Monday, September 01, 2014
Mohau Modisakeng. Inzilo (Film Still), 2013.
Single channel video installation, duration: 4 min 57 sec
Ai Weiwei and the fine art of the art installation
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
As a rule, I am wary of art installations. I am never sure if the form they take bear any relation to the political content they claim to espouse. Also, as a rule, I visit modern art exhibitions for their verbosity. The words speak to me of artistic intent that always races ahead, far in excess of its signifying objects. The intent itself I find to be of such beauty, nudging me with its faint hints of revolution and radical joy. Of course, it does worry me that I have to read the labels of things before I can calculate the impact they will have on my fervor and/or joy.
However, on the lowest rung of my pleasure-affording hierarchy lie modern art installations. I remember once visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and staring hard at a diagonal tube light mounted up on a wall. I also metaphorically bonked myself on the head for "Artist" not making the top three on the list of possibilities suitable to my eight year old self's artistic ability or lack thereof.
As I walked into Ai Weiwei's exhibition "Evidence" I thought to myself that I should maintain a healthy cynicism and a suitably controlled set of expectations about what a set of art installations ought to be able to evoke. In the late afternoon of a confusing Berlin summer, I got off the bus already flush with the pleasure of a scarily efficient public transport system, and walked down the lane to the spot on my Google map that said "Martin-Gropius-Bau". The Bau is a startlingly beautiful building, all neo-Renaissance in its pastiche of dome, entryway columns, curlicued windows and shadowy moldings. Something already felt right. The sun shone bright and the clouds filtered out its strongest rays. I was suitably warm and the light was suitably right. Ai Weiwei in his entire grandfatherly wallpapered aura stared straight ahead and betrayed no amusement at my sudden and unexpected enthusiasm.
Across eighteen rooms of the Bau were spread all the works that were being curated under the title "Evidence". Playing with the concept of both what "discovery" means to police and detective records, and the concept of empirical "evidence" as relating to crimes both contemporary and historical, the main items of this exhibit comprise found, made, and remade artifacts—touchy, feely, gritty physical objects. Most of them display familiar hints of the Ai Weiwei oeuvre. They offer confusing and paradoxical cues by playing with the material they are composed of, they are parts of a much larger story that they bear evidence to, and they are often directly related to aspects of the artist's life.
Of course, Ai Weiwei's entire artistic career is both prolific and provocative and distinguishes itself by not separating art from the world that it inhabits. Ai has always been resolutely political in his art in that it is the lens through which he engages with the Chinese state. However, this is a double-edged sword because of the nature of the state that he critiques, the state that everyone loves to do business with, even as it is the state that everyone loves to hate. In this sense, the Chinese state is for all practical purposes a soft target. This state is Ai's primary interlocutor. And the Chinese state responds as if on cue, time after time. It imprisons him, it persecutes him, it destroys his studio, and it doesn't allow him to leave the country. It becomes the enemy against which all his wars are waged.
In response, he gets louder and bigger. "Evidence", which is his largest one-man exhibition yet has been designed from his studio in China from where he has orchestrated its execution. Even as he is sequestered within the political borders of China, others build his exhibition for him and voice his agenda. A beautiful book is produced detailing his life and struggle. There are posters and postcards in the museum shop sending out their political message into the world.
I am lulled by his world. I look at his work and want to shake my fist at the man—the Chinese man, a man, any "the man". I nod in violent agreement. The state is absurd, the government persecutes, and censorship and control are all about an underhanded social engineering plot. Following up on my mental calisthenics, I garner that the state does not care about its citizens, history is invented, territorial and border control are violent continuities of the imperial project, free expression scares the state, and law is merely a device to screen off the unwanted and dissident elements of society. I recognize these elements and am gratified that I have not been singularly persecuted in this world. My world and Ai's, they are both the same and they are both Kafkaesque.
All too soon, I find myself discarding this content. I proceed to the "So what" question. These are after all the problems of a soft target. A restaging of its atrocities does not beget any different a reaction. As perhaps a facetious submission to the theory of diminishing marginal utility will tell us, repeated viewings of phenomena albeit in different form do not in themselves inspire exponentially or even geometrically incremental emotion. One is tempted to repeat after the much-tweeted figure of a woman protesting the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, "I cannot believe I still have to protest this shit."
I walked around some and slowly realized that I did not want to leave. I continued to find myself engaged with these objects qua objects.
Perusing museums has always been to me a solitary exercise of much pleasure. One of my few guilty pleasures in the so-called-West has always been the museum visit. I will confess that while part of my pleasure is in the vision of myself as a cosmopolitan museumgoer, the kind that ought to inhabit novels about worldly-wise New Yorkers and impoverished-but-inherently-cultured characters that can espouse art history facts at the drop of a plot, a lot of my interest comes from the pleasure of the object and its textures. Things in their touchy-feeliness evoke in me the kind of sensual emotion that I ideally ought to reserve for human subjects, but ah well. Jackson Pollock's smudgy, seductive dabs of paints, Man Ray's visceral rayographs, and even Dali's melting clocks allow me to inhabit this not-this world with all the material pleasure of the real world. My Marxism is all aesthetic. Would one call Ai Weiwei a Marxist?
In the city that loves its public installations, children slide in and out of Picasso's jungle-gym-like sculpture and make faces at Anish Kapoor's Bean. In the Bau, I wanted to be those children. One wants to touch the objects that Ai produces. In their skewed scales (a large island, like a rich man's toy, but so much smaller than the real island) and their surprising textures, they evoke so much play. One wants to live in the prison cell he reconstructs for this exhibition. It looks tiny, but safe. In its dislocated location, it feels not so much a prison as a way of life secluded from the vagaries and dangers of the state. One wants to play hopscotch on the marble island. Disputed as it may be, it also looks wonderfully untouched in all its cold perfection, and one is free therefore to imagine a paradise far from the clutches of modernity. I wanted to go sit in the Ming vases painted over in bright metallic colors. I wanted to make faces at the twelve figures of the Chinese horoscopic pantheon. The rubbed and sanded chairs that he effaces of their ancientness looked like they might grow wings any moment. The turned and twisted rebars of Ai's remembrance of the schools pulverized in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 would make great swings and seesaws I thought. I wanted to wear Ai's doubled shoe and mount his jade gas mask on my head. I craved bodily enactment of these tragically fantastical objects. Outside of the context of the great tragedies of the Chinese state, these engineered objects seemed much like a few artifacts robbed of aura and invested instead with the possibility of a new world. Defanged and re-enchanted, they begged the question of political art.
Slavoj Zizek's brilliant book "The Sublime Object of Ideology begins with a chapter titled "How did Marx invent the symptom", wherein he argues compellingly for the form that things take to be important objects of analysis and therefore, watch the thing in itself, he says. His reading of Freud is that one needs to ask the question, "Why did the dream take the form that it did?" rather than relegating the objects of the dream to be mere carriers of the meaning that one is eager to uncover. In other words, what you see is what you get. And what you see is not arbitrary.
The objects in Ai Weiwei's "Evidence" are big, and sprawling, and beautiful. You can touch, feel, and crawl in and out. You can stretch your eyes across the length and breadth of the room and imagine this to be the giant playground that Ai has made for you. You can pretend to inhabit these tragedies without fearing its dangers. In other words, through objects thin and tall, large and small, Ai re-acquaints one with the schizophrenic life of modernity—its uncanny objects, and its dangers, all incumbent upon a game wherein now you see and now you don't. In the uncovering of arbitrary artifacts, some represented, others recreated, and still others restaged, restaged, I argue are the possibilities of a political life. In the recognition that our lives are predicated on sometimes seeing, sometimes not seeing, and always perfecting the art of not feeling, lies the possibility of politics.
Monday, August 25, 2014
Bev Butkow. Untitled/Unknown/Unwanted. 2013
Vinyl collaged onto clear plastic sheeting.
In the Shadow of Mo'Ne Davis
by Akim Reinhardt
Thirteen year old Mo'ne Davis recently took America by storm when she pitched her south Philly baseball team deep into the Little League World Series, where clubs from around the world compete every August.
A beloved celebrity of the moment, her success brought to mind my own somewhat tortured little league experiences.
I. While not terribly big, my father was nevertheless a super-stud athlete at his highschool in Fresno, California during the mid-1950s. Captain of the football team (he played end on both sides of the ball), member of the track, field, diving, swimming, and basketball teams, he was popular enough to be voted president of the class of `56. And he was good enough, despite being only 145 pounds, to earn a football scholarship to Redding College in northern California, although he would soon lose it in a gambling scandal. True.
So you'd think I grew up in a household that paid attention to sports and that I learned it all from at my father's knee.
Quite to the contrary, not only didn't the old man watch sports, he didn't even understand the appeal. To him, sports were something to do, not something you watch other people do. I think he looked at it like drinking: he liked drinking, especially with others and alone if need be, but why on earth would he turn on the TV to watch someone else drink? Or drive across the city and pay for parking and admission to watch people drink. It didn't make any sense to him.
Fair enough, you say. But then he must've been a great coach when I was a kid, right? The kind of dad who could really teach the fundamentals and show you the tricks to getting ahead.
Again, not really.
Great players often make for lousy coaches. One common explanation is that their prodigious talent makes it more difficult for them to become good teachers, not easier. That the concept of pedagogy is foreign to them. That they are dumbfounded when mediocre players play, well, mediocre.
How could you not hit that ball or make that shot? That's easy, what's wrong with you? It was easy for them, of course. Not so much for the other 99% of humanity.
And that's kind of what it was like with my dad. As I became old enough to participate in organized sports on the rock and glass strewn fields of the Bronx, he was, more than anything, dumbfounded when it became obvious that I wasn't a great, natural athlete. He wondered about my eyesight (which was fine), and told me to concentrate more (which I did, sometimes). But generally, he was at a loss to explain it.
Of course, to my mother's side of the family, comprised of the scrawny and the rotund, this all made perfect sense. By their standards I was tall, lithe, and dextrous.
But despite being confounded, my father encouraged me in all the right ways. He sent a clear message that childhood athletics were good for building a healthy body and that they should also be fun.
Much to his credit, my father was also openly critical of the scumbag parents (mostly dads back then) who took little league sports too seriously, who screamed at umpires, jeered other children, and rode their own too hard. He knew them for what they were: desperate has-beens and hyper competitive never-weres, desperate to recapture their glory or to invent the glory they never had, by living vicariously through their child. He thought they were pathetic, despicable, and miserable examples of humanity, and I tend to agree with him.
My dad missed a lot of my games because he was a general contractor who worked many Saturday mornings when the whether was good. But when he did make it, he'd sit alone or with a work buddy, away from the other parents, drink a beer, and root for every 10 year old to do well.
And more often than not, I didn't do very well.
Over the course of six years in Little League baseball, plus 1 in football (when I broke my leg) and a couple in basketball, it quickly became obvious that I wasn't going to grab any college scholarships for sports.
II. The 3rd grade began with me attending a new school, P.S. 24. I was still a couple months shy of my 8th birthday.
It was at 24 that I encountered other boys who watched baseball on TV, proclaimed their loyalty to a particular team, and even a couple who spun magical tales of having attended a major league game.
But if following baseball was new and somewhat bewildering to me, with this talk of batting averages and pennants, RBIs and standings, I was taken even further aback in the spring of 1976 when a student asked me if I'd signed up to play Little League yet.
I still remember it. His name was Steven and things were a little loud and energetic. Our class was moving through the hallway, from one room to another, perhaps having just had a music lesson from Mrs. Novay; she was partial to using that thing which looks like the bastard offspring of a midget piano and a flute. My friend Paul still calls it the Mrs. Novay instrument.
It was amid the mild cacophony and buzz of the hallway that Steven asked me if I'd signed up. I was at a total loss. How? When? Where?
I went home and asked my mom. She told me to ask dad, which I did when he got home from work. He was happy and supportive about the idea, but he also looked surprised, as if it had snuck up on him.
Maybe it was because he hadn't thought of 8 year olds playing organized ball. Or maybe it was just how kids getting older often sneaks up on parents when they're not looking; the way a parent knows something's coming eventually, but now?
There was no t-ball back then. Not in the Bronx, anyway. That first year was mostly coach pitch, though kids occasionally got a chance. There was no umpire to call balls and strikes. You just swung the bat. No walks. Miss three times and you were out. I almost always struck out.
We didn't get to play on the actual diamonds with backstops. The adults just setup bases in the grass on an unused patch of Van Cortland Park.
At nearly 2 square miles, Van Cortland is bigger than Central Park. But it's in the Bronx, so no one cares. It's also sliced into pieces by the Saw Mill River Parkway, the Bronx River Parkway, Henry Hudson Parkway, and the Major Deegan Expressway, so it's far from idyllic. There are no memorials to fallen Beatles or free Shakespeare in Van Cortland Park.
One day, Danny's dad was supposed to bring me home from Van Cortland after the game. My dad was working of course, and we only had the one car. But something went wrong. It was actually entirely Danny's dad's fault.
And so after all the kids had left, I sat on the curb along Broadway, watching the traffic wiz by, for what seemed like an eternity.
I kinda knew how to get home. Kinda. But it was about a mile long walk, which seemed impossibly long at that age, mostly uphill, and across countless streets. It seemed too daunting. It felt like I might be in Van Cortland Park forever. Eventually I started to quietly cry as fear overtook me.
A nice Latino man with an impressive moustache took notice of me. He briefly interrupted his soccer game to inquire. I explained my situation.
The mustachioed man walked me across Broadway's many busy lanes to a gas station. They called the cops, who took me home.
Nowadays, middle class parents would probably be freaking the fuck out. Back then, shit just happened. Your mom thanked the cops, chewed out Danny's dad on the phone, and you got on with your life.
III. The next two seasons of 4th and 5th grade little league were grim. We now played our Saturday morning games on Van Cortland's backstopped diamonds, which felt like a promotion. But the fields were rough. The outfield grass was patchy. The infield dirt was a mess. Bad hops were the norm.
My playing was atrocious. I subbed off the bench, getting an at-bat or two per game. Kids pitched full time, and I had a good eye, which translated to a fair amount of walks. But when I swung the bat, nothing came of it. And balls hit to me in the outfield were not likely to be caught on the fly.
I hated playing the outfield.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that I was young for my cohort, and small for my age to boot, my growth spurt not coming until puberty.
NYC schools had January 1 as their cutoff. Everyone in my grade was born in 1967. My birthday's in November. Another six weeks and I would've been one of the taller kids a year back. But instead I was one of the runts. And my hand-eye coordination was erratic.
In the 6th grade, when most of my classmates moved up a level from the "Minors" to the "Majors," where kids played on fields that were a little nicer and could take leads and steal bases at will. I elected to stay behind in the minors.
I truly loved playing baseball. I loved it so much that I wanted to get better, and I thought delaying my advance by a year would help. I turned out to be right.
A little bit taller and a little bit older than most of the kids, I was finally one of the better players.
One day, when I was hanging out in the dugout with some friends at their "major league" game, a player I knew, a good one, lauded me for taking the sport seriously and trying improve. He then laid into a mutual friend, one of the scrubs on his team, for moving up to the "major league" even through he wasn't any good. "You should've done what Akim's doing," he said. "He's trying to make himself better instead of just socializing with friends."
I had worried I'd be a pariah for keeping myself behind. I never imagined I'd be respected for itby one of the genuinely good players.
IV. The following year I rejoined my cohort in the "majors." And somewhat to my surprise, my success continued. In fact, I played the best ball of my little league career. I batted nearly .500, accrued my usual allotment of walks, and was a terror on the bases. I even talked the coach into letting me play the infield, where I somehow managed to hold my own for the most part.
Mr. D was a great coach. A fireman. Blue collar, like my dad, which was a rarity in our middle class neighborhood. His son Mike was our catcher.
Mr. D understood little league the way my dad did. It was for the kids. Help them improve as players, build a strong team ethos, and use the game as an opportunity to teach lessons and build character. No prima donas. No spoiled brat outbursts when things don't go your way.
I once threw my batting helmet down in anger after an opponent made a great catch to rob me of an extra base hit. When one of my teammates went to pick it up, Mr. D stopped him. He made me go back and pick it up.
In the end, we won our league's title against a heavily favored team with a young coach who drafted all the stud players and emphasized winning.
It felt good. It felt right.
V. My final year of little league came during the 8th grade. I didn't know it then, but it would be the last time I ever played competitive baseball. Most people never play baseball after little league. They, as did I, soon move on to softball.
Baseball is actually pretty bad ass, mostly because of the aptly named hardball. Grown ups playing the game can get pretty fucked up if they're not careful. The ball's as hard as a rock. Take one in the eye, like I did off a bad hop during practice one day that last year, and it fuckin' hurts. I had a shiner and was done for the day. Have that happen when people with adults bodies are throwing and hitting the ball? Watch out.
Softball is a lot safer. You can have a beer and relax.
I had a shitty coach that last year. One of those white collar dads who didn't understand the game very well, placed way too much emphasis on having his team of 12 year olds win, and openly favored his mediocre son.
I regressed. I was back on the bench. I was back in the outfield.
I wasn't as bad as before. I made a couple of nice catches, I had a few hits. But my mechanics at the plate were screwed up, and there was no one to correct them.
Our team had some good players. We made the title game again, but a couple of those good players couldn't make it. One had moved to Florida. His dad was the super in a local building, and rumor had it that he'd died in a boiler explosion. Who knows. Another kid just didn't show up.
All of a sudden, I was starting the last game of the year. And our unimaginative coach just slotted me into one of the spots where one of the good players was supposed to bat. I hadn't hit well all season, but somehow I was batting second.
We were down big in the final inning. No one's fault. hey just out played us.
I came up with two outs. More than anything, I just didn't want to make the last out of the game. I was determined not to make the last out.
On the first pitch, I got plunked in the ass. It hurt like hell and felt real good. I trotted down to first base, the weight of the world off me. And now the heart of our lineup was coming up. We were down a bunch, but maybe we had a chance.
I took a big lead. I was fast, a good base runner. I could get away with that.
On the first pitch, Rob tomahawked a ball down the rightfield line. I took off like I was fired out of a canon. And then I heard someone behind me shout, "foul!"
I pulled up and turned around. But Rob was steaming towards me. Someone other than the umpire had just yelled "foul," but the ball was fair, in play. I turned back around and started to run, but it was too late. We were too close to each other. I made it to 3rd base, but Rob got hung up and tagged out in a rundown.
Game over. My fault.
I tried to explain. It was hopeless. No one believed me or cared. I sat down in the dugout, dejected and embarrassed. The coach's son said something smarmy. His dad said nothing.
VI. Mo'ne Davis is living the dream that every little leaguer fantasizes about. She's a star player who led her team to victory in a local league, a regional tournament, and on to the Little League World Series, where she became an international sensation.
As a kid, you imagine what that would be like. You think you understand. You're sure it'll be nothing but sunshine and lollipops.
As a middle aged adult, you realize you have no idea. I can't pretend to know what it's like for Davis to walk out to the mound, with more than 30,000 cheering fans in the seats and television cameras carrying the game around the world, and then start mowing people down. I certainly can't imagine what it's like to have your little league game get something like 10x the TV ratings of Major League games being played at the same time. And I can't even begin to understand what it's like for a 13 year old to see highlights of herself later that night on ESPN.
It's all too surreal for me to be able to contemplate it from her perspective.
I just hope she gets to eat pizza after the game. And that she has a coach like Mr. D and a parent like my dad, to remind her what's what now and again. Play hard. Have fun. Pick up your teammates when they're down. Don't thrown your helmet. And remember that life goes on. Because it will.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
by Leanne Ogasawara
One of my favorite 3QD associates recently wrote a wonderful blog post, Old Man Bush: The Last Motherfucker. Reminiscing about the good ol' days, he asks the inevitable question, what happened to today's youth?
It's true, George HW Bush was old school. Despite being accepted at Yale, he postpones college to fight in the war, becoming a young aviator and then war hero... and not just that, says Akim, but the badass is still jumping out of helicopters at 90 years old today. Akim is impressed and wonders how it is that we all became so soft?
Honestly. How else do you explain seedless watermelons? Nope, we can’t be bothered to spit black watermelon seeds anymore, much less just eat the white ones. Cause we’re soft.
I mean, good luck finding regular grapefruit juice. No siree Bob, it’s gotta be ruby red on every grocery store shelf, cause the plain old yellow grapefruits are a little bitter. Can’t be expected to put up with that.
Or reading a map. Or cooking dinner from scratch. Or getting up to change the channel. Or waving a hand fan. Or walking anywhere. Nope. Middle class America is too soft for any of that. Just gimme a smart phone, a remote, some takeout, a shit ton of air conditioning, and a good parking spot.
You know things are bad when you start looking back at old HW's presidency with nostalgia, right? What is really scary, though, is I had just been thinking the exact same thing!
This came about after my astronomer and I watched El Cid--an old film depicting the fabulously dashing Spanish hero who had protected Valencia from the Moors. Respected by his allies and enemies alike, it reminded me a lot of why I so love to read about ancient battles. For in those days:
"the very immortals can be moved; their virtue and honor and strength are greater than ours are, / and yet with sacrifices and offerings for endearment, / with libations and with savor men turn back even the immortals / in supplication, when any man does wrong and transgresses” (Iliad, IX 497-501)
You have to admit it stands to reason that the gods would indeed be moved in this ancient version of battle -- so guided by the human prayers and curses that forever bound together enemy and hero. And knowing that their prayers had wings, the ancients also knew that to be truly great one must be able to defeat a great enemy-- so the Greeks praised Troy's strengths to high heaven-- as did Polybius, the Carthaginians'. This is not to argue that war itself was somehow more noble in ancient times, but rather that there is a possibility that how you understand your enemies in the end matters. That is to say that there are more or less noble ways of both going to war but also more or less noble ways of creating and "spinning" battle narratives-- and that these differences matter.
For we know that those who seek to promote war often ignore history.
And how much easier to do so in a world where you can go about life forgetting your country is even at war in the first place. To me, this is connected to having a very different kind of concept of destiny; a concept which does not seem to include the Homeric notion of Providence. We still go to war but that idea of going up against a respected opponent is missing completely as the other side is dehumanized. Indeed, the entire playing field has become assymetrical so luck too no longer is something at play. Perhaps the ultimate symbol of this kind of modern "prayerless" battles are the unmanned, robotic bombings that are remotely carried out by staff in an office building somewhere outside of Las Vegas and Langley. This is a policy that not only does Obama embrace but is something with which he will perhaps be forever after associated with.
It is a far cry from the days of Troy, when the Kings themselves, along with the elite, often times also went into battle.
Along these lines the ever-cranky classicist Mary Beard remarked that,
The bigger problem here is how we understand Virtue and Evil. It suits the cheaper side of political debate and media hype to imagine that somehow all the virtues (or vices) come together, as a package: a good person will be good across the board, a bad one similarly bad. It's a view with a long pedigree (and Aristotle has got a lot to answer for), but it crudifies political culture, is almost always a gross oversimplification and it undermines our capacity to deal with racism, terrorism, discrimination or whatever.
The enemy comes to feel more like a "product" than anything real. Back to Akim's post, though. One of our mutual 3QD friends and great benefactor took the opportunity to tease Akim for "sounding like a 90 year old motherfucker and for swallowing the Great Generation Myth whole." It's true since, after all, it's one of the great time-honored pursuits of "the elderly" to complain about "the worthless younger generation," right?
But is it really an issue of the younger generation? I think what is really the interesting question is how it came to be that someone who was at one time capable of a degree of self-sacrifice and bravery as HW (with caveats, I know) could raise what can only be described as a draft-dodging, mentally soft kid as Bush Junior. Akim says it like this:
Indeed. Bush the Younger, lest we forget, essentially dodged the Vietnam War. Not that it ever should have been fought to begin with, but the contrast is stark. I wonder if you could correlate it to a declining sense of nobless oblige and a rising streak of libertarian individualism?
Concerning nobless oblige, I am really enjoying (and highly recommend) William Deresiewicz's new book, Excellent Sheep, in which the author looks at the current situation of elite education in the US. Since returning with my son to the US, four years ago, I have on several occasions wondered how it came to be that parents have come to focus so much on short term performance (over say, the cultivation of character and virtue--or for that matter any semblance of autonomy?). It is something that has repeatedly struck me-- so I have started really noticing Deresiewicz, who was a professor at Yale before he left to devote himself to writing.
Describing the elite children of today here as
From drones to corporate risk management to policy, we have a situation whereby the ruling elite class no longer has skin in the game --not in public policy, foreign policy or corporate policy. Murphy had a number in his book, which I don't have handy but it was something like, in the late 1950s almost 50% of Princeton graduates went into the military-- to serve. Even in Vietnam, known as a working man's war, the children of the elite were known to go too. Now, the disconnect between the educated elite and the military or the corporate elite and those in the community is complete. And Taleb is exactly right that this points to the fact that something is rotten in Denmark; for as he rightly (and significantly) states, an immoral act can be characterized by a willingness when we open others to the great risk, which we are ourselves reaping the benefits from.
“Only a god can still save us”
That the excesses of capitalism are undermining the health of this nation seems to be a fact. But there is an ontological component to this as well. And, as Turkish journalist Ibrahim Kalin aptly put it:
The point is that we as human beings are increasingly becoming part of a system that defines our humanity and morality according to instrumental value and nothing else. But reality offers more possibilities than use-value and will to power.
Perhaps as Heidegger prophesized, there really no escape from "man the eternal consumer."
Recommended: William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep
Also: Christine Gross-Loh's Parenting Without Borders, Alain Badiou's In Praise of Love, Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit, Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome and Breakdown in Communication: Elia Suleiman Talks about Divine Intervention
And Elia Suleiman's magnificent Divine Intervention
It’s Time to Change the World, Again
by Bill Benzon, appendix by Charlie Keil
Adolescents seem gifted in the belief that, if only the adults would get out of the way and grow up, the world would be a much better place. In that sense I am still, at 66 going on 67 (Pearl Harbor Day of this year) an adolescent. I still believe that the world needs changing, though it’s been decades since I naively thought that letters to The New York Times were a reasonable means to that end. And I still believe that it’s the adults that need changing.
But I must also move forward in the realization that I too am an adult, and have been so for some time now.
What to do?
I painted this when I was nine or ten.
I was ten years old when the Russians put Sputnik into the heavens. I still remember the October evening when my father took me outside and pointed to a moving light in the night sky. “That’s it.”
That’s when my personal history joined world history. That’s the first event that was both personally meaningful to me–I’d been drawing sketches of spaceships for years and had even done a painting or two–and was also of world historical importance. By the time I was old enough to be an astronaut, however, I’d changed.
I’d gone to college, marched against the Vietnam War, done my conscientious objector’s alternative service in the Chaplain’s Office at Johns Hopkins, and lost all interest in becoming an astronaut. Inner space had become my territory.
I got my PhD, then a job at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was astounded when Reagan was elected and re-elected–that hadn’t been in the plan, no it hadn’t. And I was really surprised when the Soviet Union collapsed. After all, I’d grown up during the height of the Cold War, read articles about back-yard bomb shelters, and had even picked out the spot in our back yard where a shelter should go. I figured that, whatever else happened in the world, that I’d go to my grave in the shadow of the Cold War.
And now it was over. I did not, of course, believe all that happy talk about a peace dividend and the end of history. I knew the history would keep rolling along and that there were other occasions for strife than the ideological rifts between the East and the West. In this respect, the world did not disappoint me.
And yet, I had seen the world change. Not before my very eyes, but in my time. It’s one thing to read about such things in the history books, and to believe them, but it’s something else altogether to see it happen, to live through it.
Change is possible. All kinds of change. But the past keeps rolling around as well.
Thus I was not surprised when Pres. Bush the Younger decided to wage a War on Terror and invade Iraq. I got out my marching shoes and on March 22, 2003, reported for duty at the corner of 36th and 6th in Manhattan, where I met up with Charlie Keil, an intellectual hero of mine I’ve already written about here in 3QD.
The demonstration did no good. The invasion when ahead as planned, and promptly got mired down, not according to plan. But this demonstration was different from those we had back in the 60s. Back then, the music–if there was any–happened afterward. This time, we marched with music, me with my trumpet, Charlie with his cornet. We had no trouble finding drummers and horn players who wanted to get down and boogie on Broadway, or wherever it was that we were marching, and get down we did, interspersed with chants of “Peace Now.”
One might, I suppose, think that stopping a war is altogether too serious a business to be accompanied by music, dance, and chants. And one would be wrong. If we don’t dance in the process of trying to stop wars then chances are that, when we finally succeed–and we will–we’ll have forgotten how to dance. And all that effort will have been in vain.
So Charlie spends his time teaching kids how to drum and dance out there in rural Connecticut, where the Hotchkiss canon was invented, and we hook up every once in awhile and play for peace, joy, freedom, love, happiness, and, of course, for those pesky adults who keep on gumming up the works, most recently in Vermont:
That’s Charlie at the right on tuba. We were there to help a crew of Vermonters demonstrate for independence from the Union. I know, a quixotic quest, but a sensible one. The world’s stretched too tight, too many people and organizations shackled to big systems that are vulnerable to total collapse when a part fails. Remember the financial collapse that happened not too long ago when a bunch of 1%ers wanted a couple more Audis and Maserattis for the family compound and decided their mistresses needed them too?
Building Concept for World Island, renderings by Bob Kirchman (c) 2014
Meanwhile I’d met Zeal Greenberg, who was on a quest to create something he calls World Island, “a permanent World’s Fair for a world that’s permanently fair.” Think of it as a combination of the best features of the United Nations, Disney World, a kid’s rumpus room, the trading floor at the Chicago Board of Trade, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and the Taj Mahal. It’s a small purpose-built international city where people from all nations, large and small, can meet on equal footing and participate in one another's worlds. Hotels, trade shows, theaters, museums, galleries, parks, playrooms, stores, restaurants, and an international school.
When I first met him, Zeal had been pounding the pavements for ten years on behalf of his plan and had gotten scores of serious people to donate their time and services to the cause. What surprised me was that all these executives would schedule us for a 20-minute meeting and end up giving us an hour or more. It’s a though they really wanted to see something like this happen, but couldn’t quite figure out where they fit in.
Charlie thinks that World Island would be the perfect place for a Global Organization of Democracies to supplant the UN:
I think we need a common GOOD, a Global Organization Of Democracies, one nation one vote, (so that a confederation of indigenous peoples up the Amazon can have the same voting power as the USA, Okinawa the same vote power as Japan, etc.) [big so-called democracies may not want to be members at first], to be meeting year round to suggest ways of: stopping “ethnic cleansing” and “administrative massacres,” terrorism, and wars; sharing air, water and resources fairly; raising global carbon taxes for local carbon sequestration (planting trees, fostering permacultures) going strong everywhere; planning and fostering a global literacy campaign focused on young women, etc., etc.
There’s a lot of good will and high hopes in the world that no one’s yet managed to tap. Maybe you’ll be one of those to break the code.
As I was scaling back my commitments to the World Island project I discovered the Lafayette Community Learning Garden. Built with volunteer labor and donated plants and materials, it transformed a couple of blocks in Jersey City in the summer of 2012. Children learned about sunflowers and grasshoppers and neighbors met neighbors. That summer, for the first time in 30 or 40 years, people had the City close down a block so they could have a proper celebration – you know that Kool and the Gang came from that neighborhood, don't you?
There was dancing in the street, literally. Six year olds and sixty year olds danced the Electric Slide, filling Pacific Avenue from side to side.
When Hurricane Sandy blew through later that year, that particular block was spared. But others only two or three blocks away were not. The friends I made in and about that garden came to my aid during the hurricane, and me to theirs. That’s what gardens to, turn mere neighbors into a community.
Who knows, with more gardens–there is, you know, a national movement afoot–there will be more communities. Real communities, that is, not just people living next to one another. And with more real communities in the world, perhaps we’ll change it, once again.
What choice do we have?
* * * * *
Reclaiming our Species Being: Humo Ludens collaborans
by Charlie Keil
Article 1 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason & conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
The Ninth Amendment of the US Constitution
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people...
...toward reclaiming reason and conscience thru the 'ignorance-based' worldview (W. Berry and W. Jackson, D. MacDonald)
from war to peace (Buddha, Diogenes, Christ, H. Thoreau, M. Gandhi, M. L. King)
from too big to fail back to small is beautiful (W. James, L. Kohr, E. F. Schumacher)
from global and regional famines back to local foods (F.M. Lappe)
from spend & consume back to save and conserve (W. Berry)
from national energy & dominance values back to local energy & resilience values (R. Hopkins)
from dominator values back to partnership values (Riane Eisler)
from drama back to dromenon (Jane E. Harrison)
from power-over-structures back to pleasure-in-processes (Marylin French)
from 'pure' meanings back to movements-feelings-meanings (Suzanne Langer)
from professionals back to players (Airto)
from work back to play (J. Huizinga, David Graeber)
from commodified music back to community musicking (L. Higgins)
from alienation back to participation (Owen Barfield)
from entropy back to sacrament (Gregory Bateson)
from linear discursive back to cyclical recursive (G. Bateson) from death wish & resistances back to life force and willingness from class & hierarchy back to classlessness & equality (K. Marx) from hubris/tragedy back to humility/comedy (@lcoholics @nonymous)
from transcendence back to immanence (S. de Beauvoir) (from immanence to trance-in-dance)
from exclusionarythinking back to incorporative thinking (Catherine Ellis)
from utilitariaian to spiritual (Jeremy Rifkin)
from spurious civilization to genuine prime cultures (E. Sapir)
from residual to emergent (Raymond Williams)
from products back to processes (R. Williams) from men's endless projects back to mind and Nature enough (Angie Keil*)
from efficiency back to sufficiency (J. Rifkin)
from legal world back to Natural world (Haudenosaunee via John Mohawk)
from land belongs to us back to we-belong-to-land (aboriginal peoples)
from unison back to lift-up-over-sounding (Kaluli via Steve Feld)
from anarchism back to being anarchs (Semai via R. K. Dentan)
from addiction to perfection back to participatory discrepancies (C. Keil)
from dismal sciences back to joyous sciences (R. Emerson, F. Nietzsche)
from me to we (Muhammad Ali)
* Angie Keil taught women's studies at SUNY Buffalo for years. She was born and raised in Greece and had a "feral childhood" when the Nazi's occupied the country. As a consequence she went schooless, yet managed to become educated. She ran with kids of all ages, not the age-segregated groups fostered by schooling on the factory plan.
Making sense of suicide (and Matt Walsh's nonsense)
by Grace Boey
Imagine this: someone secretly laces your coffee with meth, every morning, for 28 mornings. Over the first week, you become increasingly hyperactive, and start to bubble with confidence and energy. You feel great, but by day 7, your behaviour starts to get erratic, and you’re irritated with everyone else who can’t keep up. By day 21, you’re having flashes of paranoia, and freak out from time to time because your mind keeps racing, and you’re convinced everyone’s watching you move too fast.
By day 28, you haven’t slept for a week. You feel invincible, so much so that you decide to take all the drugs you’ve got to see if it will kill you. Because that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? And if it does kill you, you’ll die feeling amazing… and dying would be such an incredible thing to do. In fact, this had damn well better be fatal. Thanks to the meth and sleep deprivation, you are so confused, irrational and psychotic, that this babbling seems entirely sensible.
Was the suicide attempt ‘your own decision’, in any meaningful sense? Of course it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t my decision, when those very events happened to me a couple of years ago. The only difference? No one had secretly laced my coffee with drugs (though they might as well have). The terrifying effects were a product of my very first full-blown bipolar manic episode. Thankfully, I survived—although the doctors who treated me assured me I could just as easily not have. I had no clue what was happening at the time; my mania had swept me away, before I even realized anything was amiss.
Despite all this, people like Christian blogger Matt Walsh would say I had committed a “terrible, monstrous atrocity” that was entirely my decision. On August 12, one day after Robin Williams appeared to have killed himself as a result of depression, Walsh published an article with the headline “Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice.” In it, he claimed that “suicide does not claim anyone against their will”. Depression—and by extension of Walsh’s arguments, all mental illness—is not responsible for suicide: you are. When a huge backlash ensued, he stuck to his guns and wrote a detailed response to his critics.
When I first came across the headline of Walsh's original post, I took a deep breath, read the article, took another deep breath... and read it again. My conclusion at the end of this exercise was the exactly same as my initial response: what a load of exploitative, uninformed rubbish. Walsh's statements reflect deep misconceptions about mental illness, competent decision-making and ‘free will’, which (unfortunately) hinge on the supernatural metaphysics that accompanies Christianity. It angers me that someone like this should feel entitled to piss on the grave of Robin Williams with a headline like that. And personally, as someone who has attempted suicide under the grips of both mania and depression, I am insulted by Walsh's backward ideas.
The irrationality of the suicidal
The first thing that everyone should know about mental illness is this: it renders its victims irrational. Where there once stood a person fully capable of making informed decisions, there is now someone whose mind is severely compromised by irrational, or even delusional, thoughts. The degree to which this happens varies; sometimes, the sufferer is still self-aware enough to know that some of his thoughts are irrational. But sometimes, mental illness gets so severe the sufferer loses all self-awareness of his irrationality. And when someone is in the full grips of his mental illness, all attempts to analyze, justify or understand the sufferer’s actions through a rational framework are mistaken.
In retrospect, I shake my head at the narrative of ‘reasoning’ that drove my suicide attempts. I’ll leave it up to the reader to make sense (or… not) of why I tried to kill myself while manic. As for my depressed attempt, I genuinely believed that obliterating myself would make the world a better place, and bring my friends and family happiness and relief. As ridiculous as those thoughts were, I will never beat myself up for attempting suicide—because I know that at those moments, no amount of proper reasoning could have saved me.
Essentially, sensible reasons against suicide fly out the window, once you try applying them to someone who’s actually about to do it. Here’s what Matt Walsh has to say about why suicide is wrong: first, it is a “complete, total, absolute rejection of life.” It is also the “final refusal to see the worth in anything, or the beauty, or the reason, or the point, or the hope.” Last, and perhaps most importantly, suicide reflects “the willingness to saddle your family with the pain and misery and anger that will now plague them for the rest of their lives.”
Unfortunately for Walsh, it is extremely common for someone who’s depressed to think that the world would be a better place without them. This was the case with me. Someone suffering from severe depression can become entirely convinced that this is true, even if it seems apparent to outsiders that it isn’t—and that the only way out is to take his own life.
The compromised will, and the uninformed choice
Another thing Walsh stresses is how suicide “does not claim anyone against their will. No matter how depressed you are, you never have to make that choice. That choice.”
Why does Walsh say suicide is a choice? Before going into that, here’s the next thing that everyone should understand about mental illness: that it radically complicates notions of ‘will’ and ‘choice’ by compromising its victims’ rationality in ways beyond their control. Normal adults are assumed to have some sort of ‘will’, or autonomy over their actions. An autonomous person has the rational capacity to make informed, un-coerced choices.
But when someone has a sub-optimal grasp of his actions and reality—as is the case with mental illness—his autonomy is compromised. Such individuals do not have the capacity to make informed choices, and no longer have what we think of as unfettered free will. Effectively, what this means is that an extremely depressed person makes the ‘choice’ to kill himself in a similar way to a 9-year-old who makes the ‘choice’ to have sex with a persuasive 30-year-old.
Moving back to Walsh, one reason why he says that suicide is a choice is this: it requires the physical action of its perpetrator. He says, “whether you call depression a disease or not, please don’t make the mistake of saying that someone who commits suicide “died from depression.” No, he died from his choice. He died by his own hand. Depression … can’t kill you on its own. It needs you to pull the trigger, take the pills, or hang the rope." The big problem with this, though, is that there’s a clear difference between a mere physical action and a meaningful choice. Anyone who grasps the idea of autonomy should know this—and unfortunately, it seems that Walsh doesn’t. Or, if he does, he doesn’t seem to grasp the radical implications it has for the ‘will’.
The next argument Walsh has for suicide being a choice is this: “If suicide is not a choice, why do we tell people not to do it? Why do we tell them to get help? Why do we try to stop them? … What would you say to someone who tells you they are suicidal and they feel like they have no choice but to kill themselves?”
Here is my response: if you ever manage to convince a seriously suicidal person to step away from the ledge, thank your lucky stars that you managed to strike the fancy of whatever whim it was in his muddled brain that made him step away. Or, be grateful that he wasn’t too far gone, that some small part within him was still rational, and that it happened to surface at the right time. Don't for a second think that that person on the ledge stepped back because of your superior reasoning skills. And don’t you dare presume that someone who went through with suicide ‘refused’ to listen to you, as if it was some kind of willfully selfish act he committed by jumping off that ledge.
One last reason Walsh gives for not calling suicide a choice is that it would "steal hope" from the suicidal person; we must call it a choice because "those on the brink need to be empowered". Unfortunately, it's wishful thinking to think that something's true just because it "empowers" someone. And Walsh claims to "say these things for the living, not the dead"; he claims not to "blame" or judge the dead. Yet, if speaking for the living truly had nothing to do with assessing the actions of the deceased, there was absolutely no need for Walsh to invoke the spirit of Robin Williams.
Christian metaphysics and mental illness
It’s useful—in fact, crucial—to note that Walsh's Christian faith seems to infect his beliefs about mental illness and suicide. This is worth a brief look.
Christianity requires a believer to subscribe to at least two metaphysical positions: first, that there is a non-material soul distinct from our physical bodies—a prerequisite for the possibility of heaven and hell. Here is Walsh on what this means for mental illness:
“I can understand atheists who insist that depression must only be a disease of the brain, as they believe that our entire being is contained by, and comprised of, our physical bodies. But I don’t understand how theists, who acknowledge the existence of the soul, think they can draw some clear line of distinction between the body and the soul, and declare unequivocally that depression is rooted in one but not the other.”
(For the record, I am an atheist and materialist, and believe that depression has biological, psychological and social roots. Materialism does not necessitate mental illness being diseases of the brain.)
The second thing Christians commit to is that humans enjoy free will in the fullest sense, and are always accountable for our own actions. It is a central tenet of Christianity that man is always free to obey or disobey God’s moral rules; also, it is said in the Bible that God will not tempt you beyond what you can bear. Walsh doesn’t explicitly address this point, but quite plausibly it has something to do with why he keeps harping on the notions of ‘will’ and ‘choice’.
What these two positions mean for mental illness, essentially, is that—short of being possessed by another soul—a mentally ill person still always retains a some significant amount of free and autonomous will. No amount of changes in physical brain chemistry can take that will away—although, presumably, brain chemistry has some influence on the soul. (How does all of this hang together? Don’t ask me.)
This is deeply troubling, because it is yet another example of the way religious faith infects and subverts reason and evidence in a crucial debate. No amount of reasoning will persuade the fervently religious to change their mind—which is, when you think about what we've been discussing, kind of ironic.
Making sense of suicide
Ultimately, how should outsiders make sense of someone else’s suicide when it happens, especially when mental illness is involved? First, don’t impose rational standards on the person. Second, understand that there was a big chance that his autonomy was severely compromised, and that—if he was mentally troubled—his ‘will’ was radically transformed. Keep these things in mind while trying to wrap your head around the act.
There is, though, another problem that’s often overlooked in the discussion. We are often asked to show some ‘empathy’ for victims of suicide and mental illness. Yet, surely there's a problem with asking someone to ‘put themselves in the sufferer’s shoes’ when they have no experience with the relevant disease. It’s quite often impossible for non-sufferers to fully comprehend the phenomenology of mental sickness. It’s hard for me to explain to others what goes on in my head when I’m manic, or extremely depressed—or what it feels like to constantly oscillate between the two. And I (as a bipolar person) would never presume to know what it’s like to have schizophrenia, or OCD.
So my message is this: mental illness is so transformative that you should not even presume yourself capable of putting yourself into a victim's shoes. Does this mean we may never be able to make full sense of someone else’s suicide? Perhaps—and this will be a sad struggle for loved ones of the deceased. But, for people like Matt Walsh who feel entitled to exploit Robin Williams’ death with post-hoc sideline commentary, I only have this to say: someone else’s suicide is none of your business.
Monday, August 18, 2014
Paul's Boutique: An Appreciation
"If you explain to a musician he'll tell that
he knows it but he just can't do it"
~ Bob Marley
It's hard to imagine that the Beastie Boys released "Paul's Boutique" around this time, 25 years ago. Even more astonishing is the fact that I recently had two separate conversations with members of the so-called Millennial Generation, which resulted in the extraordinary discovery that neither person had even heard of "Paul's Boutique." Now this may make me sound like an ornery codger complaining about how the young folk of today are illiterate because they have never heard of (insert name of your own pet artist). But taken together, these two events require me to submit a modest contribution to keeping the general awareness of "Paul's Boutique" alive and well.
What makes "Paul's Boutique" so extraordinary and enduring? The sophomoric effort by the brash NYC trio debuted in 1989, and was the much-anticipated follow-up to "License To Ill." But instead of a new set of frat party anthems along the lines of "Fight For Your Right (To Party)," listeners were treated to a continuous magic carpet woven out of a kaleidoscope of samples. Romping over this dense, schizophrenic bricolage, MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D traded lightning-quick call-and-response rhymes that embraced the usual MC braggadocio but at the same time drew on a vast range of sources and styles. The effect, to this day, is a delirious sort of aural whiplash.
No one is clear on how many songs were actually sampled, although the number is certainly well over a hundred. The exegesis of both samples and lyrical references is a time-honored tradition, too. Around 1995, one of the first sites that ever made me think the World Wide Web might be a good idea was (and continues to be) the Paul's Boutique Samples and References List. When studied, Torah-like, alongside the Beastie Boys Annotated Lyrics and the record itself, one begins to appreciate the catholic taste of both the rappers and their producers, the inimitable Dust Brothers, who would go on to provide much of the genius behind Beck's seminal "Odelay" album a few years later.
A few examples from the lyrics and the music should serve to illustrate this diversity. Who would think that when the petty grifter protagonist of "High Plains Drifter" is arrested and "thrown into a cell/With a drunk called Otis" that the reference is to Otis, the town drunk on the "Andy Griffith Show"? And how can combining Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin and the jazz stylings of Gene Harris to create the groove for "What Comes Around" be anything but reckless? How about referencing Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone school of composition ("Only twelve notes a man can play"), or mashing together no less than four Beatles songs to create a new one ("Sound of Science")? And for those who grew up in the New York area around that time, it is a treasure trove of nostalgia, for example with the boasts that they've "got more louie than Phil Rizzuto" and "got more suits than Jacoby & Meyers" (remember those infomercials about home loans and divorce lawyers?).
What's remarkable about this is not just the variety, but also the insistent lack of purpose. There is no conceit that really unifies the album. In contrast, consider De La Soul's "3 Feet High And Rising" – released a few months before "Paul's Boutique" – which carried a similar density of both pop culture lyrical references and sample-heavy textures. But "3 Feet High And Rising" was arguably the first hip-hop album to use a skit (in this case, a game show) to create a framework around which the rest of the album was structured, and despite its own diversity of sampled sources there was a genteel, accessible flow to the entire record.
On the other hand, "Paul's Boutique" exhibits a merry sort of disregard for the expectations of its listeners, with jarring shifts in mood and timing – for example, a jokey, extended banjo sample lifted from the movie "Deliverance" is decisively crushed by a subsequent combination of samples from Mountain and Pink Floyd, forming the introduction to "Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun." There is no transition whatsoever to ease the listener, like a record scratch, a door closing or any such sonic signifier. At the same time the transition is also utterly devoid of artifice; its suddenness forces us to reconsider our intention as listeners. Am I supposed to be chortling, or gravely nodding my head? The heaviness of the groove is initially supported by rhymes of equally heavy subject matter – and then completely undermined when we are informed that the protagonist is
On a mission
A stolen car mission
Had a small problem
With the transmission
Essentially, "Paul's Boutique" is 54 minutes' worth of exactly this sort of unbridled, priceless anarchy. There is a peerless sense of play in action here. The first time you listen to the album, you will probably catch about 10% of it. And 25 years later, I'm thoroughly pleased that I'm still picking up new details.
The surprising bit about "Paul's Boutique" is that as it has aged, it has only gained in stature, and, if I may say so, grace. But it didn't start off that way. Capitol Records had committed over a million dollars and eighteen months in top-shelf studios only to see its investment bear little initial fruit, both in terms of critical and listener reception. Soon enough, Capitol's executives were keener to promote a new Donny Osmond record. As a result, there was little promotion and no tour in support of the record (although the record release party footage is pretty entertaining, with skywriting, flag-raising, a Dixieland band and plenty of b-boy banter, starting at 15:34). And yet, ten years later, the album had gone double platinum; by 2003, a Rolling Stone survey of the 500 greatest albums had ranked it at number 156.
In hindsight, it's clear that "Paul's Boutique" happened to drop at the midpoint of what has since become known as ‘golden age of hip-hop.' Every genre experiences a period when it is essentially being innovated into existence, and every release has an outsized impact on the pathways of its future evolution. It's something akin to the Cambrian Explosion, where life burst forth in thoroughly unexpected and variegated ways. In hip-hop, this period lasted approximately from 1987-1993. Indeed, both "3 Feet High And Rising" and "Paul's Boutique" have been crowned the "Sgt Pepper of rap," but there were many, many other examples, including Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, Gang Starr and more.
But all golden ages must come to an end, and a strong candidate for hip-hop's Ragnarok was the 1991 lawsuit, Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., which poured cold water over sampling practices in hip hop (Biz Markie was the defendant in this case). Even prior to that decision, De La Soul had been sued by The Turtles in 1989, and settled out of court for a reported $1.7 million. In contrast, and perhaps due to the alacrity of Capitol's lawyers, all the samples on "Paul's Boutique" were cleared for about $250,000, a sum that would be considered laughably trivial today. But in 1989 it was still unclear whether hip-hop had any staying power. Once it became evident that the money machine was just getting started, the limitless creativity that the sampling revolution had inspired became an obvious target for litigation.
In fact, to this day De La Soul has not been able to clear all the samples on "3 Feet High And Rising" in order to allow online sales to go forward on iTunes, et al. Last February, as an act of defiance, and in commemoration of their own 25th anniversary, the group resorted to giving away its entire catalog for a period of 24 hours. (For a fascinating overview of the vibrant state of remix culture and the dispiritingly overwhelming forces arrayed against it, please devote 30 minutes to watch Andy Baio relate his own experience in the matter.)
However, litigation is not the only factor ensuring the essential unrepeatability of "Paul's Boutique." Consider that 1989 was at the threshold of the digital era. Digital samplers existed but were very expensive and could only store minimal snippets of sound. All editing was still done on tape, using X-Acto blades and Scotch tape. So one must concede that, as madcap as the record may sound today, this was done with great intentionality and care. It's instructive to contrast this with the mashup artists of today. Thanks to digital editing and the ease with which producers can time-stretch samples and edit their placement in a mix (virtually on the fly) there would seem to be no limits, and mashup culture has indeed seen a thousand flowers bloom. But I'm not the first to maintain that rules, restrictions and boundaries can have a salutary effect on creativity, whether these constraints are imposed on us by our equipment, source material, or anything else. In particular, the limitations created by equipment in the early period of hip-hop and electronic music in general led artists to push their kit to the edge, and sometimes past it. The net result is the naissance of a genre, bursting with possibility.
As an example, a current producer who is exceptionally popular is Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk. Gillis has developed an aggressive, party-oriented sound that mixes rap a capella vocals with pop, rock and even heavy metal backing tracks (check out a recent effort, "All Day"). Given the preceding discussion, this sounds promising. On the surface, Gillis's work follows much of the "Paul's Boutique" playbook: a refined sound with lots of twists and turns, unexpected juxtapositions and an encyclopedic mastery of several genres. And from a technical point of view, Gillis's work is very, very smooth. But I am disappointed. Perhaps it is because the vocals are taken from hip-hop well past its aforementioned golden age; the subjects are weary and familiar (partying, materialism, narcissism, etc). But there is also, for lack of a better term, a relentless homogeneity in his work. No matter how well the samples fit together, that's the extent of it – and this is something that is true for most mashups in general. A good example is found on the irreplaceable Who Sampled website: Gillis sampling, among other things, "Hey Ladies," the first single from "Paul's Boutique." Here Gillis takes the Beastie Boys' vocals and jams them on top of the Misfits' "Lust For Life." To me, the result is jump-up-and-down party music, whereas the original "Hey Ladies" has a languid, funky feeling that takes its time but nevertheless delivers just as much, if not more, sampling variation. Simply put, the music breathes better. (I should also add that Gillis has not been sued to bits by this point, a fact that is utterly mystifying to me; but good for him.)
Others have approached the opportunity of "Paul's Boutique" completely differently. In 2012, DJ Cheeba, DJ Moneyshot, and DJ Food collaborated on a remix of the album, and released "Caught in the Middle of a Three-Way Mix," constructed entirely out of the original songs that were sampled. But these three DJs, themselves masters of the medium, have achieved something really remarkable. The closest analogy I can come up with is when scientists take anX-ray of a masterpiece of painting, revealing the layers that exist beneath what has been familiar to us for so long. The result is a sort of aural palimpsest, and it is exhilarating. In a sense, we are provided a glimpse of the process that brought "Paul's Boutique" to fruition, and we can appreciate anew all the work that went into cherry-picking only the most relevant moments from a galaxy of existing work.
Perhaps for the best, the Beastie Boys never tried to match the dense style of "Paul's Boutique." Their next effort, "Check Your Head," saw them move away from collaboration with the Dust Brothers and towards a more homegrown approach. The sample-driven paradigm yielded to a vastly stripped down approach, with the trio playing instruments on the vast bulk of the record. But "Paul's Boutique" remains unequalled, and it's with an almost giddy anticipation – and perhaps even a sense of privilege – that I'll be introducing a few young folks to its joyous meanderings. Gather 'round, children.
Monday, August 11, 2014
How to say "No" to your doctor: improving your health by decreasing your health care
by Carol A. Westbrook
Has your doctor ever said to you, "You have too many doctors and are taking too many pills. It's time to cut back on both"? No? Well I have. Maybe it's time you brought it up with your doctors, too.
Do you really need a dozen pills a day to keep you alive, feeling well, and happy? Can you even afford them? Is it possible that the combination of meds that you are taking is making you feel worse, not better? Are you using up all of your sick leave and vacation time to attend multiple doctors' visits? Are you paying way much out of pocket for office visits and pharmacy co-pays, in spite of the fact that you have very good insurance? If this applies to you, then read on.
I am not referring to those of you with serious or chronic medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, who really do need those life-saving medicines and frequent clinic visits. I am referring here to the average healthy adult, who has no major medical problems, yet is taking perhaps twice as many prescription drugs and seeing multiple doctors 3 - 4 times as often as he would have done ten or fifteen years ago. Is he any healthier for it?
There is no doubt that modern medical care has made a tremendous impact on keeping us healthy and alive. The average life expectancy has increased dramatically over the last half century, from about 67 years in 1950 to almost 78 years today, and those who live to age 65 can expect to have, on average, almost 18 additional years to live! Some of this is due to lifestyle changes but most of the gain is due to advances in medical care, especially in two areas: cardiac disease and infectious diseases, especially in the treatment of AIDS. Cancer survival is just starting to make an impact as well. But how much additional longevity can we expect to gain by piling even more medical care on healthy individuals?
Too much health care can lower rather than improve your quality of life, and possibly even shorten it. For example, women who are given estrogens to relieve menopause symptoms have a significant risk of breast cancer. Blood pressure medicines can lead to unrecognized fatigue and depression; the same can be seen with sleeping pills, muscle relaxants, and anti-anxiety meds. Unnecessary X-rays or scans can lead to unneeded biopsies, which might result in serious complications. Even yearly PSA screening for prostate cancer can harm more men than it helps. Testosterone supplements can result in dangerously high blood counts. And of course, the money you spend on medications can be substantial, and the extra time you spend going to an office visit cuts into your leisure time and your income--directly impacting your quality of life.
How do you, the patient, break this cycle? First, you have to understand its cause. I'm sure you won't be surprised by my answer, which is "money." The "medical-industrial complex," operates on a fee-for-service business concept, and the way to increase profits is to increase services.
In the not-too-distant past, a person would have one General Practitioner (GP) or Primary Care Physician (PCP) who oversaw his health care. The GP would triage emergencies, treat chronic conditions such as hypertension, anemia or diabetes, diagnose new conditions that need intervention, and, when needed, refer the patient to a specialist for a visit or two. Extremely efficient for the patient, and somewhat time-consuming for the physician who, of course, would be reimbursed for his time. But today, private insurance and the CMS (Center for Medicare and Medicaid), the federal oversight agency, set limits on what can be charged for clinic visits by a GP vs. a specialist, sets costs for procedures, limits the allowable length of a clinic visit, and determines what diagnoses will be covered and what won't. From an economic perspective, this payment system incentivizes multiple short doctor visits to specialists rather than one-stop shopping with a GP. The resultant fragmentation of health care leads to more treatment, more medication, and poor coordination of care (see "The Bystander Effect in Medical Care: Why do I have so many doctors not taking care of me?" May 20, 2013).
The paradigm has shifted from "one patient, one doctor, many diagnoses" to "one patient, many diagnoses, and a doctor for each diagnosis." And with each new doctor comes a new set of medications, and many more return office visits, of which many are done by mid-level providers, that is, nurse practitioners or physician assistants. Mid-level providers tend to perpetuate the status quo; they can speed a patient quickly through a routine clinic visit, but may not have the medical expertise to diagnose new problems, further increasing referrals to specialists. The latest innovation in health care, electronic medical records, further perpetuate medical inertia by including no-brainer "check boxes" for return clinic visits, automatic prescription renewals, and referrals to other specialists in the system.
How can you, the patient, insure that you are getting only the amount of health care you need? It's not a good idea to stop medications on your own, and it can be intimidating to confront your doctor for advice on how to do with less of him! But if you are serious about cutting back on health care, start with the following steps:
1. Be familiar each medicine you are taking--its name, what it does, and what condition it is treating.
2. For each medication, do you still have the condition for which it was prescribed? If not, would the condition return if the medication were stopped? (Examples are hypertension, thyroid disease and diabetes). Was it prescribed for a short course of treatment that is completed, but no one bothered to discontinue the prescription? For example, if you were put on arthritis medication for a bad knee, and you subsequently had a knee replacement, the pain med should have been stopped.
3. Are you taking multiple medications for a single condition when perhaps one might suffice? Sometimes all that is needed are dose adjustments. For example, getting the correct dose of a blood pressure medication might require many re-checks and frequent dose changes, and it is easier for a provider to merely add a second or third pill.
4. Are some of your medications expensive, or have high co-pays? For each class of drug (e.g. antibiotics, sleeping pills, acid-reducers, cholesterol medication) your insurance company has a preferred choice. See if your doctor can switch to that one instead. You might need to ask your pharmacist, or call the insurance company directly, to get their list, and then ask the prescribing doctor if it's appropriate and, if so, to change the prescription (and cancel the other one).
5. How many doctors do you see regularly? In particular, how many specialists are you seeing and how often? Find out what is the purpose of any return visits they schedule, and whether some of this can be done by phone or electronic messaging. Or better yet, can the follow up be done by your PCP? Or has the problem been resolved and you are a victim of the "return to clinic" check box? You may have to make an extra visit to the specialist to get this information and end the relationship.
Once you get this information, here are some steps you can then take:
1. Discontinue as many medications as you can, or switch to acceptable, cheaper alternatives, with your doctor's assistance.
2. Review your personal list of prescribed medications, and compare it to the one in the medical record at your doctor's office. Remove all medications from the list that you are not actively taking, or that have already been discontinued, and make sure this is reflected in the medical record. And by all means, confirm that it is not on auto-renewal at your pharmacy.
3. Cut down the number of doctor's visit, once you have determined which specialists you need to see, and which one don't add anything to your health care.
4. Prioritize and simplify your ongoing medical care. Mid-level practitioners are great for maintenance of existing chronic conditions, but when a condition changes, or there is a new problem, insist on seeing the doctor instead. (Most of my inappropriate referrals come from mid-levels who are trying to solve a problem they don't have the training to solve.)
5. Ask your PCP to interpret and prioritize your visits to specialists, and for the specialist to discuss and coordinate your care with your PCP. If your PCP is not accessible or interested, consider finding another one.
6. Make use of electronic messaging, email, or phone calls when possible, to replace clinic visits.
7. Adopt lifestyle changes suggested by your doctor that might help you avoid taking additional medication, such as weight loss, exercise, smoking cessation, diet modification. If you go through with this, ask for feedback from your doctor, who should be willing to re-evaluate your meds and your health--after all, he suggested it.
Now let's turn the tables and see how difficult this can be for the doctor. When I see someone who is stuck in the web of medical inertia, I may say, "You have too many doctors and are taking too many pills. It's time to cut back on both." I am often met with resistance. Surprisingly, many people prefer to continue on the way they are. They don't want to hear that they don't need all these medications, or that their symptoms are due to depression or anxiety. They would rather take a pill than stop smoking, or lose weight.
For the rest, I do my best to help. I'm reluctant to stop medications started by another doctor; however, I can offer to help review medications and diagnoses. I can contact the doctor and see if the medication is necessary. I'll help to find cheaper alternatives when I can. As a rule, I don't renew medications that I didn't originally prescribe. For patients whose condition I am managing, I'll try to do a lot of my follow up by email or messaging, taking advantage of the electronic record. Every little bit helps.
Cutting back on medical care is a slow process on an individual level, and we physicians are just as frustrated as you are with the excesses in the system. The situation is not going to be improved by more insurance, but by reform of the entire system--which is unlikely to happen in my lifetime unless patients get involved and start demanding a change.
When I brought up this topic with friends, I was amazed to find how many had stories to tell about their personal experience with excessive health care. Do you, too, want to make a change? Please feel free to share your stories here. Maybe we can start to make a difference.
The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not reflect those of my employer, Geisinger Health Systems.
Glass beads on steel and razor wire, 132x156x156"
Photo credit: Stephen White courtesy of White Cube, London.
Monday, August 04, 2014
On PBS Nature Documentaries, and My Life as a Turkey
by Hari Balasubramanian
One late summer afternoon two years ago, I saw a monarch butterfly casually fly across my office window in Amherst, Massachusetts. If I had not known what monarchs do, I would have only admired its beauty and then forgotten all about it. But since I'd seen a documentary on these butterflies the previous year – how this little creature, barely a few inches long and wide, makes a 2000-mile journey from Canada and US to certain forests in Mexico all by itself, traveling as much as 50 miles each day, navigating its way based on some unknown compass, and then returning back to its northern haunts in the space of multiple generations – since I knew these facts, that moment when I glimpsed the butterfly was suddenly full of wonder and meaning.
I mention this because many nature documentaries, or even short videos, have had a similar effect on me. I like the PBS Nature series the most (full videos available here). The species, habitats and themes vary –and not all the episodes are consistent – but there is always something unusual to learn and contemplate. Just a few random examples: how the male stork, after having made a long journey from Africa to a rooftop nest in a German village, reunites with its late-arriving partner (Earthflight); how a relatively small creature such as the honey badger could be so powerful, intelligent, and – this was the most striking for me – be gifted with a fearless attitude, so much that even lions know to stay away; or, how some astonishing friendships can be formed across species, as in the sanctuary where a goat, unfailingly and without any obvious benefit to itself, helps lead a blind, old horse on its daily graze every single day (Animal Odd Couples).
My Life as a Turkey
Today, though, I'll focus on a Nature episode that won the Emmy award for outstanding nature programming. First aired in November 2011, My Life as a Turkey (full video) skillfully recreates the year that that naturalist and wildlife artist Joe Hutto spent raising 16 wild turkey chicks all by himself, in a forest in Florida. (The qualifier "wild" distinguishes wild turkeys from their domesticated cousins that are consumed as food.)
Hutto isn't simply a passive observer. He takes on the role of an emotionally invested mother from the moment the turkeys are born until they are independent. As he writes in Illumination in the Flatwoods, the book on which the film is based: "Had I known what was in store—the difficult nature of the study and the time I was about to invest—I would have been hard pressed to justify such an intense involvement. But, fortunately, I naively allowed myself to blunder into a two-year commitment that was at once exhausting, often overwhelming, enlightening, and one of the most inspiring and satisfying experiences of my life."
The process of becoming a parent to the newborn of another species is called imprinting. The scientific basis for imprinting was established by the famous Austrian naturalist Konrad Lorenz. In the film, the wild turkey chicks, immediately after emerging from their egg shells, unequivocally consider Hutto – whose calls they had heard when they were in their shells, and whom they now again hear, see and touch in the first critical seconds after stepping out – as their mother and protector. "Something also moved inside of me," Hutto says in the voice-over, "something very profound. And I realized that my involvement in this experiment was going to be very personal, a very emotional ride for me..." These moments are captured beautifully in the film (short clip).
Modestly called a "reenactment", the documentary is actually a genuine recreation, a replication of Hutto's experiment, which happened in 1991. Jeff Palmer, the actor in the documentary, tried imprinting himself in a different forest in Florida, close to twenty years after Hutto's attempt. He was successful; it took Palmer an entire year to raise his own wild turkeys. The filmaking team along with Palmer were able to replicate at least some events and interactions that Hutto had chronicled. This validation makes the film that much more convincing and powerful.
My Life as a Turkey is also visually stunning. The camera roves ceaselessly over many details of the forest – grass, leaves, fallen logs on the forest floor; deer, squirrels, a fleeting glimpse of a black bear; numerous insects but especially grasshoppers which the turkeys love to hunt; plenty of spiders suspended in giant webs; snakes of all kinds, including an unforgettable shot of a snake sipping water that has collected in a fallen leaf – so many of these details are captured that the viewer doesn't think of the wild turkey in isolation, but as part of a rich and beautiful whole. To Hutto, this glimpse of the forest is no accident: "It seems as if a whole world is opening up to me. It's not just the birds I am getting close to; somehow they allow me passage into a secret side of these oak hammocks...I’ve walked these oak hammocks for over twenty years, and I had no idea how many rattlesnakes there were here. I’d see maybe two in a year. Now with these turkeys we’re finding two or three every day!"
As a naturalist, Hutto remains constantly curious about the behavior of the turkeys. He makes observations about their intelligence, communication skills, playfulness, and need for affection. Most of them occur in the middle section, when Palmer, enacting Hutto, is shown roaming the forest with his little companions. Here are some observations that I found striking; most of them are backed up by the video images. All quoted sections are based on Hutto's voice-over which I copied from the closed captions.
First, Hutto's amazement on how much the birds already know about the forest:
They have the basic blueprint, about all the plants and all the animals. It's incredibly complete… They are born entomologists. It's already there – they don't have to be taught which insect is dangerous, which one is palatable. They don't have to be taught which snake is harmless and which one is venomous. They know exactly.
The different birds' personalities are expressed in the way they explore the forest. They even seem to have their own individual interests. Sweet Pea and Rosita [two females] have a particular fascination with squirrels. Turkey Boy [a male] met a deer today. I am amazed how bold he is. He walked and was nose-to-nose with it. They were absolutely unafraid. They [the turkeys] absolutely knew that this creature [the deer] was a benevolent neighbor and not a potential predator. And I thought this was a remarkable discrimination, considering that a coyote for example, is a tawny brown animal with big ears and intense stare.
Second, Hutto notices how turkeys seem to react to dead animals, or when things are somewhat askew:
Turkeys displayed a type of obsession over the sight of a dead animal and they would revisit those sites very cautiously and they would examine very closely, and occasionally, they would actually pick up a bone, not in a playful way but in a curious way and drop it. They would observe the skeleton very intensely. And it seemed that they never tired of examining a dead animal and trying to understand what the implication of that was. That behavior does not facilitate survival directly. It's not about predation, it's not about food, it's about understanding the world.
They had a perfect memory of what that entire forest is supposed to look like. If any object was out of order, if a new limb had fallen out of a tree, they would find that limb very disturbing. They would approach a stump of a fallen tree or a rotted tree, and that was a fascinating thing as most things are to wild turkeys. But interestingly, when we approached a very old stump of a tree that had been sawn down by loggers, something about that was very disturbing to a wild turkey. I thought it was a fabulous and interesting response but I don't know why. But here was a stump that had been cut 10, 15, 20 years before and yet there was something not right about that. The turkeys would find it very interesting and actually disturbing.
Third, the intricate vocalizations that the birds use to communicate:
Turkeys in general have this misplaced reputation for stupidity. This experiment of mine has proven quite the opposite. There are many things to suggest that wild turkey are intelligent, but my experience with learning their vocabulary taught me how profound this intelligence actually is. You have to be this close to a creature to understand how it communicates. And in fact they have specific vocalizations for individual animals. And I actually learned these vocalizations and when I would hear a certain vocalization I would know without question they had found a rattlesnake and not a gray rat snake.
I have identified over 30 specific calls, and my vocabulary is growing every day! I am learning to talk Turkey! Interestingly, I learned that, within each one of those calls, there are inflections that have very different meanings...
When turkeys see a hawk soaring in the distance and they're not really disturbed by the hawk's soaring but they want everybody to know that it's there and so they emit what I called a low nasal whine and it causes everyone to be very still and quiet. I didn't have the capacity to understand every vocalization but somehow I had the capacity to understand their meaning and that was an almost magical thing that occurred with these young birds.
The film's last section shows Hutto grappling with the inevitable. The turkeys are becoming more and more independent and do not need him around any more. Hutto is left, literally, with "an empty nest". He finds it difficult to readjust. He finds that "their absence seemed to change the ecology completely. And the rattlesnakes seemed to disappear. And I realized that the turkeys had afforded me this privileged experience, this insight into their world that had finally closed its doors to me."
There are two turkeys who do linger on: Sweet Pea, with whom he has always had an affectionate relationship; and Turkey Boy, with whom he has enjoyed a long and close companionship. But Sweet Pea and her newly laid eggs are preyed on; and Turkey Boy eventually turns aggressive. This makes for a somewhat disturbing conclusion. But the Turkey-Boy story told in the film is stylized and not entirely accurate; for a more nuanced and gripping version, one that also ends more amicably, read the epilogue of Hutto's book, Illumination in the Flatwoods.
A small post-script. Since his wild turkey experiment, Hutto has continued to reach out to other species. He moved to Wyoming where, in one project, he spent many months living alone in the Wind River Mountains, following a herd of bighorn sheep; he writes about it in the book, The Light in High Places. Finally, a recent Nature episode, aptly called Touching the Wild, shows Hutto's long involvement with a herd of mule deer, whose trust and acceptance he gains not by imprinting, but through long hours of being patiently present in the vicinity of the herd.
Sughra Raza. Be-Unvaan. March 2014.
By Maniza Naqvi
Like, Caesars, seated on couches, now remote controls in hand, watching people on couches watching:
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and two one thousand five hundred and three….
Work in Process
Telephonic Love: A Misreading
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
In January of 2009, I was browsing through news networks when I came across a headline that read: "Indian call centre employee punished for harassing British woman". Seeing that I was in the process of writing a dissertation on call centers around that time, my interest was piqued. The article reported that British Telecom (BT) had received a complaint from one of its customers saying that she had been receiving creepy messages from an employee at BT's call center. She had earlier called the customer centre in order to have an engineer sent to install a landline at her house and had subsequently been contacted by the agent who wanted to know where she lived and what she was doing for the day. The agent's name was reported as Hemant; the woman's identity was not disclosed. Hemant was reported to have subsequently begun sending her text messages on her phone, some of which are included in the article.
"Hello, Hemant this side with whom you spoke two hours ago regarding ur BT order. U must be thinking dat why I called u up second time without any reason of the call but to be honest I got attracted towards u and ur wonderful voice. Can I be ur friend?"
"As precious as u r to me, as precious only few can ever be, I know all friends r hard to choose but u r someone I never want to lose. Take care xxx."
The woman is also reported as having complained: "The messages were inappropriate and very creepy. I felt as if I was being stalked."
The messages are inappropriate in many ways. They transgress privacy, professionalism, and grammar all in one text. One wonders what manner of desire fuelled this transoceanic burst of sentiment. Did Hemant in his cubicle, attending to one British call after another find a moment of connection in the caller's "wonderful voice"? Did he see this as a way to bring nearer one of the many callers who were to him not even a face, but only a voice? Did she speak kindly to him and chat in a manner that assured him that she was ready and waiting for him to make a move? Was he egged on by colleagues who saw him flirting on the phone with a caller? Was it merely a dare? Did he, in the Lacanian sense, read beyond the phrase-ology of polite customer communication, in itself a complete economy of empty language gestures? Did he fill the emptiness with content of his own and break the symbolic understanding of customer-agent communication?
To be a good "professional" the call centre worker, like many of us deployed in the service sector, must read and deploy efficiently the emptiness of the language he uses. He must use pleasantries, allay fears, restore confidence and ensure that the hundred odd people who call in every night are assured not only a useful, but also a pleasant conversation. Small talk, politeness and interest become part of the work that the agent must perform. In these new regimes of the service economies, the emphasis is on what is termed the "customer experience". It is not just the product or service that is bought that needs to be evaluated, but the sum total of processes that the customer experiences while skirting anywhere near the process of purchase. Any point of engagement must therefore be marked by the organization.
From the point of time that the customer comes in contact with anything that the organization can claim its own; a billboard, a television advertisement, an employee, the clock starts ticking. The seller's store frontage, an article in a journal, a newsaper report, sales personnel, their terms of speech and tone of voice, all become part of the "customer experience". The corporation stands defined not as one physical entity, but as a vast network of nodes of contact; contact defined loosely as the affective production of the sense of contact. The worker must therefore be taught to actively produce "positive" affects.
Training for customer service offered through the phone (one which is fast becoming the primary mode of service) therefore usually includes notes on "feel good" communication. The worker's modes of speech as much as the content of communication must make the customer happy . The inclusion of standard phrases like "I'm happy to help", "Have I managed to solve your problem today?" and "I am very sorry about the problems you have been having", are drilled into the person making contact so that every possible situation that might require a solicitous remark and mode of empathy display a corresponding mode of speech. Even when the content of communication may be inappropriate, unpleasant or not to the liking of the customer, the manner of voice must smooth ire and manage affect. Both language and voice must come together to exhibit the true feelings of the body that cannot be seen or read and the person that is only available through a voice.
In his work, A Voice and Nothing More , Mladen Dolar argues that the voice both stands between and connects body and language, noise and meaningful articulation. In his understanding, the voice is uncanny, a product of the body and yet separate from it and in itself alone, therefore both singular and true. The paradox here, of course is that this production of affect through a "truly" empathetic self is produced through a voice and a tone that must often be affected.
While it is obvious that the voice belongs to a docile body, the body itself is further called to transformation through a very clear articulation of the need to manage posture, comportment and facial gestures. In training workers, it is constantly iterated that the voice is contiguous with body. Only when consistent in its component parts will the self come together as truly willing to the task at hand. Hence the calls to smile and maintain an erect posture in order to project a proactive attitude. Some organizations have mirrors at individual computer stations so the agents can observe their faces while speaking on the phone. An online advertisement for such a "PC Mirror" reads, "Increase sales and customer satisfaction by upto 16%", and goes on to explain, "By checking your image before and during a conversation, you can help ensure the success of your sale."
A common story around the call centre industry in India is that Indian customer service agents (unlike workers in the US, because the US or the Western worker is always the Other of this industry) are more humane; they connect better with the people who call and are hence able to provide superior levels of service. This humaneness however is also alternatively read as excessive familiarity, untoward curiosity and an indiscreet sociality. Distance is a keyword, but friendliness is encouraged. Conditions of gender, race, class and context underline, and interweave between various forms of speech, innocent and otherwise, to mediate friendliness. In the varied hierarchies that are both denied and affirmed in the daily activities of the customer service worker lie the cues for managing distance.
To return to the story that I left dangling, was Hemant merely logically concluding the feelings he had begun to deploy in order to be a good worker? Would it have not been inappropriate to be cold and unfriendly? Given that one who employs language purely in its instrumentality and is insensitive to its performative dimension is the sociopath of this symbolic universe, was Hemant merely trying too hard?
This symbolic world, however, is in itself, I argue, a realm of speculation and a field fraught with many such symbolic breaks. What happens in these instances of inappropriate behaviour is not, an inability to read, but a misreading.
Many scholars of globalization are in agreement that capitalist modernity is without a doubt, intimate. However, what is often puzzling is how social relationships can be understood in relation to modernizing markets. Are they produced as collective subjectivities by laboring practices? Are they corralled into the service of new forms of work, thereby rendering the production of human connection central to the practice of work? Are they the casualty that falls prey to the bulldozing effects of capitalizing markets?
Intimate life within globalization narratives of the twenty-first century follow a familiar rhetoric. Those living in the city seem to be beset by a loss of emotional connection, a condition of contagion as widespread as the movement of good, capital, and people. Even as mobilities of capital create possibilities of connection, human relations are said to be ravaged by an increasing distance from communitas. Coming to modernity seems to bring with it a necessary alienation. Georg Simmel's Metropolis and Mental Life for example, speaks of this constitutive loneliness in a city inhabited by the blase subjects of modernity.
A contrary view holds that globalization itself builds on registers of intimacy and indeed, practices of consumerism, production and work stem not from the homogenization of the world but through and within the intimate feelings of participating subjects. Globalization in this alternate conception is a set of culturally, but also intimately specific ways in which subjects respond to large-scale processes of economic and political change. Hemant's love, in other words, may well become known very soon as what in professional parlance is termed an "occupational hazard".
Monday, July 28, 2014
The Morality of Perversion
by Grace Boey
When Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was first published in 1955, the novel generated an enormous amount of controversy. Narrated by Humbert Humbert, a fictional literature professor in his late thirties, the tragicomedy depicts his obsessive sexual relationship with 12-year-old Dolores Haze—the eponymous Lolita.
60 years down the road, the book remains as controversial as ever. A large part of this seems to be that Lolita, despite our moral condemnation of child sex, somehow manages to elicit the reader’s sympathy for its pedophilic ‘protagonist’ (who is, possibly, more accurately described as a hebephile). Beyond our contempt for Humbert, there is also disgust with ourselves. How dare we even think of sympathizing with such a pervert? Surely by doing so we inch closer to condoning sex with children.
Such confusion reflects unresolved thoughts and feelings about sexual deviation in general. What does it mean to sympathize with perversion? Where, exactly, lies the wrong in what many of us think of as sexual deviance—such as pedophilia, zoophilia, homosexuality, and various other unusual forms of sexuality? What specifically is it that’s so outrageous about the affair between Humbert and Dolores? To answer such questions, we must delve into the field of sexual ethics.
Sex: the moral minefield
Why is the ethics of sex even a thing? For one, sex is a significant act which plays a big part in an individual’s life. How someone practices (or doesn’t practice) sex is intertwined with their emotions, relationships, expression and identity. Moreover, sex is an act involving our own bodies that we either wish to participate in, or don’t. In deontological terms or rights-speak, there are important rights and potential violations surrounding sex. From a consequentialist perspective, there is the potential for both great harm and utility to arise from sex. All this makes sex something we should tread around pretty carefully.
Historically, sexual dynamics have also played a huge role in ordering society (and continue to do so). Our psychological perceptions of morality often end up having a lot to do with maintaining social order. Fields like experimental moral psychology and evolutionary psychology seek to uncover these mental biases. It has been, for example, suggested that moral judgments about promiscuity may have come about as a way of keeping a gender-based social order intact; sleeping around is more likely to be considered a moral violation in places where women are economically dependent on men.
So thinking carefully about the morality of sex is important, because there are substantive deontological and consequential concerns surrounding its practice, and also because it is important to check the psychological biases we have towards our moral judgments about sex.
Orientation versus behaviour, deviation versus disorder
There are two important distinctions to make when analyzing the morality of any sexual phenomenon: that between internal orientation and actual behaviour, and that between statistical deviation and disorder.
To understand the distinction between orientation and behaviour, consider the following: many of us have had murderous thoughts or violent fantasies directed at other individuals; however, we stop ourselves from carrying these desires out because we know that doing so would be wrong. So unless we really believes in involuntary thought crimes, we must acknowledge the substantive moral distinction between internal desire and action.
This is something like the distinction between sexual orientation and related behaviour. Though certain internal orientations generate desires which predispose one to certain types of behaviours, the two things are distinct. Pedophilia, for example is an orientation; sex with pre-pubescent children is an act. The former entails experiencing involuntary desires to commit the latter. Yet, there are non-pedophiles who non-pathologically and non-recurrently engage in sexual activity with children, and there are pedophiles who choose not to act upon their desires. There is even a ‘Virtuous Pedophile’ online group—a community of those who are involuntarily attracted to children, but commendably resist the urge to sexually abuse them.
Moving on, it’s also important to distinguish statistically atypical sexuality from sexual disorders. Consider this question: when is it desirable to ‘cure’, ‘treat’ or ‘manage’ someone’s unusual sexual preferences?
It helps to take a look at the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). DSM-V distinguishes between atypical sexual orientations (or ‘paraphilias’) that are benign and paraphilic disorders. A paraphilia by itself does not automatically justify or require psychiatric intervention. A paraphilic disorder, on the other hand, “causes distress or impairment to the individual or harm to others”, and calls for psychiatric treatment.
In formulating this distinction, DSM-V’s paraphilia sub-work group noted the following:
“The important thing for us was distinguishing between benign paraphilias versus paraphilic disorders that cause real anguish to the individual or predispose the individual to violate the rights of other people or harm them in serious ways.”
There are, of course, substantive reservations to be had about DSM-V and DSM in general, the practice of labeling certain things as ‘disorders’ or ‘psychopathologies’, or—for that matter—the odd fact that the APA finds it necessary to outline benign paraphilias in a mental illness manual at all. Yet, it’s hard to disagree with the idea that it is beneficial and desirable to help someone out with his involuntary orientation when it causes harm to others, or causes distress or impairment to himself.
The necessity of treating such paraphilias should not be a moral judgment on anyone for their sexual orientation; intervention is something that is simply done to protect the individual as well as others.
Case studies in deviance
By applying what’s been said above, let’s consider three cases studies of sexual ‘deviance’ in turn: pedophilia, homosexuality and objectophilia—sexual attraction to inanimate objects.
As previously discussed, pedophilia is an orientation, whereas having sexual relations with children is the harmful act. This act is always seen as sexual abuse, for at least two reasons: children lack the developmental capacity to meaningfully consent to intimate acts, and there is overwhelming evidence demonstrating that sexual acts between adults and children tend to cause significant, long-lasting psychological harm to children.
To have sexual relations with a child, then, is morally wrong—whether or not the perpetrator is a pedophile. Also, while simply existing as a pedophile warrants no moral judgment, it is certainly in everyone’s best interests if the individual controls his impulses, or receives treatment to manage his sexual desires. Not only is it harmful to children if he shouldn't, it's also distressing for the pedophile himself to know that his involuntary sexual desires should never be fulfilled. In this regard, professional help mitigates any harm caused both to potential victims and the pedophile himself.
Something else that’s thought of as deviant by many is homosexuality. Note, again, that homosexuality—sexual attraction to other members of the same sex—is the orientation, whereas sexual relations between members of the same sex is the act. In this case, such an act committed between two consenting adults causes no harm to anyone involved. Our moral verdict should be that there is nothing wrong with homosexual orientations or same-sex acts.
Attempts to argue against legalizing gay rights by comparing homosexuality to pedophilia, then, fail as the slope from one to the other turns out to be not so slippery at all. Other than the fact that both pedophilic and homosexual orientations appear to be statistical minorities, the two cases have nothing more in common. The morality of gayness has nothing to do with pedophilia or other potentially harmful deviances.
The final case study to be examined is the curious one of objectophilia, or object sexuality. Anyone unfamiliar with this sexual orientation can start by acquainting themselves with Erika Eiffel, the object-sexual who married a certain world-famous tower.
The inanimate, lifeless subjects of an object-sexual’s affection are not things to which the concept of consent applies; neither are these objects capable of suffering from harm. So unless one takes serious issue with the use of sex toys on the grounds that a dildo be harmed or cannot give consent, there’s really nothing immoral about people having ‘sex’ with balloons, cars or bridges.
But one thing should be noted about object-sexuals: although there are plenty of them who get along just fine, at least some cases are said to be linked to the individual’s inability to develop meaningful relationships with people—an inability that persists in causing them genuine personal distress. In such a case, ‘treating’ the object-sexuality may be a necessary step along the way of helping the individual develop healthy human relationships. In such a case, treatment is desirable only because it is beneficial to the individual’s well-being.
Sympathy for the Devil
Returning to Lolita: it's easy for readers to experience spurts of sympathy for Humbert. Dolores, after all, was the one who initiated the affair, and she was hardly unacquainted with sex when she did it, having lost her virginity at a summer camp to a young man named Charlie Holmes. Humbert paints a portrait of himself as an unwitting accomplice to the entire affair, seduced by a manipulative nymphet who was all too good at getting what she wanted. He appears, as well, to fit the criteria for pathological pedophilia or hebephilia, having exclusively been attracted to young girls from the start. Humbert, it seems, was set up for depravity from the start. It is completely natural to pity anyone set up for desires that are so strong, yet so utterly wrong and harmful.
Yet make no mistake: despite his efforts to portray otherwise, Humbert knew exactly what he was doing when he acted upon his desires, and had numerous opportunities to remove himself from the situation long before his temptress made her advances. And the fact that she advanced upon him is of no consequence: she was still a child with a child's mentality (as he himself observed numerous times). As the party with more experience and more power, Humbert should have known better than to succumb—and it is here that the immorality of Lolita lies.
As the novel progresses, it becomes sadly obvious that young Dolores was not fully cognizant of her best interests when she initiated the affair. Along the way she becomes irreparably damaged by their relationship: she learns to view sex as a transaction, and enters a confusing cycle of resentment and dependence on Humbert that characterizes so many real-life cases of child sexual abuse. Dolores, in the end, escapes to land up broke and pregnant in a clapboard shack, dying at the age of 17 after a stillbirth on Christmas day.
Ultimately, the essence of what should outrage us the most about Lolita is captured in its last scene. As Humbert stands atop a mountain and gazes at the town below, it dawns upon him that a little girl has been robbed of an innocent childhood:
“What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that … I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.”
Baltimore > Boston > Binghampton > Columbus > Lebanon > Groom > Chamber > Needles > Orange?
by Akim Reinhardt
In February the word came in. My brother in law had a job offer in Orange County. He and my sister would finally be giving up the little apartment in far northern Manhattan and heading for the West coast.
"Lemme know if I can help," I to told my sister.
"You wanna drive the moving truck across the country with Noah?" she asked.
"Sure, I can do that," I said.
Monday, July 21
With luggage, I make the 20 minute walk to the light rail station. Train shows up, and the ride to the airport is uneventful. Not like last time when I had some drunk fool trying to pick a fight with me at 9:00 in the morning cause he thought I was "gay lookin'" at him. Goin' on about how he did a dime in prison and he'd kick my ass, except he's either about 60 years old or a very rough 50, and already lit, drinking tall boys out of paper bags, so no, he can't actually kick my ass. After not engaging, I finally had to tell him to shut the fuck up already, but that didn't help. Didn't make it worse either. Just kept on prattling his belligerent, drunken shit.
Nothing like that this time. To the airport, all good. Until you walk in to find your flight's been delayed two hours.
After what passes for a nice meal at BWI (decent beer, cured olives, mixed salad with goat cheese; actually, that's a nice meal anywhere), I mosey over to the gate. My gate's jammed, so I go to something a bit emptier. I open up Murdering McKinley by Eric Rauchway, a history prof up at UC Davis. He's a good writer, which isn't a given for a historian.
I mean, just look at this pablum.
About thirty pages in, this terribly annoying extended family sits next to me. Not a decent one in the lot.
I move on to a quieter spot. Then the guy behind me starts slurping the straw of his empty Dunkin' Donuts cup. And he won't stop. On and off for 20 minutes. I look behind me. He's about 50 years old
Truly, there is no sense of decorum left in this country.
Tuesday, July 22
We're departing from central Mass. Mostly I'm just here for the driving. I've circled and criss-crossed the U.S. many times. Noah's done it once. More than a decade ago he drove a gray '89 Cadillac Brougham nicknamed "The Phantom" across the northern route, which we won't be taking. So I guess I'm also here to lend my "wisdom." Share the driving, help plot the route, offer tips on various logistical issues.
And I'm not to pay for anything. They've made that clear. He's got a moving budget. My flights from Baltimore to Boston and then from LA back to Baltimore are covered. So are all my expenses along the way. That works.
Noah's got a 16' Penske truck. Hooked behind that is a trailer for the car, an '04 Civic. On top of that is a thirteen and a half foot kayak.
He's strapped the kayak onto cars many times before. But neither of us has ever hooked up a trailer to a truck, or loaded a car onto a trailer. Or driven a truck with a trailer, much less one that's got a car on it, and a yellow kayak on top of that, looking like an insane paper hat.
When we get the truck over to Home Depot, which is apparently a place you can pick up Penske trailers, they're sorta helpful. But they also make it clear that it's all on us cause they're not the Penske people and they can't be responsible if anything goes wrong. Oh, and the pin that guarantees the trailer won't separate from the truck? It's missing, the guy tells us. He casually suggests we should probably go to aisle 16 and buy a new pin. The Penske people will probably reimburse us.
I eyeball a big drawer of different sized pins. I pull out a .55 cent cotter pin that ends up fitting perfectly. I'm also good at guessing distances, crowd sizes, and peoples' heights and weights. That's the kind of "wisdom" you get when you bring me along for the ride.
And away we go.
We might die on this trip. I think it's totally reasonable to assume that might happen.
Wednesday, July 23
It took us about 25 minutes to get the truck out of the Econolodge parking lot in Binghampton, N.Y. this morning. You turn the wheel this way, truck goes that way, trailer goes this way, and on and on.
The motel handyman sat there watching us for a while, which is understandable, until you realize that his pickup truck, parked in the corner of the L-shaped lot, is the one thing that's really holding us up. I mean, that and our own incompetence, Noah attempting a 99 point turn while I shout incoherent directions. Turns out the handyman's a bit soft in the head. After some grumbling about being parked in the shade, he agreed to move it.
We eventually made our escape and drove across the southern tier of New York. Fucking gorgeous. Spending time in the Appalachians always reinforces my impatience for Rocky Mountain snobbery. Here's my impression of the Rockies:
Pine pine pine pine pine pine pine.
Even as far north as upstate New York, the Appalachians still have a nice mix of coniferous and deciduous foliage. More importantly, to me anyway, at nearly half-a-billion years old, the Appalachians are the world's elder statesmen of mountains. The oldest above sea mountains in the world, they used to be as tall as the Rockies and Alps, but erosion has left them bent and stooping. Whenever I move through them, I feel like I'm in the company of old men. Be respectful.
The young buck Rockies are taller, but that doesn't make them "majestic." It makes them preening, strutting teenagers with greased hair and tight jeans, predictable and gauche. Or, to paraphrase Phil Hartmann's Frank Sinatra: The Appalachians got chunks of mountains like the Rockies in their stool.
After a brief snippet of northwestern Pennsylvania, we entered Ohio. I once got pulled over in Ohio for doing 67 in a 65. While I was passing a semi, no less. True story. The officer didn't actually write me a ticket, but he did offer a patronizing little bromide about how "we like to obey the law here in Ohio."
Yeah, and the people in the other 49 states can't get sexually aroused unless they're committing crimes. You sanctimonious piece of shit scumbag. Go fuck yourself.
When I attended the University of Michigan in the late 1980s, the culture of hating Ohio ran deep, but being from elsewhere, I never cared. However, after that little run-in, circa 1998, it became very real for me. For example, I think it's outrageous that in virtually every road atlas, Ohio gets four pages while a huge state like New Mexico gets one.
Thursday, July 24
There was a moment. A Phil Collins song came on the radio. Noah was driving and he reached over, I assumed, to change the station. Instead, he turned it up.
I may have to council my sister to get a divorce. I know they're actively trying to have children, but priorities are important.
Other than that, Columbus, Ohio to Lebanon, Missouri, and pretty uneventful. As I learned to say in the Midwest more than a quarter of a century ago: Sweet.
But I have no illusions, and I suspect the future is quietly scheming against us.
Friday, July 25
Today was the day of deep conversations in the cab of the Penske truck. Hours on end as we tooled across Oklahoma and the panhandle of Texas. Family, politics, etc. But you ain't privy to none a that. Suffice it to say that I'm considering telling my sister that she doesn't have to divorce Noah after all.
We finally pulled over in Groom, Texas, about an hour east of Amarillo. A very pleasant Gujarati woman checked us into our motel. She was surprised that I could guess she was Gujarati.
"Well, a lot of people from there are in this business," she said, making sense of my acute handicapping skills, which are carnival barker level quality. Step right up!
I told her I have Gujarati friends back in Maryland and New Jersey.
"How long have you been here," I asked
"About ten years."
"Do you like it?"
"Yes. There's no crime or anything like that to worry about.
Perhaps as if to illustrate, she scoffed mildly and quietly when I asked if there was a password for the internet.
During my early evening shower, as I wiped the road grime from my face with a coarse, white cloth, I decided that I would not in fact steal a bar of soap or roll of toilet paper from this fine and clean mom-n-pop establishment, as is my habit when staying at chain hotels.
After dinner, I stood in a Dairy Queen parking lot and watched a Great Plains sunset.
Saturday, July 26
While Noah was still showering, I walked through Groom to the town's restaurant. Noah drove the truck over and met me there, pulling into the lot just as I showed up. We entered the country cafe and found seats. He asked for a decaf. They don't do that kinda thing, and rightly so. We had omelets, biscuits and gravy, hash browns, and some nice conversation with various people, including the owner.
Used to be cattle country, he said, but the drought did that in, and now it's mostly irrigated farming. The owner himself used to have a dozen head of cattle, but they're all gone, and now he's got the restaurant. The main crops being grown in the area are corn, cotton, and some milo. The cotton only came in about five years ago, he told us.
Afterwards, we hopped in the truck and turned on the radio. Who needs coffee when you've got Journey? "Feeling That Way"/"Anytime That You Want Me" was blasting as we made our way back to I-40.
I was still singing Broom's praises, and along with Steve Perry, when a semi nearly ran us off the road. At first he was trailing us in the right lane. Then he came out into the left and began to pass us. But inexplicably, the big rig began to move back into the right lane before he finished passing. He was only about half-way ahead of us when he started making his way into the right lane and cut us off.
Noah eased off the gas and drifted far enough right to buy us some space while not going so far as to run us into the shoulder. Handled it well. And thus does Death pass me over another day.
At a truck stop in eastern New Mexico I found homemade samosas. An Indian family was running the place and there were two women in the kitchen making food from scratch. For three bucks I got a couple of them and a little plastic container of chutney. Were they the best samosas I've ever had? Hardly. But for a truck stop in eastern New Mexico? Off the chart, brother. Off the chart.
At the filling station after that, just before Gallup, NM, I noticed my first ass pimples of the trip. After five straight days of sitting in the cab of the truck, it was to be expected. Later on that evening, while watching the dependably unfathomable colors of an an Arizona sunset from the terrace of our motel, trucks whizzing by on the interstate below, I found a third, the three of them forming an isosceles triangle on my right cheek.
I've made many long trips before, but it's different in a 16' truck. It drives much differently, of course, especially with the car hitched behind it. But I've also had a tough time getting comfortable. Even thought I'm only 5'9", there's not enough leg room for my liking. But most of all, I'm tired of being encased in a world of vinyl and hard plastic.
Sunday, July 27
This morning was a little rough. But I can't bring myself to blame yesterday's big Texas breakfast, homemade New Mexico samosas, or the chili rellenos I had for dinner. So let's just say five days on the road finally caught up to me. Fair enough. It's behind me now, and I've moved on.
Today's drive was shorter than most. After racking up 500-600 miles per day, we logged a paltry 350. One might be tempted to say we took it easy on Sunday, but honestly, the days have all blended together at this point. The only reason I even know it's Sunday is because of the deadline for this article.
We rolled into Needles, California at about 2:30 and hunkered down at the first motel we could find with truck parking and a pool. Any devoted fans of the Charlie Brown comics will recognize Needles as the hometown of Spike, Snoopy's skinny, mustachioed brother.
I don't know how you could show up in Needles on a late July afternoon and not want a cold beer. The bartender at a nearby establishment told us it was only 102 today. Apparently it hit 124 not that long ago. I lived in Phoenix for a year and actually like this kinda thing, but it's not for Noah, he of the stocky Jewish genes. He tans well, but he finds anything over 85 to be oppressive. I tried to sell him on the virtues of dry heat instead of the East coast humidity he's used to, but he was having none of it.
After the bar, we returned to the motel and went for a dip in the pool. We were talking to some nice people who were on their way from Albuquerque to Disney Land when the transformer for the motel blew. There was a loud bang and then a big aluminum thingee on top of the shed behind the pool shot into the air and came crashing back down. Since it didn't land on anyone, we in the pool simply resumed our pleasant conversations.
However, we returned to the room to find the electricity out. So after quick showers, we walked to a Mexican restaurant the bartender had recommended earlier. Outstanding food.
But despite the glorious repast and pleasant stroll afterwards, I approached our motel room in a state of mild panic. What if the juice is still out? How will I file this paean to easy travel and mediocre writing? How will I meet my deadline? I pride myself on never missing deadlines and haven't missed a single one during my nearly four years of writing for 3QD.
I've seen a lotta roadside stuff about Jesus Christ being available for saving one from trying times. I myself am an atheistic motherfucker, but if there is a sentient creator out an about, then that good Lord was on my side tonight.
We walked back into the room to find the alarm clock blinking red numbers. And thus, dear reader, I can share these 2600-some-odd words with you.
There's just one more day in the truck awaiting us. God willin' and the creek don't rise, we'll arrive in the town of Orange in Orange County, California as you're reading these words. There'll be unloading, unpacking, and this-n-that. Then on Wednesday I catch a red eye out of LAX back to Baltimore, and I'll be ready to stand still.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
Jennifer West. Film Quilt, 2013.
Sing Me a Song of Hyperobjects: Starting over with Humans and Other Creatures in the 21st Century CE
by Bill Benzon
Timothy Morton. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press 2013. 229 pp.
This is a strange book, for it is three. There is the book that is easy to praise for its range of topics – quantum mechanics, La Monte Young, global warming, The Matrix, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, for example – and its quasi-virtuoso stylistic versatility. There is, as well, the book that is easy to criticize – though I’m sure some would regard that as too mild a word – for its conceptual instabilities, lapses in logic, and misreading of science.
And there is another book, the one leaking out of the cracks and pores in the first two. That book has the scattered beginnings of a framework in which we can construct a viable approach to the future. That's the book I'm writing about, making this essay as much an interpretation of as a review of Morton's fine Hyperobjects.
Hyperobjects and Objects
Hyperobjects are “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” (p. 1). What isn’t a hyperobject is an object. Kumquats, automobiles, palm trees, squids, geosynchronous satellites, Olympic records, a promise, a rooster’s crow, these are all objects in the philosophical sense of the word. In the first paragraph of the book Morton lists these examples: the Lago Agrio oil field, Florida Everglades, the biosphere, the Solar System, “the sum total of all the nuclear materials on Earth; or just the plutonium, or the uranium,” Styrofoam, plastic bags, or “the sum of all the whirring machinery of capitalism.”
The philosophical sense of object is not quite the same as the ordinary sense, which tends toward physical things that are neither very large nor very small. Roughly speaking, for Morton and proponents of other object oriented ontology (OOO) – a recent school of Continental philosophy – anything that can be designated by a noun or a noun phrase is an object. Anything. Including, of course hyperobjects.
The point is that all objects are of the same ontological kind. No objects are higher than others, as in the old Great Chain of Being, where animate things are higher than inanimate, animals higher than plants, human higher than animals, angels above humans, and God at the very top. Objects may well contain other objects as components, but they cannot be reduced to those components – a critical feature of objects according to OOO.
Hyperobjects, of course, are objects as well. But they can be difficult to grasp as such because they are, in Morton’s formulation, massively distributed in time and space. They are also viscous, nonlocal, phased, undulate in time, and “exhibit their effects interobjectively” (p. 1), each of which is discussed in a chapter. Morton’s exposition goes through quantum mechanics, relativity, complexity / chaos, and a bit of philosophical wizardry. The upshot is that it begins to look like objects of the ordinary philosophical kind are, for all practical purposes, hyperobjects as well.
Finally, even simple objects are “hyper” to the extent that they are in or out of phase, not being exactly “equivalent to themselves” at any given time. A paper clip is also a SIM card remover. An apple is also a baseball in a high-spirited backyard game ... This lack of discreteness of objects, which tends to make every object somewhat hyperobjective, is underscored by the final property of Part 1, interobjectivity, “in which nothing is ever experienced directly, but only as mediated through other entities in some shared sensual space.”
Now, Morton might object that Muecke doesn’t understand, for the effects he lists in that paragraph belong to ordinary objects as analyzed and construed in OOO. But I don’t buy that, not quite.
In the first place, under OOO ordinary objects turn out to be very strange things, as strange as Morton’s hyperobjects. Though physical scale IS important, I fear that strangeness trumps scale in Morton’s exposition. Even for Morton himself.
He equivocates in his account of quantum mechanics. His argument seems to be that though individual quanta, strange though they are, are exceedingly small, the quantum realm itself is massive (cf. pp. 44-45). His exposition here is fuzzy at best.
The problem continues in his account of phasing, which draws on complexity theory and chaos, where high-dimensional spaces are used to analyze the dynamics of physical systems. Morton’s principle example is the well-known Lorenz Attractor, which Lorenz discovered while analyzing weather data. The weather system, of course, is massively distributed in time and space. But the same mathematics is used to analyze the behavior turbulent flow in one’s kitchen sink. It is not at all massively distributed in time and space, but the analysis employs a phase space of exceedingly high dimensionality. That space is no easier to grasp than that for the weather system, nor any harder either.
So yes indeed, as Morton says (p. 139): “Hyperobjects undermine normative ideas of what an “object” is in the first place.” This is pushing things rather hard, but I’m going to do it anyhow: For all practical and philosophical purposes all objects are hyperobjects. Morton may have coined the term to characterize certain very large objects – global warming in particular – but the properties under which he conducts his analysis of those hyperobjects – being viscous, nonlocal, phased, undulating in time, and interobjectively – apply to pretty much all objects.
And that is just fine. Far from weakening his argument, it makes it stronger. What Morton has done, in effect, is to use an account of certain large-scale phenomena as a vehicle for for a more general account of the physical world.
Now and Evermore, the (Real) Singularity
Global warming, Morton’s paradigmatic hyperobject, IS massive in both spatial and temporal scale, encompassing and extending into the distant future.
And it changes everything.
Even casual conversation.
As Morton observes (p. 102) conversation about the weather is a prominent component of the trivial chatter that lubricates our social lives. It’s background discourse, as the weather itself is the background against which we live our lives. But weather can no longer be merely the background, for it is forcing us to change the way we interact with the planet and, necessarily, with one another. As for the weather conversation, it now carries undertones of existential risk.
But the end of the world? Yes. In a sense.
Did you grow up watching The Jetsons on TV and dream of jetpacks? Did you see Disney’s Our Friend the Atom, with its prophesy of endless clean energy from atomic power? Did you see Kubrick’s 2001 and wonder when we’d see the Monolith? Or are you a believer in the coming Singularity, when computers will come to out-think us and may or may-not let us use nanotechnology to endow our bodies with never-ending youth?
Well, it’s happened.
That BIG EVENT IN THE FUTURE when everything is supposed to change? Well, it IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW. Global warming is the first child of the Anthropocene. It snuck up on us while we weren’t looking. Morton double dates it: to 1784, the birth of the steam engine, and 1945, the explosion of the first atomic bombs.
This is not only a historical age but also a geological one. Or better: we are no longer able to think history as exclusively human, for the very reason that we are in the Anthropocene. (p. 5)
It ends the world in a special sense of “world”, just as Francis Fukuyama had a special sense of “history” in mind when he declared it at an end back in 1989. Whether or not Fukuyama was right about history ending in that special sense, it has kept chugging right along in the ordinary sense.
Of course, the world has not ended in the ordinary sense; the earth hasn’t been blasted to smithereens by a wandering asteroid, nor melted in the sun’s dying explosion, nor conquered by super intelligent lizard beings from outer space. But Morton is right in declaring the world at an end.
In a special sense.
Hyperobjects are a good candidate for what Heidegger calls “the last god,” or what the poet Hölderlin calls “the saving” power that grows alongside the dangerous power. We were perhaps expecting an eschatological solution from the sky, or a revolution in consciousness – or, indeed, a people’s army seizing control of the state. What we got instead came too soon for us to anticipate it. (p. 21)
Whatever your hopes or fears for the next major era in human history, Morton is telling us that it has already happened and it is us. Not merely us, of course, for Morton sets microbes, nebulae, siroccos, falafel carts, giant squids, dandelions, NGOs, bonobos, and the worldwide web all on the same ontological footing, neither above nor below us.
A Brave New World
We face many challenges on the new savanna. It’s not as though it is pristine territory. On the contrary, it is scared with the tribulations of civilizations in collapse, for that’s what it is going on around us, even as many have technophilic dreams of a coming utopia. And one of those scars is nuclear waste, which will be with us for millennia to come.
What do we do?
Thomas Sebeok, the semiotician, proposed that knowledge of and access to the waste be entrusted to an “atomic priesthood.” Morton rejects that idea and turns to the Nuclear Guardianship movement (121):
Guardianship, care–to curate is to care for. We are the curators of a gigantic museum of non-art in which we have found ourselves, a spontaneous museum of hyperobjects. The very nature of democracy and society–Whom does it contain? Only human? Whom, if any, can it exclude?–is thrown into question. The atomic priesthood would prevent others from knowing the truth. The attempt to care for hyperobjects and for their distant future guardians will strikingly change how humans think about themselves and their relationships with nonhumans. This change will be a symptom of a gradually emerging ecological theory and practice that includes social policy, ethics, spirituality, and art, as well as science. Humans become, in Heidegger’s word, the guardians of futurality, “the stillness of the passing of the last god.” Nuclear Guardianship has suggested encasing plutonium in gold, that precious object of global reverence and lust, rather than sweeping it away out of view. Encased in gold, which has the advantage of absorbing gamma rays, plutonium could become an object of contemplation. Set free from use, plutonium becomes a member of a democracy expanded beyond the human.
While I wished Morton had said more about this proposal – I’d like to know specifically about encasing plutonium in gold – I like its spirit. Don’t sweep the trash away; acknowledge it and care for it.
It’s in this spirit that I read the recent emergence of ruins photography, photographs of abandoned and decaying buildings and other infrastructure. In the spirit of Shakespeare’s Prospero – “This thing of darkness / I acknowledge mine” – these artists are creating the means through which we can claim and acknowledge the fruits of civilization-wide failure. And we can move forward only by acknowledging where we have been.
Morton talks of “a time of sincerity: a time in which it is impossible to achieve a final distance toward the world” (p. 130). Not even from our trash and ruins can we, should we, distance ourselves. Nothing is “over there” where it is hidden, out of sight, out of mind. All is / needs to be open.
The ruins of Fukuyama’s terminated history are ready to be remixed and written into a new order of things. THAT is how I read the graffiti that has traced its way over the urban world in the last half century. As I have written previously on 3QD, graffiti emerged outside of existing institutions, created by marginalized peoples, and has become a way of reclaiming urban space for the disposed. Much of this graffiti has been and is being painted on the surfaces of ruined and abandoned industrial buildings.
Let me suggest, by way of closing, that we treat the graffiti that’s been painted and written – coincidentally, during the period what we became aware of global warming – as a single work of art, a hyperobject, one created, not by a single prepossessing genius, but by two or three generations (so far) of loosely-knit graffiti crews: The World Wide Wall.
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I created the photographs specifically for this review. I went to the bank to the Hudson River – I live in Hoboken, NJ – Saturday evening and photographed the Manhattan skyline while moving the camera. They are thus traces of interobjectivity, with traces from different buildings and other objects crossing one another, but yet preserving some order.
Another man's sandals
I am Jewish by birth. My family wasn’t particularly religious; we went to synagogue at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, but not really any other time. My brother and I went through years of Hebrew school, but we came home and ate bacon sandwiches. As a teenager, I became involved in BBYO, a Jewish teen organization and through it became quite heavily exposed to conversations about Israel, the general evilness of the Palestinians and the righteousness of the concept of a Jewish homeland. When I was 17, a school friend and I went away together to Israel for our first trip without our parents. We chose not to do a tour or a work on a kibbutz but instead to make our own way around Israel staying in youth hostels.
I remember the moment we got off the plane onto the tarmac thinking, “this is it, I’m in Israel, the Jewish homeland.” It was a transcendent moment that made me feel connected to my heritage and to a community that I had only ever skirted around of the edge for the most part. I truly believed that this would be a transformative trip for me.
In the second hostel we stayed in, I fell in love with Abbud, a Palestinian man who was working there for the summer. We spent a few days and nights together and then my friend and I moved to another part of the country. But I promised to come back. When I did, Abbud wanted to show me his village in the West Bank. This was in 1986 just before the first Palestinian Intifada and, apart from the general lack of common sense shown by two young girls agreeing to travel across country with a man they hardly knew, there didn’t seem to be any good reason not to go with him.
We arrived in Abbud’s village in time for dinner and he took us to his cousin’s home. My friend and I were both vegetarian and so unable to eat much of what was put before us and I was wearing quite a prominent Star of David around my neck, regardless we were treated as honored guests. We stayed in his parent’s home that night. I woke up early the next morning and padded through the house in bare feet. I came across Abbud’s elderly father who spoke no English. He took off his sandals and gave them to me to wear. The gesture was so gracious and generous that I couldn’t say no and spent the rest of the morning flopping around in sandals that were much too big for me. I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of reception my family would give Abbud if he visited me in London.
That day, my Palestinian boyfriend drove us around the West Bank. He took showed us refugee camps, ravaged villages, told us stories of confiscated land and shared his feelings of hopelessness and despair. He wanted to be an engineer but wasn’t sure how much of a future he could ever hope to have in a country where he would always be seen as the enemy and was denied many of the basic rights of citizenship.
The next day, Abbud drove us back into Israel and a few days later my friend and I flew back to London. Abbud and I of course made all sorts of lovers’ promises to each other. I arrived home and to my father’s horror told him that I was in love with a Palestinian. My extended family was even more appalled. The love affair lasted through a couple of phone calls and then, inevitably, fizzled out. But I never lost the family label of a PLO supporter.
Any possibility of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has perhaps never seemed as remote as it does at the moment. There are rights and wrongs on both sides. Hamas often make it very easy to paint them as the villains. During this time, my Facebook newsfeed has been inundated with posts from family members and old BBYO friends about the atrocities committed by the Palestinians, the misinformation in the media when it paints Israel in any kind of negative light and a general narrative that allows for nothing but unconditional support for Israel no matter what they do stoked by a burning white hatred of the Palestinians that has no room for any compassion or empathy.
Of course, this kind of tribalism is hardly limited to the unquestioning support of Israel by so many Jews. Our kneejerk defense of and preference for “people like us” is a very human trait, whether this tribalism is expressed as political nationalism or support of a team in the World Cup, we want our people to win. But what has always particularly upset me about the blind support and defense of Israel that I’ve been lectured about over the years by my family and other Jews around me is that it almost always has as its root defense the Holocaust: “We had this horrific thing happen to us and so we deserve and need a place to call our own so this can never happen to us again because now the Jews will always have a place to escape to.” And for my grandmother’s generation who went through the Second World War, who lost family and friends in the gas chambers, I can empathize with the sentiment, but did that really give us the right to displace and oppress another group of people?
by Leanne Ogasawara
The race was on: for whoever discovered a way to accurately measure longitude aboard a ship would be able to control the seas --and thereby control the riches of the world!
The search for longitude at sea was one of the great quests starting in the late Renaissance. And, it was how it came to be that a 17th century nobleman named Roberto della Griva found himself aboard a ship sailing southward toward Australia in search of the Prime Meridian, in Umberto Eco’s novel Island of the Day Before.
Being obsessed by longitude, the characters in the book are also obsessed by notions of time. For to calculate longitude is, of course, to calculate time.
But to do this at sea is no easy feat, because while one only requires to know the local time at the ship's current meridian as well as what the current time is would be back at the meridian of departure (or at some fixed meridian, like, say at the Solomon Islands), this remained very difficult to accurately determine aboard ship. And inaccuracies in time would result in inaccuracies of place--as is well known.
You can see where this is going...
In the novel, as the characters are plying the waters of the southern oceans, Roberto's alter ego, the dastardly villain extraordinaire Ferrante, encounters Judas Iscariot, who is chained to a rock in the sea. After inquiring as to the nature of his punishment, Judas offers this explanation:
Why, because God has willed that my punishment consist in living always on Good Friday, to celebrate always and every day the Passion of the man I betrayed. The first day of my suffering, when for other human beings sunset approached, and then night, and then the dawn of Saturday, for me only an atom of an atom of a minute of the ninth hour of that Friday had gone by. As the course of my sun began to move even more slowly, for the rest of you Christ was rising from the dead, but I was still barely a step from that hour. And now, when centuries and centuries have passed for you, I am still only a crumb of time from that instant…
Killing Judas, Ferrante decides to try and go back in time to intercede so to ensure that Christ is not killed on the cross and the Passion never takes place. But then again, if the Passion never takes place humankind will never be redeemed, will it, now? And so the two men --one wishing to ensure Christ is not killed and one wishing to make sure things go as they should so to bring about the redemption of humankind- set about to destroy each other.
On this Christian theme of time travel, Boris Akunin's fantastic mystery, which I also just finished, Sister Pelagia and the Red Cockerel is similarly taken up with the characters' desires to time travel back to the moment when the Christ is made to carry the cross to Golgotha. It is a fabulous mystery! And time becomes crucial, since as Evelyn Waugh was to assert in his book about Saint Helena:
Above all the babble of her age and ours, she makes one blunt assertion, that Jesus died at a particular time and at a particular place. And there alone lies hope.
As Waugh insisted, to have God break into time generates great hope and perhaps instills a special interest for Christians in time travel and figuring out the speed of light. For the Christian version of history is deeply teleological. And, this is tiresome--for as Umberto Eco would write about his characters, they were "sentenced to the travail of time."
I was just reading an incredibly gloomy piece by Robert Harrison on the NYRB blog site which discusses the psychology of Silicon Valley Time. As I read the piece which describes a culture that values making changes in the "now" --changes which are more or less virtual and are evoked to make waves at share holder meetings?-- I thought, is it any wonder conversations have become so utterly boring nowadays? In fact, not only have conversations become tiresome but time itself seems to be speeding up --so that sometimes it seems that all that really matters anymore is the time span based on very short term performance. A US business model based on quarterly earnings, it has become a real bottom line in absolutely everything, I think.
We are beings who are thrown in time. And being in times like these right now, who wouldn't dream of time travel?
This all reminds me of another wonderful blog post I read last month right here, by Charlie Huenemann, called Leibniz's Stepped Reckoner, and a clock for the next 10,000 years.
It's a wonderful piece about Leibnitz's notions of "God as the divine coder." Working like a computer programmer with two basic concepts: that of unity and that of nothing; Leibnitz found great beauty, wonder and awe in numbers. Science, indeed, has always had a profound hold on the human imagination and sense of wonder. And perhaps in no place more than in astronomy and mathematics-- and yes, perhaps in notions concerning time and time travel too.
In thinking about these projects, the designers had to work themselves backwards from all of the wonders of modern computing technology to the very basics: ones and zeros, expressed with pins pointed up or down and ratchet wheels that have either locked in or haven't. These devices are the first firm embodiments of computational math, at least in our own history of technology. There are surely other kinds of devices that might also be designed to function for 10,000 years - perhaps some with electronic components and incredible recharging batteries. But my bet is that the designers felt that sort of machine just wasn't as wonderful - at least to us, as we are now. Along with encouraging us to think in larger scales of time, the Long Nowers may also be encouraging us to think in deeper scales of time: that is to say, of the very basic "unity and privation" that underwrites all mechanization.
I love the 10,000 Year Clock--it reminds me so much of the Prague Astronomical Clock--a wondrous Medieval device that still functions. Telling time in multiple manners (babylonian, Italian, German and bohemian), it also reminds people of the bigger picture- the zodiac, the position of the sun and the phases of the moon, as well as recalling death and the four evils.
My time travelers fieldguide informs me that nearly every influential time scientist, starting with Einstein, has forged some kind of special relationship to an oversized clock!
Jeff Bezos apparently, wanting to encourage thinking outside the box, is having one of these 10,000 Year Clocks installed in his Texas ranch.... it kind of boggles the mind since one wonders what his long term thinking really is? (I think of him more of a quarterly performance kind of guy...?) My astronomer (who often has time on the mind) laments that young people would rather be shocked than be alone with their thoughts--and that time is frenzied and something to be "filled." And he tells me:
We are thrown into a vast physical universe in which the laws of time and space are simple and inexorable. The earth will continue to spin and revolve around the Sun, causing seasons to rotate in and out at the appointed time. Astronomical and long-range clocks connect us to forces and times-scales larger than us that drive the world. We are part of a larger arc of time, in which our role is difficult to grasp, and perhaps even seems to diminish into insignificance. But we must travel into that long future one day per day, aware that each breath we take and choice we make could have no effect, or a profound one, on a tomorrow we can only dimly imagine.
I love this and agree with him. Indeed, my time travel field guide says that its a reckless abandon and the disregard for mistakes that is the stuff time travelers are made of...Dividing time travelers between those who prefer the past to those who prefer the future for their destinations, I stand with the former. But either way, in the same way one must take a stand on being, one also must come to term with their own personal notion of time. And speaking for myself, temporarl relocation is for me. That is, to step back and reject the frantic pace in which every minute has to be productive--not to mention the relentless need to constantly control and consume things is ultimately the only way to go.
Thus spoke a time-traveling flaneur.
Monday, July 21, 2014
Buddhist Musings in Ramadan
by Jalees Rehman
Ramadan is the month of fasting and a time for spiritual growth among Muslims. The traditionalist approach to "spiritual growth" is for Muslims to complement their fasting with performing additional prayers at night and regular reading of the Quran throughout the month. My own approach is somewhat different, I tend to complement my fasting with the reading of writings and scriptures from other philosophies or faith traditions, including atheist and humanist teachings. This year, I decided to study the Dhammapada (in the translation of Gil Fronsdal), one of the most widely read and revered writings in the Buddhist faith.
I was inspired to learn more about Buddhism because I was reading the remarkable novel "A Tale for the Time Being" by Ruth Ozeki, who is not only a brilliant author but also an ordained Zen Buddhist priest. The first person narrator in the novel is a 16-year old Japanese girl Nao who is bullied by her classmates. Nao's parents moved from Japan to Silicon Valley but were forced to return to Japan when the Dotcom bubble burst. Nao's father loses his job and the family is forced to live in poverty. The family's poverty and the fact that Nao is seen as an alien "transfer student" lead to her being ostracized at school. But her classmates go even further and begin psychologically and physically torturing her, leaving scars and scabs all over her body.
Nao is invited to spend the summer with her 104-year old great-grandmother Jiko who is a Buddhist nun. In the following scene, Jiko takes a bath with Nao and notices the scars:
"I waited. Old Jiko liked to take her time, and she was really good at it because she'd been practicing for so many years, so as a result, I was always waiting for her, and you'd think that waiting would be annoying for a young person like me, but for some reason I didn't mind. It wasn't like I had anything better to do that summer. I sat there on my little wooden stool, naked and hugging my knees and shivering, not from the cold but in anticipation of the scalding heat of the water, so when, instead, I felt her fingertip touch a small scar in the middle of my back, I was startled. My body stiffened. The light was so dim, how could she see my scars with her bad eyes? I figured she couldn't, but then I felt her finger move across my skin in a pattern, hesitant, pausing here and there to connect the dots.
"You must be very angry," she said. She spoke so quietly, it was like she was talking to herself, and maybe she was. Or maybe she hadn't said anything at all, and I'd just imagined it. Either way, my throat squeezed shut and I couldn't answer, so I shook my head. I was so ashamed, but at the same time, this enormous feeling of sadness brimmed up inside me, and I had to hold my breath to stop from crying.
She didn't say anything else. She washed me gently, and for the first time I just wanted her to hurry up and finish. After we were done, I got dressed quickly and said good night and left her there. I thought I was going to throw up. I didn't want to go back to my room, so I ran halfway down the mountainside and hid in the bamboo forest until it got dark and the fireflies came out. When Muji rang the big bell at the end of her fire watch to signal the end of the day, I snuck back into the temple and crawled into bed.
The next morning I went looking for old Jiko and found her in her room. She was sitting on the floor with her back to the door, bent over her low table. She was reading. I stood in the doorway and didn't even bother to go in. "Yes," I told her. "I'm angry, so what?"
Once Nao is able to speak about her anger to Jiko, Nao's healing process can begin. The story makes frequent references to Buddhist teachings, quoting from Buddhist texts as well as allowing the reader to gradually imbibe important spiritual concepts. To better understand these concepts, I decided to read the Dhammapada. I first began with the chapter on "Anger" where I was struck by the following verses:
"The one who keeps anger in check as it arises,
As one would a careening chariot,
I call a charioteer.
Others are merely rein-holders."
How often do we let our anger chariot determine our paths? I can remember countless times when I have been passively holding the reins but rarely take control of this chariot.
I will just leave you with one more excerpt from the Dhammapada, but I advise you to read it (and, of course, Ozeki's novel!) in its entirety:
From the chapter "The Sage":
"As a solid mass of rock,
Is not moved by the wind,
So a sage is not moved
By praise or blame."
Pencil, graphite, acrylic.
Monday, July 14, 2014
Sughra Raza. Aerial "painting" over Innsbruck, March 2012.
HOW TO BE A FRENCH GANGSTER
by Lisa Lieberman
As a break from the seriously depressing topics I’ve been writing about lately, and in honor of Bastille Day, I offer this tribute to French gangster films.
First off, you need the fedora. The gangster accessory de rigueur, it was already iconic by the time Paul Muni popularized the look in Scarface (1932). Al Capone, Clyde Barrow, John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly were all photographed wearing one. Baby Face Nelson was astute enough to recognize the souvenir value of his trademark fedora, bartering it for food and a place to hide after a botched bank job.
By the time Bogey donned one to play ‘Bugs' Fenner alongside Edward G. Robinson in Bullets or Ballots (1936), it was a bit passé. Robinson, you will note, sports a derby, signaling his authority over his fedora-wearing lackeys. (That's Bogey on the right, with the gun.)
Leave it to the French to reinvent the gangster look and give it panache. In Pépé le Moko (1937), Jean Gabin wears the hat, but he adds a gallic touch: a silk scarf. Gabin's character has style—something his American counterparts lacked—but more importantly, he's got heart. Love will be his undoing, and we're not talking about a fling with some cheap, two-timing dame. We're talking epic love, the kind of love that inspires poetry and songs. Ah, l'amour.
Director Julien Duvivier gives us a tragic hero in the classical tradition who is the victim of fate. Pépé is wanted in France for various crimes. He's been hiding out in the Casbah of Algiers for two years, sheltered by the local inhabitants who will take any opportunity to defy the colonial authorities. He may be king of the Algerian underworld, but exile has turned bitter for Pépé, whose longing for Paris recalls Ovid's lament in the Tristia: "Say that I died when I lost my native land." Here we see him looking mournfully out over the rooftops of the Casbah to the sea, toward France and freedom, both of which elude him.
Pépé meets a Parisienne who has pulled herself up from the gutter and is now the mistress of a wealthy businessman. Gaby represents all the beauty and excitement of the civilization Pépé has left behind and he is instantly smitten. When he loses her, he loses the will to live. Here we see him watching Gaby's ship sail back to France shortly before he stabs himself.
After Pépé, Gabin would go on to play his greatest role, the working-class Lieutenant Maréchal, in Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937). In much the same way that John Wayne seemed to embody the fiercely independent American spirit, Gabin "epitomized the values French people like to think of as their own: cool intelligence, open-hearted love of life, courage, moral rectitude," as one critic put it after the actor's death.
The martyred Resistance leader Jean Moulin favored the scarf-and-fedora style of the French gangster. Perhaps he was fashioning himself as a romantic outlaw. Over time, Moulin's image became even more Pépé-like. Here is how Claude Berri imagined him in Lucie Aubrac, his 1997 picture about the Lyon Resistance heroine.
Alas, something happened to the French gangster after World War II. You notice it right away in Bob le flambeur (1956). The gambler played by Roger Duchesne is a natty dresser. He's got the fedora and a trench coat, opting for the full American look (i.e., no scarf) in keeping with his American nickname. He's got a classy apartment too, complete with his own personal slot machine in the closet, drives a big American convertible, and lives by a code of honor that sets him apart from the riffraff he consorts with in Montmartre. So why the jaded expression?
Bob's on a losing streak. It's more than bad luck; the malaise seems existential, maybe not full-blown angst, but Bob is listless, out of sorts. We watch him wandering the city streets, proceeding aimlessly from one back-room card game to another, catching a few hours of sleep before heading off to the races where he actually wins, only to gamble it away in a matter of hours. He doesn't care, either way, and nor do we.
Don't get me wrong. Bob le flambeur is a delightful movie. You've got Paris, enchantingly shot with hand-held camera in the rough-edged, documentary manner that would become the hallmark of New Wave cinema. You've got your low-life criminals, a heist, and a couple of double-crossing dames. Then there's the pleasure in hearing the French pronounce the name Bob, which comes out sounding more like "Bub" than "Bahb," which is how we Americans say it. Try it: purse your lips first, so the word forms in the front of your mouth, then say "Bob" very fast, allowing the syllable to resonate inside your nose.
Jean-Pierre Melville, who directed Bob le flambeur, loved all things American. "Melville" was his nom de guerre in the French Resistance, which he continued to use professionally for the rest of his life. He drove a convertible like Bob's, although he went in for the western look—cowboy boots and a Stetson—and liked cruising around Paris late at night with the top down.
The tough-guy persona was more than a pose. Melville was a man of few words. He didn't speak of his time in the Resistance, for example, but his film of Joseph Kessel's wartime novel, Army of Shadows (1943), punctured the myths that the French still cherished in 1969, when the film was released. Not many people resisted the Nazis, and those who joined the underground did so out of a variety of motives, not all of them admirable. Yes, there was courage, and sacrifice for the sake of others, quiet acts of decency no less stunning than the grandiose gestures. Melville's heroes were complicated people, as befits a time when choices were not black and white, but gray.
Which brings us back to Bob. There's no place for him in postwar France, and he knows it. The style, the conventions, are all that's left of a vanished world, and yet Bob takes perverse satisfaction in playing by the old rules, keeping up appearances. Coolness has its consolations. He can't pull off the heist, but he can pull off the look.
By the time we get to Breathless (1959), even the look is degraded. Here's Belmondo practicing his cool in the mirror, posing with a gun, trying to convince everybody he's a gangster, starting with himself. We see him imitating Bogey. He's got the gesture down, has trained himself to talk with a cigarette dangling from his lips. And check out that fedora!
Jean-Luc Godard layers on the clichés. Soon the cops are on Belmondo's tail. He's a wanted man, forced to go underground. He even gets himself tangled up with a two-timing dame, an American, no less.
Pépé gave the American gangster a dash of French flair. Bob (Bub) wore his American name, along with his fedora, like a true Frenchman. Belmondo's character is just a punk, but he's a French punk and, wouldn't you know it, the guy's style has endured.