This year I’ve been thinking about being Jewish during Christmas time more than the last few years, so I thought I would share a bit.
It’s something that is impossible not to think about, but I try to ignore it mostly. It isn’t extraordinarily pleasant, and not something I like to dwell on, anyway.
I would call myself completely atheist, but in a Northwestern United States New-Chaos-Animism sort of way, or at the very least, not the sort of atheist who feels the need to paint his lack of belief on the side of buses. Except of course, in the marxist-anarchist “no gods no masters” sort of way, which is a statement that makes me smile, except that I’m still not painting it on the side of anything.
All of which is to say, I’m not Jewish in the sense of my religion, so I wouldn’t like to step into the role of speaking “as a Jew”–whatever that means. At the same time, I am decidedly Jewish in the sense of culture, because the complicated atheist/anamist/anarchist syncretism I practice in every day life does have a certain historical precedent.
The joke I use to explain what this means, told by one of my grad school professors in NYC, who was also a practicing psychoanalyst (and this context matters, of course), goes like this.
A secular Jewish couple on the Upper West Side decides to send their son to a Catholic school, because it is the best school that is close to where they live. So the son goes to school, comes home, and the father asks him, “what did you learn in school today?”
The son says, “I learned that god is actually a trinity. There’s the father, the son, and the holy ghost.”
The father gets outraged, his face turns red, and he stands and speaks to his son in a stern voice. “Son, listen well, and listen good. There is only one god. And we don’t believe in him.”
If you have lived in New York you get the joke, just as easily as you understand the difference between a kosher deli and a synagogue. A secular Jew and a religious Jew are not the same thing, even though they are both Jewish in certain ways. Religion, ethnicity, nationality, and race are all different categories. Religion is what you believe and practice, ethnicity has to do with cultural heritage, nationality is about nation-states and legality, and race is a made up category that lumps a bunch of unrelated visually observable genetic signifiers into an believed-amalgam that could stand in interchangeably for any or all of the former three. I’m an ethnic Jew. I call myself Jewish, even though it is not my religion, it could hardly be a race at all (when people try and “race” Jews they are talking about only a particular subset of Jews… omg did you know there are black jews?) and it sure as shit has nothing to do with Israel.
If you got the joke, you probably understand the difference between these four categories, but not everyone does. I’m reminded of this every so often now that I live in the Northwest, where Jews are less common than on the East coast, and certain people don’t get it. A friend of ours, upon learning that I was Jewish (the fact that she had to “learn” that a hairy guy with a good-looking nose and a German last name is Jewish speaks its own truth) asked sincerely, “if he is Jewish, why doesn’t he wear the hat?” She had never known a Jew, let alone a secular Jew, and so had never understood the difference.
But there is a problem with understanding Jewish as only an ethnicity, that is especially apparent around Christmas. There is a tendency to minimize this difference. If it is “just” ethnicity, and not religion, then we are really all equal, right? After all, there are plenty of ethnically Christian people who aren’t religious. As we are all secular, united by science, reason, humanity, etc, we must be the same, right?
My mother was Christian until she married my father, and then she did the “secular Jewish conversion” in which we celebrated Jewish holidays but had a Christmas tree once my brother and I entered high school, because the tree was pretty and ornaments are fun. My own partner, from a secular Catholic ethnicity, did the same thing when we began cohabitating, of her own accord. I’m not going to speculate on their motivations for doing this, even though I have some ideas as to why. The important thing is that this is a thing. There is a conversion process, in terms of “formally” adopting the religion that you do not believe in. There’s no ceremony, no oath. Just a personally understood choice that one-is-this, different-than-that. This is the difference in ethnicity.
I never had a Bar Mitzvah, so I am not “really” Jewish, under some technical religious definitions (the variety of which is its own interesting discussion). But this ethnic-not-religion difference is not an ambivalence–it was something that I specifically did not do, because my family made the conscious choice to not go to synagogue. We had Jewish friends and family who went to synagogue. But we did not. In the same way as my mother and my partner, I had a not-Bar-Mitzvah: the secular Jewish conversion of choosing to not participate. There was no moment at which I had to decide to be or not to be a religious Jew (there was a momentary teenage rebellion, but we’ll set that aside), and yet I could have chosen the opposite.
My relationship to Jesus was never ambivalent, but this was a different sort of ambivalence. This was never going to be my god. Not from idle lapse, but because whatever Jesus is, it is as alien as Ganesha, as Baron Samedi, as a Thetan, and so it was not a matter of simply opting out, but of rejecting every reason to opt-in. I read plenty about all of these ghosty things, because I was curious (it always cracks me up when evangelicals approach me as if they know nothing about Jesus, because man, I have heard that sales pitch, believe it or not.) But unlike how as a secular Jew my secularness was always a choice of rejection, my rejection of other faiths was always a choice of non-subscription.
This gets to the heart of what being ethnically Jewish is. It is always a decision in the context of the larger culture that is not ethnically Jewish. I never felt any pressure to choose a religion or be religious. But my entire spiritual existence (or lack thereof) exists in having a very small, textually odd religion as my rejected heritage, while around me, there is a majoritarian mass of “major world religions” that are very much used to being that majority.
This means (and is the point I am getting at) that to be ethnically Jewish in the United States is always to be Other.
It’s not such a bad Other to be, all things considered. Being this sort of Other in the United States is a far less worse experience than to have dark skin, to be a woman, to visibly perform a non-heterosexual sexuality or non-cis gender, and so on and so forth. But it is still Other, in its own way.
When I was in elementary school, I lived in a town in rural Connecticut for a time. We were one of two Jewish families in town, and so you can imagine that there was pretty short shrift dedicated to alternate holidays in those socialization zones. I somehow still learned the awful Hanukkah songs invented as alternate socialization mode, played dreidel with my cousins, and ate latkahs–all that was fine. But here is what I remember. I remember a conversation with my parents, sometime when I was probably around six or seven. We were talking about the fact that Santa was going to visit all these other kids and bring them presents, but not going to visit us. We got Hanukkah presents in spades, but of course, I was curious about the idea of receiving all gifts on one morning, rather than over eight nights. Did the other kids net more gifts than I did? Were they bigger? These are things that a kid that age is concerned about. But then comes the rub–I knew that my gifts came from my parents. But the other kids thought their gifts came from Santa. The issue came up. My parents assured me that Santa did not exist, and Christmas gifts came from essentially the same place as Hanukkah gifts. But why did they pretend that there was Santa? It’s fun for them, said my parents. We didn’t play that game, they said, because we were Jewish and our family did things differently. But if the other kids play pretend by believing in Santa, I shouldn’t ruin their fun by telling them they were wrong.
Think about the pressure this puts on a kid that age. The truth is revealed to me: the biggest holiday of the year for kids is based upon a lie. (Notice that this all about belief in Santa, not Jesus. But we all know who the real deity is on this holiday.) To a six year old, this is the equivalent of telling them that the Illuminati runs the world. The Christmas De Vinci Code was being entrusted to me. But then: I’m told that I should keep this mind-blowing secret to myself, in order to ensure the opiated pleasure of all the other children.
So it makes sense that a kid given this tremendous burden to protect the fantasy of others might grow up to study religious studies, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and make a lifestyle out of rejecting ideologies, to hack together some sort of pragmatic spiritual practice from rocks, tree bark, black clothing, and fire, because at least objects cannot lie, and practice that requires no belief cannot be a delusion. Despite what labels might be more appropriate or accurate for describing whatever it is that I do (all those A-words), for me it is linked to my Jewish ethnicity. Sure, I’ve seen a lot of other things, experienced direct bigotry, and had other things effect my Jewish ethnicity as well. Being Jewish in Connecticut was a far cry from being Jewish in Georgia, where one is likely to be confronted with a look of horror upon Christian faces. I got called “a Jew” in the street a couple weeks ago, which I have to say was a fairly new experience for me. But there is something about this secular experience Christmas, and the holiday’s wide-spread, ecumenical “goodwill” that makes it just so pernicious.
Every time I hear someone say “Merry Christmas”, see an ad for a Christmas sale, have someone ask me if “I’m ready for the holidays” long after my holidays are over, or give me a funny look when I don’t get a reference to one of their quasi-religious songs, I remember that I am not like other people. And it isn’t just that I don’t believe, or don’t like Christmas. It is that those around me just assume I merely don’t like Christmas, that I’m obsessed with some sort of agnostic political correctness, or just because I don’t go to church. Why the hell would someone ask me if I go to church? How is that a question I should have to answer? I don’t celebrate Christmas or go to church because I have always been something Other than Christian. I never gave up Christmas. It was never mine. It belongs to someone else. Being a secular Jew is not like being lactose intolerant. I am not Christmas-deficient. I am something else entirely, and other people’s failure to even imagine that could be possible is the greatest insult of all. This “holiday-blindness” piles on to everything that I have experienced in terms of the winter holidays since the time I was six years old, and reminds me, time and time again, while I will never accept the majoritarian bias of secular Christianity as anything related to my culture.
It sounds as if I’m bitter. Why wouldn’t I want to just enjoy the holiday, rather than make a big thing about it? Surely a secular, ethically Jewish person would have no opposition to gathering around a Charlie Brown Humanist Miracle, because the “real” meaning of the holiday is friendship, togetherness, so on and so forth. But that is just it: that is not what the holiday is about. The holiday, in the United States, is about celebrating the false inclusiveness of Christian capitalism–a peaceful unity that anyone can enjoy, provided that their reject their own heritage and beliefs, and join the morass. Even if we leave Jesus out of it entirely, Christmas still asks a secular Jew to reject his/her ethnicity and accept secular Christianity. Every Christmas-themed TV show plot, every green and red sweater, every red-nosed reindeer and every speaker whispering Christmas music in the background is a missionary text. It reads: “Christmas is normal”. The argument is: “Sure, you can opt out. But remember that by doing so, you are irrevocably different.”
And I’m not bitter (though I am a little bitter that it is necessary for me to prove that I’m not). I’ve been to many Christmas celebrations, and I’ll go to many more. They are unavoidable. I like any feasting holiday, so I make the most of it and enjoy a day off. And as I said in the beginning, this is not an extraordinarily pleasant line of thought, so I try to not brood on it. I have another drink instead.
But many Jews of all categories like to teach others about their traditions. Even though I know more than I at time I’d ever like to know about Christianity, I don’t expect people to know that about me. I’m serious. Consider this my gift–a look into my conficted, spiritual soul, where I don’t go very often, let alone let others tour at will. And so on this Christmas, I hope I can teach you a little bit about how we secular, ethnic Jews celebrate your Christmas holiday. Booze, blog posts, and a bit of that old existential confusion. Have a happy holiday, to all my friends of Christian heritage. And to my friends of all the other heritages in the world, thank goodness it’ll be another year until we’ll have to go through this again.
Weird-Shit Con was a proposal for a Twitter meet-up that has generated some definite interest, and so it is now a thing.
The meet-up will, of course, define itself. In the planning stages it is being organized with the intention of being a multi-day meeting in order to talk face-to-face about a bunch of weird, generally-futurist, very compelling topics, and to generate a record of the conversations so that “progress can be made” outside of the constraints of 140 characters.
Spatial referents in cascading relevance: Portland, Oregon, Cascadia, Western Standard Time, United States, North America, Earth.
I have realized that, via Twitter and other networks, I have come to have some very interesting acquaintances, who do very interesting things either as their hobby or their job, or some combination of the two. The distributed nature of the networks was the means by which we all came to know each other. But it occurs to me, that if somehow, we were able to get all of these people into the same physical space at the same time, we might just be able to throw the Twittersphere a bit off-orbit. Whether this power would be used for good or bad, or if it even exists at all remains to be seen. But there is no way to find out other than to try it. So this is the first attempt to call everyone in for a meeting. Not just a social gathering, but a meeting of people who are already waist deep in it, to see what, together, we might accomplish over a very short amount of time, without planning ahead, without any commitment whatsoever.
So, for now, this is what WSC2012 is. Please share this as you like, and fill out the survey if you are interested in being part of it, and let’s make something happen.
The antimedial arsenal proves unlimited: short-circuiting telephone exchanges, bringing satellites off course, burning down cable boxes, sawing down electric pylons, not paying television and radio fees, sending out fake press releases, getting cameras to show up for nothing, pouring cement into dish antennas, cutting assorted cables, cleaving TV screens in two, painting over security cameras, altering data, installing magnetic fields, implanting and spreading viruses and worms – communicating with the hammer: »Talking back to the media.«
The quote comes from a book about the Netherlands squatters’ movement. This anti-media attitude was a pretty standard view for radical politics, up through the anti-globalization protests, and through writings like The Coming Insurrection. If you’ve been there, you’ve seen it before. The hassling of camerapersons, especially those who attempt to photograph people’s faces. Stickers, and vasoline stuck to lenses. And worse.
But this concept of anti-media doesn’t carry on through the Occupy protests. Sure, there are individuals who don’t like the constant camera presence. But in general, media coverage is viewed as a good thing, and not just for publicity purposes. Media is an all-seeing eye, and the panopticon is on our side. Each occupation with a significant amount of action has its own Livestream–a 24 hour news camera, embedded at eye-level inside the inner workings of the occupation. Photos are tweeted and re-tweeted, live blogs come up early and often. We are the media, and our media is thorough and deep.
I’m not sure when this transformation happened. But now, it seems like something we are occupying, in addition to physical parks and buildings, virtual web sites and Twitter feeds, is media-space. We occupy the media, the information, or consciousness, depending on what way you want to put it (I’ll leave the deep semiotic argument for another time).
Maybe it began in Egypt. I remember watching the Arab spring and thinking, “Thank goodness for Al Jazeera! If those cameras showing Tahrir Square shut off, they’re finished.” It wasn’t a sense that if they were removed from my eyes, they would disappear. It was that media, in terms of accessible record (not just spectacle) constituted the protest. It formed the safety of the people, in a searchable, coherent record of events. It was the history that was bring made. Without the cameras there, anything that the powers that be might say could be the truth. The government would again control the media-space, and define history. Al Jazeera made a point, over and over again, of showing their camera feed of Tahrir Square juxtaposed to the Government TV Station. The thousands and thousands of people in the square were the truth, compared to the shots of a few “pro-government supporters” milling about in front of a TV camera. Al Jazeera knew it, and we knew it. And the protesters in the square knew it. With this media channel, we could all say in our own minds, together: this is history. This is what’s happening. Al Jazeera is an international media organization, but the point was made. The media that shows us, ought to be our media. Al Jazeera, for that period, was our media. But they won’t always be around. So we have to step up ourselves.
And this isn’t just an awareness issue. Having control of the media-space is a tactic that literally saves lives. Take the case of Mona Eltahawy, a journalist who was arrested, assaulted, and tortured by the Egyptian police just this past week. The situation was difficult: publicizing her plight could have made the situation worse, rather than stimulate her release. However, in the end, it helped hurry her release.
Where this history goes is anyone’s guess. The role of our crowd-sourced media, and of popular protest’s new wide endorsement of publicizing itself as a way of enacting it’s own history has yet to fully play out. This history is still unfolding.
I’m not a food blogger, and have no desire to be. While in China, I only took two photos of food. But, because the food was so amazing, I feel I have to say something about it.
I expected that the food would be good. Here in Portland there are several very good Cantonese restaurants, that serve actual Chinese food and not Chinese-American food. I imagined dumplings, dimsum, noodles, crazy vegetables, weird meats, all of which we found in surplus in China.
But where China really exceeded expectation was the quality of the food, not just the content. We ate like royalty in China, thanks in part to a favorable exchange rate. (Our roast duck meal, one of the most expensive, cost about 30 USD for the two of us.) But it didn’t matter if we were out for duck, or eating at the corner place in the hutong. The food is overall very simple, and yet immaculately prepared. Everything from the main ingredient, to the side vegetables, to the garlic was cooked just about exactly right. It comes out fast, and before you know it the table is covered with dishes, and you can’t eat it all even though you want to. I’m not sure what the secret is to this culinary skill, other than that there are tons of hungry people in Beijing and the restaurants are crowded from ten in the morning until past midnight. But after 25 days in China, I had exactly two disappointing meals in China, and both were because the food was only standard.
I’ve been missing it, and dream of soup dumplings at night. As a way of coping, here are my favorite dishes.
Note: I’ve been a vegetarian for the past ten years. I went on a meat vacation in China, because simply the term “vegetarian” does not have a Chinese translation. Sure, you can get vegetarian food there (I went to a couple of Buddhist vegetarian restaurants that were exquisite) but if trying to eat at an average restaurant, you’re out of luck. Even a dish called “tofu and vegetables” invariably has bits of pork or chicken in it. Since I speak nearly no Chinese, I decided to be realistic, and just eat the food without worrying about it. Now I’m back on the wagon. Going back and forth is actually really easy: once you actually know how to eat vegetarian (read: you’ve moved past veggie burgers) it’s like eating French rather than Italian.
Soup Dumplings – These are not your Trader Joe’s potstickers. They are so tender, so perfectly formed, and then when you bite into them you suck out delicious broth like a vampire biting into a moody teenager. If you do it right, you don’t scald yourself. You also roll them in vinegar and pepper oil first.
Green Vegetable and Peanuts – Most Chinese menus have pictures (thankfully for me) but not just for tourists. The descriptions are always vague, and the locals like seeing what they are getting as much as someone illiterate in the Chinese language. This dish, normally called this, is some sort of green kind of like mustard greens or sweet chard, that is cooked in a wok just long enough to be wilted, with peanuts and a vinegar sauce. I could eat this at almost every meal.
Some sort of vegetable pastry – No idea what these are called, but they were sold out of a window around the corner from our hotel. After we tried them, we ate them almost every day. They have a thick doughy pastry, fried into a disc on a waffle-press like cooker (though without the waffling). Inside are vegetables, which changed every day, but was either the greens (like the above) or cabbage and onion. They cost one yuan each, which is somewhere around 15 cents. If you can’t wait to eat them because they smell so good, you can burn your face, because they were always made about five minutes ago.
Hot Wok Flaming Food – The contents vary, but it comes out on a mini-wok with sterno fuel burning underneath, and it is delicious. Two of the better ones I had were are follows: 1) tofu triangles and sprouts, with fresh onions tossed underneath right before they brought it out, simmering in a thin brown sauce. My face was full of frying onion smoke the whole meal, and it was awesome. 2) Pieces of what I think were chicken, in an oily pepper soup with the requisite onions and sprouts. You didn’t drink the broth as it was very oily, but the meat was so, so tender, it fell off the bones.
Roast fish – As in the photo above. It’s a river fish, on a bed of some sort of soy-based gelatin/aspic cubes, and broth. Once you figure out how to strip the meat off the bones with chopsticks, its amazing. By the end, I had refined my technique enough to go in and pull out the entire cheek in one, wet, tender, meltingly delicious piece.
Other Asian food – Chains from all sorts of countries are all over China, especially in Shanghai. A couple of the more interesting ones were a Korean place that brings a red-hot iron bowl to your table, and throws vegetables, meat, and an egg in the bowl and stirs it up for you. At a mall. Also, a Japanese-Taiwan mix place called Ramen Play, (kind of sounds like a sexual sub-culture, or something) that does the ramen thing, with crazy toppings, extra noodles, etc.
Noodles – I thought there were be tons of noodles in China, but both noodles and rice are kind of minimally eaten. I think the deal is that they are filler food, and people prefer to eat the meat and vegetables whole, and maybe have a little bit of noodles or rice if they are on a budget. Still, they were amazing, as in the case of a dish of squash greens and glass noodles, a seafood dish with fried noodles, and noodle soups with fish pieces.
Barbecue skewers – Big street food. At the window they have the skewers loaded up, simmering in sauce. When you tell them the ones you want, they throw them on the flame. At the big tourist street, they have the skewers with all the weird stuff on it, caterpillars, scorpions, etc. But no one really eats that stuff. I had one with a whole squid, and frankly I’ve had much better squid: this one just had the head and suckers visible, to please the tourists. At the more legit places, the lamb and the chicken wings are really the best. We went to an Uighur restaurant, and they had this dry rub on the lamb with cumin that I really can’t tell you about, because it makes me start to drool just thinking about it.
Shrimp Cupcake Dumplings with Sprinkles – Photo above. Okay, I don’t even know what this is. We saw sprinkles in the picture in the menu, and so ordered it. It is a little bit of cake, with frosting, with a piece of shrimp on top, the whole thing fried, and then dipped in fried potato shavings, and then with sprinkles on top. So weird. Very good, but after we ate the plate of them, it was exactly enough, and I don’t think I could have had another. Just too bizarre.
Other weird things that I ate that weren’t quite so good but were weird:
Donkey Meat – It tastes like gamey corned beef. People like this, and it’s pretty popular. I liked it, but I didn’t really see what the excitement was.
Intestine – I really can’t think of many foods that I actively dislike. But, this I did not like. It’s not gross really, but… okay. Let’s just say there is a little bit of an aftertaste that reminds you what part of the body you are eating.
Duck Feet – I was eating fried duck pieces, and didn’t really know what I was eating until I was crunching it up. Chicken feet are very popular in China, even sold at convenience stores individually wrapped like beef jerky. Not sure about the appeal. They are easy to crunch, kind of like cartilage. They do fry up well, kind of like chicken or duck skin, so that part is good.
Duck Brain – The head came with the Peking-style duck, and so bravely I went in. Not really much to say about this. Tastes like the duck, but is soft and fatty. No real feelings either way.
That’s about it. I could have been much more adventurous, but as I said, a chicken wing is a little adventurous for me, so I didn’t feel the need to push it. I’ve never really seen the point of the sort of food tourism that likes to eat weird things, though I’ve willingly eaten my fair share of eels, bugs, odd organs, and assorted sea invertebrates when they’ve been offered to me. From the way the food merchants in the tourist areas yelled, “Snake! Snake!” at me, apparently a lot of Western guys like to eat snake. Maybe it’s a ego thing, or something. I’ll take flavor over adventure any day. And in China, there’s plenty to be found everywhere.
Back “home”, if you want to call it that, after probably one of the most enlightening and invigorating trips in a long time. I wouldn’t say that I fell in love with China, but I did fall in love with the sense of de-centering, the uncanny cultural forces cathecting in and out of everything around me, the juxtaposition of one’s culture with another that cannot be duplicated or simulated in anyway, and at the same time, the world-embracing sense of human species-hood that comes from stepping outside of one’s comfort barrier, and landing on one’s feet. I was reminded that travelling can be one of the hardest and most expensive things to do, but it can also be rewarding to the point at which it is absolutely necessary for an intelligent human being to do, at least in some degree. The rut of routine is the demon of society. Without experiencing difference of some kind, we retreat to the worst of human habits and short-circuited urges that our id can find within itself, with which it occupies the mind, praying to the brute god of undifferentiated sameness.
A good month, to cut all the It’s a Small World, Cosmopolitan crap. And now it’s the busiest August ever, with quite a lot planned for POSZU.
After I decompress and sort everything I noted, photographed, and thought about over the last month, I should have about four good posts here. There are also the things that don’t involve China directly that I’ve thought about, that I need to get on.
So no more introduction than that. Let’s stop messing around and get busy.
The hutongs of Beijing are an architectural phenomenon that is quickly dying. In a heavily populated city like Beijing, land, especially uninterrupted spans of land, are the ultimate natural resource. And while hutongs have existed for centuries in their environment, a new rival for the resource has come about: the urban planner. Beijing’s urban planners are making quick work of the hutongs, and by most accounts, they will be gone for good in a short number of years.
The difference between planned urban spaces and unplanned urban spaces, those that are spontaneously created by the total of intangible characteristics we might call “the city itself”, is similar to the difference between a nation and its territory. We like to think, as creatures of rational action, that we control our social terrain as if it were a part of our body. It would be easy to consider the relationship between political discourse and physical reality as a monadic, Enlightenment-era style cogito. However, this is not the truth. The map is not the territory, as the saying goes, and the map makers are even less the terrain, and those who seek to affect the map makers by their will alone a level removed again. The project of planning urban space is fundamentally a colonial one: it seeks to change reality to its benefit by flags and force. While it may succeed, the negative repercussions are legend. Alternatively, there is another urban strategy, that rather than attempting to deliminate the territory into design, finds its method of improvement in a more ecosystemic fashion. Rather than plan the urban space, support the space. In studying “the city itself”, we see that many of the issues that urban planning seeks to change have already been solved, albeit in limited and insecure fashion. The city system already trends towards stability, the key is in finding those trends, and supporting and securing them. As can be seen in the hutong, infrastructure is largely already existent. Rather than tearing them down and building new, supporting and solidifying these systems could be much more practical, as it utilizes the naturally occurring solutions that are already attempting to grow. Urban planning might achieve certain milestones and technical guidelines of improvement quickly, but the unnaturalness of these constructions within the city ecosystem is obvious. The natural aesthetic of “the city itself” is one it achieves by a steady, evolutionary praxis of effective use-value in every day life, and it would be unwise to ignore the method behind these urban strategies. To ignore them, in effect, is to cut down a tree to build and install a wooden sun shade in the same place.
The hutong is basically an alleyway. It is the passage between more major streets, lined with doorways that enter into walled private homes. It is the passage that is created when walled properties leave space between their walls, so that others may pass without entering the private space inside. In Beijing, these alleys become such a crucial urban feature because they are not merely an alternate passage around property, as in the “back alley” feature of North American or European architecture that is a supplement to the main road access, but the only means to access the majority of properties. The hutongs form a web of thin yet densely occurring access routes, a sort of capillary bed to the main veins of roads that are often hundreds of meters off from one’s front door. These main avenues are then perhaps as much of a kilometer from each other, creating thick blocks in between, which are crisscrossed by hutongs. One doesn’t walk through the hutong as an alternative or a short cut across a block, but one must walk through the hutong always, whether one steps out of one’s front door, whether one wants to go to the store, or one wants to go all the way across town.
Perhaps because of the simple ubiquity of these passageways in conjunction with the basic neighborhood building style in Beijing, the hutongs are local centers of street life. As a combination of what someone in North America might think of as the sidewalk or the front yard, the street block, and the local corner, almost every conceivable neighborhood activity takes place in the hutong.
While there are many shops and restaurants on the main avenues, these also exist in the hutongs, extending inward as a convenience to the customers coming from the hutongs, and to take advantage of this locality. These hutong businesses are much smaller in size, often run out of the front of the proprietor’s homes, and extending out into the alleyway to use the space, if available. Not every variety of business is present in the hutong, but the nature of these shops are characteristic of what one might expect to be local and close to people’s physical homes, most catering to home life needs and small, short term purchases. These include restaurants, convenience stores, hardware stores, barbershops, bicycle repair, “dollar” stores (actually, 2 yuan is the price), and even clothing and appliance stores. In some areas, upscale coffee shops, bookstores, and other more luxury goods like electronics are also sold within the hutongs.
Because of the necessity for being out and about in the hutong, either traveling to and from the home or shopping, if not running a business, the hutong becomes a common hangout, and a unique form of public social space, as the overlap between public and private architecture. The proprietors and their friends often have established sitting places outside their businesses, chatting when not serving customers, drinking tea or beer, and smoking cigarettes. It’s common for social games to be played in these resting places, either cards or chess. Children play in the hutong as well, where they are supervised loosely by either particular adults or the general community.
In fact, hutongs are crowded places, as they are also thoroughfares for bicycle and pedestrian traffic, and more often, cars as well, when their owners drive back into the hutong to park their cars at night. But, because of the crowdedness, the narrowness of the streets and the large number of protruding bits of architecture, parked vehicles, and people, the traffic speed is slow, and most blockages are resolved vocally and amicably—which seems to be in the nature of China, which is itself a crowded place.
The infrastructure of the city extends into the hutongs along with the traffic, as there is no other supply route. Water, food, and anything sold in the shops must be carried in to the hutong, most often by bicycle cart, as this is the most efficient means for ferrying heavy things through the twisting, crowded alleys. Bicycle carts deliver milk, mail, newspapers, drinking water (the tapwater isn’t imbibed by locals), beer, dry goods, and even people, occasionally. Telephone, electricity, and now internet extend on wires overhead, and the crowdedness of the hutong is illustrated in some of the creative wiring solutions. Trash and recycling is carted out by bicycle. Security is provided in the hutongs by both local police, whose stations are often placed in the hutongs, and by local security volunteers, who wear a red armband. The ubiquitous closed circuit video cameras of China are also widespread in the hutongs, though in such a number it begs the question who is watching them all, or if their cables even lead anywhere. Public bathrooms are also very common in the hutongs, built by the government and staffed by public employees, to aid in sanitation as indoor plumbing is not always available.
Construction is ongoing in the hutongs. Much of the buildings predate the Chinese Revolution, and were in fact larger homes owned by the rich that were divided up into separate living quarters. In many places, poor repair is obvious. But, along with the walls that are falling down, stacks of new bricks and piles of sand are everywhere. The hutongs are in a rolling state of continual construction it seems, and it is common to be walking down an alley, and enter a construction site without knowing it. In at least one place on every alley, one can see a pile of rubble from walls torn down, a stack of still usable bricks that have been pulled out to be recycled, and a stack of new bricks waiting to join the rebuilt wall. This construction is one reason that very few accurate maps of the hutongs exist. My personal estimate is that Google Maps shows about 70% of the existing hutongs on the closest zoom level. The layout of the hutongs changes, as the walls of the buildings and the property enclosures change. This also gives the hutongs their own character, depending on their location and topology. A more well-known hutong that is very narrow, as close as 40cm wide in some places, was historically used as a banking street—the thought being, if a thief attempted to run with stolen money, they would easily be caught. Conversely, another famous hutong has over fourteen turns in it, and numerous documented muggings have taken place on it, due to its shape. The evolving, changing nature of hutong construction is deeply tied to the ongoing life within it.
However, construction in a larger sense is threatening the hutongs. As Beijing becomes more developed, land is needed for the large construction projects, for the footprint of large skyscrapers and ring roads. I’ve heard estimates that 50% of the hutongs have already been evacuated, condemned, and bulldozed. Perhaps most infamously, the entire footprint of the sports complex for the Beijing Olympics, including the “Bird’s Nest” stadium of which the city is massively proud, such that it has become a symbol of the new Beijing, is built across former hutongs. The people who lived in these areas are moved, most of them to new high-rise apartments, which are growing in number across Beijing. There is not much of an effort to save the hutongs, because the people who live in them are of a lower class, and they normally enjoy a chance to move to a high-rise complex, viewing it as a move up in the social ladder. Some hutongs are considered historical sites, and others have been reformatted into tourist streets rather than actual hutongs. (My personal test is that only “real” hutongs have window repair shops; because tourists don’t purchase windows, regardless of the price.) But preservation of hutongs as living neighborhoods is not a priority.
And as charming as the hutongs can be to the outsider or a guest, they are not ultimately sustainable. With population growth in China as it is, hutongs across Beijing would invite even more massive sprawl than is already existent. Clearly, the city must begin building up in places where it is now only horizontal. However, a high-rise complex seems a poor replacement for the hutongs.
If the hutongs are horizontal construction, the high-rise takes its pattern orthogonally, building completely vertical. They are buildings that stretch upwards, only with as much girth as they can have while still providing windows to the apartments within. They multiply, with any number of towers in place on a particular block, and the land left open below as the common property for the development. What this does is solidify the architecture. While it is possible to modify an alley, an elevator shaft cannot be shifted. After the planning of an apartment block is complete, the architecture will stay as is, and not be changed by its inhabitants. It also changes the infrastructure that supports the people living inside. Because there is not an easy access for deliveries in tall apartment towers, consumables are brought to somewhere at the bottom, and the residents must retrieve them. Restaurants are not allowed among the dwelling units, and so the residents must also go down to find them. The density of the living space means that this tends to support large, centralized supermarkets and restaurants. Utilities, security, and other services are also centralized, and are dependent upon the original plan for the development. In the case of security, a common method of centralization is gates, around the building.
This verticalization leads to a very different sort of public space in the high-rise than in the hutong. Public space is very important to any residential area. As Lewis Stackpole writes in his article considering low-income housing in China:
“Diversity of built space and open space creates a rich social setting, and provides recreational, retail/commercial, and cultural opportunities. All of these play a role in creating a community, economic vitality, and continuity that often is the driving force of any city, town or village, and for the purpose of this article, for any residential compound.” (Stackpole, 73)
However, in a high-rise complex, there is no public space of this kind. There is isolated, dead space. In apartment complexes throughout Beijing, one can see manicured, park-like land, sports equipment in all manner of repair, walls and pathways. But none of them are being utilized, regardless of their condition. There is no driving force to get the people into the space. They have no reason to be there, no reason to stop and linger there, no reason to make the space social, regardless of what the intended plan for the space is. They only use the pathway that leads from the building door, out to the street. The areas around subway entrances, in parking lots that serve as cut-throughs around city blocks (when unoccupied by cars) and the areas outside of restaurants are used as public spaces. The vertical aspect of apartment blocks keeps the flow of people in and out of the building streamlined, and neglects the space around it. As Stackpole continues:
“In order for public space to be successful people must be able to relate to the space: ‘own’ it. Once people become users of the space and start identifying to the space, the ‘space’ slowly becomes a ‘place’. Designers can design the space, the ‘thoughtfulness’ of the design, not design in itself determines the spaces’ success. Design must be adjusted to the local needs; such a design requires a thoughtful understanding of the prospective users—the targeted users.” (Stackpole, 73)
This is impossible with vertical construction. It is planned at the beginning, and from that point forward, the residents can only be tenants. In a hutong, the ownership is immediate, because the lives of the people living in the space intersect automatically. Their activities form a thick web, that augments and informs the architecture, often literally affecting the continual construction always already underway. There is no need to design the public space, as the space has become public by the very designs of that public. What the hutong is, in its very character, is the state of public space making itself manifest via the horizontal.
But as is quite obvious, the hutongs cannot remain as they are. The goal should be, perhaps, rather than to simply replace them with vertical construction, is to augment them, adding a different dimension of horizontality, heading upwards. Rather than plan a new community from scratch, figure out how to support the current community, and direct it to where it needs to be. In reporting on government projects working to improve favelas, Kelly Shannon suggests:
“The innovative aspect of the projects is the fundamental notion that accepts unplanned and informal housing areas as a new form of urban morphology that should not be destroyed but rather changed, improved, and converted into modest, livable neighborhoods. In these programs, the relation of landscape to urbanization was ‘regularized’ by improving inner access-ways and providing services through the widening of roads, environmental intiatives, provision of sanitation, schools and clinics, and focusing on pedestrian flows.” (Shannon, 61)
Hutongs are not nearly favelas; they are in far much better condition than even the improved infrastructure of such impoverished areas. And therefore, they are much easier to continue to improve to suit the city and the residents needs and betterment. Most of the necessary infrastructure is already in place to support the hutongs, they simply need to be densified, to support more inhabitants without stressing the living conditions, while continuing to improve standards of living as the occupants see fit. There are already hints of horizontal architecture in Beijing that is building upward, that should be taken as the model or inspiration. The subway system is a perfect example. Across the city, tunnels are being dug at phenomenal pace to increase the number of lines serving the system. By taking transportation infrastructure off the roads and sending it underground, the ability for people to move horizontally is increased. Surprisingly enough, malls are another point of inspiration. While malls in North America require footprints of many square miles for parking, Chinese malls are quite compact, putting the parking underground, and building the retail space upwards. Within the massive floors of a mall, retail is at its most fluid, architecturally. The space is modular, and the necessary infrastructure is collectivized. Hutongs are, in a sense, residential malls, combining residences, necessary commerce, and socializing into one collective, public neighborhood. To stack hutongs on top of each other, and to preserve the way the social space has already integrated itself while streamlining the infrastructural needs to make the neighborhood more efficient and sustainable seems like a design challenge that could bear magnificent fruit. While on the other hand, building high-rises seems to work in the opposite direction, reducing tenants to an isolated, hamlet sort of life.
These are only ideas, from one Westerner’s reflections upon being introduced to the architectural phenomenon of the hutong. But thinking differently about urban planning, to approach the problem of density with a more open mind than simply thinking, “up”, does not seem so far-fetched. The neighborhoods of Beijing have already organized themselves, and succeeded to create vibrant public spaces in their own way. They are not perfect, and need support to improve themselves further. This support should be provided, so that what already exists can be taken advantage of, and not be thrown away. To build a city, one ought to listen to the city.
“Affordable Housing Programme in China—Opportunity for Landscape Architects to Perfect Public Space Design”, by Lewis Stackpole [Principal of AGER Group], in Landscape Architecture China, Number 16 2011. Translated by Chan Xu.
“Landscapes of Poverty & Infrastructures of Improvement”, by Kelly Shannon, in Landscape Architecture China, Number 16 2011. Translated by Chan Xu.
Bruce Sterling commented on this diagram on his blog:
*These icons represent user interactions associated with Layar augmented “Points of Interest,” or “floaties.” It’s a pretty good graphic-design job and I have no problem with that, but check out how many of these icons are archaic “skeuomorphs,” or references to archaic, no-longer-functional forms of analog media.
“Hey!” I said. I have many of these so-called skeuomorphs sitting in my living room. They would be littering my desk, if I had one. I use these things often, and not just for kitsch value, but for their intended and designed use, of all things.
I have a certain dislike of the term skeuomorph. It is a meaningful term, of course, defined like so on the helpful Tumblr-style site, Skeuomorphs.com:
Wikipedia defines a skeuomorph as “a derivative object which retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.”
Skeuomorphs.com uses the following tests to determine if an object is a skeuomorph:
- the function of the design cue must be lost, otherwise it is an example of path dependence
- the design cue must be inherited from a predecessor, not copied from a similar object
- the object must be derivative. Functional objects do not become skeuomorphs when they are repurposed as decorations
Fair enough. You can see plenty of good examples on their site. But, I often see this term used (skeuomorphically repurposed?) to denote things called “obsolete”, or otherwise less fashionable than objects that perform a similar task more quickly/cheaper/alternatively/on the internet.
The point of the definition above is a sort of “empty design echo”. A form or aesthetic of a functional object is deliberately maintained, inherited from a completely different object that does not require that form or aesthetic to function. This is not the same as being a vinyl LP afficionado; this would be like making a tone arm to come down over top of an open CD player, the arm being non-functional because the sound data is read from the bottom. Why would you do that? Good question.
On the other hand, to actually listen to vinyl records has a distinct function. And it is not just to be “retro”. Vinyl has a distinctive sound. There are vast numbers of vinyl records and equipment for playing them out there and available, many of them inexpensive. Some people still have vinyl they bought when it was new, and would rather continue to listen to them just as before, rather than “upgrading” for the joy of being “current”. To call something obsolete just because it is “behind the times” is to almost make a reverse-skeuomorph: to select an object for a design that attempt to evoke modernity, futurity and State-of-the-Art-edness, thereby ignoring the function for the sake of the curve. Are stainless steel appliances and fixtures really better than those made from plastic? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t ask Kohler or Whirlpool for their reverse-skeuomorph marketing schtick.
Anyway: I decided to play a fun game. I went down the list of icons above to see which ones I could produce the symbolized object, not just its functional equivalent. I did this because I am unpacking from a move, and so for at least a week I know where everything is. The point isn’t to prove anything, just to see to what extent these symbolic skeuomorphs are or are not part of my everyday life.
Skeuomorphic Symbol Scavenger Hunt
Here are the rules:
I get one point if have the actual object.
I get half a point if have a very similar object, that actually has the same symbolized function without being a skeuomorph. Or in the case of those that are more of verbs than nouns, I have something pretty close.
I don’t get any points if I “recently had one”, or “I’ve got one in storage”, or if “I know where I can get one”. The implication from the full-point status is that I not only have this object as if I collected it, but I use it regularly as it was designed to be used, not just getting it out on weekends for fun, like my pinstriped sport suit I wear when I ride my penny-farthing down the promenade (I don’t actually do this).
So without further ado or theory, my results.
Info – One Point
You’re probably pretty skeptical that I’m giving myself a full point for this first one, but I consider this correct. The “i” stands for info, or alternately, a person, as in the “You Are Here” symbol on the map located at an information kiosk of some sort, because if you are looking at the map, you are at the kiosk. And, I have a travel map, of the kind that is the sort of info that is handed out at travel kiosks.
Audio – One Point
Say hello to my Grado Labs SR-60s! Some of the best headphones you can get in the price range. And would you look at that functionalist earphone profile? The icon is almost a silhouette of it.
Video – Half Point
Arguably, the icon is of a projector, not of a camera, because even film cameras utilize cartridges. I had a 8mm projector up until last week, and have a 8mm camera in storage, but neither of these count. However, I do have a video camera that uses tapes. Digital magnetic tapes, but they have the functional reels that make up the primary feature of the icon. “Rewind” is not a metaphor.
Phone – Zero Points
I got nothing. I had a plug-in handset up until I moved a week ago, but I hadn’t plugged it in in five years. And despite the urging of the Qwest salesperson who signed me up for Internet, I was not about to start. My phone looks like a pack of playing cards, and I can shout at whatever side I want.
Email – One Point
I send mail in envelopes all the time. I even have stamps too, though we used the last one this morning. Why do I send “snail mail”? I’ll tell you why. Because, if nothing else, the electricity company charges a surcharge for electronic payment!
Position – One Point
Because there ain’t no cellular network in the woods, fella. In fact, at the speed the network works sometimes, I’d take a quadrangle and compass over a crashing app. Interestingly enough, my cell phone uses this symbol for its location feature, even though it only has GPS and no compass.
Add/Remove – Half Point
These are verbs, so that’s a bit difficult to produce. But, I do have this awesome TI-2550. Check out the red display! It uses 4 AA batteries, and claims operating time of 6 hours on this charge. But, it’s sturdy as shit and doesn’t break the way that crappy credit card solar calculator did when I put it my bag. Plus, as a co-worker once remarked, “it works in the dark!” I give myself a half point for both of these combined.
Edit – One Point
Accept no substitutes.
Collect – One Point
Handmade by some hippie in the third-world ghettos of Portland, Oregon. Cost like $10, and holds more groceries than any other reusable bag we have. Also makes a bitchin’ picnic basket.
Play – Half Point
This is a verb, but the symbol shows up in black and silver on my tape recorder, though you can’t see it in the picture. And this is a functional usage, because it differentiates between tape direction, and the relative speed of rewind and fast-forward.
Play – One Point
You can’t hear it, but I’m singing the theme to Link right now. Dum, dum, da dadadadada! Dum dada, dum da dada! Probably best this way.
Share – Zero Points
Bruces is right, this is an interesting symbol. I thought for a long time about what retro-sharing might look like, but couldn’t come up with anything. Maybe hands exchanging something? I don’t know. I do have this cool folding ruler, but it’s not earning me any points.
Pin – One Point
This kills me, because just yesterday I was holding a box of honest-to-goodness map pins in my hand, that were used to pin locations on a paper map. I dug through a bunch of half-unpacked boxes, but couldn’t find them. Instead, I guiltily present these thumb tacks, and take my full point anyway.
Check In/Out – Zero Points
I don’t know about this one. I have some hotel room cards, of the swipe-in/out variety, but I don’t think that counts. It’s hard to tell exactly what that symbolizes, and it doesn’t make me think of checking in to anything. Not sure what would–a revolving door, maybe? Anyway, instead please see my awesome flight calculator, which CAN ALSO BE USED AS A SLIDE RULE, and will totally be helpful to me when the apocalypse hits and I’m stuck on a boat or a plane?
Log In/Out – One Point
I think the name of this one is the actual skeuomorph. Yeah, your sign-ins to a service may be logged, but so is just about everything. You are really unlocking a service, when something requires a “log-in”. And without the proper key, you do not have access. The log is just a record of that. I wonder, tangentially, when “log on” became uniformly “log in”?
Lock/Unlock – One Point
Keeping gym lockers secure. This one looks pretty flimsy, but I’d trust it more than certain web sites that don’t even run SSL.
List – One Point
How I GTD. I’ve never liked any GTD app as much as paper, and this floppy little book cost less than a buck and fits in my pocket. The list is part of the contents of my storage unit.
Money – One Point
Virtual currency, of the seemingly “real” variety. Interestingly, the “$” symbol does not appear anywhere on the bill.
Open/Close – Zero Points
Nothing for these verbs. And again, the nomenclature is the skeuomorph. “Open” and “close” are what the “windows” are animated to do. If anything, you are running and halting a program or process, conjuring or dispelling a dimension of the GUI.
Search – One Point
The best for last. I suppose I have never really “searched” for anything with my magnifying glass, but I have found things with it. Talk about your semantic search–with this search tool, context isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!
FINAL SCORE: Out of 22 items, 14.5 points.
Think you can do better, or would like to dispute my scoring? Take it to the comments, suckas.
I will be spending most of the month of July in China: in Beijing, and possibly also Shanghai and Qingdao.
The back-story is, that my partner M is going there as part of her Master’s work in folklore (more details on that when it’s link-able), and I, as generally-worldly-writer-and-layabout will be tagging along.
This means, that while my lovely spouse is occupied with her labor, I will be loose on the streets, ready to work for YOU, my small but loyal audience. Therefore, I am taking suggestions on things to research. Want something written about? Photographed? Visited, and documented? Found, and publicized? Well, I’m your POSZU. Send me a note, either in the comments, via email, or through Twitter (@interdome). Because how often do you have a research assistant/writer/jerk in Beijing, ready to work for you?
Note: I am also looking for PAID WRITING GIGS while I’m there. Email me and let’s talk. But while not making my fortune blogging, I’m happy to contribute to the majesty of the Commons. For the good of us all, and the gain of no one.
Here are things that are ON THE LIST:
And what else? No topic or project too small. Want a free CC-licensed picture of a particular building? I won’t photograph every single block in the city, but if you can present a compelling reason, I can probably make a day of it.
First of all, the claim in the Guardian piece is that the guards make £470-570 a day off the mining. I’m not sure if this is supposedly per prisoner, or for all the prisoners, but either way, it appears to be a disingenuous way of presenting the figure. This article claims that the average monthly wages of a “free” gold farmer are about 145 USD a month, working 12 hours shifts, or 40 cents an hour. This source claims the average Chinese gold farmer makes 0.30 USD an hour, while management makes about $1 an hour gross off that worker’s labor. So, with 300 prisoners (as cited in the Guardian article) working 12 hour shifts, we could imagine the prison bosses are pulling in $3600 a day gross if they are the top of the management structure, and $1080 per day if they are merely reselling the prisoners’ labor. Either way, we see the £470-570 sum is closer to the combined profitability of all the prisoners, (subtracting subscription and computer costs), and not the work done by the individual prisoner.
But even now that we’ve straightened that out, how much money is that, really? Gold farming only exists because there are economies in the world in which 30 cents an hour is a wage that someone is willing to work for. It is widespread in China, because of the size of the population and what that money will buy. In the United States, even working as a illegal farm laborer for half minimum wage is more than ten times that rate.
But don’t trust me: let’s look at some statistics. Federal minimum wage (the absolute minimum, as some states mandate a higher wage) is $7.25 an hour. The lowest minimum wage in China (China’s minimum wage is set regionally, not nationally) works out to 33 cents an hour, figured with 12-hour days. So gold farming in China is actually almost as lucrative for a worker as a minimum wage job, whereas in the US, it doesn’t even come close. This is why the Chinese bother to do it, whereas in the US, we hope for jobs in food service. Keeping in mind, of course, that “minimum wage” is an abstract figure in itself.
One: the Chinese gold farmers are probably (the article is not clear) paid NOTHING for their farming. The prison bosses pocket 100% of the gross after equipment, with zero labor costs. The workers are making 0% on their labor, and 100% of what would be their minimum wage is being stolen from them on account of their incarceration. Whereas, US prisoners keep at worst (figuring 92 cents an hour) 12.6% of what would be their minimum wage, 87.4% of their due as workers being taken from them on account of their incarceration. In other words, it is better to earn something rather than nothing, and the American prisoners are doing better than the Chinese.
On the other hand…
Two: The surplus value is what matters. It is not so much the percentage that those workers could have earned at a “real” job farming, gold farming, or whatever. It is the work that their bosses are getting out of them, and in this case, the money they save by using prisoners. It is the comparison between the money the bosses might have spent to pay free workers, versus money that those bosses save at the expense of their workers’ incarceration. In this case, per working hour, the Chinese prison bosses are earning $1 off each worker per hour, because this is the largest price they can get from the farmed gold, even when paying their workers absolutely nothing. While the American boss who out-sources prison labor is earning a full $5.25 extra per working hour in pure profit by skirting minimum wage requirements. That is on top of the profit that boss would already collect, from phone orders of products, or harvested produce. In avoiding the necessity to pay workers a minimum wage, US bosses pocket 525% more surplus value per prison-work-hour than their Chinese colleagues with the gold farming scheme. The Chinese prisoner may get the shaft when it comes to being paid. But as far as saving money on labor, the US prison boss is doing much better than the Chinese prison boss.
While our first instinct might be to compare the two instances as in approach One, it is crucial that we compare them by approach Two. A prisoner is a prisoner, but the value of that prisoner to the economic system of industrialized prison labor, shows exactly what stake that system has in keeping that laborer a prisoner. A US worker in prison is worth 525% more to the economy than a Chinese worker farming gold in prison. The Chinese prison bosses would make a little less if they couldn’t steal free labor from their prisoners. But that is small potatoes, compared to what US corporations make off their prisoners. My instinct is that the Chinese gold farming bosses are working on their own, just trying to extort a little bit of labor from their charges (the prisoners also officially work make products for export, which I expect are far more lucrative). To compare gold farming, a little bit of exploitative pocket money gathering, to the worldwide system of prison labor, is merely to make an internet-ready article, and not to even begin to comprehend the injustice done to incarcerated workers by surplus-value economies.
The real story, therefore, is not that it is so crazy that in a Chinese prison, prisoners are made to do some meaningless task for their bosses’ benefit. When measuring the profitability of the prison-industrial complex within the working economy, the US is still #1, baby.
Oh, and the story is also that we love to imagine China is the great economic Satan. But the US has been outsourcing exploitation since there was a trade deficit, and extracting surplus value from workers since time immemorial, so don’t think we’ve forgotten how to fuck over the lower classes.
From many sources frequented by discerning viewers:
Many things to notice here, in addition to the straight awesomeness of what is embedded. Something about the cinematographic separation of white and black. Put next to this:
There is something in paint, and what we expect it to do, and why we use it, and what we think about what it might mean. Something about white suits, about dark skin. About black skull-art work, and about white bone. I don’t know what it is, or if I would get any closer to it by thinking about it in words.
Maybe what I should do is make a music video that is visually not-altogether-not-alike to another video by what might at one time been a diametric opposite artist, but do so by covering a song that might as well have been another diametric opposite in another dimension but is now an inspiration, and do so in a way that completely represents an entirely different culture and place, in symbols that are apparent to nearly anyone anywhere in the world with the technology to view the video in the way the video is presented. I would have to make a video, because just listing these characteristics and proposing the idea is not nearly the same as doing it, especially when someone has already done it. But I couldn’t do it, and not just because someone has already done it.
Something about opposites, in the way they are like echoes.
To go to sea today is a bit of a novelty. At least for most people. For some, it is like every other novelty that exists in the world; what is archaic, insightfully ironic, symbolic, or at the very least new and out of the ordinary to you and me, is to someone else, just a job. For those who actively sail the world, promoting a heavy-lifting, bulk-pack sort of international commerce and global trade, and even now fend off pirate attacks (of all obsolete adventurous activities) looking off the side of the ship no doubt is about as interesting as gazing off across the parking lot outside of work.
But there is something wonderful about it, even more wonderful than compact foreign-made cars, diesel pick-ups, light SUVs, and tarmac. Looking off the side of a large ship at night into the boundless, endless, infinitely wide and deep sea gives one a sense of smallness–that esoteric sensation just barely outside of the domain of language, which we all seek to feel through religion, metaphysics, love, or drugs and intoxicants. Not to give parking lots short schrift of course, as they can do the same. In contemplating the expense of paving over the land with a hermetic barrier of thick tar, culled from the pressed and rotted corpses of life that lived and died thousands of years before us, we create a Body-Without-Organs, a conceptual membrane through which the living cannot penetrate, a hard wall of impermeability that gives contrast to the life attempting to live above and below, that cannot bridge this line contrary to the universal force of zoe, except when it crumbles by way of time and the unstoppable slow tyranny of weather’s endless erosion. This defensive layer that allows us to safety operate our vehicles, that we pay to renew every few years, fighting the glorious fight of humanity against the nature that refuses to accept our independence, and seeks always to reclaim us through disease, through organic poisons, through the sadistic refusal of those natural elements that we cannot live without. A paranoiac cell of isolation, an infinite span of internecine warfare, forming the eternal mental placenta between our egos and…
Well, maybe only I feel that way about parking lots. The ocean, on the other hand, is probably more easily evocative to my fellow members of the species. There is a poetic history of such evocation. And also, look at it! It’s deep. It’s dark. We can only go into a tiny bit of it. Humans have been to the moon, but we can’t go the seven miles to the deepest part of the ocean. There are strange creatures that live there, most of which we haven’t even been able to conquer by naming. That was humanity’s one job, given to us in the Garden of Eden! Everything else, it is your job to be food. Adam, you aren’t food. All you have to do is come up with a name for everything you plan to eat. Cool? Apparently not. We’re still naming microscopic squids, and we’ve had some thousands of years to do it. Some stewards we are.
It’s a weird thing, that ocean. It’s what we’ve sailed across for thousands of years. For most of that time, it was the quickest way to get anywhere. Still is the cheapest, especially if you want to move something heavy. One of the oldest technologies around involve traveling across that liquid surface. Some of the biggest technological advances were about figuring out where we were going one we got moving. And as our ancestors traveled the massive span of the globe, guided by the stars, we could see the tiny twinkling lights of other ships out there doing the same thing we were, and ponder the distance between us, and wonder if the sea decided to turn against us, to claim our worldly investments and to take our lives, would those little lights out there come to our aid?
Maritime law takes this sacredness and mortal danger into account, as it tries to export the laws of the land to the deadly lack of land, and the customs of nations to that which will always be in some way international. Did you know, that under certain conditions, a person salvaging goods from a wrecked ship is entitled to 50% or more of the value of the salvage? It depends, of course, on the nature of the salvage, the effort involved, and how long the goods were “lost” at sea. But the law is based upon the concept that what is lost is therefore valueless, and any person who preserves the value of something that easily could have been lost, is entitled to a portion of that value. Because of this, the contracts for towing ships in trouble are very explicit; everything is laid out before hand, so there are no major claims afterward. This even goes for your fishing boat lodged on a sandbar. Of course, you have little recourse if you are stuck on a sandbar. But luckily, most people in the towing business just want cash, and not half of what is in your cooler.
There is, most assuredly, no “life salvage”, however. It is a fundamental part of all countries maritime code that any capable ship must do all possible to prevent loss of life without expecting reward, as long as doing so doesn’t further endanger the lives of the rescuing ship. Of course, if the other crew dies, there would be no witnesses to your crime. And so goes the way of the sea, and no doubt the beginning of many sea adventure stories. Also of note, is that a ship’s captain is required to care for the health of all crew on the ship, and for any care required the journey as a result of injuries sustained aboard. Universal health care on the high seas dates back to the British maritime laws of centuries ago.
Of course, there as also marooning–the practice of leaving an offensive crew member on a small piece of land with a bit of water, food, and a loaded pistol for him to use on himself if he so chose. I’m not sure of the specific legal history of this practice. But if done by pirates, big fans of the punishment, I would guess the case law would probably not be of their utmost concern.
I have heard, somewhat apocryphally mind you, of a particular Catch-22 applicable at least in Florida ports. Certain docks and moorings have requirements on how long you can tie up. A public park, for example, might have a 2-hour limit, not unlike a parking spot. Private moorages often charge for the privilege, especially if one intends to stay overnight. However, if a vessel claims that that it is unseaworthy, with a broken engine for example, and the owner lives aboard the ship, and s/he has no money to pay for repairs, the boat cannot be evicted. It would be akin to cutting the person adrift, and marooning them upon the “high seas”. Of course, if you could prove they had money for repairs, or that their engine was in fact working, then you could evict away. But the mechanics of that are complicated, both technically and metaphorically. And so, transient boats are common, overstaying their welcome. This is the flip side to the brutality of the law of the sea.
In a port area, there are thousands of interesting cultural features to humanity’s relationship with the sea. From widow’s walks, to chowder recipe, to river pilots, to the local, only-taught-never-documented design for skiff hulls. Again, the specificity within the mundane is similar to a thousand other instances of cultural artifacts found away from the coast. Even, perhaps, in parking lots (one day I’ll treat you to a treatise on the many-storied nature of Employee of the Month parking spaces). If you are unacquainted with sea life, and suddenly find yourself encountering it, it is easy to be overwhelmed. An entire way of life, not just on the coast, but constantly “out there”, over the dark horizon. In each ship is a potential Moby Dick, a work not only of story but of unsurpassed, specialist knowledge, requiring either dreary days of research in a library (or on the internet) or years actually living that life. And for what? For the success of Melville, which could only ever be posthumous. Whether you write about something as exciting as the sea, or something as boring as, say, the world of consumer safety, (see? my interests are wide and varied beyond parking!) it is difficult to make anyone care. Sure, there are fascinating aspects to anything. But what is really fascinating is the boring parts, taken out of their context by about a hundred years or five thousand miles. Whaling was not so interesting to a world filled with spermicetti candles and whale-bone corsets. Nor is parking interesting to your standard commuter. It takes someone with a deeper understanding, who would not only spend their life on a ship but spend that life looking over the side at more and more water passing the side of the hull. Or someone that would watch unblinkingly as the person in the over-sized SUV lines up for their third try at simple head-in parking. Or, someone to whom all of this is new, has some sort of cross-referenced gimmick attached, or can at least be used by an above-average writer as a metaphor for something entirely different that is perhaps actually meaningful.
And I suppose, this is where I try to salvage something of value from these shipwrecks of museums. At this point, at which I see all these essays floating in the water and try to reconstruct what it was they were supposed to be. The moment at which I try and connect these bits of light scattered out over the roadway, the continent, and the ocean. Not out of interest in profit, but out of duty to some sort of literary maritime law. I’ll cut the suspense, and tell you right now that I don’t end up doing it. I fail.
But let me tell you something else. Walter Winchell, anti-Nazi, anti-Communist, pro-McCarthy newspaper columnist, in addition to inventing the “gossip column”, originated the phrase, “Good night, Mr. and Mrs. America, from border to border and all the ships at sea.” Supposedly, at the end of his life he suffered a nervous breakdown, and lived by himself in a hotel, and handed out mimeographed sheets of his column on the street corner every day. That, is dedication to writing and publishing. Either that, or a symptom of a deep psychiatric problem. Well, with that, then goodnight to us: all the writers out at sea.
The last museum will be next week. It is called, The Museum of the Book I am Officially Announcing, Based on This Museum. Or would be, except that I changed the title at the last minute. I promise that there will be text-only nudity in the book, which I hear is big with the kids these days.
There are the things you think about, and then there are the things you feel. I’d put sex in the category of things that we think about. Sure, we feel a great many things about sex. There are entire realms of feeling beneath the cogent level, and no doubt these deep veins of strata, containing everything from repressed childhood memories to ideas repressed for proprieties’ sake, to the deeper machines actually controlling how our minds work, would be illuminating if we could mine them up, process them, and use them to drive the turbines and engines of our conscious thought. But there is so much of it up here on the surface already that digging below the awareness’ permafrost is more effort than necessary for most of us. We already are thinking about sex all the time, so why find more sex to think about? Our brains are so polluted with the raw material of sex, sometimes it’s a wonder that we can ever think about anything else.
And yet we do. We think about impossibly vast, diverse networks of things. We think about the course our lives ought to take. We think about the many distances separating us from the rest of the things in the world which we are always navigating, seeking to increase and decrease the distance between particular objects and ourselves. We think about what things mean, and how the way we find things in the world changes what they might mean. As if we could ever know. And then we share these ideas with other people.
And then there are the things we feel. These things. Emotions we call them, at least when we can identify them. We’re all a bit more emo than we’d like to be. We feel these things cropping up at the worst possible moment. When having an argument with a lover. When being screamed at by a stranger in the street for no apparent reason. When your boss tells you something only an idiot would need to hear and only something an idiot would say. For the third time that day. And you just sit and listen to it. What would you different if not for emotion? Would you simply tell him or her to fuck off? Or would you not need to say anything at all? There’s absolutely no way to tell.
It’s not all as bad as that though. There are the good emotions too. I don’t need to run through them for you, because there is no need to stew over good emotions. We bask in the sunshine, and we huddle indoors and moan about the rain. We have no problem thinking about nothing when all is well, adopting a zen-like pacifivity to that which we would not seek to change. But we start sharpening knives when things go poorly. We develop a legal suit to indict the entire court of universal fairness. We brood, and write manifestos on the walls of our mental cell, and each trickle of rain water running down the wall is a personal insult and attack upon us.
And then one day it rains fire.
Lots of names for this. Anger. Hate. Terror. Fear. Like ember, like flame, like heat, like smoke. Metaphors and categories. Theories and hierarchies. Cause and effect. Thermodynamics. It’s part of the structure of our psyche’s physics. It’s always been here, and it always will be. Homes burn down every day. Bad wiring in a cheap appliance. Candle left by the bathtub. Dirty flue. Used water on a grease fire. Struck by lightning. Smoking in bed.
And this says nothing of the fires that are set by purpose. A crime with many rationales, and yet one name dedicated to the method. Arson. Maybe for money, maybe for love, maybe for hate itself. Maybe just for fire. To watch the flames consume. To see the historical process writ large in light, the entire life and death of a structure compressed into an hour or two, maybe less. With the lives of humans inside the structure too, maybe. At high enough temperatures, everything burns the same. Breaking down into it’s components, releasing gases, converting molecules into simpler forms. But once you reach much higher temperatures, the process reverses. In the sun, fission turns to fusion, and things get bigger again. Relatively.
And so what does this mean for you? What is the layperson to take from such exhibits? Sure, we can be aware of hydrogen fusion, but on a daily basis, what is the point? Well, it only matters twice a day. When the sun comes up in the morning, and when it goes down at night. These are the transition points, at which we notice, no matter how we try to ignore it, that another day has begun or is ending, during which brief and arbitrary but endlessly repeating period of time, the sun will not crash into the earth. The truly amazing fact of human civilization is that all of the incredibly flammable shit we have built all over the face of the earth is most of the time not on fire. We are more often than not, not rioting, not screaming in panic, not torching the homes of the people we hate, and not burning the evidence of what we refuse to believe in. This is spectacular. It is miraculous. A species capable of so much destruction, fighting daily against the flow of hormones and the fire of synapses within their complicated nervous and endocrine systems that they do not understand, and for whatever reason, and mostly it seems in a complete lack of reason, finding something to distract themselves, something to think about, so that they do not exercise this power. They–we–keep building. We make things more flammable by the minute. We stack up fuel, and we let it dry out. We build our houses bigger, and our cities more tightly packed. We huddle closer together, even though there are no doubt far too many of us in here as it is. And it could all go up at any moment. Evidence is building that eventually, it most certainly will. So what? It’s just a bad day, a bad feeling, a bad idea that we’ll work to correct.
We all have bad days, bad feelings, and bad ideas. Some of us let this bother us, and some of us don’t. Either way, regardless of how you are programmed to react to these facts of life, it will never get better. It will change, no doubt; but this will never be a world that does not have a sun a certain distance away from it, around which we spin, whose fusion furnace we depend on for everything, that causes this planet to grow thick with flammable bodies and materials, explosive gases and minerals, with which we surround ourselves. The potential energy builds. The electrons climb ladders up into the sky. The vibration increases, and the velocity continues to build.
It’s only emotion, I suppose. We should probably just deal with it, get over it, convert that anger and rage into something productive, sublimate the heat from those sparks into growing more fuel. We shouldn’t focus on it too much, because focus concentrates the heat and the light, and then we’re right back in the explosions again. Thousands and thousands of our progenitors before us managed to overcome the brutality of their emotions and live peaceful lives. Or perhaps they simply burst into flame, at such a point that it no longer effected their ability to pass on their emotional genes. More potential energy, building up and passing it along. Up the ladder. A ladder with a top?
If you look out over this continent, you can see the lights of all kinds of fires burning. It sounds romantic and melancholy when I say it, but it’s not. It’s not a metaphor. There is a tractor trailer fire off the side of the road in Wyoming, where a truck filled with who knows what blew off the side of the road and caught. A brush fire starts at a rest area in the Utah desert, sending clouds up over the bluffs and into the air. In many of the Midwest states it’s still legal to burn your garbage in your own backyard. In Florida, and many other eastern states, they burn trash to build steam to run turbines, and use it to generate electricity. I know a story about a truckload of polypropylene that accidentally went to the wrong place and ended up in a trash incinerator. In Ohio, maybe? The plastic burnt so hot that it melted the boilers, fusing them into solid lumps of steel. And you’ve probably heard the one about the burning coal mine in Centralia, Pennsylvannia. Burning underground since 1962. These sorts of things happen in America. I wouldn’t really know, but I would imagine that they happen in most other places too. And if you look out at night, you can see all these fires burning. All kinds of fires burning. All right, so some of those lights are parking lots, cars, street lights, homes, airports, and industrial sites. But if you think any of these are safe from catching fire… well, just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
When I look out at these lights, I can’t help but wondering why the fires are so few and far between. The distance that separates them–like that between sunset and sunrise. I wonder what’s going on in that darkness, because fire, at the very least illuminates. Photons set out in jagged harmonic paths from an exothermic oxidation reaction. You can see what burns. But everything else is hidden. Dark as the sea at night.
One of the most dangerous places for fires is at sea. Because there is no where to run on a burning ship. Not to make too gothic a thing of it, but it’s true. Next week, we’ll visit the Museum of Ships at Sea, and Seas as Flat as Parking Lots.
I hardly would like to implement a hierarchical taxonomy of American culture, either with upper and lowercase C’s, or with any other modifier to the word. No judgment, please, on what is good culture or not. No suffix of “Americana” for example, to connote a certain sort of nod and wink behind the back of certain less popular states in the middle of the country. Nor would I, through my abrasive tone of a curmudgeon seeking to willfully impose anti-establishment incitement upon people far too busy to think about such foolish things, and as part of my lifelong role as generally ungrateful son of these shores, seek to simply lambaste and deride any particular part of the cultural content of this vast continent. Whether through the expositionary exhibition of suspicion and distrust at which I excel, the ad hominem insult and verbal roll of the eyes I all too often express, or the openly paranoiac philosophical theory I pull out of my pocket and wave in the air when I’ve had one too many and forget that I’m in a public bar and that they’ll probably call the cops. I would hope not to take on, any more than the average writer, such tendencies we typically summarize as bias; the mental price of doing business that we inwardly acknowledge as what we must reign in and control if we wish to take part in a liberal society. I have my own opinions about what is good culture and what is… well, otherwise than that. As do we all. I acknowledge them, but have no need to tack them to any cathedral door, nor cast them in stone and deposit them on a courthouse lawn.
Not to say that there is any good reason to hide these opinions, so long as they are presented as a (albeit, often argumentative) theoretical basis for self-motivation to aid the production of worthwhile cultural products, rather than those that are… less than worthwhile. I would hope and expect that anyone else would be just as willing to justify their own pursuits by judgments about its cultural worth, at least internally, so as always to be pushing the envelope towards whatever it is that they seek. Just as I would also expect that upon confronted with criticism towards oneself, a person would be able to either surmount that criticism in his or her own mind, or otherwise interpolate it, to emerge with one’s own course improved and/or reified. Whether that course is the creation of a controversial piece of avant-garde artwork, or the decision to take a cruise to Cozumel. Maybe the rationale is apropos of nothing; but this is still a rationale, and ought to be defended as such. “What is the reason? No reason!” Perfectly acceptable and difficult to refute. And therein, a cultural process on such firm ground should not be wary of receiving criticism. And so we shouldn’t shy from giving it, if we feel it is necessary.
But, this sort of epistemology and hermeneutics of judgment and justification is dry and dull. Because really, once you have attained a certain perspective of relativism for critical judgment, you are simply locked into a cycle of your own self-improvement. If all criticism can be taken or given constructively, then everything, critical or not, becomes constructive. And there is no choice but to construct. This is good, of course, because you can finally stop castigating television for ruining society and start working on actually improving society; you can stop complaining that there is nothing worthwhile in the world and begin making what is worthwhile; you can stop basing your career around proselytizing against certain things, and base it on supporting things. In general, criticism becomes a very positive activity, because even when you are lambasting the shit out of some poor artist/tourist you detest, you are only ever preaching to the choir. Your negativity is transmuted into positivity, because once you’ve realized the person you are criticizing probably doesn’t give a shit, you are only going to be stimulating yourself in your own chosen direction. The thesis and the antithesis are synthesized; the dialectic is complete; we wake up and try harder tomorrow. And this is boring. You can’t burn anyone at a stake once you realize everyone is playing different roles in the same stage-play that is the human species. Real progress, as it turns out, is as boring as world peace.
Luckily, there is another sort of epistemology that we can turn to for that carnivalesque excitement. The sort of rush, a will to power and manifest destiny that will get us out of bed in the morning. We’re not slaying barbarian hordes, and there probably won’t be a medal in it for you. But we are discovering and claiming resources, in the biggest gold rush in human history. The borders are open folks, and tickets are cheap. Welcome to the cultural gold rush. Get in while the getting is good.
Let’s turn that mischievous metaphor aside, because it is mischievous, and because it is not really accurate. There used to be a resource market in culture. This was called Classicism, Antiquities, Anthropology, Folklore Studies, Archaeology, History, Literature, and more generally, the Humanities. There was a rush to accumulate all kinds of cultural artifacts and artistry, once these minerals were discovered. As the waters of criticism receded, the value of everything was laid bare, and it was ripe for the taking. Land once considered valueless was determined to have vast veins of semiotic deposits. Economies that had been sinking for centuries were boosted when the boom of cultural production came to town. Entire civilizations were revitalized. Great mercantile exchanges were founded back in the home countries, to which the cultural colonists could send the fruits of their prospecting, for sale on the open market. Entire educational industries developed, feeding on the flows of these resources, and the liberal arts education was one of the hottest commodities out there. Good for a thousand uses, the liberal arts education was made of cultural minerals, and ran on cultural minerals. Nearly every home in America had one—the first member of the family to obtain such a commodity was more celebrated than the main bread winner of the household. And with this gadget in his or her (but often his) possession, the task of winning the bread often fell on to the shoulders of this new education-bearing class.
But you know all this. Ancient history. We might have learned it somewhere along the way, as sort of an explanation for while our modern versions of that cultural commodity don’t seem to pack the same punch. Or maybe we deciphered this history through our own intuition—via our suspicions that somehow they’ve changed the formula somewhere along the line, or that perhaps the construction quality just isn’t what it once was. At any rate, there is a sense of the old, the obsolete, the outdated to our current liberal educations. That maybe this commodity had more of a relationship with ancient history than it ever had with us.
Thankfully, I don’t have to solemnly add that the former boom towns are now decrepit wastelands, and that the once proud factories stand like ghosts, uncanny reminders of the curse of economic cycles and the fleeting, transitory nature of any wealth and success. On the contrary. The culture industry is just as strong as it was, and it is probably more profitable now than ever. More educational commodities are produced each year than the last, and the countries that mine the cultural minerals are getting more of a share of those profits than they ever did. Something is changing, it just isn’t reducible to GDP.
The functional monopoly is fading. The luster and quality of the mineral isn’t diminishing, but its effectiveness is. Not in a way that it is being less effective, but that its presence doesn’t guarantee anymore success than a synthesized substitute. What is running out is the metaphor. Now it isn’t liquid gold. It’s only book learning. The molecular structure is less structured. The reaction was only ever a catalyst—and now the reaction is running on its own.
Okay, really—enough of the poetic license. I’m overstepping the bounds of my land grant. You don’t need me to dig this out for you, and that is the whole point. Cultural products and the skills we use to develop them—be it liberal education, a general appreciation for the humanities, an artistic goal, or even cold hard cash—are better distributed than ever before. It turns out that culture is not a mineral after all. It doesn’t have to be compressed in the earth for thousands of years before it becomes virile. It is not only found in certain places. It doesn’t only form in the rare pinch-point between a set of specific historical circumstances or at the hands of great persons. Meaning is now found in the least assuming of places, and in this way, meaning means more to the people to which it means than it ever did in the past. The metaphor that constricted how we understood and used culture, is broken. Anything goes, as long as it explodes. If you can light it on fire, it’s fuel. Culturally, that is. Maybe for other things later.
One of the best ways to see this is by, as ever, seizing the means of production. Visit the mines and the factories. The former centers of educational production are well-funded, but they are beset by problems. As they add wings and libraries, found new on-site museums and repatriate artifacts, they only draw further criticism. They get the money they need eventually, and perhaps they even spend it well. But are they doing it right? Are they up with the times? Are the customers satisfied? Is the product worthwhile? No one seems to know anymore. We go to the museums, we read the books, we take the classes. But have we learned anything? What’s more frightening than this fate is not knowing how to fix the problem or whose fault it is. Everything seems educational, and yet we don’t feel any smarter.
But this is not the end of the tour. Perhaps it has always been around to a certain extent, and we just ignored them in our thrill at the tall skyscrapers and massive smokestacks, the expansive parking lots and the expensive executives of the major industrial centers. There is, mostly unseen, a cottage industry in culture. A distributed, effective, industrial grassroots. A thriving network of culture that we hardly notice, and perhaps doesn’t even notice itself. These are, for lack of a better unifying rubric, the Small Museums of America.
You’ve seen these museums advertised when you drive along the interstate. The Museum of Western Industry and Mining. The Cowboy Museum and Alligator Center. The Tri-Country Fabric and Textiles Museum. The Town of ______ Heritage Center and Museum. The _____ Museum, with the blank filled by some unknown person’s last name as indicator of, what? How are we supposed to fit these small museums into the ecosystem of our cultural industries? The large museums, the Smithsonian, the British Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art all hold particular places. They fill roles in the canon. The big exhibitions travel to a certain number of pre-designated spots, like a large concert tour. We know how to treat these institutions. We know why we visit them: they are the central trading houses of certain cultural markets. We know what we can find there, and we go there for that purpose. But what about the small museum? Is it a tourist trap, just meant to suck a little cash out of the pocket when you stop for lunch? Is it simply something to do, in an area that has no other attractions? Or is it a vanity museum, only in existence by bequeath of some person or group that would like to see a particular “museum” dedicated to a certain topic in a certain place, and this was the limit of their resources? How do we know that anything important really happened in this place, and that this museum has any cultural artifacts of real worth?
We don’t know. It could be a worthless waste of five dollars. It could be a waste of time and gas to drive that far from the highway to find out. Or worse, it could simply be boring. Any of these things are possible. But here is something that we do know: it will be a museum. What good is a shitty museum, you might ask? The very thing that makes it a museum. Perhaps amateurish pit stops along the highway could be enjoyed on the level of kitsch, or in that nod and a wink Americana way I mentioned previously. But there is something about a museum that cannot fake or mimic what it does. There are no fake factories: a factory produces things, and if it does not produce, it is not a factory. Similarly, there are no false museums. You could argue the merits of that museum’s production, but you could not argue that it produces. The very act of calling oneself a museum denotes a very real effort to collect a certain amount of objects, and to present them to the public in a meaningful, cultural way. It is a dedicated arena of exhibition, whatever that may entail. Perhaps it is a collection of memorabilia, with only handwritten index cards to identify them. It could be a house full of antiques, with a volunteer staffer the only guide for their interpretation. It could be art that would never be shown on the walls of a canonical museum, and yet someone picked them to hang on these walls, in lieu of others. Every museum is curated. Every museum exhibits. And every museum wants you to come and see what it has waiting for you.
If you talk to the people who work at these museums, you will find a good number of volunteers. You will find people who already have an intimate connection to the subject matter, and not just a desire to work in museums. They will tell you about how they got barely enough donations to stay open this year, and how they have plans to add another room, or to build an accurate recreation of _____, if only they can reach their new fund raising goal. They will tell you of other small museums in the area that are similar and worth your while, or completely different and worth your while. And they will be glad to see you, and glad that you are hear to see what they have to show you.
Yes, it’s off the beaten path, and it’s a breath of fresh air, and it’s something different, something unique, and something new. But what it is, more than anything else, is culture. This is the stuff, right here. Not the true, the authentic, and the real: but the actual, the close-up, and what remains. A lot of this stuff, if it was not in the Small Museum, would not exist. No one else wants it, and no one else has the money and time to care for it. But this museum does, and so it exists, entered into the vast catalog of human culture. It might not be the most superlative instance of whatever it is, but it very much is what it is. There is an element of actual being to these things, a different sense of the world historical. They are not perfect specimens, preserved against the ravages of time. But they are what’s left. They are what could easily not exist, except for the fact of their exhibition. And in this way, they are art. They are cultural production. They are nothing more than what someone took the time to create with his or her own hands, and in that, they are everything. It is not a class of culture, or an aspect of culture that we’ve previously overlooked. It’s culture, no different than a Michelangelo or an Air Jordan sneaker, for exactly the same reasons. It is this culture, the vastness of the Small Museums in their totality, that is reducing the vitality of the canon. For better or worse. Far be it from me to judge.
What you get from a visit to a Small Museum is all up to you. There are no guarantees from this sort of cultural criticism. Like all consumption, what you get largely depends on you. The Small Museum is something of the “getting to the bottom of things”. As I stress, this verticality is not in the sense of a hierarchy or systemic ranking, nor anything radical or of deconstruction. But underneath the larger structures of our cultural production and distribution, there are minor structures and systems. Smaller, and yet the same. The hand that picks two shells out of thousands from a beach, tosses one into the ocean, and puts the other in the pocket. The mechanisms of choice. The Boolean logic binaries hiding within the vast spectra of aesthetic preference. The oddly human way in which we pour our memory over unsuspecting inanimate objects using our senses. This is going on all the time—not so much at the root of everything, but comprising the root, the stem, the sap, the leaves, and the fruit of everything. Everything that we would want to refer to within the easy confines of a metaphor. Once you’ve visited some of the Small Museums of America, you’ll want to see more. It will become a “thing” with you. You might, if you let it get to you, even start thinking of non-museums as Small Museums. The gum on a sidewalk. The bathing suits that people choose to wear. The names of gun shops. The taste of shitty beer. Other people might think it’s odd, even though they are doing the same thing more and more often, even though they don’t realize it. We are all judging, offering our criticism, and then turning around and showcasing, exhibiting, viewing, consuming. And then moving on. Others might treat you as an odd specimen. But don’t let it bother you too much. We’re all moving in this direction.
If you like, you can accompany me on my visit to yet another Small Museum of America next week. We’re going to the Museum of Walmart Parking Lots. Don’t forget your permission slip, and $9.99 for an extra value meal.
I would pull a citation, but you have to see the entire thing. This is the modern version of an epic poem. It is, in its entirety, a work devoted to the description of Anonymous.
As such, there is virtually nothing that can be lifted, quoted, gleaned, analyzed, without looking at the rest of it. Without realizing that it contradicts itself several times. Without noticing different contributors making fun of each other as they make fun of someone else. Without looking at all the links, shitty pop-ups the links generate, and without wondering in the back of your head if one of the embedded videos is installing a keylogger on your computer. Without realizing that it is all on Encyclopedia Dramatica, and all that that entails.
This is the key. You cannot have a discussion about what Anonymous is, without it turning into a flame war, a joke, a flame war joke, a joke of a flame war, and a reference to some other joke flame war. And if that reference isn’t funny enough, that will start a flame war.
Check out this section in particular. A legitimate flame war becomes a joke, then a more meta joke, and then a joke about comment threads, and then a discussion of signature gifs. And then everyone disperses, and goes back to the jokes.
The minute anyone says, “this is definitely what Anonymous is” is a chance for Anonymous to prove you wrong in the largest of ways. So instead, let me propose a hypothetical situation:
Imagine that there was a technology that was a sort of “word-layer” over the world, that was like the world, and about the world, and yet significantly different from the world that the rest of the world could still be called “real life” (or RL). And then, in this layer, people made jokes. Eventually, the jokes got so elaborate that they spilled over into RL, even though everyone often treated things as if they couldn’t. This became part of the joke. The joke grew, until there were many different parts of the joke, some of which acted like they were from RL and moved into the word-layer, and others acted like they were from the word-layer and moved to RL. Part of the joke became that you couldn’t tell what was a joke and what wasn’t, because part of the joke was to treat RL like it wasn’t a joke, even though it was. And the minute that anyone tried to show distinctly and clearly what the difference between RL and the word-layer was, between what the joke and seriousness was, it automatically became part of the joke.
And in the end, part of the joke was to destroy a country’s economy.
Or, take down a credit card web site, in RL, which is this world. What is so strange about Anonymous is that it both is a joke, and it isn’t. Maybe some people think it is serious, and some people think it is all about lulz, and some people think it is lame, and other people think it is important. But it ends up existing anyway. It is like a running mob, that suddenly spells out a catch phrase when viewed from space. Why not? It’s possible. And it’s happening now.
The amazing thing would be that an issue of international importance like Wikileaks actually cohered with Anonymous, except that it isn’t really amazing. This is just the way that the word-layer and RL will interact from now on. This is reality. Try and get a grip.
The media has their narratives, of hacktivism, and trolls, and spies, and laws. But the joke is that all of these are part of the same joke. Just because you try to isolate the narratives into “a story of justice”, “US national security”, “free-speech”, “the ever-search for lulz”, “opportunity for historic activism” or whatever, does not mean than anything on the earth happens in isolation of anything else. It is all part of the same beast. We see a DDoS attack against a credit card company, or a credit card company use the State Department to sway foreign officials, or a mouthy internet user make “official statements” on the internet, or a man arrested for operating a web site. What does anything have to do with the other? People are dead. Other people are rich. Some people’s day was ruined. Other people were embarrassed. Some people laughed. What is the end result? Human history. The world, every damn day. Welcome to the never-ending old sick twisted mostly unfunny joke that is life. The human mob, again and again and again. Until there are none of us left.
So what is Anonymous? Whatever you want. In my definition, the closest that a boring and trite platitude can get to summing up human existence while still missing it completely. Sorry. Add your own politics/doom/disappointment/enthusiasm/distrust/anger/fear/love. It’s jokes, all the way down.
The only problem with my definition is that it isn’t funny enough.
These are some of my favorite Small Stuff pictures so far. Passports are one of the few instances of really quality print today. While much of bureaucracy is trending towards the electronic, and thankfully so, passports remain an application of delicate print, where the delicacy is used as a security measure. This is my old passport, pre-RFID, so the design has changed. But you can see the important of the grain of the paper, as well as an overlay of litho inks done in precise colors. A color copy of a passport, done on even the best quality digital equipment, would be instantly recognizable on simple magnification. To create a decent forgery, one would have to have the exact plates, ink, and paper used in the official version, and even then I am sure there are other techniques and indicators in the print process I don’t know that would let an expert tell the different.
The imprint of a typewriter compared to a black and white copier shot from Monday. A typewriter is similar to a letterpress, in which every character is created by a pre-molded piece of type. This creates sharp lines and the characteristic imprint in the piece of paper, but also necessitates setting each page of text before hand. A “laser” style toner machine uses an image loop charged with ions to create a one-off “plate” for adhering toner to paper. The lines are much less precise, but can be reset hundreds of times a minute during printing.
Digital color printers also use the 4 color process method, but with toner rather than ink. Compared to litho printing, the toners can melt and achieve a smoother color gradient, depending on the size of the toner. Also, because the toner is more translucent than ink, overprinting achieves a color gradient as well.
“Full color” print is typically achieved by mixing different dot densities of four main colors, cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, in what is known as the four color process. While this is standard full color print in your magazine or postcard, different effects can be achieved by mixing more particular colors in a similar process. Check out the color bars on the flap of your cereal box or other packaging to see the different inks that went into creating the image as you eye perceives it.
These dot patterns are the detail of a image of a grassy field from a magazine.