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Wednesday, Aug 30, 2006

Brad DeLong pretty much sums up my experience in graduate school:


I observe that the idea that the best way to understand the political economy of the 1970s is through intensive, group, line-by-line study of an unfinished, inconsistent, and ambiguous text first drafted in the 1850s by a very smart, sometimes far-sighted, but definitely not divine human being—that that idea is already a delusion peculiar to those who were a little too good in school in seeking truths from reading books rather than seeking truths from facts.


He’s talking about reading Marx here, but I applied a similar approach to all the social theories I was exposed to, and to novels and poems as well. It seemed perfectly normal to dissect the words of Deleuze or Bakhtin or Freud to say something about the circumstances that produced Richardson’s novels. The way to support a point you wanted to make was to cleverly interpret the words of some exalted text, not collect more information that bore it out. I chose to study literature probably because I prefered close reading to research and dull fact-finding. Facts? Bah. I would have straight-facedly made the case, borrowed from Mary Poovey that facts were in themselves socially constructed and a recently invented category anyway. And I wrote many a paper speculating on social conditions based on anachronistic readings of old texts. But slowly I began to turn away from this methodology, perhaps because I began reading more widely in other disciplines or perhaps because the winds of academic fashion were blowing a different way. I yearned for rigor and began a project to read all the novels published in England from Clarissa to Burke’s Reflections, imagining the tedium and ascetism of this translated into a devoutly serious studious mission—something that would shift me away from the performative, near improvisional nature of English studies (where it seemed you carried over your arguments by the force of your creativity or the obscurity of your theoretical touchstones) to something more plodding and grounded. It didn’t help. How was I to know that what I was calling the “anxieties generated by incpient capitalism erupting in fictional texts” was not something else entirely, not an anachronism I was imposing? I had already lost the thread when I lost faith in the idea that I could peer into these texts and magically perceive something of the world that produced them by making inituitive interpretive leaps. And it occured to me that it was far more pertinent and vital to try to make sense of the world I lived in rather than one from two centuries ago, and that my interpretive intuitions would be much closer to valid when limited to the contemporary framework, which produced my hidden biases and assumptions in the first place. (Still, if you’d like my analysis of The Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph, just let me know.)


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Wednesday, Aug 30, 2006

With the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina being ‘celebrated’ by the press now, we hear reminders of how much damage was done, how many lives were ruined and how much still needs to be done there.  Center for American Progress has a chilling story about this: An Unhappy Anniversary.  What I worry about that is that once this news cycle runs out, so will general interest in New Orleans.


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Wednesday, Aug 30, 2006

This op-ed by Sebastian Mallaby, in which he criticizes Democrats for abandoning their DLC-style, pro-big-business tack and criticizing Wal-Mart, garnered some hostile responses, and deservedly so. Mallaby seems to think that by criticizing Wal-Mart, the business, those who shop there will be affronted, as if it’s their local sports team and not just a store where it is convenient and cheap to shop. Mallaby reminds us that Wal-Mart has been able, through its ruthless cost-cutting, to “boost the buying power of ordinary Americans,” but at what cost? If it takes away good jobs, benefits, political power, and high wages in order to give us back cheap fleece sweatshirts and bargains on diapers, who profits? What good is the purchasing power if you are too economically insecure to actually exercise it? And autonomy within Wal-Mart, while you are shopping,  is no substitute for autonomy outside—having meaningful choices about where to work and shop, and about whose interests will be represented in government. Mallaby’s crude argument that if Wal-Mart was such a bad place to work, no one would work there, is a bit simplistic—Wal-Mart has the leverage to curtail other choices and force other employers to adopt its methods. As Kevin Drum points out, Wal-Mart is not “evil” for doing this—consumers short-sightedly prioritized paying low prices over the long-term significance of protecting labor. Now the long-term effects are coming into focus, and it makes sense to use th epolitical system to try to correct our course.


So it’s not “dumb economic populism” to express concern about falling wages, eviscerated unions, the widening gap between rich and poor, vanishing small businesses, outsourcing, and disappearing benefits, all of which Wal-Mart’s business model contributes to.  As Ezra Klein writes, “Wal-Mart is setting the norms and standards for the coming service economy. Where GM and Ford played this role for the manufacturing sector—and the unions forced them to use their power to create the American middle class—Wal-Mart is assuming primacy for manufacturing’s successor, and doing so without the union involvement or commitment to high wages that their predecessors exhibited.” And because of the company’s market dominance, it can dictate the terms of the service economy of the future: “In the producer’s case, the prices Wal-Mart demands have forced them to not only cut labor costs, but have often forced them offshore. Used to be that producers could pay their workers decently and keep production domestic by passing higher costs down the line. Wal-Mart’s size and market share keeps them from doing so, and it’s thrown the whole relationship out of balance—at least where the workers are concerned. So when I worry over Wal-Mart , I’m fretting over the shift to a low-wage, low-benefit service economy. Wal-Mart’s size and power makes the two indistinguishable.”


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Tuesday, Aug 29, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last fifty years. Enjoy.



Week 5: Sholay (“Flames”)
1975, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Ramesh Sippy
The best masala movie ever made. A masala movie is a subgenre of Indian cinema created by enterprising producers to cater to all the diverse tastes of an audience in a single film. Masala is Hindi for “spice,” and refers to a blend of multiple flavors (as in “curry” powder). In movie terms, this translates to a musical romantic-comedy/action-adventure that offers everything - fights, laughs, love scenes, dance numbers, and family melodrama - all in the course of three-and-a-half hours.  Warning: First-time viewers may find the masala movie slightly indigestible—a cinematic sensory overload. But if you want to get a taste of the most popular type of movie in Indian commercial cinema, start here: two conmen on the run are recruited by a village landowner to hunt down and capture the ruthless bandit that murdered his sons. In essence it’s a musical spaghetti western set in rural India. The movie made a star out of its hero, Amitabh Bachan, who is so beloved even today, that when he was hospitalized a few months ago, hundreds of Indians flocked to the temples to pray and light candles. Watching Sholay, you can’t help but wallow in its elemental pleasures: the joyous chemistry between the two male leads, Bachan and 70s matinee-idol, Dharmendra and their uproariously bad-ass behavior (like the scene where they help the village-belle gather mangos by flippantly shooting them off a tree with their pistols), the sassy, Jean Harlow slapstick of Hema Malini’s village-belle, and the delicious satisfaction we feel at the demise of the bloodthirsty villain, Gabbar Singh (played with sadistic panache by character actor Amjad Khan). Sholay is an unpretentious classic. It reminds us of why we go to the movies in the first place: to be entertained.


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Tuesday, Aug 29, 2006
by PopMatters Staff


Tara Jane O’Neil“Blue Light Room”
From In Circles on Quarterstick Records
Portland, OR based artist Tara Jane O’Neil is a multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter, engineer, and painter. In Circles, her fourth solo album on Quarterstick Records, is an acoustic gem blessed with her unique brand of sonic trickery. She’s created an album where a subtle but sure-handed mastery of sounds and experimentation with her craft share time equally with gentle acoustics and deeply personal lyrics.



M Ward“To Go Home”
From Post-War on Merge Records
Post War is the fourth M. Ward album and his most absorbing to date. Its songs unravel their world wearied tales of life, love and human kindness with an innate and special grace, helped in part by the very talented friends who join him on this record, including Neko Case and Mike Mogis as well as old “Monsters Of Folk” touring buddy Jim James (of My Morning Jacket).



Kunek“Coma”
From Flight of the Flynns on Playtyme Entertainment
Kunek’s debut album, Flight of the Flynns, offers 12 songs that reflect the theory that music is a delicate intersection of science and emotion. The band gracefully moves through the music, seamlessly blending layer upon layer of complex harmonies propelled by Tabish, Jon Mooney (keyboards and guitar), Eric Kiner (lead guitar, lap steel, keys) and Jenny Hsu on cello as well as the spellbinding rhythms of bassist Josh Onstott and drummer Colby Owens.



My Brightest Diamond“Disappear”
From Bring Me the Workhorse on Asthmatic Kitty
My Brightest Diamond is Shara Worden, granddaughter of an Epiphone-playing traveling evangelist, fathered by a National Accordion Champion, and mothered by a church organist. Spanish tangos, Sunday morning gospel, classical and jazz were the accompaniment to her home life. Her first song was recorded at age three and by age eight she was studying piano, performing in community musical productions and singing in her Pentecostal church choir, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where she spent most of her childhood.


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