David Kordahl

Skin in the Game: Two Versions of Cheap Meat

In books, Ethics, Food on 2014/10/06 at 2:35 pm

In Meat We Trust:
An Unexpected History of Carnivore America
by Maureen Ogle
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, 384 pp.

The Meat Racket:
The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business
by Christopher Leonard
Simon & Schuster, 2014, 370 pp.

We’re all adults, here: We know where meat comes from. Seriously, we all do. There’s no shortage of books to shade in the details, with Fast Food Nation over a decade old and The Omnivore’s Dilemma ubiquitous enough, by now, that it would require real effort to stay ignorant of its main thrust. The genre’s vegetarian branch has ripened into a certain decadence, with consumer choices for every aesthetic stripe (Animal Liberation for the brainy clinician, Eating Animals for the hip postmodernist, Elizabeth Costello for that rare reader of literary fiction), and although I’m not one of them, pro-meat readers, too, can fill up on titles like The Shameless Carnivore and Meat: A Love Story. All these books take different stances toward industrial farming, but they agree that it’s an issue people can affect via their individual dietary choices. So it’s something of a surprise to find two new books, both popular histories, with a decidedly less cheerful slant. Both argue for the system’s incontrovertibility, even as they’re both written to decry this deadlock’s late state.

There might be something perverse in my claim that both titles under review argue that things can’t be changed, since Maureen Ogle, in her introduction to In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America, says exactly the opposite. “My hope is that that this book will help all of us understand how we got to where we are so that, if we are willing, we can imagine a different future and write a new history of meat in America.” But if this is a hope, it’s decidedly not the main focus of the text. Instead, as she bluntly writes in an early endnote, “Readers should note that my general argument in this book is a rejection, overt or otherwise, of the Marxists’ critique of ‘capital.’ I am aware of that argument … I don’t agree with it and find it singularly useless for making substantive change.”

Ogle’s project is to dampen the “sense of entitlement” that has grown from the misconception that some “Elysian idyll” ended “when corporations barged in and converted rural America into an industrial handmaiden of agribusiness.” But if she merely aims to correct misinformation, it’s often difficult to distinguish her strenuous articulation of the logic of business from an approval of this way of thinking. You can only portray so many agriculturalists as heroes and reformers as schmucks (Upton Sinclair is characterized as an “impetuous, publicity-starved writer” and a “fair-weather socialist”; Ralph Nader gets off merely as “eccentric” and “[d]riven by zealousness that bordered on fanaticism”) before your sympathies become impossible to ignore.

Here’s a quote to give some idea of Ogle’s style, with its contradictory urges to reveal that things once were even worse and to document that the present is not so unlike the past, after all. It comes midway through the second chapter, “We Are Here to Make Money,” which concerns the switch from live shipments to dead ones, “dressed,” since chilled carcasses are easier to move uninjured than warm animals. Specifically, the sentence is from a section detailing the “visual and aural feast” that attended urban butcheries, with their consequent flows of blood and urine in the streets. Ogle writes, “Throngs of children hung about to watch with fascinated delight, hanging on every word of the ‘not very elegant language’ of the butchers’ world, becoming, critics complained, ‘habituated to scenes of blood and violence,’ a gory and three-dimensional nineteenth-century version of the computer games that adults fret about today.”

This leads into a pagelong description of the viscera heaps that would be found in every 19th-century city, a description that, with any other framing, would read as an indictment of the savagery of butchery itself. It functions instead, though, as a lead-in to justify why it was reasonable for city dwellers to force these butchers to operate in centralized slaughterhouses, one among the book’s many examples of the “conflict between public good and private interest.”

In Meat We Trust is valuable as a compressed narrative of the last two centuries of the animals in agriculture, but the danger of this compression is to make its events seem inevitable. The early rise of the Beef Trust, with its colluding megapackers, is shown to be a result of the thin margins resulting from Western overgrazing and cattle overproduction in the late 1900s. Factory farming of chickens, then pigs, is said to have been inspired by nothing more than “a desire to keep food costs for consumers low and a need to ensure that farmers enjoyed an adequate standard of living.” Boxed beef, antibiotics, tenant farming, union busting: though each has its individual nuances, the overall story is always the same, one of a difficult business world wherein farmers must respond to a carnivorous public that demands enormous quantities of flesh, at a high quality and a low price.

Ogle gives the last two chapters of her book (“The Doubters’ Crusade” and “Utopian Visions, Red Tape Reality”) to the rise of alternative ag and its inevitable discontents. She’s generally skeptical of such trends—the old saw about how grass-fed beef couldn’t feed the entire country is approvingly quoted—but nevertheless sighs that “alternative is the new normal,” a phrase which she deploys ironically to critique alternative agriculture as just another in the long line of specious ways to sate our simultaneous American longings “for convenience, for cachet, for doing good.”

Christopher Leonard’s The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business also hinges on a vision of the new normal, but “niche localvore farmers” aren’t mentioned until the very last page of the book, and then it’s only to note that most “middle- to low-income Americans” won’t buy their stuff. Nothing in The Meat Racket, aside from an ambiguous note in the acknowledgments that Don Tyson is a “genius,” is overly hot on industrial meat, but after 300+ pages of demonstrating the relentless gains of Tyson et al., Leonard concludes, “It’s unclear if anything will change this pattern.”
Where Ogle is wry, Leonard is glum. The biggest difference between these books is that while Ogle, by profiling the major important historical trends, covers mainly winners, while Leonard goes in tit for tat, winners with their losers alongside.

By focusing on one company, Tyson Foods, and its interactions with one town, Waldron, Arkansas, Leonard gives us an industrial cross section based on interviews with participants ranging from Don Tyson to the farmers his business model has bankrupted. The Meat Racket is a triumph of specificity, giving names and dates in place of half-formed generalities.

This makes the book hard to dismiss, even if one starts out skeptical. The first chapter, “How Jerry Yandell Lost the Farm,” is the narrative of a Waldron farmer whose successive losses are deployed to show how Tyson has outsourced most of its risk to the farmers who do its work. The company hatches the chicks, produces their feed, delivers them to farmers, picks them up, slaughters them, and sells their meat to the grocers and restaurant chains. And while this vertical integration, on one hand, allows Tyson to cut down on many of the equipment doublings that could lead to higher prices, it also gives them a tyrannical power. Farmers have to use whatever chicks they are given, whatever feed they are given, and their pay depends on how well they do with these raw materials. In fact, there’s another draconian caveat: the farmers’ efficiency is fastidiously ranked, and those farmers whose output is least efficient are docked in the price they are paid per pound, a further penalty for failure.

Given that the farmers have to pay for their own equipment and may have to work with less-than-perfect chicks (the Jerry Yandell arc levies the possibility that he was delivered weak animals that, in the past, would have been culled), it’s not surprising that few farmers make it in the long term. One might ask why potential farmers wouldn’t simply work with different companies, but Leonard takes pains to answer this question. With so much of the market structured via similar contracts, the free market for meat, in many industrial sectors, has all but disappeared.

The first part of The Meat Racket documents how this happened. John Tyson’s original competitive advantage was simply to exploit price differences—buy rural, sell urban. His son, Don Tyson, was the one to introduce the tenant farming paradigm. Though Don “experimented with the model of owning farms outright,” he soon ran into the central difficulty of this aspect of vertical integration:

It was hard to motivate hired hands to do the work, which involved hauling loads of dead chickens out of a barn where the ammonia fumes were so strong they burned the eyes. Hired hands didn’t raise the best birds, no matter how much you paid them or what kind of incentives you provided. They didn’t have skin in the game.

Don crossed the country signing letters of intent so his contract farmers could get loans from the Farm Credit Administration, thereby offloading a significant portion of his venture’s loss to the US Government. The next half-century for Tyson Foods is a story of rise and rise, from changes in the animals (1955: 73 days to raise a 3.1 pound bird; 1982: 52 days for a 4 pounder) to trends in consumption (see: Don Tyson’s courting of Wal-Mart, McDonald’s).

But if the story of Tyson starts as one that’s specifically about poultry, The Meat Racket‘s second section, “The Great Chickenization,” tells how the Tyson model of concentrated agriculture—along with tenant farming—eventually overtook cow and pig production, too. There were plenty of technical challenges to raising pigs in this way (“the biological equivalent of putting hundreds of large people in a barn with no toilets or running water”), but the business benefits of controlling the productive means, or, rather, the benefits of controlling the most profitable sectors of those means, was enticing enough to lure Don into the experiment. And once Tyson had cracked the basic method, competitors like Smithfield Foods adopted and extended it with a vengeance.

This sort of control wasn’t quite possible for cattle, whose unique stomachs require them to feed on milk and grass for nearly a year before they can enter the feedlot. But when Johnny Tyson, Don’s son and short-lived CEO of the company, bought IBP, the same boxed-beef purveyors who got a whole chapter of In Meat We Trust, the beef industry began to look the same as all the rest. After telling us how 85% of all cows are bought by just four companies (Tyson, Cargill, JBS Swift, National Beef), Leonard makes a heavy allegation: “There is ample evidence that the big four meatpackers have chosen to divvy up the market, picking territories where they can buy all the cattle from the feedlot without facing a competing bid.”

As for the evidence he gives of this, I could imagine Ogle shaking her head. “No one,” Leonard admits, “seems to think the meatpackers are dumb enough to have an actual sit-down meeting to divvy up territories where they won’t compete against each other. But then again, they don’t have to.” The numbers Leonard has on this—individual feedlots consistently selling to just one of the four big guys—are on the level of the century old Beef Trust accusations, which Ogle’s narrative included to show the naïveté of American consumers, always looking to blame someone besides themselves.

The last section of The Meat Racket concerns the Obama administration’s unsuccessful efforts to break these de facto monopolies, but the ending is more downbeat than necessary. We’re walked through beginning intentions vs. ending disappointments, from the original reform draft with its provisions to forbid contracts with added penalties, to allow farmers to press lawsuits for individual harm, to ban packers from owning livestock—all reforms aimed to shift power toward small producers—and on to the final, gutted version, which, in any case, was defunded by the House of Representatives. The book’s closing pages are given over to statistics of continued growth. “Tyson’s results reflected that even in hard times, people need to eat. And when people eat, Tyson’s products were all but unavoidable.”

We’re all adults here: We know that reforms don’t come easy. “The only way to avoid [Tyson],” Leonard concludes, “was to become a vegetarian.” This comment seems intended as a hopeless shrug, but to at least one reader, it sounds like a solution, a way to cut that old Gordian Knot. Of course, I’ve had this conversation enough times to know that most readers won’t agree. In both The Meat Racket and In Meat We Trust, the main sufferers are those people who wade through shit and slice through guts, not those animals whose shit they’re wading through whose guts they’re about to slice. But, again, we’re all aware of the equation’s other side, and we’re all aware that this means that many staples of the American diet, from corn dogs to chicken wings, have costs not on the balance sheet. These foods’ facade of comfort and normalcy—and, fine, sure, their basic overall taste—conspire to keep most of us as satisfied consumers. The contribution of these two books is to illuminate the human costs of this consumption, alongside he costs we already know about but choose to accept.

Sleeping at Arcosanti

In Ethics, Politics, Travel on 2014/05/10 at 10:42 pm

Arcosanti, a bell-casting community, doubled as an experiment in constructing the city of the future … the sort of city, for better or worse, that never came to be. Is its guiding vision still possible?

Paolo Soleri hated cars. I knew this coming in, but it wasn’t until I was bumping at 5 m.p.h. along the trail of rocks leading to Arcosanti that the extent of this hatred became quite clear. After all, every prior encounter I’d had with Soleri’s work had come with the utmost automotive convenience. The Soleri Bridge and Plaza had been viewed only when I was on the way to the fancy mall in Scottsdale, and the big bell assemblage of his in the Neiman Marcus there was viewed only after a trip to the parking garage. “Stop, Holly,” I told my wife, who was driving. “I need a picture of this.”

Good neighbors to the past future, just off the "road" to Arcosanti

Good neighbors to the past future, just off the “road” to Arcosanti

“Jeeeez,” said Holly. Normally, this sort of abuse to the Toyota might merit some complaint, but no way, buddy: this one is all her fault. One night earlier, her co-worker Steve had told us about this crazy place seventy miles outside Phoenix where he might like to use as a concert venue, and since both of us were off work for the week, we decided to pack for an overnighter. We drove past a red helical sculpture and, upon reaching the visitor’s parking lot, got out and walked down the hill.

Please note the eroteme ending the subtitle, "An Urban Laboratory?"

Please note the eroteme ending the subtitle, “An Urban Laboratory?”

Looking into it afterward, I haven’t been able to find a source that directly states the meaning of “Arcosanti,” but here’s my best shot. Paolo Soleri, the site’s late visionary, was an eccentric who, in his writing, heavily favored the neologism and portmanteau. To appreciate the meaning of Arcosanti, then, we need to dig into a few of his other linguistic creations—starting with the two most famous ones. Soleri wanted to pair architecture and ecology, so ARCitecture + ecoLOGY = ARCOLOGY. In a sentence: “Arcosanti is an attempted arcology.” Try another. Arcosanti is overseen by the Cosanti Foundation, the non-profit established by Soleri. So, again, to break it down, COSANTI = COSA (It., “thing”) + ANTI (“against” or “before”). The foundation website encourages both interpretations, “against things,” with its anti-materialist vibe, and “before things,” which emphasizes the primary importance of architecture to society.

This etymological backdrop tells us the meaning of Arcosanti, then. ARCOSANTI = ARCOlogy + coSANTI. In other words, it’s an “urban laboratory,” built to test certain ideas about the ways that architecture, if put in direct contact with nature, can affect the society it holds.

The treacherous road to the guest rooms, as seen from Craft III, Arcosanti's gallery/bakery/restaurant.

The treacherous road to the guest rooms, as seen from Craft III, Arcosanti’s gallery/bakery/restaurant.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. When Holly and I arrived, we hadn’t made reservations, and on the way up the stairs of Craft III, we walked by a series of historical photos, a timeline of the site’s history since its beginning in 1970. At the top, there was a gift shop where a man told us that, yes, sure, we could get the last room available for $50, a room with three single beds. After signing, I took the key and said we’d return in a few minutes for the 4 PM tour.

He’d told us to pull our car around to the back, but as we rounded the hill on a single-lane thread of gravel, I kept flashing back to a passage in Blood Meridian where the poor donkey skitters off a cliff (“it fell from sight into a sink of cold blue space that absolved it forever in the mind of any living thing that was”), and Holly said, “If we ever come here again, let’s just leave the car in the front.”

Guest room, interior view. AC is not included, though a space heater and an excellent view of prickly pear cacti come gratis

Guest room, interior view. AC is not included, though a space heater and an excellent view of prickly pear cacti come gratis

It was hard to disagree. I now understood the complaints I’d skimmed on TripAdvisor before leaving the city—understood that these complaints, for the most part, were the result of an incorrect idea of what an Arcosanti stay might mean. If I’d arrived expecting a resort (during summer months, there is a swimming pool), the concrete floors and open windows might’ve seemed a touch too ascetic for comfort. But considered instead as a camping experience, the accommodations, roads excepted, are about as lush as one could want.

6.1 Walk Up

There's a lot of climbing on the way up, but check out that vista from the top.

There’s a lot of climbing on the way up, but check out that vista from the top.

After winding our way back up to Craft III, we met the tour guide in the gallery. “Sorry about my appearance,” he apologized, “I just came from work.” He was a little muddy (his background, he noted, was “in construction”), but this didn’t matter—we were the only ones here for the last afternoon tour, and he took us aside to watch a short film, a doc that was half Koyaanisqatsi, half Soleri primer. “Do you recognize the narrator?” Holly whispered. “It’s Gates McFadden! Dr. Beverly Crusher!”

OK, fine, I like Dr. Bev as well as the next guy, but what’s Soleri’s story, huh? Paolo Soleri, the narrator said, came to Arizona from Italy on account of Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture hub-cum-training camp. Soleri, however, was a generally sort of a badass who got on Wright’s nerves, and he was asked to leave after a year [1], whereupon he went out and camped under the stars on Camelback Mountain in Phoenix for a while before his architecture business took off.

To say that Soleri had an atypical career is to risk understatement. He wasn’t unprolific, exactly, but most of his architectural work was in theory—the planning of cities, of space colonies, of societies, not of individual buildings. To this day, not counting Arcosanti, the number of buildings he designed that have been constructed can be counted on two hands. Most of the hard money he made was from decorative bells, which was a sort of accidental project he lucked into upon returning from Italy, hot off a ceramics factory commission, after a gift shop in Santa Fe told him that the war vet who’d been making their “Korean bells” had passed and they could use some bells in that style, which began the one solid moneymaker that would fund his extracurriculars for a lifetime.

Soleri Bells in the gallery. Prices vary: in the gallery, there was a range of $31 for the cheapest ceramic bell, to $1540 for the priciest bronze one.

Soleri Bells in the gallery. Prices vary: in the gallery, there was a range of $31 for the cheapest ceramic bell, to $1540 for the priciest bronze one.

The film adeptly covered the key points regarding where Arcosanti fit into all this. It showed Soleri propounding his “CMD paradigm,” complexity-miniaturization-duration, with its defining aphorism: “A waste of space equals a waste of time equals a waste of people.” Or, to put it in practical terms, Soleri’s idea was that the type of city Arizona is known for, the city with tract homes instead of apartments, or with freeways instead of sidewalks, is bound to squander human potential. Though even on these points, Soleri didn’t appear to be particularly dogmatic. In fact, he freely admitted that it wouldn’t be until after an arcology is built that its problems and possibilities would be fully understood.

Hence Arcosanti—incomplete arcology though it may be. As soon as our guide led us outside, he was shadowed by another man, taller and thinner, a relative old-timer who would allow the guide to try the spiel first, then add on answers to our questions, asked and unasked, as needed. When we went out to see the South Vault, construction guy (CG; I didn’t get a name, all right?) told us the basics—that this was where they meet in the morning for assignments, that this was the first piece of Arcosanti built after the initial base camp setup in 1970—whereupon old timer (OT; ditto) gave us extra details about how Solari had siltcast the forms before they were flipped up and welded together, or how the colors were set deep into the concrete, so if one wanted a brighter ceiling, the top layer could be scraped off to reveal the vibrant colors underneath.

South Vault. Not sure if the "Arc" in "Arcosanti" has to do with circles, but just you try to find a Soleri structure w/o any.

South Vault. Not sure if the “Arc” in “Arcosanti” has to do with circles, but just you try to find a Soleri structure w/o any.

Part of the ecological interest of these buildings is that they’re supposed to have passive climate control. In South Vault, there’s an openness that allows both shade and air flow. Farther down the hill, there are buildings with glass walls that, in summer, can be whitewashed and closed during the daytime and opened up at night—or, in winter, washed clear, so the heat is trapped inside as a greenhouse.

Another of Soleri’s favorite forms—claimed as alongside the others as an ecological consideration, though one has to assume that aesthetic considerations, in this case, were just as important—was the quarter-sphere, the apse. Because the bells are made in apses (one for each type: the Ceramics Apse and the Foundry Apse) we spent much of the tour beneath them. Once the basic bell-making process was described, OT explained how apse construction had been the macro-version of ceramic bell making. Since the site is within walking distance of the Agua Fria riverbed, now usually dry, it was easy to find silt, and, as with bells, Soleri would oversee the form of the apse to be siltcast. This form would then be undergirded by scaffolding/silt and overgirded by rebar, whereupon concrete could be poured over it, creating structures whose exteriors are as unformed as their interiors are baroque.

1. Ceramics Apse.

1. Ceramics Apse.

2. Silt beds used for casting ceramic bells.

2. Silt beds used for casting ceramic bells.

3. Inside Foundry Apse, where OT explains the brass bell trade.

3. Inside Foundry Apse, where OT explains the brass bell trade.

4. Brass bells, post-cast, pre-assembly.

4. Brass bells, post-cast, pre-assembly.

Of course, any Arcosanti story could easily veer into a bell-making tutorial, but I’m not sure how intrinsically interesting are the clay-setting properties of silt, or the metal-cleansing wonders of muriatic acid. Even for those scattered readers who might want a fuller account of the artisanal lore, there’s Carried Away, an indie comedy I haven’t watched; if you skip to 57 minutes in (this I checked) there’s a foundry montage, Arcosanti based, that contains more detail than anything I can provide [2].

But independent of how intrigued you are by the bells themselves, it’s problematic how central these items remain to the local economy. Moving from the bells to the amphitheater, we were told of the far past, before this schwanky stage was built, when kids would drive out to see Jackson Browne, say, performing with the mesa itself as a shell (including that one time when all the cars burnt up), which at least was something else the site was good for—apart from these darn bells. To be fair, they also make olive oil and honey. Still, the amphitheater has storefronts around it, in anticipation of future business, but with a stable population hovering around a hundred, what incentive do those businesses have to arrive? How can this environment be considered “urban” in any way whatever?

CG surveys the amphitheater, with its perpetually empty storefronts (background circles).

CG surveys the amphitheater, with
its perpetually empty storefronts (background circles).

OT pointed out the apartments built above the amphitheater’s outer ring, noting that these were probably the best living spaces, which usually go to the people who’ve been at Arcosanti the longest. Holly asked if this meant that the only way a resident could get a nicer place was if someone else left or died, and OT replied that, yes, that’s the way it’s set up for now. “Seems dark,” said Holly.

We walked down the amphitheater, where CG pointed out Soleri’s comparably palatial digs, now used as offices. “One thing I’ve been wondering,” I added, “is what kind of social structure would be able to support an arcology. Like, did Soleri think the government would own these huge buildings in the future, or would they belong to big corporations, or what?”

Soleri's old house, now Cosanti offices. For comparison, individual units at the Base Camp are 8' x 8' cubes.

Soleri’s old house, now Cosanti offices. For comparison, individual units at the Base Camp are 8′ x 8′ cubes.

“That’s a great question,” said OT, “a very good question,” and confirmed that he had asked Soleri that same question many times before the man’s death without ever getting a straight answer.

Which meant, unfortunately, that I wouldn’t get any, either. When we returned to Craft III with some time before supper—visitors can pay $9 for a buffet—I wandered around the building, taking notes, feeling more and more that I wasn’t in a future city so much as a weird art commune. Minimum wage may be the norm for Arcosanti workers, but the whole downstairs was filled with the richness of their art, art of all kinds, ranging from the funny/bizarre (possibly intentionally; how else to interpret those sex-cyborg printouts, or “Blue Jesus,” the painting of a pants-less, many-armed Christ?) to the natural/mystic (one artist had smeary digital photos, kaleidoscopically tiled; another’s neo-primitive scrawls were halfway between Henri Rousseau and Grandma Moses) to the straightforward/practical (plant portraits; clay pots).

I returned to the stairwell timeline to be sure I had the dates right, and, reviewing this history, I wondered if this had been anything other than a weirdo colony, a sort of anti-Taliesin West, Type A architects replaced by Type B artists. It took five years (1973-78) just to build the swimming pool, for God’s sake. And when a blast of music from the kitchen signaled that it was time to eat—corned beef and cabbage, garlic tofu, potato soup, a salad bar, pretty tasty stuff—we managed to sit alongside the oddest of all the downstairs art oddities, Soleri’s own design for the über-arcology, the Hyper Building: a proposed one-building city, housing a hundred-thousand people and stretching a full kilometer into the sky, to be constructed midway between Las Vegas (“an icon of hyper-consumption”) and Las Angeles (“an icon of hyper-consumption”) as a moderate alternative to each.

Residents linger in the Craft III café at night.

Residents linger in the Craft III café at night.

Arcosanti Night

I’ll admit that there’s nothing too profound in pointing out the gap between Arcosanti and the Hyper Building, between the real community whose plans are enormous but whose present scale is modest vs. the imaginary building that has quite literally everything (an adjacent zoning poster indicated uses for each of its zillion levels). Nor is it probably useful to collect Soleri quotes [3] for future snark. The idea that Modernist architects could create a better world through architecture has been thoroughly enough abused by now—cf. Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House—that rebuttals of rebuttals have been digested and put on video. A fair upshot is that while architecture alone probably won’t save society, neither is it credible to blame Modernist architecture for very many social ills.

Guesthouse exterior, morning, with photobombing background crane.

Guesthouse exterior, morning, with photobombing background crane.

The most intriguing thing about Arcosanti, as the dim reflection of its creators’ visions, may be just how far removed it is from whatever totalitarian overtones the super-structure evokes on paper. When we returned to Craft III for an 8 AM breakfast, the community was already at work, whether at bell-making or maintenance, keeping the old flame lit. It was easy to see what would draw artists to a place like this—though, ironically, with that open view of the mountains and sky, it’s probably not any strict doctrine of urban planning. Soleri was an architectural visionary, yes, but one without the social dogmatism that might have allowed him to conquer a larger cultural territory. When asked, late in his career, what twenty years of work at Arcosanti had taught him, he said, “In general, I’ve learned that the human animal is a very strange animal.”

An hour later, as we bounced back along the road (somehow, it was even worse on the way out), I said to Holly, “Let’s stop for another picture. I’d like an establishing shot with some cows in it.” We were headed back to Phoenix, the acme of non-arcologies, but in the next days I would come across Soleri nods scattered online, from virtual arcologies in SimCity to a real one in Abu Dhabi. “That’s good,” I said, when we were in position. Arcosanti was a smudge on the far plain, already distant, and in the pictures it was tough just to see the cows.

Cows Again

[1] Why he was dismissed was explained differently by each side. The video didn’t go into this, of course, but here’s Soleri’s version, from The Urban Ideal: “And the last thing was probably my wearing of bikinis—only bikinis and, when I was outside, sandals. I think that was the last straw. Mrs. Wright was very conservative in that sense.” On the other hand, brusque unofficial quotes to the contrary can be found from Wright (mid-comment on one of Soleri’s early commissions): “Oh, yeah, it’s by those two faggots, Soleri and [Soleri’s friend] Mills. I had to kick them out.” Up.

[2] OT mentioned one more film in which Arcosanti is featured. Although, on checking, this one turns out to be sort of anti-informative. After Armageddon, a History Channel production, uses decontextualized site footage from to show what life might be like after the hypothetical fall of civilization—an optimistic stretch, in this case, since if we could all live as well post-fall as do Arcosanti’s current inhabitants, maybe we should just leave off with the scary docs and now welcome its swift coming. Up.

[3] From the Hyper Building poster: “The Tower is the lingham, the male. Two cocentric Exedrae, semicircular edifices, are the female. The fecundity of the city, the richness of invention and complexity it germinates, is produced by the interpenetration of the two forms.” And let’s not even start with the Eros●Nudes pamphlet sold in the gallery upstairs. Up.

Required Viewing: The Century of the Self

In Politics, Pop Culture on 2013/05/29 at 12:57 am

To my knowledge, filmmakers like Adam Curtis simply don’t exist in America. He’s English, a documentarian for the BBC, which, in terms of American institutions, makes him something like their version of that PBS master, Ken Burns. Now, having never been patient enough (bored enough?) to sit all the way through one of Burns’s documentaries, the two may turn out to more similar than I suspect, but I don’t think so. The closest American equivalent I could come up with was Errol Morris, though Alex Gibney was a runner-up, and the Morris similarity is itself more the matter of a spot-it-from-a-mile distinctive style than one of any real artistic affinity. But while we Americans love Morris for his ability to let subjects spin their own verbal traps, Curtis is nowhere near so laconic. He’s more of an active case-builder, usually offering voice-over commentary that tells us what to make of his archival footage. This style of filmmaking—opinionated, but not activist; personal, but in no way autobiographical—is just one signal of his remove from American norms. This, despite a choice of Americana subjects consistent enough to make Burns himself seem like a foreigner.

The Adam Curtis film I’d like to suggest as required viewing is about four hours long (four one-hour episodes, made as a miniseries for BBC Two, the public channel for brainy niche pieces), so before that discussion I’m embedding a short he did in 2011 to give some idea of the Curtis Style—an appetizer, for once about issues pertaining more to the U.K. than the U.S.A. It’s a segment titled “Paranoia,” from a BBC Four meta-news commentary program, Newswipe:

Considered strictly in terms of style, this is easy enough to characterize, or to parody. There is a counterintuitive thesis (“This is a film about how ALL of us have become Richard Nixon”), far outsize what the film’s time constraints could reasonably support, followed by a re-framing of familiar issues in quintessentially Curtisian terms. The idea that the tyranny of “elitism” has been replaced by the more subtle tyranny of market forces has been well explored in Curtis’s longer works (it’s the main subject of The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom), as has the idea that the past thirty years have fundamentally shifted the relationship of the self to society (see below). The main thing to note here, before moving on, is the way that various disjunctions between sound and image, or between familiar found images and their unfamiliarly assigned meanings, are repurposed for the specific rhetorical purposes of the film. After a thumbnail sketch of Roy Jenkins, who in this short is used to represent Britain’s old political order—elitist but still with the country’s best interests at heart—the film goes from cheezy horror film music (listen behind the million-Nixon zoom out) to a party track (behind the images of investigative journalists, images that we’re used to having played straight) to conspiracy stingers (“there really were hidden conspiracies”), all in short order. This is the documentary at its most essayistic, where every sound and image is used to bolster a particular POV.

If I weren’t so sympathetic to the claims being presented, I would probably hate this. But I am sympathetic, and in the case of The Century of the Self, the movie is long enough to give its assertions the background and incident they deserve. It presents a vision of the remodeled modern self that stretches from Sigmund Freud to Bill Clinton—and, in doing so, manages to become the most incisive critique of consumer culture I’ve seen on film.

The_Century_of_Self_TitlesTitle card.

This is television, so it can’t afford to lose our attention. Each episode opens with its own elevator pitch: “This series is about how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.” It’s a good line, and it’s most true of the first episode, “Happiness Machines,” which follows the quest of Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, in his transition from wartime propaganda specialist to peacetime PR-man. Which is itself an incredible understatement. Bernays invented public relations, insofar as it’s understood today—making him, at least for a while, not a PR-man, but the PR-man, an inventor of his own category of being. One film clip shows an ancient Bernays as a David Letterman guest, where Letterman asks Dr. Bernays what kind of doctor we’re dealing with here. “What we’re dealing with really,” Bernays replies, “is the concept that people will believe me more if you call me doctor.”

The Letterman audience applauds; they’re residents of the world Bernays created. But “Happiness Machines” reminds us that the world of the early 20th century was a very different place, a place where it wasn’t a natural assumption that people could be easily convinced to buy things they did not need. For that, the world needed Bernays. The world Bernays was born to was one where advertisements (the film showcases several) were more or less factual and focused on why a particular object would make your life a little easier if you purchased it. After WW1 experience building Woodrow Wilson into a hero and observing the adoring French crowds whose contact with Wilson was limited to the propaganda he had helped to create, though, Bernays came to realize that the techniques he had used to inflate Wilson’s image could just as easily be applied to inflate movie stars or cigarettes.

Perhaps the film’s most striking anecdote, in fact, describes how Bernays linked cigarettes to political motives so women might find them more attractive. After consulting a psychoanalyst and being told that the cigarette—longer than it is wide, after all—unconsciously evoked the penis, Bernays told his clients that women would be more likely to smoke if cigarettes could be linked to feminine power, as opposed to their “natural” linkage to male dominance. His solution: after alerting the media (free publicity!), he had a group of paid debutantes pose as suffragettes and light up “torches of freedom” during NYC’s Easter Sunday Parade. Within a year, the number of women smokers had increased by over 100%.

Screenshot from 2013-05-27 13:24:57A brave suffragette sucks her torch of freedom.

“The Engineering of Consent,” the second film in the series, delves into the social and political implications of Bernays’s enormous discovery. The practical effects of possible manipulation might have seemed benign enough—in the wake of his early success, Bernays invented product placement and experimented with cross-platform pollination—but the philosophical implications, for some, were much darker. Sigmund Freud, for one, wasn’t out to sell cigarettes, but was disturbed by the primitive human urges that the world wars seemed to suggest. (Nephew Eddie, meanwhile, prepared America for his uncle’s coming with a publicity campaign that included excerpting Uncle Sigmund’s work in Cosmopolitan.) Freud’s daughter, Anna, would champion psychoanalysis as the solution for keeping these urges in check, effectively advocating societal conformity as the paradoxical necessity of a philosophy that had at its core the view that deviant, irrational urges were a ubiquitous feature of human nature.

Engineered social conformity had two forms, though—both of which would later be popularly viewed as insidious intrusions into the natural self. The first of these, Anna’s program, was repressive on the personal level. Having gone through analysis by her father once he found her masturbating, Anna Freud may not herself have had the best simulacrum of a normal family life, but that didn’t stop her from advocating the nuclear family as the epitome of the healthy individual’s relationship to society. One of Anna’s followers, the Los Angeles therapist Dr. Ralph Greenson, went so far as to use his own family as a model for his clientèle of disturbed movie stars, moving Marilyn Monroe into a house next to his so he might serve as her surrogate father figure.

This personal engineering, however, was very slight compared to the large-scale societal engineering being attempted. Ernest Dichter, by inventing the focus group, carried forward the original Bernays insight by using interviews and role-playing to determine what consumers really wanted. And though his conclusions, coldly described, might’ve sounded like bullshit (are you sure the reason women wouldn’t use instant cake-mix, upon its introduction to supermarkets, was that the saved labor evoked sense of guilt at their sloth? that the way to fix this was to have them add an egg, thus allowing the cake to double as an unconscious gift of femininity to their husbands?), it’s hard to argue with success (so…it turned out that women really did buy more cake mix if they had to add an egg [insert confused face here]). Bernays, too, was hard at work, except his work had branched out to include the government. In his most infamous coup—literally a coup, in this case—Bernays, under contract of the United Fruit Company, planned a propaganda campaign that spuriously linked the land reform efforts of Guatemala’s then-leaders to the Soviet Menace, a campaign that directly influenced the CIA to support a revolution. All for the commercial advantage of American bananas. In such campaigns, Bernays, believing that people could not be trusted to make good decisions without emotional guidance, worked deliberately to foster the confusion of capitalism with democracy that we still experience today.

Screenshot from 2013-05-27 16:53:46The housewife contemplates her feminine gift.

Of course, cons of this magnitude couldn’t stay secret forever. The third film, “There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed,” tracks the general disillusionment these cover-ups engendered, complete with its pat symbols of personal and public malaise (respectively, Marilyn’s suicide—attempts at normalcy are no escape—and the Watergate/Vietnam complex—and social action won’t help, either). In retrospect, it seems inevitable that the rule of psychoanalysts who worked to align people’s desires more closely with the structure of society would be replaced by a new order, ready to advocate for a realignment of society to more closely match the structure of human desires. We see how Sigmund Freud, his Mosaic aspect telegraphing a stern disgust, was symbolically replaced by Wilhem Reich, prophet of the orgasm, whose sexy orgone guns (he claimed) could threaten the clouds into rain. Rather than working to repress the self, members of the Human Potential Movement joined at the Esalen Institute for encounter sessions, where participants were assured that many of the world’s problems could be solved if only they could just express themselves more fully.

Except the unintended consequences of this hard leftward swing were nearly as dramatic as the consequences of Psychoanalysis 1.0. We’re shown the interviews of a group of nuns who were encouraged, as an experiment, to express what their true feelings. The result: apart from the few who remained as a radical lesbian contingency, the rest simply quit being nuns. Such disorienting outcomes raised a serious question. Could society survive the elevation of desire as king? The short-term answer, at least in practice, was another question: Who cares? The quest for one’s true self wouldn’t be stopped by philosophical quibbles. In the guise of EST Seminars (famously chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his great essay, “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening”), the quest itself become a commercial product. Curtis includes footage of these supine pilgrims in giant hotel conference rooms, kicking, squealing, flailing—struggling mightily to achieve a “mass-produced nonconformity.”

Screenshot from 2013-05-27 13:28:23Freedom fighters of the 1970s, encountering themselves.

This ostensible shattering of the old psychoanalytic ideal, however, brought with it an ironic return to the territory of Edward Bernays, the series’s Lucifer incarnate. For if desires could now be submitted to without shame, wasn’t this exactly the sort of thing a trained marketer might best exploit? Researchers from the Stanford University spinoff SRI International were some of the first to realize the business potential of this shift. Their “Values, Attitudes, and Lifestyles” survey was able, with a detailed series of personal questions, to pinpoint the desires of the various new types of consumers that the social shifts had birthed. One type, an ad hoc addition based on the collected data, was the “inner directeds,” those for whom the demands of society were less important than the requirements of their fundamental selves. But no matter—whatever manner of existence a person (or, in the language of the times, a consumer) might inhabit, there would henceforth be products designed specifically for their desires. In the words of Stew Albert, co-founder of the Yippies, “What capitalism managed to do that was brilliant was to actually create products that people like me would be interested in. […] Capitalism developed a whole industry at developing products that evoke a larger sense of self, that seemed to agree with us that the self was infinite, that you could be anything that you wanted to be.” With this cornucopia of choice, it was hard not to concede that when business won, we consumers won, too.

But did anything lose? “Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering,” the fourth and final episode, provides a curt response: politics lost. Curtis argues that when people started to self-identify primarily as “consumers” (a term evocative of irrational preference), rather than “citizens” (a term that suggests rational participation), this fundamentally altered their expectations of government. The “inner directeds,” to the surprise of the SRI team, were supporters of Regan and Thatcher—those politicians who “[made] the denial of compassion respectable.” Just as these prototypical Last Men expected products whose primary purpose was to serve only them, so too did they view such civic transactions as tax in businesslike terms, as a payment for services rendered to them alone.

These shifting attitudes were teased out by political focus groups. This development, now familiar enough to surprise that it was unused until the early 1990s, is told primarily through the trials of Bill Clinton, the first politician to allow such information to shape his policy positions. The film displays Clinton as a flawed crusader, a man whose good intentions were stymied by political realities at every turn. (It bears reminder that this portrait, though less positive than the hagiography routinely presented by nostalgic Americans, seems gentle when compared to the vitriol of Curtis’s fellow Briton, the late Christopher Hitchens.) During Clinton’s first campaign, polls indicated that he would lose to George Bush, Sr., if, as originally planned, he were to raise taxes, so the ever-canny Clinton simply changed course and promised voters that he would cut taxes. Upon taking office, though, he learned that budget shortages were more serious than he’d anticipated, and he couldn’t deliver these tax breaks—a failure that conservatives like Newt Gingrich were able to leverage into huge gains during midterm elections two years later. The backlash led a panicked Clinton into the arms of the ruthless political strategist Dick Morris, whose Machiavellian—Bernaysian?—advice Clinton followed to a T.

Morris realized that Clinton’s main focus, if he wanted to be reelected, would have to be on swing voters, who Clinton pursued with a single-minded focus. When polls showed that the hunting and fishing crowd might have some voters who could be swayed, for instance, Morris arranged a photo-op for Clinton the Hunter—non-sporting past be damned. No potential advantage, from V-chips to school-bus cameras, could be left unexploited. The endgame of this pursuit, just a few months before his 1996 victory, was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which in one fell swoop dismantled the safeguards of the old welfare state—an exact reversal of his 1992 platforms, modified to sway the will of the nation’s few politically undecided.

Screenshot from 2013-05-27 17:18:02The devil wears Gore-Tex.

The film ends with an appeal that’s surprising in its directness. Curtis claims that what Clinton began in politics has degenerated into a sort of international vicious circle, wherein politicians, refusing to take principled stands, have their positions dictated directly from voters, that lot of varied and conflicting voices, who in turn look to politicians for leadership, who turn to voters, who turn to politicians…and round the circle goes. We’re shown slo-mo shots of Tony Blair, the symbol of this vacuity, gleefully heading a volleyball. The final word goes to Robert Reich, Clinton’s disappointed Secretary of Labor, who doesn’t mince words: “Politics must be more than that. Politics and leadership are about engaging the public in a rational discussion and deliberation about what is best and treating people with respect in terms of their rational abilities to debate what is best. If it’s not that, if it is Freudian, if it is basically a matter of appealing to the same basic unconscious feelings that business appeals to, then why not let business do it? Business can do it better. Business knows how to do it. Business, after all, is in the business of responding to those feelings.”

Adam Curtis, on the other hand, is a public filmmaker, and few have expressed the sweep of history better than he has. No film in the last year has influenced me more than The Century of the Self.

Note: The embedded video above has all four parts of The Century of the Self crammed together. Unless you’re blessed with a teflon butt, though, it’s probably best not to watch the whole thing at once. To ease the difficulty of finding where you left off for a stretch break, I’ve recorded here the times when each of subsequent chapter beings: Part 1, “Happiness Machines”—0:00; Part 2, “The Engineering of Consent”—58:33; Part 3, “There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed”—1:57:33; Part 4, “Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering”—2:54:56. In other news, if you’re the sort who likes to Google along as you watch documentaries, I also found a full transcript that may be of use.