Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Memoriam Edition

Years ago, on a foggy morning in Aberdeen, Washington, I stopped at a small bridge over the Wishkah River. I went with the expectation of some kind of cosmic misery-mojo, the kind that comes with a slowly dying old logging town, a place once known as the “port of missing men” for its reputation as a place where a sailor could safely be robbed and murdered without too many people coming and looking for him, on an especially gloomy stretch of the Northwest Coast (more than twice the annual rainfall of Seattle), home of the Melvins, whose brand of sludgy metal would become profoundly influential in '90s rock music, particularly thanks to a tow-headed kid whom they inspired, who used to cry under this bridge on the Wishkah.

And what I got, and this shouldn't have surprised me, and didn't especially surprise me, were the paraphernalia of more steadfast pilgrims, half-burnt cheap candles, Sharpie graffiti from California gutter punks – “You changed my life, Kurt” – and things of that nature.

I wasn't sure then, and I'm not sure now, how I feel about all of this overt sentiment. On one hand, it does come off as corny and cliché, but on the other hand, it is the very legitimate expression of emotional honesty, even if it is a rather silly and confessionalist and very adolescent format, and it's the sort of emotional honesty that comes with the experience of loving someone's art who died too soon. And regardless of whatever the public memory is, there is an ineffable personal memory, one that can't be reduced to the image that is intentionally projected in a mediated society.

Cobain died when I was seven years old. I barely knew who he himself was, but I'd certainly heard plenty of Nirvana songs around. And some of those are so intimately connected to such hyper-specific early memories, to beaded covers over vinyl seats in someone's shitty, beat-up Chevy Caprice Classic.

This notion of the divide between personal and public memory has been at the forefront of my mind lately as I've seen the media response to the suicide of Anthony Bourdain, which is the first celebrity death in years I've actually cared about – hell, for that matter, for which my first thought hasn't been “how can I make this into a tasteless pun?” From what I've seen, the media has been fairly restrained in its treatment, and I haven't seen anyone try to translate the “cynicism” which he was often said to have (one of the many flagrant misuses of the word, whereby it is used as a catch-all for snarkiness, dark humor, or pretty much any emotional response other than Anglo-American earnestness) into a reading of his death. Which is refreshing... after all, it was only a few days that countless media sources were using Kate Spade's suicide as a simplistic fairy tale about how “money can't buy happiness.”

I'm sure plenty of people have ways that Bourdain did change their lives. He inspired them to travel more, to eat better, hopefully to enjoy the works of those who inspired him -- whether Antonioni, Joan Didion, or the New York Dolls -- and I can probably attribute a fair amount of my own fawning over classical French cuisine to his writings. So I won't leave a candle, I won't scrawl anything in Sharpie. But I will pour myself a goddamn Negroni.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

On Other Dystopias

It seems like every day I get on the subway, or go to the movies, I see a promo for some new dystopian film. And what, really, could be duller at this point. The plucky band of teenage heroes, the cruel overlord, the pleas to human freedom that every political group from far left to far right will find sympathy in.

This isn't to denigrate the “dystopia” as an artistic trope. It has its place – in some fine novels, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things, and in some fine films, Brazil, Blade Runner, The Matrix, Mad Max: Fury Road and the like. But it has gotten so overplayed, so transformed into the most banal of cultural artifacts that the mere mention of a dystopia automatically triggers my bullshit radar. Compare David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas – a monumental story of the invisible threads running through history – to the godawful film version by the Wachowskis, which feels like it was written by a 15 year old that just discovered Buddhism.

Of course, the notion of the dystopia, particularly in its cyberpunk forms, has been an essential component of literary and cultural theory since its 1980s heyday, especially in how these cyberpunk fictions reflect themselves in our reality, often to the point of absurdity – Giorgio Agamben's claim in Homo Sacer that modern life was indistinguishable from Auschwitz is perhaps the most offensively bourgeois notion I could imagine, and pretty much anything written by Jean Baudrillard comes off as borderline parody today. Sure, we don't have flying cars or AI romantic partners, but in other respects – Snowden, Bezos, facial recognition software – we are living in a world that would be familiar to Philip K. Dick or William Gibson.


By the 1990s, with books like Mike Davis' City of Quartz or Edward Soja's magisterial Postmetropolis, Los Angeles was being called the postmodern, cyberpunk city par excellence – after all, this is the city whose economic fortunes are inextricably entwined with the image industry, a city without center that arose in the high-capitalist age, and the place where Rick Deckard and Roy Batty had their final showdown in the rain.

But recently, attentions have turned more towards East Asia, perhaps best articulated by Ian Buruma in his essay “AsiaWorld.” Particularly, the monster cities of China, for which the prototype is Shenzhen (population, 1980: 30,000, population, 2017: 12.5 million, well-known as the place where all your shit comes from).

And it's hard not to accept this notion – walk down Nathan Road in Kowloon on a rainy night, and tell me you don't feel like chasing a replicant or two – but I question the singularity of this vision. When I look at the great cities of East Asia, while I do see a pattern, even if it takes on myriad forms, all of them distinct, all still shaped by their own localities.

The first thing you might think of is the cartoon-scape of Tokyo, especially as it is in movies like Akira and Enter the Void. This is the world of postmodernity at its shiniest and most superficial level, the geospatial equivalent of cotton candy. This is a city of English text overlaid on ancient katakana and hiragana, themselves overlaid on even more ancient kanji, a snow crash of signifiers, bright neon signs, oddball fragments of traditional East Asian architecture, sex for sale, particularly in its most commodified and fetishistic form.


Or you could draw your attentions to Hong Kong, the interzone that is neither Chinese nor Western, postcolonial but not national, with its looming high rises (more than three times as many buildings over 100 meters tall as New York), its migrant workers living in warren-like housing on the Kowloon side and in the New Territories, its role as a vital artery in the system of global finance and banking, and in the dingy hallways of Chungking Mansions, where backpacker guesthouses, bootleg watches, and its Nepali and Nigerian vendors hustling every manner of goods you could imagine.

 
For a darker perspective, you could look at Phnom Penh, a city of wage slaves working to produce the goods that even China wants to outsource, still suffering under the collective post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of the Khmer Rouge, with its capitalists completely indistinguishable from its politicians, its firm-handed authoritarian rule firmly in the hand of global capital and its local compradors, its cheap hookers, its armies of begging gangs and ragpickers.


But perhaps it is Singapore that most reflects the cinematic vision, at least, of the cyberpunk city. It is the place that no less an authority than William Gibson called “Disneyland with the death penalty, ” and it should be remembered that Germany's current chief philosophe and noted mustachioed crank Peter Sloterdijk said that if statues of any political leader of our time will be put up, it will be Lee Kuan Yew. The reportage of the marriage of Confucian and Victorian rigidity is nothing new – people have been doing it for 30 years – but as authoritarian capitalism seems to spread over the world like a dark pall, it seems like too many of us in the rest of the developed world have accepted the Singaporean worldview part and parcel. The prioritization of the image of the city over the content, the embrace of the security state, the reduction of politics to ritual, the reliance on massive pools of cheap labor while keeping that cheap labor invisible and damn near stateless, its superficial claims to the multicultural masking a profoundly regressive racial dynamic. 

 
Tokyo, Hong Kong, Phnom Penh, and Singapore, each of them expressing different modalities of the global city as it occurs in the early years of the 21st Century. And yet two of these – Tokyo and Hong Kong – are cities I utterly adore, despite some of the underlying horror. Repeat for Bangkok, Seoul, Fukuoka, Penang. It reminds me of that beautiful bit from Baudelaire's Paris Spleen:

In the evening, a bit tired, we wanted to sit down in front of a new café that formed the corner of a new boulevard, still strewn with debris and already gloriously displaying its unfinished splendors. The café was sparkling. The gaslight itself sent forth all the ardor of a debut and lit with all its force walls blinding in their whiteness, dazzling sheets of mirrors, the gold of the rods and cornices, chubby-cheeked page-boys being dragged by dogs on leashes, laughing ladies with falcons perched on their wrist, nymphs and goddesses carrying on their heads fruits, pies, and poultry, Hebes and Ganymedes presenting in out-stretched arms little amphoras filled with Bavarian cream or bi-colored obelisks of ice cream – all of history and all of mythology at the service of gluttony.”

So, as in Baudelaire's Paris, I take the position of the flaneur, the wanderer, making some attempt to process what I see, to correlate.

Which brings me around to film representations. What could be duller and more simplistic than the current cinematic representation of grim futures. What does it say about us that we would rather consume fictional dystopias, and express ourselves vicariously through fictional revolutionaries than actually taking any kind of stance in a moment of rising authoritarianism? Or postulating a “rebel” stance by flogging conspiracy theories, faux-leftist stances that Karl Marx would shake his head at if he were alive today, or any of the many moronic flavors of adolescent edginess on social media. Or perhaps even more horrifyingly, presuming that the more populist flavors of that said authoritarianism are in some way superior to the more universalized, neoliberal versions, and throwing our lot in with Putin, Erdogan, Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Shinzo Abe, Duterte, or any of the other absolute cocksuckers whose supporters think they're sticking it to the man?

And so instead, I look to the city around me. The Burmese graffiti and the stubbed-out green cheroot at the construction site on the corner tell me far more about the world around us than anything in Hollywood ever could.

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Dictionary of Imaginary Places

In my mid-teens, I was given a Christmas present, a copy of a book called The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (binding already cracked – guess my parents couldn't help themselves). And when I look back on it, it's impossible to calculate the influence on my thought since.

The whole premise is that it is a catalog of imaginary places, along with tips for imagined travelers, which are actually quite narrowly defined. For instance, any place that is really just a stand-in for a real place is excluded (e.g. Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi). As is anything “not on Earth,” whether in heaven or hell or on another planet. And last, and most controversially and infuriatingly, those places that “could” exist based on the logic of how we assume the world to work, such as the decaying home of Dickens' Miss Havisham. These were places of pure irreality, and this was designed as the guidebook.

This was also natural extension of who I was as a child who had loved the classification of all things, taking out all of my toy cars and baseball cards and sorting them in infinite ways, who had loved atlases and encyclopedias and anything that sought to contain the world. Sure, for several years, I had been an American teenager, with everything that implied, and moreover had been a smart enough, snarky enough American teenager around the turn of the 21st Century (see attached items: Nirvana's “Nevermind,” Outkast's “Stankonia,” Donnie Darko, Lost in Translation), and had a lot of fuck-you in me, but I was still someone who loved the scientific organization of things, especially in geography (the laws of all space) and geology (space and time as expressed in the ground beneath our feet).

I was already familiar with a number of the authors mentioned. A number of the haunts of broadly familiar characters showed up – the Wizard of Oz, the Beauty and the Beast, Sherlock Holmes, and Harry Potter all made appearances. But a few of the locales reflected what I considered to be a more idiosyncratic vein. Like H.P. Lovecraft, an unhappy proto-neckbeard who tried to write like a vampire lord locked in his castle, and decorated his prose with long-abandoned archaeological and paleontological jargon. Or Jorge Luis Borges, with his famous classification of all animals by a Chinese scholar, most likely a fiction of Borges himself, a man who could rest comfortably with the unchallengeability of his breadth of esoteric knowledge in a pre-Internet era, and who could therefore simply be cast as an all-knowing mandarin (as an aside, one of the co-authors, Alberto Manguel, had occupied role previously held by Borges, as the director of the National Library of Argentina).

But there was something else, a hint of the future. A whole index of names to look into for starters, writers who also dreamed of vast imaginary worlds, but also didn't constrain themselves to the “speculative” genres, and who certainly weren't widely read in Middle America.

And the text was accompanied with these almost Victorian maps and unearthly engravings, so clearly modeled on the frontispieces of the sort of books I would find at used bookstores and libraries, antique editions of Gothic romances and boys' adventure books and epistolary novels and scientists' travelogues no one had read in years.


Perhaps those that I would most obviously fall in love with could be called “postmodernists,” and I was to read their books in short order. Umberto Eco, for one, and Italo Calvino, whose work I would soon develop a fawning love of.

After all, the first edition of the Dictionary of Imaginary Places was published in 1980, just as American audiences were first becoming familiar with the concepts that would soon become ensconced in college humanities departments as “theory” – intertextuality, Barthes' death of the author, the idea of the world as essentially consisting of sign systems.

But what interested me more, in the long run, were all of the forgottens and also-rans from much earlier eras. Who knew, for instance, that L. Frank Baum wrote countless other books set in the world of Oz? And there were other writers, people like Anthony Hope, Paul Féval, Horace Walpole, and James Branch Cabell who once commanded massive audiences, but have now been left to gather mildew. It's not so much that I was necessarily interested in these guys as writers – to be honest, I still haven't finished a single book by most of them, and some of them that I have tried to read have proven turgidly unreadable in that particular pre-modernist way – but more that they represented a current in popular fiction, which back then constituted a major part of the popular imagination that has since been abandoned.

And some were simply unavailable – I'm remembering one in particular. A book by the 19th Century Italian author Amedeo Tosetti, Pedali sul Mar Nero, in which “Tartars” on bicycles lived inside a steel egg called Malacovia in the marshes at the mouth of the Danube. Something I always kept an eye out for, before realizing it was never translated.

It was only in discovering places that never existed that I discovered places and times that did exist. So consequently, it did act as a guidebook for me, albeit in a completely different way.

Fiction becomes the way in which we see features of our reality separate from immediate perception. Like a camera obscura, we see our world turned upside down, and see the things we never saw before.

Monday, February 26, 2018

On Historical Fiction

I recently finished Robert Graves' I, Claudius, a book I'd heard about for the better part of my life, but had never felt any great urge to read, despite its near-universal accolades. This was really, for no other reason, the subject matter. As ecumenical as I try to make my tastes, the notion of a novel of intrigues taking place in the Roman Empire just left me cold for years.

In fact, the whole notion of historical fiction did.

And yet I had no trouble reading any number of other period pieces – Blood Meridian, Baltisar and Blimunda, The Name of the Rose, Ragtime, The Baron in the Trees, Borges' “The Witness,” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – all favorites of mine, and all determinedly antique in their subject matter.

Similarly, I have absolutely no trouble with films and series in period settings, including the Roman (Fellini's version of Satyricon, that's some mind-bending, next-level shit), although I had little patience for any of the CGI-laden epics of antiquity Hollywood was cranking out about a decade ago.

But what bothers me most, I think, about most so-called “historical fiction” is the absolute primacy given to the historical period. The author is supposed to set their story in historical times, and has a duty to maintain serious fidelity to those historical times. To keep faith to the tactics employed at the Battle of Waterloo, to know what would constitute the musical program at a debutante ball in the antebellum American South, to know something of the character of Marcus Aurelius, and to give him his due. Once, we relied largely upon literature for our understanding of the past. The rise of Wikipedia has made this approach largely obsolete, although of course it retains its devotees.

Consequently, this sort of constricted writing inevitably forms a “genre,” and genres tend to develop cult followings, most of which we don't necessarily ascribe positive associations with. We think of sci-fi fans as those who don't bathe, and romance fans as those who only bathe with scented candles and a high-pressure showerhead.

When I think about the historical fiction readership, I tend to think first, of middle-aged men reading novels about tall ships, men who would have had flat tops 40 years ago, and retain a Mittyish sense of romance about the life of battlefield heroics they could have had. Or I think about the subset of neckbeards who did better in English than in math, reading the more whimsical science fiction novels and behaving like the physical manifestations of Mumford & Sons songs.

Not a fair assessment, I know. And a lot of people would look at my bookshelf, and think it reeks of Gauloise smoke, single-origin coffee, and artisanal facial-hair conditioner.

Because I have my own set of criteria for literary work. I tend to prioritize mood and texture over plot, introspection over action, innovation over tradition, formal technique and ambition over entertainment value.

It's all escapism, in the end, isn't it? The middle-schooler reading Lord of the Rings for the first time might imagine a world beyond the drudgery of P.E. followed by Earth Science, in which there were quests that mattered. A few years later, he picks up William Gibson, and thinks about a world infinitely richer and more varied, in which the bread and circuses of homecoming court and his parents nagging him about whether or not he finished his college entry exam are so paltry by comparison. He grows up, gets his 9-to-5, and reads the naval novels of Patrick O'Brian and wishes they were living in a world defined by codes of masculinity and virtue, or sees himself as a hardboiled Raymond Chandler hero, and meanwhile the woman the next cubicle over reads her Nicholas Sparks and thinks about her dull-witted husband parked in front of the TV with his nachos. All easy to make fun of, but all ultimately sympathetic to me in the end.

Because when I go home, or when I'm on my lunch break, I want to turn off the steady flow of bullshit of daily life, and immerse myself in a terraformed space in which exotic ideas and structural complexities matter. To find some deeper reality on paper, when everything else seems to be banner ads, video billboards, smoggy air, and stale coffee.

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.