Monday, September 27, 2004

Theater of Pain

In the offices of the magazine I work for, on the desk of the fashion assistant is a pile of heavy-metal T-shirts I remember from high school -- Motley Crue Theatre of Pain and Shout at the Devil tour shirts. Only these are not real, they are replicas made by some new fashion brand. I wondered at first who in their right mind would wear something so inauthentic -- how could they justify the many levels of phoniness involved in donning such a shirt (not being into the Crue, not having been at the concert where the shirt was sold, not even spending the time to hunt down an authentic old tour shirt in a thrift store or vintage shop, not even actually wearing the shirt enough times to give it the worn-out patina).

But then I realized that these questions of authenticity simply don't cross the fashionista's mind. Fashion revels in a kind of anti-experience, effacing the possible signs that one has actually lived though something by systematically making them available to everyone. Fashion, of course, supplants experience with appearances, destroying history and replacing it with a treadmill of trends. A collegue of mine opined that in fact, they revel in the destruction of integrity, delight in seeing a specific symbol, a signified, that actually means a great deal to a select group of people, be detatched from its signifier and deprived of its original significance in becoming an all-purpose signifier of youth or trendy up-to-dateness. Such appropriations make integrity impossible: With no integrity of their own, they don't hesitate to destroy the symbols other's use to try to advertise their integrity for others. (Sure maybe people with real integrity feel no need to advertise their identity, but we all know that in reality people need to have their self-concept validated by others). Imagine you're a thirty-five year old unrepentant metalhead and you walk out in your Armored Saint tour T-shirt and suddenly the world sees you as a fashion-victim wannabe. (Except the fashion world, who has seen you as fodder to be cannibalized). Your identity has been co-opted. Think of the ubitquitous Che Guevara T; the people wearing these are gleefully destroying a once potent symbol of revolutionary power, happily doing the establishment's work while thinking there is something neat and rebellious in what they are wearing.

I always thought the phonies who buy the fake t-shirts would be full of secret sense of shame, but the thought they might actually be gloating in their ignorance, and thriving on the way they are denaturing signs chills me to the bone. They flaunt their power of emptiness and make our world progressively, cyclically emptier and emptier. This is my theater of pain.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Massive trance anthems

Once I was out in Queens, with a friend who exhibited no hesitation to go blundering into any store or bar along Roosevelt Avenue, no matter how unpromising or foreign or insular it may have appeared from the outside. All leers and studied ignorings to the contrary, she insisted that "they don't care" and that of course "They want your business." This is a classic American attitude, that a business owner has some civic duty to welcome all comers and to put profit-making before all other motives. But shop owners and certainly bar owners can have their own agenda that has nothing to do with making money, which might instead have something to do with maintaining a certain reputation or to holding to their traditions or to giving priorities to their ethnic group or to recreating something of the ambiance of their homeland, where its very likely that customer service is vastly different than what Americans are used to. Lots of stores don't really want your business, particularly if they have the sense that you are patronizing them, in the condescending sense. The almighty dollar doesn't necessarily unlock all doors.

Perhaps once an immigrant has assumed the "I want your business"/"Profits are the only goal" attitude, he has truly assimilated, as that may be the quintessential American value, the approach to life that unites diverse people across the continent. Once you see everyone's dollar as being equal, once you are filtering all encounters and exchanges through the homogenizing medium of the dollar, then you are living the American way. The dollar is democratizing, then, but is democracy then a matter of free spending? Is the best way to experience your American equality with all other Americans to spend money and own the same things that everyone else owns? This is what American post-war economic planners thought, who hoped to head off civic unrest over the unfair division of wealth and the return to circumscribed rols after WW II by increasing everyone;s purchasing power, and seeing to it that a host of consumer goods be rolled out for all, keeping everyone equally bedazzled. Which was all well and good as long as the goods improved quality of life, but what happens with their frivolity becomes more apparent, and the conveniences they afford usurp whatever original utility they had and become bizarrely aggressive and insatiable ends in themselves, making other people the villains of convenience and consumer goods the necessary means to block others out of your life?

This train of thought reminds me of a poster I see every day when I come home from work, on my way back up to Steinway Street. It's an ad for a dance-music compilation, boasting "massive trance anthems." I always picture a gigantic room full of people all totally anaesthetized by this music, all liberated from each other but miracuously allowed to inhabit the same space with each other comfortably, thanks to the trance their anthems have induced. I knew someone who would watch the sorority girls on the college where we worked and imagine that since they all looked and behaved the same, that they all must receive marching orders somehow, perhaps beamed directly from outer space into their hair scrunchies, which were really antennas. I think he was imagining a massive trance anthem, which allowed them to conform to a rigid code without ever feeling that they had surrendered any autonomy.

I wonder what's wrong with my receiver sometimes, and I clean my ears with Q-tips, trying to home in on the sound.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Falun Gong

The Falun Gong are making their presence felt in New York. I was having a moment of private vanity in public, staring at myself in the subway window, when I saw their reflection coming on the train, a man and a woman in their yellow shirts, one holding a giant picture of a tortured woman incidentally in the face of the other as they chatted quietly together. I assumed their day of consciousness raising was over. They probably had sat silently along 42nd street or at Grand Army Plaza, meditating, adopting one of their postures, bearing witness to the atrocities of the Chinese or passing out their pamphlets to passersby. I am always afraid to touch them, as if their manical need for contemplative peace will be contagious, and instead of rushing to work I will suddenly find myself in a yellow shirt adopting some squatting Tai Chi pose in Herald Square.

Sometimes alongside of the Falun Gong protesters there will be by chance someone passing out fliers for a gym or for a nearby pilates center. For some reason all gyms and yoga studios employ this advertising method. I see then that the Falun Gong are on the brink of success, they just sell their meditative practices as some kind of disciplinary exercise, a dieting technique, and they might break through. They seem too much like a cult now, and they are too associated with dissent to ever truly be popular in America.

I suspect that Americans will never be too concerned about atrocitiies committed by the Chinese, since these verify Americans' beliefs in the inherent superiority of their own country, their own way of life. The Chinese are godless communists, of course they are torturing their people. If it bothers these gong people so much, why don't they come to America? As long as they don't move into my town . . .

Even though they spook me, I enjoy seeing them, I enjoy the feeling of being spooked in the midst of my preoccupations. Their cult-like prsence casts those around them into a smiliar light, and suddenly the fixated consumers rushing in and out of stores seem as though there in a cult, as do all the people with cell phones attached to their ears and all the people sipping identical cups of iced coffee drinks and all the people dressed idetically in those mesh nylon slippers and wearing jeans rolled up in five inch cuffs. Suddenly I'm spooked because I know I'm unaffiliated, or at least I am succeeding in blocking out the identity of the cult I belong to, I realize suddenly I have no mental picture of myself as I appear on the street, and what a blessed, meditative thing that is.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Winning the lottery

This may be an apocryphal story, but one of my friends claims he knows a guy from college who won the lottery in Pennsylvania several years ago, and will receive a thousand dollars a month for life, or something like that, on top of some huge lump sum he received when he won. By my friend's account, winning the lottery ruined his life. Rather than finish school, he dropped out, and he remains in the tiny apartment in central PA that he lived in when he won, doing little more than smoking really high-grade weed and playing the latest-generation video games.

This story seems to confirm something social researchers claim about self-determination. People seem to enjoy the effort of exerting their will and affecting the world much more than the actual specific consequences of that effort. In his magesterial The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, Robert Lane cites this finding of Martin Seligman's: "When rats and pigeons are given a choice between getting free food and getting the same food for making responses, they choose to work. Infants smile at a mobile whose movements are contingent on their responses but not at a non-contingent mobile." Instrumental operations, then, would seem to be pleasing for their own sake, not necessarily for the rewards, which turns the fundamental principle of classical economics -- work is a disutility compensated by utility in wages -- upside down. In fact we want so strongly to justify our rewards, to feel that we have determined them through our own efforts, that we believe the classical paradigm even though it doesn't exactly hold. And it utterly decimates the phony tenet that income leads to greater life satisfaction, that money is an all-purpose good. As Lane explains, "The belief that one is effective is more closely associated with happiness than anything else, especially level of income, to which so much attention is paid in the American market society"

Winning the lottery, earning a massive reward for doing absolutely nothing, destroys one's ability to believe that there is a correlation between one's material state and one's own effort. You can no longer live the noble lie of autonomy. As a consequence, all effort is invalidated, and all will short-circuited. Without the illusion of control, there's no point leaving the house. May as well play video games, where the illusion of control is restored.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Note on convenience

We are prone to thinking of convenience as an expansion of our capabilities: we become more efficient at identifying and fulfilling our needs, therefore we fulfill more of them, and therefore we are more happy. By this logic, convenience maximizes utility, which is a quantity of satisfaction.

But actually convenience is a reduction -- it alters our wants and needs to only those things which can be fulfilled expediently, coarsening our desires and leading us to neglect those needs which require more complex effort to fulfill. Those complex needs provide much a greater quality of happiness, satisfaction that resists quantification because there is no way to separate the effort from the reward. Often these needs are ones whose pursuit gives satisfaction in and of itself.

Quanititzing happiness and maximizing convenience go together, complementary strategies for forwarding an ideal of happiness that suits not individuals but corporations,entities that make a profit from efficiency. It in in the interest of corporations that we elide their interest in efficiency with our own interest in happiness. Our personal well-being becomes a product, something we are trying to manufacture like a commodity through the most efficient means possible. We think of our well-being as the sum of desires, all basically ephemeral, fleeting and trivial, rather then as the investigation and development of the intensity of a single will. Better to love someone deeply and inconveniently than to buy a series of consumer goods that ultimately add up to nothing.

As a utility, convenience is parasitic, it claims as its own some of the pleasure originally afforded by what has been now made convenient. The result is that the orginal activity loses that much of its ability to give pleasure, while convenience has become that much more central to one's existence. In this way the iPod becomes more important than whatever you happen to play on it. Music is diminished by whatever joy you take in its delievery system (the novelty of having so many music choices at your disposal makes all those choices more meaningless, and makes the substance of those choices that much less important). So the speed of life, and its attendent stress, continually increases, all in the name of pleasure.

Free music

Record companies reaped a windfall when they managed to convince people they needed to purchase all the music they owned all over again when CD technology made moribund the patently superior but more inconvenient analog sound of LPs. Of course, convenience is the supreme utility in American society, attaching itself to any commodity and usurping whatever original function that commodity might have had. We used to want records because we wanted good sound, now we want music only to demonstrate that it is at our command. That is what convenience boils down to: an expression of our illusory mastery of the world, a reassurance that since things are getting more facile and more quickly responsive, that they are then inherently getting better. Convenience buoys the myth of progress even as quality of life for most people regresses.

Anyway, there is justice in the fact the very digital technology that the industry introduced to sucker its customers into buying a shoddy version (smaller, poorly mastered, tinny-soundng, etc.) of records they already had has now enabled those same exploited consumers to pirate music effortlessly, with hardly a thought to the alleged criminality of what they are doing. The digital nature of music makes it routinely and eminently copiable -- the technology encourages you to mistake the copy for the real thing. It undermines the notion that there is a "real thing" to begin with. And by making music a shoddier product, the industry enabled customers to treat it like its worthless, to believe that it is unreasonable to be expected to pay for it. Any Marxist would have to be delighted to see how this exploitive industry through its own rapaciousness sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Maybe the reports of the death of the dialectic in post-industrial global capitalism have been greatly exaggerated.

Anyway, by making music digital, and synthetic, the record companies unwittingly further dispatched music's aura, in the sense that Benjamin explained in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" as the value of a work's authenticity. The aura, as I experienced it, was a matter of access. It's hard to remember how hard it was to hear the albums we take for granted in the age of reissues. It's hard to remember what it was like combing used album bins looking for a copy of Forever Changes -- now everybody has it, but when I was in high school, I knew one guy who had it. It was referenced in some record review I had read as though it was the greatest album there was, and so I had to pester this guy to tape it for me just so I could hear what it sounded like. The object itself, his copy of the record, was rare and precious. It had an aura. It made the music seem almost mythical, otherworldly. Now, I could hear Forever Changes immediately after a few mouse clicks. There would be no quest; the loss of quest means a certain loss of meaning for the music. But the removal of obstacles to musical access means you are not rigidly bound to listen to what you already know or what you can tape off your friends. You don't need to be a strictly defined marget segment. You can cross all genres, all periods; you can be into as much as you're curious about. And it won't even cost you a dime, if you don't want it to.

But people must be willing to take advantage of the freedoms the record industry enabled. It never ceases to amaze me how many people show scruples about Internet piracy, people who seem to believe that because it is an entire industry rather than an individual fucking them over, they should just continue to take it instead of fighting back. Certainly, some fear our increasingly invasive government will track them down -- a crime against corporations is a crime against the state, after all -- but some people just feel its wrong, and I'm not sure if i should admire them for maintaining a personal ethical code in a reflexively hypocritical culture, or despise them for holding back the revolution.

Beyond ethics, I think those who refuse to pirate music are clinging to the value of the musical artifact. They are nostalgic for the aura, the kind of value that once adhered to unique objects, a value we only sense traces of in modern society in the guise of family heirlooms and museum-kept works of art. Possessing something with an aura, with a patina becomes more attractive, not less attractive, as all of culture becomes more readily reprodicible. Benjamin thought that "the masses" would celebrate the refutation of the aura, arguing that the object was now free to mean something new to each and every beholder/listener. "In permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced." Benjamin suggested the aura deadened art, made all art about its aura and not its more mercurial content, which could shift with whatever context an audience brought to it. But it may be that photographic, and then digital, reproduction enhanced the aura, made it more powerful, and deadened works saddled with it even more. Their meaning is reduced essentially to their value at an art auction.

So some works become about nothing but their own unique status as objects, while all other things, so freely deployed in any way imaginable by anyone who uses them, lose their ability to have any collective, transpersonal meaning at all. In both cases, the discourse that we presume to be enabled by great art is obviated. There is no meaningful public debate about aesthetics. All "the good" is either purely subjective or a matter of collectibility.

Sadly, many people appear to be comforted by this; these twin principles constitute an aesthetics that they can understand completely, without study. If these principles reign supreme, these people believe that then no one can out gain them in cultural capital, in the knowledge required to have a public discussion over art's function. And most importantly, it protects the meaning of life -- how many understand it, anyway, and have invested themselves in -- as the accumulation of valuable objects rather than the performance of meaningful social activities. The expensive, precious object reassures us that things can have a value in and of themselves that transcends us -- that diamonds are indeed forever -- that we can possess and thereby exceed and enlarge ourselves. And the cheap, endless reprodcible item -- the pop song -- reassures us that we, as individuals making our own private, purely personal meaning of things, are rightly and safely at the center of our respective universes.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Dead malls

This weekend, I went to an exhibit at P.S. 1 in Queens to see Walead Beshty's photos of dead malls, the abandoned shopping centers left behind after the affluent move away and established their happy hunting grounds elsewhere. The pleasures of shopping depend much more on the sense that one is participating in something novel and fresh rather than the actual goods involved (which, incidentally, had better be perceived as novel and fresh themselves). Shoppers aren't looking for utility in their purchases, they are after an elusive sense of being on the progressive edge of the triumphant ideology in America, that of perpetual growth and innovation for its own sake. If growth is always good, newness is always greatness, and one can feel part of the national reatness, by taking advantage of every opportunity to luxuriate in the new. This means people will always prefer to shop in environments that seem to have been built yesterday over older establishments even if they require one driving fifty miles to reach them. This is why downtown shopping districts in most cities struggle while new shopping malls continue to get built at an alarming rate in the suburbs even as cities start to retain more population.

Admittedly, it is a glorious comforting feeling to see the spacious, brand-new parking lots with bigger spaces for SUVs, to see bright, untarnished stucco, and signage all in currently trendy fonts with up-to-date renderings of familiar logos (reducing the cognitive dissonance that comes from commercials that try to make the present seem timeless and eternal clashing with dreary evidence that the firms being advertised have evolved in sundry obvious, mundane ways like refreshing their overall design). It's a true testimony to the power of the new-is-better ideology, how powerful the allure of the brand-new shopping center can be. These new centers are in fact material monuments to the ideology, the most powerful way it's articulated. The effort and expense convinces you its right, that the values it expresses are indisputable. New casinos have the same effect, conveying the splendor and glamour of gambling and merging that dubious pleasure with the ideologically charged (and/or sanctioned) pleasure of the novel. When you live in Las Vegas, you check out the new casinos, even if you have no intention of gambling in them -- they just feel right, that is, they prove that the city in which you live is moving forward and progress is being served, that the city is doing what it is supposed to in order to grow. So new malls are more about reassurance that society is living up to its own ideals (the ideals that we absorb and assume as our own) than they are about shopping.

Dead malls, then, are the reverse side of the same coin, and reassure us in the same way. That may be why there seems to be no pathos in them in Beshty's photos, even if he intended there to be. The bad light, the functional, featureless architecture, the vulgarity, the fly-by-night way they seem to have been deserted all conjure a sense of fraud and ruthlessness, of a society in which commercial imperatives have obliterated all traces of the human spirit and in so doing, obliteraed itself. We have a sense that these places are rightly deserted, that the dreams they once catered to have passed out of fashion and become incomprehensible, detestable -- this even though the essential dream was the same when they were built, to make shopping feel original. The contempt we inevitably feel for these places in the photos is equal to the strange joy a new mall can evoke. I had the feeling that Beshty wanted to evoke sympathy for these "modern ruins," but maybe I'm wrong, maybe he meant to show just how lacking grandeur they are, how ignoble the passions of the culture that generated them (and the new ones just like them, in essence) will seem to arbiters in the future. They don't haunt you at all with a feeling that you missed out on anything. You are filled with a sense that some things deserved to be ruined, they make you crave the bulldozers that will wipe the abominations of the face of the earth.

But that seems such a harsh judgment for these places, places where many meaningful teenage rites of passage occured for people now in their thirties. Ours may be a generation irretriveably scarred by the indignity of having to act out these defining dramas in so sordid an environment -- proof of our growing inability to imagine more appropriate places to be for important moments in our lives, a trend that culminates in families in their cookie-cutter housing developments, in houses huddled together like a circled wagons, seeking protection from a natural world, a local environment, that feels ever more arbitrary.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004


I was deeply alienated by an article in a recent New Yorker about the universal appeal of Heinz ketchup, which, through some dubious pseudoscientific claims made by professional "academic" tasters asserts that ketchup perfectly stimulates the five taste regions of the tongue in a harmonious, simutaneous gestalt. (A lengthy and admiring description shows the tasters in action, reawakening their palate' s taste for tomato with Campbell's soup.) Thus ketchup is the perfect, universal food, and one that can bear no tinkering or diversification, one that can't be made gourmet and then used as a status signifier like Grey Poupon mustard.

Now, I hate ketchup and always have. It stimulates all five of my senses of disgust: It looks bad, it smells bad, it tastes bad, it nauseates me, and it sours my mood. So I didn't appreciate telling me that I should actually -- scientifically, in fact -- love ketchup. The article went to great lengths to show how ketchup was serendipitously created and then carefully programmed to appeal to those five sense regions of the tongue (including the all-important "umami" region, at the back of the tongue, that detects "body"), so how is it that none of this applies to me? Am I the problem? Am I stubbornly resisting universality, reisting the irresistible appeal of ketchup the same way I resisted Titanic and the music of Coldplay?

I have always considered ketchup to be a noxious sugar-delivery system, so it didn't surprise me to read that the ketchup bottle was redesigned to allow children to dole out their own predictably larger dollops. The article's author suggests that this is a way for "neophobic" children (those afraid of new experiences) make strange new food familiar -- in other words, to obliterate the taste of the new food by reducing it to ketchup. The taste for ketchup then survives into adulthood as a comfort food, a reminder of how one has the power to neutralize raw, powerful experiences by diluting them with sugar. This all may be true, but it seems like an elaborate rationalization prepared to skirt the more fundamental truth and obvious explanation that sugar is addictive, and children are especially vulnerable to it.

The article was most interested in exploring why ketchup so far hasn't been made into a connoisseur product, like mustard or coffee or pasta sauce, with many different varieties that appeal to different nuances in taste. In other words, why hasn't ketchup been used to fragment the market and create special subsets that individuals could feel unique and special for belonging to? The article seeks a non-economic explanation for this, showing an admirable belief that things such as taste can still be determined outside of the market, that there is some basic sensory data that precede market mediation. And a non-economic explanation seems to be necessary, since the logic of late capitalism is to segment markets, and optimize a subject's sense of individual autonomy by allowing him to express it only through buying things like fancy mustard and Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee beans. So is there something hopeful about ketchup's resistance to this process? Does it prove that people can still taste things, without having what the sense of what they are tasting dictated by ad copy and social status? Can people enjoy food like ketchup for its own sake, and not for its utility as social capital? (e.g. eating foie gras and drinking wine not for itself, for its flavor, but for what kind of person it makes you.) That ability seems endangered. And does ketchup's inability to be relaunched as a niche product mean that there are some limits on commodification that exist outside the marketplace? That some things can't be made into more rareified and elaborate commodities, even though the market wants to do so? Seemingly, the taste for ketchup just can't be controlled by market forces.

In this sense, maybe ketchup really is the ultimate comfort food, reminding us that in certain cases our tastes really do remain autonomous. Ketchup proves that certain tastes remain outside the marketplace and beyond social striving and commodity-made self-importance. Paradoxically, its (alleged) universality proves our authenticity. However, I still wouldn't eat the nasty stuff.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Bunker mentality

No matter what platitudes usher forth from the podium inside Madison Square garden, nothing tells you more about the Republican platform than the army of police barricading the premises outside. The security forces massed there are almost unimaginable, because America has likely seen nothing like it since Nixon sent troops in on his own people at Kent State. There are checkpoints, and more checkpoints, and credentials and badges, and police officers by the score, locking down a veritable Green Zone in the heart of New York City, which has been made to feel like occupied territory.

Never mind that if airports had one thousandth the amount of attention as the Republican convention, there would be no danger of airplane terrorism. Never mind that the GOP platform's ideas are apparently so aborrhent to teh average citizen of New York that they can only be uttered from behind the most visible and concentrated application of the police state apparatus as has ever been seen in this century. What's most significant is that this kind of massed security is not really a symbol to the people it walls off from reality. It's a fair representation of how an ideal world functions to a Republican, with the police protecting the elites with a redundancy of force while the rest of the city turns to chaos. It clearly delineates us and them, and makes them seem like the criminals that Republicans are reassured by believing poor people are. The dog-and-pony show of law and order is not a hassle to them, the rigamarole of showing one's badges and permissions and papers -- the very cliche of American representations of Soviet life (and Nazi regimes) -- makes them feel part of a meaningful and reassuring ceremony. The staging of a show of force is entertainment, making them profoundly secure, spiritually as well as literally. (Hence the enthusiasm for the Iraq war, no matter how feeble or shifting the justification.)

The brute-force application of policce protection is the most pointed and genuine manifestation of the Republican vision for America; it is the dream achieved. Such a massive demonstration of force generates its own rationale, its physical bulk, its sheer size, seems to vindicate the importance, the righteousness, of what it has been summoned to protect. It is akin to the Soviet military parades through Red Square, bravura displays of the glory of power, to try to mask the fat that the power is aimed at no tangible, specific end. Power is deployed for "America," to protect its "freedom." That they can be thinking of freedom in the face of so many cops and so much logistical nuisance tells you all you'll ever need to know about today's Republican party.