August 17th, 2004


When I got home yesterday our mailbox contained a special treat amid the endless offers for new loans: issue #19 of h2so4.

I've been reading this delightful publication since the mid-1990s, when its editor Jill Stauffer started graduate school at Berkeley. Unapologetically smart, h2so4 still manages to avoid sounding pretentious, even when its contributors are dropping the names of dead European thinkers. "Won't you join us? We're drowning in obscurity, but the water's lovely," is h2so4's tagline. It's an accessible obscurity, though, more shallow tropical inlet than open water.

Among the magazine's best features are the "Dear Philosopher" advice column and a reviews section in which anything and everything goes and goes well together. I've learned a lot about writing from h2so4 reviews, not least the importance of being confident in the exercise of my distressingly large interpretive powers. There are plenty of good reviews this time. One of my favorite is Amy König's take on the Wannamaker/Lord and Taylor holiday light show, with excursi on the decline of both department stores and mall culture. The last paragraph does a wonderful job of distilling the take-home point of Walter Benjamin's massive Arcades Project -- Passagenwerk in German -- into a single elegant sentence:

Perhaps, when capitalism's previously dominant forms decline, we can begin to see and mourn the kind of wishes they purported to fulfill.
I love the idea that we're mourning, not what did happen, but what we wished would happen.

Listening to Walter Cronkite talking on NPR about the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, then watching the coverage in 2004, I realized how rapidly our Cold War television networks are approaching this sort of nostalgia-inducing obsolescence. I was suddenly aware how much I missed the stability and simplicity of a world in which Elvis Presley only needed three televisons to outfit his Graceland media center. But that sense of loss is only possible because so many wishes from back then went unfulfilled. At any rate, as that brief flight of fancy indicates, reviews in h2so4 have a wonderful capacity to inspired hard thinking without anxiety about whether that thinking is right or wrong.

Charlie Bob says, "Check it out."
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Secular Demigoddess

Have you ever seen Dziga Vertov's film Man With A Movie Camera? It's an amazing piece of radical art. Instead of using the montage techniques pioneered by D.W. Griffith to tell a story, à la his countrymen Pudovkin and Eisenstein, Vertov deployed them as a means of subverting the power of traditional narrative. Shots are grouped by content and form, but rarely do they force viewers to contort their sense of reality to fit a story arc.

Because Vertov was what we now call a documentary filmmaker, his subjects were real people. One of my favorite parts of the film is the section devoted to athletic pursuits, in which buff men and women disport themselves in a carefree manner. There are times, though, when Vertov's admirable resistance to storytelling metamorphoses into the stylization associated with propaganda. Ordinary people become signs of an extraordinary society, but at the expense of their ordinariness.

And yet, I have to admit that I'm strangely attracted to the ideal types that result from this stylization. Maybe it's the German in me -- I have a soft spot for the tough-looking babes in Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia too -- but secular deification turns me on. That's why I was so pleased with this photograph I took the other night:

Here's a woman transformed into the type of woman who gives no nickel, much less quarter. I can see her soaring over some proletarian backdrop in one of those revolutionary posters that now provide an endless resource for irony miners.

Of course, the fact that Kim actually comes pretty close to meeting that ideal of womanhood in her actually existing existence helps to tether my flight of fancy to something concrete. Believe me, I'd rather be tethered there than anywhere. My beloved revolutionary sweetheart indeed. . .

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