Naomi Klein on Bush, the ‘hollowing’ out of politics and the Obama brand
Just as companies such as Nike and Microsoft had pioneered the hollow corporation, this was, in many ways, a hollow war. And when one of the contractors screwed up — Blackwater operatives opening fire in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007, for instance, leaving 17 people dead, or Halliburton allegedly supplying contaminated water to soldiers — the Bush administration was free to deny responsibility. Blackwater, which had prided itself on being the Disney of mercenary companies, complete with a line of branded clothing and Blackwater teddy bears, responded to the scandals by –what else? — rebranding. Its new name is Xe Services.
[...] Rather than actually changing or even adjusting its policies, [the Bush administration] launched a series of ill-fated campaigns to “rebrand America” for an increasingly hostile world. Watching these cringeful attempts, I was convinced that Price Floyd, former director of media relations at the State Department, had it right[:] “I’d be in meetings with other public-affairs officials at State and the White House,” Floyd told Slate magazine. “They’d say: ‘We need to get our people out there on more media.’ I’d say: ‘It’s not so much the packaging, it’s the substance that’s giving us trouble.’” A powerful, imperialist country is not like a hamburger or a running shoe. America didn’t have a branding problem; it had a product problem.
I used to think that, but I may have been wrong. When Obama was sworn in as president, the American brand could scarcely have been more battered – Bush was to his country what New Coke was to Coca-Cola, what cyanide in the bottles had been to Tylenol. Yet Obama, in what was perhaps the most successful rebranding campaign of all time, managed to turn things around. Kevin Roberts, global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, set out to depict visually what the new president represented. In a full-page graphic commissioned by the stylish Paper Magazine, he showed the Statue of Liberty with her legs spread, giving birth to Barack Obama. America, reborn.
Though it’s too soon to issue a verdict on the Obama presidency, we do know this: he favours the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change every time. So he will make a dramatic announcement about closing the notorious Guantánamo Bay prison — while going ahead with an expansion of the lower profile but frighteningly lawless Bagram prison in Afghanistan, and opposing accountability for Bush officials who authorised torture. [...] This preference for symbols over substance, and this unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, is where Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements from which he has borrowed so much (the pop-art posters from Che, his cadence from King, his “Yes We Can!” slogan from the migrant farmworkers — si se puede).
Personally, none of this makes me feel betrayed by Barack Obama. Rather I have a familiar ambivalence, the way I used to feel when brands like Nike and Apple started using revolutionary imagery in their transcendental branding campaigns. All of their high-priced market research had found a longing in people for something more than shopping — for social change, for public space, for greater equality and diversity. [...] What the election and the global embrace of Obama’s brand proved decisively is that there is a tremendous appetite for progressive change — that many, many people do not want markets opened at gunpoint, are repelled by torture, believe passionately in civil liberties, want corporations out of politics, see global warming as the fight of our time, and very much want to be part of a political project larger than themselves.
Ron Silliman on what changed in poetry this past decade (if it was a decade)
Poets blogging is just a symptom. The decline of indie bookstores, including the closure of such stalwarts as Cody’s & Shaman Drum, is just a symptom. The slow, painful death of newspapers, most of which have already tossed their book review sections and literary critics overboard, is itself just a symptom. The collapse of academic literary journals–viz. TriQuarterly, Southern Review, and Poetry Northwest, three of my first publishers–is just a symptom. Trade publishers openly speculate that they may be next, and even universities are starting to fear that their turn may be coming. They’re right.
Just as MFA programs have pumped the number of poets writing and publishing in the United States up from a few hundred a half-century ago to tens of thousands today, the major institutions that not only embodied all of this activity but served an important (if hotly contested) gate-keeping function are now all being undermined or transformed by the ongoing revolution in communications technology. The poet’s relationship to his or her audience is undergoing a profound transformation. The poet’s relationship to the institutions and even to the tools of her or his practice is doing likewise. Everything is up for grabs.
Some poets have chosen to embrace the new with everything from flarf to technology-based visual poetries. Others have decided that the “timeless” values of tradition will outlast even this. They recall and sometimes reiterate the archaeologist’s maxim that ultimately, hard copy is truth. If you can’t dig it up in 5,000 years, did it ever exist? Ian Hamilton Finlay, with his stone-carved minimal texts, may outlast us all.
What’s apparent is that (a) this joyride isn’t over, and (b) we’re all in this together. When I realize that any chapbook publisher with a Blogspot page and PayPal account can sell directly to readers worldwide, I feel hopeful. I just hope we can find time to read & enjoy this great bounty.
Stefanie Marsh talks to Barbara Ehrenreich about her latest book Smile or Die (via Kala Ramesh)
They’re shocking, if sometimes amusing little tales, and proof, says Ehrenreich, that positive thinking has contaminated all sorts of aspects of modern life, encouraging us to embrace the notion that, for example, it is possible to overcome a fatal illness such as cancer through sheer willpower, just as, so the self-help gurus tell us, it is within our grasp, with the right attitude, to think ourselves rich, even in a recession.
From a British perspective it’s clear, obvious even, that Ehrenreich is on to something: namely, the high-fiving, go-get-’em culture that we like to believe is anathema to us. But in the US, she says, even some of her closest friends hadn’t a clue as to what she was driving at when she first started talking about a book in which she hoped to dismantle the scourge of positivity: “The first thing you realise is that it’s so much part of the culture that it’s so hard to disentangle it from everything else,” she says. “I had a really hard time explaining to a lot of people what I was writing about. Positive thinking is everywhere. It’s indistinguishable from background noise.”
She also noticed it in the form of evangelical “it’s all down to you” televisual presences such as Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey twice invited Ehrenreich on to her programme after the publication of Nickel and Dimed to discuss the plight of America’s poor. “She had picked out three women in poverty to nurture and give money to,” Ehrenreich says. “I think they were given $60,000 for a year to straighten out their lives, it was all a bit yucky. Anyway, she made some comment on the show about how it was all just a matter of attitude whether you get ahead in life and I just said, ‘No! I think that’s victim-blaming’.”
Isn’t Winfrey, the prototype self-made woman, entitled to hold such an attitude? “I think it’s the most wonderfully selfflattering thing to believe, if you are rich and famous and successful, that ‘I did it. I did it all by myself, through my own essence.’ I can imagine it would be a good thing to feel. We don’t as Americans tend to acknowledge interdependency. The debt you owe your parents, free public education and so on. It’s all ‘me’.”
Jo Walton on how to read science fiction & fantasy (via Hobbes)
Having a world unfold in one’s head is the fundamental SF experience. It’s a lot of what I read for. Delany has a long passage about how your brain expands while reading the sentence “The red sun is high, the blue low”—how it fills in doubled purple shadows on the planet of a binary star. I think it goes beyond that, beyond the physical into the delight of reading about people who come from other societies and have different expectations.
Because SF can’t take the world for granted, it’s had to develop techniques for doing it. There’s the simple infodump, which Neal Stephenson has raised to an artform in its own right. There are lots of forms of what I call incluing, scattering pieces of information seamlessly through the text to add up to a big picture. The reader has to remember them and connect them together. This is one of the things some people complain about as “too much hard work” and which I think is a high form of fun. SF is like a mystery where the world and the history of the world is what’s mysterious, and putting that all together in your mind is as interesting as the characters and the plot, if not more interesting. We talk about worldbuilding as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues. When you read that the clocks were striking thirteen, you think at first that something is terribly wrong before you work out that this is a world with twenty-four hour time—and something terribly wrong. Orwell economically sends a double signal with that.
Rafael Behr meets Shlomo Sand who disputes the ethnic basis of Jewish identity
Sand’s detractors portray the book as an assault on Jewish identity and the legitimacy of Israel. But he sees it as the opposite: an attempt to rescue Jewish-Israeli identity from an intellectual abyss and redeem Israeli society with a healthy dose of secular rationalism. “I wrote the book for a double purpose. First, as an Israeli, to democratise the state; to make it a real republic. Second, I wrote the book against Jewish essentialism.”
This, Sand explains, is the tendency in modern Judaism to make shared ethnicity the basis for faith. “That is dangerous and it nourishes antisemitism. I am trying to normalise the Jewish presence in history and contemporary life.”
That means chipping away at the Jewish self-image of survival by insularity — withstanding thousands of years of persecution by virtue of non-proselytising, cultural and religious introspection. In Sand’s analysis, early Judaism pioneered the art of conversion. To spread as quickly as it did, Christianity must have exploited an earlier Jewish expansion.
Charles Simic on defacing books (via Anindita Sengupta)
Wherever and whatever I read, I have to have a pencil, not a pen—preferably a stub of a pencil so I can get close to the words, underline well-turned sentences, brilliant or stupid ideas, interesting words and bits of information, and write short or elaborate comments in the margins, put question marks, check marks and other private notations next to paragraphs that only I—and sometimes not even I—can later decipher. I would love to see an anthology of comments and underlined passages by readers of history books in public libraries, who despite the strict prohibition of such activity could not help themselves and had to register their complaints about the author of the book or the direction in which humanity has been heading for the last few thousand years.
Witold Gombrowicz says somewhere in his diaries that we write not in the name of some higher purpose, but to assert our very existence. This is true not only of poets and novelists, I think, but also of anyone who feels moved to deface pristine pages of books.
‘Of interest’ is a series of articles in which I post links to articles, essays and interviews that I find interesting. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the opinions. The two articles I enjoyed most, and this may already be obvious from the amount I quoted, are the Naomi Klein essay and the interview with Barbara Ehrenreich. Funnily enough, I thought Klein was being perhaps too optimistic towards the end of her own piece. — A
PS: Oh, and I’m excited about SB, of course. It’s hard to tell from the cover if it’s in French or not. Must be, since it’s Editions Blanches. I wonder who did the translation, and how.
Obligatory pretty picture below