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Thursday, Jan 4, 2007

Wal-Mart dominates the retail sector because it perfected just-in-time logistics (only as much inventory as will be sold), minimizing overhead costs and allowing the company to charge lower prices. This in turn attracted more customers, which eventually gave Wal-Mart the enormous scale of operations that allows it to bully suppliers and dictate its own terms to them in order to hone its supply-chain logistics even further—a tidy little feedback loop. Now Wal-Mart hopes to improve its bottom line by treating workers, whom it has vigorized preventing from unionizing, in the same way it treats inventory, employing them on a just-in-time, as-needed basis. This WSJ article by Kris Maher, which is surprisingly sympathetic to the worker’s point of view, has the details:


Staffing is the latest arena in which companies are trying to wring costs and attain new efficiencies. The latest so-called scheduling-optimization systems can integrate data ranging from the number of in-store customers at certain hours to the average time it takes to sell a television or unload a truck, and help predict how many workers will be needed at any given hour….
But while the new systems are expected to benefit both retailers and customers, some experts say they can saddle workers with unpredictable schedules. In some cases, they may be asked to be “on call” to meet customer surges, or sent home because of a lull, resulting in less pay. The new systems also alert managers when a worker is approaching full-time status or overtime, which would require higher wages and benefits, so they can scale back that person’s schedule. That means workers may not know when or if they will need a babysitter or whether they will work enough hours to pay that month’s bills. Rather than work three eight-hour days, someone might now be plugged into six four-hour days, mornings one week and evenings the next.


In this post, Brad Plumer elaborates on the employee hardships Maher mentions: “Another problem, of course, is that 40 percent of Wal-Mart’s employees will soon be part-time workers. Many of them—and many of the full-time workers, too—need to find second or even third jobs to make ends meet. Of course, it becomes near-impossible to find another job when you have to sit around ‘on call’ and can’t predict your schedule from week to week. Ah, but at least the Bureau of Labor Statistics can record an uptick in ‘productivity,’ and economists can then sit around and wonder why median wages aren’t going up too. So it’s all good…”


Wal-Mart defends this by reminding everyone how great this will be for customers.


Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark says the system isn’t intended to schedule fewer workers, and hasn’t where it has been implemented so far. The company says that in one test last year in 39 stores, 70% of customers said the checkout experience had improved. “The advantages are simple: We will benefit by improving the shopping experience by having the right number of associates to meet our customers’ needs when they shop our stores,” Ms. Clark said.


But what about workers, whose lives will be made much more insecure? “Some analysts say the new systems will result in more irregular part-time work. ‘The whole point is workers were a fixed cost, now they’re a variable cost. Is it good for workers? Probably not,’ says Kenneth Dalto, a management consultant in Farmington Hills, Mich.


Probably not? Of course it’s not good for workers. It only amplifies the chaos in the already often chaotic lives of the poor. As Jonathan Cobb argues in his afterword to The Hidden Injuries of Class, class is a matter of being reminded that your time is not valuable, not nearly as significant as other people’s time, other people who presumably do something much more useful with it. If you are poor, lower class, you can always be made to wait. If you are important, you can have things “on demand.” Wal-Mart is telling its employees that the time of every single person who comes into a Wal-Mart store is more valuable than that of those it entrusts to serve those customers. Of course, any of us can become one of those customers and suddenly feel important, but that is the deeper charade at work—that we will ever be able to buy dignity and self-respect by being a consumer rather than earn it by doing meaningful social work. This development makes it plain how improvements in serving the customer are typically translations of ways of screwing the worker (who is essentially the same person). On-demand consumerism, then, is compensation for how our time is routinely demanded of us; the more on-demand consumerism we expect, the more we accept unreasonable demands on our time from our employers.


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Wednesday, Jan 3, 2007


Nominees, Best Supporting Actor: 2006
Jackie Earle Haley for Little Children*
Garrison Keillor for A Prairie Home Companion
Eddie Murphy for Dreamgirls
Jack Nicholson for The Departed
Mark Wahlberg for The Departed


Other notable performances:
Danny Huston for The Proposition
Paul Dano for Little Miss Sunshine
Brad Pitt for Babel


With ease, I would give Supporting Actor of the year honors to the comeback of the year: Jackie Earle Haley for his creepy, dryly funny characterization of a sex offender living in the most judgmental of all suburban enclaves in Little Children. Most film lovers will remember the former child actor from his work in the 1970s in popular films like The Bad News Bears, Breaking Away or perhaps as the unstable, feminine child star that causes complete, unhinged pandemonium at the end of The Day of the Locust (a truly delirious, weird performance). No matter what sort of disturbing or popular work he’s done in the past, Haley’s current work as a man struggling to keep his urges in check while living with his understanding mother is the most solid, original supporting turn this year.


Speaking of comebacks, where in the hell has Eddie Murphy been hiding? His performance as the James Brown-esque singer in Dreamgirls is a stunning, virtuoso turn that showcases Murphy’s versatility in a fresh new way. While the performance has a few comedic elements to it, Murphy highlights the more dramatic moments of James Thunder Early in addition to his electric musical numbers. It’s a dynamic, show-stopping performance filled with energy, wit and pathos that no one has been able to ever capture from Murphy until now. It’s a revelatory, surprising take on a man who could have descended very easily into parody (especially given the entire film was basically filled with stunt casting). Hopefully this serious attention will translate into Murphy making better movies in the future.


The men of The Departed should maybe have their own special award this year. Martin Scorsese brings the best out of everyone he casts: veteran Jack Nicholson finally gets to go to “Marty school” (to terrifying and humorous result as a very bad man), while Mark Wahlberg (who has flown disturbingly under the awards radar despite such ace performances in films like Boogie Nights, Three Kings, and I Heart Huckabees; any of which he could have feasibly been Oscar-nominated for) gets to make the most out of his relatively limited role infusing his Boston cop with cynicism and humor. It’s clear both actors are having the time of their lives working with the director that most living actors would likely cite as the director they most wanted to work with. Uber-star Brad Pitt (who gave a surprisingly tender and focused performance in Babel), seems poised to steal some awards thunder from the Departed guys, but let’s all remember, he is also doing double duty this year as a producer: on The Departed!


One interesting, less-talked about performance that will likely breeze through the whole hoopla leading up to the Oscars is Garrison Keillor, who stars as a version of himself in Robert Altman’s home spun A Prairie Home Companion. He helped adapt the script, he sings, he jokes, and he finds the heart of, well, himself. It’s a clever, tender performance given he is playing opposite such heavy-hitters as Kevin Kline, Lily Tomlin, and Meryl Streep. The collaboration between Altman and Keillor brings a bittersweet end to the maverick filmmaker’s career, with all of the radio show’s sweet witticisms fitting perfectly within the filmmaker’s signature frenetic, kaleidoscopic-cast vision of Keillor’s fantasy life.



Nominees, Best Supporting Actress: 2006
Adriana Barraza for Babel
Rinko Kikuchi for Babel
Frances McDormand for Friends with Money
Meryl Streep for A Prairie Home Companion *
Emily Watson for The Proposition


Other notable performances:
Jodie Foster for Inside Man
Jessica Lange for Don’t Come Knocking
Carmen Maura for Volver


Fabulously over-crowded with amazing women this year, I find myself scratching my head at my personal choice for Supporting Actress: Meryl Streep for A Prairie Home Companion. I think the woman is vastly overrated (and I think The Devil Wears Prada, for which she is getting an obnoxious amount of awards attention, is one of the worst movies of the year), but I will be damned if she hasn’t returned to top form in a role that requires her to cast all “Streep-isms” aside and actually act. She is funny, poignant, and she sings like an angel (the actress has never found a more appropriate vehicle for her talents to merge within). If you are not moved to tears by the end of the musical number “Goodbye to Mama” (in which Streep and co-star Lily Tomlin sing lovingly about their dead relatives and how much they miss them), chances are you might be a robot or dead inside. In a fitting tribute to the late Robert Altman, in what will be his last film ever, Streep reinvents herself and proves her credibility yet again. Which sadly makes the fact that she is getting all the press for Prada so infuriating: she is being remembered this year for the wrong film!


Last year quintessential character actress Frances McDormand received a rather gratuitous Oscar nomination for the absolute dreck that was North Country (playing a woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease—a sure-fire way to get Academy recognition). It is a crying shame that this year she will be sitting it all out on the sidelines after turning in a superior performance in Nicole Holofcener’s Friends with Money. Opposite co-stars Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, and Catherine Keener, McDormand is the clear cast standout. It’s a great contemporary female role (Holofcener is getting really good at being the go-to director for this particular milieu), and McDormand infuses it with everything we have come to expect from her: daffy grace, biting wit, and pure heart as a fed-up working mother who has a potentially gay husband.


Emily Watson is the sort of magnetic presence that sets the tone for any film she graces. This year, in Nick Cave’s bold re-visioning of Colonial Australia as a lawless pseudo-western, Watson was able to play a “wife” role with heart and grace that lends the brutally violent, macho film an ethereal, womanly air each time she appears. Opposite Ray Winstone (as her rigid law man husband), Watson finds a perfect balance between the times: she is neither an inappropriately anachronistic woman ahead of her time, or a wilting flower yielding to every paternal command. Leave it to Watson, the only major female in the film, to leave the biggest impression with only a few key scenes. Her talent for scene-stealing is exciting to watch.


Two of the year’s most persuasive, original characterizations came from the women of Babel, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi. The two couldn’t have possibly played characters more different from each other: Barraza was an illegal immigrant nanny involved with bad decisions at the US/Mexico border, while Kikuchi was a Japanese girl dealing with the recent death of her mother and her distant father who also happened to be a deaf/mute. Each woman perfectly captured a different feeling of dissociation, and the effects of being undone by one’s own sadness; but the most interesting thing, I thought about Babel‘s two stand-out cast members was that the script allowed both women (who are separated by many years in age, and many miles in geography), to explore their characters’ sexuality in everyday manner. Barraza’s examination was admittedly only a small part of her story but the detail was a rich one in a story so filled with politically charged injustice and fear. Kikuchi’s overt sexuality (as well as her sexually lashing out towards others), was more on display and more of a fundamental part of her character, but was so startlingly frank that it is bizarre to think that there has never been another character like hers on screen who has looked at sexuality in such a unsentimental, almost dangerous manner. Both women turn their seemingly ordinary characters into almost mythological women.


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Wednesday, Jan 3, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Pomofomo—"Late Night City Skylines"
Pomofomo—"Ain’t Worth My Time"
From the forthcoming Pomofomo on Kitch34


“Kitch34 is the Australian label for such artists as the Chalets, Dr Octagon, King Creosote, the Dead 60s, iLiKETRAiNS & White Rose Movement, with more on the way in 2007. We have now branched out with our first international signing: Pomofomo. The Pomo boys in ‘06 have had a massive sold out launch in Sydney, DJing at the opening launch of Jamie Oliver’s restaurant 15 in Melbourne (where Pomo and JO himself had a run in with Jamie requesting to play some Jamiroquai—the boys weren’t very obliging), and sharing the stage with Speech from Arrested Development while he was out here on a promo tour to do their own unique Pomomofo version of “Mr. Wendal”, which received awesome reviews! All of this has lead to a massive amount of tour dates early in 2007, including a main stage performance at Good Vibrations Festival along with the Beastie Boys, Jurassic 5, Timo Maas & Cassius.”—Kitch34 Records


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Wednesday, Jan 3, 2007

I keep suspecting MLA types will eventually seize upon Hayek for fresh philosophical underpinnings sufficient to generate new readings of the lit classics. This would perhaps satisfy increasingly whiny right-wing critics of academia’s liberal bias (Michael Berube’s dismissal of that myth notwithstanding) and provide a new direction for theory to go now that the profession is “beyond” or “after” theory. Sure enough, Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein recently published this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the alleged liberal conspiracy against Hayek in favor of Foucault (who, strangely enough, in his latter days actually went around encouraging people to read Hayek, whose ideas about spontaneous order resemble Foucault’s account of power dispersed in institutions.)


While Hayek’s defense of free markets (for which he won the Nobel prize in economics in 1974) influenced global politics far more than Foucault’s analyses of social institutions like psychiatry and prisons, the two thinkers enjoy contrary standing in the liberal-arts curriculum. Hayek’s work in economics has a fair presence in that field, and his social writings reach libertarians in the business school, but in the humanities and most of the social sciences he doesn’t even exist. When I was in graduate school in the 1980s, a week didn’t pass without Foucault igniting discussion, but I can’t remember hearing Hayek’s name. In those heady days of politically framed cultural criticism, academic intellectuals formed a vanguard of cosmopolitan insight and ideological unmasking (so they said), but their range of reference fell short.


Bauerlein concludes that “it would be healthy for everyone if the academic curriculum broadened its scope, if the lineage of conservatism were consolidated into a respectable course of study — that is, if Hayek won one-tenth the attention that Foucault receives.” He imagines such a course in conservative thought would build up from Burke and Tocqueville to such contemporary luminaries as Harvey Mansfield (author of much-derided book about manliness), cultural-literacy dogmatist E.D. Hirsch, and Dinesh D’Sousa, whose most recent book blames the “cultural left” for 9/11. Wow, the promise of such a course is almost enough to make me wish I was a graduate student again. (Not really.) When I was in school, my sense was that English department conservatives wanted to teach literary appreciation courses in the established classics and couldn’t fathom why students wouldn’t want a warm bath in the luxuriance of the great works. These people were against ideas generally (and wouldn’t have ever even considered the possibility of praxis) and preferred subjective pronouncements about aesthetic quality backed up by tradition. The entire profession of literature studies for them seemed to be about deciding which works were “great.” This led me to think aesthetics themselves were a conservative conspiracy (a view which Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic did much to foster).


But a familiarity with philosophical underpinnings of modern capitalism—via classical economists Adam Smith and Ricardo and more recent apologists like Milton Friedman—to balance the Marxist critiques that often are introduced in literary theory and cultural studies classes would probably be a good thing. It’s no good citing Marxist theory without understanding which parts of it are generally held by all credible economists to be bunk. And I think that commercialism and the logic of business has a lot more to do with literary developments than the various romantic mystifications of genius and aesthetic innovation.


Anyway, I had been wondering what the trojan horse might be for smuggling Hayek into cultural studies programs. This essay is a start: Reason’s blog points readers to this article by Paul Cantor, which applies Hayek’s notion of spontaneous order to television-show development and exemplifies what Hayekian literary studies might look like. (Obviously I’ll have my eye out for the forthcoming Literature and Economics: Studies in Spontaneous Order, which Cantor co-edited with Steven Cox as well.) Cantor asserts that falling back on spontaneous order is a good way of skirting the all-too-common (I do it all the time) logical inanity of attributing agency to art works that don’t lend themselves to the kind of close reading that ascribes authorial intention to every minute choice—things like TV shows and Shakespeare’s plays, since these were likely shaped in performance and written down later. Spontaneous order can be seen as variation on the Romantic (and New Critical) ideal of organic form, which evolves dialectically in regard to content so that they suit each other perfectly. And better yet, this view demotes the lone genius working in opposition to society and replaces him with a celebration of collaboration, of art-making as not a mystical process reserved for special people (rich, elite, overeducated) but as a quotidian process of ordinary people pooling and specializing their talents. “The idea of spontaneous order always seems counterintuitive to us; as human beings we evidently are conditioned to attribute order to an individual orderer. That is why the ideas of both Smith and Darwin (not to mention Hayek) encountered so much initial resistance and are rejected to this day by many people. But if one recognizes the various kinds of feedback mechanisms at work in popular culture, one begins to see that it is possible for it to lack a centrally ordering agent and yet be self-regulating and self-perfecting.” It’s the last part that likely causes the most trouble—not only are we reluctant to grant agency to the workings of an unmanaged system, but we are unwilling to accept that as the best of all possible results on account of there being no self-interest director (or state apparatchik) orchestrating it all. And feedback loops and spontaneous orderings often yield nonoptimal results—American Idol, for instance. But yet it may be nonoptimal only to my elitist aesthetic. Cantor cites this cautionary advice from literary critic Franco Moretti: “If it is perverse to believe that the market always rewards the better solution, it is just as perverse to believe that it always rewards the worse one!” Actually there is nothing perverse about such a belief: Disdaining what’s popular (and what popular taste has shaped via the market) is a sure way of protecting the power that derives from your intellectual capital—you believe that judging what is best requires that special training that you, fortunately enough, have managed to acquire. Aesthetics are a disguised way of exercising arbitrary power, and markets thus seem democratic because they democratize the aesthetic, or make it something collectively decided. But the market is no panacea; it’s distorted by the different advantages (more money, political capital) participants bring to it. You must have the capital (the connections, the money, etc) to get your TV show made before spontaneous order can begin to perfect it, and that capital already embeds decisions that have nothing to do with what might have been spontaneously demanded. In other words, we still fight over control of where to fix the starting points and parameters within which market processes, creative and liberating as they may be, will work.


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Tuesday, Jan 2, 2007


While you were sitting around celebrating the holidays, SE&L was busy compiling its lists of the year’s best (and worst) releases. Focusing on the unique and the illogical, the routine and the outrageous, each assemblage attempted to address both the standard and the strange, releases everyone had heard of and efforts nobody knows.  Beginning with our look at Christmas; Naughty and Nice up and including yesterday’s unusual take at the Best DVDs of the Year, it’s time to play a little collective catch up. As we prepare to unveil a few new features for 2007’s version of the blog, this is an excellent chance to see where we’ve been in the last five months. Thankfully, the road ahead is looking even more remarkable. Enjoy!


Naughty and Nice: The Top 10 Christmas Movies of All Time


The Top 10 Criterion Releases of 2006


The Top 10 Films of 2006 That You’ve Never Heard Of


The 10 Worst Films of 2006


The 10 Worst DVDs of 2006


The 10 Best Films of 2006


The 10 Best DVDs of 2006


 


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