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Archive for February, 2008

“Great and Terrible flesh-eating beasts have always shared landscape with humans. They were part of the psychological context in which our sense of identity as a species arose. They were part of the spiritual systems that we invented for coping. The teeth of big predators, their claws, their ferocity and their hunger, were grim realties that could be eluded but not forgotten. Once in a while, a monstrous carnivore emerged like doom from a forest or a river to kill someone and feed on their body. It was a familiar sort of disaster – like auto-fatalities today – that must have seemed freshly, shockingly gruesome each time, despite the familiarity. And it conveyed a certain message. Amongst the earliest forms of human self-awareness was the awareness of being meat.”

 Just to prove I’m not all doom, gloom, socialist bloom and high artistic nonsense, I brought in my first impressions about a book on large predators, Monster of God by David Quammen. The sub-title says it all: the man-eating predator in the jungles of history and the mind. Quammen’s self-stated goal is to plum the depths of the relationship between those
large predators capable of eating man, and who frequently done so, and us as a species and civilization. This book is not full of hard science about ecology, zoology or biology, as it is obviously aimed at a general, interested reader (I’m a little more then general, but still, we all need to start someplace). It was an easy, engrossing and intelligent read. Quammen
is a science journalist rather than a scientist, and it shows in his writing: accessible, fast-paced, good at summarising details and information, condensing it down without losing the importance of what he has described, or as tends to happen with some science writing in newspapers, trivialises, sensationalises or dismisses the information. He has a real
strength for fleshing out the humans in his story despite the emphasis on predators, few of which, save for the crocodiles, he ever actually sees. He also has a penchant for poor metaphors, but then so do I, so that is hardly a complaint. The book is sometimes lighthearted, when your subject is about the potentional extinction of large predators who prey on humans occasionally, and it is always informative.

Quammen devotes his pages to four large predators. He specifies that the animals he discusses must be generally solitary animals, large in size, have an ambivalent relationship, of prey and predator, towards mankind, and in this case, preferably not the standard African lions, Indian tigers, great white sharks and grizzly bears we are used to. Instead, we get four well-studied but less well known large predators: the Indian, or Gir lion, scientific name Panthera leo persica, a solitary and remnant species of lion isolated in the Gir forest in the Kathiawar peninsula of western India; the salt-water crocodile, Crocodylus porosus, especially the large concentration of the crocodilians along the coasts and salt-water estuaries of Queensland and the Northern Territory, of the Brahmani-Baitarani delta in Orissa State, India, and the Nile Crocodiles in East Africa; the European Brown Bear, specifically the Carpathian subspecies, Ursus arctos formicarius, and its large concentration in Romania; and the Siberian Tiger, more properly the Amur Tiger, Panthera tigris altaica, concentrated along the Amur river, its tributaries and the mountains of Russia’s Maritime Province, or Far East Province. In each case, Quammen travelled extensively, visiting each of the locations of these animals, interacting with both the local peoples who have come to worship, mistrust and exploit, in short, to coexist, with these predators, and the naturalists, trackers, game keepers and scientists who have often spent their lives learning and protecting, and trying to
commercially exploit these animals. As this is a journalistic book, Quammen tracks tigers in Russia by snowmobile and ski, in five layers of clothes; traps, shoots and skins crocodiles in Australia; tracks lions in the Gir Forest, and hikes up Carpathian meadows to converse with sheperds and gamekeepers in Romania. The book is a wealth of anecdotal information and carefully assembled thoughts and interviews with those who know better then most “what it is to be meat”

(more…)

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Playlist for February 18

A Silver Mt. Zion – ‘American Motor Over Smoldered Field’ from “This is our
Punk Rock,” thee Rusted Satellites Gather & Sing
(2003)

Animal Collective – ‘Fireworks’ from Strawberry Jam (2007)
Nash the Slash – ‘Million Year Picnic’ from The Million-Year Picnic (1980’s)
Le Tigre – ‘After Dark’ from This Island (2004)

The Faint – ‘Agenda Suicide’ from Danse Macabre (2001)
Gang of Four – ‘Natural’s Not In’ from Entertainment! (1979)
Death from Above 1979 – ‘If We Don’t Make It We’ll Fake It’ from Heads Up
(2002)

Art Bears – ‘Winter And War, Force, Three Figures’ from Winter Songs (1979)
Wax Mannequin – ‘Animals for Real’ from Orchard and Ire (2008)
The Chameolons – ‘Paper Tigers’ from Script of the Bridge (1983)

!!! – ‘Intensity’ from !!! (2001)
TV on the Radio – ‘Wolf Like Me’ from Return to Cookie Mountain (2006)

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Somnambulant vacuum

The precariousness of short-term contracts and high staff turnover is now taken for granted everywhere, in supposedly worthwhile careers as well as in the temp bargain bin. There is a constant pressure, from the moment of getting a new job, both to keep hold of it and to start looking for another one, as well as actually doing whatever you are paid for; and this means constantly looking over one’s shoulder for the ‘team leader’ wielding the stick of performance targets and appraisals, while also looking ahead at the carrot of career fulfilment kept dangling forever just out of reach. Of course these extra duties leave very little room for other interests, as so much time outside work is spent searching and applying for more jobs (in writing this piece, for instance, I am aware that I am frittering away the ‘free’ time which I should be using ‘responsibly’ by searching for the next vacancy), and work -time recreation is reduced to furtive text messaging or sneaking onto the internet between spreadsheets. Such low-level rebellion has been programmed into the operating systems of working environments, inoculating the institutional network against any real threat: without their umbilical apparatus of mobile phones, iPods and websites, the workforce would surely be unable to function at all. It’s no wonder that, with people drifting off into their disparate myspaces, any atmosphere of camaraderie or collectivity in these transient zones has been replaced by a somnambulant vacuum. Meanwhile, the constant reconfiguring of internal policies, jargon and technology deters contemplation of any larger picture, including the context of the job and how worthwhile or damaging it really is. The scenery never stays still long enough to be able to orientate yourself. “

– an excellent piece from http://shykitten.livejournal.com/24691.html

I feel on the edge of such a situation, never entirely forced into the ‘somnambulant vacuum’ of exhausted dejection and resignation. I have yet to work in a job where I am micromanaged, held to a level of efficiency that is almost inhuman (and certainly will never allow creative or intelligent, independent thought) and fired for showing the least bit of spirit. The waste of bleak, grey water, a sea of computer screens and sloughing eyelids, awaits; I’ve never been in debt, but I may end up there, and destitution and the uselessness of my HBA may bring me under. Unpleasant dystopia, in the most literal sense, because it exists, after all. The capitalist culture at the heart of this is not some passing fade, either; it is institutionalized, firstly, and made a part of ‘management culture.’ A recent article in Profit magazine, amongst several other cold-blooded pieces, argued that an employer should ‘hire slow, fire fast’, solidifying the situation what the post excerpted above made clear: we are to grovel and expend tremendous energy to find a job, but if we should deviate in any way, make a mistake, have an emergency or an injury, we are gone, out on a limb, a used husk to be cast away. Even the ludicrous seminars and help groups the unemployed must visit are ludicrous: how is imposing a ludicrous, jargon-laden way of approaching resumes and interviews anything more than a further way to demonstrate our servility?

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Happy Valentine’s Day

“All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force.”

– Karl Marx

“Kenya is gripped by post-election violence and death, and now its prized export is under attack.

Armed escorts are being used to ensure Kenyan roses arrive in time for Valentine’s Day. Kenyan flowers, mostly roses, account for a quarter of Europe’s cut flower imports, and Kenyan growers have been pushing to keep exports up for the holiday.

Ethnic violence has paralyzed Kenya.

Growers have chartered planes, enlisted police to protect flower-truck convoys and made pleading calls to frightened workers urging them to return.

It seems to be working – European buyers say they haven’t seen a shortage of Kenyan roses.

However, flower exports require predictability and, if unrest continues, Kenya’s flower industry could quickly follow tourism as the next shattered pillar of the economy.”

– from the CBC (http://www.cbc.ca/cp/world/080212/w021266A.html)

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 Dogsville, directed by Lars Van Trier and starring Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany, is a relentless movie. At first, I thought it reminded me of a house party of bad techno, drumming the same deep bass beat with the mildest of alterations, forever circling, but that comparison does it no justice. Instead, I soon realized that Dogville left me with the same discomfort as watching Gus Van Sant’s Kids, or even Schindler’s List. I kept making excuses to not keep watching the movie. I told my girlfriend that I had to work the next day, and couldn’t stay up to watch the film’s entire three hour run. I groaned, silently, and shifted in my seat, no position of my legs or arms comfortable enough for sitting still. I leap up at one point onto the arm of our couch, and balanced myself out like a pit mine crane, watching my other instead of the screen; I plucked at my hands, and reduced the story and what was unfolding on-screen to a bare shadow, an outline of dusty scenes and human pain. I laughed at the wrong moments, I barked out a shot of dismissal, and rolled my eyes, but in their orbits they always returned to Dogville.

Set in the Depression, in a mining town that has seen what little prosperity it once had come and go the film starts in classic noir fashion – gangsters and dames after all. There are shots in the night, mysterious black cars, an equally mysterious woman trying to climb a mountain. But the film is not noir at all.

The introduction, for instance, and narration is voiced by William Hurt, fusty, sarcastic, possessed of the authorial passivity that leads to narrating the most reprehensible of acts with a puckish tone and ironic understatement. The division into chapters, and the fact, Tom Edison, Jr. (Bettany), is an author-in-waiting, (so to speak) lends the movie a very ‘bookish’ feel. It could have emerged from the pen of a Sinclair Lewis or Steinbeck, a ground eyes view, fraught with
despair, anger and hope, of the depression, attempting an accurate and damning portrayal of the life of the poor and the destitute in America in the 1930’s. It would have been muckraking of the highest sort. But the director has never been to America, and this small village has only fifteen residents.

dogville-grundriss2.jpg

Dogville is not a mimetic representation of a Colarado mining town in the 1930’s, and comparison to a book is also a little fallacious. A play would be more accurate comparison, especially to the black box theatres and the theatrical theory of Bertold Bretcht. The set is the first show that this play will not be a ‘realistic’ is a single, expansive sound stage, and the town is represented by chalk outlines, names and a few key pieces of furniture, a wall, a bell, benches, chairs, cabinets, a truck or beds. There are no buildings, no bushes, no trees, and every door is opened with motions of the hand in mime. Light and camera are crucial, colours and backdrops change to reflect mood and the passage of time, and the camera focusses close for much of the film, shifting, flitting from face to face. Austere and expressionistic, a mining town Dr. Cagliari, Dogville takes some getting used to, at least to traditional movie goers used to a ‘realistic’, encompassing film set. Instead, like Bretcht’s ‘alienation’ techniques, Dogville‘s set deliberately and aggressively reminds the viewer that this is not a town, these are not people but actors playing people, and this is a movie, not a documentary. It is an odd choice, but it does focus the viewer unto the characters, as they are literally almost the only thing on screen.

Continuing Dogville as theatre, the film is substantially very similar to classical tragedy, like Oedipus Rex or some such hoary beacon of Western civilization Oxford dons are always telling us to read. Dogville fits very well into the rigorous model of tragedy proposed by Aristotle in his Poetics: there are prophecies of betrayal, starting the dog metaphors from the get go, that “Dogsville will bear its teeth” to set the tragedy in motion. Several ethical and moral dilemmas of the individual are central to the film’s story and themes. Hamartia is prominent in the film, as the virtuous flaws of the two leads, and the town itself, set the tragedy into motion, and like most good tragedies, whether by Shakespeare or Sophocles, the tragedy unfolds slowly, creeping up by bloodshed or betrayal, though in the case of Dogville the betrayal is of a peculiar kind: the movie lulls the viewer into the pleasant dozing of trust, and then shatters that trust like a jackhammer wrecking pavement at three in the morning.

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Playlist for February 11

Godspeed You Black Emperor – ‘The Dead Flag Blues’ from F#A# infinity
(1999)

Ellen Allien & Apparat – ‘Edison’ from Orchestra Of Bubbles (2006)
Magic Weapon – ‘Capital of Colour’ (2007)
Art Bears – ‘The Song of the Dignity of Labour Under Capital’ from The World
As It is Today
(1981)

Telefon Tel Aviv – ‘I Lied’ from Map of What Is Effortless (2004)
Justice – ‘Phantom II’ from + (2007)

The Nihilist Spasm Band – ‘Sinister’ from 7x~x=x (1982)
Sheep Look Up – ‘Jumper’ from Sheep Look Up, Part 1 (1985)

The Human League – ‘The Dignity of Labour, Part 4’ from The Dignity of Labour (1980)
The Luyas – ‘Cats in a Bag’ from Faker Death (2007)

David Bowie – ‘Young Americans’

Joy Division – ‘Shadowplay’ from Unknown Pleasures (1979)

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Why care that the standard Anglo-American Canon of Science Fiction excludes most non-English speakers, with Stanislaw Lem almost always a huge exception, whereas most French, or Japanese, or Russian canons at least try and include English-speaking authors (Philip K. Dick is HUGE in France)?

I would argue, from a simplistic and rather vapid position, but one that is nonetheless valid enough, that it is important to read the literature of other peoples because it opens up vistas, gives us all experiences of other cultures, their ideas and approaches, their opinions and attitudes, because the view of the world from France or Japan can be exciting, thoughtful and ascetically pleasing. The national styles of Science Fiction, from France to Russia to Japan (we are, after all, mostly familiar with manga and anime science fiction) are immensely different and provide so much…well..stimulation… in terms of ideas, solutions, and pure thought candy. It is also a helpful antiseptic against cultural chauvinism, the kind in the English speaking world that lead to deep abuses against other languages, cultures and literatures that give pride of place to Anglo fiction, of any sort, and imagines that Joyce or Hemingway must occupy the place of honour (it is a deeply unimaginative and snooty literary position to assume those two especially deserve to be valued over others; the best pulp novels I’ve read still remain the brilliant Fantomas)

So, that is why I am producing this short ANTI-CANON. Besides sounding ‘cool’, for the sake of youth, the ANTI-CANON is a list, hardly exhaustive and hardly a collection of MUST-READ books, that nonetheless includes some of the most influential unknowns, and some of the best of the obscure. It is not heavy on later 20th century SF, that is not its point, nor will it be universal. It will suggest, merely, not lead. It will complement, like a dark shadow, the list of greats.

My definition of science fiction is also broader then the Canon list: rocket ships, space empires, hard science, aliens and the future are all well and good. But that is not always what science fiction is, which is why the term Speculative Fiction has really caught on as a better way to describe what these works are. No matter how much SF tries to make itself a prediction for the future, it nonetheless exists in the present, and mirrors the fear, anxieties, joys and dreams of the human race in the here and now, even if disguised by some giant space empire run by elitist technocrats or mirrorshades.
I accept, therefore Joseph W. Campbell’s definition of science fiction: ‘Fiction is simply dreams written out. Science fiction consists of the hopes and fears (for some dreams are nightmares) of a technically based society.’ That, therefore, is my starting point here.

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