Luxury to Read

July 14, 2007

Flying can be nerve-wracking for someone like me who doesn’t really like to fly. I think it’s being so far from the ground, rather than any nausea or fear of aeroplane safety, that rubs grit into the animal fear center of my brain as assiduously as a penitent with a worry stone. There are more geometries to be worried about in a plane, as opposed to an earth-bound accident. Irrational, I know, but persuasive.

A great pleasure of flying for me though is reading. Being forced to inhabit isolated pockets of time like that, where my normal penumbral distractions and responsibilities have no power, can be such a godsend. There is a wonderful little story by Isaac Asimov that I read when I was 16 or so which explains a bit of the pleasure of such isolated pockets of time. It’s part of his short story collection Azazel.


Azazel is a loosely connected cycle of stories based around the eponymous Biblical Demon, a mischievous little imp who grants the spoken and unspoken wishes of a gentleman named George. All of these wishes are taken quite literally, and predictably all of George’s best laid plans go awry. Unfortunately I cannot remember the title of the story I am reminded of, but the gist is this:

George’s writer friend complains to him that he is sick of waiting everywhere he goes, sick of the grocery store lines, sick of waiting for a table at restaurants, sick of waiting for taxi cabs, just altogether sick of the modest inefficiencies in his daily life. Azazel hears this complaint, and without George’s explicit request to do so, Azazel corrects the writer friend’s problem without delay.

George doesn’t run into his friend for a little while, but when he finally does the writer seems haggard, aggrieved and generally depressed. Unbeknownst to the writer, he needed those isolated pockets of time to daydream, create and process his ideas for which he has no time anymore to conceive of or hash out. He is miserable because of his lack of self-awareness; he is consumed by a pernicious bout of writer’s block since he did not comprehend the precise value of his time.

The perfect little story to read when you’re 16 and full of beans, asea in the chemical wash that besets us all after puberty. Something stuck with me, and made me a little more patient and sensitive to bubbles of frustration that might afflict me from time to time. The older I get this is easier to forget, especially now that I am in graduate school and drink espresso most every day. I do not want to be like an old boss of mine from the now-defunct Child World (or, Children’s Palace) chain, whom a fellow manager once described memorably as a “guy who takes red lights as a personal offense.”

I mentioned in an earlier post about Haruki Murakami that I hadn’t yet read his new novel, After Dark, and on my flight over to Seattle I finally had the time to invest; I finished it while still in the air, actually. It’s a modest little thing, more like a novella than anything else, but unfortunately I think it would’ve worked better as a short story…


After Dark (Afutādāku), Haruki Murakami transated by Jay Rubin ©2007 (originally 2004) Alfred A. Knopf

Many of the best artists seem so original because they have a peculiar world-view that seems so alien but in which we can recognize ourselves, or the contours of our world. Murakami very often mines this terrain by kneading our recognition into a pulsing silhouette of memory and nostalgia, calling forth tendrils of recognition from a deeply submerged mental seabed of symbols, much like Dali, Jung, Borges and Buñuel. Unfortunately, for many artists and thinkers who inhabit these spaces for too long, their initial insight becomes a locked groove, cycling endlessly over that same grainy inch of inspiration, and what they represented so powerfully at first becomes an aenemic cliché teetering on the edge of parody.

Murakami has flirted with this in several of his works, alternatively successfully (as in A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) and disappointingly (Sputnik Sweetheart, anyone?). After Dark is nearly a failure, but there is enough tweaking of his formula to keep it interesting for a time. His central conceit is that there are two worlds which inhabit us all, and it is the struggle to maintain a distinct separation between the two that fuels the emotional psychology of his characters. He is like David Lynch in this respect; each of them repeatedly returns to either the idea of the doppelgänger or of the homunculus, and each has an overwhelming need to make this separation explicit. For Lynch, it can appear as corporeal agents who freely traverse both worlds, or in the case of Twin Peaks it is the Black and White lodges. For Murakami, it is a rift in a person’s consciousness, a mysterious disappearance or a physical twin. No matter how firm our identification with a sense of reality, there is an equally tenable alternate reality holding scissors to our worryingly thin umbilical thread.

In After Dark the doppelgänger twins are sisters, Eri and Mari. Eri is a hopelessly beautiful model who is condemned to a self-imposed somnolescence throughout the entire book. Mari is her younger sister, and the essential heart of the work. Mari is an insomniac most nights since her sister’s several month-long exile of sleep began, unaware that she is searching for her sister somewhere in the shadowy nether regions of the night. The period after midnight is predictably depicted as an entry-point to alternative worlds, where Mari is beset with trials and nudging revelatory episodes in roughly the same manner as Kubrick’s Bill Hartford during his waking nightmare in Eyes Wide Shut.

The chapters alternate between the metaphoric malaise of each sister, and what is so alienating is that Murakami seems to be slumming it. The symbols do not carry their weight and feel forced upon the story rather than comfortably paired with it. A Videodrome-esque force powers an unplugged television, at one point capturing Eri for a time in a cavernous office space occupied by a plastic masked & chair-bound stranger, indistinctly flickering between two worlds, which is threatening but too obscure to really haunt. Murakami’s characters feel roughly sketched, which can serve as a concise metaphor in a developed shorter work but is often not compelling in a longer story,especially where emotional states represent a psychological twilight.

Film Still from Alphaville by Jean-Luc Goddard

Perhaps the strangest part is his narration, in which the observer/reader is supposed to be a camera-eye, somewhat in the tradition of Dziga Vertov’s documentary style conception but likely just a literalization of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, a continued reference point for the story. I don’t know if you’ve seen Alphaville, which is a great sci-fi noir from 1965 sans sci-fi special effects, but it is an accurate symbolic kernel for Murakami to re-imagine. In the dystopian future of Alphaville, private eye Lemmy Caution must navigate a dangerous technocratic dictatorship run by the sentient Alpha 60 mainframe. Alpha-60 has outlawed illogical constructs such as love, poetry and emotion, replacing them with an ideation of logical science and, by extension, Nazism and fascism. The film continually quotes bits from Jorge Luis Borges, in particular “A New Refutation of Time,” which provides the resolution in Caution’s final confrontation with Alpha-60. (I cannot recommend Labyrinths by Borges highly enough, the source of the original Refutation essay)

Murakami’s vaguely noir narrator is intrusive and ingratiating in a strange way, continually appealing to our TV-moderated visual sense while cheapening the motif of electrically charged menace. I’m not a fan of narration which disrupts the flow of a story unless it is absolutely crucial to communicating the symbolic resonance of a story. Far more often than not narration is a substitute for substance, masking holes in the narrative or simplifying the process of revelation central to a well-crafted narrative. Worse, they try to artificially involve you in the story without making the effort to convey the emotional weight naturally. (I am thinking of Tom Robbins’ 2nd-person narrative misfire Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas in particular) I just wonder why he chose to use a narrator who speaks directly to the readers, and it never became clear to me unless he is writing with an eye toward the eventual cinematic treatment…

Like Lynch before him, who nowadays is endlessly recycling symbolic content in an accelerating circle of fragmentary polarization, Murakami is at risk of seeming like a one-trick pony if he doesn’t ease up on using and abusing his highly personalized semiotic universe. Perhaps he needs to slow down, and appreciate any opportunities for any restful isolated pockets of time. My advice to you then is to read his earlier works first, and though After Dark isn’t as bad as Sputnik Sweetheart it is not essential, more of a holding pattern than a fully realized narrative. For me it just deepened my admiration for the numerous brilliant works he has already so effortlessly created.


The Voyeur in the Mirror

June 18, 2007

photo of stencil in Amsterdam, taken & edited by me

I stepped out this morning, as I often do, to get some espresso. Helps me focus, and I have a final paper to work on today. With a little forethought, and a little persistence, you could’ve come with me.

As I got myself ready to go outside, you could’ve trained the eye of Google Earth on my apartment. Once I started on my way to the bank, you could’ve joined me with Google Street View. Once at the ATM, you have your choice of either capturing the surveillance feed from their external security cameras, or you could ask the bank for the footage from the ATM itself.


As I walked back to the nearest bus stop, maybe you could find me in the background of a traffic camera ticketing photo; sorry, I’m slightly blurry since I haven’t had my espresso yet. Once on the bus, I may or may not be under surveillance, as the warning so coyly suggests. That’s ok, since once I get off the bus you can find me with Google Street View again, or with one of our native Chicago surveillance cameras. Visuals are overrated anyway, so if you’re really enterprising you can find me by tracing my cell phone GPS identification. And any number of private corporations will happily supply you with my personal history if you’ve got cash money. If all else fails, tomorrow I’ll be driving; there’s that little mapping system in my car, and savvy hackers can help you pinpoint that.

As you may have heard, Time magazine said that you were the person of the year last year. Little old you. Really,though, you have a lot more influence than you think, and not necessarily in the way you want. It goes beyond levels of surveillance that are normally discussed or commonly acknowledged. This blog is watching you, actually, and I get statistics on my readers second by second. If I sign up for Google Analytics or a similar service I could get more detailed data, with practical business applications. (A recently ended program called Spyjax used to collect data on people’s browsing histories while showing them how it was being done, in order to heighten Internet user’s awareness of spyware and the like. Unfortunately he’s closed shop to save bandwidth, so no widget for me.)

Chicago contracts with many different security providers, it’s true, though we are not quite as widely watched as in London, where there’s approximately one camera per fourteen people. But then, maybe we are…

Personal data is, after all, the new black.

There was a movement after the Second World War to require the use of national identification numbers, and the government lost the fight to the will of the people. Big business was behind the push, and considering what happened in the years that followed, the people lost the fight anyway. But the truth is, we are the ones who willingly gave up the ghost.

Business began to require us to submit to them our social security numbers if we wanted to do business, which, unless we willingly provided it to them, they had no right to have access to. But we did, with little resistance. And our government was happy, because they got what they wanted through capitalism, not legislation, and in the sixties restrictions on the sale or distribution of our SS numbers, or, let’s be honest with ourselves, our national identification number, were loosened. For example, in 1961, the IRS was permitted to use the social security number for identification, one of the major stumbling blocks in initial movements toward a national ID.

I would bet you that not only your credit card company and bank have this number, but your super market, your doctor, your insurance companies, your power supply providers, your home rental agency, your car rental agency, and maybe even your Internet provider. When colleges began using using SS numbers for student identification purposes there was a large outcry, but due to the high circulation rate of students, lasting legislation or regulation is still problematic, with an estimated use today on campuses of about 50%. My undergraduate school used SS ID numbers, so it would be printed on anything mailed, presented to, or just related to me during my time there. Hardly a defense of my privacy or security.

What’s interesting to me is that when SS numbers are used so overtly in college documents there is a passionate outcry. Yet when it is a supposedly “private” transaction such as a sale of goods or services, we do not hold to the same standard of personal security. This national temperament is so obvious, if you are looking for it.

Just look at this website portal which links to reality television shows. For every show that encourages us to observe one another in an ostensibly responsible way, such as America’s Most Wanted, there are at least ten whose motives are a little more suspect (Cops, Fear Factor, Maury Pauvich, The White Rapper Show, Elimidate, I Want a Famous Face, Real World, Combat Missions, Extreme Makeover, and House Arrest. See how easy that was?) In a way it’s fun to see ourselves reflected, even if in an unflattering way, through major media outlets. The undercurrent of a modern carny sideshow is unavoidable, and perhaps even ridicule of the poor and disenfranchised. I’ve honestly never sat through a whole episode of Rikki Lake or Jerry Springer because, halfway through, I would always imagine friends of mine who are homeless, or myself (not long enough ago) when I couldn’t afford ramen, or heat for my apartment. What would I be willing to do, if it comes down to it? Honestly, though, reality TV betrays middle class values for the most part. So is it that we want to be celebrities so much that we desire to be under a similar type of scrutiny so as to feel similarly valued?

Ever heard of Za Gaman, or other Japanese game shows?

Or how about Remote Lounge in NYC. If you’ve never been there, I highly recommend it. I’m serious. It is exhilarating, adrenaline-inducing and wildly creepy. The whole bar is wired, and the idea is that if you see someone you want to meet or hook up with, just talk to them over your own little personal camera station. As though Londoners were flirting with one another using their CCTV. Here’s a bit of their take on it: “Rather than focus on the “Big Brother” association with the surveillance technology that has been co-opted and adapted to use in the lounge, CEV founders point out that their version of telepresence is used to very different ends then traditional surveillance implementations. First of all, access to the system is mutual, bilateral and consensual – nobody gets to violate anyone else’s privacy in a manner that they would not be subject to themselves. Secondly, the environment is designed to encourage exploration, experimentation and human interaction rather than to control or protect people or property.”

And it’s emblematic of where our heads are at today. The other night I trawled through some Flickr showcases, and searched for people who I haven’t spoken to for years. I didn’t find many of them, but did find about four; there they are for me to quietly watch, a voyeur of their lives today. I went to Youtube, and even found snippets of video from a 1990 talent show at my high school, a talent show I was in! (Sadly the bit with me in a plastic pink skirt playing bongos and singing with my friends about Queen Liliuokalani wasn’t on there.) Pixelated ghosts beckon and beguile me through the ether like my own personalized Videodrome.

The thing is, however disturbing some of this is to me, I am equally awestruck, and humbled by the direction we have taken. There are extremely positive aspects to it, largely in the realm of accountability. Joe Biden, Michael Richards, Don Imus and the like had better be careful. If only we can keep reporters from being embedded with the military and get back to honest reporting… But then, with blogs such as Baghdad Burning, A Star from Mosul, and other amazing front-line blogging of so many people telling real stories and looking for loved ones, maybe we can move away from sponsored reporting. As with many double edged swords, the process can be one of promise and opportunity, so long as we do not abdicate responsibility, and quietly give up the ghost.

Dziga Vertov, from The Man with the Movie Camera

“It called forth nearly all the constituent powers of the century. It revealed the century as it liked to relax when wearing none of its masks.”

Ok, Giedion is talking about patent furniture, but it sounds like the Internet to me. I won’t give up on it for anything, though, and I will fight like Voltaire for it to remain unfiltered. The possibilities are just too great, and if we let it get delimited by force or by censure, only the military and outlaws will be able to take advantage of it.

Degradation of the Image

June 14, 2007

“Novelty, give us novelty, seems to be the cry, heaven and earth and the wide sea cannot obtain the forms and fancies that are here displayed . . . like the whimsies of madness.”

Henry Cole, Journal of Design vol. 1, p.74 (1849)

I am still working my way through Mechanization Takes Command by Sigfried Giedion, and it is a monster of an analysis. His book, from 1948, tries to encompass nearly every strata of civilization affected by the advent of mechanization, and remarkably he is spot on more often than off the mark. In earlier chapters he has tackled the mechanization of lock making, slaughterhouses, agriculture, home comfort, libraries, bread-making, scientific management, tools, furniture, and even devoted a chapter to incubating eggs.

His personal specialty, however, is architecture, and in particular the historical human relationship to space. After a hundred or so pages delving into rococo, high Gothic and Flanders styles, Romanesque chairs and Dutch kitchens, he is finally getting back to the focus of his argument, and it is diverting me from all kinds of work I should be doing for school.

I can remember, since my freshman year of high school when I first really thought about the Industrial Age, being obsessed with the meaning of mechanization. For me, to understand what industrialization wrought is the key to comprehending our lives today. America was always central to the global shift toward mechanization, since we obliterated whatever history pre-existed us. We simply do not live intimately with history the same way that the rest of the world does. I’ve traveled enough to feel, if only for a short while, what it is like to live side by side with history.

I am thinking of: Rotterdam’s new architectural face after war-time obliteration; the bombed out cathedral in Coventry’s city center, left in ruins as a powerful memorial; many thousands of Buddhist Wats co-existing with modern Thailand, tucked behind state of the art hospitals, in the heart of the Golden Triangle, or nestled amongst the gaudy glitter and pomp of Siam Square, Bangkok; or perhaps Luang Prabang in Laos, a UNESCO world heritage city, whose central planning and roadways have not changed for over a thousand years, except for a paved central road.

Chiang Mai, or northwestern Thailand

For me, it’s a very emotional aspect of spending time with people, while I’m visiting their homeland…growing to understand a little bit of where I am, what shaped it over time, and how my momentary companions live in it. It’s hard to explain, now that I am putting it in words, and I probably should quote bits from my travel journals, if I could find the right passages. I’ve all-too rarely felt it, so meaningfully, but in every place I’ve mentioned, the weight of history was a palpable presence — a communicative quality.

I am certain that the power of history affects me the way it does because of my parents as well. I am first generation American; my parents are Hungarian refugees who fled Soviet occupied Hungary in ’56, during the revolution. Growing up I was always aware of this, even if I was mostly silent about it, and the trips my family made to Europe in the eighties are with me still today. Berlin before the wall fell, waiting in food lines in Hungary, and seeing the tanks with manned, roof-mounted howitzers…

I have often felt as though I was born in the wrong century. Accounts of life hundreds of years ago, or looking at tintypes from the 1800s, or reading about the advent of movable type and early 16th century book fairs, all seem so real to me. Of course, growing up in Jersey just outside of NYC, it would be disingenuous to imply that I’m not thoroughly modern in my mindset, or passionate about living today. I am learning XHTML and CSS so that I can help libraries thrive now, to encourage the free flow of information to all in an equitable way, to be a web DJ after grad school, and to get my collages out there in a way that helps me connect with other artists globally. (I hope to pick up some Perl and Javascript along the way as well…)

So I continue to read Giedion, and think about what he is implying. For him, mechanization is a neutral phenomena. The crux of the 18th century societal sea change is in the mindset that encouraged a spread of mechanization to all spheres of life, the underlying cultural milieu. Our industrial age is not yet over, despite the death knell sounded by many supposed “experts” over the years. It inhabits, and shapes, our emerging information age, and historically it is quite young. So what is it, exactly, that changed all those years ago?

As a good friend of mine, Bobby, once realized, “everything is design.” Really, one morning he woke with this realization, and he hasn’t quite been the same since. He even went into newspaper design as a result, after 14 years as a bookseller, and soon he hopes to expand his professional duties. What he meant, the realization that knocked him flat on his ass, was this: from the minutiae to the grand, every aspect of our environment is designed in some way.

And he’s right. From the architecture of our language, the cut of our clothes, hair and appearance, from the streets to our airspace, to our food and water, our homes, the framework of our relationships, it’s all in some way designed. Even supposedly open public spaces are increasingly compartmentalized, parsed out to various special interests for any number of purposes: burning, clear cutting, fishing, off-roading, etc. As many recent articles have discussed, dogs are currently a massive experiment in eugenics, the playground for ambitious geneticists. No longer content to selectively cross breed as agriculturalists have done for centuries, no longer content to grow ears on the back of mice and add jellyfish genes to rabbits to make them glow, we will likely have few dogs left in a generation or two that are not in some way reshaped by human science.

Alba, the Glowing Bunny

(Alba, the glowing bunny, is a link to an article from American Scholar about the Human Genome Project)

All of this comes back to mechanization for me, and our relationship to the symbols that make up our lives. Giedion talks about the degradation of symbols, how 18th century France under Napoleon’s rule was a hotbed of modernist re-imagination. By widely disseminating an opulent, disassociated relationship to the symbols of status and statehood, Napoleon encouraged a nascent mindset that thrives today. Essentially, coincident with the rise of rationalism and the foundation of the United States, emerged widespread devaluation of natural resources and symbolic imagination. Where up until that point objects were valued for their utility and function, now the object in and of itself was valued.

Giedion’s argument is extensive and thorough, and I can hardly touch upon the details here. The main point is that, with a shift from valuing the material used to fabricate goods to valuing the goods themselves, we completely reorganized our mental and physical relationships with each other and our environs. We began to ignore the connection between ourselves and what is external to our immediate senses, by willfully placing our own system of understanding before any shared relationships. This is how we came to use stopwatches to break down the work day into discrete motions by assembly line employees with scientific management. This is how Harold Edgerton was able to capture the movement of a bullet through a playing card, or an apple. This is why the nude descended the staircase. Like mechanization, a potentially neutral shift, but one with unavoidable consequences if left unexamined.

In the first generation or two, several movements emerged to counterbalance this shift, such as Henry Cole’s reformists, but … time marches on.

“We have left no imprint of our age either on our dwellings, on our gardens, or on anything else…we have culled something from every century but our own…we live off fragments.”

Alfred de Musset, 1836.

Un Semaine de Bonte, First Book

I have a love affair with Max Ernst, I must admit. Siegfried Giedion uses a lot of artwork to supplement his points, and I really appreciate that approach. He focuses a lot on collage, and especially my idol, Max Ernst. When I was 16 years old I came across a copy of Un Semaine de Bonte, one of his collage novels. It struck me like a thunderbolt, and each year as I get older I feel like it grows with me, continually nudging me a little further toward understanding my age, and my contemporary brethren. I am only now starting to appreciate what the dadaists and surrealists were really exposing, what Aleksandr Rodchenkho, Dziga Vertov and their fellow artists in Russia were unconsciously making sense of. I opened up Un Semaine de Bonte today, after a few years absence, and right on the first “day” of the novel is a lion, staring at Napoleon. I feel like Giedion is gently whispering to me, as he lifts my head and my eyes, tying a loose string across my heart…

“You will not be able to take joy in the world until you feel the ocean flowing in your veins, until you clothe yourself with the heavens and crown yourself with the stars, and see yourself as the sole heir of the whole world — and more than that, for there are people living on it who, like you, are the sole heirs.”

Thomas Traherne Centuries of Meditation (1638-1674)