It's one of those Sunday nights after a weekend that seems to have gone on longer than it should, the sort of night where you should get one final stretch of rest before arriving at work on Monday morning, refreshed and ready to attack that stack of work that's been waiting on your disk since Friday afternoon, when you were so impatient to leave.
Instead, I'm lying awake in bed. It's what... 4:00 a.m.? The mosquitoes are out tonight, and I can't lie still. There are a million ways to try to fall asleep, counting sheep, telling yourself narratives, focusing on the images under your eyes and watching the patterns they weave together. Or the more physical ways-- a shot of Jim Beam, a quick jerk-off, a couple of Xanax.
Lately, I've been trying to read when I'm up in the middle of the night-- light things, things that I've already read before, and things that provide a weird sort of comfort-- Paul Theroux on travel, Anthony Bourdain on food, digestible, beach-ready nonfiction written by professional hardbitten cynics, as if somehow their experiences provide a viable distraction from my myriad professional, romantic, artistic, and personal failures.
But my sleeplessness isn't just a product of the mosquitoes, or the anxiety. We mythologize the Friday night and the Saturday night, the lazy Saturday and the lazy Sunday, and the faithful address their gods at Sunday morning mass or Shabbat dinner. But we neglect our Sunday nights. We don't address the power they can have over us.
Their unique misery does not just come from the dread of the coming Monday morning-- it's the utter melancholy of not having done anything decent with your weekend. When the co-workers ask what you did, what do you say? That all you did was get pissed on Friday night, failed to pick up some girl, spent the rest of the weekend lying about, maybe going to the movies?
-Yeah, went to see Birdman at the Lido, way good, I'll say between gulps of coffee.
Try going out to a nightlife-heavy neighborhood of your city on a Sunday night. The streets are largely empty of cars, restaurants are empty save for a few couples too lazy to cook that night. Pulsing music plays from bars devoid of customers. Who the hell is out?
In a city like Bangkok, there are the tourists, a tubby German couple with matching fanny packs. Braying, sunburnt Brits in neon shorts. Salarymen getting quietly trashed, stumbling in a horde out of some Japanese-only hostess bar. Pairs of Chinese women in sundresses, ordering syrup-sweet cocktails and filling the bar with the loud chatter of Shanghai and Shenzhen.
And everywhere, there are the stragglers. The industry people-- all the line cooks and bartenders and waitstaff whose schedule runs counter to that of the rest of the world. And the serious partiers, all the people desperately trying to keep the spirit of the weekend going, stumbling ahead in nicotine-laced, prematurely hoarse, bleary-eyed groups of four and five.
I walk past them, on my way home, late enough that the streetside restaurants are busy cleaning up and hosing down fish guts and chicken blood into the sewers.
This is the absolute nadir of the week. The distractions of work and social life have been scraped away, and you are left alone and tired, past empty offices, empty bars, metal grates pulled over storefronts, and you see all the joys of city life inverted, a city that is palpably and painfully real.
And so maybe it's no wonder I can't sleep, and I'm sitting here next to my well-thumbed copy of Dark Star Safari, underneath my blanket, watching the shadows the ceiling fan makes against the curtains.
But when I see the first bit of light come out from over Lumphini Park, I know I'm going to be fine, at least for now. The palm trees turn this deep teal color, and the calls of the geckos and night birds are slowly replaced by the sounds of diesel trucks making their early morning deliveries. And it's when the night is finally beaten that I can turn off the lamp.
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
A woman comes into my apartment, and before we sit down and have a drink, she picks up a notebook sitting on my bookshelf. She gives me a glance, grabs it, and opens it up. I think about telling her not to open it, but what could be weirder than coming over to someone's apartment and for them to have stacks of mystery books? Suddenly, I can feel myself sinking, an overwhelming wave of dread and anxiety coursing through my body as I fall.
I should admit that I've never written diaries or journals. I suppose that when I travel, I keep travel journals, notes on what I've seen, how I felt about X, that I ate Y. But these really just seem like extensions of what I write normally, which is something far less categorizable.
There is a terror is that if I write a more conventional journal, I'll feel the need to write everything down in a more linear fashion, to shape the subjectivity of my experiences into something more diaristic and descriptive. Looking back, I will simply be annoyed at my dishonesty.
And there is a second terror that what I write will be nauseatingly immediate, lacking in perspective and analysis, embarrassing for its lack of context. I have had enough trouble beating myself up over my past, and I don't feel the need to nurture that tendency.
What both cases have in common is that they make me conscious of the fact of reading what I wrote at some point in the future. And so, as a result, I'll quite likely self-censor, and write for the person I will be in the future, not the person I am.
The German physicist and writer Georg Lichtenberg kept what he called the sudelbücher, and this is the term I prefer to use for what I do. The notebooks I keep are made up of false starts, failures, disjoints, flights into fiction of a thousand varieties, stray observations, philosophical pensées, witticisms, all the crap that forms a record of my life.
And, by virtue of their ephemerality, and also by the fact that I move around a lot, they don't need to be kept. They can be discarded, ripped apart, forgotten, left around. Because, with a lot of this writing, I often quite simply don't want to know what I was thinking.
It becomes too intimate, and when another person looks into the raw material, my memories suddenly become their territory, or worse, their entertainment.
This is perhaps unfashionable. We're expected to flog our mental states on the public market, neatly packaged on Twitter and Tumblr. To have glittering, personal interior worlds becomes doubly unusual and somewhat suspicious.
Yet I don't know what I'd do without them, and without the ability to engage the world via the material act of putting a shitty ballpoint pen to a piece of paper. I let the world see the fragments that seem to be worth sharing. The rest, no matter what a failure it is, is therapy.
Thursday, January 15, 2015
A few years back, I was at a fourth birthday party held for a co-worker's daughter. Like most kids' parties, it was cleaved in half, with the children running wild and watching cartoons in one room and the parents getting half-sloshed in the next.
But there was one person I couldn't place, the birthday girl's Cambodian grandmother. While the rest of us ate, drank, chatted, she simply sat in one corner of the room, cross-legged on a sofa, staring at the wall. She couldn't speak any English. But there was no shortage of Khmer speakers there, and I wondered why she was so distant.
My immediate thought was that-- like all Cambodians of her age-- she was a genocide survivor, and she was either a) so thoroughly traumatized by the atrocities of late 20th Century Cambodia that she had simply shut herself off the world, or b) had endured so much struggle that the simple fact of being able to sit on a sofa in a nice enough house was pleasure enough.
But both of these hypotheses were ultimately me projecting history onto this woman. I didn't know her story, I didn't know who she was, I couldn't even communicate with her. All I had was a blank stare.
However, I did have a parallel experience I could draw from, one rooted in my own experiences in Cambodia, in the long waits for buses. While I fidgeted around, read, wrote, walked around, other people seemed content to simply sit in silence, eyes fixed forward, sitting on their luggage or their parcels of goods to sell in another town. Bored, impatient, and agitated, I felt and probably looked by comparison like a spoiled child who wasn't getting his way.
Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish foreign correspondent who made his career traveling the odd corners of Africa during the tumultuous postcolonial period, talked about the long waits in rural areas, where a bus would leave when it was full.
“I have observed for hours on end crowds of people in this state of inanimate waiting, a kind of profound physiological sleep: they do not eat, they do not drink, they do not urinate; they react neither to the mercilessly scorching sun, nor to the aggressive, voracious flies that cover their eyelids and lips.
What, in the meantime, is going on inside their heads?
I do not know. Are they thinking? Dreaming? Reminiscing? Making plans? Meditating? Traveling in the world beyond?”
Meanwhile, when I wait, I so often think of Sartre's cafe analogy in Being and Nothingness. When you you're waiting for a friend at a cafe, the first thing you notice is their absence. To Sartre, this conveyed that even absence has a sort of presence. Ultimately, it is the void that defines the experience, that makes itself most known.
And when you're waiting, if not that much of your life is spent waiting idly, that void becomes foremost in your mind. This goes double when you're traveling somewhere, when the unforgiving tropical heat is sapping you of what energy you have, or when the cold seems to be freezing your mind solid, or when the rain is coming down so hard that all you can think about is the warm, dry room that you're not in.
Living in the hyperconnected world of a million potential distractions, we can still be jarred by a lack of something immediate and pressing. We spend our time searching and searching for that ideal distraction, whether that's social media, music, video, or the sort of game that's simple enough you can play it in the checkout line of the supermarket. Yet the void still looms, no matter how much we immerse ourselves in potential entertainments.
I have yet to buy a smart phone, and one reason is the fear that when I am deprived of it, my baseline level of comfort with the world will become even more reliant on the electronic feeding tube. Not only will the void cease to disappear, but when I'm without my phone, the absence of a distraction will be even more jarring and uncomfortable.
There are plenty of people bandying around phrases like “digital detox,” and the more entrepreneurial of them are offering screen-free holidays at blush-worthy prices. De-digitalization becomes another commodity (or, to use the one of the most obnoxious words in the English language, “lifestyle”) to be marketed, one that promises lots of hand-crafted curios and expensive pork shoulders. Like the Arts and Crafts movement in fin-de-siècle Britain, these signal the ever-present urge among the privileged classes to shoehorn the material of the past into the ideology of the present.
To cultivate the act of waiting is a completely different endeavor altogether, one far more difficult. To accept the blank canvas in front of you as such.
Monday, December 22, 2014
Picture yourself-- OK, I'm picturing myself, but I'd like to think that other people think these things as well-- walking down the streets of Paris, on a perfect June day. You see the cafes, the roofs of the grand boulevards. And then you see a McDonald's, and a braying American couple walking out, and you think “fucking Americans,” whether with contempt if you're not an American, or shame if you are.
Or you're at the grocery store, and you see an overweight woman in cheap clothes buying a bag of Doritos, wearing worn-out sweatpants, with two screaming children, and you think what white trash she must be.
Or you see a hippie guy buying organic spelt cookies, and you think how unbelievably oversensitive and snotty he must be.
The point is this, that our moral judgments are, perhaps, at their bluntest when it comes to eating. Food, for most people, other than those (lucky or unlucky, I don't know) few who can simply view it as fuel, isn't just food. And that goes double for my people, who seem to have the weirdest goddamn relationship to the things they eat.
As many chefs, journalists, and others make a point that for so many people in the developed world, food is a way to forget the pains and difficulties and boredom of normal life, the adult version of a security blanket. You don't think about your shit job, your failing relationship, the way your savings account never seems to grow when your mouth is stuffed with junk food, dopamine firing through one's synapses, eyes aglow in a computer screen, an ideal target for the legions of predatory marketers working in the service of the processed food industry.
And when it's not metabolic therapy, it's quite often a stance, implicit or explicit, about your beliefs about health, about what constitutes normal, about your perceived cultural status. It starts from birth-- parents nag their children about “starving kids in Africa,” and grows from there.
There is the health obsession, the belief that food is a sort of medicine. People assume that they can extend their lives by consuming enough green tea or goji berries. They go on restrictive and hermetic diets that divide all food into balms and poisons. They devote themselves to food-oriented approaches to life, whether paleo or raw vegan or gluten-free, that seem to promise deliverance through right eating.
Or there is the attempt to seek culture through food, to travel one's taste buds, to find the most authentic and local cuisine, to source rare items and fuss over their terroir, to chase down new restaurants-- the chef trained at El Bulli! they fly their sashimi in from Tsukiji every day!-- and revel in the sheer refinement and enlightenment of one's tastes.
There are romantics, who look to communal feasts in Italy, to meat curing barns in France, to fishing villages in Japan as an idealistic escape route, to imagine a (patently false) time when all food was simple and homemade and ineffably lovely.
Running opposed, there are the hypermoderns, perhaps best embodied by that Dane Cook of the food world, Guy Fieri, who attempt to revel in processed sugar and saturated fat, claiming that they get it, and that their tastes are that much more "real."
And more recently, in the vein of Michael Pollan, there is the politicization of the menu, the search for ever more sustainable food. A great many vegetarians will demonstrate the evidence for the inefficiency of meat consumption and the environmental and social disasters wreaked by the meat industry. In their wake, anti-vegetarians will denounce these arguments as self-righteous and ill-informed. In the pages of Slate and the Huffington Post, columnist after columnist holds the fork and spoon as tools of revolution on par with the stars and stripes over the Delaware River, the hammer and sickle over the Kremlin.
What ties all of these perspectives together is that they posit one's own hedonism as ideology, and attempt to transform consumer choice into an intellectual position, and attempt to show one's own consumer choices as the most “correct.”
As Pierre Bourdieu pointed out in Distinction, the taste positions of the ruling class are overwhelmingly deemed the standard against which all else is measured, thereby giving anything that runs counter, at best, a certain populist appeal. Bourdieu mostly concentrated on film and music, but the argument could readily be extended to food. After all, there's a reason that when we talk about refinement, the word we use is “taste.”
I've been guilty of all of these tendencies myself, and I've been guilty of making all the presumptions I mentioned my introduction, and I've been guilty of eating because it's an act of self-medication-- I daresay most anyone who reads this will have been guilty of all these things as well. I don't want to declaim for or against any of the aforementioned positions-- I have my opinions, but those really aren't relevant to the discussion at hand.
Something so simple as a biological imperative becomes so fraught with complexity and ethical turpitude, and oftentimes the more cogent we try to make our habits and our aesthetic tastes, the more ethically and intellectually ambiguous they become, because now we have a claim to defend.
It's not like we have an option not to do so, because regardless of whether or not we choose to make such explicit decisions, those around us choose to, and view our acts from their positions. Hold your steak knife close, dear reader, lest you be identified as an enemy, and feel the need to defend your honor.
Monday, December 8, 2014
When Primo Levi wrote The Periodic Table, his 1975 collection of stories and autobiographical pieces, his task was to employ chemical elements as central themes-- of the 106 elements known to the scientific community at the time, he selected 21 to act either as metaphors (argon for the destroyed Jewish community of Emilia-Romagna) or real-life materials that feature in the narrative (nickel as a trace metal he was employed to extract from mine).
He did better than most. There are some elements-- iron, gold, sulfur, arsenic-- that have imageistic value and metaphorical weight in everyday speech, but most remain obscure. When was the last time you saw a piece of rhodium, or even heard about it? A high school chemistry test? Ever? There's a reason that screenwriters can make up the names of elements in sci-fi movies, and we as the audience will accept them at face value.
But one of the few elements that does retain symbolic value is neon, and it's something of an odd man out. It's an invisible and stubbornly nonreactive gas, and it was isolated and discovered barely more than a century ago. And yet in its human uses, it has become so ubiquitous, and has come to be a byword for so many things.
In 1913, the world saw its first neon advertisement in Paris, and it rapidly spread around the world, the electric equivalent of the tropical lianas that spread and wrap themselves around every structure they come into contact with. As the world rushed to banish darkness (and its brother phenomenon, silence) from urban space, the neon light became the symbol of brightness, speed, and modernity. America got its first neon light in 1923. Within ten years, Times Square looked like this.
And with its universality came inevitable doubt and pessimism. There were nostalgics, like Tanizaki Junichiro, who wrote In Praise of Shadows in 1933 as a eulogy for tenebrous, traditional Japanese aesthetics. And there were the dissenters, like Nelson Algren who published his short story collection The Neon Wilderness in 1947, or a young John Kennedy Toole, who wrote The Neon Bible in 1954.
And then, as lighting evolved, neon seemed far sleazier, tawdrier, and more garish. It became the aesthetic token of Las Vegas, and of Taxi Driver-era Times Square. Rather than conveying an optimistic modernity, it became a symbol of decadence and false aspirations, a reputation it still has to a certain degree. In my adopted city of Bangkok, there is an inverse relationship between the reputation of a neighborhood and the preponderance of neon. It's concentrated in the semen-drenched quarters of Nana, Patpong, and Ratchada, and in the backpacker ghetto of Khaosan. The “karaoke” bars and other outposts of sleaze of course have neon signs, and rainbow-toned neon is almost as universal an indicator as a cigar store Indian.
With the sudden love affair with “vintage modern” aesthetics in the '90s, neon became itself subject to the fantasies of the nostalgics. Faux-vintage neon signs were put up, and surviving signs from the mid-century were bought up from decrepit steakhouses and meth-riddled motels across the country and artfully renovated for kitsch purposes. In certain circles, the buzz and glow of neon no longer signified excess and decrepitude, but the flickering imagery of a David Lynch film. And in saying that, I should note that it reflects both sides of Lynch's aesthetics, both the moronically grinning and cherry-cheeked facade of Hollywood's representations of America, and the vileness and filth that lurks underneath.
This doesn't mean that neon lighting or neon color schemes have been in any way “rehabilitated.” The grotesquely grinning clown of Circus Circus still stands tall on the Las Vegas Strip, and when you see a book cover with a neon color scheme-- Pynchon's Inherent Vice comes to me out of the blue as a perfect example-- you can predict the number of femmes fatales and brooding jazz trumpeters. For all intents and purposes, it has become the aesthetic signifier of the last century.
And so it seems to me that neon as we know it, a transfigured image coursing through a tube, entails all the hope and anxiety, the violence and optimism of that century, a time in our history when we really believed that utopian age would be an era of the machine.
Monday, November 24, 2014
The notion of “ruin porn” has become something of a thing on the Internet. Countless vaguely (or overtly) clickbait websites have posted what they deem to be “shocking” or “unbelievable” photographs of the material evidence of human folly, whether it be the grand Victorian rubble of Detroit, totalitarian horrors like the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, or the stitched-together sci-fi landscapes (quite often presented as real places) of Nicolas Moulin.
I can trace my own love of such horrors almost as far back as I can remember. Early encounters with the nightmare imagery of Poe and T.S. Eliot. A fascination with the gnarled, uprooted trees that gathered in Iowa meadows after spring floods. A terror of the boarded-up houses and closed factories that seemed to make up vast tracts of Kansas City and Chicago on childhood trips.
On a larger scale, an obsession with ruins is certainly not new. The first tourists, Brits on their grand tours of the Mediterranean that gave the act its name, obsessively visited the remnants of classical civilizations, bought paintings and engravings of them. The more committed built follies on their Georgian estates. Others, around the same time, looked inward, to places like Tintern and Glastonbury, and from there were caught up in the earliest currents of romanticism, and later wrote Gothic novels themed around the decrepit architecture of castles and abbeys.
And it was around this time that Giovanni Piranesi etched the Roman ruins fallen into disuse, cows lumbering through porticos, and later assembled them into his terrifying carceri, horrifying spaces which seem to presage the features of 20th Century totalitarian and militarist architecture (the Atlantic Wall, Milano Centrale Railway Station, the Warsaw Palace of Culture) but also possess the ruination of the Rome he knew and dwelled in.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, Edmund Burke wrote that the well-formed beautiful stood in marked contrast to the sublime, the fascinating things that threaten to eat us up, and that in many ways were anathema to Burke's own piously Christian, hidey-hole worldview.
But we're attracted to these ruins because of their sense of aberration. We're not so attracted to the things where the decay seems natural or inevitable, the shit at the bottom of the dumpster.
What we like about ruin porn is that it's tidy. It gives us a neat, aesthetically pleasing, artistically approachable package, with all that implies. We can frame it, we can flick through it on our phones while we're waiting in line at the supermarket, and we can impose political theories on it if we're feeling fancy. We can, in short, treat it like everything other than a ruin.
This isn't to say that ruin-art is necessarily bad. I'm immensely fond of Piranesi, as I am of Jan Kempenaers' photographs of Yugoslavian memorials, as I am of Bill Morrison's film Decasia, a composition of the unexpected shapes and textures formed by rotting celluloid.
But beyond the expressions of preexisting ruin, there are artistic efforts, however, that are self-consciously aware of their decay as an essential part of their endeavor, that seem either passively aware of their own destruction, or that seem to encourage the beauty that arises from destruction.
Take, for example, William Basinski's Disintegration Loops, which are simply a few hours of old tape, the magnetic material slowly coming off, being consumed and destroyed by the audio equipment. Their destruction records itself, notes and sections disappearing one by one, until all we are left with is a near-silent blip, like an echo in a blackened room.
Or the land art of Robert Smithson, who remained committed to the notion of entropy in his work. His Spiral Jetty now lies largely submerged under the Great Salt Lake, and it remains questionable whether doing anything to preserve it would run entirely counter to its concept, of art that is part of the landscape and exposed to natural vicissitudes.
It runs deeply counter to the very notion of the act of creation. After all, creation and destruction are usually held as opposites. And, admittedly, there can be something sinister to it. When Albert Speer designed his buildings to decay beautifully so they could stand alongside the ruins of Rome, we're not only creeped out by the megalomania of a statement like that, but by the fatalism and thanatos embedded in it as well.
Yet it continues to engross. The sublime is alive and well, and, if anything, it has demonstrated its persistence in an era of irony, something that more classical concepts of the “beautiful” haven't weathered so well. Whether or not we try to, we can't stop staring into the void.
Monday, November 10, 2014
The term became popular about 10 years ago. The Paris Syndrome. Hapless Japanese tourists arrived in la ville lumière, expecting a Renoir painting crossed with a Ferragamo photoshoot, and found a city of grimy streets, late trains, and, since I don't know the local term, what we'll call les chavs. Failing to reconcile the Paris in their heads with the Paris they found themselves in, and quite frequently had (and continue to have) psychotic breaks.
I come into Japan in an autumn rain, and find that, shockingly, it looks like Japan. In the infinite maze of screens around Shibuya. In the crowds of girls in petticoats and cat ears in Harajuku. And in the dusk walk I took through the old quarter of Kyoto, a tree heavy with October persimmons half-submerged in an icy, fast-flowing brook, chill air smelling of cedar and roasting tea.
Travel guides, educational videos for middle schoolers, and other purveyors of false metaphor like to posit Japan as a land embodying the patently false dichotomy of “modernity” and “tradition.” Media entities such as these to contrast pictures of Ginza skyscrapers and wabi-sabi temples, three-piece suits and kimono. Obviously, “modernity” is everywhere on the planet. Ditto “tradition.” And ditto their supposed contrast. But the prattlers do need their soundbite to please the editors, I suppose.
What did get me, though-- the overwhelming aesthetic sensibility of the country that seemed to recur again and again-- was the absorption of gestalt image-systems from other societies. The whole country seems to have imbibed all the trappings of European civilization over the past 150 years, without any of the context that these aesthetic systems occur in. The appropriation doesn't seem smooth, but contorted, and the contortion makes it all the more interesting.
Consider the entrancing paintings of Foujita Tsuguharu, who eventually styled himself “Léonard,” and whose grotesques occupy the same nightmarish, distorted take on Middle European fairytale aesthetics as the darker moments that Miyazaki cartoons took on decades later. His women, with their terrifyingly doll-like faces, seem to possess something almost inhuman, and his animals, in their detail and expressiveness, seem to have a subtle anthropomorphism, as if they could transform into us in a matter of seconds.
Or, on a more general level, every lightless coffee shop, with their kitschy electric chandeliers, their tobacco haze, the waitstaff all dressed in bowties and looking for all the world like silent film extras.
Or the national obsession with the impressionists, and the constant reproductions of Monet and Renoir paintings, the playing of Chopin's nocturnes and Satie's gymnopédies on sound systems, the constant allusions to Alice in Wonderland, the aspiration for a softer world, an imagined belle époque. As Westerners, we tend to view this through the lens of the nation's creepier pornographic traditions, but it seems something less sexual and more diffuse, an odd mass nostalgia.
And, as with any kind of appropriation, the act is by no means necessarily cosmopolitan. The right-wingers waving rising sun flags outside the Yasukuni Shrine and shouting slogans about the Liancourt Rocks in their impeccably tailored Italian suits. Or the young guy with the flawlessly Yankee accent who, out of nowhere, started ranting at me about how overblown Western reportage of the massacres of World War II is. And in the room of World War II battle paintings, all of them in the same romantic-nationalist tradition as Delacroix-- including those, in a sudden switch of mood, painted by the same Foujita Tsuguharu, now an official propagandist painting rather Goya-esque carnage-- the English-language captions unblinkingly, unhesitatingly, verifying the heroism and nobility of the Japanese invasion of Malaya.
With only a handful of Japanese words, as soon as I find myself alone, I find myself in an aesthetic experience completely devoid of context. With little English spoken or even written on signs, I largely fend for myself, pressing buttons for unknown dishes at vending-machine restaurants, speculating about who this statue represents, trying to piece together fragmented experience.
Which leaves me seated at that coffee shop with the chandeliers and bow ties and old photos of Al Smith's New York, America refracted through Japan refracted through an American.
And, perhaps because of, perhaps despite the fact that I can't quite understand it, I quite enjoy it. I set down my coffee, say my arigato gozaimasu, and move on to the next curiosity.