Monday, December 21, 2009

Lambrusco Socialism

Lambrusco doesn’t have a good rep, not even back home. ‘It’s the Coca-Cola of wines’, said to me once the mother of a high school friend. ‘Shut up, old bag’, is the comeback that I didn’t quite muster the wit to utter on the day. So it’s a sparkling red: sue me. Sue all of us, citizens of those parts of Emilia, Lombardy and Veneto where the Lambrusco grapes have been harvested for the last couple of thousand years, give or take.

When I was a kid, every year come November my grandfather would buy a few large demijohns of freshly produced Lambrusco and we’d bottle it together using a lever-operated corker, a simple but elegant machine designed to squeeze the greased cork whilst pushing it into the top of the bottle. It would take us the best part of a weekend to fill the little room under the stairs with fifty or so bottles of thick brown or green glass, and it was tremendous fun. I vividly remember the cocktail of smells, as well as the wine’s taste, naturally, which was far from forbidden. On the Sundays of our visits I was always allowed a finger or so in my glass - the colour of the local red Lambrusco is so potent that even four-fifths of water aren’t enough to quite turn it pink. And then on those occasions when we had cappelletti there was the ritual of bev’r in vin, that is to say, serve some cappelletti in a little bowl ahead of the main course and pour half a glass or so of Lambrusco directly into the hot beef and chicken stock.

Lambrusco has been part of the popular Mantuan diet for centuries, but in fact of every local diet, because the cuisine of the area is peculiar in this: the rich and the poor ate the same foods and drank the same drinks. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the income disparities in the old Dukedom were any less crushing than in the rest of the North or the country as a whole - more than a few de facto forms of serfdom were alive and well when my mother was born, in 1931 - but there was no rich cuisine and poor cuisine: everybody read from the same recipe book. The menu of the most important meal of the year - dinner on Christmas Eve - is emblematic in this regard: marinated eel and pumpkin tortelli are dishes that anybody could afford to make. And that’s the reason why to this day in posh restaurants throughout the province, and especially to the South-East, across the Po, where Lombardy meets with Veneto and Emilia, the specialities are the very same that my grandmother and my great-grandmother used to prepare and be revered for in their lifetimes, poverty and all.

That fundamental cultural commonality was the basis of an egalitarianism of sorts, the same egalitarianism that the fierce reactionary Giovanni Guareschi struggled to uphold in his books, in which the archest of arch-enemies - the Christian Democratic priest Don Camillo and the Communist Mayor Peppone - joined forces whenever big city people came to town to tell the locals how to run things. Food and drink were a common language and along with religion they presided over the natural order of things, which was that some people owned the land, and profited from it, and some other people worked the land. It had been like that for as long as anybody could remember, and when push came to shove not even Peppone himself believed that it could or in fact should change.

My great-great uncle, Arturo Magnoni

This was true also of nonna’s family. She had just turned six years old when her mother died, and her father - a farm labourer and a proud socialist - was left to raise six children on his own, but not once did he, in his words, ‘climb the steps of the town hall’, that is to say, ask for financial help or services from the municipality or the state. Indeed, archconservatives like Don Brash would find much to like in his reliance on ‘community and family mechanisms of support’. Such were the paradoxes of grafting Marxist ideas in a society whose mindset was so atavistically patriarchal and feudal.

It went like this: there were the landowner (padrone), the renter (affittuario), the sharecropper (mezzadro) and the farm labourer (bracciante). The owner would do none of the work; the sharecropper and the renter would do most of the work, and share the proceeds with the owner or pay him a fixed fee, respectively; and the labourers picked up whatever seasonal work was available, for meagre pay. When no such work existed, for example following the devastating frosts of 1929 and 1930, or due to the work shortages of 1945, very limited solidarity mechanisms kicked in and some extra work was found or manufactured so that the labourer population - on which the system depended in the good years - could survive and not be forced to relocate, or at least not permanently, but mostly they were left on their own devices. Somehow the poverty never became unendurable for too many, seeing that the province never experienced mass emigration, unlike nearby Veneto, but it would be a bold person who called it a just society, or who didn’t see the merit of the post-war reforms that gradually ensured a measure of redistribution of the land to the people who worked it.

Guareschi was such a man, of course, and I’ll advance some other time a very partial defence of his appalling conservatism - like Pasolini, he believed that there was something worth salvaging in a rural culture that had remained virtually unchanged for centuries only to crash head-first against the brick wall of history. To me, besides the language and the stories it’s the flavours, the mnemonic glue of a lived tradition, the one thing I could carry with me on the other side of the planet. So this week for Christmas Justine and I are making cappelletti and yes, we’ll drink Lambrusco, and yes, it will be a nostalgic and sentimental gesture, but it’ll have something going for it as well: the sense of our beginnings, of a long and exhausting history with the occasional moment of cheer - for the food is glorious and quite frankly so is the wine.

During the last two trips home I had the opportunity to visit my cousin Bruno on the job as he helped make Lambrusco at the local winery, the Cantina Sociale di Quistello. I saw the farmers (including some distant relatives) arrive with their trailers loaded with grapes, help unload and wait for the must to be extracted, its sugar content tested and the results written in a journal to calculate their pay, just like the old sharecroppers who took their milk to the dairies - in Mum’s village there used to be one in every street - or their grapes to other wineries like this one: cantine sociali, that is to say local cooperatives, and in that model of communal work and shared resources the Left found a useful blueprint for reforming economic relations in the regions where it had a majority after the war.

But enough of that, for heaven's sake, it’s the holidays. Buy yourself a bottle of dry Lambrusco, it goes with everything. Seriously, my dad enjoyed dunking cake in it. What further endorsement could you possibly want?

I leave you with nonna’s recipe for cappelletti, and with my best wishes for the New Year. Cheers.

For the stock: half a chicken, 400g of chuck steak - or the piece that in Italian is referred to as the priest's hat, some butchers will know where to cut that - one clove of garlic, one onion, a celery stick, a carrot. Dump everything in when the water is still cold, bring to the boil then let simmer for three to four hours.

For the pasta: 4 eggs, 400 g of flour. Serves 4-5 people, add one egg and 100g of flour for each extra person. Make a fountain with the flour, break the eggs in the middle and incorporate using a fork. Once the fork no longer does the trick, knead by hand until the dough is even and smooth. Roll with a pin or with a pasta machine until it’s quite thin.

For the filling: One onion, one clove of garlic, 350 grams of lean beef meat, two sausages, one chicken kidney. Boil in a small pot with water for three hours. Remove garlic and onion and mix in a food processor. Add breadcrumbs, one egg and some Parmesan to the mixture and mix it some more by hand. If it’s too dry to mix with ease, add a tablespoon or two of the liquid from the small pot.

Cut the pasta in squares about 4-5 cm long. Place a little bit of filling on each square, then fashion the cappelletti as shown in the pictures on this web page. Leave to set for a few hours, preferably overnight. Bring the stock to the boil and cook the cappelletti for 10 minutes or so.


Before I go, Jolisa has revisited the Ihimaera saga in a terrific post that I urge you to peruse. I must also encourage you to visit Memory, Amnesia and Politics a new blog by Kathy Korcheck that maps from the outset a number of issues of memory studies that firmly belong in the public conversation. I had been waiting for somebody to set up such a blog since well before I kicked off mine. The wine label at the top is by none other than Fortunato Depero.

Monday, December 14, 2009

2012, 2025

Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.
(Fredric Jameson)

If you see a representation of the biblical Flood and there appear to be survivors outside of Noah’s immediate family, you can be assured that their safety is but temporary: they huddle, they try to keep each other warm, but the rising seas are going to get to them in the end. Michelangelo’s example above takes the unusual form of a character study of those momentary survivors, but in the more recent iconography - the subject was especially popular in the 19th century - it is more common for the event to be represented on a larger scale in which the helpless humanity is relegated to the bottom or to a corner of the image, like in the following renditions by Messrs Géricault, Turner and Danby,

The Deluge by Théodore Géricault. 1818. Louvre, Paris.

The Deluge by J. M. W. Turner. 1804-1805. Tate Gallery, London.

The Deluge by Francis Danby. 1837-1839. Tate Gallery, London.

while the human element all but disappears in this painting by the English Romantic John Martin:

The Deluge by John Martin. 1834.

Martin rather enjoyed painting scenes of destruction (Sodom and Gomorrah, God’s wrath on Judgment Day and the Seventh Plague of Egypt are notable examples), but he also knew that catastrophes can only be understood in a temporal sequence that includes the moment before, a sharp image and sense of the order about to be ruptured. Hence the remarkable Eve of the Deluge, a painting whose meaning is precisely mapped by its title.

The Eve of the Deluge by John Martin. 1840. Royal Collection, Windsor

Enter disaster movies, in which the spectators are invariably expected to sit through an elaborate and lengthy lead up to that which they already know will happen, for it was foretold in the trailers and in the posters outside the theatre. Yet this first act is essential, for it constructs and populates the world or microcosm that is going to be destroyed. And if this world has people in it - which it always does - their morality is laid bare, for after all disasters in movies, even when they purport to strike at random, are inextricably linked to quasi-biblical ideas of sin, redemption and retribution.

Having read a handful of reviews, it seems that the common complaint regarding Roland Emmerich’s 2012 is that it fails precisely in establishing a credible frame, and it’s hard to disagree: bad science, plot holes so big you could fly a giant Russian cargo plane through them, a gallery of cliché-laden characters and what is quite possibly the worst last line in the history of cinema ('No more pull-ups') are the stuff of unwitting parody, nor is the film anywhere near smart enough to graduate to actual parody, or do so consistently enough. At times it feels as if one is invited to laugh along with the filmmakers at a less sophisticated sector of the target audience, which is never very appealing. So why bother? For me personally, it’s that Mr Emmerich and his backers can be relied upon to offer the latest and most powerful in the industry’s apocalyptic imaginings. That they fail to ground them in a coherent narrative or to produce what anybody in their right mind might be persuaded to call good films is largely inconsequential, for that is the overriding frame, the interpretive key: images of the end of days that are produced at enormous cost and with great accomplishment to entertain a mass global audience, within a mode of representation that claims immediacy and transparency, that is, a direct and unmediated cross-cultural appeal. As if to say: when the time comes, whomever you are and wherever you might live, this is what the end of the world will look like.

The painters of the flood made a similar claim to a universal vision and to an a-human point of view hovering outside of the catastrophe, but it was grounded in tradition and divine authority, not primarily in the deployment of the technology of representation itself. Here Emmerich is unabashedly iconoclastic, and deals a couple of clever if a little ham-fisted blows to the forces that used to claim a monopoly on the apocalyptic, namely religion and the military. I’m talking about two sequences included in the movie trailers: the destruction of the White House by the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy, propelled inland on the crest of a colossal tsunami, and the crumbling of Saint Peter’s and the Vatican, beginning with a crack across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that neatly severs the connection between God and Man.

Thus cinema emerges alone - not primarily in the sense of an art, but as an industry at the heart of contemporary capital flows - in charge of representing and therefore making possible the end of the world. For although the catastrophe in 2012 is due to solar activity and a whole heap of rogue neutrinos, hence emphatically not man-made, it is quite impossible to conceive of a terminal event without plugging into the imaginary of the latest economic crisis of our late, late capitalism.

But of course a crisis in capitalism is never a crisis of capitalism, quite the opposite: anything that threatens and erodes political and social institutions pushes us closer to the neoliberal brink, as the local example of the monetary crisis of 1984 or the share market collapse of 1987 both serving as launching pads for the Rogernomes makes very clear. Now the old trolls are at it again, in the form of former Labour finance minister David Caygill, and former Reserve Bank governor Don Brash, the two most recognisable names behind the 2025 Taskforce, and it’s even more painful to watch their contortions in light of the conspicuous absence of impending doom.

For what’s a shock doctrine without a decent shock? The global financial crisis notwithstanding, New Zealand is doing relatively well - the first taskforce report, released earlier this month, says so itself:
[…] for many people life in New Zealand is good, and our material living standards have increased enormously – in the last decade alone, real wages have increased substantially and overall living standards of the average New Zealander (at least as proxied by real GDP per capita) have increased by 21 percent.
Hence the need to manufacture a crisis, which taking the cue from our ambitious Prime Minister is formulated as follows: we must catch up with the per capita income of Australians by the year 2025. And how are we going to do that? Why, but by enacting more neoliberal reforms in the mould of the ones that brought us to our knees and opened up that gap in the first place.

A number of mainstream commentators have understandably focussed - much like the reviewers of 2012 - on the disarming stupidity of the proposition. I give you Messrs Rudman, Armstrong and Gaynor, heck, I’ll throw in Garth George for the same low, low price. But far fewer have remarked, with the notable exception of Tapu Misa, what an intensely vicious document the report is. Just exactly how vicious? I bothered to read it cover to cover, and I have had to ask John Cusack to portray my reaction.

The core recommendation of the report is to all but dismantle our welfare system and the public provision of social services: deregulate, privatise, drastically reduce spending and enshrine in legislation the requirement that all future increases in spending be subject to the prior approval of Treasury, much like the setting of the interest rates has been taken out of the hands of politicians in line with the dominant monetarist orthodoxy. Now the authors of the report will tell you that the idea that these reforms are designed to benefit the rich is ‘a pervasive myth’:
This is a programme to improve substantially the lot of the ordinary New Zealander. We all have a huge stake in its adoption, but none more so than the least skilled, least able, least mobile among us. New Zealanders care about those people.

The outcome of all this intense caring will be familiar to the New Zealanders who lived through Rogernomics, or alternatively to those who have access to a library and to Alister Barry’s heart-rending documentaries. But even if one were to somehow concede the point that the reforms failed to benefit the working class and the unemployed because they weren’t implemented boldly enough, the authors spell out in very precise terms what they mean by benefit under their New Economic Order, mark 2. Here’s an excerpt from the section on pensions:
Mean-testing of age pensions is a fraught issue, and something of a double-edged sword. There is a risk that poorly done means-testing could further discourage private savings by middle income people. A better outcome all round would be achieved if the pension was to once again be regarded by all concerned as a safety net: there for those unable to provide for themselves in times of infirmity, but with most people taking pride in their ability to support themselves through work, private savings and the assistance of family.
The same "every man for himself" logic applies naturally to the benefits for the disabled and the unemployed:
Ambitious welfare reform measures should be undertaken as a matter of priority to reduce the very large number of people of working age currently receiving welfare benefits.
Note that the authors don’t suggest reducing the need for those benefits, just their provision. As if cutting government spending alone created jobs or opportunities for meaningful social participation, or as if the country hadn’t abandoned its cornerstone policy objective of securing full-employment precisely as a result of neoliberal reforms. But beyond that, nowhere does the document address social equality - not just in terms of income, but also of access to opportunities - as a public good worthy of being protected. Quite the contrary: in the name of the sad-arse, greedy nonsense that we must catch up with the income of Australians, the taskforce demands that we further reduce whatever safety nets and welfare provisions we have left, without pausing to consider that, if we had to pay for things that across the Tasman they get for free out of those same incomes, then the metric would be meaningless in the first place.

Yet it’s not the collapse in logic that is most striking, but rather the deep affective dissonance at the heart of the taskforce's claim to be thinking of the most vulnerable members of our society when they promote ‘greater self-reliance and greater use of family, community and market mechanisms for support’.

It's easy enough to dismiss the report as the token concession to a coalition party whose support stands at less than two per cent and as such is unlikely to ever be implemented, but it's an appealing narrative, and in marginally less benign times we might soon find it foisted upon us again - for it's such a persistent, convenient lie. And besides there's that a-human point of view hovering outside of the catastrophe again, outside of society and the number of those affected. Like Emmerich, Brash et al. cannot tell the whole story, or demonstrate any measure of compassion or understanding of the social, because they lack the means of expressing it. They can only think and speak in large, cleansing tableaux of shock and discontinuity, mock-revolutions that give the already rich and powerful an even greater share of money and power.

As it happens, both projects are slated for sequels. In 2012's case, a television series charting the fortunes of the survivors to be entitled 2013, whereas Taskforce fans can look forward to two more reports, presumably on the not unfounded basis that a lie told often enough might just start to sound true. But it's a reminder too of how fiercely contested that piece of our history is that goes under the name of the New Zealand Experiment. We'll need to keep telling each other those stories if we don't wish to become someone else's country - theirs.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Psycho-Cybernetics (and Ghosts)

The nervous system and the automatic machine are fundamentally alike in that they are devices which make decisions on the basis of decisions they have made in the past.

(Norbert Wiener)

Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.

(Dorothy Parker)

In one of my all-time most formative books, How We Became Posthuman, Katherine Hayles has described and traced the origins of an important strand in the contemporary ways of thinking about ourselves to the twin revolutions of information theory and cybernetics. She also showed that, as is so often the case, the original thinkers who came up with those paradigm-shifting ideas - this time in the areas of engineering and computer science - demonstrated from the outset a keen understanding of the broader implications of their discoveries. Indeed, Norbert Wiener’s Human Use of Human Beings appears just as cogent and compelling today as it must have been when it was published, in 1950 - possibly more so. Other books along the way haven’t stood the test of time quite so well, but as always I’m just as interested in those.

The vintage of this one - 1960 - shows it took just over a decade for the fundamental insights of cybernetics to be recycled wholesale into pop-psychology and the self-help movement. The central proposition of Maxwell Maltz's Psycho-Cybernetics is that our consciousness avails itself of an impersonal servo-mechanism - which others call the unconscious - to achieve its goals. These goals in turn are mental pictures produced by the imagination, chief amongst them the self-image, which sets ‘the limits for the accomplishment of any particular goals’ and outlines therefore the ‘area of the possible’ (p. ix). So it’s up to you (or, more precisely, your conscious foremind) to form a self-image that is success-oriented, thus turning your creative mechanism into a success mechanism as opposed to a failure mechanism (p. x).

While its rhetoric has shifted somewhat, self-help literature still employs many of these ideas concerning self-image psychology and the visualisation of a set of personal goals around which to construct one’s identity. But it shouldn’t surprise us that it was a plastic surgeon who articulated them first. Besides observing that changing a person’s appearance can ‘cut deep into the psyche as well’, causing significant improvements in a patient’s personality and outlook, in the course of his practice Dr. Maltz found nonetheless that
in some cases, the patients continued to feel inadequate and experienced feelings of inferiority. In short, these "failures" continued to feel, act and behave just as if they still had an ugly face. (p. vi)
Beauty is more than skin deep, concludes Maltz, and if an exterior change isn’t accompanied by a change in the patient’s image of self, those feelings of inadequacy are not going to go away. Fortunately it just so happens that you can make cosmetic changes to your psyche that will make you a better, happier person.

Psycho-cybernetic interventions are twofold, then: first you remove unwanted memories that are unpleasant (ugly) and unproductive (in that they cannot provide useful negative feedback), then you replace them with 'synthetic experience', that is to say a vivid, detailed imagining of who you want to be and what you want to achieve, which your mind - which after all feeds on images - will be compelled to regard as true.

It’s pretty much all there is to it, except in order to expand the advice to book-length Maltz goes into various degrees of sometimes confusing detail, amongst a plethora of platitudinous section titles like 'More years of life and more life into your years' or 'Crisis brings power', and broadening his perspective to include pseudo-scientific notions such as the life force and an extrasensory universal consciousness. We’re at the threshold of the New Age, but under the firm tutelage of cybernetics and a new science of mind that was just then being born. It’s the world of Philip Dick’s simulacra.

The implications for memory are significant, and bear directly on our recent discussions on witnessing history and being faithful to authentic experience. If you could reinvent yourself, rewrite your life story, would you bother to include your failures, traumas and transgressions? Here’s what Maltz has to say - in what seems like a direct response to a comment of Carl Dyke’s from last week - under the headline 'Let sleeping dogs lie':
Our errors, mistakes, failures, and sometimes even our humiliations, were necessary steps in the learning process. However, they were meant to be means to an end—and not an end in themselves. When they have served their purpose, they should be forgotten. If we consciously dwell upon the error, or consciously feel guilty about the error, and keep berating ourselves because of it, then—unwittingly—the error or failure itself becomes the "goal" which is consciously held in imagination and memory. The unhappiest of mortals is that man who insists upon reliving the past, over and over in imagination—continually criticising himself for past mistakes—continually condemning himself for past sins. (p. 66)

What Maltz suggests instead, with a startling surgical metaphor, is to give yourself ‘a spiritual face-lift’ in order to ‘remove your emotional scars’. This operation, to be completely successful, has to leave absolutely no trace. So for instance - and please believe me when I say that this is the actual example in the book - a woman who had been counselled by her minister or psychiatrist to forgive her philandering husband needs to do more than that: she must actually forget the incident altogether. Then and only then will (marital) harmony be restored.

Taking our cue from Carl’s discussion of a therapeutic approach to history, we could call this therapeutic memory. But instead of launching all too predictably into questioning its value, I want to highlight a set of connections which again feed back into the discussion we’ve had in the last few posts. For the nineteen-sixties were also the decade of the death of the author, a turn of events that Italo Calvino linked explicitly to the ideas of Shannon, Weiner, Turing and von Neumann.

In a lecture originally delivered in November of 1967 in Turin and other cities and later published as an essay entitled ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’, Calvino described writing as the work of a servo-mechanism, a goal-oriented act whose outcome is not predetermined by the tightly bound subjective I of the author, but rather takes place at the intersection of culture, language and probability. The idea, which had already been put forward more radically by Borges in 1940 - in the Library of Babel, you will recall, there are no writers or authors, just perennially perplexed readers - is based on a less crude understanding of cybernetics than Maltz’s, but shares some of the same fundamental propositions. Chiefly, that there is knowledge which exists outside of us, floating in the culture and obeying the rules of language, and that its discovery amounts to stumbling upon something which was already there. Furthermore, this is just as true now, in our highly complex and densely symbolic societies, as it was for the first storyteller of the tribe.
The storyteller began to put forth words, not because he thought others might reply with other, predictable words, but to test the extent to which words could fit with one another, could give birth to one another, in order to extract an explanation of the world from the thread of every possible spoken narrative, and from the arabesque that nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates performed as they unfolded from one another. (p. 4)

Ultimately it’s not just the author, but the individual itself which dissolves into the act of speaking/writing. ‘The psychological person,’ explains Calvino paraphrasing Tel Quel, ‘is replaced by a linguistic or even a grammatical person, defined solely by his place in the discourse’ (p. 5). And if stories obey the rules of language and grammar, why not personal histories, why not History? What stops us then from rewriting all of our selves and society itself, playing with its vocabulary until we have found a hopefully more just and better functioning narrative? And if it were possible, wouldn’t it be worth sacrificing memory, opening up your already-written-past for endless reinvention? So long as it is what it takes.

I won’t attempt to answer that. I turn to Psycho-Cybernetics again and ask myself instead: what kind of object is this? A quaint little book, remarkably still in print - although the new cover leaves out the fantastic piece of sloganeering in the picture at the top of the page, making no mention of Maltz’s original profession - it hardly resembles the building block of a new utopia. Its tone is frequently shrill, asking you to reserve your judgment on it for at least 21 days, during which time you should reread chapter two at least three times a week. It leaves a pitifully token amount of room to write some words of your own at the end of each chapter. At page 156 it abruptly cuts to a commercial, this one,

and then again at the very end it hawks a programme designed to ‘GIVE YOUR CHILD A SUPERIOR MIND’. Says the coupon: ‘If I am not convinced that it can show me how to increase my child’s intelligence and potential for success, I may return it within 30 days, and owe nothing’. I am not reassured by this, I think I can see some cracks in the edifice. Or perhaps it’s the ghosts of the id evoked by Calvino in a counterargument to his own terse cybernetic vision:
The power of modern literature lies in its willingness to give a voice to what has remained unexpressed in the social or individual unconscious: this is the gauntlet it throws down time and again. The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts. Dreams of progress and reason are haunted by nightmares. (p. 17)

Maltz said nothing about ghosts or nightmares. His franchise has now been taken over by a former martial arts champion who dresses like Fu-Manchu and is available to come to speak at your company for a fee.

Maxwell Maltz. Psycho-Cybernetics - A New Way to Get More Living Out of Life. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1960.

Italo Calvino. 'Cybernetics and Ghosts', tr. Patrick Creagh. In The Uses of Literature (San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1986), pp. 3 - 27.