Culture postsMonday December 23, 2013
Saddest T-Shirt Ever
This was for sale at a T-shirt shop at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. What kind of idiot would buy this? Wear this? How puny do you have to feel to want to brag about this—something that most likely had nothing to do with you and ignores not only the other countries involved but history. Since when do wars that led to the death of tens of millions of people become something like Super Bowl championships?
Ninety percent of the shop was this way: sad and stupid. I complained as we stood outside waiting for a friend to finish shopping, and Patricia and I had the following conversation:
Patricia: I don't know. T-shirt shops have always been bad.
Me: They weren't this loutish back then.
Patricia: America wasn't this loutish back then.
How the Miss America Controversy is like the Movie 'Crash,' and Other Observations
My friend Tim alerted me to this quote from Aasif Mandvi on “The Daily Show” the other night, reacting to the Miss America/Twitter controversy:
Look, John, it's Twitter. It's like that movie “Crash”: You've got 140 characters and 120 are racist for no apparent reason.
You know about the controversy, right? Nina Davuluri, an American of Indian descent, as in India the country, as in Gandhi and “Slumdog Millionaire,” won the Miss America crown over the weekend and a few racist people on Twitter had a shit fit. They called her Miss 7-11, Miss al-Qaeda. They said, “She's a TERRORIST,” and “This is AMERICA!” It's just stupid shit. The world is full of stupid people and now they're online. The Pakleds have spoken.
The early reaction on social media and Salon was one of umbrage, which is a little boring. A better reaction came from “The Daily Show” and “Stephen Colbert.”
That's brilliant. Or: that's truly how sad and stupid those people are. So sad and stupid they probably don't even get the joke.
Then we got Aasif, my brother of the double-a from another continent, with his critique via “Crash,” which longtime readers know I didn't exactly think was best picture material. Two birds. Brilliant again.
BTW: In the various footage about the controversy (or kerfuffle, or blip), we'd often get shots of Ms. Davuluri in the talent competition doing a Bollywood-type dance. I kept thinking, “It looks like she's doing that 'Dhoom Tana' dance from 'Om Shanti Om,” which is one of about three Bollywood movies I know. Turns out? She is.
In the end? Racists with a foot in the 19th century objected that a competition that had its heyday in the middle of the 20th century was won with something reflecting 21st century values. No surprises here. Wind us up and let us go.
What’s Wrong with Jonathan Franzen’s ‘What’s Wrong with the Modern World’?
First there’s the title. It reminds me of “The Secret of Life,” the awful title of the awful article Andrew McCarthy’s awful character finally gets published in the awful “St. Elmo’s Fire.” It’s a title that’s too stupidly general. What’s wrong with the modern world? That’s a wide target, boyo. At the same time you think, “Well, how can Franzen not hit that one?”
He manages. A lot of his targets are my targets, too: modern technology, the Internet, “cool,” the pauperization of freelance writers, the marginalization of almost everything I once considered central to the culture. So he should be speaking for me. Yet for most of the essay he doesn’t speak for me.
Franzen is attacking the early 21st century through the writings of Karl Kraus, an Austrian satirist, who attacked the early 20th century. Franzen’s first target? Those Mac vs. PC ads. Seriously. It’s a form and content argument, a “cool” vs. “uncool” argument, and Franzen places himself squarely among the uncool Microsoft/PC people. He backs the content of the PC, its utilitarianism, over the meaningless form of the Mac. He writes:
Simply using a Mac Air, experiencing the elegant design of its hardware and software, is a pleasure in itself, like walking down a street in Paris. Whereas, when you’re working on some clunky, utilitarian PC, the only thing to enjoy is the quality of your work itself. As Kraus says of Germanic life, the PC “sobers” what you’re doing; it allows you to see it unadorned.
Until it crashes.
That's a joke but it's a true joke. Mac is not only better in form but in content; in code. The Mac is both more beautiful and more utilitarian. But then Franzen isn’t really talking about the product but our interaction with the product. He’s apparently saying it’s harder to see ourselves against the beautiful; it’s easier to see ourselves against the plain or ugly. Meaning Franzen should be happy with the way our modern cityscapes have developed. We should be able to see each other well now. Hey, you. I know you.
Franzen keeps taking these cheap shots. His complaints are monumentally small and of the straw-man variety. He criticizes Salman Rushdie for “succumbing” to Twitter, which apparently means being on it. He’s disappointed in those who hold up the Internet as somehow positively “female” and “revolutionary,” when other people’s misinterpretations of the Internet are not the problem with the Internet. He writes:
You’re not allowed to say things like this in America nowadays, no matter how much the billion (or is it 2 billion now?) “individualised” Facebook pages may make you want to say them.
Facebook pages? He’s not even using the right words. He’s attacking our way of seeing a thing even though it’s not how we see the thing.
Here’s another unworthy straw man:
To me the most impressive thing about Kraus as a thinker may be how early and clearly he recognised the divergence of technological progress from moral and spiritual progress. A succeeding century of the former, involving scientific advances that would have seemed miraculous not long ago, has resulted in high-resolution smartphone videos of dudes dropping Mentos into litre bottles of Diet Pepsi and shouting “Whoa!”
Louis C.K. has done a better job, a more human job, parsing this divide.
OK, so Franzen gets better the further he gets into the essay. Here, for example, is something he writes that I can get behind:
... we find ourselves spending most of our waking hours texting and emailing and Tweeting and posting on colour-screen gadgets because Moore’s law said we could. We’re told that, to remain competitive economically, we need to forget about the humanities and teach our children “passion” for digital technology and prepare them to spend their entire lives incessantly re-educating themselves to keep up with it. The logic says that if we want things like Zappos.com or home DVR capability – and who wouldn’t want them? – we need to say goodbye to job stability and hello to a lifetime of anxiety. We need to become as restless as capitalism itself.
That’s getting at it. I like this quote from Kraus:
This velocity doesn’t realize that its achievement is important only in escaping itself.
That’s getting at it even more.
I like the tail-end discussion about the privileged anger of both Kraus and Franzen. Kraus is to Franzen as George W.S. Trow is to me. We all need our previous-generation curmudgeons.
Then Franzen does a back-and-forth thing with Amazon.com, and Jeff Bezos, and the destruction of the thing Franzen holds dear: the physical book, and book culture, and book stores. He delivers the line that’s the most-quoted from this piece: “In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction, Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen.” He writes this:
Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world.
Except that world is the world, and it’s almost always been the world, and we’ve always been to the side of it. Franzen doesn’t seem to get that. The world of America is a world of selling, of business, of getting ahead. It’s a world of competition. It’s a ruthless world of by any means necessary. If literature is marginalized now it just means it’s more marginalized now. It’s not just marginalized by movies, and radio, and television, as it was in Franzen’s youth, but by everything on the Internet, which is almost everything in the world. It’s almost embarrassing to be here, really, and doing what I’m doing, writing this blog, writing these words, because what’s the point? The other day at a party, a friend said to me, “I’ve been reading your blog lately” and my immediate reaction was one of embarrassment. It was almost as if he’d said, “I saw you standing on the street corner lately, shouting.”
He ends well. Franzen begins horribly and ends well.
Maybe apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal. I have a brief tenure on Earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances. If I’d been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at 53, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending. But I was born in 1959, when TV was something you watched only during prime time, and people wrote letters and put them in the mail, and every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers, and New Criticism reigned in English departments, and the Amazon basin was intact, and antibiotics were used only to treat serious infections, not pumped into healthy cows.
Well shouted, Jonathan. And from a better street corner, too.
Franzen, B.B. (Before Bezos)
George W.S. Trow and the Problem of the Final Failed Connection
If you've been reading this blog lately you've noticed a few posts about George W.S. Trow, whose “Within the Context of No Context” I've practically memorized, and whose “My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998” I've been reading.
“Pilgrim's” is not as tight as “Context,” maybe because Trow was 20 years older when he wrote it, maybe because William Shawn wasn't around to edit it, maybe because Trow was already beginning to lose his mind. But there are many instances when Trow, as it with a wave of his hand, reveals the world to us. That thing that's been nagging at you for 20 years? This is why. Right here. He connects the disconnected.
Near the end of the book, in the chapter “My Life in Flames,” he gives us one such moment. He writes about the two houses in Hyde Park that are owned and maintained by the federal government: FDR's, of course, and a big marble palace built by Frederick Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius. Trow writes that it was FDR's idea to preserve the Vanderbilt home as a kind of testament to an awful period when too few people had too much of the money:
At a time—it was wartime—when people had ration coupons; when people had family members who were dying abroad, when soldiers were receiving pay, and I don't know exactly what a G.I.'s pay was during World War II, but was it sometimes fifty dollars a month for a private?—and all of this sitting on top of the Great Depression; in the early 1940s, say, a big marble house built by a robber baron forty years before was—almost an object of terror, one wants to say; a lesson to a mistake that had been made and suffered through.
Trow writes about how in the America of his youth it was not acceptable for some people to be making $15 a week while others lived off the income of their income. Then he writes this:
About three years ago [mid-1990s] I noticed an extraordinary change in the Vanderbilt house ... The guides [rather than being in the spirit of a 1953 public librarian] were all young; not particularly well informed as to the overall flow of American history, but wildly well informed as to the history of the Vanderbilt family; and suddenly out of the woodwork, or out of some books, came all kinds of facts and figures about the Vanderbilts, in terms of how much money they had and how many houses and how many yachts and so forth, which showed that the Vanderbilts, at least in the minds of the guides, and I guess, probably, everyone else, had lately been put on a new kind of Mount Rushmore; these were people who had invented the aesthetic that everyone at this recent moment had decided to embrace. This, of course, represented a kind of defeat for FDR's intent. I didn't see one horrified face or one disapproving face as the young guides described plutocracy in its old form.
Well, Reagan did that, didn't he?
I'm reading and saying, Yes, yes, yes! It's particularly nice that Trow gets to Reagan because he tends to gloss over the Reagan years. The subtitle of the book is “Media Studies 1950-1998” but Trow rarely gets out of the 1950s, his formative years, and only sometimes into the 1960s, when he was at Harvard and then hired by The New Yorker, and also into the 1970s, when “Within the Context of No Context” was written. But here he finally lands on the 1980s: Reagan. The answer.
He adds, “But how on earth did it happen ...” I.e., how did Reagan do it? And he goes into the anti-money aesthetic of the 1960s left-wing, and how he, Trow, was at odds with that aesthetic. He recalls attending a 1969 meeting with a friend about turning Time magazine into a worker-owned publication like Le Monde, and how isolated he felt at that meeting. He liked the culture of the old artistocracy; he palled around with them, as we say today, and yet by 1998 he was against the newly sympathetic relationship to the old plutocracy in a way that his old left-wing friend was not.
He had gone from “Time magazine ought to be like Le Monde” to being at the party for the man who thought that Time-Warner ought to triple in size, perhaps.
Then he repeats his question about Reagan, “Reagan did it, but how did he do it?” and I'm thinking, C'mon. Tell us already! Because I know Trow. It won't be the typical answer. It won't be resentment against blacks (“Welfare queen,” etc.), and it won't be Carter's foreign policy (hostages, etc.), and it won't be Carter's domestic policy (“Are you better off ...” etc.). It won't be the radicalism of the left in the 1960s and the various humiliations America suffered in the 1970s, which is my vague answer. It'll be something better. Something right in front of our eyes.
But he keeps putting it off. He goes into a story about how Richard Avedon took a photograph of Diana Vreeland at the Reagan White House, curtsying before an amused Prince Charles, and how it's a real curtsy, and yadda yadda, and how one of the men in the background of this photo was Jerry Zipkin, whom he derisively calls a “walker,” which is a guy, probably gay, who takes society women around town. Zipkin was in Trow's social circle for a while and Trow didn't think much of him. And then out of the blue, when we're not looking, Trow suddenly gives us the answer:
And I looked at that photograph and I thought, “Oh, God, Studio 54.” And that's how Reagan did it.
Wait—WHAT? Studio 54?
So you read on. Trow writes about how the American aesthetic was often a New York aesthetic, since the center of television and publishing was in New York. Then he tells us a Studio 54 story, his Studio 54 story, how he went there with Diana Vreeland shortly after it opened, and how they sat in the VIP gallery and he looked out at a scrim celebrating cocaine use. Except he had a friend, a good friend, who was suffering from substance abuse at the time so Trow didn't think much of this celebration. Then he writes that Dionysian energy like Elvis' often gets warped by the media filter and how Studio 54 was the 1960s reconfigured as the 1970s; and then he writes this:
As of 1978, New York had run out of specific cultural information; Roosevelt had died and had been buried; Winchell could be Army Archerd from the Hollywood Reporter or any other angry tabloid person; there was no reason Walter Winchell, dancing on Roosevelt's grave, couldn't be that loathesome man who gave us Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. As to Hyde Park versus the Vanderbilt house, the Vanderbilts had won.
Right. But ... The connection? Between Studio 54 and Reagan?
You can guess, certainly. The VIP gallery stood for exclusivity rather than egalitarianism, as did Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and suddenly that's what everyone wanted: the exclusivity of the rich and famous. With drugs. There's something to that. But just something. And it doesn't quite lead to Reagan.
For the final few pages of the book, Trow talks up the relationship between FDR and Walter Winchell, the fierce tabloid reporter, and how the Kennedys are the link between FDR and what we have now, “where political figures of every stripe and at every level struggle to find the next camera angle.” But Reagan? It has something to do with George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House, apparently, which Trow wants us to read, as well as preindustrial probity, which FDR embodied, and ... And then the book kind of swirls away and leaves you, or me anyway, bereft, without a final connection.
I mean, you go back and dig again. Right, so FDR is aristocratic but egalitarian, and Studio 54 is pedestrian but exclusive. It's undemocratic. FDR came from money but strove for egalitarianism, JFK added glamour, but in the 1960s we dipped our toe in greater egalitarianaism, greater democracy, and came out disgusted. We came out wanting the money and the glamour and the exclusivity. We wanted to be behind the VIP ropes.
But it's not enough. The point of the great thinker and the great writer, which Trow is, is to make the connections the rest of us miss; but Trow has a nasty habit, and this goes back to “Context” as well, of leading us to the Great Connection and then abandoning us there while he goes off on another tangent. He takes us halfway across the chasm and then helicopters out of there, toodle-oo, and we look to the other side, alone, without a guide, and we wonder, “But how do I make that leap?”
More, I'm sure, to come.
How did Reagan do it? Well ...
George W.S. Trow on 'All About Eve'
“All About Eve is a good marker in that it describes a shift from a Broadway and Hollywood studio reality to a television reality, and also a shift from a society of vanity, epitomized by Mankiewicz's heroine, Margo Channing, played by Bette Davis, to a society of narcissism, the Anne Baxter character, Eve Harrington.
”Marilyn Monroe was used as the television avatar, and she doens't make it in the Broadway world, certainly, and George Sanders says her next move ought to be in television, and Marilyn Monroe says, 'Are there auditions in television?' She's just flunked an audition for a Broadway play, and George Sanders says, 'Yes, there are auditions in television. In fact, that's all television is.' All auditions.
“Well, so it was in 1950, and it's just a useful social marker, and I always want to refer to Diana Vreeland's famous remark, 'I loathe narcissim; I approve of vanity.' The shift from a society of vanity to a society of narcissim—not a small shift, vanity being one of those things, like sexuality itself, that humans are called upon to accept as part of their condition, and narcissism being something from another planet—and Mankiewicz is indicating not just that there's a devolution in American character but that this devolution is henceforth going to be at the top fo the American cultural hierarchy. I take Manciewicz's film very seriously, more seriously than I take Citizen Kane, which is a theatrical fantasy.”
-- George W.S. Trow, ”My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998,“ pp. 205-06
Narcissism (left) takes over from vanity (right), with television in the middle.