Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How to Make Love

Every so often a blogger stumbles upon this book. And we laugh, oh, how we laugh.

And then when we are finished laughing occasionally we draw wry conclusions on wider social trends, and how the times have changed, between the retrograde then and the relatively enlightened now.

It is something of a conditioned critical stance – point, laugh, wry – and there isn’t much that is wrong with it, on the face of it. Broadly speaking the times are in fact more enlightened than they were in 1936, when the possibly pseudonymous Hugh Morris set out to produce a book ‘written by a modern writer for modern people who live and love in a modern way’. Except the present as he described it was a fiction, his views representative only of a subset of contemporary American society – and yet they survive to this day, sometimes quite unadulterated, sometimes under a less crude but nonetheless thin disguise.

Man was created strong. Woman was created weak. With this as a basis – the author informs us – we can readily understand the difference between the sexes:
Woman, although she is just as anxious for love as man, must never betray her anxiety. She must always be passive. Man, it is, who must be the active partner. It is he who makes love to woman. He chases the woman who was made to be chased. The success of love depends entirely on the understanding of this basic relationship.
Nowadays you are a right thinking person if you do not hold any of that to be true, unless it is framed as a lesson in evolutionary psychology – therefore not a relic of past superstition, but a product of modern empirical science (of which Men Are from Mars and its byproducts are the pop variety). Essentialism dies very hard. But the following, well, perhaps that really is a viewpoint that cannot be clung to except by referring to tradition and religion, a supernatural order of things that is not discovered, but inherited:
There is only one kind of love and that is the love of a man for a woman or vice versa. Mother love, brother love, sister love, Platonic love, even the “unspeakable loves” of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas and Lesbia and her charming girls on the isle of Paphos, none of these is true love. Man and woman He created them.
Conversely, the legalisation of gay marriage, with its powerfully symbolic encoding of acceptance, is one of the battlelines of Western progressivism. It defines its proponents as forward-looking (unlike in the case, say, of the defence of welfare) and history itself as proceding in a forward motion. As a matter of fact, it is routinely suggested that it may just be a matter of waiting for the remaining Hugh Morrises of this world to cark it. We shall, eventually, overcome. But if one widens the lens from the West alone, or lengthens the timespan as far back as, yes, Lesbia and her charming girls on the isle of Paphos and so forth, then we find that LGBT history does not sit comfortably on a straight line either: it proceeds, as do most other histories, through discontinuities and asynchronous zones, always confronting social structures and ideologies that strive to make its object (and its subjects) ‘unspeakable’, as Morris would have it.

And besides, what makes a book ‘speak’ for its times? How to Make Love was included in a series of short pamphlets that offered also the prophylactic Sex Facts for Men and Sex Facts for Women, the polemical Facts About Nudism (purporting to uncover the 'real truth' about the then neonate movement) and, lest you thought the Mr Morris was only interested in offering moral leadership and romantic instruction, 84 Card Tricks and Fortune Telling by Cards. It was, in other words, a marginal pulp self-help enterprise, one that no publisher bothered to attach its name to.

But then in 1987 How to Make Love was reprinted, albeit still with no publisher information, meaning that at some point in the not too distant past this very small, semi-anonymous 32-page booklet bound with staples retailed for as much as $7.95 (New Zealand or otherwise, it’s hard to say). And that’s the part that puzzled me. The foregoing notwithstanding, I struggled to see how the book could have been presented as remotely current – also in a commercial sense – or in any way useful half a century after its original release, if not to generate the kind of commentary that one finds nowadays on the web, and whose value is correctly placed by the market at zero. Which is a typically roundabout way of saying that what makes How to Make Love interesting to me is mostly its regurgitation, its being not just outdated but twice outdated and its having become in the process quite a different book while staying exactly the same.

Seeing as the genre is self-help, it must be noted that Morris’ practical advice has mostly to do with what you shouldn’t be doing – that is to say, everything but kissing (no tongues) and some low-level finger-entwining and arm-around-shoulder action. So, to deal with the most obvious: love-making has nothing whatsoever to do with sex, nor with petting, and everything to do with not doing those things. (Until you are married, that is. But at that point, as far as Mr Morris is concerned, you’re on your own.)

The ostensible centrepiece and possibly original main selling point of the book is the detailed description of how to go about planting the first kiss on your soon-to-be-beloved. This long, elaborate scene takes place on a sofa (you would have made sure to have seated the woman between yourself and the armrest, to prevent fleeing) and is prefaced by a truly alarming passage in which the author suggests using the little-known 'Bard defence' against a likely charge of sexual assault:
If she flinches, don't worry. If she flinches and makes an outcry, don't worry. If she flinches, makes an outcry and tries to get up from the sofa, don't worry. Hold her, gently but firmly, and allay her fears with kind, reassuring words. Remember what Shakespeare said about “a woman’s no.”
However if the cries become ‘stentorian’ and she starts to scratch your face, then you should consider getting yourself out of a bad situation, because:
such girls are not to be trifled with... or kissed. It is such as they, in most cases, who still believe the story of the stork which brings babies because of the consequences of a kiss.
(That kissing doesn’t make you pregnant is presumably one of the principal subjects of Sex Facts for Women.) Then, after another couple of pages of preamble, comes a rather memorable 500-word step-by-step, inch-by-inch procedure – which you can peruse on a new page if you so wish – that culminates in the beau swooping gracefully ‘like a seagull’, bringing his lips down firmly onto the lips of the girl who is quivering in his arms. Interestingly enough, there is no matching procedural description of the kiss itself, possibly because Mr Morris wrote a whole book on the topic he’d like you to buy (favourite chapter title: ‘How to kiss girls with different sizes of mouths’), but having the ultimate effect of reducing the act to its iconic image from the cinema, a frozen in time pressing of the lips of sure visual effect but dubious pleasurability.

However of greater interest to me were the passages in How to Make Love designed to help the reader to make a sensible choice of partner. Here I think the advice has a certain timeless quality, and moves into a territory whose boundaries have not been redrawn to the point of no longer being recognisable – which may explain in part the book’s later revival.

The key point to understand is this: love is devoid of either reason or logic, it’s an emotion that takes over the rational faculties in both sexes, and yet somehow
the utmost of care must be taken to be certain that the person with whom we fall in love is the proper person, the sort of person with whom you can expect to live happily the rest of your life.
How you are supposed to strip all the emotion away to make this choice, it is not immediately clear, but I suspect that the author relies on the criteria having been successfully interiorised, through education and the social messages that he has taken care to reinforce, so that the reader will interpret the necessary attributes as beauty to be desired – a beauty that is wrapped in morality and a sense of what is proper. After all, everything in the book is about the right and wrong kind of love and the right and wrong kind of behaviour. And it’s not just the same-sex thing. It would be ‘ludicrous’, Morris declares, for a man to fall in love with a woman who is larger and stronger than he is (hence the comedy in Barney Google and his enormous wife, don’t you know), or of a different social class or level of education.

Then there are the references to health and personal hygiene. When it comes to the latter, the injunction to the woman is peremptory:
Tub yourself continually in hot water and use cold water and soap to cleanse your skin so that it will always be alluring and attractive.
While not mandated to be submerged at all times, men are encouraged to always be ‘fresh looking’. But trumping the romantic tropes once and for all is the observation that the most important thing to look for in a partner is in fact a robust constitution:
Naturally, in choosing a mate, it is imperative that he or she be healthy. The ailing woman is a menace to any love affair. She should be strong enough to do housework, she should be strong enough to bear children, she should be strong enough to do the work necessary toward the building of a home. Again, the same should apply to the man, but even more so, for he is going to be the main support of the future family. Upon him and his strength will rest the job of earning the expenses.
This is what the author had been trying to tell us all along, as politely and with as many quotations from the great poets as he could: that choosing your partner is very much like choosing a horse. Now one could of course opine that romance has always been the most fictional genre of all, and that historically it was only the poor who could afford to couple for what we might nowadays be inclined to call love, but I would rather suggest that what distinguishes the contemporary social discourse is that we wrap the same ideas in different clothing: chiefly the theories of evolutionary science that tell us that men look for women with good child bearing hips, and women see beauty in health and wealth as indicators of a viable provider for their children, as well as more complex messages that equate diet and exercise in both sexes to moral – as opposed to physical – well-being.

So perhaps that’s why How to Make Love made its baffling comeback: because some of its ideas never went away, and there was a sufficient supply of aging uncles or aunts who thought that the new generation could benefit from its sensible advice, plainly told, to justify a reprint. In fact Morris’ book is oddly reminiscent of one of those conversations around the family table when the particular relative holding court is of the type that makes you shudder at the whole notion of genetic inheritance, and on top of that you know damn well that you’ll be lucky to live as long.

Hugh Morris. How to Make Love: The Secret of Wooing and Winning the One you Love. Publisher unknown: 1936 (reprinted 1987).

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Liveblogging the Apocalypse (7): Combined and/or Uneven

To begin with a point of departure, from a review by Michael Willand:
More than a blueprint for liberation, Williams’s limpid and creative dissection of these cultural artefacts is an exemplary illustration of the serious scrutiny we should apply to our imaginative lives.
And to show that it amounts to damning not so much with faint praise as with actual damning, and makes a non sequitur of the fundamental question of what it is about our ‘imaginative lives’ that deserves serious scrutiny, and for what purpose we should engage in the ‘creative dissection of cultural artefacts’. Or, to put it another way, what’s the point of film and literary theory, other than showing that you can learn to do them very well.

Evan Calder Williams has been blogging at Socialism and/or Barbarism for the best part of three years, although it would be more precise to say that he has been straining the blog form for most of this time, alternating between pieces of micro-critique, full-blown, exhilarating journal-length essays and brutally articulate invectives of such length as to spill out of the format altogether, counselling the author to split in two parts what didn’t need to be, insofar as a web page can accommodate texts of indefinite length (or, rather, depth). It would be tempting to call some of these excesses self-indulgent, were it not for the obvious fact that self-publishing is that by definition, and that furthermore conceiving of outside editorial intervention as the means of curtailing excess and ensuring that a piece of writing adheres to a more common – read: virtuous – set of expectations is far from unproblematic. That said, Evan is one of the few bloggers, or writers more generally, to whom I don’t begrudge the occasional rough draft, for it rarely fails to offer sharp poetic turns and interestingly jagged edges. And besides it can be as much in the throwaway one-liner or image association as in the controlled long-form essay that one can detect the changes of trajectory in the development of his ideas. (None of which – this must be said for it’s far from a given – have ever been regarded by their author as ‘too good for a blog’.)

All of this work has been conducted against the dual backdrops of the global financial crisis and most especially the permanent struggle against the dismantling of public higher education that has in Evan’s adoptive California one of its nerve centres, and is therefore shot through with and necessarily informed by the author’s own activism. And so the blog’s subject – which broadly speaking has been thus far the study of apocalyptic texts, with a particular emphasis on film – with its attendant reflections on the collapse of institutions and broader social structures, is moored to a context that surfaces time and again in explicit fashion amongst the posts, allowing us to provisionally establish at the very least a contiguity between the political and the aesthetic, but also giving the blog its own peculiar, angry time signature.

It should be clear by now that I am talking again of a genre-defining blog, much as Socialism and/or Barbarism is certainly not alone in what it does. It is the blog that gave us salvagepunk and one of the most acute and challenging analyses of the zombie canon, as well as the work in progress of hostile object theory – whose relevance to my own field of research I’ve had occasion to comment on – but yet existed in that uncertain zone, freely accessible yet hard to piece together, suffering as it were from the excess of vitality of the not-yet-printed word. And so when it transpired last year that Evan would publish with the British imprint Zero Books, it produced the likely expectation that he would organise this material and produce a less malleable, more discrete object to think and work with, as well as making that at times implicit dimension – of political injunction, as opposed to critical analysis – more fully explicit.

The resulting book, Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, is on a level just that. Organised as a three-part study of an eclectic selection of fantasies of the capitalist apocalypse from the late nineteen-sixties to the present day, the book acknowledges the influence of the particular instance of crisis in which it was produced, but doesn’t draw legitimacy from it. One of its central points is to underscore rather the immanent, as opposed imminent, nature of the apocalypse, its being already here except not everywhere at the same time – hence combined and uneven, a play on the Marxist theory of historical development inaugurated by Trotzky – and how the various articulations of this fantasy, with their corresponding eschatologies, are integral to capitalism as a global system. There is one passage in particular that deserves to be quoted in full:

[C]capitalist apocalypse […] does not mean just an end of capitalism or even an end that suddenly reveals things about it which we didn't know before. Rather, capitalist apocalypse is the possibility of grasping how the global economic order and its social relations depend upon the production and exploitation of the undifferentiated, of those things which cannot be included in the realm of the openly visible without rupturing the very oppositions that make the whole enterprise move forward. And by “undifferentiated things,” we mean all that we know very well yet regard as exceptional nightmares or accidents to be corrected with better, greener, more ethical management: hellish zones of the world, whole populations destroyed in famine and sickness, “humanitarian” military interventions, the basic and unincorporable fact of class antagonism, closure of access to common resources, the rendering of mass culture more and more banal, shifting climate patterns and the “natural” disasters they bring about, the abandonment of working populations and those who cannot work in favor of policies determined only to starkly widen wealth gaps. (8)

This is the apocalypse we have, an unfolding, developing story with several converging endings that demands to be approached not by fretting about what is going to happen, nor by hastening the end, but rather by making a stand ‘from the position of what has already been lost’ (203). Hence a book that is committed to rummaging through pasts according to the logic of salvage – in search of what is useful, as opposed to supposedly representative or symptomatic – and that locates its central texts in two films from the beginnings of the surveyed period: Jean Luc Godard’s Week End (1967) and Richard Lester’s The Bed Sitting Room (1969). Yet also a book that, more than is usual, was consigned to the past from the moment it came into being.

It happened at the book’s London launch, earlier this month, when Evan and China Miéville proceeded to declare salvagepunk dead and to question its political pretensions, as well as, by extension, the mechanisms of circulation and appropriation of critical terms. (Salvagepunk is dead not just because of its actual inherent conceptual limitations but because it is literally everywhere already, a victim from birth of its cool-theory sheen.) Caught between those performative moments – the slow, accretive coming together of the material on the blog on one hand, the launch on the other – the book remains trapped oddly outside of time, doubted, if not quite disavowed, by its authors (plural, for Miéville played a major role in the genesis of salvagepunk), declared outdated before the ink was even dry, thus an object that one does not quite know what to do with, which would be appropriate enough – as if too needed to be salvaged, repurposed – except for its having declared itself a work of ‘prescriptive theory’ (12), thus explicitly an object to do things with, and at this moment.

That’s where the Michael Willand quote at the top of this post comes back into play. If salvagepunk (and, by extension, the book) is not a ‘blueprint for liberation’, as is charged, then what is it that makes ‘Williams’s limpid and creative dissection of these cultural artefacts’ not just delightful and instructive but in fact useful and even necessary, something we ‘should’ engage in? In fact it is the premise of the statement that is nonsensical: the failure of the book to develop its insights based on the study of films ‘into a comprehensive plan for an alternative society’ (from the same review) is an utterly literal-minded response to the book’s exhortations to make use of the logic of salvagepunk, to retrofit the zombie genre and to occupy the zones of combined and uneven apocalypse. All of these analyses remain politically useful in a way that is analogous to Donna Haraway’s famous treatment of cyborgs – who, like the zombies of Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, also had to be rescued from under a mountain of deeply entrenched yet utterly banal critiques in order to ‘make them mean otherwise’ (146): namely, as analytical tools – or more precisely: sets of politically inflected optics designed to make visible what would otherwise be hidden – and as templates to understand social and labour relations and (re)construct antagonistic subjects.

And so too the burial of salvagepunk – its intriguing and lively fanfare of self-critique notwithstanding – was, one feels, premature, and offers one more timeline to be occupied and resisted: that of critical terms that become devalued through overuse and reduced to the level of memes before they’ve had time to even mean things. It is time already for a revival.

Evan Calder Williams. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. Winchester and Washington: Zero Books, 2011.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Looting

They assembled in front of the warehouse in a late afternoon in early June: two hundred or so people who had arrived in one hundred or so vehicles, including large trucks of well-known local moving companies whose brand names had been concealed.

Then they got to work.

They forced their way inside the padlocked building and proceeded to strip it of everything that might have some value. First of all, the furniture – for this was a furniture warehouse – followed by the appliances and the computers and the stationery. Then they took the curtains and some of the carpets and tiles. Then they ripped out the electrical system and removed the copper wiring inside.

The reports vary a little on what happened next. It seems that residents of the nearby town, some say suspecting an unauthorised rave party, called the police, and that when they arrived they took down the names of the people who were still in the building before letting them go. But another version is that nobody left, and everyone waited patiently for their name to be recorded. Only then, at 9pm, the group left, each taking their share of the loot. The next day, the local Carabinieri posed for this picture.

Aiazzone was a northern Italian furniture company that was amongst the first, in the 1980s, to make use of television as a medium not just for advertising but for actual sales. Their ads, headlined by huckster extraordinaire Guido Angeli, he of the smirk and the weird gesticulation – his signature move was a circular motion of the right hand, palm down, and simultaneously a vigorous ‘thumb-up’ with the left – appeared on both national and local television, and it was in the latter that Angeli entertained his audiences with a series of seemingly interminable infomercials. The company’s slogan was Provare per credere, ‘try in order to believe’, and the ads warmly invited the public to come in for an obligation free chat with the company’s interior designers ‘over lunch or dinner’ and promised 'free delivery nationwide - including the islands'.

The furniture itself was said to be almost proverbially awful, and having furnished one’s house at Aiazzone’s became shorthand for having little money and less taste – due in part no doubt to the kind of class snobbery that made the bourgeois sneer at the popularity of formica tables, chairs and bench tops in post-war Italy, without a thought for the kind of value that being able to purchase easy-to-clean kitchen and dining room furniture represented for the working poor. But maybe it really was awful, I don’t know. At any rate the brand itself was tarnished to the point that its delivery vans often travelled without markings and logos. It was the closest you could get to having your furniture delivered in a brown paper bag.

However the business model remained highly successful, and it kept relying on Angeli and his boorish promotional style to craft its message to the masses. I still remember mornings spent home from school when Aiazzone infomercials would be running concurrently on three different channels – which was quite unprecedented in those days – but the original vision of company founder Giorgio Aiazzone was to control television directly. His short-lived GAT (Gruppo Aiazzone Televisivo) had been in fact one of the country’s earliest commercial networks and a rival to Berlusconi’s own neonate outfit.

Then suddenly in July of 1986 Giorgio Aiazzone died in a helicopter crash, aged 39. Angeli dedicated to his boss a one hour infomercial-cum-memorial service featuring a chair sitting empty under a spotlight, an outrageous piece of television that is sadly lost to the ages. But the front man’s theatrical genius was not enough to ensure the continuing success of the company, and Aiazzone went into a twenty-year decline which ended with the acquisition of the brand name by Renato Semeraro, Giammauro Borsano and Giuseppe Gallo in 2008.

'You neither wash, nor pay' - a 2010 Aiazzone promotion offering a free dishwasher with every kitchen purchased and 5-year interest-free payments

With the injection of capital and the opening of a new chain of stores came a new national advertising campaign and a new series of supermarket-like deals. To say that the project was short-lived may give the possibly misleading impression that it was ever alive at all: the line eventually pursued by the public prosecutors is that the venture was conceived from the start as the business equivalent of a Ponzi scheme. The new owners, it is alleged, leveraged the company that owned all of the factories, warehouses and shops now under the Aiazzone name – many of which were in crisis at the time of their rebranding – for a series of fraudulent transactions involving both material assets and legal entities, as well as cash withdrawals and the issuing of invoices for goods and services that didn’t exist to phantom, ad hoc companies. The businessmen proceeded then to transfer one by one to Bulgaria the ownership of all of the companies involved – which by now were empty shells left with no assets but substantial liabilities to their workers, their suppliers and the tax department – so as to avoid the normal liquidation process and prevent the creditors from recovering anything of value.

This is not a terribly unusual story – not in the country that oversaw the €14 billion collapse of Parmalat – but one whose consequences have been devastating nonetheless. The name in the Italian penal code for the main charge against Semeraro, Borsano and Gallo is suitably gruesome: bancarotta distruttiva, ‘destructive bankruptcy’. Its victims included Aiazzone’s 850 workers, who will never see their back pay or the severance money set aside from their salaries, and tens of thousands of its customers, some of whom were pressed to honour the scheduled payments even after the shops had been padlocked and there was no prospect of their ever receiving the furniture.

Which takes us back to this last first of June, and to the sealed warehouse in Pognano.

Some had already come in the preceding weeks, burglarising at the edges, as it were. But on this day they wanted to finish the job, and do it together. Two hundred people, including migrant families alongside the many locals. Former employees, former customers, all of them from the working class – or the laid-off class – a suitably multicultural, globalised gang, finding strength in numbers and a common purpose: to at least repossess something, pick whatever morsels of meat were left on the carcass of what was once a place of work and business.

I find it such a poignantly, pathetically emblematic story of our late, late capitalism. The manner in which these people organised is a sad echo of the brash proletarian expropriations of another era, their unlikely coming together a parody of unionism. And this wasn’t a riot, either. There was no vandalism except to profit from the salvage, no defiance. There was nothing brazen or consciously symbolic in the action, other than its taking place in the late afternoon, meaning that the sun was barely setting by the time they all left. Fast, efficient, well-organised – if the reports are to be believed – this was like work, if such efficiency were still valued in the workplace, and the workplace hadn’t become a front for the financial dealings going on elsewhere, in lawyers’ offices and banks and accounting firms.

Forget bankruptcies: it is Capital itself that has become destructive, eating away at the capacity of labour to produce value, let alone wealth. And I’m not saying this just because it so happens that since the day of the looting, less than eight weeks ago, the Italian stock exchange has lost almost a quarter of its value: the relationship between the two economies – between the all-too-real one of the furniture warehouse and the symbolic one of the stock exchange floor, itself nowadays an entirely virtual construct – obeys its own warped logic and proceeds by way of randomly scheduled moments of reckoning.

As to what happened in Pognano that day, the penal code has the perfect word for it: it was a spoliation. Consider what would make you do that, how far would you have to be pushed before deciding to join this very orderly mob, and how degrading it would feel to barter those things of little value – the used carpets and curtains, the random, mismatched bits of shoddy furniture you managed to fit in the car, the copper wiring you’re going to have to take down to the scrap metal yard – in exchange for actual work, the thing that you used to do every day and that you thought was honest, and that there might be a future – your future – in it.

No: you worked for this, and now you have to steal it. It is the final indignity visited upon a generation brought up to believe, or rather, know, that you have to be lucky to have a job at all.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Our Memory Is a Never-Grey Wall

La nostra memoria è un muro mai grigio, our memory is a never-grey wall. And underneath, Corsari Milano, although it’s not a signature: the two graffiti were left on different dates, likely by different hands. However to this group, linked to the ‘Milan Autonomous Zone’ and to the movement of the social centres, belong other admonishments not to forget the past that I have had the opportunity to record during my last few visits home.

Carlo e Alexis vivi e ribelli, ‘Carlo and Alexis are still rebels, still alive’, a reference to the police murders of Carlo Giuliani in Genoa in 2001 and Alexis Grigoropoulos in Athens in 2008.

La Diaz non la scordiamo né la assolviamo, ‘We neither forgive nor forget the Diaz’, a reference to the abduction and torture by the police of tens of Left Wing activists and journalists at the Diaz school in Genoa during the G8 protests of 2001. And many others, of similar tenor, alongside the messages more directly linked to present struggles to reclaim public school and universities, fight neofascism and racism, protect social centres and shared spaces.

Milano vuole spazi sociali – Milan demands social spaces.

The repertoire includes indictments of the socio-economic order and its enforcers

linking through language to a paneuropean movement of radical resistance, or explicitly exhorting to join struggles that take place elsewhere, such as the escalating protests in Val di Susa, near the French border, against the devastation caused by the Turin-Lyon high-speed train project.

I have not been able to establish if the phrase that I have chosen as the title for this post was left by a member of the Corsari group, but it is consonant with one of the broader movement’s slogans, as evidenced for instance in this recent communiqué, that senza memoria non c’è futuro, ‘there can be no future without memory’, immediately followed by le strade sono nostre, ‘the streets are ours’. Together, the two lines make memory and direct political action dependent on each other. But it doesn’t take that many words to express this concept. As few as three will do.

Milano non dimentica, ‘Milan doesn’t forget’, but I expect that you will find variations on this slogan in all of our major cities. This, in a country whose republican history is founded on amnesties and amnesia, on erasing the memory of the Fascism that preceded it and failing to hold its own mass murderers to account, is one of the most defiant statements that can be made: we do not forget.

Di stato si muore, ‘Of State you can die’

There is a quietly powerful moment at the beginning of Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo in which Giulio Andreotti pauses during one of his ritual early morning walks in Via del Corso, Rome, in front of an accusation in block letters to himself and to his principal ally, Socialist Party secretary Bettino Craxi.

Stragi e complotti portano la firma di Craxi e Andreotti – Massacres and conspiracies bear the signatures of Craxi and Andreotti

I could not confirm whether the phrase was in fact ever written on that particular wall, nor if it is wholly apocryphal – it seems that it may have appeared in the early Nineties on a different street. Sorrentino’s speculative placement is intriguing because it creates a direct line between the writer and the politician, allowing the nameless accuser to speak truth directly to power, knowing that power would walk that very street the next morning before sunrise. But such limit cases aside, it is far too narrow to think of graffiti solely on the basis of their propositional content, of what they purport to say – to the extent that they even speak through language.

Our memory is a never-grey wall. And across the road, where Via Fioravanti turns into Via Bramante, is a large building with its windows bricked up and densely storied surfaces such as the one above (you can explore the whole building on Google Street View here). And that, too, is memory, that too a corner of the city that does not forget, not least because nobody bothers to enforce the laws concerning the indiscriminate removal of graffiti, from tags to political slogans to street art – the building, after all, is condemned, it has no aesthetic integrity to preserve, however drab. And so that’s where you will find the least-grey walls: outside of old factories, depots and warehouses, the empty shells of our industrial past; or outside of the social centres themselves.

The Centro Sociale Cantiere, not far from the house in which I grew up and in which my mother still lives, in 2009.

Casa occupata at the dockyard, 2007. (Photo from Wikipedia)

We must not insist to find memory and politics only where there is coherent sense: these walls articulate their own resistance – including a fundamental resistance to erasure, that is to say forgetting – and map their own social and property relations according to ideas of utility and fitness to purpose that are antithetical to those of the order without. In the case of the social centres, which live under the implicit and often explicit threat of sudden and forceful eviction, they operate most obviously as a signifier of difference and belonging, but also as a shield that is both literal and figurative – much like those wonderful book covers from last year’s demonstrations.

If there is a future, an idea of progress in any of this, it lies precisely in the alternative use of our built structures: not just to signify but also to capture whole sets of distorted, spectral images of the city. Ghosts, if I may be so fashionable – ghosts that haunt us in that way that the past has, as half a world away it haunts the city of Foxton, whose not-grey walls are also walls of memory.

We ought to think about this, at a time when seemingly every council, no matter how cash-strapped, has its graffiti removal taskforce, and they all operate with a zeal that is incommensurate to the actual problem of honest to goodness vandalism, of the taggers who do nothing except say ‘this is mine’ or ‘I was here’ (but the wall is still grey, only now it’s also scribbled upon). That there is so much consensus to be gained by pledging to clean our cities in such a narrowly cosmetic sense speaks to deeper anxieties, graver concerns about a material and economic rather than social decline, to which we cannot seem to respond except by literally sprucing up the façade every time a new crack appears. Coat upon coat of grey paint – although it is much kinder to call it off-white – and to hell with how by now it’s no longer even a metaphor.

In the end, it may be that there are just two kinds of walls: the walls that we look at and the walls that look at us; and that thinking of the former as alternative to the latter is the radical act, the departure from the script.

The walls that look at us record everything but remember nothing. Theirs isn’t a history of the city, it’s the city viewed as a perpetual crime scene.

The walls that we look at are the ones on which we write who we are, and that write us. They are the walls on which our past resurfaces, sometimes unwanted, sometimes unsightly, sometimes gloriously defiant. But never, ever grey.

Apropos of nothing except my desire to tell you, I must report that the wonderful Megan has had three poems accepted for publication that she originally posted on this here blog. Huzzah!

Monday, August 1, 2011

True Names

anti-aliasing n. -soc. psych. Curiosity about the real flesh-and-blood people behind internet usernames, whose vivid individuality suggests that when our parents were tracing their fingers along our nameless faces looking for some hint of who we were to become, they really should have gone with Mr. Cookieface, Unicornpuncher, Dutchess Von Whatever, or Wookiegasm.

(The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows)

Two weeks or so into the controversy, Google Vice President Vic Gundotra spoke to Robert Scoble to clarify the company’s position, and Scoble dutifully relayed the conversation to the world. As the person in charge of policy, Gundotra is making some tough choices – Scoble explained – and is prepared to be judged on the outcomes. He is trying to set a positive tone in the new social network. But most importantly:
He says it isn't about real names. He says he isn't using his legal name here. He says, instead, it is about having common names and removing people who spell their names in weird ways, like using upside-down characters, or who are using obviously fake names, like "god" or worse.

Like “god”, or worse. I’d be content to talk about those four words alone this week. The company that told us to go out and put all of the people in our lives in a series of circles doesn’t want us to be messing with esoteric symbols; the corporation whose motto is ‘don’t be evil’ forbids us to interfere with the divine.

But amusing as that is, it’s an exercise in misdirection. Google’s 'real names' policy is not about the scourge of upside-down characters, strange spelling or even god impersonators: it’s about ensuring that the social web continues to fulfil its primary function as the largest and most efficient market research platform ever built.


It started around the 8th of July, when the earliest reports begun to circulate that Google had been suspending accounts on its neonate social network, Google+, due to naming irregularities. The cull included businesses posing as individuals but also individuals who signed up with obvious pseudonyms, such as Second Life avatars. The backlash concerning the latter group was fierce. If you’re interested in the details, the best source is a polemical and very lengthy post by Kee Hinckley. Suffice it to say here that Google’s critics argued in the main for the value of and the need for pseudonymity (as opposed to anonymity) – stuff that by now ought to be utterly obvious to everyone except there will always be people who are prepared to mistake privilege for virtue. Here’s one, a chap by the almost-too-plausible name of Joe Carter:
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I don’t have a lot of respect for the opinions of people who won’t sign their name—their real name—to what they write. Sure, I may engage you, agree/disagree with you, thank you for your comment, etc. But I can’t honestly say that I respect such opinions or give them much thought—and why should you expect me too? I put my name to everything I write on the Web (however imprudent that may be). Why should I take seriously the thoughts of someone who isn’t willing to undersign the statements they make?
Are you gay, disabled, kinky or an anarchist? You need to find yourself a nice little community of like-minded or like-bodied people with whom to discuss your marginal concerns. For everything else, you must sign your real name and constrain your personality and opinions to suit – in other words, be the kind of person who can speak their mind without the slightest fear of repercussion or unintended consequence.

In other-other words: keep the most distasteful bits of who you are the hell out of my feed.


True names is the title of a short but exceptionally clunky novella by Vernor Vinge often credited with articulating the first fully developed vision of cyberspace. In fact Vinge’s Other Plane postdates John Varley’s memory cube by roughly twice as many years as it predates William Gibson’s matrix, but practically its only feature of any enduring interest is that very clunkiness, its utterly literal and schematic prefiguration of the struggle to come between the huddled online masses yearning for free expression and the forces of state and corporate control insisting that every act, every utterance in cyberspace be traceable to a real person in the real world and stamped as to the real time of its occurrence.

In True Names, every user is by definition a hacker, and so to discover the real name of another user means to own them, for they’ll do anything if you promise not to reveal their identity to the police. However when an artificial intelligence by the name of Mailman makes a play to assume control of cyberspace, the hackers have no choice but to turn to the Feds (formerly their ‘Great Enemy’ – really) to help them vanquish this new and even greater threat to their freedom.

This scenario anticipated some of the directions of cyberpunk, albeit without any of the poetic force, but Vinge was also far more comfortable than Gibson, Sterling, Stephenson and the rest with some of the more startling implications of the new socio-technological paradigm. The epilogue of True Names contains in fact one of the earliest genuine forays into transhumanism, in the form of the main female character’s preparations for an afterlife in the Other Plane.
My kernel is out there in the System. Every time I'm there, I transfer a little more of myself. The kernel is growing into a true Erythrina, who is also truly me. When this body dies […] I will still be, and you can still talk to me.
Erythrina’s true name is Debbie Charteris, but the closing line of the novella, spoken by her male counterpart, leaves no doubt as to which name best captures her essence.
Beyond those years or decades... were millennia. And Ery.

There would be a lot more to say about this brand of immortality-seekers that is of interest to the topic of this blog, but for now I just want to place a particular idea in time: thirty years ago cyberspace as we have come to understand it was already being imagined; it was invested with nothing less than the capacity to provide a support system for the human soul; and loss of control over one’s real name was seen even back then, and in a very non-metaphorical way, as the fundamental existential threat.


Which makes it all the more extraordinary that Google should have failed to anticipate what the reaction to their crude and clumsily implemented policy would be. Faced with the onslaught, the company’s apologists deflected the attention of the critics towards the extent in which a pseudonym is in fact allowed – namely if it’s the name you’re commonly known as. Say, Mark Twain. Or Lady Gaga. Or Vic Gundotra, instead of whatever his legal name is (what’s the bet it’s Victor Gundotra?). But if the condition for the use of a pseudonym is that it is publicly associated to your real name in real life, then it fails the test of a useful online pseudonym.

But like I said, this is not what it’s about. Facebook's policy surrounding account names, subject to the service’s grandiosely named ‘authenticity standards’, are even more stringent than Google’s:
  • Your full first and last name must be listed. Initials cannot stand in place of your full name. Nicknames can be listed if they are a variation of your first or last name, but only in the format "First Name ‘Nickname’ Lastname."
  • Your name must be listed using characters from one language only.
  • Your name cannot consist of any titles, symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, or punctuation.
In spite of earlier pronouncements in praise of 'the freedom to be who you want to be', Google has chosen for its own social network an approach that is only fractionally softer than its rival’s because unique, traceable identities are very valuable to its actual customers – advertisers. And the endgame, remember, is not to sell advertising as such: it is to construct the ultimate social graph, a graph capable of matching your online behaviour to your consumer preferences in order to expose you to the perfect ads, thus maximising the revenue of both the platform and the advertisers. In time, the product sold by both Google and Facebook will be not so much the advertising space as the graph itself.

To prevent spurious aggregation of the demographic data, accounts on both networks are strictly personal. Says Facebook:
Please keep in mind that Facebook accounts are for individual personal use. Accounts representing groups, families or couples are not allowed.
But the principle of truthful representation is even more important. The requirement that ‘[y]our profile should represent you’ – a pillar of the ‘community standard’ on which Google’s policy is based – is not there to prevent us from lying to each other, but from lying to Google. Were I to impersonate a historical figure, or a person of another gender, or engage in any sort of conscious role-play altogether, I might declare to like products and services other than the ones that I actually consume, thus introducing false data into the set and polluting the graph.


Now I’m not saying that Facebook or Google will actually ever master the social graph, at least not any more than I’m saying that Vernor Vinge or Marvin Minsky are going to live forever inside their computers. But it’s a powerful fantasy, one that is forming very real perceptions about the values of companies’ stocks and – more depressingly – the social exchange itself. We may perceive its impact as promoting exclusion from these services, which is bad enough – for belonging there will soon likely have to be considered optional only in a very narrow sense, like it’s optional to have a telephone. I have talked about this. But in another, less immediately obvious sense, these restrictions promote a further narrowing of the meanings of the word identity.

Think about Web 1.0, with its sometimes ugly, sometimes startling or pretty homepages that took forever to load; with its the lack of templates not just for communicating your interests, but for thinking of yourself inside of a giant global house. Cast your mind back to before the Web itself, to email and bulletin boards and Usenet with their ubiquitous pseudonyms, as well as the sense of possibility: for personal reinvention, for activism, for accessing kinds of knowledge that you never even suspected could possibly have mattered to you – but did. And now think about the prescription to be yourself on the internet, and how it forecloses the multiple identities you might wish to play with, each orthogonal with your various interests, curiosities, public or secret kinks, and the languages you speak. Think of the requirement to be one person, separate from friends and family, mates and lovers, comrades and foes; to be of your own gender, and be interested in men/women/both; to be of your own race, of your own class. And watch your social imagination be eroded, inch by bloody inch.


There is a grotesque coda to this story. In the middle of the controversy, Norway happened, and some days later somebody had to ask: Why didn’t Google catch Anders Breivik? It was one of those weasely questions that journalists – or, in this case, academics – like to put in the mouths of the public sometimes, posed only so that it could be unpicked and debunked. We know that Breivik spent an alleged 200 hours on Google searching for terms relating to bombs. We know that he published a 1,500 word manifesto under his own name. But for god’s sakes, we also know that Google is not the internet, and it’s not a secret service, and it’s not empowered, nor is it subject to the necessary checks and balances. And we’re not fucking stupid, so we’re not even asking the question. Yet we must sit patiently while we are told the answer.

Not in the category of the horrific, but of the chilling, are the images of Breivik that have circulated. Two in particular: the one in which he is wearing the blue Lacoste sweater and the one currently on Wikipedia. How polished they are, like professional portraits. That is the perfect Facebook face. That is a man that is comfortable with who he is. And this is also what the massacre was about: obsession with fixed identities – racial, cultural and political – the disease that is eating Europe from within.

Perhaps it was Facebook that ought to have caught Anders Breivik. Perhaps that’s what was reckoned by the person who filmed Breivik’s Facebook page before it was taken down and then put it on YouTube with the accompaniment of an epic score. Perhaps there should be another graph – an anti-social graph, a murderers’ graph – that accounts for the darkness, the madness, the criminal intent.

Except it is a dangerous fantasy that these identities of ours are unique and transparent, and a perverse imperative that we should seek to hold them together at all times, and always be true to our true names.