I'm starting to think that the robots won't even need to take over.— Ben Greenman (@bengreenman) October 27, 2014
I'm starting to think that the robots won't even need to take over.— Ben Greenman (@bengreenman) October 27, 2014
Last Friday night I visited the David Bowie Is exhibition at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. The first question to answer is whether or not David Bowie is worthy of an exhibit at a major art museum. The answer is yes. Bowie gets the full artist treatment in David Bowie Is: paintings, costumes, manuscripts, posters, album covers, video installations—even a coke spoon. The exhibit makes a convincing case that David Bowie is an artist.
Bowie’s life has three stages: the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary. His roots were in drizzly post-war England, a landscape of darkened streets and derivative pop culture that would drive any sensitive and intelligent person a little batty. This was the reality from which he struggled to escape. Even his real name, Davy Jones, held him back. His breakout hit was “Space Oddity,” released in the same week as the Apollo 11 moon walk. The song was built on folk strumming and abruptly shifting points of view; the disintegration of self was already underway. In subsequent albums he appropriated a dazzling variety of symbols, many of them derived from literature, to build personas that unified his recorded music and his stage shows, while distinguishing himself in a market full of high-concept rock acts. J.G. Ballard inspired the decadent visions of doom that shaped his early persona Ziggy Stardust. He borrowed William Burroughs’ cut-up technique to compose lyrics. Later in his career he incorporated ideas from Japanese fashion designers and German cabaret theater—exotic stuff if you expect your rock star to venture no further than some close listenings to Howlin’ Wolf.
During his symbolic phase he used his mannikin-like body as his primary means of expression. It’s appropriate that the MCA exhibit centers around the costumes he wore on stage. Through the galleries mannikins in Bowie wear stand over the the jumble of bric-a-brac—keys to his Berlin apartment and so on—that makes up a rock musician’s life. The costumes are beautiful, looking more like sketches for clothes rather than something someone would wear. Cleaned up for the exhibit, the outfits show no signs of wear and tear, rather like Bowie himself. There were times, however, when the costumes overwhelmed the music. One such occasion was Bowie’s 1979 Saturday Night Live appearance, which occurred during his Berlin cabaret phase. He wore an Expressionist suit, but instead of pants it had a kind of conical skirt so constraining Bowie couldn’t walk. He had to be carried to the microphone by two backup singers. The usual Bowie effect is that he feels perfectly at ease in our unease. In this performance, in this absurd suit, we feel his unease as he awkwardly moves his hands around in a vain effort to find the song’s rhythm.
My companions in the exhibit tour had very similar experiences in the SNL performance and Diamond Dog gallery in the MCA exhibit. More than one person told me at this point, “He was one weird guy.” No one elaborated, but I knew what they meant. The David Bowie of the 1970s was all persona and no person. No one glimpsed from behind the masks to check if we were having fun, or let us know he was having a good time. Even his 1972 declaration that he was gay was unconvincing, and still is.
The great “Ashes to Ashes” video from 1980 emerges as a key text in his career. Bowie performs in an elegant jester suit (above, foreground). The images are gently surreal, the music catchy and self-referential. Bowie appears relaxed, demonstrating his New Romantic sweetness—quite a change from the free-floating hostility of Diamond Dogs or the drony histrionics of Heroes. Step a few feet to the left and the transformation is complete. The “Let’s Dance” video (1983) features a conventionally-clad Bowie looking out onto a world of very real hardship. For the first time, Bowie acknowledges that he might be part of the problem rather than its deviant solution. An Aborigine girl gets to don the transformative red shoes. A decade before, Bowie would have snatched them for himself.
By this point he’s reached his imaginary phase. He doesn’t appear more authentic, more himself, so much as less mediated. A contiguity begins to form between his inner self, whatever that might be, and his outer self, about which we know too much. At last he doesn’t have to invent a genre for himself. Once electronic dance music develops in the 1990s all he has to do is record a few hits and show off a few dance moves. Alas, a David Bowie without the drama of his own self-invention is a less interesting person and performer, and David Bowie Is loses interest in its subject once he settles into his final persona, Thin White Uncle David.
David Bowie Is is structured around its subject’s development from cramped 1950’s Brixton to the wide-open and genial spaces of the rock imaginary. The lasting impression isn’t how weird Bowie was but how much great music he created. Remarkably, over a long career of radical changes, he made only one real misstep, a mid-1990s dalliance with sado-masochistic surrealism on the Outsider album and tour. In the end one is left wondering if Bowie’s journey is all that deviant. His career is a highly inventive version of the changes a lot of us go through. He went from a confining youth to the experimental self-invention of early adulthood before finally finding one’s middle-aged comfort zone of easy dance music and loose-fitting clothes. To be sure, Bowie skipped over the period of middle-aged spread hidden by a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt. Then again, most of us wouldn’t appear in public wearing a kind of onesie festooned with calligraphic Japanese rabbits, what the older Bowie dismissed as “that absurd bunny costume.”
If you go: the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art is the only American stop for the David Bowie Is exhibition. It runs here through January 4, 2015. Tickets are $25 for adults for a timed admission. Included is a set of headphones you wear throughout the exhibit. The experience is immersive if occasionally disorienting. Be patient and allow yourself 90-120 minutes to go through the whole thing. Yes, it takes that long. We had to be shooed away after 90 minutes because the museum was closing. The galleries devoted to his early years have a lot of small objects and the explanatory cards are close together, leading to some logjams. Initially I got stuck behind a near-sighted couple who read slowly. Later galleries open up and allow for more leisurely perusal. Finally, make sure you have access to a lot of David Bowie songs, because you’re going to want to listen to them afterward.
Note: the photos in this post were mostly taken professional photographers at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where the exhibition originated. Photographs were not allowed in the MCA exhibit. The Chicago exhibit has all the same elements as London, just adapted to the MCA space.
At first glance Patrick Modiano seems to be one of those writers whose entire readership is the Swedish Academy. But British gamblers had heard enough about him to place him tied for fourth on the Ladbrokes list, well behind Haruki Murakami and Ngugi Wa Thiong'o. Guardian readers had given him a 2% chance of winning.
Here’s what I’ve learned about him so far:
Raymond Queneau and André Malraux got into a heated argument during Modiano’s wedding.
Queneau was Modiano’s math teacher.
Modiano has written more than 20 novels, but he admits he’s “always writing the same book.”
Question: Should the Nobel Prize for Literature serve to guide us to scarcely known but worthy authors, to help guide us through the thicket of contemporary literature, or should it affirm prestige and recognition on writers we’re already reading, like Philip Roth or Murakami?
Yeah, sure.... RT @NobelPrize A large number of high school students are now engaged in discussing Patrick Modiano.— Ron Charles (@RonCharles) October 9, 2014
Another way of asking the question above: What role does the Swedish Academy have in preserving literary culture?
He's six foot six inches tall. (Factoid here--I had the title first!)
He once learned to imitate the handwriting of Paul Valéry and Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Modiano doesn’t like to give interviews. He’s something of a recluse. He’s never been a prominent figure on the French literary scene, even though, in his youth, he had the hair for it.
Winner of the Nobel Prize for Most Literary Hair. pic.twitter.com/Put3e4fi75— Christian Lorentzen (@xlorentzen) October 9, 2014
Given Modiano’s shyness, one wonders how he'll adjust to the fame associated with being a Nobel Prize laureate. Jean-Paul Sartre, a much more garrulous figure, turned down the Nobel Prize because he didn’t want to become an institution.
So far he seems pretty pleased about winning. But note that his first interview was with the Nobel staff, so he's already part of the institution.
The Nobel helps: This morning at 9:00 a.m., "Missing Person" was No. 76,199 on Amazon. By 4:30 p.m., it was No. 6. http://t.co/dYbuhzZGCZ— Ron Charles (@RonCharles) October 9, 2014
Oh, and his books are pretty good.
Why are Chicago bicyclists such jerks? Maybe because for years Chicago bicyclists engaged in a Darwinian struggle for existence against cars, taxis, trucks of all sorts, and potholes—leaving only the most fearless to dare to commute by bike. Or maybe its because the riding season is so short that everyone is in a hurry to get to where they’re going. Or maybe people are letting the adrenaline of bike riding get the best of them.
Whatever the reason, it’s fair to say there are a good number of assholes riding the streets of downtown. Approximately 20,000 Chicagoans commute by bicycle on a regular basis. Let’s say one percent violate traffic laws so flagrantly that they endanger pedestrians. That’s two hundred sociopaths zipping through the streets of the city ready to flatten anyone who gets in their way. If you’ve walked around downtown you’ve encountered one of them. At Lake and Canal one morning a female cyclist came within inches of hitting me as I stepped into the street to cross with the light. Her expression said, “I would rather we both suffer horribly painful, disfiguring injuries than I should brake for a stoplight.”
At least she didn’t flip me off as she zoomed by, as another cyclist (also female, by the way) did to Chicago Tribune reporter Ron Grossman in a similar incident. He asks a good question: “When is the last time you saw a cop write a ticket for a bicyclist who failed to heed a red light or a stop sign?” Even New York City police will ticket bike riders. Not Chicago cops.
Grossman goes so far as to propose a bike-free day in Chicago just so pedestrians can enjoy the sights and sounds of the city without worrying about getting a bike tire tread up their back. I don’t know how effective that would be considering how 99% of cyclists already ignore every rule of the road. But even if it worked, there would still be other, equally noxious irritants for pedestrians: people who smoke while walking down the sidewalk, tourists who walk six abreast on the sidewalk, drivers who ignore pedestrian crosswalks, and all those damn razor scooters.
In any case, Grossman's point shouldn't be dismissed as just another complaint about ill-mannered urban bicyclists. As cities devote more public funds to support urban biking there will be--and should be--more demands for greater accountability for bicyclists who violate the rules of the road. Otherwise we will be trading less car congestions and marginally cleaner air for a further deterioration of public space.
Good taste has been banished from Mecca (see the hideous kitsch of the Makkah Royal Clock Tower above). So has religious tolerance and diversity.
Unlike Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, Mecca was never a great intellectual and cultural center of Islam. But it was always a pluralistic city where debate among different Muslim sects and schools of thought was not unusual. Now it has been reduced to a monolithic religious entity where only one, ahistoric, literal interpretation of Islam is permitted, and where all other sects, outside of the Salafist brand of Saudi Islam, are regarded as false. Indeed, zealots frequently threaten pilgrims of different sects. Last year, a group of Shiite pilgrims from Michigan were attacked with knives by extremists, and in August, a coalition of American Muslim groups wrote to the State Department asking for protection during this year’s hajj.
Ziauddin Sardar reports the hajj has become "a mundane exercise in rituals and shopping."
Highland Park (TX) High School has “suspended” seven books from their approved books list after complaints from parents about crimes ranging from references to homosexuality to criticisms of capitalism.
Michael Shaub spotted Sherman Alexie, whose The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian landed on the naughty list, tweeting, "The real reason my True Diary gets banned? Because it's about the triumph of a liberal Native American rebel."
If they’re suspended, what do the books need to do to get readmitted to class?
Texans will note that banning books right before Banned Books Week is a VERY Highland Park thing to do.— Michael Schaub (@michaelschaub) September 23, 2014
@emilynussbaum quite quite bad.— a. o. scott (@aoscott) September 19, 2014
Hilary Mantel wanted to kill Margaret Thatcher one day in 1983: “Immediately your eye measures the distance," she told the Guardian, her finger and thumb forming a gun. "I thought, if I wasn't me, if I was someone else, she'd be dead."
The spectral building—massively there, yet otherworldly: Proposed Nordstrom Tower, New York City. Height: one foot shorter than One World Trade Center.
Mark Bauerlein takes a theoretical approach to tattoos:
As a friend put it to me: A tattoo isn’t the Word made flesh, but the flesh made word. It may strike old-fashioned types as pedestrian narcissism and adolescent conformity, and sometimes it surely is. But in a deeper and more troubling way, it is canny and subversive artifice, spiced with a moralistic claim to personal liberation. A tattoo is a personal statement but also an anthropological position that accords with the prevailing transvaluations of our time.
Tattoos are advertisements for a mind, written on a body that doesn’t always conform to a mental image.
New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross thinks that the time is right to start reading Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin again. I never stopped reading Benjamin, although I haven’t read Adorno since graduate school. This whole blog is based on the premise that Walter Benjamin has something to teach us about the times we live in now. By contrasting Benjamin with Adorno, Ross clarifies exactly how, and why, Benjamin should be read today.
To understand Benjamin you need to understand the Frankfort School, which shaped Benjamin’s thought in the last decade of his life. Here Adorno is a critical figure—for better and for worse. I’m currently reading Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings’ Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. I just reached 1938, when Adorno refused to publish Benjamin’s essay on Baudelaire, intended to be the centerpiece of the Arcades Project. Adorno’s rejection letter is a masterpiece of perspicuity and heartlessness. At one point he locates Benjamin’s critical method “somewhere between positivism and magic.” It took months for Benjamin to recover from the blow.
Of the two, Adorno is taken more seriously as a philosopher than Benjamin, partly because Adorno was more systematic than Benjamin, who was always sorting through several critical methods at once. One point of comparison is their treatment of horoscopes. Adorno stared at them bug-eyed with fury, accusing them of complicity with totalitarianism. Benjamin, by contrast, was open-minded and lyrical, speculating that astrology was a holdover from a primitive identification with nature.
Adorno’s haughty pessimism may be just right for our time. For Adorno pop culture was hopelessly infected by the profit motive, but elite art still dominated official Western culture. This is no longer the case, says Ross.
The pop hegemony is all but complete, its superstars dominating the media and wielding the economic might of tycoons. They live full time in the unreal realm of the mega-rich, yet they hide behind a folksy façade, wolfing down pizza at the Oscars and cheering sports teams from V.I.P. boxes. Meanwhile, traditional bourgeois genres are kicked to the margins, their demographics undesirable, their life styles uncool, their formal intricacies ill suited to the transmission networks of the digital age. Opera, dance, poetry, and the literary novel are still called “élitist,” despite the fact that the world’s real power has little use for them. The old hierarchy of high and low has become a sham: pop is the ruling party.
Adorno looked at popular culture and saw totalitarian sameness. Walter Benjamin, personally gloomy and depressed (he contemplated suicide several times before committing it in 1940), was intellectually optimistic.
Benjamin’s heirs have suggested how messages of dissent can emanate from the heart of the culture industry, particularly in giving voice to oppressed or marginalized groups. Any narrative of cultural regression must confront evidence of social advance: the position of Jews, women, gay men, and people of color is a great deal more secure in today’s neo-liberal democracies than it was in the old bourgeois Europe. (The Frankfurt School’s indifference to race and gender is a conspicuous flaw.) The late Jamaican-born British scholar Stuart Hall, a pioneer of cultural studies, presented a double-sided picture of youth pop, defining it, in an essay co-written with Paddy Whannel, as a “contradictory mixture of the authentic and the manufactured.” In the same vein, the NPR pop critic Ann Powers wrote last month about listening to Nico & Vinz’s slickly soulful hit “Am I Wrong” in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and catching the song’s undercurrents of unease. “Pop is all about commodification: the soft center of what adapts,” Powers writes. “But sometimes, when history collides with it, a simple song gains dimension.”
Adorno learned from Benjamin how to discern an entire cultural crisis in toys and songs. In the end, Adorno and Benjamin teach us to pay attention to what’s around us and ask some hard questions: Can you ever completely escape from work? Can the structures of your job appear even in the most escapist movies and television shows? Conversely, does the term “escapist” do a disservice to, say, a summer popcorn movie? In all the noise could there be a quiet resistance to the way things are?
I saw Richard Linklater’s Boyhood over the weekend. It’s the best film I’ve seen in a long time. I won’t fill you in on the film’s remarkable backstory. I’ll just try to convince you to see it while it’s still in the theaters.
With a 2:45 running time, you would expect Boyhood to drag on, but it glides by with sly elisions. When the film opens Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is cherubic and watchful. Then you notice his haircut has changed since the last scene; a year has passed. In the early scene Mason’s older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) gives voice to youthful discontent. Then Mason appears with his bangs out of control and you know we’re in middle school and Mason is not happy. Then, rather abruptly in his freshman year in high school, Mason starts speaking. Coltrane delivers his lines in two modes: a cool murmur and an adolescent rant. Neither mode addresses his immediate circumstances very directly. He struggles with issues of control and freedom, like any sensitive and aware kid his age. His paranoiad rants, though, sound downloaded from the Internet, which he claims to hate so much.
Coltrane’s most engaging scene in his early boyhood is his glowing expression as Mason lines up to buy the next installment of the Harry Potter saga. He’s dressed as Harry and his best friend is a dead ringer for Ron, which makes me wonder if Linklater hand’t been toying at one point at drawing a parallel between his project and the Harry Potter books. Mason’s is a bit of a wizard himself, the solitary product of two non-conformist parents with unresolved relationships with their own childhoods.
There are a lot of points at which Mason could have gone wrong. For example, there’s a scene involving underaged drinking and circular saw blades that looks like trouble from the opening frame. The bullying older boys have already settled uneasily into familiar patterns of male behavior reluctant. They’re not bad kids. They’re just timid and unimaginative. This scene is a model of what would happen if Mason gave up rather than went down the wrong path. His father is the wrong path, as Dad (Ethan Hawke) is at pains to remind him. In fact, there’s no real major personal crisis for Mason other than the breakup with his first girlfriend. She’s so pretty you know she’s going to break his heart.
Mason’s father consoles him with advice that is both sound (“These high school romances never work out”) and dubious (“Women are always trying to trade up”). Ethan Hawke brings his loquacious energy of Before Sunrise films to this one. His character has a lot to explain, especially when Samantha is in middle school. In the middle of an Astros game, when he’s thoroughly enjoying himself, she bluntly asks him, “Do you have a job?” He pauses for three or four seconds, a long time for a Hawke character, and provides an answer near enough to the truth to make us still like him.
Patricia Arquette, on the other hand, impresses without acting particularly well. She plays a single mom with poor taste in men, still falling for guys she meets in school. Anger is her character’s dominant emotion—and one that wouldn’t tax many actors. When Hawke’s character congratulates her on how well she’s raised her kids, Linklater cuts in for an extreme closeup to capture Arquette’s reaction and she doesn’t deliver. You can see her character has put herself back together, but you would expect to see more than one emotion register in her face. Arquette might be the film’s best chance for an Oscar nomination, but the part is bigger than she is. She doesn’t work her way fully into the role. Then again, Coltrane isn’t a charismatic actor. He’s like a chess piece placed strategically in the whirling scenes around him. You don’t want a Meryl Streep chewing up every scene. Linklater is playing a high-risk game here: he doesn’t know how the characters will be played with each passing year, so emphasis is tricky.
Without giving too much away, the ending of Boyhood is gratifying. Not only has Mason turned out well, so has Coltrane. He deserves all the praise that’s come his way. I wonder, though, how much he’s been shaped by working with Linklater all these years. Coltrane is a taciturn version of Ethan Hawke: self conscious about his own coolness, but kind of a one-note actor. Linklater likes to deploy Hawke in quiet places so we can hear everything his character has to say. Linklater inverts this strategy with Coltrane, embedding him with a lot of loud adults so that we have to listen very carefully to hear the quiet rustlings inside.
One-Way Street [Einbahnstrasse, 1928] was Walter Benjamin's first effort to break out of the narrow confines of the academy and apply the techniques of literary studies to life as it is currently lived. For Benjamin criticism encompasses the ordinary objects of life, the literary texts of the time, films in current release, and the fleeting concerns of the public sphere. Following Benjamin's lead, this blog is concerned with the political content of the aesthetic and representations of the political in the media. As Benjamin writes in One-Way Street, "He who cannot take sides should keep silent."