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In terms of resisting these transformations… If a taxi company has a way for someone in Jakarta to drive the taxies in New York, and it’s going to reduce their costs tenfold, I don’t even know the language to talk about what’s lost for the passenger. And I don’t know how we organize a rhetoric or critique against the idea of more telepresent labor, because the power of the profit motive, of business ontology, is so extreme and universal that its march into every sector of our lives presents itself as a natural truth.

"Border Control" — New Inquiry Senior Editor Malcolm Harris in conversation with artist Alex Rivera

This interview appears in The New Inquiry No. 6: Game of Drones 


“Though at its core Spook is a biannual literary magazine conceived by minority writers and artists, it is really a conversation between James Baldwin and Lil B, an on-going dialog between past and present.”

The New Inquiry’s Malcolm Harris and The Los Angeles Review of Books’ Evan Kindley talked on Twitter with Spook Magazine’s one-man editorial team Jason Parham about the new publication’s founding, goals, and forthcoming first issue.
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“Though at its core Spook is a biannual literary magazine conceived by minority writers and artists, it is really a conversation between James Baldwin and Lil B, an on-going dialog between past and present.”

The New Inquiry’s Malcolm Harris and The Los Angeles Review of Books’ Evan Kindley talked on Twitter with Spook Magazine’s one-man editorial team Jason Parham about the new publication’s founding, goals, and forthcoming first issue.

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Saying The Middle Stories are sad is like saying life is sad: true, but not true enough. It would be easy to categorize the storiesas depressive twee, the kind of book that goes to the Farmer’s Market because it doesn’t know what else to do. Instead, these bits are punctuated fragments of an unbounded hopelessness, without the reassuring container of conventional narrative. Their characters don’t have the narrowing traits that tell the reader, “Don’t worry, this is about someone else.” They’re stripped down for maximum impact. Heti’s expansive shorts recall Thomas Bernhard inThe Voice Imitator or Raymond Carver in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? more than David Foster Wallace in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men or Eggers in How We Are Hungry. In Heti’s stories, there’s little consolation in life’s little victories; they’re merely the stitching of life’s mesh of voids and disappointments. There’s no morbid self-satisfaction in authorial artifice, only the unceasing approach of the unavoidable. When you wink into the abyss, Heti offers, it doesn’t wink back.

Malcolm Harris reviews The Middle Stories, by Sheila Heti

Painting: Margaux Williamson, The Weeds

Saying The Middle Stories are sad is like saying life is sad: true, but not true enough. It would be easy to categorize the storiesas depressive twee, the kind of book that goes to the Farmer’s Market because it doesn’t know what else to do. Instead, these bits are punctuated fragments of an unbounded hopelessness, without the reassuring container of conventional narrative. Their characters don’t have the narrowing traits that tell the reader, “Don’t worry, this is about someone else.” They’re stripped down for maximum impact. Heti’s expansive shorts recall Thomas Bernhard inThe Voice Imitator or Raymond Carver in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? more than David Foster Wallace in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men or Eggers in How We Are Hungry. In Heti’s stories, there’s little consolation in life’s little victories; they’re merely the stitching of life’s mesh of voids and disappointments. There’s no morbid self-satisfaction in authorial artifice, only the unceasing approach of the unavoidable. When you wink into the abyss, Heti offers, it doesn’t wink back.

Malcolm Harris reviews The Middle Stories, by Sheila Heti

Painting: Margaux Williamson, The Weeds

"Like the miller’s daughter in the fairytale, assetless student debtors had to spin gold out of straw – gold that’s somehow always already owed to someone else. All the Rumpelstiltskin market asked in return for pulling this amazing sum out of thin air was nine months of her labor, slaughtered, weighed, and priced to sell before it’s ever performed. Not even the living labor of indenture, but value stillborn, birthed cold."
- Malcolm Harris, Arms and Legs
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"Like the miller’s daughter in the fairytale, assetless student debtors had to spin gold out of straw – gold that’s somehow always already owed to someone else. All the Rumpelstiltskin market asked in return for pulling this amazing sum out of thin air was nine months of her labor, slaughtered, weighed, and priced to sell before it’s ever performed. Not even the living labor of indenture, but value stillborn, birthed cold."

- Malcolm Harris, Arms and Legs

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Arms and Legs

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By Malcolm Harris

Class politics have become intelligible as a generational politics, the forces of what is and what has been arrayed against what else could be. For some the divide is the result of a promise betrayed, whether that promise was that they could maintain their inherited class positions or improve them. For others it’s a recognition that existing institutions are so riddled with predation and corruption, or tied inextricably to ecological devastation, that even their maintenance is unthinkable work. For still others it’s the trauma of service in the latest set of American wars, always declared by the old and fought by the young, or the accumulation of years of police harassment. Some occupiers hardly know why they’re there. If there’s one thing the 99% rhetoric got right it’s the 1% thing; there’s a serious conflict not between the percentages (such an uneven fight would already be over), but between the two sets of associations. This is politics: a vision of division, a line of conflict.

Read More.  |  Image by imp kerr  |  ”Arms and Legs” appears in The New Inquiry Magazine, No. 2

No Kings of New York

By Malcolm Harris

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An Interview with Doomtree Collective

One place where you do get prescriptive, both in your individual and group music, is calling other folks out for lacking originality. With more and more outlandish hip-hop getting mainstream attention, do you think that’s changing?

P.O.S.: We have a situation where people are making more interesting music and release it free on the internet, but at the same time we’re still bombarded–

Dessa: There’s still an over-representation of pablum.

Mike Mictlan: There’s always been originality out there. When I wrote the hook to “Bangarang,” I was talking about the sort of pop-rap that gets shoved down our throats.

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The Pitfalls of Indie Fame

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The book Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman was just named winner of The ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award.

I’m guessing this doesn’t mean much to more than (maybe) 10,000 people in the entire country. In fact, if you effortlessly understood 100 percent of this article’s opening sentence, you can probably skip the rest of the piece. But there’s something about this situation that I find pretty fascinating, even though it’s speculative and only partially related to books. When (and if) you read Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman, you are reading two things: a book that’s pretty good, and/or a book that will someday seem way worse than it actually is. And logic suggests the latter is more likely than the former, even though that’s no reflection on the value of the writer.

I’m not really in a position to argue for (or against) the merits of Chuck Klosterman, simply because I’ve barely read any of Fargo Rock City. Had it not won the ASCAP-Deems, I might not have read it at all. It’s been on my shelf since whenever it came out, I know my brother loved it, and I had no problem with it ideologically. I just never got around to reading it. Somehow, I hadn’t read a single story about Fargo Rock City, so I wasn’t even sure what genre of writing it was supposed to exist alongside. The only thing I knew was that the book was sold at Urban Outfitters which seemed like reason enough to ignore it (not a  good reason, but a reason nonetheless). But then it won this prize, which made me think, I should at least know what it is. So I started reading it, totally uninformed and with no motive beside sincere curiosity. If you don’t feel like reading it, here’s enough information to pretend like you did.

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Working Beauty

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The disappearing work-life divide and the feminization of abstract labor in SleepingBeauty

By Malcolm Harris

In the opening scene of Julia Leigh’s debut film SleepingBeauty, Lucy (Emily Browning), our beautiful college-student protagonist, serves as a medical test subject. She leans her head back as the doctor slowly threads a tube down her throat, then fills a balloon in her chest with air while she holds the tube in place. Lucy cooperates excellently and leaves with an envelope of money and a smile.

Her still, submissive choking and gagging lend the scene a heavy erotic charge, an allusion to the sex work the viewer may already know is to come from reviews and trailers. In this first scene, Lucy is already selling her body; the distinction between this and prostitution is a symbolic technicality.

What’s most off-putting in this scene is Lucy’s ability to hold a smile on her face throughout the ordeal. If Lucy’s remaining still while holding the tube down her airway as her body jerks around isn’t work, then I don’t know what is.

Though she usually wears the uniform of an Anthropologie model and often seems to be doing not much at all — there are a few scenes of her cleaning up a coffee shop after working a closing shift and others of her biding her time in the copy room of the office where she’s an assistant — almost all of what we see Lucy do in the film is work. We know she’s working, but she hardly looks like a worker.

But what does a worker look like? Even the most traditional economic models, as well as revolutionary counter-currents, had to deal with changes over time in the character of what they called labor.

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Don’t Stop Beliebing

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A dialogue on pop music’s prefiguration of the Occupy protests

By Max Fox and Malcolm Harris
Selective image redaction by Will Canine

Max (X): So why is Third Eye Blind’s “Occupy Wall Street” song so obviously a failure?

Mal (L): If it were opportunistic, it would have a better beat. It’s so earnest and guileless that it’s completely unappealing. It really shows how pointless endorsing Occupy Wall Street is as a gesture. You also can’t dance to it.

X: It reminds me of the woman at the union march at Foley Square calling “mic check” over the amplified sound system they obtained a permit for — what that’s supposed to overcome (no amplified sound) has already been accomplished. The signature of Occupy Everything is reappropriating spaces, which includes spaces in pop culture. It seems like Third Eye Blind is jumping into the spaces OWS has reappropriated here — and the occupiers have done fine getting the message out so far without Third Eye Blind’s weight.

“I notice that you got it
You notice that I want it
You know that I can take it”

— Britney Spears, “Till The World Ends”

L: It’s curious that in all the discussion of Occupy Everything, which has already reached the heights of meta-meta-commentary, we haven’t seen anything about pop culture besides who does or does not show up to the park or march. In the haze of “What could the protesters possibly want?” I side with Doug Rushkoff calling foul on the whole ignorance pantomime. The same industry that made a movie literally about murdering management—

X: “Don’t you want to kill your boss? Instead, watch Jennifer Aniston die a gruesome death in Horrible Bosses!”

L: They are shocked — shocked, I say! — when their target audience takes to the streets. Of course you know what we want, you’ve been selling it to us for years!

Aside from a few deservedly marginalized, Fed-obsessed Paulites, the crowds don’t have official policy goals. But they do have common affects. In a society where resistance is co-opted before it even comes into existence, shouldn’t we be able to better understand the protests and their near future through the way capital has already prepackaged them?

X: Yes, we should. If capital has co-opted it, then we finally know what it is! This should resolve the debates over what the right form of effective resistance has to be. Just because capital has brought a thing inside itself doesn’t mean that thing can’t be threatening to it. I mean, it contains labor within itself, it contains communism in itself. It is contradictory, and the condition of its own demise. These are supposedly the premises of a lot of Marxists.

Following Chris Chitty’s line of argument, we can read ads for movies like Horrible Bosses as simply revealing the fact that they express the conditions of their production, which unavoidably includes both resentful workers and smug one-percenters. Our encounters with commercial cultural products have probably the highest concentration of capital that we ever experience. In a 30-second TV spot, we see what $100 million looks like. So when the spot speaks, it’s no surprise that it speaks as capital. It barely matters what the content is; the voice of capital can’t help but overpower it.

But since capital is a relation between itself and its opposite, labor (or the revolutionary subject or whatever you’d like to say), it’s never totally clear whose voice is speaking in any given instance. Is it capital who’s saying, “This is our time”? Is it labor who’s singing, “Till the world ends”? It’s interesting also that this last line comes from Britney’s latest single, because the two contenders for her position as most profitable female pop singer, Gaga and Ke$ha, occupy the two voices, the one of capital singing to its opposite and the one of that opposite singing to capital. But in a bonus trick, what is sung is a sort of liar’s paradox. Neither can really say which one it is, because as dialectical poles, each voice depends on the other for its own identity. So we get Gaga saying more or less, “I’m not capital. Capital is a liar.”

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Zombie Novel

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(image by Daniel Hertzberg, via)

A review of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One

By Malcolm Harris

From all accounts, it is Colson Whitehead’s time. The Brooklyn writer, 140-character artist, and MacArthur fellow is set to release Zone One, his first novel since Apex Hides The Hurt in 2006. Since then, Whitehead published the successful memoir Sag Harbor, amassed nearly 100,000 Twitter followers, and wrote a novel about the zombie apocalypse. Given publisher Doubleday’s promotional support, the faddish marketability of novels featuring the undead, Whitehead’s media presence, and the general readerly desire to imagine a large number of New Yorkers eaten alive, Zone One is as close to a literary fiction sure thing as anyone not named “Franzen” is allowed.

Whitehead has understandably tried to distance himself from the zombie trend, declaring on his blog that “Zone One is a zombie novel in the way [his debut] The Intuitionist is a detective novel.” Innovative twists on the genre are a dime-a-dozen in today’s media market, so I was excited to see how this imaginative writer would deal with a subject that’s been interred and exhumed so many times it could only be undead.

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A Bridge to Somewhere

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(via)

From the Brooklyn Bridge to One Police Plaza and back again  

By Malcolm Harris

3:00 pm: The crowd at Zuccotti Park, larger than any day except the one immediately preceding, starts circling the park in preparation for a march across the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ve heard that organizers talked to the police and assured them we will be walking peacefully on the sidewalk and the bridge’s pedestrian walkway. As it kicks into gear, we lumber down Broadway, a chanting column stretching across blocks. There must be a couple thousand people.

I don’t think there’s another country in the world where a protest march of thousands of citizens would be expected to confine itself to the sidewalks, where the flow of traffic is so sacrosanct that lines of police scooters guard the gutter like we need an escort. I overhear a couple mustachioed union guys talking about militancy and being gruff and fed up. So far the occupation’s direct actions haven’t reflected that ambient anger, leaning instead toward the liberal universalist “We are the 99%” rhetoric in which the police and most bankers are on “our side.” But dissensus is apparent from the way different clusters are shouting slogans. They both start: “How do we fix the deficit?” but the different answers (“End the wars!/Tax the rich!” and “Start the war!/Eat the rich!”) suggest not everyone is feeling as compliant as the organizers may have led the police to believe.

3:30 pm: We reach the entrance to the bridge, and the absurdity of the original plan becomes quickly apparent. The crowd is far too big to fit orderly at the entrance to the pedestrian walkway. A large mass of people overflows onto the entrance to the Brooklyn-bound motorway.

There’s been a lot of questions as to what exactly happened at this point; whether the police read warnings or not, whether the police enticed protesters onto the bridge with candy or not, etc. Here’s what I saw from the front lines: The head of the march fractures at the fork onto the pedestrian walkway and the motorway entrance. The rest of the crowd is behind them and undivided, but the motorway is the bigger of the two outlets. There are a handful of police, mostly senior officers, with a megaphone and only a few zip-ties, blocking it. One of the more senior officers tries to read a warning over his megaphone, telling us to walk on the pedestrian bridge to avoid arrest, but he’s drowned out by chants of “Take the bridge! Take the bridge!” The march marshals who told the police the route in advance give up trying to wave people back onto the approved path, a few of them shrug and join the chant, others are livid.

This is the moment it’s important to understand in terms of the afternoon’s narrative. It’s hard to find footage that shows the concurrent actions of both the police and the protesters, the cameras all seem focused one way or the other. But if you were standing at the entrance to the motorway, this is what you saw: The chanting reaches the back of the crowd, and now it’s a thousand plus yelling to seize the bridge. Protesters on the front lines lock arms and, once they’re sure the march will follow, start a slow, purposeful advance on the police and onto the bridge. The police, shouting on their radios at this point, turn and walk briskly toward Brooklyn.

As it becomes clear we have taken the bridge, marchers who had already entered the walkway jump over the railing and onto the street. I see two teenagers who must be a couple from the rehearsed but nervous “I want to if you want to” look they share before clambering down. The chants are now all about the bridge: “Whose bridge?/Our bridge!” “Occ-Upy!/Brooklyn Bridge!” There is more joy than I’ve seen so far at Occupy Wall Street; no one can quite believe what’s happening.

When we reach about halfway across the bridge, we see the police have called reinforcements and set up an orange mesh barrier preventing our advance. I can’t see the back of the march, but we hear from whispers that we’re enclosed at both ends. Unsure whether we’re safer sitting or standing, we try both in rapid alternating succession. A Latino teenager turns to me, shakes his head and says, “Man, I’ve got priors, I can’t get arrested.” He sighs and pulls out his phone to call his mom. There are a few tense moments. I hesitate, sigh, and pull the small jar of pot out of my bag and drop in inconspicuously on the ground.

4:20 pm: Later at the jail I will see a hand-written sign that informs the buzzing hive of officers to put this as the time of arrest for all of the 700-plus protesters. I wasn’t looking at my watch. The police start grabbing people from the center. There’s a valiant effort from the front lines to grab them back, but we have nowhere to go. A white-shirted officer extends and collapses his metal baton. One by one the police snatch the protesters, and it dawns upon everyone that they have enough zip-tie cuffs for all of us, that they probably have one for each person in the city. One guy resists and a handful of officers slam him head-first to the asphalt.

As we’re cuffed, they line us up on either side of the street facing the middle. We’re separated into groups of five and assigned official arresting officers. Mine is a young woman, maybe late 20s or early 30s, named Jimenez. She seems cheerful and distracted. The tied rows cheer and whistle for the new arrestees, who in turn smile and strut like they’re on a catwalk. Each shouts his or her name to legal observers taking notes on the walkway above. Spirits are surprisingly high, everyone is aware that we’re still occupying the bridge in one way or another. Transport vehicles appear on the other side of the mesh, large prison buses, paddy wagons with their sealed trunks, and even city buses driven by our union allies. I’m loaded into one of the aforementioned wagons with 14 others. We fill the benches and are forced to take turns standing in the middle.

5:00 pm: As soon as the officers shut the heavy metal doors, I slip my right hand out of the plastic cuffs. As it gets incredibly hot, sweat lubricates wrists and 10-12 of us are out of our constraints. I have a few bottles of water in my bag and we pass them around, pouring it into the mouths of those of us still cuffed. We do about five minutes of ideological infighting before laughing it off and sharing names. I’ve never seen a collection of mostly strangers so gracious in doling out and accepting help. Less than an inch of plastic separates the freer from the bound; it only took a few minutes for care to become a collective responsibility.

After about an hour, a trip into Brooklyn and back into Manhattan, we can tell that we have arrived at One Police Plaza and were being stored in the wagon awaiting processing. Fifteen people in an unventilated metal box for hours get really hot, and a few started to get faint. We shifted them to the cooler floor, and tried to conserve water. It wasn’t until later that I thought about what it would have been like had our restraints been tighter. I use my phone to Tweet: “We’re considering calling 911: ‘Help, me and 14 other people have been kidnapped and put into a van by a gang of armed men! Send help!’” Our escorting officers enter and exit the car, but won’t answer any of our yells. We all distinctly hear one on a radio say, “But I still have 15 bodies in the trunk…” I scream back, “We’re not bodies yet!”

But it isn’t all bad. A college student pulls out her phone and plays the classic Against Me! sing-along “Baby I’m An Anarchist”:

Through the best of times,
Through the worst of times,
Through Nixon and through Bush,
Do you remember ‘36?
We went our separate ways.
You fought for Stalin.
I fought for freedom.
You believe in authority.
I believe in myself.
I’m a Molotov cocktail.
You’re Dom Perignon.

We talk about Occupy Wall Street and tactics and who we know in common. It’s like some kind of experimental sauna party.

7:00 pm: We’re out of the wagon and into a courtyard where we’re lined up against a wall and our zip-ties (which we’ve slipped back on) are cut. We go one by one in new groups of five, and we take Polaroids with our new official arresting officers. Mine is named Po Manning, and he’s not much older than the majority of us. His uniform doesn’t have any of the adornments that come with time served, and his cop haircut seems like it could only be the result of a hazing ritual. Officer Manning smirks when he realizes I had leaned in to faux-kiss his cheek in the photo: “That’s fucking cute.” They take our cigarettes, keys, phones, and such, put them in our bags, and throw them in a big pile unsearched. I start to regret ditching my weed on the bridge.

Processing is a slow shuffle from space to space, and the station is packed. We’re drenched with sweat and enjoying the relatively open air. When an officer sneers at my group of 15, “What’s with you people and not showering?” I could have punched him in the face. They have us sign receipts saying they didn’t steal the cash in our pockets, which must have been a frequent problem before this practice. An officer pats my legs for a concealed shotgun and leads me and four others to a cell in the back. I start to regret not sticking my phone in my underwear.

7:40 pm: My cell mates are my two friends and roommates and two guys we don’t know. One is a recent transplant to New York, a structural architect in his mid twenties who works restoring historical buildings; the other is a buff and jocular finance student from Ontario visiting New York for the first time. None of us has been in a cell before, but no one is regretful. During the whole trip through processing, I didn’t hear one person complain that they were tricked or arrested unjustly.

We use my roommate Max’s unintentionally smuggled pen to write out playing cards on the back of our receipt slips. It turns out crazy eights is no more fun behind bars, so we quit without finishing a game. The cell is the classic 8X10 with a non-functional sink, a bench with a pad, and a plain toilet bowl. Fitting five guys in this space is a little tricky, especially since we’re all antsy. An officer comes by with sealed peanut butter or cheese sandwiches and milk cartons for each of us, although the former (from the famous “Rikers Island Bakery”) strain the definition of “sandwich” to its breaking point. From a cell over we hear laughing suggestions that we should reject the 1% milk in solidarity with “the 99%.”

We had heard from our DJ friend in the wagon that a call went out for jail support on the email list for New York Slut Walk, which had happened earlier that day. Apparently the news had gotten around, and the cell on the other side of us is developing an out-loud collective fantasy involving walking out of jail to a crowd of cheering, self-described sluts. For a while we attempt to entertain and exercise ourselves; four of us sit on the bench counting while the fifth does 20 push-ups. Then we rotate. Everyone but the Canadian quits after three cycles. We stop counting.

Officer Manning comes by and takes our IDs, and our push-up champion nervously confesses that he’s a Palestinian, born in Saudi Arabia. We look at each other and hope that there are too many of us arrested for the police to bother causing more hassle, which ends up being largely the case. The engineer didn’t bring his license, which Manning explains will necessitate holding him overnight. He gives us his brother’s number and we promise to call as soon as we get out.

1:00 am: Manning comes by and tells us that we’re almost out, maybe another 30 minutes.

The hour from 1:30 to 2:30 is the worst part of the day.

2:30 am: Manning comes by and tells us it will be a little longer. The police have to share computers.

It’s getting late and we try and put ourselves to sleep. Our tallest member (roommate Will) stretches out on the unpadded bench, while the rest of us scrunch horizontally, our heads on the pad stuffed under the bench. Max suggests that from an aerial view we look like a sow and her piglets. Sleeping curled up in the literal corner of a packed cell right next to the toilet is actually easier than I would have thought, and for a second I almost pull it off.

3:00 am: Our officer finally returns with the key, and lets four of us out. We give our man-left-behind salutes and promise again to get in touch with his people. Shuffling into a line near the door, our backs once again to the wall, we wait. Manning is standing with us, and knowing we’re about to be released more or less without long-term consequences, asks us, “Was it worth it?” We don’t even look at each other, everyone agrees. “Good,” he says, “good work then. And I guess we’ll see you again next week. It works so smooth it makes you wonder why we arrest you in the first place.” I do wonder that.

We move like penguins into a small anteroom before the courtyard where sergeants sign our summonses. One by one we sign forms saying we will appear in front of a judge before a date in mid-November. Our Canadian friend turns to Manning, panicked: “I’m going back to Canada tomorrow. What should I do?” “Are you coming back to New York any time soon?” “Hell no!” “Then just don’t show up. What’re we going to do—get you extradited for a ticket?”

3:30 am: We finally exit the building, grab our bags from the pile, and head for the street. I smoke the best cigarette of my life. Will texts the brother as promised. Across the street we’re met by fellow occupiers who tell us to call the National Lawyers Guild so they won’t be searching the prisons for us, and point us to a corner store where we can grab free coffee and fruit. Instantly all the anxiety peels away and the whole ordeal becomes retrospectively romantic. We chatter back and forth about everything, still incredulous about the bridge—The Brooklyn Bridge! A tall clean-cut guy walking home from a party interrupts, “I couldn’t help but overhear…” and asks us all about the day’s events and the occupation, which he’s been hearing so much about. He walks with us and listens, asking questions, but mostly just enjoying our now boundless energy.

Walking back toward occupied Zuccotti Park, the four of us run into the rest of the Canadian delegation. Our cell mate joins his friends and starts telling our stories; we say our goodbyes and promise to stay in touch. As we reach the park, we see that even with over 700 arrests, the encampment is still going strong. We drop off our new pre-dawn friend at the occupation, and catch a cab back to Brooklyn. As we pass the entrance to the bridge, I see that to my surprise the lanes out of Manhattan are still closed.

Obituary: Borders Books and Music

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The Palo Alto Borders was my psychogeographical center. It seems strange to say that of a store, never mind an outlet of a giant and mostly uniform chain, but there was nowhere else I was so free to grow up. Borders became for us the mythic “third place,” not school or home, where young people could encounter each other on accident.

By Malcolm Harris

If you drive West on University Avenue in Palo Alto, California past the downtown area, you will pass under the train tracks, over El Camino, and onto picturesque Palm Drive and the grassy expanse of Stanford University.

If you go East, you drive first through North Palo Alto and its multimillion-dollar suburban compounds, then over Route 101 and into East Palo Alto. Developers have used this area in tax-starved EPA to store big chains that can’t afford the space in Palo Alto. The Home Depot and the day laborers waiting outside stay on the other side of the bridge, but if you walk up University heading East, before exiting Porsche and Ferrari territory, you can see the hulking blue Ikea rising across eight lanes of traffic.

The Borders Books on University Avenue at the geographic middle of this whole mess, has been housed in the former Varsity Theatre since at least 1996, when I first saw it. I never knew the Varsity, but its neon sign is still there, white and pink and red above the bookstore’s own, as is the theatre’s original ceiling and its intricate moldings. Today, the signs look archaeological. Borders is joining The Varsity in the past.

The commercial development of downtown Palo Alto is not a classic case of gentrification. I’ve seen relatively few wealthy chains pushing out local institutions (though it happens); instead, the inherent turmoil of capitalism drives one gourmet frozen yogurt shop to replace the previous tenant, another gourmet frozen yogurt shop, to join the other gourmet yogurt shop on the block. There’s an Italian cafe, a Venezuelan cafe, a Croatian cafe, a Starbucks, and a Peet’s Coffee for good measure. If you stop in at any of these places, you can hear middle-aged tech folks talking about venture-capital funding in five or six different languages. Never has cosmopolitanism been so dull.

Palo Alto likes to think of itself as a national intellectual hub: You can find all the yogurt and coffee you want. But good luck looking for something to read.

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