Plenty

Even when

Louise Bourgeois: Self Portrait, 2007
there’s plenty wrong, there’s still plenty of the other, too. It just gets crowded out, like blue sky by rain. No need to blow sunshine, just a little pushback – like this digression on the graphic sensibility of Louise Bourgeois:

Born in Paris in 1911, Bourgeois suffered more than the usual number of grievous blows to the psyche, and her inner life stayed tightly wrapped around their memory. War, illness, sexual jealousy, mental instability were all things she witnessed in her first decade, and she never forgot—or forgave—any of them. As a teenager she learned that the attractive young Englishwoman who lived with the family as a tutor was also her father’s mistress, and this betrayal in particular was something she never got over. In addition, or perhaps in response, her mother was fragile and often ill, and young Louise became her companion at various spas and treatment centers; she was released from her caretaker role by her mother’s death when she was twenty-one.
After the loss of her mother, and encouraged by her charming and tyrannical father, Bourgeois started a small business selling works on paper, prints, and illustrated books out of a corner of the family’s tapestry workshop on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. To acquire her stock, she scoured the auction houses and book dealers, and she seems to have absorbed, almost overnight, the dominant graphic styles of the day. She had a particular affinity for Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as other artists who used the illustrated book form, which was then in vogue. Something about these livres d’artiste, as they were known—the way they combined text and pictures, and the way the image was printed from engraving or etching plates, the whole satisfying feel in the hand of beautifully made paper embossed with rectangles of finely drawn tones of gray—formed the template for how Bourgeois would think about her own art, on and off, for the rest of her life.

Have a template for how you think what matters most to you. Seems like all the advice anyone might need.

Image: Louise Borgeois: Self Portrait, 2007. MOMA

Wynema: A Child of the Forest

The illusion itself is a reasonable encapsulation of our fascination with Native Americans. And the unfortunate bigoted bullying that compels our childish attention to the sewer to and from which so much is presently flowing does also provide an opportunity to remind.
Despite even the earliest Experience of William Apess (1829) to reject the stereotyping of Indians, our wider ambivalence about native identity in the face of slaughter, genocide and Christianity (I know) has left most Americans on the wrong side of a deep divide. We need to learn so much more than our cartoon histories allow. So let’s do.

Creek writer Sophia Alice Callahan wrote the first novel written by a woman Native American called Wynema: A Child of the
Forest, which was published in 1891. The novel stresses how a white girl’s progressive adoption of an
identifiably Native American perspective enhances her relationship with a Native American girl named
Wynema.

By ensuring mutual comprehension and respect and, on a larger level, promoting intercultural
bonds they break down the barriers that their own cultures had enveloped them with. As the story
progresses, both the white girl named Genevieve and Wynema learn more about one another’s cultural
customs, and this cross-cultural appreciation fortifies their loving relationship.
While Wynema starts out as Genevieve’s student, she soon becomes her friend and her sister, which the novel suggests evolves not
simply with the passing of time but rather from Genevieve’s increasing understanding of and respect for Muscogee people. As
Genevieve becomes more assimilated into Muscogee life, she refers to Wynema specifically as “a friend” rather than as a pupil or
protege. Moreover, Genevieve’s acceptance of Wynema and Robin’s marriage and, thus, of Wynema as a sister coincides with a
profound shift in the way that Genevieve refers to the Muscogee. Whereas she once referred to them with the objectifying label of “this
people” (emphasis added), by the end of the story she tenderly deems them “my people” (emphasis added). The novel further
highlights that the Muscogee are “her people,” a sign of her acculturation, when they welcome her back after her return from a trip to
her mother’s home with all of the unbridled enthusiasm and “warmth” afforded to any member of the tribe, including Wynema.

Other Native American writers are listed at the link. A wonderful contemporary Native Canadian writer, Joseph Boyden, is the author of an amazing novel about World War I, Three Day Road.
Familiarize yourself. Don’t let a stupid bully hung up on a childish reference be the stand-in for anything in your consciousness. Reject the caricature, if not on behalf of its target than in solidarity with its origin.

Image of Sophia Alice Callahan via wikipedia.

Banning the ban bans


In 2006, I visited a friend in France on the occasion of his 50th birthday. His girlfriend had purchased a painting from a friend in the states and I recklessly volunteered to hand delivery the gift. Much merriment on a short, extravagant trip ensued. I had been to France several times by then so the merriment included a souvenir shopping spree at the local supermarket in _____: wine, pate, chocolate and of course, our beloved cassoulet. Only the best for my girl.
But after I paid for the items, I reached down under the checkout counter to get a plastic bag for my prizes and… there weren’t any. Did I mention it was 2006?

Last November, California voters passed Proposition 67, upholding a ban on single-use plastic bags passed by the state’s lawmakers in 2014. A year later, preliminary data from thousands of volunteers who collected trash during California’s Coastal Cleanup Day in September appears to show a remarkable drop in plastic bag refuse.

Compared to 2010, plastic bag litter has dropped by around 72 percent. Plastic bags now account for less than 1.5 percent of all litter, rather than nearly 10 percent. In Monterey County south of San Francisco, volunteers found only 43 plastic bags during the clean-up, compared to just under 2,500 in 2010.

The coastal cleanup, which covered some 1,800 miles across the state, had already shown a significant decrease in plastic bags thanks to educational efforts and local bans, and 2017 builds on that trend. In 2010, plastic bags came in third behind cigarette butts and fast food packaging as most frequently littered items, according to data from Coastal Cleanup Day. Now they appear to have fallen out of the top ten most littered items.

“For decades, plastic bags were one of the most common items collected during the annual California coastal cleanup,” said John Laird, California Secretary for Natural Resources, in a statement regarding the news. “This year, as California continues to transition to reusable bags, we are seeing a substantial decline in plastic grocery bag litter on beaches, rivers and parkways.”

As the article also documents, the rise of plastic bag bans in localities across the country has led to an commensurate rise in bans on plastic bags bans. Pre-emptive war against positive environmental trends and we are [still] so terribly petty and stupid. But good for California and its beaches. Reminds me of love notes, ibuprofen and white vinegar: stuff that actually works!

No Escape

Imagine there’s a video game, where the player must decide which tools to use to dig themselves out a hole without acknowledging that holes exist OR that the player is trapped in one and hence needs the tools. The point of the game (beyond your apparent need to never face 30 contiguous seconds of not looking at your phone) is to let players experience what it feels like to be a member of the House Science Committee:

Despite this reputation, the environment and energy subcommittees called four honest-to-God climate scientists to testify about one of the most controversial solutions to climate change: geoengineering. These technofixes, which could reflect sun back into space or draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, all with the intent to cool the planet, were front and center. Committee members were actually eager to hear about it and where the federal government could spend to help prop up research.

There was just one tiny problem: None of the Republicans could bring themselves to acknowledge that carbon dioxide is the root cause of climate change. Nor could they bring up that reducing carbon emissions is a way more proven and cost-effective avenue to address climate change. It was at once comical and damn terrifying.

Level three is when comical and damn terrifying meld into one confused emotion. Welcome to level three.

The hazards of Political Art [part MCMXII]


Even for the most accomplished of smart ass, wise guy, artist provocateurs, political art is dicey. Art can be political. But if it is, it better also be very good.
So… Banksy has a hotel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem called Walled Off. Okay. And he threw a street party to mock-celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration:

People from the nearby Aida refugee camp said afterwards they objected to the way the event had used Palestinian children as the centrepiece of the performance. “We came because we didn’t like the use of the British flags or the way they were using Palestinian children,” said Munther Amira, a prominent activist from Aida who planted a large Palestinian flag in the middle of a cake.

Banksy’s rendering of a British street party was intended to satirise other celebrations, including the dinner on Thursday, at which guests will include the British prime minister, Theresa May, and her Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Several dozen Palestinian children had been invited to the event, which included scorched bunting and flags, cakes and helmets painted with union flags set at a table beneath the looming concrete separation wall.
The event also included the unveiling of a new work by Banksy, etched into the concrete of the wall: a mock apology from Queen Elizabeth II to the Palestinians reading “Er … sorry”.

The Balfour declaration was the result of discussions between British Zionist leaders seeking political recognition of their goals for Jewish statehood and British politicians embroiled in the first world war.

Whoever Banksy is, his instinct to bring attention to Palestinian suffering is well-chosen but also lousy with pitfalls. Once any artist begins to make statements of expression using actual people, their stories, histories and emotions, they are using much more than words, paint, film or movement. I’m not convinced that it can’t or should not be done – it has and will again. But again: err first on the side of excellence. Good work is easily marginalized if it can be dismissed as manipulative self-promotion.

Tech Fascination Capture


A somewhat cheeky line connects the many points along what I’ll call our Tech Fascination Capture. Describing that line can be tricky, but that’s what blogs are for, so here goes.

Interpretive problems that computers cannot solve, or rather those they can solve that aren’t the important ones, are at the center of a cognitive gap that is only increasing – and doing so fueled by our gaze and awe. We can’t seem to figure out why or how Russian troll farms might have swayed the most recent U.S. presidential election, if not others. Will artificial intelligence and the occupations lost to robots be good/a net value/desired? Self-driving cars – will we get there safely?

Much of this mystery is obscured by the need for a single answer to any one question, of course. But we are also frightened by the prospect of a single answer to multiple questions. This fear is a sort of disbelief itself, based on our own uncertainty about what we know from what we’ve learned, plus this more recent tendency to fall back on what everyone knows to be true. I’m actually unsure about the origin of that dynamic, though I am unafraid to speculate.

But, one thing is certain (and demanding of emphatic, if parenthetical, punctuation!): the answers lie in the questions themselves.

On social media misinformation, we don’t seem to want to contemplate the very top-level tradeoff: is the ability to connect with people worth the price of manipulation? That is, transmission of information and disinformation flow through the same tube – whether we believe one is sacred and the other profanely immoral or not is of not consequence whatsoever. There is one tube/portal; these are its uses; do you want to play?

Will robots kick us to the curb and take our places? Who programs what robots can do? What will machine learning do about the should question? Is there such a thing as robot creativity, outside of MFA programs, that is?

Self-driving cars: so few startups and new products have anything to do with actual technology anymore that this one – which does – should (ha!) be attached with a free-rider proviso. The billions of dollars and pixels that accrue to its pursuit all ignore the same problem with driverless cars: unanticipated events. If a couple, holding hands, is jay walking and a young mother is in the crosswalk with her carriage on the same section of a street simultaneously, who gets run over? It all happens in an instant, plus bikes, buses, other cars (are there bad self-drivers?), weather, darkness… the idea that these variables can be solved is an answer to a solution, not a problem.

This is not to suggest understanding our capture is simple. But let’s think about it.

A Nobel gesture

Congratulations to Richard Thaler on his 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics. The professor took some hardly veiled shots at the Preznit, but also offered some “gee, I just can’t figure it” about the stock market:

“His ratio of certitude to knowledge is nearing record highs,” Thaler said on Bloomberg Radio with Tom Keene and David Gura. “We all need a lot of humility, and especially about the economy.”
Thaler also expressed surprise that the stock market is returning good performance with few disruptions during what he sees as uncertain political times. Congress is grappling with a tax reform proposal, but infighting among Republicans has called into question whether a package will ultimately pass.

“Who would have thunk that the stock market would just continue to go up” during “what has to be the most uncertain times of my lifetime,” Thaler said. “Surely it can’t be based on the certitude that there will be a massive tax cut, given the seeming inability of the Republican Congress to get their act together. So I don’t know where it’s coming from.”

Well, who knows? If you read PK, he seems clear headed about it, if full of Robert Hughes allusions. But how about this: Maybe the indices keep going up, despite the uncertainty and turmoil, because as a set of money-making wagers, they actually feed on that level of chaos. Maybe as a ruse, or cover, for the Ponzi nature of the games being plied and played. The ‘it’s all so complex and confusing, who knows how it works’ absolutely accrues to the benefit of some. See the bankster/fraudsters of 2008 and how they have ascended to far more dizzying heights in the time since, and the extent to which questions about all this convenient success equal nothing more than conspiracy theories. They don’t even bother with calling people Commies anymore.
Quite a trick.

“I’m in love with that song.”


Finally caught the awesome Big Star documentary the other night, even though I was and remain a Replacements fan and have loved their song “Alex Chilton” for many moons; know some of the people involved with the Big Star reunions; and have been being yelled at by friends to watch the documentary for years. Sometimes I’m slow. It’s okay.
But it’s so good – most everything about Chilton and Memphis, but also the stuff about guitarist Chris Bell is just so weird.

By the mid-1960s, Memphis was teeming with teenage musicians captivated by their hometown’s role in birthing rock and roll, then the most dominant cultural expression of the era. Chilton had acquired no small amount of musical sophistication and talent just by virtue of parental osmosis. Well, that and he had a somewhat gimmicky ability to sing like soul-singers much darker and older than an upper-middle class white kid had any right to do. After a high school talent competition, Chilton was asked to join a local group of older musicians that eventually came to be called The Box Tops. Like Big Star, that name doesn’t mean much beyond music obsessives, but the band’s first single sold a few million copies and remains one of the most recognizable hits of the sixties. When “The Letter” hit number one, Chilton was just 16 years old.

The Box Tops churned out a number of minor hits after that, and Chilton, who had dropped out of school, went on tour with the band and partook in the usual rock and roll carousing. He partied with The Doors, and with The Box Tops’ brief career winding down, he even moved out to California to live with Brian and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. (It was there that he once crashed on the same couch with Charles Manson.) With The Box Tops breaking up, he largely abandoned the pursuit of fame. He taught himself to play guitar, worked on writing his own songs, and moved to New York where he became a fixture on the Greenwich Village folk scene. Along the way he got married, had a child, and divorced not long after. After briefly connecting with Chris Bell, a visionary musician from his teenage days in Memphis, Chilton moved back home to join his band. Big Star recorded and released their first album, the ironically titled #1 Record.

All this happened by the time he was 21. At an age when most of us were still trying to decide what we were going to do with our lives, Chilton had lit the fuse on a bomb that’s still sending shockwaves through pop music. But by the time we get to Chilton’s involvement with Big Star, well, here’s where George-Warren’s book, with its exhaustive details and an impressive authorial command, departs from the traditional rock and roll narrative. (And I do mean exhaustive—the book’s opening chapter traces the Chilton family history back to 11th century Normandy. If you want to know which houseguest Chilton’s mother showed how to make homemade mayonnaise, well, it’s all in here.)

Here’s a heavily abbreviated version of what happened: After a too brief and brilliant career, Big Star simply collapsed. Despite some positive critical notices, they remained largely unknown for a decade afterwards. Big Star’s music was so undeniably good that, over time, critical consensus simply reached critical mass. The resurrection of Big Star in the 1980s was a heartening and surprising event that’s almost unique in rock history.

Anyway… Here’s to tangents, slowness, weird great music, friends.

The outer edges fuel the storm


Though tropical cyclones can also gain strength over land, we have seen and experienced elections decided at the outer bounds of rationality, not to mention national borders. And the same goes for scandals. When the two are one and the same, we reach a distinct crossing over into all manner of non-metaphorical winds, downed trees, powerlessness, looting even.
Still it’s important to realize that the fundamental strength of the storm comes from good old warm water in open ocean, just as the current, inspired presidenting comes from heartland voters and good christians everywhere. Sure, climate change and the Russians probably had something to do with the current disasters. But really they were only helping fuel the storm.

Simply Amazing Tools

So fB is headed for a showdown with the Mueller investigation, or at least the inauguration of a new transparency czar for the social media advertising publishing juggernaut. For all their community building and connectingness of a bringing a world closer togetherness(tm), it’s still just a website with a business model – and that business model is your attention:

Facebook is so accustomed to treating its ‘internal policies’ as though they were something like laws that they appear to have a sort of blind spot that prevents them from seeing how ridiculous their resistance sounds. To use the cliche, it feels like a real shark jumping moment. As someone recently observed, Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ are crafted to create the appearance of civic concerns for privacy, free speech, and other similar concerns. But they’re actually just a business model. Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ amount to a kind of Stepford Wives version of civic liberalism and speech and privacy rights, the outward form of the things preserved while the innards have been gutted and replaced by something entirely different, an aggressive and totalizing business model which in many ways turns these norms and values on their heads. More to the point, most people have the experience of Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ being meaningless in terms of protecting their speech or privacy or whatever as soon as they bump up against Facebook’s business model.

The whole concept of ‘paid social’ is far more preposterous than anyone seems willing to admit. If you/they have created the perfect mechanism for connecting people with (only) the stories and issues they care most about, you/they have also created a tool for manipulation that is so precisely anonymous and disfiguring that it can, has and will again be used to undermine governments with very little actual effort beyond basic IT competence and price of a starter home in the ‘burbs. The naiveté of the hubris is just staggering, as are the pleas of innocence and well-meaning. Deciding that you will not make any editorial decisions is disingenuous – but also an editorial decision!
We are our own enemies, and our willingness to be manipulated and use such a ‘free’ product is a tale that is being told to us, right before our eyes, to which we only insist on contributing further rationales.
Also, Orwell was a piker.