They say this winter is only the sixth warmest in Chicago, but it must be among the top two or three oddest winters the city has experienced. We've had three snowstorms, all of them striking in the afternoon, throwing the evening commute into chaos. Today is the third.
Anyway, this week's edition of Fun Friday looks at cyberflâneurie, the online version of flâneurie. Evgeny Morozov argues that cyberflâneurie a.) once existed and b.) is now dead. The early Internet--i.e., the 1990s--was a low-baud rate landscape of quirky online communities like GeoCities and Tripod. The contemporary Internet has been taken over by large corporations, much like real public space. Morozov writes,
Transcending its original playful identity, it’s no longer a place for strolling — it’s a place for getting things done. Hardly anyone “surfs” the Web anymore. The popularity of the “app paradigm,” whereby dedicated mobile and tablet applications help us accomplish what we want without ever opening the browser or visiting the rest of the Internet, has made cyberflânerie less likely. That so much of today’s online activity revolves around shopping — for virtual presents, for virtual pets, for virtual presents for virtual pets — hasn’t helped either. Strolling through Groupon isn’t as much fun as strolling through an arcade, online or off.
The Internet is now relentlessly social and therefore anathema to flâneurs. Facebook has been a major force in organizing online communities into incredibly valuable corporate assets.
However, some pockets of oddity remain for the cyberflâneur. In the latest issue of Triple Canopy David Auerbach trolls the discussion group site 4chan and other preserves of the seething nerd underclass. These sites offer their members total anonymity, exposing the id beneath the keyboards of discontented online hoards.
The growth of these anonymous spaces marks the first wide-scale collective gathering of those who are alienated, disaffected, voiceless, and just plain unsocialized. These are people whose tweets will not make the headlines. They do not wish to create a platform that enables them to be heard by the world; they want to shut out the world. Ironically, their popularity has exploded as part of the Web 2.0 boom, despite serving a fundamentally different purpose. The foundation of what I will call “A-culture,” as opposed to the culture of Facebook, Twitter, and other mainstream social-networking sites, is the intentional disconnect between one’s real life and one’s online persona (or, frequently, personae).
A-culture offers the shock experience (chockerlebnis, as Walter Benjamin called it) of cyberflâneurie. 4chan is a kind of Les Fleurs du mal for the Internet Age.
If you poke around the back alleys of the Internet you will still find sites with totally unexpected affinities and obsessions. You just have to let yourself follow the links sometimes. For example, just a few minutes ago a Tweet popped up on my timeline about the alleged assassination of North Korea's Kim Jong-Un in, of all places, the North Korean embassy in Beijing. I clicked on a link in the Gawker story and found this blog dedicated solely to photographs of Kim Jong-Un looking at things. This photograph, posted on February 2, is captioned "looking at a gym floor."
The blog is one of those one-joke memes that perpetuates itself much longer than you would expect, like the Twitter account purporting to be from a squirrel (Sample Tweet: "Blink. Stare. Blink. Rub top of head. Stare."). "Kim jong-un looking at things" considers its subject--the Kim dynasty of weirdo despots--with a gaze at once avid and ironic, the perfect embodiment of the flâneur.
If I had to make a couple of recommendations for sites for your inner cyberflâneur, one would be UbuWeb, where you can find Robert Hughes' brilliant Shock of the New series in its entirety, as well as sample films from the Lumière and Company project from 1995. The other site would be Coudal Partners' Fresh Signals column, a list of website unified only by the demand that they be interesting.
PS: As of this writing (1:54 Central Time) neither Reuters nor A.P. has carried the news of Kim Jong-un's death. You'll know for sure he's still alive if a photo of him appears on "kim jong-un looking at things."
We're in the middle of a snowstorm here in Chicago, which means harrowing drives and shoveling driveways. It's a good time to be inside. (The pigeons above were photographed in Daley Plaza by the Chicago Tribune's E. Jason Wambsgans.)
And if you're hunkering down for the night, then the thing to do is watch Downton Abbey on Netflix streaming. Roger Ebert expresses the essential contradiction of most (including mel) English majors: most of them are liberals, but the discipline itself has a conservative streak, especially when it comes to English country houses.
although my politics are liberal my tastes in fiction respond to the conservative stability of the Downton world. The more seriously I can take it, the better I will like it. To be sure, there is monstrous unfairness in the British class system, and one of the series themes is income inequality. What must be observed, however, is that all the players agree to play by the same rules. In modern America the rich jump through every loophole in the tax code. But look what happened in the first episode of "Downtown Abbey." The Earl's presumptive heir went down with the Titanic and the title passed to a distant cousin, Mr. Matthew Crawley of Manchester, who now stood to inherit the title, the house, the land and the money--including the personal fortune of Cora, the Earl's wife. So deeply are the principles of inheritance embedded in the Crawley family that both the Earl and his wife seem staunchly prepared to give up their earthly possessions and be courteous in the process.
Be forewarned: As my wife and I discovered to our dismay, there are only seven episodes in the first season, which concludes, abruptly, with the announcement of the start of World War I. Just as the world of Downton Abbey has sucked you in, it blows up.
As long as we're in retro mode, the death of the remarkable Johnny Otis, followed by the death of one of his discoveries, Etta James, offers an occasion to look at the transition from big band jazz to rock and roll as America's pre-eminent form of popular music. Ben Greenman at the New Yorker has a nice tribute to James.
And finally--I have to hit the road now--here's an unlikely curl-up-with-a-good-book recommendation: Michel Houellebecq's new novel, The Map and the Territory. It's been called his Annie Hall, which is the last comparison you'd ever think someone would make. I'm 5% into it on my Kindle for iPad, and so far it's an engaging account of a Parisian artist trying to make sense of the culture around him. It's what a novel should do, and Houellebecq, against expectations, is a novelist equipped to do it.
This has been a busy year for me. Yet, looking back on my entries for 2011 it seems like only a small portion of what I actually did made it into this space. Partly it was because of my busy work schedule; partly it was because I've been trying to find new ways of capturing and presenting what I think is interesting. I don't want to turn One-Way Street into a link-a-minute blog. While most of what I write about here originates in material elsewhere on the Internet, I try to provide some commentary and context. At the same time, I'm still for a way to fulfill Walter Benjamin's ideal of a purely presentational writing without any commentary of my own. I continue to work on it even though Benjamin himself never found a good balance.
Back in January I redesigned One-Way Street to allow for a more varied presentation. The wider main column allows for larger images and greater flexibility for video presentation. I've also introduced entries written in Storify. While the application has its limits, I like the idea of presenting a story as it develops. Perhaps as Storify develops I will be able to make better and more frequent use of it.
Today I want to review some of the key blog entries from 2011. These aren't necessarily my best entries or the most popular. They're also not a "best of" list. Other people have compiled some excellent best-of-the-year lists. The most interesting one is the Million's Year in Reading feature.
The entries below captured a moment when I learned something and I was doing my best to convey what I had learned and why it was significant.
We just had our first measurable snow in the Chicago area this morning--rather late for us. Supposedly that means we'll have a mild winter, which would be a welcome relief. December is a tricky time in the northern latitudes. The weather isn't too bad, but going out on weekends often means wading through mobs of holiday shoppers, as my son and I had to do to get to a screening of Hugo the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Speaking of Hugo, I highly recommend seeing it this weekend. The film was adapted from Brian Selznick’s graphic novel for children, and the marketing places children at the core of the intended audience, with the film history theme thrown in so parents aren't too bored. In fact, the early film references--Georges Méliès is only the most explicit--are too rich and varied to serve merely as a distraction. Kristin Thompson teases out Scorsese's early cinema references. Her observations are acute except on one point:
By the way, reviewers have made much of the idea that Hugo is not really for children, who would be bored and perhaps frightened by it. I suspect that children under about the age of 10 would be, but older children and teenagers, especially those who read books, should be intrigued by and enjoy it. Like Pixar films or The Simpsons, it’s the sort of thing that can be enjoyed by adults as well as children.
My seven-year-old son was very skeptical about the film's scariness level. It took a couple of close examinations of the trailer and a bribe of popcorn to convince him to accompany me. As soon as the film was over he admitted that he was wrong and that he enjoyed the film a lot. I later overheard him recommending it to his friends.
Scorsese also makes some literary references in Hugo. He glosses over James Joyce in a tracking shot, and Isabelle swoons over David Copperfield. That character passes in and out of London, and his evolving attitudes about the city mark his development as a person. In anticipatin of the 200th anniversary of the author's birth next year, the Museum of London is staging an exhibition about Dickens' relationship to the city. Dickens & London opens today and runs until June 10, 2012.
The writer Djuna Barnes does not appear in Hugo, perhaps because she left Paris in 1930, before the action of the film takes place. In any case, Barnes' early career as a journalist is the subject of an upcoming exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum entitled, Newspaper Fiction: The New York Journalism of Djuna Barnes, 1913–1919. Barnes is best known for her modernist novels and plays Nightwood (1936) and The Antiphon (1958), but before moving to Paris in 1921 she contributed to mainstream publications such as the Brooklyn Daily Eagle andVanity Fair. Barnes has long been overshadowed by the more prolific Virginia Woolf, so it's nice to see Barnes getting some attention almost 30 years after her death. The exhibition runs from January 2012 to August 19, 2012.
On Monday evening the Archive of Spatial Aesthetics and Praxis (ASAP) is throwing itself a launch party. The group consists of Bjarke Ingels of the Danish architectural firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group); Alex Schweder La, and architect turned artist; and Jerszy Seymour, a commercial designer who creates "life situations." The launch party and benefit takes place at the top of The Standard in New York City, starting at 6:30. Tickets and other information can be found here.
ASAP appears to have many of the same interests as the latest issue of MAS Context, ABERRATION, is now available online. The co-editors of the issue, Iker Gil and John Szot, describe the issue as an exploration of "highly provocative projects and ideas that challenge orthodoxy in order to enhance our understanding of the built environment." I've already downloaded the issue to my iPad and I'll have more on it next week. There's also an accompanying launch party for the issue on Friday, December 16 in Los Angeles. ABERRATION: LIVE is hosted by MAS Context, Woodbury School of Architecture, and WUHO.
About the reference to Zero for Conduct (Jean Vigo, 1933), here's a hint: the film historian obsessed with Méliès.
If you go to the Jazz Record Mart on East Illinois Street in Chicago you will find the CDs of trumpeter Nicolas Payton in the racks alongside Danilo Perez, Jeremy Pelt and Chris Potter. However, Payton begins his latest blog entry, "On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore . . . .," by declaring, "Jazz died in 1959."
This is probably news to Perez, Pelt, and Potter, all young jazz muscians. Payton qualifies his remark by allowing, "There maybe cool individuals who say they play Jazz, but ain’t shit cool about Jazz as a whole." According to Payton, jazz has never recovered from its separation from American popular music. 1959 was the last year jazz was cool. That year two of the greatest albums in jazz--in American music--were released: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and Dave Brubeck's Time Out. The following year Ornette Coleman began dabbling in what became known as Free Jazz. Originally Free Jazz was supposed to be ultra-modern, but by 1965, when John Coltrane released One Up, One Down before jumping off the aesthetic cliff, the end was clear. Listen to Coleman and the late Coltrane and you can hear them saying, "we love jazz, we can't live without it, but we need to do something else."
So what does Payton play? Not jazz. "Jazz is a brand," he writes. "Jazz ain’t music, it’s marketing, and bad marketing at that." Instead, he is a "Postmodern New Orleans musician. I create music for the heart and the head, for the beauty and the booty." I pointed out on Twitter that "postmodern" is a marketing term as well, and to my surprise Payton responded, "Yeah, but it doesn't carry a negative connotation to me. Jazz is over. My Postmodernism is just the beginning. Stay tuned."
I replied that I would. I heard Payton perform at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago a few years ago and he was amazing.
I came to jazz by playing trumpet as a kid. I didn't play jazz, either. I played pre-modern horn splatter music. That said, like about 99% of white male Midwesterners born after 1960, the center of my musical world is rock. It's inescapable. From time to time I make an effort to find new bands, but for the most part I've become, to borrow a phrase from Mark Athitakis after he bought the collected songs of R.E.M, a middle-aged guy in a nostalgia bunker.
Jazz could be my escape route from the bunker. Outside the bunker, it's a no-man's land. I've already exhausted the patience of my wife and my friends for going to jazz clubs. It's possible to find some exciting contemporary music in the Jazz Mart if you're willing to sort through rack after rack of bland neo-jazz. The whole genre of jazz seems stuck between the safe and the fusty. Payton describes the current state of jazz more colorfully: "Jazz ain’t cool, it’s cold, like necrophilia. Stop fucking the dead and embrace the living."
It's better to listen by name, by tradition, to listen for pushing against the limits of the form. There are musicians who do this. Three names that come immediately to mind are Payton, Vijay Iyer, and Jason Moran. All three work within definable--and quite old--traditions, yet they continually surprise the listener. They defamiliarize jazz so that it can be heard again.
Note: I highly recommend Nicholas Payton's Twitter feed, @paynic. Also recommended is Vijay Iyer at @vijayiyer.
Every Monday through Thursday I cram a ThinkPad, an iPad, two iPhones, a Rhodia notebook, two fountain pens, and a book into a single pannier, and latch it onto my bike. I ride to the train station, ride a commuter train downtown, then drag the saddlebag across the Loop to the building in which I work. My employer allocates work space on the hotel system, meaning that cubicles and offices must be reserved, like hotel rooms. A sign above each desk reminds the occupant to clean out the drawers for the next occupant--not that anyone ever feels at home long enough to put anything in a drawer. At the end of the workday, I have to make sure I pack everything back up. I can't leave any traces.
On Fridays I work from home, like virtually everyone in my company. I work at the dining room table or on the living room couch. My desk was discarded when I got married. On the next trash day my favorite chair will be put to the curb because my kids broke it. In my work life, which includes writing this blog, I live an increasingly placeless, objectless existence. I'm feeling a little incorporeal myself. A room of one's own? All I have is a 1,400 cubic-inch saddlebag.
Partly this is a consequence of my job; I manage a team that builds mobile apps. The mobile space, as people refer to it, originated as a between space, between office and home. One checked one's Blackberry, pecked out a response, and that was about it. For me mobile is a destination. It's where I go to work. I'm permanently in transit, never quite arriving anywhere, only circling back.
You might think I long for a book-lined study. That would be nice, but I'm perfectly happy working in a public library. On Fridays I will sometimes bike to my local library and set up my laptop. The Wilmette library has those great big wooden tables, chairs that are comfortable to the right degree, and a strong wi-fi signal. There's something calming about working in a space that is quiet, yet occupied by other people. I always feel at home when I'm surrounded by books, even when they're not mine. It's for these reasons, I'm certain, Walter Benjamin spent 13 years scribbing notes for his Aracades Project in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. It was his room of his own.
Whenever I'm in a public library there are other people working on laptops just as I am. When you think about it, it's remarkable that in the age of cloud computing people still lug their laptops to the library. Salon's Laura Miller noticed the same phenomenon in the main branch of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. The oak tables in the Rose Main Reading Room (image above) have power outlets and half of them are occupied by people with laptops. "Yes, they have laptops and yet they've come to the library," she exclaims. (Emphasis hers.)
Sure, the New York Public Library has great objects in it--books and Charles Dickens' letter opener and things like that--but perhaps its most important offering is peace and quiet. Conservatives here and in the U.K. are trying to slash library budgets because, they argue, the Internet has rendered libraries obsolete. Miller argues that libraries remain relevant because they offer quiet.
Access to a little peace and quiet is as essential to a humane society as access to parks and art. That's not something the Internet is ever going to be able to give us. It can only be found in a real, not a virtual, place, which is what libraries have always been and what we all still need them to be.
So for this Fun Friday I encourage you to go to your local public library with your laptop or your Kindle (I've seen people reading Kindles in the library) or your iPad or even your own book. You'll most likely find it's just loud enough to drown out the electronic noise of your device, but quiet enough to allow to you think.
If you're in New York, stop by the main branch of the Public Library, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary next week with a series of events.
This has been a crazy week in One-Way Street land. Among other things, I received a new job offer. I start my new gig on April 8 managing the development of iPad apps. In the meantime, there's lots of work to do transitioning from one job to another. Luckily, winter continues its grip on Chicago. The cold focuses the mind, as they say.
I will be working in downtown Chicago across the street from Helmut Jahn's Thompson Center building. I'll have a train commute for the first time in a while (currently I bike to work), so I'll have reading time. I was looking forward to going to my local Borders until I noticed yesterday that they're closing it. Author Bryan Charles asks, "Is it odd to mourn the closing of certain big-box stores?" His answer is ambivalent. "You could argue that Borders brought trouble on itself, that after years of outrageous expansion, partnering with Amazon, and failing to keep pace with the rise of e-readers, it deserves whatever it gets," he writes, before adding that the chain brought his books to a wide audience. I'm ambivalent, too. I remember the great Borders on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, which closed years ago. In the past few years I've had some frustrating experiences both in their stores and online. I'm sorry to see Borders go, but I gave up on them when they gave up on me as a reader.
One of the reasons why Borders is failing is because you can't make any discoveries like the terrific architecture coming out of Spain right now. Next Wednesday is the opening of the Young Architects of Spain: A Window to the Unknown exhibit at the Instituto Cervantes in Chicago. Featured are sixty-two projects from Spanish architects under age 40. a generation of Spanish architects under age 40. The exhibit is a chance to see some representative work realized in Spain and across the globe.
I will be attending the exhibit's opening lecture, "The Art of Building: A Conversation with Architects Fuensanta Nieto & Enrique Sobejano." Nieto and Sobejano are partners in Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos. They also teach at the Universidad Europea de Madrid and Universität der Künste of Berlin. In 2010 Nieto and Sobejano won the Aga Khan Award for their Madinat al Zahra Museum in Cordoba, Spain. Their lecture begins at 6 PM on Wednesday, March 30 at the Instituto Cervantes.
Coming next week to this space: A review of the new novel by James Boice and a feature on Detroit.
This weekend I will be pre-occupied with my daughter's 4th birthday party. Think lots and lots of pink. However, once the party is over with, here's what I'll be paying attention to this weekend.
I thought it was time to freshen up the look and feel of the site. The original design was loosely based on the cover design of Einbahnstrasse. However, just because there are no more overt visual references to the work of Walter Benjamin, he remains a unifying theme of the site. While I liked the old design, I need a more flexible layout. One-Way Street has grown a lot since it was founded in 2006, and it needed a bigger house.
One of the most pressing needs was a wider main column to accommodate embedded videos. The 400 pixel column width was too small to adequately present video. Also, the wider column will give me more flexibility to include images.
Another feature I've wanted for a long time is a navigation bar. Right now I've moved some of the material to which I've permanently linked up there, such as the best of OWS page. I've also placed a link to a series that serves as an in-depth introduction to the work of Walter Benjamin. Two new features are a more detailed about/contact page and a book store.
Look for some new top navigation items, including an interviews page. The top nav bar will also link to a new feature I'm developing as an experiment in Walter Benjamin's representational theory. The first installment will be on the city of Detroit.
Feel free to look around. Let me know what you think. And thanks for reading.
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."