Monday, December 22, 2014

The National Eating Disorder

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

Atomic Number 10, Atomic Weight 20.18

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

On Ruins

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 Tokyo Syndrome

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.

Monday, October 13, 2014

On Google Street View

One of those dull afternoons where you're stuck in a Wikipedia loop. Not out of interest, desire, or any kind of pointed effort, but just as one of those places you arrive at when a torrent of sheer information-- whether it's Wikipedia, Youtube, Facebook, whatever-- seems to be the only thing keeping you going.

Itt was thus that I arrived at the entry for “mobile home.” History of. Geography of. Inclement weather and. And suddenly, I see a picture of my hometown.

It was one of those photos-- the kind you see almost daily in the press in the Midwestern states-- of a mobile home struck by disaster, in this case, a flood. I remember this part of town, and even this vista quite well. The meandering path of the Skunk River through riparian woods, a mobile home park, where, in a sad attempt at a bucolic mode, the developer named the streets after songbirds, kids in t-shirts with Stone Cold and Mankind on them darting about on bikes, women in neon tank tops leaning into screen doors with lit menthols.

But was that my memory? Or was that me superimposing a stereotype onto my memory?

And so, perversely, I went to Google Street View, to cycle through the part of town down along the floodplain of the Skunk River, to wide streets and chain restaurants with big plastic signs, tiny, rundown houses on flat lawns, an enormous sky.

And I realized not only that this was how ugly my town really was, but how people who don't grow up there conceive of the image and shape and light of the American Midwest.

I noted every forgotten detail-- the fan eternally spinning in an attic window, a gingerbread porch, the steel oblong structure behind the power plant that I called “the sarcophagus,” because that's what they called something that looked similar at Chernobyl on TV.

And rather than a warm nostalgia, they evoked a stark disgust, that these details, so associated with an ice cream and a sweaty brow on a summer afternoon, with a drunk teenage walk home through the snow, so often intimate and even cherished, were in a setting this bleak and flat and wide.

Our memories of early life are of course eternally veiled in golden gauze, even if they're sad. This is not only because of the temporal and spatial distances we have between ourselves and our childhoods, but because of the intrinsic nature of childhood perception, which is intuitive, holistic, immediate, impressionistic, and unsystematic, lack any of the exterior reference points that we have acquired and cultivated in the meantime.

And so when we see the images of our childhood rendered in the stark relief of analytic adult perception, especially through a computer screen, there is a disconnect. We can't reconcile who we are with who we were, and for those of us who have wandered a bit, where we choose and where we're from.

We try to justify the disconnect through countless techniques: the aforementioned nostalgia, ironic distance, lyricism, contempt. Some of us go into therapy. Some politicians try to impose their nostalgia into an idiotic politics of regression. Some musicians make shitty revival records.

Thomas Wolfe once assured a 16 year old me that you can't go home again. I loved his elegant descriptions, paired with the sense of loss and alienation of a North Carolina mountain kid adrift in New York, frantically scribbling on top of his fridge, unsure how to express his pining, and so going into radical modernist stream of consciousness-- something I admired immensely as an adolescent looking forward to clutching onto some modernist alienation myself.

And it took Joan Didion a lifetime to realize that California was a late-capitalist nightmare not only in her middle years, but from its earliest inception.

We try to organize the narrative arc. Reality eventually slashes it to bits.

And all the lies we tell ourselves eventually come to a head, at times like this when you're staring at your laptop, at a picture of an asphalt street with a willow tree on it, 3000 miles away.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Books of Our Lives: A Mollusk's View

I was recently, asked, in the Facebook poll that's been going around, what 10 books influenced me. Being a bit salty, and a couple beers in, I gave a cagey meta-non-answer, rather than doing the straight-faced thing.

This honestly wasn't an attempt to sound cleverer-than-thou. As someone who holds the act of reading in such reverence, so much more than I've ever been willing to muster for any other religious system or other institution or ideology, it's hard to reduce yourself in this way.

I could have winnowed down a list, I suppose. But what was expected was a list of 10 books of the sort you read in your normal reading life-- novels, poetry, biographies, maybe a little critical theory if you're feeling fancy. And it should probably include a variety of books that reflect different parts of your preconceived personality, or that influenced you at different times in your life, and you want to avoid the obvious ones, the Catchers in the Rye and Old Men and the Sea that most other literary-minded people held in such high regard as teens just discovering the literary endeavor. And it should ideally include a curveball or two to impress the readers, and offer them something they might not necessarily be familiar with. And probably at least one children's book, to be cheeky, to prove how unpretentious you are. Wink wink.

Nowadays, in our social media-inundated world, the whole thing seems like a horrible Buzzfeedization of the act of reading. But I'll save that diatribe for another day.

But if we are to get to the root question, of how and which books influence us, I can't answer. The books that made the strongest impression on me are buried deep within early memory, the books that forged by aesthetic and intellectual perspectives and preferences. I don't even remember the names of most of them, yet I remember their images, the feelings they evoked, the corners I read them in and how those corners smelled with such intense warmth and intimacy.

There were the coffee table art books my parents kept, each painter seeming to be the author of a different world. The dreamlike take on bourgeois livingrooms in Magritte, primitive fields of color in Klee, lonely American streets in Hopper. Repeat for Gauguin, Modigliani, Orozco.

There were the library books about witchcraft and paranormal events, that seemed to promise that the adult world didn't have as many answers as it claimed to, and that if you pierced through the veil, that darker, more intuitive truths hid beneath. Not that I remember the names of any of them, who they were by, or most of their claims.

And most importantly, the antique reference books, atlases from the 1920s, textbooks from the 1870s, encyclopedias from the 1960s, hidden in libraries and in the backs of classrooms, filled with grainy photos and delicate lithographs. The latest Packard coming off a Detroit production line. The newly discovered headwaters of the Nile. The World Festival of Youth and Students saluting Comrade Brezhnev.

And this doesn't count the endless magazines found in doctor's offices, maps, telephone books, cookbooks, colorful diagrams, newspaper clippings, instructional pamphlets, catalogs, liner notes, and all the other fragments of written language that accumulate in an industrial society. Things not meant to be especially permanent or moving, but that often haunt me in their shapes and turns of phrase.

The real implications of any of this were of course completely unfamiliar. As a child you have very concrete images, embedded within an impressionistic and deeply egocentric awareness of how those things string together. The real implications of calculus, Sikhism, or the Trotskyist alternative were alien to me. All I had was a parabola, a turban, a fiery-eyed man in glasses.

And while my world has become more nuanced, those images, and the perceptions that I've associated with them persist, expressions of a photographer's whim, an editor's metaphor, a printer's choice of font, an idea as represented in Cartesian coordinates.

Because perception, while it is so often fleeting, doesn't occur by itself, but in concordance with previous experience. Like mollusks, we view the world from the shells we've built for ourselves.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Bohemianism

I recently moved house, to an apartment with high ceilings and teak floors, with a patio leading down, through a curtain of potted palms, to an antique swimming pool, where, on sunny Sunday afternoons, sirenic French and Japanese women lie out on wooden deck chairs.

I know. C'est très décadent, n'est-ce pas?

But, not long after, the anxieties took over. I can hang out poolside, but I'm possessed by the sort of self-loathing that define the American relationship to our own bodies, and, what's worse, the immense phobia, that, stubbly and hairy, half-concealed by the palm fronds, that I'm perceived as a creep and a weirdo, the lone masturbator in the bushes.

And the pool-- a tropical pool set in a garden, as perfect a symbol of idyllic living as one can imagine!-- is mainly a source of exercise for me. It's not for playing in, now is it? It is for a dutiful 20 laps after a day's work.

Or I sit out as the sun dips below the Indian Ocean, my feet washed in the froth of the sea, a cold gin and tonic in my hand, and think “well, that was fun, I'll feel so much better when I go in on Monday.”

An uneasy relationship to the flesh and a suspicion of indolence. Two of the strongest marks of the frigid Northern culture of the land I come from. The term “Protestant work ethic” has been much-abused and overapplied and overanalyzed and mangled since Max Weber first unleashed it on us over 100 years ago.

This isn't to say that I had some kind of horrible Calvinist-Oedipal childhood marked by austere diets and grim penitence in a rough-hewn prairie church. And yet the attitude that marked the Midwestern spirit was always that labor is the essence of being.

Now, I'm glad that I developed a work ethic early-- I hated and resisted my chores, as all children do-- but it's a work ethic is something I've learned is a great strength, and something I've very consciously tried to cultivate. And married to a political leftism, it becomes a remarkably virtuous worldview, fostering a militant egalitarianism, a deep respect for workers, and a suspicion of the showiness and flash of the capitalist class.

As I've gotten older, I have-- like countless other arty Yanks-- consciously sought out cultures that do it differently. The sensuousness and emotion and otherworldliness that mark the American images of Asia and Latin America and the Mediterranean draw me in. In college I fell in love, in turn with Fellini, Rushdie, Mishima, Almodóvar. I read Italo Calvino on a stairwell on a sunny June evening in Montmartre. I got blessed by an old woman in a Cambodian temple ruin. I smoked a lot of weed on a lot of beaches.

But, try as I might to escape from the lens of work, I viewed all of these through the lens of productivity. Introspection and adventure and culture were means of self-improvement, and I didn't necessarily opt to take these experiences out of sheer delight and wonder. And furthermore, as someone who had a comfortably middle class two-Toyotas-and-a-mortgage American upbringing, I felt that I had a responsibility to experience things because so many people lacked the socioeconomic freedom to do so.

It's an odd variation on the Protestant work ethic. Traditionally-- and, as seems borne out on my Facebook news feed, seems to be the case for a lot of folks today-- I should have gotten the career-track job, had the kids, gotten the Toyota and the mortgage, things I absolutely ran screaming from. But in my ostensibly bohemian sort of life, I've found a similar one-directionality both in myself and in my peers, and oftentimes a conformity as rigid and unforgiving as that of a salaried manager in a Richard Yates story.

Because no matter how hard we try, our early conceptions of things will eternally nag us. It's often said that we can't escape our roots. What's not often said is that we never know when they will remind us of that fact.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

On Celebrity Suicide

The Internet announced it was in mourning. It was in mourning for a comedian and actor whose work I honestly didn't appreciate for a long time, until I recently, within the past couple weeks, really, discovered his early stand-up career, before he became associated with a long string of what I always considered to be dreadfully sentimental films.

And I have to wonder why and how the hive mind mourns. It has always bothered me how people's lives become metaphor, and in the case of a suicide, the suicide becomes the central metaphor. If the person has enjoyed some level of fame, the media coverage of their death turns a complex and remote experience into something “personal” and “sincere” for the general public, a tidy little pill we can swallow. Take two after dinner to feel pathos.

In this case the central metaphor of his personality-- in public, that of the clown, privately maybe not so much, as intimated in the now-famous Marc Maron interview-- is hijacked and transformed into a Pagliaccio figure, the clown carrying inner pain, which, of all tropes in the media, is one of the laziest and most played out.

The notion of comedians as being funny on stage, but also depressed, addicted, or just generally fucked up should be a notion we're used to by now, 40 plus years after Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce made their mark. And it becomes too easy to construe comedians as inherently fucked up, or conversely, to view damage and darkness as a natural and necessary conduit for humor. This is a variation of the old conflation of personal disaster and creative genius, the fetish of countless teenage boys (self included) and a plotline that has somehow retained its mystique since Goethe and Keats introduced it.

Other sectors of the Internet mourning community have taken the opportunity to claim that depression is a disease like any other. Now, there is a certain truth to it (yes, it fits our definition of a disease) and a pragmatism to it (it's good to demystify mental illness, and to treat it as something that can be handled clinically). But it becomes too easy to medicalize our problems, to reduce thorny and difficult problems to something easily treatable with pharmaceuticals, which in empirical practice seems to only be sometimes useful, but is deeply in line with the American desire for quick fixes. And yet this line of thought, which should be more productive and more empirical, winds up leading to another form of mystification in the public consciousness. We take something difficult, and relegate it to the realm of expert knowledge, beyond comprehension. Which is perhaps, why, in eternally unsmiling and practically minded Hong Kong, the falling suicide of megastar Leslie Cheung was reported as “due to chemical imbalance.”

We don't want to confront the fact that at the end of the day, we are merely speculating, merely projecting fears and worldviews onto the unknowable and scary when it is suddenly thrust into the public spotlight. Instead of asking deep, serious questions, we impose our narrative on the material event, and damn the places where they don't synchronize.

I know that by writing about it, I am imposing my own narrative, taking this sort of cagey, oblique, postmodernist approach, out of my morbid curiosity about everyone else's morbid curiosity.

Which, like so many meta-approaches, leaves me with a sense of cold disconnectedness, of being trapped in an infinite mirror maze of language and sign and discourse. And I'll leave it there. I could extrapolate that to what the point of writing is at all, to what the world is, but I know well enough to leave those issues alone. I simply arrive at this point in said mirror maze. I feel like I'm somewhere important, but everyone probably does.

Monday, July 28, 2014

My Corpse

An industry of sorts has grown up around the memory of David Foster Wallace. There are the books of interviews, of B-side essays, the (rather dull) biography, the (repugnant and cloying) blank-page art book version of his Kenyon College commencement speech, the hundreds of thousands of views of his Youtube interviews, the accompanying comment threads.

Of course, I'm guilty of having consumed a great deal of it. As for so many of my generation, he has become transfigured as Saint David of Illinois, the secular beacon for the mopey and literary, someone we can project our angst and desire for sincerity onto, a figure-- as with all secular saints-- we can use to embody our perceptions of certain elements of ourselves.

However, he is by no means alone. All of us, anyone who makes some kind of impact on the world through having children, through art, etc., has to face the reality that, ultimately, other people will invest our death and a full-scope view of our life as a metaphor, and for all intents and purposes, use our corpses as puppets for their own egos.

A nightmare: from above, I see an open-casket funeral. I cannot see a face on the body, but I'm certain that it's me, embalmed and half-transformed into plastic, my body cavity stuffed with cotton, fluids replaced with formaldehyde and methanol, a doll version of myself. Some people look sad, most look bored. People who brought their kids who'd rather be at home playing Xbox.

Of course, there are also the more modern traditions. The modern funeral is supposed to be about life and the all-pervasive word “dignity,” not about death per se, I'm told, which strikes me as truly gruesome. In logical extension of the Protestant work ethic, my countrymen have turned catharsis into productivity.

The violation of one's own body and memory are, for oneself, completely hypothetical circumstances. By definition, you will never consciously experience either. And yet they produce this deep-seated primal nausea, something ancient and atavistic.

Much is made of the human desire for immortality, and this feeling seems to be a sort of variation on that. The notion of immortality, exclusively through the terms of others, seems like a long-term postmortem slavery. So we try, in life, to align how we will be remembered with the value systems we hold dear, whether that's through religious ritual, organ donation, or leaving one's assets to beloved children or worthy charities or what have you.

But why should I expect anything more from death than I have in life? It's not like I live my life on my terms and mine alone, or that anyone does. If none of us have a monopoly on how we are perceived in our lives-- try as we might-- why can we expect the same in death?

Alternatively, we can take the opposite route, to try to be forgotten-- common courtesy in certain Amazonian societies which forbid even saying the names of the dead, but harder in the contemporary Western world. A less extreme example is found in the funeral practice of Mongolian lamas, who, in a final act of compassion, have their corpses dragged to mountaintops to feed the birds of the steppe.

All of this being said, death is by its very nature an abstraction, something we can come close to, but never touch until the absolute moment. Try as we might, we can never control it-- even suicides rarely go as planned. And the people who have the healthiest relationships to death probably recognize this, whether consciously or not, and accept its abstract nature.

And so my line of analysis leaves me back where I started, with a void. Which, in turn, is all I can ask for. An emptiness that I have to learn to be comfortable with.

Monday, July 14, 2014


There has been barely a day in the past few months that I haven't, for some brief moment, thought of the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki's foray into nonfiction, In Praise of Shadows, a 50-page meditation on aesthetics written in Japan's dark days of the early 1930s, as the nation stood on the verge of political and economic collapse. It haunts me especially in the early evening, as I walk home to my empty apartment and I can see the fading light of the sun through my grimy window, the tired, red sun of East Asia that bears so little in common with the sun I grew up with, regardless of whether it's the same star.

If I was to reduce Tanizaki's essay, I would say it is an ode to a traditional aesthetic system full of darkness and shade, and against the neon-ization of the country already well underfoot by then. But to say that is to suggest that it's a coherent and ascertainable aesthetic system. Rather, it's everything that Tanizaki conceived of as associated with shadows and candlelight, from gold-flecked cups in the half-light to old styles of sushi made with persimmon leaves to the blackened teeth of Meiji concubines to his own skin tone.

And while there's nothing to pinpoint-- cultures always change, old nations die as new nations are born, traditions are little more than ideological expressions-- I can see how his analogies hang together, difficult to perceive but not impossible, like a massive spiderweb in the dark. His perceptions come to the surface as I lie in bed in the summer heat, with the air conditioning off, a thin layer of sweat on my brow, as I press the fruit as I'm making a thick liqueur from ripe lychees, as indirect sun hits my writing paper, as I make a pot of black tea, thick and dark, the leaves blended with smoked camphor.

Two or three weeks ago, my power went out at about 9:00, and I lit a couple of candles. Reflected in my bedroom mirror, they produced much more light than I would have expected, and yet it was of a totally different character. The veneer on my wooden bedframe. The green bottle on my desk. It extended beyond light into all senses. The air took on a new warmth and velvety thickness, and my apartment was as still and silent as the first snowfall of the winter.

And it occurred to me that the same sensibility Tanizaki described was equally present in Flemish still lives. Never mind that the symbolism was different-- Calvinism instead of Shinto, splayed rabbits and peeled lemons instead of tea bowls and sakuras. It is the interplay of light and dark that is the same, the same focus on the odd little artifacts.

 The unnameable aesthetic forces that dance around the edges of our consciousness are by no means spiritual or universal, as a Jung would have it, but the effect of countless images, compositions, natural patterns. What I see and feel in the writings of Junichiro Tanizaki, in these paintings of the breakfast tables of long-dead Dutchmen, in the taste of the camphorous tea, is the residue of old perceptions.

It's like this. You come to an unfamiliar place, and you don't know why, but it reminds you of someplace else, someplace familiar. What is it that ties you back to your reference point? Is it the way the leaves shine silvery in the afternoon light? The leap of a cat from a roof onto a garbage heap?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial

I recently reread Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, a meditation on an archaeological site published by the sadly rarely read, but always revered Thomas Browne in 1658. I don't reread books often-- there seem to be too many things I haven't read once to get around to reading something twice-- but it's quite short, and things were slow. The clouds were gathering over the city, in more ways than one, and it seemed the perfect time to read something dark and quiet and half-remembered.

I can remember so distinctly when I first read Thomas Browne, when I was staying for a week at a couple of friends' apartment on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. And I can remember the way the light cast down on the paper, the Italic headings in an old 19th Century copy of Browne's complete works from the library. The recurring mental image was of two men, with pointed beards and black cloaks, on a chilly autumn morning, with ravens in naked trees on the flat plains of Norfolk, standing before an open pit in the black earth, a broken ceramic jar at the bottom lying in a pool of stagnant water, maybe a workman with a rough country accent digging through the sandy soil. Browne-- or at least the face engraved on the frontispiece-- staring up at a gray English sky, watching the birds fly upwards. His melancholy, his facing the tombs of dead pagans, immediately confronting his faith in the Protestant God and the emerging scientific practice that marked the dawning Age of Reason, which he believed to be symbolized in the eternal quincunx, the latticed form that he believed marked the soul of all things.

It was about a year after that cold day in Seattle that I stood in a field on the Plain of Jars in Northern Laos, with the first burial urns I recognized as such, or rather things generally figured by the archaeologists to be burial urns-- the local people believed them to be where the gods and giants kept their lao khao, the harsh, grainy rice wine of Laos and Thailand, which I'd drank that morning, scalding hot from a still.

Did I think of my image of Thomas Browne in his field on that day? Or was the sunlight, the clang of cowbells on high mountain meadows, the high spirits of a holiday, even in a necropolis, strong enough to dissuade me?

And when I think, now, of Thomas Browne, I am not thinking of him amid ancient ruins. My thoughts wander in that direction on days when the sunset seems sickly, when there's a sourness in the pit of my stomach, when my apartment seems a sepulcher.

And was that image based on anything? For all I know, Browne could have visited his urns on a bright summer day, with skylarks instead of ravens and trees full of flowers. My image of Thomas Browne is more informed by his followers-- the morose wanderer W.G. Sebald, the blind librarian Jorge Luis Borges, the sensitive suicide Virginia Woolf. And on the whole, images of death, such as this, are probably more at home in Hollywood than in our lives.

I did feel a distinct sense of death in the jars, as I walked delicately along the margins of rice paddies. This area, a plateau in the Lao highlands was made briefly infamous by Lyndon Johnson's clandestine use of the local Hmong people as a proxy army as part of America's decade-long folly in Southeast Asia. The burial urns now share space with minefields and caved-in Pathet Lao trenches. Missile casings are turned into fenceposts, hotels keep rusty Kalashnikovs as souvenirs. The death I felt there was not cosmic, but immediate, the very real possibility that I would meet a sudden, violent end if I strayed from the marked path.

Which tells me how separate death is from its avatars. We dress up death in images, turn it into mossy churchyards and widows in black crepe. Death is irrational, unbounded by human metaphor. It is the full catheter and labored breathing of a much-loved relative in a chilly hospital room, the idiotic expression of a corpse by a roadside, half-seen through a car window.

Monday, June 23, 2014

An Overheard Conversation

When you live in Asia and suddenly hear people speaking English, it's odd, but it's not really possible to do anything other than listen in. It doesn't matter how interesting or obnoxious or even boring the conversation is. It's a bit like when you go to the doctor's office, and there's an old man with a weeping sore on his leg.

Two women have sat down at the table next to me, two nice enough seeming middle-aged Australian women who drink vodka tonics and smoke narrow cigarettes, and their conversation drowns out everything else.

You don't overhear people showing the best of themselves. They're not on a date or a job interview. They're two old friends, with all the banal shit that implies. They're talking about the lovely hotel they stayed at in Krabi, the impossibility of finding decent boyfriends as middle-aged women in Southeast Asia. And they're using the same phrases again and again, and laughing at their own jokes. And this banality, and the fact that it's been thrust into my earshot, breeds a sudden contempt. Who are these people? And why did they have to sit next to me? Which is completely irrational, never mind the ethics of it, or what it says about my relationship to the human species, or the level of comfort I have with my own place in the world.

Especially since part of the reason I sat at this sidewalk cafe was because it was on a busy corner, and I've always loved sitting there with my notepad, writing asides, making pencil sketches of fans and streetlights, watching the processions of every walk of life, locals and tourists, parents walking their children home from school, elderly street vendors, framed in a lovely sunset.

And I sit back, make their stories up, where they sleep, what they had for lunch that day, the way they look into their bathroom mirrors, the last thing they said to their dead grandparents. The Eurasian guy about my age with the goatee who looks a little like David Duchovny. The transsexual who works behind a makeup counter in a department store in a provincial town. The two blind women who help each other through invisible streets.

In other words, I liked being around other people, but only people in the abstract. People as fixed as butterflies in museum cases. And so I project my own feelings and narratives onto their lives. Which is probably why I rarely write anything nonfictional about people, because it seems impossible to actually realize their stories, to narrow their subjective experience into 1000 words.

Yet the unknowing is something that we rarely admit to ourselves. We go beyond the most superficial interactions, and find how little we understand anything at all about that person we've worked next to for over a year.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Banality of Coups

Dictatorships breed oppression, dictatorships breed servility, dictatorships breed cruelty; more loathsome still is the fact that they breed idiocy. Bellboys babbling orders, portraits of caudillos, prearranged cheers or insults, walls covered with names, unanimous ceremonies, mere discipline usurping the place of clear thinking... Fighting these sad monotonies is one of the duties of a writer” -Jorge Luis Borges

Thursday, the 22nd of May 2014 was looking to be another uneventful day. Martial law had been declared a couple of days earlier, but the effects had been minimal. A few military vehicles on the expressways, a few bored-looking soldiers, by and large 18 and 19 year old farm kids with guns and cheap cigarettes, milling around strategic points.

I got home, reheated some Indian food, turned on my computer, and discovered that the government of Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, having been in power for a mere 15 days (and whom my 500 baht says most Westerners in Bangkok never even bothered to learn the name of), had been deposed by General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, a man who always reminds me on television of Imelda Marcos with a combover.

Media are seized. A military curfew is called in. Government and opposition ministers are called in, rather like a high school principal trying to ferret out who spraypainted a penis on the wall of the gym.

The Bangkok Post and Nation websites fall eerily silent. Banner ads move back and forth noiselessly, advertising luxury watches and condos in dull, suburban neighborhoods.

A few anti-coup editorials appear. Commenting is briefly disabled (no tragedy there, the Post's comment threads are the lowliest form of expat bottom-feeding). The head of Thai PBS, when ordered to stop broadcasting, moved over to Youtube, before being called in for a talking to as well.

The television broadcasts military music. The beautifully Orwellian phrase “National Peace and Order Maintaining Council” appears on the screen. The song they're playing sounds like the Horst Wessel Lied as sang by the Siamese cats from Lady and the Tramp.

This is all, of course, to “prevent misinformation.” And so the people of Thailand can “love each other again.” Love and honesty, are of course, best assisted by keeping people in their homes, in the dark, with opaque processes happening behind locked doors with multiple security gateways.

Matichon, it turns out, had a man in on the talks leading up to the takeover. Niwatthamrong, it turns out, refused to resign. So General Prayuth decided that power needed to be seized. Much like a child who won't hand over his milk money to the playground bully peacefully, so he gets punched in the gut.

Notice the second comparison to schoolyard behavior in less than 400 words. That should tell you something about the intellectual and ethical standards of the halls of power in Thailand at the present juncture.

On Sunday, the ruling junta released a statement to be submitted to foreign embassies and international organizations, listing its three reasons for its coup. I present them all in their delightfully oblique, unedited, really shit English below. You'd think they could at least afford a copy editor.

  1. Thailand has different situation and political environment to other countries.
  2. The military has clear evidences and reasons to seize power. The evidences and reasons will later be shown to the international community.
  3. Democratic ruling in Thailand has caused a lot of lives.

Did you see any argument there, or anything approaching reason? I'm especially fond of number 2. We have clear evidence, but we're not telling you. But we'll tell you later. Pinky swear!

Back in 1961, when covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann-- a man with a knack for bowling and vacuum cleaner sales, among other things-- for the New Yorker, Hannah Arendt deployed the wonderful German word sprachregelung. An affliction in Germany during the nation's dalliances with Bismarck, Hitler, and Honecker, this is the reliance on euphemism and talking points to cover up the truth of the situation.

Monday arrives. I can't get home. Every metro stop between Ratchathewi and Aree is shut down. “Overcrowding,” the announcer says in English. “Maintenance,” the sign says in Thai. The reality of it is a vista of riot shields and sirens below in the vicinity of the Victory Monument.

They called in journalists from the Bangkok Post and Thai Rath to stop asking “aggressive questions” and asking why they weren't showing unqualified support. The more of a rhetorical wall they build, the more insecure at heart the generals seem.

To use a phrase from Arendt again, the critical word in describing the whole coup process is banality. The banality of military officers who rely on nationalist blunderbuss. The banality of a city turning inside at 9:00 p.m. The banality of a governmental organization that shields criticism with vague notions of love and unity, as if it's writing Christmas cards. The banality of a desire to return to a previous, idealized Thailand that never existed outside a television screen. And it's a banality engendered by men whose professional lives revolve around obedience, authority, and hollow ritual. Without evidence, without program, politics becomes a simpering sentimentality made all the more repulsive by its degraded claims to masculinity.

And to that end, it is my "sad duty," as Borges would have it, to raise my middle finger.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

By the Sea

My first sight of the ocean was of a desolate stretch of coastline in Southern Mexico, just north of the Cancun costa del date rape. Where the tourists hadn't yet arrived in the early '90s, a stretch of beach towards a ferry port ran amid assorted wreckage. Where empty concrete lots, stained with the accumulated rust of a few hurricane seasons ran down to the beach.

On the beach lay the hulls of fishing boats. In retrospect, they were probably simple fishing boats or small ferries. But they seemed to me, as a small child without any experience of boats or the sea or the adult world in general, to be great ships. And here they were, laid out and tipped over, rusted, torn apart, encrusted in alien lifeforms, as if chewed apart by monsters, their skeletons laid out like a horror movie set.

And there was the smell, not only unique, but vast and pervasive, an unfamiliar range of metallic ions atop rotting marine life. There were of course similarities to the chilly lakes and streams of the Upper Midwest I was used to swimming and fishing at, but to compare the two was like porterhouse and hamburger, two things made of the same substance but one infinitely richer than the other.

Years later, I stumbled upon Kunstformen der Natur, published in 1901 by the German biologist, philosopher, and artist Ernst Haeckel, whose stony positivist outlook was counterbalanced by the wild flights of fancy of his drawings of sea creatures. In Haeckel's book, the natural world was cut apart, stylized, turned into elaborate spires and quincunxes, monstrosities of radial symmetry, creatures like nightmare genitalia. Animals that I recognize as animals, that have the evolutionary patterns of animals, that seem uncannily neither animal nor plant nor fungus, slippery and primal things.

Not long after, in college, I learned a term for such things-- abject-- those things that seem to evade our symbolic notions of what reality should look like. Things like a corpse, like a weeping sore. Things that seem to come from some deep and amorphous primal space. Lots of Lacanian psychoanalysts, thinking they were thinking, wrote about this in dense, allusive treatises, and lots of French feminists, with little basis and a lot of essentialism, somehow equated the abject and the feminine.

The depths of the sea somehow lurked at the background of everything, the formlessness that appeared in dreams, at the edges of everyday life.

I stepped into a pristine tropical cove, fringed with waving palm trees. Underneath, the rocks swarmed with a thousand olivine-black sea cucumbers.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Alone on the South China Sea

I arrived at Chungking Mansions on a cold, rainy April day, and anyone who's lived or traveled for an extensive period in Asia knows the drill. At every corner stands a skinny Bengali tout in a loud shirt, trying to grab your attention, get you to come to a guesthouse, tailor, moneychanger, or fly-by-night travel agency. The wider the smile, the greater the deception.

            -Hey mister, you looking for something?

I do my best to avoid eye contact, and get into my cramped room as quickly as I can. I drop my bags and try to explore the city. With a limited budget and knowing no one, I walked and walked, until my calves ached, until I just wanted to sit down and watch the boats cross the harbor.

On the one side, it is a city of stone steps tumbling down steep hillsides, narrow and vertiginous streets cutting between tiny restaurants and Chinese herbalist shops where calico cats bask in sunbeams atop pallets of dried cuttlefish and chrysanthemum petals, of mid-century apartment blocks in white brick and sea-green tile with old British colonial street signs in an elegant modernist font, of storybook trams and ferries and schoolchildren with bright red umbrellas, of the warm smells of Taoist temple incense in chilly weather and goose fat pressed into fresh-cooked rice-- a Wes Anderson movie waiting to be made.

On the other, Hong Kong is a banking capital as bland as any other the world over. Its CBD is a tangle of escalators connecting countless antiseptic, high-security structures, with the same piano music, the same black-and-white photos, men with Breitling watches on well-muscled arms and women with Hermès bags dangling from their avian shoulders. I walked through the nightlife sections, and can't find a bar that didn't pulse with vaguely "European" dance music, that wasn't filled with aspiring financial criminals and the braying voices of posh London and Lower Manhattan.

These two Hong Kongs exist parallel to each other, sometimes on the street, often kissing, their eyes closed to each other.

Yet they are bound together by their sheer density, the density of a narrow city wedged between the mountains and the sea. I walked up Nathan Road at night, past rows of old textile factories and towers filled with shoebox apartments, amid an infinite entanglement of glowing Chinese characters.

And on a fine sunny afternoon I took the subway to the north, to where the world's densest human habitation once rose up, a towering slum that is now a park filled with odd chunks of concrete and low-lying tumuli.

I ended my trip atop Victoria Peak, the lush, misty mountain that looms over Central Hong Kong, to see the whole thing at once.

Staring outwards, surrounded by cheery groups of tourists-- Singaporean families, Thai honeymooners, Malaysian retirees. Alone, in my shabby clothes and worn-out sneakers, stubble-faced, without a camera and politely refusing the audio tour, it was impossible not to feel out of place and vaguely suspect.

But what is travel if not dislocation. And this is something people don't talk about very often. And something that becomes all the more salient when you're in a place like Hong Kong, a city with a government predicated on a contradiction, a city that is either self-loathingly Asian or pretentiously Western, either a bastion of democracy in a totalitarian state or the same state's poodle. It is in a place like this, in a situation like this, that the entire world seems to be centered within the field of view of a telescope.