September 23rd, 2004


In high school, I went though a period in which the prose plays of Henrik Ibsen seemed like the best art in the world. I've since moved on to work that is more radical at a formal level, as well as some that feels more proximate culturally. But the place in my heart for The Wild Duck, Hedda Gabler, and Ghosts has never been pushed aside. I decided to teach An Enemy of the People and The Wild Duck this semester. It will be my first time teaching Ibsen. At the time I picked the readings for the course, I couldn't have told you why I suddenly felt compelled to incorporate such personal material into my professional existence. Now, though, as stress fractures start to show in the corners of my life, I understand what motivated my choice. I was getting ready to return, while desperately hoping not to have to make the trip.
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Love of Sophie Is All Around

In case you were wondering whether other bloggers descend into the disturbing philosophical depths I visited yesterday, I give you a sample of this September 21st entry from Jill, publisher of my favorite meta-zine h2so4:
I think what John is arguing is right, and important, even if I can't agree with every point he makes to get to his conclusion. What matters for our purposes is that part of his argument is about where philosophy comes from, and why that matters to political philosophy in particular (it is an argument he gets from Jacques Ranciere, who starts from a Marxist standpoint, and then John renews the argument for his own purposes). The point: philosophy is thought to emerge from the distinction between thinking about "real" things and thinking about "ideal" things. Otherwise put, it arises out of the split between concretion and abstraction.

Ranciere argues that this way of conceiving of the split covers over something important. The real line here is between the thinker and the maker, the philosopher and the artisan. Beginning with Plato, the philosopher claims the ability--and the right--to think about, define, and perhaps derive examples from the artisan. (You know: the carpenter builds table, the philosopher theorizes the Ideal Table in addition to theorizing Ideal Things more important than tables.) Two classes of human beings then form: those who think and those who make, or: those who think and those who are thought about …as if it were so easy to divide human beings into classes and say that one class is characterized by a gift for abstract thought and the other for the production of material goods.

Of course, history has shown that it IS "easy" to divide human beings into classes and then limit or make rigid their possibilities depending on which class they happen to find themselves in (or, at times, which class they select to be a member of). So John's point, via Ranciere, is that philosophy is born of a social and not merely a theoretical distinction. And then: philosophy is complicit in keeping that distinction alive.
Good to know I'm not alone, though Jill is far more proficient at this type of thinking than I am.

I should add, in closing, that her blog is the first of several that I will be introducing to you over the next week. Look for the new links in the sidebar to the right. And check out her previous entries, which discuss her quest to find a screwdriver, among other things.
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Report on the Bad Subjects Reading

I've been fitfully composing the tale of our Bad Subjects reading at City Lights Books last Wednesday over the past week. Including maximal linkage takes time. Since I want this long entry to serve as an advertisement for our reading at L.A.'s Skylight Books -- on Vermont, in Los Feliz -- coming up on Friday, October 1st, however, I think the effort I expended was worth it.

First off, the book, Collective Action, is available here or, if you don't mind going corporate, here, or, if you are feeling truly perverse, here as well. There's even as especially evil-looking and expensive hardcover version, which would nicely complement your titles in the dark arts. While I'm at, I hereby encourage you to investigate other books put out by members of our collective as well as our first anthology.

There. I've done my part to stoke the flames of consumer desire.

Kim has already blogged about the sad irony of her not being able to participate. I responded to her in a long comment. Our exchange provides a useful corrective to the exultant tone of the narrative to follow.

I rode BART over from Berkeley with my super-friend Joel Schalit. We got to City Lights early and bought copies of our book, since we had already given our free ones away. Then we crossed the street to Café Tosca to prepare. I love the pressure of having to edit on the fly, so the fact that I hadn't even looked at my piece before settling down on my barstool didn't seem daunting. Joel ordered a cappuccino, only to discover that Tosca makes them with alcohol. As it was just sitting there on the bar, I eventually decided to pay for it. The bartender gave it to me gratis, fueling my struggle -- successful, I think -- to turn a 2000-word piece into a 500-word highlight reel.

Joel eventually took off to meet the other participants in the reading, while I finished my edit. Then I headed for the bookstore. As I climbed the stairs to the poetry section where they hold readings, I was surprised to find the room completely packed. I was sure we'd have an audience, but didn't think there would be forty people in it.

I inched my way through the throngs sitting "criss-cross apple sauce" on the floor and found a seat behind the microphone stand. This meant that I was near the bottles of water that City Lights had kindly provided us, which proved a boon since it was quite hot in the room.

Joel and Megan Shaw Prelinger shared the duties of providing background for the book as a whole, reading brief portions of the introduction they wrote together with me and Jonathan Sterne. I have a hard time blowing my own horn -- I've never been particularly limber -- and winced a bit at the praise the introduction directs towards our collective project. But we have every right to be proud. I need to get over my inhibitions.

Bad List-veteran David Hawkes -- see my entry on the history of Bad Subjects from a few days ago -- started things off with his piece that contrasts superstition in contemporary Haiti with the sort that rules the market-obsessed, postmodern West. I was delighted to see David and blown away that he had come all the way from the East Coast for the occasion. David has a special place in my heart because he is on the faculty at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania's Lehigh University, in the same department where the grandfather I never knew, Al Rights, taught drama.

Annalee Newitz followed with some entertaining ad-libbing that següed into her dissection of movies like Chasing Amy in which heterosexuals try to "turn" homosexuals. Since she was the shortest participant, I used the occasion to take a photo of the crowd.

While I didn't find Chasing Amy as objectionable as Annalee did, I was glad that she showcased her remarkable gift for stating strong opinions in an accessible and entertaining manner.

Joe Lockard followed Annalee, choosing to read a recent web column he co-wrote with a Polish man he became acquainted with through Bad Subjects and has never met in person. I was pleased with his selection, because the column does something Bad Subjects started out doing and has moved too far away from: analyzing mass culture of the massiest sort. While I disagree with the reading they give of Troy, as I noted before reading my own piece, I like the depth of thought they devoted to that film and The Chronicles of Riddick.

During Joe's turn at the mic, Megan and Joel were studying a flyer that had been passed around in the crowd accusing us of being complicit with a "Zionist Left" identified, amusingly enough, with Noam Chomsky. Joel and Megan chose to address the flyer before introducing me, triggering a brief exchange with two protesters. Luckily, the crowd was squarely on our side. The highlight of this Bay Area-style fray was when someone pointed out that the loudmouthed protester was decrying Zionism while wearing Calvin Klein jeans. That got a big laugh. Once everything had settled down, I proceeded to present my article, "Hotel California: Learning How to Read." It went over very well, as did my improvised comment that I was clearly part of the Zionist conspiracy since I was writing about The Eagles, renowned for Jewish members like Don Henley.

I've always been baffled by the way in which subject matter determines one's readership. When I wrote a strong piece on The X-Files back in 1996, I was sure that I'd get a ton of responses. But I didn't. By contrast, my piece on Ranger Rick magazine from the following issue struck a chord with quite a few people. It's my piece on "Hotel California" that wins the prize for maximum feedback, though. Indeed, I've received so much fan mail on the essay that it nearly ranks with some of Kim Nicolini's lesser articles. But compared to her "Staging the Slut" or "Streets of San Francisco" -- the latter piece is laced with irony in light of the location of the reading -- my most popular piece is exposed as a pretender. I remember how she used to get dozens of e-mails each week for months on end when one of her pieces debuted online. I sure wish she could have been at City Lights.

After I finished, prison activist Karl Macrae took the podium. I'd never met Karl, though I'd heard great things about him from former Production Team member Aaron Shuman. Karl did an amazing job of translating what is an intense, powerful essay into something suited for a hot, restless audience. I can't believe how well he distilled his point about the scope of the professional class involved in the prison-industrial complex. Sometimes my conditioned numbness falls away and I realize how screwed up the United States must seem to citizens of other developed nations. Karl's presentation inspired one of those moments.

Our last presenter was Rick Prelinger, renowned "indie" archivist and the filmmaker responsible for the new Panorama Ephemera. Seeing many young faces in the crowd -- more on that in a little bit -- Rick took the opportunity to riff off his excellent piece "Beyond Copyright Consciousness" from the book, making a stirring appeal for a world where access to information matters more than the price people put on it. Every performance benefits from a strong closer and Rick certainly filled the bill for us.

Once the reading was over, I learned that part of our audience consisted of a high-school class from Encinitas, the very place in northern San Diego County where Kim, Skylar, and I take our beach vacations. Those young faces in the crowd were really young. It turned out that they were on a political tour of San Francisco. Their teacher, a longtime Bad Subjects reader, made a point of working the reading into what was surely a very tight schedule, making his class's attendance a special honor for us. That his students seemed to dig the proceedings only added to the coolness of it all.

Afterwards, we milled about for a while with members of the audience. I met Joe's very cool daughter and her partner for the first time, made plans to hook up with David during the MLA -- he now lives in Philly -- and generally basked in the post-reading glow. Eventually, we spilled out onto Columbus and made our way across the street to Café Macaroni for a pleasant group dinner. I sat next to Joel's girlfriend Jennifer and Karl Macrae, both of whom proved stimulating conversation partners.

At one point, I went outside to call Kim. She wasn't too happy to hear about the reading, as her blog entry I linked to above indicates. I expected that she would regret not being there, particularly because North Beach is such a repository of intense memories for her: the Sam Wong, the Mabuhay, Clown Alley, the list goes on and on. Somehow, though, the fact that I wasn't surprised to hear the bitter undertone in her voice didn't make me feel any better about the phone call.

The irony on top of all the other ironies is that Karl Macrae turned out to be exactly the sort of person that Kim would have bonded with. When I praised his performance, he responded with the edgy self-deprecation that people who feel themselves outsiders often deploy. "I crawl under houses for a living," he kept repeating. I knew what he meant, knew why it mattered, knew how important it was to have his voice be a part of our book and the reading, since Bad Subjects has drifted too far away from its "middle period" when contributions from regular people outside the academy were at their peak. Perhaps reading this will help Kim to forge a path back to the work she did for Bad Subjects.

Once the dinner party had dispersed, I headed back to City Lights to shop for more research materials and, more importantly, something for Kim and Skylar. Then I made the pilgrimage across what is now Jack Kerouac Alley to Vesuvio -- we've always called it "Vesuvio's," for some reason -- the famous Beat hangout where I spent so many excessive nights with Leanne, Keith, Hummer, Annalee and others back in 1989. I took photos, naturally, documenting the famous upstairs table under the large portrait of James Joyce where we always tried to sit, the one next to the women's restroom where everyone, male and female, took turns getting amped, much to the chagrin of those patrons who actually needed to pee.

More importantly, since I knew that Kim had written about feeling like an outsider among hip lefties in "Streets of San Francisco," I took pictures from the table she and I had sat at in December, 1989, on our last night out together before I returned home for Christmas. That night I had the impression that she thought I would break up with her after a few weeks away. That certainly wasn't my intention, but I can understand her anxiety in retrospect. Our first six weeks together had certainly been tumultuous. I had already given her an Egon Schiele book for a Christmas present. She waited until we were sitting at Vesuvio's, drinking the green chartreuse that Amanda Ykamp had introduced to her during their Berkeley Poetry Review days. Kim's gift to me was Sam Shephard's Motel Chronicles, which I went on to read with great care while at my parents' home in Maryland.

After fondly remembering the rest of that night together, I began the long walk to Embarcadero BART, enjoying the good vibrations from the desolate financial district streets. As I approached the Hyatt, I decided I needed to take one of my "real night shots," only this time in full tourist mode.

When I entered the BART station, I discovered that it was A) extraordinarily hot; and B) full of unhappy people. Yes, it was one of those notorious BART delays.

Well over an hour later, I finally boarded a train bound for Oakland. Luckily, I had purchased the new issue of The Believer at City Lights and passed the timed reading it cover to cover. I finally arrived at Macarthur BART well after midnight, which is not the best time to be heading out onto 40th with a laptop in hand. But I walked rapidly and made it back to Jillian and Doug's place without incident, thoroughly exhausted.

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