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Category Archives: Politics

Quirk, Wonder, the Middle Mind, Generation Q; there has been an identifiable backlash against the ascendant social aesthetic in American culture as of late. In the pages of the Atlantic, the New York Times, and other places, the graying Boomers especially are asking, what is wrong with the kids today? What is going on in American society? Michael Hirschorn in the Atlantic announces like a ship steward on the Titanic, “We are drowning in quirk.”
Hirschorn’s “Quirked Around” in The Atlantic


Generational Quirks

More often than not, I found myself agreeing with Hirschorn and his self-selected allies in piecemeal, but rarely can I stand behind their awkward, fusty umbrella terms. Note my use of “fusty,” because that’s exactly how fusty some of them write, like old men with cane in hand and hair up ass about the kids and their damn quirk!

Many complaints have been, at root, generational. Some of the arguments smell of Boomer cluelessness and others stink of Boomer resentment. If I have a generational theory, it is this. Currently, Boomers top the triangle, running the government, the economy, what your Marxist teacher derided as, “the base.” Generation X is ascendant in cultural production, advertising, marketing, music, and TV, while Generation Y is the consumer generation. Each generation, obviously shares aspects of the others, but each as a whole, fulfills their own broad social role.

If this is even remotely true, it is easy to see that Boomers are reacting against the fact that Generation Xers, the cool, older brothers with kids who still smoke dope, the Jon Stewarts of the world, have so much influence on their kids, the Gen Yers. This has led various columnists to fulminate and promulgate labels, such as Friedman’s latest, Generation Q for quiet.

But does Generation Quiet have anything to do with Hirschorn’s quirk?

Quirky Alone
Many of the quirky things Hirschorn takes aim at are, I agree, annoying. Zach Braff’s crappy Garden State to Napoleon Dynamite’s almost criminal popularity; at the risk of sounding like an elitist, I agree. And I’ll go further and say, in this polluted cultural environment, it is vital to be able to sniff out poisonous pretenders. I, like many, have grown tired of cheap quirk, though I often still occasionally give it a longingly, nostalgic over the shoulder glance the way one might an old girlfriend you spot during last call.

Those are his softball targets. His real goal is a fastball special at Ira Glass and This American Life. I could care less about this show, though I think he’s fundamentally correct that it enforces its own narrative closure and meaning, rendering it insincere, artistically amoral, and just clueless.

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I am more interested in the larger cultural diagnosis, the cry for help of the drowning man adrift without a life preserver in a sea of quirk. Quirk has obscured something, which I guess is the trouble; it is hard to name. Like Surrealism or Dada, 80s/90s countercultural American quirk is no longer vital or transgressive it has been co-opted; not a harmless adoption either, but one that allows the tentacles of the mainstream Moloch to toss opposition into its slathering maw. I have what I consider a more enlightened, more nuanced view of media, but I still insist some meaningful countercultural notion persists, though it is drowning and voiceless in the current environment. Proof that culture is not synonymous with media!

 

Quirk History
Hirschorn claims quirk is traceable back to David Byrne, and that may be true, although I doubt it; nonetheless, Byrne’s quirky vision has become the norm. Watch his movie, True Stories, sometime and tell me you don’t see the germ of everything from “Arrested Development” to “Flight of the Conchords” in it.

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What is it, is it the hat?

In defense of Byrne and similar artists, his quirk began as gentle irony, or the appearance of gentle irony; a disguise meant to disarm his audience. The implicit critique of True Stories remains every bit as true and uncompromising.


The Trouble with Quirk

Quirk used to come packaged in small doses or remained festering in the underground. It typically had a point of view and an ambition, like Byrne in True Stories. Without a point of view, without something to contrast against, quirk becomes tiresome, and is too often, too easily, used to coat an utterly bland, utterly conventional story.

 

Quirks are by definition, meaningless. They are impairments, not powers, but they aren’t disabilities either. Self, once a reflexive interiority, once a historical actor, once a moral agent, is now an individual quirk. Quirks avoid meaning at all cost. Quirks occasionally rise to the level, almost, of significance, or more rightly, occasionally your quirks are validated alongside the quirks of others, in a dance of quirks.

 

The real danger in quirk, which seems by definition so declawed, so harmless, if overly cute and annoying, is that it actually drains meaning out of life, is ahistorical, and fundamentally an ideology of no ideology.

Quirk does not lay naked and bare the absurd human condition in its vanity to discover meaning in the universe ala Beckett; quirk is fuzzy, suburban, and nihilistic, in that it suggests any attempt to produce meaning is futile.

Gross Anatomy

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A precursor to Hirschorn’s takedown of Ira Glass is Curtis White’s less-read “The Middle Mind.” According to White, the right-left cultural debate in America disguises a greater consensus, that of the Middle Mind.

White sees, Terry Gross’s Fresh Air on NPR as emblematic of this Middle Mind, in all its “charm and banality.” http://www.centerforbookculture.org/context/no9/white.html

“The Middle Mind does not locate itself between high and low culture. Rather, it asserts its right to speak for high culture indifferent to both the traditionalist Right and the academic Left.” Which doesn’t sound so bad (proving it really is a cultural zeitgeist) until one absorbs the breath of its “pornographic” vapidity.

White’s point is that the Middle Mind simulates intellectual content without discrimination or taste. He points to Gross’s indecent interests in an author’s biography more than their books. He gives the example of a woman who wrote a book in which a woman wishes her husband dead and he dies, then, sometime later her own husband dies. Terry asks:

“What did it feel like to suspect you’d killed your own husband with your art?”

Fresh Air?” he retorts, “ How about Lurid Speculations? It’s like Dr. Laura for people with bachelor degrees.”

White then attacks Louise Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse:

In the first thirty-five pages of this novel its heroine is in a convent, falls in love with Chopin while playing his music at the piano, moves in with a rugged but tender farmer, has torrid (and tormented) sex with same, is kidnapped by a bank robber, is shot in the hip (by the Sheriff!) and witnesses the death of her-lover-the-farmer, shot by the bank robber, but not before he gouges out the robber’s eyes with his thumbs and buries him with the sheer force of his own dying body weight in soggy prairie loam.

According to White, Gross,and her brethren in the Middle Mind cultural engine room, can’t and don’t distinguish between genre fiction disguising itself as serious fiction, and serious fiction. They can’t. Furthermore, she does not distinguish real questions about art from trivia. It is a middlebrow simulation. I should say here, I like plenty of genre fiction, and I feel that genre fiction can aspire to serious fiction, but it does so not by aping forms, but through engagement with what it means to be alive.


Wonderbar!

Shortly thereafter, novelist Melvin Jules Bukiet wrote “Wonderbread,” for The American Scholar as a diagnosis of what he calls Brooklyn Books of Wonder, or BBoW. Putting aside the clumsiness of this term, nevermind its inaccuracy, let’s look beyond his obvious artistic ressentiment, (raise your hand if you’ve heard of him or read his books before) at his argument, because several points are solid, if poorly clothed.
http://www.theamericanscholar.org/au07/wonder-bukiet.html

 

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Bukiet is NOT a Morlock.

Essentially, Bukiet takes issue with the kitsch rampant in the writing of many leading American writers. He identifies their spiritual home in Brooklyn, a place he characterizes as a Neverland for would-be Pan’s who can’t hack reality or rents in the adult world of Manhattan. This is probably Bukiet at his least sympathetic and least persuasive. He sounds ugly. And he sounds old. In Bukiet’s fantasy, Brooklyners sport goatees and ponytails! Not since, maybe 1993, though the goatee is still alive in the Midwest, it hasn’t been a signifier for hipsters in Brooklyn in a long time, if ever. Now, if only he’d said something about ironic mustaches and dancepants….

Scratch Brooklyn off, and you’re left with Books of Wonder, still hardly catchy. I assume Bukiet was inspired in part by Michael Chabon’s first novel, Wonder Boys, and I think this idea of forced, unearned, dishonest, premature, overeager, breathless Wonderment, at the heart of his argument is strong and recognizable by anyone with good sense.

So why not call them Wonderbooks! Or BoyWonderBooks! Or really anything, but Brooklyn Books of Wonder.

Bukiet is right, however, about one thing: McSweeney’s, Believer, N+1, et al. are formulating a new generation of literary culture that is fundamentally dishonest and cheap. At all levels, we are a culture of unearned optimism; one in which anything less is actually punishable.

He relies on Kundera for authority, a risky, unhip idea. Kundera is not a wonderboy, he is a curmudgeon. However, like it or not, Kundera is also a smart guy. ‘Kitsch” according to Kundera is “the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling [that] moves us to tears of compassion for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel.”

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Kitschen Konfidential

Let’s unpack Kundera and by extension Bukiet’s use of kitsch. It may confuse many that kitsch is even used as an insult. Isn’t kitsch, like, trashy fun, isn’t that shop full of kitsch accoutrements funny? Camp and kitsch, though tightly bound together are two different things. Camp is, as Susan Sontag defines it, “the failed attempt at seriousness.” It is also camp to recognize kitsch as kitsch, but to be kitsch is to obscure rather then reveal the contradictions and complexities of life, so it is more than a case of bad taste, it a case of immorally bad taste; and is often allied with repressive societies and cultural values for that very reason.

To tie this discussion back into that of quirk. Quirk initially began as a genuine element of legitimate artistic projects; now quirkiness has been co-opted by kitsch, much as Surrealism, or Dada, like any other process or technique. Quirk, like kitsch before it, sections off the complications and complexities of real-life beneath a gauzy haze of meaningless, trivial quirk. Bukiet’s complaint about wonder, regarding its kitschiness, apply equally to quirk. Together, quirk and wonder, the inverts of shock and awe, form two guiding lode stars in a grand constellation of 21st century kitsch.

So, we have a series of cultural diagnoses, having to do with quirk, the middle mind, and cheap wonderment, is there some common equation? Yes. These articles all suffer from an obsession with buzzworthy phrases, without quite understanding how buzzwords work. All the same, yes, we really are drowning in quirk.

I’m not punker than thou, but I’m punker than most

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Okay, not half as punk as this shit.

 

A Loose, Baggy Conclusion
Born in 1977, recently 30; I am either the lead edge of Y or the long tail of X. People my age fall into this narrow, but deep crack between the two. A netherworld of mixed allegiances.

I think much of the generational griping is a ruse. I think Boomers fail to understand the level of either: A. indifference that protest generates and B. danger serious protesters face (“Don’t Tase Me, Bro!”). The fact is, this is a far more competitive and unstable world than the Boomers grew up in. There are no guarantees and class anxiety is rampant. Increasingly, nearly everyone at all levels of society finds it appropriate even natural to judge people moral solely on their social success. And they fail to understand their complicity in the repressive society we live in, one that circulates a dizzying proliferation of kitschy, quirky, middle mind, what-have-you ideas.

You could also argue, I guess I’m putting forward the possibility, that they are a symptomatic masks used to hide our identity, not from others, but ourselves. The dishonesty of our art, our intellect, and our beliefs is powerful. If the Generation Q feels no particular call to speak out it may be because there is no meaningful references available any longer to speak for or against, no value to uphold, no archetypes to inhabit that have not been disinherited and discredited. Americans grow up essentially as naive and childlike as the upperclass race in Orwell’s Time Machine. The good are fragile and privileged beyond all good.

 

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I.

Gonzo journalism relied on serendipity, and so it is fitting that serendipity brought me a copy of the new Rolling Stone with a cover story on Hunter S. Thompson, “Growing up Gonzo.” It inexplicably appeared in my mailbox a few days ago, addressed to an alias I’d never actually used, initials J.T. Mindful of the Dr.’s own tuning-fork sensitivity to such cryptic weirdness, I slid the bills out from inside the bent “u” of glossy pages and shut the box without touching the magazine. In the event it was a trap set by agents of Scientology, an amateur counterterrorism expert I met in a chatroom, known to me only as der_hund234, suggested I test the pages for trace amounts of a variety of psychoactive pharmaceuticals, and mercury as well. The magazine came back clean. I grabbed it by Hunter’s face and fled in full retreat; no one from Pitchfork or Fader appearing that doomed day to stop me from reading the foul ink of that dead carcass, Rolling Stone Magazine.

Sorry.

Only two years after his death and Hunter is already fading into history. Gonzo is so much a part of our society that his brand of journalism no longer requires a modifier to separate it out from ordinary journalism. Hunter became famous writing for Rolling Stone, so they have a certain proprietary concern with keeping his legacy alive. It reminds readers that RS didn’t always spend all its time reporting on Paris Hilton, but occasionally asked real questions,- about race, politics, culture, etc,- with real sentences, not just extended captions. The authors are RS founder, Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour, a former RS staffer, so it is an in-house job. The article itself is actually the first chapter from their forthcoming book, “Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson.”

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II.
It functions less as an article than a collage of memories from various persons who knew Hunter throughout his life, from childhood friends to Hell’s Angels to writers to ex-wives, which explains the subtitle ‘oral history.’ Noticeably absent from the teaser are his celebrity friends, – Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp, and Bill Murray, all who presumably appear in later chapters. As an introduction to Hunter, it is fascinating. Many of the interviewees are surprisingly candid and insightful about him, and speculate intelligently on the significance of his persona, his writing, and his place in history.

As an early childhood friend, Porter Bibb described him:

“I was always amazed at Hunter’s networking ability. He was solidly middle-class, yet he was hanging out with some multi-millionaire families. Hunter had friends in both high and low society…People gave him, when he was growing up, a huge amount of latitude…”

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III.

Hunter started his journalism career in the Air Force where he wrote press releases that showcase his early talent for embellishment and hyperbole. It may be here that he first repurposed reportage writing for viscerally powerful fictional works that both mimicked and mocked the voice of authority.

Gene McGarr: “The last thing he did, in November 1957, was to write up a press release describing a riot that took place at Elgin when the enlisted men attacked the women’s quarters and the officer’s mess — stole all the booze, got drunk as shit, attacked the women, beat up two officers. It was a very funny and colorful story — completely fictional, of course — and he sent a copy of it to the AP and to UPI, left a copy on his captain’s desk, then drove like a son of a bitch for the gate.”

Hunter was only interested in fiction in so far as he could blend it with truth; only interested in the two in so far as he could, like twins, dress them alike and confuse them with each other. He forced the reader to scrutinize their assumptions about “the facts,” until the line between fiction and truth, fact and lie, history and invention became so suspicious, so drunkenly blurred that abandoning the distinction altogether became the only reasonable way to live, the only responsible thing to do. A personal vice became a political tool and gave birth to a writing style, Gonzo Journalism.

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IV.

William Kennedy calls Hunter’s writing, a “mutation of the fictional form (90).” It is also a mutation of the True Crime Novel genre, established by Truman Capote with In Cold Blood. Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing are the dark doubles, the Mr. Hydes, of the genre. Told from the outlaw’s perspective, the narratively tidy needs of procedural reconstruction and detached analysis give way to loose associative rebellion and war reporting from within an America he saw as at the brink of a second civil war.

One of the best passages from the article is his ex-wife’s account of a party Hunter organized with Ken Kesey to bring together the Hell’s Angels, the Merry Pranksters, and counterculture luminaries like Allen Ginsberg. It is the sort of truth that sounds much harder to swallow than the myth it hides behind. Thompson drove his wife and their infant son to the party. When they arrived, narcotics officers were hiding in the hills and there was a banner stretched across the road welcoming the Hell’s Angels:

Neal Cassady was there, and Allen Ginsberg. Kesey played this four-hour documentary about the Magic Bus… Kesey’s children, who were maybe five or seven, were there – they had taken acid too, though Hunter didn’t. At some point we jumped in a car with Ginsberg to go get some booze. We got stopped by the police, and they asked us who we were. All Ginsberg would say was, “I’m a poet…I’m a poet,” which Hunter and I thought was funny (89).

This incident is starkly contrasted with the revelation that the Angels had gangbanged a girl in a cabin next to Kesey’s home. She describes Hunter’s guilt because he felt, “at fault for bringing them all together, and he felt sick (89).”

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Someday I will write a comparison of Kierkegaard and Hunter S. Thompson.

V.
Politically, Hunter believed in leftist libertarian politics, but in his heart was too anarchic to belong to any sincere political movement, much less the Democratic Party. Hunter was somehow at once a unique individual and a cipher for all these heterogeneous voices that were mounting an insurgency against the dominant monoculture of the time. He wasn’t a socialist, or a redneck, despite getting along with them too, and he wasn’t a hippie or a biker, though he championed their causes. And though he hated and derided Nixon (calling him, “a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad), he also held him in a strangely high regard. Hunter Thompson’s ambition was to swallow the whole era like a handful of pills. America had become a nation of outlaws and villains, he realized, – be they bikers, hippies, rednecks, or Nixon. To write about them, he engulfed their contradictions, and let them go to work on his insides, his brain, his liver, his heart, his guts.

President of the Oakland Hell’s Angels, Sonny Barger, said of Hunter: “He didn’t belittle us…He made us even more of a myth than we were at the time (89).”

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The novel takes its name from a mathematical category, the remainder. A remainder is what’s left over. Typically, we think of a remainder as waste, as unused excess. Unwanted books, clothes, and CDs go in a remainder bin. We treat remainders as nullities, as zeros, but this leftover quantity is never zero; it always remains, positive or negative, and must be considered when accounting for the sum.

In Remainder, the victim of an accident, an unnamed 30 year old man, receives an enormous settlement and uses it to create spaces and events from his imagination that feel realer, that have a stronger emotional resonance, than the life he led before the accident.

Amnesia Fiction
At first he suffers from amnesia. When his memories do return, it is without emotional attachment, they are like “installments of a soap opera.” The literary subtexts of amnesia are all handled by McCarthy in a perfunctory manner; the traumatic event, the quest for recovery, the fragility of self, and the fantasy of escape all become self-reflexive literary elements in the narrator’s story. Estrangement from reality is the starting point for his active identification with his artificial creations. His singular obsession, to create a seamless fictional reality and then occupy the sole autonomous space within it, fills the bulk of the novel.

Tom McCarthy

Though he is British, Tom McCarthy’s first novel is very French, or more specifically, Remainder belongs to the lineage of French novels embraced by America. Every review notes his debt to the young Sartre of Nausea, but the novel is steeped in the whole literary tradition of France.

Previously, McCarthy worked with the archly-ironic avant-garde group, International Necronautical Society. The INS shares Remainder’s preoccupation with using artificial space to realize abstract, immanent realities, and with the amoral, fascistic, and murderous aspects of extreme aestheticism.

The first INS manifesto declares:

1. That death is a type of space, which we intend to map, colonise and, eventually, inhabit.

2. That there is no beauty without death, its immanence. We shall sing death’s beauty; that is beauty.

Beneath this pastiche (blank parody) of Breton (“Beauty will be convulsive or not at all”), Marinetti (“War, the worlds only hygiene,” “Poetry must be a violent assault against the unknown forces in order to overcome them and prostrate them before men.”), and other leaders of the historical avant-garde, is a sincere program that aims at the redefinition of space, of what constitutes, “a space” as an analogy for experience.

Consistent with this objective is a phenomenological question about the self’s relationship to a virtualized, monetized world of objects and people that can be assigned flat, Brechtian roles. By flattening the other to pure two-dimensionality, the narrator’s experiments with imaginary fully-aestheticized spaces are acts of self-recognition. This is signaled by the curious tingling sensations that surge through him when fully immersed in his constructs.

The novel begins:

“About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.”

(The first chapter of Remainder is available online at NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/25/books/chapters/0225-1st-mcca.html)

A psychiatrist would say his voice has low affect, a symptom of some form of disassociative disorder. He shows no attachment to his past, no emotional connection to the people around him, just a singular obsession with staging elaborate scenes, with constructing new space, and molding individuals into flat masks to serve his roles.

Neo-Sartrean Hero
The only emotion he grabs onto or experiences with any vividness is his reaction at certain moments to certain details of his stagings. This is a familiar borrowing from Nausea, but whereas nausea is the Sartrean response to contact with “complete” objects, things in-themselves, McCarthy’s hero feels a curious tingling elation while scrutinizing details of his creations. Functionally, it appears to invert Sartre’s formula, while still working within its confine.

Sartre divides Being into, “in-itself,” “for-itself,” and “for-others.” Human beings are fundamentally being “for-itself;” but can be lured into behaving in bad faith, as being “in-itself” or “for others.” Individuals who do not embrace freedom seek to be “for others;” that is, an object of another’s subjectivity. McCarthy’s hero takes Sartre’s distinction in a Nietzschean direction. His protagonist actually seems to abhor the presence of individuals not playing roles for him.

Huysmans and Decadence

 

McCarthy also owes a debt to Huysmans’s decadent masterpiece, A Rebours (translated alternately as, “Against Nature,” or “Against the Grain”). Like Remainder, A Rebours focuses on an aesthete with inherited wealth but no one to inherit it who retreats into a private aesthetic world that transgresses accepted morality as well as humanity. The story culminates in the decadent hero’s complete inversion of biological processes, by ingesting food through his anus and voiding the waste through his mouth. At the time, Huysmans wrote his novel, Western Europe was undergoing dramatic transformations. The fin de siecle era, which he wrote during, depicted a culture in decay.

McCarthy’s aesthetic project is both a retreat and an insurgency; a portrait that captures the schizoidal malaise of contemporary westerners. Our uniqueness must be as overvalued by others as it is by ourselves, an experience we can purchase in small doses. Freed from economic and empathic restrictions, McCarthy’s neo-Sartrean figure carries this to its logical, mathematical extreme.

Inequality satisfies the uniqueness of the remainder.

 

“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”- Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

 

Hidden in the Business section of the September 15th issue of the New York Times is an article, “The Literature of Capitalism,” about a book, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Harriet Rubin’s angle seems to be that Atlas Shrugged, approaching its 50th anniversary, continues to be one of the most influential works of literature in America, particularly among moguls, CEOs, and tycoons. In the post-Enron era, CEOs look to Rand’s magnum opus for confirmation of their oppressed status. A USA Today article from a few years ago on the resurgent interest in Atlas Shrugged among CEOs and execs included the following:

 

“Business is an available scapegoat,” says Frank Bond, founder of Holiday Health Spas, now Bally’s, and a developer and manager of real estate, an industry that he says is overtaxed and “regulated to death.”

“If you want to attack a group of people and still be politically correct, executives are about your last available target, says Bond, who has read the book twice.”

Mogul Lit

‘Mogul Lit’ must be a new subgenre. It would include such narrative stunners as Who Moved My Cheese?, What Color is my Parachute? (Interrogative titles are good), and the Suze Orman oeuvre. Comparatively, Ayn Rand is a master storyteller, but compared to a storyteller?

…not so much.

Look at what Hank says to Dagny after they sleep together for the first time:

“What I feel for you is contempt. But it’s nothing, compared to the contempt I feel for myself. I don’t love you. I’ve never loved anyone. I wanted you from the first moment I saw you. I wanted you as one wants a whore – for the same reason and purpose. I spent two years damning myself, because I thought you were above a desire of this kind…”

Actually, this may be exactly how yuppie businessmen talk to their paramours. The article reveals, with testimony upon testimony- including from one-time disciple Alan Greenspan, that the successful businessmen of America draw inspiration from her worldview. John A. Allison, chief executive of one of the largest banks in the United States reveals,

“I know from talking to a lot of Fortune 500 C.E.O.’s that ‘Atlas Shrugged’ has had a significant effect on their business decisions, even if they don’t agree with all of Ayn Rand’s ideas.”

Summarizing the books enduring appeal for the ambitious, he adds,

“It offers something other books don’t: the principles that apply to business and to life in general. I would call it complete.”

What do these “complete” principles look like?

“When I die, I hope to go to heaven – whatever the hell that is – and I want to be able to afford the price of admission”

“Virtue is the price of admission.”

“That’s what I mean, James. So I want to be prepared to claim the greatest virtue of them all – that I was a man who made money.” (94) – Francisco and James Taggart.

Perfect Capitalism

In the same USA Today article, Nicolas Boillot, president of ad agency Hart-Boillot dissents, “Perfect capitalism is as attractive and impossible as perfect communism. The greedy and lazy will ruin either system for the rest.” And Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, CEO of the Leadership Institute at Yale University, said executives who take refuge in the capitalist utopia of Atlas Shrugged are “reading themselves into a trance of defensive self-delusion.”

Atlas Shrugged and its slender older sister, The Fountainhead are two of the most influential, most widely read books in America, even though they and the theory of Objectivism that informs them, are critically reviled and professionally repudiated by both writers and philosophers. Whenever I see someone with either one of these books, I want to smack it out of their hands. Atlas Shrugged is Objectivism’s Battlefield Earth; both are read with astonishing allegorical generosity and fervent religious literalism. Both are sloppy, adolescent genre writing elevated among its proselytizing devotees, but while Scientology appeals to celebrities, Objectivism has its fascist nerds turned CEOs.

“Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns–or dollars. Take your choice–there is no other.”

What puzzles me is the outsider’s tone adopted by those arguably in control of society. This pose has been struck by the Neo-Con and Libertarian wings of the Right since the Reagan Revolution to great success until now. And Objectivism’s callous attitude towards the persons upon whose backs the great build their pyramids is contiguous with their politics. More likely though, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Libertarian/Neo-Con/Evangelical political conglomerate under George W. Bush, callow, rich people are in search of a new demagoguery. Ayn Rand may be in for a popular resurgence as an intellectual guiding light for the re-organizing Right.

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Falling Man

By co-incidence I was leaving New York for Oakland the day DeLillo’s 9-11 novel, Falling Man was released. I picked up a new copy at St. Mark’s before heading to the airport and read it cover to cover in transit, finishing the final pages on BART. He takes the image of an unknown man falling from the North Tower as his central motif though his main character is a survivor, one of those soot coated businessmen that escaped eerily unscathed. It has been said that the image itself, of the waiter from the Windows on the World plunging in a dive, has been curiously omitted from the public imagination of that day and, knowing DeLillo, I can see his interest in returning that bit of repressed collective memory to the raw center of the event where it belongs.

The Falling Man of his fictional world is a mysterious performance artist who sets up in various locales around New York and recreates the image, but to me, the real Falling Man of DeLillo’s novel is the survivor, the one who escaped unscathed. Surviving seems to place the individual in a strange category, yet many more survived that day than died. Discussing the book, a coworker related the story of his friend who was inside one of the towers and was even soaked in jet fuel from one of the planes as it crashed through the building- and he survived. Surviving, for DeLillo’s protagonist, is less satisfying than the tidiness of death and the satisfaction of the instinct towards death (DeLillo once said, “All plots move deathwards”). He remains suspended mid-fall, mid-flight. Similarly, I think our national response to the historical moment is trapped in the amber of the mediation of September 11th.

By now, a variety of novels and films have addressed themselves to the events of six years ago. In a few years, it went from verboten to obligatorily, still, the responses are all, even when affecting a grotesque sentimentality, curiously restrained. To see what I mean, consider the harshness of the image of the falling man. I’ll admit the sight of it makes me squirm. Even DeLillo’s novel suffers partly from this curious constraint, despite its greater willingness to evoke rather than sentimentalize.

Kitsch

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The only appropriate art is pious art. Piety should be performed with moral seriousness but without sentimentality otherwise it veers into kitsch. Consider the images of eagles crying or conversely the defiantly absurd, ‘America is open for shopping’ signs; the Janus-face of kitsch in the days after the events. The art world and intelligentsia have been no less immune to tacky responses. Three words: Jonathan Safran-Foer.

(For a right on evisceration of Foer, read the review, “EXTREMELY CLOYING & INCREDIBLY FALSE,” by Harry Siegel for New York Press. http://www.nypress.com/18/15/news&columns/harrysiegel.cfm)

 

Photo-evidence.
By far the most fascinating photo from six years ago is not the Falling Man, nothing from the WTC, but a powerful amateur photo snapped from the porch of a semi-rural Pennsylvania home with a digital camera. Yesterday, the NYT had an article about this photo, the only one taken of the crash of United 93 in Pennsylvania.

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The photos is arresting because, rather than in spite, of its kitschy, sentimental qualities; its supersaturated coloration and American “heartland” pastoral tropes are rendered unreal next to the black plume of smoke from the crash. No wonder so many see the photo as a staged fake. It feels too real to be real. Interesting too, was the story of the woman who took it. She has been relentlessly harassed by 9-11 conspiracists in print, on the internet, and at her home.

Whuz Really Real?
The impact of the picture comes from the appeal of the “story” of that day viewed from the vantage it suggests, not the hoary spectacle of the newscycle, not the insider’s story from New York, not the conspiracy theorists abstractions. It offers access to a singularly naïve window denied to us, or perhaps quickly forgotten in the subsequent overexposure as it passed from current event into modern myth. This is the responsibility of art in such a heavily mediated environment that has largely been shirked but somehow is distilled spontaneously in this picture: to return the spectator to the moment of wondering confusion and fear that is our lot in the face of the raw welter of events.

Though DeLillo’s performance artist seems to have this as his goal, I think if I saw him in life I would feel the same way about him that I do the Lego Twin Towers. Where some have found fault, I would argue this is DeLillo’s intention.In the final scenes of the novel, as those minutes in the Towers wrap around to join the opening scenes in the street below, we see a reality swift, brutal, and humbling in its destructive force. Reality is revealed for what it is, unstable and chaotic. The artist by contrast is static. Any art that seeks to confront tragedy on a mass scale must pierce the veil of mass fabrication and arrive at something personal.