Saturday, April 30, 2011

mangez la gâteau! mangi la torta! coma el pastel! eat cake!

Wayne Thiebaud, Cake Window (Seven Cakes), 1970-76
The guests at the royal wedding ended up eating fruit cake. Not most people's first choice, but certainly historically significant and appropriate. Our Neolithic ancestors ground up grains, added water, and cooked these 'oatcakes' on a hot stone. The ancient Egyptians, followed by the Greeks, also made cakes...which basically were fruit cakes: dense, bready creations made of dried fruits, honey, and nuts. The Romans, who often seem to have an odd re-interpretation of things, had two versions of cake. One was more floury and was usually made as an offering to the gods. The other was called a 'placenta'.... seriously, I kid not. In fact, as it turns out this cheesecake-like pastry's name is responsible for our word placenta. The wacked-out 16th century Italian anatomist, Realdo Colombo, coined the phrase 'placenta uterina.' He must have thought there was some similarity in form.... or else he wanted to make sure we never ate birthday cake again. Anyway, you can get a recipe for the original Greek-style cake at Gourmet's website.

Even though the Brits are perhaps most associated with fruitcake, they were -- ironically -- the ones who first diverged the path of history away from these lead frisbees ("a geological homemade cake" said Dickens) and towards our more familiar and enjoyable cakes with frosting. Chaucer mentioned the serving of these cakes to the wealthy at special occasions. Perhaps that's why people started to care about how they tasted. And looked!

William and Catherine's wedding cake, 8 tiers, made by Fiona Cairns
Cake does more than just taste good. It has powerful evocative qualities. For Proust, it was the taste of his madeleine dipped in tea that carried him back to moments from his childhood when he drank tea at his aunt's: day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been moulded inthe fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me... I had now ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, then a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic. It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself...

And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane... from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. (Marcel Proust, "Overture," Swann's Way, Book One, Remembrance of Things Past, 1913)

 It is not just a nostalgic sort of reminiscing in which Proust is partaking, but the ecstatic experience of 'pure time' or 'extra-temporal' moments wherein past overlaps present... and indeed shapes the future. For later, Proust would step on two uneven paving stones and remark that "as at the moment when I tasted the madeleine, all disquietude about the future, all intellectual doubt, were dissipated." Rather than bogging him down with the weight of time and the past, memory -- for Proust -- could free him from time altogether and had the potential to connect him to a simultaneity that suggested universal time and shared experience.

Time circles upon itself; moments transport and transcend; the prosaic familiar can bring epiphanies... perhaps like the smooth circularity, buttery transcendence, and moist mouth-watering ecstasy of cake itself.

And so to return to princesses and cake. "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche!" ("Let them eat cake!") supposedly uttered Marie Antoinette during an alleged famine in the 1770s. However, the quote is impossible to trace back to Ms. Marie, nor were there any dire famines during Louis XVI's reign. There were two significant bread shortages... and in fact, it was of bread and not cake that the misattributed quote speaks. Most historians are pretty confident that Marie never spoke the callous, insensitive phrase... as her letters during the Flour Wars suggest great concern for the commoners of her country. However, there are a small few who believe it is possible... with the caveat that we don't correctly understand what she was suggesting. Brioche now means a lovely buttery golden bun with a similar sweetness and flakiness to a croissant. But back in the day of Uncle Louis, brioche referred to the water and flour paste that was leftover in the bottom of pans of professional bakers after removing the breads and pastries. These boulangers would scrape out this brioche and leave it for starving beggars... a clever thrift much like the Seinfeld episode with Elaine and her muffin tops... and bottoms. So, if Marie really said it, perhaps she was being extremely practical... and much more compassionate that is usually assumed.

Regardless, the phrase became tied to Marie for more symbolic reasons. As fervor built towards the oncoming French Revolution, French anti-monarchists forced much of their general dissatisfaction with the tyrannical government upon Marie... and personified her to be a frivolous, extravagant, unfeeling narcissist. She, and her cakey comment, became symbolic of all that was wrong with France at the time.

Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006)
Cake often takes on symbolic resonance. For Proust. For the French. And for Wayne Thiebaud, the artist who has so canonized the plastic commerciality, the repetition of slices and memories, the frosted poetry of the cake and all that it has become symbolic of -- abundance, longing, desire, nostalgia, and contemplation through the palpable.

His paint functions literally as frosting, its thick buttery quality becoming the thick butter of the very cake of our reality. He invites us to re-stimulate our senses, and thereby our memories. To taste the cake, to taste the birthday party when we were ten. Like Proust's tea-soaked madeleine, Thiebaud's paint-viscous canvases become the landscape of all our realities... sensory, mnemonic, and chimerical.
A pie has all kinds of marvelous complex associations. The whiteness of meringue became for me of great poetic preoccupation: it's like snow, like frost, like the concept of purity and, from a painter's standpoint, white both absorbs and reflects like, it's composed of all colors...

But the, I know you wonder -- why a pie instead of a snow bank. Well, pie [and cake] has other implications: the idea of 'Pie in the Sky', the old American preoccupation with Mom and Apple Pie, pie throwing contests, pie eating contests, pie throwing in Chaplin films. One makes a pie out of ordinary stuff, like raisins, squash or apples and gift wraps it, in a sense, with a crust. It's very magical, very special. (Wayne Thiebaud quoted in LeGrace Benson, David Shearer, & Wayne Thiebaud, "An Interview with Wayne Thiebaud," Leonardo, vol. 2, no. 1 (Jan . 1969), 66)
Thiebaud turned cakes into icons, painted to create microcosmic worlds of remembrance and possibility with the allusion onto canvas of much that exists abstractly in the corners of our minds. And he somehow presaged our current sugar-coated engrossment with cakey sensuality.

Cupcake Wars on the Food Network
Duff from Ace of Cakes

Finished cake from Ultimate Cake Off on TLC
Starry Night cake from Gateaux, Inc. of Minneapolis (on WE's Amazing Wedding Cakes)
Another Gateaux, Inc. creation (
Rather than burdening cake as being the carrier of our celebratory obligations, let's celebrate cake itself tomorrow. Bake a cake. Eat cake. Feed cake (gently) to a loved one. Blow out some candles (if it so happens to be your birthday.) Indulge, imagine, reminisce, commemorate, compete, and rebel. Savor the taste and be transported. Fill your home with the scent of cake baking and with the aura of all it contains... including the faint and fading pastel-tinted plaintive wistfulness that frosts the crumb-covered plates of cake once present, now consumed, forever sublime.


Friday, April 29, 2011

make the familiar strange

Glenn Ligon, Untitled, 1992
When I have taught Black Boy to my 9th grade Honors classes, I have begun outside of the novel... first with the Prologue to Invisible Man.
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination -- indeed, everything and anything except me.

Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of biochemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it it most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you're constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren't simply a phantom in other people's minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It's when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you're a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your firsts, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it's seldom successful. (Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (Random House: New York, 1947), pp. 3-4)
We read Zora Neale Hurston's piece, "How It Feels to Be Colored Like Me."
I do not always feel colored... I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background...

But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a wall in company with other bags, white, red, yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of things priceless and worthless. A first-water diamond, an empty spool, bits of broken glass, lengths of string, a key to a door long since crumbled away, a rusty knifeblade, old shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, a dried flower or two, still a little fragrant. In your hand is the brown bag. On the ground before you is the jumble it held -- so much like the jumble in the bags, could they be emptied, that all might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the contents of any greatly. A bit of colored glass more of less would not matter. (Zora Neale Hurston, "How It Feels to Be Colored Like Me," 1928)
We also read a piece that comes from my Facing History and Ourselves course resource book. This short piece describes Jesus Colon's memory of failing to assist a white woman struggling with her children and luggage on the New York subway. He feels that he not only failed the woman and her children, but that "I failed myself. I buried my courtesy early on Memorial Day morning."

We also do a project making "Identity Boxes" -- using a shoebox to represent how others see you (outside of box) vs. how you see yourself (inside of box). Notwithstanding all of the other creative projects we do throughout the year, this particular one always seems to move the students the most. We brainstorm a web of identity on the board -- age, gender, race, likes/dislikes, birthplace, career, income, etc. The students begin to consider identity as something multi-faceted and fluid... and as deceptive -- parts of it visible and other parts of it so discreetly hidden that you yourself may not even know they are there. We talk about how identity changes from situation to situation, moment to moment... how you are a daughter at home and then a student at school and then a friend (or a a delinquent) after school.... and they see the layers, the mutations, the 'jumble.'

And where do words fit into all of this? Right in front, it seems. For, what are you when you are inside of that box, but you are simultaneously and most concretely -- physically, linguistically, contextually -- outside of that box? And it is the outside of this box that is plastered with words (often not emanating from you...unwanted words), with 'distorting mirrors' such that those around you 'see only [your] surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination'... when it is the outside of this box that causes you to be what you do not necessarily feel to be... when you are jumbled inside the brown bag but the bag is 'thrown against a sharp white background'... and it is in this the palpable, precisely spelled out contrast of black on white that all becomes reversed... that you exist in the words... but also slip into the spaces.

Once we are well into Black Boy, I begin class one day by projecting the Ligon image above on the board and asking the students first just to observe as much as they can in their journals without attempting to make any conclusions or inferences. "There is a lot to see," I say, the irony of the words ringing in my ears... echoing inside of my paper bag.

After they write alone, then discuss their observations with peers, we process together as a class. They start with the blurring of the words near the bottom of the image, the repetition of one single phrase, the odd line breaks. They often need to be guided towards the recognition of Ligon's sampling of Hurston's phrase, the time difference between her essay (and the use of the word colored) and the making of Ligon's image, the typography of the letters themselves (stencil-like.)

Nor do they always consider the statement about identity as one that only exists through the testimony of refutation.  It is a statement in the negative, affirming what its speaker is not, and only implying what he is. "If he does not always feel colored, then what is the implication?" I ask my students. That he usually does feel colored. He is what he is not... usually. Though sometimes he is what he is. And none of it is clear, as everything blurs at the bottom of the image, blurs at the repetition of the phrase in an attempt, perhaps, to legitimize, an invisible existence. As Ben Davis writes in his review of the current retrospective of Ligon's work at the Whitney, Ligon's art "does not sit easily within such clean lines. Almost all of his art functions as a kind of conceptual double-negative, engaging with the subject matter of identity only to undercut the supposition that he is saying something clear-cut about it, offering a loaded reference, and then holding it at ironic distance." (Ben Davis, "Glenn Ligon and Post-Civil Rights America,", Apr, 21, 2011)

Words obscure as much as they explicate. We announce. We posit. We state. We assert. We translate, justify, profess, proclaim, swear, confirm, contradict, and repeat. And while our identity may be fluid, our words "return compulsively to the same questions again and again." (Davis) In this particular case, Ligon does not even speak through his own words, but through borrowed phrases from Hurston (in this case), Ellison, and Baldwin. And his borrowed words do as much to complicate the issue as they do to reveal who he is. Our picture of Ligon is not any clearer after viewing his images, but perhaps our sense of the failings of language itself is. And then we peer at the surfaces and wonder what is being said 'between the lines,' everything existing in the silent moments amidst the conversation, the white absences on the page, the in-between that speaks "a first-person voice... while registering the denial and relentless silencing of that same voice." (Richard Meyer, "Borrowed Voices: Glenn Ligon and the Force of Language," in Judith Tannenbaum (ed.), Glenn Ligon: Unbecoming (Philadelphia: UPenn Institute of Contemporary Art, 1997)) 

How can we ever tell others who we are? How can we take a simple word like 'love' and define it? If it were so simple, then thousands upon thousands of pages would not be devoted to defining, expressing, encircling it. We even feel inadequate when we try to express our deepest emotion for another person through the overtaxed and insufficient phrase, "I love you." No, I am not trying to suggest that genuine love cannot be expressed in other ways. Through the simple touch of a hand upon a cheek. Through the devoted focused look into another's eyes. Yes, of course there are other ways. Communication exists on many levels. Yet, we must always return to words. And so often they complicate.
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet (Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Act II, scene ii)
Or as Saussure explained: "The value of a word can never be determined except by the contribution of coexisting terms which delimit it: or, to insist on the paradox already mentioned: what is in the word is only ever determined by the contribution of what exists around it... You must approach the word from outside by starting from the system and coexisting terms." (Ferdinand de Saussure, "Third Course of Lectures on General Linguistics," 1910) And so we end up speaking in blurred terms that obscure the white space in which we hover. The words gain meaning only by their neighboring words and hold no real significance in and of themselves.

Where are we located then? Or are we familiar only in the strange, estranged within the familiar? Perhaps we find ourselves in the daydream, in the fantastical supplement to reality which cannot be reduced to the semantic, the semiotic because "[i]f you seek simply the sententious or the exegetical, you will not grasp the hybrid moment outside the sentence --not quite experience, not yet concept; part dream, part analysis; neither signifier nor signified." (Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), pg. 181) In this space of fantasy -- at once guilt and pleasure -- in this 'problematic space' where meaning 'outside the sentence' is performed exists not one voice, but many. As Bhabha reveals, 'outside the sentence' does not exist in a dichotomous relationship with an inner voice. They are not clear and distinct polarities, just as black and white are not and become a blurred space of 'slippage' as the words become spatial. And in this ambivalence, in this 'third space' arises a new question "about the subject of discourse and the agency of the letter: can there be a social subject of the 'non-sentence'?" (Bhabha, pg. 183)... and is it this sort of contingent agency , this silent but resolute voice, that speaks through Ligon's work?

Bhabha writes of how we cannot look directly at words or text or visual articulation for meaning. Everything expressed remains incomplete and also implicates us in our desire to find meaning, to situate perception and difference definitively in the first place. And this desire "splits the difference between Self and Other so that both positions are partial; neither is sufficient unto itself." (Bhabha, pg.50) Words are opaque. Words navigate us to forget as much as they remind us to remember. To find ourselves, to place our voice, to listen to the subject beyond the narrative, we must travel "in the passage between telling/told, between 'here' and 'somewhere else'..." (Bhabha, pg. 150) to a place in which we feel fundamentally alienated and uncannily strange to ourselves.

In his poem, "A Man Meets a Woman in the Street," Randall Jarrell writes of how he follows a strange and beautiful woman, the embodiment of 'his type,' of a romanticized fantasy.
Imprinted upon me
Is the shape I run to, the sweet strange
Breath-taking contours that breathe to me: "I am yours,
Be mine!"
Like a very typical "everyman," he wishes for each day to be different... until the end of the poem when he admits/realizes he has been following his wife all along... until he decides to begin the day
Not with a man's wish: "May this day be different,"
But with the birds' wish: "May this day
Be the same day, the day of my life."
In our "thirst for inter-subjective confirmation of the self," in our desire to dispose of our own familiarity, of our all-too familiar selves, we seek the strange... and sometimes avoid "being" -- whether that being is "'human being'; 'being' as existence; 'being' as the carrier of an adjective (being married, being tall, being American -- having the qualities by which others know us); [or] 'being' inside (having a psyche)." (Stephen Burt, Randall Jarrell and His Age (New York: Columbia Press, 2002), pg. 47) Jarrell rediscovers familiarity by making it strange. And perhaps that is what is wonderful about the continual strangeness of language, of its inability to locate anything precisely, of its slippages and blurred spaces. It can always make us see anew. It can make the familiar strange again... and again.

Carson Fox, I Know About Your Broken Heart, wire, artificial hair, 25.5" x 106", 2004

Thursday, April 28, 2011

can you smell what's cookin' beneath the people's eyebrow?

 Well, apparently you have been hiding under a rock... "The Rock" perhaps... and he's giving you the people's eyebrow. The aforementioned self-proclaimed "People's Champ" is thereby not only our defender, our hope, our warrior king... but also possesses an unusual skill with his upper orbital eye hair fringes (a.k.a. his eyebrows.) Is he a hero or villain? Is he in The Corporation or out? Who cares? He has mastered "the people's eyebrow"!!

Though his signature move in the ring may be a Float Over DDT followed by a kip up, Mr. Heart Stoppin'-Elbow Droppin'-Pie Eating-Jabroni Beating-Scorpion King's signature expression is the people's eyebrow. What does the people's eyebrow consist of, you may ask? Well, ask away!

The exact facial specifics of the expression require one to raise one eyebrow while simultaneously lowering the other, and issuing forth a challenging, defiant stare towards the onlooker. A tilt of the head makes the move 'pure Rock', but is not completely necessary to achieve the desired effect... and what is that effect? According to Urban Dictionary, the expression is one of threat. However, I see more subtlety in the countenance. There is a swagger without the physical movement that swagger usually requires. The look says "Yo! Know your role. Don't mess with me!" but isn't brash in the way of many expressions of aggressive hubris. There is a sardonic shift of the mouth that follows the uplifted eyebrow, making the expression contain the hint of a taunt, of a challenge while still allowing the overall expression to be one that does not cross the line into haughtiness. It is not a boastful expression. It is fearless and almost unconcerned. Yes, "don't mess with me," but the sense that there exists an actual impending menace is negligible. The Rock can easily shake the haters off with a shift of the eyebrow that brushes the dirt off his shoulder like the dusty insignificance that it is. 'Threat? What threat? You're just a big fat bowl of Fruity Pebbles, a homeless Power Ranger who shouldn't be messing with me in the first place. Do you smell what The Rock is cookin'? Go ahead, bring it! And I will lay the smacketh down! Who is this roody-poo? Who in the blue hell are you? You are gonna enter the dance with The Great One who's gonna take your monkey ass down Know Your Role Boulevard which is on the corner of Jabroni Drive and check you directly into the Smackdown Hotel! It doesn't matter what you think. Do you like pie? Can you smmmmeeeelllll what this People's Champ is cookin'?!?!?! This ain't singalong with the Champ. Who are you? Two popcorn farts? I am electrifying, trail blazing... I am the modern Rocky, the supernova of entertainment. Watch me explode.'

The people's eyebrow from The People's Champ... in action
Psychologists who study facial expressions disagree upon what the role of our expressions are. Do they reflect inner feelings? Are they intended to influence others? Or do they forecast future actions? Our facial expressions can provoke certain reactions or behavior from others. Expressions are part of our social functionality in society. A smile invites others to safely approach. A grimace can warn people away (or just suggest that the grimacer is seriously backed up... in which case it would still be wise to back away.) Alan Fridlund, a professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara (Go Gauchos!!!) explains it as such: "The face is like a switch on a railroad track. It affects the trajectory of the social interaction the way the switch would affect the path of the train." Regardless of its purpose, most psychologists agree with Linda Camras of DePaul University that expressions must be plausible to be effective in the given situation. But, until that time... fake it till you make it!

So, hop on the train. Woooo woooooo! Turn on the switch of the people's eyebrow. Learn it. Love it. Be one with your eyebrows... or uni-brow... whatever your personal case may be. Come on... bring it! Get your candy ass off the couch, out of your pathetic office cubicle decorated with baby angels and lame noob motivational posters and over to the mirror and start practicing! It's really not that hard... even an infant can do it! Are you going to be outdone by a being whose life in months doesn't even add up to yours in years?

Start an office pool. Who has the best people's eyebrow? Join the facebook group. Create a new emoticon. Drop it like it's hot! Come on! Everyone's doing it... the President included.

Once you master the basics, you can add your own personal spin... tilt your head. Pitch your mouth to one side. Do it over one shoulder to the loser who just lurched into you on the subway. Do it behind sunglasses, exhibiting a real 'ya go ahead and make my day' kind of feel. Invite the challenge. You know you can take it.

The people's eyebrow will transform you. It will change your life. It will prepare you for anything... or at least it will be the perfect reaction when that bumbling lug at the gym steps on your toe while in the midst of cluelessly taking your weight plates as he tries to lift less than your girlfriend on the leg press. (450 lbs!)

"The dedication, the determination, the desire, the work ethic, the great successes and the great failures -- I take that into life." - "The Rock"

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

alone together: driving and crowds

 I blame it on life. Damn life! I am lagging behind in my reading of my favorite magazines -- The New Yorker and New York Magazine. As I worked my way through the Feb. 14th issue of New York mag yesterday, I began an article about U.S. soldiers, post-traumatic stress, and the laundry list of medications that ex-GIs are using to combat the internal war they face once returning home.

The first soldier (a former medic) introduced in the article is a poignant mix of introspective and heroic and broken. Like many of his fellow soldiers, "this war, because of its omnipresent suicide bombers and roadside explosives, seems to have disproportionately rendered [him] afraid of two things: driving and crowds." (Jennifer Senior, "The Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Effexor, Valium, Klonopin, Ativan, Restoril, Xanax, Adderall, Ritalin, Haldol, Risperdal, Seroquel, Ambien, Lunesta, Elavil, Trazodone War," New York Magazine, Feb. 14, 2011, p. 28)

Crowds and driving. Driving and crowds. These struck me as the two aspects of modern life that have always been most troubling... and most invigorating. Georg Simmel, the famously anxious sociologist, theorized that society is based on interaction and integration, differentiating him from prior 19th century thinkers who perceived society to function metaphorically as a biological organism. Simmel felt society to be more like a network in which cooperation and conflict were the two edges of the sword that cut through and defined an individual's modern experience. Simmel reflected that his contemporary society was much more fragmented than those of earlier eras -- thereby, the ease of cooperating and forming unified groups became much more difficult. According to Simmel, contrary to other times and places in history, modern life presents the individual with a need for self-preservation which fundamentally conflicts with the actions required and powers retained for the self-preservation of the group. Whereas, in many ways, modern life frees a person from the demands of the group (the tribe, the guild, etc.) and related oppressions, these oppressions manifest anew in modern life -- they manifest from within such that the individual becomes oppressed by forces of his own creation (or his inability to process all of the 'sensory overload' that modern urban life presents.)

Overstimulated by the commotion, confusion, drama, and frenzy of the modern city, man (saith Simmel) develops a psychological defense against this new infection and threat.... a defense required for modern survival. He becomes a sort of over-rational being; otherwise, the intensifications of sensory and emotional experiences would overwhelm and defeat him. He treats life and experiences more disconnectedly through intellectual processing. Consciousness is thereby magnified in man's new blase outlook. Sensory overload would undo the modern man without this protection. Stimuli, "through the rapidity and the contradictoriness of their shifts, [would] force the nerves to make such violent responses, tear them about so brutally that they [would] exhaust their last reserves of strength..." (Georg Simmel, "The Metropolis and Mental Life," 1903) Calculating, practical, rational, individually self-preserved -- these are the qualities of the modern man. Consequently, modern people develop a new sort of personal freedom, one which, in part, is due to their greater awareness of the isolation in which they now live their lives. For this 'new protective organ' of intellectualizing life also separates man from man, forcing them to process much of life within. Freedom assumes a new definition.
Just as in feudal times the "free" man was he who stood under the law of the land, that is, under the law of the largest social unit, but he was unfree who derived his legal rights only from the narrow circle of a feudal community -- so today in an intellectualized and refined sense the citizen of the metropolis is "free" in contrast with the trivialities and prejudices which bind the small town person. The mutual reserve and indifference, and the intellectual conditions of life in large social units are never more sharply appreciated in their significance for the independence of the individual than in the dense crowds of the metropolis because the bodily closeness and lack of space make intellectual distance really perceivable for the first time. It is obviously only the obverse of this freedom that, under certain circumstances, one never feels lonely and as deserted as in this metropolitan crush of persons. (Simmel, 1903)
Perhaps the "freedom" of modern life is not so pleasant after all. Just as Ms. Swift sings: "It turns out freedom ain't nothing but missing you." And what about the freedom of the sort that the crowd offers? The anonymity of being invisible amidst so many. The romance of being both a product of and spectator upon the flow of life -- Simmel's intellectualization becoming a strength that endows the observant flâneur with the freedom to reflect without the necessity of participating. As Amin & Thrift describe in their book, Cities: Reimagining the Urban,
...the city [is a] lived complexity... [thereby requiring the skills of a] gifted meditative walker, purposefully lost in the city's daily rhythms and material juxtapositions. The walker possesses both a poetic sensibility and a poetic science that is almost impossible to distil as a methodology for urban research... He [referring to Walter Benjamin] was not the naive and impressionable dilettante. He was armed instead with a transcendental speculative philosophy that allowed him to select, order and interpret his sensory experiences of the city... [such that he could] reveal the processes at work through the eye of a needle. (Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift, Cities: Reimagining the Urban (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), p.11)
To return to the soldier... what happens, then, to those who are so traumatized that the crowd threatens once again... rather than invigorates? What happens if the "eye of the needle" is widened to reveal horrors and brutality and the power of raw naked fear? What is the "eye" becomes so vast it takes all of this in... is required to take all of this in? Have they lost the sensibility of intellectual distancing? Have they seen too much of another kind of crowd -- the kind more along the lines of LeBon's hypnotically dangerous sort wherein the individual is lost to a group think, a "contagion of feelings and ideas in an identical direction"*? Wherein the individuated isolation that Simmel imagined is seized by the group and replaced a vacuum of collective invincibility?

* Gustave LeBon, Psychologie des Foules, 1895

Yi-Fu Tuan writes of how crowding and spaciousness are opposites and yet highly interconnected.
Space is a common symbol of freedom in the Western world. Spaces lies open; it suggests the future and invites action. On the negative side, space and freedom are a threat. A root meaning of the word "bad" is open. To be open and free is to be exposed and vulnerable. Open space has no trodden paths and signposts. It has no fixed pattern of established human meaning; it is like a blank sheet on which meaning may be imposed. Enclosed and humanized space is place. Compared to space, place is a calm center of established values. (Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), p. 54)
Much like the difference between a "house" and a "home." Is this part of the problem? That place, for these soldiers, has splintered back into mere empty space. Yes, I certainly recognize that there are direct linkages establishing crowds and driving as threats. Roadside bombings, suicide bombers, the unpredictability of those in a crowd... the unpredictability of anything. As Senoir writes in her article: "Movie theaters, subway cards, densely packed spaces all can pose problems for soldiers, because marketplaces are frequent targets for explosions; so can any vehicle, because IEDs are this war's lethal booby trap of choice."

At the end of the article, Senoir speaks of how the aforementioned soldier still lives a "cloistered life." But Senoir speaks of him as a 'success story,' a soldier who is on the path to healing (though healing may be a "glacial process") because he "hasn't vanished from sight, or pretended he's fine, or numbed himself with whatever substances he has at his disposal. He hasn't totaled his car or crashed his motocycle; he isn't hitting his kids or screaming at his wife." I guess the have-nots win out here, success being defined by what this broken soldier is now able to avoid. Does modern war so break its participants that the open wounds can never heal? That there can be no real re-introduction into the fundamental features of modern life?

Crowds and driving... and traffic. In both a crowd and in traffic, one can often be more isolated than any other time. Is the extreme proximity of urban life necessarily disruptive and estranging? I have learned the steps of the dance along a New York city sidewalk. They are complex and require a unique kind of focused attention -- attention on your own movement amidst, against, and betwixt the flow of the crowd. Your mind isolates your body and finds its own path through the chaos. We are perhaps more alone together... more alone than ever before.

Richard Estes
Which brings us, interestingly, to Richard Estes -- an artist whose hyper-realism captures this sort of hyper-isolation and illusiveness. When something becomes "hyper-real," reality is heightned in such a way as to transcend its own realness. Thus, it becomes something once again very unreal -- threatening perhaps -- at the very least, illusory, reflective... an image on the glass rather than a tangible hold on existence. And yet the illusion is part of reality? Not an illusion that tricks, but an illusion that structures... an illusion mirrored on the glass of the buildings we race by each day. Pop art created a commercial pile of commercial images and played upon our comfortable relationship with irony. Hyperrealism did not speak with sarcasm or irony but too much reality, such that within "the commonplace horror which grew more dense with every step, photorealism unleashed willy-nilly a violence more intense than any accusation: from Candide to the Accidents of Warhol, the resolution to avoid judgment had proven itself, and it was enough that Richard McClean showed, in the decor of a countryside under cellophane... an elegant horse mounted and held by a pair of human devoid of grace to the point of provoking a vague discomfort..." (Jean-Claude Lebensztejn & Kate Cooper, "Photorealism, Kitsch, and Venturi," Substance, vol, 10, no. 2, 1981) The kind of realism that sticks in your throat... the kind of realism that confronts with violence... the kind of realism that is reflective and slippery and impossible to find the place of humanism within it. Perhaps it isn't that the soldiers returning from Iraq are not doing particular things that is so successful, but that they are... that they are seeing with a sharply perceptive, with a trained eye... with an eye to the violence within all reality.. to the isolation within which we are all trapped. Perhaps they see better than anyone. Perhaps that is why they fear the traffic, the crowds, the horrible reality of what we can become we when become ugly... and the impurity, the unresolved, the constant perturbation that results. They see authentically, no longer blinded to "the empty incarnation of an inauthentic feeling." (Gilo Dorfles, Kitsch, 1988, p. 177) No heroes here. We are so alone... together.

Richard Estes

Richard Estes, Car Reflections, oil on canvas, 1969

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

listen to the night

My first request! And since I sleep so little, the theme of night sounds is one of which I could write at length. When all becomes dark, when the world consists of you lying on your bed pondering the ebony cloak of eventide, it is sound itself that intensifies and becomes a symphonic world of its own played by the orchestra of the night. Tomorrow's (or tonight's) theme... listen to the night.

Wallaby Creek, Australia: Summer rain again misting over the subtropical rainforest, larger drops marking the end of their journey with a ding against the tin of our rain collector. The low, constant buzzing in the distance -- almost as large trucks rolling down some remote highway -- yet there is no such highway anywhere around. The droning deep hum persists uncannily, the mating call of male koalas to potential partners -- an ominous, persistent wooing full of desire and urgency, a dusk-murmuring love note from beau to inamorata rattling beneath the depths of night. The wet, whistling jamboree of the frog chorus improvising propulsive rhythms for the night witness. The slow plodding of the bulky monitor lizard, hissing at the sight of its prey... the night whispers, allures, composes and performs itself... the sonar-like ping of the bellbirds marking the return of morning from their eucalypt perch.

Northern Ontario: Tent-mate rustling beside me in her sleeping bag cocoon. The descending silver solo of the rain owl interrupted by the rhythmic bass of the great grey owl, reminding all of its territory... reminding me of my foreign status. Wavering quiver of loon songs. The squeak and zip of a nearby tent as muffled voices awake and tell of their dreams, then pause, then rise in night-heavy-enveloped alarm. My ears sharpen and my eyes close in order to hear what they have heard. River breeze bristles through the needles of balsam pine and glides across the smooth leaves of black ash. The mellifluous lapping of gentle currents on the shore. The sky-blue tincture of long paddling days intoning memories from the inside and foretelling of breaking dawn.

Lake house, winter: Cold breaking glacial outside my cracked window. Frigid silence spreading its preternatural echo over impossible winter expanse. Letters from thousands of miles away piled upon my nightstand, their autography speaking, whispering over and through the saturnine quiet. Car labors through the thickness of algor, arctic climb, its engine fumbling, its wheels roaring against all that fights this lonesome, wintry onslaught. Field of snow unbroken outside my window hovers. It cracks, ever so slightly. It sounds like a thousand axes cleaving their passage into the crevices of iron core within the hard heavy earth.

Aix-en-Provence: Screeching mopeds blasting through empty, cigarette-stained streets. Plane trees standing at full salute, the breadth of arms and centuries thickening the Mediterranean air with auditory reminiscence. Fountains trickling over ancient stone voices. Wisps of the Mistral in its receding passage westward. The abrupt and unfettered laughter of one lover chasing another down well-loved sidewalks. Church bell escaping from its cloistered home, spreading over wide avenues lost in time, resounding against elaborately carved walnut doors, tapestries of kings... finding its way to the outskirts of town to lyrical landscape overseen by the haunting presence of Mont Sainte-Victoire.

Here and now: Birch quiet. Highway rumblings. Words and thoughts and feelings mixing into night harmony, night discordance. Flutter of wings. Sweet first drizzle of rain. Cellphone buzz -- 3am text coming through. The reverberation of sleepless hours. Your voice in my heart, soothing me, lulling me, turning off the night noise... I fall into the night of your susurration, shadowy aurora awaiting patiently... your heartbeat my eternal reassuring rhythm... my forever night sound.

Monday, April 25, 2011

idle and demoralizing vacations

It is about this time of year that schools have spring vacations and colleges release their students to put on display all that they haven't acquired over the past semesters in places like Panama City Beach or Cancun. And, of course, summer vacation for both parties is not far off.

If you think about society in a more Marxian sense, vacation is a strange concept. I got to thinking about this when wondering when the notion of vacation evolved. The broader concept of leisure only developed in connection with labor itself as a separate entity. Once man has been placed in the position of needing to devote large portions of his time to "labor" (output, production, capital markets), then he must similarly schedule his down-time. One time was not his (labor) and the other was intended to be (leisure). As Doğan Kilinç explains in his thesis on labor and leisure:
...for man leisure means rest, the improvement of skills and "the free exercise of his creative capacity." [Dumazedier, Toward A Society of Leisure] In this definition leisure signifies not only non-working time but also [time] beyond social obligations. Thus, it is conceived as an individual's own world, time belonging only to him. ["Labor, Leisure and Freedom in the Philosophies of Aristotle, Karl Marx and Herbert Marcuse"]
Is vacation a time for rest, a space of freedom, or a time to further cultivate one's individual creativities? Can we be completely idle, or is that alone a risky endeavor for the whole of society and the future of mankind? And could we even be idle (letting go of our IPads, cellphones, adventure vacations, etc.) if we wanted to? If man, as Marx posited, is already alienated from his labor, will he thereby be alienated from his leisure as well? Is leisure a commodity just as labor? There certainly is a vibrant and robust leisure industry...

God created the world in six days... and on the seventh, he rested. Rest, at least for a Christianity-based Western civilization, is structured in relation to work. Furthermore, rest is a reward for work well done (though sometimes I'm not so sure, God...) The philosopher Bertrand Russell felt that the working day should be reduced to four hours time and that 'structured' idleness was, in fact, praise-worthy and invaluable. In what he saw as our illogical 'slave state,' he posed the following thought experiment to prove his point:
Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as must leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined? [Bertrand Russell, "In Praise of Idleness," 1932]
In the end, Russell felt idleness essential not only to freedom as Marx posited, but to happiness. When work is humane and there is sufficient time for idleness,
...there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid....Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle.
Wow! Let's all go on vacation then! It will end all wars, enable us to create inspired and meaningful things and ideas, and instill us with the morality for which we strive but are too distracted to achieve. Russell seems remarkably naïve here. Or perhaps just the product of an entirely different society and era. What about companies like Google that seem to incorporate leisure time into work time, obfuscating the once-clear boundary between the two? Google employees who are part of the engineering development teams are offered up to 20% of their work time to pursue any project that interests them.. .time that has been dubbed "Innovation Time Off." Is this freedom and happiness while working? Or just another sinister manipulation of laborers by capitalist overlords?

I think a lot of us attempt to 'escape' during our vacations... to forget about work and its related stressors... even to forget about particular realities of our lives and their related stressors. What are we running from? And then, what does it mean to have to return, the weight perhaps weightier after having felt the release from it?

Even as far back as 1898, vacation was an old concept. In an article about the re-installation of year-round schooling (funny how things work cyclically...), Sadie American writes:
There is an old-fashioned notion that pictures vacation as a period of relaxing all the restraining discipline of the school year -- a time when the whole being can stretch itself, as it were, and attain fuller proportions by doing as it listeth, running about in green fields, chasing butterfly, or bird, or bumblebee, climbing trees and wading brooks, or browsing in pure animal enjoyment.
The growth of our large cities, with the consequent crowding of population, has changed all this, and what grass there is no longer invites the tripping feet, but sternly warns "keep off!" Birds and butterflies have fled to the parks, too distant for the child to follow; and the buzz of bees is replaced by the gong of the electric-car Moloch, claiming the street for its own, and sacrificing all who may dispute his sovereignty. [Sadie American, "The Movement for Vacation Schools," The American Journal of Sociology, Vol.4, No.3 (1898), p. 309]
And Miss American (how fitting!) ends her article noting the critical importance of these proposed (and experimental) 'vacation schools' in their ability "to convert the vacation from a time of demoralization to one of recreation in the best sense of the word." [325]

I want my vacations to be idle... but probably not demoralizing. It seems intriguing that the whole issue of morality keeps getting wrapped up in the time when we just want to rest our brains and put our minds at ease. It all comes down to this question of what constitutes 'quality of life'? What I most remember from my summer vacations, often consisting solely of a month spent at a summer camp in Maine and the rest of the time participating on a local swim team and generally lazing at the outdoor pool, is just the sort of ideal idleness I would like to continue to cultivate somehow. We were not really idle at all... us kids roaming around in the freedom of summers that do not seem to exist for the over-structured, over-disciplined, over-achieving kid of today. Yes, I did lay by the pool after swim practice. But, in doing so, I learned to enjoy the simple act of just being... of feeling the warm heat of the concrete re-instill my frigid body with vitality. Yes, I did sometimes skip our 'free blocks' at camp in order to sit in the woods and gossip with friends about what cute boys at the neighboring boy's camp we might ask to dance on the following Saturday night. But this too was time well spent. Time spent among friends. Some of the truest and dearest I can remember. And despite all my idleness and perhaps excessive freedom, I was indeed inspired to create... just as Marx and others hoped. Our band of neighbors spent long hours scripting, producing, and filming indie-style films...before we even knew how cool those were. We invented new forms of play, known as 'night games'. We sat out late at night in the dark weaving tales from our uninhibited imaginations. And we became independent. We learned to be alone as much as to be together. We learned to be idle with purposeness.... perhaps the most valuable kind of idleness.

Perhaps it all comes down to how we value and use time. When I lived in France, life seemed to move more in alignment with all time. Waking each day, work, free time -- it all seemed less disjointed from a broader context. Doing errands was not a thing to be rushed through, but an event... an unfolding. I often spent up to an hour or more waiting at the post office. In the U.S., this would be unacceptable. But, in France, it was not the process of getting one's individual business done extremely efficiently that mattered, but what happened as one went to mail a letter. The post office was a social venue, a place to run into and chat with friends, a place to purview posters on the wall of upcoming events. It was a place to be treated with a sense of leisure, with 'unhurried ease'... as was lunch at the café or the long stroll to or from one's official place of work.

Perhaps this should be the essence of vacation... the unhurried ease that you found once before. For, we all need to relax... really. "It's those changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes, nothing remains quite the same. With all of our running and all of our cunning, if we couldn't laugh, we would all go insane." [J. Buffett]

Sunday, April 24, 2011

the softest smell

It is Sunday which only means one thing! Actually, it means about a million different things to a million different people, but here on Tomorrow's Theme, it only means one thing! Thank god for only having one thing to deal with! Thank god for themes of the day!

Anyway, to get to the point, Sunday is the day when we consider Monday's theme... and Monday's themes now have the consistency of being a time to consider yourself. In other words, Sunday's blog entry (and Monday's theme) will fall under the sub-category of a journal prompt. I recognize that I haven't unveiled all of my sub-categories to the world yet, so you may be a bit confused at the moment. That is okay. As I tell my students at the beginning of the year, I make my classroom a safe and comfortable place for them in all ways... except one... there will be many times when they feel mentally uncomfortable, when they feel confused as to what one thing has to do with another or what direction we are headed. Being in a state of confusion is a good thing, I tell them. That means your brain is stretching to accommodate new ideas, new perspectives, and new dimensions. Embrace the confusion. These are the first steps to a new stability.

For tomorrow, I found an interesting journal prompt for you to consider. It reminds me of my absolute favorite Shakespearean expression, "But soft!"... an expression which implies the tenderness of waiting... an expression I hope to revive. Anyway, here is a place for you to begin your work week:

What smells the softest?

1. First breath upon waking

One of my favorite experiences in life -- one of the best simple moments -- are the first few moments upon waking in the morning. I am one of those unusual people who doesn't use an alarm clock. For the most part I would mark my restless, fitful, light-sleeping nature as a negative. However, in this one particular aspect, I can see how lucky I am. How many of us are able to truly enjoy those moments when you re-open your eyes naturally, drawn somehow back out of slumber and dreams and the unconscious, and therein you hover in somnolence, in liminal almost and not quite, in-between the in and out of your own life, your own self. You lie and yet think no thoughts. You look and yet see nothing at all. Or rather you see and don't process. You see purely and disconnectedly. You don't breathe... for a long time... for an eternity. The little quiet moments that exist in the still of your own dawn expand into a thousand lifetimes. They break over and over you like waves and you are unable to move, helplessly held captive in the vulnerability of breathlessness. You absorb and integrate; you die slowly and let the dead parts of yourself fall away into the pink blush of sky that evaporates outside your bedroom. And then finally you do breathe. And the breath does not feel like anything -- it is too light, too gossamer, too delicate. It only smells of soft as it enters your nostrils and brings you malleableness once again.

2. Your neck and the place where your forearm meets your upper arm

You already smell the softest because I love you. But there are still softest soft-smelling parts of you. Your neck. My head resting on your shoulder. The way your neck curves around and cradles my head smells of softest tenderness. On a long drive, I reach over and caress your neck when you begin to appear tired. Smooth, warm skin spreading over strong tendons. My long piano fingers smell the softness of your gentle heart through the touch upon your sweet-whispering, clemency-misty, dulcet soft soft neck.

And then there is that space within your arm. Soft-smelling when I reach out for you, for the rugged strength that you embody and evince, for the you that dares to protect me... and find this tiny little spot. The softest smell of your vulnerability. Not a vulnerability that is weak, but one that is carefully hidden... only to be opened to those who earn that trust, only to be revealed from the inside out, only to be known by its softest smell.... only to be smelled by those who begin and begin and begin with you in the soft pacific melody of eternal new beginnings.

3. Spring mud

First walk outside in months. Snow remains in patches, its frigid tenacity releasing a sweep of hard, cold winter as I pass. But winter is escapable now. It can only hold on in fragmented shadows, gripping the ground in desperation. Spring opens like hands, like the warm breath that speaks words never heard before but felt, like the softest smell. My feet move with new-found freedom in the softest slightly perspiring air, the ground dancing with me as it yields to my every step. The woods are open and light. They ask to be entered. They speak through a chorus of downy buds and muted pastels. They sound and re-sound with the echoes of winged memories, of time that has been safely buried and now oozes back out of winter chambers as dark, rich, mineral-replete mud. I sink in. I am buoyed up. I kick up mud on my bare legs. I move through the dewy ancient woods, through the untouched moments ahead, softest smell enveloping me.

4. Your voice on the Rialto

"...not mysterious... only unfathomable; not concealed, but incomprehensible; it is a clear infinity, the darkness of the pure unsearchable sea." (Ruskin, Modern Painters)

It had been months since I had seen your face. It had been months in which I had awoken over and over in a foreign country, in a foreign where and how, in a foreign me. Your voice on the phone, when I so rarely was able to make the long-distance call, crackled with static and insurmountable distance. You became an abstraction, a memory only made real when I spoke aloud of you to my host parents... and then you were still trapped in the nasal noises, the back-of-throat rolling r's, the missing liaisons when last letters dropped mutely off of the end of words. You fell flatly to the ground, always apart in your two-dimensional space, always painfully present in the chambers of my heart as a remembered potential.

But it was today. Today was the day when I would see you for the first time again, when a daughter would be reunited with her father in the shifting, watery Venetian light, in a city hovering in its own natatory existence, echoing a million legends on its uneven stone streets, through its maze of canals, against the glow of medieval facades. All is reflection. Everything dissolves and reappears. And yet you will be real. And I walk with exquisite speed, propelled by the you that once held me for hours in the depths of night... both of us fragile, both of us scared and yet reassured by each other. And then I hear your calming, paternal resonance: "Ciao bellissima!" and the unfathomable becomes a 'clear infinity' and somehow space collapses and I am in your arms again... softest smell.

5. The letter you wrote me

I first read it on a plane. High above my own life and earthliness, I read your words and your voice spoke them into my soul. You enclosed one of your own original poems. You were so many decades apart from me, so many experiences wiser. I was a vernal ray of sunshine, just alighting upon the branches of life. Yet, you saw me. You noticed how I listened when you and the other adults spoke, long hours spent at the breakfast table, coffee mugs refilled, the air and my cousins getting restless with the day, dishes sitting soapily in the sink awaiting and abiding. You noticed how carefully I practiced my lines for the school play, as if the performance was to be seen by millions. You read my own stories and poems. You took them seriously. You saw the me I could become in the me that was reaching. You took the hand of both mes and placed them in your palm as you wrote me a letter.

I find it again now, tucked into a book. A book that was too old and complicated for a ten-year-old to be reading. Your words speak with the same faith, the same inspiration, the same graceful sentiment. "You are a writer." It was always so simple. And yet it was a gift of trust and belief that you gave to me. There has been so much of which I have been unsure. There is so much I do not understand. Yet the title you bestowed upon me has been the only constant. It was there in potential. I never would have trusted it so completely without you. And now the words speak from inside of me where you exist, where you traveled after you died. I feel you more perhaps. Your voice slips into your cautious smile into your delicate hands into my own hands as I hold your letter and bring it close to my face. It speaks volumes; it bristles with thick pulpiness and pen marks blurred only slightly by time and poignancy. I close my eyes... softest smell.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

gender-bending hash-slinging headaches

According to the Food Channel, one of the Top Ten Food Trends for 2011 is that of men invading the kitchen... and cooking with all the snobbery and possessiveness and self-righteousness once reserved for women in this decidedly female sphere. These "gastrosexuals" or "kitchen bitches" have invaded the domain once both proudly and spitefully reserved for the 'second sex.' Cooking their 'dude food', men knocked down by the staggering economy have arisen phoenix-like in that very maternally-scented, spatially-restrictive, efficiency-designed, often drudgery-filled unchosen space of female subservience. Yes, they are even wearing aprons without a hint of shame, with no egg on their faces, so to speak.

Allegedly, this trend is due in large part to the increased female power outside of the kitchen, the Sheconomy wherein women do not merely influence purchasing decisions, but earn the money to make those decisions in the first place. Women make up at least half of the U.S. workforce and are getting college (or higher) degrees at a rate out-pacing men. If this is a positive power shift, one that women have fought for and long sought, then why are they "left seething with petty rage and self-pity" (Rosin article) when their husbands choose to anxiously attend to the Sunday roast and actually know and care about the difference between mesclun and mescal, dorado and Dover sole?

Well, there IS actually a danger inherent in something that, on the surface, seems like it would relieve the over-burdened domestic duties of women up and down the nation. The social construction of gender is relational. In other words, men and women define how they see themselves (and would like to see themselves) in terms of the differences and similarities that occupy the space between them. Similarly, we don't really think about love without an understanding of its partner in crime - hate... or black without white, or night without day... and on and on. Thus, masculinity and femininity exist in contra-distinction with each other such that "the notion of anti-femininity lies at the heart of contemporary and historical constructions of manhood, so that masculinity is defined more by what one is not rather than who one is." (Connell, 1994, quoted in Emily Kane, "'No Way My Boys Are Going to be like That!' Parent's Responses to Children's Gender Nonconformity, Gender & Society, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Apr 2006), p. 153)

Nah nah na boo boo! It seems that men have triumphed... in our very kitchen! And women are mad! Their ducks are steamed! And not even by them! Where should we go when we get home from bringing home the bacon? Are these Mr. Moms going to even let us back into our kitchen to cook said bacon? Hey, it's even artisanal!

Perhaps part of it is the way that men are changing the kitchen. Testosterone alone seems capable of lighting the gas stove burners as the cream puff-sissiness of donning an apron and adding Cognac to the perfectly deglazed pan in order to make a velvety demi-glace (a.k.a gravy) while simultaneously chopping parsley and checking on the soufflé carries no irony anymore. Julia Child once embodied a very de-femininized version of a housewife. With no grand narratives to believe in, Child served the purpose of re-mythologizing characteristic aspects of American identity – as self-made, as practical, as down-to-earth and self-effacing... and ruthlessly ambitious... these very masculine traits... these traits that make Thoreau's Walden such an American classic and put the 'man' in manifest destiny. Child wasn't afraid to drop the roast chicken on the floor and proceed to serve it... and she wasn't afraid to tell the world about it either. She hid not in the 'behind-the-scenes' of the domestic sphere. Rather, she pulled that sphere into the media stream in which it now remains centered as we flip back and forth between the Food Network, the Cooking Channel, Top Chef, or Man vs. Food. Indeed, Child embodied some very typically masculine traits, thereby transforming her Cambridge kitchen from a domestic space into a full-on public sphere of sorts, a space of “egalitarian access to distinction,”[1] a space of community through the kitchen, rather than a private space.  The home is commonly theorized as the place where cultural nationalism is launched and the woman is repository of this national culture.  In this case, the home, more specifically the kitchen (the space of the woman), is the visual space of the imagined nation, a space to imagine American possession of Culture and our hegemony over the definition of cosmopolitan citizenship and in this “secularized world, the sphere of culture (Bildung or Kultur), which sometimes takes the form of the political community of the nation, has become a substitute for the infinite.”[2]

In order for Julia to become this figure of logic and reason which could overwhelm and subsume a quintessentially mystical 'French-ness' which she also embodies, she must be at once the national repository of culture (feminine) and a rational, knowledge owning and producing public figure, and almost an abstraction of Culture itself (masculine).  Her kitchen becomes “a space for personal challenge and growth,”[3] but even more, a space of performance and the pleasures of performance, a space of entertainment so that by the time the Food Network comes along “[t]hese chefs are focused on the performative moment when a dish arrives before expectant guests, and that moment of performance completely determines the chain of production required to make it possible.”[4]  Julia “promoted a new view of the chef as a figure of cultural authority”[5] in America and cultural authority, indeed authorhood, required a masculine presence.

The kitchen got cool. The kitchen became a place to perform, a place to make things happen, a place to rage against the machine and man up and yell and rant and scream and boss people around like Gordon Ramsey... even a place where "something as frou-frou as cake decorating is dominated by a goateed Baltimore thug -- Chef Duff from Ace of Cakes -- who is at best a lovable jerk. Women, meanwhile, are left holding the cupcakes." (Rosin article)
In her book, Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America, Laura Shapiro notes that “[t]here was nothing dainty about Julia Child and nothing stereotypically feminine about her kitchen.”  With its pots and pans hanging pragmatically on a pegboard designed by Paul, Julia stood in the kitchen not as the space of the American woman, but as the space of national culture which she was offering up for consumption.  In fact, she did not see herself to be a model for domesticity at all and was vehemently opinionated and vocal in her views on the ‘stupid housewife.’  “I will never have anything to do with housewives,” she made clear in interview after interview.  Her contempt is evident in the note riddled with irony that she wrote to Simca on the possibility of incorporating steps into Mastering such that one could prepare portions of a meal in advance: “I think it will be useful for the USA. Housewife can cook her dinner while she is boiling the diapers… and what a lovely mixture of flavors that will make!”[6]  When she first entered the program at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, she demanded to be taken out of the class with housewives and put in the class with ex-GIs training to become chefs.  When the French Chef first aired, it did so in a prime evening time slot purposefully aimed at gaining a male viewership -- a group who Julia argued were better cooks than women.[7]  In fact, according to Julia, “[n]othing would help resuscitate the art of cookery in America faster than bringing men into the kitchen… just as male participation assured that cooking would always enjoy high status in France.”[8]

This is exactly the point.  Her iconization was based precisely on her not being such a motherly figure to the nation.  Like the ideal liberal public sphere of Habermas, Julia’s kitchen was part of this cultural network, echoing and reaffirming “the arena, the training ground, and eventually the power base of a stratum of bourgeois men, who were coming to see themselves as a ‘universal class’ and preparing to assert their fitness to govern.”[9]  It was not just the denunciation of housewives that made Julia into such a figure.  Much more surprising – especially considering her upbringing, era, and class – was her raunchy and risqué sense of humor.  She mocked an assistant produce on Good Morning America for his failed pronunciation of croque-monsieur:  “in her loudest voice, she said, ‘No it’s not cock-monsieur, it’s croque-monsieur!’”[10]  She swore often and could be heard nonstop making comments such as “Jacques, I have a nice piece of tail for you,”[11] when Pépin and Julia were showing how to remove lobster meat in one of their shows.  Her racy jokes were most often presented in this sort of public arena.  During a cooking demonstration at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT, a member of the audience questioned whether Julia shouldn’t be using extra virgin olive oil to sauté a chicken.  Julia said no, “that should be used as a raw ingredient to finish off a dish or as the base of a salad.”[12] The woman asked why and Julia said “everyone knows that a heated virgin just doesn’t work very well!”[13]

And along with the performative and the public-ness of the kitchen came the scientific approach. Men hobbying around with molecular gastronomy like Nobel-winning scientists.  The kitchen as a place to tinker, to change the oil, to improve, refine, and re-design so that it is gadgetry-seasoned and technologically superior. Similarly, when Child first appeared on public television, there quickly evolved a group of MIT physicists and engineers who gathered weekly to watch her show. Though their interest was not in cooking per se, they were enthralled by “her technique, her attention to detail and rules.  Here was a woman on television who was not sexy and was not selling something; she was demonstrating technique, and they were fascinated.” [14]

So what to make of this trend? And is it that? Just a trend? Will things flip back to our more comfortable (and traditional) gender roles? And should they? Are women afraid that life will leave them uncomfortably homeless? Even if they weren't sure they really liked that home space in the first place? That the kitchen will lose its semi-secured status and become the glass house where too much is apparent? Where, as in the movie Glass Bottom Boat, the femininity to which we don't want to be tied and yet fear to let go of will be erased -- the smart kitchen out-smarting us such that "this kitchen doesn't need a woman" (Doris Day in Glass Bottom Boat)? As Genevieve Bell and Joseph Kaye write in "Designing Technology for Domestic Spaces: A Kitchen Manifesto" (Gastronomica, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Spring 2002)):
Food, cooking, and kitchens represent a significant set of icons in most cultures. They are evoked, deployed, and employed as metaphors and as shorthand—stand-ins for longer conversations and more complicated plays of meaning and history. Recipes are family secrets, national identities, corporate mysteries, poetry. Foods are memories of lovers, vacations, childhoods, family dinners gone wrong, family dinners gone right, first dates, last dates, and shared memories. Cooking is a chore, an act of love, a ritual, a lesson.

Yet, in the American corporate context, food is often regarded as fuel, cooking a task, and the kitchen a site ripe for Taylor-like interventions. Indeed, over the last century, American kitchens have been the ongoing sites for projects to reduce cooking to a domestic science, the kitchen to a collection of labor-saving devices, and food to exercises in packaging. Of course, this corporate concept of the kitchen is by no means hegemonic, and in both the u.s. and western Europe it is possible to find other models for understanding the “kitchen.”
Maybe we need another model for the kitchen. Maybe we need another model for our notions of gender, of who we are to be as men and women, of who we are to be as partners within a 'home' and not just a household. While Bell & Kaye express their desire to disconnect the kitchen from 'smart house' rhetoric, maybe we, as a society, need to disentangle it from the imbalanced gender relations with which it is redolent.

"Honey, I'm home!" The kitchen could be the center of communication, affection, and messages of love and family... probably not such a new idea after all. Maybe that is the smartest kitchen of all.

[1] Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, “Stardom and the Hungry Public,” Gastronomica, p. 123.
[2] Pheng Cheah, “Spectral Nationality: The Living On [sur-vie] of the Postcolonial Nation in Neocolonial Globalization,”  Boundary 2 26.3 (1999): 243
[3] Nach Waxman, “Rendering Miracles,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Summer, 2005), p. 94.
[4] Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, “Stardom and the Hungry Public,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 5, no. 3 (Summer, 2005), p. 123.
[5] Wurgaft, Gastronomica, p. 121.
[6] Laura Shapiro,  “Sacred Cows and Dreamberries: In Search of the Flavor of France,”  Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Summer 2005), p.56.
[7] Noël Riley Fitch, Appetite For Life: The Biography of Julia Child (New York: Random House, Inc., 1997), p. 367.
[8] Laura Shapiro, Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America (New York: Penguin Books, 2004) p. 229.
[9] Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in Bruce Robbins (ed.), The Phantom Public Sphere (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 6.
[10] Jacques Pépin, “My Friend Julia Child.”  Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 5, no. 3 (Summer, 2005), p. 13.
[11] Pépin, Gastronomica, p. 12.
[12] Julia Child quoted in Stephanie Hersh, “A Full Measure of Humor,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture,Vol. 5, no. 3 (Summer, 2005), p. 15.
[13] Julia Child quoted in Hersh, p. 15.
[14] Fitch, p. 309.