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.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Love and Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy creates its own architecture which Kafka famously memorialized in novels like The Trial and especially The CastleRussia has always been famous for its labyrinthine bureaucracies which often overlapped with the notion of the Gulag a la Solzhenitsyn and before him Gogol whose Overcoat raises the notion of the nameless individual (in the form of Akaky Akakievich, the feckless civil servant) to an almost religious level. Vittorio De Sica took on a similar theme in Bicycle Thieves which dramatized the plight of a pair of lost souls, a father and son in post-war Rome. The IRS is a famous internecine bureaucracy as is New York's DMV, but Social Security is more benign in that you actually interface with individuals who are trying to help when you're claiming benefits or doing something simple like get a card. The experience of going to the Social Security office in Manhattan which is located on William Street in the financial district something akin to waiting on line for a teller in a bank, therapy with a little bit of confession thrown in.You’re just another number, but once you get up to the glass partition through which you engage an agent, you find real people with a host of different personalities and ethnic backgrounds.The variety of the melting pot is proudly on display. You're checked in by someone of Indian or Pakistani descent and find yourself conversing about your lost card with another agent who has a Czech accent. Finally, you may find yourself discussing benefits with someone else, who like a shrink, is trying to wake you up to reality. Remember the character played by Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting

Friday, February 8, 2019

Millenarian Consumerism

There’s a cosmopolitanism that unites people from many different societies and a hope that emanates from it. Modernism itself would be an amalgamating factor producing a democratic and even liberal world order. Cultures would be unified by the devices they employed and tribalism would dissipate. It makes a lot of sense. Sophistication is itself a  form of liberation since it depends so much on the idea of self-invention; religious divides could be bridged by compelling forms of entertainment like rock music which for some are a religion (producing its own form of ecstatic transformation) in itself. There’s no doubt that enormously popular rock stars and groups like The Beatles, The Stones, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen have had an almost biblical appeal creating followings who journeyed to varying meccas in the Adamic period of the love generation. Indeed there was Perestroika and the Berlin wall eventually came down. But what happened? China may have become the world’s largest market for iPhones, but the Chinese leadership has been successful in repressing and jailing human rights activists since Tiananmen Square and Imperial Russia and the dark shadow of irredentism is again looming over Eastern Europe. Nike sneakers, Netflicks and Amazon all are evidence of an international market dictating its own overarching uniformity. However, there has always been a Faustian bargain implicit in the notion of a millenarian consumerism. Freedom could literally be purchased, but at what price? Will the collective unconscious of individual cultures, sometimes taking form of an anachronistic fundamentalism, ultimately rise up against the threat homogenization and the loss of historic identity?

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The MacArthur Non-Genius Grant

The MacArthur Foundation is currently accepting applications for its non-genius grants. The MacArthur non-genius grant will be awarded to figures in the arts and sciences who have failed to make exceptional contributions to their fields. All qualified applicants are encouraged to apply. Writers who have experienced long periods of  blockage will be evaluated solely on the basis of potential. If you draw or paint portraits at a street fair, you should definitely send slides of your work and scientists who are working on projects which will not demonstrably affect the quality of human life should submit any papers or studies which will help the committee determine their credentials. The MacArthur non-genius grants will provide an award of $625 paid over 5 years, which is an increase over the $500 originally offered. That’s $125 bucks! Recipients of MacArthur non-genius grants will not be required to attend any gatherings to celebrate their award, nor will they have to deal with either the press or public since MacArthur non-genius grants will not be announced. Finally a MacArthur for the average Joe!

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt

Remember the old Landmark Books you lapped up as a kid like Abe Lincoln: Log Cabin to White HouseNow adults are getting to read their favorite intellectual heroes in illustrated bios. Of course the idea of taking serious subject matter and portraying it in comic book or graphic novel form began with Art Spiegelman’s Maus. However, this latest trend suggests all kinds of unique possibilities for turning profundity into the little cartoon bubbles. Ann Frank would be a good starter and then there's Simone Weil and naturally Sylvia Plath. Of tragic male figures why not start with the tormented Paul Celan, whose poetry dealt with the Holocaust.  Then if you’re looking to cruise the world of philosophy, how about Wittgenstein sitting cross-legged with his fellow Cambridge dons and musing “that whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent,” the final precept of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus? But lo you may find yourself beaten to the punch by a recent release. “Hannah Arendt was obsessed with the dangers of thoughtlessness…” writes Becca Rothfeld in her TLS review (“Making a mess, How to turn a thinker into a caricature,” 1/4/19) “How would Arendt feel, then, about the facile lionization she faces in The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth, a graphic biography by the cartoonist Ken Krimstein?” Well one thing's for sure, Krimstein may be criticized for trivializing, but no one will dare to call him banal.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Amos Oz on Shakespeare and Chekhov

In his Washington Post obit of Amos Oz ("Amos Oz, Israel author who wrote of striving and struggle, dies at 79,"12/28/18), Matt Schudel quotes the Israeli author thusly, “At the end of Shakespeare the stage is strewn with dead bodies and maybe there’s a measure of justice hovering high above. A Chekhovian tragedy, on the other hand, ends with everybody disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, disappointed—indeed, absolutely shattered, but still alive.” It’s a brilliant bit of literary criticism which contains the wistful hope that history would catch up with culture. Great sea shifts occur in human personality and often these come with great pain. But while certain civilizations often have the leisure to deal with intra-psychic trauma, there are still places on earth like Yemen for instance where "soul murder," the phrase coined by the psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold to describe the childhood emotional deprivation which Chekhov, for instance, endured, doesn’t even have time to occur. The heartbreaking photos of starving children are a testament to the fact that the Cambodian killing fields have only spread virally to another venue. The country in which Oz was born and in whose language he wrote, is a living demonstration of the contrarieties of this individual and social paradigm. Indeed in modern Israel tortured personalities like those of Oz himself find themselves mitigating between the personal and political on a daily basis.

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Image Book

In The Image Book, Jean-Luc Godard cites Brecht saying “Only a fragment carries the mark of authenticity.” The movie does to the history of cinema what the Tower of Babel did to language and it's the perfect complement to his Goodbye to Language (2014). The late work of artists can often represent an act of transcendence and here meaning itself is under attack. Not that the tidbits which makes up this edit or cut, which is certainly not a coherent narrative, don’t have their subliminal effect. Godard has always been a fetishist and there are scenes of analingus and naked women on leashes that fall under the rubric of "porn," a word that actually appears in the credits. And it wouldn’t be without interest to do an fMRI of moviegoers to see what part of the brain is being affected by the alternating scenes of sexuality, violence and scholarship. Is Godard alluding to Conrad when he introduces Under Western Eyes more than once or tipping his hat to Edward Said’s Orientalism when he cities Alexander Dumas’s L’Arabie Heureuse? What compendium of film imagery would be complete without L’Atalante and the famous scene of Michel Simon turning the record? One can’t but throw one’s hands up, displaying the old-fashioned primitive response that ingenues once showed for abstract expressionism. The only difference here is that your two-year-old couldn’t pull this off, since he or she wouldn’t have access to all the citations.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Going For It

In an essay on Francis Fukuyamas’s The Demand For Dignity and the Politics of Resentment and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity: Creed, Country, Class, Culture (“The Identity Illusion," The New York Review of Books, 1/17/19), Stephen Holmes invokes Fukuyama’s “distinction between Erlebnis (subjectively lived experience that is incommunicable to others) and Erfahrung (objective and shared experience on which scientific experiments are based)." Fukuyama deploys the  dichotomy to explore a state of extreme individualism that fractures the social order. But it might also be applied in discussing the romantic concept of the artist described by Ibsen in The Master Builder in terms of the pull between visionary ambition and reality. The mythology of the artist as Ubermensch or Uberfrau defying the mores of society as he or she strives for greatness was almost the mantra of abstract expressionism. The literary world is no less immune. Doris Lessing left two of her  children in Rhodesia, journeying to London to become a famous novelist. And on an anecdotal basis it’s not hard to recount the story of those ill-fated souls, victims of a kind of later-day Bovarysm, who give up their quotidian lives to attain the dream of happiness and fulfillment. Many of these creatures are parodies who leave a path of destruction in their wake. The obverse of striving is self-hatred and this last is what many would be creatives suffer from in their recusal from the so-called norms of everyday life. Ah genius! Those attempting to invoke pragmatism run the risk of sounding like the avuncular family friend in The Graduate who recommends “plastics.”  But it would be interesting to get the statistics on who is actually happier. Those who go for it, or those who never go after their dreams?