Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Postmodern Politics?

Ahmed Muhtar Pasha, Ottoman Grand Vizier and Wali of Yemen
The United States and the Iranians share a common enemy in ISIS which they are both battling in Tikrit. There have even been reports that there has been some competiton and resentment on the part of Shiite militias who have refused to fight while the United States is bombing targets in the city (“US Airstrikes on ISIS in Tikrit Prompt Boycott by Shiite Fighters,” NYT, 3/26/15). In Yemen the United States backs the Abrabbuh Mansour Hadi the democratically elected president who had previously been unseated by the Iranian backed Houthi’s and is now in the process of being restored by a Saudi lead coalition (“Yemen Crisis: Who is fighting whom?"BBC, 3/26/15). America’s closest ally in the Middle East, Israel, is Iran’s greatest foe. Have such multivalent alliances ever existed in modern times. In the Second World War, there was, for instance, the Axis (composed of Japan, German and the fascist governments of Italy, France and Spain) and the Allies. However fragile, life was still simpler, as it was in terms of the spectrum of alliances that characterized the First World War. In l939, Russia did sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with the Germans, but that alliance soon fell apart. In his speech to congress Netanyahu said about the prospect of a military alliance with Iran, “the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.” But these developments might be termed post-modernist realpolitik. If there ever was a sense of good and evil, of right and wrong, it is has become more cloudy then ever and the current situation has begotten the kind of strange bedfellows that one finds here in America where the Christian right and the feminist left have united against protecting the First Amendment rights of pornographers who produce images that are offensive to women. There's strength in numbers and its always easier when a coalition can close ranks against a common enemy the way the allies did against the axis powers during the Second World War. But there's also something undeniably intriguing about the prospect of sharing objectives with unlikely partners. As the palette of human sexuality has changed with same sex marriage and sex reassignment, so the concept of national objectives and identities which have created entities like NATO an SEATO may also evolve in ways that offer more pluralistic solutions to conflict resolution.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Deli Man

The best deli in town may be a movie. Deli Man is as wistful as it is exuberant since it deals with both a vanishing cuisine and institution that once comprised a world. The  movie comes complete with a glossery of terms “stetl,” “meshugah,” “mitzvah,” and “challah,” because deli is and was a form of communication. Words like “gribenes," “cholent" and “lungen" are part of the vocabulary. “schmaltz" or chicken fat is referred to as functioning as a mixture of WD-40 and K-Y jelly in Jewish life. Famous communicators like Jerry Stiller, Fyvush Finkle, and Larry King all have cameos, in which they describe the broader appetites that deli satisfied. They’re Deli Man’s side dishes. Henny Youngman is remembered as singing for his supper to the extent that his joking paid his way.  Reuben’s, Lindy’s and the Stage are all nostalgically recalled along with Max Asnas, the Corned Beef Confucius, and Abe Lebewohl, known as "the Mayor of Second Avenue," who according to Steve Cohen the current manager of the Second Avenue Deli, “wanted to save the world a sandwich at a time” and whose mysterious murder in l996 has never been solved. The personification of Deli Man and the star of the show is David Ziggy Gruber. The guiding force behind Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen Restaurant of Houston is described as behaving like an “80 year old Jew” from the time "he was a little kid.” Gruber remarks,  “When I cook I feel my ancestors and I feel my grandfather next to me…I’d love to bring my grandparents back one day… and I want that gravy recipe.” He's both loving and demanding as he exhorts an employee to “sweep good, you don’t wipe your ass half way.” Hobby’s of Newark, Canter’s and Nate ’n Al of LA, the Carnegie, Ben’s Best, Katz’s and Manny’s in Chicago all have their day in court. The lingua franca of Deli Man is Yiddish, but the movie’s delight derives from the memories conjured by the olfactory sensations it describes.

Friday, March 27, 2015

One-Dimensional Man?

There is a wonderful description of Michel Houellebecq in Anthony Daniels’ New Criterion essay (“France’s ‘Submission,’” February 2015).  Firstly here is Daniels on the writer’s credo: “Houellebecq is a writer with a single underlying theme: the emptiness of human existence in a consumer society devoid of religious belief, political project, or cultural continuity in which, moreover, thanks to material abundance and social security, there is no real struggle for existence that might give meaning to the life of millions.” Put another away Houellecbecq might be seen as the Zola of his generation. He is a determinist who disparages enlightenment notions which only detract from the tragedy of the inevitable. One might say that the anti-Christs in Houellebecq are the inveterate optimists, for instance 60’s utopians, who believe in the notion of human freedom. They remain paradoxically unenlightened enough not to realize the extent to which, like a stampeding mob, they trample on the needs of others as they seek to achieve their own private nirvanas. Daniels' essay comes on the heels of the publication of Houellebecq’s latest novel in which as Daniels states “a Muslim is elected President of France.” Houellebecq had at one point been charged in France when he publically stated Islam is "the most stupid religion” (“Calling Islam stupid lands author in court,” The Guardian, 9/17/02) Uncannily, his latest novel was released on January 7, the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  But here is Daniels' description of the author: “Houellebecq’s physical appearance as relayed in the press suggests that  he fully inhabits the world he describes. He looks like a man who has crawled out of a giant ashtray after a prolonged alcoholic binge in clothes that have not been washed for weeks.”  Houellebecq would shudder but there is a comparison to be made between him and Herbert Marcuse, the Frankfurt school Berkeley philosopher who coined the term “repressive desublimation” in his famous tome One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. The two have different agendas, but they might offer the same diagnosis about dark side of pleasure seeking. Houllebecq is now a film star too. He appears in The Kidnapping of Michel Houllebecq which just opened at Film Forum.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Pornosophy :Your Friends & Neighbors

There is a scene in Neil LaBute’s Your Friends & Neighbors (1998) where a character named Barry  (Aaron Eckhart) desperately tries to give himself an erection while masturbating.  One hears stories about the unsatisfactory porn in clinics afforded sperm donors. However, the scene in the LaBute movie is far more profound since it is so painfully solitary and actually represents a more primal and emblematic line between the life force and death wish. The light switch goes on or off and there’s no controlling it. You can’t will an erection. Sexual fantasy is obviously a part of sex and many people fantasize right during the sexual act with one degree of success or another. Without a doubt there are some lovers who would have to confess that the person in bed with them is almost in the way when it comes to enjoying what's basically a masturbatory experience. But LaBute is really bottom fishing in a particularly trenchant way in Your Friends & Neighbors. Barry’s dilemma has the quality of classic tragedy. His marriage has failed and this is the sole camouflage in which pleasure is still able to manifest itself. Yet his character can find nothing that's stimulating enough to produce arousal. Yet is the other alternative any better? Let’s say he were able to proceed with his project in which he's able to attain pleasure without the messiness of other people’s needs and demands. Relationships are complex and there's something almost appealing about the self-sufficiency that the universe of masturbation provides. Let’s say he’s able to find utter delight in a world of fantasy and even sleeps well at night. Of all the cruelties LaBute has imagined in his predatory universe, this might be one of the most painful to watch since it might strike closest to home for many filmgoers. And what would the sequel be  called, As You Like it?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Tales of Incredible and Horrifying Mediocrity!!!!!

                                                                                             photo: Evan-Amos
The sublime and fantastic have a hold on the imagination. Paranormal phenomena like bending spoons and spirits of the dead being channeled are the stuff of bestsellers and big grossing movies. But little credence is given to terminally inane events, those phenomena that evince a tawdry indifference to meaningfulness, the ones that cause you to yawn right in the face of a speaker, Have you ever had the experience of falling asleep right in the middle of a deadly cultural event or conversation? It really makes you appreciate sleep because it was what you have had to stave off throughout the dreadful activity in question. Think about the time you went into the department store to buy a belt. Belts are not high up on anyone’s list. No belt is going to change anything. It’s a utilitarian item. You simply buy a belt so your pants won’t fall down. Even sales people whose job it is to sell belts often have to work to stay awake as they go about their thankless job. You go to the belt area, sliding yours off and trying new belts on to make sure they’re the right size and have the necessary holes. The belt specialist comes by with the most bored look that you have ever witnessed in all of your years of buying things in a store. He or she is not going to become a retail star by selling you that belt. No fantasies of fame or fortune attach themselves to the buyers or sellers of belts.  Nevertheless, you almost can’t believe your ears when you hear the words “it’s a very happening belt,” intoned behind you as you walk towards the mirror. The phrase is even worse than the belt itself since the false promise created by its haunting vapidity makes you want to totally give up. Yes, you feel like sitting down right on the floor of the men’s or women’s clothing department and staging a sit in, a protest which will call attention to the utter absurdity of your predicament.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

An Altruistic Terrorist?

“La Terroriste” (1910)
In an essay/review in The New York Review of Books (“The Biology of Being Good to Others,” NYRB, 3/19/15), H. Allen Orr revisits the question of how altruism can be equated with natural selection. The occasion of the piece is the publication of a book by David Sloan Wilson, Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. Orr starts off by declaring “Altruism may seem a good thing—unless you happen to be an evolutionary biologist. Then it may seem a mixture of a mystery and a curse. The reason isn’t hard to see. How could a ruthless process like Darwinian natural selection give rise to altruistic organisms, human or non human, that act in ways that are costly to themselves and useful to others?” In the course of his review Orr mentions the work of W.D. Hamilton which would have an enormous impact and the understanding of how altruism can be natural selective. “Hamilton saw mathematically that a gene that encourages an organism to act altruistically can actually increase in numbers from one generation to the next by natural selection if those who benefit from the altruism tend to be relatives of the altruist." Orr uses an example of heroism to make his point. “If I carry a gene that causes me to throw myself on a hand grenade, this gene can increase in numbers through time if I preferentially save my brothers and sisters, who often carry the same gene.” But let’s look at altruism not as a genetically inherited characteristic but in the old fashioned way, as an attitude. Social organization depends on group solidarity and an acceptance of certain governances or rules of the game (i.e. the social contract) which allow human beings to thrive. But solidarity becomes even more important in organizations in which the self is subsumed to the needs of the greater whole. Terrorist organizations provide what Max Weber termed “a calling” in which the individual is filled with a sense of purpose that overrides his immediate concerns. Ultimately the member of a terrorist cell is ready to die for the cause. But what happens when the sense of hardened purpose begets subversive feelings? What happens when the positive affects that ISIS generates in its members become a gratuitous feeling (say like  “free floating anxiety”) that interrupts the deadly persecution of the other? ISIS is one of the best spin doctors in the world, but what happens when film production on one of its ads has to be stopped when one of the executioners starts experiencing the same feelings for his enemy as he experiences towards his brethren?