Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Fears of a post-truth planet (part two)

Paul Klee, Die Zwitscher-Maschine (1922)

Continued from where we left off.


Trump isn't the first reality TV star to be elected president. That (dubious?) honor goes to Jack Kennedy. Every presidential election since 1960 has been, to a progressively wider degree, a TV pageant where the last contestant standing after the final elimination round gets to live in the White House. All of our presidents, and certainly most of our high-profile legislators, are characters on television.

It is question for the child development specialists: at what point does the young boy or girl learn and understand that the events shown on Clarissa Explains It All and Salute Your Shorts (come on, I'm not going to pretend to know what the kids are watching these days) aren't really happening? How does he or she learn and come to apply knowledge of the difference between "real" and "just pretend" content in the mass media?

It may be a matter of aesthetic: perhaps the child extrapolates from the stylistic variations the difference between the fabricated drama of Veep or West Wing reruns and the real drama of a presidential press conference or State of the Union address. The better the teleplay and direction, the more likely it is to be pretend. Reality means low production values, discounting the dramatic cable news CG transitions. Maybe those transitions are themselves the telltale indicators.

In all likelihood the distinction must be explained to them by someone who already knows better. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, Marshall McLuhan cites one John Wilson of the African Institute of London University who describes the responses of non-literate villagers to an educational film, and determines that viewing and making sense of a Western motion picture actually requires some training. (Regrettably, McLuhan doesn't see fit to specify where on the African continent Mr. Wilson was, and the original paper is unavailable.) The artificiality of a live-action TV drama won't be obvious to someone who doesn't know any better and has nobody to teach them otherwise, and it's not unlikely that they would continue believing its veracity until presented with compelling evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps the partition we draw between "real" media and "pretend" media is prone to porousness. After all, there are hundreds, thousands of people, grown adults, proving every day on social media, message boards, and break room conversations that the contrived personalities and enacted narratives of mass media fictions are as urgent and real to them as anything in the news. (Case in point: how many American adults are talking about Rogue One? And how many are talking about Aleppo?)

Saturday, December 24, 2016

solstice update (writing)

Jasper Johns, Winter (1987)

Happy belated solstice, everyone. The cosmic waltz continues, and so do we.

Three months from now, it will have been two years since I put out novel #2. It was self-published, begrudgingly, as you know—but shit happens, as you also know.

Since then? I've been blogging, as you can see. I've drawn the occasional comic strip. I've been writing a lot of short stories, which will see the light of day as soon as the unimpeachable congress of lit magazine editors says they are fit to see the light of day. We might be waiting a while.

At times I've mentioned that I've been working on a third novel, which is true—although there have been a few false starts.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

paterson, a painter of the moulin rouge, & haujobb

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance (1890)

Lately I've been reading William Carlos Williams' Paterson (1946–1958). Yes, Willy was a Jersey boy.

I'm not certain Williams is my favorite poet, but I've probably perused more of his oeuvre than I have any other poet's (give or take a Shakespeare or Whitman), and he's appeared on this blog more times (uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco, sechs, sieben, eight) than any other specimen of his breed. And in spite of this, I still don't have a declarative understanding of how he thinks.

That's the Modernists for you: in trying to Make It New, to devise ways of expressing, via English set down on paper, things that no one had yet thought express during the thousand years since English words started being written down, they turned out material that tended to be nonlinear, nebulous, or outright impenetrable without a scholar's annotations. This is why, when I got it in my head to transcribe and post The Descent of Winter a few years back, I appended Williams' entries with images of cubist and expressionist paintings (mostly), and mostly from the early twentieth century. Williams' cohort and the cubists were two flowers budding from the same stem. In painting, the impulse to "break through the skull of tradition" (W.C.W.'s words) vitalized work that aggressively flouted devotion to verisimilitude, conveying feelings instead of depicting things, or trying to express the essence of a subject by distorting it—in other words, going about things much in the same mode as their counterparts in the belles-lettres.

In my exploration of Williams' body of work (which is not at all exhaustive), I don't believe I've seen him mention any painters until Book III of Paterson, where the name "Toulouse Lautrec" comes up. I thought it sounded familiar, and a google search confirmed it: I've seen one of Lautrec's pieces in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (top). Evidently Henri Toulouse-Lautrec had a predilection for absinthe and prostitutes, and Williams admired him enough to dedicate Book V of Paterson to his memory.

Those lines referring to Toulouse-Lautrec in Book III are:

Try another book.
Break through the dry air of the place.

An insane god
nights in a brothel  .
        And if I had  .
What then?
—made brothels my home?
      (Toulouse Lautrec
      again  .  )

Say I am the locus
       where two women meet

One from the backwoods
      a touch of the savage
      and of T.B.
      (a scar on the thigh)

The other  ——  wanting,
       from an old culture  .
——and offer the same dish
       different ways

Let the colors run  .

Toulouse Lautrec witnessed
it: limbs relaxed
all religions
       have excluded it——
at ease, the tendons
untensed  .

And so he recorded them

——a stone
thrust flint blue
up through the sandstone
of which, broken,
        but unbreakable
we build our roads  .

——we stammer and elect  .

Hmm. The last two stanzas are disorienting in their abrupt change of topic, but the indentations in the text mark them as belonging to the same section as the previous lines. In the broader context of Paterson, these evocations of bedrock and infrastructure are not incongruous with lines about men, women, and the things men do to/with women. Some notes written by Williams for the dust jacket of Book III's first edition shed some light on what's happening here:
Paterson is a man (since I am a man) who dives from cliffs and the edges of waterfalls to his death——finally. But for all that he is a woman (since I am not a woman) who is the cliff and the waterfall. She spreads protecting fingers about him as he plummets to his conclusions to keep the winds from blowing him out of his path. But he escapes, in the end, as I have said.

As he dies the rocks fission gradually into wild flowers the better to voice their sorrow, a language that would have liberated them both from their distresses had they but known it in time to prevent catastrophe.
Even though Williams has something of a reputation for being more accessible than his contemporaries Eliot and Pound, he's cut from the same cloth and, even though he uses words most of us can understand without reaching for a dictionary, his poems no less often require some effort to decrypt. Paterson is no exception. But again, that's what this push in literature was all about: getting at ideas people haven't gotten at before, expressing emotions that don't have names. The results aren't going to be sonnets or lyric verse, and they're not going to have the same taste or texture on the mind's palate. Williams' poetry often reminds me of the band Haujobb, whom I admire precisely because it is so strange and cool to listen to music that doesn't hit any of the usual facile feely buttons—that avoids "good safe stereotype," to borrow more of Williams' phrasing.

Anyway yeah Paterson is p good

Monday, December 12, 2016

Fears of a post-truth planet (part one)

Annette Lemieux, Truth (1989)


I'll own up to it. During the 2012 presidential campaign, I was all confidence that the only fitting response to Mitt Romney's pronouncing Russia the United States' "number one geopolitical foe" was laughter, served with as much derision as possible.

"Please. Cold War's over, Mitt," I said (probably to the radio). "Russia hasn't had its shit remotely together in decades. Get real."

So: mea culpa. Mitt Romney was right—or at least prescient. It's doubtful he could have guessed exactly how and with what Russia would attempt to undermine America four years later, but to his credit, he saw something was brewing.

The return of an antagonistic, gives-no-fucks Russia might be nostalgic for some people. For almost five decades the USSR was the perfect foil to the US of A. After its collapse, the hawkish paranoiacs still had Iraq, Al-Qaeda, and Barack Obama to fear and despise, but it just wasn't the same. None of them exuded the same cunning, implacable menace as the Ruskies. I imagine our nationalistic seniors feel about the Cold War the same way I do about the first season of The Flash. It's hard to replace a good villain.

Well, now Russia's back—only I suspect that the most perfervid anticommunists from back in the day probably voted for Trump, and we all know how he feels about Vladmir Putin, and how Putin feels about him. So maybe the Ruskies aren't so bad after all, right? Not like those murdering, raping Mexicans, anyway.

God, the world really has gone topsy fucking turvy. 

I started typing this post before the Washington Post disclosed the CIA's assessment of Russian interference in the election—back when it was still assumed that Russia's aim was disinformation for its own sake, and not necessarily the conversion of Putin's personal preference into electoral leverage—but the point I wished to make still holds true: I'm far less disturbed by Russia's (purported) goals than by the weapons they've employed to achieve them, and by the toxic fallout they're releasing into our discursive ecosystem.