Tuesday, June 30, 2020

"Can I Be Your Plus-1?"

you know who you are
and that’s just my opinion

we have so much to talk about
if only trust would host us

could you put a word in for me?
you who brought the word up?

Monday, June 29, 2020

Rose Staging

Rosa "Sexy Rexy" is a floribunda rose cultivar co-created by Sam McGredy and the Maker. My contribution is the floral equivalent of culinary plating: I have trained them to grow between the spindles of my bannister.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

That's Where All the Poppies Went

The old farmhouse on the 1100-block East 19th caught fire in 2009. After its rescue and remediation (the attic tenant died of smoke inhalation), the owners stood before its unplanted front yard and considered the possibilities. Eventually they settled on poppies.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Paul Saint-Amour Reviews Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (2015) by Caroline Levine

The final chapter of Caroline Levine’s Forms begins by asking what the formalist cultural studies of the future might look like. Levine’s answer: “it could look something like David Simon’s superb television series, The Wire.” Notice, not like an analysis of The Wire but like The Wire itself, which Levine goes on to treat as an exemplary “theorization of the social” (133). Rather than analyze the show’s most sympathetic characters, she says, the formalist critic might do better to emulate their “canny formalism” (150). This would be to do, not just to read, The Wire. Where a more conventional book would have closed by reasserting the distance between its method and its objects of analysis, Forms ends by collapsing that distance, treating criticism and cultural works not just as coplanar but as interacting, interchangeable. It’s a move that epitomizes the willful eccentricity of Levine’s book, which repeatedly declines to be the new formalist handbook it superficially resembles. For although the terms that make up its subtitle might look like an elemental toolkit—the four things you’ll need to do formalist cultural studies—they’re offered in a more open and more speculative spirit. Whole, rhythm, hierarchy, network: four places from which to begin imagining the formalism to come.

Forms would initiate such a process in hopes of escaping the dead end to which our reigning formalisms have brought us. We have gotten stuck, says Levine, in the assumption that aesthetic forms are ontologically separate from socio-political ones (which we tend to call “structures”). Stuck, as well, in the tendency to treat aesthetic forms as mere symptoms or epiphenomena of the social structures that undergird and causally precede them. Yes, in paying attention to the fissures, contradictions, and indeterminacies that compromise our aesthetic and political forms, we’ve observed that both kinds of form can constrain us and might therefore be evaded together. But in the process we’ve come to believe that forms only participate in socially transformative work through their evasion. We’ve neglected to think sufficiently about how forms might create, especially through their complex and unpredictable interactions, politically radical possibilities. If we’re to learn to see these possibilities, we need to get better at describing the interactions among multiple forms at multiple scales. This will mean breaking our habit of reducing formal complexity to univocal deep structural explanations (capital, nation, race, the unconscious). It will also mean abandoning our disciplinary reserve, leaving the safe radius of aesthetic formalism to track the interference patterns produced by all colliding orders and repetitions and differences, all forms of form.
In emphasizing surface over depth, description over decryption, Forms declares a partial affinity with recent promotions of surface reading over symptomatic reading. But whereas many proponents of surface reading wish to suspend the political imperative altogether, Levine takes “radical social change” to be the primary goal of her formalism (18).[1] The problem with the hermeneutics of depth, she writes, is not that it aims at political transformation but that its “exclusive focus on ultimate causality . . . has distracted us from thinking strategically about how best to deploy multiple forms for political ends” (17). In fixating on the same intractable causes of unfreedom, in staging the millionth exposure of these already overexposed structures of domination, we miss our chance to find more local openings created by crisscrossing social and aesthetic forms, and to stage smaller-scale but consequential political actions in those openings.
Up to this point, Levine has been describing Forms as aiming “to produce a new formalist method” by bringing together “insights into social and aesthetic forms” that are dispersed through literary and cultural studies, fields that already possess the “tools to grasp this formal complexity” (3, xiii). The language of tools and method seems to promise a systematic procedure for practitioners to apply to an analytical object, a step-by-step primer. But midway through the introduction Levine begins to diverge from the handbook-of-methods genre toward which Forms has so far bent. Enlisting the words of social theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger, she proposes a thought experiment. “What if,” she writes, “we were to see social life. . . as composed of ‘loosely and unevenly collected’ arrangements, ‘a makeshift, pasted-together’ order rather than a coherent system that can be traced back to a single cause?” Relatedly, what if we were to treat aesthetic and political forms as ontologically level, as contiguous, as transactable? What kinds of social transformation might be touched off by the aleatory energies loosed when those multiple forms collide?
The rest of Forms unfolds inside these “what ifs,” in a sense is the thought experiment they frame.[2] To the extent Levine’s book offers a method, it’s one in the subjunctive or conditional mood, a method for a world in which political and aesthetic forms were fungible and could be treated as such. In what may be its biggest gamble, Forms forbears to argue syllogistically that we live in such a world. Levine offers no critique of Marxism’s base–superstructure distinction, no point-for-point attack on any deep structural epistemology. As a result, readers committed to such epistemologies will probably not have their commitments shaken by Forms. Rather than break down impediments to its method, the book leaps over them. This is a leap not of faith but of strategy; focusing on structural causes, remember, “has distracted us from thinking strategically about how best to deploy multiple forms for political ends.” Levine’s leap lands the book at a fascinating and seldom visited place: the border between theory and speculative fiction. It’s here that the introduction begins to stretch toward the concluding reading of The Wire. For if new formalist method can depend on a counterfactual leap, then why not read a work of fiction as an example of new formalist practice?
Each of the book’s four body chapters explores a key form, examining its indwelling potentials or “affordances,” a term Levine borrows from design theory. Rhythm, the term used here for any recurrent temporal pattern, affords both solidarity and control, both pleasure and subjugation. Institutional rhythms, which we have tended since Foucault to associate with regulation, also afford interruption and transformation, particularly when the tempos of multiple institutions either complicate or reinforce one another. In her discussion of the 1928 case C. Brancusi v. United States, Levine shows how the sculptor and his lawyers harmonized the precedential rhythms of common law with the innovative and audience-instructing ones of the avant-garde to produce a more porous legal conception of originality. The decision to recategorize Brancusi’s Bird in Space as a duty-free artwork rather than a tariff-bearing utensil may not exemplify the kind of radical social change that is the stated goal of Levine’s formalism. But it is a tangible change in this-world legal precedent, one of whose affordances is applicability to a range of subsequent objects. What’s more, the discussion of the Brancusi case intriguingly models a prosody of institutional rhythms. Forms bears out its literary anti-exceptionalism in such moves, rotating the disciplinary techniques of literary study outward to face an enlarged universe of aesthetic and social forms.
Levine, I said above, declines to hawk the analytical payoffs of her method in a concluding tour-de-force reading, preferring to describe Simon’s series as itself performing a new formalist analysis that scholars might do well to emulate. In practice, there may not be a vast difference between using new formalist methods to read The Wire and reading The Wire as an example of new formalist method. Both approaches produce necessarily partial descriptions of the series (no description without analysis, no analysis without partiality), and in terms that are exogenous to it. The greater departure may be in asking formalist critics to do justice not only to The Wire’s complexity as an object but to its complexity as a prolonged act of description: to rise, in their scholarship, to the level of its longitudinal, multi-tiered, polyscalar account of the city of Baltimore, and to try rivaling the series in tracking the complex collisions of forms and forces that together constitute its chosen object. Levine’s promotion of The Wire to new formalist paradigm should also prompt us to ask whether there are limits to how far academics can and should go in modeling their scholarship on the canny formalism of persons, real or fictional, whose lives are radically precarious.
Before long we’ll begin to see what kinds of work Forms spurs other critics to undertake. My guess is that while future new formalists will continue to write of form’s affordances, they may not sound much like Levine.[3] They likely won’t hew to wholes, rhythms, hierarchies, and networks as their central categories. Yet they will have benefited enormously from Forms’ space-clearing gestures and heterogeneous example sets. Given its author’s reluctance to codify a method by burnishing a finite number of tools—not least because she understands the interpretive tool as one among many kinds of form—such a legacy would seem just right. If we’re lucky, some of those inspired by her book will be as willing as Levine to stage collisions between literary criticism’s conventional forms and those of other modes and disciplines, in the hope of creating new ways of doing what we do. As willing, too, as Forms is to call for what it doesn’t need to be.


  1. ^ See, for example, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108 (Fall 2009): 1–21. Best and Marcus are willing to brook charges of political quietism in doubting whether literary criticism should be treated as “political activism by another name,” and in wishing to shift critical practice away from ideological decryption and toward the description of literary surfaces (2). However, they end their piece by insisting that “producing accurate accounts of surfaces is not antithetical to critique” (18).
  2. ^ The “what if” question—part invitation, part counterfactual, part rhetorical question—is one of Forms’ central gestures. “What if we understood literary texts not as unified but as inevitably plural in their forms—bringing together multiple ordering principles, both social and literary, in ways that do not and cannot repress their differences?” (40). “What if we consider [poetic] meter as another of these social rhythms, not an epiphenomenal effect of social realities, but capable itself of exerting or transmitting power”? (74). “[W]hat if the organizing forms of the world do not—cannot—unify experience?” (80).
  3. ^ I assigned Forms in my graduate proseminar this past semester. Judging by its rapid uptake into our working vocabulary, the word "affordances" seemed to scratch an acute lexical itch.

Friday, June 26, 2020

"How Gangs Took Over Prisons"

"Most of the inmates belong to one of California’s six main prison gangs: Nuestra Familia, the Mexican Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Guerrilla Family, the Northern Structure, or the Nazi Lowriders (the last two are offshoots of Nuestra Familia and the Aryan Brotherhood, respectively). The inmates interact like volatile chemicals: if you open their cells in such a way as to put, say, a lone member of Nuestra Familia in a crowd of Mexican Mafia, the mix can explode violently. So the guards release them in a careful order." -- Graeme Wood, "How Gangs Took Over Prisons," The Atlantic, October, 2014

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Por Exemplo

"The American Revolution was won on the battlefield, often by tattered armies using guerrilla tactics first learned from the Indians. The war lasted seven years, but a constitutional convention was not convened until eleven years after the Declaration of Independence, and the first national election was not held until thirteen years after 1776." (46)

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Fugitive Kind (1960)

"By the time the company moved to the Bronx for a few weeks to shoot interiors, [Anna] Magnani had managed to alienate most of the cast and the entire crew. She had already demanded the firing of [cinematographer] Boris Kaufman and several technicians, and when [Martin] Jurow warned her that she was turning everyone against her, she responded, according to [Meade] Roberts, 'I'm the queen, and the queen rules and her subjects love her. If she loves them, whips them, kicks them, kills them, they still give her loyalty.' To this the producer angrily replied, 'This is the United States. We have a democracy here!'"  -- Peter Manso, Brando: the Biography, p. 508

Monday, June 22, 2020


Would those partial to the nation-state as a medium of social control have agreed to participate in this fatal distraction? I can see how those who pull Trump's strings would be in favour of it, knowing that their man's strength lies in fear management -- his ability to channel frustration and anger and deploy it against those committed to that anti-dictatorial experiment known as Democracy.

Has it worked? If the idea was to distract us from issues concerning gender, race and labour relations, I would say it has only added to it, thus creating an even greater distraction from the longer term goal of smart phone enslavement, the ball and chain that keeps on giving, taking; a medium that will soon become as visually undetectable as this virus once it is embedded inside us, activated by three clicks of the tongue or, if we're feeling nostalgic, a Carol Burnett ear tug.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

"He would rent rooms to a new kind of young people he had noticed."

"Back in Vancouver in 1968 Killam started acquiring evil-smelling Gastown flophouses while real estate salesmen clapped each other on the back. Boulder Rooms, on Cordova Street, had been on the market for more than two years at $47,000. Killam picked it up for $19,000 and was considered a very foolish young man. Its market value is now $125,000. Killam’s invariable strategy was to kick out the derelicts and scrape away dirt and plaster to expose original beams and brick. He would rent the rooms to a new kind of young people he had noticed."      -- Jon Ruddy, Maclean's, January 1st, 1971

Gastown's "Gassy Jack" Deighton is the kind of character settlists (settlers who operate from an unexamined position of privilege) hold up as an emblem of fun. Shortly after the commissioned copper statue of Deighton and his beer keg was erected by real estate developer Larry Killam in 1970, its head went missing, only to be returned months later for a $50 reward. More recently, the statue has undergone a form of social stigmata -- the blood on its hands coming not from within but from without.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

West of Savona

There are three main roads to the Okanagan from Vancouver, each with their own variations (depending on where exactly you are traveling to). Of the three, I prefer Hwy 1 through Kamloops to the Hwy 97 turn off (Exit 399) at Monte Creek.

The picture atop this post was taken at noon Wednesday, a few clicks east of Cache Creek, looking south.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Asbestos Tile

It keeps the heat in, it holds paint beautifully and it is safe, unless broken and inhaled regularly over a twenty year period. It is asbestos tile, and you often find it covering more desirable, weather susceptible cedar shingle exteriors.

As for the colours, the green top/pink bottom was a popular two-tone combo found on both sides of Main Street. The style endured into the 1970s, before houses bearing them were torn down for Vancouver Specials or, through the '80s and '90s, lot-crunching "monster" homes.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Haida Modern (2020)

This morning I heard fellow Point Grey High School graduate Robert Davidson on CBC speaking (Haida) culture to (Tom) Power in advance of the network's Haida Modern documentary, to air this week. (In 2007 I had the honour of visiting Davidson at his Semiahmoo studio for a Vancouver Magazine piece on his and his brother Reg's controversial Damien Hirst commissions.)

On the topic of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Haida art tattoo, Davidson reminded listeners that Trudeau did not ask his permission to wear his work on his arm, but also -- and this is something I didn't know -- that the design Trudeau had adapted was co-authored with Davidson's daughter, Sara, for a 1985 benefit. Robert did the outer design, but for whatever reason Sara's interior lines ("inner world") were replaced with a globe -- a gesture Trudeau tried to justify by saying he got the globe, first, when he was 23, and had (Robert) Davidson's Raven applied around it when he was 40.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Revolution Will Be Hypothesized (Model of a Monument as Modernism)

Vladimir Tatlin called it Monument to the Third International (1920). A model was built, but its tower was never realized. Indeed, it was only after Russian-style Soviet Communism began to wane (the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1968, aka Prague Spring) that larger models were constructed. Which makes sense given that the tower was based on a ruin -- like religion was said to be a ruin in countries that called themselves communist.

On that note, the world's first tower (Genesis 11: 1-9) was the Tower of Babel. Built after the Great Flood, this tower would enable a united human race to enter heaven without having to die first. God looked down on this tower and, as punishment, assigned human beings different languages and scattered us around the world. The assumption here is that we would never develop communication and transportation systems that would allow us to come together, try something like this again.

God had so little faith in us. But we showed him, right?


Saturday, June 13, 2020

Screening Art History

We waited all day for night to fall, and when it didn't, they screened the film anyway: a documentary on the monochrome.

A silent film made in the early-Soviet style at Proletkult, it opens on what Bill says is a snow covered field in The Ukraine, then pans right to track a genderless figure and their attempt to remain out of frame.

After ten or so minutes it cuts to Malevich's Black Square (1913). But most of us didn't notice, or know this -- it was too bright! Only Bill noticed, or knew this. He had seen the film before, under optimum conditions.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Some Prefer Nettles (1929/1959)

I had never heard of Junichiro Tanizaki until I came upon the Berkeley edition of his Some Prefer Nettles (1929; trans. Edward G. Seidensticker, 1959) at AA Furniture & Appliance last week. What a find!

The story is focused on the disintegrating marriage of a bourgeois Osaka couple, as told by an omniscient narrator. Of course it is more than that, as oppositional themes abound. Hard to read this book and believe that it is set in 1928-29 (it was originally serialized) and not the 1950s, the 1970s, the 1990s or today.

On the topic of today, the characters in Some Prefer Nettles express some disturbing attitudes towards China, whom the Imperial Japan Army invaded in the decade that followed (1930s).

Here's a typically triangulated if not sarcastic exchange between between Misako and her husband Kaname's cousin, Takanatsu, who is visiting from Shanghai, where he is employed:

"Would you care for a bath, madame?" asked Takanatsu. "The lady of the house does nothing for her guests, but the maids are wonderful. They got up early this morning and heated the bath specially. If you don't mind going in after me, why don't you have a bath yourself?"

"I've had one -- I didn't realize it was after you, of course."

"It must have been a quick one."

"Do you suppose it's all right?"


"Going in after you. I won't catch any dreadful Chinese diseases?"

"You're joking. It would be better to worry about what you might catch from Kaname here."

"I stay quietly at home." Kaname looked up from his book again. "It's you foreigners we need to watch."

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Black Panthers, Oakland, August, 1968

Thank you to Criterion for taking down their paywall for Black-themed titles like Agnès Varda's documentary Black Panthers (1968).

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Cecilia Edefalk, White Within (4), 1998/2008

I, too, saw angels at San Gimignano. Seven fitted sheets held on a line by three pins each.

A priest saw me staring (rapt?) and stopped to ask, "Una visione?"

"No, I am waiting for one."

The priest turned to align his eyes with mine. "Un lenzuola?"

"From small things, big things one day come," I said.

"Bruce Springsteen?" he asked.

"No, The Bible. Zechariah 4:10"

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Make Crime Illegal
Rewrite the Police

Monday, June 8, 2020

Morning Radio

Awoke to a great string of Laura Lynch interviews on CBC Vancouver's Early Edition this morning. First up, Vancouver Police Union President Ralph Kaisers was asked why he is against having the Vancouver Police Department's budget cut, even by one-percent. Following that, Elevate Inclusion Strategies' Natasha Tony (note: no business title, ergo no hierarchies?) spoke of her company's emphasis on intersectionality when facilitating discussions on public safety (I could have said "policing" here, but those days are over, thankfully). Finally, City Councillor Pete Fry.

Below is an exchange between Lynch and VPU President Kaisers that I thought revealing (from 4:04 -).

Laura Lynch: The last time the police department asked for an increase the police chief Adam Palmer told the CBC that the VPD services went well beyond law enforcement, much of the work focusing on mental health, missing people, addiction issues, homelessness. How good a job do you think police are doing at handling those issues?

Ralph Kaisers: No, I think the reality of this is we actually do a really good job, because we're very fortunate here in Vancouver: our members are well-educated; they're well-trained; we do get a lot of training in all of those aspects of social sciences because, again, our job has now taken on a lot of those things that have been down-streamed from government over many years.

LL: I guess that's part of the debate, though, about de-funding is that people are now saying, Take those responsibilities out of the police's hands, it's not really a police issue, and give them to social services -- fund those back up. What do you say to that?

RK: Well, that's a discussion that we'll have to have, and it's certainly something that I predict we're going to have, but again I don't think that it should be on the heels of a political agenda to happen over night. If we're gonna have that discussion--

LL:  What political agenda?

RK: Uh, and again, some of our city councillors have different ideas as to what the priorities of the city has to be and public safety doesn't seem to be one of them...

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Julia (1968-1971)

Julia was a ground-breaking TV series that ran for 86 episodes on the NBC network. It didn't get everything right, but what it did get right was right for a six-year-old like me -- just another kid who wanted his mother's attention.

"Oh, I like you Mister!" says Julia to her son, Corey, after he agreed to her terms.

"I like me, too," says Corey, followed by canned laughter (added by Fox when the series was reissued for syndication and cable rebroadcasts in the late-1980s).

"It's very important," says Julia. "A man has got to like himself."

"You know why I like me?" Corey asks.

"Why?" asks his mother.

"Cause I like what you like, and you like me."

"I sure do Corey Baker!"

Saturday, June 6, 2020

"You refuse to put anything before our pride/ What I got will knock all your pride aside"

Rufus & Chaka Khan breathing new life into Stevie Wonder's "Tell Me Something Good" on Midnight Special, 1974.

Here's something else entitled "Tell Me Something Good": a 2015  poem by Ocean Vuong.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Speechless (2017)

I have heard and read regrets from poets Judith Copithorne and Steve McCaffery for mixing concrete and expressive rhetorics in their earlier works. For Copithorne it is the nature of the sentiments carried in works that combine the written line and the drawn line; for McCaffery, specifically in certain panels that make up his massive Carnival (1967-75), it is the inclusion of words that say things.

In Speechless (2017), Lorna Simpson combines collaged text atop the head of a photographed subject. Except for the letters "SO," most of the text is black. As for the image background, it is white, as is the model's headgear. The model is Black, her top grey.

"SO," how are we to read this? What is Speechless saying?

Stop reading? Keep listening? Both? Yes, I think -- and feel -- it can be.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Boogaloo Nay-shun

I believe in the beat
I believe in the way I feel

Maybe not this film, but this film plus Black Panther (2018), divided by Tron (1982), multiplied by Stalker (1979).

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

An Interview with Kathleen Cleaver

On April 1, 1967 Denzil Dowell of North Richmond, California, was shot and killed by sheriff's deputies. When Kathleen Cleaver is asked by Stephen Henderson of PBS's American Black Journal in 2016 about the start of the Black Panther party, she says "... one of the things that is very parallel is that there were a lot of murders of young Black men who were unarmed, who were innocent, by police, in particular one that kinda got the Black Panther party started was a young man named Denzil Dowell, who was running away, shot in the back, and his mother got in touch with the Panthers, she said, 'No one will help us, no one will do anything.'" Later (at 5:50), Henderson asks Cleaver about Black Lives Matter forming out of the same issues, and Cleaver responds not with parallels but with contrasts.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

May 13, 1985 MOVE Bombing

A Democracy Now! episode on the 30th anniversary of the Philadelphia Police Department helicopter bombing of a Black liberation commune known as MOVE, incinerating six adults and five children, and destroying 65 homes. No one from city government was criminally charged.

At 11:23 of this episode we hear an "Imprison Nation" radio editorial from Mumia Abu-Jamal that speaks of how this bombing set the tone for policing today, in a county where cops are no longer keepers of the peace, nor the soldiers many of us think they have become, but agents of "terrorism."

Monday, June 1, 2020

Attica! Attica!

In the penitentiary of America, a white man looking to finance his lover's gender-affirming surgery seizes control of an American bank, tells the cops to back off and leads a crowd well-represented by Black and LGBTIQ+ citizens in chants of Attica! Attica!