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.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Fascist Writer

In recent weeks, largely due to a New York Times article, the name of Julius Evola has been circulating around the world of political magazines and blogs, a name that I would have thought would mostly be forgotten, at least outside of a handful of far-right groups and vaguely new age spiritual sects. And yet, it seems that the mostly-forgotten Evola has now gotten something of a reboot, thanks to his influence on the policies and thought of current reichsleiter Steve Bannon.

I shouldn't be too surprised. Apparently, Bannon is quite the fellow bookworm, not surprising, given his generally haggard and unkempt appearance. He bears a remarkable similarity to the monastically bearded, anti-Western propagandist of Putin's Russia, the sociologist Aleksandr Dugin.

But given the remoteness of Evola's ideas from the folksy anti-elitism, evangelical Christianity, and free-market enthusiasm that act as the main lodestones for the American right, it makes for quite the contradiction in terms. Rather, Evola is the sort of thinker that has long been popular among members of the European right, who have a tendency to express things in terms of peoples that have existed since time immemorial. If you look to the neo-fascists that currently plague France, Hungary, Greece, and Russia, it's not too hard to find Evola and his fellow travelers.

You may quite likely have never heard of him, but this philosopher (if you can call him that, he'd likely have shunned the term) and ideologue was one of the handful of post-Nietzschean thinkers whose stars rose brightly in the early years of fascism, only to come crashing down almost immediately after World War II. Strongly favoring tradition over progress, elitism over egalitarianism, mystical immediacy over analysis, organic over historical notions of culture, and myth over theory, Evola was one of those rare thinkers who actually put his concepts into practice, in both a vaguely pagan esotericism as well as providing an intellectual basis for Mussolini's rise to power.

Like many of his fellow right-wing intellectuals in the early 20th Century, he couldn't escape lingering associations with fascism, and his last major work, Ride the Tiger, published in 1961, implored those with “noble souls” to survive what he believed to be the destructive onslaught of a modern society in which the traditional formations had largely been obliterated.

Most of those far-right thinkers who did survive World War II with their reputations tattered but intact framed their arguments in terms of poetic and literary writing. Emil Cioran, Ezra Pound, Knut Hamsun, the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, all were outspoken fascists for whom analyses of their work would inevitably have to include a reconciliation of their thought and their artistic production. And yet, despite their violent distaste for modern society, all four used the most intense of modernist techniques to convey their desire for a more traditional existence. As in the poems of T.S. Eliot, as in the novels of Yukio Mishima, modernist experiment is used to illuminate the nature of modernity, in the hopes of pushing people back into the primordial.

The ideas of a handful of more philosophically inclined thinkers managed to continue, albeit in a reduced form. Oswald Spengler continued to have a lingering if largely negative influence, largely due to his discontent with the Nazis who claimed him as a prophet. Carl Schmitt, by casting politics in terms of theology, managed to lecture and write for years after the war, providing a tool for political analysis across the spectrum. And of course Martin Heidegger, while he disavowed his Nazi past and his tendency to give lectures in full brown uniform, still carries an obsession with immediacy, intuition, and authenticity that makes it remarkably easy to see why he drew his profoundly anti-modern conclusions.

There's an undeniable allure here.

If I go back to my late teens, I'd heretofore received my intellectual development on a steady diet of positive science and liberal democratic theory, which went together in John Locke-step. When I idolized rebels against the system, it was because the system itself was behaving in a corrupt and irrational fashion. My punk icons hated the simpering middle-class, Protestant politics of the Reagan era, my lost-generation icons revolted against the loneliness and phoniness of the newly moneyed America in the years following World War I. The good things were science, social democracy, the natural world. The bad things were organized religion, capitalism, artifice.

But when I began to examine more ardently anti-Enlightenment perspectives, they were bracing. I read Nietzsche, of course, as every snotty, smart teenage boy with an authority problem does, and loved the sheer flippancy of a “philosophy” delivered entirely through aphoristic zingers. Then out into Emil Cioran, Rimbaud, Mishima, Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky, none of whom much cared for the systematic qualities of the modern world. And then onward to Heidegger. At his most brilliant, in the Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger was like a hairy black spider crawling up my neck, telling me my reality was false. Following Heidegger, I read Antonio Gramsci, the imprisoned Italian Marxist who wrote on how concepts like “common sense” and “common knowledge” disguised the political agenda of the bourgeoisie.

For a brief moment, it became easy to swallow all of this whole. The rejection of the individual subject as an invention of Western metaphysics, the full-throttle rejection of Enlightenment ideals, the primacy of subjective experience over any supposedly objective experience, and the all-encompassing power of mythic narrative.

The ideas are so much sexier than their rivals, more radical, somehow more dangerous than the staid alternative.

Yet, at the end of the day, I couldn't shake the fact that these were an equally rigid system, and one which led the mind to some awfully dark places. Without any kind of reconstructive technique, these critiques – and they were primarily designed as and should be interpreted as critiques, not signposts – lead to a particularly dull helplessness. The way that so many of these romantically inclined, more intuitively driven writers and thinkers tried to find out was through a supposed transcendental authenticity. And that is the road that leads to fascism.

Throughout all my hemming and hawing, the “authenticity” factor always seemed to me to be total bullshit. Sure, modern America was a disingenuous, holographic state held together by false hopes and run by a loose-knit assemblage of squabbling financial elites via mass surveillance, but the horror seems to be everywhere, across time and space. Unlike the fascists, I see no nobility in Medieval or Confucian hierarchy, or in a figurehead representing the popular will, or in a world in which scientific method is subordinated to a unified and symbolically rich semiosphere under a beneficent godhead.

That yearning for some kind of anti-modern transcendence remains among the general populace, whether the ideologically committed or the terrified, and I suppose it's largely because the modern world can be an awfully scary place.

And so, periodically, people are tempted to return to a womb of supposedly eternal truths, to follow primeval myth or nationalist flag-waving rather than undertake the challenge of analysis. And I shouldn't be too surprised when I find that the leading scholars of the fascists have been reading the same books as me.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Textbook Knowledge

Not long ago, I read Andrew Gordon's “A History of Modern Japan,” considered one of the definitive texts on how Japan, from the Meiji Revolution to the present day, has transformed from hermit kingdom to economic power. And I can safely recommend it for anyone who's looking for a solid source of meat-and-potatoes history about that particularly much-misunderstood nation.

But what I thought about the most in the days following was not so much what I had read, but how long it had been since I'd read a book that was even remotely similar – a book full of straightforward, narrative history. Here is how things happened, how event X paved the way for event Y, without any kind of explicit theoretical or ideological framework, without much of an argument, per se.

I suppose this is what you would call “textbook” or “encyclopedia” knowledge. Now, having read my Marx and my Gramsci, I know full well that this kind of knowledge is by no means “neutral.” There is an ideology in what is and is not told, how it is narrated, no matter how light Gordon attempted to make his fingerprint. Perhaps some more hard-core postmodernists or phenomenological thinkers would say that such a history says nothing about the events in question, and only says something about the author and his or her prejudices, contexts, and perceptive faculties, but I'm not quite that isolated.

Yet it is undoubtedly that kind of skepticism that prevents me from reading books full of just-the-facts. To me, it seems infinitely more honest when authors lay down their cards and cop to their stance, their context, whether or not I agree with their approach, before they get to the subjects of their argument (and yes, I know the hardline perspective would deny the “subjectness” of the supposed subjects, but let's all be William James about this and say that there is indeed a subject there, until a decent argument is made to the contrary).

This isn't to say that I avoid this kind of writing entirely, but I contain my experience of it to shorter form work, to scientific journals (when I'm feeling rigorous), Wikipedia articles (when I'm not, which is more than I care to admit), and those standard-issue publications that have best resisted the temptation to become clickbait.

Because a book seems to serve a different purpose for me – it is something more totemic, regardless of whether it is “fiction” or not, to the extent that distinction has merit (leave that topic for another day). To read a book is to dissolve myself.

And yet, up until my early teens, it was quite the opposite. On the contrary, I just wanted to sponge up knowledge, and it frustrated me when the text failed to act as a neutral medium, a sort of agar gel for ideas to grow in and express their true, absolute form. Which I suppose makes sense – children aren't exactly renowned for their sense of nuance, and that probably goes double for annoyingly precocious children.

There is a certain irony that I seek those sorts of fact-driven arguments in the world of the shorter form, considering the fractured media landscape which we inhabit. In which that framework has to such a great degree swallowed the facts themselves, whether the media outlets in question are mocking the very notion that a statistic in a major American newspaper could be true (a practice of both the sorts of entities that come charging in with their ideologies, banners waving, and those that conceal their ideologies under a veneer of “nonpartisanship”), or whether the media outlets in question are telling us how to feel about an article before we even read it (number 8 will make you CRINGE!!!).

However, these are stupidities that, in my reading life, I can safely and comfortably ignore, even if I feel the need to occasionally check the cesspool to perform a stool-sample analysis on the hive mind's feces. When I read something as simple as a research report on primate behavior, I'm a bit less frazzled. And when I shut off my computer, and look up at my bookshelf, and see the possibility for something more measured, I am again approaching contentedness.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Our Networked Existence

“Last night Howard Beale went on the air and yelled bullshit for two minutes and I can tell you right now that tonight's show will get a 30 share at least.” – Faye Dunaway playing Diana Christensen, 1976

Over the past few weeks, every one of the vaunted old giants of the American journalistic world – you know them, the Atlantic and the New Yorker, the Times and the WaPo, have been at something of a crossroads since the national auto-pederasty of the 8th of November. Their op-ed pages have been flooded with countless “how could this happen?” articles, countless articles about the “disconnect” with rural America (and how the fuck did it take them that long to figure that one out?), countless earlier, predictions from heretofore ignored Cassandras, countless articles about the “white working class” (a term that, despite my beliefs that the working class is larger in scope than we'd like to admit, conveniently ignores the relative wealth of the average Trump voter, despite the heavy dose of po' whites who gravitated towards his message). For the past few weeks, these and the repostings of the same have populated my impeccably azure-blue Facebook news feed.

These are paired with the inevitable follow-up from the American literary and political intelligentsia, the “what the fuck do we now?” message. The common theme is the need for a new militancy among the Democratic Party, that Bernie's clarion call should have been heeded, that the American people are well and truly sick of a political system that only favors Goldman Sachs et al, that if those desperates in the American ass-nowhere are to be won over, they cannot be part of a party that coddles the nation's fiscal elite.

And this is probably the right approach. But what is forgotten is that there is a part of the American populace – 20 percent at a bare minimum, almost certainly more, whom I can safely deem to be absolute fucking lost causes. These are the people whose gut instinct is the very limit of their potential knowledge. These are the people who pontificate about the looming threat of sharia law, having never met a Muslim, who talk about the rise of socialism and Marxism on American soil, despite their complete lack of understanding about what socialism actually is, or having read any Marx, who live in terror of illegal immigrants, while blithely ignoring any immigration statistics. They have a certain skepticism towards establishment media sources, which is fair, but really at the end are just as ovine – the sheep who would simply rather follow the intellectually callow shepherds representing their preferred “new media” rumormongers.

This isn't a new phenomenon, and a number of international examples can be illustrative. Analogies to Putin are frequent, and the Americans living on the tattered fringe of the empire are often compared to the Russians who seek authoritarian comfort as they live in the crumbling, polluted industrial ruins of the Soviet era. But analogies are everywhere. You could compare Trump to the Philippines' national carnival barker, Rodrigo Duterte, to Turkey's Recep Erdogan, who routinely courts Islamists while declaiming the “Islamist threat” to hold power. And you could compare his followers to China's fenqing, the nationalistic and Internet-savvy “angry youth” who, like Trump's deplorables, turned the slur against them into a badge of pride. Or the vigilante mobs in Venezuela, defending Nicolas Maduro's crumbling government. Or we could bring up Japan's netto-uyoku, the annoyingly vocal Japanese troll army that refuses to acknowledge their country's history of war crimes and fumes about supposed loss of Japanese territorial and spiritual integrity, and compare them to the alt-right of today – how different, really, is this Japanese cartoon below different from the average American portrayal of the meme-happy, misogynistic neckbeard?


What ties all of these disparate ideologies together, despite their supposed adherence to political ideologies ranging from the far-left to the far-right is their blind rage towards a world they don't seem to fully understand, to throw analysis and quiet reflection under the bus in favor of the hoary values of nation and identity and power. And so they find a populist vision in the media that, to use a brilliant line from a certain old movie “articulates the popular rage.” This impulse towards irrationality, to favor anecdote over pattern, reaction over analysis, suspicion over assessment, is an eternal cancer in the human condition, and, with enough fear, with enough uncertainty, metastasizes to erstwhile healthy cells and threatens the body as a whole.

It is easy enough for America's so-called left to dismiss. After all, Hillary supporters' confidence was based on its own assumptions, its presumption that the experienced politician would win, its almost religious faith in Nate Silver and Co's social media-friendly electoral prediction map, its belief that America had truly become a place where smart people made smart decisions and where the prejudices of the past had safely been locked away in what was assumed to be a culturally irrelevant flyover country. After all, all their Facebook friends agreed.

The ugliness is that we remain mired in a political landscape where cultural markers have displaced policy, the content on your iPod mattering more than economic strategy.

It's in times like these that that aforementioned certain old movie, Network, with its absolutely virtuoso script by Paddy Chayefsky, gets brought up, especially its most memorable line “I'm as mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore.” The plot is simple enough. Mid-mental breakdown, an aging news anchor becomes propped up as an unhinged “mad prophet of the airwaves,” vocalizing the internal malaise of mid-1970s America, much to the delight of his corporate masters. It has become touted by all manner of journalistic voices, ranging from left-wingers who claim that Howard Beale is speaking truth in the era of monopoly capitalism to right-wingers who claim that Howard Beale is speaking truth in an era of godless globalists. And what they forget, ultimately, is that his truth is ultimately marred by his profound mental illness, his sickness that ultimately becomes an organ of capital just as much as it is an individual voice. The popular rage is ultimately shaped by and subordinate to media forces, to the nihilistic drive towards capital.

People forget Beale's last speech, where he notes that “it's the individual that's finished.” Subsumed and eventually confronted, Howard Beale resigns himself to his fate of living in a dehumanized and corporatized society, before eventually being almost casually executed by the board of directors. Chayefsky ends his script with a voiceover. “This was the story of Howard Beale: the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”

 
We can analyze all we want, and yet we are in the same place. We can take note on appropriate strategy for the opposition in the era of Trump, but forget how to adopt a political value system, as individuals rather than as parties, that is strategic rather than authentic is both a capitulation, and a weird sort of narcissism where we assume that our individual voice is our camp's voice. I can do nothing about the rage. I can sit here, and watch the American government suffer under incompetent and narcissistic pseudo-leadership, and hope it gets better, I can donate my income to causes I deem worthy. I can offer up my opinions, to whatever end, but that's it.

And as an American overseas, it's a bit like watching when an old school friend, after years of dissolution and chaos, finally gets locked up for a crime that they committed out of desperation and was busted for thanks to their own stupidity.