reviews/crits

Le singe avec le flingue, chez le peintre Jérémie Van Rompu

...et me voici dans le camp de l'artiste entouré par ses toiles comme les wagons des pionniers au wild west entourant une petite bande désespérée. Avec quelle sauvagerie il défend son espace tout en étant pleinement, de manière désarmante, ouvert. Paradoxe. Et une bande pas si petite: les ours les singes les chevaux les bambis les chiens les corbeaux, ces gens-là courent autour des caravanes, des chaises, des grues, des bâtiments, se perdent dans les ténèbres, un caddie et d'autres tous en train de virevolter dans l'espace imaginaire d'un prestigidateur sur les 2D de la toile.
Et c'est à cette habileté de manipulation des éléments plastiques parfois nocifs, la térébenthine, l'huile, l'acrylique, avec lesquels il crée un espace artificiel qui résonne, que l'on reconnnaît la qualité du peintre. Parce qu'il me semble, il faut le dire, que l'artiste met en oeuvre un dérangement des sens du regardeur le temps du face-à-face avec l'oeuvre. Qu'il ou elle met en marche un piège qui fait que, en regardant le tableau la vie s'arrête un moment sur son passage banal vers la tombe, et c'est cette petite pause qui donne le battement du coeur, le frisson des poils sur la nuque.
Dans ce sens-là on peut dire que l'art c'est un jeu de la vie ou la mort. Jeu? Oui parce qu'il faut un savoir-faire quand même, un savoir-faire qui opère sur la frontière des perceptions, comment les gens reçoivent la sensation dite vivant et la sensation dite mort. On a introduit dans le monde une troisième catégorie - la machine. Pour un enfant est-ce que les grues, les camions des pompiers sont des êtres vivants ou non?
Van Rompu s'intéresse, et c'est chose bien faite, aux machines de la vie quotidienne, un caddie de supermarché resplendit dans son collier de fourrure orange, les poteaux électriques marchent insouciants comme les mannequins de mode à travers le paysage, les excavateurs font leur travail de destruction/création dans nos villes.
Mais il s'intéresse aussi bien à ses hoboleux dans une espèce de cirque troublant comme ce singe avec le flingue, des bambis charmants et encore vierges mais plus pour très longtemps, des chaises qui tournent (pas encore électrifiées mais ça on attend, peut-être avec le pape dedans!) Evidemment Van Rompu patauge dans la même boue que nous tous, la matière indifférente à nos espoirs, mais parfois il s'envole comme un dragon et lâche avec son haleine furibonde et multicolore une empreinte sur la toile de l'univers parallèle de l'imagination qu'animent, déguisées, nos propres vies.

 

Doubletalk - the language code and jargon of a Presidential election - Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark - ForEdge an imprint of the University Press of New England www.upne.com

Anything about language is worth a look in my book so I clicked on this primer of one hundred words of political jargon with a few rarities from the arcane pollsters lexicon with anticipation. I was not disappointed, for besides being useful as a basic primer the authors enquiry mines into stuff that stimulates thought.
How America manufactures its language, or languages, is a source of continual wonder and envy for this Englishman - even though in this book's examples the object is to conceal, to muffle, to dampen rather than aim for George Orwell's "clear pane of glass". From Ad Hominem Attacks to Zugzwang the examples show how language can be woven, knotted and tightened using all kinds of shreds, the brighter colored the better, of source material: television, wild western mythology, german science-speak, touchy feely group speak and so on. It is the kind of enrichment and condensation of language that Shakespeare did for English. The question remains tho: outside the Beltway and the screen filled newspaper and television workspaces - is this a spoken language for the many?
I loved Bateson Candidate: "A term coined by political scientist/columnist Jonathan Bernstein in A Plain Blog about Politics March 3 2011 to describe politicians “who are oddly out of sync with normal time,” having disappeared from the public eye for years, if not decades, only to reappear to run for president as fringe candidates. Bateson candidate comes from Star Trek: It refers to Capt. Morgan Bateson of the starship USS Bozeman, which encountered a time warp that trapped it ninety years ahead of time"
Each word or phrase picked out from political discourse (at least the overheard public side of it) gets a neat, well referenced exposition with that lightness of touch we have come to expect from these authors. They also give us lovely, resonant snippets like the news that President Obama travels with a "tent of silence" with opaque sides and noise making devices that give him a pop-up secure area for sensitive conversations. So like the the hidden host! So like the traveling King of medieval times, willfully blinded by his retainers. And one wonders, seeing Trump, whether America is yearning for the monarchical system; the people shouting for his crowning and then (as happened just before democracy came to Greece) shouting for his ritual sacrifice.
The book tracks the path words take. Weaponize crawled out of its cold war bunker and, released for other duties, spread in the 1990's. McCutcheon and Mark quote Conservative pundit Guy Benson "What we’re seeing now, especially in an age of social media, is that a lot of this craziness is being born on campus but then it’s being weaponized in the media, weaponized in Washington, D.C., and it’s proliferating across the country and it’s sort of seeping into all elements of American life"
This is a book to dip and skim for pleasure and then click for reference. The profusion of sources mean you can get straight into the heartlands of the language making landscape of political America and make whatever extended journeys you wish.

 

 

 

What ISIS really wants - Graeme Wood - The Atlantic Monthly March 2015

Graeme Wood's fine piece refers to the "hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned" in this lies much of the attraction of ISIS; the idea of a magic doorway, an irrevocable turning. The world is treated like a book to be read, signs to be spotted and correlated with the central text. You can ignore, (read kill) what doesn't fit. You cut the world down to your size.

The deformation of faith by imagination, coexistent with the deformation of imagination by faith is one of the most powerful and intractable human processes. It is made more intractable by the way in which electronic representations of the world have gradually chipped out an ambiguous set of brain procedures neither fully "in" nor fully "out" of local reality.

I can't get my head round the idea of blowing these flesh and blood entities, these people, away - no matter how much I may fantazize about grandad rides shotgun, no matter how much I itch to set up (western values) martyrs-r-us.com.

Nor do I get full satisfaction from dropping back into larger, safer, perspective but what hit home clearest from Graeme Wood's piece was his assertion that we are in the presence of a millenarian movement. Everything seems to fit. War and war movies have made a generation, perhaps two generations, of uncertain youth susceptible to the trumpets and the angels of death.

The christian millenarians of the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries morphed into the english revolutionaries of the seventeenth century and the communists of the nineteenth according to the classic thesis of Norman Cohn. (The Pursuit of the Millenium Paladin 1970)

Those christians showed the same blind devotion, the same willingness to uproot and travel to battle, the same unforgiving ferocity and the same belief that once thru the gates of hell honey would forever flow and so on. They had complicated end-games involving battles, encircled remnants, second comings and so on. So yes, we have to be ready to say these muslims are behaving like other humans have in the past - it is a human problem about people at the weak end of the stick adapting to change, and in the past these things blew themselves out. Pity is, now we have a gigantic paranoia’n’security industry that likes to huff at the flames.

God - and I'm using the word to refer to the idea - has always had strange bed-fellows. The great joke of placing much of the oil beneath arabian sands has now come fully home with all its hollow, deathly chuckles - the minds of these people out there rushing, running overspeed, at the same time to the seventh century and the techno gadget twenty first are bound to be disordered, bloody. So much coffee, so little alcohol. These people are doing our dirty work for us, shaking up the middle east map. Can we turn away and, shooting blindly say, "It's the price of oil" echoing Kipling's "The price of Admiralty" Evolution, the genetic market place, will sort it out. Meanwhile what price Dabiq for the football world cup venue 2026?

 

My Psychic War with Uncle Sam
E. Alexander Scianna & Jean Campbell, PhD
Harmonious Circle Press 2012

I've said it before but it bears saying again,

... a new artifact appears powered not by cultural norms but by personal passion. Often unregarded these noyeaux of information float like sleepy cows in cyberspace, freely available for the scholar or the curious - Looking for sweatless livelihood, a review of Chinese Education in Singapore by Zhang Zhxiong

If you want to know what it was like to be an alert but confused Los Angeles teenager in 1968 this is the book for you. Almost minute by minute you can watch the pot parties, the car rides and the brutal army life as the dude waits to go to Nam. A distinguished effort of retrieval. Everybody our age has those flowery, mazy, hazy times in their head o to be sweet and sixteen again, lying on the floor with Jane with undone hair and Sergeant Pepper! And then whoosh, you're greying and bugged about garden problems, radio on with too much information - what happened to your life - all the in between bits? This ebook is a look at that structure.

Only, our hero doesn't go to Nam; he works night duty in the cookhouse. And there is a teaser time puzzle. E. Alexander Scianna was born in 1957 it says on the the Meet the Authors page and yet in the introduction he states: my experiences as a draftee in 1968. I knew the Viet Cong used child soldiers but the idea of an eleven year old American private, I'm sorry, I don't accept. The introduction also states that this is a composite work, not only thru having two named authors, the other author is Jean Campbell PhD, but in ransacking the viewpoints of thinkers as diverse as Noam Chomsky and G.I. Gurdjieff and including paraphrased veteran testimony from the Vietnam war. As far as how the collaboration worked Scianna says, originally, I found this novel an exorcism of past ghosts, but with Jean’s genius and spontaneity of prose it began to take on its own life.

I'd honestly forgot what book I'd asked for. When My Psychic War with Uncle Sam popped into the inbox I remembered that I'd had problems with my own book, Robots, Reptiles & Rezistants wondering whether it was writers block or senility and ZAP! I'd spotted the Scianna/Campbell title on Book Country, the book lovers site. Book Country invites you to ask for books to review; part of their community building function. I was interested in the Scianna/Campbell title because it talked about bundling diverse sources, which was what I had been trying to do when I got stuck.

The set up is a middle aged marijuana grower looking back on his life thru paranoia tinged shades. The underground garden he refers to is both a real place with velcro fastened panels, fluorescent lights of different color temperatures and sterile cloning blocks and an imaginary space where he writes down his thoughts. After a flash into his childhood and drafting into the Army in 1968 we get a finely tracked, moment by moment sequence where our friend prints a subversive leaflet and is interrogated. We leave him waiting for his court martial confined to barracks and flash to the classic George Kennan quote from 1948. For those of you who don't know George Kennan was a really bright State department official who was at one point stationed in Moscow. From there he sent a devastating analysis of Soviet Union point of view and intentions. The quote begins - we have 50 per cent of the worlds wealth but only 6.3 per cent of its population...

For Scianna/Campbell this quote sets up the thesis of the ruthless military industrial power clique - the reptile brained Cheney's and so on - who have broken America off its true, revolutionary, humankind liberating mission and are out to punish misbelievers. While the writer's marijuana plants are forced by his technological manipulation to disclose their sex he gives us the clue to what he is fighting - Christian Theocracy. And it may be the case that there are quite a few run and burn fundamentalist people of the cross behind the over successful US capitalism. Be surprising if not given the founding DNA. Mayflower? Goddamn will flower!

And now lets turn to the writing. By now the permanent present tense is beginning to tire me a little, it is too much like staring unblinking with no relief. I start to ask myself, where is the real world in all this? Which concrete objects does the writer choose to deal with and why? The army context - all those solid objects, trucks, gears, water spouts - what does it all add up to? I read on, patient, friendly, to see what happens but the problem becomes the writers handling of that strange incalculable: fictional time, fictional space.

One of the weirdest things about writing fiction is that the reader only knows what you tell her. The corollary of this is that if you put something in the reader is going to think it is there for a reason, and if there is too many words there without reason it gets tiring for the reader to do the sorting you should have done.

Example:
I’m here to see the captain.” I present myself to the young private behind a big desk.
“Just a minute.” The private goes into the back room.
“Okay, you can go in and see the captain,” he says returning to the desk.

Do I really need to know that it is a big desk, do I really have to watch the private toddle backwards and forwards? You have to cut all slackness right to the bone. "Kill your children" said Rider Haggard - any phrase you think specially fine, out it goes. Like Stephen King says in his classic memoir On Writing "cutting is the literary equivalent of Viagra" He recommends your second draft is ten per cent less than your first.

I’m here to see the captain.” I tell the private on desk duty.
“Just a minute.” He disappears for a moment. I stare at the desk.
“Okay, you can go in,”

Hard to get a grip on the concept of fictional time, fictional space; that is why writing this review helps me. To say we dig a hole deep enough to stand in doesn't register unless it has a relation (is in a properly imagined proportion with) other physical descriptions. The language skin here is only ever one word deep, it lacks inner resonance. You may think I'm being hard, well why not? - I'm trying to figure out this stuff for the sake of my own writing.

Example: We zap from his brother over dosing fatally on the floor to breakfast with Dad and Mom the next day - all in the same tone, no change of pace. Good writers of the old fashioned sort pop in a descriptive phrase with just the right length tone, rhythm, perspective to give the piece some architecture within which the reader can be present in a comfortable way. Perhaps I've got it all wrong, I'd love to know what present day eighteen year olds make of My Psychic war with Uncle Sam.

Back to the book. We are on the move again, that lovely, careless, big space American traveling in the desert with the older head, Tom, who speaks in theosophic riddles. In the middle of their acid trip a curious thing happens, Marcel the buddy of the hero discloses that his mother was a German Jewess escaped from France and his father, captured by the Spanish trying to escape over the Pyrenees committed suicide. Any half literate person will recognize that we have here smuggled in the story of Walter Benjamin, no?

(Walter Benjamin who wrote amongst many other great things that history is always history of the victorious tk has become a cult figure for many marginal intellectuals, they like to think he holds out hope for obscurity, beside the fact that his interests and analyses were so fascinating. To fantasize about being his secret child is pretty powerful stuff to smuggle in, no?)

We come up to the surface into the present and the narrator, now in middle age, steals a knife and is locked into a mental health facility. Nibbles, pool table, music - and freewheeling conversations about America. A chilling picture of the super modern sinister guardian/nurse figures we are all going to struggle with, with I work for X stamped across their eyeballs and their pre-cut dialogue filled with registered affective vocabulary to make you come gently: valence (the pleasantness of the stimulus), arousal (the intensity of emotion provoked by the stimulus), and dominance (the degree of control exerted by the stimulus).

Freewheeling? It is the uninterrupted conversation about America's problem with the use of its power, a bastard baby born with a gun in one hand and a bible with the other. What does D.H. Lawrence say somewhere? The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted. Why say somewhere? Its in his 1923 discussion of Hawthorn in Studies in Classic American Literature ISBN 014003009.

Thanks Scianna/Campbell - you made me think and got me writing again.

Looking for sweatless livelihood, a review of Chinese Education in Singapore by Zhang Zhxiong.

All the signs are there, the cover color red, a fist. This is an ebook so you are told to watch out for accented letters. You are entering Chinese territory.
Zhang Zhxiong writes:
... and so, in a typical government department, a creolized Yuèh?i language was spoken among the janitorial and clerical class. Fúl?o chitchats were found among the junior officers. Dialects, ranging from Scottish-English to Anglo-Cornish, were used to brighten the colorless language of the Tuans Besar tk, who allegedly faked an Etonian accent when British royalty visited Singapore...
Behind this sentence hides the authors project, written in the modern "gathering of swallows" style: clouds of facts, tied together by ant-like language algorithms into packages still called "books". A new artifact appears powered not by cultural norms but by personal passion. Often unregarded these noyeaux of information float like sleepy cows in cyberspace, freely available for the scholar or the curious. We get further and further into Borges territory, no bad thing some might say.
Thanks to Zhang for a few hours I swam in the warm sea of Singapore History, immigrated into the island from the Chinese mainland, found my language cohorts and get breathless as a rickshaw puller.
 The 30000 word work, admirable but complex, is a technical discussion of three domains: the means by which immigrants into Singapore kept their home territory by membership of protection societies and how this worked through into the colonies politics; the relationships between the different languages and importantly between the different Chinese dialects and how this was reflected in education; the educational policies of the succeeding regimes from the nineteenth century British, with its hidden story of the rise of female brains, their feet at last unbound:
 ...10 out of every 100 boys, but 15 out of every 100 girls, sat for the A-level examination in 1980
We go into the tin mines where the coolies were fed but not paid, they had "shares" in the company instead. We wander into the forest of bangs and zxe and tsing and chow and get a bright bird's eye view the complex human landscape of nineteenth and twentieth century Singapore.
We go into the world of education proper with an account of the different schools and how they were founded. The author conjures up the "reading rooms"
These public clubs provided newspapers and other reading materials, and they provided informal learning opportunities for the poor. The drive for self-education was very strong among the illiterate and impoverished coolies, and these rooms attracted many. Incidentally, the reading clubs served as liaison points for an anti-Manchu movement. Founded by Sun Yat-sen, the Tongmenghui infiltrated the X?ngzhóu Reading Room, and its leading members were the benefactors of the other reading clubs. The revolutionary group later formed the nucleus of the Guomindang.
One thinks of George Orwell's observations on the poor who came into the reading rooms for a bit of warmth and left with a bit of socialism.
What started beating in my head as I read is the wit and tenacity with which the Chinese, moving along the sniffable gradient of prosperity, maintained their language based clan structure and turned it into urban mutual protection societies.
In Singapore the British Authorities, according to this author, did not concern themselves with what happened in Chinese run schools. Since these schools were for the least privileged and the least likely to be bent to the colonial template it is not surprising that it was here that seditious, or liberating, doctrines were put into skulls willing to be broken.
A reservation. It would have been helpful to have had some biographical information. Is Zhang one of the Thinker Belles? (his happy phrase) - one the lost boys of the 1980's?
Whatever the history, the present is clear; a fountain of brains:
Populated by only 5.47 million people, as of June 2014, its smartest kids now rank among the best in International Mathematical Olympiads.
Extremely useful for students is the 255 item source list and, for long noses like me, a comprehensive glossary. The author has turned over many stones, his labor is apparent. I thank him; the information about the different colored hats of the women construction workers will stay with me as an example of the social genius that seems more easy come by out east. And the book will nicely counter weigh another on my Eastern shelf, Myself a Mandarin tk, by Austin Coates a Special Magistrate in Hong Kong in the 1950's.