Sunday, May 23, 2010

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America - Barbara Ehrenreich

In 1998 and 2000 journalist Barbara Ehrenreich investigated the conditions of the working poor by taking a series of low-paying jobs - Walmart employee, waitress, hotel maid, nursing home server - and trying to live off her earnings.

She is successful at landing jobs, sometimes holding two jobs at a time, but unsuccessful in making ends meet, largely because of the cost of housing. Without money for first, last and a security deposit, she ends up, like many low-wage workers, living week to week in motels. Living without access to kitchen or refrigerator also means more reliance on higher-cost pre-prepared food. Notably, she is only trying to support herself whereas some of her co-workers have kids or extended family that they are responsible for and she also does not have any significant health issues. She recounts the huge physical and mental effort of the jobs and the strain and stress of working and living without access to resources.

Particularly interesting is the psychological environment she describes. It starts with the application process as several times she is asked to take personality tests that ask questions about one's disposition toward conformity, respect for authority and identification with the employer over fellow employees. And after passing a drug test she's told to show up for work but the wage hasn't been discussed yet. Then there's the power of approval or disapproval that supervisors hold over the employees.

The most interesting thing for me was the description of her attitude when working as a waitress serving a full room of customers. She realizes that she identifies with the "needs" of the patrons over her own needs. She's not just trying to do the job she's hired to do , but she feels the customers' needs for their ice water, their toast, their entrees, etc. So despite the impossibility of the situation, the unfairness of being expected to serve the whole room, the low pay, etc. she pushes herself and pushes herself.

Friday, May 14, 2010

All too human monsters.

I had just read yet another in an epic but short list of Roberto Bolaño novels, this one called Nazi Literature in the Americas, when I noticed an article on BBC news website about the death of Paul Schäfer, the bizarre ex-luftwaffe, cult leader and pedophile. Schäfer died in Chile, Bolaño's country of birth on April 24th, 2010, as I was finishing Nazi Literature in the Americas. Good riddance Schäfer, scumbag. Reading the description in the BBC article of the cult that Schäfer started in 1961, Colonia Dignidad, a little faux Bavarian village in the Andes visited by Josef Mengele and that served as a Pinochet torture camp...I started to think that it sounded familiar and started looking back through the Bolaño book that is a compendium of supposedly fictitious authors who wrote in the Americas all sharing fascist ideologies of various flavors. then I found it! One of these fictitious writers, the experimental poet named Willy Schürholz, came from a village called Colonia Renacer (colony of rebirth) that sounded just like the very real Colonia Dignidad. In reading Bolaño it quickly becomes apparent that his "fiction" is a thin label applied to allow him to speak openly about very real history or even events that were current up until when he died in 2003. Like Santa Teresa, Bolaño's stand in for the Ciudad Jaurez femicide in his book 2666. So it made sense that his fictitious little cult in Chile might be based on a real place. So then are we to think that the entire list of nazi writers are based on real writers or partially? they interact with Gary Snyder and Alan Ginsberg alongside characters from Bolaños own literary universe like Eugenio Entrescu, the Romanian general, lover of Daniela de Montechristo in this book and Baroness Von Zumpe in the back of Nazi Literature in the Americas there is a section called Epilogue For Monsters which is a reference of secondary figures, publishers and a bibliography of this pantheon of American Nazi authors. Since of course fiction is based on reality, what does it serve to relate this fictional catalog so close to reality...does it strengthen the absurdity of the fascist ideologies to know that their adherents are all too real? Does it get anymore absurd than the famous figures of fascism, the Mussolinis, Hitlers, Francos, David Dukes? Well maybe it doesn't get more absurd not but it does get more commonplace...from the spoiled Argentine, Columbian and Bolivian fascist rich kid book worms to the porteño nazi soccer hooligans, Topeka, Kansas science fiction writers, Haitian plagiarists, Aryan Family poets from California and Bolaño himself comes into the novel to observe a Chilean Pinochet skywriter in exile...the descriptions of these writers that are nazis but artists none the less are so compactly poetically complete that though they are monsters, they are monsters that we can begin to understand. That can be fit into a real framework rather than remain veiled in mythically gigantic horrible shadows...sometimes their framework makes them laughable other times exalted but fleshed out and somehow less mythical and more human. Maybe Bolaño's triumph here is making monsters human without discounting that they are human monsters...ones that can be learned from and if not changed or killed, then at least recognized in the people all around us.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

King Kong Theory By Virginie Despentes

Punk feminist writer/film maker Virginie Despentes wrote King Kong theory, her manifesto in 2005, recently translated from french (w/help from Lydia Lunch!) and released on The Feminist Press.

Virginie is writing from a lower working class, socialized punk, post fame, post rape, post sex worker, 41 year old experience. She is pissed, into who she is and calls a lot of idiots out in this text. Virginie dissects pornography, sexuality, hetero-conditioning, rape...there is a whole lot covered in this little book. She writes about prostitution and how it can liberate/empower women, argues that prostitution threatens upper and middle class women and their financially dependent domestic partnerships and exposes how theses same classy women are making prostitution remain illegal and dangerous (which oppresses sex workers much more then prostitution itself).

Virginie Despentes shares her criticism of the over glorification of motherhood, describes how mothers can act like the ultimate police state, and exposes the trap of motherhood in which women are doomed to feel like failures due to impossible expectations and the dire state of society. She does this all while respecting women who chose motherhood.

One idea of Virgine's that won't stop knocking around in my head is her hypothesis that women who show cleavage/wear make up/uncomfortable shoes/act submissive/seductive (prostitutes excluded) are actually apologizing to men because they feel guilty that men lost (or more are threatened to lose) their macho unearned authority. still processing that idea, but I find it super interesting. King Kong Theory also sympathies for men up against redonkulous masculine ideals and Virginie includes her thoughts on how/why all that is problematic.

Despentes is best known for her rape revenge novel, Bosie-Moi. She also co-directed a film adaptation of her novel with the film's lead actress Coralie Trinh Thi, released in 2000.

killer read, check it out...