Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Final Solution: Getting Into Stirrups

stirrup (photo: BLW)
There are two classes of people who're likely to be getting into stirrups. Cowboys or cowgirls who are mounting a horse and women having gynecological exams. But the stirrup has possibilities. Imagine the president of the United States showing his solidarity with women by giving his State of the Union in stirrups or even imagine him mounting a horse in place of a golf cart. Our modern governmental situation requires some degree of imagination in order to figure out how both houses of congress, the executive and the judiciary work can together instead of allowing things like government shutdowns to happen. What's interesting about the stirrup is the innuendo. The kind of stirrups that women or cowboys step into is a noun, but when used as a verb the word is synonymous with looking for trouble. Perhaps if politicians spent their time getting into stirrups they wouldn’t be able or even desirous of being so contentious and divisive.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Culture of Technology




Das Reingold (set design by Josef Hoffman, photo: Victor Angerer)
There is at tendency to place technology and culture at two ends of the spectrum, in the way science and art have always been dichotomized. CP. Snow wrote a famous essay, “Two Cultures,” which was an attempt to bridge the gap between these two worlds. However today technology is so ubiquitous and omnipresent that it’s created it’s own culture. It’s no understatement to refer to the dominant esthetic of present times as a culture of technology. Certainly mainstream popular culture is a product of huge technological advances in the creation of computer generated sounds and images and good part of the content produced by Hollywood and distribution giants like Netflix is about technology itself. In Spike Jonze's Her, for instance, a character (Joaquin  Phoenix) falls in love with an electronically generated artificially intelligent voice. The beauty of such a concept is that many viewers will immediately identify with the situation of the character. It’s easy to invidiously compare one’s significant other, who’s perpetually annoyed by your wrong turns, to the soothing feminine voice of an electronic direction finder simply iterating “route recalculating” when you make a mistake. Beyond cinema, there’s electronic music and Kindle and sites like Second Life which bring vicarious experience perilously close to real life. The “willing suspension of disbelief” was a term originally coined by Coleridge in the l9th century, but with ever more powerful microprocessors "will" doesn’t even come into the picture. The participant in many interactive experiences is swept up by a tsunami of affect before he or she even has a choice. Gesamtkunstwerk was often used to refer to Wagnerian opera, but technology is producing it's own light shows that literally kidnap the senses.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Final Solution: State of Emergency


One of the most disconcerting parts of Trump’s press conference on Friday in which he announced he would declare a state of emergency, was the evenhandedness of the language. Teams of negotiators were working with the Chinese to hammer out a trade agreement. Trump appeared to like President Xi and his policy towards drug dealers ("we give death penalty to people who sell drugs," he said apparently trying to give a flavor for the Xi's accent). The summit with the North Koreans was coming up and great progress was being made. He boasted of a "good relationship" with Chairman Kim, different from the one his predecessors had before. Obama was according to Trump a hair’s breath away from going to war with North Korea. And as for the state of emergency. There had been lots of states of emergencies. It was no big deal. Obama even declared a state of emergency against the cartels and some of the language of that state emergency was going to be used in current efforts against drug lords. Crime was increasing on the border (this Trump repeated several times in response to reporters who pointed out that statistics didn’t bear this out). Trump did refer to “fake news” and CNN, but the ad hominum attacks and outrageous remarks were at a minimum. One was reminded of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” The speech was procrustean in a different way than other Trump fiats. It was like a silent steamroller. Though it was far less outrageous and entertaining, whoever advised Trump on his performance was doing a good job. The insecure madman had become dangerously confident, displaying all the un self-questioning characteristics of a common- place tyrant. The only real state of emergency would be for the democrats who were trying to unseat him in 2020. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Stark's Crowd

cashier's desk Stark's Restaurant (Gottscho-Schliesner, Inc., photographer, Library of Congress)
Back in the 60’s there was a restaurant called Stark’s located on the Southeast corner of Madison and 78th. It was the kind of place that attracted well-to-do housewives at lunch and in the evenings was a hangout low achievers, who attended  private school and were mostly interested in superficial things like money and clothes. It’s safe to say that few kids who hung out at Stark’s amounted to much (though there were undoubtedly exceptions) and the restaurant wasn’t any help. It offered the French fries and other goodies that kids liked in the context of elegant and obsequious service, on the part of the staff. You might have termed these kids the fast crowd, but they were more indolent than rebellious or precociously sexual and most of the girls and guys would do a good job in preserving their virginity even into the early years of their loveless marriages. It would be nice to say that the Upper East Side was a different place back in that era, but actually it was the same  as it is today, quiet at night and forbidding, with the gates to the local white brick palaces firmly guarded by doormen whose uniforms were often comprised of white gloves and mourning jackets. Most of the kids who went to Starks were mini spoiled adults by the time they were 15. Stark's was the perfect training ground for a life of entitlement. While these scions of wealth hadn’t earned any money or distinguished themselves in any way, they displayed all the xenophobia and social status of a landed class. The heavily made up young girls had already spent a good part of their lives at their local HD (hairdresser) and probably couldn’t remember seeing what their nails looked like in their natural unmanicured state. The boys, who tended not to go out for teams or sports, spoke with an air of avuncular certainty, with most of their observations based on experiences which they’d neither had nor were likely to have. Most of the Stark’s crowd would barely make it through college (the gentlemen's "C" was fashionable in those days) and go on to spend the rest of their lives playing golf in Westchester.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

"As If Personality Disorder" and "Invisibility Neurosis"


cover first edition, The Metamorphosis
You don’t have to be paranoid to believe someone is following and you don’t have to be suffering from the exotic cocktail of “as if personality disorder" and "invisibility neurosis" to feel you’re as unimportant as a bot. But what lies at the heart of this feeling of being a total excrescence whose every endeavor pales in importance compared to literally anything including worms, who crawl imperviously along the ground, with nary a care or thought, worms which display all the insouciance of an Edwardian dandy and who're truly slick and shiny in comparison to your nervous trembling self? Waiting for the other shoe to drop barely captures the existence of the all-knowing pessimist for whom life is a self-fulfilling prophecy and in this regard a perpetual embarrassment. Let’s take the hero of The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, a nice Jewish kid who gets turned into an insect. It's a wonderful conceit and metaphor for entrapment. However, first and foremost it describes a whole sub species of mankind who in fact regard themselves as more lowly than rodents. Rodents at the very least are full of guile and often hard to trick. "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly; I don’t know why she swallowed the fly—I guess she’ll die,” goes the limerick. Termites, water bugs, the brilliant ant, bees and their hive minds! How can a lumbering mass of bones and flesh, as heavy handed as it is heavy-headed with so-called consciousness, compete?

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Such Good Friends



Friendship is a kind of therapeutic bond and like with a therapist a friend is the repository of thoughts, memories and intimacies that they take with them to the grave. A good therapist is capable of producing the conditions, of greasing the wheels or creating a kind of highway that facilitates the communication of emotion. A therapist is a surrogate friend and the transferences that go on in therapy create the illusion of friendship and most often a kind of parenting, if the transference is particularly parental, which it usually is. But you can easily look at friendships as mini therapeutic interventions and thus conceive of average human beings whether they're sharing deep confidences or not as participating in therapy on a mass scale depending, of course, on the number and intensity of friendships that comprise a human being's social life. There are therapists who delve deeply into the past and those of the cognitive variety who are more interested in behavior, but it essentially doesn’t matter. Whether or not you're the kind of patient who tells everything to his therapist, analyst, psychiatrist or spiritual advisor or holds things tightly to the vest is of less concern than the existence of the relationship whose manifest content itself is charged with meaning. Explicit  remembrances which are often distorted by drives and intentions (a la Freud’s repudiation of the seduction theory) may turn out to be less revelatory than the heart to heart relationship that occurs between friends and therapists and between whom an invisible umbilical chord often betokens both regeneration and rebirth.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Second Life?


It’s hard but not impossible to be a hermit in our digital age. If you don’t get them, they’ll get you. That's to say the internet of everything records your comings and goings no matter how much you may want to keep to your self. You don’t need an actual security camera, many devices actually are built to track patterns of consumption and ambulation. A decade ago a hermit could simply pay cash and innocently drive through a toll booth emerging no worse for the wear. Now you can’t pay if you want to and if your easy pass is not being recorded, say you don’t have one, your license surely will be. Someone should write a new version of l984 in which the great grandchild of Winston Smith is trying to escape from the dragnet of technology. In fact, it’s astonishing how prescient Orwell was in the first go round. But imagine a world where virtual reality is competitive and people really have to decide if they prefer to live a totally digitized cyberspace existence over life in the natural world with increasing fires and floods due to global warming. In the futuristic saga perhaps the body will be the first thing to go with the promise of immortality in cyberspace providing competition to materialized existence. After all Second Life is not only a game but it’s also a functioning society. Such a universe might be free of conflagration though freedom itself would be a term that had little or no meaning to the extent that thought would be comprised of mind games produced by the manufacturer.