Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Errol Morris

A friend of mine wrote to tell me that he had just watched The Thin Blue Line and in his words: "I had only read about it previously, but the real thing utterly blew my mind. I have never been so totally mesmerized by a visual narrative over a sustained period." Morris has produced what I consider the very best documentaries of the last 25 years -- but don't take my word for that. Go to his website and Youtube, and then, please, to a good video store, and discover for yourself what a relentless commitment to storytelling, to truth, to justice, and to humanity can produce. Morris teaches us about ourselves but he also has become, arguably, one of the great historians of modernity. That he mostly makes films rather than writes books and journal articles is part of my rationale: Morris understands that the image is one of modernity's greatest inventions. The image can be salvation and liberation. The image can also lead to domination and imprisonment. The image, Morris seems to understand, is both life and death.

Here is a small reason why I am hardly alone in feeling as strongly as I do about Morris

Here are the trailers for his latest two films, Standard Operating Procedure and The Fog of War. I urge everyone, everywhere, to watch these films. They will not leave you.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Mapping the Recession

Richard Florida has an essay in the March 2009 edition of Atlantic Monthly, and in it he provides a rather intriguing representation of the current economic malaise and the similarities / differences it has with those of the 1970s / early 1980s. Here are the paragraphs that caught my eye:

"But that was then; the economy is different now. It no longer revolves around simply making and moving things. Instead, it depends on generating and transporting ideas. The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism. Velocity and density are not words that many people use when describing the suburbs. The economy is driven by key urban areas; a different geography is required.

The housing bubble was the ultimate expression, and perhaps the last gasp, of an economic system some 80 years in the making, and now well past its “sell-by” date. The bubble encouraged massive, unsustainable growth in places where land was cheap and the real-estate economy dominant. It encouraged low-density sprawl, which is ill-fitted to a creative, postindustrial economy. And not least, it created a workforce too often stuck in place, anchored by houses that cannot be profitably sold, at a time when flexibility and mobility are of great importance.

So how do we move past the bubble, the crash, and an aging, obsolescent model of economic life? What’s the right spatial fix for the economy today, and how do we achieve it?"

Florida's emphasis on rupture, discontinuity, breakage, fissuring between the relatively recent (80 year) past, the present, and the future, opens up for him a whole new way of imagining the social and physical geography of the United States. It is no longer about people's labour making things or even providing services: for Florida, the economy is all about "ideas". He points to Pittsburgh as a model example: once home to a thriving steel industry and a population of 700,000 people in the mid-20th century, it is now a city of 300,000 people focussed on high tech industries and the creative, intellectual work of its universities and colleges. So where did all the people go? They went to places like Mesa, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix that now has more than 500,000 people, the bulk of whom arrived since 1980. And what ought to happen to Mesa, Arizona? Florida says that the government should speed up and "ease" the foreclosures that are currently occurring in Mesa (and other Sun Belt suburbs) by compelling the banks to offer previous owners the chance to rent their homes from the new owners, the banks. And if people have to move, this, for Florida, is not a bad thing at all: he seems to lament a time when people were more apt to move every year.

Movement, or what Florida likes to call "velocity", is fundamentally good because, we are told, it allows people, societies, and most importantly it seems, "the nation", to have an economy that is nimble, light-on-its-feet, adaptable, malleable. You can see why Florida has so much disdain for an economy that would strike to make material goods: unlike ideas, the making of cars, furniture, computers, and so forth, needs to be anchored in place for a long time. It requires investment, commitment, and fidelity on the part of manufacturers in the same way that workers invest, commit, and stay loyal to jobs that treat them fairly. But who would want that?

Certainly not Richard Florida who, despite seeming to have some empathy for those being dislocated by the recent economic downturn, is fueled by a sort of anti-humanist fever for "systems" and "flows" and the creative destruction of free-market capitalism and by a willingness to allow globalization to write its own story of "inevitable" and "natural" change. With all due respect, Florida's prescriptions for the present carry with them the same set of assumptions (ideological and political) that made possible the deregulated horrors of the current condition of things.

The narrative has to change: how we talk about "the economy" has to change. Macroeconomic mappings of the type offered by Florida are "big pictures" that pay too little attention, and offer too little understanding, to the immense burden being carried by those people who can least afford to do so. The very meaning of the word "economy", as the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, has changed:

"The art or science of household management, esp. with regard to expenditure. Now only in domestic economy (see DOMESTIC adj. and n. Special uses).

The manner in which a household, or a person's private expenditure, is organized or managed. Now rare.

The proper management of the body; (also) the rules which control a person's mode of living; regimen, diet. Obs. rare."

What kinds of "economic" stories might we tell if we broadened our analytical lens to once again talk about what people are able to eat, how they are able to rest, how they are able to work, to relate to one another in a household?

I am not sure what the answer to that question is, but I do know those kinds of economic stories are in short supply right now even though the demand is very high.