Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Politics of the Grotesque

The something that we can, perhaps, loosely call the “ugly American fringe” is something that pundits have been trying to get at since the Trump ascendancy began. This world of angry, white people who feel betrayed is certainly nothing new, but as a phenomenon, it was ignored by the media for decades. In the '90s, it was ignored while the economy was good, and the moronically smiling faces of Gingrich's brigade took over Congress. In the '00s, it seemed like there was enough chaos and horror, war and economic collapse to preclude any discussion of slow decay in our own backyards. The last time that class divide was strongly in the public consciousness was in the '80s, when the term “Rust Belt” entered public currency, when Bruce Springsteen sold millions of albums, when countless slobs versus snobs comedies could still accurately contrast a slovenly if virtuous working class against a coat-and-tails wearing, beef wellington-eating haute bourgeoisie. But in the decades in between, little was heard from the marginalized industrial class, even as so many of them slowly transformed into Trumpists, avant la lettre.

Granted, there were exceptions. There were the often remarkably ill-informed documentaries of Michael Moore, there were the sharply-written if frantically polemical essays of Thomas Frank. Or a line like this from Jonathan Franzen, in The Corrections:

Well, there was still the citizenry of America’s heartland: St. Judean minivan drivers thirty and forty pounds overweight and sporting pastel sweats, pro-life bumper stickers, Prussian hair.”

Now to write about this gap, about the decay in Middle America, I could use any number of approaches. I could rely on the old “silent majority” handle, a phrase that has been useless ever since it was used to represent Archie Bunker and the protagonists of The Deer Hunter. I could talk in vaguely elegiac terms about “the ordinary folks,” their “humble” lives. I could attempt some sort of (if we're being optimistic) sociological analysis, something already done countless times by more capable and intellectually rigorous minds. Or I could do some awful, recoiling-in-horror “look at those flyover country people” analysis of the sort that feeds both Atlantic think pieces and the worst sort of clickbait. I could draw countless comparisons to previous currents both domestic and foreign, whether the 1968 George Wallace presidential run, the Poujadiste revolt against Gaullism in 1950s France, the desperation and disenfranchisement that led to the Brexit vote. I could go into depth about the anxiety of the Wall Street and national security elite of having such an unsubtle candidate for their party, or the evangelicals who, despite the fact that I disagree with them on virtually everything, have an odd sort of integrity. Or, hell, I could do a series of postmodernist backflips a la Slavoj Zizek.

But what fascinates me more than anything else, is the grotesquerie.

Consider how Trump was viewed as a comedy figure until he became an existential threat. Consider the barbs about his small hands and concordant assumptions about the implications for his cock. Note his habit of pairing Brioni suits with dime-store baseball caps. Or his speech at the RNC, his jowly red face looking like a pustule about to burst with fury.

It's also telling that when Tim and Eric of Awesome Show fame appeared in character, they vocally supported a Trump presidency. Which character they appeared in is irrelevant – they all form part of the same continuum. What their comedy gets at, more than anything else, is the peculiar flavor of the Middle American grotesque, a social status that is a few notches above the gashed-open white-trash porn of Harmony Korine films. It is the world of exurban tract houses, Applebee's memorabilia, ill-fitting suits, and a mediated environment in which a hot tub and a tropical drink form the pinnacle of luxury. And it is exactly this populist appearance of wealth (q.v. buildings with YOUR name on them, the aforementioned Brioni + baseball cap combo) that lies at the heart of this particular stereotype, a formica-coated version of the American dream.

This is the mutation of the American-dream concept. When I was 15 or 16, I adopted Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio as a totemic text. These stories of small-town adolescence, of a whole world in which dreams had been warped, spoke so strongly then:

The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

“And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.”

But as powerful as this imagery is, it is not electoral politics. It is tribalism.

What bothers me immensely, is that, without the media seeming to know it, this notion of the grotesquerie has displaced real political discourse. When MSNBC shows Trump supporters, it shows fat, slovenly rednecks with Confederate flag tattoos. When Fox News shows them, it shows small-town swells and immaculate blonde publicists. Both feed the same purpose, of splitting people into identity-based camps.

I shouldn't be surprised. The aesthetic mode displaces the ideological with terrifying frequency, and the current iteration of American cultural war is nothing more than an accelerated, 4G-era version of the same disconnect between metropolitan oversimplification and rural oversimplification that is far older than the republic. In focusing on this distinction, those of us on the left fully play into Trump's us-versus-them message. We don't look at the common evisceration of the middle class, we don't look at the way the paranoia regarding abstract terror is being spun into a surveillance state by both parties, we don't look at the processes by which the image-machine turns our hopes and fears into capital.

The only shot we have at overcoming this chronic shortsightedness is to first address it as such. It is only when we realize how much we conflate external image with politics, when we realize how much we rely on the crutch of market-tested identity, that anyone can actually find a political language that transcends these divisions.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Ghosts of My Neighborhood

This neighborhood, the place where I live, is a land of ghosts. Its street names-- those that translate to Windmill, Red Pavilion, Betel-Vine Plantation – reflect a more innocent time, when its myriad canals watered the little farms that gave an earlier Bangkok a reputation as a city of fruits and flowers. From the old groves and orchards, the main roads are lined with office and condo towers. And yet the back streets are still dotted with decaying turn-of-the-century mansions, house with wide eaves and typhoon shutters, antique Karmann Ghias and Aston Martins in their driveways, chambers stuffy with memories of black-and-white photos of military strongmen, Chinese opera, noodles sold from boats. One is reminded of the Sunset Boulevard of Norma Desmond, or the “senseless-killing” neighborhood at the beginning of Joan Didion's “The White Album.”

“The house on Franklin Avenue was rented, and paint peeled inside and out, and pipes broke and window sashes crumbled and the tennis court had not been rolled since 1933, but the rooms were many and high-ceilinged and, during the five years I lived there, even the rather sinistral inertia of the neighborhood tended to suggest that I should live in the house indefinitely. In fact, I could not, because the owners were waiting only for a zoning change to tear the house down and build a high-rise apartment building, and for that matter it was precisely this anticipation of imminent but not exactly immediate destruction that gave lent the neighborhood its particular character.”

And there is something that vaguely aspires to the non-tropical, in these old chauffeured European cars, in the teak-made half-timbers of the houses. When the ancient khunying of the neighborhood being pushed around in wheelchairs by nurses were in their prime, The Sound of Music was the most successful film in Thai history. And there is something that aspires to the Alpine about these old houses, to be ski chalets in an imagined prewar Austria. It comes even in the street names, where quiet side lanes are christened Convent, Goethe, Mozart, Saint-Louis, Trocadero.

Countless of these memories are tied to the days of the Cold War, when Thailand was theorized to be a critical domino in Southeast Asia. That house around the corner from me behind a high wall, where I can barely see the new flag of the now-Republic of the Union of Myanmar flying was before housed ambassadorial functions of the USSR. Around the corner was the house of the ambassador representing the Czar of All the Russias before the October Revolution. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, a mysterious black door on Sathorn Road still leads to a US military facility where you can enjoy a Department of Defense-subsidized whiskey on the rocks, in a hall festooned with stars-and-stripes bunting, and lined with the photos of the old commanding officers, half of them stern-faced, half of them looking like militarized Jackie Gleasons.

On the level of the foot soldier, there are still some of the same smoke-hazed go-go bars of Patpong, immortalized in the whorehouse scene of The Deer Hunter, where Michiganders and Alabamians on R&R stared at dancing girls in G-strings. The remnants are found in a couple of eateries, Mizu's Kitchen and The Derby King, where they still have the same cracked vinyl booths, and serve the same interpretations of pork chops and spaghetti and meatballs, Yankee comfort food as filtered through an Asian lens.

After the G.I.s packed up came the hippies. Following through after Kabul, Kashmir, and Kathmandu, a handful found their way east to hang up their Nehru shirts in the old counterculture enclave of Ngam Duphli Road, at places like the Malaysia Hotel, now the refuge of gay sex tourists. It was there that Charles Sobhraj, assisted by the fawning young women who surrounded him, lured the occasional unsuspecting traveler back to his apartment at Kanit House on Sala Daeng Road, before drugging them with Quaaludes, robbing them, and eventually murdering them.


The city tries and tries to move forward, to lumber into the new century. This week, the tallest building in the Kingdom, the 312 meter, 77-story Mahanakhon Tower, opens this week, a spire of interlocking cubes that looks utopian in sunlight, dystopian under clouds. A glittering new city attempts to pierce through the old, but the rumble of the ghosts is heard below the earth.

Across the street from the new skyscraper, I see the holy man sitting on the bench at the bus stop, his neck wrapped in a dozen garlands, his eyes focused on the day's issue of the Thai Rath, even though it's 10:00 at night, and there's no streetlight. Is he dead? Is he sleeping? For a second, I'm even wondering if he is a grotesque sculptural installation, some oddball commentary on life in the megalopolis.

I want to look closer, but I don't want to take the risk of startling him, to have a rough encounter. I can't see if his eyes are open-- his face is caked thick and white, like the tribesmen of New Guinea who gather en masse on Mount Hagen to demonstrate each others' rituals. Is he really a holy man, a sadhu of some kind? Or simply homeless, a local Buddhist variant of the toothless street preachers on American soil?

I look back as I walk up the steps to the metro station. He still stares into his newspaper in the dark.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A City in the North

When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I looked in my atlas for a place called the Taymyr Peninsula. I'd been reading about the tribal people of Siberia, and I looked for this place, the homeland of the Nenets and Nganasan people, a vast zone of permafrost on Russia's Arctic coast. some 3000 kilometers northeast of Moscow.

And then in a tiny, Italic font. I saw the word “Norilsk,” indicating a settlement on the edge of the peninsula, the name of an impossibly remote city. I wondered, briefly, what kind of place it was – was it a real city of any size? Or was it just a garrison town, a few hundred soldiers on the edge of the wilderness. Or darker, one of the many islets of the Gulag Archipelago?

I don't think I ever looked it up. I filed the name away in memory, one of the many reference superscripts for which I would never look up the footnote.

And then I saw a set of photographs by Elena Chernyshova, documenting the city of Norilsk.

The city is substantial, a place of 200,000 people. As suspected, the rich mineral resources of the region were once mined by the primarily Ukrainian victims of Stalin's Great Purge of the late 1930s, who also constructed the isolated Norilsk Railway, which shipped the platinum, nickel, and palladium from the Taymyr Peninsula to the port town of Dudinka.

Nowadays, the metals are privately managed, by MMC Norilsk Nickel, a Moscow-based company. Its smelters at Norilsk run all day, creating a full 2 percent of the world's carbon dioxide output. The life expectancy is 10 years lower than that of the rest of the Russia, and the soil has become so fouled that it could, ostensibly, be economically viable to mine the topsoil for platinum.

And whether it's due to the city's economic importance, or due to its dishonorable distinction of being Russia's most polluted city, the place is off-limits to foreigners, other than Belarussians, whose own republic, a little reliquary of Soviet nostalgia adjacent to Poland and Lithuania, likewise heavily curtails foreign visits.

This practice remains common in this part of the world. These closed cities have been deemed too valuable to the national interest, in terms of their positions as centers of mines, manufacturing, military operations, or scientific research. There is Zvyozdny Gorodok, where the cosmonauts are trained. There is Snezhnogorsk, the shipyard town on the Arctic shore, near the Finnish border. There is Ozyorsk, the birthplace of weapons-grade plutonium, site of the 1957 Kyshtym nuclear disaster, and home to the radioactive Lake Karachay, the now mostly dry lake filled with concrete to prevent the underlying sediments from shifting, where the radiation levels in the murky water are high enough to provide a lethal dose within an hour.

This sort of environmental-horror photography is a kindred spirit to the ruin porn of Detroit et al that has spawned cult interest on the Internet in the past several years. It's a tradition that I first became aware of in Godfrey Reggio's sometimes intriguing, sometimes cloying 1988 film Powaqqatsi, which opens with men carrying crushing loads of mineral-laden dirt and rock on narrow ladders out of the Dantean pit of the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil.

The more modern purveyors of this subject matter primarily focus, likewise, on the grim legacy of attempts at modern industrial revolution, primarily in India, China, and the former Soviet Bloc. There are a few hallmarks. Close-ups of sweaty workers in the teeming mass, blasted scenery, the inevitable human-interest angle of laborers on their break, eating lunch or having a smoke and a laugh.

On the one hand, this brand of photography plays a role as a legitimate form of environmental and social protest, documenting lives and landscapes that would otherwise be near-invisible. What would be distant, solitary, unknowable comes across in intimate detail. 
And yet part of me cringes at the focus on the BRIC nations, as if to palliate the guilt of capitalists in the more developed world from their complicity, or to obscure the fact that the end product of all of this en-masse destruction can be found neatly wrapped at your local big-box store, ready for you to drop into your shopping cart.

Norilsk, the city in the North, is in all of us, in our jewelry, in the catalytic converters of our cars. And when I look at the rings on our fingers, in the passing of traffic, I can only a think of a metropolis caked in snow and grime, rusted mining equipment, and long-dead Ukrainians buried in the metal-laced soil.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Psychic Refugees

How I hate the shorthand term “expat.” It has become codeword for a whole litany of meanings, so many of them pertaining to evasiveness, laziness, or escapist fantasy. Yet there is such a diversity of those who willingly move abroad with a relative pillow of economic comfort, whether temporarily or permanently.

There are the professionally ambitious types, those who move abroad either sent as corporate or diplomatic representatives, or who move abroad for job opportunities. These are the smartly dressed Westerners you see in bars in Hong Kong, the young Europeans working on Wall Street, the uniformed Japanese and Koreans piling into taxis in Kuala Lumpur.

There are the youthful, or at least youthful in spirit, adventurers, the people who go for the cultural immersion, the rock climbing, what have you. They may teach English for a year or two, or try their hand as snowboard instructors or dive masters, or work in publishing, in media production, in NGOs, yet their core mission seems to be expansion of experience.

Of course, especially in Southeast Asia, there are the creeps, people for whom the satisfaction of their libidos seems of primary concern. Often retired, you see them in loud, open-air bars in Bangkok, just off of Sukhumvit Road, heads shaven, shooting pool, or with frail Thai girls in their laps. A great many are retired, and their main goal seems to be dying with a belly full of beer in the arms of a 20 year old.

But one group that doesn't get addressed much are what I call the psychic refugees.

These are the most invisible group. In my limited experiences with them, they seem skittish, uncomfortable, shifty-eyed, vaguely autistic, and often boiling with anger.

I am going for a drink with friends, a mix of locals and foreigners, and a few people I hadn't yet met. I sit down between friends, across from a stranger. He looks at me, unsmiling, through gritted teeth, a Marlboro mostly turned to ash in his left hand.

“You want some WINE?” he scowls at me.

And yet I don't think it was intended as a scowl.

Or there was the hunchbacked man on the metro muttering to himself, wearing a purple buttondown and loud necktie, swinging loosely from side to side as he held the handrail at 9:00 or so on a Sunday morning. As the recorded announcement on the train said “next station Phrom Phong,” he yells out “We know!” in a thick, neighing New Jersey accent. People's heads turn, and as the only other foreigner on that part of the train, I move away to avoid guilt by association.

I could go on. Any Westerner who's lived long enough in Bangkok should have plenty of stories like this.

Some of these cases could be written off as simple instances of mental illness. You watch people whose bipolar disorder isn't nearly enough in check, or whose psychotic breaks are written off as eccentricities until they land in jail.

And of course there is substance abuse. There are the foreigners who have picked up a taste for the cheap Thai meth manufactured in superlabs across the Burmese border, or who happily lick the table clean after lining up rail after rail of heavily cut Thai coke, or who simply come into their offices in the morning blackout drunk. And who, unlike many others, have lost the ability to maintain a sheen of normalcy.

But there are the less definable losers, the men with vaguely monastic bowl cuts and ill-fitting shirts, who just seem off. Maybe you get into a conversation with them, and they go into a long rant about their hodge-podge spiritual beliefs, or their foaming-mouthed antitheism. The sort of people who come off as rather sad but harmless, but whose Internet history you probably don't want to look through.

You wonder what drew them abroad. Did they come to Thailand because they didn't fit into the societies of their home nations? If so, did they come wanting to assimilate into an imagined Thai culture, to meet an imagined Thai lover? Or did they simply want to be free misfits, unexpected to participate in society and liberated from the need to do so?


I sit back, comfortable in my judgment.

But these days, what am I? When I walk down the street, what is my demeanor? What is it people see when I walk down the street with two days' stubble? Are they seeing my nervous ticks? Am I staring at the big-titted Japanese girl in a bikini on the cover of the magazine in the shop window a little too long, am I slurping my coffee?

Because it is only what bothers you about yourself that truly unsettles you. The grotesque is a terribly contorted form of your own mirror image.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Dutch Still Life in the Age of Instagram

How old was I when I first realized a still life wasn't necessarily just a still life?

I had of course, seen still life paintings for my whole life. They were the necessary accoutrements to tasteful, middle-class living for decades if not centuries, only to be relatively recently usurped by abstract expressionism. The bourgeoisie gathered paintings of flowers and fruit, whether painted by friends and family, or whether acquired at small galleries or in tourist towns, and placed them on mantles and landings, art as innocuous as the wallpaper.

And yet if we go to the arts of the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th Centuries, we find that each angle was rich with religious meaning. Slaughtered birds, books, crystal goblets, mussel shells, and daffodils were imbued with meaning. A skull sits in the middle of a sumptuous chamber, to emphasize the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, while on oyster is a not-so-subtle reminder of lust. And at a time when Europe was being shredded by religious war, the still life became a Dutch specialty, a sort of aesthetic battle flag in the Thirty Years' War. 

Conversely, while the paintings of finished plates of food might on one level be a warning against immoderation, they are also the emblems of the Dutch Republic and its emphasis on trade. Those very same Calvinists who advocated a simple religion had no problem with the mass accumulation of capital. Without the religious agendas that marked, for instance, Spanish imperial expansion around the same time, the impetus of the Dutch colonial project was, above all else, the establishment of a network trading in what were then exotic commodities-- coffee, cloves, nutmeg, chocolate, and tobacco. And so the still life became representations of the ostentation and pomp of the new mercantile classes, the people who could afford elaborate breakfasts with lobsters and mountains of fruit.

Despite the fact that a great deal of this coded language and ironic double-meaning is lost on the modern viewer, the pleasing form of the still life remains-- probably something along the lines of what those merchant patrons were looking for. And its aesthetic DNA continues to the present day.

In a recent book of essays, Lawrence Weschler examined the portrait of Che Guevara's corpse, and found that it possessed the same composition as Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.

Likewise, we live in a time when everyone is taking pictures of their lunch spreads, albeit showing them off on social media feeds rather than in sitting rooms. At brunch, we have inevitably become like those burghers of Haarlem and Leiden in an age of speculation and expansion, attempting to immortalize our luxuries.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

On the Negroni

It was in 1937 that M.F.K. Fisher first said that there were two different kinds of food writers, those who imitated Brillat-Savarin, and those who didn't. It is as true now as it was then, although nowadays, it could probably be split into those who imitate Fisher herself and those who don't. She condemns memoirs in which “from each chapter rises a reek, a heady stench of truffles, Chateau Yquem, and quails financière” (naturally), and also the books where young men cycle around Europe staying at charming inns and denouncing “the barbaric horrors of the cocktail.”

I write this as I sip the barbaric horrors of a nice Negroni at a French bistro in my neighborhood. As much as I hate the term “mixology,” it's such a standard part of the gastronomic repertoire now that it's hard for me to imagine an alternative reality, a time when a well-made cocktail wasn't appreciated.

But when I think about what exactly a cocktail is, the context makes a bit more sense. Consider that Negroni I'm drinking, a classic of the génération perdue recently revived from obscurity. And, in 1920, it must have seemed so modern, so detached from any kind of preexisting tradition.

Start with the gin, a drink that's Dutch in origin, but English in soul, and which was one of the first truly commercially distributed alcohols. In England in the early 18th Century, the hearty, traditional drink of the peasantry was local beer, but as the population moved to the cities, and a market opened up for a distilled drink made from lower-quality grain, gin became the crack cocaine of Enlightenment-era London, as immortalized in the famous William Hogarth print.

Or consider the vermouth. While herbed wines were a major part of the Roman and Medieval drinking traditions as well, vermouth took off as a likewise highly commercialized product in Continental Europe in the 19th Century, with brands like Martini & Rossi and Noilly-Prat all angling for the lucrative cafe market. Such an integral part of the new, highly branded world of alcohol was it that the world's first neon advertisement was for Cinzano vermouth.

And last, there's the Campari, which, while it has its roots in traditional Italian bitters, is a proprietary drink, invented in 1860, a pure capitalist-era product.

Now take those three things, themselves all delinked from the distinct, local traditions of ales, wines, and brandies, and blend them.

So I have to conclude that like the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, or the paintings of Henri Matisse, the Negroni has become a symbol of an older iteration of the modernist idea. Its pedigree comes with the passage of time. Just as how Matisse and his cohorts were once denounced as fauves, the insult became a badge of honor, before becoming a simple historical descriptor. The cocktail is no longer a “barbaric horror,” a bucking of antique tradition, but a part of that antique tradition itself.

I might be drinking this thing because of its delicate balance of sweet and bitter, but, like wearing a vintage shirt, or listening to an old 45 rpm record, there is the joy of placing oneself within the narrative of history. Part of me drinks it because, after a dull, monochrome day, when I see the countless stories contained in one object, it is like holding a prism to it. The whole spectrum becomes visible.

Monday, February 29, 2016

On Reading Under Sunlight

In a previous time in my life, I worked for a horrifically slutty web startup-- an outfit that produced just the worst sort of clickbait-heavy, content-farming nonsense, staffed largely by bro-ish guys in white V-necks, several of whom asked me for advice on how to grow more facial hair (how I wish that last part was a joke). Yet it had one great advantage, a lovely, older office space in a loft, the sort of open space where the pale, Northwest sunlight would come cascading in, over decaying water towers and rooftop gardens, onto old wooden floors, through the sort of big windows that made the corners ideal reading spots. And at break times, when I needed a refuge, I would go and sit with my book. Where, for a little while, I didn't have to think about the fact that I was making starvation wages to fill search engine optimized pages with Google-friendly verbal sewage.

It wasn't just the book. It was, just as much, watery light against each page, revealing the fibers of the paper, the fringes of the letters, the cracks in the spine.

To read the same thing under the office fluorescents would have merely confirmed my entrapment in the cesspool.

Just as important, I realized, is also the interplay between artificial and natural lighting. To read under a bedside lamp, under the covers, is the height of coziness. Yet to read under that very same lamp when the sun is shining seems claustrophobic. At best, the lamplight is unnoticeable. At worst, it's like a ghoul, an undead simulacrum of the bright sun.

While I have to conclude that the divide between the “natural” and the “artificial” is a construction like any other-- and perhaps, in fact, the division that we assume is the most artificial thing there is-- the way we experience these two categories remains a valid phenomenological distinction. Think about lemons. The taste of a fresh lemon can be like the experience of a summer day, but artificial lemon just reminds me of cleaning fluid. Or, conversely, the heat of a furnace on a frigid night seems like a warm refuge, but a hot day leaves you yearning for a cold drink.

And so the rays of the sun form the baseline of our experience of light. No matter how much time we spend indoors, the variety of natural light that we experience on a daily basis is almost certainly the most common form of light that we see. Much as the artificial lemon flavoring can never match the complex blend of oils, esters, flavonoids, citric acid, etc. in the real thing. And no electric light can truly mimic the particular blend of wavelengths, that seems cleanest and most pure in sunlight.

Nowadays, I live in the tropics. I don't spend so much time in the sun, and like more or less everyone else here I try to avoid the vicious noonday brightness. And I've got a job I don't despise nearly as much. But at lunchtime, I still want to read in a sunny air-conditioned room, and open my book to see the way the light hits the texture of the page.