Notes from the Underground

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I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

 
From a recent interview with Tom Stoppard:

"The citation mentions Travesties, Stoppard's play based on the fact that James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Lenin all lived in Zurich during the First World War; Arcadia, featuring a Cambridge contemporary of Lord Byron; The Invention of Love, which took for its subject the poet AE Housman; The Coast of Utopia, about the roots of political radicalism in 19th-century Russia; and his latest stage hit, Rock'n'Roll, which travels between Prague in the spring of 1968 and the present. "I'm attracted to the past," Stoppard says. "It doesn't necessarily have to be the distant past, and I certainly didn't think about it, but looking back on it, the truth of the matter is that for about 15 years everything I've written has got at least one foot in the past."

What he fears most about this new world is the drive towards homogeneity. "The whole philosophy of modern times is to dissolve distinctions between individuals and deal with them as large collections of people. It's essentially self-interested on the part of authority."

Individual freedom was central to Rock'n'Roll, in which Jan, a young Czech V C lecturer at Cambridge University in 1968, returns home as members of the Warsaw Pact, led by the Soviet Union, invade Czechoslovakia. In contrast to Jan's increasing politicisation against the forces of Communism, back in England, his mentor Max Morrow refuses to abandon his communist principles. Stoppard sees Morrow as "a rather moving, strangely sympathetic figure. To me he was an idealist with a strong sense of natural justice and social justice and all these things are admirable." But the attitude of many on the left who persisted in their support of communist ideals irked him.
"


Like Stoppard, I do seem to see myself becoming a comparatively young fogey, and can easily understand the allure of the historical to the present day. It doesn't seem especially difficult to understand how writers from Eliot to Woolf and Tolstoy to Pasternak could see the individual in relation to a wider narrative in a way that is considerably more fraught at this time. One of the paradoxes of modern society is that in one instance it is highly individualistic, with a general loss of social cohesion leading to a prevalent state of alienation and anomie. As Robert Putnam put it, social capital is in decline. In another instance, the prevailing political ethos has been a frequently coercive communitarian one, which has been essentially disinterested in the individual and at best dismissive of individual rights. Restrictions of civil liberties that would have been fiercely resisted by previous generations are acquiesced to with barely a murmur now. Governments have gone from treating migrant communities as monolithic blocks of racial categories to regarding them as monolithic blocks of religious categories, with scant regard given to the possibility of individuals having multiple forms of affiliation. On a commercial level, large sections of the population are employed within large corporate organisations that tend to regard consumers as demographic segments rather than individuals. Modern society is in many respects a highly homogeneous one, whereby there may be more brands of shop and television channel than ever before but what they all tend to offer seems at best a case of variations on a theme. As Hal Niedzviecki puts it:

"Individuality becomes a goal to be framed by rules and regulations and measured in predetermined plans and models. The paradox of “natural” is the paradox of having to follow a communal and well-travelled path in order to arrive at individuality. States Ulrich Beck: In modern life, the individual is confronted on many levels with the following challenge: You may and you must lead your own independent life, outside the old bonds of family, tribe, religion, origin and class; and you must do this within the new guidelines and rules which the state, the job market, the bureaucracy, lay down.

The Princeton professor of psychology Hadley Cantril noted as early as 1941 that almost every individual was born into a highly organized society. "Almost all the experience which constitutes his life are likely to be prescribed roughly for him by the particular culture within which his life happens to be lived." Cantril softened the blow, and ceded that some small changes to the way society operates were still possible: To be sure, the individual will develop the capacity to select alternate courses of action. He may also set about changing some characteristics of his culture which are by no means to his liking. But still this selection and this desire to alter certain practices are themselves bounded and determined by the original conditions imposed by a certain way of life.

What are the conditions imposed on us, what is the "certain way of life" that constitutes our particular existence in postmodern capitalist society? De Tocqueville’s 1835 travelogue/social study Democracy in America points us in the right direction. The author’s primary observation concerned the way the political and economic system of the United States was creating a new kind of individuality. As he saw it, freedom American-style was forcing everyone into their shell, their social framework reduced to immediate family and friends, their only interest personal success. De Tocqueville wrote of an "innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavouring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest." If we depend on anything, it is the largely bureaucratic structure that shapes our increasingly atomized, solitary lives. So it is that the appearance of independence is underscored by a vast world of regulation and restriction. "

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posted by Richard 12:34 PM

Sunday, January 28, 2007

 
This piece on German conceptions of identity rather struck me:

"Speakers at awards ceremonies and festivals often remind their listeners of the role of literature in the creation of the German nation... But most speakers overlook the fact that by the time Germany finally emerged as an intellectual and later political structure, Germany's writers had long since begun to think beyond Germany. The great German philosophers and poets of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – be it Goethe or Kant – had their sights not on German but on European unification. In Germany, the Enlightenment was from the very start not a national but a European programme. In literature too, the preferred models were not German, drawing instead on non-German literature from Homer to Shakespeare and Byron. German was something German literature did not want to be – and which is was nonetheless precisely in its appropriation of non-German motifs and structures. "Overview of the European Conditions of German Literature" is the title given by August Wilhelm Schlegel to his 1825 essay on the peculiarities of German intellectual life: "We are, I may confidently claim, the cosmopolitans of European culture"...

This vision put its proponents at odds with the nationalist zeitgeist in Germany, although in retrospect they are often claimed by it. Anti-nationalist opposition intensified in the twentieth century, especially after the experiences of World War II: the dream of a democratic union of European states was what the Mann brothers, Hesse, Hoffmansthal, Tucholsky, Zweig, Roth and Döblin upheld in the face of German nationalism... Germany's writers have always been characterized among other things by their fraught relationship with Germany. They are Great Germans, despite or precisely in the way they quarrelled with Germany. In other words: Germany can be proud of those who were not proud of Germany... At the end of his lecture on "Germany and the Germans" in May 1945 at the Library of Congress, the same Thomas Mann reminded his listeners that none other than Goethe "went so far as to yearn for a German Diaspora." The comment by Goethe quoted by Mann here comes from a conversation with Chancellor Müller from 14 December 1808: "Like the Jews, the Germans must be transplanted and scattered over the world […] in order to develop the good that lies in them, fully, and to the good of all nations.""


This rather reminded me of one of the more striking examples of Germany's national guilt, WG Sebald:

"After moving to England as a student and deciding to live there permanently, Sebald began to see a connection between his own emigration and the Egelhofer family history of emigration to the United States. Attached through his father's military career to the legacy of German aggression on the one hand, Sebald imaginatively connected himself through his maternal line to the displaced wanderers and "victims" of history on the other; for instance, his (fictional) great-uncle in the story "Ambros Adelwarth" in The Emigrants (loosely based on his aunt Fanny's brother-in-law) is the lifelong companion of a wealthy American Jew who dies insane, tormented by visions of the horrific carnage in World War I that also call to mind the later Nazi atrocities.

Readers have sometimes expressed discomfort with this connection, accusing Sebald of inappropriately identifying with the Jewish victims of National Socialism, as if he, too, were an "exile" of history. The objection is misguided, however, for Sebald never forgot the distinction between the forced exile of the Nazi period and his own voluntary postwar emigration; his entire work offers an eloquent tribute to the memory and memorialization of that historical difference. However, his literary imagination naturally sought out points of contact and continuity. For his book about four aging "emigrants," he deliberately avoided the term exilierte, preferring instead the capacious and somewhat antiquated term ausgewanderte (literally, those who have "wandered" or "gone out") in order to include his own family history of emigration. The Jewish exiles of National Socialism are but one, admittedly central part of a much broader pattern of modern displacement reaching back to the French Revolution (with an implicit titular reference to Goethe's Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten) and the economic emigrations of both Jews and Germans from Central Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sebald's semiautobiographical literary work is thus premised on a dual identity: as the son of a Wehrmacht officer who bears witness to the victims of German violence, but also as a member of his grandfather's nonmilitary, emigrant family who identifies with these victims existentially."


My interest in this stems from my own ancestry, which although predominantly English, also stems from Saxony in what was once known as East Germany. To be specific, it stems from migration from Germany at the time of the Franco-Prussian war. Equally, the theme of exile is something I feel keenly in that while I now live in the south of England, I grew up in the Midlands, a place of markedly contrasting character and economic fortunes. My relationship with my country of birth is accordingly every bit as difficult as that described above for Germany (particularly since I find easier in a lot of respects to relate to my home region of the Midlands than to a construct called 'England'). The British do (at least in their better part*) tend to deprecate ideas of national pride, instead emphasising a vision of England of motorways, national decline and high rises. The nation that, to paraphrase Morrissey, they forgot to shut down. In theory, Britain and Germany should have a great deal in common. Both are not so much states as convenient constructs formed to unify a disparate collection of ethnic nations. Since both nations had been constructed rather than having evolved, both tended to exist as essentially an idea. Where Germany has been defined through its diaspora of writers like Sebald and Kafka (as well as the wartime diaspora of figures like Mann, Schoenberg and Lang), Britain has been defined through a cosmpolitan assimilation of foreign artistic techniques and artists, like Joyce, Swift, Marx, Handel, Pevsner and Conrad. Both nations tended to look towards France for their model of civilisation, with Frederick the Great refusing to write or speak German and inviting Voltaire to his estate.

Of course, in practice, I suspect a lot of the above essay reflects a romanticised view of Germany and Britain alike. Both nations invented traditions, based to a large extent on those of Prussia and England and indeed of each other (as with Britain importing the idea of the Christmas tree from Germany along with its royal family), stressing national identity with all the neurosis of countries lacking one in the first place. The preoccupation of both nations with their medieval pasts, from Castell Koch to the Wartburg and from Wagner's nationalist medievalism, Grimm's Fairy Tales through to the Pre-Raphaelites is perhaps attributable to this. But, if nothing else, it does provide contrarianism with a pedigree and a heritage.

Addendum

* I say in their better part as I increasingly feel that this sense of deprectation is being diminished. During the course of our recent military escapades, it has become more common to recast the empire as a mantle we are obliged to take up once more (if only as a means of national pride by association with the United States) rather than as a source of shame and to boastingly compare our economic fortunes with those of European states like Germany on what are typically the flimsiest of grounds. I was rather reminded of that in this piece by imomus, himself a good example of an artist turning his back on his home country in favour of adopted homelands in Germany and Japan:

"British TV seems to be obsessed with the ideology of Social Darwinism. Shows like Big Brother and The Weakest Link are all about the elimination of losers, and involve their audiences in the choice of those losers. It's all very tally ho, a fox hunt. They're the result of the transformation of Britain from a society that was at least heading towards horizontality (in other words, low-Gini equality) in the 60s and 70s to one that's wedded at every level to inequality, unfairness, high-Gini -- a "winner takes it all" society where income inequality is seen as something natural and even desireable.

Here in Germany you could never have shows as Social Darwinist as that, I ventured, because there really was the elimination of "the weakest link" here, within living memory, in the form of the extermination of gays, gypsies and Jews. In the same way, the surveillance excesses of the East German secret police have made it much harder to survey Germans. Britain's ubiquitous citizen surveillance would be unacceptable here.

And this, for me, is why guilt is good. It's guilt over things like surveillance and eliminating "the weakest link" which keeps the German state more liberal and benign than the UK state. It's lack of guilt that's the biggest current political problem in Israel, the UK and the US, and evidence of the return of guilt the most hopeful thing happening right now. "

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posted by Richard 7:20 PM

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

 
Of late, I've been reading two very different texts that share several themes in common. The first of these, Colin Wilson's The Outsider, a survey of alienation in romantic and existential literature. As a work of criticism it tends to be somewhat reductive, seeing anomie as a byproduct of thwarted mysticism, a somewhat difficult theory to approach the post-christian likes of Camus and Sartre with. Accordingly, Nietzsche in deflated to a religious mystic while the moral questions that so excised Bakhtin in his reading of Dostoevsky are declared an irrelevance.

The second, Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul, is both a bildungsroman and an account of the history and architecture of his native city. Where a Western writer would typically have sought to interrelate these two themes, Pamuk alternates between them, reflecting his own preoccupation with the idea of the divided self. Pamuk writes of his childhood imagining of another Orhan living in the same city, of seeing his myriad other selves reflected in the mirror, of his father's other life in another flat and of his dual perception of his city as its inhabitatant and under his own westernised eyes so that he comes to see it as a foreigner. The experience of alienation is one Pamuk sees as the product of a divergent cultural heritage, under Western eyes. At one point, he notes that the traditional Turkish view of literature was as something social, the bricolage that provides the communal myths and discourses that bind a society. To this he opposes the Western tradition of seeing the artist as a man apart and suggests a form of dissociation of sensibility is an inevitable result of this collision. To take a similar argument from TS Eliot's Tradition and the Individual Talent:

"No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it."


Of the two views, I have to admit to finding Pamuk's the more congenial. As the likes of Lukacs argued, much of the reason for mythology of the individual in Western Literature is attributable to the increasingly individualistic, post-traditional nature of Western society; the paradox is that only an outsider can describe such a society. Like Sartre and his attempts to reconcile existentialism and communism, Lukacs saw self and society as being irrevocably sundered in modern society, in contrast to more homogeneous societies. Once this unity disintegrated, there could be no more spontaneous totality of being.

This paradox seems to me to have particularly seeped into the work of two of the greatest contemporary writers; JG Ballard and Michel Houellebecq. The latter depicts an atomised society with a fervour for the subversive and transgressive, such as sex tourism and a contempt for much of tradition, welcoming capitalism's destruction of religion. Equally, he detests capitalism and the social breakdown he sees as following from it, often reviling other forms of transgression like hippy communes and sex clubs. The former depicts a world of homogeneity and conformity which by its very nature produces instincts towards violence and destruction; "thrill seekers with a taste for random violence.. a deep need for meaningless action, the more violent the better." These drives alternate in Ballard between becoming the basis of a new form of social cohesion in which entire communities participate and a form of social subversion. Equally, Ballard often oscillates between depicting such instincts as the product of modernity and as a reversion to nature that takes place in the absence of society. Ballard's aesthetics remind me of this observation from Slavoj Zizek:

"Throughout the entire twentieth century, I see a counter-tendency, for which my good philosopher friend Alain Badiou invented a nice name: 'La passion du reel,' the passion of the real. That is to say, precisely because the universe in which we live is somehow a universe of dead conventions and artificiality, the only authentic real experience must be some extremely violent, shattering experience. And this we experience as a sense that now we are back in real life."

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posted by Richard 8:18 PM

Saturday, August 13, 2005

 
Another fascinating post from one of the most consistently interesting weblogs, imomus (what follows is my abridgement of a longer post and comments):

"I'm not into this thing, fashion goth. It's probably because I'm not into rock and roll, Romanticism, or Christianity. I hate tattoos and piercings and the cult of self-injury. Sex is not evil or wicked. Fashion goth is an aestheticization of pain. Just like a Cranach crucifixion scene. The Marquis de Sade was mounting a critique of the Enlightenment. What's wrong with the Enlightenment?

I think it's because Christianity has never meant anything in Japan. If you get into a Shinto-Buddhist mindset you don't dwell on negativity. Japan is a different culture bloc. Shinto is a fertility religion. It's a mistake to think there's only beauty in pain. Fertility religions celebrate life, whereas Christianity and Islam celebrate death and resurrection. In Japan you have both a populist celebration of the material world (Shinto) and an aristocratic rejection of it (Buddhism). "


While I don't care for Foucault anywhere near as much as I once did, I still find his idea that identity and individuality are simply a construction of whatever discourse are to hand important. As a consequence, I've always tended to feel that since no man is an island (not fully unique or independent from the culture that produced them), the idea of a counter-culture was an oxymoron. The most obvious example was the pose of individuality and rebellion created by punk in the seventies, which always seemed uncomfortably close to me to the conservative ideology that dominated the following decade. Similarly, the more a counter-culture prides itself on a sense of rebellion from conformity, the more it creates its own constrictive codes and uniforms. While I'm not wholly convinced by the way Momus opposes both romanticism and the enlightenment and the oriental and the occidental, the notion that a counter-culture and its host-culture are essentially inseparable is one that deserves greater attention.

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posted by Richard 2:10 PM

Sunday, March 13, 2005

 
Our modern individualistic, atomised age seems especially good at producing moments of conformity outside of the normal sense of collectivism that one might expect to produce it. The death of Diana is perhaps a rather good example of this, but a certain manufactured licence (i.e. Red Nose Day) that is now established an annual event:

"What is so depressing is the coerced laughter, and the prospect of hour upon hour of it - an oddly flat form of mass-produced, non-stop whinnying... Red Nose Day is but a symptom of what has become a sort of tyranny - a world where no birthday card can be sent unless it is witlessly vulgar... If you don't join in the laughter, you are told: "It's only a joke - go on, have a laugh."

With laughter, as with junk food or binge drinking, there no longer seems to be any sense that holding back once in a while might increase your enjoyment. There is no sense of restraint: we are moving into the age of the all-day giggle. "What lies at the heart of the hollow laugh is the pretence that everything is fantastic and very cheery when in fact it is absolutely awful - rather like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman," he says. "And at the moment, so many people are pretending to be happy."


Whether traditional codes were based on restraint (repression as a model of civilisation), post-traditional codes seem based on entirely the reverse; the demonstration of emotion even where none is truly felt.

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posted by Richard 8:29 PM

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

 
One of my favourite moments in film is in Monty Python's Life of Brian where Brian admonishes his followers to understand that they are all individuals. All of them repeat this precept as one, save one lone voice who denies that he is an individual. I was reminded of these recently when I came across a set of reviews for Heath and Potter's critique of countercultural culture jamming as being simply a form of consumerism (providing the aesthetics for an otherwise homogeneous society) which undermines or even replaces progressive politics. From these I found my way to this rather impressive website:

"In the era of the new conformity, the ideal is reversed. Outer individuality obscures inner conformity.. Television quickly became the perfect medium to preach the pop theme of the exceptional individual. TV features recurring characters whose lives are at once more exciting, triumphant, and difficult than ours ever could be, despite seemingly humble and unpromising jobs and situations... preaching incessant selfhood, a recipe for individuality that calls for just the right amounts of rebellion, free will, style, and, ultimately, acceptance... The paradox of “natural” is the paradox of having to follow a communal and well-travelled path in order to arrive at individuality. You must lead your own independent life, outside the old bonds of family, tribe, religion, origin and class; and you must do this within the new guidelines and rules which the state, the job market, the bureaucracy, lay down.

Those of us who are shut out from actually participating and making meaning through localized cultural exchange depend mainly on prefab fun to legitimize our lives. As a result, the conformist individualist wants—needs—constant stimulation and satisfaction. A desire for opportunities to articulate our individuality is the legacy of a pop culture that then tries to satisfy such a desire with ever-more-immersive attractions. These attractions are so extreme and over the top that they make it even harder for us to imagine anything we can do in our daily lives that can match that level of intensity. Thereby, we feel even more devalued and distanced from our normal selves.
"


There's much here that I find congenial. I've long observed that the various uniforms of the counter-culture represent a form of affiliation that is considerably more rigid and coercive than anything the mainstream is capable of producing; for its practitioners such cultures represent a rather queasy mixture of simultaneously asserting alienation and affiliating themselves with a specific sub-culture. In truth, the ruthless individualism of punk lyrics was always the clear precursor to the atomised society that followed. Equally, my view of religion has always been shaped by Kierkegaard's account of the the fable of Abraham and Isaac, where unquestioning devotion and sacrifice is seen as the hallmark of belief. As loathsome as I find fundamentalism, I have some difficulty seeing liberal religiosity with its selective approach to only the most congenial of doctrines as having a great deal to do with belief.

However, as an atheist I also find it impossible to envy the belief of the religious and equally difficult to care whether religious belief is eroded in the face of individualist consumerism or otherwise. By the same token, the limited individualism of modern society is infinitely preferrable to the form of coercive communitarianism that the author of the above piece occasionally seems to evince a sympathy for. These arguments always tend to remind of Anthony Giddens idea of the post-traditional society. Giddens argues where tradition dominates, individual actions do not have to be analysed and thought about so much, because choices are already prescribed by the traditions and customs. In a post-traditional society, identity becomes a more reflexive, constructed affair, a narratitive that we at least have some scope to remake:

"The more post-traditional the settings in which an individual moves, the more lifestyle concerns the very core of self-identity, its making and remaking... The range of lifestyles - or lifestyle ideals - offered by the media may be limited, but at the same time it is usually broader than those we would expect to just 'bump into' in everyday life. So the media in modernity offers possibilities and celebrates diversity, but also offers narrow interpretations of certain roles or lifestyles - depending where you look."


Update: A furtherpiece on Heath & Potter, and their view of the counter-culture as a form of conspicuous consumption:

"There have been two attempts to forge a transformative Left. The first, Communism, ended in tragedy. Heath and Potter say the second, the counterculture, is farce. It has "almost completely replaced socialism as the basis of radical political thought."

Rebellion is a very good way of setting yourself apart from the masses, whether it's by being cooler or morally superior or just better informed than other people. It's a search for prestige in the most basic sense…. You can see the almost unassailable sense of superiority that's associated with the vegan, organic-vegetable-shopping, back-to-the-land, Guatemala-handcraft-wearing, anti-globalization activists. They clearly think that they're better than the people who do not share their system of values. So, because other people don't like being characterized as brainwashed cogs, they wind up promoting competitive consumption... Consumerism…always seems to be a critique of what other people buy…. [The] so-called critique of consumerism is just thinly veiled snobbery or, worse, Puritanism.
"


The overall point is, I think valid, though some of the implications teased out from these premises seem rather less so. Is the real reason we don't have a thirty-five hour working week or strict pollution controls on car usage really to do with unrealistic counter-culture demands or, as seems more likely, that the adoption of a bohemian lifestyle simply works as a salve for not being concerned about these things in the first place.

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posted by Richard 7:13 PM

Sunday, June 01, 2003

 
The Guardian has an interesting interview with Zygmunt Bauman. The interest lies in his thesis that modern alienation and anomie are attributable to the degree to which identity has become a reflexive matter than one of convention (this being the inverse of Anthony Giddens and his thesis on the subject).

"What preoccupies him is how social conventions obstruct the possibility of human liberation and it makes him a stern critic of the status quo, particularly in his growing focus on how an individualistic society finds common cause, and how the public realm can be renewed and sustained... Bauman points out that Freud's thesis that human beings had traded freedom for security has been inverted; now we have traded security for freedom and with that freedom has come unprecedented responsibilities for the conduct of our own emotional lives and for our political participation."


As such, the fluidity of modern identity makes any form of stable social relations impossible at best (rather like Slavoj Zizek's observation that liberal capitalism tends to produce cultures that are both more individualistic and unstable due to higher rates of criminality), something that reminds me of Freud's observation that "most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility and most people are frightened of responsibility" (quoted here as trading security for freedom). That said, the problem with this is that Bauman's view that we have traded security for freedom seems somewhat odd to anyone not coming from a Marxist background. It would seem more accurate to say that the state is becoming a surrogate for an ever increasing number of social relations, in which case I can't help but wonder if something in Bauman's arguments doesn't start to unwind somewhat.

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posted by Richard 9:33 PM