Monday, March 21, 2016

Mud Season: the Viscous in Nature and Slime in General

Go for a walk in the woods. You enjoy the rustle of leaves, the sun filtered through the foliage, the call of birds. But stoop down and brush aside the dry vegetation underfoot, then scoop up a layer of mud beneath, and you'll find a very different "nature"--one of rotting, squishy substances populated by slimy worms, insects, and composting substances of unknown origin. You know that the former experience depends entirely upon the existence of the muddy handful, but there may still be a shiver of repulsion to color the experience. Psychoanalysis and philosophy visit this world of repulsion to bring back reports of the "deeper" levels of our sexuality and--for philosophy--new questions of ontology: the existence of the world of slime. It seems fitting here to add to these objects of inquiry some thoughts on politics, in this season of mud-slinging, "sliming," and "dirty politics." Politics has some lessons to be learned from the errors and insensitivites of our abstract and idealized myths of "nature."

"Nature"--like a beauty contestant parading before the judges--must conform to certain rules and standards to be considered for artistic attention and celebration, whether in poetry, painting, fine photography, cinema, or a descriptive passage in a well-reviewed novel. Like the beauty queen, nature must present herself at the proper distance from the optimal point of view, in the right costume, thoughtfully lighted, and free of any blemishes caused by disease, age, maltreatment, violence, or unfortunate genetic origins. Thoreau narrates it in comforting conformity:

"Once it chanced that I stood in the very abutment of a rainbow's arch, which filled the lower stratum of the atmosphere, tinging the grass and leaves around, and dazzling me as if I looked through colored crystal. It was a lake of rainbow light, in which, for a short while, I lived like a dolphin. If it had lasted longer it might have tinged my employments and life." (Walden, 202)

John Muir gave us a West Coast version of the style:

"Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature's sources never fail. When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe. " (Muir, My First Summer in the Sierras, 110)

The transcendentalist assumes that we are one with nature, whose "job" it is to give meaning, depth, and beauty to our lives, when we live in harmony with her systems--as awed participants in a divine universal organism.

Now and then a writer or artist notices that nature's "blemishes," like a beauty queen's rash or sweaty underarms, can't simply be ignored or air-brushed out of the picture--that, indeed, nature is chock full of violent, disgusting, and repulsive elements that require only a slightly different angle of vision, viewing distance, or enhanced attention to all but destroy one's romantic preconceptions about our harmonious role in the tapestry of creation. Worm in the apple. Sore on the lip. Mud, instead of garden. Here's Annie Dillard, our "20th century Thoreau," describing a pond event:

"...At the end of the island I noticed a small green frog. He was exactly half in and half out of the water, looking like a schematic diagram of an amphibian, and he didn't jump.

He didn't jump; I crept closer. At last I knelt on the island's winter killed grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away. He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water; it was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away. The frog skin bag started to sink.

I had read about the giant water bug, but never seen one. 'Giant water bug' is really the name of the creature, which as an enormous, heavy-bodied brown bug. It eats insects, tadpoles, fish, and frogs. Its grasping forelegs are mighty and hooked inward. It seizes a victim with those legs, hugs it tight, and paralyzes it with enzymes injected during a vicious bite. That one bite is the only bite it ever takes. Through the puncture shoot the poisons that dissolve the victim's muscles and bones and organs--all but the skin--and through it the giant water bug sucks out the victim's body, reduced to a juice..." (Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 8)

We are instantly transported into the world of our sci-fi nightmares: The Blob, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Creature from the Black Lagoon.

It doesn't take much: venture to the garden in late-March "mud season," bend down to inspect a pile of rotting black leaves, then plunge your fingers into the slimy muck beneath, pulling up the remains of dead vines, pulpy stems, and slimed-over remains of last year's crops. Mud season.

On the other hand, insufficiently "civilized," tamed, and repressed, kids love slime. Mud? Great for toe-wiggling, mud-pies, splatter wars. Infants will happily smear the crib with their own feces, whatever the Gerber Baby advertises to the new mothers at the baby shower, exchanging their colorful Calder-inspired minimalist mobiles, ruffled pink baby quilts, and sweet-smelling moisturizers. Infants seem to believe that oatmeal is great for the scalp, that applesauce is a fine candidate for tossing to whoever's nearest. Worms, silly putty, grape jelly? Couldn't be more fun. Later, as taboos get enforced, the joy changes inflection: now it is delight in the "Ewww" factor--joy enhanced by the recoil of the audience: what kid has not learned the pleasure and power to be had by a rousing vocal performance of:

"Great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts
Mutilated monkey meat
Hairy pickled piggy feet
French fried eyeballs floating in some kerosene
And me without a spoon."?

This childhood ambivalence--the battle between the "Ewwww..." and the "Ooooh..."--is carried over with enhanced power into a multitude of adult preoccupations and structures: sexuality, artistic practices, psychopathologies, as well as religious and philosophical dogmas and categories. The taboos and attractions are multiplied in extremely powerful ways, right down to the deepest levels of our mythic and cultural architecture.

In the psychosexual domain the literature references blennophobia (fear of slime) and obsessive/compulsive rites of cleanliness and germ fear at one end of the spectrum. At the other extreme is obsessive erotic attraction to slime, filthiness, and "taboo" practices such as the originally Japanese bukkake orgies in which a great number of men--sometimes hundreds--ejaculate upon the nude body and face of a single woman. Examples are easily elaborated: pica (the obsessive eating of clay, plaster, or roadside dirt), coprophagy (the eating of feces), the ritual smearing of feces and urine on a sexual partner's body, and, in milder manifestations of these erotic proclivities, festivals of mud-wrestling, erotic massages with oils and jells, and so on for scores of variations easily imagined. As St. Augustine noted, "Inter faeces et urinam nascimur" -- we are born between shit and piss (and never seem to lose our fascination with the possibilities thereby offered, whether in bed or in the most serious works of art.)

$2.3 million was offered for Chris Ofili's 1996 portrait, "The Holy Virgin Mary," whose exposed breast is made of lacquered elephant dung, while her robe is made up of depictions of women's asses. "Piss Christ" is a 5' x 3' photograph by Andres Serrano of a small crucifix suspended in a plastic box filled with the artist's urine. A more refined variant of the fascination with viscous and psychologically freighted substances is to be found in the large-scale sculptural works of Matthew Barney (who made the epic Cremaster cycle of films, premiered at the Guggenheim Museum), which utilize hundreds of gallons of petroleum jelly--sometimes allowed to melt and slime over all the surroundings--his statement on the fossil fuel industry, as well as the antecedent use of whale oil as fuel. These artistic practices may seem bizarre: but imagine trying to explain to a visitor from a lost culture or distant planet the Christian doctrine of the eucharist, in which believers consume the actual body and blood of Christ by the miracle of transubstantiation of the physical substances of the wafer and the wine... theophagic cannibalism as a religious commandment! And recall that the Biblical account of our very creation involves God's playing in the mud, scooping up clay to form a creature in "his own image," then breathing into his mud-sculpture the breath of life, making of us immortal souls! It is all a bit complicated?

Twentieth century philosophy did not hesitate to dive into the issues raised by such matters (and indeed 2500 years earlier Heraclitus had divided up human souls into those that are "dry," and those that are "damp." The damp ones, drunkards, etc., are prone to sink, while the dry souls ascend towards the heavens to be purified in the fires of intellectual suns--a foretaste of Plato's division of the human soul into the appetite, the will, and the intellect above.) Armed with hundreds of years of theory, art, and psychological conjecture, philosophers like Sartre and Merleau-Ponty tackled the issues treated here in ontological terms. Under the tutelage of phenomenology, these philosophers argue that objects in the world--things--have, as part of their reality, affective qualities: repulsivenss, and attractiveness, for example. These are not merely associated with the object by an act of the mind, but are really there, in the thing--as real as its mass, velocity, color, shape, or proportions. This can have revolutionary consequences for re-engineering our philosophical understanding of our lived world and its truth, since, among other advantages, it gives us an opening to understand the power and knowledge-status of the arts, which depend primarily upon these "affective" qualities of existing objects.

Of course this is no place to even sketch out the elaborate, decades-long arguments for this position (Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, DeBeauvoir, and many others). It will have to suffice here to make a few points concerning some findings of this methodology regarding the matters at hand--the roots of our contorted relationship to the nausea and attraction of such substances as slime, mucus, phlegm, sexual juices, and extending even to foods, organisms, bodily functions, as well as qualia, textures, smells, and so many of the imagined objects of classic science fiction/horror/comic books, movies, hip-hop songs, poetry, novels, paintings, and other human cultural productions, whether pathological or "normal."

Sartre provided an extended meditation on the roots of existential disgust and repulsion in his Being and Nothingness, as well as the novel, Nausea, thereby provoking the anger of feminists, who easily identify Sartre's characterization of the feminine-viscous as misogynist. In Sartre's play, The Age of Reason, the protagonist wrestles with his repulsion and horror of female anatomy in its admixture with human embryogeny--pregnancy. Hollywood horror films have made abundant use of this nexus of extreme feelings in such films as Carrie, Dawn of the Dead, The Alien, The Nightmare on Elm Street, Rosemary's Baby, Species and literally hundreds of others, most of which identify the fluids, orifices, and organic functions of (especially) the female role in reproduction as horrifying, and threatening.

Recall my former point that phenomenology insists on the "objective" or "really real" status of affective qualities in the things of the world. Studies show repeatedly that we make confident and surprisingly accurate judgments about people in a matter of seconds on first meeting--say in a job interview or at a party. Furthermore, a questionnaire asking subjects to name the personality types, and emotional states of inanimate objects (tea kettle, candle, clock, shoe, or whatever), elicits answers of amazing uniformity: people on the whole perceive the world under categories untouched by geometry, physics, and measurement. According to the phenomenologist, this is not at all an operation of pasting or attaching an imagined or "mental" association to a bare perception; rather we get a "bare" (scientific) perception only by abstracting qualities from a too-rich bodily encounter with a quasi-subjective object in our experience.

Roquentin, in Sartre's Nausea, suffers from an ontological malady; he suffers from the very paste and "thereness" of things in the world. It is their existence that he finds insupportable and nauseating:

"His blue cotton shirt stands out joyfully against a chocolate coloured wall. That too brings on the Nausea. The Nausea is not inside me: I feel it out there in the wall, in the suspenders, everywhere around me. It makes itself one with the cafe, I am the one who is within it." (Nausea, 19)

For the early Sartre, consciousness (For-itself) is Nothingness (nihilating activity)--it is another name for freedom, the human ability to assign meaning to any object, and, thereby, to change any situation. The objects/things of the world (the In-itself) are inert, existing in space and time as objects for consciousness and operating under laws discovered by the sciences. Science, or knowledge, is about these things--an operation of consciousness. But consciousness exists in a state of continuous anxiety, since "it" alone has no existence, no definition, no fixed identity. Knowing that it can be anything, it lapses into "bad faith," the attempt to assume a stable identity and fixed definition: "I am a Republican, a Catholic, a Father, a Banker, a Husband, a Hiker." Now, I have no need to take responsibility for my choices, since they all flow from my fixed definitions. In my anxiety I try to forget that I could choose at any moment to be an unfaithful, atheistic, runaway revolutionary. But I can never hide from my consciousness this scandal that belongs to the core of consciousness in its being: I am Nothing fixed, nothing definable. I am responsible.

In a metaphorical leap of representation, Sartre says that this framework is the basis of our queasy response--our nausea--in the presence of slime--a "substance" that refuses to be either liquid or solid, that refuses to be pinned down, just as I, myself, cannot be defined in a fixed identity:

"At this instant I suddenly understand the snare of the slimy; it is a fluidity which holds me and which compromises me; I can not slide on this slim, all its suction cups hold me back; it can not slide over me, it clings to me like a leech. The sliding however is not simply denied as in the case of the solid; it is degraded. The slimy seems to lend itself to me, it invites me; for a body of slime at rest is not noticeably distinct from a body of very dense liquid. But it is a trap. The sliding is sucked in by the sliding substance, and it leaves its traces upon me. The slime is like a liquid seen in a nightmare, where all its properties are animated by a sort of life and turn back against me. Slime is the revenge of the In-itself. A sickly-sweet feminine revenge which will be symbolized on another level by the quality "sugary." This is why the sugar-like sweetness to the taste--an indelible sweetness, which remains indefinitely in the mouth even after swallowing--perfectly completes the essence of the slimy. A sugary sliminess is the ideal of the slimy; it symbolizes the sugary death of the For-itself (like that of the wasp which sinks into the jam and drowns in it).

To touch the slimy is to risk being dissolved in sliminess. Now this dissolution by itself is frightening enough, because it is the absorption of the For-itself by the In-itself as ink is absorbed by a blotter..." (Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 609)

Passing over the misogynist overtones, and abandoning here any ambition to show in any detail how Merleau-Ponty, attacking the quasi-Cartesian dualism of Sartre's analysis, breaks through to a fruitful and novel ontology of the Flesh (le chair), which as for-itself-in-itself, allows him to describe our primary world of experience as bodies--as essentially the very "paste" of interconnectedness.

I can rub my fingers together and touch myself touching, living alternately in the "subject" finger and the object finger, while at all times being the body that makes this simultaneity possible. And by extension this view makes sociality possible, since we are both bodies, alternating like my two fingers as subjects and objects, but never losing our rootedness in the bodied world. flesh of our flesh--involved in our shared carnality.

A book-length essay would be required to follow up the consequences of this radical re-focus of the categories of existence, and another book would be needed to spell out the practical consequences in the world of political and social struggle.  It is easy to extend our disgust with slime metaphorically to the excesses of media coverage of the current presidential election campaign. Mud in the garden, mud-slinging on the networks, muck-raking in the journals, and slime left on all of us--as if "Slimer" in Ghostbusters had left its ectoplasmic calling card as it slithered through all our orifices and vulnerable faculties.

Suffice it here to note that this view casts a new light on the claim that "all politics are local." We have had enough of the abstractions and systems of the neo-conservatives, libertarians, utopian socialists, and even garden variety Republicans who cloak racism, misogyny, greed, and simple cruelty in the high-flown language of liberty, states' rights, market "corrections," constitutional originalism, American exceptionalism, corporate personhood, weapons system sanctity, standardized testing, and campaigns against political correctness, and rational gun-control,  environmental skepticism, calls for border and voting "safeguards," and a thousand other trickle-down fallacies and ideological smoke-screens.  Aristophanes would have had a wonderful time satirizing these "head in the clouds" theorists and apologists for our victimizing class system--these politicians, who mask their own greed and psychopathology in the language of standard abstract defenses of corporate and upper class "rights."

Slime Ichthyology

In 1971 the experimental film maker, Stan Brakhage, made a half-hour, silent, 16mm film, The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes. The subject matter is mostly of standard autopsy procedures in a morgue. It is common for the occasional viewer to become sick, or even pass out, when confronted with this ultimate portrait of the human condition as embodied--all a matter of fluids, slimes, faces peeled back, exposed brains, and so on. This, too, is the truth, perhaps the "deeper" truth of the same body celebrated in poetry and painting, the same face that invites our deepest instincts for attraction, repulsion, and grounds the barriers to aggression and violence, that we celebrate in art, advertising, personal experience, and myth.

This sort of experience is one of the best arguments I know for grounding politics in the mire and muck of actual embodied lives, rather than the abstractions of deluded politicians, theoreticians, and campaign strategists, Politics is local--down to the cellular level, from the bottom up, and all politics in the best sense, are "dirty." A hungry child huddled in an unheated apartment owned by a rich absentee landlord will tell us much more about our system of power and privilege than all the position papers ever published by the Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation, or the Free Enterprise Institute. The Republican establishment's fear of "populism" is, at base, a fear of the "dirty" truths of the inequalities of social and economic organization. (2016 has a great deal to teach us in such matters.)

We need never to discard our "nostalgie de la boue," our longing to be back in the mud. From the primal ooze of life's first appearance on earth to truth's appeal to seeing the flesh of the world "with one's own eyes," we fool ourselves when we think we can survive and thrive together in the sterile, minimalist, super-clean environs of Platonic Forms, or right-wing myths of racial and cultural purity. Only in this revisionist sense of the term, my vote is strong for dirty politics.

[NOTE: Unless I change my mind again, this will be my last essay here. Thanks to all of you who have read what I've written, and have a good Spring.]

Friday, March 11, 2016

Boredom, Writing, Subjectivity, "Struggle"

"The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line." --H. L. Mencken

"I don't pray because I don't want to bore God." --Orson Welles

"Bores bore each other too, but it never seems to teach them anything." -–  Don Marquis, author of  archy & mehitabel (1927)

March, not April, is the cruelest month.  The drama and adrenaline of the heavy snow and ice cover are gone, and the explosions from the green fuses of April's spring are not yet.  All is gray, brown, or grayish brown: even the sky has a beige filter over the relentless, close, gray cloud cover.  The old, all-white neighborhood tom cat, Piper, never stinting in his single-minded predation, stalks the birds, patiently as usual, but he is obviously embarrassed and mournful to have suddenly lost the advantage of his full-body snow camo--now stark against the dark brown mud of the neighbors' back yards and damp fences.

When my New Yorker subscription fortuitously delivered its usual preview blurbs to my email box yesterday, my attention was grabbed by a link to Karl Ove Knausgaard's "At the Writing Academy"--a fifty-page excerpt from the not yet published "Volume V" of his monumental 3,600 page autobiographical "novel," My Struggle. I have only read bits and pieces of his work, translated from Norwegian--an essay on "Necks" (intro to a photography collection), his multi-part essay for the New York Times Magazine, "My Saga: Travels Through North America," and a couple other excerpts from My Struggle, a work-in-progress since 2009.  I call the link "fortuitous," because nobody I've read has done a better job of reproducing the quotidian details of human inner life--not Proust, not Woolf, not Kerouac, nor Faulkner, Beckett, or Camus.  Karl Ove's "struggle" is dailiness itself: crumbs on the floor, a walk to the corner, masturbation, a nap, self-doubt about an assignment, betrayal by a friend, remembered fear of his father, postponements, small victories, humiliations, a cracked cup... So easy to refer to him as "Karl Ove"!   Everybody seems to say, "He's writing my life!"  (Even if they were not born, as he was, in 1968 in Norway.)  The daily "struggle" of small plans, strategies, schedules, avoidances, successes or failures--all meaningless to everyone but me--these ARE my life,

As if on cue, my inbox delivered the lastest post by Doug Bruns from his blog, "The House I Live In," which he devotes to an evening alone here in Portland, sorting and packing books, in preparation for a long trip--"on the road" looking for America via Airstream Trailer.  The urge to be on the road again, to simplify, to find Answers (or even, answers), has ruled my life, as it seems to rule Doug's, though on a different scale and schedule.  Twenty years older than Doug, and more than thirty years older than Knausgaard, I have had more time to explore. Indeed, I have visited every state except ND, AK, and HI, many times, and by many conveyances--starting in the mid-1950s.  I read Henry Miller's The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie, William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, and Kerouac's On the Road, early and often.  On the other hand, unlike Doug, I have had only limited travel outside the US--mostly in Western Europe, and especially France.  (See for travelogues.)  And unlike Knausgaard, I have no fame, no millions of readers, no budget OR time left for grand plans and adventures.

Yet, like both, I share an inner life of small struggles and daily banalities, and dreams the scale of the modestly possible, however different mine from theirs.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

Is my "desperation" really despair, or simple boredom?  Clinical depression? Or just spring fever on an undramatic day without plans?  Or maybe it can be explained by possession of a reduced reward system in the operation of my neuro-transmitters, brought on my having stopped drinking 10 months ago, after half a century of daily wine consumption?  Blame the dopamines?

Piper, the neighborhood tom cat, would not have made any therapeutic difference, one supposes, to Don Marquis's Mehitabel, for whom a life "devoted to her art" has become, instead, "just one damn kitten after another."

"it isn't fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom"

No kittens here, so no excuses, I suppose.  But.........there are always "kittens" in one form or another. People who consider new lives, dream of following new stars can always find reasons to keep the status quo:  responsibilities, empty pockets, irrational fears, schedules poorly synched, illnesses, "required" commemorations, political and geographical disgusts or dangers, bad timing, unexpected weathers, simple fatigue, lost chances, changed relationships, revised tastes, "counted blessings," separation anxiety, waiting for enough money for the right boat, partner, or visa, working longer to amass enough in the retirement fund, inertia or ....laziness.

Would I be less desperate, less bored, walking along the rim of the Grand Canyon?, drinking coffee in our cockpit at anchor in Tahiti?, playing the flâneur from my cafe table in Nice?, buckling on my skis after a gondola ascent to Pila, above Italy's Aosta?

Probably not: kittens are always checked through with your luggage.

So, is Knausgaard bored?  Are his struggles just Mencken's "standing in line?" broadcast to a few million (bored) readers?  Am I bored?

Time to sort out subject and object here, noetic and noematic, flashlight and mirror:  who's asking?  who's being asked?  As soon as I ask, "am I bored?" I am aware that I have blundered into a down-market cousin to the old Paradox of the Liar, or of the Coward.  Say I ask you, "Is your answer to this question a lie?"  If you answer "Yes," then your answer, being a lie, is true. If you answer, "No," then, in answering truthfully, you are lying.  Similarly, if I ask, "Are you a coward?" and you answer "Yes," then you are answering courageously, and are thus no coward.  We'll leave the consequences of such knotty linguistic issues to the likes of Tarski, Russell, and Whitehead.  But what of the person, sitting here now, who writes, "I am bored."

That person, moi, is tapping away on a computer keyboard, a glass of iced tea nearby--a person who notes that the morning cloud cover has given way to glorious warm-on-the-face sunshine, and flocks of birds at the feeder, chirping in accompaniment to the clattering keys beneath my fingers, as I vaguely compose the rest of this paragraph, designed to illuminate a dull corner of my consciousness--and maybe yours, too--concerning issues of no pressing urgency, and comporting hints of satisfaction in finding connections between people, ideas, and projects heretofore unsuspected.

If I were truly bored, would I be doing this?  More likely I'd be sitting dull-eyed, staring at the clock, waiting for F. to wheel into the driveway, so we can make plans to go to dinner somewhere.  I conclude that I am not bored, and that Knausgaard, through the whole slog of writing 3,600 pages of the minute details of his struggle, his life as struggle,  was never bored in doing it.  I am reminded that Camus concluded his Myth of Sisyphus with: "The struggle itself [...] is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The View From North of 80 - Part 2 (Life in Maine)

"Cities are the contradictions of capitalism, spelled out in crowds."
       --Adam Gopnik

We live in Portland, Maine.  Our home's latitude is exactly 300 miles north of the mean latitude of Highway 80 from the George Washington Bridge in New York City to San Francisco--not far in the global sense, but a great distance, culturally, from the urban vibe of NYC or SF. We are the urban center of Maine, but our tallest building is 16 stories, and our population is 66,000--exactly the population density of one square mile in Manhattan. Portland is "urban" only in a Maine way.  Mini-urban?  Mainely urban. Almost 30 years in the area, we've seen the town change in radical ways.  As always, some changes are welcome, some not.

I begin here  with an orientation for those who know little of Maine and have not often visited. Then expect some "pros" and "cons" about life as a Mainer--my view from this little crow's nest up country.

Don't expect the standard portrayals of Mainers and of Maine--the magazine fluff pieces about lobster and wizened fishermen, stolid New Englanders, launching their wooden dories into raging North Atlantic gales, quaint bean suppahs and ice-fishing, wilderness trekking and trapping on snowshoes, intrepid moose and deer hunters, buzzing the logging trails on their snowmobiles, returning to hot chowdah dinners made on wood stoves by strong-faced tight-lipped women, carrying rosy-cheeked toddlers on their hips, and worrying about an overdue library book on the dust-free mantle--and an overdue brother aboard a fishing vessel steaming home from Georges Bank.

New England's small scale makes me think of Maine in a distorted lens--Maine is 38th in population density, and 39th in geographical area of the 50 states, though I tend to think of the state as vast forested wilderness--true enough if you discount the strip of coastline east of Interstate Highway 95, where most of the people have clustered in a few small municipalities like Portland, Lewiston, and Bangor. Only 8 towns in the state number more than 20,000 population.  Maine can be diagrammed as a kind of 4-circle "Venn" diagram, labelled "Mainers," "from away," "coastal," "inland."  Antagonisms and partnerships can be mapped onto this diagram in overlapping ways that help one understand how Maine--traditionally liberal, tolerant, centrist, and mildly Republican--ended up with a governor, Paul LePage, who is clearly the stupidest, most-divisively ideological right-wing tool of any in the country, save, possibly Scott Walker, of Wisconsin. Specialty license plates can offer some clue about self-selected identities to a visitor: "Vacationland," (default chickadee with evergreen spray), "Support Wildlife," (with moose and fish), "Lobster" (with lobster graphic), "We Support Our Troops," and so on.  Along the coast you'll spot more lobster plates; inland, the moose wins.

Being "from away," I know little of the Maine interior--the woods.  If you'd like to get the flavor of that, you could try We Took to the Woods, by Louise Dickinson Rich, or, maybe,  My Live in the Maine Woods: A Game Warden's Wife in the Allagash Country, by Annette Jackson.  This Maine jokes that the state bird is the black fly (mosquito, in some versions).  For the "upscale" version of this Maine, search YouTube for "The Humble Farmer,"  sobriquet of Robert Skoglund, or go to his website at for audio versions of his long-running radio broadcasts that feature his Maine-spiced stories, and savvy programming of classical jazz (as well as a beginning lesson on the proper accent and speech cadences of the natives.)  There's also "our" Maine comedian, Bob Marley.  You can see him on YouTube, or catch his standup show at the Skowhegan Opera House? At the least, try to learn the correct uses of "wicked?"

On the other hand, Maine--especially Portland and Lewiston--carries a full load of dysfunctional, occasionally predatory,  and damaged people--street beggars, addicts of every stripe and level of desperation, high levels of domestic violence, homeless encampments down by the Fore River,  drunks and bar fighters, prostitution, charter school ripoff artists, political fraudsters, corruption, abandoned properties, greedy developers, sexual abusers, con artists, and clueless hangers-on. It is, after all, America.   And this is an America turned brutal by Republican governors like Bobby Jindal, Paul LePage, Sam Brownback, and Scott Walker, who have dissolved safety nets, slashed medical options, "reformed" welfare into a sham, and spent money on quasi-military policing and prisons, instead of problem-solving.

I have no direct experience with this Maine, either: my best source of information are the regular features and special articles published in Chris Busby's free monthly magazine, available online at
Read the articles by Robin Rage about his life on the margins,  the "fishing journal" by "Tackle Box" Billy Kelley, the feature articles of Elizabeth Peavey, and the occasional photojournalistic contributions of Doug Bruns.  Or, do your own exploring, starting, perhaps, with a stop at the Preble Street Resource Center, and/or a visit to their website:

You can add a couple circles to our increasingly complex Venn diagram--the "Haves"/"Have-Nots."  Class society is expressed in especially egregious ways in Maine.  After browsing in The Bollard for a day or two, spend an afternoon paging through  the slick magazines published by Kevin Thomas, with his team of Susan Grisanti, Steve Kelly, Rebecca Falzano, etc.--Old Port, Maine Magazine, Maine Home + Design, and several others--all devoted to the high-gloss promotion of Maine for the "haves," the young, the hip, the well-connected, the tasteful, the cool, the New Mainers.  This consortium sponsors a variety of magazines, public festivals and events, a pay-to-exhibit art gallery, several social media sites, and it lobbies for developers, business-friendly zoning, and high-end retailers (and advertisers), envisioning a Maine that did not exist when I moved to Portland in the late '80s: one somewhat indistinguishable from similar enclaves in Brooklyn, Miami Beach, Portland, Oregon, Silver Lake, CA, Wicker Park,  IL, or East Austin, TX.  Add in the highly competitive foodie/concept restaurant component, and the new wealthy-retiree peninsula-based condo market, and you'll have America as seen by Forbes Magazine--right here in this little town by the bay!  Ah-yup...

Neither of these two Maines seems to be a place that feels right for us.  And after 25 years of truly brutal Maine winters (skipping over this year's mild el niño "winter"!),  and the usual issues with work life, social life, distance from family, and other issues, some of which are just part the general human inheritance, it HAS occurred to us that we should consider another move--maybe back to the NY area, maybe Savannah, maybe Delray Beach or Sarasota, Florida, maybe Cape Breton peninsula, NS, maybe France.  (Of course, the Trump/Cruz/Rubio Republican threats push us to consider moving to other countries...or planets.)

And yet  every time we get serious enough to go exploring in a quasi-serious way, we come back saying, "No, thanks. No way."  Our reasons are as varied as the "shopping" that occasioned them, but I'll hazard a few generalities, at the risk of pissing off readers from the great "not-Maine."  Why do we reject the Big Move?

* Lack of access to the arts and culture:  of course Maine can't compete with New York, Los Angeles, Miami, or other major centers, but Portland is Paris, compared to 95% of other US towns of similar size: well-stocked museum of art, symphony, several theater companies, art/photo groups, independent community radio, community magazines, furniture makers, unparalleled restaurant scene, vibrant rock/bar venues--and so much of it all can be walked.  Access to good colleges, art schools, etc.  So much atmospheric charm in the cobblestone streets and fish just off the boat on a pier at Harbor Fish Market.

* Distances between things--and the traffic.  When I think of Maryland, New Jersey, Florida, Long Island, Los Angeles, Massachusetts, etc., the first image that comes to me is a 6-8 lane thoroughfare with turn lanes and traffic lights every quarter mile--all moving at 50+ mph past one strip-mall after another, filled with characterless cookie-cutter stores and undistinguished chain restaurants.  Worst is that my little errand to pick up a few groceries and get a hinge to repair the screen door requires driving 50 minutes at these speeds in this traffic past all this ugly, nondescript "convenience" shopping construction.  (Not to mention one fenced, gated, cul-de-sac, ticky-tacky condo development after another, filling all the gaps between the strip-malls...)

* This unpleasant scene above follows naturally from the fact that there is so often no town center, no waterfront, no historical district, no 19th century buildings or housing, no truly walkable ways to explore--and worse, nothing worth exploring.

* Water!  The Maine coast and Casco Bay, the Penobscot and offshore islands in the hundreds, a fishing fleet, first-class marinas and anchorages second to none--all make for one of the premier world sailing grounds.  And still very little congestion and crowding on the water (no 50-foot sport fisherman machines throwing up a 9-foot wake, while passing your little boat at 35 knots!)  And CLEAN water AND air!

* Most of the country seem to think that a vacation is the chance to go to one of two places: Disneyland or Las Vegas/Atlantic City.  Mainers do these things by the thousands, of course, but you are more likely to hear about camps, hiking, skiing, biking, boating, crafts, art-making, fishing, hunting, and cottages, than Epcots and Bellagios.

* Mainers read more than most.  And take cooking more seriously. Mainers have gardens. Most of the country seem to believe that the only things that matter are pop music, TV shows, Rush Limbaugh, and blockbuster movies.  I'm talking averages, not the shining exceptions.

* Politics.  OK, we are stuck with Gov. LePage, but he is the first Neanderthal to hold major office in Maine.  Maine tends more to people like Margaret Chase Smith, Susan Collins, Tom Andrews, Ed Muskie, Olympia Snowe, George Mitchell, and Bill Cohen--most of whom held opinions far from my own, but not one of them is an idiot, racist, anti-feminist, ideologue, right-wing screamer/tool, or thoughtlessly corrupt hack.

* Natural disasters and pests. We do have Northeaster storms, black flies and mosquitoes, bears, traffic danger from deer and moose, 2 or 3 days over 90 in summer, But we do not have earthquakes, hurricanes, tidal waves, mud slides, population-threatening forest fires, sharks, alligators, zika mosquitoes, fire-ants, months at a time over 90 degrees with 90% humidity,  tornadoes, dust storms, kudzu, flying cockroaches, large populations of poisonous spiders and snakes, openly expressed racism, Scott Walker, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, David Duke, Ted Cruz, Pat Robertson, Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, Donald Trump. Glenn Beck, or Ann Coulter, (though talk radio and TV bring most of these blowhards to Maine in destructive ways.)

Soooo, what are Maine's "cons" after so many "pros"?

Frigid, long winters. Messy, ugly early springs, New Englandish buttoned-up culture of prudishness.  Very old population.  Very old housing stock (peeling paint, rotting clapboard, smallish rooms).  Exaggerated distance between rich and poor--crushing poverty.  Too many pickup trucks with snow plows.  Too many white people, proportionately.  Insane parking rules in Portland. Summer tourist invasions. Rough employment options.  High rental costs. Condo cost bubble on the peninsula. Too many "pot-luck" events. Difficult barriers in social mobility. Centralization of social services in a few Portland neighborhoods, making the town a magnet for the sick, troubled, addicted, poor, and under-educated.  Loss of shopping venues from town centers to malls.  Such COLD water at the truly great beaches (though climate change is "repairing" that!?).

For the record, we don't own Bean boots (though it would be fine, if we did). We have lobster only a couple times per year.  So a transition to Anyplace South might be relatively easy.  Stay tuned.  Maybe next year I'll be blogging about our 80 degree beach day in mid-January and that wonderful mahi-mahi lunch?  Don't count on it...

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Society of the Spectacle: Notes Towards a Syllabus for a Class on Superheroes, Movies, Video Games, and Donald Trump

"But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence,...illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness."

--Ludwig Feuerbach, "Preface" to the Second Edition of The Essence of Christianity, and used as Epigraph for The Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord

On Super Tuesday, as votes are cast in presidential primaries in a dozen states and a territory--an event that may all but guarantee that the Republican party will nominate Donald Trump for the November election--I am thinking about how I might organize a college class of the sort that I taught for many years as Philosophy 105 / "Film and Politics," with the goal of exploring the ideological mechanisms that brought us to the brink of this result.

Film List:

Fritz Lang, Metropolis
Charles Chaplin, The Great Dictator
Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will
Sidney Lumet, All the King's Men
Elia Kazan, A Face in the Crowd
Thomas Schlamme, Kingfish (TV)
Sidney Lumet, Network
Orson Welles, Citizen Kane
Ken Burns, Huey Long (TV documentary)
William Wellman, The Oxbow Incident
Frank Capra, Meet John Doe
Hal Ashby, Being There
Sidney Lumet, Twelve Angry Men
Michael Ritchie, The Candidate

Assigned Readings:

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism
Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics
Erving Goffman, Asylums
Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish
David Eggers, The Circle


Completion of all readings and viewings.  Voting responsibly.

Since I know nothing of the last 20 years of blockbuster film-making, super-hero comics, and movies, video games and other examples of the fantasy/sci-fi/super-power/super-villain genres, with their super-human protagonists and simplistic plots of good guys/bad guys myth-mongering, this course will have to be team taught with a person at least 50 years younger than I am, who has lived her/his entire life thinking that movies are special-effects-all-action-all-violence-all-explosions all the time--someone who can explain to me the attraction that such productions have for the producers, makers and viewers of current cinema and for video game addicts of every persuasion.

We may be witness to the first generations who find no clear distinction between Reality and Fantasy--who live out entire lives in imagined UNreality.  Reality has died, now replaced by a spectrum of Virtual/Reality of varying degrees of practical impact.  Of course, I'm overstating my case, but not by much. I imagine a class using my syllabus of  "old media" exploration of "new media" issues, and supplemented by the other half of the syllabus to be provided by someone who knows the terrain.

Perhaps my teaching partner can provide some arguments against my view that the constant barrage of this form of mass culture is very much involved in the success of the all-explosions, good guy/bad guy, spectacle-violence of the current Republican Party, and its current front-running candidate, The Donald?