Tuesday, September 30, 2008

STRIKING THE BOARD: I HATE CHESS

I hate chess. If Grenier can hate speech then I can hate chess. But I imagine any man that hates speech would also hate checkers. I don't hate checkers. In fact, I like it and prefer it over chess. Both stand in as allegorical constructions of war but the difference seems to reside in point of view. Chess suggests a global view of war, imperial struggle from above. It thinks it's smart. People fond of it thinks it's smart. Checkers, on the other hand, takes a view from below. It moves through the motions of a blow by blow account. In chess we can reasonably assume the figure of the king stands in for precisely what it means to be — a king or a president or a prime minister. In checkers the foot soldier that makes his way to the other side of the board is not so much a king or president or prime minister but more like a non-commissioned officer — a lowly sergeant. But once this sergeant's promoted he finds himself behind enemy lines. He must struggle to make his way back. In chess each piece stands in for a larger institution. Even pawns. Pawns stand in for a larger body of cruelly conscripted peasants. Knights for a larger formation of knights on horseback or mechanized cavalry. Bishops for the church. We are to believe queens can be president too, but only in the absence of a king.

In chess pawns are the weakest figure on the board. In New Jersey the Army recruiting office in Paterson has the highest recruitment rate in the state. It is located in one of the poorest cities in the state.

In chess castles move like collapsible military installations. We can position them wherever we need to when negotiating borders. If played properly, this negotiation ends in one side or another occupying the entire board. But never both.

In checkers each piece stands in not for a platoon or a battalion or any other sort of large formation. In checkers each piece stands in for a single solitary being. The question is one of scale. And the question of scale is always a question of power.

Rather than white and black the pieces are red and black, corresponding with some accuracy to the colors of those most likely to be recruited. In checkers it would be absurd to think of a king as a king. He is a pikeman, a foot soldier, a private that can hope for no better than sergeant or death. The account is blow by blow. You take my piece, I take yours. If one of my men make it to the other side they will be promoted. More often than not they die.

Those that prefer chess over checkers probably hate speech. The question is one of scale. And the question of scale is always a question of power. When a pawn takes another pawn in chess this simple move, in the larger scale of the game, is never too costly. Strategists might disagree. Either way, that simple moment, when a pawn takes an opposing pawn — that move encapsulates an entire game of checkers. In chess players strategize. In checkers players send reluctantly enlisted men in to fight and to die. There are many ways of dying.

Unfortunately, there is no collateral damage in either game — chess or checkers. Cities are not bombed. Villages remain intact. Economies don't collapse. Women are conspicuously absent and so the byproduct of conflict within the frame of these games is never rape. The pieces — though they stand in for people or the institutions that manage people — never bleed. This is a problem. But in chess it is much easier to hate speech. In checkers this is not so easy.

Friday, September 26, 2008

INDEX DOWN: MISCELLANEOUS NOTES ON THE CURRENT CRISIS

All hell has been breaking loose throughout financial markets for the past few weeks. Or — if we recall the recent failures of Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and others during a summer of soaring oil prices — the last few months. Yesterday Washington Mutual went down, bought out by JPMorgan on the cheap for $1.9 billion. Despite the fallout we can rest assured that new Chief Executive for Washington Mutual Alan Fishman won't feel the pinch in the same way most of us on the ground will:
Mr. Fishman, who has been on the job for less than three weeks, is eligible for $11.6 million in cash severance and will get to keep his $7.5 million signing bonus, according to an analysis by James F. Reda and Associates. WaMu was not immediately available for comment.
What is most frightening is the simple understanding that, had Washington Mutual not been absorbed by JPMorgan, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (F.D.I.C.) — the very institution that insures most street-level savings and checking accounts — would have been "dealt a crushing blow." As of June the F.D.I.C. fund stood at $45.2 billion. Where does it stand now? And how do we understand this figure in relation to the $700 billion bailout working its way through Congress? How is it possible that the billions on billions of dollars Americans have invested in various forms of savings can be insured through an institution which holds so little?

The current financial crisis has roots going back further than the mortgage scandal. Most of us know this. It begins with the relentless systematic move toward greater deregulation and privatization during the Reagan era and moves forward into the present moment. The mortgage crisis doesn't so much mark the beginning of the present financial debacle as it sounds the first salvo of its end. The repeal of Depression-era congressional laws in 1999 under a Republican congress marks a key moment in this narrative. It was the repeal of these laws which allowed commercial banks — the banks most of us maintain checkings and savings accounts in — to muscle in on Wall Street and move into the realm of high-risk investment banking grounded in speculation.

Without giving into the usual feelings of panic, rage and utter powerlessness that tend to reduce the complexity of such crises, Robert Scheer offers perhaps the most sober and clearly-stated analysis of the situation. Some critics of the bailout have mockingly referred to it as a "socialist" approach advanced by the foremost supporters of Friedmanesque deregulation. But Scheer, in conversation with Amy Goodman, identifies the corporatist bailout as a form of fascism — not rhetorically but in the strict sense, as a megalomaniac like Mussolini or ham-fisted theologico economist like C.H. Douglas might see it. An ass like Francis Fukuyama might disagree. In the end, the bailout simply brings to the fore what has always already been the case: the utterly collusive and underhanded relation of the corporate to the political. Of course we can add the cultural to this. With few exceptions, (mainstream) culture has always been the handmaiden of corporate and political interests.

Where does this situate poetry — or any form of cultural production? How, in the present moment, do poets, artists, and intellectuals think through the present crisis strategically, without falling into practices that would reduce the force of art to a bumper sticker, an apocalyptic sign, a hastily constructed editorial? How might thinking through our relation to language — to culture — assist us in moving through the catastrophe?

Tonight the University at Buffalo's North Campus is hosting Karl Rove, former Deputy Chief of Staff to the Bush administration and one of the chief architects of the war in Iraq. Despite state-level budget cuts that have dealt a blow to universities and university libraries throughout New York state, the University at Buffalo managed to locate a $50,000 honorarium for Rove. Students, faculty and others have arranged a protest. Poets Stacy Szymaszek and Erica Kaufman are scheduled to read at the same time the protest is due to take place, their visit sponsored through the UB Poetics Program. The conflict between the reading and the protest has — by way of forcing students, faculty and others to decide between the two events — generated a good deal of productive conversation around our relation to the aesthetic and, more broadly, the relation of the aesthetic to the political.

Thinking through the present financial crisis within the frame of the conversation generated around Rove's disruptive and inappropriate visit to Buffalo, I find myself sitting on top of a stack of recently published books that deserve close reading: Sean Bonney's Baudelaire in English, Kent Johnson's Homage to the Last Avant-Garde, Andrew Schelling's Old Tale Road, Shelly Taylor's Peaches the Yes-Girl, Julie Patton's Notes for Some (Nominally) Awake, David Brazil's The Book Called Spring, Aaron Lowinger's Open Night, Dan Beachy-Quick and Srikanth Reddy's Mobius Crowns, Mary Burger's A Partial Handbook for Navigators, Alice Notley's Above the Leaders, Estaphin's DCLP, and any number of others. They sit here on the floor in stacks. I pick them up every once in a while. I skim through one or another when I make my way onto the porch every hour or so for a cigarette.

The front cover of Julie Patton's Notes (Portable Press at YoYo Labs, 2007) features an image of Old Glory upside down, fireworks and Arabic text. The back cover boasts an image of Smoky the Bear — a visual gesture pointing toward fire and the need to control or extinguish fires. Short of scanning and pasting images from the text, the work is impossible to describe with any accuracy. Patton plays throughout the book with the name "Amiri Baraka" — dismantling the name and disjunctively positioning phonological and morphological fragments of it so bits of the name — disparate parts of the whole — might be read through, even constituted within, a wide range of culturo-political discourses. For example, in the name "Baraka" the text suggests we might find a "bear" and this "bear" is also a "bearer": "bad-news bearer zoo logical curse a mine ore rock rig eerie trial of...." On the following page we find an Associated Press article dated May 11, 2006. The last sentence of the article reads: "It was shot by state biologists and was the first bear to be killed as part of the state's no-tolerance policy on bears in densely populated areas."

My wife points me toward a recently published article discussing GOP plans to disenfranchise voters in Michigan that recently lost their homes as a result of the mortgage crisis:

The chairman of the Republican Party in Macomb County, Michigan, a key swing county in a key swing state, is planning to use a list of foreclosed homes to block people from voting in the upcoming election as part of the state GOP’s effort to challenge some voters on Election Day.

“We will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren’t voting from those addresses,” party chairman James Carabelli told Michigan Messenger in a telephone interview earlier this week. He said the local party wanted to make sure that proper electoral procedures were followed.

State election rules allow parties to assign “election challengers” to polls to monitor the election. In addition to observing the poll workers, these volunteers can challenge the eligibility of any voter provided they “have a good reason to believe” that the person is not eligible to vote. One allowable reason is that the person is not a “true resident of the city or township.”

The Michigan Republicans’ planned use of foreclosure lists is apparently an attempt to challenge ineligible voters as not being “true residents.”

As any of us might assume, the vast majority of these presently homeless and potentially disenfranchised voters are black:
The Macomb County party’s plans to challenge voters who have defaulted on their house payments is likely to disproportionately affect African-Americans who are overwhelmingly Democratic voters. More than 60 percent of all sub-prime loans — the most likely kind of loan to go into default — were made to African-Americans in Michigan, according to a report issued last year by the state’s Department of Labor and Economic Growth.
The continuity linking name to race to the broader no-tolerance policies that effectively determine who will lose their votes with their homes and who will not runs throughout Patton's Notes, culminating in the last pages of book: "AMIRICAUSE / AMERIKKA" and finally "BARAKAFRICA / N / AMERICAUCASIA / 'Shadows ... music about to enter'." Reading this in the context of the present moment, the final phrase seems a call for resistance. Given the subject position of the reader, this phrase may also be taken as both a prophetic statement and a warning. At present the music Patton remarks is unidentifiable, beyond location. This music is about to enter. And here I wonder precisely what music will enter in the culturo-economic vacuum left in the wake of this financial disaster. And I wonder what the possibilities of this music are and what potentialities it has the force to actualize.