gall and gumption

Monday, December 29, 2008

buckner: Another Postmodern Groan

Here is Peter Schjeldahl discussing the retrospective of Marlene Dumas’ work at the Museum of Modern Art in the recent issue of the New Yorker (the same magazine that published the Harold Rosenberg quote below):
Dumas matters as one of a number of now middle-age painters who dealt with the apparent dead end of painting after modernism.
When asked about the death of painting Rosenberg said he was sure if someone took the trouble to become a great painter no one would object. No doubt David Hockney, Wayne Thiebaud, Chuck Close, Lucien Freud, and Robert Ryman among others would be surprised to learn that painting had reached a dead end.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Mysterious West: The Reason for the Season

I went out for Dim Sum today with my dad and my cousin, so all things considered it seemed appropriate to the day to share with you my latest dollar store find. There is a dollar store here that is a dollarific cornucopia of Occidental mystery. I must consider it a good thing that the parking lot is almost impossible to get in and out of. William Morris said (I'm not quoting him exactly) that you should have nothing in your house that isn't both beautiful and useful. This is excellent advice, if not always practical -- or so I would have thought until I saw that you could make a pair of toenail clippers beautiful by putting Jesus on them, and make them doubly useful by making them also a beer bottle opener.

Good Enough for Rock and Roll

Most of you know that I work for about half the year as a technical production editor at a Big International Scientific Institution. I edit peer-reviewed academic research papers on the subject of transportation. Dull you say? Heck of dull. There are interesting topics but they always seem to go to the other production editors. They get the camels and the women in Chad who have to get their goods to market, or the railroads. I've never had railroads. Or shipping. Or trucking.

I get a lot of pavement and cement. And the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail is modeling: creating a mathematical/computer model or simulation that will reliably predict, for predicting how the traffic that uses a grid of streets will increase over time or use the grid over the course of a day. You can see that governments would be interested in the Holy Grail. It would be a huge savings; it would be almost like striking oil: empirical work is expensive, time consuming, and troublesome (counting cars, or sending out surveys to thousands of households).

The math for these things can be daunting, and usually the desired outcome is a a comparison of the results of the model or simulation with previously acquired empirical data. These volumes are the biggest, i.e., have the largest number of papers, and it is all very meta. I can go through 20-30 of these and these papers and am almost stupefied with boredom. A lot of the aren't making a new model out of whole cloth but just testing out a tweak, or finding a new way to test some part or aspect of the problem: small increments of improvement if any at all, and usually, the conclusion is that further research is needed. In short, it takes a very long time to put a model on the road.

I had two thoughts about this: The first one was that there's something weirdly compelling about any representative object: I mean, as soon as a small child carries out the intention of drawing a face, no matter how crudely, we recognize the face. We can pick out lifelike features in the most abstract imagery, if we are given the least encouragement, the least suggestion. Mathematical models don't have faces, but they are lifelike in another way, which is that once you know how to read them, you can see that they are life-like, even if they don't actually "work", that is, do what they are supposed to do. They do manage to do something that literally looks like what they are supposed to do. In effect then they are another imitation of life. And of course computer models and simulations are enormously appealing. If they weren't, there would be no computer games.

Games don't really appeal to me. I like really simple ones like various forms of solitaire, but role playing games bore me. They are like the opposite of novels, to me. I have this evil suspicion that there are people who would prefer to live in a world with a finite number of possible events, with each contingency goverened by a fixed set of rules. Things supposedly get more lifelike as these events and elements get more complicated; worse, they are interested in life as a subject only in so far as it is represented in a gamelike way. And this is the complete opposite of the way I'm interested in life.

It's not that models don't work; I'm not being some sort of virtual Luddite here. It's that people are susceptible to a bias when it comes to judging whether a model works. There's "work" as in "the little cars go zipping around the fictional streets, stopping at stop lights etc." that is, it's a convincing image of something happening; and there's "works" as in "can be a basis for predicting the behavior of variables under the full assault of contingency, as in real life." The first is easy, the second is not. The bias is a certain difficulty in making this distinction. It's like thinking a Thomas Kinkade painting is "real."

I started thinking about this before the financial horror show began, because models are used in the securities business, to predict the price behavior of things like derivatives, i.e., to take the gambling out of gambling. The thing about gambling is that when the game is rigged it still has to look as if it's not rigged. So a model that looks like it works is as good as a model that actually works, if it will move product. And that itself is worth a gamble.

So it seems to me that investment companies, the creators and sellers of these model-based investment products, didn't need to find out whether they actually worked -- because at a certain fundamental level it didn't matter. At this point places like Lehman Bros. had become like that one old school chum of Bertie Wooster's who can handicap anything and opens a book on which vicar will preach the longest sermon, or on the Young Mothers' Egg and Spoon Race.

You could gamble with these fictions, and you could market them. It helps to actually have something of value to sell when you're marketing, but it's not essential. And then you market your own astuteness and technical wizardry, and you're off. So it seemed to me, anyway, and I did wonder if some of this mayhem was the result of the sort of business-world impatience with how things get done, with the labor of making, with the finding out of adverse facts. I mean, this sort of magical thinking about the source of value in an organization can turn up anywhere: I saw it in my last corporate job, I saw it when I was teaching at a university, and I saw it in the dot-com boom (it was the defining characteristic of the New Economy; people would tell me, speaking down to an idiot, how companies didn't need to make a profit selling products any more; in the New Economy everybody was going to get rich selling stocks back and forth and somehow the Newness of the New Economy was the way money would somehow mysteriously keep flowing up from somewhere -- venture capitalists' bottomless pockets maybe -- they were the real magicians) and keep everyone in the game for ever.) The same thing happened with the housing bubble, of course. There is a movement afoot to blame the recession on minorities and the poor (It is what people do all over the world, of course. When there is a crisis, go beat up on some person who doesn't have anything to do with it, but who can't fight back. Of course when Americans do it it is special and godly and nice unlike when other people do it.) but the catastrophe is the result of something that got much less press than housing prices until it began to come apart, which was the credit bubble. There have been deflating housing bubbles before, and while they were no fun for the participants, there was nothing on this scale. It's that the mortgages were turned loose in the credit markets and borrowed and bet and hedged against and leveraged and turned into fairy money, and, let's suppose for a minute that the that this bubble was growing roughly over the same time period as the housing bubble: notice that it's a kajillion times bigger (that is an obscure economic term I occasionally employ to impress people), and that gives me some idea of the scope and speed of the growth of the credit bubble. From that I infer prodigious activity, the creating, buying, selling and trading of these debt products at almost inconceivable speed and in volumes that it's hard to wrap my mind around.

Reflecting on that atmosphere it seems to me unlikely that the creators of these things would give them the kind of critical scrutiny that traffic engineers give to their models of freeway capacity.

My life coach says I need to get over my love of being right, but I think it may take me a while.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What Is Roger Kimball For?

Roger Kimball has been celebrating the second edition of his book "Tenured Radicals" the book that, along with Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind launched a genre: the revisionist history in which weak-minded liberal punks, with their political correctness, their godlessness, multiculturalism, their irony, their closet Marxism and out-of-the-closet sexual out-thereness, have brought Western Civilization to its knees. At the back of it is what I call The Permanent Elegiac Mode: The gods are dead, there is no more reverence for tradition, there is no more beauty, art is ugly, only a culture that has utterly lost its bearings would produce a piece of art that I personally loathe, and there is nothing left for a man of principle to do but mope around and pine for the glory days -- this is my favorite part: of some other country's Empire -- when real men were like Lord Kitchener.

No, no, not that Lord Kitchener
. You wish. I meant this one.

At the front of it, unfortunately, is the culture war, and that's what Tenured Radicals is for. Kimball certainly has grounds to celebrate. Like Dryden's Mac Flecknoe, he can truly claim to be "blessed with issue of a large increase."

You know, I wrote that, and then I said to myself: come on, now, Kimball is at least trying to be a serious person; you can't blame him for the dulness and mendacity of people like Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru, he's trying to keep this all on an intellectually respectable level, see, you're getting cynical and careless from reading all those lefty blog comments and--

Shortly after I wrote an essay on the subject of "Retaking the University" in The New Criterion, one thoughtful internet commentator responded with an alternative that I must have had somewhere in the back of my mind but had never articulated explicitly. This forthright chap began by recalling an article on military affairs that poked fun at yesterday's conventional wisdom that high tech gear would render old fashioned armor obsolete. Whatever else the war in Iraq showed, such tried and true military hardware was anything but obsolete. The moral is: some armor is good, more armor is better. "It makes sense," this fellow concluded, "to have some tanks handy."

He then segued into my piece on the university, outlining some of the criticisms and recommendations I'd made. By and large, he agreed with the criticisms, but he found my recommendations much too tame. "Try as I might," he wrote, "I just can't see meaningful change of the academic monstrosity our universities have become issuing from faculties, parents, alumni, and trustees."

What was his alternative? In a word, "Tanks!" He called his plan Operation Academic Freedom and I think you will agree that it has the virtue of simplicity that William of Occam, for example, famously recommended. Here's the plan:

We round up every tank we can find that isn't actually being used in Iraq or Afghanistan. Next, we conduct a nationwide Internet poll to determine which institutions need to be retaken first. . . .

The actual battle plan is pretty simple. We drive our tanks up to the front doors of the universities and start shooting. Timing is important. We'll have to wait till 11 a.m. or so, or else there won't be anyone in class. Ammunition is important. We'll need lots and lots of it. The firing plan is to keep blasting until there's nothing left but smoldering ruins. Then we go on to the next on the list. If the first target is Harvard, for example, we would move on from there to, say, Yale. So fuel will be important too. There's going to be some long distance driving involved between engagements.

Well, perhaps we can agree to call that plan "B," a handy recourse if other proposals don't pan out.

This no doubt won him big laughs among all the thoughtful people in the audience, these conoisseurs of high culture.

But there. Kimball candidly confesses that Plan A to overthrow the University, attacking it with Think Tanks--as opposed to the Plan B Tank Tanks--and stealth professors hooked and crooked and snuck into the institution strapped to the undersides of endowed chairs, is not making any political or intellectual headway. They've got the people in there ready to preach but no one is terribly interested. In fact the only people who seem interested in advancing Kimball's cause are the same ossified old farts who found his schtick funny in the 1980s -- and the witlings of Regnery Press, who, having mastered the concept, have taken it to new depths of low, so low that it's not even a culture war any more, it's a war of invective waged by stooges, so incompetent that you'd like to hand them a couple of sheep's bladders to whack each other with and elevate the tone of the proceedings. I must assume, too, that these folks in the audience never get tired of Kimball's forays into the modern world. You know the drill: Kimball hears about an art exhibition that he knows to the very marrow of his bones he will loathe. So he goes to it! Wouldn't you? He comes back with his hair on fire, with grisly reports of the death agonies of Western culture.

During one depressed period of my life some years ago it was a comfort to me to take adult ed art classes. I remember one watercolor class where this one older lady would make the same complaint every week: Lucian Freud's paintings were shockingly ugly and weird, and why did anybody want to look at them? Every week she would wonder why people looked at something she didn't like. It was impossible to answer this question. I mean, you can't reason with people like this. And they always think that that murky, bat-infested guano-scented belfry where they store their cranks, freaks, nail-clippings and manias is the central town square in the citadel of light and reason.

And so Kimball wants to fight the culture war with bitching, politicking, old rich bastards, and tanks. But not, it appears, by producing any culture. Roger Kimball is the editor of an influential literary magazine, and how many of these are there? He's an author with a wide audience. I should think no-one could ask for a better platform for the dissemination of their good, interesting, insightful ideas about education, the humanities, and culture. I mean, sometimes it's all I can do not to sing at everybody I meet about whatever I'm reading. I like writing and talking about literature because I love the stuff -- really love it, and if I have right feeling about it, if my judgment about it is al right, or even if it isn't, all I have to do is speak the truth about it.

As Bob Marley says, "I t'row me corn; me no call no fowl."

I have never found it necessary to await the removal of a bunch of my enemies, the advent of a Better Class of Person, perhaps belonging to some other period of history, when we all lived in an anthopologist's paradise. No, that is fantasy. Really, fantasy. People who want to live in a world that is purged of the things they don't like (art, people with wrong ideas) and think "Boy! I shoulda been born in medieval Japan, or Renaissance Florence, Victorian England, or on the Starship Enterprise, or wherever it is that Aragorn lives!" and think that the bad luck of being conscious here, now, is what keeps them from the fullest expression of their earth-shaking brilliance, are fantasists.

Kimball doesn't seem all that interested in culture, though he likes the job of acting as its representative to rich old reactionaries who emerge from their bunkers to hear him josh about blowing up universities with tanks. And thanks to someone like Kimball you can understand something that seems paradoxical: you may have imagined that a censor is an unhappy,dyspeptic sort of person, prudish, suspicious, narrow, a hater of the arts. Well, that may have been so long, long ago. Kimball is here to teach you what people in totalitarian countries learned in the 19th and 20th centuries: that the censor is often a person who professes to love and be moved by the very arts he seeks to control.This happens for two reasons: 1) the censor is a mediocre mind who is going to cut literature down to the size of the censor's own conceptions until the undeserving public learns to appreciate the censor's literary gifts, or 2) the culture-loving censor role gives specious intellectual respectability to a sustained effort to destroy the censor's political enemies, on his own account or on that of the political party he serves.

Because if he were serious about using culture to fight the culture wars, he could have offered up something that would have won on intellectual and creative merits. During the eighties, I was as antideconstruction and anti-pomo as anyone you could find. I also was not terribly interested, even as a "postcolonial Caribbean woman of color" in studying or teaching Caribbean literature. I'm interested in Caribbean literature now, but not at all in the way that it was taught during the multiculti craze. Those trends just did not speak to the way that I was interested in literature, to say the least, and that way, frankly, still has me spellbound. I lost friends over this, and in very outspokenly making my views known, I was putting my career in some jeopardy. Yes, postcolonial Caribbean woman of color, but No, can't abide Derrida and loves Samuel Johnson, Pope, and the metaphysical poets. And in the midst of all this I could only with honesty write what I believed. I read a paper at an academic conference and the organizers broke up the session as soon as I finished reading so that no one would have time to ask me any questions, they were so scandalized. I took these risks because I believed in what I was learning on my own, I saw it in relation to what the rest of the profession was doing, and I could argue anybody into the ground about it, and I was quite ready and happy to do so.

At any era in the life of a profession, there is a certain irreducible level of stupidity. I remember having one of my classes howling with laughter at the introduction to a volume of Shakespeare's sonnets, edited in the 1950s or 1960s, in which the editor was doing his desperate best to explain away the fact that the object of all those love poems was another man. It was Shakespeare, who was the first writer to have a whole industry dedicated to him, and he could not have those kinds of feelings because English professors for the past 100 years had been writing that he was the embodiment of the highest Western values -- at least as those professors understood them. One of the things you are supposed to learn in any profession is what belongs to intellectual fads, to the prevailing braindeadness of the time, and what belongs to the stuff that actually helps you know and judge and act. It takes actual work to teach students not to thoughtlessly project their assumptions -- fashionable assumptions or unfashionable it's still missing the point -- on to the people and lives and works of another time. Kimball has had a good long ride pretending that there is no difference between these things, but what has actually been the result? He has helped to coarsen the whole conversation about culture by making it about political attacks. He has helped to blur the distinction between between political ratfucking and actual cultural production, which has enabled all sorts of dullards to rise up and engage their ratfucking talents while believing themselves to be titans of intellect.

Who has rallied to the cause over the twenty years since "Tenured Radicals" first came out? That roomful of fossils at the Manhattan Institute, and Jonah Goldberg and Dinesh D'Souza, and a whole host of posturing, lying dunces. That is humiliating. That is, as the expression goes, EPIC FAIL.

And speaking of epic, I'm sure it's just about time for you to read The Dunciad again.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Oozing Something, at Any Rate

At Bookmercial Productions, we turn CEOs and their companies into industry thought leaders that ooze credibility.

They are looking for ghostwriters. That sentence alone suggests the need may be urgent.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Sofa Wars

Some of you may remember the Red Sofa of days gone by--well, of days until August just past actually, when I finally got rid of it. It didn't seem right to take anything quite so smelly into new digs. But Sweetie spent her entire life in the house on that sofa. Misha would circulate around the room, the house, sleep from room to room, no doubt pursued by her existential demons, but Sweetie was always in one place, the red sofa. She'd step off it to greet you, to go outside, to eat, and then she'd get right back on it. And then, incredibly, it was gone and we were living in a cluttered underground cave where the smoke alarm went off at total random and scared her so bad it made her teeth chatter, and when she jumped the (six-foot) fence to get away there were drunks in the alley and perhaps other unknown terrors beyond.

Life improved when we moved here, but there was no couch. Then a friend from the Big Scientific Institution where I do a six-to-seven-month stint of editing every year donated to me a soft naugahyde loveseat that also unfolds into a bed. This is so many kinds of groovy I can't tell you. The trouble is it really only holds one creature comfortably at a time. They call it a loveseat for a reason, I guess. Two can fit if one of them is not Misha and the other doesn't mind being a little scrunched up into a corner so as not to discommode the other. Sweetie always does mind, though, so then I'm the one that scrunches up. The thing is, whoever has the couch rules the couch. That's become sort of the rule. So if Sweetie is on the couch, Misha doesn't try to make her get off. But this turns out to be another variant of the Goat Skull Principle (scroll down to just below the second photo): the rule holds as long as Sweetie has the sofa. When someone else has the sofa, subtle adjustments are continuously made in the atmosphere of the room, and they come from the direction of Sweetie. She is concerned about something and wishes to address the subject with you in the nicest way possible. Circles appear under her eyes, and she lies on the floor and gazes at the sofa and moans, and then gazes at you with just the gentlest hint of reproach, and after a while you begin to think, well, really, after all, the sofa is all she has (where did that idea come from? Can dogs plant ideas in your head?). Misha, meanwhile, who weighs more than twice what Sweetie does, is lying on the sofa and feeling so guilty about it she can barely stand it. And this is also what happens when I lie or sit on the sofa.

Fortunately, a bigger one is expected within days and the current one will move into the spare bedroom along with me, when my Dad gets back from Jamaica next week. The new one will be big enough for at least three beings, just as the red one was.

I am sure that this is wrong by every conceivable canon of dog-training and dog-raising.

Other Sweetie news would be the stuffed bunny that after three weeks still has the squeaky bladder inside it--usually she has ripped the squeaky out within hours of getting any toy. The consequence is that she has become very attached to it and now, every other morning or so, insists on bringing it for our walk. That way she can engage in all her bunny-related program activities. The overall impression is of freeform interpretive dance interrupted by attempts to bury the bunny in flowerbeds or the trunks of hollow trees and then a minor crisis when she discovers that I have retrieved the bunny. Then it's Give me the bunny! I must have the bunny! Now! and if I cave in the whole craziness starts over again.

Misha doesn't participate in most of this. Misha is afraid of the bunny.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

buckner: Thoroughly Modern Marcel

Marcel Duchamp, who distained what he referred to as “retinal art,” attempted with his readymades and other conceptual antics to create an art that appealed more to the mind than the eye. He wanted to move away from the idea of the artist reflected by the 19th century refrain, “stupid as a painter.” But in spite of his efforts, artists are still stupid; they’ve just adopted a new vocabulary.

Many people recall when the term “Post-modern” was coined and started being used in art magazines and on college campuses. I believe it was first employed in architecture, to refer to the silly decorative cube and mystic pyramid shapes that started to creep into the work of building designers who were tired of blank Bauhaus rectangular boxes. Suddenly everybody was proclaiming the end of Modernism and it’s substitution with a groundbreaking new direction in art. Post-modernism would be more multi-cultural and gender inclusive, and would explore experimental media and content beyond the macho cubist constructions and paint throwing of the antiquated Modernist past.

How stupid is that? At the end of his poem “The White Boat,” Alan Stephens pokes fun at this theory of history:
This is how it is here
And will and will not be
Again, these small doings
Each an end, a beginning,
A middle, overlapping
Momently, here only,

This year, and then next year
Again, especial, late
In the day then, in late
December, this is how
It will be, and not be.
How it is here. (And you,

Keeping to the margins
Still, at your own late hour
And in the last twilight
Of this Modernist, Post-
Modernist [soon Post-Post-
Modernist?] Century—

Still at it, at your age.
With one more ‘impassioned
Natural description,’ still
Hoping only to get
The thing down, without wit
Or imagination.)
And yet, twenty-five years later, I still have 20-year-old college students in my classes, under the influence of their very professional art history professors, referring to Post-modernism as an established development in art. Last night, I (stupid painter) finally read to the end of a book I’ve taught the first hundred pages of many times, but never finished—Harold Rosenberg’s Art on the Edge. I found this quote from his article “The Old Age of Modernism”:
The dilemma of the museum in regard to present-day art is not new, nor is it easy to resolve; the very term “modern art” has always been a troublesome one. All periods, criticism of the term points out, were modern for those who lived in them. In describing its art as modern, our epoch implies that its today will last forever. Implicit in “modern” is the notion of a “continuing present,” a denial of the validity of both yesterday and tomorrow. To be modern is basically to be timeless, to look not toward a future but toward Utopia, toward, as Rimbaud said, “the happiness that none escapes,” a higher condition of man, the “revolution of permanence,” that still living dream conceived by the nineteenth century. “Modern” has never been simply the label of a period, like “Renaissance” or “Baroque.” It is inherently polemical; it declares the obsolescence of the heritage of earlier times, and even forecasts its own obsolescence in the present that is to come. Rimbaud took the pledge to be “absolutely modern” as if he were stiffening himself for an ordeal; can anyone have resolved to be “absolutely Romanesque” or “absolutely Rococo”? Some modern art is already a hundred years old, yet modernism as a concept overlaps upon the art of today. So it seems natural for museums of modern art to include art that is current, and demands by artists that they do so are difficult to reject. A cut-off point that brings modern art to an end somewhere in the past is necessarily arbitrary.
Art on the Edge was copyright in 1975, so this article must have been published in the New Yorker in the early ‘70s—long before Post-modernism was conceived. Perhaps the term was starting to circulate among the people he knew, or he was just prescient. Now how do we untangle this stupid idea from contemporary thought?