Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Amsterdam Journal: Het Rembranthuis

photograph by Francis Levy
Rembrandt was foreclosed on the house he bought on Jordenbreestraat 4 for 13,000 guilders. Today the premises have been preserved as a museum. He lived there from 1639-58 with his wife Saskia who died soon after the birth of his son Titus. He'd been doing pretty well to buy that place since the average working man at the time only made about 300 guilders a year. When you visit the house today you can see the etching studio where he employed his genius for spontaneous chiascuoro drawing, his two painting studios with their Northern light where he mixed pigments and linseed oil on a stone tablet, the small office where he handled his everyday affairs and the actual space where he conducted his business affairs (he was an art dealer who at one point had both Michelangelos and Titians in his collection). Interestingly one of the ways that the original dwelling has been re-configured is through the inventory taken at the time of the foreclosure. Thus, the house reeks of the humanity for which the famed painter is famous. He triumphed and also lost everything there. The mistress he took after the death of his wife also lived in one of the rooms and when you visit you get to see the kitchen with the hearth and even the tiny bed on which his housekeeper slept. Every element of the house poses questions about art and life which are also answered—which you might say is one of the very characteristics of Rembrandt’s art. Speaking of humanity, The Doelen is the oldest hotel in Amsterdam and it was in one of its third floor suites, which can still be rented, that "The Night Watch" was painted.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Amsterdam Journal: Postmodern Industrialism

Amsterdam at Night (photo: Francis Levy)
If there was any doubt about Amsterdam’s credentials, just look at the scenery when you drive in from Schiphol Airport. Yes, London is still the center of world banking, but take note of the post- modernist Baker & McKenzie and Deloitte buildings. Hardcore Denim is the name of one the companies that has a tower heralding its product. But this is not some hydrocarbon complex in New Jersey with its green pools of toxic waste. The Dutch are a paean to the new techno age of wealth preservation; after all they were the first boys on the block and drove a pretty hard bargain as colonists in places like Indonesia (a la the Dutch East India Company). Now everything about Amsterdam and Holland is clean and new and in places where productivity occurs, almost surgically antiseptic. The only requirement is profitability. Profit is the ghost that lingers in the background of a society that provides social entitlement in a capitalist context. In fact, Amsterdam in contrast to its Scandinavian counterparts is a relatively deregulated society. Capitalism and Freedom was the title of the tome by the supply side economist Milton Friedman. Does that explain the hustle and bustle where there’s not only one of the few remaining Red Light districts in Europe, but also tastefully designed sex shops all over the city (which are a far cry from the seedy establishments selling dildos and lingerie on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan) and, of course, legalized pot. Back in the day New Amsterdam was a rip-off from the its eponymous model, but no one would ever consider modern day Amsterdam a rip-off of New York. You have a lot of places offering New York Pizza but that’s as far as it goes.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Amsterdam Journal: 101

When you think of Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum, the Red Light District (De Wallen), and Anne Frank’s House all come to mind. The trio which represent art, sex and humanity are strange bedfellows. The sites which attract tourism are always telling, but what is it that visitors seek in this European capital? What’s the attraction? Rembrandt, half-undressed women seated in windows or a famous victim of the Holocaust? Canals run through the city like Boulevard Haussmann and Oxford Street in Paris and London. They’re lined with picturesque three and four story dwellings whose warm lighted interiors are tantalizingly out of reach to the tourist. The port city is the bastion of the freedoms that long derived from mercantilism, an ethos predicated upon the facilitation of commerce in all its forms. Prostitution and marijuana both taboo in most major capitals are legal in Amsterdam. Amsterdam’s freedom is legislated yet it's hard to grasp. The furor over the renovation of The Rijksmuseum, portrayed in the film about the project, reminsicent in some ways of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, gives some sense of undercurrents which belie Amsterdam's surface of tolerance and equanimity. The city has some qualities that are reminiscent of Scandinavia, but the language may be telling. It’s more guttural and lacks the lilting sound of say Swedish. There’s a brusqueness that’s neither reminiscent of Nordic aloofness nor southern European ebullience. Disinhibition doesn’t adequately describe a populace who can appear reserved and even buttoned up to a casual observer. Amsterdam is like a permissive though domineering parent. Its liberties exemplify a controlled economics experiment whose data, after centuries, has yet to be analyzed. 

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Stop Behaving Like An Animal

Do you ever get the feeling that you’ve been around enough people who behave like animals that you don’t need any more pets? Devoted animals are nice and indeed they may possess extraordinary intuitive traits. On the other hand, with the exception of television famed talking horse, Mister Ed, animals can’t talk back. So, you're never going to know what they’re really thinking. Either it was nothing or is there a possibility that like the classic l9th century servant character who bows and scrapes for the crumbs they receive, they’re laughing behind their master’s backs? Of course, it’s less possible that animals are hypocrites, out of some say bovine Les Liaisons Dangereurses than that they’re adorable, cute and clueless. Unless that cockroach in the corner is Gregor Samsa, in other  words, a human whose been metamorphosed, then it’s just an insect foraging for food and yes capable of running like hell when its antennae detect an ominous shadow. When you look at the animal world it’s a little like entering one of those gated communities in Florida that have manners and mores all their own.You could take the “when in Rome” philosophy, but are you going to get down on all fours and bark like a slave in an S&M loop in order to get a feeling for the existence of a particular class of canine havenot? Are animals the oppressed of the earth, misunderstood creatures whose fates lay at the whim of their owners or the A.S.P.C.A.? Yes, but little good is going to occur if you free all the prisoners from their jails and in this case let all the lions and tigers out of their cages at the zoo?

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Your Save the World Campaign

Earth from Apollo 17
Have you ever taken matters into your own hands and decided that you were going to really do something, about the state of things, that is? Right there and then you were going to plant your stake in the ground, if only it were to do one thing that turned the tide against a wave of empathy, regression or destruction. Most times you get an impulse, but you lose your mojo. Some other day you say. Tomorrow you'll put your version of the Ninety-five Theses up on the church of humanity’s door. Tomorrow comes and of course there are the bills, your child has a fever and you get one of those  notices generated by computers which are ill-equipped to answer the fine points of your questions. But then there's that one moment you've been waiting for. You have gone around the corner to get a cup of coffee and that first gulp tastes good and boom, on the heels of the caffeine rush you realize you're going to do something even though you have no idea what it is. And you’re right. Effortlessly a thought comes to your mind. Why hadn’t you ever considered something so simple before. It’s a small thing, but if the world’s 7.53 billion people all contributed one simple helpful act, something as small as picking a cigarette butt off the street, then the planet would be a better place. In your case, it turns out to be what you’re not going to do, which is to get angry at someone in your life for being who they are. You're going to force yourself to be glad they’re them. Your revelation, homegrown truth or simple realization, is you wouldn’t want them to be any different.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

American Dharma

The fatal flaw of Errol Morris's American Dharma, currently playing at Film Forum (and truth as well as the lives lost in places like Charlottesville are both the fatalities here), is that Steve Bannon is not a literary character, but rather a flesh and bloody sociopath capable of harm. One of his favorite mantras derives from Lucifer in Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." He believes in dharma which is “duty, fate and destiny” and lives in the memory of Gregory Peck’s Twelve O’Clock High which epitomizes these values. Might this mandate also translate into attacks on globalism and immigration? Morris shows a clip of Henry the Fifth's repudiation of Falstaff from Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight. However, despite Bannon’s protestations about his dismissal from The White House being the "natural order of things," he looks just like Falstaff. In fact in his disheveled hefty form, his shock of hair hanging dramatically over his forehead, he looks uncannily like both Kane and Falstaff. There's a bereft look in the deposed kingmaker's eyes, as he gazes wistfully towards some imaginary stage wing, that gives him the crazed appearance of a Welles doppelgänger. But the forelornness is what makes Morris's subject so affecting and even sympathetic (you have to remind yourself that he told the National Front, "Let them call you racists...Wear it as a badge of honor"). Because Bezeebub knows he's Beezebub, he gets to join the table. He’s a cineaste as well as former filmmaker and Goldman Sachs investment banker and the move is rife with citations of everything from My Darling Clementine,  The Searchers, Bridge Over the River KwaiThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Paths of Glory. You can tell a man by his friends and you’re instinctually going to gravitate to anyone who's capable of such a breadth of knowledge. Could Roger Ebert get away with being pro-Trump, if he rattled off the right references. Maybe not, yet it works here. "We're going to make an avant garde film for right wingers," he says about his project. Morris might have set out to expose Bannon, but Bannon has the better of him and Bannon genuinely seems crushed when Morris reveals that he's voted for Hillary Clinton, if only to stop Trump. Bannon turns the tables on Morris. What a setup! Most of the movie takes place in an aircraft hanger in homage to the Gregory Peck character in Twelve O'Clock High who exhorts his men “consider yourself already dead.” The film starts and ends on a aircraft runway with Bannon negotiating its crags like the warrior he claims to be (one of his weapons was the Alt-Right call-to-arms Breitbart, when he headed it). Morris has stacked all the cards against both himself and his liberal audience with a beguiling filmic creation now starring in a movie no longer of the director's own making. Bannon is inadvertently lionized and ends up pulling the rug up from under his director and also stealing the spotlight as well as the show. Life is war. Nothing is off limits. So much for due process. Just proceed. 

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Final Solution: No Previous Experience Necessary

"ISIS Names New Leader and Confirms al-Baghdadi’s Death,NYT, 10/31/19) One can only imagine the resumes that must have come in for the position. Just think of the ad that was probably place on the ISIS equivalent of Breitbart. “Seek leader of caliphate. No previous experience necessary.” That’s not to say that some familiarity with social media wouldn’t be of help. According to The Times piece the new leader, emir or caliph is not currently known. “Nobody—and I mean nobody outside a likely very small circle within ISIS—have any idea who their new leader Abu Ibrahim al-hashemi al-Qurayshi' is,” The Times quote Paul Cruickshank, editor of the CTC Sentinel at the Combating Terrorism Center, as Tweeting. “The group has not yet released any meaningful biographical details which might allow analysts to pinpoint his identity.” Could it be Bill Pillsbury aka Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi'? Would it be safe to surmise that such a position would have been a great draw to any recent Harvard, Columbia or Stamford Business School graduate and that with a quick wardrobe change many would have been lining up to fill the empty slot left by the death of al-Baghdadi? Running a caliphate is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that actually makes other high profile positions look sick. Facebook for instance is a kind of caliphate, though it has more power than ISIS ever did. The opportunity to rebrand a caliphate (and even for instance issue an ISIS credit card) would be too tempting to any entrepreneur trying to make make their mark at this intersection of advertising and politics.

Friday, November 1, 2019

A Dog Eat Dog World?

Hobbes envisioned a dog eat dog world and utilitarian thinkers like Bentham and J.S. Mill saw the pursuit of happiness as creating the fabric of a morality. Some thinkers have tried to bridge the gap between utilitarianism and Kantian deontology which involves the search for absolute truth. In a New York Review of Books essay entitled “What Is a Good Life," TNYRB, 2/10/11) Ronald Dworkin countervailingly argued that goodness cannot include doing something that threatens one’s own survival. Where does that leave self-sacrifice? But the atomic notion of man, as a spinning particle only united with others in a Darwinian struggle for survival in the end seems more the stuff of manifestos than everyday experience. Peter Singer wrote a famous tract called Animal Liberation which sees the protection of animals a form of self-interest. However, more recently, the Harvard philosopher Christine Korsgaard has argued for a Kantian view of the matter—in which killing animals, who are imbued with their own unmistakable form of consciousness, is seen as categorically unjustifiable. Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity brings up the question of altruism which is something that even the great ideologue of capitalism, Adam Smith, engages (by way of sympathy) in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The geneticist J.B.S Haldane famously remarked, “Would I lay down my life to save my brother? No, but I would to save two brothers and eight cousins.” It will be interesting to find out if spiritualism itself is naturally selective and turns out to produce its own set of equations and coefficients. 

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Final Solution: Freddy's Dead?

 Freddy Kueger (Robert Englund)
"The Cost of Trump’s Aid Freeze in the Trenches of Ukraine’s War,"NYT, 10/24/19 "Trump’s Syria Troop Withdrawal Complicated Plans for al-Baghdadi Raid,"NYT, 10/27/19 are two recent headlines. Besides the concerns about domestic policy mixing with foreign affairs, the first story continues suspicions of an unholy alliance between Trump and Putin. But what about the mission which lead to the killing of the ISIS leader? In a sense there’s no rationale for the withdrawal of the troops.That's what’s upsetting. It’s almost comforting to look at Trump as a mastermind, concocting elaborate machinations in comparison to the other suggestion that there’s no method to the madness. It’s like the difference between murder #1 and second-degree murder or manslaughter. The lack of premeditation is cause for concern. Conspiracy theories reek of purpose, but what seems to be emerging is the idea that the President should get a DWI since he’s like a drunken driver en route to a head-on collision with every policy his predecessor ever created. NAFTA, Globalism, DACA, Paris environmental accord, Iran nuclear agreement, transgender bathrooms. "Trump Administration Considers a Drastic Cut In Refugees Allowed to Enter U.S.,NYT, 9/6/19 was a story from The Times which could have been a satire from The Onion. It’s all like one of those horror movies where the killer is constantly returning to reek havoc. Is Trump really the Lord of Misrule, a Freddy Krueger character who returns to attack Americans in their dreams?

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Final Solution: Getting With the Program

Black Standard used by ISIL
Many states have outlawed conversion therapies for minors ("Colorado Bans 'Conversion Therapy' for Minors,NYT, 6/1/19), a move that reflects a broader understanding and acceptance of gender and sexuality, in all its forms. But what about terrorism? What if your child’s a terrorist and went off to join the Caliphate? Now that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed, there will undoubtedly be an influx of ISIS members seeking to return to their countries of origin ("Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS Leader Known For His Brutality, Is Dead 48,NYT, 10/27/19). In American PastoralPhilip Roth’s emblematic central figure Seymour, “Swede” Lvov, has a daughter who’s a 60s style radical responsible for a bombing in which someone has been killed. Once a pickle, no longer a cucumber. There’s no turning back, at least in the case of poor Swede.  He will never get his daughter back--at least the ideal that once existed in his imagination. That’s the problem with millenarian ideologies, they’re the incubus or succubus that sexually implants itself into their hosts. It’s all a little like the horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which people became inhabited by pods. The fictional condition actually has an analogue in neurology, Capgras Syndrome, where imposters appear to be inhabiting an otherwise familiar seeming person. "Nxivm: How a Sex Cult Leader Seduced and Programmed His Followers," (NYT, 6/14/19), ran The Times headline, detailing the machinations of Keith Raniere. ISIS plainly has no monopoly on violently transformative behavior. On a mass scale the Cultural Revolution in China and the genocide that occurred in Cambodia under Pol Pot illustrate the powerful hold of ideology which can turn the relatives and friends you thought you knew into a frightening strangers.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Final Solution: The Return of the Living Dead

Trump is one of the most reviled presidents in the history of the country. Is he hated as much as Nixon was, or Clinton who was hated by those who hated him (like apparently Lindsay Graham) or for that matter Andrew Johnson, the only other president besides Clinton who was formally impeached. Anecdotally it appears that Trump may be abhorred by his opponents more than say Clinton or Nixon. John Hinkley shot Reagan and of course there was the Kennedy assassination. There are many people who wish Trump would face a similar fate. The only problem is that it opens up alternately a Pandora’s Box or hornet’s nest. For example, if Trump is no more you have Pence, who could conceivably be worse, since he doesn’t possess an almost humanizing narcissistic disorder and could conceivably be more effective than Trump ever was. In addition, killing  has become a viral matter. The population should definitely be inoculated against murdering presidents (or anyone else) for fear that murder is an equal opportunity employer. Would that Trump were like the Wicked Witch of the West whose Kryptonite was water! However, you have to feel sorry for a president whose vulnerability may lie in his impregnable veneer. He's like the vampire in the horror film that keeps waking up from the dead and breaking out of his coffin. Now the Justice Department is initiating a criminal investigation into what inspired its own inquiries into Russian meddling in the 2016 election ("Justice Dept. Is Said to Open Criminal Inquiry Into Its Own Russia Investigation,"NYT, 10/24/19). People hate Trump all the more because he keeps coming back, like a fighter who taunts his opponents into exhaustion. Sounds like Mohammed Ali doesn’t it? If Ali heard himself compared to Trump, he’d probably turn over or even rise from his grave.

Monday, October 28, 2019


Remember the dioramas in the Museum of Natural History, where nature and in particular Mesozoic era creatures come alive. That’s a starting point for understanding Erin Derham’s Stuffed. Currently playing through Tuesday at Film Forum, the movie deals with the art of taxidermy, something between lepidoptery of the kind that Nabokov practiced and serial murder. As portrayed in the movie taxidermy is everything from a commercial practice to an art, but it involves an odd congeries of aspirations since there are down home taxidermy conventions in which talent is judged and practitioners who exist in a higher of realm of endeavor. “Once it dies,” one practitioner remarks about the process, “you have a relatively short window of opportunity to do anything to it.” This can be a relatively complex matter since it involves rendering the personality of the animal. Lonesome George was the last of a line of Pinta Island tortoises. Capturing certain quirks which apparently included the passive aggressive quality of his character was an essential element in immortalizing his form. Most of the taxidermists interviewed in the film are animal lovers though one  makes the show stopping comment that “hunters are the greatest conservationists.” Food for thought? For instance, the one anecdote used to describe Carl Akeley, who fathered the discipline, relates to his strangling a leopard with his bare hands. As depicted in Stuffed, taxidermy is a subculture filled with enthusiasts united by what at times seems like a perverse obsession. There are by the way specialties like "cryptozoological taxidermy", which involves the creation of quasi-chimeras, and "Victorian taxidermy." In its heyday, the latter made fashion statements that resulted in the eradication of certain species.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Death Mask

"Death and the Maiden" by Hans Sebald Beham (Art Institute of Chicago)
So called Narcissism is a normal part of human personality. Who's going to love you, if you can’t love yourself? Of course, the kind of narcissistic grandiosity that leads to feelings of impregnability is a perversion, simply because it’s not true. Joshua may have fought the battle of Jericho, but one man can’t hold back an army. Narcissism can also lead to feelings of specialness and the idea that the normal rules that inure to everyone else no longer are applicable. One of these is the fact of death. Literally everyone maintains the secret hope and wish that they’re different, that no matter how many times they tempt fate by admitting their own mortality, they secretly hone to the notion that their intonations of acceptance will somehow exonerate them, making them the exception that will free them from their fate. Day after day as age brings generations closer to those who will fall before them, both fear and denial are at work. Like micro-aggression, human beings experience successive mini traumas as they realize they’re next in line, while at the same time battling the reality with the endorphin rush produced as the mind goes into shock and ignites overactive defense mechanisms. By definition, everyone thinks they’re different. You will harbor the wish and hope you’ll be spared right up until the last minute of your dying day—until the legacy of your once living self is simply a death mask. 

Thursday, October 24, 2019

The History of Philosophy

"The School of Athens" by Raphael (1509-10)
You’re not going to ask if reality is a subjective fantasy when a car is coming right at you. Solipsism is an aristocrat who lives in a ivory tour occupied by those who have the leisure to contemplate such matters. Deontology or moral philosophy illustrated by Kant’s categorical imperative may come in handy in everyday life. Do the ends justify the means is a question that falls into this category and it’s something you might find yourself asking in a situation where you’re determined to win at any costs. At what point does the immoral way in which something is done color or tarnish the result? If you’re a phenomenologist like Husserl, Heidegger or Merleau-Ponty, you’re going to be thinking about intention. Here subjectivity rears its head again, but not in terms of whether things exist. Rather it’s a matter of how one perceives them. Individuals have intention toward objects which shapes their idea of them, whereas inanimate objects like tables and chairs, which don’t think, just exist. Sometimes the idea of being a piece of furniture or say a wallflower can be appealing, particularly if there's a hurricane in the offing and you don’t have to worry about your fate—which, if you’re a piece of porch furniture, may be in flying off the patio. How many angels can dance on the top of a pin was a famous question posed by the medieval philosophers? However, don’t forget Buridan’s ass the unique situation, named after a 14th century French philosopher, of an animal dying since it cannot decide whether it wants to eat or drink. It’s by the way reminiscent of “Zeno’s paradox” about Achilles and the tortoise from the Eliatic school of pre-Socratic philosophy (and don't forget the Milesian School, Heraclitus, Anaximander and Thales, who argued the opposite position, that the world is in flux). Of course Achilles is going to beat the tortoise, just like the ass is going to eat his Wheaties, but the impossible situations in which creatures find themselves is always a pretext for conjecture.  

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Homo Peleton

Peleton on Amazon
This is the heyday for people who aren’t going anywhere. Peleton the spinning company epitomizes this stay at home mentality since it provides the illusion that you're in a bike race with others while not forcing its patrons to so much as attend classes in a gym. Retail is dead and most people acquire their wardrobes and practically everything else on Amazon which was once better known as the name of the famous rainforest in Brazil. It remains unclear why you would need much in the way of clothing by the way, if you’re not going out, but that poses another question: is fashion dead? There are undoubtedly couples who connected on dating sites, but have never actually met. There may even be those who have gotten married on line and have yet to meet. Remember those Neanderthals (Johns) who bought and sold sex (streetwalkers) on the corner. Now you go to chat rooms with live webcams. You don’t have to go anywhere or physical engage another human being for sex. Thinking of a vacation? Why not try virtual reality or a simulated universe like Second Life, which can all be accessed on your laptop (if you don't feel like getting out of bed)? Surely even hot spots like Club Hedonism, with only a slim connection to reality to begin with, must be considering franchises in the virtual reality universe. There are many pluses about going outside, particularly on a beautiful day when the sun is shining, but they’re outweighed by the potential inconvenience of being mowed down by killers armed with semi-automatics, particularly if you make the stupid mistake of deciding to go to the mall.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019


Memory is deceptive. It cannot be rationally calibrated. It seems as if the fact that it constitutes, to some degree, an orderly chronological procession  ("episodic" as opposed to "procedural" memory) should make it like a slide rule that responds to mechanical jogging. However, remember Proust coined the term “involuntary memory," referring to his famous madeleine.  “The Proustian equation is never simple,” Beckett remarked in his famous essay on the author. Freud famously said “hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences,” a neat phrase that actually alludes to a rather tortured path. For instance, many people who cannot remember a name run through the alphabet, but the mind is resistant. The very brake applied by the unconscious, which made it hard to recall something to start with will be reinvoked when you come to the letter P when it was the name of that supermarket chain headquartered in Florida , you were trying to think of, Publix. Why were you having so much trouble? Maybe it has to do less with Florida than the idea that you have had so many aging relatives who’ve retired there or the fact that you yourself are aging. Memory is a hot ticket item. Memories get flagged the way the way suspicious transactions are targeted on financial sites. Sometimes memory is like a good run on a ski slope in which you easily skirt the moguls and end up with a dramatic sashay at the bottom. Other times, you take a spill when you're caught in the soft snow of a blizzard and you can’t see anything.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Sperm Count: Public Porn

Have you ever been in a public place, a library, a bus shelter, even the audience bank of a movie before the previews of upcoming features begin, and noticed someone watching a porn video in which even the sound is audible? Sometimes those watching these videos are just gratifying their fantasy about have sex (albeit ersatz) in public. You might have a variety of reactions. The first is a voyeurism that's a complement to the exhibitionism that’s going on, but the second is a kind of ingrained probity and even embarrassment at the break from accepted manners and mores. Sure, it’s fun to see someone taking all their clothes off in public.  However, it can also make you shudder to realize that the person undertaking the striptease has their own “issues." Perhaps they're having an adverse reaction to a psychotropic drug. You may find yourself inadvertently taking advantage of someone who's non compos mentis. However, there's no doubt that watching porn over someone’s shoulder can be great fun since it allows you to enjoy both the video or loop in question and also the life signs of those undergoing the stimulation at hand. The experience may be considered under the rubric of primatology, in which the subjects of an experiment are studied in a controlled environment. Back in the 60s soft core films of the Russ Meyer variety were exhibited in seedy drive-ins that ran along Route 1 or near interstate ramps.That was the heyday of public porn.

Friday, October 18, 2019

The A.I. as Thinker

"The Thinker"by Rodin (photo: Douglas O'Brien)
Can A.I. be proleptic? Can it answer questions before they’re asked? As amusing as this may sound, those software engineers who traffic in self-driving cars routinely have to account for contingency. Otherwise, how would they deal with anything that comes in a vehicle’s path including those elements of happenstance which exist only in the realm of possibility? A.I. has shown its mettle in precisely this manner. If you remember Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in l997. But there's a kind of black hole into which A.I cannot go unchallenged and that's in the realm of mind itself. Could a computer "conceive" of Bishop Berkeley’s famed, esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived?” One would imagine that the premise of A.I. is to exponentially increase the realm of possible outcomes in any one situation, but certain kinds of cogitation have nothing to with decision making. When you make a statement about thought itself like cogito ergo sum there's no matrix of possibilities, no answers that are being elicited. It's a de facto meditation on being whose only significance falls into the field of ontology—a discipline which ironically would be out of the realm of computers programmed to tackle baser forms of human reality, which is to say, action in the world. A.I. could note the "bracketing" or "epoche" in a Husserl text analyzing objects, but could it parse the difference between Kantian noumena and phenomena, in any meaningful way or for that matter demonstrate the capability for self-reflexive consciousness? In short can A.I.s think like philosophers or are they just number crunchers at heart?

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Final Solution: Game of Thrones

Despite the fact that Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo were rushing off to get the Turkish President Erdogan to “stand down” in the Syria crisis, the President was able to spin his “diplomacy,” which he called "strategically brilliant," in a way that left the wheels of the Washington press corps spinning at yesterday’s press conference with the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella. Why intervene in a land dispute between Syria and Turkey he argued. He did manage to mention the Kurds. Yes they helped the US, but "they're no angels."Anyway, they were good fighters. They would take care of themselves. As for Russia gaining hegemony in the region as they and their proxies, the Assad regime, stepped in to ally themselves with the Kurds, he made a parallel with Afghanistan. The USSR got involved in Afghanistan and ended up having to “downsize.” Note the invocation of the corporate metaphor. Used to be USSR, now it’s Russia. As for ISIS, Russia hates them even more than the US. They’ll take care of it. Forget the whole notion that there are commitments and allies and lives being lost in bombings. It all had an infernal logic and brilliance—which might be summed up as “cheaper by the dozen.” Economic power—especially over China— was greater than military power since it didn’t cost anything, though, not to worry, the refurbished US military is now more powerful than ever. By the way the bealeaguered Italian president looked like a fish trying to swim upstream, as Trump dismissed the comparatively minor reason for his visit (WTO approval of $7.5 billion of tariffs on EU manufactured goods). While CNN anchor Kate Bolduan and Daily Beast editor John Avlon jumped on Trump’s statement that the Turkish invasion of Syria “has nothing to do with us,” the president had received highest ratings ever for his new reality TV show, Game of Thrones.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

What Do Shakespeare and Playboy Have in Common?

The Western canon and Playboy centerfolds share the dubious honor of both being regarded as hegemonic male interests. But what do Playboy centerfolds and the Western canon have in common? Harold Bloom who recently died was a great defender of the Western canon amidst the onslaught of multiculturalism. In this Times obit ("Harold Bloom, Critic Who Championed Western Canon, Dies at 89,NYT, 10/14/19), Bloom’s The Western Canon is cited thusly, “What are now called ‘Departments of English’ will be renamed departments of ‘Cultural Studies,' where Batman comics, Mormon theme parks, television, movies and rock will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens. Major, once-elitist universities and colleges will still offer a few courses in Shakespeare, Milton and their peers, but these will be taught by departments of three or four scholars, equivalent to teachers of ancient Greek and Latin.” Plainly Bloom was interested in excellence, a kind of great chain of being with brilliance and luminosity freed from existential compulsions to relevance, nestled securely at the top—in their ivory tower. But what would Bloom have thought about Playboy Centerfolds? Lovers of Shakespeare and Playboy can be strange bedfellows. What would he have said about Dalene Kurtis, the centerfold for September 2001, who was the first Playboy Playmate to appear with shaved pubic hair and Playboy’s Playmate of the year for 2002? Would he have been able to appreciate her beauty despite the fact her spread appeared during the same month as the World Trade Center attack? Being a male of his particular vintage, would he have been disappointed to find that Ms. Kurtis had shaved?

Tuesday, October 15, 2019


Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is about pretense and pretenders. You have those who live in a world of superficial materialism and those who aspire to it. In this regard the climbers and those who have made it all have something in common. Basements are a huge leitmotif. The impoverished family at the center of the film who make their living folding pizza boxes inhabit one with a small window through which they see the outside world.The son, Kim Ki-woo  (Choi Woo-shik) is offered a job tutoring the daughter of a fabulously rich family, Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so). His sister Kim Ki-jung (Park So-dam) is then introduced as an art tutor for Park Da-hye's little brother, Park Da-sung (Jung Hyun-joon) who's traumatized. His trauma, by the way, results from the fact that he has seen reality—in the form of an apparition which turns out to be real. Kim Ki-Jung who is introduced by her brother as Jessica, claims to have studied art and psychology at the University of Illinois, when the extent of her knowledge derives from Googling the words “art therapy.” Eventually Kim succeeds in getting his father and mother jobs as respectively the driver and housekeeper for the family. This is accomplished by a host of charades. The former driver is framed as a pervert. Suspicions about the housekeeper having TB are planted. In the beginning it’s all quite funny, with the imposters in their varying roles reminiscent of characters out of Moliere plays like The Bourgeois gentilhomme, Le Medicine malgre lui or TartuffeThe invasion of the servants is also reminiscent of Bunuel’s Viridiana where vandals loot a home. However, the luxurious modernist structure occupied by the Park family has its own basement in which the husband of the now dismissed housekeeper, “the underground man” a la Dostoevsky lives, at one point making his existence known by knocking his head against sensors using morse code. This second basement is a metaphor for the irrational unconscious instincts in which this masterpiece of cinema dwells. All the themes of the film are mirrored. For instance the wealthy family peers out of a huge panoramic window though they’re in the dark about what's really happening to them. Compare that to the impoverished basement aperture through which their poor counterparts view the world. The compromised view ultimately reveals more, but both families share a similar mode of seeing or framing i.e. through pictures. One last visual motif that constantly appears are staircases and inclines. When the housekeeper is let go, she descends with her luggage. There's a lot of rising and falling of fortunes that's manifested in winding “social ladders.” The movie is ostensibly about class, but to see it as purely about social rising is to deprive it of the huge matrix of complexity in which it dwells. Parasite is an "infernal machine," to employ Cocteau's title, that eventually strings a huge net of identity among all the characters. The movie is indeed a thriller and there are some grisly scenes, but one of its most brilliant accomplishments is that whether you regard the imagery as haunting, beautiful or fearful, you can’t stop thinking about it.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Where's My Roy Cohn?

When you see Matt Tyrnauer’s biopic Where’s My Roy Cohn? you may want to keep Machiavelli’s The Prince, Lao Tzu’s The Art of War and The Godfather in the back of your head. About the last, one of the movie’s points is that Roy Cohn was Trump’s godfather and provided the chrysalis of ruthlessness that informs the value- free politics of our current president.“Situationist ethics” is one of the phrases that's bandied about in the film, in reference to Cohn’s no holds bars form of representation in which the primary mode of defense was an attack. Cohn was the godfather to the mafia as well and succeeded in getting John Gotti a two year sentence for murder. However, as the movie shows, one of Cohn’s fortes was to form a bridge between the worlds of legitimate and illegitimate business. Yet like his protégé, Donald Trump, Cohn had his share of failures too. He brought down Fifth Avenue Coach Lines and Lionel trains. Remember Cohn was McCarthy’s counsel and right hand man and if the G. David Shine matter really catalyzed the Army/McCarthy hearings, as the film implies, then it was Cohn who provided the fuse for the Wisconsin senator's downfall. One of the most interesting vignettes of the film  has to do with the construction of Trump tower. Many builders were turning from the use of concrete, which was controlled by the mob, to structural steel. But Trump’s eponymous structure was constructed with concrete due to Cohn’s underworld connections. 200 undocumented Polish workers, whose wages would eventually be the subject of a legal suit, comprised the workforce responsible for the initial demolition of Bonwit Teller which previously occupied the site. “If I could have pulled the switch. I would have done it myself,” Cohn is quoted as saying about the Rosenberg executions. He also lived by Aristotle Onassis’s maxim, “you can never be too tan or too rich.” Part of his sociopathy might be attributed to his mother Dora who doted over her only child. At the family seder she preempted the answer to the “why is this night different from all other nights?” question by answering, “because the maid is dead in the kitchen"—which she was. Dora wasn’t going to stop the proceedings for anyone.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Final Solution: Politics and Mortality

Politics is often associated with morality and ethics, at least if one is talking about Plato’s Republic, the Ur political manifesto, or say the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence. But what about politics and mortality? Human beings are capable of doing great harm in relatively short periods of time. Could it be that tyrants like Stalin and Hitler were under the delusion that by perpetuating their atrocities they’d never die? It may seem odd, but how can one plan mass annihilation with the grim reaper right around the corner? One answer is to treat a political system as if were a church with an intrinsicly millenarian premise. When you consider a political ideology as a religious calling then it allows you to forswear the notion of yours and its obsolescence, as result of death. A Third Reich or a dictatorship of the proletariat both have the quality of being more than just states. You had the l000 years of Rome and there are those who still believe in the notion of  Imperial America. Democracy would certainly be part of the litany, along with a kind of leveling technology that would replace tribalism and ethnicity. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) was an expression of this hope. His latest tome is Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (2018). Did Fukuyama simply became older and wiser?

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Final Solution: Newspeak

Remember when some kid had you in a choke hold and wouldn’t let go? That may be the feeling you’re having selectively watching the continually horrible news reports emanating from you know where. For instance, "White House Declares War on Impeachment Inquiry, Claiming Effort to Undo Trump’s Election,"NYT, 10/8/19) ran the headline in an article in which White House counsel Pat Cipollone is quoted as saying in a letter to House Democratic leaders, “Your unprecedented actions have left the president with no choice. In order to fulfill his duties to the American people, the Constitution, the executive branch and all future occupants of the office of the presidency, President Trump and his administration cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry under these circumstances.” It’s actually a wonderful turnaround. The problem is with the legislators and not the president who by removing troops from Northern Syria has facilitated the Turks initiating a series of bombings of Kurdish towns, "Turkey Launches Syria Offensive, Targeting US-Backed Kurds," NYT, 10/9/19). Talk about “Newspeak,” the Turks are calling their attacks in which civilian sites have been targeted “Operation Peace Spring.” Getting back to the matter of impeachment, does anyone think that Trump is going to be budged from The White House? Even if it ever got by the Senate, The White House would simply label the vote undemocratic. Doesn't all this remind you of the bully back in the schoolyard?

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Hic Sum

Girl with a White Dog by Lucien Freud (Tate)
All situations in human existence are by definition laden with significance. What’s peculiar, however, is the fact that many people don’t perceive the iconography of a seemingly innocent scene. What made Rembrandt Rembrandt was the fact that he created an almost instantaneous mythology. Like The Night Watch, Velasquez’s Las Meninas takes something, perhaps more intrinsically symbolic, in medias res, stopping it in order to the allow the viewer to intensify his or her perception. Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece performed a similar service with regard to the artist’s studio, albeit in literary form. Often people take pictures and then post them on Facebook or Instagram with the notion that content is king. They want to mark a birthday or wedding or anniversary, but in the process forget all the spatial relationships, the intrinsic body language of the shot or representation. Take a look at Lucien Freud’s Girl with a White Dog (1950-1), a portrait of the artist's first wife, Kitty Garman. The painting is erotic and almost lascivious, but the image is arresting not because of the voyeurism or sexuality, but the specific way in which it eroticizes its subject. Day after day humans record each other. In fact, recording has taken the place of living, so intense is the desire and need to save and catalogue happenstance. It’s a little like Gray Gardens. People horde reality like the sisters in the famous movie, filled their house with objects they couldn’t throw away. There are so many images that they lose meaning like the books in Borges's The Library of Babel. Ultimately, also, there's no time to regard them all. Most people end up discountenancing the very world they are trying to record and conserve.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2019


What happens to aging strippers in the middle of a financial crisis? Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers based on a New York Magazine article, “The Hustlers of Scores” answers the question with a kind of Marxist analysis of the lap dancing industry. Commodification is, of course, the name of the game and the movie has its moments, especially when Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) the prima ballerina of the film equates the economy of the club, with its VIP room at the top, to the social stratification of the stock market firms who supply the clientele. If you’re expecting a kind of Oceans 8, with its mixture of female bravado, suspense and comedy you’re likely to be disappointed. Further, even though Hustlers is about stripping and also refreshing since it's the women doing the exploiting rather than the men, the movie's curiously like catnip--and, being a jeremiad, may even dull your interest in sex. The territory of Hustlers is pregnant if you look at strip clubs as a metaphor for society. “I have to say the whole country is a stripper,” says Ramona. “You have people who are willing to take their clothes off and those who toss the money.” However, despite the topicality—particularly in the age of Stormy Daniels, the disquisition is as flat as is Lopez's performance—and the subplot about the journalist researching the story on which the film is based, is totally gratuitous. Who cares what Ramona did or didn't tell a reporter about her sidekick Destiny (Constance Wu)? Look at Cabaret, if you’re interested the depredations of both capitalism and the flesh. Weimar Germany bears some parallels to America both before and after financial crisis of 2008. And the packaging and marketing of sex and love will continue to exist in its own alternative universe, despite the #MeToo movement. There will always be an abundance of both product and consumers. "So gross war die Achtung fur gelt," was the way Brecht put it in The Rise and Fall of  the City of Mahagonny.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Pain and Glory

Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory is about a director, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), who has hit a wall, a filmic form of writer’s block in which he can no longer do the thing for which he lives. “Without filming, my life is meaningless,” he says. Naturally Pain and Glory recalls Fellini’s autobiographical . The difference is the lack of sweep. For a director like Almodovar whose work is characterized by great flights of invention like the Gulliveresque scene in Talk to Her where a character navigates his way into a massive vagina, Pain and Glory is curiously straight forward, tame and even disappointing at times. In the movie the director attempts to patch up the 30 year estrangement with Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), the star of his first film, Sabor. Alberto’s a heroin addict. In an attempt to either bond or dull his feelings of guilt towards a leading man he once maligned, Salvador joins in and quickly becomes addicted--a narrative element that unfortunately leads to contrivance, as the drug binges become occasions for dreamlike recollections of the past. Addiction is also the subject of a monologue in which Alberto will play Marcello, a stand in for Salvador’s great love Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia).The piece deals with another painful breakup, but emotional and physical pain overlap. Salvador can’t swallow due dysphagia or Forestier’s syndrome, a calcification of the thoracic spine. He suffers from headaches, back pain, insomnia, anxiety, asthma and tinnitus and the beginning of the movie furnishes a body scan which might have been an FMRI recording his brain too. The line between physical and psychic struggles is constantly blurred. It’s never clear whether Salvador's suffering from the pain of pain or the pain of life and that’s one of the problems with any of the palliatives to which he quickly becomes dependent. In one memorable scene the youthful Salvador comes down with a high fever after experiencing his first homoerotic longings. The fact that both the director and his childhood mother, Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) are played by iconic Almodovar actors adds another level to the film’s psychohistory. However, what's admirable but also noticeably missing is a unifying device or key. A conversation with the adult incarnation of his mother (Julietta Serrano) in which he explains "I've failed you by being simply as I am," unfortunately, feels like a non sequitur. Almodovar employs a striking red backdrop in the dramatic Addiction monologue. And the unearthing of a childhood portrait threatens to become his alter ego's Rosebud. However, these ploys miss their mark, failing to create the kind of indelible impression that was undoubtedly intended. Pain and Glory--even the hyperbolic sounding title seems out of sync for a director whose palette is so suffused with irony.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Broken Symmetry

photo: Roberta F.
Symmetry breaking is a concept in physics and if you consult Wikipedia is responsible for pattern formation. All well and good, even subatomic particles have to go one way or the other, taking a turn in the road which creates a new fate. Broken Symmetry is the name of a brewery in Bethel, Connecticut, but it’s also a concept that might be used to describe the process by which the seeming order and beauty of nature is fractured. For instance one could say that Quantum mechanics breaks the seamless universe of Newtonian physics. Lots of people marvel at things like Pi and Kantian universals that are discovered in nature, but then new paradigms appear which change long cherished views. Galileo was tried by the Inquisition for his heliocentrism. The fervency with which people hold on to certain notions is inversely proportionate to the fragility of the assumptions and foundations on which they are built. This, in fact, may account for the insularity of many fundamentalist sects, which seek to protect their ways of life from outside influences. Still if you are looking for certainty, it’s unlikely that any scientific precept will ever unseat 1+1=2, that black is the absence of color or that when you take a bite out of an apple you break its symmetry.