exercise 8: some thoughts and a quick one

  1. Canadian culture reasonably strong; principles of inclusion, equality, freedom of expression
    Corporate authority a concern
    representative democracy is in good shape
    broadly sketched classes, connected primarily to education/income, rather than birth
    social mobility on the rise
  2. peaceful transitions of power
    robust civic discourse
    broad consensus about the state of climate change
    violence on the decline
    decent domestic economic indicators
  3. casual attitudes toward pollution despite progress
    rapacious consumer culture
    exploitative agriculture
    general mindlessness – a lack of attention to the present
    shift away from in-depth conversation, little “dialogue” (in the Bohmian sense)

Every morning just after dawn Bruce Peterson gets up and pees in the lake. He pulls his boots on if it’s cold out, Birkenstocks in the heat, but every morning, without fail, he goes out and pees in the lake.

He hasn’t thought much about why he does this. He’s never been caught in the act and embarrassed – isn’t, in fact, sure that others aren’t doing the very same thing. After he’s done he thinks no more about it, gets on with the rest of his day.

David Foster Wallace: Aerial and Ground Views on Cross-cultural Transmissions

David Foster Wallace, in his personal essay “9/11: The View from the Midwest,” conceptualizes two “basic classes” in American culture, situating them in his adopted home of Bloomington, Illinois. These classes are symbolized by “the SUV and the pickup truck,” modes of conveyance well-suited both to the “extremely flat” countryside and to their respective demographics, be they corporate State Farm employees or local blue collar workers. Wallace, an outsider, constructs an authorial identity for himself that is both a part of, but distinct from, the community at large, and explores the connections between himself and his neighbours in a televisual world increasingly dominated by corporate interests.
Wallace’s use of complex syntax is one of his stylistic hallmarks. He employs long, meandering clauses, heavily studded with modifiers, writing, for example, “Bloomington’s east side is all smoked-glass complexes and Build-To-Suit developments and a six-lane beltway of malls and franchises that’s killing the old downtown.” By loading his syntax, Wallace creates a sense of an America swollen to capacity, jammed full with consumer appeals. Here, he uses asyndeton to great effect, allowing the phrasing to unwind at a breathless pace.
Arcane diction, too, appears throughout the text. Corn “grows steroidically,” a biochemical term that calls to mind agricultural giants like Monsanto, while the green lawns “[sit] in the heat and [seethe]” with repressed frustration. Wallace uses the word “salients” to collectively describe the town’s central features, a five-dollar coinage which is not likely used in Bloomington’s general circulation, but which Wallace, as a seasoned fiction writer, wields effortlessly.
On the other hand, these constructions are offset throughout the piece by simpler, informal diction that connects directly to the middle American heartland. Wallace writes, “both towns together are like 110,000,” using the filter word “like,” so common in everyday conversation, to situate himself within the community. When he writes “B-N is lousy with churches,” he collapses together the post-modern technique of name-shortening, which he has used to great effect in previous work, and a colourful, informal term for ‘plentiful’. He uses hedging phrases, like “pretty much,” or “a little like,” which highlight his subjective take on life in Bloomington. Though he maintains some critical distance, he can also be withering in his assessments, deeming winter “a pitiless bitch.” Wallace’s status as a literary icon, and small-town guy, are negotiated through his churning prose.
When Wallace refers to State Farm as “the great dark god of consumer insurance,” which “owns the town,” he equates American corporate culture with religious myth. He makes explicit the role of business in defining the American socio-cultural landscape, charging the company, and by implication, its peers, with causing “a large and ever-wider split” between white and blue collar citizens. Throughout the essay, Wallace creates a sense that corporate culture is growing more dominant in the civil sphere. Corn, so crucial to the livelihoods of the blue collar locals that it “stretches to the earth’s curve in all directions,” is represented as an “ocean”, a vast and feckless sea that both sustains and threatens, growing on land “so expensive you can’t even find out how much it costs.” This suggests that corporate control is alive even in rural agriculture; the staple crop is priced out of the range of inquiry. The implication is that only powerful agribusiness is capable of producing Bloomington’s endless yields.
In contrast, despite the town’s many churches, there “isn’t much public community” in Bloomington. Connections between people are “basically televisual,” Wallace writes, contrasting with people he has known on the east coast, who are “constantly leaving home to go meet other people face-to-face in public places.” Social networks in Bloomington are mediated through gathering in one another’s homes and watching television. Wallace uses the word “TV” five times in a single paragraph, highlighting its prominence. The centrality of the term suggests that TV cuts across the social classes, and may be the only means of transcending them. “To have a home without a TV,” he writes, “is to become a kind of constant and Kramer-like presence in others’ homes.” This reference to Kramer, a character from a popular TV show, is invoked as an indicator of spontaneous ubiquity, and is doubtless recognizable across the town’s rural and urban sub-cultures. The TV, Wallace suggests, is the primary way of knowing in small town Bloomington.
On the topic of television, Wallace goes further, juxtaposing its consumption with public citizenship. For the people of Bloomington, who “offer you access to their TV in the same instinctive way they’d bend to lend you a hand if you’d tripped in the street,” an instinctive, fraternal loyalty is constructed during TV time, and strengthened in moments of “some kind of must-see, Crisis-type situation.” Here, Wallace again uses the language of television. “Must-see TV,” a common marketing term heard throughout the 1990s, is invoked to comment upon the grand scale of the “Horror”, and the way it is consumed, and reified, by a community of spectators.
Television is also the medium through which isolated Bloomington constructs and communicates its identity with regard to the wider world. New York’s skyline is “recognizable from TV,” though Wallace makes clear elsewhere in the essay that most residents have little sense of the city as a distinct place with its own discrete geography. TV’s dominance in cultural exchange is highlighted in the first end-note of this section, when Wallace quotes a local: “State Farm people ‘sound like folks on TV.’” The power of corporate culture, defused and transmitted through the country’s biggest, loudest soapbox, redefines reference points of local and national identity.
Together these phrases, rhythms, and observations construct Wallace’s persona as an adopted outsider, at once at home in the community and alien to it, connected to his neighbours, but apart from them. One of the most powerful links is corporate culture, manifested through TV, and the sorts of mega-spectacles that “the Horror” provides. TV transcends the urban/rural divide the same way Wallace himself does, as a famous writer in a small town. Wallace brings his description of the region to life in a few short paragraphs, and embeds within it the conflicting, contrasting social lives of its residents.

re: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/9-11-the-view-from-the-midwest-20110819

Cy Persa For Mayor

Joanna Domingues was nearly late for her meeting in midtown with Simon Dalhousie, focused as she was on glad-handing at Zero’s. Her term as councillor was almost up but the folks at the diner were still her constituents, and she liked to feel that she gave each voter a little piece of herself – some snapshot memory to take with them to the ballot box. This sort of engagement took time. When the selfies had finished flashing and her EA had pulled the car right up to the door of the diner, she raced to the meeting.

Dalhousie’s office was in a professional and anonymous-looking building on an oak-lined street. Each building stood a good distance away from the next, and there was nobody on the sidewalks. Joanna’s EA opened the car door for her and she stepped into the sun, shielding her Blackberry from its rays with an outstretched hand. She noticed a flash of purple in her peripherals: a sign in a bold sans-serif read “CY PERSA FOR MAYOR.

Dalhousie himself was a short man, with a long, stretched-out bald head. He greeted Joanna with a smile full of teeth and she shook his hand with a practised firmness. “A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Domingues,” he said.

Her EA beamed, clutching his clipboard to his chest as one would a favourite family pet.

“And you, Mr. Dalhousie,” she said, still holding his hand. “I’ve watched your incredible work. The comptroller race last year, of course, and Karen Whittaker in ’09. Did you really pull a straight sweep through the inside line on a forty-forty ward?”

He flushed. “Guilty. And it’s Simon, please.”

“Brilliance.” She pumped his hand once or twice more. “Call me Joanna.”

“Well Joanna, you’re a candidate who knows her history. You’ll find that I know mine as well. Oncology at St. Hofsta’s, trustee, councillor, all your charity work. It’s impressive.”

“I try to keep busy,” she said, and smiled.

Dalhousie invited them to sit and together they discussed the mayoral race: demographics, visions for the future, tax policy, fundraising. Joanna asked a series of probing questions while her EA made assiduous notes. At last they came around to the topic of Cy Persa.

“The opposition,” said the EA. He underlined the word on his notepad.

“You’ve worked with him,” Joanna said. “In ’05?”

Dalhousie glanced at a wall of framed photographs and florid certificates. “Once upon a time,” he said.

A moment of silence ticked by and the EA cleared his throat.

“So do I have a chance?”

Dalhousie sipped at a narrow, perfectly clean glass of water. The level of liquid in the glass didn’t change. “If you run,” he said, “you’ll end a long career.”

Joanna grinned. For the rest of the hour they hammered out a contract for Dalhousie. He would manage the campaign full-time ’til E-Day.

Joanna spent most of the campaign on the phone seeking donors. Social media coordinators, voter outreach technicians, and a million other polysyllabic positions that were suddenly indispensable at the mayoral level – each had to be hired, and each earned a pay cheque. Dalhousie’s fee was highest of all. She rarely conferred with him directly, and when she did, he would offer smiling platitudes but little by way of concrete advice. Stuck on the phone pleading for contributions, Joanna came to miss her meetings with constituents, and visited their doorsteps with young volunteers when she could.

The campaign was long and Persa was a strong candidate. Stronger even than Joanna had expected, and so when the returns came in on a grey and sombre E-Day, her EA and Dalhousie each assured her in turn, with their eyes on the floor, that everyone had done the best they could, and, hey, we’ll get him next time.

(cf: Croesus)


Voting in Toronto.

Last night I voted in the upcoming municipal election. It is not yet E-Day, so perhaps it was a bit premature to make a decision before all the facts have come in, but we’re close enough now, and I’ve been paying enough attention, that I felt justified in getting it done with. The City offers a lot of convenient advance voting options – it took all of about ten minutes to get to the spot, and get the whole affair completed.

I didn’t expect to be on the voter’s list, as this is my first municipal election (I moved to the City only a few months after Rob Ford won the mayoralty in 2010) but after standing in line to be added to the list, I found that I was indeed already signed up. To my mild embarrassment I had forgotten to check my mail for the voter card – it may well be in there right now, psychically taunting me with its uselessness. Anyway the kind people working for Elections Toronto (?) were very helpful and got me all set up in no time.

The technology they have in service of this election cycle is impressive. I worked as a DRO for the recent provincial election, and so have some idea of how the on-the-ground work goes on election day, and the City appears to have a more sophisticated system than the province as a whole. Each staff member had a nice-looking HP laptop (colour co-ordinated, presumably for bulk discounting) along with a few large printers set up for any paperwork generation. On the flip side, for the provincial election, we had paper and pen only.

The ballot in Toronto this year is enormous, with something like fifty people running for mayor (though with the amount of saturated coverage of the Big 3 one would be justified in not knowing so) and quite a few for council in my ward as well. I had even done some research for my school trustee and felt confident in the vote I cast.

Now, I intend to be fairly forthright about this whole thing – as I alluded in my previous post, anonymity is something I’ve always appreciated, but I’m trying to change my ways a little – so here’s what I think. There was a lot of activity at the early voting centre last night, and apparently there has been a very high turnout so far – moreso than the last election by a wide margin. This is great news. Many Torontonians consider this election to be a referendum on the Ford administration, and even though the incumbent is not running again, he may as well be, for all intents and purposes. The prospect of a Doug Ford mayoralty has put a lot of people on edge, and there’s talk about Chow splitting the anti-Ford vote with Tory, allowing Doug to slip up the middle. Many of the current polls seem to indicate a two-man horse-race between Ford and Tory, with Chow a distant third, and the rest of the slate of candidates far back in the swamps of fringe status.

The problems with polling have been well-documented elsewhere so I shan’t get too into them here, save to say that Doug cannot win. Okay, maybe it’s not fair to deal in absolutes in this anything-goes world, but as other commentators have pointed out, there is a ceiling on Doug’s support that hovers around the 30% mark. Of course, when one takes into account intentions to actually go out and vote, the support dwindles. Many of the people who participate in a survey for a polling firm will not necessarily go out and vote on E-Day, and for whatever reason, a larger percentage of Doug supporters seem to fall into this camp.

All this said, I fully expect a Tory mayoralty to be announced in just over a week. For a long time he’s been the go-to anti-Ford candidate, and Chow has not had a lot of luck changing that over the campaign. He is not the candidate I would choose, necessarily, and it strikes me as odd, somehow, that a former Rogers CEO and leader of the Ontario PCs at one time could go on to sweep not only the amalgamated suburbs but downtown as well. Stranger things have happened, as we’ve all witnessed over the past four years, to our alternating shame and amusement, and ultimately, I don’t think Tory would be a bad mayor. He seems like a guy who wants so desperately to win that he will say just about anything to anyone. Again, not an uncommon trait, perhaps… Still, I get the impression from Tory that he will be a little more willing to work with people of a differing ideological bent when presiding over Council. This is something we really need to see in Toronto. I don’t necessarily agree with his somewhat conservative viewpoint (and the idea of funding projects without cutting services or raising taxes by finding ‘efficiencies’ is patently absurd, as KPMG would be more than willing to tell you for a cool $30m) but at least we’ll be more or less free of the freak show.

Except for the future councillor for Ward 2, that is, who is very likely to provide yet more face-palms for the general population. I like Domise but ultimately I’m a realist.

So there’s a surface level election roundup. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens over the next week, especially now that I’ve cast my vote and all I can do is watch events unfold. Realistically that’s all I could do regardless, as I’ve so little free time for canvassing this year, but it’s nice to be ‘off the hook’ as it were. The chips will fall where they may, and with a little luck, we’ll be back to a more-or-less functional city government able to get things done for the people of Toronto.