Today we Google ourselves to see what the world knows about us; tomorrow we’ll just watch the ads. The outlines of this can already be discerned in Gmail’s sometimes tactless data mining of your emails: write a friend that your cat has died and you learn, cruelly, of discounts on litter.
The Intellectual Situation
Web 2.0 has been revelatory in lots of ways—user-generated naked photos, for one—but the torrent of writing from ordinary folks has certainly been one of the most transfixing. Over the past five years the great American public has blogged and Tweeted and commented up a storm and fulfilled a great modernist dream: the inclusion, the reproduction, the self-representation of the masses.
Once a slightly seditious form of loafing in teenage wastelands of the ’70s, games have won ever greater cultural legitimacy in our own unibrow period. Their promotion has followed the by now predictable trajectory of the post-’60s transvaluation of values. First games cast off the vaguely masturbatory funk of shame that came with fiddling knobs, buttons, and joysticks while doing stuff mostly inside your own head. “Everything bad is good for you,” Steven Johnson declared about the digital games that displaced the analog ones, celebrating games “that have no fixed narrative path, and thus reward repeat play with an ever-changing complexity.” These games, vastly more sophisticated than Tommy’s pinball machine or the Atari consoles of the ’80s, made children smarter, Johnson claimed, and prepared them for the competitive and insecure labor market they would enter as adults.
Of all classic capitalist problems—income inequality, imperialism, the class character of the state—mass unemployment has probably been the one to trouble living Americans least. From the establishment of FDR’s war economy through the end of the so-called golden age of capitalism in the early 1970s, the US matched other major economies in functioning at close to full employment.
If there is one thing I heard a thousand times in Samarkand, it was how they have the greatest bread in Uzbekistan because of their amazingly clean water and air. The famous bread of Samarkand comes in round, flat loaves, known in Russian as lepyoshka. As legend has it, the Emir of Bukhara once summoned the best baker of Samarkand to bake him some Samarkand bread.
We were led to an elevator past tanks filled with pulsing jellyfish lit a glowing indigo. The elevator went down to the basement area where the spa was, and when the door slid open an impossibly tall drag queen greeted us, dressed only in white towels except for the diamonds that twinkled from her earlobes.
The octuplets were supposed to be a distraction: an oasis in the midst of the day’s gloomy news of AIG perfidy, mortgage defaults, bank closures, toxic assets, and spiking unemployment. Instead, the camera teams that camped on the lawn of the nice one-story house in Whittier, California, in the glitter of LA winter, got a living metaphor for the crisis.
In the late ’90s, when I moved to the city of Monterrey, people made jokes about my origins: surely my father carried a gun, surely I was coarse and crude—I was from a border town. In turn I was certain that Monterrey, that industrial metropolis where I went to pursue my studies, was perfectly safe. Nothing would scare me away from there.
The Mexican mode of governance—transparency and accountability alike unknown to it—transformed our slang into a grammar of shadows. Politics was baptized la tenebra, political horse-trading was done in lo oscurito. The coming of light was dangerous; the conspirator had to act under cover of darkness, to get ahead of his adversary by rising before dawn.
Fiction and Drama
The hand-scrawled sign over the door to the Happy Salamander preschool read: Closed indefinitely due to pedagogical conflicts. Please call 917 887 8884 for further information. Sincerely, The Blue Newt Faction. “Fuck,” I said, a word I had made sincere efforts to purge from my repertoire of professed displeasure, at least in the presence of my son.
“Fifty-one windows?”—Bill Heavenly, Khan Kerensky’s boss, had been in Amsterdam in August for the funeral of a friend. “Fifty-one windows in eighteen properties,” shaking his head, leafing through the architectural plans. “Shit is bananas. How have they survived.”
Revisiting the New York Times article after trying miracle fruit is another matter. To interpret Tabasco as donut glaze requires wishful thinking and recalls the party guest who’s wearing a lampshade after one beer. One suspects a preexisting need to make food more interesting than it is, more beautiful, more strange—an impulse more fundamental than a flavor-tripping party.
Critics have been worrying about the death of the novel for decades, and the publication of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is unlikely to change that. The leading suspect in the novel’s murder has so often been mass culture—thief of time, sapper of seriousness—and here it is growing upon a literary classic like an aggressive tumor
Virginia Woolf, in a letter to a friend, explained her reasons for writing A Room of One’s Own: “I wanted to do something for the young women—they seem to get fearfully depressed.”
I certainly agree that “it is only from a Marxian standpoint that the recent credit bubble can be understood.” But n+1’s Marxs seem to multiply indefinitely, so that we’re presented with the Marx of volume 1 as against volume 3 of Capital, the Marx who appears in the work of David Harvey and Robert Brenner, the Marx who emphasizes the “internal contradictions” of capitalism as opposed to the external, “natural limits” of growth, the Marx who presides over the “orthodox story” of postwar capitalism, and the Marx who anticipates Hobson and Keynes by explaining economic crises in terms of underconsumption.