the real ("existence without appearance").

One should not underestimate the weight of this gap that separates the "ugly" Real from the fully formed objects in "reality": [Jacques] Lacan's fundamental thesis is that a minimum of "idealization", of the interposition of fantasmatic frame by means of which the subject assumes a distance vis-a-vis the Real, is constitutive of our sense of reality -- "reality" occurs insofar as it is not (it does not come) "too close." Today, one likes to evoke our loss of contact with the authentic reality of external (as well as our internal) nature -- we are so accustomed to aseptic, pasteurized milk that milk direct from a cow is unpleasant. This "true milk" necessarily strikes us as too dense, disgusting, undrinkable . . .

-- Slavoj Zizek, 'The Abyss of Freedom', p. 21-23

Monday, February 23, 2004

Foiled Again

On Sunday night K. and I were roaming around Glasgow, to and fro, from the Tall Ship to the Necropolis did we go. On our way back, we ran into somebody who undoubtedly has read these. K., because she is far more kind and tolerant than I, accepted one of his pamphlets, entitled Frequently Asked Questions In the Glasgow City Centre, but then promptly put it in my jacket pocket upon walking away. I finally read it this afternoon while eating lunch:

(1) Who Made God?

Would you expect a dog to buy and read a daily newspaper? No! [Yes, the exclamation point was his.] That is not because a newspaper cannot be understood, but because it is beyond a dog's understanding.

In like manner, God is bigger than anything a mere human can grasp. If I could understand Him, He would not be God and I would not be a man!

God had no beginning and will never end. Everything we know begins and ends, but God is greater than that. He is everlasting. God's word to us, the Bible, teaches that God is absolutely holy, with no sin in Him at all. He is just, and loving. He has all power. He is everywhere. He knows everything, and never changes.

God is creator of all things. All design has a designer; behind everything made, there will be a maker; creation must have a creator. This is God. Because He is our maker; we are responsible to Him. He knows what is best for us.

Is it just me, or is this God, the one described here if nothing else, which 'no mere human can grasp', is really quite graspable after all, maybe even a little too much so? I understand the notion of the Bible as 'revelation', but nobody has yet adequately to explain to me how we, again as 'mere humans', can deal with the implications of or interpret said revelation. That is, if it, the revelation, is supposed to point toward something beyond our feeble, consciousness-laden mushy minds, can we really articulate what the revelation is said to reveal?

I was all prepared to inquire about this, in hopes that I might rehearse the section of my thesis on Fichte's notion of Anstoss -- i.e., the unlimited activity of the I's self-reflection via the not-I -- and Schelling's exploration of Freedom. Namely -- how does it happen that God pronounces the Word and thereby discloses himself, appears to himself? Which is to say, how does the In-Itself Freedom of God split from itself, in such a way to be able to identify itself as 'itself'; how does it acquire a distance toward itself and thus clear the space in which it can appear (to itself)?

So, yeah, I was all prepared to go on about this; but, as it was, K. was hungry. Silly woman.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Better Things To Do With $10, Isn't There?

Recently I was asked for an opinion on Mel Gibson's sequel to Braveheart (okay, maybe not), The Passion of Christ. More specifically: 'Do you think it will be anti-Semitic?' My reply did not directly answer the question, mostly because I'm a very poor listener; but, in hindsight, I think it might have done so pretty concisely. My basic response was, and is:

Does the world, Christian or otherwise, really need another literal re-telling of Jesus' death, as depicted in the Gospels?

I mean, really, hasn't this story been done to death already?

I've nothing against religious liturgy, or even believing in the salvific or symbolic importance of Jesus' death, but prattling on about the historical details of such a death at some point borders on a weird, kind of sick voyeurism. The obvious objection to this is that artists have for centuries depicted the passion narratives, and yet I've not yet whined about any of them. The difference is, at least for the best art, is that the literal details themselves are not, in the end, the point. One gets the impression, in fact, that they could have been painted, in full faith, without any knowledge of such details at all. They are usually iconic, sometimes ironically, inasmuch as they beckon an infinite gaze that can never nail things down (pun intended).

I do not get the impression this is the intention of Gibson's film, any more than it was for DeMille's King of Kings, Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth, or Lean and Steven's The Greatest Story Ever Told. There's nothing wrong with something not being 'artistic' (i.e., in the way that I privileged above), but purveyors of historical-minded Christological kitsch should not be too surprised or appalled to find it branded as anti-Semitic. Quite simply, it is difficult to tell the story, as depicted in the Gospels, without putting some Jews in a very bad light. By the time the Johannine community was reading the Gospel of John, they've probably been thrown out of the Temple (and thus out of Judaism as such) and, thus were no longer protected from Roman edicts against unsanctioned religions. One might be a little surprised, I suppose, if a little animosity wasn't harbored and comeuppance foreseen. However, in light of the present situation, with history having reversed the roles on several occasions, in dramatically violent sweeps, one would be even more surprised if many contemporary readers did not anachronistically uncover a fair bit of anti-Semitism. Expecting these latter readers to simply 'return to the original context' is the near equivalent of telling victims of trauma to 'forgive and forget'.

I'm not saying the Passion narratives are necessarily anti-Semitic, but neither am I saying that they ought not be read as such. The burden is on the purveyors and guardians of the narratives to find a way to affirm their value in light of their historical abuse. Which is why I ask again:

Does the world, Christian or otherwise, really need another literal re-telling of Jesus' death, as depicted in the Gospels?

Surely one would do far better by watching its horrific retelling, of a sort, in Lars Van Trier's Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. But then again, the adults who will soon be lining up to see The Passion, perhaps even taking their kids, in hopes that the death rattle of Christ will compel them away from sex and evolution, are likely the very same people who signed petitions against The Last Temptation of Christ.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Happy Valentine's Day!

Why should I say anything at all, when I have a kitten and foul-mouthed hedgehogs [that last one, by the way, is not safe for work] can say everything for me.


To tell the truth, I'd kill for you
It's sick I know, but after all
My definition of the word:
Love is blind, love is good.
('Love', The Twilight Singers)

I've been telling people, anyone who will listen really, that I dislike Glasgow, that I'm ready to leave this forsaken city for sunnier skies and greener vegetables, that it is time to return to the country that needs me most, that it is time to go home. A part of me thinks it is the weather. Winters here are, in two words, a bitch. Not too cold. Certainly not too sunny. Just the same: day in, day out . . . the same. It's no wonder these people drink themselves to an early grave, or that I very likely have shaven a few off my own life. Or, then again, maybe it's just the really lousy exchange rate. After all, over the past couple of months, the value of my dollar has decreased by about 10% every thirty days; in fact, since arriving a couple of years, it's lost about 45% of its overall value. If I were just buying food every now and then, I might not even notice the hit. But when there's tuition to be paid, it's kind of difficult to be nearly so obtuse.

And yet . . .

It is Valentine's Day, no? If I'm not necessarily going to be any better boyfriend to Katrien, I should at least be a more amiable person in general. With that in mind, I'm not going to mull on these details. There are, for now, more important things to tell you about. Namely, The Twilight Singers. As I mentioned in a previous post, I got a chance to see them in action a couple of weeks ago; what I didn't mention, however, was that for about two hours, they made me absolutely forget not only my present dislike for Glasgow but, oddly, all the intervening years from when I was twenty years old until now. Those college years of mine were spent listening to the Afghan Whigs, thrashing about wildly at their concerts in Cincinnati and Columbus, oblivious to everyone and all. They were, and still are, the best live band I've ever seen. When they broke up in 1999, I decided that was the sign that it was time to put college things behind me -- to move on to more sophisticated things. To a bit of jazz. To classical. Hell, even an opera or two. On January 30th, though, at the King Tut's Wah Wah Hut, I hit a worm hole or something such, and found myself back in 1997, held in complete awe by a pudgy, unremarkable looking gravely-voiced, bourbon-drinking former Afghan Whig frontman named Greg Dulli.

The Twilight Singers are not as good as the Whigs at their height -- the intuitive mix between the band members just ain't there. But the energy, oh yeah, they got that in spades. Greg Dulli on stage is rough sex incarnate: sweaty, grunty, and a little jiggly. He thinks he is the coolest, sexiest thing in the room, and everybody at some point during the show, even if only for a moment, believes it. In the ensuing frottage of singer and audience, you can't help but start feeling the same thing about yourself. People who never dance bootylicious-style, like me, who never scream 'Fucking Aaaaaaaaaa' at the top of their lungs, unlike me, do so. Every room Dulli's bands walk into becomes a party, an intoxicated saturnalia whose hangover you'll greet with a wink and a smile.

You think I'm exaggerating, I know. I'm being hyperbolic, to offset the pissy mood this city sometimes puts me in. The only way you can be sure, though, is to check this band out when they come to your town or a town near you. Do so, and I promise you'll be kicking a boot in any television showing MTV-2, because you will have been truly reminded what rock music could and should be.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Rested. Though Not Yet Ready

January 30th?? Has it been that long since I've graced the halls of Silentio. One hundred apologies to all who've come and have seen little of note. Only one apology to those of you who have come to expect little of note but who come regularly anyway. The reason for my silence, outside of having very little to say, is that I've been hosting a couple of good friends from the States. I've a few things to say, post-trip, but they will have to wait a few more hours at least.

Incidentally, said friends will, we can hope, arrive safely home sometime tomorrow. Upon reading this I have a message, though really I guess it is for you all, even those I don't know because I'm just that kind of guy: Miss you terribly.