The Erotic Joy of the Eternal Put On: On "American Hustle"

In an early scene in American Hustle, Irv the con man (Christian Bale) takes Richie the FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) to a museum, shows him a Rembrandt, and tells him it's a fake.  People believe what they want to believe, Irv tells Richie. Cause the guy who made this was so good that it’s real to everybody. Now who's the master -- the painter or the forger? He then goes on: That’s the way the world works. Not black and white as you say. Extremely grey. And that's the territory of this film: that grey place where what's true and what's a put on is never clear because there was never any black and white to begin with.

There's a gag that runs through the film as if to make this all the clearer. Louis CK plays a mid level management FBI agent who begins telling Richie a story about ice fishing as a child. Richie is excitable and keeps interrupting the story to finish it and provide the inevitable moral: I understand what's happening. Your brother went out on the ice, the ice was too thin...because he was too eager, and you're saying I'm too eager. But Louis CK keeps countering him — No, that's not what I'm saying. And, each time, Richie walks away without hearing the end.

American Hustle doesn't have a clear moral. It doesn't come to a point. It relishes that blurry, messy, sloshing movement between and amongst truth and lies, sincerity and bullshit, real and forgery. At one point, the Amy Adams character reveals her "real " name to Richie who is not as angry as he is disoriented. To which she says, You do it. You know, you live with your mom -- you have a fiancée you don't even acknowledge, right? That's what you do. And you curl your hair in little fucking curlers, which is -- No, it's okay, you look good with it, but you know -- you have straight hair, so that's what you do to survive. You do all sorts of things, you know. We all do. 

Survival — humanity — is not based on the real or even on the distinction between the real and the fake. No, it's all a hustle, a put on, done in the name of life, as life. It doesn't mean we're not sincere because there is no absolute sincerity. The whole either/or of real and fake is replaced by a relentless movement, a play, between the two. (Listen to this Ween song and tell me if it's sincere or not. It's not one or the other; it's both at the same time.)

Just as Louis CK's story never delivers its moral, the moral of American Hustle never comes. Is this a tale of con artists who get so enmeshed in their lie that they just want what's true? Nope. It's a tall tale that performs the beautiful, demented, erotics of never giving up your con, playing it all the way through — from the feet up, as Irv says over and over. (I became a con artist, he tells us, from the feet up, for real. For real!)

After all, a true con man doesn't pretend. He doesn't wink. It's all in the veracity of the details. You don't play an Arab; you actually are an Arab (from one angle, this is a film about acting and movie making). This is what Richie  doesn't understand but wants so badly to. He's a nice Italian boy who lives with his mother but desperately wants to be the swinging Studio 54 guy — shirt unbuttoned, chains dangling in his chest hair. He wants to learn the American hustle. And so he enlists a couple of cons who make their living in every sense through the put on.

But that doesn't mean they're false! Sure, her accent is fake. But they're both cons from the feet up. They sincerely put on the world. The opening scene is a long take of Irv gluing his hair piece and taking it very seriously. You can tell he's sincere, honest in his commitment to the con of life. In the voice over, he tells us he's a mark to his wife who manipulates him. He doesn't blame her; he doesn't get angry. Sometimes you're the mark; sometimes you're the con. Such is life.  It's all one big con; the trick is to find your angle (pace Miller's Crossing).

This is a film about, and of, play — play as life, play as pleasure, play as sincerity, play as the con. Play is that movement that never has a need for a foundation, for truth or sincerity of a real self. Play is not only along for the ride; play is the ride. Play is the relentless movement back and forth between real and fake, a game of catch improvised with no winner and no loser.   

This is jouissance, the orgasmic play that comes and comes, rising and swelling but never finally shooting its load. For all its sex and sexiness, there is no sex in the movie. We never see it or hear it. Indeed, Amy Adams tells Richie (Cooper), that they'll fuck when they're real — which never happens! No one comes!  American Hustle enjoys the swell of it all.

This is the sultry erotics of the eternal put on, its sloshing to and fro, its pleasures which carry you along every which way. The film keeps building to these local crescendos, these frenzies that make everything teeter and slosh about. Think of that scene in Goodfellas in which Ray Liotta, wired on blow, is being followed by the helicopter. Well, American Hustle has about a half dozen or so such scenes, these manic, swelling tides of action and affect.

The camera rarely lingers — except in that opening scene with the hair piece. Then, the camera enjoys watching Bale. There is a pleasure here, a pleasure in his belly and hair. It's not a knowing or mocking pleasure. No, the camera stays with him because it enjoys the view. 

Most of the time, that camera is moving, conspicuously swooshing about. This film is the American hustle, ever on the go. Of course, all movies move. Take Harmony Korine's brilliant Spring Breakers. It moves relentlessly, a delirious film, what Gilles Deleuze might call gaseous, all misty miasma as plot, character, and dialogue move at their own pace and not necessarily with each other.  

American Hustle, on the other hand, is liquid. It flows, with the occasional eddy and punctuated by tidal swells. The story at time comes close to incoherence but holds it together like water in a swinging bucket. The sheer movement of it all is its coherence.  

What I really like about this movie is its unabashed joy in the put on. It's not a dark comedy that secretly yearns for a more moral world. No, American Hustle enjoys the play, that slippery grey area. It's there where it finds the beautiful, sensual frenzy of life — and the erotics of film.


From Psychoanalysis to Schizoanalysis: Anti-Oedipus & "The Mask"

At first, the argument seems straightforward enough, the familiar Freudian psychoanalytic shtick. We even hear a shrink on TV spell it out for us: The truth is we all wear masks, metaphorically speaking. We repress the Id...our darkest desires and hide behind a more socially acceptable image of ourselves in order to cope with the frustrations of our day to day lives. The movie then seemingly proceeds to play this out. Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey) is repressed, a nervous nelly who's too nice to get the girl. And then there's Dorian Tyrell (Peter Greene), an id-driven gangster. For Stanley to get the girl away from Dorian, he's gotta release his id.

But right from the get go, things are not so simple. Most conspicuously, which is the mask we wear? Is our repressed self the mask, hiding our true desires — that is, in being so nice, is Stanley wearing a mask? According to our shrink, yes. But in order to release his repressed desires, Stanley has to put on a mask — the mask. Which, then, is the true Stanley? 

Well, both and neither. According to the film, there is no true self. When Stanley is "nice" and repressed, he's wearing a mask of the super ego, of society, to hide his carnal desires. But then in order to release his desires, to let loose his id, he has to don a mask, as well. All there are, it seems, are masks — masks all the way down.  

And what exactly happens when Stanley dons the mask? He doesn't just become a creature of raw desire, killing and screwing everything in sight. What happens is much stranger: he becomes a cartoon. And not any cartoon. He becomes the Looney Tunes cartoon that he watches all the time.

This is not the release of his id, even if he is now outspoken and confident. The architecture of psychoanalysis is vertical — below the ego sits the id; above the ego, the super ego. The super ego — law, culture, society — helps keep the id down below. We speak of our deepest desires and what happens if they come to the surface. 

Psychoanalysis is premised on veritcality and depth

Schizoanalysis is a sideways, or every which way, system.

But in wearing the mask, Stanley doesn't release anything in as much as his identity moves sideways into the network of identities that swirl around him. He begins taking up and playing out figures, actions, characters, and icons which he's seen on TV and the movies. His identity becomes a relentless play of signifiers — Elvis, Clint Eastwood, a 1920's gangster. And, of course, he performs the very cartoons we've seen him watch. 

As Guattari argues, our identity is fundamentally ecological. There is no "true" self that exists as a set of pure, burbling desires. The self is a pastiche, an endlessly modulated intersection multiple ecological forces — cultural, natural, economic. We take up snippets of the world, possibilities of being gathered from anywhere and everywhere — from parents, media, strangers, animals, trees. As I speak and act my way through this life, I am haunted and possessed by my brother; as I parent, I feel my fathers; as I talk to women, I feel Larry David running through my veins.

While the film might imply that cartoons are a cultural release of the repression, the cartoons Stanley watches and becomes are not a release: they are realignments of his becoming that move in all sorts of directions. Yes, they break the laws of nature, falling off cliffs only to peel themselves off the pavement. They break social codes, hooting and hollering. But they are not a movement from underneath to the surface: they are a sideways movement at all angles into new territories.

Take this scene in which Stanley, as The Mask, is cornered by police. This is a traditional opposition: cop and criminal; law and crime; super ego and id. But Stanley refuses to play the criminal, to throw his hands up or shoot his way out and run. Like the brilliant Bugs Bunny before him, Stanley takes a line of flight, breaking the oppositional logic that at once divides and connects criminal and cop. He begins to dance and, soon, everyone is dancing. This film, while seeming to operate within a psychoanalytic framework of oppositional desires (Eros/Thanatos, id/super ego) breaks this architecture by introducing lateral movement (or what Deleuze might call a stutter). 

At the end of the film, Stanley doesn't need the mask anymore — at least not the mask. But it's not because he's refined his ego to balance the id and super ego. It's because he moved sideways and let new identities express themselves through him, with him, as him. He didn't stop repressing. He learned new ways of going.  


Music as Argument

The sheet music for John Cage's "4'33""
Even more than visual art, we assume music to be a more or less pleasant experience — perhaps even profoundly moving — but somehow unnecessary or extraneous. Or, if we find it necessary, we think of it as primal, as fundamental and hence somehow evading all the gunk of life, culture, knowledge. Music just is, man! We rarely think about music as making an argument, especially not something as seemingly frivolous as pop music.

Now, it's true that writing about music is difficult. So one thing we do is make comparisons between different music so if we share the same references, you can say, It's like a dub Stereolab, and I can understand you. Sometimes, making an unexpected reference can open your ears to aspects of the music you might not have noticed. When I listen to Jethro Tull — a conspicuously uncool band — I hear both Throwing Muses (the syncopated careen into madness) as well as Frank Zappa (the bawdy, mocking, critical humor set to elaborate musicianship).

Apps such as Pandora and Spotify make connections between music. But their algorithms are peculiarly banal, sticking to the most limited definition of genre. If you listen to Tull on one of those apps, they'll play Sabbath and Zeppelin but no freakin' way you're gonna hear Throwing Muses. Which is to say, those algorithms never go go out on a limb to make a more profound argument; they stick to what is already known. They stick to genre and ignore style.

And style is always, necessarily, argumentative. It declares: I go like this! A band — or composer, singer, flautist —  takes up the tropes, histories, licks, riffs, beats, and possibilities in the archive of music and remixes them just so, distributing the very definition of music in its own way. In this sense, every song — and certainly every musician — creates an argument of music, with music, drawing and redrawing its history, recasting its genres.

This is what I assume historians of music do: they create shapes and trajectories out of the vast archive of musical experience. I say "I assume" because music history is not something we encounter very often. Sure, Sasha Frere-Jones will draw a line between Tom Waits and King Krule. But there are no museum walls, no elaborate curations that make connections we might not see left to our own, uh, devices.  When we look at art, we expect to make historical connections. Music, on the other hand, is so everyday and ubiquitous — and seemingly accessible — that we don't think we need history or argument. We either shake our butts, cry, ponder or not.

And yet music, like everything, makes arguments — not just about music, about rhythm, about sound but about chaos and order, about life, about movement, about shape and affect and the mechanics of the cosmos.  Just as visual art organizes the chaos of visual life into vastly different orders, music organizes the chaos of the aural world into discrete shapes and experiences.

Sound abounds. Within that teem lurks not just an order but orders upon orders: the honks, tweets, bangs, vrooms all make sense within their respective networks, at once aural and cultural, loops within loops within loops. But those loops are not discrete; they interact with each other, the sounds of the freeway mixing with the wind mixing with human voices, bird songs, dog barks. The vehicular, human, geological, animal worlds collude in different ways.

The musician, in a sense, interprets these loops by distributing them. And what's amazing about music is that it's precisely a distributing, not a distribution. It's an active process, at once temporal and spatial (even if invisible), rhythmic and affective.

Cornelius, for instance, sees the world as emerging from accidents at once musical and everyday, Beethoven mixing with the opening of a can mixing with a radio mixing with the means of production, the mic in order to become, well, a song. We hear order taking shape out of chaos to form not just order but euphony.

But it's not as clear cut as that. Jazz, after all, moves relentlessly between order and chaos, melody and drift, structure and collapse. That is not Cornelius. He does not improvise; he composes. Which is to say, he works chaos and accident into his composition: composed emergence.

This sounds a bit like John Cage but if we think about his most famous piece, "4'33"," we get a fundamentally different argument. For Cage, the world is already music, already a nascent symphony. His role as composer is to stipulate, not compose: he sets a time limit and a space limit and his composition is what emerges within that duration. 

Two very different arguments, two very different postures of standing towards the world, two different conceptions of creation itself. Cornelius is busy banging away at everything, grabbing snippets out of the air in order to fuel his euphony. Cage, meanwhile, stands back and lets the sounds take shape within ever variable yet prescribed borders. The affective resonance of the two speaks volumes: the beautiful but dense play of Cornelius, the serenity of Cage. 

When I was younger, I was drawn to manic music, music that careened — Throwing Muses, Pixies, Tull, Glass Eye. Those bands give us a sense of the world about to come apart at the seams but somehow hanging together through sheer will. More recently, I've been drawn to spatial soundscapes, to Yo La Tengo and Darkside, who live in a very different world. Chaos looms as well but it doesn't hang together through will: it hangs together through patience.

Like anything, like everything, music necessarily makes an argument. It assembles and distributes percepts, affects, history, concepts into a this and a this:



When Philip Seymour Hoffman OD'd, one of the comments I heard the most was, I don't get it! How could that happen? He had kids! But, to me, that's just silly. Do people really think having kids makes life easier to deal with? Calmer? Less anxiety ridden? Or that money, fame, success put the demons to bed?

And, man, seeing him act, we feel his propensity for excess, for going over the top. His death is sad, just as all such deaths are sad. But is it really so surprising? The fact that people express shock is, to me, shocking. How can they know so little about taking drugs? 

Russell Brand wrote the most insightful thing I read about Hoffman's death. "Addiction," Brand writes, "is a mental illness around which there is a great deal of confusion, which is hugely exacerbated by the laws that criminalise drug addicts." This leads Brand to ask: "Would he have OD'd if drugs were regulated, controlled and professionally administered? Most importantly, if we insisted as a society that what is required for people who suffer from this condition is an environment of support, tolerance and understanding." 

Yet Brand still remains within a culture that sees drugs as a problem. Yes, Brand understands the drug experience having been a prolific user. But he's really concerned with one thing in particular: the way our laws and society criminalize the addict. That is no doubt a keen, important point.

But I want to focus elsewhere — not on policy or government or how best to treat addicts. I want to focus on how we think and talk about drugs in our everyday lives — in the press, with family, friends, with strangers on the street, with ourselves alone in our lives. 

What are we even talking about when we say drugs? There are the obvious ones — pot, cocaine and crack, meth, acid, mushrooms, ex, heroine, and so on. But things get more complicated when we start talking about so-called medicine, the pharmaceutical drugs. 

No doubt, many drugs are what we might think of as strictly therapeutic: statins, anticoagulants, the panoply of cancer meds, antibiotics, insulin, GI drugs. People don't really take these to get their groove on, even if abating an illness aids in getting on said groove. 

Then there's the enormous litany of drugs for anxiety, depression, pain, birth control, and erections. Are these strictly therapeutic? Well, sure. Many people are very depressed and these meds, in some cases, can help. But when you look over the uses of these drugs, I think it's fair to say that they are not just treating illness —  or combatting illness, to use the belligerent metaphor of medicine — but are about fine tuning one's mood, maintaining one's emotional and cognitive focus. Or, of course, fostering sex with big hard ons and no babies.

And what, I ask, are street drugs used for? We like to say they're recreational but what does that mean? Everything we do is, at some point, to modulate our mood. If I'm feeling cranky, often I'm hungry. So I eat. But I don't east just anything. Certain foods make me feel lousy. As I've gotten older, I've become more aware of the effects the world has on my body and the various things I can do to maximize the effects I want. So, like many these days, I don't eat dairy or wheat. When I do, I feel freakin' bad. Sometimes, when I'm cranky or sad or feeling ill, I'll change my environment, go for a walk, stretch. And, sometimes, I'll have a cocktail. And perhaps a Xanax. 

We are little machines, systems that take in the world, process it and make a life from it.  Certain things don't serve my system well. Some things serve it well but only at the right time and place. There are very few things — if any — that are always right for me. In fact, the one thing I can think of that is most often effective in altering my state for the better is booze.

The last few years have seen the rise of food culture and this incredible attention we pay to not just what we eat but where our food comes from, how it's prepared, how much of it to eat, and even what to eat it with. Everywhere I go in San Francisco and New York, everyone I meet has concerted opinions about what should and shouldn't be eaten. Kale is great but only four times a week and assuming it's organic and raw. Or: Beets. It's all about beets — cooked through, however. And then: No, meat, nothing but grass fed beef from Marin. There's even a name for this culture, for these people who focus so intensely on their diet. They're called foodies.

What I want to suggest, then, is that we need to pay such attention to drugs. We need a culture of druggies. A culture that is open and rigorous and opinionated about where its drugs come from, how much to take, which mix well and which don't. After all, drugs are so potent. A tiny pill, a dropper full, one puff and you can be lit and loaded. Doesn't it therefore behoove us to pay attention to how we take them? I mean, if I eat raw kale every day for a month, I might get the runs but that's about it. Drink too much, pop too many Xanax, then take an Ambien and there's a good chance I'll never wake up again.

We need druggies. We need an entire druggy culture: columns in the paper; sections of magazines; outdoor markets where people can peruse pot, junk, blow, Viagra, Ativan, tequila; television shows where people compete to make the most refined drug cocktail. We need open discussion about our drug diet — the provenance and terroir of our drugs; how they pair with other drugs, activities, or foods; best times of day or year to take this or that. 

Sure, there are online drug forums now. And while one might occasionally find some useful information, for the most part they are really, really unreliable. Trust me. 

Like foodie culture, druggie culture would teach people responsible, smart drug use. Just as this food movement has been deployed to counter obesity, druggie culture would teach people how to avoid addiction and overdose. 

So, yes, of course Russell Brand is right as we need new laws and need to treat addiction not as a criminal offense but as a sickness. And, yes, I agree with David Simon: the war on drugs is absurd and counter-productive, turning our police into soldiers and our cities into war zones.  

But I want something else. I want a culture that doesn't just say Yes or No to drugs but a culture that says: Which Drugs and How Often? I want a culture that considers its total diet, not just food but how it takes in everything, including drugs. I want a culture of considered consumption. I want druggies. Perhaps in such a culture, Philip Seymour Hoffman would still be using. But he'd still be alive. 


You Have to Care About History

On the other hand, a human being is an historical organism. I may have emerged in October of 1969, but I wasn't born a fresh slate. On the contrary, I came out amidst a narrative already in progress, enemeshed in a network that exceeds and defines me: boy, Jew, New Yorker, youngest sibling, child, middle class, and so on. My story was already being told, necessarily.

I then assume my place within this historical tale and tweak it from within. But part of that process is defining and redefining my story. And this story comes from not just from things that happen to me but from tales I am told.

For instance, my father died when he was around 65. I don't really know because I didn't know him having not seen him since I was five. I am told his father died quite young, in his 50s. So now I see myself as the continuation of series of men who die relatively young and so, not surprisingly, I assume I will die relatively young.

Which is to say, as we are temporal beings who traverse time, I am always imagining and reimagining my trajectory which begins with things I cannot possibly know for myself — the life of my ancestors. I see images of persecuted Jews making their way to America and somehow imagine that I am heir to both suffering and strength, fear and fortitude. It's odd, perhaps, but such is human life: we tell ourselves tales, write and rewrite our stories, that necessarily extend forwards and backwards through time.

Knowledge is fundamentally historical. When we say things like You can catch a cold from someone sneezing on you, we are a mouthpiece of history. After all, that's not necessarily something you know first hand. My guess is plenty of people have sneezed on you without you ever getting sick. Knowledge speaks through us, insinuates itself into our very understanding of what it means to be alive, to have this or that genitalia, nose, hair, mole, sickness. It's how we know of seasons and comets and the orbits of planets. History streams through us, carries us along, just as we are history, making it with every gesture.

It's not that history is the source of answers. The cliché that we must know history in order not to repeat its mistakes is nonsense. Time is change; history is change. What was relevant then is not relevant now. What LBJ could do is different than what BHO can do (I read that in "The new Yorker"!). It's a different world.

The relevance of knowing our history lies not in its answers but in its narrative possibilities. I read, hear, see things from the past and I make connections to my world now, how we got here, where we're headed. For instance, a friend of mine is making a documentary on the history of the network. Listening to these historians, I suddenly see that digital culture is not a radical break; it's merely an acceleration of capitalism. NASDAQ is shipping trade routes exponentially accelerated. Is this true? I don't know. Whether it's true or not is irrelevant. What matters is that I can rewrite the narrative and how I imagine my world and my place in it.

I remember when I first read Foucault's History of Sex. My entire understanding of my world and my will to sex shifted dramatically. Repression shmepression, says Foucault. During the so called age of repression, we talked about sex all the more! Suddenly, I didn't see a need to free my sexuality precisely because it had never been repressed.

The computational network has not as much ushered in the end of history as it has become a live history engine. The web is a read-write machine, always recording our actions — our tweets, likes, blogs, comments, emails — and always being written over, written to, rewritten. The net is not the end of history; it's the end of linear history. Now we are in the process of relentlessly recording and rewriting our narratives, every blog post another node, another record, history happening now.


Who Cares About History?

A few years ago, my turntable broke. So I had to decide whether to buy a new one or not. I have a good amount of vinyl but, frankly, most of that stuff is available now through my Rdio app. And there's not a lot of space in my new house. So my records got relegated to the garage (I couldn't sell them; the few dollars I'd receive could not compensate for all the memories within those beautiful objects).

Once in a while, I find myself waxing on — as it were — to my son about vinyl. I'd tell him about how shopping for records in Greenwich Village was a mission, after which I'd come home with these tableaus of possibility. I'd put the record on — Jackson Browne's "The Pretender," Jethro Tull's "Minstrel in the Gallery" — and linger over every image, every word.

My kid couldn't care less. Put on Backstreet Freestyle again, Dad! he yelps from the backseat. He knows nothing of albums. He knows stars and he knows songs. Gone are the days of the record, ten songs, give or take, in such and such an order created at such and such a time. A record was a record in every sense, a marking of time for both the creator and the listener. Sure, I could lift the needle to skip a song but that's just not the same as an Rdio playlist. I created such a playlist for my kid, his favorite songs — Mackelmore, Kendrick Lamar, Queen, Kanye West, Brian Eno and REM (victories for dad!). In his mind, it's not only record shmecord. The record, in every sense of the word, is not even on his mind.

The internet promises the end of history and the end of history is what it delivers: everything at once, a radical simultaneity, an allatonceness, Mahler next to Mackelmore next to Fleetwood Mac next to Motown. I say this without judgment. In fact, I love it. I think it's beautiful to see and experience time splayed on an infinite horizon there for the taking. So why tell my kid about record?

And then, the other day, I'm driving with my boy on the 101 past Candlestick Park — now condemned — and I find myself telling him things like, Look! In that very stadium, Willy Mays played. Willy Mays! And Joe Montana! Jerry Rice! And now they're tearing it down. I have to say, my kid couldn't have been more bored. As I'm prattling on about the Stick — about Mays and Montana, about the '89 World Series earthquake — I realize that, were I not speaking, he could lead his whole life and know nothing about Candlestick Park.

And then it occurred to me: Who cares? What possible difference does it make if he's never even heard of the Stick — or Mays and Montana, for that matter? Who cares if he never knows what vinyl is? What possible difference does it make? I'm recounting tales of the Stick in an air of assumed historical gravitas, that this stuff just is important. Did you know, son, that that's where Jerry Rice did something great? Where the fuck did I get that voice, that assumption? I was channeling some cultural cliché, Ken Burns speaking through me as time itself.

Why do I tell him these tales? He doesn't care. And there's nothing inherently better about these things. All media have their respective qualities. So why tell him about records or Candlestick Park?

Because I'm terribly afraid of death. How can I be here and then gone and no one is any the wiser? How can they not tell tales of my shmuckdom for ages? And I suddenly saw the entire historical enterprise as a fear of death. History matters because all of us old farts, and all our old stuff, is gonna die. So remember vinyl! Remember Willie Mays! Remember Candlestick Park! Remember me!

But what possible difference does any of that make to my vital, flourishing, freestylin' 10 year old son? Who cares about history?


For the Love of Aliens: On "Men in Black"

My 10 year old son has become somewhat obsessed with extra terrestrials as of late. This has prompted many discussions about the nature of aliens: What do we mean by the word 'alien'? Is there a difference between 'here' — Earth — and 'out there,' or space? How would we even go about recognizing an alien? Might an alien be an idea, a notion, a miasma, a protoplasm? Ok, yes, I know: my boy wants to talk about space ships and ray guns and I harangue him with all this nonsense. Welcome to rhetorical parenting.

Anyway, the boy says to me after considerable thought, Dad, I know alien just means something we don't know. So after we meet the aliens, we'll have to come up with another name for them. That's my boy!

But I spared him (for now) my response: But what if I want them to remain as aliens? That is, must that which is different always be domesticated, brought into the home, into knowledge, into the known? Can it remain a site of confrontation, an experience without domestication, a perpetual source of curiosity, possibility, unknowability? Can aliens remain aliens?

This had me thinking about the movie, "Men in Black," a film I always enjoyed and which, the more I considered, the smarter I found. The film opens with a group of so-called illegal aliens being smuggled across the border into the US. There's a run in with the INS. But it turns out one of these so-called aliens is, in fact, an alien. All hell breaks loose, the MIB show up, defuse the situation and send everyone on their way.

What I love about this is that the film, right from the get go, sets up multiple perspectives and corresponding jurisdictions. There's the terrestrial domain with its close minded notion of nations and borders, its cruel laws that would allow us to refer to another human being as "an illegal." Eeesh! And then there's a cosmic perspective that sees past nations and states not to discover the humanity within everyone but to see the infinite difference of life forms across the universe. This is the jurisdiction of the Men in Black.

The film bypasses all questions of first contact. We are smack dab in the middle of close encounters — close encounters everywhere, all the time, whether we know it or not. Aliens are not something out there that we need to seek with radars and telescopes and spaceships. Aliens are right here living amongst us. You just have to open your eyes. There's that beautiful scene when Will Smith looks around the city night and sees traces of aliens everywhere — beaming eyes, tails slipping out of coats.

The film maintains that we live surrounded by difference but choose not to see it. We prefer our more modest, if petty, perspectives of humanity, nation states, people and animals. But once you've opened your eyes to the difference that abounds, you enter a new realm, a new perspective, a cosmic perspective. Suddenly, the world brims.

Not many, it seems, can handle that. Only a few who are strong enough to breathe that cold mountain air (pace Nietzsche), who can forego the social realm with its families and friends, can manage to operate on this cosmic plane. These are the Men in Black who are mostly invisible to the social order, slipping in and out of chaos, negotiating an order of things that exceeds this world.

So, yes, they erase people's memories. Why? Because people are petty. People believe that aliens are folks who live in Mexico. Their perspective is limited and, should they encounter real aliens, real difference, all kinds of terrible things would happen: mayhem, fear, violence. And, worst of all, domestication — which is what "District 9" shows so well.

No doubt, I have friends who'd say: That's nonsense! That's fascism! The only way to open people's minds, to give them the cosmic perspective, is to have them experience it first hand. Don't erase their memories and soon the whole world will be embracing the vast differences of the universe. Peace and joy will reign supreme! 

Well, maybe. But 'Men in Black" takes a more Nietzschean perspective. The mob is the mob is the herd and it's stupid and cruel, living out of fear and resentment. Only those willing to leave the ethical behind, like Kierkegaard's Abraham, can handle the overwhelming absurdity of the universe.

While the Men in Black may seem like government spooks, they have a different agenda all together. Unlike the CIA, the MIB don't want to make keep aliens out. No, the job of the MIB is to maintain the steady flow of aliens, the steady flow of difference amongst us.

They don't fly through space policing aliens everywhere. On the contrary, they are a relatively small, weak, and certainly local agency. They don't imagine themselves the spooks of some super power. They have a cosmic perspective and hence know that the Earth, and its life forms, are one tiny aspect of a vast, infinitely complex universe. Their job is just to make sure things don't get out of hand, to help negotiate and adjudicate the conflicts that inevitably arise amidst a world of such difference. In this film, the war is not about humans vs. aliens. It's one alien race and another alien race fighting it out on Earth. And it's the MIB's job to help reduce the violence and mayhem that ensues.

Their purview, their mission, is of another order: the order of difference. They love all the weird alien stuff they come across. They wrestle enormous space creatures without batting an eye. They party with space bugs with equal nonplussed grace. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, they are cool as cucumbers in a world of infinite flux and complexity.

And they are constantly learning, overcoming their own limitations — Nietzsche referred to such people as übermsensch (my oh my, it's fun typing umlauts), overmen, people who relentlessly overcome themselves. They are told that an alien planet is in a cat collar, Orion's belt. How can that be? It makes no sense.

But of course it does make sense, only not a sense within any human, Earthly paradigm. The finale of the movie spans back, shifts perspectives as it pulls away from earth, only to find us a marble in a game for some other aliens on some distant planet which is itself a small part of a vast cosmos (yes, I can hear Donald Sutherland in "Animal House").

"Men in Black" gives us a way to encounter aliens while letting them remain aliens. Unlike the all too familiar models, aliens here are not divine ("2001"), altruistic ("Close Encounters"), or hostile ("War of the Worlds"). Like anything, like everything, aliens are rarely just one thing. They are some combination of generous, hostile, grumpy, loving — and other things we can't possibly imagine.


In Defense of Shtick

So I'm walking in my old neighborhood the other day — San Francisco's Mission — and I pop in my old haunt, Aquarius Records, to say hi to Andee. He's talking to a couple at the counter who are my age, give or take. I saunter in, offer my greetings and hesitations to interrupt, proffer a little banter here and there, and then the guy in the couple turns to me and says, Is this part of your routine?  

Oy. Needless to say, this had the effect of amplifying my will to shtick and off I went on the nature of shticks, the theatricality of the self, and these woebegone times in San Francisco. And, perhaps needless to say, the woman looked at me with what I would call cautious disdain but may very well have been condemnatory disgust.

San Francisco, alas, is not a shticky town. People here are so sincere, so earnest. They take their yoga very seriously. The new wave is as serious about developing apps as the old wave was about writing graphic novels. And they all assume, quite seriously, that certain things are bad (Republicans, guns, cops) and other things good (travel, Fernet Branca, new restaurants). This to me is the worst thing about being serious: it effaces shtick and the ebullience of self by casting a pall over the whole affair.

And this city has a whiff of the college campus where everyone wants to be cool and no one wants to stand out. Everyone's a little nervous they'll be outed for not being cool, not knowing the new band, the new bar, the new coffee. So they avoid too much eye contact or calling too much attention to themselves lest they be called out and somehow humiliated. This gives the city a vague sense of community but only in the sense of policing anyone who might stand out from the crowd — unless your standing out involves a silly mustache or unicycle. It most certainly cannot involve a different social rhythm, set of beliefs, or a pronounced holding forth. Shtick is verboten here.

I grew up in New York and from my family dinner table to the subway to my Gramps' apartment, shtick abounded. That city once reveled in the ebullience of self, in the theatricality of being. Watch me break dance! Hear me sing! This is how I strut! This is my opinion on everything and anything! Man, dinner at my house was like a variety show, a series of numbers, including the screaming and throwing. Such, I learned, was the goal of life: to perform myself.

When I got to San Francisco in 1991, it was a real wake up call. Of course, it took me a while to realize what was happening. I was just doing what I always did — shtick — while they were doing what they always did — sullen community — and before long, I'd become "a character." Ah, there's that Coffeen! He's gonna say something inappropriate! Some enjoyed, some mocked, most rejected. And so, 23 years later, I'm still in San Francisco, living alone, with a couple of old friends I see once or twice a year. The exile of my shtick, if you will.

Yes, I know, it could have nothing to do with the shtickiness of my shtick but with its performance — it ain't the shtick, it's that I'm an asshole. And I'm cool with that. Why? Because I'd rather be a shticky asshole than a sanctimonious self-serious boring ass douchebag. Ahem.

Now, I've always been suspicious of communities. Whenever my neighborhood here or there sought to organize in the name of collective safety, all I could imagine was being arrested for the pervert I am. So I avoided such gatherings. And it's why I avoid sporting events, even though I enjoy sports: that mass community freaks my shit. I know that if I don't give the right high-five, I'm gonna get punched in my leering shnoz.

But communities don't need to be built on sameness. In fact, the best communities to me are those that celebrate and maximize the oddity of its members, that protect and foment its freaks. The best neighbor is not the one with whom you do everything — that's a friend. The best neighbor is the one who does his own thing and lets you do your own thing and you have each other's backs the whole time. William Burroughs called this being a Johnson — neither sticking your nose in someone else's affairs nor ignoring when they need help. You don't have to dig your neighbor's shtick; you have to dig that he has a shtick at all.

Hannah Arendt says freedom is not what you do alone in your apartment with the shades drawn; it's dancing cartwheels down the street. The Manhattan of my childhood fantasy was just such a place, where characters abound and are not only not quieted, they're given ample room to strut their stuff wherever and whenever. Cabbies, winos, suits, all creeds and colors: Manhattan was where shtick resounded.

Today's San Francisco is utterly bereft of shtick. I fear the same is true now of Manhattan. This digital so-called network culture of ours is safe, atomized, everyone in their place. The music, while often beautiful, is safe. Or, better, it's authentic, striving for emotional realness. Which is beautiful. But I miss the put on of Zappa, Ween, the Beatles, Pixies, Bowie, Iggy Pop. The punk and rock & roll ethos that sought to stand out amidst the teem is gone. The kids today love authentic music, hence the alt-R&B crossovers that abound (Frank Ocean, James Blake, the Weeknd, Blood Orange) which, as an aside, I happen to love.

But I don't see edgy music, challenging music (not emerging nationally). I don't see writers or stars that pop. In fact, when they do pop  — Tom Cruise, Joaquin Phoenix, Crispin Glover — we dismiss them as "weirdos." We want our stars to be "normal," all Jennifer Lawrences, everyone well adjusted and well spoken and properly modest. That is what the talk show is all about: being normal, stars domesticated by the Hollywood/Network/Letterman complex.

Not me. I want my stars to be stars, freaks, visitors from another planet, oozing life and risking saying and doing the wrong thing, vomiting, cursing, mumbling, speaking a language we don't understand. I want the world of John Cassavetes. I want the world of shtick.

Shtick is the expression of one's radical individuality. As its best, it's particular and peculiar, keeping you off balance and engaged — Sid Vicious, Andy Warhol and the entire Factory, Truman Capote, Bowie in drag, Burroughs' drawl. It is a performance of the self that doesn't seek to fit into any category and doesn't necessarily want to get along with everyone. Shtick prefers its own performance to the smothering of community. Shtick is the glorious, unabashed putting on of oneself in the world, a pronounced hello to the cosmos and everyone, and everything, in it.

This is reblogged from Thought Catalog >


Meta Shmeta: "Community," Postmodernity, & the False Metaphor of the Fourth Wall

The television show, "Community," enjoys letting us know that it knows it's a television show. There is no pretense to it being real. Its very premise is a transparent sitcom setup as it gathers together unlikely "characters" and has them interact according to their respective roles — the goofballs, the sincere one, the amoral one, the good looking ones. But the show seemingly goes farther by enacting the history of television, performing gimmicks, mechanisms, and situations from other shows. The word I've heard the show use, the word I've read in reference to the show, a word I've encountered amongst the under 30-set in general, is meta

Now, "Community" is by no means a trailblazer in its so-called meta aspirations. In what some consider the postmodern turn (a misleading phrase for reasons I will discuss) the 20th century has seen an insistent invocation of the medium within the message. I think it's safe to say that every Godard movie is about movie making. I always loved the opening of "Contempt" in which we see Bardot's naked body as the film swaps color filter after color filter, Instagram style. This is not representation per se, the medium conveying the world. No, here, the medium is folded into the message. We are not given unmediated view of her flesh. The camera intercedes, lets us know it's there — so stop whacking off!  

I think the first time I encountered "meta" was in Bergman's Persona which I saw in college. Here is what Mubi writes about it:

Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film, Persona, is a work of deconstructivism. This was a postmodernist movement of the mid-60’s that strived to produce, essentially, art for art’s own sake. Moreover, postmodernism is a self-reflective art form. It embraces its own artificiality as a medium that has its sole function in representing human impressions and/or emotions. Thus, embracing the postmodernist vein of self-reflexivity, Bergman includes various metacinematic scenes in the film. For example, in one instance, Liv Ullman, points a still-shot camera directly into the frame, breaking the fourth wall. In this moment, we are not only reminded of the camera but we are most aware, as an audience, that we are in a mode of artificiality. This is an art form that is going out there and embracing its identity as a medium that is, inherently, artificial. It is taking cinema and saying “this is art and we are not concerned with trying to deceive you into thinking its reality.” With these themes in mind, one might understand why, while many of us can point out certain qualities of this film that can be associated with other movements of cinematic expression, one cannot help but eventually come to the conclusion that despite its various influences, the mood of this film is strikingly postmodern and deconstructionist.

Here, we get the ideology that couples postmodernity with self-reflexivity. This makes some sense, I suppose. After all, postmodernity — if there is such a thing, seeing as postmodernity is about multiplicity so it couldn't be one thing — anyway, postmodernity points out the odd logic of using language to talk about language. Which is like using a hammer to create the hammer that is needed to create the hammer which creates the hammer, if that makes sense, or not. This is to say, the postmodern considers not just the content but the terms and means of content production.

In moving pictures, this is what people such as the writer at Mubi call breaking the fourth wall. Why? Well, if you notice on, say, "Seinfeld," we always get a view of Jerry's apartment. But we never see the whole thing; we never see where the camera and crew are, just out of frame. We see three walls but the fourth can't be seen because that's where the camera is. Meanwhile, actors are told not to look into the camera because the actor would be looking at you, the viewer, breaking that fourth wall that separates viewing from viewed, scene from seen, representation from reality.

But what happens when the fourth wall is revealed? What happens when we are suddenly privy to the once-secret mechanics of production? What happens when we become self-reflective? What happens when the show goes meta?

Well, the architecture of representation shifts. The clear path from reality to image via technology is disrupted, its flow reorganized. The audience, presumably, can no longer sit there sure in its place, as if watching from a darkened distance. When the camera flips around, the audience joins the frame and is implicated in the action. Like a magician looking for volunteers from the crowd, no one is safe. 

And yet there is a certain smug self-congratulation. Rather than meta disrupting our knowing, it brings us into the know, as if we're in on the whole gag. It seems to include us, like being let in on the cool kids' inside joke. So not only is our safety not compromised by the camera turning on us, we feel superior, like masters of the domain: we now know all there is to know. 

Which is to say, the myth of self-reflexivity is that it's a revelation, an epiphany, the grand view of it all! Before Bergman pointed that camera at me, before Nancy Botwin looked directly into the camera, before "Community" quoted "My Dinner with Andre," we didn't know. We were in the dark, literally, audience lights dimmed. But now we're in the shining light of self-knowledge, in on the whole thing. Hallelujah! As if we'd overcome the burden of the modern to stand at our new post — the postmodern — to survey the mucky fray. 

The problem is that once that fourth wall collapses, there will never have been four walls. To continue to invoke the language of four walls is to exist in a bourgeois, domestic, and geometric framework. Knock it down and the whole thing comes down! Not to reveal the naked truth but to introduce infinite possibilities, infinite uncertainty, a place where no one is safe. The collapse of the fourth wall is not a peep hole onto reality: it's the end of bourgeois domesticity and the inauguration of new modes of creation. It's the birth of the nomad who, once that wall comes down, will always already have been born both in and out of frame at the same time.

Meta is just another perspective, the discourse of the contemporary moment that counts as the true. It's the latest fad. And, as a style, I understand it and enjoy it: self-reflexivity can be beautiful and poignant. But as a claim to knowing, it falls into the very domain it is nominally critiquing: control, mastery, standing outside the fray.  Because once that fourth wall comes down, there is no outside anymore, just as there is no inside. It's all a pleated surface. Or, better, a relentless pleating of the surface. 

Meta is considered postmodern. You were all just modern but we stood outside it, moved past it, post it: we're postmodern. But, alas, postmodern is just another position which, in its way, is banal. Yeah, we came afterwards, duh. And what comes after the postmodern? Well, the postpostmodern, I suppose. 

I kind of love that and will admit I once taught a class by that name. My point is that so-called historical movements are a stutter — postpostpostpost — without end. They are a sliding that moves forwards and backwards and sideways. Indeed, the very ideas we ascribe to the postmodern — no absolute truth, a multiplicity of perspectives — undermine the very possibility of there being something called the postmodern. It  undoes itself in its very constitution (Derrida) only to wind elsewhere, grow new shoots, develop new possibilities (Deleuze & Guattari). 

But one thing meta does not do is know. It is, rather, the very condition of never finally knowing. Meta and self-reflexivity are not vista points onto the world. They are the inauguration of vertigo.

The Posture of Things

You're shopping for a chair. As you browse the aisles, you note the variety — from backless computer chairs to high bar stools to plush ...