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Song of the City

I want to call it a “song,” but it's really more of a hum, a drone. Less like a melody, and more like one of those eternal drone pieces by LaMonte Young. It's the sound that a city makes, but it's not something you hear in an ordinary way. It's a vibration that one's whole body can sense.

In the Sunday paper, a writer was documenting his interior journey, as his family was priced out of Brooklyn and moved to a suburb, up the Hudson River Valley. In passing, he noted, “I didn't really vibe with the city anymore.” What he was afraid he'd miss, was no longer there. The charge he'd felt was gone. And the process of attuning himself to his new environment was going better than anticipated.

The vibrant drone of a city isn't an abstraction, it's the sound and feel of all the things in the city. When the composition of those things changes enough, the feel of the city changes. Some have a kind of faith that New York City will always be some version of itself. It's core hum will always throw off roughly the same set of vibrations. The hum of a city can be an addictive experience. You can see the rush of the city in the eyes of young people strutting down the sidewalk mouthing the words, “New York City,” to the rest of their crew.

SoHo, the area south of Houston street, has been ruined for a long time. The corporations chased the artists out years ago. But walking around SoHo now, one can feel the pre-packaged, bland, corporate cool even more. The vibrations that drew these corporations to that part of town are almost entirely gone. Slivers of the older SoHo manage, somehow, to continue to exist. They emit strong beacons, that are nonetheless swallowed by the roar of commerce surrounding them.

It's as though the experience, the sound of the city, had been replaced with a store, offering to sell you the sound of the city. And not the actual sound of the city, that's gone, it's an “amazing simulation.”

 

Once You Can Fake Sincerity…

I hadn't been following the major recall of Volkswagen's cars very closely. Nearly a half million cars had been recalled, and I assumed it was some safety issue. When I sat down with my newspaper and cup of coffee this morning and read the details–I almost did a spit take.

Here's how the NY Times put it:

The Environmental Protection Agency accused the German automaker of using software to detect when the car is undergoing its periodic state emissions testing. Only during such tests are the cars' full emissions control systems turned on. During normal driving situations, the controls are turned off, allowing the cars to spew as much as 40 times as much pollution as allowed under the Clean Air Act, the E.P.A. said.

There's your techno-utopia for you. It's a variation on the old saying, “once you can fake sincerity, you've really got it made.”

 

Hamartia: American Anti-Poetics

At its point of origin, American poetry felt great anxiety about the influence of Europe. The roughness of early American life created the impression that the continent was devoid of grist for the mill of poetic thought. Dan Chiasson writing about Emerson in a recent “New Yorker” magazine in an essay entitled “Ecstasy of Influence,” gives us the lay of the poetic landscape.

Emerson was not the poet he had in mind in “The Poet.” In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville had prophesied an American poetry free of “legendary lays,” “old traditions,” “supernatural beings,” masks, and personifications. Americans let “petty” and “insipid” lives, “crowded with paltry interests”: their lives were “anti-poetic.” The only subject possible for an American poet was humankind; luckily, as Tocqueville wrote, “the poet needs no more.” Emerson, who spent most of his life cultivating the aura of an elder, called for “a brood of Titans” who would “run up the mountains of the West with the errand of genius and love.”

The poet Emerson was looking for, of course, was Walt Whitman.

Chiasson's thesis is that if Emerson had been a better poet, somehow more in touch with his grief, emotion and vision–he would not have been looking for someone like Whitman. And without Emerson, it's possible that Whitman, and American poetry, would not have emerged in the same way.

But to me, the interesting part of Tocqueville's prophecy of American poetry is that it implies an empty landscape filled only with emigres struggling for survival. America was a wild place where everything needed to be built from scratch. You can almost hear a voice say, “when we got here, there was nothing.”

In this telling, authentic American poetry started in complete blindness, unable to see the surrounding new world. Oddly, this blindness was expressed as a freedom from the cultural traditions, legends and folklore of old Europe. The anxiety of influence created a hysterical blindness that set the foundation for the virgin birth of Titans that could hammer out an American poetry that owed nothing to its predecessors.

Since that time, American poetry (and most other aspects of being an American) has been a long coming-to-terms with the continent that was here all along. In attempting to escape the influence of old Europe, the European ideal of the heroic individual in a strange land was fully embraced and internalized. The European influence was boiled down to a concentrated elixir, smuggled in through the back door, and eventually emerged as our harmartia. We stood at the edge of a continent, hit the reset button, and declared that a new world had been discovered.

 

The Quality of Smallness

This isn't addressed to you. It's addressed to a group of people like you. Or rather, it's addressed to the unconscious style they are encased in, and chase.

On the morning cable financial news channel, the hosts go on endlessly about how there's a change in consumer tastes. The reason that fast-food hamburger chains and soda pop companies are feeling a pain in their share price is that consumers are thinking “natural and organic.” Consumers are also starting to think about the supply chain. Where does this food come from? Under what regime of regulation and inspection was it produced? Did you say the fish I'm eating was imported from China?

It's a generational change, younger people weren't hooked by the “I'd like to buy the world a Coke” advertising blitz. They see fast food and soft drinks for what they are, and they have convenient alternatives. We should acknowledge that healthy alternatives have only recently achieved mass distribution. It's much easier to make this choice today. Or rather, it's easier to maintain the “fast-food mindset” and choose somewhat healthier foods.

The fast food companies are starting to abandon the use of antibiotics in the production of the chicken they serve. They're making other minor changes, as they chase the style that enchants the consumer these days. They're asking themselves how little the industrial food complex can change to take advantage of some of that “natural and organic” glow. What will take to get some of that appearance to rub off?

While there are a myriad of problems with the way the news media, companies and the regulators think about “natural and organic,” it's still a positive change of direction. More hopeful is that this change was initiated by consumers, not by companies. A change in consumer style is wrecking havoc on the business plans of the soft drink and casual/fast dining industries. It's a rare thing, so it's worth taking note.

I don't want to jinx it, but I'd like to make a request to that amorphous cloud of desire out there, that “style we chase.” I'd like you (I'm talking to you, amorphous cloud) to start associating “smaller” with better quality and more concentration. This would include things ranging from apples to onions, boneless skinless chicken breasts to movie theater popcorn sizes, McMansion houses to pizzas.

There's a natural large size that occurs rarely in the course of things. We should be surprised by this kind of largeness. Well, would you look at that. Look how big that thing is. Don't see that too often. Instead, large, extra-large and jumbo are the “normal” sizes. The way we produce this standard large size is by diluting and inflating whatever it is. While it appears to be more, it's actually less. It's vast quantities of weak tea.

So, here's the deal. Occasionally something changes in the way we perceive things. Suddenly we can plainly see that the product we're buying is pumped up with some diluting agent to make it look bigger. What was previously an attractive quality–bigger, no matter how it is achieved, is now a little repulsive.

The ultimate performance of taste is identifying the things you want to spit out. I want to make the case to your unconscious sense of style that “fake bigness” that attempts to appeal to your impulse toward gluttony, should be eschewed. Suddenly you have the sense that certain things are grotesquely big.

That is all.

 

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