Friday, July 19, 2019

The Final Solution: Some Like It Hot

Do you prefer still lifes, natura morte, to portraits? Is there a test which uses such inclinations or disinclinations to profile personality? For instance, are still life lovers more like the Eleatics of the pre-Socratic school who believed in stasis as opposed to the Milesians, like Heraclitus, for whom the world was in a constant state of flux? It’s a little like the Rorschach test which also used visuals to determine traits of character. But there are lots of everyday dichotomies that can be telling. Folders v. crumplers of toilet paper is a common one which has gotten curiously little play. Some Like It Hot was the title of a famous Billy Wilder comedy starring Marilyn Monroe, but it's also an indicator of the fact that a totally different demographic or subgroup may like it cold, which in turn could reveal a host of telling aspects of their psychology. Getting back to art, are lovers of figuration recidivists, who can’t help themselves from returning to the scene of the crime? Are those who glean towards abstraction, actually realists in disguise—to the extent that a Jackson Pollock is presenting a view of the world that’s simply not been revealed before. Gay/straight, vegetarian/meat eater don’t qualify (though one’s preference for Skinner type behaviorism to the depth psychology of Freud could itself be a telling dichotomy). These are merely outcomes that could be predicted when respondents in focus groups reacted to the images placed before them on a screen. Flash a picture of a donkey or an elephant before your eyes? What’s your preference and what does that say about whether you're likely to vote Democratic or Republican in 2020?

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Final Solution: Life of Washington

"Life of Washington" by Victor Arnautoff (Yalonda M. James, Assoicated Press)
If you're willing to elect anyone who can stop Trump, you might be unpleasantly surprised by precisely who and what's capable of doing the job. The kind of populism represented by Trump, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Boris Johnson in England with its fascist overtones parallels the 30’s. But remember that in Russia and Eastern Europe the onslaught of full-blown totalitarianism came in its wake. The current controversy about the destruction of a WPA era mural depicting Washington’s exploitation of slaves ("San Francisco Will Spend $600,000 to Erase History"NYT, 6/28/19) exhibits in microcosm what life is going to be like in a thought-controlled state that could be the platform of some of the president’s potential opponents. While many aspects of the U.S. economy could benefit from regulations, particularly in the air of the environment, free speech may be the first thing to go. What’s transpiring on college campuses across the country and currently in San Francisco is an example of the attempt to reign in thought itself. Though a sanctuary city, the home of the Haight is apparently no longer a safe harbor for advocates of free speech.  The snowflakes who dissolve when triggered (even by content with otherwise acceptable intentions), continue to provide the excuse for such censorship.The politicization of both sexuality and artistic debate (for example in the attacks on Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” ("White Artists Painting of Emmet Till at Whitney Biennial Elicits Draws Protests,"NYT 5/21/17) are further examples of the legacy of the reaction to institutionalized racism and sexism. It’s always bad to fall in love on the rebound. You may find yourself rescued from a bad marriage only to find yourself waking up next to someone worse. Isn't such repressive backlash what George Orwell was writing about in l984? As former NEA chairman Rocco Landesman wrote in a letter to The Times: "In a world of increasingly unchecked zealotry aand self-righteousness, what work of art will ever be protected from some committee of cultural vigilantes who don't understand it?" 

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Le Gai Savoir

Where does “gay” come from? How did a designation for happiness become associated with homosexuality? Does that mean that those who aren’t gay are sad? Are straight couples unhappy? The answer is usually yes, but that applies to everybody. Most people are unhappy despite their orientation. However, that’s a whole other story. Fifty years ago, if you said someone was gay, you would think that they were bubby or frivolous. Back in l969 Godard directed a movie called Le Gai Savoirwhich is an allusion to Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. Neither the Nietzsche tract nor the Godard movie have anything to do with homosexuality. The title of Godard’s movie is translated as The Joy of Learning. Now most people would think that the movie had something to do with the kind of knowledge you get at LGBTQ headquarters, ditto The Gay Science,which might have an appendix about safe sex. How language accommodates to changing manners and mores! Queer went through a stage of being a derogatory epithet. Now it’s an academic discipline! Words like "fag" and "dyke" have had less illustrious histories with the former being the name given to cigarettes in England, Before the Revolution (to invoke the title of Berlolucci’s l964 movie). The only "fag studies" course you're probably going to find would either be offered by the English subsidiary of an international tobacco company or in a linguistically oriented film department exploring the use of the word in the British "angry young men" films of the 60s.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The ABCs of Sociopathy

"Philoctetes on the Island of Lemnos" by Guillaume Guillon-Lethiere (1798)
Labelling someone a sociopath or psychopath is a convenient way of distancing yourself from them. You have only to pick up the paper to find a list of off-the-charts behaviors in both the public and private sectors. A fraternity hazing results in death while a video shows a sitting president boasting about groping any woman he likes. Another president comes a cropper for trying to insert a cigar in an intern’s vagina. Only recently a New Jersey judge tried to dismiss a rape charge under the theory that the 16-year-old perpetrator was an excellent student from a good family. What separates these offenders from a Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein who have both been or are in the process of being totally ostracized by society? Is it just a matter of the extent of the transgression? Or is there another factor? Who's to say that a person who commits anti-social or even criminal acts can’t be charming, humane and charitable? Is there for instance honor among thieves? The Greek war hero Philoctetes was exiled because of the noxious smell of his wounds. In the #MeToo era there have been a number celebrities amongst them Garrison Keillor, Charlie Rose and Al Franken who have been shunned by society. Louis CK has begun to make a comeback, but there are many public figures who have not been so lucky. How to mete out punishment? Even if someone is not convicted of a criminal offense, many people don’t want to get their hands dirty by way of association. It’s easy to say that so and so was not who they purported to be as a way of staying away from them. In fact, the sadder truth is that a person who veers from the straight and narrow might be the self-same individual who was in fact experienced as kindly and humane in other circumstances. He or she may be troubled though not a monster, merely someone who has, for one reason or another, done something wrong.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Pornosophy: Narcissistic Grandiosity

There are no dearth of sex offenders from disadvantaged backgrounds. The jails are full of them, but Henry Kissinger’s famous “power is an aphrodisiac” still rings true. Power is probably more potent than the elusive Spanish fly. However, power also has a corollary symptom, narcissistic grandiosity, which can turn an impulse into pernicious, literally “flesh eating bacteria.” It’s this cocktail of disorders which may motivate a Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein. Power eradicates boundaries. A powerful person is like a vacuum that sucks up anything in his or her path. Attraction might be the euphemism employed to deal with the presence of such a cynosure. Like one of those magnets which sweeps up  metallic shards, a successful individual is one step ahead of the rest of the crowd since there are no shortage of prospects. What fuels the transgressions is the delusion, which sometimes turns out to be true, that such an individual is invulnerable and will suffer no consequences for a behavior. There's a corollary that also appears when you look at all these cases and that's the addiction issue. Addicts always need to up the ante. The lesser dose no longer produces the same high. The Times furnished the following haunting 2002 Trump quote from New York Magazine: “I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them on the younger side.” 

Friday, July 12, 2019

Is Culture Rather Than Biology Destiny?

Can it be assumed that in the natural world the function of sexuality is procreation? You don’t see too many ethological studies of female primates who display distress from not receiving clitoral orgasms? However, humankind is presented with a whole new host of alternatives by virtue of consciousness which acts as a filter. Idealization and the emotion of love are inventions of the mind that enable instinct to navigate the shoals of awareness.Today, only a minority of the human population associate sex with procreation, sometimes with disadvantageous results when for instance a man refuses to wear a condom or a woman forgets to take the pill. William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, but what's the significance of the varieties of sexual behavior from an evolutionary point of view? Are there any fun-loving bonobos who are gay? Anecdotal evidence would seem to bend over in that direction. But let’s face it, there are no species of animal advanced enough to produce anything like SRS. Greek mythology depicts chimeras, creatures comprising multifarious forms, but there are few stallions capable of transitioning into mares. It’s probably fair to say that homo sapiens invented eroticism since before that, in nature, sex was an unselfconsciousness process occasioned by hormonal events like estrus in dogs and no different from many other bodily functions like ingestion or excretion. How are affects like romantic love to be regarded? Is the paraphernalia and paraphilia associated with human sexuality a form of meta biological process? Is it a product of evolution or merely an act of culture riding on the back of the Shavian life force?

Thursday, July 11, 2019

All-Inclusive Resorts and Colonialism

Gated communities, particularly in third world countries, are  concentration camps. Only the prisoners are on the outside. Colonization classically takes advantage of underdeveloped societies, exploiting  low paid workers, who function like slaves on the basis of the remuneration they receive for their toil. Thus you see the rise of chains of all-inclusive resorts in some of the most impoverished places on earth. Only the threat of terrorism spares some locales which would be the site of what travel agents call a new "property." It all involves sex, since the power of capital in tottering economies can be an aphrodisiac, but there's also explicitly sex tourism in places like Thailand, India, Greece and Dominican Republic where the traveler may get an even more significant bang for their buck. From an architectural point of view, colonization produces a unique configuration since walls and barbed wire are meant to keep oppressed populations out rather than in, though it is also possible to think of some resorts as unwitting prisons where travelers stooped in luxury are deprived of any sense of place. Armed guards may escort them on a trip up the river to see the remains of a lost civilization, but these visitors are shackled by the vulnerability occasioned by their own wealth and resources and remain the captives of their minders and hosts.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Small Minds Thinking Big

If you grew up in the 60’s and 70’s your idols might have been writers like Vonnegut, Updike, Robert Pirsig or Khalil Gibran whose The Prophet  was the bible of the turned on, tuned in and dropped out generation. You might also have carried around a tattered copy of the New Directions edition of Rimbaud’s Illuminations with the grainy picture of the young poete maudit on the cover. Corporate life was an unfortunate cop out for those who knocked someone up and had to support kids and a family. Remember the career advice Dustin Hoffman receives in The Graduate, “plastics.” Law, medicine, dentistry while secure sources of income were scarcely better. How times have changed! Your average metrosexual has never heard of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha or Steppenwolf and probably would lionize a self-made billionaire like Jeffrey Epstein until he got nabbed for sex trafficking. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos would be role models were they not deities. Projects like the Hudson Yards with big profit margins are more a product of this period of human evolution than is Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. This is the age "where small minds think big." Alexander Acosta the current secretary of labor was responsible for the 13 month sentence Epstein received in his first trial and he’s in danger of losing his job, considering the allegations that have been made. But using the small minds think big paradigm, why not appoint Epstein to Acosta's post?  The financier apparently used his underage victims to conscript other candidates. Isn’t that an example of effective labor relations?

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Last Furlough

Everybody has experienced disappointment in love. Remember the electric shock, the pernicious adrenalin rush when you get that  long dreaded or perhaps, even worse, not expected message. For some in long relationships, which require unraveling, both emotionally and economically, the final parting can take time. Depending on whether there are discreet attempts to let the partner, who is being left, make a gentle landing, the interim between a separation and divorce can end up taking years. Most people don’t possess the wisdom or the patience to endure such losses. However, if you look at life as a finite matter then you might accept losing someone you love. You might allow yourself to enjoy the last few years or even months with him or her, since these are a lifetime in microcosm. If there were any hope for reconciliation, it would lie in following this kind of path. Yet such losses are also training for more ultimate situations. Let’s say you know that you're mortally ill and only have months left to live, you can either complain bitterly about your lot, barely concealing your hatred and envy for those who are not similarly afflicted, or you can live each day as if it were forever. Even though medical science has made enormous strides in increasing longevity, there's always going to be a point where the finishing line is within sight. The question is: can you take those last steps in your stride? 

Monday, July 8, 2019

The Final Solution: Do the Ends Justify the Means?

Immanuel Kant (portrait by Johann Gottlieb Becker)
Kant didn’t believe the ends justify the means. He believed there was a right form of action and he coined a philosophical term to describe this, “the categorical imperative.” This may come in handy when you have a leader who brings in the bacon as President Trump claims he'S doing by prevailing with the Chinese, being the first American president to step on North Korean soil and also sitting on top of some excellent numbers when talking about the economy. Each of these triumphs can be deconstructed. For instance, Trump’s crossing into North Korea can be looked at as giving Kim Jong-un everything he always wanted. Now he's received major validation and if rumors have it correctly the United States might even accept something less than full nuclear disarmament. But the more extensive question relates the fate of the constitution and particularly the Bill of Rights in a world where the abrogation of the lines between executive, judicial and legislative together with the separate of church and state appear to be threatened on a daily basis. When you start deferring elemental governances you destroy due process. Apparently contributions to the Trump re-election campaign, at approximately $105 million for the second quarter, surpass the amount received by the Obama re-election campaign for the comparable period.

Friday, July 5, 2019


Iterating the premise of Danny Boyle’s Yesterday is almost like blowing out a candle. That’s part of the problem. The movie is predicated on the notion of a world without The Beatles and incidentally Coke and Harry Potter. At one point the film’s protagonist Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) Googles Coke and gets Pablo Escobar and his job as a songwriter who's mysteriously wafted to an alternate dimension is simply to remember rather than to create. So he journeys to Strawberry Fields (in Liverpool) and Eleanor Rigby’s gravesite as a form of research. From a narrative point of the view, the moviegoer is supposed to accept the notion that you can introduce the great songs of the iconic foursome into an alternate universe in which they're embraced only to be magically dismissed, erased and finally disappear from the collective consciousness of the cheering crowds the film depicts. Strangely one of the most interesting lines of the film is uttered by a record label executive who intones “if you don’t have an image the lack of an image becomes the image.” Yesterday is basically a one-line joke, but the subtext has to do with impersonation, counterfeiting and ultimately lying. The curse of “the chalice of money” and fame which Jack chooses is ultimately broken when he visits the aging John Lennon (Robert Carlyle) who never became famous and end up taking to heart another Beatles song “All You Need Is Love.” Yesterday is a little like Rocketman, the Elton John, hagiography. A somewhat narrow premise becomes the occasion to enjoy classics including “Let it Be” and “Back in the U.S.S.R." which both comprise the film’s playlist. 

N.B.: read Francis Levy's short story, "Pet Buddha"in Vol. 1 Brooklyn. 

Thursday, July 4, 2019

The Wandering Jewish Intellectual Day Parade

Talking about self-worth, you wonder how many people would march or meander in the Wandering Jewish Intellectual Day Parade. Maybe one, you? though you’re not necessarily proud. Which brings up another question, how is one to be proud of one’s existence? OK, so you have come out of the closet and freely proclaim your disinterest in making an honest living or really doing anything but trafficking in esoteric ideas that no one's interested in and writing blogs that no one reads. That’s all fine and good but it doesn't alleviate the shame that derives from never having done an honest day's work in a society which lionizes classic stereotypes of achievement. Then you have to go home at night. Ostensibly your significant other is just like you i.e. someone who gets excited by festschrifts written in honor of the anniversary of Husserl’s birth or perhaps you’re not an itinerant Jewish intellectual but a Zoroastrian intellectual but of the same Upper West Side vintage, who subsists because of the rent-controlled apartment you've occupied with thirty cats since a real long time ago. In any case you two have to face each other. You’ve proclaimed your true wishes to the world.  You know that a compound German word like Verganheitsbewaltigung turns you on, but you have to come home after a long day in the library and still get along with each other and face the problems of how you are going to finance all the subscriptions to scholarly magazines that are coming due. At first the reminders are friendly, but then they become insistent and even angry since the little magazines you’ve subscribed to for a half century are equally as desperate and in need of support as you are. And on it goes. Every year, you select a day and a route and nobody comes to cheer you on. Yet you continue to put one foot in front of the other and march. 

N.B.: read Francis Levy's short story, "Pet Buddha"in Vol. 1 Brooklyn. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Greening of America Redux

Individualism is becoming an increasingly rarified commodity. There are many eccentric people with equally eccentric desires and attitudes, but they're all finding a home for their restive spirits in millenarian ideologies which offer hope. And what is the hope? That they will be magically transformed by joining a group. Remember Charles Reich’s The Greening of Americathe bestseller that was serialized in The New Yorker back in 1970? Remember Timothy Leary’s “turn on, tune in and drop out?” One of the most aspirational of all aspirational human desires is that for the “angry fix” Alan Ginsberg sang about in “Howl,” “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…” Are the throngs rallying to the cause seeking freedom for all or some kind of crowd sourced acid trip holding out the promise of happy trails forever? Will some dewy-eyed yet potentially power mad feminist become the Harvey Weinstein of tomorrow?  It’s one thing to be a dweeb, a geek, a weirdo and to enjoy all the grandiosity and self-flagellation that goes along with such posturing and another to rally the masses—today through your social media account—creating the equivalent of revolutionary cells. Are there shades of the Weimar era beer hall putsch in these proto-fascistic movements which turn liberation ideologies into mantras whose leaders themselves begin to issue fatwas. Today’s “chicken in every pot” seems to be that that polymorphous perversity leads to happiness. Is there some truth to the fact that no matter what the inclination, no matter what orifice is the finish line for the trajectory of human desire (what are the gender politics of olfactory fucking?), that everyone eventually ends up in a room with another person, biological organism or even plant who finds it easier to hate in the other what they fear and despise in themselves?

N.B.: read Francis Levy's short story, "Pet Buddha"in Vol. 1 Brooklyn. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Are Intelllectuals a Dying Breed?

There are still public intellectuals. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria is a public intellectual, as are writers on geopolitics like Robert D. Kaplan and Francis Fukuyama, lawyer/philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Robert Nagel and opinionators on the general state of the soul like New York Times columnist David Brooks. Hannah Arendt and the polymathic Susan Sontag, practically coined the terms as probably the two greatest public intellectuals of the 20thcentury. The Shakespearian scholar Stephen Greenblatt epitomizes the idea of a public intellectual in the way he moves from the scholarly to the global in books like The Swerve, which is a meditation on both Lucretius and his mother. But while intellectuals can still occupy a certain spotlight, the intellectual life as a calling is under siege. During the age of little magazines like Partisan Review and Commentary back in the 50s and 60s (remember the famous Woody Allen joke about Commentary and Dissent merging to form Dysentery)intense debates occurred that drew huge amounts of discussion amongst a relatively rarefied audience. One of the last of these occurred between Lingua Franca, a relatively old school literary review and Social Text, which was a sounding board for deconstructionism, with one of the editors of Lingua Franca perpetrating a hoax on its rival publication. Battles of ideas could indeed be ferocious. Remember Mary McCarthy’s famous snipe at Lillian Hellman, “every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the?'” The bite may have been greater than the bite, but still was heard. The problem today is that unless you’re one of the aforementioned stars, who are usually pretty adept at interfacing with social media, you’re not going to be heard. "The message" to quote Marshall McCluhan is definitely "the medium" and magazines with circulations of 5000 tend not to pay the freight. The discussion of great ideas in an extra academic arena devoid of jargonese is becoming increasingly extinct.

N.B.: read Francis Levy's short story, "Pet Buddha"in Vol. 1 Brooklyn. 

Monday, July 1, 2019

Life is a Dream

"The Nostalgia of the Infinite " by Giorgio de Chiriico (1911)
Life is a Dream is the title of the 17thcentury play by Pedro Calderon de la Barca. The theme of solipsism is belied by the oedipal nature of the plot. Midsummer Night’s Dream poses a similar question since it traffics in the question of alternate realities--in effect demonstrating the mending quality that some dreams display. Perhaps not all of life, but all of art is a dream! Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, literally all the paintings Dali, Magritte and de Chirico are dreamscapes and even a great realist masterpiece, Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” has the stop-time almost Polaroid quality, the mixture of stasis and motion that dreams often render. But where does so-called reality end and dreams begin? “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” is a famous short story by Delmore Schwartz and the title would indicate a closer connection between dreams and reality than one might usually expect. Do dreams, in this context, actual provide an executive function, not so much mirroring or regurgitating reality, but driving it? Is it possible to navigate into a recurring dream in order to make adjustments to an on-going exigency or is the dream perhaps the reality and the so-called reality the illusion? Waking life commands one’s attention since it takes up so much space, but are dreams the repository of truths, the chink in time that allows us to briefly achieve awareness of an elusive world, the ideal forms that Plato talked about in his “allegory of the cave.”