Thursday, January 25, 2018

On Kyushu

My memories of Kyushu flicker, somewhat. All memories do of course, still-frame images linked by erratic motion, frayed by semantic qualifications, by overlays of sentiment, by conflations, by mis-remembrances, by objects out of place, post-production edits, and all the other things that separate memory and event. But what I remember of Kyushu flickers in the way light does, each image bursting with a flashbulb's glare.

And perhaps this is because the landscape seethes with fire. It is an island of smoking volcanoes, subtropical fruit orchards, massive caldera craters filled with seawater, rich seams of coal.

Whereas most of the country produces sake, given the warm climate, the preferred tipple has always been shochu, a distilled drink sometimes made from barley, sometimes from rice, and most popularly and most deliciously from local sweet potatoes, I came to adore its warm flavor, its aroma of candied yams and burning leaves, the combination of a malty, Scotch-like complexity and a clean vodka finish. And the way it paired with the local specialties – tonkotsu ramen swimming with pork marrow, rich Saga ribeye, almost more like foie gras than beef, the heavy seafood and pork broth of Nagasaki champon noodles, muscular little Kumamoto oysters, and the spiced, briney strips of roasted cod roe.

It was here that the newly emboldened Japanese Empire's sun first rose, with Admiral Togo's defeat of the Czar's navy, crossing the T of their fleet at the Tsushima Straits, leading to the seizure of Russian territory throughout Asia.

And it was here that the same imperial urge ended 40 years later, with the citizens of Kitakyushu at the northern tip of the island burning coal tar and releasing steam from power plants through the night to prevent American planes from repeating their attack on Hiroshima a few days previous, forcing them to reroute to a misfortunate nearby shipbuilding city, where the B-29 Superfortress Bockscar would drop the Fat Man bomb, detonating 1500 meters over the roof of Urakami Cathedral in the northern suburbs of Nagasaki.

In Fukuoka, my first stop, there were of avenues of Washingtonia palms abutting narrow canals, persimmon trees heavy with vermilion fruit, brightly lit signs along the river advertising an “exciting adult club,” a Germanic beer festival I wandered into, Japanese men in Bavarian hunting caps and Japanese women in dirndl singing underneath fairy lights about liebe and ambrosia and Goethe's Erlkönig.

In Beppu, the surrounding hills were obscured by the heavy clouds of sulfurous steam that came out from underground, a product of the hundreds of hot springs that fill the city, along with the jigoku, the so-called “hells,” boiling hot azure-blue and burnt-orange pools guarded by statues of tusked demons and the Chinese goddess of mercy, one filled with burbling mud, one spraying boiling water a few meters into the air every half-hour, and one teeming with crocodiles.


In Nagasaki, the harbor is crowded with cranes and shipyards, and the streets lined with old Dutch warehouses that were once stocked with the exotic products of the outside world during the era of the hermit kingdom – clockworks, gin, cloves, and lenses passing through on their way to the shoguns' households. I walked up to the epicenter of the nuclear blast, to the last surviving fragment of the old cathedral, a section of an archway, a Chinese lion growling at the base and at the top, European saints with El Greco faces staring into the void.


And I took a boat across the harbor, guarded by a statue of the Virgin Mary, to commemorate St. Francis Xavier's death in the city, past little islands where Catholic fisherman guarded their virgins as Shinto goddesses, where their crucifixes were hidden within Buddhist iconography, to the island of Hashima, studded with concrete towers from the early years of the 20th Century, where countless men (including Korean slave laborers in the war, didn't mention that in the audio guide) worked to extract coal from beneath the East China Sea.


I had come to Kyushu looking for some insight into destruction. I'd known about Nagasaki, of course, and also the Tsushima Straits and Hashima, and the eruptions of Mount Unzen and Sakurajima, and also Kyushu's reputation as a breeding ground for yakuza. I'd read Shusaku Endo's Silence, with its themes of trials of faith and the ways in which we negotiate belief in the face of an unforgiving reality. But as I crossed the island, destruction seemed to be a tangential factor.

Of the classical elements, fire is the only one which cannot be called a substance as such, but rather a process, which is why Heraclitus – whose work, what little we have of it, seems to me to be the most far-reaching of any of the pre-Socratic philosophers – believed it to be the basis for all other elements.

And in Kyushu, the fieriness seems to be barely contained. I was at a point on the surface of the earth where the very soil barely suppressed magma flows, and where what had once been an isolated, inward-looking, insular kingdom first faced every process of the modern world, mercantile trade, missionary religion, imperialist desire, and ultimately nuclear war.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

On Struggle

The moment of landing at the international terminal in a largely unfamiliar country is one of disorientation. You've probably not slept well, the language is new, the airport is designed to push you through and out as quickly as possible.

I arrived at Incheon International Airport on a chilly autumn afternoon, and my introduction to the nation is a sign five meters wide: “The world knows Dokdo is Korea!”

This is the island knows to the Koreans as Dokdo, to the Japanese as Takeshima, and to the English-speaking world as the Liancourt Rocks, so named for the French whaling ship wrecked there during the reign of Napoleon III -- an island which Korea has had full military control of for more than half a century, mind you. What to outside eyes look like an uninhabitable igneous seamount, are to Japanese eyes an integral part of national territory opportunistically seized during the MacArthur Era, and to Korean eyes, the first place where Japan began its encroachment upon the nation's sovereignty, and plotted its imperialistic designs.


Every country has their national narrative. The Americans and French built their polity on the ideals of a long-ago revolution, the Russians and the Turks talk about their position straddling Europe and Asia, the Japanese emphasize the uniqueness of their island empire.

Each museum and each historical site I visited seemed to have a single-minded focus, the Bad Things the Japanese Did. Not just in the brutal colonial period of the early 20th Century, but over centuries. This isn't to downplay that history – it is important, and outside of Korea, it is not well-known at all – but I suppose I had expected more about the Cold War, or the economic miracle of the postwar years, or the formation of the early Korean kingdoms, or the long, difficult, and heroic fight for democracy and labor rights in spite of constant oppression and state violence.

But the struggle is much larger, and it runs deep. This is a country that went from one of the poorest in the world to fully developed in a matter of decades, and in which the wealth one sees – and an image of wealth that is broadcast across East Asia – is so recent.

Consider the famously untranslatable Korean word “han.” A simple monosyllable, but one that contains a whole range of emotions, sensibilities, and ideologies. The best way I've had it explained to me is as an unspeakable and unresolvable rage, sorrow, and resentment at the miseries of history.

You see a history of recent struggle in how the people are dressed. The streets of Hongdae and Gangnam in Seoul are filled with some of the most stylish people you'll ever see. They're not wearing the almost cosplay-weird outfits of the pop singers, but have the same elegance you see in Paris, in Tokyo, in Manhattan. Yet the older people seem stuck in a perennial warp, with all of the women dressed near-identically: permed hair, visor, neon windbreaker, floral handbag, polyester slacks, shoddy-looking athletic shoes. You don't see many of the elegant older men and women you see in Japan, Thailand, Singapore – a reflection of the fact that half of the elderly populace lives below the national poverty line.

And you see the struggle in the gastronomy, in a cuisine that reflects a nation with a bare minimum of arable land and a frigid climate. The markets of Korea brim with dried seafood of all sorts, vegetables pickled in every way imaginable, kimchi both fermented and fresh, spiced and unspiced, made from cabbages, daikon, spring onions, garlic stems. Instant noodles aren't used as student poverty foods, but as a frequent addition to soups and hotpots at restaurants – combined with chopped up hot dogs and spam, they become budae-jjigae, the “army stew” made from supplies scavenged from US Army bases during the war. Even the tea is stretched out, pine needles, mulberry and bamboo leaves, barley, buckwheat, and corn filling in for when the supplies run low.

The architecture, too, is relentlessly functionalist, with people crammed into Stalinist concrete high rises, many of them with absurdly hopeful English-language names, and many of them with paintings of cherry trees and peacocks on the side. The suburbs of Seoul and Busan smell of cement dust, with new houses standing on land just recently hacked out of piney hillsides. Like Appalachia, each little town is crowned with a high steel cross, a symbol of the Protestantism that came over with the New England missionaries, and which found a fertile substrate in the old Confucian hierarchies. And when the desire for novelty occurs, it too often comes in garish, rainbow-colored lights streaming down the sides of buildings, in love motels imitating bits and pieces of Disney castles and French chateaux.

Beneath the veneer of the new, there still also lies the ancient and the almost-primeval. Range after range of gorgeous mountains run on endlessly, interspersed with scrub land, most of the population living in the narrow arable valleys, and increasingly in a handful of major cities as the country faces serious rural depopulation. You see the remnants of an almost Siberian sensibility in the shamanic rituals that are still practiced in the mountains, in the rural shanties with stacks of firewood in front, in the groups of hikers throwing back bottles of soju, reminding me more than anything of cowboys swigging bourbon on the trail.

Of course, I know this is not a thesis statement, it is an impression, the impression of an outsider. As palpable as the feeling of struggle was, it is one of many metaphors I could have taken. I could have focused on the curious burial mounds of Gyeongju, the delicious meal of grilled eels, cold beer, and chive kimchi with fresh lemon I had above a fish market with a view of Busan harbor, the boozy haze I found myself in each night in Seoul, the way the quiet streets of Sokcho at night reminded me of a small Midwestern city on an autumn night, complete with the aroma of burning oak leaves. Or the nuclear paranoia of the moment, a small, poor nation and a large, rich nation playing whose-dick-is-bigger on a global scale. But the funny thing is, sense-perception doesn't necessarily precede pattern recognition. The patterns quickly begin to inform the perception.

My time in Korea ended with a hydrofoil across the Tsushima Straits, to the old enemy nation across the water, with the terminal showing none of the histrionic signage of the airport. Rather, I was greeted by helpful trilingual staff working for both Korean and Japanese ferry lines. Again in antiseptic, deracinated space, a deep breath between one nation and the next.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Weinstein Effect

A few days ago, I first heard the phrase “Weinstein Effect.” Also, a more troubling term, “national dialogue on gender and power,” which masks the fact that (a) this isn't much of a dialogue, which implies two sides having a mutually beneficial discussion, and (b) “gender and power” acts as a cover term for the fact that this is a discussion about rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment perpetrated by men in power... but this is the American approach, isn't it? Put a good old positive, Norman Vincent Peale spin on the fact that rapes, sexual assaults, and sexual harassment were perpetrated by men in power.

The Weinstein case is fairly cut and dried it seems, as do a number of others – men who, without question, abused their positions to take advantage of multiple victims and ensure their silence. Perhaps I'm the odd man out, but I can't say I was shocked. I just assumed massive numbers of film and music producers, fashion photographers, and other gatekeepers of nubile talent exploited that power dynamic. Take Conde Nast's recent firing of Terry Richardson. Everybody has known for years that he is a sexual nightmare, to the point that this reputation, combined with his omnipresent creepy smile and rapey-uncle glasses, has become a critical part of his persona. And yet it's only now that a major publisher is actually choosing to do something about it, given that the zeitgeist has made their normal policy of sitting on their asses a strategic impossibility.

But the Louis C.K. case interests me. This is a guy who committed predatory acts, and in a way very much in keeping with his comic persona, they were creepy and rather pathetic acts.

You have social commentators (as, for instance, in a recent GQ article) mining Louis C.K.'s humor revolving around his immense awkwardness and inappropriate behavior as a smokescreen for his guilt. That, by making jokes about jerking off too much and the “town child molester,” he was providing cover, making it easy to dismiss any future allegations. Or the recent Guardian article claiming that by laughing at Louis C.K.'s creepy-sex jokes, you are fully complicit with his abuses. Sure, the masturbation scenes in Louie are made all the more uncomfortable now, and the trailer for I Love You, Daddy makes my skin crawl – but this sort of ad hominem pseudo-criticism, vague sentiment masking itself as textual analysis, seems just as mindless and lazy as the kneejerk responses of the fanboys who couldn't believe that their heroes could do wrong.


There had of course been echoes, hints of creepiness from the past, short on specifics. And I categorized it in my head as “certainly plausible, ultimately unprovable,” which put Louis C.K. in the same class as Woody Allen or Michael Gira from Swans. Their work was filed under “great art made by potential awful people.”

But the admission of guilt pushes Louis C.K.'s work into another category, “great art made by confirmed awful people,” the Roman Polanski category. For Polanski, it has become the Thing You Know About Him (a characteristic that Bill Cosby is fast on his way to attaining as well), even if you couldn't name a single one of his films.

And yet our intuitive responses are short lived. Let's take Polanski, for example, who still had no trouble receiving an Oscar for best director for The Pianist in 2002. And there are countless others whose sexual crimes we continue to ignore. We forget about the infinite numbers of questionable encounters on the part of Jimmy Page, or countless other old rock stars. Their reputations are forever going to be protected by the nostalgia blanket, the romanticized dissolute rock & roll lifestyle of a time that was supposedly more innocent, even in its un-self-conscious decadence. We forget that Mike Tyson is a convicted rapist, and now he's the funny guy with the tattoo in the Hangover movies.

And sexual crimes actually seem to make more of an impact on the collective imagination than the more general ethical and ideological failures of public personae, the things that actually seem far more likely to have a direct impact on their work. We know Wagner as the anti-Semitic composer, Ezra Pound as the Nazi poet. The forgetting happens quickly. I would have told you a few years ago that Mel “fucking Jews!” Gibson's career was irredeemable, but now he's back in the limelight, his smile as dopey as ever.

Rather, we cast a harsh light for a few seconds, and are then distracted by something else. Consider how quickly it died down for a certain elected official noted for his yen for pussy-grabbing.

And even while that harsh light is present, there is minimal questioning of the power structures that make sexual crimes by men in the entertainment industry possible. Projects are dropped, contracts are thrown out, and that's it, all hands washed. Which to me reflects the way that media agencies perceive the spate of sexual assault allegation less as a series of actual, real crimes committed within a social system that facilitates them, than as a series of PR liabilities.

And the public response, likewise, is more a sense of satisfaction that the market is behaving appropriately, alternating with a sense of titillation at who will show up next in the scandal sheets. And make sure you're the first of your friends to share an article about it.

This is perhaps the real Weinstein Effect, a tendency towards public shaming in lieu of real action.

Which is a characteristic I've known myself to be guilty of as well, to have cast my own blind spots, to lack empathy.

And I know how actually writing about the process ultimately vilifies me in the eyes of many. To certain feminist critics, everything I say will come off as mansplaining about something about which I can say nothing meaningful. To others, what I say will seem like arrogant, bloodless over-analysis. And to others, whose opinions I will cheerfully write off, will deem any attempt at rectification to be a sign of a feminized society.

And as every reaction fades, only the trauma will remain.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

On Baron Munchausen

Few people knew the writing of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky during his lifetime, virtually none outside the samizdat readership of Soviet Russia, and really not many more know him now. He was not translated into English until about 10 years ago, and I largely discovered his work by accident, via the New York Review Books catalog, one of the best, most consistent sources of works by long-forgotten Hungarian and Sicilian writers, and dove in with the near-guarantee that a writer with a name that unfriendly to non-Slavic mouths and a habit for writing books with names like Autobiography of a Corpse would be someone I'd dig.

But when I read his Adventures of Munchausen not long ago, I was at something of a loss. Not because it was badly written, or anything like that, but because I was so absolutely not the intended readership. As with so many novels from that rough time period in that region of the world, there were the intertextual links to poems and novels popular among the Russian intelligentsia of the interwar period (it should be noted that the very concept of a writing that takes place in dialogue with other pieces of writing crystallized in interwar Russia, with the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin), clever allusions to Bolshevik phraseology, and wordplay from a language I don't speak. All of these facts were dutifully explained in the footnotes, which, like explanations of jokes, do a great deal to increase understanding of the context, but radically fail to place the reader actually within the context.

I felt a bit like the students of Nabokov's Professor Pnin, who sit there in respectful confusion as Pnin makes a point to laugh out loud at the satirical poetry he's reciting, and tries to pretend he still lives in a land and a time period in which the targets of that satire were relevant.

More importantly than that specificially Russian milieu, though, Krzhizhanovsky's novel engages with one of the most persistent storylines of post-Enlightenment Europe, that of Baron Munchausen, who first entered the world of print in 1785, with the publication of The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Rudolf Erich Raspe. This, in turn, was based on a baron by the name of Freiherr Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen who gained a reputation as a teller of elaborate, exaggerated stories of military prowess. In his tall-tale adventures, whether going to the Moon or wrestling bears with his hands or pulling himself out of a swamp by his own hair or whatever, the literary version of Munchausen (always transcribed into English in that decidedly less Germanic fashion) describes the goings-on stone-faced, as if he was casually mentioning that he ran into Jenny from Accounting at H&M. Whether we are supposed to believe that Munchausen is a master raconteur, utterly self-deluded, or a pathological liar is up to the reader, I suppose.

As the Munchausen character became a standard fixture of European literature, his stories changed and multiplied. They were modified for different audiences, different languages, for children, for adults. Like the Bible, the Greek myths, or Shakespeare, they became part of a common narrative tradition across Europe, a sort of folklore for the nascent middle class following the Industrial Revolution. From Raspe's original text, tales were added, subtracted, embellished, and diminished, until the name could be applied to any situation in which fantastical events with straight-man delivery.

But, like most Americans, and I'm guessing most people in this century, my knowledge of the Munchausen tradition comes from (a) the Terry Gilliam movie featuring the dude with the creepy mustache – a symptom of the 1980s fetish for campy Victoriana – and (b) the familiar tabloid TV bogeyman of Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, whereby parents or caregivers would keep their dependents sick as a way of drawing attention to themselves (à la the puking girl in The Sixth Sense), frequently covered by big-haired anchors with reels of grainy footage of poisonings and dramatic sound effects.


And in this way, the Munchausen concept has again become re-defined, until it's something that, in case (a) bears a great deal of similarity in terms of context, but little in terms of effect, and in (b), bears absolutely fucking nothing in common in terms of context, but in terms of being a legend that we tell ourselves to bring order to our perception of the world, delivered with deadly earnestness, is spot on.

So the modern-America Munchausen is a morph of the many morphs that sprung from the original Munchausen novel, which is a series of within-that-world false tales told by a within-that-world real narrator, which is a morph of Baron Münchhausen, and his supposedly similar habits. Rather like the metamorphosis in Munchausen's stories themselves.

This is the game of Chinese whispers that we call culture.

I started by wanting to write about a book and how I didn't understand it, and how it referred to a story I didn't know much about, and it turned into a different story altogether. What stories have I read, participated in, inhabited? What stories do I tell myself? And what echoes will reverberate into the future?

Monday, August 28, 2017

Arcades Project

I'm not entirely sure why Walter Benjamin failed to finish his Arcades Project. It may have been his untimely death in the Pyrenees, but it could have well been the nature of the thing. When you read the massive, uneven pile of notes and quotations that forms the Harvard edition of this half-finished (or quarter-finished, or nearly-finished, who knows) “Arcades Project,” you question whether or not such a thing would even be feasible, or whether, like a perpetual stew, it would always be subject to revision and addition and deletion. He was reaching for this vast, barely visible constellation of ideas, and he was accumulating his inspirations and documentary evidence, never forcing them together into a coherent message. Because Benjamin was, above all else, an archivist of ideas, a natural collector.

The Arcades Project takes as its primary character the flaneur, the wanderer of the grand arcades of late 19th Century Paris, a world so remembered and so glorified as la belle époque, even as some of its most beloved figures, like Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Courbet spent their artistic life exposing the underlying contradictions of that world.

You could say that the artistic descendants of the flaneurs are those devotees of the endless labyrinth of the modern metropolis, whether renowned writers like Iain Sinclair in London or Georges Perec in Paris, or in the scattershot urbanist meditations of Rem Koolhaas, or among the countless urban explorers who post their photos and descriptions of abandoned subway stations and missile silos around the Internet. And yet as much as I like this approach, the space they work in is not the economic or spiritual inheritor of the arcades.

Becuase the arcades were sites of bourgeois consumption. When we Americans think of Parisian boulevards, we think of accordionists on the Champs-Élysées or some such thing, or maybe Monet paintings. We forget that in France, the term “théâtre de boulevard” refers to cheap, easy-to-understand, middlebrow theater, the local equivalent of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. And when Benjamin was calling Paris the capital of the 19th Century, he was, as a good Marxist, calling Paris the capital of the high-capitalist era. And so, au contraire, the modern arcades in their economic and spiritual form is found in the suburban shopping mall.

This isn't entirely a coincidence. The modern incarnation of the American shopping mall was pioneered by Victor Gruen, an Austrian socialist who fled the fascist tide that swept his home nation. And he deliberately wanted to create something akin to Mitteleuropa coziness and hominess, something that had been so largely destroyed by the Second World War, and which stood in marked contrast to the auto-centric American consumer culture.

To this end, he designed the Southdale Mall in the posh Minneapolis suburb of Edina, with the hopes of turning it into the locus of a planned community of apartments, schools, and parks. These were never built, all that was left was a shopping center, surrounded by acres of asphalt parking lot.

For so long, I avoided malls, and I still, by and large, fucking hate them. In my West Coast life, I was able to avoid them by and large, avoid the recirculated air, and the mingling smell of Pretzelmaker, Yankee Candle Company, and Bath and Body Works. This isn't anything that countless other people haven't harped on for decades, and I feel no further need to elaborate.

And yet in Bangkok, the mall is the prima facie standard of commerce, unavoidable. Part of this is unquestionably climactic – if you're shopping for hours straight, you want to spend as little of that in the tropical heat as possible. But it also has to do with the stage at which Bangkok developed as a modern metropolis. The city passed overnight from open-air markets to malls without passing through much of a stage of grand department stores and shopping boulevards that marked the development of European, American, and Japanese cities.

Likewise, the malls of Bangkok continue to multiply, growing ever taller, grander, even as their American counterparts wither and die as my countrymen do more and more of their shopping from within their own homes.

How many malls are there in Bangkok? It's hard to say, because it's hard to know what to classify as a “mall.” Everything turns into some kind of shopping center. Cineplexes, big-box stores, they all have countless small businesses, ranging from simple stalls to major chains, springing up like mushrooms in the corridors. The result is that a continuum from the old market days emerges, with little shops selling banana leaf-wrapped desserts or a few racks of polyester dresses tucked underneath escalators or between the Starbucks and the KFC. In the dead malls of the city – closed-down branches of department stores, for instance – the market vendors move in, selling cheap Chinese bras out of bins, and fortune tellers set up shop on formica tables.

Not long after I moved to Bangkok, the whole vaporwave concept reached peak relevance, and it seemed especially pertinent to the city in which I found myself. A tangle of the artifacts of '90s irrational exuberance, virtuality, unfamiliar graphemes, bright colors, fluttering palm fronds, cheesy Greco-Roman and baroque motifs, and the sense of immanent destruction lurking just outside the camera frame. The image...


...matches eerily with reality:


These have become my arcades, the places I wander in and out of.

I move quickly eastward, barely leaving the air con. This is the pathway I know, and on an afternoon, like John Cheever's swimmer, I move from pool to pool. I start among Arab tourists and bootleg mobile phone vendors, in a structure futuristic on the outside, but tawdry on the inside, and move over to a photography gallery, catch my breath, and then stroll through two recently renovated centers, one with an interior all in white, one with an interior all in black. From there, I cross the fountain plaza past the line of teenage girls all taking identical selfies, past the revolving door and the doorman dressed like an Austro-Hungarian admiral, past Gucci, Prada. Over a concrete walkway choked with shoppers, and through the building burned down in the 2010 riots. This is the junction. I could walk north, into a thick, crowded market of Ugandan and Pakistani hawkers, an impossible tangle of narrow corridors and knockoff goods and tuk-tuks full of Chinese package tourists, but I keep walking east, and the crowds suddenly dissipate, and I walk into a pristine white cube. Empty hallways, distant, pulsing music. I pause for just a second, before crossing another concrete skywalk, past an incense-thick shrine with traditional dancers, into the curvilinear shopping arcades of a pedigreed hotel, before moving east into another largely empty, dying shopping center, with desultory restaurants and bored-looking market vendors. Next is the only major gap in the connected network of escalators and halls. Breathe in the heat, the smell of diesel, before going into a vast and well-heeled mall I've never fully understood, seeming to be in direct competition with a nearby establishment with the same owners. From there, I cross over a white breezeway over the valet-parked Ferraris into the final major name, quickly stop to look at wire cutters in a multi-story hardware and housewares shop, and end in a quiet, supposedly “ecological” complex of bamboo floors, where, exhausted, I get a cup of coffee.

This is the end of the river. I stand underneath the expressway, at a point where two of the city's major arteries connect, but as this one minute segment is a one-way road, little traffic trundles past. Some kids sit on the rails of the grassy, largely forgotten freight railway that goes down to the port, and motorbikes gather at the end of a long, sun-baked frontage road. A handful of ultra-luxury hotels are being built to the west, and further east, another, less cohesive tangle of interconnected passageways emerges, but this is the quiet lacuna in the middle of a very big city, a momentary pause. Here, nothing begins, only ends.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Kansas City

My first memories of cityspace as such were of Kansas City. Not exactly an iconic American city, I know, but perhaps like its denuded sister city, Saint Louis, it deserves to be. Neither fully Midwestern nor fully Southern, industrial but distinctly agro-industrial, it perhaps embodies American urbanity, in its essentially sprawling, at times near Sunbeltish character, in its transition between McMansion'd Trumpiste suburbia and poor, black inner city, in its attempts at “revitalization” of the urban core.

It was where a lot of my family were, some in suburbia, some in the high-security white holdout zones along Ward Parkway and Wornall Road, akin to Park Slope in Brooklyn around the same time, or to those other areas of DC, Atlanta, Cleveland that remained steadfast in their thin-lipped whiteness in the face of mid-century “urban crisis.”

We crossed into Kansas City each time over the Paseo Bridge, named for the road that it connected to, some Babbittian idea of a Catalan rambla in a Middle American factory town, now the artery of Tech N9ne territory. The exit signs flickered past, “Oak – Grand – Walnut – Downtown,” the image of the city at sunset, which, for a kid from rural America, was an Oz of golden light.

Although what struck me as a child was not so much the normal signifiers of the American city – the skyscrapers, the wide expressways, the cultural institutions of the zoo and the museum – but the other figureheads of urbanity as sheer decay.

But before we reached it, we had to cross the marginal zone. The smell of grain milling permeated the air, and the whole area seemed broken, with its railyard, its smoke, the greasy, flat Missouri River, and the gaudy “riverboat” casino that had more in common with the outfit of a Brazilian transsexual at Carnival than anything Mark Twain ever sailed.

This was a mysterious landscape, which held a simultaneous terror at the brokenness of it all and a thrill of the unknown. I somehow came to love the antique brick warehouses, the glimmer of prairie light through broken orange panes of industrial glass, the old hand-painted signs on the side advertising long-dead shipping and storage concerns, manufactures of bakelite radios, manual typewriters, men's haberdashery, cars with names like Hupmobile and Pierce-Arrow. And dug deep into the chalky limestone bluffs, mines and quarries had been turend into storage units, or else left to collapse underneath fall foliage, barely visible from the car window.

On one trip – just me and my father, as I remember, when I was about seven or eight – we took the wrong exit, Bonfire of the Vanities-style. I saw the name of the exit, “Prospect Avenue,” which seemed innocuous enough. “Lock your doors,” he muttered between his teeth.

I hadn't really seen anything like it before, the billboards covered in obscure graffiti, the old men with bottles in paper bags, the check-cashing joints. And the people on the street were all black, a concept I could barely imagine coming from a lily-white Iowa town. Black women in suits, black men in leather jackets, black kids walking in groups, people who were doing the exact sorts of things people did back in my hometown, except with added melanin, which, embarrassingly, was something that I'd really only encountered before on Family Matters and The Cosby Show. I suppose I was old enough to know about Martin Luther King and slavery, but the narrative being told at Roosevelt Elementary School was that things were all better now, because life in America is good and just keeps getting better. And I couldn't for the life of me figure out why these people were living in this place. Which looking back, might be the most fucking naively white thought one could imagine.

But that memory was 20 years ago, and I wonder whether the city of my memory exists anymore.

I click on Google Street View, slowly go into town. There it is, on a highway sign, the gnomic little poem of my vacation days, “Oak – Grand – Walnut – Downtown.”

But the warehouses are all gone, the art-deco bridge replaced with something colorless and characterless, the setbacks from the highway wider, greener, planted with dwarfish Austrian pines.

I suppose that this was city council's half-baked attempt at “beautification.” Replace the aesthetics of a previous era with something that only looks good in an artist's rendering. Never mind that the broad, suburban-style lawns are completely incongruous with dense urban space, or with the lonely wood-frame houses and brick commercial buildings pushed to the fringe, their neighbors long since knocked down to make way. Never mind that the cheap, isolated conifers they've planted are ugly even in an exurban office park, let alone in an inner city. And never mind that this space is completely unusable, a park for nobody, a vista for primarily non-local passengers that only lasts in their eyes for a few seconds, if they bother to even glance up.

And those warehouses that have survived on the fringe, a great many have been turned into lofts, the sort you imagine with exposed brick walls and fittings one step up from Ikea, or bar-and-grills that seem suspiciously of the sort that serve “Kobe” burgers that have little connection to Japan, and “truffle fries” made with oil from the New Jersey perfumery plants.

I recognize that I view my beloved abandoned older forms as objects, entities separate from the economic processes that brought them into being. Like an oxbow lake cut off from a river, they become placid, isolated end results of the torrent of capital. And furthermore, it's all too easy to imagine one's own memories to be the most “natural” forms of things.

Yet I truly believe the empty space has become symbolic of the new urban decay. Unlike the old ruins, which left a nasty, corporeal reminder of failure and iteration, the new decay is conversely characterized by emptiness, lack of density, osteoporosis. Sometimes it is insignificant, a vacant lot. Sometimes it is intentional “greening,” the eight-laner that tries to emulate something more verdant, rather than a gray barrier akin to New York's infamous Cross-Bronx Expressway. In an era of demolished public housing, of the repurposing and re-whitening of the urban center, the phony parkland is the new signature of neoliberal displacement.

Consider the blank spots of Detroit. You've seen them all on the news – vast, unused green lawns and tracts of scrub separating houses like farmsteads, both inhabited and not, empty auto plants, smokestacks. Repeat for St. Louis, Buffalo, Youngstown, New Orleans.

And so the zones that are not deemed worthy of growth and replenishment are simply erased, until all that is left are cracked foundations and crabgrass.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Cinnamon Shops

I set out on foot from On Nut Road – a bow-shaped arterial which links the Sukhumvit corridor to the Lat Krabang area on the eastern edge of Bangkok – to the Ekkamai intersection. It was an uncharacteristically cool morning, and ideal for a bit of exploration.

It's a fast-changing strip that I walked through. It was not long ago that this area was mostly known has the haunting grounds of Mae Nak, subject of one of the most celebrated ghost stories of Thai folklore. According to legend, she dies while her husband is off fighting the Burmese, and unable to leave her beloved, she stays behind, only to be left again.

A shrine to her remains at Wat Mahabut, but now the rice paddies and mangroves she wandered are but a distant memory, long since replaced by oil refineries and textile plants, and, more recently, the condos that have mushroomed up as the metro system has pushed further east and south, the wooden houses torn down to make way for 30-story towers, the cottage-industry workshops superseded by “lifestyle centers,” deep-fried mackerel and cheap coffee made sweet with condensed milk replaced with mediocre espresso and unagi rolls.

But the new can only displace the old to a certain extent, and in fugitive corners, the old still thrives.

I walk down Sukhumvit, first past a row of shops selling bargain appliances wrapped in plastic, followed by another row all selling caged doves and goldfish. And as I cut down below the bridge over the foul smelling Phra Khanong Canal, itself beneath the entwined concrete serpentines of a freeway interchange, a few open-air barbershops ply their trade, ancient men clipping away at military flat-tops underneath insect-swarmed lights, each stall with a single, torn brown leatherette seat.

Perhaps “fugitive corners” is the wrong term, because they aren't corners, but margins. Much like how in the American Midwest, prairie species continued to thrive along the embankments of railroad lines and cemetery fences, the remnants of the old Bangkok form a tentacular pattern, likewise along railroad lines and canals, underneath highways, pressed hard between six-lane roads choked with barreling delivery trucks.

Underneath the shadow of the crystalline new city, the lumpenproletariat make their living among rust-stained concrete and rebar, and these spaces are filled with hidden patterns, specialized markets, ethnic and linguistic links to the parched Burmese plains, the hills of Java, the swampy ground of the Mekong Delta.

I haven't explored these areas thoroughly. When I've walked through their hearts, more often than not, I've felt unwanted, an interloper, past living rooms open to the street where families gathered on duvets on the floor to watch the evening game shows and soap operas, before foyers that seemed like junk shops gathering years of scrap wood and old calendars, into engine shops and hardware stores smelling of oil and metal, parts of antique Fiats and Datsuns oxidizing on creaking shelves.

The cinnamon shops, I think, as I cross the bridge over the canal.

In 1934, Bruno Schulz published his story of that name, the story of a young boy adrift amid the magical junk shops of Schulz's hometown of Drohobycz, now part of Ukraine, but variously Polish, Russian, and Austrian in previous times. The cinnamon shops, to Schulz, were the wondrous repositories of the exotic and the forgotten, “Bengal lights, magic boxes, the stamps of long-forgotten countries, Chinese decals, indigo, calaphony from Malabar, the eggs of exotic insects...”

And this resonated so closely when I read Schulz. For as long as I could remember, I had been attracted to the ancient and the forgotten, and had scoured garage sales and used bookstores for antique atlases and postcards. I was just at the age, when I read Schulz, when I dove headlong into the “vintage,” wearing shirts that had been worn for years by Iowan farmers. To see this desire reflected in a totally different time, that of the Galician steppe 70 years before, but in identical form – and what the fuck was calaphony? – was bracing.

So wherever I have lived and traveled since, I have been aware of entering the cinnamon shops. I had seen them in vellum scripts in Oxford, their 18th Century handwriting verging on the illegible, in the dusty junk-drawer Main Street storefronts of Iowa and Minnesota, in a pile of old printing blocks in Nikko, an hour north of Tokyo.

As the city moves upwards, what were once the main form of commerce in Bangkok become the cinnamon shops. The standard Chinese remedies are now patent medicines in dusty jars. The weekly magazines of the Thai housewives of the 1960s are now a mildewing pile. The decorative temple-mural pattern on a notebook becomes a cheap relic. The once brand-new row of masonry houses now lurks beneath the expressway.

In the digital era, will our relics experience the same fate? Is our Instagram photo, already cinnamon'd, already filtered to look like it was taken with an old Lomo, going to be a talisman of a bygone era?

Our lives are as still images. We never see the subtle shifts in the aesthetics around us until they're gone. Then they're gone and we look back, and call it nostalgia. And we archive our nostalgias, relegate them to the museum of our own past, whether that our is a single person or the entire human collective memory.

And we organize those nostalgias into gestalt images of a place, a time, forming these abstractions, and if the abstractions become objects of fixation, they run the risk of becoming caricatures, grotesques.

I arrive at the Ekkamai intersection, now fully back in the modern city. To cool off a bit, I walk into Gateway, a disorienting Japanese-themed mall, where women in cosplay uniforms bark at you to take a shampoo sample or come into a sushi restaurant. A man clumsily trods past in a giant robot outfit.

I'm thrust from a hazy, dusty nostalgia, into another abstraction, one of Shinjuku hypermodernity. 50 years, five minutes. As I walk out into the blinding sunlight, the whole city seems to fall quiet for just a second.