Thursday, August 28, 2008


check out coverage of the DNC at Scholars and Rogues

Monday, August 25, 2008


Since this book has already been reviewed in several places, I'm going to dispense a bit with the bio that accompanies it in these reviews, which is also available on the website.

A few things about genre, instead: this is an adventure novel, one could even call it an epic. It's been described as "sprawling", "swashbuckling", "picaresque" and it is being made into a movie starring Johnny Depp, set for release in 2009.

In Wikipedia they declare the novel to be written in "roman a clef" which in following their wiki-link reveals:
"A roman à clef or roman à clé (French for "novel with a key") is a novel describing real-life behind a façade of fiction. The 'key' is usually a famous figure or, in some cases, the author."

This falls in with a lot of these "sorta" genres that lie somewhere between fact and fiction such as creative nonfiction, gonzo journalism, picaresque, mock-umentary and so on. Perhaps it would be appropriate to construct a gradient scale of these with the arrow of Truth, showcasing Percentage Of respective to the story, pointing to examples, although I'm not sure who would be interested.

When it comes to this novel, one can conclude this, regardless of genre: If this story is even 20 % true then the author is lucky to be alive. Bombay is portrayed as a city of glittering malevolence, as a city where you would not want to be overly-assertive, abandoned or lost, yet the main character, an Australian fugitive named Linbaba by his porter (a name that in the Marathi language sounds like Dick Hero) is all three of these yet manages to survive by his wits, by his fists, by the hospitality of the Indian people, and sometimes he just gets lucky.

At first I wanted to say "this is Batman in India", then I thought he's trying to make India the new Temporary Autonomous Zone, which would explain Johnny Depp's interest, but then I realized that this is not a story that knew it was a story at the time, its a story of a man who has lost it all and is merely surviving by surrendering his will and his identity into the Indian culture, "total immersion" except there's no tour guide to yank you back from the abyss with a hook, no reality-tv cameraman to switch off his dv-cam and say 'let's take a fiver!"

We see up close and personal a slummy, gritty India and, later, Afghanistan in the early-to-mid 80s, with all of the rampant diseases, soulless mercenaries and wild, roving animals you would expect. Roberts, though he admires Durrell, does not have a style that much compares, except for the subject matter. His style is more journalistic. This happened, then this happened, then this, punctuated with sufficient, if not elegantly-worded, description of people and places, and also slowed in the skull-cracking action by philosophical asides and ruminations on ethics. The tale is so gripping and multifaceted one hardly notices a flaw. I recalled the effect of reading Sidney Sheldon as similar.

As much of Lin's struggle is concerned with mere survival and reacting to whatever crisis the Indian people bring to him, it at times becomes confusing to the reader what he is striving for exactly. His motive is hidden from others, and often from himself. He chases elements of comfort, friendship and freedom as if the desired were an algebraic X at the end of a long, intricate equation. He only seems to awaken into what he wants at the result of a physical intrusion of someone else, which leaves question marks for the reader, but one has to consider that this is a normal reaction of a man under extreme stress. At one point at around the beginning of part 4, we wonder if the success of a relationship desired will be enough for him, but he walks out of this to keep a promise to someone little better than an acquaintance, and there is a lag in the tale at this point.

This is made up, however by the sudden deaths of some main characters, one of whom appears later in a highly unpredictable, and touching, twist, and an odyssey into the mountains of Afghanistan with his Afghan organized-crime partners. This part of the book was the best, because the description really puts you there, and it highlighted a lot of the themes that had been developing over the course of the novel: friendship, loyalty, religion, trust, forgiveness, and the philosophical motivations for fighting, not just this war against what was the USSR at the time, but fighting anything.

These are troublesome themes for Lin throughout the story because he finds himself in a fight about once every two weeks, including episodes of being tortured in a gnarly postcolonial jail. But the book is so large, 900 pages, though it reads fast, that it far makes up for the gruesomeness of street business with the heart and warmth of the Indian people, (that is, the non-mafia people) who are portrayed as friendly, responsible and charming. Since Lin has much of the street-brawling ability, he is often "hired" for protective purposes, but he does spend a good portion of time in Bombay in the medical "clinic" of a slum, assisting the infirm and unfortunate. Lin attempts to have heart, and so does the book, mostly once the climactic war scenes are concluded - one especially excellent lingers, where a muj and friend of Lin's who had at one time been schooled in New York drops his gun after killing a man, has a moment of insight and walks off into the snow muttering the Koran. Men at their edge, giving everything they got, up against horrible odds, and its real. Or that is, it's roman a clef real.

There are so many characters of Indian or Afghan descent that one has difficulty distinctly picturing them all, in the habit a reader often has of forming a mental image of a character in a book based on someone they know or have met. Somehow I was nearly able to do it, until about page 800 or so - have I known that many Indians or Pakistanis? Yes I guess I have.

Johnny Depp is set to play this character in the film for 2009, and while he did succeed as the introverted bohemian pirate Jack Sparrow, and teenage girls in drama clubs everywhere rejoiced upon the sequels, I can't imagine him in this role, unless the script diverges wildly from the novel and much of the physicality is written out.

But without the physicality, there wouldn't be as much of a story, because Lin would already have been dead on page 200. It'll be interesting to see what they do. Roberts meanwhile will be back in Australia, spreading his message of "cosmophony" which appears to be derived from the philosophy of the Bombay mafia leader (but maybe not). Saatch aur Hamaat was the gang motto - Truth and Courage. Roberts may be done with "courage" at this point in life, but still persists on a path of truth, for what its worth. Shantaram means "man of peace," and Lin does live up to that moniker in a rather unexpected way.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Zizek pt III

Something I've been troubled about regarding the philosophy of Zizek - how can we be 'imminent' and yet socialist at the same time? In his answer to Levinas, Zizek invokes Spinoza and writes that our presence is not at the expense of the world, but a full acceptance of being part of the world, 'my assertion of the wider reality within which I can only thrive.'

But if we fully assert ourselves then how can we be socialist, when in socialism we agree to cap our efforts for a common good?

I imagine that Spinoza (1632-1677) matures as a writer immediately after the Thirty Years War concludes (1648) and this must be a time when people, recoiling from the war, are hushing up about religious dialogue and concluding that their existence is at the expense of others, hence must be curtailed.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Moment Before

In theater, you can choose to direct with something in mind called The Moment Before. This was developed as a "guidepost" out of the experience of the casting director Michael Shurtleff.

In his book Audition, first published in 1978, wherein he explains his theory of the guideposts, he writes:

In the audition situation most actors come onstage to read for a role with very little moment before. The result is that it takes them most of the reading to get warmed up. By the time they are, they've lost the attention of the auditors. Never before does an actor need the moment before more desperately than in the audition situation. But an actor needs a fully developed moment before every time he steps onstage to start a scene. You've seen many of these performances where we say, "He wasn't so good at first, but after he got going he was fine." A good actor doesn't wait to get going; he comes on with it because he already had it going in the wings."

So Shurtleff wants to help an actor remember that before anything happens in a scene, something happens. What was it - go there, be that, do that, have those memories, play that action -crowd the guy - or whatever it was, center yourself on what came before the scene, now you're ready for the scene. (That is a gross abbreviation of his idea)

Not commenting on any of the other plays, because I didn't see any of them all the way through, in this weekend's drama I got to use this once for my own - when Eddie comes out onto the stage to talk about his invention. What happens the moment before he comes out? He gets stage fright. So what does he think of? His wife, his home, his pets, the weather, simple things. We translated these things into psychology and then into actions. And it went over well.

Let me back up to the GAP ads from August for a moment. Ignoring the first GAP ad for a second, and writing a bit about the second one. In advertising what we often recall, if we recall anything, is the label or brand of the product, and the essential function of the ad. We remember that its the GAP and that the function of the ad is to sell their pants and sweaters. If we're paying a little more attention, we can be impressed by the content of the ad, the cheery people -even if its a manufactured, "acted" cheeriness, or the choreography. And, we might even recall some college text we read about advertising, the medium is the message, and so on.

But, if we had any kind of liberal education whatsoever, we more likely remember something about corporate power. Maybe we read Chomsky or Adbusters, or we might have even done some research on our own as a journalist and discovered enough ethical question marks in the legacy of corporate business entities to warrant suspicion of any product or service produced by such an entity. We could, for example, default to a kind of rump dismissal of any message sent to us by such an entity, as offensive to our aesthetic sensibilities in the least. Or, we may wish to be pragmatic about it all, and act as though there's no real distinction between a corporate power and an independent one, other than how much money is in the respective bank accounts.

GAP ads are difficult to view in the non-pragmatic way, however, because they do not lack aesthetics! Looking at it over and over you have to admit there is an aesthetic quality to them.
Now if I want to say something about the advertisement, I need to go to the signs and the symbols within it, and the elements of production that allow the ad to exist. And what are those?

There is the subject within the ad, the model who dances. Ok, but if I go there my critical discourse may become locked in an issue of a body, and the beauty of that body. Does my listener/reader have that body, or do they not? Do they have some aspects of that body but not others? Is there a disagreement about the beauty of that body, statuesque v. rubenesque, too tall or too short, etc.?

There is the product, then. In the ads themselves, we often never get to see the product too closely, it is usually just suggested to us. But this can be a trouble spot also, because we might ask, even if we can discern what the product is, well, where's it made? How are their labor conditions? What is it made out of - are those all-natural products? And how do I know I can really afford it unless I walk into the GAP itself?

There are the results of the ad that allow someone to look at it statistically, objectively. Did it increase business, or did people contact the company to say they liked it or didn't like it? Did sales of the displayed items, khakis or whatever it was, go up? Likely though we as consumers would not be privileged to that information, so we can only declare how the ads themselves make us feel. Out of this kind of small-scale market sample, however, we can't much evaluate the quality of the ad from hearing of my point of view versus yours, assuming those are even oppositional views.

We can imagine that the postmodern extrapolation is an expression of a certain urban fantasy, not to say the fantasy is exactly false, there may be much that's true in it, but it appears as a kind of collective myth that assigns guilt or glory, or even neutrality, by association. (That is, if I understand the concept of postmodern fantasy correctly). Going to the first ad for a second, you can watch the skateboarders, hear the music, and imagine a technologically-sophisticated body moving the machinery and controls that's putting everything in motion, and that body, as you have just imagined it with me, is likely a caucasian body, isn't it? Or, I can hear the voice of the recording artist and see the dancers and recall a certain drumming session I witnessed, seen outdoors, elsewhere, and now -maybe-I have an image of an african-american body, do I not? I could say - well, so what? Its harmony! But is that a true harmony, or does this harmony only exist because of the magnanimous overlooking of the corporate entity known as the GAP, and their desire to offer their products as a racial solvent? Once again, arguments about the body, the city, and positions of subjects within certain fantasies that are set in motion by a powerful force can appear. (The point about "false social solvents" has been made before in studies on advertising) Fie on this approach.

We can then observe an eschatological choice offered, at least by the first ad. In the second one, the choice is clear - if you want to have a merry Christmas, you'll shop at the GAP, won't you? But in the first ad you can present yourself with the problem of how do I launch myself into space, and outfit my dominion with designer wear at the same time? We know its an advertisement, because no one wears pants like those when they're on a ramp. But the question presents itself not so much in 97 or 98, or whenever the ad came out, but in hindsight, since we know so often that the two goals are becoming mutually exclusive. Its like - how can I eat whatever I want, and never gain weight? Well, you can for thirty seconds if you're part of a GAP ad. The ad ends, we go back to our regularly scheduled programming, and its like you never ate anything! Or did you? Is there an uncomfortable narration about sacrifice that can walk through the back door of this approach -? yes it can.

When it comes to any media analysis, I'd like to simply drop-kick these rationalizations and consider The Moment Before, by itself. The Moment Before the ad is produced is where the energy is, creatively and otherwise. Once the ad is made, we can only look at it through one of these filters I mentioned above, see if it checks the boxes on our list of political correctness items, or dismiss it with a neo-marxist wave of the hand. "Bah! Corporate conformity!" etc.

In the moment before, there is a vast territory. We don't have to worry about being right, we only have to see what actually happens, from our own point of view. We have to be there in order to know the moment before, we can't download it. We may see conversations about what's for lunch, we may see the mind of the producer or the dancer or the casting director, we may just see the set and that's enough to tell us what's going on, if we seek reportage, or to inspire us, if we seek an aesthetic transmission.

It may not be literally necessary to be there, or even physically possible, maybe we can merely remember what someone tells us in conversation, but to be believed we should try to be there at the moment before the ad, or whatever it is that's moving our art, happens. There is so much more information, more tension, more romance, more possibility, in the moment before than in the detached, cerebral analysis of the moment after. All that narration - who cares? I want to hear about a day in the life of a dancer. I want to see the sweat on their brow, their humiliation when a higher-up dismisses them, or when they look across the aisle at someone in an equally noncreative blue sweater and think what's happening to my life? Everything that happens the moment before someone tells them to take their places and says "standby - lights ready, lights up."

The rote commands that get an actor to turn left or right on ice skates, pirouette etc, the directives of the production itself, those are necessary for choreography, but they are not as interesting for writers, at least not for me. By choosing to see a creative opening in the process of the production and not the product, the moment before the product itself is made, we not only give ourselves more freedom creatively but we may even notice a pivot or statement wherein something in the process itself is apparent to our critical boxes, and then so checked in our minds as such. I seldom notice such a thing in my own journeys, but there are people paid to notice these things. If my creative work is relayed after the fact of whatever moved me to write, I'm much stricter about what I write, because I understand this then to be an effort of journalism first -reportage on my experience- and expression second, in which case I ought to have something really groundswelling or distinct to say.

Ah the perils of idealism.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Border Disturbance (what I mean)

(a non-comprehensive example)

Gosh, their clothes are nice, but do I feel guilty shopping there? Is it just not indie enough?
Well those rich models, they suck. But, I have a body like that. I can boogie. Hm. I like that technological music, but the black man, he doesn't need all that technology to be cool, does he?
Launch myself into space, or outfit my benevolent local dominion?


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

As for Poets by Gary Snyder


As for poets
The Earth Poets
who write small poems
need help from no man.


The Air Poets
play out the swiftest gales
and sometimes loll in the eddies
poem after poem,
curling back on the same thrust.


At fifty below
Fuel oil won't flow
and propane stays in the tank.
Fire Poets
Burn at Absolute Zero
Fossil love pumped back up.


The first
Water Poet
stayed down six years.
He was covered with seaweed.
The life in his poem
left millions of tiny
different tracks
criss-crossing through the mud.


With the Sun and the Moon
In his belly,
The Space Poet
No end to the sky -
but his poems,
like wild geese,
fly off the edge.


A Mind Poet
Stays in the house.
The house is empty
and it has no walls.
The poem is seen from all sides,
at once.

**at last I believe I have seen/met an example of each kind of poet :) I think GS is suggesting that mother nature provides the theory, although its not really a theory, but more like an influence, but there are these six different ways we can express that connection. This poem is from Turtle Island, 1974.**


I have a short play appearing in this October's 10-minute play fest, at the North Park Vaudeville in San Diego. It's a comedy called The Boy Who Liked Me, and its about high school "love." Also, I'm directing a farce there as well, on another night. Should be great. If you're in the area, check it out.
More later on the show, when things are a little further along.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Zone 9 - Critical Regionalism

all out of the Constructivist Moment, by Barrett Watten:

The discourses of the modern and postmodern call for a critical regionalism

briefly, Zone 8, Detroit..." remains a moment of negativity to the postmodern fantasy built in Los Angeles...(there is) the tradition in postmodern critical theory that has tended to universalize Los Angeles as the site for the postmodern..."

back to zone 9: "Herr's account of a critical regionalism thus would supplant the dissociation of the center/periphery model with a series of interlocking terms that would specify the position within an overarching modernity of specific cultural regions, employing a "methodology" etc..toward a reconciliation of the local and the global. She outlines several practical steps -

*pursue a negative dialectics that addresses cross-regional specificity
*imagine a comparative history/sociology
*scrutinize utopian views of the future
*study the location and interpretation of assemblages

A critical regionalism moves beyond the center/periphery model that distorts the perception of the border as negativity and threat; rather the border becomes an internal limit within an encompassing whole."

**my thoughts**
Critical regionalism - looks like a worthy project. But has anyone done this as far as southern California is concerned? To my knowledge there is only City of Quartz by Mike Davis, but if you add critique of the entertainment industry in now you have dozens of books, Unreality Industry, Amusing Ourselves to Death etc..

"Moving beyond the center/periphery model" because of border disturbance - yes his concern is with places like 8 Mile, or some of those exposed areas of new wilderness - the bushes, the rabbits etc., that exclaim a social failure or fracture. I'm not sure how "internal limit" can be made less threatening, Eminem (Rabbit) movies hardly cover the ground exposed. This connects me back to the point from Zone 8:

Detroit... remains a moment of negativity to the postmodern fantasy built in Los Angeles...(there is) the tradition in postmodern critical theory that has tended to universalize Los Angeles as the site for the postmodern...

In a discussion with a friend, the possibility that the postmodern fantasy simply converts arose. The reason for the conversion is border disturbance, agents or groups that act ambiguously within the decayed space and the "progressive" space, because they harmonize not quite with either one. The postmodern fantasy, therefore, converts from one region to another in order to cover up the disturbance at the border of the previous Fantastic location, to subdue the Other who emerges as an autonomous challenge to the Fantasy.

I'm wondering especially if Mr. Burke or Prof. Wallace would have a thought on that, though as usual comments are open to anyone.