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TV Is Better Without People, and Other News

July 28, 2016 | by

A still from How It’s Made.

  • James Alan McPherson, the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, has died at seventy-two. An obituary in the New York Times quotes his memoir, Going Up to Atlanta, in which he writes about reading comics at the library in Savannah, Georgia: “At first the words, without pictures, were a mystery … But then, suddenly, they all began to march across the page. They gave up their secret meanings, spoke of other worlds, made me know that pain was a part of other peoples’ lives. After a while, I could read faster and faster and faster. After a while, I no longer believed in the world in which I lived.”
  • If we watch TV mainly as an exercise in escapism, then a show devoid of people—or even trace elements of the anthropomorphic—would offer the greatest escape of all. We’re in luck, because there’s How It’s Made, a half-hour paean to manufacturing that is, as Alexandra Kleeman writes, closer to full-on post-human than anything on television: “The show begins to take on a post-­apocalyptic flavor. Its images of manufacturing, you realize, are oddly depopulated … Humans are so scarce, in fact, in this world of throbbing, gleaming machines that when part of one comes into view, the first reaction is not recognition but confusion. ‘What is that pink thing?’ you might ask yourself, before realizing that it is a hand. Against the swift exactitude and raw power of machinery, the human anatomy—with its soft, squishy shapes and nerve-riddled interior—looks vulnerable at best.”
  • And why not surrender to the conveyer belts? There is much to escape from in this world, especially as an enclave of elite technocrats begin to rebuild it from the ground up, finding ever more novel ways of infantilizing us in their quest to monetize. “I have been obsessed with figuring out why I hate the Seamless ads in the New York City subway,” Jesse Barron writes. “ ‘Welcome to New York,’ one reads. ‘The role of your mom will be played by us’ … We’re in the middle of a decade of post-dignity design, whose dogma is cuteness. One explanation would be geopolitical: when the perception of instability is elevated, we seek the safety of naptime aesthetics … We cannot find food on our own, or choose a restaurant, or settle a tiny debt. Where that dependency feels unseemly in the context of independent adult life, it feels appropriate if the user’s position remains childlike, and the childlikeness makes sense when you consider that Yelp depends on us to write reviews, and therefore must, like a fun mom, make chores feel fun, too.”
  • Maybe you’d been hoping that literature could offer some solace from all this. Should you attempt to write in your effort to flee from despair, proceed with extreme caution: there is only more suffering ahead. Robert Fay writes, “One occasionally glimpses the true existential cost of the so-called ‘writer’s life,’ where writing is both an act of self-abnegation—with all of its consequent anxieties—as well as a struggle against such a personalized nihilism … The daily act of sitting alone for hours and purposely conjuring up emotions and disturbing memories—precisely the kinds of things people use Percocet, vodka, food, and Netflix to forget—serves as the ideal petri dish for anxiety.”
  • Might as well bookend this one with obituaries. The cartoonist Jack Davis—known for the defining style he brought MAD Magazine, where he was one of “the Usual Gang of Idiots”—has died at ninety-one. “Davis’s final cover for the magazine came in 1995—a picture of magazine-mascot Neuman plunging radio-presenter Howard Stern in a toilet bowl, which the spokesman said ‘remains a MAD classic.’ ”

Not That New York Review, and Other News

July 27, 2016 | by

One of the underground papers from the exhibition “Realize Your Desires.”

  • To all the rich folks shopping for Common Projects sneakers and neon signs: your “minimalist” aesthetic isn’t the latest iteration of an artistic philosophy. It’s just consumer culture. As Kyle Chayka writes, “Despite its connotations of absence, ‘minimalism’ has been popping up everywhere lately, like a bright algae bloom in the murk of postrecession America … So long as it’s stylishly austere, it seems, it’s minimalist. Part pop philosophy and part aesthetic, minimalism presents a cure-all for a certain sense of capitalist overindulgence. Maybe we have a hangover from pre-recession excess—McMansions, S.U.V.s, neon cocktails, fusion cuisine—and minimalism is the salutary tonic. Or perhaps it’s a method of coping with recession-induced austerity, a collective spiritual and cultural cleanse because we’ve been forced to consume less anyway. But as an outgrowth of a peculiarly American (that is to say, paradoxical and self-defeating) brand of Puritanical asceticism, this new minimalist lifestyle always seems to end in enabling new modes of consumption, a veritable excess of less. It’s not really minimal at all.”
  • From Melville to Wallace, most of your prototypical “office novelists” are dudes, and their takes on bureaucracy are concerned less with work than with minute social shifts in hierarchy and class. Office novels by women have a different agenda, Lydia Kiesling writes: “The last two decades have seen a boom in workplace novels written by and mostly marketed to women … These books provide mapping, contextualizing, and rich illustration of women’s working lives. They form a kind of counter-tradition of office literature, dealing with the same bureaucracies and white-collar doldrums that have inspired male novelists but reflecting the particular challenges and preoccupations of women in the workforce … These novels often arrive at the same place: a woman who can’t cope with the demands of family and modern work finds a more flexible arrangement, usually capitalizing on her latent creative or entrepreneurial spirit.”
  • The Chilean writer Roberto Merino remembers his early experiences with television: “A Sunday session of Tugar, tugar, the dance program which Baila domingo later replaced, was a protracted sexual torment. Ah, what ochre sundowns were whiled away in fantasies of oneself waiting outside the Manuel Plaza gymnasium for the most ravishing of the contestants before sauntering off with a careless arm around her, drinking in that longed-for blend of odors: the scent my mother would have disdained as ‘cheap,’ the sweat, the cigarette smoke infused into the denim jacket, the fading sweetness of Adams or Bazooka chewing gum in the brazen kisses.”

Steer Clear of the Hotel Know-It-All, and Other News

July 26, 2016 | by

It’s this easy!

  • I’m tired all the time, which is why I’m so popular. Reviewing Anna Katharina Schaffner’s new Exhaustion: A History, Hannah Rosefield unpacks the durable notion of exhaustion as a status symbol: “Many critics, even as they call for a cure, frame exhaustion as a mark of distinction. This idea dates back at least to Aristotle. ‘Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry or the arts are melancholic?’ he wonders in Problemata … The associations of exhaustion with prestige have crystallized in the form of burnout. First used in the 1970s to describe exhaustion suffered by workers in the social sector, burnout was characterized by increased cynicism and apathy, and a decreased sense of personal accomplishment. Since then, its application has widened to include all worn down, overburdened workers, especially in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, where burnout is a subject of regular media debate. Burnout, caused by workplace conditions rather than by a worker’s mental and physical composition, is depression’s more palatable, more prestigious cousin.”
  • I’d long assumed that one could never enter one’s average house cat in a pageant. Only the purebreds could know the thrill of the blue ribbon, I thought. The calicos and tabbies of this earth were doomed to the mundane. But I was wrong, as Omar Mouallem taught me: “I got over the stench of piss at the Edmonton Cat Show pretty quickly. It’s not so much my nostrils that adjusted but my eyes, to rows and rows of beautiful creatures. Plump British shorthairs smiled in their sleep and regal sphynxes owned their ugly … [The International Cat Association] has been showing and awarding titles to non-purebred domestic cats—even the maligned black ones—since its 1973 beginnings. It’s a stark contrast to the practices of the 110-year-old Cat Fanciers’ Association, which for decades didn’t even bother hosting the category. The association now emphasizes it like TICA, and in the last three years finally started giving non-purebred cats Grand Championship titles equal to pedigrees. The hope is that it will curb the cat fancy world’s declining entries and revenues.”
  • Today in old advice that’s still good advice: If you, an aspiring artist, want to take the road to success, don’t stop off at the Hotel Know It All, the Mutual Admiration Society, or the Always Right Club. Tunnel through Lack of Preparation Mountain and for God’s sake watch your step around the Holes of Illiteracy and Conceit. A 1913 allegorical map called the Road to Success “turns the figurative journey towards artistic triumph into a cartographic depiction of an actual climb towards victory … Taking shortcuts won’t get you anywhere except to the bottom of the River of Failure, which threatens to sweep away anyone who’s not up to the challenge of putting in hard work. And don’t just blow hot air, or you’ll end up in the clouds.”
  • Here’s the time-tested way to gin up your crummy sci-fi flick: pretend it’s a western. In Star Trek Beyond, writes Richard Brody, “the words Republic and Federation are intoned like mantras to position the mission in quasi-American terms; the name Yorktown links the space combat of Star Trek Beyond to the existential, the primordial, and the revolutionary—the fight to retain independence in the face of a force that would snap it back in, engulf it in a dictatorial order, and milk it as a mere source of sustenance … The self-celebration of a legacy property’s sequel has rarely been framed in such starkly civic terms: the link between the historical continuity of the American federation and the personal continuity of family is the cultural continuity of Star Trek and pop music—and, for that matter, of classic Hollywood. Buy a ticket, keep America safe and free.”

Photograph in C#, and Other News

July 25, 2016 | by

Jeff Louviere and Vanessa Brown, Photograph in C#, 48" x 48". Image via Nautilus

  • Wherever there are Freudian dynamics afoot—whenever latent sexual tension and homosocial tendencies take the national stage—there you’ll find our country’s fan-fiction writers doing their best work. You can only imagine, then, the hay they’ve made of the 2016 election. Talia Lavin spoke to one especially fecund writer who goes by Chuck Tingle: “After the Brexit vote, Tingle published ‘Pounded by the Pound: Turned Gay by the Socioeconomic Implications of Britain Leaving the European Union.’ Another recent Tingle story is about a character he calls Domald Tromp. In Tingle’s fictional universe, Tromp is the presumptive Republican nominee—although, unlike Donald J. Trump, Tromp has faked his birth certificate and is really a native of Scotland. More specifically, he is the Loch Ness monster in disguise. (‘There is something incredible about being taken by such a strong, patriotic beast, even if he is really from Scotland,’ the narrator, a twenty-two-year-old journalist, thinks at one point.)”
  • When politicians aren’t behaving like fictional characters or remaking the world in a kind of proto-fictional mold, they do, unfortunately, attempt to write nonfiction. Here, too, they are often thwarted. Take the case of Boris Johnson, Brexit architect and all-around turd—the Guardian reports that his “widely anticipated biography of Shakespeare is on ice, indefinitely. Originally scheduled for release this October—rather late for the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death back in April—Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius ‘will not be published for the foreseeable future,’ says its publisher, Hodder & Stoughton … Among professional Shakespeareans—think the conspirators in Julius Caesar, only with sharper daggers—there has been a mixture of glee and remorse. On the one hand, many thought the biography wasn’t likely to be very good. On the other, everyone would have had a great deal of fun saying so. Even before the announcement, speculation was rife that not a word had actually been written, and that several prominent academics had been begged for last-minute assistance.”
  • Now that I’ve got you in a pessimistic frame of mind: the early photos in a new survey at the Whitney Museum, “Danny Lyon: Message to the Future,” remind of all varieties of sociopolitical turmoil. As Max Nelson writes, “Lyon has always taken risks to earn the status of sympathetic insider in the communities he shoots. The photographs he took across the South in his early twenties were forceful enough visions of outrage and disgust—a group of young black women languishing in the Leesburg stockade; a protestor splayed out in midair as the object of a violent tug-of-war contest between an onlooker and a pack of riot police—that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) soon made Lyon their staff photographer … Lyon would never align himself so completely with another group’s mission and goals, but most of his subsequent projects have involved a similar degree of intense, life-consuming commitment. To make The Bikeriders (1968), the first book of photographs for which he had sole credit, he spent a year as a member of the Chicago Outlaws; for Conversations with the Dead (1971), his third book, he lived in Texas for still longer taking pictures in the state’s prisons.”
  • Maybe the only solace is in art without people. Resonantia, a series of portraits last year by the artists Jeff Louviere and Vanessa Brown, finds beauty in cymatics—the patterns produced by sound waves in physical objects. “Louviere was struck by the idea that each note produces a particular shape in liquid. To investigate these patterns, he rigged up a contraption involving a frequency generator on his laptop, a rebuilt amp with a speaker pointing upward into a plastic vitrine filled with ink-black water, and a guitar tuner. Louviere vibrated the water with the amp by adjusting the generator’s frequency … He used his tuner to seek out the frequency of each of the twelve notes—A, B, C through G, plus the five halftones. While Louviere dialed the knobs, Brown stood on a ladder above the contraption illuminating the water with a ring light, her camera in hand. When the tuner registered a note—reading 220 hertz, the frequency that produces an A, for instance—Louviere stopped adjusting. As each note’s unique vibration induced its characteristic pattern into the water, Brown captured it with her camera. The pair worked together to obtain a ‘portrait’ of each of the twelve notes.”

A Big Glooby Blob of Sad Blufush, and Other News

July 22, 2016 | by

Kerouac photographed by John Cohen, 1959. Image via The Spectator.

  • Remember that time Henry James met Winston Churchill? The encounter took place in December, 1914, when Churchill was forty years old and James, his elder by three decades, was still a year from the stroke that would have him signing letters as Napoleon to arrange for “the decoration of certain apartments and palaces ... of the Louvre and the Tuileries.” According to Louis Menand, “Churchill had no idea who James was, found him tedious, and behaved crudely.” After the event, James told his host, Violet Bonham Carter—a friend of Churchill, daughter of the prime minister, and grandmother of Helena—that the “interesting” experience had “brought home to me, very forcibly and vividly … the limitations by which men of genius … purchase their ascendancy … over mankind.”
  • In 1931, during what he described as his wilderness years, Churchill launched an American speaking tour in an effort to make back the money he’d lost in the stock-market crash two years earlier. While crossing Fifth Avenue in New York, Churchill looked the wrong way for traffic and was hit by a taxi, an accident he later wrote up as “My New York Misadventure,” which essay he sold to the Daily Mail for twenty-five hundred dollars. (Yes: about forty thousand dollars in today’s money.) Earlier that year, some three hundred and fifty miles from the site of Churchill’s lucrative debilitation, the hard-bop jazz pianist Conrad Yeatis “Sonny” Clark was born in a Pennsylvania coal patch. Clark’s career was often torturous, in no small part thanks to the heroin addiction that killed him in 1963. But he found a wide following in Japan, and, as Sam Stephenson wrote for the Daily in 2011, “no jazz pianist was more drenched in minor blues” than he was. Clark would have been eighty-five yesterday.
  • Clark released Sonny’s Crib, with John Coltrane on the tenor saxophone, in 1957, the same year Jack Kerouac published On the Road. For Geoff Dyer, “there has never been a better-looking male writer. The Kerouac of the 1950s—athletic, muscular forearms emerging from plaid shirt, dark hair roughly quiffed—could step into a bar in Brooklyn today and he’d still look hip.” But Kerouac’s time at the top was brief: “From the moment his achievement was recognized his talent was in decline. He became imprisoned by the method of composition—spontaneous prose—that had liberated him. The breakthrough that enabled him to become a great writer condemned him to often being a pretty terrible one. Sinking into alcoholism, living with his mum in Florida and Massachusetts, he became ‘a big glooby blob of sad blufush.’ ”
  • Kerouac’s father, a French Canadian printer, died of stomach cancer in 1946, the same year a former domestic servant from Scotland gave birth to the man who last night became the Republican Party’s official candidate for president of the United States. About that last fact you may read a word or two today, but in the midst of the frenzy let us not forget the welcome counsel of Julian Barnes, namely that “this has been a rich time to explore nineteenth-century Scandinavian painting.” A new show at the Fondation Custodia, in Paris, includes paintings by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, a Danish painter who studied under Jacques-Louis David. “The Paris show,” Barnes says, reveals Eckersberg “to be always securely himself, yet frequently on the move.”

Tension Minus the Genitals, and Other News

July 21, 2016 | by

From the cover of Exquisite Masochism.

  • If there exists, as Susan Sontag once insisted, a “terrible, mean American resentment toward a writer who tries to do many things,” nobody seems to have warned John Gruen. Born in France, in 1926, Gruen (né Jonas Grunberg) fled Hitler and then Mussolini before landing in New York in 1939, where he learned English by watching movies. Gruen, who died on Tuesday, spent his seventysomething years on this continent as a book buyer at Brentano’s, a publicity director at Grove Press, a composer, a photographer, and, in his words, a “writer, critic, journalist, bon vivant, gadfly, busybody, father, husband, queer, neurotic workaholic,” as well as a “handmaiden to the stars, reveler in reflected glory and needy intimate of the super-famous.” In a 2008 interview, he told Time Out: “One of the big problems is that I never really settled on one thing ... I kept them all going, like a juggler, but none of them really took hold in a way that would catapult me as this one creature.” At the same time, he said, “As Miss Piaf sang, ‘Je ne regrette rien.’ ”
  • I’ll claim any person who dies with “Renaissance Man” in the headline of his obituary as an instant culture hero. But after learning that Charles Dickens turned his deceased cat into a letter opener, I'm beginning to feel a terrible, mean American resentment toward artists who try to make their dead pets do too many things. I can believe, for instance, that Le Corbusier loved his schnauzer Pinceau, just as I can believe that he loved Cervantes’s Don Quixote with all his heart. What I cannot bring myself to believe is that the adequate response to both loves was to bind the latter book in the former’s tanned and hairy hide. And yet.
  • But what do I know? Love is strange like that. Sex is even stranger, especially in Victorian novels, where it often isn’t sex at all. In her new book, Exquisite Masochism, Claire Jarvis suggests that for many of the fictional characters who had the bad luck to be stuck in a Victorian marriage plot, “withholding sex … is a perverse way of having it. In a novelistic milieu where illegitimacy or adultery can be the motives for serious tragedy, a fully developed sexual life presents a frightening threat. By describing erotic life in ways that avoid depicting sexual intercourse in favor of nongenital tension or intensity, novelists can render the frisson of sexual desire without the attendant plot risks.”
  • Andrew O’Hagan, reporting from the Department of Overlaps, finds a shared lesson in Joyce’s Ulysses and The People vs. O.J. Simpson: “the tendency of reality to give way to the fiction-maker’s abuse.” And yet, he notes, that abuse is also the guarantee of a certain immortality (what was that about exquisite masochism?), which helps explain why “Dubliners lining up at Sylvia Beach’s shop in Paris in 1922 were desperate to see if they’d been included, or, Holy Mother of God, left out ... In a way, Ulysses is like the greatest ever newspaper—all that was fit and unfit to print in one day—and its abundance depends on the idea that nobody is nothing.”
  • If nobody is nothing, does that mean that everybody is something? And if so, what? Or better yet: Who? At New York, Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger visit Whoville, a social-media limbo that often appears more insubstantial than the one Dante devised in the fourth canto of the Inferno: “Now that we’ve all been thrown together on—and get our news from—enormous social platforms with seamless, instantaneous sharing, it’s more likely than ever that we’ll be confronted with stories about people who sound made up. The traditional A-list-to-D-list hierarchy no longer makes sense when people whose names you’ve never heard before are trending on a social networks with hundreds of millions of users. Instead, the subjects of gossip coverage can be divided into two categories: Whos (as in: *furrows brow* Who?) and Thems (as in: ‘Oh, them.’)”