March 30, 2014

March 26, 2014

kenbaumann said: How best to avoid describing myself in terms of the culture—in my case: books, movies, games, art—that I like? (Without doing Wittgenstein's mutter-about-my-increasing-stupidity thing?)

I think that it’s good to remember the distinction between the things that lend color to your life and the pale, translucent thing to which their color is lent.

So for example, you have the Egyptian tomb that Howard Carter excavated in 1922. I get uncomfortable and excited when I think about it. I find myself imagining the plates of carbonized fruit, the mummified cats, the fillets of fish laid out to feed them—fillets that were found to have raised themselves into arches as they dried, and then suddenly to crumble into dust when they were touched.

The immense period for which the tomb’s contents stayed perfectly still gives you the sense that time has been building up inside of it. And that the silence you hear once the doors are hauled open is not a silence at all, but instead a deafening testimony that time is bearing to a secret kept for three thousand years.

The testimonies of culture deafen us in a similar way. They are loud because life is hard. They are intense because disappointment can bleach. And to the kind of person who needs to make representations of their connection to culture, these accidents can easily be confused with an essential lack of vividness. 

But then I think of a moment in the tomb after the excavation was complete, after the gold, the corpses and the treasure all had been removed. In this moment a junior archeologist is alone, copying hieroglyphs from the walls. And the only thing he can hear is the sound of wooden beams that creak and pop in the new air.

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March 25, 2014

Anonymous said: if you could, would you live forever?

Karl Marx wrote most of Capital at a side table not much larger than an open issue of The New York Times, feeling as he did for most of his creative life, a pain in his side that reminded him constantly of his father’s early death from liver cancer.

And anyway,

the phenomenon of suicide would appear to argue that even mortal life as we now experience it is too long for some people. 

And anyway, 

kites don’t work without the string…

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March 17, 2014

March 14, 2014

Anonymous said: feminist literature recommendations?

any literature is feminist if at the end of the book you feel as though you, mute though you may have seemed, can speak with the fluency and conviction it takes to be a real person

Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson worked for me.

March 4, 2014

March 4, 2014

March 2, 2014

On April 14th, 1919 the sister of Marcel Duchamp, Suzanne, married one of his closest friends, the painter Jean Crotti. Marcel’s wedding present to the couple arrived by mail three weeks later. It was a letter that contained a set of instructions for a work of art his sister and brother in law were to make. His letter said to take a geometry textbook, to open it, and then to bind it with wire to the metal railing of their apartment’s balcony. It was to be left out in the weather until it learned the facts of life.

That’s you and all of us. We have ideas about beauty, axioms that describe how faces ought to look and even rules for the right texture of skin. But right now, as you’re reading this, rays from space are entering your body and destroying the elasticity of the collagen in your skin. With every smile, with every expression of disapproval, you are stretching proteins that, thanks to this cosmic barrage, will no longer return your skin to its original and attractive tension. Wrinkles come from emotion and the particles shed by dying stars.

Beauty is a game that does not permit those who can compete to retire as champions. What do you do when you’re faced with a game that no one can win but which everyone feels compelled to play? What’s the point of squeezing yourself for the rest of your life in order to contribute your several drops to the ocean of human knowledge? Or culture? Duchamp was in Buenos Aires when his sister was married and he wrote a letter about how any game a person felt compelled to play was also a game whose rules anyone could change.

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February 27, 2014

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February 14, 2014

Anonymous said: What the fuck is the meaning of anything? Why am I compelled to wake up and go through the daily process when I know (or at least assume) that nothing I do will matter in say a thousand years? Is my inability to seriously contemplate suicide a product of my biology or is there some greater spiritual reason? Is it silly that I feel like there should be something above and beyond the nature of my meat, which is a spectacular work of natural engineering? Finally, how many of these do you get a day?

This makes me think about what happens in a woman at the midpoint of her menstrual cycle. 

A woman’s ovaries are, in life, almost completely white. They sit deep in a woman’s hips, at the bottom of her abdominal cavity. If they weren’t tethered to the uterus by a pair of strong ligaments, they would be free to move around the abdomen, rather like the testicles of a male fetus before they descend into the scrotum. 

The uterus is usually folded in a deep bow over the vagina. The two fallopian tubes extend from the top of the uterus, like a person bent double but with their arms thrown back at the shoulders. At their other ends, the fallopian tubes are open to the abdominal cavity. The openings are delicately fringed with thin fingers of tissue. 

By the midpoint of a menstrual cycle, one egg is about to erupt from its ovary. The egg sits in the middle of a ball of jelly about the size of a hazelnut. This is the follicle. The follicle is so large and so well-supplied with blood that it forms a black blister on the surface of the ovary. The follicle begins to digest the ovary’s surface, in order to weaken the walls of the blister. Just before the follicle bursts, it secrets a hormone that causes the end of a fallopian tube to stir. The fringes begin to push their way through the abdominal cavity and towards the ovary. Once they’ve found it, the fringes start to walk across the ovary. They know the hormone that the follicle secretes and to discover its source, the fringes taste the ovary as they move across its surface. The fringes billow out once they touch the blister and then descend on it like a curtain. The follicle forces itself out of the weakest spot on the blister’s surface. The egg in its ball of jelly flows from this hole, into the abdominal cavity and up towards the tent of red fringe the fallopian tube has erected over it. 

The egg is separated from its jelly by the fringe’s delicate fingers and passed from fringe to fringe, upwards into the mouth of the fallopian tube. Grooves in the wall of the tube slowly undulate to conduct the egg deeper and deeper, until a swallowing motion along the length of the tube catches the egg and conveys it to the uterus. 

In one sense this is where all of us are from, but in another sense this account is even more foreign than the most extreme alienations that geography can produce.

When I say “I’m from Boston” or “I’m from Lagos,” I mean to extend myself to other people.  When I say where I’m from, I’m trying to help someone understand me. But this is not the same kind of understanding you could boast of having once you’d read how an egg gets from an ovary to the uterus. When we begin to understand another person, after they start talking about themselves, we understand them. If you read a detailed account of an egg’s ovulation, you understand what happens to it. This is the difference between talking to a person over dinner and conducting an investigation that determines if they are guilty of a crime. 

As thoroughly as we study the fringes of the fallopian tube, when they taste the ovary’s surface or delicately raise the liberated egg into the swallowing throat, we are only documenting their performance to higher and higher standards of precision. And even a record of unbounded precision will never allow us to understand the egg as it is understood by the delicate fringes that search for it. When a person talks about himself, when he explains his accent, or his unexpected turns of phrase, or the blackness of his skin by saying “I’m from Lagos,” when I bow over my dinner plate to catch every word he says, he is offering and I am accepting an understanding of greater and greater depth. 

This is because the kind of understanding we would like to have, for other people and for ourselves, is a mutual activity. Something is offered and something is sought. An egg extends itself and the roving fringe tastes in search of it. A black man talks about himself and I lean forward so as not to miss a word he says.

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February 12, 2014

Anonymous said: I find myself checking your blog multiple times a day to see if you've posted anything new, then somehow feeling betrayed when you haven't. What's up with that?

February 4, 2014

Anonymous said: i don't know who else to go to about this. i'm just incredibly conflicted about the whole damn woody allen thing. i don't know what to think. i don't know what to believe. i've read countless articles. i'm terrified someone will ask me about it. i know it's stupid and i shouldn't care. i know there are lots of way more important problems. i don't know. i just want it all to go away. i don't even really know what i'm asking you for here.

(just between you and me, if mia farrow had in fact coached her daughter to accuse woody allen of raping her, if mia farrow had gone completely insane and was manipulating her daughter to ruin the life of her ex-partner, I’m not sure I would blame her. 

yes, woody allen is not soon-yi previn’s father in any conventional sense, but soon-yi previn is unequivocally mia farrow’s daughter. and if the guy I’d left my husband for and started a new family with began to take nude photos of my 16 year-old daughter, if I found those photos cold, with no warning, if that guy then started fucking my daughter and if that guy then said he wanted to leave me for my daughter, I’m not sure I would be any more normal than mia farrow. 

if mia farrow has been irradiated by Phèdre-level family strain, it would not be difficult to identify with her distress. 

but this is not a parsable situation. it’s the j.g. ballard wonder years. the fact that you’re having trouble with it means that you are a normal person who is being slowly gaslighted by our psychotic media, as it insists that this situation is simple when it is not. 

if you think you understand this family, you are either fooling yourself or admitting that relationships of blood and love can be a great deal more complicated than is generally assumed or permitted.)

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February 1, 2014

acontinuation said: Are your thoughts about Woody Allen any different now in the aftermath of Dylan Farrow's piece in the NYT?

If you mean different from the last post about this, I don’t think I expressed any thoughts about him as a person. There I said that celebrity was so poisonous and so malignant that it could bend the focus of a rape accusation away from the victim’s injury and towards an audience’s own feelings of betrayal and indignation. Which is a terrible insult to any victim of sexual assault, both personally and in the larger, more insidious way it dilutes our understanding of people who have been raped.

In Connecticut (where the crime was meant to have taken place) a criminal case can be brought for sexual assault of a minor at any time. A civil case, to recover damages stemming from the sexual assault of a minor, can be brought by Dylan Farrow until 2033, if I read Connecticut Statues, Vol. 13, Title 52, Chap. 926, Sec. 52-577d. right.  

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January 30, 2014

hahaclark said: I just caught up on your tumblr after months of just the opposite. It remains as thoughtful and interesting as ever, but I still can't figure out what you're selling or for how much.

high praise

January 29, 2014

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