Friday, June 22, 2018

Lost in the Googleverse

Google maps is one of the most blatant examples of how technology creates an attrition in human abilities. The computer with its modern keyboard has all but killed cursive writing and similarly Google maps has eradicated not only the sense of direction (in those who were born with it), but the ability to figure out and parse where one is and find clever ways out of situations in which one is lost. People now use Google maps not just for driving but for simple walking and errands around a city like New York. God forbid you didn’t have your iPhone you might have to ask someone directions for a street like Great Jones which is not part of Manhattan's symmetrical grid. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was the ultimate survival manual and one of elemental documents of the age of discovery. Outside of sextons and simple telescopes most early transatlantic sailors had to hone their capacity to navigate using both intuition and an awareness of natural elements. Today, traits which are developed through everyday use and trial and error have become so foreign that without the latest guidance device most travelers are thrown into a state of utter panic. Deprived of their devices, they might actually have to look for landmarks, study topography and maybe even stoop to taking a look around before deciding which way to turn. However, these are precisely the traits that have been lost in the Faustian bargain with modernity.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Pornosophy: The X-Rated Version of Plato's Republic

In a recent Times Op-Ed piece ("Can There Be Good Porn?NYT, 3/5/18), the actress Stoya, tries to create a moral category with respect to the forbidden. X-rated films transact in nudity and in the intimacies of human sexual congress of all kinds. With the exception of fables like the emperor’s new clothes, most people don’t have the opportunity to see deluded people who think they’re dressed when they’re not. As for the varieties of sex, there have always been dark cubbyholes where people could go to view tainted souls who would for instance engage in sexual intercourse with dogs. The title of Jake Tapper's novel about the McCarthy period, The Hellfire Club, alludes to such societies. “I’m invested in the creation and spread of good pornography, even though I can’t say for certain what that looks like yet," Stoya remarks." We still don’t have a solid definition of what pornography is, much less a consensus on what makes it good or ethical.” Plato and Aristotle both tried to define what constituted the good and in his dialogue the Ion Plato deals with whether dramatic performance reached its epitome due to skill or the presence of a divine spirit—an interesting notion when it comes to porn. Cleanliness is next to godliness. Are the attributes of famous porn stars like Stoya or her estranged former partner James Deen, a form of Grace. There's a food chain involved in most human endeavor and it’s easy to define crooks as bottom feeders and saints as those who have sought the greater good. But there are reversals. Ostensibly the crooks of porn would be seeking cheap thrills with the pornographic good guys being those who trafficked in the notion of catharsis. And yet who is to say that enlightenment isn’t to be found in some cheap loop of a gangbang, while the pornographic equivalent of The Republic—could that have been Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire?—isn't predicated on a lie? 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Final Solution: The Age of Hyperbole

Nixon Giving Checkers Speech (Wehwalt)
This is the age of hyperbole. Perhaps it’s an example of the Stockholm Syndrome, but many people appear to be imitating the hyperbolic locutions of their president. Superlatives are ubiquitous. Everyone seems to be bloviating about the wonderfulness of whatever they're doing (even if it involves hating their president). Have you ever noticed that even though someone makes you cringe, you find yourself talking like them? Maybe you don’t pound your shoe or fist like Nikita Khrushchev once purportedly did (accounts differ) or talk in the mawkish tone of Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech, but it’s interesting how strongly held sentiments can be an equal opportunity employer and how a mode of discourse can be extricated from its content so that it achieves a morally neutral status. Such is the case with President Trump’s nomenclature in which the human condition is either the epitome of heaven or hell. Of course, Trump is the classic salesman. He doesn’t qualify the endorsement of his product. It seemed like he was characterizing his meeting with Kim Jong-un as a great success before it even occurred. Nothing had been agreed on (and to this day none of the specifics of any nuclear disarmament have been worked out). However, he was already issuing kudos to both himself and the Korean dictator under the theory, one would guess, that the juggernaut of positive emotions would take on a life of its own and thus enable him to close the deal.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Deja Vu or Been There Done That

Madame Blavatsky
Déjà vu is a concept that's often touted by people interested in paranormal phenomenon. On the other hand it’s like spirituality in general. There are always materialized representations of purportedly mystical behaviors. For instance, those who believe there's a meaning and purpose to the universe often espouse the notion that everything is as it's supposed to be. Well if you’re a determinist which is a bona fide scientific position, you'll be in agreement. The concatenation of history, biology and psychology has produced a walking fait accompli. As for déjà vu just travel down Route #1 anywhere in America and you'll have the feeling you’ve been there whether you have or not. It’s the same Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, KFC, McDonald’s and Burger King. Nowhere is this state of affairs more egregious than on the internet. Datafication is everywhere. You’re presented with mounds of information and a seemingly infinite number of sources or sites. Yet there's a curious homogenization in all this preponderance of information. Porn is one of the prime examples. Porn Hub purportedly gets ten of millions of hits per day. Every possible fantasy is freely available. However, curiously, everything seems the same. The more  you look the more you feel you’ve already been there. Déjà vu is the new ennui.

Monday, June 18, 2018

An "As If" Personality Lives At Least 9 Lives

cover of first edtion
Have you ever felt that you were an “as if “ personality living a narrative you’d read in a book or seen in a movie. Identification is the whole point of classics like The Catcher in the Rye and what’s astonishing is the variegated personalities that are capable of seeing themselves in the story, people who have perhaps never even been to Manhattan and have never heard about the clock in the Biltmore and any of extinct milieu that Salinger alludes to in the book. Great art seems to cut a large swath in which people can find room for their condition. So many people see themselves in Chekhov and identify with the longings of say his Three Sisters, Masha, Irina, and Olga that one wonders if the playwright wasn’t at times bothered by the fact that people seemed to have expropriated his creation, paying little credence to the fact that it was his not theirs. One might not say the same thing about Titus Andronicus. Few people identify with serving someone’s children to them at dinner, but isn’t there a little bit of Anna Karenina and War and Peace in everyone. Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” But he might more accurately have said to many of his readers “Madame Bovary, c’est vous!” to the extent that a good portion of the books following comes from romantics who see themselves in the plight of its anti-heroine. When Brecht created the idea of the Verfremdungseffek or “estrangement effect,” he was attempting to give his audiences back their own reality rather than sweeping them up into an Aristotelian catharsis. The fact is, however, that a good many people who read books do so because they want, if only for a short period of time, to be someone or be somewhere else.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Conspicuous Ostentation

Rolls-Royce's Flying Lady (Rundvald)
Is anyone who buys a Rolls Royce or a Bentley an asshole.? William Burden, the financier, used to travel around Manhattan in a Rolls with his initials on the license plate, while Mike Nichols had a Mercedes whose license read "anomie." Thorston Veblen coined the turn “conspicuous consumption.” But this is a kind of "conspicuous ostentation" and some might say that Nichols was more culpable since he wanted his cake and eat it too. He was rich and talented which gave him license, one would suppose, to vaunt his superiority over others. Of course the possession of anything of value could be disparaged, from a nice house to a painting, but there are those who possess things for show and those of great means who do everything in their power to avoid the jealous eyes of others.There are fabulously wealthy individuals you have never heard of and then there was the story of the legal secretary who accumulated a fortune by simply executing the same stock trades as her bosses ("96-Year-Old Secretary Quietly Amasses Fortune, Then Donates $8.2 Million,"NYT, 5/6/18) No one ever knew she had money until she died and she left a good part of her estate to the Henry Street Settlement. But back to the flashers? What explains the desire? Is it the peacock strutting its feathers in mating season? Is it a statement of the wish to dominate and intimidate others? Will Mr or Ms. Rolls or Bentley get their way? By the way Mercedes Anomie would be a cool name for someone who was seeking to reinvent him or herself, no? Of course Mike Nichols and William Burden are both dead and perhaps Shelley’s "Ozymandias" provides the most fitting epitaph for their cars, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Final Solution: Looking for Mr. Goodbar

The current foreign policy of the United States is a little reminiscent of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. You might remember the l975 Judith Rossner bestseller, based on a real story, about a young woman coming to a tragic end barhopping in Manhattan’s singles scene. Usually an administration will come forth with a cohesive policy, with soubriquets, whether they be “the domino theory,” “spheres of influence” or “strategic containment,” which create parameters that both allies and adversaries can employ in negotiations. But the Trump White House has embarked on what feels like a series of one-night stands. First there was the love affair with Macron, which turned sour when the U.S. rejected the Iran nuclear deal, then the disastrous G-7 summit after which Trump found himself literally in the embrace of Kim Jong-un—on the rebound as it were. If the past antics of the North Korean regime are an indicator, the young despot will have his way with an old man, then blow him off, having achieved a coveted notch in his belt. He'll be the first North Korean leader who's actually been validated and recognized by a sitting American president. But for all his bravado will the American leader find that he falls victim to the three L’s having been loved, laid and left?