Category Archives: politics

The truth and the still

Parintins, Brasil 1993

The still photograph is not so still.  The photograph asks questions.  It suggests a story.  It presents an idea in a language without words.  It is even as it signifies. Video killed nothing, and the still photograph survives (even as the radio star carries on).  Unlike video, you can take the still photograph in.  You have a role in your experience of the photograph.  It speaks to you at a speed that you can handle, that doesn’t overwhelm, that invites your participation and imagination.  You can look into its nooks and crannies and seek out all it has to offer.  All this at your own pace, and for your own reasons.

Snow on Sterling Place, Brooklyn 2005

The still photograph is a water that runs deep.  If it seems to sit there, that’s its charm.  The still makes you active, because it’s impossible to just look.  Indeed, that’s the point, and all the while the still is not nearly inert.  It just moves differently, at a different pace, like a tree.

Detail of a rock on the beach, Long Island Sound, 2009

You fill the stillness with motion, the silence with voices.  You hear these people, feel the breeze come across the flowers, sympathize with a long face or smile with happy eyes.  Or you imagine the immediate suspension of all motion and noise and concentrate on only the image and the miracle of capturing time itself.

Intensity . . .Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 2009

Video?  Its harsh, grating noise, the motion too fast to keep up with – video steals your ability to think about what you’re seeing and replaces your mind with its own images.  The difference between the still photograph and video is the difference between democracy and dictatorship.

Fixing the sidewalk, Prospect Park Parade Grounds, Brooklyn 2009

Notes and Credits

On December 15, 2009, I had the opportunity to hear two award-winning photographers, Lynsey Addario and Damon Winter, discuss their work at the Museum of the City of New York.  After the panel discussion, one member of audience asked them if they were experimenting with video, given the prominence of video on the Web and current developments in social media and journalism.  Of course they were interested, but they were still committed to the still photograph.  That’s what got them aroused in the first place, and the still continues to drive them today.  Moderater Kathy Ryan, photo editor for the NYT Magazine, chimed in that photos are still much more popular than videos on the Magazine’s website, perhaps because the photos allow the viewer to control what they are seeing.  So that got me thinking . . .

Sidewalk fixed, December 2009

All the photos featured in this post were taken by the author.  Go back and double-click them to see a larger view.  Enjoy.  If you want to see some interesting and incredible photos by others more talented and adept with shutters than I, check out the work of some friends at T’INGS, Chloe, and the No Words Daily Pix on Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn.

Astor Place, New York 2009

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E/F – The glass of history

halfglass-kaoru-1

“We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history … In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind …  History consists for the greater part of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites which shake the public with the same.”

This passage from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, written as the French Revolution began in 1789, is shot through with contradiction, like Burke himself.  It takes a little more time to digest than a shot of Santayana – Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – or the oft-cited quip, We learn from history that we learn nothing from history, which is often attributed (erroneously, it seems) to George Bernard Shaw.  But it’s worth it, because Burke got it right.

Notes and Credits:  Burke and history and quotations

This quotation from Burke is taken from the Google books archive, which features the 2nd Edition of the Reflections on the Revolution in France, printed in London for J. Dodsley, M.DCC.XC (1790), pp. 207-08.

Burke’s writing fleshed out the impassioned complexity of his own life and commitments.  As a member of parliament in the 1770s, he was a staunch supporter of the American Revolution, something of a libertarian.  With the fall of the Bastille, however, he became enraged at the treatment of the French royal family and the disregard for history and tradition by the revolutionaries and their Enlightenment muses.

In the Reflections, he seems to predict the horror that would follow in the “Reign of Terror,” as well as the problems of revolution in general, and this work became the foundation of modern conservatism.  Interestingly, the degree to which a conservative relies on Burke in his or her own thinking is the line between the intellectual side of the movement (George Will, David Brooks, Thomas Sowell) and the populist mobs (Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh) that one such as Burke would so rightly disown.  (Note:  George Will’s use of Burke to attack blue jeans is just silly, but Will has earned it.)

A searchable, copyable, full text of Burke’s Reflections is available here.  As a life long leftist, I don’t share the commitments that George Will and David Brooks have, but I do admire complex thinking and impassioned writing.  As Sina Odugbemi points out, Burke’s supposed “conservatism” was really about finding the appropriate – and constant – means for reform of the state:  “You reform in order to conserve; without reform you cannot really conserve a political system.”  If only the opponents of health care reform had the tact and intellect of Burke.

In response to a call-out on Facebook to find out where the G. B. Shaw statement mentioned above came from, my friend Katie replied with:

I tried to use the power of the internets, and what the internets are telling me is that I should infer that it is a popular misattribution. It’s not on his Wikiquote page, but it was on the Anonymous Wikiquote page for a while–if you look at the talk page someone mentioned a similar quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck. Here is an actual political scientists saying it’s popularly attributed to Hegel: http://bit.ly/1Xp8RD .

Notes and Credits:  The teacup

The Chinese teacup in the photograph is half-filled with lukewarm jade tea.  It belongs to Kaoru Wang, a friend who responded to my call-out for photos of half-filled glasses in the first E/F posting.  The teacup has been in her family for “years and years and years.”  She photographed it on a pretty carpet of unknown origin.  She sent another photograph showing the cup with its cap, which lets you keep the tea warm while taking your time to drink it over pleasant conversation or in reflective solitude.

halfglass-kaoru-4

Teacup, with cap

The tea itself was given to Kaoru by a friend who left his family’s tobacco business in order to build a tea company in Vancouver, bringing his knowledge and experience with leaves into a concern that could contribute positively to the health and well-being of his customers.  Among his clients are some of the most prestigious hotels around the world.

In her note to me about the teacup and its surroundings, Kaoru wrote that it is “comforting to reflect how much history and warmth there is in the most basic of items,” a sentiment that drives my own writing here and elsewhere.  Kaoru’s observations about life, her experiences, and her work can be found here.  She is currently making a film about education and change called “The Killer App,” which she writes about in several places, including the film’s blog under its previous title, “Something Far Finer.”

halfglass-kaoru-3

... with persimmons and more of Roosevelt Island

Through the window, behind the teacup, we have a blurred view of Roosevelt Island, a 2 mile long sliver of land in the East River between Manhattan and Queens.  A self-contained family farm from the late 1600s to 1828, it was known as Blackwell’s Island (after its owners) for most of its modern history, being named for FDR only in 1973.  After the Blackwells sold the island to the city in 1828, it was given over to “a long succession of institutions and hospitals,” which included a lunatic asylum (“The Octagon,” so called for its signature building); a hospital; a Smallpox laboratory (The Strecker Laboratory); and a prison that at one time or another housed Boss Tweed, Emma Goldman, Mae West, and Billie Holiday.

In 1969, the city leased the island to the State of New York Urban Development Corporation, which has created a unique urban community on the island.  Home to about 12,000 people today, the island is closed to car traffic and accessible by bus and tram.  The Roosevelt Island tram is a notable piece of New York architecture, frequently featured in films and television (CSI: New York, City Slickers, The Professional, Spider-Man, Cold Souls, and others).  The residential buildings have innovative designs – such as duplex (multi-story) apartments that make is possible for the elevators to stop only every 3 floors.  In the spirit of contemporary wealth-and-consumption-driven governance and planning, The Octagon has been restored and is now a high-end apartment community with a mall and a lot of solar panels.

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The truth and Brasília, 3: Faroeste Caboclo

Brasília, Metropolitan Cathedral

Brasília, Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida

Brazil is a country of inspired appropriation.  Its peoples, cultures, sounds, and visions grind against each other.  They rise up and smash together like tectonic plates.  In the collision of Brazil and Brasília, the city of candangos gave the country Renato Russo.

No “torso of steel,” no “[w]inged elbows and eyeholes,” but like Zweig and Plath a literary mind and poet, Russo’s voice became his generation’s.  In his epic song, “Faroeste Caboclo,” Russo tells the story of a poor kid’s migration to Brasília across 159 lines of free verse, punk sensibilities, and an affecting melody that calls to mind the traditional country music of Brazil’s Northeast.  Faroeste is what they call a “Western movie” in Brazil, and caboclo refers to the Brazilian mestiço everyman, a mixture of races and cultures, poor, seeking his or her fortune in some faraway place.  Faroeste Caboclo is Walt Whitman, rogue-Gary Cooper and Joe Strummer together in Niemeyer’s white palace.

The hero is João de Santo Cristo, from Brazil’s Northeastern “backlands.”  Brazilians call this region the Sertão, a rural, agrarian, drought-afflicted area that is the poorest place in the country and carries the deepest currents of Brazil’s premodern past.  João robs the poor box from the church.  He goes after the girls in the town.  People don’t trust him.  He feels the effect his skin color has on others who are lighter, more well-to-do.  He’s arrested and goes to reform school, where he is raped and degraded.  He is filled with hatred.

When a man on his way to Brasília decides not to go and gives his bus ticket to João, he becomes an accidental candango, leaving his past for the “beautiful city” where everything will be different.  He works as a carpenter’s apprentice, but he can’t make ends meet and becomes a drug trafficker.

After some time in the criminal world, he tries to go straight when he falls in love Maria Lúcia, but eventually the drug trade pulls him back in.  João’s enemy, Jeremias, steals Maria Lúcia and they have a child together.  João challenges Jeremias to a duel, which is covered in the press and shocks the city’s elite but makes João a hero to the people.  In the duel, Jeremias shoots João in the back and wounds him fatally.  Maria Lúcia rushes to her first love and gives João a gun.  He challeges Jeremias to die like a man and shoots him.  In the end, Maria Lúcia and João die together in each other’s arms.

The people declared that João de Santo Cristo
Was a saint because he knew how to die
And the bourgeoisie of the city didn’t believe the story
That they saw on TV

And João didn’t accomplish what he desired like the devil
When he came to Brasília
What he wanted was to speak to the president
To help all the people that

Suffer

Russo and his bandmates in Legião Urbana (Urban Legion) grew up in Brasília in the late 1970s.  Their songs of protest, love, and everyday struggles became the nation’s soundtrack to the last years of the military dictatorship and the re-emergence democracy in the 1980s.

“Será,” a love song with an anthemic refrain, could be heard blaring from sound trucks at the massive marches and rallies of the caras-pintadas (“painted faces”) in 1992, as they challenged the nation to bring down Fernando Collor, Brazil’s first democratically elected president since 1960.

So called because they painted their faces in the Brazilian national colors, green and yellow, the caras-pintadas had grown up under the military regime and saw their hopes threatened by Collor’s massively corrupt regime.  They led the way for the whole country, which stopped each day at 7:00 for the allegorical soap opera, Deus Nos Acuda (God Help Us), a comedy in which the angel Celestina tries to save Brasil from the excesses of its social and political elite.  In the show’s opening, the rich are smothered in mud and flushed down a whirlpool shaped like the country itself.

Collor was impeached and left office by the end of 1992.

Russo died on October 11, 1996, of AIDS-related illnesses.  Russo’s wishes were to have his ashes spread over the gardens of Brazilian landscape artist Roberto Burle Marx, returning him to Brasília and its modernist vision.

In 2006, Fernando Collor was elected Senator for his home state, Alagoas, for an 8 year term (2007-2015).  Brazil has absorbed Brasília.

Notes and Credits

Photo:  interior of the Brasília Metropolitan Cathedral.  As with the previous post, the photo is taken from the Flickr site of Shelley Bernstein, aur2899.  She works at the Brooklyn Museum (according to the Flickr “about”) and has a lot of pictures from Brasília and elsewhere.  Her Brooklyn Museum blog posts are here.

Renato Russo was born Renato Manfredi, Jr., in Rio de Janeiro.  He moved to Brasília in 1973 at the age of 13 and became a songwriter and musician.  He renamed himself after the philosophers Rousseau and Bertrand Russell, and the painter Henri Rousseau.

Faroeste Caboclo plays on the iconic stories of migration from the Brazilian backlands, the sertão, to cities in search of a better life – one of the central storylines of Brazilian history.  It’s a story of spiritual depth and apocalyptic reach, most famously told in Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertões.  Da Cunha’s book, published in 1903, tells of the Brazilian military’s destruction of the city of Canudos in the 1890s.

Canudos was a city that grew up around the milennial teachings of a folk preacher, Antonio Conselheiro, bringing tens of thousands of poor Brazilians together in a sertanejo enclave to await the last days.  The Brazilian government saw the city as a grave threat to its own project of bringing Brazil into the community of modern republics while still maintaining the class and racial divisions of its colonial and plantation (slavery) past.  Canudos was utterly destroyed by the military, and its inhabitants were massacred.

The destruction of Canudos removed one “sore” from the Brazilian body politic, but in the predictable irony of history and unintended consequences, Canudos gave birth to the next social threat.  Soldiers from the campaign, unable to find work on retrn to civilian life, migrated south from the Northeast to Rio de Janeiro and built their own squatter colony on a hill.  Thus was born the first favela, later to become the 21st century dystopian Canudos that continues to challenges the Brazilian modernizing project.

During 1992 and 1993, I lived in Belém and accompanied the protest marches through the city.  I was officially a researcher, but I was also 28 years old, not much older than the caras-pintadas who I spoke to.  Just a few years earlier, as a college student in New Orleans in the mid-1980s, I used to grab the New York Times every day to read up on the military’s exit from power in 1985.  In 1992-93, like everyone else in Brazil, I was glued to the television every day for Deus Nos Acuda.

Another song that rang out from the sound trucks and radios everywhere was the first Legião Urbana hit, “Tempo Perdido,” with the echoing call of the refrain, selvagem, meaning wild, untamed. It was a song about love and not losing the time at hand, but it was also about the passion for breaking free of repression that made this song the “anthem of an entire generation” (O hino de toda uma geração), according to Alexandre Inagaki.  In the video the band pays homage to all their forebears in rock and roll.

“Tempo Perdido” follows in the footsteps, or looking down from the shoulders of Raul Seixas and “Maluco Beleza.”  Raul Seixas was Brazil’s Elvis (his idol), Jim Morrison, and John Lennon rolled into one.  He “was not just a musician, but a philosopher of life …” (Raul não era apenas música, Raul era uma filosofia de vida), “Always Ahead of his Time.”  See Jesse’s portrait of Raul on her blog, Mundo de Jesse.   “Maluco Beleza” (“Crazy Beauty”) is for many the epic statement of individuality and creativity from the central icon of Brazilian rock.

Senhor Hype reports that the Brazilian RockWalk is in development, creating a walk of fame that will include both national artists as well as some international artists like the Scorpions.

For an English translation of “Faroeste Caboclo” along with the music, go here.  The translation of the ending of the song above is taken from this video, and credit goes to Alexandre Mello and Andrea Hilland.

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The truth and Brasília, 1: Land of the Future

zweig

This series of posts springs from three sources.  First, my research for “The truth and change,” recalled the poem Brasília, by Sylvia Plath.  Second, I have lived in Brazil for long periods of time and consider Belém, the “cidade das mangueiras” at the mouth of the Amazon River, as my second home town.  Third, The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath was one of two English-language books I brought with me to Belém in 1992, as I began a year-long stay for my doctoral research.

These are stories of exile, suicide and hope in a world caught just between a despair-ridden past and an open-ended, possibly bright future.  They are stories of writers and writing.  They are stories close to my heart and deeply tied to my own passions.  The first is that of Stefan Zweig’s tragic love affair with Brazil.  The exiled Austrian Jew will give his story to Sylvia Plath, the expatriate American poet of Autsrian extraction writing of a metphor sprung from a city she never visited.  Like Zweig, she died by her own hand in a foreign land.  Finally, Renato Russo brings us back to his Brasília, in an epic poem that marries the cinematic Western to the story of his own country.

These are stories of gifted storytellers whose lives were dealt a blow by the hubris of others.  Their achievements in the face of all this are a thing of drastic beauty and desperate truth.  Life is hard, a friend of mine once said, and it is.  But worth every ounce of the struggle, no matter how it ends.

The truth and Brasília, 1:  Land of the future

In 1942, Stefan Zweig and his wife, Lotte, commited double suicide in Petrópolis, Brazil.  Ever the writer – one of the world’s best known, at the time – Zweig left a note to explain why.

Zweig stated that his decision was “of my free will and in my right mind,” and he told the world why he chose to leave this life.  In the dozen years up to this point, Zweig went from being the world’s most-translated author to literary refugee, fleeing his native Vienna for Britain in 1934, then the United States, and finally Brazil in 1941.  By this time he was morally and spiritually homeless, “my own language having disappeared from me and my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself.”

No mention is made of Lotte in the letter, so her role, contribution, or support in the decision is only as clear as the fact that she was there on the bed with Zweig at the end of it all, free of struggle, her body like his finally free of the life within it.

Had Zweig the wherewithal to hold out a few years, so the critics say, he might have been able to reinvigorate his spirits – but such conjecture is pointless.  Europe in the late 1940s was no picnic, either, and the onset of the Cold War was for many simply a continuation of Europe’s long demise.

For Zweig, the tragedy of Europe was deeply important.  He was a stalwart of the pacifist movement, going back to the early years of the century, and he was a famous champion of European integration.  A secular Jew from Vienna, he was of the great class of pan-European intellectuals whose history and inclinations drove them to think of a larger cultural world of ideas and human progress.  To see that dream dashed so spectacularly by fascism was indeed, I imagine, a tragic, numbing blow to the soul.

Brazil-16-map

Zweig wrote two books in the final years of life that spell his struggle in simple letters.  In 1941, he published Brazil:  Land of the Future, a love letter to his newly adopted country.  On the day before he committed suicide in 1942, Zweig mailed another manuscript to his publisher:  The World of Yesterday, an autobiography.  Zweig’s European world was on the brink of genocidal horror, and it was killing him.  In Brazil, he was trying, heroically perhaps, to follow the European tradition of celebrating all that was American as a new world, a blank slate, a place of abundance unsullied by the tragic history of European struggle, war, and religious strife.  He tried, but as he says in the suicide note, he was simply too old to keep on.

. . . after one’s sixtieth year unusual powers are needed in order to make another wholly new beginning. Those that I possess have been exhausted by long years of homeless wandering. So I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labor meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on earth.

Even as Zweig lived and wrote and died, young Brazilian idealists like Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer were establishing themselves as world class designers and architects.  After World War II, Niemeyer’s design for the United Nations in New York placed his ideas on the world’s stage – a House of Tomorrow for the hopes and dreams that Zweig himself had given up on.

Costa and Niemeyer would go on to design Brazil’s city of the future, Brasília, its capital of the future, a gleaming, white, rational city reflecting their beliefs in a truly democratic world that would work for everyone, regardless of class or any other distinction that made life difficult in the old world they inherited.  Like Zweig, they looked to a land of the future that was their own Brazil.

Notes and Credits

Cidade das mangueiras = city of mango trees.  It’s the local nickname for Belém, where the avenues are lined with mango trees.  Every November, when the fruit falls, children scurry into the streets, dodging busses and cars (and sometimes horses) to pick up a free snack.

There are a number of wonderful blog sites, radio interviews, and other web resources available to learn about Stefan Zweig.  My source for Zweig’s suicide note is Artopia:  John Perreault’s Art Diary.  WNYC’s Leonard Lopate did a radio show on August 13, 2007, for which he interviewed George Prochnik, who was working on a book about Stefan and Lotte Zweig.  Monica Carter of Salonica writes of Zweig’s Amok and Other Stories,

Three out of the four stories in this collection put us in the hearts of those suffering from unrequited love. Zweig’s style is so elegant and descriptive, the purity of this love scares and engages us. The last story draws us in to man who cannot find his way home, due to the war. This is the story I found most tragic because of its autobiographical slant. Zweig and his wife committed suicide because the home that they knew, was one they could never get to again. These stories are so worthwhile and if there is any credence to the adage ‘write what you know’ then Zweig was a man who wrote about loss and love with equal knowledge.

Zweig’s reputation in Brazil is uneven.  As journalist Carlos Haag reported in 2006, Brazilians have discounted the authenticity and sincerity of Zweig’s book, from the 1940s onwards.  The book was rumoured to be a quid pro quo with the Brazilian dictator at the time, Getúlio Vargas, who allegedly granted the famous exiles, Zweig and Lotte, permanent residency in exchange for the writer’s services.  Brazil was to be the land of Zweig’s future, and perhaps nothing more than that.

The photograph of the colonial map of Brazil can be found in the Wikimedia Commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Brazil-16-map.jpg.  The photograph is in the public domain.

I first heard of Zweig’s book while living in Brazil.  The book has been appropriated for an insider joke about eternal contrast between Brazil’s riches and potential for greatness with its ever-present reality of income disparity, poverty, and crime.  The joke plays on Zweig’s book title and figures in the second of these postings:  Brazil is the country of future, and it always will be.

The statement, “In Brazil, [Zweig] followed the grand European tradition of celebrating all that was American as a new world, a blank slate, and a place of abundance unsullied by the tragic history of European struggle,” is a standard of European history.  The notion of a “new world” was the result of Columbus’s discovery of a place that no one in Europe or Asia ever knew existed. John Locke backs up his understanding of the “blank slate” of human history and his state of nature theory with unrelenting references to the Native American societies who demonstrate his point.

lery

Jean De Lery, a French doctor and Huguenot minister who travelled to the original French Colony of Rio de Janeiro (that’s right, it was a French town at he beginning), wrote a brilliant polemic, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, aimed at demonstrating that the Tupi natives were more fully civilized than French Catholics, even if the Tupi had integrated cannibalistic rituals into their warfare.  As Lery wrote, the French Catholic monarchy was persecuting the Huguenots and massacring them en masse.

Finally, the Founding Fathers of the United States were themselves European intellectuals in the Enlightenment tradition, who sought to enshrine their country’s ahistorical legacy into the very structure of governance.  Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution abolished nobility and privileged relationships with nobles (who could only be from Europe); and the First Amendment’s protection of freedoms to religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition is itself a rejection of the entire course of European political struggle since the Reformation began in 1517.

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The truth and change, 3b: From Gilgamesh to Pharma

The House of Tomorrow, 2009

The House of Tomorrow, 2009

This is the concluding post in the series, The truth and change. As part 3b, it offers a final alternative future.  In 3a, I looked at how technology is bringing out the futures within our minds and imaginations.  The virtual world is deeply connected to the organic world, and the “crossover” realm may well be the real space in which we do live.

The present posting, 3b, picks up where 3a left off – wondering about the potential for change in the essential emotional experience of being human.  This leads to a Huxleyesque future of chemical alterations and experiential morphing.

From Gilgamesh to Pharma

Gilgamesh, the God-King of Uruk, is the oldest surviving literary protagonist in human history.  He was a real man, who built the walls of his famous town, after which the modern nation of Iraq is named.  His story was told in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which has inspired writers, readers and listeners alike for over 4,700 years.

Preserved on cuniform tablets, the Epic tells how Gilgamesh grieved the loss of his friend Enkidu.  In his sorrow and listlessness Gilgamesh became consumed with death and set out on a quest for immortality.  Gilgamesh’s inner turmoil at this point is no different than any of us will have over the death of a loved one.

Some years later, but still long ago – 2,300 years ago to be more precise – the Hebrew prophet Qoheleth wrote that there would be nothing new under the sun, and about 2,267  years later The Beatles got a number 1 hit with the same message.

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game …

If there’s nothing we can do that can’t be done, then what is there?  Do the changes that have occurred in the world really matter when it comes to the fundamental experience of what it means to be human?  The issue is not about change in the world, or change in the nature of social organization, or the changes we can effect on the world.  It’s about who we are inside:

What about being human has ever changed in some undeniably essential way?

This question doesn’t deny the reality of change.  Societies are different.  Mores and belief systems change over time.  That some technological changes have made life better for some people is absolutely true.  Some illnesses and conditions no longer make life miserable for people.  Basic everyday machines like vacuum cleaners and refrigerators have liberated countless numbers of people from demeaning and exhausting chores, even while they take up new chores for new reasons.

The undeniably essential experiences I am thinking of, however, belong to other moments in our lives.  They are moments of being.  They are fundamental.  They are emotional.  They are constitutional.  They are moments critical of passage:  birth, love, marriage, death, loss, success, envy, anger.  In these kinds of moments, has what it means to be human really changed all that much?

The answer is yes, maybe, sort of.  These are emotional moments, and emotions are not purely given, because we can tinker with them.  A change in scenery is sometimes enough to change one’s emotional state.  Want to feel better?  Find the sun.  Get some air.  Climb a hill.  Have a drink.  It is in the last instance that we people began to find real power over our emotions.

The House of Tomorrow, 2009, Park Slope Version

The House of Tomorrow, 2009, Park Slope Version

We’ve been tinkering with chemical alterations to emotions for millions of years, well before Gilgamesh.  This may not even be unique to the human species; chimps use chemicals, too. People, however, have a way of taking things to extremes, as any history of the species will demonstrate.  There’s a cost to chemical happiness in terms of addictions.  Some chemicals even change who we are and give rise to social ills, such that most societies ban certain forms of chemicals.

What gets banned and what doesn’t – or as Jennifer Michael Hecht poses the issue, what makes a good drug bad – is really an outcome of cultural power politics (though other issues are also involved).  From the late 1800s, upper middle class, liberal, Americans of Northern European descent acted out their concern for the disruptive behaviors of less-welcome immigrants (Irish, Italians, Slavs, Jews) and African Americans by banding together to ban alcohol, which they did successfully from 1920 to 1933.  For the last 40 years, “drugs”gained a connotation of “mind altering experience” that became associated in our society with illegality, rebellion, and tragedy, but that’s nothing new either.

What is different today is the industrialization and institutionalization of mass drug consumption designed to create an emotional social fabric that breeds order, productivity, and “happiness” (not “high,” but “happy” and “productive”).  These are the legal drugs that big, powerful companies want us to take under the guise of “freedom,” the kinds of drugs that appeal to people who believe there’s something fundamentally different between the urge to eat Xanax as opposed to psilocybin mushrooms.

In this scenario, prescription drugs are the real gadgets making the future happen, and “health care reform” is the Trojan Horse that Big Pharma will ride into the future (and into our minds and bodies), a “PhRMA payoff” in the words of journalist Matt Taibbi.  The great gorging that the drug companies will continue to enjoy will fuel research and development into drugs that can normalize every possible quirk, peak, and valley of human experience.

This has been at least a century in the making:  from snake oil, to heroin (created by Bayer in 1898 as a cough remedy), to Hadacol, to the array of drugs advertised directly to you on television but which you need to make a doctor’s appointment to demand.  Whether there’s a government option for insurance in the reform won’t change this:  belief in pill-popping is one thing that everyone agrees on.

The pills we have for depression, anxiety, weak erections, high cholesterol, urine flow, restless leg, bacterial infections, low sex drive, menstruation, motherhood, and every other imaginable “malady” (a word chosen advisedly here) are what the future is about – and it’s not about change.

The future according to Pharma is about muting our experiences so that change doesn’t matter.

The original, brilliant video for “Ashes to Ashes” can be seen here (it can’t be embedded).

Epilogue

I wrote this to explore an alternative future, not to predict it.  The creative spaces opened up by the Internet and virtual lives (The truth and change, 3a) are far more interesting and preferable to me.

When it comes to the issues in this posting, there are a lot of grassroots ways to challenge the way that health reform is going on.  Changes in diet and lifestyle practices can prevent a great many problems that are currently medicated out of us.  Organizations like the Economic Policy Institute provide informative coverage of the issues with data that make sense.

A stern willingness to explore the nature of illness and suffering is another way to challenge the future:  we all get sick and must live with it.  We’ll all die.  Why not die with dignity and leave on one’s own terms?  There will be sadness as surely as there will be joy, and the latter is only made deeper and richer by contrast to our experience of the former.

Notes and Credits

The songs of David Bowie have guided my thinking along the way through these four posts on “The truth and change.”  At every turn I found another one to make me think even more deeply about these topics, forcing my mind to link further and further afield into the other areas I was reading about now or had some knowledge of in a past life.

The photo of Walgreen’s at the head of the post was taken by Monique S. Guidry.  It’s at 3004 North St, Nacogdoches, TX 75965-2858.  The photo of the Prospect Gardens Pharmacy, at 89 7th Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11217, was taken by the author.  That pharmacy is a nice little store in the gentrifying Park Slope neighborhood, subject of recent contretemps among the Park Slope literary and blogging community. The New York Times ran an interesting story about Amy Sohn’s novel, Prospect Park West and yet another possible TV series to shoot here (what happened to Darren Starr’s?). Local blogger Louise Crawford ran two versions of a review, one on her blog, “Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn,” and the other in the Brooklyn Paper, where she also writes the “Smartmom” column.  Fucked in Park Slope absolutely loved the book.

In The Happiness Myth (New York:  Harper Collins, 2007), Jennifer Michael Hecht looks at the relationship between drugs and happiness, beginning with a chapter entitled “What Makes a Good Drug Bad.”  Along the way (pp. 78-79), she tells the story of Bayer’s invention and marketing of Heroin against the backdrop of an inquiry into what we really want out of drugs in our society.  The book is an unrelenting look at things that are supposed to make us “happy” and how misplaced our ideas about “happiness” today might be.  She explores her subject across time and cultures to make a pretty good case that happiness isn’t all it’s been cracked up to be.

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Another year, and we remember

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This is the view from the window next to my desk.  From that window, I took the photo that was the first masthead for this blog (it’s in the page on “the blog” if you want to take a look).

This was the view last night, from the ground, at the corner of 6th Avenue and Union Street in Brooklyn.

911-sarah-alt

My downstairs neighbor, Sarah, took that photo, and I saw it on her Flickr.

For the last three years, I have engaged a small ritual on or about September 11, when I can see the beams of light from Ground Zero over downtown from this window.

I turn out the lights.  I sit for a few minutes, 10 minutes or so.  My son is asleep in the next room, or maybe he’s at his mom’s apartment, just a few blocks away in the neighborhood.  Either way, he’s safe, while I gaze at the lights.  Irony is not the word for this.

I know my fate.  One day my name will be associated with a memory of something tremendous—a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far … Where you see ideals, I see what is human, alas, all too human.

Nietzsche’s words stream through my mind as I look at the beams and write my friends—

The clouds have cleared now and I have turned off the lights.  I just want to look out at the beams of light streaming up to the heavens.  So strange to think of the world before that day, and the world we have now.  And it made me feel like reaching out to a few people who matter to me.  I hope you’re all well.

As it happens, I never have taken a photo of the 9.11 beams from this window.  Tonight I will try, but I fear it’s going to be cloudy.  That’s unfortunate, because over the last couple of years, the view was so spectacular, iconic – and this year, 2009, will be my last at this window.  I will be moving at the end of September, to a new apartment in “Prospect Park South” which is the trendy name for what has often been called “Kensington” or simply “Flatbush” in the local dialect.

As all things happen, however, Providence gives us what we need, and Sarah’s photo from last night is such a gift.  So:  Thank you much to Sarah for this photo.  To all those who have touched my life, or whom I have touched in any way however small, I say this,

Be well and cherish those whose love you share.  We have no way to change what was, and our attempts to shape what will be never have their intended effect.  Where we are absolute, however, is the moment at hand.  Let us live that moment well, with love, and with all the peace that the world so deeply needs.  Only then do we stand a chance against the forces of darkness.  Strange as it may seem, those are pretty good odds.

Notes and Credits

Sarah’s photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/37558372@N03/3908398726/

The precise address of our building is 211 Sixth Avenue.  Or the Union Market, at 754 Union Street, Brooklyn.  11215.

The quote from Nietzsche was taken from the opening of the BBC documentary of him, which can be seen here.  See also this and this.

My own quoted email was what I sent in 2007, the first year I sat at this window.  I cannot find last year’s email, which was a little more focused.  My three years of having this view have been important to me, because this window was a starting-over in many ways.  I will miss the view – but mostly I will hold dear the fact that I have the chance to have this view for a little while.  I only hope that the folks who come next to this little apartment are able to appreciate it as well.

Personal Note

I moved to New York in May of 2004.  In 2001, I was in Rock Island, Illinois, teaching at Augustana College.  On that particular day, I was in my office early.  Jane, who was the secretary for the departments of History and Political Science, came running down the long hallway to my office – we might have been the only two people on the floor.  She told me that I needed to come to the television and see what happened.  Her husband had called and said that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.  Jane and I watched the rest of it happen, in a conference room on the campus of Augustana College which from its own window had a wonderful view of the Mississippi River and America’s own “heartland” on the border of Illinois and Iowa.  We saw the second plane crash into the other tower, and we saw the buildings fall to the ground, all live.  In my office, I heard about the plane crashing into the Pentagon, live.  I was very afraid.  My wife was out of town, and she was very possibly pregnant with our child (we had this confirmed just weeks after 9.11).  My country was under attack.

I don’t know if folks in New York know what it was like to experience 9.11 outside of this city.  It was pretty dreadful.   Nothing like here, of course, but awful nonetheless.  For a little while, we had no idea where this would lead, and everyone feared bombs and flames and explosions.

A few weeks later, November 10-12, 2001, we were in New York.  My wife had some meetings and I was along for the ride and the visit.  We knew then that our child would be expected some time in May or June.  I had some good runs in the city, in Central Park, along the avenues, but not on the West Side Highway.  It was blocked, for security reasons.  As we prepared to leave on the 12th, we heard odd news suddenly:  all the bridges and tunnels were closed, and so were the airports.  A plane had crashed in Queens.

Downstairs, we spoke to the hotel personnel.  The looks on their faces and the emotions in the air are emblazoned on my mind, in a way that makes me think of my parents’ generation when they talk about what they were doing when Kennedy was assassinated.  I won’t forget that.

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The truth and change, 2: Technoredemption Goes Pro

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The House of Tomorrow, 1933, Indiana version

In the first installment of The truth and change, I wrote about how the Enlightenment gave us a new kind of science and social discourse that pictured a perfectible mankind, which would be the basis of real democracy and freedom in the future.  Yet it was really a Greek tragedy.

Jefferson snubbed the ancients by declaring that there will be something new under the sun, and a hundred years later the world embarked on a century that would witness versions of apocalypse previously imaginable only in epics and divine texts.  Everything that the Enlightenment made it possible to imagine, it also made it possible to destroy.  That was the dilemma of my generation . . .

Technoredemption Goes Pro

The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair gave us the “House of Tomorrow,” which still stands in Indiana and at 78 years old combines the future and past in one space.  Like most dream houses created since the 1930s, it has a double garage, with a twist – one for an automobile and one for the airplane that “World’s Fair optimists assumed every future family would own …”

One can only imagine how this garage has played out of time – rumpus room, game room, massive mud room, cluttered workshop where grandpa used to build boats in bottles, and now the place where mom and dad surf the internet when the other isn’t looking.

The House of Tomorrow held out a vision of the future at odds with much of what was going on around it.  A few years earlier, World War I gave people a glimpse of the horror to be wrought by chemical warfare and bombs.  In 1933, faith in individual action and the capitalist economy was well under seige.  On February 27 of that year, Hitler burned the Reichstag and The Third Reich began.  World War II, with its multiple Holocausts of genocide, firebombing, and nuclear warfare would be soon upon us.

The House of Tomorrow, 1933, Berlin version

The House of Tomorrow, 1933, Berlin version

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (published in 1973) portayed this entire destructive arc of the twentieth century.  Science fuelled a spiral of violence, which unleashed and unbound human emotions both zany and horrific.  Pynchon captured this most vividly in Brigadier Pudding’s humiliation scene, a Pavlovian experiment in the malleability/perfectibility of mankind that was a living annihilation at the border between the past and our future in which Pudding relived and relieved himself of the filth of Ypres and Passechendaele over and over again.  The ritual became the center of his being.

Brigadier Pudding on the border between past and future.

Zak Smith: Brigadier Pudding, p. 236

Still, annihilation and holocaust were not the only ideas on the table. The playfulness of Pynchon’s novel and its main character, Tyrone Slothrop, held out the competing narratives of innocence and technologial redemption, impulses ironically (and perhaps hypocritcally) present in Robert Moses’s 1964 New York World’s Fair.  This was the year of my birth and the year in which Stanley Kubrik gave us Dr. Strangelove.  At the Fair, GM’s “Tomorrow Land” provided a delightful tour of the wonders yet to be bestowed on us by reinforced concrete, steel, and plastic.  Tomorrow Land was a glimpse into the world that could be, minus the evils of nuclear war, poverty, and exploitation.

At the Fair’s Pepsi Pavilion, “Children of the World” used mechanized dolls and music to showcase a world of hope and diversity.  This became Disney’s “It’s a Small World,” leading to the installation of its relentlessly saccharine theme song in the minds of millions of people every year, some of whom must wish that Slim Pickins would ride a missile into Orlando and put an end to the little dolls and gadgets just so they could get that song out of their heads.

The world we inherited in the Reagan years was reeling between the Jetsons and Dr. Strangelove as Paul Westerberg wrote “we’ll inherit the earth, but we don’t want it.”  If we were finally, really going to do it, to blow it up, I’d at least try to spend my last years thinking of other things.

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The Mighty "Trash-80"

In 1981, I bought a TRS-80, Model III.  I was 17 and had saved up the money from my job at the pizza parlor down the street.  I read Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave and John Nesbitt’s Megatrends.  A future of progress was much more appealing future than the one forecast by the “Doomsday Clock” on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  Such was the future according to Generation X, as we stumbled between slackerism and technoredemption.

In 1989, I remember being in my kitchen, washing dishes and listening to NPR when they announced that people had climbed over the Berlin Wall and were taking it apart.  In my own mind, I replaced The Day After with Blondie and hummed “Atomic” over and over again as I felt relief wash over me.

Then in the mid-1990s, Newt Gingrich started invoking Alvin Toffler at every opportunity.  1984 and Y2K came and went with neither Orwellian nor apocalyptic futures taking hold.  The most prescient glimpse of the future provided in my entire lifetime was not Space 1999 but Prince’s 1999, which accurately forecast exactly what I, and countless others around the world, were doing in 1999.  Whatever the future would be, it would be weird, and once Tim Berners Lee put the World Wide Web up, Gen X went online and, as if following Hunter S. Thompson’s consultation to our parents, we went pro.

Technoredemption provided a kind of cure-all for anxiety about the future.  Today it feeds the relentlessly positive assessments of Twitter’s contribution to revolution and freedom around the world.  Yet the same technology can bring us back to Huxley or Orwell, and we know it.  Evgeny Morozov writes that even as “activists and NGOs are turning to crowdsourcing to analyze data, map human rights violations, scrutinize the voting records of their MPs, and even track illegal logging in the Amazon”, ” governments are also relying on crowdsourcing to identify dissenters and muzzle free speech.

Technoredemption remains as much a promise now as it was in 1776, 1933, 1964, or 1989.  Rousseau’s famous line from the opening of On the Social Contract – “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” – strikes me as quite true today, in the same sense that Rousseau meant it, and with the same consequences.

Notes and Credits

The photograph of the House of Tomorrow, Indiana version, was found on Wikipedia, in the commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:571531cv.jpg.  The House of Tomorrow, Berlin version, is in the Wikimedia commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Reichstagsbrand.jpg.

We didn’t need nuclear bombs alone to create armageddons of pain and horror.  Madhukar Shukla writes “The Firebombing of Tokyo was as devasting as the nuclear, Hidden in the history of that time, is an unnoticed footnote – the ‘Tokyo Fire-Bombing,’ which the Western press would not touch, and the Japanese survivors would not like to dwell upon [was an] event which happened months before the atom-bombs and with far more lethal consequences.”  Shukla’s blog is called “Alternative Perspective” and his homepage is here.

The illustration of Brig. Pudding is by Zak Smith, from his work Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Much thanks to Zak for granting me permission to use the image.  The series of illustrations was featured in the 2004 Whitney Biennial (agh, just before I arrived in New York!) and is now part of the permanent collection at the Walker in Minneapolis.  In the episode referenced above, Brig. Pudding must undergo a scatological humiliation scene with Domina Nocturna as part of his atonement for his role in Ypres and Passechendaele, a scene occupying pp. 232-36 of the book (Viking Press, 1973).  Click on the image and you will be taken to a website featuring all of the illustrations.

Among Pynchon’s themes we count the Europeans’ damning of the world to endure the repetitive future of their own racist, colonial past, which sits perversely at the heart of American innocence and condemns America (white America, especially) to this struggle between technoredemption, dystopia, and annihilation.  Like Rousseau, Pynchon sees the chains that reason has placed on mankind.  He continues to explore that theme in his writing, with impressive intensity in Mason and Dixon, in which the two famous astronomers are contracted to create an artificial boundary between two artificial entites (Pennsylvania and Maryland) that have been imposed on something like a state of nature.

Pynchon’s new novel, Inherent Vice, goes into the territory of detective fiction and film noir, two of my favorite genres.  I am giddy and cannot wait to read this book.  Expect more posts related to TP.

On August 31, 2006, Douglas Coupland posted a wonderfully ironic vision of the future as past and present on his New York Times blog.  At that point he boldly foresaw the Kindle-future, as he predicted that books will “cease to exist” and become “extinct.”  Looking at his old novels and thinking of insects, he began to think about how wasps made paper from wood, and then he used his own mouth to pulp his novels and make nests from them.  The resulting photos are quite beautiful, and the blog posting shows what Generation X looks like as a nest.

The photograph of the TRS-80 Model III comes from Stan Veit’s website, PC-History, based on his famous book, Stan Veit’s History of the Personal Computer.

I learned about Evgeny Morozov’s blog post in a Tweet from Cause Global’s Marcia Stepanek.

The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in
Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin
A nuclear error, but I have no fear
Cause London is drowning and I, I live by the river

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