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Koyaanisqatsi

“I’m no preacher but I can tell you this – the lives that people lead are driving them crazy and their insanity comes out in the way they drive.”

Charles Bukowski
Factotum (1975)

GIF from Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

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On Gun Control

Ad for toy machine gun, Little Folks Magazine, December 1918

Nobody really believes [the right to bear arms is] about maintaining a militia. It’s about having possession of a tool that makes a person feel powerful nearly to the point of exaltation. …I am not saying that people who love guns inordinately are unstable; I am saying that a gun is the most powerful device there is to accessorize the ego.

Alec Wilkinson
The Dark Presence of Guns
The New Yorker, 24 December 2012

Illustration from Little Folks Magazine, December 1918

Related: The Cultural Fight for Guns
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The Way Love Used to Be

Art by Frans Mensink: Modern Dating (2012)

INTERVIEWER: Hey Frank. In Robot & Frank you play a forgetful retired cat burglar whose kids hire him a home-help robot. Are you sceptical about tech?

FRANK LANGELLA: It’s generational. Younger people see it as another means to communicate and I just don’t agree. I think walking up to a pretty girl at a party and saying: “How are you? I’d like to take you for a cup of coffee,” is much more exciting than: “Hey, I saw you last night at the whatever. Text me.” Tech is giving people the opportunity to protect themselves from just saying: “Thank you very much but I don’t like your looks and I don’t want to go out with you.”

So it makes people less courageous?

Also more protective. Too many people sit in front of that [Langella taps my dictaphone. But he means computers.] and figure out what to do. Pornography is enormously popular on technological machines because people can just go into their own fantasy world.

Where do you see that taking humanity?

Not at all to a good place. It risks people having less and less of a sense of being vulnerable. And, when that happens, a certain amount of dignity goes and when dignity goes dishonourable behaviour begins. Because you just don’t think you’re worth it. Or you just don’t think you should bother. “What do I care about this person? I’m not looking into anybody’s eyes; I’m seeing little black dots on the screen.”

So it makes us less compassionate?

Absolutely. I really would much rather have a fight with you in person than do it on a computer screen. And I’d rather make love to a woman in reality than some game on a machine. I’d rather disagree, agree, laugh, cry in person. One of my relatives is 31 and she’s been living with a guy for a long time. I said: “Did you date?” and she looked at me like I was crazy. It doesn’t work that way any more.

Why is that terrible?

Because I cannot tell you the fun I had picking out a flower or a little sweet thing and writing a note and leaving it at a girl’s door. That private sense of: “You’re someone I would like to spend time with”, as opposed to I winnowed you out in a group of a lot of other people. There’s something about that makes you feel good. When a person decides. It’s nice when people call or you get an invitation to dinner, even if it’s nothing to do with romance.

Yet you’re so much in the minority…

No one wants to expose themselves any more; no one wants to risk rejection. You never did anyway. When I was your age it was terrifying to me if someone would say no to my advance. But I did it. I managed somehow. Nowadays there’s so many ways you can protect yourself from the direct question. “I’ll get drunk enough to take that person to bed and then the next day I’ll decide if we like each other.” That went on in my generation but there was still not so many tools to prevent intimacy. I’m an older guy now and I work with a lot of young actors and they all talk to me about their lives and so many of my young friends fall crazy for each other, go to bed and then within a couple of days they’re lying in bed and each is texting. God, when I was a young man when you got into bed you were there for years. Your relationship grew. You lusted for each other, you loved each other, you were interested in each other. In the morning you made each other breakfast, all the natural courtship things. There’s a new show in America called Girls which is all about: “Let’s get the business done. Then let’s go off and do something else.”

It’s a strange mix of pragmatism and emotional reticence.

So then you never really know. People talk to me all the time about the power of mind-altering drugs. I don’t take anything. I had a furious argument at dinner with friends of mine. I said put on the table what’s in your pockets. And they said: this helps me, that helps me, how dare you talk against it. I said: well, I know how I feel right now. I know I’m angry with you. How do you know what you feel about me? Because that pill is doing it. You keep on taking them you’re never going to really know who you are. “No, no, no, no, I need it I can’t get along without it.” That’s bullshit. Again, it’s fear.

But you’re being nice. Maybe it’s really about not having the balls.

Exactly. Not having the courage to be frightened. To be scared and lonely and dealing with it. I’ll just take something. Move in a pack of other people my age. And I’ll stay safe. In fact all it’s doing is stalling your humanity. Enabling you to use a machine and say: “Ah I’m protected here. She doesn’t really know who I am. I can hide behind this.” Much better to just leap into the void and see what happens. What’s so bad about a no?

Interview with Frank Langella by Catherine Shoard
The Guardian, 20 December 2012

Illustration by Frans Mensink: Modern Dating (2012)

Related: The End of Courtship?

Against Communication

The Charles Bukowski Tapes (1985)

Directed by Barbet Schroeder

[Before you deplore citing the “genius” of Adolph Hitler and Idi Amin, look the word up in a reliable dictionary. It is a morally neutral term.]

To Be an American Student in 2012

Cartoon by R. J. Matson: Weighed Down by Massive Student DebtMassive indebtedness changes a person, maybe even more than a college education does, and it’s reasonable to suspect that the politicos who have allowed the tuition disaster to take its course know this. To saddle young people with enormous, inescapable debt – total student debt is now more than one trillion dollars – is ultimately to transform them into profit-maximizing machines. I mean, working as a schoolteacher or an editorial assistant at a publishing house isn’t going to help you chip away at that forty grand you owe. You can’t get out of it by bankruptcy, either. And our political leaders, lost in a fantasy of punitive individualism, certainly won’t propose the bailout measures they could take to rescue the young from the crushing burden.

What will happen to the young debtors instead is that they will become Homo economicus, whether or not they studied that noble creature. David Graeber, the anthropologist who wrote the soon-to-be-classic Debt: The First 5,000 Years, likens the process to a horror movie, in which the zombies or the vampires attack the humans as a kind of recruitment policy. “They turn you into one of them,” as Graeber told me.

Actually, they do worse than that. Graeber relate the story of a woman he met who got a Ph.D. from Columbia University, but whose $80,000 debt load put an academic career off-limits, since adjuncts earn close to nothing. Instead, the woman wound up working as an escort for Wall Street types. “Here’s someone who ought to be a professor,” Graeber explains, “doing sexual services for the guys who lent her the money.”

The story hit home for me, because I, too, wanted to be a professor once. I remember the waves of enlightenment that washed over me in my first few years in college, the ecstasy of finally beginning to understand what moved human affairs this way or that, the exciting sense of a generation arriving at a shared sensibility. Oh, I might have gone on doing that kind of work forever, whether or not it made me rich, if journalism had not intervened.

It’s hard to find that kind of ecstasy among the current crop of college graduates. The sensibility shared by their generation seems to revolve around student debt, which has been clamped onto them like some sort of interest-bearing iron maiden. They’ve been screwed – that’s what their moment of enlightenment has taught them.

As for my own cohort, or at least the members of it who struggled through and made it to one of the coveted positions in the knowledge factory, the new generational feeling seems to be one of disgust. Our enthusiasm for learning, which we trumpeted to the world, merely led the nation’s children into debt bondage. Consider the remarks of Nicholas Mirzoeff, a professor of media at New York University, who sums up the diminishing returns of the profession on his blog: “I used to say that in academia one at least did very little harm. Now I feel like a pimp for loan sharks.”

Thomas Frank
The Price of Admission
Harper’s Magazine, June 2012

Cartoon by R.J. Matson

Atoms and Void and Nothing Else

Road

The Roman historian Titus Livy likened history to a collection of “fine things to take as models” and “base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.” The contemporary American novelist John Crowley carries the thought another two thousand years along the road to who knows where, suggesting that “the past is the new future…its lessons not simple or singular, a big landscape of human possibility, generative, inexhaustible.”

Fortunately so. We have little else with which to build the future except the driftwood of the past, salvaging from the journey across the frontiers of the millennia what mankind has found to be useful or beautiful or true, on scraps of papyrus and bronze coins, in confessions voluntary and coerced, in five-act plays and three-part songs.

America’s Founding Fathers exploited the resource of history as diligently as their descendants exploited the lands and forests of the Ohio River Valley and the trans-Mississippi frontier. They framed their several envisionings of a republic (Hamilton’s and Franklin’s as well as those of Jefferson and Adams) on blueprints found in their readings of Livy, Cicero, Plutarch, and Seneca.

So in its turn the Italian Renaissance derived from the rediscovery of classical antiquity. The latter progression supplies the scholar Stephen Greenblatt with the premise for last year’s best-selling The Swerve, which accounts for the death and resurrection of On the Nature of Things, 7,400 lines of lyric but unrhymed verse composed by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus in the first century B.C. Greenblatt subtitles his book How the World Became Modern, attributing the metamorphosis in large part to the recovery of Lucretius’ poem in a German monastery in 1417 by Possio Bracciolini, Italian humanist, Vatican functionary, and apostolic scribe.

Lucretius had infused his poem with the thought of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher teaching his students in Athens in the fourth century B.C. that the purpose of life was the embrace of beauty and pleasure – that the elementary particles of matter (“the seeds of things”) are eternal. Everything that exists – the sun and the moon, waterflies, ziggurats, Mother and the flag – is made of atoms in motion, constantly colliding and combining with one another in an inexhaustible variety of form and substance. The universe consists of “atoms and void and nothing else.” No afterlife, no divine retribution or reward, nothing other than a vast turmoil of creation and destruction, the ceaseless making and remaking of despots and matinee idols.

To the modern mind atomic theory is old news, as it was to the schools of Stoic and Epicurean thought during the reign of Augustus Caesar. Christianity dispatched it to Hell, reconfiguring the pursuit of pleasure as sin, the meaning of life as pain. By recovering De rerum natura to the land of the living, pooling its resources with those dormant in the works of Ovid, Seneca, and Plato, the Renaissance redrafted the contract between man and nature, its embrace of truth as beauty and beauty as truth made manifest in the glory of its painting, sculpture, music, architecture, and literature. Over the course of the next six centuries Lucretius’ poem finds further development and expression in Machiavelli’s political theory, Montaigne’s essays, Shakespeare’s plays, Newton’s mathematics, and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

The circumstances at hand in the early years of the twenty-first century suggest that time is ripe for another redrafting of the contract between man and nature, with any luck of a magnitude comparable to the one that gave birth to the Renaissance. For the past fifty years it has been apparent to the lookouts on the watchtowers of Western civilization that the finite resources of the planet cannot accommodate either the promise or the theory of infinite growth – a.k.a. the American Dream. The simple arithmetic (too many people coming into the world, not enough water, oil, food, phosphorus) underwrites the vast landscape of trouble listed under the headings of worldwide environmental degradation and financial collapse. I read the relevant policy papers – on health, education, debt, poverty, homeland security, climate change, the extinction of species, the wars of all against all – and I notice that they tend toward a common awareness (dimly grasped but distinctly felt) that a global consumer society, if left to its own devices, must devour the earth. Not with malice aforethought, or as a matter of ideology, but because that is its métier – the scorpion that kills the frog on whose back it is crossing the river because it knows not what else to do.

The intimations of mortality lurking in the depths of the policy papers lead in turn to the recognition of the capitalist economy as an historical construct, and therefore, like a college reunion and the Colossus of Rhodes, a collision of atoms en route to recombination or the void. A story with a beginning (in sixteenth-century Holland), a middle (the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial revolutions in England and America), and an end (foreshadowed by the financial convulsions of the past twenty years at all points on the free-market compass). Sensing the approach of maybe something terrible slouching toward Wall Street to be born, the lookouts look for salvation in technologies as yet undreamed of by man or machine. My guess is that they’re looking in the wrong direction. To acknowledge the truth of the old Arab proverb that says we have less reason to fear what might happen tomorrow than to beware what happened yesterday is also to say that we have more reason to look to the past – history as the phoenix in the attic – for the hope of the future.

Lewis Lapham
Ignorance of Things Past
Harper’s Magazine, May 2012