Friday, December 20, 2013

It All Counts

The themes of OneRepublic’s “Counting Stars” are quite familiar. For example, when the singer croons “I feel something so right/By doing the wrong thing/And I feel something so wrong/By doing the right thing,” he gives voice to a nihilism that has appeared often in popular music. If it lacks the poetry and brevity of Television’s “See No Evil” when Tom Verlaine sings “Destructive urges/It seems so perfect,” that is because not everyone has the same power of synthesis. But the chorus contains the most resonant cultural feature of the song: “Lately I been, I been losing sleep/Dreaming about the things that we could be/But baby, I been, I been praying hard/Said no more counting dollars/We’ll be counting stars.” These lyrics render concisely the division between the spiritual and the material aspects of life. The social world in which we struggle is considered here as inadequate to our most important strivings. In this terrestrial plane, too far from heaven and too close to hell, life is measured in dollars, is reduced to a quantity that may be counted and compared. Money does not give a worthwhile picture of our “real” selves, which is the totality of unrealized potentialities—all the things we could be. The dreams, the hopes, the prayers, the immaterial and spiritual qualities that constitute our inner selves and, which like the stars are immeasurable, are what really matter. Thus in order to live a proper life one must stop counting dollars, which are dirty abstractions that don’t account for our actual worth, and we must instead count stars, figured in this song as infinite points of transcendence.

It’s a good time for people to not think of themselves in terms of dollars. Most of the central zones of capitalist modernity have experienced an increase in income inequality over the last 30 years but this has been particularly acute in the U.S. Due to the policies of income redistribution to the rich inaugurated by Ronald Reagan, the U.S. now has the worst income inequality in the “developed” world. The accumulative logic of capitalism has had the profoundest effect in the U.S. primarily because of policies meant to disinvest sharply in the social good through lowered tax rates and the weakening of regulations on financial institutions. But this governmental policy is closely related to the ideological triumph of capitalism in American society. Not only do people belong in fewer numbers to workers’ or poor people’s movements but many people who would benefit from such movements actively reject them. Unions are often considered an impediment to a better life. Social welfare programs are considered destructive to society. Good wages and benefits to semi-skilled laborers make people angry. The poor are seen as parasites on society and not as the necessary outcome of capitalist accumulation. Wealth and a notion of the good are often conjoined in the minds of many people. Basic human rights like education, health care, food, and housing are seen as benefits reserved only for the deserving. It is a fucked up world we’re living in.

Responding to Fascist spectacle and nationalist rhetoric, Marcuse described what he called “affirmative culture.” Affirmative culture, he argued, insists on the existence of a better world, separate from the factual world in which people actually struggle, but realizable from within by any person. This place serves as the refuge for our best selves. It is the home of our souls, where they remain withdrawn from and unsullied by the crude world in which we work, are exploited and made unhappy by the conditions of our alienated labor. Affirmative culture insists on the validity of that interior world to assuage our desire to be free from the dictates of capital. The less we insist that our society live up to our expectations of justice and happiness, the more we internalize that demand as a “reality” we can experience only on the “inside.” In other words, we must realize that our society wants us to count stars precisely because it wants us to stop counting dollars—the diminishing dollars of the many and the exponentially growing dollars of the few.

Monday, December 16, 2013


Bill reminded me it was right around this time of the year 20 years ago. I was at his house roaring drunk. I wandered from room to room, proselytizing in half-phrases about art and literature. Eventually I ended up in a room with his cousin, a woman so tall and pretty that when I took her to The Commodore a few weeks later Iseki, the bartender, tilted over the bar to tell me after she had gone to the bathroom: “That’s what a woman is supposed to look like!” The night we met I think we ended up playing a board game and at some point I grabbed her arm in ecstatic joy or drunken fever. Later she told me that the moment I took a hold of her arm she thought to herself: “I am going to fuck him.” How women come to these conclusions is a mystery. Men dream of shibboleths. But it’s probably just as enigmatic to women. We like to think that for men it’s simply a matter of being offered, and I can tell you that it is not true. Maybe just a year before, I had walked into the break room of my old grocery store and touched a woman I sort of knew on the shoulder before I sat down to talk to her. After a brief and surprising conversation, she suggested that we use our lunch break to go have sex in her car. And a few years after that, a woman I knew from a cross training class at community college showed up at my door unannounced after looking up my address in the white pages—lol, white pages. I came to the door confounded by the visit but pretty soon cottoned on to what she had in mind. Both women were married and though I’m no saint and have slept with other married women, there was something so unsettling in their desire that I had no interest in taking up either woman on her suggestion.

A few weeks after going to bed with me, Bill’s cousin was to move to a small town in eastern Oregon. We drove her there. Bill and his wife sat in the front and I sat in the back with her. She didn’t really want to move and was drinking to deal with it; I drank to keep her company. It was a long drive. The Columbia, dark and cold, ran in the opposite direction to our route. The night was black and the drinking confused my sense of time and space. One minute I could make out the grey tips of the river current and the next there was nothing for the eye to pause on. Nothing but a wide, dark expanse that I stared at, tried to bring into focus, attempted to comprehend. But like most things back then, I didn’t really understand it. When we got there the cold was cutting and snow was everywhere. We said our goodbyes. I thought for good.

She didn’t stay there long. In a few weeks, Bill dropped her off outside my apartment in the middle of the night after the long return drive. She smelled strongly of vanilla perfume and cigarettes, a nauseating smell, and by the time morning came I knew I did not want her around. It took a while for me to finally tell her that I didn’t want to be with her. She was very upset. A few days later she came by and dropped off a poem she had written. In it she described how she had sex with some stranger out of anger with me. The poem conveyed her hurt and the feelings she experienced sleeping with this person.  She was wounded and her poem was an attempt to hurt me. But I read it with little emotion. I read its graphic details as if they were a fiction to which I had no connection. I saw her maybe one more time after she dropped off the poem and I didn’t mention it because I really had nothing to say.

Many, many years later I sat one night thinking about the woman who had left me. I pictured her talking with someone else, my head spinning with a jealousy I had created out of nothing. My imagination generated a scene that while devoid of any overt sexual details nonetheless left me reeling and heartsick. Had this woman given me a poem about having sex with someone else, I would have curled up in a ball in my bed and stayed there forever. Life, no? It only goes to show: sometimes you’re the wrecking ball and sometimes you’re the wall.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Serious Art

In the greatest work of criticism and literary history, Auerbach places the conclusion of the European history of realistic representation in the French 19th century, specifically in Madame Bovary. Flaubert’s novel culminates the development of what Auerbach calls “objective seriousness,” in which the serious treatment of everyday life is finally achieved. Here, the everyday—from the vulgar aspects of street life to the crude desires that often rule people’s actions to the cloistered rooms in which intellectuals toil in search for whatever it is that they consider valuable—is freed from its artistic association with the comic and the low and comes to be treated as something that is capable of expressing the tragic or transcendent. The everyday, boredom, and even stupidity are then seen as not only worthy of artistic representation but as perhaps the privileged themes for depicting the truth of the times.

The rise of the everyday in literature is related to a broader shift in European culture. The early modern period saw a transformation toward what Charles Taylor calls “the sanctification of ordinary life” in Western Europe. The Protestant rejection of the Catholic idea of higher vocations made the prosaic world in which we live as sanctified as any other. While the church remained the place in which people could congregate to praise the Lord, the ordinary became the space in which one lived a religious life. This democratized religion because no longer was one’s spiritual existence necessarily mediated through a dominant church. The entire world became Jesus’ temple. But even as the everyday seemed like an eminently spiritual domain, the spread and consolidation of capitalist modernity also turned that domain into a space marked by consumption and routine. Everyday life from the late 18th century on has become more and more determined by routinized labor and domesticity. Everyday life has been subjected to strict schedules and the homogenizing pressures of consumer culture and mass media. Art has focused on the everyday precisely in order to show the hypocritical disconnection between the promise of the elevation of the prosaic as a sacred space and the crudeness, banality, and hollowness that often marks bourgeois life. If the everyday once promised the possibility of encountering the holy, it has become the arena in which stupidity, repetition, and the surrender to crass materiality rule. Literature’s objective seriousness and art’s insistence on depicting the prosaic attend to this reality.

But the serious treatment of the ordinary comes at a cost. We have come to associate seriousness with art itself, as if in order for representation to be art it also has to be somber. No doubt there is a great deal of playfulness and joy in some artistic works, but it seems to me that as a general rule we associate art with solemnity and the playfulness of something like Pop Art only works because of the contrast it exploits. Museums often feel like mausoleums for a reason. I, for one, know that I have side-eyed some yokel for being too animated in a gallery. This attitude has filtered to popular art forms. There is, I think, a marked division in the minds of many people between the entertainment of commercial popular music and the grave introspection or ironic self-awareness of serious pop. Lady Gaga, a real goddamn artist as far as I’m concerned, tries to bridge that divide in her single “Applause.” Not only does she reference artists and artistic movements in this song, she positions herself as a synthesis of art and entertainment: “Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture, in me.” How successful is it? How much can a dance song be considered art? I don’t know, really. But my sense is that those who want to enjoy it as a dance song probably don't think that much about it as art and those that think a lot about art probably won’t take it very seriously.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Love and Emotion

The fruitman’s cart is white but behind the glass everything is color. We buy $5 of fruta mixta. This gets us jicama, mango, coconut, pineapple, watermelon, cucumber, cantaloupe, orange, honeydew, a transparent bag, and a white plastic fork. Echo Park is full of brown-skinned families, the children overdressed and uncomfortable. There are also plenty of people that look like either one of us. We lay a blue tarp on the green grass. We are going to read. We put the books and the bag of fruit on the grass and lie down on the tarp. We eat fruit and talk. You are wearing grey shorts and a red sweatshirt. You are chilly in the shade and pull the hood over your head. I don’t remember what I was wearing. Eventually, I’m on my back looking at the sky. You press next to me. We don’t notice but people watch us. I can hear the churning of the fountain that aerates the lake, the peal of children playing, the vendors selling, the movement of the trees in the breeze, and the birds making their noises. Black coots have followed us from one lake to another without realizing it. Los Angeles, Los Angeles, Los Angeles. I have driven far and waited long to be here. You don’t touch your book. You fall asleep. I hear you sleeping. I would have driven father, waited longer to hear you sleep next to me. The sky is Los Angeles blue, and up there, in the current of air, the brown tips of the green palm tree fronds move around erratically. I try to make metaphors. I keep staring at the leaves moving as my side warms while you sleep next to me. I think you are undecided about me. I know you don’t talk about me. There are good reasons for that. Eventually, I read my book because it’s what I know how to do. Earlier or later, we listen to Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home” (this video is stupid) in your apartment. I tell you I like that song a lot. We listen to other songs. We go to bed. At some other point, “Hold On, We’re Going Home” comes on the radio as we drive to a bar where later a crazy man will come in and yell incomprehensible oaths at everyone, you will get silly drunk, and we will have a fine time. As the song played in the car you sang along quietly and perfectly in tune and I sang along terribly. Though we stared straight ahead and it’s all in my imagination, I felt that when we sang “I can’t get over you/ You left your mark on me/ I want your hot love and emotion/ endlessly” we meant it about each other. It doesn’t matter if your singing didn’t really mean anything at all. That changes nothing for me.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

No Heroics, Please

I wanted to take her somewhere else. The first couple of times it was my old downtown neighborhood, The Commodore, Maya’s, walking down Yamhill or Morrison to the waterfront, walking up Everett with me complaining: “This Pearl District bullshit didn’t exist when I lived here” or some similarly stupid observation about the passing of time. So we went to the eastside, to Hawthorne. We went up the street and down, nothing that exciting. We went into a pub that was trying to be both fancy and hip and ordered beers. We drank a few beers, got tipsy. Phoenix came on the sound system. This was a while before their music started playing on the radio. I pointed the song out to her and she said she liked it. We bored of the place, and I suggested we walk next door to the record store, pick up a copy of the Phoenix CD, and drive to this place up on the west hills that I hadn’t shown her. We got in her car, put the CD in and played it loud. I screamed directions over the music and we somehow found Council Crest Park, high above the Portland skyline. By the time we got there we had almost sobered up. But it was late in the day and the soft angled light and view of the city kept us light-headed. Full of love, we stayed for a while and wanted to linger longer but we both had things to do the next day, so we took turns hiding in an enormous cedar to piss, then got back in the car for the long drive back. We played the first few songs of the CD over and over on the way back, laughing at the seeming senselessness of the lyrics but enjoying the music immensely just the same. As is my wont on the freeway, I kept getting distracted by the skid mark of tires as they veered off the road and stopped before cracked concrete or bent metal. Those tire marks were a kind of writing, telling stories of ruin. At the time, I failed to interpret properly the narratives before me.

When she broke up with me, Phoenix was on heavy rotation on the radio. Hearing the first few bars of “Lisztomania” or “1901” made me miserable and I couldn’t change the station fast enough. One time I left one of those songs on long enough that my eyes welled with tears before I changed it. After a long while hearing Phoenix on the radio only made me a little sad. I could feel my heart contract but the feeling wasn’t strong enough to make me change the station. Eventually, I felt okay when they came on the radio. Not good, not sad, just okay. These days, Phoenix reminds me of that trip and that it was fun, even if what followed it wasn’t.

What I have never felt is that sense of triumph that Katy Perry sings about in “Roar.” When she sings, “I went from zero to my own hero,” that sentiment is lost on me. But let’s be honest, she’s a famous, ambitious person whose personality was forged through very public successes and failures. I’m obviously not that kind of person. Nonetheless, I don’t believe her, as I wouldn’t believe anyone else who claims to have been made stronger by heartbreak. All that roaring silliness is what you tell other people to hide the fact that after a broken heart you don’t want to feel like “a fighter, dancing through the fire,” you just want to go back to feeling normal.