Thursday, April 28, 2016

'the grandiose stimulation of the grandest illusion'

Sarah Sze, Night

Last week I read Philip Roth's prurient opus The Dying Animal (2001)—which I think I'll need to roll through a second time during the next month, and find someone with whom I can discuss the ambivalent exchange punctuating the novel. (Who's Kepesh talking to, what do we think he decides to do, does it matter, etc.)

Roth writes with the sharp precision of an acupuncturist, so here I have another paperback with the corner of every fifth page folded down. The deepest dog-ear isn't on the page introducing the tangential history of Thomas Morton and the scandalized Puritans of old New England, the incredible sequence where a bedridden, palsied stroke victim tries to undress the wife he's been cheating on for decades, or the page with the magnificent line: "Because only when you fuck is everything that you dislike in life and everything by which you are defeated in life purely, if momentarily, revenged." It's actually on the pages recounting the flair and festoon of the moments when December 31, 1999 clicked over into January 1, 2000. The inauguration of the new millennium. It's an exquisite reckoning of an event I remember and wrote about in The Zeroes—though with hardly a fraction of the incision and prescience Roth brings to it, which is why he's won a Pulitzer and I, uh, won't.
We watched the New Year coming in around the world, the mass hysteria of no significance that was the millennial New Year's Eve celebration. Brilliance flaring across the time zones, and none ignited by bin Laden. Light whirling over nighttime London more spectacular than anything since the splendors of colored smoke billowed up from the Blitz. And the Eiffel Tower shooting fire, a facsimile flame-throwing weapon such as Wernher von Braun might have designed for Hitler's annihilating arsenal——the historical missile of missiles, the rocket of rockets, the bomb of bombs, with ancient Paris the launching pad and the whole of humanity the target. All evening long, on networks everywhere, the mockery of the Armageddon that we'd been waiting in our backyard shelters since August 6, 1945. How could it not happen? Even on that very night, especially on that night, people anticipating the worst as though the evening were one long air-raid drill. The wait for the chain of horrendous Hiroshimas to link in synchronized destruction the abiding civilizations of the world. It's now or never. And it never came.

Maybe that's what everyone was celebrating——that it hadn't come, never came, that the disaster of the end will now never arrive. All the disorder is controlled disorder punctuated with intervals to sell automobiles. TV doing what it does best: the triumph of trivialization over tragedy. The Triumph of the Surface, with Barbara Walters. Rather than the destruction of the age-old cities, an international eruption of the superficial instead, a global outbreak of sentimentality such as even Americans hadn't witnessed before. From Sydney to Bethlehem to Times Square, the recirculating of clichés occurs at supersonic speeds. No bombs go off, no blood is shed——the next bang you hear will be the boom of prosperity and the explosion of markets. The slightest lucidity about the misery made ordinary by our era sedated by the grandiose stimulation of the grandest illusion. Watching this hyped-up production of staged pandemonium, I have a sense of the monied world eagerly entering the prosperous dark ages. A night of human happiness to usher in To welcome appropriately the shit and the kitsch of the new millennium. A night not to remember but to forget.
On December 31 1999, I was in West Orange, attending a small party thrown by my friend Stef (who seems to have become Autostraddle's music editor sometime during the last decade). What I remember most about the evening is what I mentioned in The Zeroes: that we stood out on the front lawn at midnight and could actually hear the screaming crowds across the river in Manhattan and elsewhere. (Actually, come to think of it, one other thing happened that I remember fairly well, but it's salacious in the saddest and most high-school way imaginable, and I'd be a pipsqueak to relate it when our topical launchpad is a novel where a sixtysomething man gets down on his knees and sucks up the menstrual blood of his twentysomething objet du désir.) Looking back now, it's hard to recall with much lucidity what the collective mood was, how much of it was genuine millennial climax and how much was manufactured spectacle. Knowing how events proceeded from there does distort retrospection: we know now that the 1990s were pretty much the best years that anyone in my generational cohort remembers living through (in terms of national prosperity and optimism, sure, and besides the music was fucking great), and the immediate aftermath was George W. Bush, 9/11, the (disastrous and criminal) Iraq invasion, the Great Recession and the quote-unquote jobless recovery, Nickleback, ISIS, and the colonization of the digital frontier.

Let's dwell a moment on that last thought (as we're inclined to do around here). In the context of The Dying Animal, Roth's line about the shit and kitsch of the new millennium is tied to the narrative themes of aging and death, and to the lament of a sixty-something sophisticate for the vulgarity and volume of commercially subsidized art/culture. What it brings to my mind is the header of just about any BuzzFeed article on just about any afternoon.

Sixteen years into our new millennium, does anyone need to be told what technological institution has been at front and center of pretty much every social, economic, and cultural development of any consequence?

Twenty years ago, the internet was basically a collection of scattered villages across a desert plain. Today it's Las Vegas: the show, the sin, the spectacle, the sauce, the horizonal payoff, the halogen waterfalls unceasing. Let's talk about kitsch. Let's talk about hype. Let's talk about a world where all of us carry a mainline to the wellspring on our person at all times and hit the spigot at the faintest threat of momentary boredom. Let's treat the inauguration of the new millennium the first symbolic pump of the fist in a bold new age of continuous digital onanism. The age of the cynosure as imperial dominatrix. Where the amusing triviality is indispensable in proportion to that it is inescapable. Where today's outrage is always the crowning outrage and today's hero must be fast-tracked for sainthood. Where this afternoon's election or scandal or information leak is always apocalyptic. Where the next good thing is going to be the best thing, the best thing ever, and this year's pop musician is always incomparable, the most important and best, probably of all time. Tomorrow's big deal is always going to be a bigger deal than today's, the biggest deal ever, which you couldn't imagine even if you had time. Always rising tension, always hype hype hype, never attenuated by pulling back nor interspersed by any refractory period because there autostimulation never comes to climax. And the last stroke, the last meme, offender, hero, game, song, virus, internet-breaking sensation (because what else can culture strive for at this point; breaking the internet would do it, would give us the orgasm we've been desperate for after our aggregated centuries of checking our feeds and timelines and sharing clicking and swiping and pressing play and scrolling down and down and down jacking off and off and off), the last explosive mass-moment preceding this one, as in the one at this instant (blink and it's ), every jack and pump prior to this one sinks deeper into the cultural quicksand, only to be periodically dragged to the surface for a few moments when thirtysomething assholes like me become enthused and not a little meltingly sentimental when two or more of us happen to recall slap bracelets or pogs or Gonads and Strife at the same time in the same place (and when thirtysomethings your age in fifteen years are reminded of the insanely pretty rainbow highlighter everyone lost their shit over that one time). 

IT IS THE FUTURE, and in the future every instant the ball is dropping, every moment a new millennium sweeps anew across the synaptic continent.

And I sometimes feel rather alone in wishing I could skulk altogether away from the party, in being bummed and burned out from relentless excitation. I can very much relate to the waiter Homer and Marge Simpson speak to at T.G.I. McScratchy's, the bar and dance hall at Itchy & Scratchy Land where it's always New Year's Eve.

Oh god I'm incapable of protesting 21st-century media culture without employing material from twentieth-century media culture (converted to the macro currency of twentieth-first century media culture). The neoplasia has its taproot in my vitals. The malignancy has been spreading without intervention for longer than I thought. It's probably no use operating at this point. Might as well accept it spend the rest of the evening viewing and commenting on vindictive YouTube dissections of the new Powerpuff Girls series.


  1. Hm...Millennium memories...I don't remember much, honestly. I was at a party thrown by a girl I was deeply, madly in love with, though she didn't seem to share the affection. we ended up sitting in her room and listening to Jethro Tull records. A friend of mine went skinny dipping out back. I think I had just turned 17.

    Are we better off now than we were in 2000?Part of me wants to meditate on just how totally valuable, and underappreciated, the advent of Wikipedia is. That's the real gift we've given to the next generation: collected human knowledge.

    Other than that, I don't think I'm any more crazy than I was when I was 17, just crazy in a different way.

    1. I use Wikipedia and I appreciate it, but it sometimes leaves me feeling cold. Mostly because people seem to mistake skimming a Wikipedia article on something with LEARNING about it, and Wikipedia is really geared towards presenting information on a subject in a great big heap rather than in a form more conducive to absorption. (Look up ANY article on physics and tell me they'd be useful to the curious layman.)

      I was sixteen that year. I remember I was the only dude at the gathering I attended. They put me in a dress and gothed me out and we tried to crash the bro party down the street, where we were called a 'faggot dykes' and refused alcohol. Ah, memories.

  2. People all around me have been saying for years that Orwell was right. Naff that, Huxley was, and he went ahead and coded us a Skynet and some Terminators.

    Glad to see you still truckin' in this crazy, crazy year of Our Lord 2K16.