Monthly Archives: December 2015

On the Sharing Economy

The rise of what has been called, inaccurately, “the sharing economy” presents a number of problems for how we conceive of eventual worker liberation and the establishment of a more sane and equitable society. It requires the nationalization of platforms more than industries.

The psychological model of “platform” based work relies on the schizophrenic split between the identities of consumer and worker; a master/slave dialect that exists within each individual that exists within this economy. The person as consumer feels all powerful and pampered so long as they have money, and in some respects even without money provided they have an internet connection. I can get most of my needs besides food and a place to sleep extremely cheaply or free if I live close enough to an urban area and know how to navigate the system of thrift stores and things like Freecycle. When I do buy things, the standards of customer service have been automated to points where I can, in certain cities, order almost anything on the internet and have same day to within the hour delivery. I’m not sure there’s ever been a better point in human history to be a person with money buying things or living on the fringes of people buying things than the present.

However, as a worker, the environment is chaotic and assaultive. Attempts to dismantle what protections workers have gained over the past hundred years come from all directions; there’s a large portion of the working class in the United States that seems convinced that the primary problem of class tensions is that they haven’t given the bosses enough. Economically the US is in decline and facing tough competition from China and others.

This creates theoretical problems for the engaged Marxist. While a crisis of overproduction is a classic problem that Marxist theory is extremely well-equipped to tackle and the consumer identity side of things makes a lot of sense, the sharing economy is predicated on the bizarre notion of charging the worker for the privilege of…their owning the means of production. An Uber driver owns their own car, etc etc. It could be said that the thing actually being produced isn’t rides but work; that the actual customer of Uber is the driver and that therefore the largest growing market is the market for employment (that, for added absurdist sci-fi flavor, refuses to call itself employment and will fight over that in court.)

In terms of the present, this being the growth market makes some sense. The end point of technological sophistication, one of them anyhow, was always going to be the replacement of human labor by said technology. This was supposed to happen, this was the dream that you see in so many science fiction stories and popular TV shows dealing with the future-flying cars, and, more importantly, robotic servants, always viewed passively as set decoration. The other side of the sci-fi coin were anxiety dreams the robots would enslave the humans. This template isn’t especially far removed from the passive mammy/frightening minority threat coming to destroy “our values/homestead/etc” dichotomy that’s been a hallmark of the movies since Birth of a Nation. The comforting aspect of these films to the technologist or the racist is that they all still presume a strongly bonded community and an other, a stable world where the privilege stemming either from being human or white is a divine right. It avoids the question of whether the problems that would arise from technology wouldn’t stem from the inertia or weakening of man in the face of machines but from where most problems of the past 250 years and many from before then have stemmed-the banal and crushing inertia of the accumulation of wealth to a small minority of the population.

Technology’s advance has not led to a more fair or equitable society. Conveniences have multiplied, yes, but these have been trojan horses. The creation of massive quantities of so-called redundancy in the workforce, the speed-up that expedited the process of accumulation, and the powers of control and surveillance that have been handed over to massive tech giants while no one was paying attention all speak to this.

If I was accumulated capital personified, in the long term, what would I want? I would want to replace the specific functions of the federal government that collect money, while leaving the husk of said government to deal with the externalities that cost money. I’d want a couple private towns I had complete sovereignty over that could be designed to use soft-behaviorist techniques to control the activities of especially skilled employees. I would want to collect my employees’ taxes instead of the government. I wouldn’t want my employees to be considered employees so they couldn’t have collective bargaining rights. I wouldn’t want my employees to think of themselves as employees so they wouldn’t think about collectively bargaining. I would want access to massive zero percent interest loans backed by the government.

The above paragraph is not a new analysis. Much has already been said about the point of accumulation where the interests of concentrated capital are in the position to discipline state governments and not vice versa. This situation in some aspects is already happening. The rise of independent contractor “platforms” like Amazon used selling, Uber, etc. are ways for private interests to collect a second layer of sales tax, not land rent.

The platforms need to be seized for the workers.

The automated economy is an assault on the petit bourgeois in the same manner that industrialization was an assault on the artisan class at the advent of the industrial revolution.

 

Look Out, Haskell, It’s Real: The Making of ‘Medium Cool’ (2001)

It’s interesting to wonder how 1968 would have played out in the age of social media.

It began with the Tet Offensive on January 30th. In the Spring, there was the assassination of not only one, but two progressive leaders of national stature, Martin Luther King on April 4, and Robert Kennedy on June 6. The students at Columbia University were on strike for most of April. Their French counterparts almost overthrew the De Gaulle administration in May. The Soviet Army would put down the Prague Spring a few months later on August 20th.

What exactly would have been the trending topics on Twitter?

According to the cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler it might have been a commercial for Coca Cola or Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum. As he recounts in the documentary Look Out, Haskell, It’s Real: The Making of ‘Medium Cool’, the inspiration for Medium Cool came from two sources. The first was the French New Wave, where avant guard directors like Jean Luc Godard had broken with the rules of Hollywood, and had begun making innovative new films with hand held cameras, natural lighting, and small crews. The second was the failure of the American media to adequately cover what was going on in the world. The world you saw on TV in 1968, Wexler remembers, was an alternate reality, and you weren’t on TV, he continues, you didn’t exist.

So when he got the opportunity to make a film about a boy from Appalachia who lived in the big city, he not only seized the opportunity, he seized the opportunity to completely rework the script. The result was Medium Cool, which is both fiction and documentary, a distinction, Jean Luc Godard had always argued, had much less relevance than most people think. After all, if you make a movie that presents itself as being purely fictional, you are still “filming objects in the world.” If you make a documentary, you are choosing which objects in the world you decide to film. Wexler decided to do away with the distinction altogether, and arrange the objects in the world he decided to film before he turned on his camera. Then reality hit.

For most of the Spring of 1968, Wexler had filmed a “documentary” about John Cassellis, a fictional Chicago TV cameraman played by Robert Forster. There was the Appalachian poor white ghetto in uptown Chicago, something I had never even realized existed until I saw Medium Cool, and where, interestingly enough, Chicago police officer would occasionally kidnap and torture poor white kids, just for the sport of it. There was the Robert Kennedy assassination, which Wexler poignantly dramatizes by filming a hotel kitchen, not in Los Angeles, but in Chicago. Then there was Resurrection City, the “occupy” encampment 43 years before Occupy Wall Street, the tent city organized by Martin Luther King’s “Poor Peoples’ Campaign” months after his death.

When Wexler returned to his home town of Chicago that August with Robert Forster and the rest of his small crew, he certainly knew there would be controversy, and protests. Chicago, which was under the control of the Democratic, but reactionary Mayor Richard Daley, was a tough city with a huge police force, and a hard, backward white ethnic culture that hated hippies and antiwar protesters. Even though a strong primary challenge from Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy had pushed Lyndon Johnson into forgoing the opportunity to run for President a second time, the Democratic Party was set to nominate Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie, neither of whom would make an explicit statement against the Vietnam War. Wexler had already filmed the Illinois National Guard training to put down an urban insurrection earlier that year, but not even he could anticipate what would happen that August 24th in Grant Park, when the Chicago Police waded into a crowd of antiwar protesters, swinging their billy clubs and cracking skulls, staging a full scale police riot against a diverse crowd of Americans exercising their First Amendment rights.

Having seen Medium Cool three times, and Look Out, Haskell, It’s Real: The Making of ‘Medium Cool’ twice, I do understand the gravity of what happened in Chicago in August of 1968, but I still only think I get part of it. Indeed, one of Wexler’s assistants remarks that even though they used three camera crews they captured only a fraction of the violence that took place, violence so intense, and so disturbing for being “American on American” violence, that it scared him more than filming in Vietnam did. Indeed, for many people of the “Baby Boom” generation, the spectacle of a militarized police force of American citizens attacking other American citizens was a crucial breaking point in American history. As cynical and worldly wise an observer as Hunter S. Thompson would go on to call it “the end of America.” Gore Vidal would compare the Chicago Police to Nazi stormtroopers.

I was only 3 years old in 1968, but the fact that I wouldn’t hear about the 1968 Democratic National Convention until I became politically active as an undergraduate in my early 20s is no accident. Medium Cool was so incendiary that Wexler’s studio did everything in its power to suppress its audience, giving it an “X” rating — purportedly for sex and foul language, but in reality, as Wexler remarks, for political content — and the most limited distribution they could justify under the contract. Nevertheless, while Medium Cool was not widely viewed upon its release, it’s every bit as relevant in 2015 as it was in 1968. Just substitute “Ferguson” for “Chicago” and “Occupy Wall Street” for “Resurrection City” and you’ll feel as if you were watching a film made last yesterday.

body-without-organs

my bones fly out around me,

disheveled, pricked by wind, in pain,

and I stand back unshocked.

I read of it in mystic reports,

gossip columns well-known not for veracity,

but for imagination and an odd sense of familiarity.

 

I have not met my limbs,

but am told of them by

unreliable, unquestionable agents

who circle like missionaries or salesmen,

grinning madly, waving charts written

in a new language which they must teach me,

which I learn, which breaks my body

in new ways around a cruel grammar

of cause, effect, and change.

 

a dictionary of differences, my body

is an unhappy monument to conflict,

a final scrap of the world before dead peace.

my body will no longer abide the terrible

machinery of discordant striving,

it will grow desperate and unify,

pull parts together across blind space,

it will step beyond organs, single.

it will become alone.

 

my body will adopt all witnesses

and discover a ruinous temple built beyond praise.

and it will cry out, alarmed, friendless,

and scatter itself abundantly,

once more disunited,

attempting to forget.

 

all worlds are

smoke hanging

out of sight.

The Big Short (2015)

(Spoiler Alert: The bankers who almost destroy the world economy in 2008 are eventually bailed out by the Bush and Obama administrations, and get multi-million-dollar bonuses instead of prison sentences. The United States is now a police state on the verge of electing either a grandstanding racist millionaire or a corrupt Wall Street Democrat as its next President.)

As I arrived at my local movie theater late, and noticed the long line of families waiting to buy tickets for The Force Awakens, I decided to prepare to watch The Big Short by committing a small act of fraud. I snuck in without paying. After all, it’s better to risk arrest, then to miss even one of the previews, which are often an excellent way to measure the current state of public opinion.

The theater, which is located in a conservative, upper-middle-class suburb in northern New Jersey, was packed with white people, mostly yuppies, the majority of whom probably work on Wall Street, the kind of good, solid bourgeoisie who used to yell “get a job” at Occupy Wall Street protesters back in 2011. The previews were no less discouraging. The first was for a film called 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi by none other than Michael Bey. The second was even worse. A British film called Eye in the Sky, it will star Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren, and will apparently center around a group of “military intelligence officers” struggling to decide whether or to kill a “high value target” (a big bad terrorist) with a drone or to back off and avoid civilian casualties. Why oh why Helen Mirren? Why would you act in this fatuous propaganda? Do you really need the money that badly?

I was pleasantly surprised. First of all, The Big Short is just plain fun. Even though it ran for 2 hours and 20 minutes, I was never bored. Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and and Christian Bale are all excellent, and barely recognizable, as three oddballs who understand long before 2008 that the housing bubble is destined to pop. There are entertaining, and highly informative, cameos by Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez. Yes, Selena Gomez. She tells us more about Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) in 90 seconds than CNN told us in a decade. As The Big Short hurtled towards the inevitable, the financial industry crash in the Spring and Fall of 2008 and the Great Recession, I was unsure if I wanted to get out my guillotine and start sharpening the blade, or just plain laugh. In 2008, the American people got fucked up the ass by Wall Street, and what did we do? We blamed poor people and immigrants.

Nevertheless, The Big Short is such a lucid, and genuinely radical, indictment of the financial services industry that if enough people see it, my fondest dream — to see the bankers loaded up into tumbrils and carted away to be relieved of their heads in front of a bloodthirsty mob of sans-culottes — might just come true. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure some holier than thou ultra-leftist could pick a few holes in The Big Short. It is a mainstream, big-budget Hollywood film, after all, but there’s no getting around its central message. The business model of Wall Street is fraud. What’s more, unlike a TV show, which would feature a tough guy cop, or a 1970s paranoia movie, which would have a crusading journalist, the “heroes” of The Big Short are just as greedy and unlikeable as the corrupt system they hope, not to bring down, but to use to make money. Neither the corporate media nor the United States government are spared. A yuppie Wall Street journal reporter refuses to investigate what would have been a major scoop because he doesn’t want to risk his access at Goldman Sachs. A Securities and Exchange Commission official, a red-headed floozy played by Karen Gillan, shows up at a financial services convention in Las Vegas, not to investigate fraud, but to circulate her resume, and prepare to cash in for “services rendered” after she leaves the government. Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s, two corrupt bond rating agencies which are still in business and as corrupt as ever, are represented by a cranky old woman, who not only doesn’t care that she’s a bought and paid for employee of the big banks, but who is quite literally going blind.

I suppose that if I have any criticism of The Big Short, it probably has something to do with how the three anti-heroes played by Pitt, Bale, and Gosling are maybe just a bit too likable. A great filmmaker like Jean-Luc Godard would have made all three characters so flat out repulsive we would have looked forward to them meeting some kind of horrible death. In some ways, I suppose, The Big Short re-imagines the great man as an unpleasant oddball, a misfit with a glass eye suffering from Asperger’s, a fat nerd who feels guilty about what he’s doing, but takes the money anyway, a smarmy yet self-aware yuppie dirtbag who laughs all the way to the bank. We root for the system to collapse and prove them right. We want them to win, to walk away with hundred of millions, even billions of dollars, and live happily ever after. Yet, as clever, and cynical, as Gosling, Bale, and Steve Carell are in their respective roles, they’re never quite clever or cynical enough. Wall Street is rigged, even against people who understand how it works. The Big Short’s three anti-heroes become, in a sense, just three more average Americans caught up in a scam. The more you think you’ve fucked the system, the more the system fucks you. The more you think you’re in on the con, the better chance there is that you just might be the patsy.  There’s only one solution. Bring the whole thing down.

in the swimming pool

i remember in the swimming pool,
feeling my erection press
against her twelve-year-old body.

she wanted me to hold her
and carry her. i was small and weak
but the water made it easy.

so i pulled her lithe and bony
limbs closer, cat eyes blinking,
flat moonpale chest slippery
and dappled in the summer sun.

soft as milk her voice came through my ear
(don’t say she didn’t know what she was doing)
while that arm snaked around my neck
and fingers crawled into my hair.

my cock taut and nervous
as i set her down there
and wondered what she wanted,
kissing her to make it stop.

my mother stomped through the grass
and pressed hands to hips firmly,
shouting: Come on in! It’s time for dinner.

we hopped the fence and ducked the clothesline,
stepped inside to hold hands
under the table.

The Long Black Clown Car

Though the major events of his life had occurred in Los Angeles and Manhattan the funeral was held in the small backwater where he’d spent the final years of his life painting and repainting the walls of his wife’s house different shades of green. No indications were left whether he’d found the desired shade. The choppy gradient between the final two shades suggested he hadn’t. His wife had, understandably, shown no interest in this project and had no light to shed on the subject. No one asked about it; there had been few visitors.

He’d been on the Ed Sullivan Show several times when he was much younger and not dead and Ed Sullivan was still on television. His estranged son showed up but none of the other mourners recognized him. They’d never met him. No one cried. The plain green casket was lowered into the ground with pulleys.

An anonymous admirer had sent a single rose. His widow held a banana and stood next to the grave and spoke.

“He…we all laughed a lot. And this banana…one of his bits, one of the ones he did on Ed Sullivan, it involved a banana. I’d do it but…uh…I couldn’t do it justice. You’d just have to see it. I have it on a tape somewhere.”

She dropped the banana in the hole. It landed next to the rose. A shovel was pushed into the pile of dirt next to the grave. We each took our turn shoveling dirt into the hole. The dirt concealed the long-stem rose, the banana, and finally the dead man.

Most of the mourners, friends of his wife and lifelong residents of the backwater, had shown up knowing he’d been on Ed Sullivan and little else, hoping to hear juicy tales of his show business exploits. However he had outlived whoever had known these tales. A small catered reception was held in the back of a sports bar after the burial.

“So…uh…how did he die?”

“His liver hardened.”

“That’s…terrible.”

“It solidified.”

“That’s…”

“Completely.”

“That’s…”

“Then he died.”

“That’s terrible.”

“It took about two years.”

There were more details about how his liver hardened. But the tray of pasta in cream sauce had been uncovered and the mourning had made us all very hungry.

The conversation after that mostly revolved around the quality of the cream sauce.

After we ate the widow read the note that accompanied the single rose to the people seated at her table.

“A wonderful companion, a shoulder in my times of need. I’ll never forget the wondrous times we had together; the way your body felt in my arms; the way my body felt wrapped in yours. I’ll see you on the other side.”

It was signed “Miss Bavaria.” No one at the funeral remembered a Miss Bavaria.

The widow guessed he’d arranged the delivery of the note and the rose himself before he died. As a practical joke.

“That’s the kinda guy he was,” she said. “Anything for a laugh.”

The Dialectic of Nostalgia and Irony

In putting together a dialectical analysis, casting the roles of thesis and antithesis is perhaps the single most important action taken. The rest just sort of follows; the dialectic being a template to overlay on phenomena to tease out the shapes of their interaction in the larger world; where they’re headed, and what will replace them.

With the release of the new Star Wars film, talk of nostalgia, already a thing much more discussed in this country than would seem proper were the country not in a state of decline, is at an all-time high. Articles are being written left and right about this and that; every bit of historical, speculative, and other minutia that could be dredged is being rolled out into the digital sphere like so many wooden clocks shaped like animals at a craft fair, and, dragged along with the pettiness of discourse that unfortunately marks the internet periodical culture, considerations of what this nostalgia constitutes; what it  indicates; what the actual thing being wistfully remembered is can’t help but amble around the fitful mind of a man with no emotional attachment to Star Wars whatsoever, a man such as myself.

I suppose the poles of the dialectic I’d like to analyze, the two discursive threads running through the culture at large that have been snowballing into a confrontation, the two things that seem to be the dominant tones adopted once the internet opened up and everyone had a platform to say whatever was on their mind with no editors are the cultural threads of the “ironic” and the “nostalgic”. Which is the thesis and which the antithesis I can’t say, but the culture of omnipresent irony and the culture of tone-deaf nostalgia interact as dialectic; neither should be trusted on its own as both sides are ultimately things drawing one in directions that don’t lead to destinations; each only seems to derive its claims to the authentic or worthwhile through constantly underlining the distasteful excess of the other.

Of course, positing the two as being dialectical oppositions to each other is in itself somewhat problematic as, being secret lovers like any two culturally opposed ideas, we find them folded over each other more often than not.

Let’s explore an article that was picked up by a couple other publications when it was posted that works as a kind of brilliant picture of the emptiness the constitutes the center of the image of the two threads circling each other. The article, titled “This Private Garfield Facebook Group Is the Last Irony-Free Place on the Internet” is a terrific sleight of hand; a false nostalgia for a time and place on the internet that never existed that’s not even backed up by the screenshots in the article; a thing that wants to imagine there was a pure ur-state, an Edenic cyberspace where people could appreciate things like the inexplicably long running comic strip Garfield without people pointing out that it is a bit strange and unsettling to discover middle aged people aggressively fixated on a cartoon cat who hates Mondays and loves lasagna. In the appreciation of Garfield and the unease at the unironic appreciation of Garfield exist two things that in and of themselves aren’t horrible and are understandable. It would take an absurdly authoritarian worldview to say “No! People shouldn’t enjoy Garfield!”, at the same time it would take a self entirely numbed to any sort of hopes or dreams of human progress or there being anything more to life not to be at least a bit disturbed by the soul-crushing display of fatalistic mediocrity inherent in relating to a lazy cartoon cat that does nothing but eat, complain, and be a dick to Odie, especially by people who are presumably old enough to have seen some of the world.

Of course, both positions ignore the larger point that unless your name is Jim Davis, Garfield itself is irrelevant to pretty much anything. Fixation on the irrelevant is, however, one of the few true growth industries this country has. Neither nostalgic beatification nor ironic detachment are actual engagement; while more “serious” publications might take that realization as a call to start admonishing people, I’d like to consider the practical reasons why people on the whole would rather defend their moral right to enjoy Star Wars than the ideals of parliamentary democracy, economic justice, cultural progress, or pretty much anything else. They exist.

That the US is in transition, or, if I’m not being diplomatic about it, decline, isn’t really news. I think most people in this country, even if they don’t grasp the finer cultural or economic points of why it’s in decline, have at least some intuitive notion that shit is not getting better. The distribution of wealth is not any more equitable and is in fact less equitable than it has been since the Great Depression. Etc etc. Read any article about domestic politics that’s run in Counter Punch since like 2008 and you should be able to get the broad points of that story.

It doesn’t seem like a huge stretch to say that the primary pivot point of human psychology is the creation of the simulacra of a sense of control over one’s surroundings. This is not to say a person wants actual control over their surroundings but, in a way, to say the exact opposite. The mind is not a mechanism especially concerned with its own internal coherence; it wants to have its cake and eat it too; why wouldn’t it? It wants control without the responsibility that comes with said control, it wants to perform control; it wants to toil away in the low-stakes and trivial as much as possible the same way the body would usually rather store up fat in case of a threat of starvation than work itself into what is in theory a healthier condition. The trivial gives both the sense of control and the comfort of knowing that a lack of results doesn’t actually matter.

There are many examples of people whose first actions upon finding out they’d gone suddenly bankrupt was to treat themselves to an expensive and fancy meal or spend whatever’s left on drugs instead of essentials. The tendency was perhaps most memorably immortalized in fiction in the character of Hurstwood in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Though this is probably the last thing the person should do logically, it makes a good deal of sense; it creates the environment of normality or even prosperity, of comfort. It’s a symbolic revenge taken against the money for its sudden betrayal; a nonsensical leap of faith forces the individual to shun the money the way the money shunned them. The thrill of a large purchase, of buying a boat or a fancy car, is to proclaim, accurately or inaccurately, power over the money and absolute faith in one’s future prospects. The need to state such things would seem to exist in direct inverse relation to how true they are; the loudest public pronouncements an individual makes are usually made primarily for their personal benefit; they’re ways of screaming down the voice in their head saying the opposite and the tangibility of the object purchased, the presence of witnesses who saw them purchase it, reinforces the ironically false notion that by this enactment of ritual their financial success and security has been actually accomplished. Of course the boat or whatever usually gets repossessed by the bank a little while later.

So the performance of capitalism, having been stripped of its practical and linear, logical dimensions since industrialization reached the point it could feasibly provide living essentials for everyone, lives on in an increasingly symbolic and religious form centered around self-flagellation in the face of its entertainments and conveniences. The state of uncritical fandom is in substance a stance of the esoteric; the ecstatic; the excitement and joy at what are visibly mediocre, manipulative, cynical and calculated works like Star Wars needs to be performed repeatedly in public as a ghost dance to hide the emptiness and dissatisfaction that increasingly lies at the heart of American capitalism. We are judged on our ability to consume in a state of ideological or spiritual purity even by the ostensibly well-intentioned and progressive voices increasingly taking various entertainments to task for their sexism and racism. While such an appraisal of mass entertainments is long overdue, the satisfaction with pandering sloppy works that repeat themselves and their cultural assumptions but with the Madlibs style insertion of figures of different groups doesn’t address the underlying problems of self-satisfaction at imperialistic attitudes; of our desire to play out with purity and fresh naive excitement the act of being duped and pandered to, of our deadly attraction to a form of congealed capitalism that grows increasingly toxic.

The nostalgic stance is problematic insofar as it holds close like the memory of a beloved parent an object that more actually resembles an inflamed appendix; a part of the person that is nonetheless toxic and should be extricated. The purely ironic stance is perhaps helpful to balance out the waves of toxic omnipresent nostalgia that grips the culture whenever something like a new Star Wars film is released but at the same time only has the sum effect of making the person question or double down on their commitment to keeping the inflamed appendix. As anyone who’s had appendicitis knows, the only thing that solves the problem is to remove the appendix entirely, even if it requires some time in the aftermath to recuperate.

Nevertheless the image returns again and again, outside comic-cons, outside movie openings, when new Iphones are released, every Black Friday at shopping outlets around the country, this strange inverted parody of either the Great Depression era bread line or the true believers lined up to kneel at Mecca, consumers who prove the purity of their devotion to the experience of purchasing an item through their will to suffer and inconvenience themselves for it; who sit through 18 hour film marathons and spend countless hours fashioning homemade outfits to celebrate their buying a movie ticket to show that they are the genuine ecstatics, that in a world increasingly cynical about the act of buying stuff they can still believe simply like pilgrims.

And so, to return to the initial question of the dialectic between the resistant ironic and the embrace of the nostalgia object, it should be pointed out that a synthesis has already been come to in the form of what I would call “high kitsch”, the embrace of the garish and hideous specifically for their being garish and hideous. While it resolves the intellectual problem I put forward at the beginning of this essay, it doesn’t solve the larger problem of the embrace of the consumer identity as that of a religious pilgrim, with purity displayed in blind love in the face of product, in capitalism and representative democracy as ideals that we perform increasingly magnificent and decadent ghost dances around because we no longer actually believe in them.

That’s a big problem. I’ll explore it here in further essays.

 

Watching Footage of the Vietnam War

Soundtrack:  “Beach Baby” by The First Class

Dad went east on ROTC,
August 1964,
Left behind Greenwich Village folklife
and a dissertation on Pound’s war broadcasts.
His back is streaked still
with shrapnel and burns
that show when he’s bent all summer
digging in the garden.

Upstate, 2003,
a breeze smacks the door open.
He hits the floor,
hand to his hip for a gun that isn’t there.
Realizes we are only playing chess,
hand to a highball glass that isn’t there.

—-The Footage
—–God, would you look at these
—–pointed killers streaking down from
—–the helicopters! They’re coming hard!
—–Monks are burning,
—–monks still burn, it is
—–2015, for God’s sake! and
—–maybe dad is in that helicopter
—–on this flickering news reel,
—–looking for Viet Kong…

And this gore flashes,
flashes in the gentle quiet of my
timber-framed dormitory.
Outside, the last snow of April
settles in already fading drifts.
Dad’s sweet peas and hostas win prizes,
and, he assures me, would even in England.

 


This is a guest post by Fiona Garver Craig. Fiona lives in Brattleboro, Vermont. She studies writing and philosophy at Marlboro College. When not writing and studying, Fiona works as a farmhand and waitress. Fiona lives across from a very old graveyard with a very fat cat named Twig, and likes it that way.

 

Spacecase

Spacecase cased space
for time just in case
there was placed Spacecases place
in places in space on paths untraced
by other mortal hands and eyes.
Longitudinal and lateral symmetry
that as much as Spacecase tries
can’t be traced through space by eyes.
Tired, tired, burning bright
like twice burning candles in the night.
What Spacecase hand or eye
could trace such fantastic symmetry?
Only unto the place he dies
and closes Spacecase’s tired eyes.
He won’t go gently into that night,
tired candle at both ends
—-____burning bright
in spaces cased untraced.

 


 

This is a guest post by Jesse Muse. Part time poet still living in upstate New York. So… Bucket does the Bucket dance.

Smoke Signals (1998)

In Smoke Signals, a modest little film by Chris Eyre and Sherman Alexie, Victor and Thomas, two men in their 20s, are taking a long-distance bus trip from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to Phoenix, Arizona. Across the aisle, Cathy, a pretty blond played by Cynthia Geary, is stretching her legs on the seat in front of her. Curious, and impressed by her flexibility, Thomas, an eccentric nerd, strikes up a conversation. Cathy is more than willing to oblige. The reason she’s so flexible, she tells him, is that she used to be a gymnast, an alternate on the 1980 Olympic Team. She continues, complaining about how Jimmy Carter ruined her chances at fame and fortune, how she would have been just as good as Mary Lou Retton, if only she had gotten her chance. While Thomas listens attentively, Victor, a strapping jock, just scowls. If she were an ex-Olympic level athlete, he wonders, what’s she doing riding on a Greyhound. Finally, he confronts her. Well, he tells her, if you were only an alternate, you wouldn’t have gone to Moscow anyway. So why blame Jimmy Carter? Cathy, called out as a bullshit artist, and probably a straight up liar, takes her bag and moves to the other side of the bus.

“Why did you do that for?” Thomas says. “She was nice.”

Most people watching Smoke Signals are likely to think the same thing. It seems bad form for Victor to cramp Thomas’ style, especially when Thomas is so obviously a 25-year-old virgin, but Victor has his reasons. He and Thomas, both Coeur d’Alene Indians, are two losers going nowhere fast. Unemployed, without college degrees, dependent on women, the trip to Phoenix is the first time either of them has been more than 100 miles from the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation. Victor, who is traveling to Arizona to pick up his late father’s possessions — his father, played by the great native American actor Gary Farmer, had abandoned the family in Idaho years earlier — was only able to buy a pair of bus tickets at all because Thomas, and his mother, lent him the money. He’s an angry young man, aware that he’s got no future, and a past full of physical and emotional abuse, and he sees a reflection of himself, and Thomas, in Cathy the gymnast. Thomas, who’s as angry as Victor, but much better at hiding it, copes by by telling stories, most of which, like Cathy’s tall tale about the 1980 Olympic team, are transparent bullshit based on half-truths and flat out lies. Victor does not have a plan to get out the underclass, but he knows that bad stories, half-baked, unpublished fiction, are a drug.

Thomas, in other words, is a failed writer, a young man with the emotional need to tell stories, but neither the discipline to write them down, nor the social connections to get published. He’s living in a world of illusion. In Thomas, Sherman Alexie, a highly successful Native American novelist and short story writer, sees himself, what he might have been had he not pulled himself up by his bootstraps, gotten off the reservation, and put his thoughts down on paper. In Cathy the gymnast, Victor sees what he’s probably destined to become, a 30-something failure living on the high that comes from telling lies to people who have the need to believe them. The only way out, he recognizes, is by a harsh, uncompromising devotion to the truth. He needs to shred the veil of illusion that keeps him and his people down. What he doesn’t yet realize, however, and what he will find out in Phoenix, is that the truth about his own family is probably too much for him to bear.

Smoke signals begins with a flashback to 1976. Sherman Alexie is an early Gen-Xer like me, and the entire film is a sometimes awkward, sometimes rewarding multi-layered narrative that bounces back and forth between the middle-1970s, the early 1980s, and the late 1990s. In the flashback to 1976, the Indians on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation are celebrating the Fourth of July, aware that it’s a white man’s holiday, but enjoying the fireworks and the celebration nonetheless. Thomas and Victor are still very small children, not even toddlers. Victor’s mother is working at the grill. Thomas’ grandmother is helping her cook. Victor’s father, Arnold Joseph is drinking, probably drunk. Suddenly, Thomas’ house goes up in flames. Arnold rushes inside, snatching the infant Thomas, and lowering down from the second story window to safety. Thomas’ parents, die in the fire and Thomas, sadly, is a now an orphan, but Arnold, who showed so much courage and presence of mind, is a hero. Something about the fire, however, destroys Arnold’s sense of well being. As the 1970s come to a close, and the 1980s begin, his drinking only gets worse. He abuses his wife, and the young son, running away for days at a time, and, finally, for good. Even though the story common to so many Native Americans, poverty, alcoholism, and spousal abuse, would seem to explain Arnold Joseph’s eventual breakdown, something about it doesn’t seem to fit. Arnold Joseph was not a heavy drinker before the fire. Is it survivor’s guilt? Victor, who never touches alcohol, grows up blaming himself. Was it something he did?

When Victor and Thomas reach Phoenix, they find out that Arnold Joseph had become close to Suzy Song, a young native American woman. Arnold’s death has so upset her that for the past several days, she’s been AWOL from her job as a hospital administrator. Victor and Thomas never find out whether or not Arnold and Suzy had been lovers, but what they do find out is that Arnold, like Thomas, liked to tell stories. In fact, all Arnold ever did was talk about his son Victor, the boy he had abandoned in Idaho. Victor, who can hardly bear the news that his father abused and abandoned but still loved him, accuses Suzy of lying. You never knew my father at all, he declares, but Suzy, in an angry outburst, lets him know that she probably knew Arnold Joseph better than he did, that he told her what had really happened that Fourth of July all those years ago back in 1976.

At first, Victor has no way of knowing if Suzy is telling her the truth. Perhaps she’s lying. Perhaps Arnold Joseph was lying to her, but early the next morning, Victor starts up his father’s truck, grabs Thomas, and the two men leave Suzy without saying goodbye. On the way back to the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, they argue. Thomas tells Victor that Suzy was telling the truth, that he knew all along about who really started the fire that killed his parents. Their discussion so heated, with Thomas showing more and more ability to stand up to Victor, that it only ends when they run into another car that has skidded off the road onto the shoulder.

Victor, like his father, becomes something in between a hero and a scapegoat. He might have been able to avoid the car crash if he had been paying closer attention, but legally it was the other driver’s fault, and he did have the presence of mind to run and get an ambulance for a badly injured passenger. Victor and Thomas end up back on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, and their lives pick up exactly the way they were before the long bus trip. That absolutely nothing is resolved make the last 20 minutes of Smoke Signals both frustrating, and yet somehow expressive of the truth about life on the reservation. Victor has found out something he has always half suspected. Thomas has added another story to his collection of unpublished and half-baked narratives. That’s about it. While fiction can be liberating, Sherman Alexie seems to be saying, it’s usually just another form of self-medication through illusion.