Fresh hell

One can’t help notice a bad grammar mistake, but it doesn’t set off an alarm until you hear it again. With repetition the error becomes the verbal equivalent of a sin; but what then of the first transgression, you wonder, and where does the fault lie if it exists only in the plural? Meanwhile, undeterred by your moral troubles, the locution spreads, becomes commonly accepted; you wonder if it might enter the dictionaries. You wonder, that is, how low we can go.

“Downfall.” The word is increasingly used to mean drawback, presumably by association with downside. “The only downfall was the bathroom,” says a restaurant review on Yelp. “The only downfall is the service,” says another. In a Seattle hotel review, “the only downfall” was urine on the sheets of “one of our beds.” When so much can go wrong, it seems that a lone downfall, or a single soiled bed, can be a blessing. In this way, mentioning a “downfall” can emphasize an overall success. Out of sheer scrupulousness, apparently, a patron of La Quinta details her frustration with the hotel’s excessively soft pillows. “Nonetheless,” she cheerily concludes, “that was the only downfall!”

Since “downfall,” in its proper sense, signifies a uniquely terrible and often terminal ruination, its use in these cases can be judged hyperbolic, while the adjective “only” seems entirely redundant. But this is where the word’s new usage parts company with its staid cousin. The chorus of downfalls in our current vernacular suggests that ruination is in fact common and ordinary; the word “only” implies that the downfall in question is Version 2just one among many potential or even infinite possible downfalls. Other phrases suggest the same: the ever-relevant “new low,” for instance, and the increasingly popular “fresh hell” — as in the phrase (rhetorical question? Or not?) what fresh hell is this? Grammar prescriptivists may scoff, but who can deny the aptness of these phrases in a time when every low point turns out to be a false bottom, like a trap door to endless stacked gallows?

A book written by Christian Marazzi in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis implies as much by predicting “repetitive downfalls” in the world economy: “Over the course of 2009, and beyond,” says the author, “we will witness the succession of a false recovery, a hiccups movement in the stock exchange followed by repetitive downfalls.”* Marazzi’s volume includes a handy appendix, titled “Words in Crisis,” that lists the key terms of contemporary financial jargon. But the language of the analysis itself, including “repetitive downfalls” and “hiccups movement” seems to be symptomatic of crisis too, its stuttering awkwardness the sign of a hurried attempt to catch up with careering events — unless it is due to the translator, who we imagine (why not?) as harried, wretched, underpaid, no doubt desperate to keep to her deadlines and obligatory word count? Whatever the case, the prognosis of “repetitive downfalls” in The Violence of Financial Capitalism lends support to Colin Crouch’s insight that following its apparent demise, neoliberalism now persists in a weird state of continual “non-death,”** as well as the grim prognosis of “permanent economic collapse” that David Wallace-Wells says is our likely fate on an increasingly overheated planet. More recently, an ominous editorial by Eugene Robinson points to “a succession of new lows” in U.S. politics and darkly predicts that “the worst is yet to come.”

As a complex of overdetermined meanings, then, “the only downfall” is a culturally valid expression. It contains a host of social and economic anxieties and is therefore “crucial enough to pass along,” as a film critic says of horror’s infectious appeal.*** Google the words “only downfall” and your first hit is likely to be a popular and widely-shared quote signed r.h. Sin: “The only downfall of having a good heart is that you’re constantly looking for angels inside of demons.” The quote suggests that the word “downfall” may have migrated from its standard meaning, glomming new ones in the process, but still remains close to the source: Sin’s “downfall” unmistakably suggests Lucifer’s fall and man’s degraded state.

No joke, then; no mistake; no exaggeration. Wordsmiths at the blast furnace, our amateur linguists who labor pro bono on Yelp, Twitter, and interminable comment threads may be right to complain. They say we’re in hell, and glad “nonetheless” that our punishment is “only” this bad, that it’s “only” a few degrees warmer, and it’s “only” just begun.

*Christian Marazzi, The Violence of Financial Capitalism, Kristina Lebedeva, trans. (Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2010), 11. It is noteworthy that the later edition of the book, translated by Lebedeva and Jason Francis McGimsey, substitutes “downturns” for “downfalls” — a translation no doubt more grammatically accurate but less symptomatically true to the crisis of the writing. Indeed, the previous “error” might be said to be closer to the events the book reconstructs (the start of the Wall Street crash) as well as those of the author and his translator, both suffering its immediate aftermath. Accordingly, a truer historical account of the causes and consequences of the 2008 financial crisis might be best pursued not in the field of economics but in close reading — specifically, close reading of significant errors, including the word “downfall.” What justifies this foray of literary analysis into the study of contemporary finance? We have seen that the word “downfall” is laden with an implicit knowledge of the socio-political conditions of the present. Further, grammatical errors, due to their dense overdetermination of meanings, are close to poetic expressions in their semantic complexity, and thus to artistic expression more generally. As a result, Argentine author César Aira’s theory of interpretation can be brought to bear on the socio-economic historiography of our recent past. Indeed, Aira’s theory of historical reconstruction, according to which “art … permits the reconstruction of the real-life circumstances from which it emerged” is the only theory capable of approaching the time-frame of financial trading, whose complex operations, like dreams, can occur in mere nanoseconds. In this way, interpretation can yield results a great deal more concrete than linguistic meanings and mathematical figures, even if the reconstructed “particles of reality,” in their increasing detail, tend ineluctably toward the impalpable. As Aira says, “The course of events that preceded the composition [of the work of art] can be deduced from the text, in ever greater detail, as one reads it over and over again. Perceptual data is recovered in this way, but also psychological binding elements, including memories, daydreams, oversights, uncertainties and even subliminal brain flashes. The treatment of the external conditions should be similarly inclusive: the succession can be progressively enriched with particles of reality, down to the subatomic level and beyond.” See César Aira, Varamo, Chris Andrews, trans. (New York: New Directions, 2012), 45, 44.

**See Colin Crouch, The Strange Non-death of Neoliberalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011).

*** James B. Twitchell, cited in Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 11.



Leave a comment

Filed under Diction

Brutalism Revisited

The Sirius building is a social housing complex in the Rocks district of central Sydney. The Lego-like Brutalist structure has been lauded by architects and residents since its opening in 1980, but rising real estate prices have lately put it in the crosshairs of redevelopment. Today only a few tenants remain; the building is slated for demolition.

Over the past year community groups and architects lobbied to protect the Sirius with heritage status, but the New South Wales Government opted to cash in on the land’s high value, citing profits that could be spent on social housing projects elsewhere. In so doing, however, the Government tacitly sanctioned the gentrification process, condemning the Sirius’ low-income residents to banishment from the city center and erasing a monument to social welfare and inclusive urban planning. Born of labor strikes and community organizing in the 1970s, the Sirius embodies an egalitarian ethos in its identical concrete modules and generous common spaces, values casually dismissed by the Finance Minister, who recently tweeted, “if you need a PhD in Architecture to ‘appreciate’ the #Sirius building, then it’s clearly not a building for the people.”

In retrospect, the Sirius’ opening date of 1980 seems fatefully symbolic: the year is commonly seen as the start of the neoliberal era. Its pending demolition is no less significant, as it coincides with what may be that era’s nasty, fitful demise. Similarly, the Finance Minister’s arrogance harks back to Thatcherism, while his faux-populist attack on so-called “elites” echoes a fascist strain in contemporary governance. In the Sirius debacle we can see neoliberalism’s end game, its last-ditch raid on the commons and public wealth. No wonder Brutalism is having a resurgence of interest lately; buildings like the Sirius look increasingly utopian and retro-futurist in our disenchanted glass-and-steel cityscapes.

Before, that is, they fall to the bulldozer.


Sydney is ranked as the world’s second most unaffordable city; Vancouver, BC comes in a close third on that unfortunate list. Like Sydney, Vancouver has widening social inequality due to skyrocketing land values, and as in Sydney, the real estate trade in luxury homes is causing a loss of heritage structures and a crisis in social housing. Meanwhile, as market force disrupt public education, large-scale campus redevelopment projects mirror the Sirius controversy; privatization at the University of British Columbia is leading to the the demolition and remodeling of Brutalist structures, once a defining feature of the school’s built environment. As a result, a tour of UBC’s Brutalist architecture is like a visit to the fast-receding recent past.


UBC’s Museum of Anthropology was designed by Arthur Erickson and opened its doors in 1976. The building is as impressive as its setting. Tall windows provide views northward of forested islands and mountains; the landscaped grounds drop off abruptly to the sea. The museum’s grand architectural motif of concrete pillars and cantilevered crossbeams echoes the totem poles and post-and-beam structures of the Northwest Coast First Nations. As the University pursues a master plan of so-called “transparency” in new campus buildings, the MOA stands as a dignified reminder that Brutalist concrete and glass are far from incompatible.

The Museum of Anthropology is built on the site of three WWII battery gun emplacements, one of which is incorporated into a circular gallery. An attentive visitor can make out the concrete foundation of battery gun #3 on the west side of the museum’s main hall. Two searchlight towers still stand on the shore below the museum.

Version 2

This convergence of Brutalism and bunker architecture at the Museum of Anthropology is highly suggestive. The same year as the MOA opened to the public, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris mounted an exhibition of photographs of WWII bunkers, which were published with an accompanying theoretical treatise by the photographer, Paul Virilio, as Bunker archéologie.

Virilio, a professor of architecture, saw military bunkers as a testimony to the radical transformation of modern space-time by the threat of “total war.” He claimed that a certain “poetry” inheres in the bunkers’ obsolescent principles of armored defense, deriving as they do from the pre-nuclear age of artillery. By the war’s end those principles would be wholly invalidated, and along with them, any idea of security and protection in the civil sphere, too. “The bunker,” Virilio says, “is the protohistory of an age in which the power of a single weapon is so great that no distance can protect you from it any longer.”*

Looking back at Virilio’s 1976 exhibit, we recognize that similar feelings of fear and regret color our view of Brutalism today: nostalgia for an age of welfare and social security, a world in which public institutions, including universities, could still defend against the market and finance capital. From the perspective of globalization’s discontents, Brutalism can appear almost naïve, its confident structures unwittingly vulnerable. Like the bunkers, then, Brutalism is protohistorical: its heyday already anticipated our age of homogenized, globalized, transnational space.

Version 2

These historical contradictions are expressed in Brutalism’s language of design as a play of contrasts: solidity and absence, weightlessness and bulk. At the MOA’s southwest corner, a jutting shape frames a rectangular void, a zen garden among the cedars. The concrete’s bold horizontal levitation contrasts with the forest’s randomly-spaced tree trunks and wayward branches. Massive as it is, however, the concrete wall reminds us that it plays a modest role no different than any other construction material: to host the transitory and contain the intangible. Here, the stark contrast between immateriality and bulk exacerbates the contradiction, challenging the massive material to yield further, to withdraw, to aspire in spite of itself to sheer abstract form.

Across the street at the Peter Wall Institute, a high-ceilinged dining lounge opens onto a secluded garden and a pond bordered by concrete patios. With its long horizontal planes, deep overhanging roofline and seamless articulation of indoor and outdoor space, the lounge and its garden evoke a touchstone of modernist architecture, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. UBC’s Brutalist reimagining of the 1929 Pavilion accentuates the Bauhaus building’s cantilevered concept by substituting a massive concrete block for Mies’ long, slender lid.



The Barcelona Pavilion was inspired by traditional Japanese architecture. A visitor to the Peter Wall lounge can take the measure of the Brutalist building’s Eastern heritage by visiting the nearby Nitobe garden’s simple, elegant tea house, an ethereal structure of wood, straw, bamboo and paper. With the tea house in mind, Brutalist bulk gives way to abstraction, and spatial volume becomes nearly palpable, like a sculpture shedding its mould.

We might even trace the architectural sources of the Peter Wall lounge further back still, and imagine the concrete structure “not so much built as knotted together, plaited, woven, embroidered,” as Lévi-Strauss said of a Bororo village in Brazil. To the visiting anthropologist, the delicate yet monumental Bororo houses seemed more like clothing than edifice. Interestingly, his ethnographic descriptions confirm Virilio’s insight into the fragility of fortifications: the houses, Lévi-Strauss said, were “like a light, flexible suit of armour, closer to Western women’s hats than to Western towns.”** The anthropologist’s descriptions serve to illustrate his larger argument that built space reflects social structure, that is to say, the intangibles of language and community. At the Peter Wall lounge, students can have lunch along with professors and residents on fellowship; but nothing keeps a campus visitor from enjoying the space, too.

Version 2


The Peter Wall Institute includes residences for visiting scholars that have large windows and balconies with sweeping views of Howe Sound and the North Shore mountains. This longstanding gesture of hospitality to scholars was recently retracted, however; the Institute has reclaimed the upper floor spaces for administrative offices. Elsewhere at UBC, similar shifting priorities are transforming the role of Brutalist buildings in social and academic life.

Version 2


The Walter Gage student residences date from 1972. The Brutalist complex includes three tall towers with grand views of mountains and sea. From lower levels, however, that perspective has become more restricted as UBC has monetized the natural view. An anomaly at a public university, UBC includes an enclave of luxury private houses, townhomes and condominiums within the academic campus core. These expensive properties now stand betwp_20170206_09_39_01_proween the midcentury dormitories and the mountain views. Planted at the heart of the luxury neighborhood is the imposing granite-clad School of Economics, whose ersatz Oxbridge crenellated tower provides a fitting backdrop for the residents, evoking as it does an era of educational class privilege. Moreover, the building’s idea of fortification is so antiquated that, inverting the meaning of Virilio’s bunker archeology, it relegates the idea of danger to the domain of myth.

The contrast is striking: on one side of Walter Gage Road, the Brutalist complex; on the other, picture windows, granite cladding, generous balconies and vast penthouse terraces. UBC touts the revenue it gains from its real estate sales, but a glaring contradiction remains: ownership of a view home on the “public” university campus is the sole privilege of the ultra-wealthy. Meanwhile, UBC is launching a new venture to address student affordability problems: “nano” apartments currently in development will offer 140 square feet of living space — exactly twice the minimum standard size of an American prison cell. These tiny dorms will stand well back from the views next to the university bus exchange on the far side of the Brutalist dormitories.

Version 2


Buchanan Tower is perhaps the starkest exemplar of Brutalism on the UBC campus. Inspired by an Arthur Erickson building in downtown Vancouver, Buchanan Tower is commonly judged unattractive, but its uncompromising grid of identical windows is the physical sanction of an egalitarian ideal: no penthouse, no corner offices. We might conjecture, then, that it is not so much Buchanan Tower’s starkness as its outmoded ideals that make the building “an object of disgust,” as Virilio said of the bunkers, in contrast to the pleasure commonly afforded by “transparent and open civilian architecture.” In this light, a negative judgment of the tower could be seen as a moral failing rather than a mere lapse of taste.

The recent film High-Rise displays a similar error of judgment by making an emphatically Brutalist apartment building the virtual protagonist in a social allegory of dystopia and class warfare. With its domineering architect residing atop the tower in a luxury home and social classes ranked below on corresponding floor levels (the working class tellingly omitted, however), the building’s spatial ethos is clearly more representative of globalized neoliberalism’s luxury towers than Brutalism. In an interview, the director of High-Rise claimed that his intention was not to discredit 50’s and 60’s architecture, but in so doing he made a telling aside. “I went to Vancouver for the first time and stayed in a tower block, with me being slightly prejudiced against tower blocks, and this thing was really beautiful,” the director said. “Everyone lives in these tower blocks,” he continued, “and they’re all alright, that kind of condo, and this is seen as the height of luxury.”

Needless to say, the director’s vision of Vancouver is singularly blind to the violent dystopias fostered by such “beautiful luxury.” What better symbol of the social cost of luxury than Vancouver’s Trump International Hotel & Tower, due to open the 28th of this month? In a sorry confirmation of the victory of the oligarchs and the corresponding demise of Brutalism, the glass and steel Trump Tower was designed by none other than Arthur Erickson.


All Brutalist architecture owes a debt to the visionary apartment design of Le Corbusier, the Unité d’habitation, first constructed in Marseille in 1952. On an architectural tour of that building some years ago, this writer was hosted by a resident who had lived there happily for decades. The old woman firmly expressed the wish that she would never have to leave her pleasant, stark modernist apartment. Was she afraid of eviction? That she might outlive the building — or even Brutalism itself? I didn’t ask. But I remember how she put it: “I hope I die here.”

*Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994), 46.

**Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 215.


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Reading the Neoliberal University

In the 1998 film Dark City, a race of aliens in human form control a noir metropolis where the sun never rises. The minds of the city dwellers are constantly manipulated, like the cityscape itself, which is rearranged as they sleep. “The rich get richer,” says the sinister Dr. Schreber, as he injects a sleeping couple with a memory-altering drug; meanwhile, the aliens, pursuing their lab-rat studies of human behavior, quickly transform the couple’s modest tenement: the building morphs, bulges, and changes into a vast luxury home.

Dark City provides a startling vision of urban spaces molded at will. Buildings rise out of nowhere, twisting and groaning into a crowded sky; in one chase scene, the protagonist scales an accordion-like staircase that pulls up and away from him, a shot that cites the dizzying dolly zoom from Vertigo. But the use of Hitchcock’s psychic motif to convey a literal warping of space points to Dark City’s major weakness, what we might call a puppet-master theory of power and politics. Even when the hero defeats the aliens, using their power to “tune” the cityscape, the film promotes the idea that politics is the emanation of power from a single controlling source. Convenient as if may be to think so, politically and plot-wise, something as complex as a modern city can hardly be the plaything of a central malevolent force.

Or so we used to think. In today’s financialized, securitized, hypercapitalist cities, something akin to Dark City’s nightmare vision is taking place. Power is more centralized and money more concentrated in a global oligarchic ruling class. Democracy itself, that old urban invention, is in retreat everywhere, and Foucault’s idea of “micropolitics” seems to lose much of its relevance. New, cruder forms of brutality and demographic control speak to a reversion from the complex modalities of foucaultian discipline to the heavy hand of sovereign punishment. Saskia Sassen, the sociologist and urban studies scholar, has suggested that this mutation in the field of politics is most visible in those places where power is most highly centralized, the world’s global centers.

Historically, the oppressed have often risen against their masters. But today the oppressed have mostly been expelled and survive at great distance from their oppressors. Further, the “oppressor” is increasingly a complex system that combines persons, networks, and machines with no obvious center. And yet there are sites where it all comes together, where power becomes concrete and can be engaged, and where the oppressed are part of the social infrastructure for power. Global cities are one such site.*

With its evictions, rising rents, luxury developments and skyrocketing land values, Vancouver, British Columbia exemplifies Sassen’s diagnosis of the contemporary “global city.” And at this Pacific Rim city’s westernmost edge a satellite metropolis is fast emerging at the University of British Columbia. UBC has witnessed a breakneck pace of construction in the past five years; more than a dozen new buildings have been completed in that time along with a half-dozen major renovations and a university-wide landscaping project that has reshaped gardens, plazas, walkways and transit stations throughout the campus core. The sky above UBC bristles with construction cranes; at mud level students and faculty run mazes between building sites and excavations that seem to appear overnight. Meanwhile, apartment and condominium towers rise from the forest on the edge of campus, and adverts at Wesbrook Village promise that “Everyone can live at UBC.” A disturbing thought – surely they mean “anyone”? But the slip is telling, as the University’s growth ambitions seem to have no limit.

Approaching Vancouver’s UBC campus via University Boulevard, visitors are greeted by eight-foot block letters spelling the school’s initials in gleaming stainless steel, a logo more suggestive of a business park than a public university. These three letters pose our first interpretive challenge as we visit the campus. How to read them? The sign turns each letter into an imposing object, while at the same time evacuating all interiority in a play of surface reflections. Both vacuous and brash, the sign achieves a kind of linguistic aphonia characteristic of UBC’s marketing language and managerial speak.

Version 2

In 2015, UBC announced it would raise international student tuition by a whopping 37%. Six years earlier, in the midst of a budget crisis, UC President Mark Yudof proposed a similarly draconian 32% tuition hike for local California students. Yudof justified his move with the notorious statement that “the shine is off” public education. Does UBC’s gleaming logo mean to suggest otherwise? Or does it, rather, confirm what happens to public universities when student fees are increased? The case of UBC’s southern neighbors is instructive: with rising tuition, the core principles of access and affordability are undermined, and along with them the democratic premise of the “public” university; students, indentured to loans or obliged to work their way through school, are forced to view their education as vocational training; the drift away from state financial support and the taxpaying public separates the school from social accountability; and the use of private funding imposes market logic on the school’s priorities and operations. The university is privatized; it becomes a transnational corporation.

The UBC sign’s outsize dimensions suggest that without such a brash announcement, one might otherwise doubt that one had arrived at the school. And there would be reason to wonder. The school’s corporatization has spawned drastic changes in its look. Until recently, a landmark building stood at this corner: the imposing General Administration Building, whose mid-century concrete Brutalist aesthetic ultimately fell afoul of the University’s glossy new rebranding campaign. An empty lot occupies the site today.

The demolition of the Brutalist-style General Administration Building can be taken as a symbol of the reshaping of public education under neoliberalism. In spite of the word’s negative connotations, Brutalism denotes frankness and honesty in construction, an architectural ethos embodied by raw, exposed concrete. Moreover, the material’s solidity speaks to the will to long-term investment in social infrastructure commonly seen in mid-century government buildings, social welfare projects and public universities. In contrast to Brutalism’s solidity and permanence, new buildings on the UBC campus are characterized by expansive glass walls. Planning documents speak of “emphasizing transparency (e.g. glass) on the ground floors to project a sense of lightness, welcome and optimism,” thereby “allowing interior academic uses to be visible.” This last directive is vaguely unsettling, as if the primary function of classroom activities was to advertise education to passersby and window shoppers. And indeed, UBC’s new design priorities suggest a general market-oriented transformation of the academic landscape, from slogans and logos to large-scale campus building projects.

This marketing ethos is evident in the rental apartments under construction next to the Administration Building’s rubble. The building is soon to house a range of businesses and restaurants at street level, and as a result, when one passes the UBC sign to enter campus one will run a gauntlet of commerce and entertainment along the last leg of University Boulevard. A “key gateway” to campus, in the administration’s language, and leading directly to what maps designate as the “campus core,” the remodeled University Boulevard is a clear signal of the school’s privatizing trend. And though we are still on the edge of the university, the name of the new apartment building, “Centre,” performs a verbal reorientation of the campus itself. We might say of “Centre” what Jean Baudrillard disparagingly said of the Beaubourg in Paris, that its “fragility” and “world’s fair” aesthetic “overtly proclaims that our time will never again be that of duration, that our only temporality is that of the accelerated cycle and of recycling.”** Ironically, this very denial of permanence can serve to promote the University’s brand when hitched to the school’s “zero-waste” ambitions; at Brock Commons, next to a venerable cluster of mid-century Brutalist dorms, a new dormitory building is nearing completion. UBC proudly bills it as the world’s tallest wooden building.

(End of part 1; to be continued)

*Saskia Sassen, Expulsions, 11.

**Jean Baudrillard, “The Beaubourg Effect,” 61.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

In Bed with the Donald

Two days after this year’s US presidential election, Teju Cole signed an op-ed piece in the New York Times that drew parallels between Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and the rise of Donald Trump. Ionesco’s play, inspired by the author’s own experience of fascism in his native Romania, suggests that political upheavals can be as baffling, disorienting and unexpected as his absurd premise, in which an epidemic of “rhinoceritis” transforms rational human individuals into mindless, violent herd animals.

Chauvet cave, Ardèche, France / Photo: Claude Valette

Chauvet cave, Ardèche, France / Photo: Claude Valette

Cole’s essay struck a chord echoed by other post-election commentators. An exasperated Tabatha Southey bitterly mocked journalistic “safaris” into Trumpland that sought to “humanize” Trump’s electorate. No, Southey countered, there was nothing more to “understand” about a Trump supporter than their tendency to violent anger, racism and misogyny. In a broader assessment of global politics in this new “age of anger,” Pankaj Mishra argued that “liberal rationalism” is under grave threat from such figures as Trump, who “strut across a bewilderingly expanded theatre of political absurdism.”

As theater directors confront the “political absurdism” of our present conjuncture, we may expect a general revival of Rhinoceros on the stage. Another Ionesco play, however, captures an equally significant aspect of the Trump phenomenon: the tendency to misrecognize one’s neighbors and, in the process, to misapprehend oneself. We can cite in this regard the failed assessment of the Republican candidate by the mainstream media, who all but wrote off his chances of winning, and the enduring confusion about the demographic identity of Trump’s supporters. In the election’s aftermath, commentators scrambled to put a face to this electorate, which many identified as an angry and disillusioned working class. Subsequently, as more complete polling data came in Trump’s electors began to look like a broad cross-section of the US population. To put it in tweet form, we were all in bed with the Donald.

In The Bald Soprano, a married couple arrives at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the two are shown in by the maid. Strangely, however, as the husband and wife wait for their hosts, they can’t recall where they have met before. The two soon establish a series of increasingly absurd “coincidences”: they are both originally from Manchester, and each traveled to London not only on the same train but in the very same compartment, and in facing seats. Next, they learn that they both reside on the same street in London, and in an incremental process of careful cross-verifications, each provoking the same outbursts of surprise and amazement, they determine that both of them live in the same building, on the same floor, in the same apartment, and sleep in an identical bed “covered with a green eiderdown.” “How curious it is and what a coincidence!” says the lady of these last details. “It is indeed possible that we have met there, and perhaps even last night. But I do not recall it, dear sir!”*

The couple finally discovers that they both have a daughter with one white and one red eye, which provides them with sufficient proof that they must be married and living together. At this point the man and woman approach each other and they solemnly embrace. Stage directions say that the clock strikes once, very loudly, and specify that “this striking of the clock must be so loud that it makes the audience jump.” The couple does not hear the bell, however, and this disjunction alerts us to another distressing problem of misapprehension: should we, the audience, be amused by this seeming farce — or should our hair be standing on end?

“Donald, it’s you, darling!” exclaims the woman at the end of the dialogue, and the name rings like a gong struck by Ionesco from beyond the grave, another reason for the audience to start, rather than laugh at the scene. When the maid subsequently appears and addresses the audience, she only adds to our confusion. But she delivers what may be the political statement of our times, a warning to Trumpists and opponents alike, and a challenge to the president-elect’s governing ego, were it possible to inject into his consciousness a seed of healthy méconnaissance: “Donald is not Donald” (19).


Trump has put the id in president; he may in fact be the first surrealist chief executive of the United States. When this blustering, orange-haired Ubu demagogue is inaugurated on January 20, it will be almost exactly one year to the day he boasted on the campaign trail, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” The future POTUS seemed to be riffing from André Breton, who famously said, “the simplest surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.”**

“Bitter victory of surrealism,” as the Situationists put it. Noting that modern business tactics had coopted the avant-garde, the agit-art group claimed that new radical art practices were needed to confront the social ravages of consumerism and the violence of an empire in its death throes. France, in that fateful year of 1958, was confronting the rise of its own strongman president. Ionesco’s Rhinoceros premiered in Paris soon afterward, proving, in spite of the Situationists’ doubts, that absurdism could make a strong political statement by reviving surrealist aesthetics. Is it too much to hope that political theater can do the same today?

For the time being we may be stuck with crowd-pleasing musicals. In any case, the prospects for French radical aesthetics in the US look dim. In a cautionary tour of pre-election Appalachia – a “safari” in Trumpland, as Tabatha Southey would put it – Chris Offutt recently described how the Republican governor of Kentucky has been dismantling the state’s public education system. For Offutt, the objective of this policy is clear: uneducated white men tend to vote Republican.

The governor’s own reasoning seemed more sinister. He took direct aim at French literary studies, implying that an American outbreak of rhinoceritis would be best promoted by removing Dada, Surrealism and the Theater of the Absurd from college syllabi. Was the governor aware of the subversive potential of foreign-language instruction, too? After all, The Bald Soprano, Ionesco’s first play, was inspired by taking a course in the French Assimil method. But the governor’s explanations were as obscure as his motives. In his laconic turn of phrase, austerity measures are not so much choices as a confirmation of the inevitable or the joining of a stampede. Trumpism, it seems, is a triumph of the inexplicable. ‘“There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French-literature majors,”’ the governor drily explained. ‘“There just will.”’

* Eugène Ionesco, The Bald Soprano and Other Plays (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 18.

**André Breton, “Second Manifesto of Surrealism,” in Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1969), 125.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction

A Political Pathology

Election eve, 2106

American political discourse is rife with incoherence, from Sarah Palin’s word salads to Donald Trump’s staccato bluster. But like a word emerging from an infant’s babbling, misuse can yield a verbal coinage. George W. Bush, hardly a wordsmith, sometimes made a suggestive gaffe.

A word appeared this week that, to our knowledge, hasn’t been seen in print before. Since the new word didn’t draw any notice — vernacular linguists have their hands full lately — we point it out here. On November 2, 2016, The Guardian published a story about Republicans who were threatening to block any future Supreme Court candidate nominated by a Hillary Clinton administration. An interview with Senator Marco Rubio quoted him as saying that he wouldn’t reject such candidates in advance; unlike his intemperate colleagues, he would not, as he put it, “predispose” the nominees.

“No, I don’t believe that we should do that if they propose nominees that are good,” Rubio said. “I’m not going to go and predispose them that way.”

In spite of his denial, Rubio’s statement is equivocal at best; his qualification that the Clinton administration must offer “good” candidates signals his likely rejection of their nominees. In other words, or rather, in Rubio’s own new wording, the senator is very liable to “predispose” them.

Rubio’s solecism presumably draws on the sense of “disposal” as disposal of something. But the preposition of is not the only thing he has disposed of here.

Interestingly, the senator’s use of the word “predispose” seems tacitly linked to the dictionary’s standard notion of “predisposition”; in denying his Republican temperament and obstructionist leanings Rubio disavows his political “predisposition.” If this is true, the new coinage, predispose, is itself born of predisposal: the anticipatory negation of the senator’s own political character, whether through willful mendaciousness or unconscious displacement. Either way, a political pathology.

Future dictionaries may not cite this as verifiable etymology; in retracing word origins lexicographers don’t tend to plumb psychic motives. However, the authorities provide an enlightening psychological link between politics and disease in their definition of predisposition: “a liability or tendency to suffer from a particular condition, hold a particular attitude, or act in a particular way,” according to Oxford; “the state of being likely to behave in a particular way or to suffer from a particular disease,” according to Cambridge.

Our own suggested dictionary entry?

Predispose (v.): to reject something in advance; to throw out beforehand; to trash ahead of time: “Climate skeptics predisposed the future.”


Leave a comment

Filed under Diction

Oaxaca in Vancouver

Dia de Muertos 2016, Vancouver, BC

There’s a great deal of mescal in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. As the author’s drunken, guilt-ridden alter-ego Geoffrey Firmin descends into a “mescal-inspired phantasmagoria,”* mentions of the drink accumulate, totaling more than 50 by the book’s end. Meanwhile, its role in the plot intensifies; tellingly, mescal is the first word of the final chapter, as Firmin orders yet another drink from the bar. ‘“Mescal,” said the Consul,”’ begins Chapter 12, an incipit as blunt and ominous as the novel’s opening words in the 1940 manuscript, “It was the Day of the Dead.”

To contemporary Anglophone ears, these references to a dangerous, sinister liquor may have an odd ring, as mescal is no longer the alien drink it was to Lowry’s early readership. Over the past decade, distribution and sales of the liquor outside Mexico have dramatically increased, especially in the United States. Mescal is now available not only in the US border states but in Chicago, New York and New England; well north of California in Washington State it can be found in mass-market liquor stores. The liquor is popular in mixed drinks, but mescal also includes many top-shelf brands that rival fine scotch. As mescal grows in popularity its distribution range will no doubt keep expanding, but the drink’s apotheosis was arguably reached a few years ago when it ultimately crossed the border into Canada and arrived in liquor stores and restaurants in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Version 2

Malcolm Lowry, Dollarton, 1953

It was in Vancouver, after all, that Lowry revised and rewrote Under the Volcano, having made his way north in penury and disarray after a tumultuous sojourn in Mexico, the direct inspiration for his harrowing novel. Lowry brought with him to Vancouver a narrative vision of personal hell and he used the Oaxacan liquor as a potent metaphor of poisoned temptation. It would be hard to gauge the impact of Lowry’s dark vision on the drink’s subsequent fortunes, but seventy years after his book’s publication, mescal’s long eclipse has finally come to an end. In 2013 a mescaleria opened for business in trendy, gentrifying East Vancouver, with a menu of higher-end Mexican staples and a large selection of mescals to wash them down. Since then, taquerias and Mexican restaurants have proliferated around Vancouver and mescal is sold in restaurants and bars of all kinds. One can even find mescal on the shelves of liquor stores in North Vancouver, a stone’s throw from the present-day suburb of Dollarton, where Lowry and his second wife, Margerie Bonner, moved into a humble waterfront shack on Burrard Inlet in 1940.

The publication last year of an annotated edition of the 1940 Volcano manuscript allows us to delve more deeply into the sources of the 1947 novel and to assess the changes Lowry and Margerie Bonner made to the text during their stay in Vancouver. Interestingly, mescal has only thirteen mentions in the 1940 manuscript; the emphasis on mescal and its purportedly dangerous qualities in the published novel were developed in the course of revisions in Vancouver. The text establishes a contrast between wine and beer, on the one hand, and liquor on the other. “The dichotomy is clear: tequila and mescal would be the beginning of the end” for the Consul (333). A second contrast opposes tequila and mescal: “a contrast between tequila and mescal is maintained, with mescal the more deadly” (363). Forty-odd added mentions of mescal reinforce the theme in the novel as published. However, Lowry’s recollections in Dark as the Grave insist on no symbolic distinction: “His memories were all of suffering, hideous anxiety, or the escape from, or more powerfully into, these through tequila or mescal.”** Frederick Asals confirms as much: “The drink has no special significance in the 1940 version” of Volcano.***

In the title piece of his collection of essays Fiction and the Figures of Life, William H. Gass leans heavily on Lowry’s novel to argue that literary language is an “abstract system,” autonomous and non-referential, however much it may seem to index the real world.**** Under the Volcano is a willfully contentious choice for Gass’s argument, as the novel’s meticulous orchestral structure of recurring images and symbols is matched by its equally detailed rendering of the protagonist’s anxious, compulsive experience. Like all idealist formalisms, Gass’s claims cannot do without their sacrificial violence; here the victim of the critic’s “abstract system” is the real-life novelist, “that poor wretch Malcolm Lowry” (59), “who rounded the world as a sailor, wrote a few strange stories, was twice married, and, perfectamente borracho, choked to death on his own vomit” (57). We need not be naïve literalists to object to Gass’s neat separation of Volcano‘s formal beauty from such crude reality. Moreover, the image conjured by the critic of Lowry’s miserable drunken end is inescapably full of judgment and meaning, even if it doesn’t move us to the simple, symbolic pieties Gass ridicules, such as “the fall of man” or “the foolish frailties of flesh” (70).

At the opposite pole of Gass’s cold formalism is the fond attachment of Lowry’s biographers and admirers  to the facts of the man’s life, particularly in Vancouver, which houses the author’s archive and is the site of annual literary commemorations. The 1940 manuscript clearly shows how much the book published in 1947 owes to Lowry’s 15-year Vancouver sojourn. But Under the Volcano was neither begun nor, strictly speaking, completed in Vancouver. And if, as Sheryl Salloum amply documents, Lowry found much joy, productivity and security in Vancouver, from 1946 on he lived under the constant threat of eviction from suburban developers, small-minded neighbors and municipal authorities.***** Vancouver cannot claim Lowry without owning its inhospitality.

Mescal never killed Lowry. Neither, arguably, did the bottle of gin he drank the night he died in England in 1957. Lowry died of heartbreak and despair at having lost a life he felt was idyllic in his modest waterfront shack in Dollarton, less than three years after his last eviction notice. As we celebrate the Day of the Dead this year in Vancouver, we can raise a glass of mescal to Malcolm Lowry, remembering him not as a local treasure and a source of civic pride, but as a literary wanderer, a man evicted and a homeless ghost.

* The 1940 Under the Volcano: A Critical Edition, Miguel Mota and Paul Tiessen, eds. (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2015), lx.

**Malcolm Lowry, Dark as the Grave Wherein my Friend is Laid, (Toronto: General Publishing, 1968), 83.

*** Frederick Asals, The Making of  Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1997), 392.

****William H. Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life (Boston: Nonpareil Books, 1980), 63.

***** See Sheryl Salloum, Malcolm Lowry: Vancouver Days (Madeira Park, BC: Harbor Publishing, 1987).

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction

Homocene or Anthropocene?

The idea that human industrial activity has ushered in a distinctly new geological epoch – the “Anthropocene” – has gained wide currency in the arts, humanities and social sciences. According to Bruno Latour, “the Anthropocene is the most decisive philosophical, religious, anthropological and … political concept yet produced as an alternative to the very notions of ‘modern’ and ‘modernity.’”* Scientists, meanwhile, continue to gather evidence as they await an official pronouncement by the specialists with final authority on the question, the Stratigraphy Commission of London’s Geological Society.

The data considered by the Stratigraphy Commission include concrete, plastics, chemicals, airborne pollution and radiation, all of which contribute to today’s disrupted biosphere and changing climate. More significantly, from the Commission’s viewpoint, the global impact of such human waste may be visible ages from now as a clear mark in geological strata, separating the Anthropocene epoch from our recent past, the relatively mild, temperate Holocene. It is only on the basis of a clear, permanent “time-rock” stratum, akin to the notorious K-Pg boundary, that a new epoch can be said to exist. Scientific American tells us that researchers are narrowing in on a possible starting-point for the Anthropocene. At or around the year 1950, during the global postwar “great acceleration,” many anthropogenic pollutants cause a general uptick on graphs plotting their incidence rates. The most striking marker, however, is that of radioactive plutonium fallout, which is detectable worldwide and will show as “a sharp bomb spike” in the geological record. The authors of an article in Science point out that this “clear and global signature” makes its first appearance in 1951, which can therefore be taken as the start of the Anthropocene.** A look at their graph, however, shows that plutonium-239 increases rapidly in 1954 and reaches its first peak in the year 1955. If a starting point is to be chosen for the new epoch, we propose that this earliest peak may be the best candidate.


Colin Waters et al., Science, 08 Jan 2016, Vol. 351, Issue 6269


Another reason we would choose 1955 from among other options is that it is the publication date of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques. And although books are seldom viewed as geological reference-points, the Anthropocene could thereby be dated, appropriately enough, from the appearance of a landmark work of anthropology. Lévi-Strauss’s text is a far from arbitrary choice for this purpose, moreover, as it holds a position analogous to the data being considered by stratigraphers. More eloquently perhaps than any other book of its time, Tristes Tropiques testifies to a point of no return in human history: the dubious victory of advanced industrial civilization over the last vestiges of stone-age native societies. Lévi-Strauss’s globe-girdling travel memoir is a bitter farewell to the biological homeostasis of that disappearing “lost world” of the Holocene.*** In what follows, a look at the text will help us to cross-check the claims of geologists against those of anthropology, and this will allow us to judge the validity and appropriateness of the Greek prefix in the Anthropocene’s name.

Somewhat overlooked in current debates over the Anthropocene is the unique anomaly of the proposed epoch’s name among other periods of geologic time. Unlike all preceding epochs, the Anthropocene is a time-period caused by man, and the name, then, is more than a conventional designation in words of a separate, independent reality. The “Anthropocene” is a title, just as man is its author. If this is so, then we have pitched out of the abstract, impartial domain of science into the area of symbolic creation. Questions of style are not out of place here; scientific designations can be more or less accurate, but titles may be judged on aesthetic grounds. There is still time, then, before the Stratigraphy Commission rules on the matter, to suggest a better name, less clunky, not so pretentious, a fine euphonic successor to the Holocene: the Homocene.

Lévi-Strauss himself would likely have agreed that “Anthropocene” is a misnomer. The anthropologist’s work focused on so-called “primitive” peoples, the best representatives, in his view, of human groupings in their basic yet fully-fledged social forms. In contrast, modern civilization, for Lévi-Strauss, is cruel, imbalanced and self-destructive, its vaunted order bought at the cost of global ecological degradation. “The order and harmony of the Western world … demand the elimination of a prodigious mass of noxious by-products which now contaminate the globe,” Lévi-Strauss says at the outset of his book. “The first thing we see as we travel round the world is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind” (38). Such “filth,” as we have seen, constitutes crucial data for stratigraphers, but for Lévi-Strauss, in contrast, it doesn’t count as properly human; indeed, it’s the exact negation of man’s true anthropological nature. And since so-called western “order” and “harmony” are responsible for irreparable damage to the world, Lévi-Strauss’s own work, in aspiring to a structuralist system of knowledge, must aim for a different form of harmony. Interestingly, in his evocation of “structure” (43), “pattern” and “order” (44), Lévi-Strauss makes explicit reference to geology. His thoughts and memories are compared to a “cloudy liquid … beginning to settle” (43), that is to say, as sediment that can form a rock stratum. Time thereby creates a “profound structure” in which “one order has been replaced by another” (44): an “edifice” representing the formalized creations of structural anthropology.

Sharp edges have been blunted and whole sections have collapsed: periods and places collide, are juxtaposed or are inverted, like strata displaced by the tremors on the crust of an ageing planet. Some insignificant detail belonging to the distant past may now stand out like a peak, while whole layers of my past have disappeared without trace. Events without any apparent connection, and originating from incongruous periods and places, slide one over the other and suddenly crystallize into a sort of edifice.

This reference to geology is more than a passing metaphor. Tristes Tropiques repeatedly avows its author’s “intense interest” in geology, whose study is more inspiring, he claims, than the many treks and journeys of his anthropological career. “I count among my most precious memories,” Lévi-Strauss says, “… a hike along the flank of a limestone plateau in Languedoc to determine the line of contact between strata” – a quest that represents for him “the very image of knowledge” (56). Accordingly, the author says that primitive social knowledge derives from forces “as anonymous as telluric forces” (58) and that the study of social transformations is akin to the work of paleontologists comparing different strata (112).



In the light of these geo-anthropological claims, it is telling that Tristes Tropiques opens and closes with explicit references to atomic weapons, whose fallout may well fix the start date of the Anthropocene. The last mention in particular deserves close reading. “From the time when he first began to breathe and eat,” Lévi-Strauss says, “up to the invention of atomic and thermonuclear devices, by way of the discovery of fire – what else has man done except blithely break down billions of structures and reduce them to a state in which they are no longer capable of integration?” (413). This saturnine insight leads Lévi-Strauss to recast his anthropological work as the study of entropy. “Anthropology could with advantage be changed into ‘entropology,’ as the name of the discipline concerned with the study of the highest manifestations of this process of disintegration” (414).

Loan 74, f. foreedge

Might the “Anthropocene” be re-named, following Lévi-Strauss’s suggestion, as the “Entropocene”? The name would probably not pass muster with the scientists. More importantly, it would give too much credit to Lévi-Strauss’s grim moralizing tone and social conservatism. Geological motifs in Tristes Tropiques reflect this conservative attitude by envisioning social forms as petrified and almost immutable, the lives they harbor caught in a death grip of structure without play. There is moreover, something cynical and vainglorious in the anthropologist’s judgmental posture in Tristes Tropiques’s grand, symphonic ending, and this may be connected to some of the book’s worst failings: its contempt for the Indian subcontinent, which is only matched by Lévi-Strauss’s hatred of all things Muslim, including even India’s Mughul age – an attitude almost proto-fascist in its BJP leanings. No less revealing is Lévi-Strauss’s contempt for the lives of homosexual men on New York’s Fire Island, portrayed in quasi-Célinian strokes of revulsion as a sorry manifestation of “human absurdity” (163).

No doubt a similar negative reflex among scientists foreclosed the prefix homo- for the proposed new geological epoch. Is that why Paul Crutzen, who launched the reigning term in the year 2000, “paused to think” before exclaiming it?**** The mere suspicion is reason enough to take its defense. Homocene is plainly a more aesthetic option than “Anthropocene,” and if the name carries a connotation of sexual dissidence, so much the better: it can serve as a reminder of human freedom and the lability of desire and, in opposition to technocrats and scientists — including so-called human scientists — a standing challenge to mankind’s self-destructiveness.

*Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us (Verso, 2016).

**Colin Waters et al., “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene,” Science, 08 Jan 2016, Vol. 351, Issue 6269.

***Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, John & Doreen Weightman, trans. (New York: Atheneum, 1975), 249.

****”‘No! We are no longer in the Holocene,’ Crutzen exclaimed at a scientific conference. ‘We are in’ — he paused to think — ‘the Anthropocene!'” Jan Zalasciewicz, “What Mark Will We Leave on the Planet?” Scientific American, vol 315, no. 3 (September 2016), 32.



Filed under Uncategorized