Monday, April 25, 2011

Positively Representation of Banking Revisited

A text in a magazine is never alone, but always within a context and a dialogue that is both internal and external to the magazine that publishes it: it relates to other texts within the magazine, both past and present, and to other texts on the topic elsewhere (as well as to text production in general). This is part of the rationale behind my own “Positively Revisited” series of texts about texts in e-flux journal. But a text’s relation to the publication in which it appears, as well as to a broader discourse, determines the way in which it enters into discourse and its surrounding discipline, and any magazine—the one you are presently reading being no exception—both produces, and is produced by, its own discourse and discipline. A magazine circulates discourse, but in a reflexive manner, since its publication date is a punctuation of time, while its seriality assures continuation. It can thus be instructive to look not only at texts as sites of knowledge that produce and circulate discourse, but also to the publications in which they are found. The present text being revisited, John Strauss’s “Transparency: The Highest Stage of Bank Architecture,” is a case in point—in terms of both time and place, it is difficult to imagine it being published anywhere other than in a specific magazine culture.

Although short-lived, the NYC journal Wedge, from the early 1980s, was exemplary of the above-mentioned reflexive circulation of discourse, but also exemplary of a magazine culture that was interdisciplinary in its scope and political in its critique. It may have stemmed from the art world, but it was not limited to it or defined by it. Wedge did not deal with art criticism, but with what we can call the art of critique. Today one might characterize its methodology as cultural studies (before it became a derogatory term for art history). If so, it is different from the dominant strands—the consumer studies–inspired sociological version, or the one fostering a postmodern sublime by aestheticizing so-called outside and low cultural forms—now comprising a field of cultural studies that has become a discipline rather than an interdisciplinary or even anti-disciplinary mode of inquiry. Instead, Wedge called itself “an aesthetic inquiry” at its inception in 1982, and dealt with such issues as “The Imperialism of Representation, The Representation of Imperialism,” which was the thematic for Wedge 7/8, the double issue in which John Strauss’s article on the architecture of banks first appeared.1

Strauss’s essay traces the change in bank architecture from the grandiose imperial style to its near disappearance as it came to favor modernist transparency, seeing this as ideological, and as representational. In short: banks represent. In this way, Strauss, as an artist-writer, uses art criticism (or architectural criticism, if you must) as an aesthetic inquiry into the politics of representation. It is an artistic critique that uses aesthetics on the offensive, rather than as a retreat into disciplinary entrenchment, as an analysis of other forms of representation than art, but as equally expressive of discourse. It is an art criticism that does not take art as its object, but representation itself—in this case the aesthetics of banking, and how the façade represents the value inside. Whereas banks in the nineteenth and early twentieth century tried to lure customers in through solidity and monumentality, literally securing the deposits, modern, international banking requires transparency: functionalist architecture with glass façades and atriums masquerading as public spaces.

Modern bank architecture, then, attempts to represent efficiency, accessibility, and interactivity—well, trans-activity, really. However, with the advent of computing, virtual transactions necessitated another form of representation. This was answered partly by the falseness of postmodern architecture—with no correspondence between façade and interior, Strauss outright calls it “cynicism”—and partly by the disappearance of the bank as a physical site altogether, replaced with omnipresent ATMs, located on literally every street corner and supermarket. “Money must never rest,” as Strauss writes, “for circulating money is what ‘makes’ money.”2

Indeed, the second half of Strauss’s text goes beyond representation in any tangible sense, focusing on the invisibility of the circulation of capital, as well as the instability of money and credit in the so-called “debt crisis” of the 1980s.

The text shifts from discussing ideology in representation to the political economy of the much-fabled Reaganomics era, with its severing of the credit system from the system of production that turned the credit market into a speculative industry—which became, of course, the root of our current debt crisis. This is not to say that Strauss’s essay is prophetic, but rather that it is instructive of how cultural critique can engage with economics and neoliberal ideology. The fact that the editors of Wedge found it appropriate for an art magazine to discuss the economy and criticize the IMF, as well as US interventionism in general (which is thoroughly documented within the pages of issue 7/8), is exemplary of an attitude sorely missing from our present time.

This present revisitation not only invokes an erstwhile magazine culture, but also rests upon an actualization of it, namely Jason Simon’s revisitation of Strauss’s piece in the pages of Printed Project, in the form of a photo essay visualizing the apparently seamless transfer of bank spaces into other commercial spaces—shops that accept credit cards, indeed often offering credit plans—accompanied by Strauss’s article in facsimile (as an artistic readymade).3

New questions can then be formed: What happens to representation and politics now that the credit system itself has been discredited? What does the transformation of stolid old bank offices into boutiques—that Simon’s series of photographs offers testament to—tell us about the drive to transform economies of production into zones of consumption in the former West? And what does it tell us about the failure of this project, this failure residing within capital?

At the time Strauss wrote his text, which effectively criticized Reagonomics and neoliberalism, Reagan’s close ideological ally, Margaret Thatcher (in)famously said that “there is no alternative” to her way of governing, to neoliberalism, and to capital, which has sadly proved prophetic in terms of our political imaginaries. And today it seems that there is no answer to the credit crisis, no alternative political project making itself visible, and, if you will, credible. The crisis is generally seen as having to do merely with banks, and as being integral to the capitalist world system from which it obviously sprang. So perhaps the real failure, the real crime, does not lie with the banks—which, after all, only did what banks always do by trying to maximize profit—but with the lack of visibility for alternative visions, with the existing political and artistic critiques that have been effectively de-presented in the ruins of the public sphere and nominal forms of democracy and political representation.
For Jason Simon

1 John Strauss, “Transparency: The Highest Stage of Bank Architecture,” Wedge 7/8 (Winter/Spring 1985): 110–117.
2 Ibid., 112.
3 See →.

Text by Simon Sheikh
e-flux Journal #24, 04/2011

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Tree Telling of Orpheus

White dawn. Stillness. When the rippling began
I took it for sea-wind, coming to our valley with rumors
of salt, of treeless horizons. But the white fog
didn't stir; the leaves of my brothers remained outstretched,
Yet the rippling drew nearer – and then
my own outermost branches began to tingle, almost as if
fire had been lit below them, too close, and their twig-tips
were drying and curling.
Yet I was not afraid, only
deeply alert.
I was the first to see him, for I grew
out on the pasture slope, beyond the forest.
He was a man, it seemed: the two
moving stems, the short trunk, the two
arm-branches, flexible, each with five leafless
twigs at their ends,
and the head that's crowned by brown or golden grass,
bearing a face not like the beaked face of a bird,
more like a flower's.
He carried a burden made of
some cut branch bent while it was green,
strands of a vine tight-stretched across it. From this,
when he touched it, and from his voice
which unlike the wind's voice had no need of our
leaves and branches to complete its sound,
came the ripple.
But it was now no longer a ripple (he had come near and
stopped in my first shadow) it was a wave that bathed me
as if rain
rose from below and around me
instead of falling.
And what I felt was no longer a dry tingling:
I seemed to be singing as he sang, I seemed to know
what the lark knows; all my sap
was mounting towards the sun that by now
had risen, the mist was rising, the grass
was drying, yet my roots felt music moisten them
deep under earth.

He came still closer, leaned on my trunk:
the bark thrilled like a leaf still-folded.
Music! There was no twig of me not
trembling with joy and fear.

Then as he sang
it was no longer sounds only that made the music:
he spoke, and as no tree listens I listened, and language
came into my roots
out of the earth,
into my bark
out of the air,
into the pores of my greenest shoots
gently as dew
and there was no word he sang but I knew its meaning.
He told me of journeys,
of where sun and moon go while we stand in dark,
of an earth-journey he dreamed he would take some day
deeper than roots ...
He told of the dreams of man, wars, passions, griefs,
and I, a tree, understood words – ah, it seemed
my thick bark would split like a sapling's that
grew too fast in the spring
when a late frost wounds it.

Fire he sang,
that trees fear, and I, a tree, rejoiced in its flames.
New buds broke forth from me though it was full summer.
As though his lyre (now I knew its name)
were both frost and fire, its chords flamed
up to the crown of me.
I was seed again.
I was fern in the swamp.
I was coal.

Denise Levertov

Witch and Dragon

Hans Baldung, Stehende Hexe mit Ungeheuer; 295 x 207 mm,1515.
Drawing with bodycolour (b/w repro).

The Mother of Possibility

Idleness—that beautiful, historically encumbered word. Beautiful because childhood is its first sanctuary and still somehow inheres in its three easy syllables—and who among us doesn’t sway toward the thought of it, often, conjuring what life might be like if it were still a play of appetites and inclinations rather than a roster of the duties and oughts that fill our calendar—indeed, make it necessary that we keep a calendar at all? Encumbered because the word has never not carried the taint of its associations. Idle hands, the idle rich, the downturns that idle workers. Idleness has been branded the obverse of industry, a slap in the face to all healthy ambition. So-and-so is a layabout, a ne’er-do-well, an idler. But for all that, we have not made the word unbeautiful; there is a light at the core, to be remarked, gleaned from the righteous attributions of the anxiously busy.

It is a confusing concept, though, and to find that pure and valid strain, it would help to say what it is not. Idleness is not inertness, for example. Inertness is immobile, inattentive, somehow lacking potential. Neither is idleness quite laziness, for it does not convey disinclination. It is not torpor, or acedia—the so-called Demon of Noontide—nor is it any form of passive resistance, for these require an engagement of the will, and idleness is manifestly not about that. Gandhi was not promulgating idleness, nor was Bartleby the scrivener exhibiting it when he owned that he would “prefer not to.” Nor are we talking about the purged consciousness that Zen would aspire to, or any spiritually influenced condition: idleness is not prayer, meditation, or contemplation, though it may carry tonal shadings of some of these states.

It is the soul’s first habitat, the original self ambushed—cross-sectioned—in its state of nature, before it has been stirred to make a plan, to direct itself toward something. We open our eyes in the morning and for an instant—more if we indulge ourselves—we are completely idle, ourselves. And then we launch toward purpose; and once we get under way, many of us have little truck with that first unmustered self, unless in occasional dreamy asides as we look away from our tasks, let the mind slip from its rails to indulge a reverie or a memory. All such thoughts to the past, to childhood, are a truancy from productivity. But there is an undeniable pull at times, as if to a truth neglected. William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” suggests as much: “But for those first affections,/Those shadowy recollections,/Which, be they what they may,/Are yet the fountain light of all our day,/Are yet a master light of all our seeing.”

Idleness is what supervenes on those too few occasions when we allow our pace to slacken and merge with the rhythms of the natural day, when we manage to thwart the impulse to plan forward to the next thing and instead look—idly, with nascent curiosity—at what is immediately in front of us. It has been with us from the first man and woman—when self was in accord with all nature—and so along with being the core of our childhood sense of the world, it is also the center of our Western legend of creation. Unsurprisingly, it features—the longing, the evocation—through our literature and art from earliest times, changing inflection, intensifying and diminishing depending on historical context. Figuring conspicuously in the pastoral ideal and in the atmospherics of mythologies, the notion has over time taken on dense crosshatchings, in recent centuries at points almost suggesting an epistemology, the basis for a way of true seeing. But it remains a concept-rejecting word. Put too much of any kind of freight on it and its dolce far niente vanishes.

Eden was idleness’ first home, where the well-rested being had nothing to do but open its eyes and behold—until, alas, appetite became ambition and Eden wasn’t. But its echo reverberated throughout the classical tradition, in pastoral, the Idylls of Theocritus in the third century bc (the connection between “idle” and “idyll” is phonetic, not etymological); renditions of rural agricultural life in Virgil, his Eclogues; in the myth-suffused transformation tales of Ovid. Indeed, it might be said that any literature or art that treats of the pantheon has to do with idleness, for the gods, by definition, in their essence, were uncorrupted by human sorts of striving, and though full of schemes and initiatives, their rhythms were paradisal, eternal, profoundly idle. Walter Benjamin quotes from Friedrich Schlegel’s “An Idyll of Idleness” thus: “Hercules…labored too…But the goal of his career was really always a sublime leisure, and for that reason he became one of the Olympians. Not so this Prometheus, the inventor of education and enlightenment…Because he seduced mankind into working, [he] now has to work himself, whether he wants to or not.”

There is a long-standing connection, a harmony, between literary expressions of idleness and the invocation of the gods, and the lesser rural deities, such as populate the Eclogues. Milton’s “Lycidas” (1637), a pastoral elegy, draws directly on the Virgilian model. The poet’s lament for his deceased friend reimagines a former happy rural leisure—the shepherd in his idleness—complete with “oaten flute” and “rough satyrs” dancing, before the gods see fit to steal it away. We find a similar conflation of the bosky world of the pagan gods and the more leisurely disposition of impulses and affections in Shakespearean comedies, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, where customary strivings are overtaken by an almost antic lightness of being.

But myths and rural pastorals are by no means the only expression we find. Michel de Montaigne’s Essays (1580), that cataract of shrewd humane psychologizing—and now the source text for a vast, fertile genre—could be said to have taken its origin in this selfsame condition. Montaigne, who liked to see things not only both ways, but all ways, in his small early essay “Of Idleness,” first deplores it, writing of the mind that, “If it be not occupied with a certain subject that will keep it in check and under restraint…will cast itself aimlessly hither and thither into the vague field of imaginations.” But then, a few sentences later, reflecting on his decision to retire from the endeavors of the world, he reverses, says, “It seemed to me that I could do my mind no greater favor than to allow it, in idleness, to entertain itself.” He goes on to say how, in that freedom, mind “brings forth so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, the one on top of the other…that in order to contemplate at my leisure their strangeness and absurdity, I have begun to set them down in writing, hoping in time to make it ashamed of them.” And so from one man’s idleness is begotten one of the treasures of world literature.

In Montaigne the word clearly equates to imaginative fecundity, though of course we need to remember that for this writer idleness meant a removal from the orthogonal demands of civic life, not any slackening in the exertion of his energies. This needs to be underscored: that idleness does not mark a cessation of the expenditure of energies, only of its more outwardly purposeful application. The rambling, associating shape of the Essays is a testament to this.

A kindred repurposing of energies issued in the momentous surge that was European romanticism. The idealism it espoused, the assumption of a deep and creative bond with nature and the elevation of the uniquely individual over the mechanized and standardized, made it hospitable to the deeper ethos of idleness. Which is to say: to the rhythms and expressions of life unfettered. Witness the poetry in England of Wordsworth, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats, or that of Friedrich Hölderlin and Novalis in Germany. Is there a purer, more lyrically nuanced expression of this languor of being than Keats’ “Ode to Autumn,” though here idleness has shifted from a state of possibility to one of almost dazed fulfillment? The poet invokes the season personified:

Who hath not seen thee oft amidst thy
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind

The gourds are swelling, the bees are buzzing: the note will echo back, many years later, as W. B. Yeats announces in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and
wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for
the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

The term, it seems, is always in implicit contrast to its opposite—industry—whereas the reverse is not necessarily true. We think of industry, and our thoughts don’t run naturally toward idleness. The basic play of opposites is at work in the writings of the romantics, who were not only for organic individuality, but were also manifestly against—against the “dark satanic mills,” among other things. We pick up a kindred sense of struggle if we look to the United States in the nineteenth century, where the contest of contrary energies was working itself out on a still-great tabula rasa. There is the irrepressible vector of growth, expansion, conquest—industry and trade—and then the counter-thrust, the spiritual and poetic embrace of so much possibility, so much undomesticated terrain. Our unique contrarians had their say. Washington Irving set his Rip Van Winkle dreaming a life away in the mood-drenched Catskill mountains. Walt Whitman, anarchic celebrant, invited his soul to “loaf.” Henry David Thoreau, who remains the most visible spokesperson for doing nothing, provided that it is the right kind of nothing, took to the woods to “front only the essential facts,” an action which had everything to do with awareness and self-attainment and rejected conventionally gainful initiative. Indeed, much of Thoreau’s work can be read as a kind of apologia for attuned idleness. In his well-known essay “Walking,” for instance, he creates a kind of objective correlative in the activity of walking, which he equates to “sauntering,” a word which he explains is “beautifully derived ‘from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity’…Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering.” A covert metaphysics lurks, a linking of the unfettered state to more profound outcomes and insights.

Emerson—indeed, the whole Transcendentalist movement, fixed as it is on interiority—is in essential accord, though in his journals of 1840 we find him playing a puckish reverse of Montaigne’s assertion, writing, “I have been writing with some pains essays on various matters as a sort of apology to my country for my apparent idleness.” But there is a wink in the sentence, a droll delineation of outer from inner in that word “apparent.”

These nineteenth-century American thinkers and writers, by and large opposed to the commerce-driven expansionist spirit of the day, were not only deeply bound up with a deeper reading of nature, but also gave heed to the spirit we find in the work of the soulful Chinese wandering poets, Li Bai and Du Fu, or the Japanese Buddhist priest Yoshida Kenkō, whose Essays in Idleness,dating from the early fourteenth century, reflect on the immersed intensity of life lived apart from public agitations: “What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head.” Eastern religions, which have long pledged receptivity over initiative, also found ready adherence in the United States. The same idle posture that right-thinking Protestants everywhere deplored was seen by the Transcendentalists as evidence of a philosophical and spiritual openness.

At more or less the same time, in Europe, a very different expression of this temper, this disposition, was manifesting itself. The madly expanding urban centers, Paris especially, began to spawn their own contrary figures, those who proclaimed a deliberate resistance to proΒ­gress of the sort represented by Baron Haussmann’s massive architectural program, which was bent on imposing order upon the metropolis. Set against the mentality of progress was the flâneur, who, as characterized and celebrated by Charles Baudelaire, esteemed the useless, the gratuitous, anything that would serve to mock the ends-driven compulsion of the age.

“To be away from home and yet to feel at home anywhere,” he wrote in his essay on artist Constantin Guys, “to see the world, to be at the very center of the world, and yet to be unseen of the world, such are some of the minor pleasures of those independent, intense and impartial spirits, who do not lend themselves easily to linguistic definitions.” The flâneur, the urban saunterer, advertised the value of leisure and enacted the implicit protest of tarrying. Schlegel might have had such a figure in mind when he wrote, “And in all parts of the world, it is the right to idleness that distinguishes the superior from the inferior classes.” Time is money, money is time, and the apotheosis of having is doing nothing at all.

Through the figure of the flâneur—via the writing of critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin—the idle state was given a platform, elevated from a species of indolence to something more like a cognitive stance, an ethos. Benjamin’s idea is basically that the true picture of things—certainly of urban experience—is perhaps best gathered from diverse, often seemingly tangential, perceptions, and that the dutiful, linear-thinking rationalist is less able to fathom the immensely complex reality around him than the untethered flâneur, who may very well take it by ambush.

A related but psychologically more complex aesthetics of indirection is found in Marcel Proust, who, as author of the monstrous and breathtakingly intricate In Search of Lost Time, cannot himself be tagged as an idler, but who is nonetheless a pantheon figure in any deeper discussion of the topic. For it was Proust, drawing on the philosophy of Henri Bergson, who proposed so-called involuntary memory as the source of all deeper artistic connectedness, as opposed to that which any of us can retrieve upon command. “The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object…which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.” No willing one’s way to the truth. One can only make oneself receptive and hope. Which is to say, and not all that roundaboutly, that the inactive, receptive posture is likely to have a better purchase on what ultimately matters than concerted activity.

Proust also supplies another important link, that between idleness and reading, idleness and creative reverie. Thus far we have tended to think of the word in its obvious opposition to industry, and this as manifesting physical inaction. But of course there are the inward aspects as well. Consider daydreaming, so often deemed purposeless, a kind of mental laying about, even though there is testimony abounding from artists, composers, and authors claiming it as the very seedbed of their inspiration. In the “Combray” section of Lost Time, the narrator gives an extended recounting of his experience of childhood reading. He fuses the ostensibly directional, subject-oriented aspects of the task with the atmospheres of indolence, the sensuous inner dilations that accompany it. Recalling how he would secrete himself in what he calls a “sentry box” in the garden, he asks of his thoughts, “Did not they form a similar sort of hiding hole in the depths of which I felt that I could bury myself and remain invisible even when I was looking at what went on outside?” How familiar is this feeling, this impulse to hide the self away when reading, both because hiding not only intensifies the focus, but keeps the reader out of the sightlines of those who anoint themselves the guardians and legislators of our moral well-being.

For all its openness to profundity and creative insight, maybe precisely because of that, idleness is deemed objectionable. Creative insight is so often an implicit questioning of the rationales of the status quo. Idleness wills nothing, espouses no agenda of progress; it proposes the sufficiency of what is. And our aforementioned guardians find this intolerable, a defiant vote against their idea of what should be. Will is the defining term. Will is the reason why Bartleby the scrivener—a figure who out-Kafkas Kafka, out-Becketts Beckett—cannot be annexed to the idler’s ranks: his immobility is a concerted refusal, the opposite of idleness, which is neither concerted nor refusing. He reminds us that idleness is primarily a form of assent—but assent to the rhythms of the natural world and not its improvers and exploiters. And where do we put the titular figure of Oblomov (1859), Ivan Goncharov’s paragon of immobility, whose inability to get himself off his divan to do anything appears less a matter of defiant will than an paralytic inertia? Is he an idler, or his nation’s first refusenik?

Again, any pronouncement feels reductive. There are so many ways to look at idleness. We have to differentiate the traveler in the airport lounge who is fiddling with his iPod settings from the Whitmanic dreamer who is loafing and inviting his soul. One end of the spectrum of idleness is almost indistinguishable from boredom, the other may find a person dreaming his way toward yet another proof for Fermat’s Theorem. We can consider idleness as a principle, a lived vocation, if you will, but then also regard it in flashes, which is how so many of us practice it—as a respite from concerted activity, known to be of limited duration and prized all the more for that reason. Who is idle, what is idleness? It’s so much a question of the inner disposition, and where the mind finds itself when the I is obeying no directives at all. There is the further distinction between the subjective and solitary and the collective, public expressions—what one feels alone in an armchair, as opposed to the feeling of being with others in a park on a Sunday or at a lake. Here well-known images of public languor come to mind—Thomas Eakins’ swimmers, George Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte, Édouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass—works all suffused with duration, a sense of life being lived outside the radius of the clock face. Alongside these are vivid verbal depictions, like the nostalgic rendering by E. B. White in “Once More to the Lake,” or the indulgent tableaux of good eating with friends in M. F. K. Fisher or Calvin Trillin, or Albert Camus calling back the summers of his youth in Algiers:

In Algiers, you don’t talk about “going swimming” but about “knocking off for a swim.” I won’t insist. People swim in the harbor and then go rest on the buoys. When you pass a buoy where a pretty girl is sitting, you shout to your friends, “I tell you it’s a seagull.” These are healthy pleasures. They certainly seem ideal to the young men.

People together in a place, their actions loosely defined, not tending toward any larger consummation.

Things are different now. New variables have been thrust into our midst—or, more likely, we have evolved our way into them. The old definitions of activity, the sturdy distinctions between work and leisure, have been broken down by the encompassing currents of digitized living. Obviously industry has not vanished, nor industriousness, but it has widened and blurred its spectrum to include the myriad tasks we accomplish with our fingertips. The spaces and the physical movements of work and play are often nearly identical now, and our commerce with the world, our work life, is far more sedentary and cognitive than ever before. Purposeful doing is now shadowed at every step with the possibilities of distraction. How do we conceive of idleness in this new context? Are we indulging it every time we switch from a work-related document to a quick perusal of emails, or to surf through a few favorite shopping sites? Does distraction eked out in the immediate space of duty count—or is it just a sop thrown to the tyrant stealing most of our good hours?

I wonder how all this clicking and mouse-nudging impinges on our arts, our literature, and if any of the old ease can survive. I was delighted recently to open Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and hear him announcing, “In Rome I lived in the grand manner of writers. I basically did nothing all day.” But Dyer seems an exception to me, a survival from another era. We are few of us in Rome, and fewer up for the “grand manner.” Who still idles? Sieving with the mind’s own Google I pull up a few names: the late W. G. Sebald, Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robinson in her reverie-paced scenemaking, Nicholson Baker in The Anthologist…But finally there are few exemplars. Most contemporary prose, I find, agitates; it creates a caffeinated vibration that is all about competing stimuli and the many ways that the world overruns us. Idleness needs atmospheres of indolence to survive. It is an endangered condition that asks for a whole different climate of reading, one that is not about information, or self-betterment, or keeping up with the latest book-club flavor, but exists just for itself, idyllic, intransitive.

I recently heard a commencement speech by critic James Wood in which he lamented the loss of pungency from our lives—so much is now sanitized or hidden away from the public eye—and exhorted would-be writers to search deep in their imaginations for the primary details that animate prose and poetry. On a similar track, I wonder about childhood itself. I worry that in our zeal to plan out and fill up our children’s lives with lessons, play dates, CV-building activities we are stripping them of the chance to experience untrammeled idleness. The mind alert but not shunted along a set track, the impulses not pegged to any productivity. The motionless bobber, the hand trailing in the water, the shifting shapes of the clouds overhead. Idleness is the mother of possibility, which is as much as necessity the mother of inventiveness. Now that our technologies so adeptly bridge the old divide between industriousness and relaxation, work and play, either through oscillation or else a kind of merging, everything being merely digits put to different uses, we ought to ask if we aren’t selling off the site of our greatest possible happiness. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Thoreau. In idleness, the corollary maxim might run, is the salvaging of the inner life.

Text by Sven Birkerts

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Man And Cloud

Solomon Nikritin, Man and Cloud,1930
Oil on Canvas
State Museum of Contemporary Art
Costakis Collection

A Leaden Fence

Words wish in words
they hadn’t been born
They wish they’d rather been born
steep leaden walls.
And –
after that
they sigh a single sigh which is not a word.

Hiroshi Kawasaki, 1968
Translated by William I. Elliott and Kazuo Kawamura

Saturday, April 9, 2011

La Extranjera

She speaks in her way of her savage seas
With unknown algae and unknown sands;
She prays to a formless, weightless God,
Aged, as if dying.
In our garden now so strange,
She has planted cactus and alien grass.
The desert zephyr fills her with its breath
And she has loved with a fierce, white passion
She never speaks of, for if she were to tell
It would be like the face of unknown stars.
Among us she may live for eighty years,
Yet always as if newly come,
Speaking a tongue that plants and whines
Only by tiny creatures understood.
And she will die here in our midst
One night of utmost suffering,
With only her fate as a pillow,
And death, silent and strange.

The Stranger
Gabriela Mistral

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Socialist Network

My dear Rosa,

You will not, I trust, take this mode of address as disrespectful, least of all coming, as it does, from a comrade. Familiarity with you makes contempt impossible. Your name belongs on even the shortest list of revolutionary theorists, though our academic Marxists, prone to quoting Lukács and Lyotard, rarely cite Luxemburg. As a young militant—this was not yesterday!—I studied your pamphlet of 1900, Reform or Revolution, as a cornerstone of the socialist tradition. And so is your analysis of the mass strike, written after the Russian revolution of 1905, which seems exceptionally timely again today, when people around the world fill the streets to protest austerity and to bring down dictators.

Perhaps the "comrades in armchairs" (to pull the professors' noses a bit) will yet discover Luxemburg as a name to drop. But people who take political inspiration from your work have been prone, for generations now, to calling you Rosa instead. Even the anarchists do it! You must find that perplexing. They treat you as a kindred spirit: the antithesis of Lenin and Trotsky. To be sure, you criticized the Bolsheviks—though no more than the Bolsheviks criticized themselves at the time. And you joined forces with them in denouncing those on the left who concocted "progressive" rationalizations for their countries' warlords. (So much has changed in a century, Rosa! And so little.)

The affection with which we speak your name is not, let me explain, a sentimental response to your political writings. They are as hard-edged as those of any polemicist. You did not suffer renegades gladly. Someone once asked what the epitaph should be for you and your friend Clara Zetkin, and you said, "Here lie the last two men of German social democracy." The quip was not appreciated by party leaders, and our feminists would give you a stern lecture. But then, you wouldn't have much use for the contemporary American left, where mutual policing of verbal behavior often counts as activism.

You, by contrast, went to prison more than once and spent most of the First World War there; and the right wing murdered you during the German revolution of 1919, dumping your body in a canal. We admire martyrs, but usually without feeling an intimate connection to them. That changed in the early 1920s, when the letters you wrote in prison were published.

I suppose your hatred of war, and your confidence that it and other social brutalities could be uprooted, would count as romantic, by the cruel standards of today's realpolitik. But as you described the birds coming to your cell's window, your moments of elation and despair, the passages of Goethe you had memorized, the yearning to see your cat, Mimi—here, you seemed to be writing in your heart's blood, and the reader found it natural to consider you a friend, almost. You became our Rosa.

Selections from your correspondence have been available in English, but now Verso has published the most comprehensive collection of your letters as the first volume in an edition of your collected works. It is embarrassing how few of your political and economic writings have been translated into my language across the past nine decades. But then, it was never in the interest of the so-called socialist countries to make your work known, since your hatred of authoritarianism of any kind was so clear. The team that prepared this edition has done a wonderful job of it, gathering many items not available in English before and providing an extremely thorough and useful glossary of the names of the people you wrote to or mentioned in passing. The translation is an abridgment of a German collection that is, in turn, drawn from a six-volume edition (also containing postcards and telegrams). Peter Hudis, the American among the editors, also worked on the excellent Rosa Luxemburg Reader in 2004. Does this revival of your work in English reflect a sudden growth in an audience for it? So one may hope, but with doubts. It certainly helps that there is an international Rosa Luxemburg foundation that assisted in the publication of the new book.

Visiting you again in these quarters, I am moved, not so much by the lyricism this time, but by the tremendous passion suggested in a hundred little details of your life as a political operative—a woman who worked full-time for socialist and labor organizations. By 1893, barely out of adolecence, you were in Geneva working on a newspaper for industrial workers back home, in Poland. Besides writing your own articles, you had to revise mediocre efforts of other contributors, and pay the printer, and sneak each issue into the country.

The conflicts, personal and political, never ended. Nor did the scarcity of money. And when you settled in Germany—marrying a comrade to gain citizenship—all the storm and stress continued on a still higher level. You went after the careerists and middle-of-the-roaders with hammer and tongs in your articles, but there is so little bitterness here (even when you are tormented by scoundrels and sexist pigs) that it is, if not saintly, at the very least exemplary. The self-portrait in these pages is that of a professional revolutionary whose vocation is, if you'll pardon the expression, spiritual.

My epistle has run longer than intended, yet something remains unsaid. While in prison in 1917, you wrote to a friend, saying, "I know that for every person, for every creature, one's own life is the only single possession one really has, and with every little fly that one carelessly swats and crushes . . . it is the same as if the end of the world had destroyed all life." Reading that passage, and many another page in this book, I could not help falling in love with you, dear Rosa.

Please consider me, then, now, and always, yours for the revolution, S.

Scott McLemee
Source:, Apr/May 2011