Monday, December 8, 2014

Atomic Number 10, Atomic Weight 20.18

When Primo Levi wrote The Periodic Table, his 1975 collection of stories and autobiographical pieces, his task was to employ chemical elements as central themes-- of the 106 elements known to the scientific community at the time, he selected 21 to act either as metaphors (argon for the destroyed Jewish community of Emilia-Romagna) or real-life materials that feature in the narrative (nickel as a trace metal he was employed to extract from mine).

He did better than most. There are some elements-- iron, gold, sulfur, arsenic-- that have imageistic value and metaphorical weight in everyday speech, but most remain obscure. When was the last time you saw a piece of rhodium, or even heard about it? A high school chemistry test? Ever? There's a reason that screenwriters can make up the names of elements in sci-fi movies, and we as the audience will accept them at face value.

But one of the few elements that does retain symbolic value is neon, and it's something of an odd man out. It's an invisible and stubbornly nonreactive gas, and it was isolated and discovered barely more than a century ago. And yet in its human uses, it has become so ubiquitous, and has come to be a byword for so many things.

In 1913, the world saw its first neon advertisement in Paris, and it rapidly spread around the world, the electric equivalent of the tropical lianas that spread and wrap themselves around every structure they come into contact with. As the world rushed to banish darkness (and its brother phenomenon, silence) from urban space, the neon light became the symbol of brightness, speed, and modernity. America got its first neon light in 1923. Within ten years, Times Square looked like this.

And with its universality came inevitable doubt and pessimism. There were nostalgics, like Tanizaki Junichiro, who wrote In Praise of Shadows in 1933 as a eulogy for tenebrous, traditional Japanese aesthetics. And there were the dissenters, like Nelson Algren who published his short story collection The Neon Wilderness in 1947, or a young John Kennedy Toole, who wrote The Neon Bible in 1954.

And then, as lighting evolved, neon seemed far sleazier, tawdrier, and more garish. It became the aesthetic token of Las Vegas, and of Taxi Driver-era Times Square. Rather than conveying an optimistic modernity, it became a symbol of decadence and false aspirations, a reputation it still has to a certain degree. In my adopted city of Bangkok, there is an inverse relationship between the reputation of a neighborhood and the preponderance of neon. It's concentrated in the semen-drenched quarters of Nana, Patpong, and Ratchada, and in the backpacker ghetto of Khaosan. The “karaoke” bars and other outposts of sleaze of course have neon signs, and rainbow-toned neon is almost as universal an indicator as a cigar store Indian.

With the sudden love affair with “vintage modern” aesthetics in the '90s, neon became itself subject to the fantasies of the nostalgics. Faux-vintage neon signs were put up, and surviving signs from the mid-century were bought up from decrepit steakhouses and meth-riddled motels across the country and artfully renovated for kitsch purposes. In certain circles, the buzz and glow of neon no longer signified excess and decrepitude, but the flickering imagery of a David Lynch film. And in saying that, I should note that it reflects both sides of Lynch's aesthetics, both the moronically grinning and cherry-cheeked facade of Hollywood's representations of America, and the vileness and filth that lurks underneath.

This doesn't mean that neon lighting or neon color schemes have been in any way “rehabilitated.” The grotesquely grinning clown of Circus Circus still stands tall on the Las Vegas Strip, and when you see a book cover with a neon color scheme-- Pynchon's Inherent Vice comes to me out of the blue as a perfect example-- you can predict the number of femmes fatales and brooding jazz trumpeters. For all intents and purposes, it has become the aesthetic signifier of the last century.

And so it seems to me that neon as we know it, a transfigured image coursing through a tube, entails all the hope and anxiety, the violence and optimism of that century, a time in our history when we really believed that utopian age would be an era of the machine.

Monday, November 24, 2014

On Ruins

The notion of “ruin porn” has become something of a thing on the Internet. Countless vaguely (or overtly) clickbait websites have posted what they deem to be “shocking” or “unbelievable” photographs of the material evidence of human folly, whether it be the grand Victorian rubble of Detroit, totalitarian horrors like the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, or the stitched-together sci-fi landscapes (quite often presented as real places) of Nicolas Moulin.

I can trace my own love of such horrors almost as far back as I can remember. Early encounters with the nightmare imagery of Poe and T.S. Eliot. A fascination with the gnarled, uprooted trees that gathered in Iowa meadows after spring floods. A terror of the boarded-up houses and closed factories that seemed to make up vast tracts of Kansas City and Chicago on childhood trips.

On a larger scale, an obsession with ruins is certainly not new. The first tourists, Brits on their grand tours of the Mediterranean that gave the act its name, obsessively visited the remnants of classical civilizations, bought paintings and engravings of them. The more committed built follies on their Georgian estates. Others, around the same time, looked inward, to places like Tintern and Glastonbury, and from there were caught up in the earliest currents of romanticism, and later wrote Gothic novels themed around the decrepit architecture of castles and abbeys.

And it was around this time that Giovanni Piranesi etched the Roman ruins fallen into disuse, cows lumbering through porticos, and later assembled them into his terrifying carceri, horrifying spaces which seem to presage the features of 20th Century totalitarian and militarist architecture (the Atlantic Wall, Milano Centrale Railway Station, the Warsaw Palace of Culture) but also possess the ruination of the Rome he knew and dwelled in.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, Edmund Burke wrote that the well-formed beautiful stood in marked contrast to the sublime, the fascinating things that threaten to eat us up, and that in many ways were anathema to Burke's own piously Christian, hidey-hole worldview.

But we're attracted to these ruins because of their sense of aberration. We're not so attracted to the things where the decay seems natural or inevitable, the shit at the bottom of the dumpster.

What we like about ruin porn is that it's tidy. It gives us a neat, aesthetically pleasing, artistically approachable package, with all that implies. We can frame it, we can flick through it on our phones while we're waiting in line at the supermarket, and we can impose political theories on it if we're feeling fancy. We can, in short, treat it like everything other than a ruin.

This isn't to say that ruin-art is necessarily bad. I'm immensely fond of Piranesi, as I am of Jan Kempenaers' photographs of Yugoslavian memorials, as I am of Bill Morrison's film Decasia, a composition of the unexpected shapes and textures formed by rotting celluloid.

But beyond the expressions of preexisting ruin, there are artistic efforts, however, that are self-consciously aware of their decay as an essential part of their endeavor, that seem either passively aware of their own destruction, or that seem to encourage the beauty that arises from destruction.

Take, for example, William Basinski's Disintegration Loops, which are simply a few hours of old tape, the magnetic material slowly coming off, being consumed and destroyed by the audio equipment. Their destruction records itself, notes and sections disappearing one by one, until all we are left with is a near-silent blip, like an echo in a blackened room.

Or the land art of Robert Smithson, who remained committed to the notion of entropy in his work. His Spiral Jetty now lies largely submerged under the Great Salt Lake, and it remains questionable whether doing anything to preserve it would run entirely counter to its concept, of art that is part of the landscape and exposed to natural vicissitudes.

It runs deeply counter to the very notion of the act of creation. After all, creation and destruction are usually held as opposites. And, admittedly, there can be something sinister to it. When Albert Speer designed his buildings to decay beautifully so they could stand alongside the ruins of Rome, we're not only creeped out by the megalomania of a statement like that, but by the fatalism and thanatos embedded in it as well.

Yet it continues to engross. The sublime is alive and well, and, if anything, it has demonstrated its persistence in an era of irony, something that more classical concepts of the “beautiful” haven't weathered so well. Whether or not we try to, we can't stop staring into the void.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Tokyo Syndrome

The term became popular about 10 years ago. The Paris Syndrome. Hapless Japanese tourists arrived in la ville lumière, expecting a Renoir painting crossed with a Ferragamo photoshoot, and found a city of grimy streets, late trains, and, since I don't know the local term, what we'll call les chavs. Failing to reconcile the Paris in their heads with the Paris they found themselves in, and quite frequently had (and continue to have) psychotic breaks.

I come into Japan in an autumn rain, and find that, shockingly, it looks like Japan. In the infinite maze of screens around Shibuya. In the crowds of girls in petticoats and cat ears in Harajuku. And in the dusk walk I took through the old quarter of Kyoto, a tree heavy with October persimmons half-submerged in an icy, fast-flowing brook, chill air smelling of cedar and roasting tea.

Travel guides, educational videos for middle schoolers, and other purveyors of false metaphor like to posit Japan as a land embodying the patently false dichotomy of “modernity” and “tradition.” Media entities such as these to contrast pictures of Ginza skyscrapers and wabi-sabi temples, three-piece suits and kimono. Obviously, “modernity” is everywhere on the planet. Ditto “tradition.” And ditto their supposed contrast. But the prattlers do need their soundbite to please the editors, I suppose.

What did get me, though-- the overwhelming aesthetic sensibility of the country that seemed to recur again and again-- was the absorption of gestalt image-systems from other societies. The whole country seems to have imbibed all the trappings of European civilization over the past 150 years, without any of the context that these aesthetic systems occur in. The appropriation doesn't seem smooth, but contorted, and the contortion makes it all the more interesting.

Consider the entrancing paintings of Foujita Tsuguharu, who eventually styled himself “Léonard,” and whose grotesques occupy the same nightmarish, distorted take on Middle European fairytale aesthetics as the darker moments that Miyazaki cartoons took on decades later. His women, with their terrifyingly doll-like faces, seem to possess something almost inhuman, and his animals, in their detail and expressiveness, seem to have a subtle anthropomorphism, as if they could transform into us in a matter of seconds.

Or, on a more general level, every lightless coffee shop, with their kitschy electric chandeliers, their tobacco haze, the waitstaff all dressed in bowties and looking for all the world like silent film extras.

Or the national obsession with the impressionists, and the constant reproductions of Monet and Renoir paintings, the playing of Chopin's nocturnes and Satie's gymnopédies on sound systems, the constant allusions to Alice in Wonderland, the aspiration for a softer world, an imagined belle époque. As Westerners, we tend to view this through the lens of the nation's creepier pornographic traditions, but it seems something less sexual and more diffuse, an odd mass nostalgia.

And, as with any kind of appropriation, the act is by no means necessarily cosmopolitan. The right-wingers waving rising sun flags outside the Yasukuni Shrine and shouting slogans about the Liancourt Rocks in their impeccably tailored Italian suits. Or the young guy with the flawlessly Yankee accent who, out of nowhere, started ranting at me about how overblown Western reportage of the massacres of World War II is. And in the room of World War II battle paintings, all of them in the same romantic-nationalist tradition as Delacroix-- including those, in a sudden switch of mood, painted by the same Foujita Tsuguharu, now an official propagandist painting rather Goya-esque carnage-- the English-language captions unblinkingly, unhesitatingly, verifying the heroism and nobility of the Japanese invasion of Malaya.

With only a handful of Japanese words, as soon as I find myself alone, I find myself in an aesthetic experience completely devoid of context. With little English spoken or even written on signs, I largely fend for myself, pressing buttons for unknown dishes at vending-machine restaurants, speculating about who this statue represents, trying to piece together fragmented experience.

Which leaves me seated at that coffee shop with the chandeliers and bow ties and old photos of Al Smith's New York, America refracted through Japan refracted through an American.

And, perhaps because of, perhaps despite the fact that I can't quite understand it, I quite enjoy it. I set down my coffee, say my arigato gozaimasu, and move on to the next curiosity.

Monday, October 13, 2014

On Google Street View

One of those dull afternoons where you're stuck in a Wikipedia loop. Not out of interest, desire, or any kind of pointed effort, but just as one of those places you arrive at when a torrent of sheer information-- whether it's Wikipedia, Youtube, Facebook, whatever-- seems to be the only thing keeping you going.

Itt was thus that I arrived at the entry for “mobile home.” History of. Geography of. Inclement weather and. And suddenly, I see a picture of my hometown.

It was one of those photos-- the kind you see almost daily in the press in the Midwestern states-- of a mobile home struck by disaster, in this case, a flood. I remember this part of town, and even this vista quite well. The meandering path of the Skunk River through riparian woods, a mobile home park, where, in a sad attempt at a bucolic mode, the developer named the streets after songbirds, kids in t-shirts with Stone Cold and Mankind on them darting about on bikes, women in neon tank tops leaning into screen doors with lit menthols.

But was that my memory? Or was that me superimposing a stereotype onto my memory?

And so, perversely, I went to Google Street View, to cycle through the part of town down along the floodplain of the Skunk River, to wide streets and chain restaurants with big plastic signs, tiny, rundown houses on flat lawns, an enormous sky.

And I realized not only that this was how ugly my town really was, but how people who don't grow up there conceive of the image and shape and light of the American Midwest.

I noted every forgotten detail-- the fan eternally spinning in an attic window, a gingerbread porch, the steel oblong structure behind the power plant that I called “the sarcophagus,” because that's what they called something that looked similar at Chernobyl on TV.

And rather than a warm nostalgia, they evoked a stark disgust, that these details, so associated with an ice cream and a sweaty brow on a summer afternoon, with a drunk teenage walk home through the snow, so often intimate and even cherished, were in a setting this bleak and flat and wide.

Our memories of early life are of course eternally veiled in golden gauze, even if they're sad. This is not only because of the temporal and spatial distances we have between ourselves and our childhoods, but because of the intrinsic nature of childhood perception, which is intuitive, holistic, immediate, impressionistic, and unsystematic, lack any of the exterior reference points that we have acquired and cultivated in the meantime.

And so when we see the images of our childhood rendered in the stark relief of analytic adult perception, especially through a computer screen, there is a disconnect. We can't reconcile who we are with who we were, and for those of us who have wandered a bit, where we choose and where we're from.

We try to justify the disconnect through countless techniques: the aforementioned nostalgia, ironic distance, lyricism, contempt. Some of us go into therapy. Some politicians try to impose their nostalgia into an idiotic politics of regression. Some musicians make shitty revival records.

Thomas Wolfe once assured a 16 year old me that you can't go home again. I loved his elegant descriptions, paired with the sense of loss and alienation of a North Carolina mountain kid adrift in New York, frantically scribbling on top of his fridge, unsure how to express his pining, and so going into radical modernist stream of consciousness-- something I admired immensely as an adolescent looking forward to clutching onto some modernist alienation myself.

And it took Joan Didion a lifetime to realize that California was a late-capitalist nightmare not only in her middle years, but from its earliest inception.

We try to organize the narrative arc. Reality eventually slashes it to bits.

And all the lies we tell ourselves eventually come to a head, at times like this when you're staring at your laptop, at a picture of an asphalt street with a willow tree on it, 3000 miles away.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Books of Our Lives: A Mollusk's View

I was recently, asked, in the Facebook poll that's been going around, what 10 books influenced me. Being a bit salty, and a couple beers in, I gave a cagey meta-non-answer, rather than doing the straight-faced thing.

This honestly wasn't an attempt to sound cleverer-than-thou. As someone who holds the act of reading in such reverence, so much more than I've ever been willing to muster for any other religious system or other institution or ideology, it's hard to reduce yourself in this way.

I could have winnowed down a list, I suppose. But what was expected was a list of 10 books of the sort you read in your normal reading life-- novels, poetry, biographies, maybe a little critical theory if you're feeling fancy. And it should probably include a variety of books that reflect different parts of your preconceived personality, or that influenced you at different times in your life, and you want to avoid the obvious ones, the Catchers in the Rye and Old Men and the Sea that most other literary-minded people held in such high regard as teens just discovering the literary endeavor. And it should ideally include a curveball or two to impress the readers, and offer them something they might not necessarily be familiar with. And probably at least one children's book, to be cheeky, to prove how unpretentious you are. Wink wink.

Nowadays, in our social media-inundated world, the whole thing seems like a horrible Buzzfeedization of the act of reading. But I'll save that diatribe for another day.

But if we are to get to the root question, of how and which books influence us, I can't answer. The books that made the strongest impression on me are buried deep within early memory, the books that forged by aesthetic and intellectual perspectives and preferences. I don't even remember the names of most of them, yet I remember their images, the feelings they evoked, the corners I read them in and how those corners smelled with such intense warmth and intimacy.

There were the coffee table art books my parents kept, each painter seeming to be the author of a different world. The dreamlike take on bourgeois livingrooms in Magritte, primitive fields of color in Klee, lonely American streets in Hopper. Repeat for Gauguin, Modigliani, Orozco.

There were the library books about witchcraft and paranormal events, that seemed to promise that the adult world didn't have as many answers as it claimed to, and that if you pierced through the veil, that darker, more intuitive truths hid beneath. Not that I remember the names of any of them, who they were by, or most of their claims.

And most importantly, the antique reference books, atlases from the 1920s, textbooks from the 1870s, encyclopedias from the 1960s, hidden in libraries and in the backs of classrooms, filled with grainy photos and delicate lithographs. The latest Packard coming off a Detroit production line. The newly discovered headwaters of the Nile. The World Festival of Youth and Students saluting Comrade Brezhnev.

And this doesn't count the endless magazines found in doctor's offices, maps, telephone books, cookbooks, colorful diagrams, newspaper clippings, instructional pamphlets, catalogs, liner notes, and all the other fragments of written language that accumulate in an industrial society. Things not meant to be especially permanent or moving, but that often haunt me in their shapes and turns of phrase.

The real implications of any of this were of course completely unfamiliar. As a child you have very concrete images, embedded within an impressionistic and deeply egocentric awareness of how those things string together. The real implications of calculus, Sikhism, or the Trotskyist alternative were alien to me. All I had was a parabola, a turban, a fiery-eyed man in glasses.

And while my world has become more nuanced, those images, and the perceptions that I've associated with them persist, expressions of a photographer's whim, an editor's metaphor, a printer's choice of font, an idea as represented in Cartesian coordinates.

Because perception, while it is so often fleeting, doesn't occur by itself, but in concordance with previous experience. Like mollusks, we view the world from the shells we've built for ourselves.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Bohemianism

I recently moved house, to an apartment with high ceilings and teak floors, with a patio leading down, through a curtain of potted palms, to an antique swimming pool, where, on sunny Sunday afternoons, sirenic French and Japanese women lie out on wooden deck chairs.

I know. C'est très décadent, n'est-ce pas?

But, not long after, the anxieties took over. I can hang out poolside, but I'm possessed by the sort of self-loathing that define the American relationship to our own bodies, and, what's worse, the immense phobia, that, stubbly and hairy, half-concealed by the palm fronds, that I'm perceived as a creep and a weirdo, the lone masturbator in the bushes.

And the pool-- a tropical pool set in a garden, as perfect a symbol of idyllic living as one can imagine!-- is mainly a source of exercise for me. It's not for playing in, now is it? It is for a dutiful 20 laps after a day's work.

Or I sit out as the sun dips below the Indian Ocean, my feet washed in the froth of the sea, a cold gin and tonic in my hand, and think “well, that was fun, I'll feel so much better when I go in on Monday.”

An uneasy relationship to the flesh and a suspicion of indolence. Two of the strongest marks of the frigid Northern culture of the land I come from. The term “Protestant work ethic” has been much-abused and overapplied and overanalyzed and mangled since Max Weber first unleashed it on us over 100 years ago.

This isn't to say that I had some kind of horrible Calvinist-Oedipal childhood marked by austere diets and grim penitence in a rough-hewn prairie church. And yet the attitude that marked the Midwestern spirit was always that labor is the essence of being.

Now, I'm glad that I developed a work ethic early-- I hated and resisted my chores, as all children do-- but it's a work ethic is something I've learned is a great strength, and something I've very consciously tried to cultivate. And married to a political leftism, it becomes a remarkably virtuous worldview, fostering a militant egalitarianism, a deep respect for workers, and a suspicion of the showiness and flash of the capitalist class.

As I've gotten older, I have-- like countless other arty Yanks-- consciously sought out cultures that do it differently. The sensuousness and emotion and otherworldliness that mark the American images of Asia and Latin America and the Mediterranean draw me in. In college I fell in love, in turn with Fellini, Rushdie, Mishima, Almodóvar. I read Italo Calvino on a stairwell on a sunny June evening in Montmartre. I got blessed by an old woman in a Cambodian temple ruin. I smoked a lot of weed on a lot of beaches.

But, try as I might to escape from the lens of work, I viewed all of these through the lens of productivity. Introspection and adventure and culture were means of self-improvement, and I didn't necessarily opt to take these experiences out of sheer delight and wonder. And furthermore, as someone who had a comfortably middle class two-Toyotas-and-a-mortgage American upbringing, I felt that I had a responsibility to experience things because so many people lacked the socioeconomic freedom to do so.

It's an odd variation on the Protestant work ethic. Traditionally-- and, as seems borne out on my Facebook news feed, seems to be the case for a lot of folks today-- I should have gotten the career-track job, had the kids, gotten the Toyota and the mortgage, things I absolutely ran screaming from. But in my ostensibly bohemian sort of life, I've found a similar one-directionality both in myself and in my peers, and oftentimes a conformity as rigid and unforgiving as that of a salaried manager in a Richard Yates story.

Because no matter how hard we try, our early conceptions of things will eternally nag us. It's often said that we can't escape our roots. What's not often said is that we never know when they will remind us of that fact.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

On Celebrity Suicide

The Internet announced it was in mourning. It was in mourning for a comedian and actor whose work I honestly didn't appreciate for a long time, until I recently, within the past couple weeks, really, discovered his early stand-up career, before he became associated with a long string of what I always considered to be dreadfully sentimental films.

And I have to wonder why and how the hive mind mourns. It has always bothered me how people's lives become metaphor, and in the case of a suicide, the suicide becomes the central metaphor. If the person has enjoyed some level of fame, the media coverage of their death turns a complex and remote experience into something “personal” and “sincere” for the general public, a tidy little pill we can swallow. Take two after dinner to feel pathos.

In this case the central metaphor of his personality-- in public, that of the clown, privately maybe not so much, as intimated in the now-famous Marc Maron interview-- is hijacked and transformed into a Pagliaccio figure, the clown carrying inner pain, which, of all tropes in the media, is one of the laziest and most played out.

The notion of comedians as being funny on stage, but also depressed, addicted, or just generally fucked up should be a notion we're used to by now, 40 plus years after Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce made their mark. And it becomes too easy to construe comedians as inherently fucked up, or conversely, to view damage and darkness as a natural and necessary conduit for humor. This is a variation of the old conflation of personal disaster and creative genius, the fetish of countless teenage boys (self included) and a plotline that has somehow retained its mystique since Goethe and Keats introduced it.

Other sectors of the Internet mourning community have taken the opportunity to claim that depression is a disease like any other. Now, there is a certain truth to it (yes, it fits our definition of a disease) and a pragmatism to it (it's good to demystify mental illness, and to treat it as something that can be handled clinically). But it becomes too easy to medicalize our problems, to reduce thorny and difficult problems to something easily treatable with pharmaceuticals, which in empirical practice seems to only be sometimes useful, but is deeply in line with the American desire for quick fixes. And yet this line of thought, which should be more productive and more empirical, winds up leading to another form of mystification in the public consciousness. We take something difficult, and relegate it to the realm of expert knowledge, beyond comprehension. Which is perhaps, why, in eternally unsmiling and practically minded Hong Kong, the falling suicide of megastar Leslie Cheung was reported as “due to chemical imbalance.”

We don't want to confront the fact that at the end of the day, we are merely speculating, merely projecting fears and worldviews onto the unknowable and scary when it is suddenly thrust into the public spotlight. Instead of asking deep, serious questions, we impose our narrative on the material event, and damn the places where they don't synchronize.

I know that by writing about it, I am imposing my own narrative, taking this sort of cagey, oblique, postmodernist approach, out of my morbid curiosity about everyone else's morbid curiosity.

Which, like so many meta-approaches, leaves me with a sense of cold disconnectedness, of being trapped in an infinite mirror maze of language and sign and discourse. And I'll leave it there. I could extrapolate that to what the point of writing is at all, to what the world is, but I know well enough to leave those issues alone. I simply arrive at this point in said mirror maze. I feel like I'm somewhere important, but everyone probably does.