Category Archives: ideas

Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Walking Tour

I recently took a trip to Berlin. The city has a difficult past and was home to many influential philosophers. While many lived and wrote in Berlin, fewer were born and raised there. Walter Benjamin, though, was one of the few. He grew up in Berlin.

I brought Benjamin’s autobiographical essay “A Berlin Chronicle” on the trip. I read the essay each night and circled references to particular streets and parks, as well as phrases, commentaries, and concepts which Benjamin expresses about or close to those locations.

Inspired by the Stanford University mapping project for this essay, I made a walking tour out of it. (I’m not the first to think of doing something like this.)

If you’d like to do this walking tour, follow the directions below. The idea is to amble around the city, find each street or place, and do the activity with friends or strangers. (The numbers correspond to places in the text and not necessarily the order in which you should complete the activities.)

Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Walking Tour

6)  At Chauseestrasse, open your imagination to a boundless horizon.

11) Thinking of the people closes to you emotionally, go to Kupfergraben and contract your life into a single, profound symbol.

10) Stand somewhere on Kochstrasse and list five mysteries of your father’s work or job.

8) On Magdeburgerstrasse, find 1-2 examples of how your imagination adorns the edges of your memory with capricious frills.

9) At the Lutzkow Quay come up with an aphorism, an image with a caption, or a first attempt at philosophical reflection on “nobility.”

5) Go to Schillstrasse and talk about a time when you emanated forlornness.

4) Pause life at the Lichtenstein Gate.

7) Find a decisive bench in the Tiergarten. Debate a political question.

3) Either write a poem for Fritz Henle at his street Klopstockstrasse, or, in his honor, turn an insignificant phrase into a magic formula that heals a wound.

1) Go to Carmerstrasse, where Benjamin was born. Remember the place you were born, particularly the colors.


Eight Ways to Say No

I barely remembered this as part of my DARE training in 4th grade, but now it seems extremely helpful–particularly with insidious ideologies. (Thanks for remembering Erica!)

Meaning, Pictures, and Reality–Online Discussion at Art=Text=Art

I’m moderating an online discussion this week at Here’s the prompt:

My question for this week’s discussion is about meaning, pictures, and reality. Given Mel Bochner’s explicit interest in Ludwig Wittgenstein–and this exhibit’s general interest in language and art–it could be interesting to (re)visit what Wittgenstein, early in his career, called the “picture theory of meaning.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes it well. “According to this theory propositions are meaningful insofar as they picture states of affairs or matters of empirical fact.” Wittgenstein writes as much in proposition 4.01 of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. 

“The proposition is a picture of reality. The proposition is a model of the reality as we think it is.”

We picture reality to ourselves–that’s what it means to “make sense” in the picture theory of meaning. One interpretation of this theory, extremely significant for the history of science, is that “[a]nything normative, supernatural or (one might say) metaphysical must, it therefore seems, be nonsense.” (IEP) Since we can’t picture things that are “metaphysical” like God, morals, or existence-as-such (things beyond what we can observe), then it is impossible to make sense when talking about them.

This is generally called “the problem of unobservables,” and was present in the positivist and empiricist traditions both before and after Wittgenstein’s early work. A common response to this problem, and Wittgenstein’s view of it, is that the things we can’t observe–God, morality, even knowledge itself–seem very real to us, perhaps more real than the things we observe!

Here is a fascinating occasion of tension, particularly between art and text.  On the one hand, the picture theory of meaning prioritizes images. Without images we can’t understand what we mean when we communicate with one another. On the other hand, this same theory rejects the possibility that we can make sense when communicating about what seems the most real: God, morality, and what it means to exist. My questions, huge as they may be, are: What is reality? Is it what we picture or what we observe? In other words, is it possible to make sense when speaking about things we can’t observe? What role do images play here?


Rolling Jubilee

Another interesting project out of the StrikeDebt group of OWS: Rolling Jubilee.  

From the website:

Rolling Jubilee is a bailout of the people by the people. With your help we buy defaulted personal debt for pennies on the dollar.
Instead of collecting it, we abolish it.

The Jubilee begins November 15.

New review at Full Stop.

After a long hiatus Full Stop was kind enough to publish my review of Luc Boltanski’s latest book, On Critique.


A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about Downton Abbey and Aristotle and natural slavery. After getting several troubled responses to this post I’ve taken it down. The interpretations of it were way beyond what I intended and I realized my own lack of understanding of what I was saying.

Thanks to those who took the time to trouble themselves about it. I’m going to read a little more about the topic before I blog about it again.

Schooling Bubble

They say there’s an education bubble. Makes sense.  A bubble is when there’s a pocket of capital concentrated in one place where assets are valued disproportionately to their actual value. When you’re in a bubble you think you’re hot, but you’re not. Everyone thought dotcoms were awesome; but they weren’t. Same with mortgage-backed securities, which were made of CDOs and toxic subprime loans. Like in those cases, at some point your bubble bursts. Like when your friend thinks that she’s all that and a bag of chips, you say something like ‘I hate to burst your bubble, but…’

So the question is: how is there an ‘education bubble'; if so, why? and what will happen if/ when it bursts?

Short answer: there’s no short answer. I have to read more. I’m not prepared to say anything yet. I’ve read a few things so far (Forbes, Economist, Chronicle of Higher Ed, n+1, Education Sector), but I need to keep looking into it. My understanding, at this point, goes like this:

A bubble is when assets are valued disproportionately to their actual value. If there’s an education bubble, it means education is valued disproportionately to its actual value. At this early stage in my thinking I want to add the following idea, which doesn’t seem present in the discourse:

Schooling isn’t education. We entrust our schools (primary, middle, high, higher) to educate children, but what happens in these buildings and institutional settings isn’t necessarily educational. We rely on them to reproduce our social norms and maybe even progress them beyond the status quo. But educational experience itself isn’t subject to economic bubbling. Education–transformative learning experience–will always be valuable.

To the extent that schooling insures the citizenry against low wages, our schools–particularly university schooling, since we don’t guarantee it like we do K-12–are vulnerable to bubbling. That’s what we see happening now: we think schooling will protect us from low wages (or bad household income in general). But we’re wrong.

That’s what’s happening. But it’s not an education bubble. It’s a schooling bubble.


I feel weird about Internet writing.

I recently met someone who knew me through my online writing. When he shook my hand he said “Wow, I thought you’d be fatter and angrier.”

This is the best comment on my writing I think I’ve ever received. It stuck with me. I thanked him for saying it. Rereading some of my online writing I realize I come across like a fat, angry person.

Why am I fat? Why am I angry? Because my entire life I’ve wanted to “be somebody” in the literary world. I’ve wanted to “be discovered.” I’ve wanted to write a novel and get reviews in the New York Times and write essays and fiction for Harper’s and The New Yorker and the Atlantic. I’ve wanted to be a trusted, respected voice in literature.

I track this desire back to school. In school everyone sat in rows hunched over books adults made us read. Everyone read. I sat at my desk, shoulders curled over the books. I carried their weight in my backpack, reading and reading and reading, all the adults in my life rewarding me for reading more, writing more, and at “higher” levels.

Later on literature provided an opportunity for reflection and escape from anxiety. But while it might have been an opportunity for me it was also a ball and chain.

So my guess is that, to some degree, I want to write words that others would be forced to read and think and write about. I’ve hoped that someday my words would be what everyone around me would have to hunch over and study.

I wrote fiction at a very young age and submitted it to the magazines my parents had on their nightstands, the ones they respected the most.  I wrote a novel. I continue to try to get it published. I submit short stories. I write for online magazines. I do these things, to some degree, because if I get enough published and I become a writer I’ll finally have my revenge.

This is a hateful attitude towards literature. Somewhere deep down I actually hate it. And that hate comes out in my online writing, where–it seems–I come across as a fat and angry person.

So I haven’t been writing much online, particularly criticism. I feel weird about it. I’d like not to be a fat and angry person. I’d like to be less angry, at least, and then work on losing weight.

Not sure how, though.  Any thoughts?

Two comments I’m proud of.

I wrote the following comments recently. I’m proud of them.


Thanks so much for doing this. I love this book. I recently found a copy of it on the street in Brooklyn. I love it for a few reasons that I think address the first of your questions above. The first is genderized. After the VITA stats came out I looked at my bookshelf and counted the number of female authors there. It was 4 out of 65. That’s a clear injustice. So I decided to limit myself to only female authors. (I actually considered publicly boycotting DFW’s “The Pale King” for this reason. I’m doing it privately and I guess this makes it public.) When I found “Valley of the Dolls” I reveled in its critique of gender. The book stands as a monument to the terror of patriarchy and I’m pretty sure its entire genre does also, along with Peyton Place and others. These books must be re-read with this in mind. The second reason I love this book is political-economic. “Valley of the Dolls” might be the best literary critique of late capitalism I’ve ever read. About 20 pages into it I realized that the women in the story are just human beings and the men are capitalism incarnate. Reading it that way, the book provides a unique window into what our economic system does to personal relationships: every conversation is about contractual security and material gain, every sexual act is rape, and the only way to survive it tolerably is by addiction to pharmaceutical products. It echoes “Infinite Jest” in this way. For this reason–its critique of capitalism–the book deserves a lot of serious critical attention. I think Susann was aware of this facet of her work, but obviously–just judging from the way the book was marketed when it came out–nobody really understood what she was talking about. (The back cover of my edition introduces Susann by saying “This is the Doll that wrote ‘Valley of the Dolls’!” I think they missed the point.) Finally, as you’ve mentioned above, the book is well-written, compelling, and just plain riveting. It’s sexy, real, and heart-wrenching. My favorite scene is when Tony Polar shows up in the mental institution. I’m haunted by that still. It’s the only literary image that’s made me want to learn to paint just so I could paint what happens in my head in that scene. As to your other questions about celebrities, I’m not sure. I’d rather want to talk about how this book is really a statement about how we all relate to one another, particularly in New York City, the beating heart of the global hegemon. The book begs us to ask if we see ourselves and each other as commodities, as things that are bought and sold, or if we see one another as beings that deserve love and respect. Anne’s story is a tragedy for me. She comes to New York to escape the traditions of her small town, much like the founders of our nation under monarchy, looking for freedom and a good life. But better than the founding “fathers” Anne looks for love, which is different–dare I say better–than independence and private property. What does she find? A byzantine concrete jungle of humans distorting one another. And she falls prey to it, trying to “buy” Lyon’s love (which she could never have had even if she didn’t try to buy it) thereby succumbing, body and soul, to the inexorable force of late capitalism, of which Lyon is a perfect avatar. All she can do is take her pills and waste away. It brings me to tears just thinking about it. This is why I consider “Valley” a great American novel: it tells our country’s story perfectly. Is this how anyone read the book? I’m sorry to rant like this. I felt like the only person that was rereading it, so I’m ecstatic that you chose it for the book club.


i was talking to a friend about the stuff i blog recently and he rolled his eyes and asked me “why don’t you use that time to finish your second novel?” i still don’t have a good answer. he made me nervous because i spend so much time linking, blogging, tweeting, commenting, and not noveling. i wonder if these are a different kind of connectedness though. maybe. i think they can be done well, but it’s unclear if they get at the “noumena” mentioned here. maybe they do. i think so. maybe not. i don’t know. i think i’ve connected with tweets and blogposts and comments on essays and i think others have been in rhythm with my interiority from what are called “distractions” here. i wonder if the alphabet is the only way to compose a novel. like i wonder if being a good and peaceful person every day and just living and not writing anything could constitute a novel if one includes conversation (of any kind, maybe being is conversation) among the things that one does in this good and peaceful life. i don’t know. i think i’m beginning to distrust words and reading and “literacy.” i had the thought last week that part of the reason i read so much is that i hate reading deeply. that i just want to be read, and so i read and read and read and write and write and write just so others will read me in this kind of cycle of spiteful suffering. like when Allen Tate asks us to sit down at our hornet’s nests and love the people to whom we write–to commune, not communicate–do we really do this? am i really communing when i sit at my computer or my iphone and type type type all this alphabetic text? or am i communicating? am i commoditizing myself? do i just want to sell myself on a market of literary acceptance where wealth is measured not by my bank account but by hits counts and Google references and links and mentions and tweets containing my name? am i just an entrepreneur of myself? am i really committed to loving with my words? honestly i can’t tell. and i’m talking about myself and others here. maybe Tao Lin too, but not really. i think Tao Lin asks these questions with his writing as opposed to merely participating in the collective that blindly perpetuates them. this might be why people react so negatively to him: he’s reflecting something about themselves that they might not like so much. i don’t know. like for example i think this essay is communal, like in Tate’s sense. it’s communes. it doesn’t communicate. which is nice. there’s real love in it. especially the last paragraph. and i think people can feel that. it made me think about my own writing and whether or not i spend enough time loving or if i just sit down at this electronic hornet’s nest and hate. i don’t know. in any case, thanks. despite all the vitriol i’ve written and read and thought about in the literary world i think we should thank anyone that tries to do anything that counts as art under any definition of art. criticism could then just be one word “thanks.” so thanks.

Watering The Fires

Eric Beeny and I met on an HTML Giant comment stream connected in part to a review I wrote of Shane Jones’s “Light Boxes.” He sympathasized with a sentiment I expressed in that review that a certain set of contemporary writers in my peer group, or the one just above mine, don’t engage in politics. I said their writing evinces a disconnected, vague, and imagistic tendency towards narcissism. Eric was much subtler about this than I was and am.

We traded a few emails to this effect, wherein he expressed an understanding of literature that I can only describe as soothing and educational. I still get angry when literature doesn’t do something actively for the world it finds, but this anger has tempered somewhat since I corresponded with Beeny (and found this great little post about celebrating anyone who refuses to sell themselves to the machine). Even the most narcissistic writers provide space for a modicum of perspective, he implied, making any literature at least a little political–even Jones’s.

It makes me wonder at this writing–a review of one of Beeny’s many books– whether political writing is just a matter of preference, or if there is some ‘ought’ in the ‘is’ when it comes to reading and writing. Whether being literary entails an imperative like: write about the world dammit, try and make it a better place asshole, don’t enjoy the smell of your MFA-tinged farts so much that you forget the human traffickers, lynchers, and dirty CEOs! Or something like that.

We should at least ask the question: Are we obligated to write political literature, or is political writing just another habit or interest? Is it like flavors of ice cream, rug color, or genre? Or are we doing the wrong thing if we don’t write with an eye toward making the best society?

I don’t know. But I was glad to meet Eric, who spoke to this question elegantly, and I was excited when he forwarded me the link to an online collection of his poems called “Watering the Fires” for me to read and write something about.

Funnily enough the poems belie the motherly element in Eric’s correspondence. He holds a fire to the world in them. There’s anger, fingerpointing, sarcasm, accusation, and all manner of doubt: doubt of self, doubt of country, doubt of pen, doubt of city, doubt of law, etc. It’s engaged enough to not be narcissistic, spare and clear enough not to be thalic, and direct enough to be pragmatic.

By themselves the poems can feel a little corny. I’ve never really known what that metaphor means. I think it means that something is so much itself it lacks irony–still not sure what corn has to do with it–but if anything Beeny’s poems sometimes lack the glow that comes from irony (something is ironic if, in some sense, it’s not what it is and is what it isn’t–or at the very least it robs what it talks about of its reality). But then calling something corny is just calling it genuine. And these poems are genuine.

At their best, the poems are, in fact, highly ironic. They hit me in the stomach in all the right ways. Here’s my favorite, “Wal-mart Families for Friendly Fire,” quoted entirely, for example:

Letting your children join the armed forces,
you might as well hold the hunting rifle yourself,
shove them off into the woods

while you chase after their memories
pumping round after blind round
practically sawing trees in half

and if even you hit one you couldn’t
hear a scream from that far away

and like when you did all your shopping
at discount department store chains
you’d pick a designated rendezvous point

so when whoever makes it out alive
comes back you can say,
Oh, thank God . . . I missed you.

Yes. Just: yes. The image at the front makes me sweat and then the middle carries me through to the end that kicks me where I must be kicked. Squarely in the moral-literary ass. (See “Kyoto Hearing Aids” for another one like this but about climate change.) And what about this line damning brand-marketing from a poem called “Parole Hearing with a reformed Charles Manson”:

Ever try reading a flashlight’s name
brand in the dark?

Oh yes. This is like the problem of the eye never seeing itself but translated into the black hole of vapid capitalist consumption. I’m definitely going to quote this aloud at some point.

But there are some corny lines, like the last stanza of “Inspector Gadget’s Erection”:

though I’m anyway too aroused by the octopus
arms I’ve welded to my psyche,
so whenever you reach to unzip your fly
that means my night-stick is gun-shy.

The phrasing here loses perspective and pushes me out. It breaks down and sounds more like mediocre slam poetry. Though I’m inclined to like the poem just because of it’s first line: “it must be real hard.”

I’m also inclined to like this chapbook a lot and recommend it. It leaves me wondering: what’s going on in political fiction and poetry right now?

At a poorly attended AWP panel on political poetry this year, one small-voiced MFA student asked this same question. She said she wrote political poems and that her classmates and professors bashed them and told her not to write “those kinds of poems” anymore because they’d never get published.

Is that the way it is? Are writers trying to make a living by their writing more than they’re trying to make life by their writing? When I went to the AWP I was shocked at how much it felt like a trade fair. A job search. A place to sell widgets. William Pitt, at that very panel on political poetry, sat behind a Marriott fold-out table with an awkward floral print tablecloth and spoke into a microphone, just as I’m sure any number of military-industrial leaders have.

Am I being unreasonable? Don’t we have an obligation as artist-citizens of the most offensive cultural empire this side of the 20th century to use our talents to point beautiful, un-ignorable fingers at the various interests bent on consuming life on earth to death?

The answer these questions is probably yes. And “Watering the Fires” is an excellent occasion to ask them again.