Monthly Archives: January 2005

Hal Hartley’s The Girl from Monday

Hal Hartley makes no secret of his fondness for Godard, and this is what makes his films so interesting (and so out of step with virtually everything else going on in American film). Eschewing mainstream story-arcing and conventional characters, Harley has always tried to take elements of Godard’s approach in the 60s and translate them into an American idiom. The obvious formal debts — the guerrilla-theater location shooting, the choppy editing, and so on — bleed naturally into conceptual debts. There are voiceovers with overlapping voices; we have characters who read to each other from books or who speak only in quotations. The dialogue is typically stylized to a deadpan, haiku fineness. There’s much toying with what is and isn’t diagetical, with genre expecations, and with what sort of verisimilitude is expected in an actor’s performance. Hartley, as well, invites a kind of capriciousness into his film’s structures, a breathing spontaneity which works well against the pruned, stilted diaogue. He restores the shock and cruelty to violence, while mining pathos from otherwise ludicrous moments. He attempts socio-political critique that dares to be both oblique and ham-fisted. And like his idol, he tends to fetishize beautiful short-haired women. In Simple Men he appropriated a lot of Godard’s A Band of Outsiders — particularly the amazing dance sequence — without slavishly imitating it; The Girl from Monday, a science-fiction dystoipia shot in contemporary New York, does the same in coopting Alphaville without being simply derivative, finding new meanings and possibilities in the course of translating it. (Hartley owes a lot as well to Chris Marker’s brilliant short film La Jetée — its plot and particularly its use of evocative still frames and first person voiceover.)

In Monday Hartley posits an America in which the government has been replaced by an advertising firm, and the perpetual stoking of insatiable desire, consumer or counterrevolutionary or otherwise, is the primary order of business. Like Gary Becker’s notion of the indvidual consumer as a kind of business firm “producing” satisfaction for himself, Hartley imagines a society where individuals self-consciously see themselves as firms, where their acquisitive individualism is pushed to its absurd endpoint, wherein all behavior has become as self-interested as neoclassical economists imagine it to be — sexuality becomes directly linked to credit rating, becomes an income generating act, which thereby depletes it of its sharing, loving aspects. One of Hartley’s early films, Surviving Desire seemed to be about this at the level of the personal relationship — the inexplicable force of desire imposed from outside, albeit by women with short dark hair as opposed to advertisers. In a sense, the uneasy feeling evoked by the inaccessible short-haired woman in the Surviving Desire is extended in the new film to an entire society, which revolves around desirable inaccessibility, how much of it can you embody without being compromised by your own desires. Another common Hartley trope, the idea of trust revolving around whether or not you’d turn someone in, or whether or not you’d exploit them, given the chance, crops up in this film as well, but the disquieting message seems to be that it doesn’t make much difference whether you do or not — there is no “right” side to be fighting on, to be loyal to, since it all contributes to the manufacture of alienating desire.

Opposed to the society of ultraindividualists is an alien race of ultra-communitarians, who all share one body and all feelings and can no know desire. The film then works out the various trade-offs involved in obtaining a concept of self, a sense of identity, even if this means submitting to market forces. There are hints at the ways in which the desire to have, to have a self and many things and so on, can become indistinguishable from the desire to merge, to be at one with society, to move beyond one’s own limits, to discover the unlimitedness that would obliterate all ego. Humans are all trapped in this paradox, but corporations, made up of no particular humans, transcend this and can thereby perpetually profit from it. Institutions, immune to desire, can always position themselves to exploit it, and forever. In the film this is made explcit by the ad boss realizing both revolution and counterrevolution are good for the ad business. All desire, understood as discontent and instability, is good for business, even if desire’s paradoxicality and ambivalence is bad for the specific humans who make up the businesses. So humans end up carrying out the business of the institutions that traps them in their quixotic desires, that exacerbates their need while offering the tentative and incoherent soultions of selfhood and selfishness.

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The demonstration effect

Lately I’ve been puzzling over consumer-behavior theory, and James Duesenberry’s notion of the “demonstration effect” in particular. I’m just trying to consolidate some of what I’ve learned here. Duesenberry was a vociferous critic of the utilitarian/”man is an insatiably acquisitive hyperrational hedonist”/”we take wants as given” school of neo-classical economic thought. Assuming man to be an unerring calculator of how to maximize his consumption (and thus maximize his happiness) is a useful theoretical construct, as it makes a convenient parallel to corporations and their attitudes toward profit — this in turn lets marginal-utility theory function — one will allegedly consume where the additional increment yields the most marginal, that is additional, satisfaction. It allows one to assume that supply creates its own demand — Say’s law. It presumes people, like prices, strive for an optimal equilibrium point, a kind of stasis in which ends are met most efficiently. And it allows one to remove from economics the ethical question of what should be produced, and how much is enough. (Theories of social/relative scarcity (Cf. Fred Hirsch’s The LImits to Growth) show that more economic growth, more goods, cannot lead to more individual satisfaction. So why the vehement commitment to growth? It produces jobs, yes, but unfulfilling ones for a larger and larger cohort of the working population.) It also makes man inherently greedy and ruthless and only begrudgingly social, all would be Robinson Crusoes who’d prefer to be alone on an island with their lucre. It also perpetuates misguided notions of what the good life consists of (Galbraith is eloquent on this) — consuming more material goods instead of undertaking meaningful work and enhancing social connections. We enter the dream life of commodities instead, consigning ourselves to the “hedonic treadmill,” chasing satisfactions that always ultimately elude us, since we quickly adapt to whatever level of material comfort we achieve and since the true human connection and validation we seek in consumption isn’t really present, or is diluted over the course of the commodity’s circulation. And as Galbraith notes, “One cannot defend production as satisfying wants if that production creates the wants.” Wants are not really externalities; they are generated by the economic system, they don’t preexist it.

The main problem with the utilitarian approach is that it doesn’t at all correspond with actual human behavior, which is rarely rational and is often dictated by social considerations hard to quantify as utility. People don’t maximize their utility, they often choose poorly or by other standards than personal satisfaction. Veblen, of course, highlighted social emulation as a spur to consume. Rather than seeking static equilibrium, one’s wants are always dynamic, responsive to shifts in social position. Independent of their specific usefulness (their instrumentality) goods have a display function, a symbolic function that establishes an individual’s social identity and mandates certain levels and types of consumption beyond what one needs for sustanence. Related to this is the “demonstration effect,” whereby exposure to new goods destroys one’s complacency with what one has. Why does this matter? Because it allows consumption to increase while income levels stay the same. This in turn afffects levels of saving. Greater income inequality leads to less saving, which leads to the lower classes never achieving sufficient capital to change their status — they can’t really work hard and succeed, on the aggregate. What Duesenberry claims is that this theory proves that the satisfaction of every consumer is negatively affected by the consumption of those with higher incomes but unaffected by those with lower incomes, which in turn means that a progressive income tax should make everyone more satisfied. Of course, we are moving in the opposite direction. Robert Frank suggests that the demonstration effect tells us that things like forced-savings requirements (i.e. Social Security), luxury taxes on positional goods, and working-hour limits would also help aggregate satisfaction. The point is that a higher standard of living for a few leads to a exponential ripple of dissatisfaction for many — mass media only multiples this effect, allowing the demonstration effect to function through people we don’t know, allowing it to be distorted by advertising and lifestyle magazines that purport to be a reflection of how others live. On a personal level, can we evade the demonstration effect by tuning out media saturation? Can we create consumer biospeheres that function independently of mainstream norms without surrendering the symbolic function of goods that we need as much as their instrumentality?

In praise of the architecture of shopping centers

Mark Kingwell’s article on architecture in Shanghai in the most recent Harper’s started me thinking about how commercial imperatives under capitalism suppress individual creativity even as individualism is promoted everywhere as the central value, the ultimate good, the essence of freedom in the power to choose for yourself and no one else. In reality, people don’t consume to be unique, they consume to conform, but they like to think they are somehow unique in the process. And conformity is perhaps more essential in “free” societies because there are no explicit laws requiring it. Without a caste system manifest in the law or in dress or what have you, one has to be much more alert to signifying social position, if only to be sure one hasn’t somehow lost it while not paying attention. Anyway, a conforming populace want conformist goods, and commercial suppliers, if they want to make money, need to amke things that are not only bland enough to appeal (or not repulse) the greatest number of paying customers but that also appeal to their desire to fit in and not really stand out in any unsanctioned way. They have to negotiate these social tensions by making things generic enough to avoid evoking conflict between social groups. Products are subject to a kind of metaphysical zoning.

I say that becase Shanghai architecture is not. And as a consequence, anything goes. Kingwell remarks, “Ironically, the utopian visions of the West, the soaring towers and radiant cities of the high-modern imagination, are rarely possible in the grand cities of the free world. They are realized instead in the authoritarian and dictatorial regimes of Asia, where life and steel are cheap. Europe’s dream of heroic architecture has found its material realization in the People’s Republic.” Unconstrained by the need to earn assent via the marketplace, the products of Chinese economy can take any shape, can be the whim of a single person, as long as he or she wields enough clout.

With no responsibility to embody the social order, such as it is, Shanghai architecture becomes unruly and disorienting: “At the asymptotic edge of design freedom lies a sparkling, overgrown, hyperscaled city of bright nightmares, sometimes beautiful, often strange, always oppressive. Shanghai is modern urbanization on a speed high, rambling and incoherent, with a lump of shopaholic empitness at its center.” Individualism, discouraged the individual level, is pushed up the scale to be expressed at the level of buidlings, as if to reinforce at the level of public space the disregard for personal individuality, personal comfort. Bland generic public space affords the space for individuals to appear in society and imagine themselves individuals — their uniqueness is not upstaged by the buildings, and their tastes are not affronted on a mammoth scale, showing the insignificance of their personal preferences. They need not reckon with a vision they reject or fail to comprehend. This is the beauty of the shopping mall; it keeps the indvidual psyche of the shopper center stage, it flatters that with its architectural drabness. People are oppressed by architecture presumably intended to exalt them (Kingwell writes, “Architecture will not set us free, no matter how hard — how high and fast — it tries”), because they are more exalted by not being distracted from the drama of their own identity, the self they are proceeding to construct on their own imagined design. This might seem to contradict what I said above about conformity, and perhaps it does — I think the resolution of the contradiction lies in the fact that the identity construction plays out in fantasy simultaneously with the acquisition of conformist camoflauge, rewriting that mundane bit of everyday life as its happening.

Kingwell’s description of Shanghai, its “shopholic emptiness,” sounds a lot like Las Vegas to me, dezoned and insane and bizarrely shallow despite the manifold layers of stimuli. Is there then something authoritarian and dictatorial lurking in the heart of Las Vegas?

Gangster rap catharsis

I edit music features for a Web site called PopMatters.com and this morning I got a query e-mail for a piece inspired by the recent arrest of Irv “Gotti,” head honcho of the record label Murder, Inc., for laundering money allegedly earned through heroin and cocaine trafficking. In responding to the pitch, I was struck by a few things, things that have probably been said better before, and elsewhere, and probably in a less patronizing manner. Anyway, here goes: 1) If there was no market for vicarious violence, gangster rap wouldn’t continue to be made. Why is rap the preferred musical vehicle for getting violent fantasy to the marketplace — and what happens when the fantasy becomes reality? Is there an authentication in that that makes it more sellable? Is gangster rap akin to violent video games, or is it something else? Heavy metal used to be the suburban American teenaged male’s preferred escapist vehicle into the realm of unlimited power, manifested generally as the power to intimidate. You could crank up Armored Saint, or Venom, or what have you, and be assured that you were alienating people, a dubious but distinct power. Rap music channels some of this power today. In some ways its an aggressive musical encapsulation of the feeling of being alienated (i.e. being black) in American society. Disgruntled white teens might not articulate it this way, but when their pubescent urges and their sullen moods make them feel misrecognized by society, when they want to lash out because of their suddenly understanding the ways in which they are circumscribed and the different ways their desires will be perpetually thwarted and how powerless they are in the face of the “system” or the face of a pretty girl who won’t talk to them, then they are maybe experiencing a watered-down form of what it feels like to experience racial prejudice. (Rock and roll is born when teenagers recognize the parallel, and attempt to express their angst in black-music form.) If someone crosses the street to avoid you, you’ve exerted a kind of power over them. Rather than see this as rejection, perhaps it’s better to see it as a kind of affirmation of the threat you render, of the power embodied in you. The problem comes from adaptation — if you get used to that as a kind of validation, eventually you’ll have to up the ante, and start exerting more agggressive and overt forms of menace. The vicarious violence and criminality and misogyny in gangster rap plays to this feeling, ups the ante so perhaps you don’t have to. The age-old catharsis question then comes up: Does the music serve as impetus to do what it describes, or does it serve as a safety valve, blowing off the steam so that you don’t have to do such things.

2) Racism in America has generally made the very fact of being black a kind of crime — is this what’s being reflected in gangster rap? Is racism such that it makes black entrepreneurship into a criminal enterprise, through such systemic interference as loan denials, etc.? Organized crime is arguably a shadow of legitimate business, conducted by those in society (immigrants, typically) who are for whatever reason shut out of that straight-world hierarchy. So does the seed money for independent gangster-rap record labels come from drug lords because of this? Or is it more that it’s a ripe territory to launder money (like pizza parlors).

3) Is the real-world criminality associated with gangster rap overreported to perpetuate racist stereotypes? And/or to market its “realness” and reinforce the idea that you can buy a sense of being an outlaw through it? Perhaps there’s always money to be made perpetuating stereotypes, and there’s not a lot of finacial incentive to undermine them. So there would seem to be strong financial incentives for ganster rap impressarios to perpetuate racist stereotypes about black criminality: they can collect good money from packaging white people’s fear and selling it back to them. What is so tragic about gangster rap is that it involves so many white kids in a parody of black culture, a complete distortion — so they never learn empathy for it, never understand it and an opportunity is lost. This does preserve the privacy of that culture though, protects it from isolating corrosion that afflicts white middle-class culture and that might come with assimilation — but at the cost of having a culture that is separate and unequal.

In Times Square

I was walking through Time Square, which is far from pleasant and makes me wonder why tourists flock there. It’s the least characteristic place in New York City, a place where there are three different Friday’s restauarants to choose from. It exemplifies the conundrum of modern convenience in travel: the very presence of tourists makes it unpleasant for tourists, proving that easier travel for all makes it less appealing for all. (Does that make me an elitist?) Negotiating the streets is tricky, too, not only because they are overcrowded but because no one abides the communication system of nods and leans that I referred to yesterday. People may be too mystified by the flashing lights and TV screens; they don’t watch where they’re going, which is less a matter of noticing obstacles than it is signalling to fellow pedestrians your intentions.

The lights there, too, exemplify the adaptation phenomenon researchers of hedonic psychology often talk about, and the all important factor of context. Humans adapt to the levels of display and expectation exhibited by those around them (which is why ornate Christmas-light tours de force are so often resented), and the same is true of retailers. Neon becomes mandatory in an environment like Times Square, where the bar has been raised by all the other storefront signs. WHat would be ostentatious and gaudy anywhere else is necessary there for survival. Though it seems like a deperate attempt for attention, the neon and the lights become a kind of camoflauge, allowing business to conform and seem acceptable and normal for their environment. The same can be said for the way many people dress — the tourists seemed to stick out to me, because they were wearing camoflauge for the wrong environment.

Across the MTV building was this slogan: There is one thing all people understand regardless of language: Music.” Or something like that, trite and untrue, or at least inapplicable to MTV, which obviously is not a music station. But if the last word was “youth,” then it would fit perfectly. MTV should be called Youth TV. It’s job is to market youthfulness and novelty, to confer the aura of youthfulness to a variety of goods. Music, because its so ephemeral, often stands in for youth, which needs to be continually refreshed, replenished with brand new signifiers.

Odds and ends

The unfathomable problems created by a subway-control-room fire (allegedly it will take five years to fix the damage — five years?) has lots of New Yorkers contemplating transport problems. In my way I think about them all the time when walking down the street. I always assume the cars will stop if they catch me in the middle of their turn, I assume they can always see me. In fact, there’s a sense of recognition you sense when cars do stop for you; it’s one of the rare city moments where you feel unequivocably noticed, in the simple purity of your being, as something that is alive and significant for no other reason. Then there’s the negotiations necessary for making your way down the sidewalk, the intricate system of switches and signals (dispersed throughout all pedestrians and thus immune to control-room fires started by freezing homeless people) that facilitate the flow. I’ve become a connoiseur of the moments when someone walking towards you signals which way she’s going to go; a little nod, a faint to the left, a step not quite on her natural axis, a slight hesitation, a lean this way or that — I relish these near invisible communications, humanizing my rush down the sidewalk.

A deleted passage from my most recent PopMatters column: Nostalgia may just be the impulse to resist mass production’s built-in disposability, to elevate junk culture to art and claim larger significance for time spent on it. The nostalgist sees plentitude where the culture wants you to detect emptiness after a brief blast of excitement. Like those “positive” approaches to consumption and consumerism, which configure the consumer as not a passive sponge but an active re-producer, the nostalgist subverts society’s intention to pacify us with serial, spiraling instants of shallow pleasure by making disposable items into rich artifacts with lasting personal significance. Think of the mix-tape: On the surface, it seems another way to edit life into a greater level of disposability, streamlining your music collection for quicker consumption. But really it’s the opposite of editing; it prolongs the relevance of ephemeral pop songs, combining them in a constellation that’s intricately personal, that defines a unique life moment. It’s our struggle, then, to find a mix-tape approach to the whole of life, a way to edit existence down to meaningful moments without making them disposable in the process.

I’ve been listening to those new albums by Bright Eyes, and trying really hard to like them and not dismiss them out of hand as adenoidal pretentiousness. All the songs seem to be about being a fresh-faced hipster in New York; it’s like the songs add up to the Ballad of Williamsburg. But that should be okay, that shouldn’t make it de facto awful, should it? He’s describing a typical, semi-universal experience (with its analogues across America in moves out of the suburbs to the nearby city) and rendering it with earnest emotion, with some well-turned phrases . . . maybe it just sucks. Anyone from Nebraska who feigns an accent and who takes his vocal cues from Robert Smith of the Cure is surely someone to be skeptical of. All the eighties-revival music makes me feel old, reminds me of how predictable my own tastes were when I was a teenager. Some people my age remember those years with pride and nostalgia and perhaps enjoy the music that casts them back to their glory years. Not me. I hated myself then, and I feel like my taste in music at that time showed how little respect I had for myself. How else could I have owned a Frankie Goes to Hollywood album?

A lingering lesson from those years was to never want to try to dress cool and fail. I lean instead toward bland clothes, items no one would ever assume were worn to attract attention: button-down shirts in drab colors like light-blue and cream, shapeless sweaters without patterns. Ideally I would have a uniform, but something so bland that it would defy being recognized as a uniform, it would prompt no questions. Dress to be ignored has been my somewhat self-defeating my motto. But perhaps there’s something to be said for it. You escape privacy-invasion, the all-penetrating force of the subjugating gaze, when you make your appearance a mask.

Beauty capital

In Dushko Petrovich’s “Art Journal” in n+1 he remarks about Elizabeth Peyton’s soft paintings of pretty young hipsters that looking at them, “we start to feel that it’s unimportant to paint beautiful people, and that’s an awful feeling.” His point may be that beauty, in Peyton’s hands, is trivialized, but I think the point could be extended. Peyton’s treatment of beauty is symptomatic of how our culture generally handles beauty, transforming it into useful capital, making it an object of envy, jealousy, and contempt.

Full disclosure: I’m not one of the “beautiful people.” No one would ever think to take my picture and use it to sell some products or capture the spirit of the times or connect it to something else to make that thing seem glamorous and exclusive and acutely desirable. What Petrovich’s comment brought to my mind was that the beauty of those hipsters Peyton records so well, insoucient and self-absorbed, isn’t unimportant, it’s just important for lurid, dismal reasons, important for the jealousy it can inspire. What’s so terrible about Peyton’s work is that it make me feel like I hate beauty, because of the competitive advantage it gives to those who have it. It obviates the kind of sublime beauty that is open to all, that inspires wonder at its munificence, its uselessness. But the ubiquity of capitalist comeptition leaves no spaces for unexploited beauty, no place for something to be simply beautiful. The smugness projected in Peyton’s paintings shows a concentrated awareness of that kind of beauty, allowing the people she paints to serve as its epitome. These are the people who will populate ads, who will stoke envious desire, who will supplant natural beauty with glamor. Beauty is always transformed into desire, which spawns jealousy, which fuels the systems of emulative consumption and compensatory consumption that keep our economy growing. But even things like the Grand Canyon have their beauty commodified. Beauty must always be capitalized upon, measured for what it can afford, given a value in dollars. We don’t respect beauty as an ineffable, nearly unfathomable, indescribable gift because money has convinced us we can simply purchase it if not graced with it — through plastic surgery, pretty prostitutes, art collecting, porn catologuing, etc. It’s something we own and treasure rather than appreciate in ite ephemeral moment.

No wonder twentieth-century art assailed beauty, burning the village in a desperate attempt to save it.