Slate’s Daniel Engber has a nice article up on Slate.com about why we root for underdogs.  I have always been fanatical about rooting for the underdog when a team I am not a fan of is playing.  I had always thought this was my mechanism of making sure I was fanatical either way when watching a contest.  I attributed that need to a sense of functionality, that if I did not care about the outcome then the time invested watching the contest was wasted.  Ursa taught me about the notion of slack, undermining this utility orientation.  I like that, but how then do I reconcile that thought with the impulses inculcated within when a team of which I am a fan of is playing?  Being a fan, fanatical, is, after all, the very standing in opposition of sense, of slack in this instance.

All of this takes me to the portion, even if tangentially, of Engber’s article that struck me the most: the Marxist criticism of The Underdog.  It’s the same myth as the American Myth, that the poor and the marginalized can rise above the odds.  So then I should reject my stance of rooting for the underdog.  Maybe instead I ought to embrace the Yankees as the uber-Capitalist.  A stance of overidentification.  I reminded here again of Zizek’s illustration of overidentification: M.A.S.H. (Robert Altman: The Player) vs Platoon (Oliver Stone: Natural Born Killers) .  Both are anti-war but the comic criticism pales in comparison to the overly violent Platoon.  I can live with being a cynical Yankees fan, of course, that’s easy since I do not purchase team paraphernalia, even of the teams of which I am a fan.

After all, this sort of overidentification can serve as part of what needs to be done: a patient ideological critical engagement.  Since the Zizek seal has already been broken (I am working through a new, to me, Zizek book, as if it was not obvious) I will cite him directly:

We should learn here from the failures of twentieth century Leftist politics. The task is not to conduct the castration in a direct climactic confrontation, but to undermine those in power with patient ideologic-critical work, so that although they are still in power, one all of a sudden notices that the powers-that-be are afflicted with unnaturally high-pitched voices.  (2009, 7)

Zizek, Slavoj.  (2009).  First as tragedy, then as farce.  London: Verso Books.

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I just finished this short story and thinking about it I am surprised it affected me as much as it does.  The premise is simple: husband kills himself and the wife learns about his gambling addiction and huge debts afterward.  The widow decides, after being pushed into financial ruin by those same creditors, to seek revenge on all of those creditors.  What is most telling about the story though is the writing.  Duffy really has some great turns of phrase and her description of an all-encompassing grief is he most powerful and accurate accounting I have ever seen.

As she learns about her husband’s former life there is this little gem:

That was something else I had not known.  His weakness.  His soft, pathetic fear.  Scared to tell me, scared to face he facts, scared to acknowledge the mess he had made of it all, scared to look at himself and his truths.  Chicken.  Why did the chicken cross the road?  Becasue he saw a truck coming. (38)

Let us aleave aside for a moment that the truck really is an object worthy of avoiding, but this passage is really well done.  The punctuation drives home the varied fears, even though it is just one fear (which Duffy arrives at the end of the story) and the insight is valuable.  I can see some of myself in this description and I do not think I ever before realized some of these fears and how damaging they can be to a relationship.  There are always unsaid things, but the question is not about what is unsaid but why they are so.

The writing in this story is great, but I also love the implicit criticism of capitalism within.  The widow admits and never shifts all the blame off of her husband, but to think that he had no accomplices is ridiculous, and this is what the story sets out to demonstrate.  It is not, for Duffy, even that capitalism needs to be dissolved, but rather reformed/humanized.

Imagine if someone, anyone, just once, had been kind to him.  Had told him gently to take care.  Had not threatened him with reveltation and recriminiation.  Had helped him find a way back. (43)

And the story ends.  Well.  Predictably well.  About half way through the reader has a moment of “wait a minute, there’s a problem here.”  Duffy sees the problem and resolves it the only it can be.  There were some other ways out, and maybe they could have been explored to their unfulfilling end, but the way Duffy does it is nice.

Duffy, Stella.  (2007).  Payment in kind.  In M. Szereto, ed. (2007).  Getting even: Revenge stories (35-43).  London: Serpent’s Tail.

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Cover of
Cover of Hand to Mouth

Tough news to-day: Home Depot is slashing 6000 jobs; Sprint Nextel is cutting 8000 jobs.  There are so many job cuts that it is hard to even remember which ones are imagined and which accurate.  I could just guess a company’s name and probably be accurate: Over the weekend a sous chef for a fairly popular Minneapolis Mexican restaurant was even downsized.  So I doubt it is any comfort to provide the following quotation from Paul Auster.

I recently began to read Hand to Mouth (the good friend knows that ‘reading’ ought to be read as ‘procrastinating’), which is about his lean times as an aspiring writer.  Unlike most famous writers who moonlight with other careers, Auster chose to be a full-bore writer.  This book chronicles those times as he plied his craft trying to become as acclaimed as his ego felt he deserved.  In these lean times, and soon to be lean times, the book hopefully serves as a tome about optimism.

My parents valued money, and where had it gotten them?  They had struggled so hard for it, had invested so much belief in it, and yet for every problem it had solved, another one had taken its place.  American capitalism had created one of the most prosperous moments in human history.  It had produced untold numbers of cars, frozen vegetables, and miracle shampoos, and yet Eisenhower was President, and the entire country had been turned into a gigantic television commercial, and incessant harangue to buy more, make more, spend more, to dance around the dollar-tree until you dropped dead from the sheer frenzy of trying to keep up with everyone else.  (p. 11)

This passage strikes me in a couple of ways:  First, despite my attempt to paint a happy impression of the book, I am saddened.  This description sounds like the current times.  Auster is depicting the struggles of a family with capitalism, but these days this very struggle seems to be universalized, or at least widened in scope beyond the perpetually-poor.

Second, I have to ask, why do people do this?  Sure there is analysis of false consciousness and internal colonialism, but there is something else amiss.  I am prone to believe that people are aware of their plights and how they suffer vis a vis others.  And yet they continue.  These past few months have shed some light on the topic for me: I am bored.  My job requires little of me, definitely nothing close to what I can do.  There are plenty of other things for me to do, ways to make demands of my time.  And yet I do not engage many of those opportunities.  Why?

My best guess is because there is no risk on those things.  If I undertake another volunteer mission and I am no good at it then nothing is lost.  If I fail to show up for a day then nothing is lost by it.  I am beginning to believe this is why so many of us choose to dance around the dollar-tree, because there is risk in it.  There is a risk to not being able to pay the rent, or to paying the electricity bill.  It’s not that we are all gamblers, living for the thrill of the game.  Rather risk denotes importance, gravitas.  Nothing is so humbling as to know that your absence from the volunteer position is unnoticed.  So I find it sometimes better to bumble around the city in the cold of winter, watching and observing.  Reading books is another way of deferring self-improvement.  Even if it is a book for which I can craft a convincing argument for its educational value.

Two other books are brought to mind: Yates’ Revolutionary Road and Fromm’s Escape from Freedom.  I have yet to see the Mendes adaptation of Revolutionary Road to the big screen and I feel as though I have been living Fromm’s masterwork.  And no sooner do I finish typing this drivel of self-deprecation disguised as erudite reflection do I hear a woman at the bar tell her colleague “…when my mother died.”  Over and out.

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Alain Badiou.  2008, October 17.  Le Monde.  partial translation at Infinite Thought.

We see, and this is what it means to see, simple things that we’ve known for a long time: capitalism is nothing but robbery, irrational in its essence and devastating in its development.  Its few short decades of savagely unequal prosperity have always been at the cost of crises in which astronomical quantities of value disappear, bloody punitive expeditions into every zone that capitalism judges either strategically important or threatening, and world wars that brought it back to health.

I can hear your skepticism now:  hold on there, SN, there have been no wars as a result of this latest crisis!

Haven’t there?  You are not looking closely enough.  I will not contend that the new administration will be more adventurous as a result of this latest calamity.  McCain would go into Iran regardless.  I do, however, suspect that Obama may suspend the withdrawal longer than he would have had the crisis not happened.  The withdrawal will be deadly and will bring blame on Obama, and in the midst of the crisis he will be more cautious to risk his mandate.

What is missing from Badiou’s argument, however, is that the current war was precisely the fix capitalism needs to sustain itself.  And it is this war which caused the very crisis.  The war jacked up oil prices.  The war devalued the dollar, forcing interest rates to rise which is why people in their fancy ARMs became unable to finance their payments.  From there it was an easy tumble into the current morass.  And here is where Badiou’s argument fails: wars do not revive a failing capitalism because of a Keynesian infusion of capital (read: confidence) but rather the wars resuscitate because the people know the story and buy into it.  Note the path of the status quo’s morass Badiou traces, in the beginning of the piece, from the cinema to the political.

This is not capitalism’s collapse because people see similarities with the Hollywood blockbuster.  Just as Ah-nuld or Matt Damon save the day, so too will Paulson and Sarkozy and the other usual suspects.  And this is all without analyzing the disastrous effects this has had on individuals: people thrown out of work, thrown out of their homes, a coming financial crisis among state receipts and the concominant social services funding cuts, etc…