Monthly Archives: June 2017

Reading the Landscape: 45

RIP Watchung, NJ Sears.

As unlikely as it was, your Legend of Watchung mural was part of what sparked my interest in history. I hope the town preserves it.

Writers Without Money

DSC05116-001The Sears Roebuck store at the foot of the Watchung Hills near Plainfield, NJ has one of the most interesting murals I’ve ever seen in a nondescript chain store. Beneath the painting is a plaque. The type is too small for a blog sized photo, but I’ll cut and paste the words from the town of Watchung’s website.

Around 1670, a group of Dutch settlers was traveling from the Amboys up an old Indian trail which is now Somerset Street. They were under the leadership of Captain Michaelson. The Watchung tribe of the Lenni-Lenape Indians was traveling the same trail for their summer trip to the ocean to fish and collect shells for wampum.

During the night the settlers were camped near what is now the center of the Borough. Deer Prong, an advance scout for Chief One Feather’s tribe, was shot when he surprised a sentry. During the…

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Wonder Woman (2017)


I went to see Wonder Woman, which was released last month with a great deal of critical praise, some controversy, and overwhelming success at the box office, mainly for one reason. I wanted to see a superhero movie set during the First World War, which, as the late Paul Fussell has argued, is the real birthplace of the modern world. Could a film based on a comic book actually address such a complex historical event? Or would the holocaust that took place between 1914 and 1918 merely serve as the backdrop to “lean in” feminism’s answer to Batman and Superman?

If it succeeds, and I think it does to some extent, it’s mainly by accident. In spite of an excellent performance by Gal Gadot, a physically charismatic actress who’s perfectly believable as Diana the daughter of Zeus, the writing struggles. The supporting cast and characters are underwritten and almost irrelevant. Steve Trevor, Diana’s love interest played by Chris Pine, is noble and self-sacrificing, but weak and dramatically flaccid. Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyta and her fellow Amazons are so badly developed, it’s often difficult to tell them apart. A very heavily fictionalized Erich Ludendorff, makes an effective super villain, but he has so little resemblance to the historical General Ludendorff they should have just called him “Adolf Hitler.”

Nevertheless, almost in spite of itself, Wonder Woman manages to dramatize the traumatic historical rupture that split the western world in half in 1914. The gorgeous Diana, a lithe, athletic six foot tall innocent born on a mythical, all female island which serves as the film’s prelapsarian Garden of Eden, travels to early Twentieth Century Europe with the above mentioned Steve Trevor, she’s so out of place her presence on screen simultaneously makes us look back to a mythical pagan past, and forward to 2017. Who is this modern young woman unencumbered not only by the restrictive clothing and female societal roles of London in 1914, but also by a sense of guilt or sin? We don’t go back to the Garden of Eden so much as the Garden of Eden springs forward in time to visit modern Europe. Diana has superhuman strength, but since we’re never quite sure exactly what kind of superpowers she has, it gives her an appealing sense of vulnerability. Will that shield protect her from that German machine gun? Will that German poison gas kill her? We share her desire to end war if only because we don’t want to see war kill her. She’s too beautiful to die.

Wonder Woman is banned in Lebanon because Gal Gadot is an Israeli who served in the IDF during their invasion of Lebanon in 2006. I can see why. If I were Lebanese I doubt I could stomach its talk of “peace” either, but I’m not Lebanese and have never passed through an Israeli checkpoint, so I could ignore the nationality of the lead actress and concentrate on her sensual mouth and taut, athletic body. I can’t imagine any straight man could hate this film but I suppose they exist. It’s just too bad Gadot didn’t have a better leading man. Chris Pine is a handsome actor, I suppose, but to me he looks a bit too much like a doughier version of the 1990s film star Brenden Fraser. Whatever happened to him anyway? Wonder Woman has something that most superhero films don’t, sex. The romance between Diana and Steve Trevor is believable, if underwritten, and the comic scene where she wants him to sleep next to him in the boat and he’s too much of a gentleman to oblige her is more classic Hollywood then 2010s feminism. If only Cary Grant had been available to play opposite Gadot.

Donald Trump is the Thing After Post-Modernism

What is to be made of the current collection of vernacular/folk “types” of people that frame the writing of the US cultural narrative? The “hipster”, the “troll”, the “social justice warrior”, the “alt-righter”, the “young professional”? Where do the archetypes come from? How do they drive the country’s current momentum toward postmodern authoritarianism?

Nearly all coverage of the hipster, despite never being able to confidently pin down just what the hipster is, has concurred that there is something sinister about the trend. What is the cultural undercurrent, the geist these critics were chasing?

A theory: What has made society so uncomfortable with the emergence of the so-called “hipster” is the predominant tone of irony; of insincerity; of a put on that is frequently described as “having nothing behind it”-but if the insincerity has nothing behind it, doesn’t it become its own truth? Isn’t a copy with no original simply a mislabeled original? And so shouldn’t the ironic eventually loop around into its own unironic self-appreciation? Or at least attempt to?

The “hipster” and the radicalization of conservatives developed along parallel tracks in response to the post-modern restructuring of society that followed the end of the post-war economic boom in the early-mid 1970s. When Robert Ashley dramatized the arrival of post-modernism in Perfect Lives as a story of people who rob a bank then bring the money back before anyone notices as various townies state their unease at a sinking feeling the money wasn’t there for some short time, was he consciously trying to invoke the collapse of the Bretton-Woods system? Was there a more post-modern event in the 20th century than the collapse of the Bretton-Woods system? Think about it-the signifier and signified, gold and cash, both functionally symbols despite the perceived “tangibility” of gold, legally divorced in a giant ceremony.

Despite the fact that gold is a placeholder for commodities and doesn’t offer much practical value besides as a conductor or tooth filling, the divorce troubled many. The money was there, but it wasn’t. Sort of. The success of Bitcoin among gold bugs despite its being even less traditionally tangible than cash speaks to the extent the appeal of gold was rooted in its being a symbol of limit and exclusivity. The symbol trauma of the end of the gold standard (one of many such traumas) has been one of the far right’s obsessions for decades now. Ayn Rand’s “A=A” satisfies both the conservative’s desire for a perception of solid reality and Baudrillard’s definition of hyperreality-the symbol (the written letter “A”) correlates to the symbol (the written letter “A”)-a closed loop of symbols.

If modernism was about insisting there’s an underlying particular meaning that can be codified, and post-modernism was about the dissolution/impossibility of meaning and the arbitrary quality of codes, then the thing after post-modernism is perhaps best dubbed Frankenstein Modernism-the attempt to reconstruct the comfort of fixed meaning from an environment that can’t allow for the comfort of a fixed meaning.

In an always-already doomed effort, the conservative ironically attempts to preserve the sanctity of “the real” by clutching desperately to the crudely symbolic-the flag, race, etc. Any conservative ideology must construct a sanctified past because its attempts to “conserve” the current status quo will always be undermined by the fact time goes forward and things change, up to and including the interpretation of the past-this dissonance has to be accounted for. Explanations and scapegoats are needed to maintain the conservative’s superficial sense of control over their surroundings.

In the conservative imagination this looks like the return to “sanity”, to the more comfortable prior status quo.  To the non-conservative, it looks like a strange and garish pastiche; the Hollywood reboot except real-even the players themselves seem to be operating, consciously or otherwise, on this logic-what else is to be made of the endless attempts by Trump and May to portray themselves as the return of Reagan and Thatcher?

What does this mean? The age of the remake is total; the age of high fidelity recorded media which has barely gone on for more than 150 years has swallowed society whole-there is no hope for a new thing or else why would there be such bitter and violent squabbles over the aesthetics of remakes, all the way from the Twitter harassment of Leslie Jones up through the selling of Donald Trump as fat Reagan.