David Kordahl

Archive for the ‘Pop Culture’ Category

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 The idea that the tyranny of “elitism” has been replaced by the more subtle tyranny of market forces has been well explored in Curtis’s longer works (it’s the main subject of The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of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.

Where to start with American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis

In Lit, Pop Culture on 2012/11/04 at 4:50 pm

This post emulates the “Gateways to Geekery” column over at the A.V. Club. In fact, I tried pitching it to them but was met by no response. Turns out that website doesn’t accept pitches. Which I should have researched before writing the piece. In any case, I enjoyed working through some thoughts on BEE’s oeuvre and now post this here, FWIW.

Geek obsession: The novels of Bret Easton Ellis

Why it’s daunting: Bret Easton Ellis is one of the few novelists to suffer the privilege of growing up in public. His first novel, Less Than Zero, became a bestseller when he was just 21, The Rules of Attraction came only two years later, and at age 26, when most writers are still struggling to produce a first novel, his third, American Psycho, became the center of a National Organization of Women boycott that caused Simon & Schuster, his original publisher, to drop the book, citing “aesthetic differences” extreme enough for them not to require any back-payment on the $300,000 advance.

We should all be so unlucky. But while American Psycho cemented Ellis’s reputation as a literary provocateur, the arguments surrounding it often conflated the author with his narrators—a despicable group of typically rich, typically white, male narcissists. (In a famous Vanity Fair take-down, Norman Mailer asked, “Is Bateman the monster or Bret Easton Ellis?” and went on to speculate that the author had used his art as a perverse form of therapy.) It didn’t help, either, that Ellis himself seemed to encourage this conflation, from book-jacket author photos that matched narrator descriptions to, in the case of Lunar Park, a debauched narrator named—what else?—Bret Easton Ellis. For fans, this may all come off as good old postmodern fun, but anti-Ellis critics have their pick of damning details, all the way up to his most recent Twitter-tantrums. Despite the almost exclusive focus that the books put on manners and morals, it’s not always easy to unpack the layers that exist between author, narrator, and page. Add to this the preconceptions built by the movie adaptations (not always negative—Less Than Zero and The Informers may be middling films, but American Psycho and The Rules of Attraction are both excellent), and the summed barrage of mediation makes it hard to approach the novels fresh.

Possible Gateway: The Rules of Attraction

Why: As the follow-up to a celebrated debut, The Rules of Attraction may be the least-read BEE novel, but it’s also probably the most accessible. This is for two main reasons: 1. Due to frequently switched narrators, it’s easier here than anywhere else in the Ellis catalog to distinguish between the POV of the author and his characters, with overlapping descriptions serving to highlight dramatic ironies; and 2. It has something approaching a traditional plot. A campus novel set at Camden College (a barely disguised stand-in for Ellis’s alma mater, Bennington), Rules takes the oldest story around—the love triangle—and infuses it with a particularly Gen-X aura of ennui and dread.

Of course, this being an Ellis novel, the update is anything but straightforward. The Fall 1985 term includes all the trademark permutations of sex, drugs, and violence (actual plot-points: a virgin’s drunken gang-bang, the suicide of the one character who believes in true love, a few scattered abortions), and the love triangle itself is more like a rhombus or pentagon or zigzag, wherein Lauren loves Victor, but Sean loves Lauren, Paul loves Sean, Stewart loves Paul, etc. Just about everyone here is bisexual (at least), and whether or not two characters count each other as “lovers,” they’re likely already somehow connected at the hips. The story is eventually intercut by more than ten voices, but most of it is told by three distinct narrators—Lauren is the most self-critical, Paul the most poetic, Sean the least aware of a world outside his own libido—none of whom is able to overcome the feeling that it’s impossible to connect with anyone else. The bleakness of this theme might suggest that the novel is a dull slog, but its abundance of comic dialogue (Ellis’s greatest strength) keeps things as light as possible. Even as they illuminate a vision of social decay, the characters, like the ghouls of a latter-day Fitzgerald, are buoyed up by their frothy, glamorous doom.

Next steps: There’s something to be said for reading BEE’s novels in order. Recurring characters and in-jokes carry over from one to the next (even in The Rules of Attraction, there’s a cameo section by Clay, the narrator of Less Than Zero), and content from one novel can serve to enrich the next. A case in point: while Sean Bateman is the nearest The Rules of Attraction comes to having a main character, he only makes a brief appearance in American Psycho, while Patrick Bateman, Sean’s older brother, shows up in Rules just to hector Sean for his irresponsibility, only to return as the serial-killing cypher of American Psycho. Likewise, if you watch carefully, you might notice that the elusive “Victor” of Rules shows up again as the narrator of Glamorama, post-surname-change, or that the detective of American Psycho eventually returns to levy charges against Bret Easton Ellis in Lunar Park…and the arcana piles up. Spotting convergences is a part of the fun.

That said, if you’re not gonna down them all, the decision on what to read next mainly hinges on a choice between West Coast and East Coast. Disregarding a few outliers (i.e., The Rules of Attraction and Lunar Park), Ellis has written basically two types of books: Los Angeles books, and New York City books. The L.A. stories—Less Than Zero, The Informers, and Imperial Bedrooms—are heavily influenced by the minimalist style of Joan Didion and tend toward terse, elegant expositions. On the other hand, American Psycho and Glamorama—the N.Y.C. stories—veer toward an opposing maximalism, cramming in every name brand and celebrity appearance, with described surfaces having an information density that recalls the image-fiction of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon.

The N.Y.C. books are Ellis’s longest, his most experimental, the works where, if there is something sui generis and untraceable about Ellis, it’s there. Everyone knows the conceit of American Psycho from the film adaptation (banker Patrick Bateman murders hookers and business associates in Manhattan), but the movie can’t capture the sheer volume of the book’s references—page upon page of descriptions based on nothing but the symbols of consumer society. This is not a book like Silence of the Lambs or even Psycho, where the protagonist’s condition can be reduced by a psychological analysis. The uncomfortable implication instead shifts the focus to the systematic effects of late capitalism. A few hundred pages in, Bateman tells us, “There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning. ” It is a testament to book’s power that, by the time this observation arrives, we believe it. In Glamorama the theme of “erasure” is pressed even further, making narrator Victor Ward, an airhead fashion model whose world is overtaken by terrorists, into a figure who is literally replaced by an image of himself, who throughout cannot tell if something terrible is afoot or if he’s merely starring in a suspense film that he doesn’t quite understand.

Still, though these two books are probably his most interesting achievements, the L.A. stories that bookend his novelistic career bring Ellis back to his home turf, and there is no doubt that Ellis is also expert in his stripped-down evocations of the American West. Less Than Zero (iconic opening line: “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles”) is so totally unlike the film adaptation that for the sequel, Imperial Bedrooms, there’s a meta-analysis of how the original book was written by an ambitious friend of theirs, which had been turned into a movie whose premiere they’d all attended. (This explains why Julian—Robert Downey, Jr., in the movie—isn’t dead, second time around.) Clay has become a screenwriter, and the horror of the original novel is amplified as we find that, now no longer a passive observer of the evil around him, he has become an adult participant. There may be some dark moral here about the inability of people to change, but it all leads to a closing line that seems to sum up the sadness of the Ellis hero. “The fades, the dissolves, the rewritten scenes, all the things you wipe away—I now want to explain these things to her but I know I never will, the most important one being: I never liked anyone and I’m afraid of people.”

Where not to start: While one potentially could start with The Informers, the collection of linked stories that arrived between American Psycho and Glamorama, the willful difficulty of its storytelling ellipses and chilly tone aren’t likely to win over many repeat readers. Lunar Park, conversely, might be the most emotionally transparent BEE novel (it’s a father/son story, written after the death of Ellis’s dad), but the weird conceit of a fictional narrator named Bret Easton Ellis who just happens to have written books with the exact titles and content of the previous novels by the real person named Bret Easton Ellis make it a sort of one-volume Ellis Institute for Advanced Studies: a curio that’s enjoyable enough for the initiated, but which may cause first-time readers to wonder what’s exactly the big deal.

The Low Road

In Lit, Pop Culture on 2012/02/20 at 2:59 pm

I read a short book on Horror over the weekend. Its title is Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, and its author is Jason Zinoman. Here’s what I had to say in an Amazon.com review.


Let’s start with the good: this book is consistently entertaining, reads slickly, and is packed with the sorts of anecdotes that we turn to the entertainment pros to deliver. I’d not known before about Dan O’Bannon’s contributions to the genre, either. I’ll also say that Mr. Zinoman has a knack for framing the facts in terms of his thesis narrative, which basically posits that the problem with the “Old Horror” (pre-1970s) was that it was afraid of being nasty, whereas the “New Horror” (post-1970s) was willing to go full-bore for a scare, refusing to respect old conventions of rounded storytelling or good taste.

Unfortunately, there’s a bad side to this, too. Zinoman’s insistence that Michael Myers is a creation of genius because he doesn’t have a back-story reflects the lowest-common-denominator sort of thinking that the film showcases. Though they’re passingly mentioned, there’s not much room in this discussion for directors like Cronenberg or Lynch, who make you think even as they scare you. To Zinoman, this is contrary to the primary ethos of the New Horror, whose “dangerous” qualities are what set it apart.

This cherry-picking attitude also pervades the book’s ending critique of modern horror. While any horror fan knows that the present has spawned its share of terror masterpieces, Zinoman dismisses these works as somehow not counting as much because they’re not “mainstream.” For a piece whose subtitle praises “eccentric outsiders,” this seems like a complaint that’s either inconsistent or willfully reactionary.

All in all, this book isn’t a work of serious criticism but something more akin to an extended series of magazine articles—which isn’t to say that it’s bad. If you want to know more about John Carpenter, George Romero, Brian De Palma, and Wes Craven, this is a key work. If you’re interested in Zinoman’s blinkered overview of how this all connects to the present, on the other hand, you should probably read his Slate.com articles, first…but even then, even if Zinoman’s opinions aren’t quite to your liking, the committed horror fan would have to admit after an evening with this book that he’s spent late nights looking at worse.


Anyway, if you’d like to read the Slate articles, here you go. And since I had a simple suggestion on how to improve any discussion of horror films (viz., ADD MOAR CRONENBERG), I leave you with a lovely image of the surgically garbed Jeremy Irons, twin gynecologist at work.


In Ethics, Internet, Pop Culture on 2011/01/17 at 4:06 am

There are things in heaven and on earth that many of us wouldn’t dream of, alone, without some outside help from news reports and smutty comedians. As an example, I offer up the phenomena that is the ultra-realistic sex doll. If (by some miracle) you haven’t followed the reports of such things at all, I hope not to predispose you to one position or another before you have a chance to view the thing in itself. Hence, a video:

This clip is from Reuters.com, so I think the account is at least factually reliable. The reputable source is important, because the story is so photogenically weird that were it dredged up from a sleazier corner of the Internet, I might suspect it to be made up. It is, after all, a nearly perfect news story. It has the threat of a public menace—i.e., the creepy engineer w/ 100+ dolls crammed everywhere in his apartment (sample quote: “A human girl can cheat on you or betray you sometimes, but these dolls never do those things. They belong to me 100%”); flashes of unexpected humor—e.g., the reporter’s verbal praise of the doll’s simulated humanity resulting from a complexly articulated skeleton, juxtaposed against an image of a Koyuki’s well-oiled but obviously very dead, very creepy, flopping arm (“Koyuki”? “just like a real woman”?); and, most importantly, that WTF quality of an instantiated nightmare…the quality, in my experience, that is the surest thing to keep the choice-deluged viewer’s finger from tapping the remote. The story portrays an oddball niche of hedonistic weirdos who the viewer can be at once repulsed and fascinated by, and this combo, in journalistic terms, is one that often parlays out into easy money [1].

Now, I should reveal an audience expectation: I don’t expect that this is the first time you’ve ever seen an ultra-realistic sex doll. I’m basing this expectation on a fairly reliable barometer for edginess, the Have My Parents Heard of It? Test. And since we’re living in the post-2007 world, after the release of the PG-13 comedy Lars and the Real Girl (a film that my parents mercilessly forced me to watch [2]), I guess that this topic has been about as mainstreamed as it’s likely to be. What this means, in terms of a blog entry, is that I don’t have to spend any space telling you explicitly about the possibilities of ultra-realistic sex dolls. There are plenty of good articles that cover that, and I can throw them down in a footnote [3]. What I’m instead interested to address are two questions that might arise when we’re thinking about this—two questions that might at first seem related, but in fact aren’t. They are: 1. Is the use of URSDs for sex perverse? and 2. Is the use of URSDs for sex wrong? Both of these questions, of course, should technically be followed by another question—the classic, If so, why?

How about we look at perversion first.

On the face of it, the question of whether having an emotional and sexual relationship with a hunk of silicone is perverse is pretty dumb. Yes, being the answer, followed by duh. I’d wager that if you don’t think that URSDs fall somewhere under the umbrella term of ‘perversity,’ then you’d also more than likely disagree that the term applies to any licit sex act. There’s probably not too much to discuss there. I’m going to stay neutral on this subject for a bit, however, long enough to present two engaging (though, I’ll soon argue, also incorrect) views on the why of sexual perversity.

The first of these views I’m going to blame on the formerly redoubtable provocateur [6], Camille Paglia. The Paglian view of history, broadly characterized, seems to be that is that there is a way of life that Nature intended—viz., probably something close to a vanilla view of the heterosexual Darwinian struggle—and that the grandeur of humankind is that we’ve gone against Nature. In her view, the awesome thing about Culture and Science is not that they’re an expected outgrowth of the way things have to be, but instead that they’re a powerful response to Nature, an aggressive subversion of existent processes to our own decadent ends. For this reason, a lot of the stuff she’s written has been engaged with new interpretations of old works as expressions of ‘un-Natural’ modes of sexuality and being. In her view, sexual personas like the homosexual and the androgyne are to be celebrated as societally dangerous, deliberately un-Natural developments (the science here is pretty dubious, we admit), and the history of art shows the ends of such artistic perversion and conventional society in constant struggle.

I’m bringing this up because it offers us one possible explanation for why sex with URSDs may be ‘perverse’. Maybe it merits such a designation because of the way that it’s taken elements of Nature out of an evolutionary context (things like: normal het men’s excitement at certain body types; the need for a physical presence to quell feelings of loneliness; the periodic desire for ejaculatory release) and treats them not as a signal that a guy should take on a lover, but as symptoms that can be each filled by a scientific fix, contra Nature’s expectations. This is not to say if it’s bad or not—so far, I’ve only neutrally suggested that it could be ‘perverse’ by dint of its deliberate short-circuiting of evolutionary demands.

What about a drier, more carefully rational view? For that, we turn to the analytic philosopher Thomas Nagel, who took on the concept of sexual perversion in his directly entitled essay, “Sexual Perversion” [7]. The strategy he used was to outline a theory of how ‘unperverted’ (a.k.a. ‘normal’) sex works, and then to package the stuff that doesn’t fit this framework as perverse. Which begs the question: how does sex work, normally? Nagel seems to think that there’s a “reflexive mutual recognition” that occurs in mature sexual relationships. He gets this across via a little story of a hypothetical Romeo and Juliet in which Romeo “senses” (stronger than mere “noticing”—there’s a tinge of arousal running through this) Juliet, whereby Juliet senses Romeo sensing Juliet, whereby Romeo senses Juliet sensing Romeo sensing Juliet…and this can go on recursively as many cycles as one might like. Says Nagel, “[S]exual desire leads to spontaneous interactions with other persons whose bodies are asserting their sovereignty in the same way, producing involuntary reactions and spontaneous impulses in them.” And in this picture, it is just this sort of a reciprocity that makes a sexual interaction possibly non-perverted: he asserts that “physical possession must eventuate in creation of the sexual object in the image of one’s desire, and not merely in the object’s recognition of that desire, or in his or her own private arousal.”

It’s the “own private arousal” bit that’ll allow us to winnow out URSD sex as perverse. Nagel hedges here, realizing that private fantasies are at a usual part of everyday thought, but he’s adamant that the thing that makes voyeurism, exhibitionism, and (at the extreme) rape ‘perverse’ is that they aren’t “complete”; they involve only one aroused party. If a person has incomplete sex as his preferred mode of expression, I guess that such an individual would be one that he’d label a perv…and, since a Real Doll, however pretty, can’t herself be aroused, all sex with URSDs exactly fits the bill of Nagelian Perversity [8].

Huh. Do these explanations make any sense? Both, even if they turn out to be wrong about perversity, make intriguing suggestions about the nature of sex and society. But if we’re judging them strictly on their accounts of what ‘perversity’ is, I suppose the first thing to do is to see if they fit the facts. And (naively) it looks like this simple test immediately disqualifies the Paglian account. The problem with classifying all ‘un-Natural’ sex as ‘perverse’ is that suddenly the large majority of all sex becomes perverse—any sex, really, that doesn’t fit the strictest 19th-Century Roman Catholic criteria. This seems way too prudish to be reasonable. In fact, this prudishness (dickishness? douchiness?—it’s hard to come up with a punchy term) seems to infect both of the offered theories. Around where I live, most people tend not to be too judgmental about masturbation, and that would seem to be classed as a perversion by both theories presented here.

I suspect that the thing we’re running up against is that a word like ‘perversion’ is utterly malleable and has no meaning without reference to an embedded culture; when I hear it, it sounds like it’s somewhere between ‘icky’ and ‘evil’—two words that probably shouldn’t be intimately intertwined—and it’s easy to find examples of how it’s varied. Less than a paragraph ago, I used masturbation as a counterexample to perversity, but this isn’t anywhere near a historical absolute…as everyone knows. My attraction to theories like the ones I’ve listed above is that they give some sort of argument, at least, for what’s being discussed. What I believe, however, is closer to an ultra-lazy form of empiricism. The entire issue of perversion can be dissolved easily—trivially, even—by recourse to claims about definitions, along with a little inferential trick. I.e., instead of saying, “Sadism, zoophilia, and necrophilia are forms of sexual perversity” and trying to show why by proposing a thorny metaphysics, it’s easier to use a reformatted ‘Socrates is a man’ argument to get rid of the problem, like this:

‘Sexual Perversity’ is a term that we use to designate sexual acts that we don’t approve of, culturally;

Sadism, zoophilia, necrophilia, et al., are sexual acts that we don’t approve of, culturally;

Ergo, Sadism, zoophilia, necrophilia, et al., are forms of sexual perversity. Q.e.d.

Fine. So URSDs are perverse if we (collectively) don’t approve of them. But notice that this definitional gambit doesn’t get us anywhere closer to pinning down the moral status of the ultra-realistic sex doll sex. And despite the fact that this post is already too long and has gotten kinda pedantic, I think that there’s something intriguing to learn from such an attempt.

I’ve already lamented in an earlier post that I don’t have any steady rubric for moral judgments (other than maybe the Golden Rule and “You Should Give a Shit”), but I can nonetheless make a few fuzzy remarks. One of the basic mantras I learned from my sister’s sermons on feminist doctrine, growing up, was thou shalt not objectify women—a dictum that I always agreed with, guiltily, often w/o having the slightest clue as to what the verb ‘objectify’ might even mean. Agreeing with this statement, however, didn’t stop me, in those pre-Internet days [9], from carefully scouring all the magazines and books in our house for whatever informative/titillating images I could find. I did this, I emphasize, even though it was locked in my head that such an action was horribly, terribly wrong, an offense against both Women and God. This isn’t a ‘proof’ of anything per se, but to me, as an individual, it’s a powerful indicator that the urge to totemize women, disconnected from their personalities and souls, is an inborn characteristic of men like me, not just a imposition of a lady-hating society. And while the attempted trying-to-be-sincere tone of this paragraph might make it seem like I’m wretched with anxiety about this, I’m really not. At this point, it feels like another neutral fact of life that adulthood forces me to admit, like it or not.

Why this personal psychodrama might be passingly relevant to the URSD thing is that it’s probably the indirect cause of my notions about them. One thing—the thing that’s immediately obvious, just looking at a Real Doll—is that no more direct objectification of women has ever existed. This marks a kind of low point for men [10], w/r/t the ‘objectification’ charge, and if you read the sociological article referenced in ftnote 3, it’s hard to avoid the impression that at least some of the men who end up purchasing URSDs are also men who can’t stand women. When Ms. Laslocksy lobbed one man the double-headed query of a) how the dolls changed his life and b) if they made him more confident, he replied, “I don’t like being around people at all now…the less human contact I have the happier I am. Yes, I do feel more confident. I realized not long after I got Ginger that I don’t really need anybody…I feel safer and more secure knowing that I will never waste my time and money on another human female that just wants to use me.”

It’s hard for me to gauge a priori what reaction such quotes (the one directly supra paired w/ that of the menacing engineer) might bring, but I have a feeling that the response may be sex-dependent. When I discussed this with Holly (my wife), her immediate reaction hewed toward the ‘these guys are awful people’ stance, which certainly makes sense; were I to fall into a group of people with an implied penchant for misandary, I doubt that I’d be overly geared toward sympathy. But the thing that sticks out most plaintively in these conversations is that these men are scared and angry—men who have decided, for whatever reason, that an engagement with the outer darkness is too horrifying to continue, when there’s any other available option.

And, you know, I get that. This makes sense. Sure, there are undoubtedly dark insights about male psychology to be gained from the fact that men exist who prefer emotional help-mates over whom they exercise complete, dominant control, but that’s probably not the main story. The big story here seems to be something about despair and almost unimaginable loneliness, and we can discuss the ideas of Paglia or Nagel or Kordahl all night w/o touching on the that psychically heavy problem—a problem, I fear, that I haven’t even nearly earned the right to discuss.

Have I posed any answer to whether the use of URSDs for sex is wrong? Let me put it this way: if by ‘wrong,’ we mean ‘not such a super idea’—then fine. Let it be wrong. Not genocide-wrong or rapeage-wrong or even embezzlement-wrong, but I’m willing to put it somewhere way farther over into the pale spectral end, near the petty crimes of self-destruction: the sorts of crimes that, given a consistent temptation and a chance to burn, a lot of us would fall into. For once, I don’t even want to judge…because I’m pretty sure that were a Real Doll sitting helplessly in my living room, patiently waiting day after day, it would probably be only a matter of time.

[1] This is known as the Real World Effect among the cognoscenti, though some modern scholars have taken to calling it (alternatively) the Tila Tequila, Flava Flav, or Jersey Shore Effect, dependent on the periodical’s particular focus. Up.

[2] My parents often make me watch unpredictably awful films (Fireproof and Obsessed being perhaps the most heinous recent offenders), but I’ve hated none of them more than Lars. Allow me to spell out some of the subtle suspensions of disbelief that must occur before a person can enjoy this film: 1. Lars, a guy who lives in his brother’s garage, has enough money to order a Real Doll (which cost several thousands of $); 2. And even though he’s the sort of guy who would order a Real Doll, he commences to think completely non-sexually about it; 3. Furthermore, Lars would go so far as to make his Real Doll a wheelchair-bound Brazilian/Danish missionary; 4. And furthermore still, the entire Midwestern town decides, out of kindness and mercy, that this is totally OK and that Lars’s delusional fantasies should be supported; 5. So by the end, when finally Lars is getting sick of the whole ‘I have a sex doll in the house but refuse to use it’ thing and imagines that the doll is dying, this town of kind, pious neighbors decides that it’s totally a cool way to end the drama to give the sex doll a religious burial. Right.

I hesitate to make value judgments based solely on the types of movies that a person enjoys, but in this case, I have to wonder if those defenders of LatRG might themselves be suffering from various degrees of a delusional disorder that I’m none too apt to condone. Up.

[3] The best of the informative Sex Doll Articles, IYI, deal only with Real Dolls, the supposed crème de la crème of the URSD market. Meghan Laslocky’s long sociological report, “Real Dolls: Love in the Age of Silicone” [4], gives a detailed portrait of the damaged dudes who use them, while Grant Stoddard’s article gives an account of…ahem…a rather more personal Real Doll interaction [5]. Up.

[4] For those of you lacking the interest or fortitude to read a 28 pg. report on the lives of sex-doll aficionados, there’s a radically condensed version of that article here, along with a picture gallery. Up.

[5] I have once before discussed Grant Stoddard’s incredible American sexploits. For his Nerve.com column ‘I Did It For Science,’ he reported (as an increasingly unbelievable sexual naïf) his reactions to successive, completed sexual challenges. It should not be a surprise, then, that he eventually tackled a Real Doll; one of the reasons his column had to end was that he’d eventually performed nearly every legal sex act known to man. Up.

[6] If ‘formerly’ sounds like a diss, I guess it is; I’ve tried to read Paglia’s books after Sexual Personae, her bizarre but also dazzlingly well-researched first, but by now she’s devolved into a repetitive sort of self-parody. Not that that doesn’t have its own charms; if she were still presenting fresh opinions and changing her mind on various issues, after all, I wouldn’t have such an easy time of characterizing a set vision as ‘Paglian’—which is what I’m about to do. (Although for the purposes of this essay, it doesn’t really matter what the Real Paglia thinks about anything. I’m indulging a rhetorical weakness for Straw Men, again.) Up.

[7] I read this in a copy of Mortal Questions, one of Nagel’s essay collections. Up.

[8] A digression, to break of the tedium of an argument that’s veering uncomfortably toward abstraction. What might not be obvious from my account is that Paglia and Nagel are both quite funny writers. Paglia needs no particular quotation to support this—most statements of hers are designed to exude the crazed-Amazon-bitch-goddess vibe, and if you want to find something outrageous she’s said, it’s merely a Google away. Nagel’s work is much more subdued and requires out-of-context samples…and here we go, with samples from the scrutinized article. “Sartre too stresses the fact that the penis is not a prehensile organ.” AND “Hardly anyone can be found these days to inveigh against oral-genital contact, and the merits of buggery are urged by such respectable figures as D. H. Lawrence and Norman Mailer.” AND “Finally, even if perverted sex is to that extent not so good as it might be, bad sex is generally better than none at all.” Up.

[9] Pre-Internet for me, that is—not for the World. Up.

[10] For whatever reason, it does seem to be almost exclusively men who are interested in this product. The Real Doll company is outfitted to sell male versions of its product, but they have sold only a handful of these (so far). Up.

Sidenote: the BBC made a documentary about some of the sad souls who love Real Dolls, and I’ve embedded it below.

On Tanning

In Pop Culture on 2011/01/02 at 7:21 pm

On the Tuesday after Christmas, I went to Family Video to return the two movies that Holly and I had watched on Christmas Eve, after church [1]. Family Video in Lawrence, KS, is nestled in one of the strip malls that line 23rd St., at the very end of one of them, near Panera Bread. If you follow the Family Video mall eastward, toward the other parking lot entrance, you first pass DonDon, a Japanese café (known around town for its ‘Sumo Challenge’—eat five bowls, and you can get them for free); then Nail Expressions (a manicure shop that seems to do steady business); Scarlet Orchid (now an empty room, which I’d assumed was probably a front for some shady money laundering but it turns out is probably just a defunct Asian restaurant); Advance America Cash Advance (no comment); L.A. weightloss (between the L and A is a smileyface, and the whole sign is flipped backwards, like ssolthgiew .A.L, except all the letters are mirrored); and U.S. MARINE CORPS U.S AIR FORCE RECRUITING (the army recruiters are across the lot, sharing a building with Mr. Goodcents Subs & Pasta). Finally, if you get to the other end of the mall, you arrive at ENDLESS TANNING SUMMER—with ‘tanning’ in bigger letters than the rest, so it’s probably supposed to be read endless summer tanning.

As you might have guessed from the title and special lead-up to the end of the last paragraph, this blog is an account of my only time tanning. For what it’s worth.

Tanning is one of those activities, much like smoking, that all the adults I knew growing up told me would kill me [1]. And, like smoking, this made it undeniably cool. Thinking back on how I reacted to this paradoxical state of events, I’m not sure whether to be proud of my teenaged self, or to react with late-date embarrassment: instead of simply accepting the status quo and moving on, I made a point of having the standard argument with just about anyone who would humor me. The argument being that tanning is wrong and should not be done at all period end of story what is wrong with you deranged morons my God. (A positive way to spin this is that I was more a rogue utopian than mere asshole.) You might not expect it, but there are benefits to having strong opinions about important, controversial topics at such a young age. One is that it’s a sort of PR coup, allowing you to get minorly famous without any real work. The other is that it gives you a chance to proselytize society’s worst (read: tannest) offenders…who, in the case of rural Iowa during the early days of this century, happened to coincide directly with the caste of the Most Popular Females. [3]

But enough nostalgia. Most Americans probably agree that adulthood is a term that’s more or less identical with expectation dialdown, and whether out of boredom, desperation, necessity, or feigned dementia, a lot of people end up doing things that, as teenagers, they’d never expect of themselves [4]. So I went tanning [5]. So shoot me.

When I walk into the shop, the first thing I see are all the bottles of sparkly tanning lotion— filled literally w/ glitter, I think—with tags that put them in the $100 range. This convinces me that it’s an upscale establishment, even though I have no stable standard for comparison. The bottles are sitting on a glass shelf above a girl at the register, who turns off the movie that she’s watching on the desk computer long enough to ask me if she can help me. She looks like a high schooler, one of those lightly acned, heavily tanned beauties who can get away with wearing sweatpants all the time because no one needs any more convincing. Suddenly I feel pretty damn pervy, ashamed, walking into an commercial establishment with the full intention of paying a young girl for the privilege of taking off all my clothes off near her, now in the middle of the day. That I’m wearing the long trenchcoat my mom gave me at Thanksgiving somehow doesn’t help much.

”I’m just wondering…I’ve never been tanning before…what I might need to do to start…” I stammer, and it’s more than enough. Apparently weirdos like me—first timers—are so common that they offer a special just for us ($15/30 min. + tax; not the usual single-use price [$30/30 min. + tax], to be sure).

The girl recommends, scanning my paleness, that I use the machine that produces only UVB light. “You won’t burn, then—I promise,” she assures me, and immediately she provides an anecdote to back up her claim. “My brother-in-law—he’s a red-head, right?—he tried the UVB machine, and he didn’t burn. He thought he’d burned, because his skin turned all pink, but he didn’t.” She added, “It gets a little hot in there,” and went on to explain that I’d probably want to use the provided fans.

Gratified that she’s talking me through the process (and simultaneously making my best effort to ignore that the health claims of a high school tanning rep might not be conventionally regarded as a ‘trustworthy source’), I agree. She leads me over into a room at the back of the salon, which has I’d guess maybe six rooms. The outer lobby is a sort of shiny burgundy that’s mostly lit by the sun bouncing around off the polished floor, but this changes abruptly when we go into the side room. This looks a little more homey, the tones paler and more passive, with regular wallpaper that goes up only so far and beige paint atop that. A wooden chair waits in the corner with a white towel on it. Maybe the beige trim is there to match the tan vinyl bed, I think as the girl and I sit down on the bed so she can explain the controls. These are pretty simple: Up/Down buttons to raise and lower the canopy; On/Off buttons for the fan; Start/Stop buttons for the timer (there’s a square box that she says will tell me when to flip over—15 minutes for my front, 15 minutes for my back). She points me toward the towel sitting on the chair and a bathrobe hanging on the door. “You good?” she asks. I nod.

I close the door behind her and make sure it’s locked. After a moment examining the surroundings again (one never can be too cautious about the appearance of hidden cameras), I disrobe. Everything—the bench, the chair, the hanger for the bathrobe—has a little sign on it reminding me that it’s been SANITIZED (for your [my] safety). Soon, the machine begins to emit a loudish swishing noise, and the sign on the wall says that my session must start in the next three minutes. In those three minutes, I tinker with the radio that’s been provided, trying to find NPR [6]. It looks like the building’s been remodeled with the tanning bed in mind; the radio has a place reserved for it right by where the user’s head should go. I find NPR. I unfurl the towel, turn naked onto my stomach, lower the canopy, and press Start.

It occurs to me, as I type, that since tanning itself is an experience shared by let’s say 50% of the American population, maybe more, there’s an inordinate hubris in my expectation that I have anything new to say about this old phenomena—somewhat like the green writer who is so pleased with himself for finally writing a sex scene that he forces his friends and relatives to read it, caution thrown right to the wind, only to realize later that he’s not telling anyone anything they haven’t already known for ages. But that thought doesn’t cross my mind as I’m staring down off the edge of the bed. The machine was made for people much shorter than me, I realize. My feet stick frigidly out past the end, and my downturned face—covered initially by the tine blue nose-strap goggles—stares down at the iridescent towel dust mixed with stray pubes that cling to the outer darkness lurking malevolently outside the SANITIZED zone. The machine at this point is loud enough that to get NPR to register, I have to turn it up to an obscene level, way louder than I would’ve been willing to a minute ago. Before I know what’s happening, my goggles disappear somewhere (I never find them again), and I’m staring unencumbered back at my body, which starts to sweat. I turn on the fan. Have I ever noticed before the way that my waistband, where my underpants cut into soft flesh almost every hour, every day, how it’s covered by emerging proto-pimples? They redden before the rest—the odd zit, I reason, having more surface area by dint of its protuberance. The flaky skin over the course of my back is lit bright, like the pinpricks of guided radiation falling from the end of embedded fiber optics, but my relief here is that some of those flakes are more cotton dust, probably from the briefly worn bathrobe.

It seemed for a moment that this would devolve into a protracted study of deflated narcissism, but you’d be surprised how quickly the situation is able to flush out all vestiges of self-consciousness. There’s an almost perfect storm of input stimuli that conspire to blank the mind—the sizzling skin tissue, coupled with the radio input, make for a state less Zen than anti-Zen. There’s no way that I’ll get bored to transcendence…not here. I’m so bombarded with aural and tactile stimuli that in my half-hour of lying there—half prone, half supine—it doesn’t even occur to me to be bored. It’s only later that I begin to suspect that this might be a part of tanning’s implicit appeal. Say that you’re the sort of person who derives a great deal of your self-worth from your personal appearance, and say also that the process of being looked at has become a natural part of your daily routine. What, then, could be more satisfying than to spend a half-hour in private, away from all the stares and apperential judgements, adding literal value to your body at a rate of a dollar per minute, whilst at the same time being able to shut the brain, that nattering elocutionist, entirely off? Isn’t this what we Americans mean, almost, by happiness?

I’m not so sure I’m above this anymore.

When my time’s up, I hear a few beeps, and then the machine shuts down all at once. I crawl out into the yellowy bulb-light and look at myself in the mirro. Sure enough, as promised—I’m not burned [7]. After throwing my clothes back on, I exit, and a different girl is at the counter, watching a different movie, petting a new fluffy minidog. Then I run, I run directly to my car, where a notebook is waiting open for me, and I scribble down everything I can remember. I draw out maps of the area (Walgreens across Louisiana Ave., a BP and Wendy’s across 23rd); I write out a list of shoppes that become this post’s opening paragraph; I make medical observations about my present state (my shins burn); I perform rudimentary calculations of the hidden business costs. Then I shut the notebook for a few days and haven’t thought too hard about it since.

[1] Step-Brothers and The Hurt Locker, in case you were wondering. (This factual account should not be taken as a recommendation, by any means—esp. in the case of the former.) Up.

[2] This is not true. There were people in my high school, I know, who had tanning beds at home, and a quick investigation into the economics of such an occurrence reveals that an adult, somewhere, had to be behind this. The facts of small-town geography make for good odds (hence) that I knew some of these people. Up.

[3] Lest the image of me chatting up Northwest Iowa’s bronzed finest gives you the wrong idea about my playerishness, I should clarify: on a conscious level, at least, my motives in this were disgustingly pure. Up.

[4] For everyone’s sake, this is best left purposely vague. Up.

[5] Yes, I had an ulterior motive: novel research. But given that an unwritten novel is no more than a figment in God’s imagination, this justification is so broad that it would cover a near-infinite class of misdeeds. I hesitate to contemplate the body-count necessary for writers attempting to research a thriller. Up.

[6] In retrospect, NPR multitasking was probably not a great idea. I get that a ‘research’ mission should’ve been spent trying to fully establish a fully credible mise-en-scène, but a half-hour is also a long time to experience the world uninformed. Due to the radio interference, I know all sorts of important things—like, I know of the (now thwarted) attempt to pardon Billy the Kid and…and…um, er, well. OK, that’s the only thing I remember. The one tangible thing that NPR marination gave me, however, was an excuse to go tanning again, should the desire ever flare. Up.

[7] A few hours later, I did get a bit red on the parts of my torso most unaccustomed to public display. A disclaimer: I don’t wish this to be an implicit advertisment for tanning (which, true to my old self at least a little, I still publically disavow), so as the last thing to appear in this column, I give you some slightly NSFW ‘shower scenes’ to scare you away from ever falling to my depraved depths. This features scantily-clad [male] Italian gangsters who get shot while tanning, and this viral ad features a ‘hot blond’ [sic] [female] who meets an untimely, shocking end—of which, of course, I advise you choose dependent on your particular tastes. Up.

Klosterman Agonistes

In Internet, Lit, Pop Culture on 2010/12/12 at 8:18 pm

Would-be writers, in general, harbour perversely intense relationships with people they’ve never met. I’m not speaking of the ‘healthy’ (or at least vocationally beneficial) relationships that the fictionist is expected to nurture with made-up characters. I’m speaking now of the relationship of the Fan with the Author—the Author who, in the case of the would-be writer, is a person said Fan would like to become. There are the famously well documented cases of such mania: Norman Mailer’s adulation of Ernest Hemingway; Nicholson Baker’s stalking of John Updike. I suppose that the best documentation of this syndrome is Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, the (perhaps deliberately) tedious novel/memoir that chronicles his dual obsessions with Frank Gifford and Edmund Wilson in more exhaustive detail than any reader could possibly request. Each of these anecdotes is passed on with a certain measure of self-deprecation and wry candour, due to the lofty reputations of such men as Hemingway, Updike, and Wilson, compared to those of their respective fanboys. So it is with some trepidation that I reveal one of the writers I’ve geekishly followed, at least retroactively, through his entire career: one Chuck Klosterman, a writer of celebrity profiles and heavy-metal tributes, an apparently unserious man who I’m slightly embarrassed to read, much less write about as a Fan. The reason I’ve been thinking about him again is that last week he published this in the NY Times, and, along with the tell-tale signs I spotted while reading his most recent book, Eating the Dinosaur, I’ve come to a (not so) shocking conclusion about this stalwart media enthusiast, my hero. Chuck Klosterman, I’ve decided, is sad.

But first, some background. Superficially, it might seem like Chuck and I are on two different sides of the rainbow in our approaches to reality: he’s a successful pop-culture analyst and rock critic, a man who has written essays claiming to have watched every episode of MTV’s The Real World at least 3 times; meanwhile, I study physics. But really superficially: we both came from North Dakota as youngsters, and like most people who emerge from that sort of experience as fully functioning adults not directly connected to agriculture or church, we both seem to have the sense that we’re in on some secrets about the Real America that the rest of Debased America has probably missed. (See, e.g., this interview.) Reading C.K., for me, is to discover of how I might have turned out without Mennonite school, missionary excursions, violin practice, etc. Klosterman is the embodiment of the slacker obsessive as self-promoter, of the metal-head who has made good. In his books, he’s written his own sort of Fan’s Notes to the mass media. To him, like some other rural mediamaniacs I’ve known, the existence of the crassly commercial mass-culture was less a cause for scorn and anger than it was a constant source of hope. To wit, any photo of Nikki Styx, Axl Rose, or KISS is proof positive that the entire world doesn’t mirror the normative blandness of North Dakota.

Chuck is madly prolific: he’s written 5 books of essays and a novel to date, and I’ve only read 3 ½ of them [1] (so far). Last summer, after purchasing the aforementioned Eating the Dinosaur, I went back to investigate his early career, and what I found as the unstated meta-narrative (to be pretentious, yes) is a gradual loss of faith in the goodness of the mass media. Not that he started out as a doe-eyed Believer, exactly, but it’s all by steps. His first book, Fargo Rock City, is a spirited defence of Heavy Metal, the cherished music of his youth. It wasn’t until near the end of that book that he delved into the details of how the media portrayal of the Rocker influenced his later life—specifically, that it led to his adult alcoholism (though believe me: his description of this is a lot funnier than my blunt statement of it). That chapter was the strongest section of FRC; I think the reader reaction to it taught him something about effective self-portrayal, because (skipping a book) by the time we get to Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, his 3rd, he’d gone through a personalising tonal shift. Here’s the first sentence: “No woman will ever satisfy me.” The reason? Media-induced expectation, of course. The rhetorical trick of writing about himself as a stand-in middlebrow Gen-Xer, as someone who’d been just as influenced by the inundation of the advertised cool as you were, was actually pretty brilliant. It allowed him to write about overplayed topics (Star Wars, Internet porn, Jesus Freaks) not from the perspective of a “media elitist,” but from the perspective of a Real American upon whom such tricks were played.

That’s when, in this weakly constructed narrative, the Sad Thing happened.

The Sad Thing being that Mr. Klosterman, at some point in his unusually successful career, realised that he’d become yet another member of the media, whose role it is to tell the Kids what to think about stuff. It doesn’t take super-deep reading to put this together; Dinosaur makes this more or less explicit. In an essay called “All the Kids are Right”, he doesn’t even attempt a critical analysis of Lady Gaga’s ascendance, except to note that the reason Rock is a perpetually disruptive genre is that adults (like him) can’t control its future. That role falls on the Kids, who instinctively follow what’s fresh and new. What interests Chuck now is different celebrities’ attempts, against the odds, to Be Authentic. C.K., in other words, is your go-to man for a defence of Weezer, who (he claims) since becoming famous have continued to write exactly the same sorts of directly confessional, emotive songs that they did early in their career, except today [frontman Rivers Cuomo], as a result of his fame, has become so different from his original fans that his music, to them, comes off as glib and phony. You can probably see the connection I’m trying to make by referencing that, w/r/t Klosterman’s own double bind. Once Everyman hits the top, he’s no longer Everyman.

If there’s one overriding theme to Eating the Dinosaur, it’s the difficulty of maintaining authenticity in the modern, mediated world. IMHO, the collection’s most striking essay is its last, a depressing little piece called “FAIL” that dissects Industrial Society and Its Future—a.k.a., The Unibomber Manifesto. “FAIL” brings Klosterman back to his time-honoured technique of putting himself in the seat of the One to be Interrogated [2]. It’s an oddly schizoid exercise, since there’s an obvious cultural prerogative not to support a known terrorist (killed: 3, injured, 23), but at the same time Chuck seems to agree with almost everything that Ted Kaczynski had to say. The Manifesto is a longish (~35,000 word) meditation on the connexion between technological progress and human freedom, the basic vision of which is that the human desire to employ new technology will always be more powerful than the desire to exercise human freedom. The modern ‘leftist’ (Kaczynski’s term) is a person whose social conditioning to participate in the society is so strong that he’ll participate in it at any cost to his own well-being, and the widespread ubiquity of this condition is what will cause the gradual enslavement and immense suffering of society once it’s forgotten how to resist technology’s temptations. Hence the Unibomber’s violent campaign against the members of society he held most directly responsible for the technological enslavement: engineers, airline employees, computer science profs.

C.K. makes this into a masterpiece of self-loathing. He identifies himself as the modern leftist and admits readily that technology—i.e., the ever-more-electronic mass-media—has not made him happier. He feels less ensouled and less free than ever before. Yet at the same time, he feels that the Internet is exactly the thing that he loves the most. A paradox, yes, and one that he’s not willing to force to a conclusion. The book’s closing words are at once humorous and chilling:

I love the Internet. And I will probably love whatever technological firebomb comes next. My apologies, Ted. Your thirty-five-thousand word document makes sense to me, but I cannot be saved. You’ll have to blow up my hands.”

When I read that, I wondered to myself if, indeed, this sort of tension could be indefinitely sustained. Then came last week’s NYT editorial (already hyper-linked above; here’s another chance if you missed it), and I’m finally convinced that the answer to my question is NO. If I’m right, Klosterman is about to enter a new phase. This new article–”My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead”—is on one level ‘Classic Klosterman.’ It takes an overexposed pop-cultural conceit (zombies, a la The Walking Dead), puts a slightly contrarian on that phenomena (zombies aren’t a backlash to the vampire trend [which is in fact all about the Twilight-induced teenage chastity fantasy]; zombies have been growing steadily in popularity for the last 40 yrs.), and then connects the overall topic to some broader ‘philosophical’ issue (the horror of zombies is a lot like modern life: savagely horrific, yet boringly manageable). Connecting this article to “FAIL”, however, this Fan has sensed a trend that seems to be approaching a critical mass. Although it’s logically possible for Klosterman to write critical missives contra electronic culture while participating fully as one of its highly visible members, my theory is that practical tensions will eventually cause a large enough pressure to ensure some kind of a fissure. It’s possible for thoughts and actions to be at odds for a while, but it’s my experience that eventually these things reconnect. No cognitive dissonance can last forever.

So I’m looking for the dawning, soon, of a reformed Klosterman. Chuck, sleep lightly. You know I’ll be watching.

[1] The ½ comes from the first of his books that I tried, Chuck Klosterman IV, a volume of collected magazine pieces. I got it from the public library as a guilty pleasure, thinking myself to be basically above this sort of celebrity tripe (though still greedily curious about the finer details of Billy Joel’s personal life), and after reading about Joel’s deep existential sadness, I lay in bed awake for many more hours, gulping in facts and interpretations regarding the complex virgin/whore dichotomy implicit to Brittney Spears, Led Zeppelin cover bands, and Morrisey’s strangely devoted Latino groupies. Up.

[2] Probably the reason I’m especially interested in this article is that, upon reading it, I felt somehow gypped: I’d read the old Manifesto, too, with the goal of writing a similar essay, before I saw Chuck’s version. In other words, I felt I got scooped, even though (objectively speaking) C.K. is the media master and I’m virtually unpublished. Up.