Tuesday, November 15, 2011

So Long Zuccotti

Tough to support this claim, guys.
Last night's collective shower was inevitable. Occupation in the absence of meaningful negotiations with (or even a few demands of) those who hold political power is as empty as violence in the absence of meaningful negotiations. In this, as a chapter of OWS comes to a close, it seems an obvious opportunity to talk about why it has failed so far:

Occupation is a Political Tactic, not a Strategy:
As pictures of sanitation workers cleaning up the newly-cleared Zuccotti park have been hitting the Interwesbs all day, I'm struck by the orderliness and swiftness with which evidence of the presence of OWS protesters has been eradicated. This of course reveals something essential to the "movement" itself: its presence is physical, embodied, and built on only one half of the required tactics to achieve political ends. Occupation has always been a stalling tactic--something that brings negotiators to the table; an opening up of space somewhere else for dialogue. Not so for OWS.

Violence against protesters by the police in the streets is a horrible thing. But in a case where negotiators are working with those in power, it can at least be a bargaining chip. Violence against protesters who have no one speaking for them is a total waste.

The Call to Arms by the Newer-New-Left has been Unhelpful (their reading of the financial collapse is incomplete, and their call for abstract change is counterproductive)

Sweaty, bedraggled, and seemingly trying to hold back a smile during a fiery speech in the early weeks of OWS, Slavoj Zizek lay down the hammer:
Here there is already socialism for the rich. They say we don't respect private property. But in the 2008 financial crash down, more hard-earned private property was destroyed than if all of us here were to be destroying it night and day for weeks. They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think that things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are the awakening from a dream which is turning into a nightmare. We are not destroying anything. We are only witnessing how the system is destroying itself.
The first part of this paragraph, which emphasizes the weird cult-like aural landscape induced by the "human-megaphone"--seems right enough, except for the fact that it wasn't as much private property that was destroyed as financial capital. The difference is not unimportant. The intangibility of the crisis itself has resulted in an incoherent (or, at best inchoate) set of demands from protesters.

This might be why the materialist critical response to the financial collapse has been so unsatisfying: it's difficult for thinkers in the Marxist tradition to talk about things like credit. This is especially so when it seems that people are less interested in overthrowing the system of private property and more interested in getting jobs. For the most part, even the most unreasonable sounding protesters at OWS wanted jobs and health insurance--not the overthrow of capitalism.

  • It's not the eradication of banking: it's the privileging of a certain kind of bank (credit unions)
  • It's not the eradication of corporations: it's the eradication of an ineffective corporate tax structure masked as rhetoric that wants the end of corporations
  • It's not the elimination of globalization: it's the perceived democratization of the means of global interchange (side note here, this is why Twitter and Facebook were so much more effectively used in Arab Spring revolts, where these methods of communication were perceived as unsuppressable...they were used in defiance of political powers. Here, it was frequently observed that corporations would never shut down wireless systems to prevent people from Tweeting pics of their drum circles from Zuccotti).
 The failure to articulate a concrete set of demands is, in other words, not just the fault of the protesters. It's the fault of the intellectuals and politicians who exacerbated the problem by fanning the flames of--not really extremist: if you notice, there's nothing that extreme or really new about what Zizek says--totally impractical rhetoric.

If You're Planning on Repopulating Zuccotti, Bring a Warm Blanket--and Also, Read About the Tea Party

There are 62 members of the Tea Party Caucus right now in Congress. There will be ZERO Occupy Wall Street representatives in Congress as of next fall if nothing changes. Elizabeth Warren can't be the only reasoned voice in the room. Period.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

On Memory and Moving On

Try to Praise the Mutilated World, Adam Zagajewski, September 2001
 Try to praise the mutilated world. 
Remember June's long days, 
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. 
The nettles that methodically overgrow 
the abandoned homesteads of exiles. 
You must praise the mutilated world. 
You watched the stylish yachts and ships; 
one of them had a long trip ahead of it, 
while salty oblivion awaited others. 
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere, 
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully. 
You should praise the mutilated world. 
Remember the moments when we were together 
in a white room and the curtain fluttered. 
Return in thought to the concert where music flared. 
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn 
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars. 
Praise the mutilated world 
and the grey feather a thrush lost, 
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes 
and returns.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Times Finally Reports on Nineties Nostalgia

NYTimes did a piece on Nineties Nostalgia (the existence of which, somehow, surprised them). What struck me is how smart Nick is in their redeployment of Doug and others. They're not only responding to pressures from social media outlets, but now also responding to audience participation on social networking sites to determine their schedules.

The other thing, as I've continually been thinking about nostalgia these past few months: we're nostalgic for forms of media engagement. As those forms change more rapidly, the thing we can be nostalgic for gets more and more recent. After school cable television was the primary form of entertainment. But check out these social networking stats (passed on me by Tyler, of course....). Notice the crazy-weird spike of internet usage by the youngest demographic. Also note that 11% of Facebook users are 13-17 years old. ELEVEN PERCENT! This is more than 75 million kids.

Forget about watching stuff like Nick. KIDS are online poking each other *cough* ever earlier.

These kids will be nostalgic for the old Facebook messaging interface, like, next week.

(Just kidding, they'll be nostalgic for Google+).

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Errol Morris's Favorite Commercial

I've written about Errol Morris's directorial work on the High Life campaign here and (I think it should show up this afternoon) on Splitsider. But props to NPR for spotting and boosting Morris's tweet from year calling out this commercial as his own personal favorite.

Take that, High Life Man.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Critical Engagement with "Tree of Life"

There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie. (Jonathan Franzen, Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts," NYTimes 5/28)

In a sharp and often moving criticism of social networks, Jonathan Franzen sets "liking" against "loving." Whereas to like something sets us apart from the liked (or disliked) object, love demands the opening of one's life to another. Love is about cohabitation, and not just in the sense of splitting the rent. It's about a metaphoric (and sometimes not metaphoric) sharing of the same bodily, mental, and emotional space. To put it in the words of the only *actually* moving wedding homily I've ever heard, it helps us salve the loneliness inherent in the human condition. And it does this by attempting to come as close as possible to shared consciousness with another person--regardless of whether one believes this idea is nutty (at best) or impossible (at worst).

But the kind of criticism that has emerged in the wake of Terrence Malick's Tree of Life has exposed a complication of Franzen's argument. Simply to like or dislike a film embodies the laziest sort of critical response available to a writer. I was taught this in high school. An English teacher instructed me never to write "I like this book" in an essay. He told me that merely liking something is uninteresting, and that asking what I think something means would always constitute a more worthwhile form of engagement. But critiques about Tree of Life often ignore the lesson of this observation about good writing, and instead go to the extreme to defend or attack the movie, along with Malick, contemporary filmmaking, and, in some cases God.

That is, we don't need to like or dislike the film. But neither do we need to address what it means.

We need to love it or hate it.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Grasping For One Another: Artist Nathan Vernau

“Let me go grab even more stuff,” Nathan said to me. I was sitting at his coffee table trying not to let my mouth sag onto the pile of his work. Nathan Vernau moved to Chicago after finishing his MFA at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He participated in a widely lauded group show at Robert Bills Contemporary, curated by gallery director Emma Stein, and will appear in the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival later this summer. Last year, he appeared on the cover of New American Paintings. News about his upcoming shows and festival appearances can be found at his website.

But look. I’m burnt. I’ve tried to write this piece five times, and endured total accidental deletion of 1500 words that I thought were finally adequate to the task of describing what Nathan’s work “is.” I haven’t written anything but a piece on Ren and Stimpy in two weeks as a result. And once again, I find myself not saying what I want to say about the piles of pictures that lay in front of me on Nathan’s coffee table.  So I’ll just say it: Nathan’s work is vital, urgent, unnerving, and deeply felt.

And there’s a lot of it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Torture and the State of Exception

Politico recently reported that, according to Bush Administration speech writer Marc Theissen, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed mocked his captors at Guantánamo while being waterboarded. "KSM figured out waterboarding," Theissen said at the American Enterprise Institute last week. "He figured out the limits," and allegedly counted off seconds until his interrogators were required to pull back.

Theissen's comments seem to suggest that the problem with the Bush Administration's waterboarding policy was that it did not allow agents of the government to go far enough. For me, reading from selections of the Torture Memos provides enough evidence that this assessment is misguided at best--and insane or inhuman at worst. Yet somehow the debate about the merits of waterboarding persists.  I have been struck in the past few weeks by the quiet resumption of what I thought was a closed matter: that waterboarding yielded little in the way of useful information at Guantánamo Bay.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The High Life Man, Part II: What Women Want

In Part One of my discussion of the High Life Man, I suggested that an aesthetic transition has taken place in the portrayal of men over the course of the last decade.  Using the new Old Spice Man as my point of comparison, I suggested that the masculinity embodied by the be-toweled Isaiah Mustafa "doesn't derive from an internal code, but from the female gaze."  This ostensibly stands apart from Errol Morris's High Life Man, whose code of manly behavior comes from within: from adherence to an internal ethos of manhood.  To understand what this transition could mean, it seems appropriate to analyze what the High Life Man actually says about female desire (and women in general) and compare that to a reading of the Old Spice spot.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Oskar's Mom: Searching and Loss in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

Words Words Words
I'm not big on announcing "SPOILER ALERT!" but be that as it may, don't read this brief piece on Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel unless you're okay with knowing some things that happen in the end of the book.  Or, in other words: Spoiler Alert.

Oskar Schell never considers himself a detective in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  He's not looking for the solution to a mystery, and instead characterizes his travels around New York City as "my search," telling people he meets that he's merely "looking for a lock."  Of course, what we learn throughout the novel is that the search itself gives Oskar a means of carrying on a day-to-day life in the absence of his father.  It gives him a means of ordering and calming his otherwise inchoate body of symptoms (self-bruises, tics, obsessions about 9/11 and clothing and death, etc).  Oskar fears that the conclusion of his search ostensibly forecloses the possibility of proximity (ie: his extreme closeness) to his father.  Once Oskar finds the lock he worries aloud to his grandfather: "I found it and now I can't look for it [...] Looking for it let me stay close to him for a little while longer" (304).  Finding the lock could never have been as important as engaging in the process of endless searching.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ordinary Politics: Pictures from Michael Mergen

Precinct 7-1, Centerville, TN, 2010
Ordinary Engagement with the Political

Michael Mergen's photography hung at the ArtChicago fair this month as part of an exhibition featuring the work of 19 top MFA candidates from around the country.  Pictures from Vote, a series that reveals the often unexpected contexts in which Americans cast ballots, stood out for their documentary presentation of scenes in which everyday life becomes a stage for political participation.  A Philadelphia native, Mergen began his career as a photojournalist, and is currently a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design.  His growing portfolio of work, which has been featured in Mother Jones and elsewhere, represents an expanding inquiry into the modes of political participation in America at the level of everyday ritual and routine--not just when we feel like we are performing civic duties.  Mergen's pictures stand as an important commentary on the over-saturation of daily life by the political, exposing ways in which citizens are constantly exposed to civic imperatives in scenes of ordinary life.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

"United 93" and OBL

There are a lot of reasons to think about Paul Greengrass's 2006 United 93--not least of which is the film's complicated portrayal of Islam.  Here's my best effort when it comes to relating the movie to last week's events.

Since Osama bin Laden’s death last week, a part of the national conversation has been dedicated to determining how “we” are supposed to feel.  It’s a dilemma.  What emotions are appropriate this kind of event?  Ambivalence?  Relief?  Joy?  Satisfaction?  Perhaps more interestingly, the question of how to feel has often been framed as an accusation.  That is, it’s seemed quite common to hear people asking: “What emotions are inappropriate for this kind of event?” in an effort to disavow certain sets of reactions. I wonder why accusations of emotional immaturity and wrongheaded patriotism have been heaped with such vehemence upon crowds of White House and Times Square “OBL” revelers.  And I want to suggest that the narrative function of United 93 is in part to give us fictional space to experience these emotions without having to avow them.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Derrick Rose and Fan Highlight Reels

Derrick Rose became the youngest player ever to win the NBA's Most Valuable Player award today.  By this point, even if you don't live in Chicago, you might know why.  If not, Sports Illustrated's version of Derrick Rose Central essentially provides all the numbers necessary to make a convincing case that he was the most dominant player in the league.  I'm not going to try to express in too many words the thrill of watching Rose play (though it's something akin to watching a man run downhill and jump off cliffs over and over again for 48 minutes).  Rather, it's a good opportunity to think about the phenomenon of fan-generated highlight films--and how they are changing the nature of sports fandom.

The Built Environment and Photography

The above composite of photographs taken by Hilla and Bernd Becher appeared in the 1975 exhibition The New Topographics: Photographs from a Man-Altered Landscape at the George Eastman House in Upstate New York.  Like many of the pictures in this exhibition, the black and white documentary stare of the camera presents what seems an objective perspective on scenes of industrial production.  The majority of the pictures at the Eastman House were taken in black and white, and were starkly depopulated.  They present stark landscapes created by "man," but devoid of his presence.  Now,  a new show (that I am absolutely flipping out about since my girlfriend told me about it [I might have to go alone, I'll be so annoying])  at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Photography called Public Works demonstrates the multiple directions that artists have taken the lessons of New Topographics

Monday, May 2, 2011

The 9/11 Commission Report as Memorial

The 9/11 Commission Report stands as the government’s official take on “what happened” almost ten years ago on that infamously beautiful day on the Eastern Seaboard.  Perhaps surprisingly, it also stands as one of the most engaging narratives about the history of Al Qaeda and America’s counter-terrorism efforts.  It’s really well written—a fact that surprised many critics when it was first published.

In light of last night’s events—a kind of strange kickoff of the nation’s Tenth Anniversary of 9/11 pensiveness—I have been thinking about other ways to think of the report.  Perhaps we can think of the report, less as a government document, or even as a work of literature.  It’s an instruction manual on what, why, and how we should respect the authority of the state.  In effect, the report acts as a kind of memorial to September 11.  Memorials establish the rules for what constitutes citizenship, and confirm our participation in a fantasy of national belonging.  When thought of as a memorial, it seems possible to suggest a broader importance for this government document.

Friday, April 29, 2011

An Evening of Gentlemanly Pursuits, Part IIIa

What follows is a setting of a scene--something that contributes to the understanding of the grand sweep and narrative context that found me walking up Fulton Market Street on an almost impossibly warm day in early May 2010, on my way to an interview with Paul Kahan at Publican.  Of course, not everyone agrees about the importance of historical flows and contingencies, and so this is an interlude, a prelude to that interview itself.  Skippable, sure.  After all, there are those that refuse to acknowledge that we are all bound up in contexts and stories and narratives.  That we are more than the mere technologies that record these contexts and stories and narratives.  That we contain each other.  That the remediation of loneliness and apartness comes, in part, from reminders of this togetherness across time.  Remember this Mr. Achatz, if you think that you are some kind of context-less newcomer with your fancy cocktails and your seasonal menu.  Remember your history. Remember as you sell tickets to the opening of your latest concern.  Because we may seem like our own most important moment, but even as we hurtle toward whatever we perceive as the future, the tentacles of our collective pasts tug at our tendons, our tissues and weave themselves into something that we might call, in our more contemplative or hopeful or fearful moments, a soul.

A Brief but Important History of the Blommer Chocolate Company and the West Loop, Vitally Necessary to an Understanding of what One Might Think About on the Way to an Interview with Paul Kahan, Restaurateur

The Blommer Chocolate Company was founded in 1939 in Chicago.  The Blommer family--Henry Blommer and his two sons Al and Ben--built a handsome modern headquarters and factory in the Near West Side at the intersection of Kinzie and Desplaines, a few steps from the western bank of the putrid stench of the Chicago River.  The city still had no solution for the dumping of industrial waste into the River, and its flow had long before been reversed to reduce pollution of the city's blue jewel, Lake Michigan.  The factory was close to the cheap and desperate muscle of a Depression-ravaged immigrant populations, and yet within shouting distance of the Loop--long the city's commercial aorta.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The High Life Man: Masculinity in America

Overture: The High Life Man's Credo
I went up to the Block Cinema at Northwestern University last week to see Errol Morris's latest documentary Tabloid.  I'm a longtime fan of Morris's extensive series (more than 100 ads in all) of advertisements for Miller High Life.  According to Morris's website, so is he.  The director of documentaries like The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War considers the High Life commercials "his most impressive achievement."  Their sheer volume aside, Morris's meticulous attention to consistency of tone, humor, and warmth throughout the campaign is pretty amazing.  Because they ran for so long (almost eight years), and seem to establish a consistent aesthetic for a certain kind of ideal American man, Morris's commercials raise a lot of issues related to the supposed crisis of confidence plaguing American masculinity.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Newspapers in "Falling Man"

Trying to combine the last two posts together a bit.  Don DeLillo's 9/11 novel Falling Man thinks a lot about the relationship between the individual and the historical, but in a way that is much different from Junot Diaz and Jennifer Egan.  Here the concern is about the relationship between individuals and an exemplary/spectacular/singular event.  How does an individual's relationship to a historical event like 9/11 differ from that individual's relationship to the ongoing narrative of a continuous history?  I think the novel helps us address some of these questions, while at the same time providing some insight on how newspapers mediate the transition from post-trauma to ordinary life.  Or something.  I'm really tired.

Don DeLillo's Falling Man presents characters with different relationships to visual, literary, and performance art.  The novel meditates on the ability of different genres and forms of art to mediate trauma--to help characters work through the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.  Meanwhile, the novel itself attempts to work in different genres.  The staccato, stilted dialogue of the characters often seems more like terse poetry than realistic portrayals of conversations; and (as we discussed in class), the tightly stylized form of the book resembles a self-contained still life.  In other words, Falling Man engages with questions about the usefulness (uselessness) of artistic forms as means of smoothing the transition from trauma "back to" ordinary life.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Wondrous Goons

I've been swooning over Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad for a while now.  It's no longer my private recommendation--my "sleeper" candidate for best book of 2010 (and, to be fair, it was everyone else's sleeper candidate in that category well before it was mine.  That is, well before I got around to Goon Squad, the secret that the book was a secret success had very much gotten out).  By now, everyone knows it's a book that deserves to be torn apart, read multiple times in multiple directions: one whose parts can seem momentarily greater than the whole, but only momentarily.  And this is great news for a lot of reasons that involve a lot of things--particularly the opening up of the novel as a form, and the generation of dialogue about the future of fiction making.  But I wasn't so much thinking about the future as the past.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Does Dave (only) Tell us How it Feels to Him?

I have been writing and thinking about terrorism, ordinary life, patriotism, trauma, and collective identity a lot in the past two years. (Again, really, I'm a happy person in general disposition). This week I reread The View from Mrs. Thompson's, a brief essay by (I know, I know) David Foster Wallace. In light of the official publication of his posthumous novel The Pale King this week as well as the beautiful Jonathan Franzen essay in The New Yorker--and because I just realized (reading this thing for the tenth time is no less heartbreaking, of course) that he "gets" the things I wanted to "get" better in four pages than I did in thousands of writing, reading, revising, rehashing, suffering through--here are a few thoughts on Dave's account of "The Horror."

In the first half of his essay "Tell me How Does it Feel?" James Wood indicts novelists interested in writing the "Great American Social Novel," claiming: "they will sooner or later be outrun by their own streaking material." In other words, a writer attempting to capture the totality of a social moment--its interpersonal, economic, demographic, horticultural (etc) elements—will always fall short of actually describing the world. And worse, in the process of trying to do so, she will also fail to document anything essential about human feeling. Yet Wood seems to rely on the assumption that human feeling should reside solely within the world that the author portrays. He ignores the possibility of locating feeling within the narrative voice.

I’m not sure if this perspective necessarily addresses Wood’s concerns—and perhaps it merely suggests that writers are vain and solipsistic and can only talk about the interior landscape of their own heads. But if this portrayal is honest and curious, and conducted with the interest of connecting the writer to a reader, is it something we should lament?

In The View from Mrs. Thompson's
, David Foster Wallace takes it as a given that it would be impossible to describe all of the elements necessary to understand how to synthesize the feelings induced by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The piece does not attempt to portray the totality of the moment; rather, by cataloguing details he observes from the ordinary lives of individuals in Bloomington, Wallace in effect tries to at least give the reader an understanding of how he makes an effort to cope. He describes some conditions “on the ground” in Bloomington--but does so in order to give readers insight into the only consciousness that he feels able to occupy in the wake of “the Horror”: his own.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Evening of Gentlemanly Pursuits, Part II

Part II: Solipsism is Just a Kind of Self-Love

My ambitions at the start of the whole process of writing about Paul Kahan far outstripped my abilities as a journalist and reflect the naive belief that one can fake good intentions and yet write something that people actually want to read--something, that is (and maybe I'm assuming incorrectly about what readers want to read, but I'd like to think that I'm not too far off here), honest about the world that we inhabit that explores why and how we choose to inhabit it together.

Essentially, I was bored and broke--reading a lot of novels and living off of excess student loan money and the occasional sale of stock. I wanted to eat at fancy restaurants and pretend that I was a writer.

So I said I wanted to write something about Chicago and its relationship to food. I said I wanted to write something about the stagnation of twentysomething upward mobility in the midst of a recession. I said I wanted to write about politics. I said I wanted to write about happy hour crowds choking down organically fed pork and going nowhere very fast, but laughing very, very hard.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

An Evening of Gentlemanly Pursuits, Part I

Some background.

Grant Achatz, Chicago celebrity chef/darling/villain/prettyboy, will open two new restaurants in the West Loop very soon: Next and Aviary. Though he rose to fame with Alinea, now ranked among the greatest restaurants in the world, he is trying to woo a new following. Enter Donnie Madia and Paul Kahan. The pair essentially started the West Loop’s renaissance when they first opened Blackbird more than ten years ago. More than that, Kahan literally grew up here, working at a deli on Green Street. Achatz would be nowhere near West Fulton Market Street were it not for Kahan, Madia. And now he’s elbowing into what is very much their territory.

This piece began as an article about the restaurants that Donnie Madia and Paul Kahan opened.

Last year, well before I knew about Achatz, I wanted to find out why all of the restaurants in the Kahan-Madia empire—there are five, soon to be six, in all—are so popular. I pitched the story to a writer for The Atlantic, who said he liked the idea, but it never got published. Why it never got published will become apparent, I think, almost immediately. But the more I think about that night, and everything leading up to it, the more important it seems to become. So here, after rewrites and more rewrites and revisions, in roughly 1000-word installments (and with Achatz as an excuse), is the article in a radically different form than the one I first “submitted.”

One last thing. It’s no longer as much about food as it is about other things. Some things are reconstructions, imaginations, and outright lies. A writer's claims to veracity are always conditioned by his or her sense of how words relate to reality; by the substances they consume while "researching"; and by whom they're trying to impress. To varying degrees, my own sense of the relationship between language and the world is affected by all of these. The piece is nonfictional to the extent that it aims to capture a real mood, a sense, a bundle of affects that characterizes a particular moment in my life and the life of a friend. In this way, I have convinced myself that the writing is honest. And maybe only in this way.

Part I: Aftermath

I woke up on the hardwood floor in Tyler’s apartment, twisted into a crumpled pile of chewed up meat. There was blood everywhere. On my shirt, my pants. The tip of my thumb was sliced somewhat less than totally open, and had turned an alarming shade of purple. There was a crust of stale sweat coating my body. It felt as though the alcohol had sucked all the fluids out of my skin, and now I lay as dried out as an iguana. Pieces of malignantly flaking skin hung off my lips. I ran my shriveled tongue against the raw roof of my mouth and felt something scrape off. I swallowed and coughed, as the day began to insist upon consciousness, sputtering like a dying fish on the deck of a listing ship.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Everyone in Between: Toronto Artist Arowbe on the Borders

It's easy to have good conversations with Toronto-based poet/musician/composer/performer Rob Bolton. But this particular conversation was having a tough time getting off the ground. When we finally got vchat to work on two finicky wireless networks, important business interrupted:

“Hold on one second, I think my coffee is ready,” he said. It was Saturday morning.

Rob writes and performs for the group Broadway Sleep, as well as for the duo Times Neue Roman (which has a new video dropping today for Hands no Hands). He has also written songs for artist Tanika Charles, including Silly Happy Wild, which was nominated for a Stylus Award in the category of Canadian Best R&B Single. He participated in TEDx Toronto as a solo artist and with Broadway Sleep. He writes hip-hop odes to Music and Math; homages to motown; and writes Lacanian lyric poetry. In other words, he's pretty busy these days.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Touch the Art...No Really.

I picked up Emma Stein underneath the El tracks at Robert Bills Contemporary--where she spends her days working as Gallery Director--on a sloppy, gray afternoon last week. It's the time of year when even optimistic Chicagoans start to wonder if Spring will ever arrive, and as a native Californian, Emma has had more than her fill of snow and slush.

Weather aside, Emma has thrived in Chicago. Having completed her MA in Art History at the University of Chicago last June, she won high praise from the Tribune for her most recent curated group show: Exploding Faces, Confining Spaces. But she has also been working on her own project proposal for an exhibition that rethinks the senses and sensations associated with the consumption of art in the gallery and museum. Playfully titled Please Touch the Artwork, Emma's project considers how the blind experience what we traditionally call "visual arts." It's a deeply personal issue for her, as two members of her family--including her mom--are affected by a degenerative disease that affects the retinas, often leaving patients legally blind. Emma's idea not only has the potential to raise awareness about the problematic way museums attempt to address accessibility, but also to expand how individuals conceive of their relationship to art.

(Why touching the art matters...after the jump)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

AMIWWL: Zodiac and Targets

[I'm going to categorize most of my future posts on film as: "Analysis of Movies I Watch with Lindsey" (AMIWWL), mainly because I can never say exactly what I think about them until way after. I'm not used to analyzing film. I'm used to reading at my own glacial pace (sometimes I think I read at a fifth grade level). In general, I'm not a very quick writer either, and need to take my time and let thoughts congeal, and then get them down. As you might imagine, this makes me a really awful conversationalist, especially when it comes to film. But since we're all expected to be critics of movies, I'll make some efforts].

[Oh, also, I spoil everything]

This week it was Zodiac and Targets, two films that are roughly 40 years apart and extremely different--but that both try to get at the heart of what might be an obsession-in-transition in the American psyche: the Serial Killer. Peter Bogdanovich's 1968 film Targets, starring Boris Karloff, draws (in many places quite overtly) from the infamous University of Texas bell-tower shootings of 1966. David Fincher's 2007 Zodiac examines the exploits of the Zodiac Killer, who murdered seven people (though he claimed responsibility for almost 40 murders) in the Bay Area during the late Sixties and early Seventies. Unlike Targets, Fincher's film takes up the perspective of the investigators assigned to the case, though it also reconstructs scenes from the perspective of Zodiac's victims.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Covert Urban: Chicago Artist Gwendolyn Zabicki

"Somebody called me the Bruce Springsteen of painting," said Gwen Zabicki. We were eating homemade steak and ale pie, sitting in Ikea recliners in her UIC studio. Gwen is one of only three painters in the most recent crop of the University's MFA students. "And I thought, oh no, so I'm really earnest and hamfisted and there's a honking sax in the background." It seemed like a real concern, especially because Gwen paints subject matter that can be easily associated with the middle or blue-collar urban class. In other words: solidly in Springsteen territory. But after our conversation, it was readily apparent that there is an important difference between earnestness and inquisitiveness. The former is about latching onto an emotion and glorifying it. The latter seems more about asking why we feel a certain way in the world, and whether we might be able to feel differently by changing our perspective.

In thoughtful and measured paintings, it is this territory that Gwen's work inhabits.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Best Books for Valentine's Day

I love Valentine's Day. I really do. It's some sort of weird disorder, or maybe just a testament to the successful rhetoric of greeting card companies. But in any case, it's nice to think that once a year you can either do something self-consciously hokey (or, you know, break out the ol' love swing) with your significant other, or cry yourself to sleep watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and listening to Coldplay.

Regardless of the state of your heart this February 14, here are some books to read to make sure that your brain is working:

Got a little someone special in your life? Try Lolita. It's not exactly the most un-horrifying experience in the history of modern literature, but it sure makes you feel normal by comparison.

Nobokov's unbelievably sinister portrayal of Humbert Humbert takes us through the psychology of a pedophile and leaves us wondering, well, how he thought up all of this stuff. The salacious content of the novel is one thing...and there are arguments on both sides about whether it is pornographic. I come down on the side that says: this is a novel that pushes the limits of narrator-reliability. Its unrelenting portrayal of psychosis is absolutely unique.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Super Bowl Car Commercials II: Vader Kid

It has been declared, almost unanimously it seems, the best commercial of the Super Bowl. And it's for a Volkswagen Passat, a decidedly un-luxurious vehicle. What does this spot tell us about the persistence of traditional narratives of middle class desire? And moreover, why should we care? Why do I want to suck the joy out of this adorable commercial by overanalyzing it to death?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Super Bowl Commercials I: Is it Okay to Start Buying Stuff Again?

Can the privileged class start enjoying its privileges again already? Here's the first in a three-part series on the Super Bowl's auto commercials (including perhaps THE only two popular ads this year). They tell a divided story.

Audi: Release the Hounds (Or, Meet the New Boss: Same as the Old Boss)

Two bathrobed prisoners in a jail for the wealthy break out, to a soundtrack of their delighted fellow inmates' cheers, and Kenny G. The warden orders "Release the hounds," and as the prisoners reach the gate, they have a choice: climb into a white Mercedes, or a flashy Audi A8. The older of the pair hops into the Benz--"My father had one of these," he says, and is driven immediately back to the jail. The younger accelerates to freedom in the Audi, passing under the George Washington Bridge as a voice-over implores us: "Escape the confines of old luxury." The tagline reads: "Luxury has progressed."

Friday, February 4, 2011

Dispatches from DC: The Problematic Ambitions of "Donald"

I like McSweeney's when it's funny. And though I have gone back and forth on Dave Eggers, I have been strongly in the "pro" camp (at least when it comes to his work) since Zeitoun, a powerful piece of writing about Katrina that may very well go down as one of the best books about that disaster.

But last night's reading of the McSweeney's-backed Donald at 826 DC was not funny. The evening presented a confusing and often painful caricature of what Eggers’s enterprise morphs into when it boosts authors who "do" politics. The concept and execution of Donald come off as shrill, opportunistic, and incurious. All the while, its authors trumpeted the incoherent idea of "serious fiction"--a term that McSweeney's did not invent, but one that it seems all too ready to mobilize as its reason for existence. Donald, written by Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott, attempts to turn the tables on Donald Rumsfeld. Set to hit shelves on the same day as Rummy's memoir, the book is described as an "allegory," in which a Rumsfeld-inspired character is kidnapped, rendered, and tortured at the hands of an unnamed regime. Simply: Donald is the wrong book at the wrong time with the wrong message, and it took me less than an hour to decide that McSweeney’s owes its fan much more than this.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

What Does "Persepolis" Help us Understand About #Jan25?

In a moment when the world's eyes are fixed on Egypt, what does a book about Iran have to teach us about politics, media, and representation of revolution?

Marjane Satrapi's celebrated graphic memoir Persepolis tells the story of the author's childhood and early-adulthood in Iran during the Cultural Revolution and its immediate aftermath. News outlets have been comparing the historic protests across Egypt to the period between 1978 and 1980 when the Shah was overthrown. The conversation in news media outlets this week has often centered on whether the Obama Administration is making the same mistakes dealing with Egypt that Carter made during the Iranian crisis.

Yet Satrapi's book does not exactly provide us with a clear perspective on how to view America's role in the political and cultural turmoil in Iran. The book portrays historical events, but that's not why it is essential reading. I don't even know if it's helpful to compare the Egyptian protests to Iran (and Persepolis did help me get a basic understanding of some of the crucial differences between Arab and Persian contexts). Rather, Satrapi interweaves the personal with the political, giving us a picture of how ordinary life adapts to and works through moments of national and cultural trauma. Moreover, it conveys this narrative in what is probably the most appropriate form to the task of portraying revolution: graphic narrative.

Brainwashed: "Exit Through the Gift Shop" and Anonymity as a Commodity

Nominated for an Academy Award in the category of "Best Documentary," Exit through the Gift Shop purports to tell the story of Banksy, the well-known British King of Street Art. We're told right from the start that this is "A Banksy Film," but over the course of the film's manic ninety minutes, it evolves into a biopic of Thierry Guetta. Guetta's fortuitous relationship with Space Invader--an early Street Art celebrity--and his relentless obsession with capturing constant footage of his everyday life make him a kind of videographic mascot for an ever-larger group of artists. Guetta gains the trust of a circle of international Street Artists, and from the income generated by what appears to be a vintage clothing store in Los Angeles, is able to follow them around and document everything. After a series of good luck, Guetta (so we are led to believe) develops a friendship with Banksy himself...and the film shifts.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The New New Topographics.....Nostalgia for the Suburban

So, do we want to move back to the suburbs or not? Because I've been getting mixed signals lately, and I'm trying to think through what might or might not be the opening salvo in a renaissance of suburban longing (if there has already been a full-blown renaissance in suburban longing, please someone fill me in).

Arcade Fire's 2010 widely acclaimed album The Suburbs pines for an idyllic return to the simplicity of low expectations, wide lawns, and strip malls. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out if they're being serious or not. But I thought it might be interesting to consider the album next to the 1975 photography exhibition "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape," if only because it takes as its subject the very scenes of 1970's suburban life that Arcade Fire sings so moonily about (incidentally, a new collection of essays to be published by the U of C Press in February reconsiders the show, so I'm trying to get my shots in here quickly)

The images in "New Topographics" portrayed trailer parks, decrepit factories in the exurbs, blank urban spaces, and parking lots. Though it would eventually become one of the most influential bodies of landscape photography in history, the show flopped when it first appeared. The images marked a major departure from previous modes of photography in their simple descriptions of scenes. They did not seem to overtly judge, and yet there was an undeniable snarkiness to the pictures. Audiences seemed not to "get it." It didn't help that the Eastman House was featuring the work of university-trained photographers--a maligned crop of academic practitioners that allegedly lacked the natural talent thought to be necessary for authentic picture-making.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Onslaught of the "Best Books About 9/11"

It's inevitable. Come September, we will be awash in a national project of stock-taking--a look back at the previous ten years on the anniversary of the September attacks of 9/11/2001. It seems useful to think about what will be the value of these collective considerations. I wonder whether the two camps that formed in the wake of the attacks have softened a bit. There were those who believed 9/11 changed essentially everything, and those who believed 9/11 changed essentially nothing--is it time that we all agree that neither is the case, but that something happened? If we can, I think we can move on to helpful questions about what art and literature is doing to help us think about the politics and culture of "The Post-9/11 Moment" as a historically bound phase in American identity. Deborah Eisenberg's wonderful collection Twilight of the Superheroes helps us understand what it means to move beyond a nationally post-traumatic stage and move to work 9/11 into something like a collectivized memory (even though you probably won't see it on Top Ten Books About 9/11 lists that are guaranteed to materialize).

Ten years after "the events of 9/11," I think two pertinent questions have evolved, both of which help us understand how cultural/national trauma gets absorbed at the level of individuals

What was the post-9/11 moment? What was special about American politics and culture during a period that followed 9/11/2001? How were particular strategies and tactics mobilized to achieve certain cultural and political objectives? How did these strategies and tactics wane over time? Is the post-9/11 moment something that could ever end?

How did the Post-9/11 Moment structure our thinking about the "event" itself? This is related to the possibility of ever being anything other than Post-Traumatic in the wake of the attacks. The "Post-9/11 Moment" might be thought of as a period that begins with standardized modes of national grief and moves to the recent past, where 9/11 is taken as a kind of given in the American consciousness. Perhaps the Post-9/11 moment was the period during which this shift took place.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Wells Tower Says Some Things

A few months back, I got a chance to exchange emails with Wells Tower. Below, find answers to some of my questions in full. Author of the collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, and recipient of a 2010-2011 New York Public Library Fellowship, Tower is currently working on his first novel. Here he talks about the supposed "death of the novel," the "rise of the short story," ordinary life...and Pliny the Younger. His collection was among the best reviewed (it got the unheard-of honor of being TWICE reviewed in the New York Times). You can listen to him read the hilarious and violent and beautiful Viking title story here, and read one of the best travel essays (about visiting Iceland with his father here). But first, here's the interview:

1) Writers from Philip Roth to James Wood have been warning us about the "death of the novel" for almost fifty years. What kind of credence, if any, do you give to these kinds of claims (that the novel is obsolete, dehumanized, hysterical, and incapable of "keeping up")?

We hear the same thing about literature generally, and I don't buy it. Prophesies of the novel's death are a kindred vanity to the Evangelicals' claim that the Rapture, any day now, is upon us. It's fun to feel like the last of something. And, sure, video games outsell literary novels by a dispiriting proportion, but unless we somehow cease to use language to make sense of the world, I am sure that people will continue to write novels that matter. (Way more after the jump...)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Remembering the "Other" Black Writers


While trying to wrap one's head around the mindbending legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is important to remember black writers and artists who fit outside the dominant and often patronizing paradigms of black cultural production inculcated during things like "Black History Month." Growing up, I was taught to believe in a single cohesive narrative that explains how the leaders of black culture (to use an already fraught term) contributed to bringing the end of institutionalized racism in America. When reading Their Eyes were Watching God, Native Son, Invisible Man, and Go Tell it on the Mountain, the narrative was often oversimplified: black writers wrote books that overtly protested segregationist practices, and did so in a single unified voice. The truth is, of course, much richer and more complicated, but also more difficult to teach.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hedi Kaddour's "The Bus Driver" and Ordinary Life

The Bus Driver: Hedi Kaddour

What has gotten into the bus driver
Who has left his bus, who has sat down
On a curb on the Place de l'Opera
Where he slips into the ease of being
Nothing more than his own tears? The passersby
Who bend over such a shared and
Presentable sorrow would like him
To tell them that the wind used to know
How to come out of the woods toward a woman's dress,
Or that one day his brother said to him,
Even your shadow wants nothing to do with you.
His feet in a puddle, the bus driver
Can only repeat, This work is hard
And people aren't kind.

-- from A Walk in the City, Treason (YUP 2010), translated by Marilyn Hacker

Like 35 Shots, Hedi Kaddour's amazing collection Treason explores the lives of characters confronting breakdowns in the flows and rhythms of their routines. I don't want to sound like a broken record citing recent French art for doing this kind of thing so well, but I thought this poem could be fun to think of next to Denis's film , especially because Lionel drives trains and the bus driver in Kaddour's poem...well....you get it (apparently there's just something super ordinary about working in public transportation in Paris).

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why it's Important to Start Using the Past Tense when it Comes to Hipsters

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="560" caption="Photo Credit: New York Magazine"][/caption]

Last October, Mark Greif published an appraisal of hipster culture in New York Magazine.  Greif is one of the founders of the supposedly-annoying magazine and online journal N+1.  I don't know enough about it to say whether I like the pubication or not (although characterizations of it as an elitist and pseudo-academic journal lead me to the assumption--if I am to be honest with myself--that I would probably dig it).  But I do think that the conceit of the article--assigning the past tense to consider hipster culture as a historically bound phenomenon--is a useful one.   

Some notes on "The Bell Jar," Richard Powers, and Evolving Definitions of Mental Life

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="286" caption="Yes I accidentally bought an edition meant for "young readers." I'm owning it."][/caption]

In an effort to make up for more than a few literary and personal-life-ish oversights, I finally read The Bell Jar this week.  From there, I turned back to some of the more famous poems in Ariel, making what I think is a common bonehead mistake when reading Plath.  It becomes incredibly difficult when reading Path's work not to consider biography as overdetermining every detail in her fiction and poetry.  Maybe it's partially her fault, sure.  The Bell Jar is so close to autobiographical that Plath famously prevented its publication in the United States and insisted upon releasing it under a pseudonym in Great Britain.  But I do want to try to put all of that aside.  To say that Plath's story is tragic (and even to suggest, as a friend put it, that Ted Hughs pulled of the most dastardly murder in the history of modern letters) does miss the point of this novel: namely, that Esther Greenwood is probably one of of the most distinctive characters in mid-20th Century American fiction.  I don't have the ability or background to articulate what the novel meant for the feminist movement, although Esther's observations about men and relationships are scathing and often hilarious.

Ordinary Life in "35 Shots"

We need more movies like Claire Denis's 35 Rhums. Beautiful in its composition, and subtle in the exploration of its themes, the film takes us on a ride (literally--we are moved around the city and banlieue-scapes of Paris in trains, taxis, buses, motorcycles, and vans) through the ordinary lives of its characters. Denis's exploration of the familiar seems so spot-on not only because of the understated way in which she deals with interruptions in the ordinary, but also the diligence and precision with which she records the everyday as an emotionally charged ground for exploration. By painstakingly documenting small daily rituals and routines, Denis's film helps us see how variations in the smallest facets of life become the record of momentous and often tragic events.Much of the emotional intensity of 35 Shots is staged in the apartment that Lionel shares with his daughter Jo, where the rhythms of daily life rule the action. Lionel takes off shoes in the hallway; Jo puts laundry in the machine and puts her headphones on to study; she prepares dinner and the two eat togehter. The film repeats these scenes over and again, to the extent that they condition our experience of the narrative. We see Lionel enter the apartment every night either after work or drinking with friends. We see him take off his shoes and walk down the hallway of his apartment to his bedroom. We see him put on his robe and get ready to take his shower. We become, in effect, sensitized to the fact that these are repeated actions, and can begin to look for variations in the manner that he carries out the routine. Instead of asking whether certain actions in the film will take place, we come to expect them, and in turn ask how the routines will change in response to events that take place outside of the apartment.

In this domestic space, we notice the subtlest variations, which stand out as a record of how characters manage the impact of events in the outside world. The way that Lionel takes off his shoes becomes an index of his state of sobriety. We notice that the only seated meal that Jo and her father share is the first in the film--a formal recognition of Lionel's unexpectedly thoughtful gift of the rice cooker (in every subsequent meal, they are standing). On nights when Lionel is particularly tired or affected by some event of the day, he forgoes the shower. Jo listens at the bathroom door for subtle variations in the noises her father is making as he bathes. They become signifiers of his emotional state.

Jo manages this domestic space, and attempts to control it by constantly cleaning and cooking. Despite Lionel's request that she stop trying to take care of him and live her own life, Jo feels compelled to make the home as blank a space as possible for the staging of everyday life. In turn, her impulse to clear the apartment of clutter is set off against Noe's penthouse, which is riddled with clothing, old furniture, garbage, and eventually his dead cat. He is constantly out of milk--unable to keep the kitchen supplied with what is necessary to have a smooth daily routine. Though he tries to remove the debris from his life, he eventually decides instead to sell the place. It is too fraught with memories. In essence, it can never be a space of simple domestic life because it is packed with objects that carry emotionally charged associations.

If the apartment becomes the place where characters find sanctuary--or perhaps, most often seek comfort--in rhythms, the outside world becomes a set of sites that resist the search for flow that is nevertheless constant. The film opens with an extended sequence of trains, shot from both the inside of a cab and from Lionel's perspective on the side of a track. Day turns to night. The trains move along and lights come on. Sometimes the noise of the trains passing is the smooth sliding of steel wheels on track. Sometimes we see the cab jerk to the side as it passes over a switch. We look for the reassurance of rhythm in the portrayal of commutes and labor. But there are only momentary sensations of in-flowness, punctuated by Lionel's cigarettes and by shots of commuters banging into Jo and causing her to wince. It seems significant that Jo and Lionel only seem comfortable in the outside world when they are experiencing a kind of domesticized rhythm together: sharing the motion of the motorbike, or in the comfort of their awesome little van--which contains a kitchen and enough space to share a meal. To feel in tune with the world, they must take their domestic space with them.

Jo insists that she could "live exactly like this," with her father; but of course, it is the interruptions in the rhythms of simple domestic life that drive the action of most of the film--and in effect, drive Jo precisely away from the life she shares with her father. The film suggests that while routine and ritual help us find comfort in the world, only interruption and exception drive us forward. That is: only interruptions in the narrative of routine can create forward motion that drives the plot. When Gabrielle's taxi breaks down and the group must miss the concert, Lionel spends the night with a bartender and Jo reacts by trying to strip the apartment of memories of her mother. The characters are forced to stop moving, and in doing so, must confront what is in front of them. This happens again toward the climax of the film. Rene's suicide on the RER tracks not only causes Lionel to stop his train, but also serves as the catalyst for Lionel and Jo to take a trip to Germany and visit the grave of Methilde.

I wonder whether Denis has set up a dichotomy between repetitive and forward motion, or if my reading of these two types of experiences in the world are necessarily set apart from one another in the film. Does ordinary experience require interruption for the reevaluation of self? Considering the final scene, I'm not exactly sure. Lionel celebrates the end of his current domestic life with his daughter by drinking the 35 Shots of Rum--a ritual whose origin goes unstated but which has a special significance for him. Here, Lionel turns to ritual in a case of celebration. It is the fusion of the repeatable or traditional and the exemplary or spectacular event. It is joy for his daughter and nostalgia for their already-lost life together that fuses the two.