Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Workers' Comp at Brown

Library Shelvers Deserve Better Treatment

The Herald should be applauded for its coverage of the difficulty Brown’s under-appreciated library shelvers have had getting adequate compensation for their work-related injuries (“Library shelvers suffer from repetitive stress injuries, Oct. 24”). Having worked part time this past summer as a student shelving assistant, I can testify to the strenuousness of the job and the professionalism of the library shelvers.

Shelving books may seem like an easy job, but hours and hours of repeating the same simple movements can create real wear on the body, and the monotony of the work can leave you feeling mentally fried. If the soles of your shoes are wearing thin (as mine were), or if you’re not careful about how your move your body, you end up sore at the end of just a single day of work. All the little exceptions to the rules—say, every once and a while you forget to take a break, or you bend down to shelf a book instead of squatting down—begin to add up. Though I am a healthy young person, I found myself experiencing mild foot and lower back pain after half a summer of 20 to 30 hours weeks at the job. I can only imagine the toll that decades of full-time shelving work must take on a body twice as old as mine.

It must be added to the Herald’s coverage of the shelving staff’s injuries that the library shelvers are not just suffering bodies, but dynamic individuals who manage to stay upbeat despite their less than ideal working conditions. The shelving staff is a vibrant and friendly bunch who made me, a temporary worker, feel at home even in the windowless basement of the Rock. Their personalities make an otherwise dreary and monotonous job enjoyable at a human level. They are also very professional. They taught me how to do my job and gave me tasks without ever being bossy, unctuous, or otherwise compromising the comfortable workplace rapport. Most importantly, they did not just look after the quality of my work, but also after my physical welfare, making sure that I knew how to shelve books without hurting myself and that I took adequate breaks.

After all the concern that the library shelvers showed me, I cannot believe that the reason library shelvers are incurring injuries is that they are not applying the safety techniques taught in training workshops, as head of Preservation Eric Shoaf suggested to the Herald. Shoaf’s remarks, as well as those of Director of Environmental Health and Safety Stephen Morin, whom the Herald paraphrased as saying that that “shelving is not an area that jumps out as having a high occurrence of injuries”, seem to intentionally downplay the health risks of being a long-term library shelver. The University’s position seems to be that the shelvers’ injuries are not inevitable results of their job for which the University must take responsibility, but rather are the shelvers’ own faults. This attitude is symptomatic of a broader devaluing of physical labor in today’s economy, a trend that is all the more pronounced at institutions of higher learning, which valorize and reward the intellectual and clerical labor over the physical labor.

The truth is this: that repetitive physical labor, even labor as seemingly low-intensity as shelving books, breaks the body down, and that the people who make their living through such work must be fully compensated for the physical deterioration they will inevitably incur as part of their job. To say that there are health “risks” associated with a career as a library shelver is misleading. It is almost certain that doing shelving for years will result, if not in a dramatic physical injury, then generally accelerated physical strain. Shelving may not be as immediately dangerous as other forms of manual labor, and shelving-related injuries may be less dramatic than life-threatening construction accidents, but the certainty of long-term physical damage is no less real.

Brown can make changes both big and small to treat its shelvers more fairly. Starting small, the library should stop putting books on the bottom shelf of the stacks in the library, which are the most straining on shelvers’ backs and knees to reach. This has already been done in some sections of the library, and should continue to be implemented throughout the library as over-stocked stacks are reorganized. The library should also increase pay for student shelving assistants to better reflect the physically demanding nature of their work relative to other student jobs. Student shelvers currently make a quarter less per hour than students working in the book bindery, for example. Ultimately, however, Brown has to be more responsive to the needs of its employees and the judgments of employees’ doctors pertaining to work-related injuries. It is disgraceful that Brown employees should have to resort to lawsuits to claim fair compensation for their hard work. The Herald’s must continue its critical coverage of the University’s labor practices. Finally, Brown students and alum should support University workers’ efforts for fair compensation and safe labor practices. After all, student tuition and alumni donations contribute to the salaries of the Universities physical workers. If we alumni and students are not a part of the solution, then we are part of the problem.

Former Herald Opinions Editor Patrick Harrison ’08 misses the shelf life.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Zizek and Badiou on the Financial Crisis

Zizek steals my moves on the financial crisis (or rather finally gets around to applying the moves which I learned from him to the latest current event).

The good people at Infinite Thought have translated Badiou's article in Le Monde on the financial crisis.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Now is the Time for Politics

The current financial crisis is not a natural disaster or an act of God. It is a result of the way that we organize our societies, economically and politically. It is a result of the "hands off" attitude of our government that has allowed financial institutions to speculate on bad investments on credit. Therefore we must reject President Bush's call to "rise above politics". It is precisely politics that we need right now! This crisis is not a scientific problem; it will not be resolved by technicians. It is a problem of inequality and of our government protecting big business instead of protecting working people. The resolution of this crisis will be a matter of our elected officials taking sides with either the working people or with the financial elite, depending on the terms of regulation and relief for homeowners that are ultimately decided upon.

I'm very interested in the ideological function of the figure of the Wall Street executive in this. Both Obama and McCain have emphasized that they don't want irresponsible Wall Street executives to be rewarded with large severance packages for this. This of course is terrible hypocrisy on McCain's part: he wants to limit CEO packages to $400,000! I guess for a guy with over a dozen houses and eight cars, $400,000 is just chump change. Anyways, emphasis on punishing Wall Street executives (or not) hides the fact that this crisis is a systemic failure, and not merely the fault of a few individuals. It is 'objective' violence, not 'subjective' violence, as Balibar and Zizek would put it. The issue is not whether a few individuals will be unfairly rewarded with large severance packages, but whether our government will continue to be a government at the services of the financial elite and the bourgeoisie or if it will be a government of working people.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Against Voting

Reproduced below is an article I wrote for the Brown Daily Herald about the progressive political efficacy of protesting elections in America. A friend of mine whose a grad student at Cornell tells me the article was re-printed in the Cornell Daily Sun in a weekly supplement that re-prints articles from the newspapers at other Ivy League schools.

Now I have my problems with liberal democracy as an institution, but in lieu of proposing a total revolution that would rewrite the American Constitution (I'm in favor of it, yes! But this goal seems more like the horizon of possibility of political action than a tactical, concrete goal at the moment) I think we need to take a hard look at the actual mechanisms that run our so-called democracy. We must have a massive reform of our voting system that (1) the abolition of the electoral college and direct popular election of the presidency, (2) the end of all 'superdelegate' or privileged party-member votes in the two national parties, and (3) the introduction of a multi-round run-off system that will allow for the emergence of real national alternatives to the two national parties.

I feel like the ending of this article is something of a cop out. Basically, I'm trying to reconcile with the fact that the fact that voting gives consent to an undemocratic system of government, and that the election of John McCain would mean the indefinite extension of the Iraq War. Frankly, I think that the end of the Iraq War is more pressing, and so perhaps it is a tactical compromise (and a question of priorities) to vote for a candidate who will end the war. Is this the best action though?


There is a lot of hype about the record turnout of voters for the presidential primaries this year, but no one is talking about how low voter turnout actually is. In Iowa, only about 15 percent of the eligible population caucused. In the past 35 years, voter turnout for national elections has been abysmal. In the past seven presidential elections, only 50 to 55 percent of the eligible population voted. If only half the population is voting, and if elections are a narrow contest between two opposing camps, as they inevitably are in a two-party system, then only a quarter of the population is effectively running the show. Sound like democracy to you?

Some will say that low voter turnout is the fault of a lazy, apathetic electorate. Liberal progressives will respond that the real issue is to find out why voters are apathetic, and blame apathy on poverty and government unresponsiveness to public needs. This position conceives of "apathetic" voters as purely passive, ignorant people who just need to be educated on how easy voting is, and assumes that no systemic change in our form of government is needed to revitalize democracy. For liberals, not voting is equivalent to not acting, and political action is synonymous with voting. Against this, I want to propose that the only truly political, democratic action one can take today with regard to elections is to refuse to legitimate a corrupt and undemocratic system by not participating in it and actively boycotting and protesting elections.

This is not to say that voting can never work. If elections were actually fair, then we would have an obligation to vote. But the last two elections have not met that standard. Given that people of color are still disenfranchised en masse and the will of the people can be overridden by the Electoral College, we have an obligation not to vote and to actively demand electoral reform at a Constitutional and local level. The Electoral College, which has four times in history overridden the popular vote, must be replaced by a direct popular vote. Early voting, which allows people to vote over a period of a month before elections, should be a universal practice for all elections to make voting easier for working people - currently, early voting exists in only 35 states. Finally, at the local level, we must work to make sure that early voting locations are open on weekends and are accessible to all citizens.

The most important voting reform for more democratic politics, beyond fair elections, is replacing our winner-takes-all elections with a multi-round run-off system. Every four years, American voters face the same dilemma due to the winner-takes-all system: "I want to vote for candidate X, but those stupid masses and the Electoral College make X unelectable." What we need to realize is that electability is not a real, objective quality that a candidate possesses, but a belief about a candidate that a voter projects onto her imaginary concept of the "stupid masses."

My wager is that neither are the "masses" stupid, nor is the concept of "the masses" as a coherent, homogenous, pre-given consensus anything but a pure, ideological fiction produced by politicians as "middle America" and by the media with its ceaseless opinion polls. Buying into the myth of "electability" allows you to publicly betray your beliefs (you don't vote for candidate X), fall in line with the ruling ideology and still be able to cynically maintain your sense of private purity ("My heart was in the right place!"). Winner-takes-all elections result in everyone practicing a kind of "second choice" politics that is massively repressive to any kind of original political thought. A multi-round run-off system, in which candidates are eliminated through a succession of rounds of voting until one obtains a majority, would do much to end the spell of "electability."

It would encourage originality by allowing candidates and voters to bring their interests to the table with less reservation during the initial stages. It would also result in more meaningful political compromises by forcing candidates and voters to work through issues together, negotiate compromises and form coalitions at each stage of voting, as opposed to candidates' policies and voters' interests always being compromised from the get-go in our current system.

This exegesis on "electability" demonstrates that it is not people who abstain from voting who are apathetic, but people who do vote when they know full well that our electoral system is corrupt and undemocratic who are truly apathetic, passive and apolitical. To the objection that voting is the only way to hold politicians accountable, I say that politicians are held more accountable if we refuse to play into the electoral charade that they hold over our heads to "legitimate" their rule. Some object that there will still be a president. If by "president" they mean a leader who governs by the democratic consent of the people, then they are wrong. Neither will there be one in 2009, nor is there one now.

However, whether we can afford not to do everything possible to end the imperialist war in Iraq is a very different question from whether we can afford to live a little while longer under this sham democracy. The real "choice between the lesser of two evils" today is not the choice between Clinton and Obama, or between Democrats and Republicans. It is the choice between voting and not ending the war.

Patrick Harrison '08 voted early for Obama in the Tennessee primary.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

stream of consciousness

i hade to write a one page stream of consciousness theatre piece as a bullshit assignment for a theatre history class. this is what you come up with when writing at 6am with agamben, international politics, and sex nazis stirring around in your mind all week

Milhaud Rimbaud Artaud fo’ sho(w)!
Arborescent feasant’s
Heather, madam of leisure, black shirt boots of pleasure were by the
Riots in France! Avant-en-garde! Can you free Tibet with without freeing Vichy first?
[rabbits set loose run across the stage and are shot
as Jean Renoir films, his father and Heidegger have tea while discussing
science, with due dis
stain on Hannah Arendt’s blouse]
Sex is cruel but not as cruel as labour, and labour not as cruel as out of work with nothing to do but set cars aflame

-- Did you hear there’s ash raining from the sky in Guantanamo?
-- Yes, it made it all the way to Florida but luckily we sent it back.
-- Man I sure do get lost surfing all this net!
-- Yes then you should try the inner city!
Where’s that octophonic tonic with Harry Connick, now there’s a C major kind of guy, I heard his people invented jazz! If jazz was ever the case, that is.

-- La creation du monde! Zeitgest! Gesundheit! If Europeans could talk what would they sound like?
-- Better not to ask, I prefer suburbaltern photochat myself.

[Kenny G records saxophone of “Louis Armstrong’s” What a Wonderful World,
volcanoes explode and men weep to feel so moved for the first time in their life
since removed out of the original packaging, sure they’re not worth anything anymore, but all the fun they had could never be made up for by being collectors items, plus they’re still almost in mint condition, except the Boba Fett which my dog chewed up, the head is a little damaged and my dog threw up inside, cleaning it up was gross but I had my Salvadoran nanny do it]

-- Gaea?
-- Black forest?
She puts the age in savage and the V in Na-zi
How did we ever get back from camp?

-- Please don’t proo freed my desire I just want to fornicate, just please don’t make me touch it touch It that Thing at the outside of town, if town indeed has an outside anymore.
-- Everyone please draw straws to see who has to go find out.
-- How long will it take?
-- Who knows no one’s ever seen it, but I hear the train is not too crowded. STANDING ROOM IN THE AIX-ELLES!
-- How are we going to pay for this?


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

there is no "like us" because "us" is everyone

Yes, it would be worthwhile to study clinically, in detail, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century that without his being aware of it, he has a Hitler inside him, that Hitler which inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon, that if he rails against him, he is being inconsistent and that, at bottom, what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the “coolies” of India, and the “niggers” of Africa.
-- Aime Cesaire, Discourse on Colonialism

We should be more struck than we usually are by a remark that often recurs in articles and commentaries devoted to the war in the former Yugoslavia: it is pointed out--with a kind of subjective excitement, an ornamental pathos--that these atrocities are taking place 'only two hours by plane from Paris'. the authors of these texts invoke, naturally, all the 'rights of man', ethics, humanitarian intervention, the fact that Evil (thought to have been exorcized by the collapse of totalitarianisms') is making a terrible comeback. But then the observation seems ludicrous: if it is a matter of ethical principles, of the victimary essence of Man, of the fact that 'rights are universal and imprescriptible', why should we care about the length of the flight? Is the 'recognition of the other' all the more intense if this other is in some sense almost within my reach?
-- Alain Badiou, Ethics

Funny that when I saw the home invasion sequence I thought the film was trying to make a point about the occupation of Iraq; Agamben is quite right that Abu Ghraib is a camp. Frankly, I am not sure what point this TV spot is trying to get across: is it about Iraq? the restriction of civil liberties since 9/11? Holocaust denial?

The idiocy of the commercial is not just the obvious point that it implies that the "us" to whom the Holocaust happened is only "middle class suburban white people." The real problem is the "like us." In order for there to be a "like us" then there must be those who are not "like us" against whom it is permissible to commit systematic, biopolitical violence. This is Cesaire's point on the Holocaust: that the moral outrage Euro-Americans express (with a certain self-punishing pleasure) about the Holocaust, elevating it to the level of an unthinkable metaphysical catastrophe--didn't Adorno say there could be no poetry after Auschwitz"--brings out, in contrast, the silent complicity with colonialism. Cesaire seems to anticipate Foucault on biopolitics here in a wonderful way. It is interesting that European thinkers are only now getting around to criticizing the elevation of the Holocaust into an unthinkable, metaphysical Evil--although even Agamben, while showing the Holocaust only to be part of a grander biopolitics, still chalks it up to metaphysics--when you had Cesaire writing this in 1953.

Which leads to Alain Badiou and the second point. That rejecting the "like us" doesn't mean reviving an ethics based on the Other-to-be-respected. Badiou and others have argued persuasively that there can be no ethics of otherness, since what respect for otherness does not respect is precisely the other that doesn't respect otherness. Essentially the ethics of the other it is the ethics of liberal democracy, and we can see this repeated throughout liberal assumptions on tolerance--what tolerance doesn't tolerate is the intolerant, a void in tolerance which must be assigned a specific substantive content and thus undoes tolerance--and democracy, conceived of as a form of rule--everyone can participate in democracy except people who are against it. Badiou's passage below speaks to this fact that the other in truth will only be tolerated insofar as the other is same; that the suffering of the Other is only relevant insofar as the other is "like us." Furthermore--and I think this is critical--a professor of mine has argued that to call another an Other is really a one-way exercise of power.

That there is no "like us," then, can only mean that "us" should be everyone. Our politics must strive toward One world, a world of reciprocal gazes that recognizes not Otherness but Sameness in one-another, a world of equality-in-belonging and equality-in-freedom.

sex nazi

this just in from the New York Times, I don't even know where to begin, it is tempting to invent some bullshit about a homosexual oedipal complex at play--maybe he's acting out the primal scene?--but i don't know enough about psychoanalysis (also, didn't Adorno say homosexuals were more likely to be fascists? what the hell was that about?)

Possible Nazi Theme of Grand Prix Boss's Orgy Draws Calls to Quit

LONDON — Few scandals in recent years have provoked as much anger and dismay across Europe as the saga of Max Mosley, the overseer of grand prix motor racing who made tabloid news last weekend in a front-page exposé and accompanying Web video showing him in a sadomasochistic orgy with five supposed prostitutes in a London sex “dungeon.” [...]

Family history has added to the notoriety: Mr. Mosley, 67, is the younger son of Britain’s 1930s fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, and the society beauty Diana Mitford, whose secret wedding in Berlin in October 1936 was held at the home of the Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels and included Hitler as a guest of honor.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Rambo Ends the Burmese Civil War

this is the long version of a review of stallone's latest "rambo" film that i wrote for the post- and had to be published in a much more abridged version

Rambo Ends the Burmese Civil War
The fourth installment of the series is the smartest stupid movie ever

For a while, American film studios had stumbled into a period of producing thoughtful and entertaining thrillers about international politics like “Syriana,” “The Constant Gardener,” and “Children of Men.” Those precious years has slipped behind us, our theatres now clogged with such pretentious fair as “Lions and Lambs,” “The Kite Runner,” and “Redacted.” In this dark time, one film stands alone as a beacon of light: “Rambo,” the fourth installment of the infamous Sylvester Stallone films that began with 1982’s “First Blood.” “Rambo” continues the series’ legacy of faux-political action films whose exploitative violence problematizes their good intentions. In “First Blood,” Rambo comes home from the Vietnam War haunted by post-traumatic stress disorder and unable to resume a normal civilian life. When some redneck cops try to start trouble with him, a mini war breaks out between a man who destroyed his humanity for his country and his unappreciative fellow Americans. Naturally, this thoughtful message gets buried deep beneath a pile of bodies.

This time around, Rambo has “gone native,” living in solitude in Thailand when he is approached by Christian missionaries who want to hire Rambo to ferry them up river to Burma where they deliver medicine and Bibles to the Karen people, who, as everyone on this campus knows, have been brutally oppressed by the Burmese government for nearly 60 years. The film’s brilliance is expressed in an exchange between Rambo and the arrogant head missionary who says that they are going to Burma “change peoples lives,” to which Rambo responds:

“Are you bringing weapons?”

“Of course not.”

“Then you’re not changing anything.”

What “Rambo” reminds us of is that, as Mao put it, “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun,” not from the well-wishing of NGO’s. “Rambo” should be commended for its borderline-parodical portrayal of these liberal Christian missionaries whose talk of pacifism and “making a difference” really does ring hollow next to the film’s excessive violence. When the Burmese army (of course) captures the missionaries, it is up to Rambo and a weirdly-multicultural team of mercenaries to go rescue them and strike a blow for the Karen people in the Burmese civil conflict along the way, like some vigilante United Nations task force.

“Rambo” is by far the most violent film in the series. The battle scenes are an overwhelming spectacle. Fire and computer-generated blood are everywhere. Children are dismembered. Men are eaten alive by animals. Bodies are rearranged most creative ways imaginable. With their quick cuts and boundless grotesquery, these scenes are halfway between Sergei Eisenstein and Hieronymus Bosch. Sure, it is pure violence offered up for uncritical consumption as entertainment, and it is not even good filmmaking. But, these scenes are nonetheless captivating, especially when, after the nearly avant-garde montages of horror end, they are capped off with genre clichés (swelling music, close-ups of emotionally fraught faces heroically blackened with blood and grime) that feel strangely out of place, as though the whole film were some kind of perverse, high-concept parody.

Don’t get me wrong: “Rambo” is a stupid and exploitative film. Women exist only to be rescued (if they’re white) or to be gang raped (if they’re not). The plot is not really about the Burmese civil war at all, but about the white people who get entangled in it, and the Burmese themselves are portrayed not so much as people but as masses of brown flesh to be butchered in the most spectacular way possible—or as butchers themselves. The only significant Burmese character is the brooding, silent (or at least un-subtitled) Burmese army officer who acts as ringmaster of the genocide. With burning villages reflecting in his aviator sunglasses, he is a serviceable villain, but his portrayal as a pederast is the film’s least tasteful gesture.

Nonetheless, there are penetrating moments of truth scattered amidst the blood and rubble. When Rambo says to a mercenary, “Live for nothing or die for something,” he names precisely what is prohibited by the self-designated forces of “progress” today. Today one is free to do anything but die for a cause, and to believe in anything except that which you might have to kill for, or else one is labeled an “extremist.” Meanwhile, the ongoing dirty work of politics is farmed out to the armies of other countries, or done with advanced weapons technology that keep our beautiful souls at a safe distance. Perhaps the only way to get Rambo’s valuable message across in theatres today, when soft-headed liberals have monopolized “serious” films, is to disguise it in a dumb action flick.

draft of a short play

Zeno's Berlin:
A Scene for Puppets and/or Humans, Based on the “Para” Paintings of Neo Rauch

by Patrick Harrison

“I understand myself to be a director of plays.” – Neo Rauch (1969- )

“The infinite cannot traverse the finite.” – Aristotle, Physics

Die Flamme (The Flame), 2007

Vorort (Suburb), 2007

Post-War America, in one of those American towns where such temporal distinctions lose their meaning.

A proscenium divided in thirds. The left two thirds are foreground, the interior of a small convenience store. Behind the counter is a man who smokes only one cigarette that burns down forever without ever going out. The right third is a suburban street, lined with houses, that goes on forever. Far in the distance there is an intersecting road that runs parallel to the audience. Even further back, at the vanishing point, is the Thing.

The Thing is hurtling toward the foreground from the vanishing point, but never gets any closer. The Thing looks like a train, and spews out a long tail of black smoke into the clear blue sky. Maybe it is a train, but it sounds like an airplane, or, at any rate, the hum of an approaching, low-flying airplane is heard throughout the scene, rising in pitch and volume with agonizing slowness.

Foreground right, a person stands in the middle of the street with a radio and semaphore flags. His back is to the audience; we never see his face. He appears to be communicating with the Thing using semaphore: the Thing squawks to him over the radio; he responds in semaphore. Occasionally he looks through binoculars at the Thing.

Perfunctory squawk.
Perfunctory semaphore.
Interrogative squawk?
Answering semaphore.
Interrogative squawk?
Elaborate, explanatory semaphore.
Clarifying squawk.
Clarifying semaphore!

During the answering semaphore, a man appears on the distant, parallel road, turns onto the main street, walking to the foreground. On his way down the street, he blocks the Thing’s view of the semaphore man, making communication difficult. The new man wears a backpack laden with something heavy. Attached two his shoes are two large vertical wooden planks. When he walks, the planks block his view and strike his head. Though appearing to walk at a vigorous pace, he covers ground slowly, as though the earth were out from under his feet. His path winds wildly left and right down the straight road.

Visibly tired, the plank-wearing man arrives and enters the store. During the scene that follows, the man and the clerk figure do not look each other in the eye, but instead are looking past each other just to the left or the right, like two blind people talking to one another. They do not seem to be aware of this. They are cheerful and enthusiastic, but their congeniality masks a debilitating fear without object.

The action outside the store overlaps the scene within.

Clerk: You’re late.

Man: I’m early.

Immediately and alarm clock on the counter goes off.

Clerk: You’re cutting it close.

Man: There will be time to be early later.

They regard each other.

Clerk: It’s good to see you. It’s been a long time.

Man: Not that long.

Clerk: No, but it feels like forever.

Man: It does.

They shake hands. The man removes his planks, setting them against the wall like skis, and unpacks a box from his backpack.

Clerk: How are those planks working out for you?

Man: Oh great! They make walking much more difficult.

Clerk: Wonderful!

Man: Yes! Thank you very much for the recommendation.

Clerk: They look swell on you too.

Man: Thank you.

He hands the box to the clerk in exchange for a wad of cash, puts the cash in his wallet and puts the wallet back in his pocket. Simultaneously:


Clerk: Well, what’ll it be?

Man: Hmm… (scanning the merchandise) Well, how about what’s in the box?

The clerk removes from the box a Russian doll, rings it up on the cash register, and hands it to the man in exchange for more money than the clerk had just paid him.

During the course of the conversation, the two have a series of exchanges: The clerk buys a layer of the Russian doll. The Man buys the layer back. The clerk buys the layer back as well as the next layer. The Man buys back the latter layer. Et cetera. The doll is never reassembled as one: more and more dolls are produced by the transactions, increasing in number to create an implausible multiplicity of dolls. The amount of money changing hands increases similarly. Each time the clerk methodically rings everything up on the register, and each time the man methodically removes and replaces his wallet from/to his pocket. Maybe they must use the box and the dolls to hold all the money, maybe they toss Russian dolls filled with money like footballs across the store. It is a spectacle that proceeds with machinic precision and increasing speed. Their bodies labor with increasing difficulty. It takes as long as it needs to.

Clerk: I can only use a treadmill these days.

Man: Well, the great thing about the planks they’re like a treadmill that goes places.

Clerk: Yes, we don’t all have time to stay at home on the treadmill not going anywhere.

Man: That’s for sure. Wouldn’t mind it though!

Clerk: Yes, indeed, not at all!

Man: Though they do make walking even more difficult.

Clerk: Treadmills.

Man: Yes.

Thoughtful squawk
Shorter squawk.
Amused Squawk.

Clerk: How is your little girl?

Man: Married!

Clerk: Really?!

Man: (proud) Yes, indeed!

On the intersecting street in the distance, a marching band playing patriotic tunes passes by for a while, heard only faintly in the distance. They do not obstruct our view of the Thing, which has grown taller but remains still obscure on the horizon.

Semaphore, including the motions of a marching band drum major.

Clerk: Goodness me, it wasn’t but yesterday she was just a young thing helping me here at the store.

Man: I know.

Clerk: How long is it been since… They grow up so fast.

Man: Yes.

Clerk: But no matter how old she get, she’ll always be your little girl.

Man: No matter how.

Clerk: No matter how.

Frantic panicked squawking.
Frantic, panicked semaphore.

Clerk: Who is the lucky fellow?

Man: A military man, a fine young man. In the Army. From this town: Harrison boy?

Clerk: Hmm… (The clerk shakes his head: “Don’t know him.”)

Man: ’parently they’d been going with each other since high school! And here me not knowing a thing about it!

Clerk: Well kids will be—

There is an emergency. Frantic, panicked squawking and semaphore goes on continuously for the rest of this conversation. This is not just a senseless frenzy: it is deadly serious, like panicked 911 calls or a heated argument in sign language.

Man: Not like I would have minded. Tom and Betsy’s are good people and the military is a fine—

The clerk is unable to restrain his laughter any longer. There money exchanges are going at a more and more breakneck pace.

Man: (amused) What? What’s so funny?

Clerk: I knew’d all about it, tee hee! About your girl and the Harrison boy when they were kids, tee hee!

Man: How—

Clerk: Oh he’d come by here so often just to talk to her that it wasn’t hard to intuit.

Man: (beaming) Nooo!

Clerk: I never could believe you didn’t know, though, though you didn’t seem to.

Man: Why didn’t you tell me?

Clerk: Well, I didn’t think there could be no harm in it. They’re good kids. And it was fun feelin like an accomplice in them putting over their folks. That’s the best part of being young.

Man: I suppose it is.

Clerk: Besides, didn’t know anything, I just felt it.

Man: Hmph. Well I’m just tickled. I guess you did right.

The clerk smiles.

Clerk: No, no, it was your little girl did right. How is the new couple getting along?

Man: (hiding his reticence) Well… he’s been stationed abroad.

Clerk: Aw, your little girl is far away from you, huh?

Man: They’re in Berlin.

Clerk. (suddenly concerned) Oh.

For a heavy moment, they do not speak, though they continue their economic exchanges with even greater exertion. The squawking of the radio and the mad twirling of semaphore flags reaches a fever pitch.

Man: Yes, they say it is lovely there.

Clerk: I bet it is. I bet it is.

Another heavy moment. They throw the full capacity of their bodies into their rapid, machinic exchanges.

Clerk: And how is your boy?

The Man fumbles the Russian doll and money and dolls explode everywhere in a loud crash.

The squawking abruptly goes silent, the semaphore man instantly freezes, drops his flags, and looks through his binoculars at the Thing. The marching band finally exits, its music drowned out by the sound of the approaching Thing, which we now hear by itself for the first time since the beginning of the Scene, much louder and more belligerent.

Clerk: You all right?

Man: Yes I’m fine. I… I’m sorry, I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.

Clerk: It’s fine, it’s fine.

Man: My hands were little… I lost my grip.

Clerk: Sure, sure, sure, that’s fine.

They pick up the money and dolls.

Clerk: More of them bad dreams… keeping you up?

Man: Yes… They’re not dreams, they’re called night terrors.

Clerk: Oh.

Short, bursts of squawking, as though the signal were going in and out. Through out the rest of this conversation, the transmissions and the semaphore will occur continuously. The squawking is calm, musical, and continuous: a monologue rather than a dialogue. The semaphore is equally placid: its movements are smooth and continuous, like a strange dance, expressive rather than communicative.

Inside the store, the Man is clearly shattered, barely maintaining his composure.

Clerk: They’re like nightmares…?

Man: They’re bad like nightmares ’cept they’re not dreams like nightmares. They’re not about anything. You just feel afraid… anxious…

Clerk: I see.

Man: But not about anything in particular, like monsters or some kind of danger… like being on stage without lines or being on top of some great big height… You’re not afraid of anything in particular. You’re just afraid. Can’t put a name on it.

Clerk: (uncomfortable) I see.

Man: Sometimes my wife wakes me up from them, and I don’t know who I am.

A long pause in conversation and activity. We listen to the Thing and the gentle flapping of semaphore flags in the silence.

Clerk: (changing the subject) They say the planes are coming soon.

Man: Yes. Wonder when they’re gonna get here.

As in cinema, an “iris out” transition to black, centered on the Thing.


i am rebooting the blog--first created in 2005 with only two posts, one of which i deleted because it felt a bit more like a diary entry than public writing--because i have become morbidly enthralled with blogs lately. beneath are some thoughts i shared with a friend who also has a blog devoted primarily to academic-y stuff. it is very cursory and a filled with grammatical errors, but grammar is classist so whatever:

Been reading your blog, I hope you keep adding to it, it’s very interesting. Plus it will probably be an invaluable asset for you as an aspiring academic: it seems every hip left wing professor has a blog these days (jdeanicite.typepad.com, melissaharrislacewell.com/Blog/, nowtimes.wordpress.com/, among many many others, and, hippest and most crassly self-promotional of them all, www.lacan.com/blog/index.html). Academics are increasingly turning themselves into talking heads and freelance intellectuals as universities have taken up the Stanely Fish style of academic administration, trading star academics around for bigger and bigger salaries like baseball players (what kind of steroid does an academic use? We can only hope they’re all as hip as Benjamin when it comes to drugs…). If academics are MLB player, then I guess their blogs are like academic trading cards, then, publicity gimmicks that are rapidly accruing a value of their own. Is it a pity to see academics turning their activity into Spectacle, including even the craggiest old Maoists and Eastern Bloc-er’s, or is it just a recognition that the Left needs to try to get a stake in what little of the internet hasn’t already been territorialized by corporate capital?

It is interesting that Zizek has defending his involvement in “popular” media as a way to avoid the shit show of the American academy. When the Boston globe asked Zizek whether there was anything “unseemly” about his writing for the Abercrombie and Fitch Quarterly catalogue in 2003, he said ''If I were asked to choose between doing things like this to earn money and becoming fully employed as an American academic, kissing ass to get a tenured post, I would with pleasure choose writing for such journals!'' Perhaps rather than react with overt hostility to Zizek’s pop-star methods—his shilling for A&F, appearance on the Children of Men DVD, the 3 documentaries that have been made about him, his appearance on a few American infotainment—we should read Zizek as the fulfillment of the marketization of the academy: now the “academy” as an intellectual-market enterprise no longer needs the academy as the institution. But what the hell, the French have been doing it ever since existentialism, right? The real test is whether market strategies will compromise the integrity of academic work any more than the ostensibly anti-market tenure system already has…

And what is this marketization of the academy itself a symptom of? Against the right-wing assertion that the academy is overly politicized, we should assert that it is in fact utterly depoliticized: what matters most in the academy right now is making your buck from the highest bidder, not the collective formulation of rigorous political and intellectual movements. It is no wonder then that it is inter-disciplinary “identity” departments like Africana Studies and Latin American Studies departments that have become the last bastions of more dedicated political thinking in the academy. Of course, nothing protects such departments form marketization either: but what has made them hold together marginally better than philosophy, comp lit, English, and culture studies departments is the ideological heritage that created these departments as the results of broader political struggles for rights and power for various ‘minority’ groups (two parenthetical thoughts: (1) lets never use this word ‘minority’ again because it sucks all the history out of the terms “black” “woman” “queer”, etc., the history that constitutes the very identity of these groups and is the substance of all their political claims for power, and turns politics into an a-historical task of apportionment (2) True there was a certain political fight behind the creation of culture studies departments, but I think that that political fight—what do we do with all these old Marxists and people who read French philosophy?—is one largely internal to the academy rather than one effective in society at large).