Thursday, August 18, 2016

Soma, pt. 1

Sticker on a fence by the Acme supermarket in South Philly. Made a point of snapping it because it is so god damned perfect.

Whenever the topic comes up, I'm reminded of something I read in a middlebrow thinkpiece about the internet and entertainment circa 2008. (I don't recall the source.) Its author copypasted an excerpt from Neil Postman's 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death (which I guess I should actually read eventually) about the difference between the prognostic nightmares of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.
Let's back up. Postman is referring to the LeBron James and Stephen Curry of English-language dystopian novels: George Orwell's 1984 (published in 1949) and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). Postman notes elsewhere that, between the two novels, it was Orwell's magnum opus that most quickened the imagination of the late twentieth century. This is obvious: even if you've never read 1984, you know about Big Brother and you're aware he's watching. Even today it is virtually impossible to hold a conversation about NSA surveillance programs, the militarization of United States police departments, and certain consequences of Apple's and Amazon's copyright protection enforcement bots without invoking Orwell—and with very good reason.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

about words: the sympathizer

A few months ago I was prompted to pick up Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut novel The Sympathizer after listening to a fascinating interview with Nguyen on Fresh Air. I finished reading the book a while back, and I've been remiss in not sharing a few excepts sooner.

First: context. Let's begin with the opening sentences:
I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.
If you're from the United States and this doesn't remind you of the opening lines of another novel, then Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man still isn't required reading, which would be an unforgivable failure of the education system.

At any rate, that book begins:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids——and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
The Sympathizer is steeped in an Ellisonian influence, which not not surprising: Nguyen is an Invisible Man superfan, having apparently gone so far as to name his son after its author.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ten songs (top perhaps?)

Lately I've been working on editing a pile of short stories and prepping them to be thrown at (and probably rejected by) literary magazines, and assembling something that I hope will become novel #3. The upshot of this is that I don't have much available RAM to update this thing with anything very substantial or thoughtful.

So, let's have some filler: something not very substantial and not requiring too much thought on my part. Everyone likes top ten lists. Everyone likes music. Okay, let's call this my ten favorite songs. Or ten songs that are among my favorites. Or just ten songs. Let's cap it off by throwing in some spontaneously selected images that may (or may not) evoke the texture or flavor of these songs, and then let's call it a day. I've got stuff to do.


Saturday, July 9, 2016

infosift: cohesion & conflict

On my way to cash my paycheck last week I happened to catch a Here & Now segment in which journalist Ryan Lenz is interviewed about high-profile white supremacist Matthew Heinbach, whom Lenz calls "the youthful face of hate in America." One remark in particular piqued my attention:
It's interesting to note about Heinbach's whole worldview: he disguises or conceals or covers up his racism through what he calls Christian love. He says I don't hate anybody, I just love white people. It's a very interesting moral twist.
Most surprising about this is Lenz's incredulity. This sort of thing isn't "interesting," at least not in any sense synonymous with "unusual" or "unexpected." The obverse of embrace is rejection, after all. One entity cannot be held in preference without depreciation to everything that is not that entity. Booing the Yankees is corollary to cheering the Red Sox. The insider calls it "community spirit;" the outsider calls it "insularity."

And so on.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

RIP: Toad

Update from where we left off: I woke up this morning to an email from Jason.
The light also had its disadvantages; specifically, it negated Mr. Satan's camouflage to more developed eyes. On returning home tonight, I noticed sticky, red smears on the porch combined with strange, lumpy shapes.  On closer inspection, I determined it to be blood.  Following this trail of blood and viscera, I found the bulk of Mr. Satan's dessicated corpse surrounded by raccoon tracks.  Nothing was eaten; the raccoon killed the toad purely for sport.  On a positive note, I'll have a new hat soon, and I'll bury Mr. Satan where the red fern grows.
I'm sure Mr. Satan spent its final hours doing what it loved: devouring living things. And hey, at least the raccoon had a good time.

Mr. Satan: gone but not forgotten.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Critters: Featuring Frog & Toad

I sojourned briefly in Jersey on the way from Philadelphia to rural Massachusetts. The reason for the trip: I hadn't seen Jason since January and hadn't visited Earthdance since 2014, and when he finds himself with two consecutive days off at the border of spring and summertime, the wise wage slave takes advantage.

I was only in town for a few hours, but made a point of checking up on the situation out in the woods. Three weeks made all the difference: the ebony jewelwings are out and about, and I know precisely where to find them. With the water level of the pond decreasing over the last few years, my favorite odonata have taken their domain from its edge (pictured hereabouts) to the brook the overflowing pond used to spill into.

I wish I possessed the time and imagination to convey the quiet joy and wonder of the damselflies' grotto. Verdure and water-flattened stones; the only immediately perceptible movements above the creek's surface are committed by antediluvian insects that look for the world like living automata, equal parts tensile muscle and silent gearwork, chitin and lapis lazuli, engineered by an anonymous forgotten Daedalus for Babylon's royal conservatory or the temple gardens at Rhodes.

You see? I cannot explain it without resorting to silly metaphors. But there really is something splendid and otherworldly in the scene—a statement which might express less about the event itself than imply the estrangement of its author from the world that shaped him and the insects both. (Postscript thought: it is the pale cast of anthropocentrism—events that have no clear analogue within an anthropized setting are called "otherworldly," as though the city and the wild green exist independently on separate planets. It is a dangerous way of thinking.)

*          *          *

On the dry bed of the defunct anastomotic channel between the pond and the brook, I met a frog.


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Straight White Men

I'm pretty sure this is a first: I've reviewed video games, cartoons, bad direct-to-video superhero films, and books, but never a play. Today we'll be looking at Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men, staged in Philadelphia by the InterAct Theatre Company, which I had the pleasure and (ahem) privilege of seeing last week. This is also one of those rare occasions where I'll be issuing a spoiler warning: if you're fortunate to live in or near a city that is or will be hosting a production of Straight White Men, you'd be much better served buying a ticket and seeing it without any expectations or preconceptions.