Archives for category: popular culture

She goes by the name of “My Old Hell Freezes Over Friend” (MOHFOF) in my top sekrit online journal, to which a few of you are privy. The wench is dead now, and I am in another country. I feel I can put my real name to this story. If not hers. Call her Camille.

She was the debutante daughter of Oklahoma oil money. Big Daddy beat her practically every day of her life. She had a lip on her. He beat her the day her mother died. He beat her the day she was diagnosed with polio. Two or three survivor strategies: Lip. She sexualized herself fully. By age three, orgasm was a daily means of embodying herself. Cutting was to come later. Disembodying worked too. Dissociative identity disorder ended most of her friendships. As she put it, “I get mail addressed to other people.”

She married a physician and became a drug addict, not an uncommon career path for well-bred junkie girls. He’s the one who told her that in med school, the breasts of cadavers were cut off and thrown away as spurious tissue.

She got rid of him. She did have a lip on her. Toward the end of her run, some artistic Bohemian pimp boyfriend suggested she turn tricks to support her habit. How hip was that?

She got loaded and went out, somewhere around the Washington Monument, as I now picture it. She managed to hustle her way into a guy’s car. After a brief conversation, he said “You’re not really cut out for this, are you?”

It might have been the deep-set shadow of her eyes, the way the light gleamed through her pale blue irises, but she always looked as if her eyes were filling with tears. Princess Charlene of Monaco and her children have the same eyes.

charlene

I like to believe it was that which made him even a little gentle. Maybe her eyes were filled with tears.

It was her last failed job interview. She died 30 years clean.

Please don’t ever forget why people become prostitutes. Oppose the Amnesty International decriminalization campaign.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/29/opinion/buying-sex-should-not-be-legal.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=opinion-c-col-left-region&region=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region&_r=0

The paleo diet first came to my attention in the Tweet of Geoffrey Miller, the professor who says fat people are too lazy and fat to earn PhDs. I quickly found myself in an online pro paleo forum in which, as in many online mosh pits, young women (no old ones except me ventured where angels feared to tread) were being stomped, regularly, as the paleo diet was clearly the perquisite of digital oligarch males.
The cherry on that narrative arc was the controversy over a recent Craigslist want ad by San Francisco toolies for a paleo chef/slave/office serf.
https://web.archive.org/web/20140612213421/http://sfbay.craigslist.org/sfc/ofc/4512279091.html
I’ve always had lots of problems with it, aside from the fact it seems to be the new men’s rights movement diet. In the blue zones, where people today live to be 100 years old as a matter of course, meat is the one significant thing absent from their very diverse diets. Legumes, dairy or grains sustain the centenarians in Okinawa, Sardinia, Loma Linda CA, Costa Rica and Ikaria with the Loma Lindans being vegetarians by religious scruple. Each obviously adds regional specialties to the diet — cloudy red wine rich with anti-oxidants, green tea, lime-slaked tortillas, tomatoes, oranges, olive oil — but meat is mostly off the menu for the oldest healthy people on the planet.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Zone
The second big reason is that the paleo diet is for rich people, and grass fed beef is unsustainable. This new piece on the rise of paleo in the New Yorker reminds us of what major food sustainability research has been saying for 20 years — beef is not sustainable. Something the healthy, but significantly not wealthy, centenarians have known for millenia.
“Pound for pound, beef production demands at least ten times as much water as wheat production, and, calorie for calorie, it demands almost twenty times as much energy. Livestock are major sources of greenhouse-gas emissions, not just because of the fuel it takes to raise them but also because they do things like belch out methane and produce lots of shit, which in turn produces lots of nitrous oxide.”
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/07/28/stone-soup
My observation is that Peter Pan guys who grew up eating Slim Jims and cereal for dinner have found something to do with their money. Paleo.
Here is the classic piece by Candace Bushnell, one of her original Sex and the City pieces, about the most profoundly unsexy men of all. The paleo boys.
http://observer.com/2007/07/what-has-two-wheels-wears-seersucker-and-makes-a-sucker-of-me-a-bicycle-boy/

Okay, fashionistas and fatshionistas, here’s my dilemma. I’ve been looking for office clothes with difficulty for over 40 years. What it is now is almost what it was then: basically men’s wear cut for women. Jackets. I’ve had short sleeved batik ones over sundresses, I’ve had khaki jumpsuits, zippered flight type jackets in Prince of Wales plaid (with matching bell bottoms, to be sure), long-sleeved midi length washable poly velvet Jane Avril dress for those parties I had to cover, you name it. One of my favorites was a hip academic outfit confected for a conference in Ireland: widewale corduroy leggings in eau de Nil, gigantic white cashmere sweater, knee length Wellingtons, and pink pearls. No nipples. And, after 25, no minis.

What it is now is what all the serious girls at the uni around the corner from where I used to live wore and wear: techno fiber pants (black, black or black), $100+ V-necked t shirt (dark, dark, dark or jewel), jacket (“), Rolex and ankle boots. My t shirts cost $9, my big black face Timex $30, and I can’t get my freakishly high arches into boots. No jewelry. Although my discovery of $8 necklaces at Forever21 is a big monkey wrench in my Afro Pomo Homo minimalist femme costume. Don’t forget the hair *cut* not a hair *do*.

Coming up, because it’s 400 degrees outside, an LBD with a black linen moto and ballet flats.

(Wouldn’t this $6.80 gigantic faux pearl necklace look awesome with my moto?
http://tinyurl.com/pd4jxdw

(I think perhaps not. One of the secrets of dressing the ancient avoirdupois is to let your wrinkles and your hair cut be the jewels.)

I am very interested in fashion and the cutting edge of future fashion, which as everybody knows is coming out of art schools in Britain, headed up by the late Alexander McQueen, with punk and artisanal references. He had some other references in there, also sublime. Part of the punk thing is sustainable, locavore, dumpster-diving, upcycled fashion, in which I am extremely interested. As we all know, street fashion drives couture. One of the biggest influences in street fashion since, I think, the Pointer Sisters started raiding the Good Will Stores of ’60s San Francisco for ’40s suits and ’30s panne velvet, is the Good Will. Now monetized by bottom feeder Hollywood stylists into “vintage” clothes, Good Will outfits worn by chic club kids have been fashion’s — and couture’s — leading influence. (All those chicken hawks like Lagerfeld and Galliano circle, cawing, over kids’ nightclubs.)

Courtesy of Alabama Chanin, who is selling a book called <em>Refashioned: Cutting Edge Clothing From Upcycled Materials, I have just perused the very interesting straight edge DIY books on how to turn old clothes into new ones.

Without exception, the new clothes are all performance wear. Nothing for the office. Extraordinary that paupers should be fashioning ball gowns out of t shirts. Why is this? I ask you.

The only actual instructions, for example, I’ve found for turning a man’s overcoat into a lady’s jacket or a child’s coat are in ‘40s WW2 British sewing dictionaries, discovered in Kate Davies’ wonderful blog, along with instructions on how to make underwear out of worn nightgowns and other useful information. It’s called Odham’s Big Book of Needlecraft.

I think the tailored recycling of good old clothes is because there were no throwaway clothes in those days, and also because fabric was rationed. I was born close enough to those times to have worn clothes made by seamstresses. I miss them, and I am stunned by the Harajuku ho tutus all those straight edge designers are making out of shitty old concert t shirts. Where are the upcycled work clothes?

It may be part of the Art School Confidential syndrome that every upcycled garment looks like a circus poodle outfit. I’m on it. Watch this space.

http://www.amazon.com/ReFashioned-Cutting-Edge-Clothing-Upcycled-Materials/dp/1780673019

Doris Lessing may have been — but for her acceptance of the Nobel Prize — the first of the feminist breed for whose existence Virginia Woolf called in *Three Guineas*. The non-secessionist outsider.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91tg/chapter3.html

I never loved the *Golden Notebooks*. As someone who had from my childhood in Africa been there and done that it was no big woop. I have to think more about Lessing as an African, an Africanist, and an Afro-futurist.
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/15/arts/design/the-shadows-took-shape-at-the-studio-museum.html?_r=0

A much greater book, *The Four-Gated City*, has immortal passages, not least of Martha Quest walking for days through Blitz-cratered London, one of the 20th century’s number one *flaneuses*, a woman seeing the city. Check out Deborah Parsons’ important book on this matter.
http://www.amazon.com/Streetwalking-Metropolis-Women-City-Modernity/dp/0198186835

*The Four Gated City* is the only book I can think of, with Dickens right up there at the top, which actually gets down to what the virtue of money is. One of the protagonists is a rich schizophrenic. In those days the treatment was some lobotomizing drug like Lithium. The rich schizophrenic has the wherewithal to reject Lithium, go home to a safe and well-equipped basement apartment in the family home, in a safe neighborhood, with servants, and stay there, going over the walls with her fingertips, until the fearful tempest has passed. Martha Quest stays with her and takes care of her. In this way, the rich schizophrenic is not a vegetable all the time, but can continue with a life of the mind and maternal affections when she is not ill. That is the value of money — and it presumably exists in village or community life even when there is no money, and a superfluity of unmarried women at home, if not precisely servants. This scene speaks directly to one small political aspect of Foucault’s indictment of mental health practice — Lithium is brain police for the poor.

Lessing’s third great contribution to civilization was frankly telling it like it is about motherhood and abandoning her two little children, just as her mother had spent Lessing’s own childhood telling her what a burden it was. Yep.

The science fiction was, perhaps, a mistake unless you think of it more as unmedicated Sun Ra Afro-futurist riffs. Did she deserve the Nobel? I think perhaps not. But I would have given it to her just for saying motherhood is too hard, spiritually deceptive, and not as important as the patriarchs want you to believe.
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2007/lessing-lecture_en.htmlSt

Judy Trammell, the choreographer of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, and Kelli McGonigle Finglass, the director, mesmerize me as champions of the Texas avatar of femme performance.

Choreographer Trammell (L) and director Finglass, both former DCCs, judge auditions for Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Now the texts on this, as I’m sure you all know, are the three Scholz sisters’ memoir of their time on the cheering squad (’78-’85), and the Channelview, TX tale of tiger mom Wanda Holloway, who was convicted in 1991 of plotting a murder-for-hire of Verna Heath, the mother of Shanna Holloway’s greatest rival for the cheering squad, Amber Heath.

The Scholz sisters’ mama taught them how to dress, a terrifying process in which bags and shoes must match and hair must be high — a mean girls’ Texas aesthetic whose persistence can be sussed today by seeing Finglass in her orange sheath or the terrifying female VP of the Cowboys, Charlotte Jones Anderson (daughter of the owner), who looks like a ravening, Stanford-educated ferret in poufy little Prada dresses.

Mean girls doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Trammell was a DCC from ’80-’84, and Finglass from ’84-’89. I figure they’re both in their 50s, and I am always thinking about what makes an Old Babe and what Old Babes do and wear. I think Finglass is and Trammell isn’t. What made Finglass a babe — her smile — still makes her one today, as mean a pimp as she is. (For the smile, check out the GIF third from the top, left, for the pimpin’ watch CMT’s show.) Trammell’s hair — and you know that hair whippin’ energy takes the place of jiggle on the DCC — is the same do she was whippin’ in the ’80s, very long and prematurely blonde. Even the black girls on the squad have long whippy dos. I am trying to deconstruct the Trammell/Finglass eyeliner — completely surrounding the eye with a black line after 50 is an aesthetic choice of the kind I deemed some time ago, deciding to be an old woman who paints, with Louise Nevelson as the Old Babe Who Paints avatar. The paint becomes your face, instead of your face being your face.

Sculptor Louise Nevelson

Iris Apfel, who is the captain of the Old Babes team, sometimes paints and also is a polychrome old babe, one trope of how to dress as an Old Babe. Please note use of I.M. Pei glasses as eyeliner.

Iris Apfel, captain of the Old Babes team. She replaces Princess Lilian of Sweden, who died in March and evinced an entirely different style. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princess_Lilian,_Duchess_of_Halland

Here we see Apfel, painted, hustling her own line of MAC cosmetics. Note there is nothing natural about the colors, such that the paint once again becomes your face.

I am trying to deconstruct Trammell’s hair — it’s the 2013 version of her 1980’s do, which Finglass has most cleverly left behind. Her hair in the 80s was the biggest poufiest and poodly-est of all, and now it’s cool MILF hair. As Trammell’s is not. I have to think about it some more. I wonder if Trammell thinks of whippy hair as part of her dance costume?

Judy Trammell, ca. 1980s

The makeover editions of the aspiring cheerleaders, in which Finglass supervises their haircuts and teaches what not to wear, has to be one of my greatest drag learning experiences, as if the Scholz sisters’ mama had survived into the 21st century to teach us all how to get closer to God with our hair.
http://www.cmt.com/videos/dallas-cowboys-cheerleaders-805-appearance-counts/1714824/full-episode.jhtml

Tressie McMillan Cottom in her epic post on the Miley Cyrus MTV awards performance has got down to the stasis point in all the gasbaggery around that performance. My old friend Karen DeWitt has posted on Facebook today betraying a freshly shocked outrage at the unreasoning persistence of racism, as she contemplated incarceration and arrest rates for black men in the U.S..

I felt the same, shocked that I could be this old and still have my world rocked by Ms. Cottom’s piece relating her personal experience in college town bars with twerking frat boys and girls soliciting a threesome with her (and not her black date), as a matter of course. She relates to the black women whose asses Cyrus was slapping in her MTV performance.

Recovering somewhat from the shock of Cottom’s incandescent racist experience, I have two discreditable responses.

One is only slightly neener neener. With the Trayvon Martin verdict, the Crunk Feminist Collective raised, quite properly, the issue of white feminists’ responsibility for the all-female jury verdict. I accept this responsibility. I also see where those white women on the jury are patsies of a racist sytem. I also see there is a point where free people can stand up and say no to unjust law — that is, indeed, part of what a trial by jury system is for. (I still believe a trial by jury of your peers is one of humankind’s greatest inventions, if not number one. And, please, perfection is the enemy of the good.)

I also see, where the defense of the Hutus in the Rwanda genocide quickly reverted to blaming the French for setting up a society in which Tsutsis were considered smarter and prettier, that I am doing the same for the patsy jury verdict. There is a point where the perp needs to be told, you did the crime. Not the French. With the big round black women dancing in the Cyrus performance? Girlfriend, you were out there shakin’ it for the man.

Second, I want to declare, once and for all, how stupid all the twinkie feminists are for inventing the protest against slut-shaming. There’s no slut like a crone slut, and I am going to tell you what it is.

A slut does not do femme performance. She does not kiss other women in bars for frat boys or Joe Francis himself. She does not ask the only black woman in the bar to leave her date and come twerk with Miss Anne’s creepy boyfriend. A slut does not go all Mrs. Grundy and shake her finger at people for slut-shaming — every libertarian who calls herself a slut has a secret sociopathic and anti-social agenda which is not feminist. Trust me.

A slut — and do not ask me how I know this — is a gourmet. She simply does not give a shit what other people think, and she is never on camera. It’s not a secret vice, it’s just of no concern to a slut that other people know about it through photographs, video, performance. I repeat, there is no femme performance (or butch or whatever) in being a slut. To call people critiquing Cyrus’ performance slut-shamers is just about the stupidest, and most proscriptive, prune-lipped use of “feminism” I’ve ever heard of. There is not an authentic, unmediated bone in Miley Cyrus’ body, except perhaps the Molly’d-out stoner one, and to accuse people of slut-shaming a completely commodified capitalist tool is approaching abomination.

The real issue is what fake sluts are doing to black women. Cut it the fuck out.

http://tressiemc.com/2013/08/27/when-your-brown-body-is-a-white-wonderland/

Five straight skinny reasons why *The Wire* is revolutionary, and TV’s best-ever show.

1.) Real People
As with British and Australian films and TV (as well as Euro, Persian, Chinese and world film and TV, which I don’t watch a lot of), the cast looks like real people. Many of them are. It’s not that many of them are black, which they are, it is that the white people and the black people all look like real people, not Meg Ryan’s post-surgery lips. As Liz Taylor used to say, “There are no real tits in Hollywood any more.”

There are in *The Wire*, and it is thrilling to see. No orthodontia. No nose jobs. No videogenic lipstick of a coral shade only seen in nature on blow up dolls. The diversity of peoples’ teeth, noses, skin textures, hands is beautiful to see. Sonia Sohn’s epithelial folds are almost as titanic a thing of beauty to regard as James Gandolfini’s eyes. The sets are natural colors too. Trees, water, blood, ruins.

2.) No Heroes
There is no star system. There are no heroes. The Hollywood/derriere garde/Aristotelian heroic system in which the story is the story of one handsome young guy does not exist in *The Wire*. They kill a protagonist off every season. The one you really love. McNulty, who is less the protagonist than the linking device, is far less attractive a hero than his creators believe (there is a lot of macho shit going on in the writing, a point to which I shall return.) And there is a reason the macho shits have the confidence to do that. And it’s not just in the ensemble player system.

3.) Real Life Mimesis
It is mimesis. Simon and Burns created the stories out of real life, with which, as a reporter and a homicide detective-turned-middle-school teacher, respectively, they were fairly familiar.

You know, of course, that Hollywood scriptwriters are all old Poonies. That is, they wrote for the Harvard Lampoon before they all got jobs writing for the Simpsons.

Cambridge to Hollywood. Not a circuit famous for the intrusion of anything but ideas, some of them wholesome, but quickly forgotten. Hollywood writers don’t know anything. They make stuff up. It’s called diegesis, as I’m sure you recall, which means basically narrative.

Simons is instinctually clear on the difference between making shit up and being a good writer. He also puts his finger on what keeps old reporters from ever really being able to let go of – let’s just call it, The Game. It’s why people who are paying attention to real life, and writing mimesis, will come up with a killa new protagonist – D’Angelo, Stringer, Frank Sobotka, Michael and the lost boys – every season, because they’re all out there. In the city. The major reason Simon’s new effort Treme is a flop is because he doesn’t know that city, and is falling back on tropes and stereotypes. And diegesis, like a Hollywood guy.

“God is not a second-rate novelist,” Simon says. “God knows what he’s doing, and if you just take what actually happened and marry it to where you want to go, it’s better than if you thought of it yourself.”
http://sepinwall.blogspot.com/2006/08/wire-money-for-something.html

4.) The Back Channel Economy Is Ruthlessly Capitalist
The sharpest political lesson is not we’re all together in The Game. Many people I respect argue this, eliding the point that ruthless capitalism is an I.Q. test for the underclass, apropos a season four episode in which a hopper repeats state senator Clay Davis’ line about taking the money of people who are giving it, and the disgraced police major Bunny Colvin says goodbye to his superiors in the same terms Stringer Bell faces down his executioners. The egalitarianism of The Game, in which the good guys and the bad guys share values is a good point and an interesting one. The political smarm of the idea that sexist black thugs are capitalists just like Nice People is more easily felt when one recalls that Spielberg dedicated “Schindler’s List”, in which the capitalist saves Jews, to his dead capitalist mentor, Steve Ross.

To me the sharpest political point is not, perhaps, that the back channel economy, The Game, systeme D, is as resistant to the reform efforts of people like Stringer Bell and D’Angelo Barksdale as mainstream politics and economics. It is that the back channel economy is just as ruthless a capitalist system to all who do not conform to the macho shit norm as the mainstream economy. In other words, all the macho shits are playing on a level field and the rest of us can suck eggs.
http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/10/28/black_market_global_economy

5.) Cynicism As a Full Employment Mandate for Reporters
I disagree with Simon’s politics, which seem to be that The City is failing because its institutions, including the back channel economy, are incapable of reform, due to the self interest of people like the master politician, the spider seemingly at the center of the web, the police commissioner Ervin Burrell.  The image of a truly powerful black man in Burrell and his performance has gone under-appreciated. I appreciate it. And I disagree with Simon’s apparent politic that no politics can or will save the city, and that only individual action, like Cutty’s, can make a difference in anyone’s life. I reiterate here that Cutty is a character invented by George Pelecanos, not Simon and Burns, to relieve the cataclysm of entropy Simon so enjoys depicting.

The cynicism is pretty much one of self –interest. A broken city is a reporter’s full employment mandate, and a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have to think some more about the fallacies of cynicism; one of them is bullying. RIP, Hitchens.
http://amphibian7.blogspot.com/2007/09/fallacy-of-cynicism.html

Just finished the Himmelman bio of Ben Bradlee, which is haunting and insightful.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Benjamin_C._Bradlee.jpg
Outstanding preliminary impressions — what one reviewer calls his “reactive genius” is the very heart of the matter. The photographer Diane Arbus once noted that freaks, whom she photographed, like aristocrats had met their challenge in life and Bradlee’s aristocracy strikes me as the cool core everyone speaks of. No one around him has it — Himmelman is told to listen to the tape of the dinner party with JFK and picks up on Kennedy’s sticking it to Bradlee on account of the one thing Bradlee had that Kennedy did not. Bradlee’s aristocracy is of the essence — it explains his Elizabeth-and-Essex relationship with Kay, the slightly puritannical/Navy foulmouth aplomb with which he flicked away the beta wolves circling him in their knockoff Turnbull and Asser shirts (I remember once seeing Jane Amsterdam in one, which just about made me puke), Woodward’s bromance (and the rise and fall of Woodward’s career), and Downie’s non-participation (or exclusion, as the “son of an Ohio milkman”) in the Ben circle jerk.

His aristocracy also explains the extraordinary unsent memo on money and position he wrote to Sally.

The subtheme of the whole book is really good reporters eyeballing each other and Bradlee’s memo to Sally on the coarseness of her social climbing in their marriage is — contrasted with the Tolstoyan opening of the Himmelman book in which Sally calls him to the house to outline the book she wants him to write for Ben — the answer to every single question you ever had about any of that. Bradlee is somehow the helpless, sad and stoic spectator of other peoples’ machinations to rise in society — including Sally. What Himmelman did not find in the dusty boxes of Bradlee’s papers was the importunities of his furious children, who apparently telephone him for money while disrespecting everything else about him. Himmelman simply eavesdropped on Bradlee’s end of phone conversations, one of which ended with an inhuman noise made by the iron man who brought Nixon down.

That Bradlee turned to writing — his memos and letters, which Himmelman alone has mined, are Bradlee’s real contribution to the humanities — every time the shit hit the fan, lets one know that not only was he the editor for all time, a curious lizard-like creature who really did lose it after Watergate (Sally? some people think it was you who did that), truly courageous in his personal and professional transparency (Himmelman’s account of the Deep Throat throwdown with Woodward is a Eugene O’Neill play), lets one know what a writer really is. It is what, at the end, you are left alone with. That Bradlee disobeyed Sally’s ukase to write a deeply immoral, shallow hagiography and let Himmelman go for it is Bradlee’s crowning achievement, and a book for the ages.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/05/books/review/yours-in-truth-about-ben-bradlee-by-jeff-himmelman.html?pagewanted=all

Saul Friedlander has famously defined death kitsch as the bedrock of Nazi aesthetics, an effectively staged transfiguration by fire and klieg lights like the Gotterdamerung of Wagner’s imagining brought into life by Hitler, who was excited by fire and blood. Of death kitsch, Friedlander writes:

It as often been said that one of the characteristics of kitsch is precisely the neutralization of “extreme situations,” particularly death, by turning them into some sentimental idyll. This is undoubtedly true at the level of kitsch production, hardly so at the level of individual experience, when one has to imagine or face death. As I have just mentioned, whatever the kitsch images surrounding one, death creates an authentic feeling of loneliness and dread. Basically, at the level of individual experience, kitsch and death remain incompatible. The juxtaposition of these two contradictory elements represents the foundation of a certain religious aesthetic, and, in my opinion, the bedrock of Nazi aesthetics as well as the new evocation of Nazism.
— Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death
, 27

Though Friedlander does not say so, I have often thought the apex of death kitsch was the human skin lampshade on the human bone lamp base sported by the commandant of Buchenwald. This banalization of evil is at the heart of the popular support fascism seeks and finds.

Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect who has died, aged 104, is arguably the avatar of the kind of sex kitsch widely practiced in Hitler’s, Mussolini’s, and Franco’s fascist aesthetic, as well as in the machismo aesthetic practiced by their brothers in Communism and Latin American caudillo culture. The little known, but essential criticism of Brasilia, the planned city Niemeyer, a lifelong Communist, started to design in 1957 is that no workers’ housing was built in the peoples’ Utopia then, or now. The planned city is surrounded by 60-year-old favelas and a proud and lively off-grid candango culture of three generations of the brown people who built the deserted central city. In this walkable neighborhood of low brick buildings, sidewalks, stores, bars and brothels, the Cudade Livre, did Niemeyer and his colleagues themselves disport when building the antiseptic city beautiful.

“We would sit in a club,” he writes, “and happily watch the social mixing taking place in this forsaken backwater. The liquor flowed while our colleagues — the architects, engineers and construction workers — danced together around the wooden-plank floor.There was a mood of nostalgia for home and the distant places where these men had come fromto work together in Brasilia” (Niemeyer, 72).

The modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, 1904-2012, who built an urban theory for Brazil based on his Stalinist, and not Marxist, principles. He arguably built Brasilia, the planned city which is the capital of Brazil, according to fascist, and not communitarian, aesthetics.

The outstanding work of 20th century Marxists — Walter Benjamin, Mike Davis and Marshall Berman — has been to establish, persuasively, that cities — if not the revolution itself — are for pedestrians, that modernity itself exists in the revolutionary mix of classes, sexes, genders, and races on the sidewalks of the metropolis. Berman defines

….modernism as any attempt by modern men and women to become subjects as well as objects of modernization, to get a grip on the modern world and make themselves at home in it. This is a broader and more inclusive idea of modernism than those generally found in scholarly books. It implies an open and expansive way of understanding culture; very different from the curatorial approach that breaks up human activity into fragments and locks the fragments into cases, labeled by time,place, language, genre and academic discipline.
All That Is Solid Melts Into Air
5

I’ve been chewing over Berman, the great Marxist humanist who is the urban theorist of the Bronx destroyed by Robert Moses’ expressway, of the skanky old Times Square Disneyfied by Giuliani, and the godfather of post-modern Marx studies in America, since I first read All That Is Solid Melts Into Air in the 1980s. Opening its now yellow-edged pages, I find an essay on Niemeyer, heavily highlighted by a forgotten me in pink — what else? — Berman fulminating on the soullessness of Brasilia. Like an old friend, it is a manifesto I had entirely forgotten.

Marshall Berman, of CCNY and CUNY, America’s leading Marxist scholar. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_Berman

Berman went to Brazil in 1987 to discuss his great book on urban theory, quoted above. Everywhere he went — including Brasilia — Brazilians told him that planned city, designed after Le Corbusier by Lucio Costa and Niemeyer, had nothing in it for them. Today, they call Brasilia fantasy island — “ilha da fantasia”. Berman writes

…one’s overall feeling — confirmed by every Brazilian I met — is of immense empty spaces in which the individual feels lost, as alone as a man on the moon. There is a deliberate lack of public space in which people can meet and talk, or simply look at each other and hang around. The great tradition of Latin urbanism, in which city life is organized around a plaza mayor, is explicitly rejected.
(Op. cit., 7)

And here Berman defined the clash of modernisms, if not precisely the fascist hand of sex kitsch, the anomaly for which Niemeyer and Brasilia must forever stand:

Brasilia’s design might have made perfect sense for the capital of a military dictatorship, ruled by generals who wanted people kept at a distance, kept apart and kept down. As the capital of a democracy, however, it is a scandal. If Brazil is going to stay democratic, I argued in public discussions….it needs democratic public space ion whcih people can come and assemble freely from all over the country, to talk to each other and address their government — because, in a democracy, it is after all their government — and debate their needs and desires, and communicate their will.
(Ibid.)

Niemeyer himself was appalled, and sputtered that Brasilia represented the hopes of the people of Brazil and any attack on its architecture or design was an attack on the people of Brazil. Like a good dialectician, Berman synthesized this antithesis to his thesis and decided that of course the people of Brazil desired modernity, but that the modernity Niemeyer and Costa had laid on them in the design of Brasilia was the sterile, techno engineered reality based on classical forms. He does not explore its connection, through the Brazilians’ co-optation of Le Corbusier’s city planning, to the tradition of proscriptive, coercive, explicitly imperialistic,  French colonial urbanism directly inherited by and subsumed by Le Corbusier. This French modernism — partly based in rational, explicitly racist and sexist French urban theory of the late 19th century entailing crowd control, according to the foremost scholar of French planned cities — was intended to perfect and complete the urban organism such that it might expand, in a clone-like fashion, but it would never change. The city of Niemeyer was perfect and complete; indeed in his 2000 memoir he says the city’s modernism represented “the importance of our country” (Niemeyer, 72).

“Niemeyer should have known,” writes Berman, “that a modernist work which deprived people of some of the basic modern prerogatives — to speak, to assemble, to argue, to communicate their needs — would be bound to make numerous enemies.” Those alienated from the sterile spaces of Brasilia would equally be alienated by the lack of sidewalks in America’s suburban developments and would, Berman wrote, in the ’60s and ’70s, begin to develop the alternate modernism “that would assert the presence and the dignity of all the people who had been left out.” There’s a reason the Mad Ave euphemism for the world-wide dominance of African-American culture — which, arguably, arose from hip-hop’s birth in the very south Bronx wilderness created by Moses’ murderous highway — is “urban”. It doesn’t take a village. It takes a sidewalk.

Indeed the riposte of Niemeyer — who joined the Brazilian Communist Party in the mid-1940s (Niemeyer, 46) — to Berman is found throughout Niemeyer’s autobiography. Echoes of his argument surface in the nationalist defense of Brasilia’s architecture all over the internet. This seemingly anodyne description of Brasilia’s charm is also its manifesto as a fascist city. Two professors and eight graduate students travelled to Brasilia in 2007 to take it in. The professors’ account is a retort to Berman, whose idea that Latin American urban space is a grid organized around a plaza is taken as an insult to Brazil’s much more organic Portuguese heritage.* Fernando Lara, a Brazilian architect and professor of Latin American urbanism, writes:

…its system of roads is efficient and rarely congested. In fact, it is a shining success when compared to many other highway-driven cities, such as Los Angeles. Brasilia’s success in this regard reveals a troubling assumption made by its critics, one that goes to the heart of western expectations of a Latin American city. For planners in the United States and Northern Europe, Latin American cities are understood as gridded cities, with a central plaza and streets filled with people selling their wares or enjoying outdoor cafes. However, many of these images are based on the evolution of urban planning in Spanish-speaking cities in Latin America. Portugal and its colonial settlements in Brazil never followed this type of urban development. Portuguese and Brazilian cities rarely had central plazas or gridded streets. Instead, planning tended to be organic, following access to ports, with the population centers hugging the coasts. Hence, to criticize Brasilia for not having central plazas filled with local inhabitants and streets filled with more pedestrians than cars, is to ignore Brazilian urban planning history and to level unfair expectations.

This geographic imbalance also relates to the criticism of monumental public spaces in Brasilia. These heavenly iconic spaces are not bustling with people like in the Zocalo in Mexico City, or the Huaycaypata in Cuzco, Peru. Instead, the major public spaces in Brasilia serve as expansive places to showcase iconic buildings. They are not meant to be inhabited by crowds, but to be seen through car windows by those driving by, or by small groups of people who have arrived with the sole purpose to view the architectural monuments to Brazil’s future, much as one stands to view an artwork in a museum.
http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=jii;view=text;rgn=main;idno=4750978.0014.214

Fernando Lara, Brazilian architect and historian of Latin American urbanism, UT, Austin.

Lara’s throwaway lines — that Portuguese colonial “planning tended to be organic”, that public space serves “to showcase iconic buildings” to be viewed from a passing car — are the central arguments that Brasilia is an anti-democratic, and in Berman’s rubric, an anti-Marxist, space. I suspect that Niemeyer’s sex kitsch buildings, set off in Costa/Corbu’s forbidding driveby spaces, make it a fascist space.

The widely-discussed effectiveness of fascist architecture depends on spectacle, creating a space in which architecture — or light effects, such as the iconic pillars of light at the Nuremberg Rally — transfigures, in a raptus-like emotional transaction, individual spectators into one. One strategy is dwarfing spectators, another applying the scientific principles of crowd control first invented by the French to contain the frightening crowds of women who emerged in the late 19th century on the newly-created sidewalks of Haussmann’s Paris to go shopping at the newly-invented department stores. (This social phenomenon of modernity, as Berman calls it,  is piercingly rendered by the magnificent social observer Zola in his 1883 novel,  The Ladies’ Paradise.) Later the French built cities in Morocco, Madagascar and Indochina deploying these anti-democratic architectural strategies.

This corsage pin by Lalique was chosen as the logo for a National Gallery exhibit of Art Nouveau. Depicting women as a pestilence was the explicit result of the fear of crowds of women unleashed by the creation of sidewalks in Paris and the invention of department stores.

In a 1975 essay, Fascinating Fascism, culture critic Susan Sontag  pinpointed the erotic nature of fascist aesthetics — “vivid encounters of beautiful male bodies and death”. In it, Sontag posits the fascist aesthetic checklist. So powerfully does it resonate with Umberto Eco’s signs of fascism, written 20 years later,  Sontag’s still stands as the best practices definition of fascist aesthetics:

— celebration of the primitive

— preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort

— exaltation of egomania and servitude, domination and enslavement

— pageantry of massed groups, turning of people into things, the massed groups of people and things arranged around a leader or  force [or iconic, monumental architecture]

— orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets

— virile posing vs. ceaseless motion in choreography

— glamorizes surrender, mindlessness, death

One becomes, as Berman establishes, in the spectator crowd fascism turns us into, the subject as well as the object of a modernism.

I’m cutting to the chase here of many important distinctions: one becomes the subject of fascist modernity if fascism is, as the seminal 20th century Marxists argue, the inevitable antithesis to the thesis of revolutionary modernism. Fascism is modernity, no matter how many cults of tradition — Kinder, Kuche, Kirche — it exploits.  No one has done the work of synthesizing Marxist and fascist aesthetics of spectacle, though the ground work in fascist spectacle has been persuasively established by such scholars as Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, who describes the anomaly of Mussolini’s own modernism in the exploitation of modern advertising and polemic sales strategies, media and technology, while adding an acrylic techno sheen to the powerfully transfiguring pre-modern strategies of imperial sized buildings, ritual, symbols, tradition, and the very demagoguery on which Greece and Rome were founded. Writes Falasca-Zamponi,

The erection of buildings and the remaking of the urban landscape, as well as the invention of new rituals and the establishment of pageant celebrations, were intended to contribute to the sacralization of the state under the aegis of the fascist government. The existence of the state depended on peoples’ faith in it. Faith in the state was assured by a mass liturgy whose function was to educate the Italians, making them new citizens and imparting a higher morality.
(Falasca-Zamponi, 7)

Let’s all throw our gold wedding rings into the cauldron for Benito’s war chest, and make the point that Benito’s own magnificent planned city, Asmara, in Ethiopia, is the only other modern imperial outpost to deploy Niemeyer’s beloved curves as its central motif. The Italians called those curves Art Deco, and there, at the end of the earth, Asmara slowly returns to the desert from which Mussolini brought it forth. I submit Asmara, like Brasilia, is sex kitsch.

Niemeyer was the favored architect of the Brazilian president who decided Brasilia should rise from the wasteland at the center of the 3.3 million square mile nation, the world’s fifth largest. He writes that he declined a commission and designed Brasilia on the salary of a public servant, 40,000 cruzeiros antigos a month (Niemeyer, 71). This can be seen as a sign of Niemeyer’s communitarian altruism, freedom from capitalist ideology, ambition of Ayn Rand proportions, or the subtle coercion of a government whose political police still called the president’s fair-haired boy in for interrogation on account of his membership in the Communist Party. In his account of the interrogation, Niemeyer uses the racist Brazilian term, negrinho, to refer to the typist (Niemeyer, 90).

That the oppression of women is the point man of fascism is the issue that renders me beady-eyed in Niemeyer’s curvilinear Brasilia. He keeps saying curvilinearity is pretty girls and Einstein’s universe. I think it is Brazilian contrarianism in the tradition of Nasser’s Third World, Communist intransigence, and fascist sex kitsch. In the dedication of his autobiography, The Curves of Time, Niemeyer writes

I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of a beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein.

The curves could well be seen — Niemeyer does see them — as a principled Einsteinian protest against Le Corbusier’s coercive city beautiful. But when the curves are only in the  monuments set one by one, by the Corbu rubric, far away in the center of a ritualistic empty space, one is not moving off the idea that the city is a perfected and completed (and therefore, possibly fascist) ideal form through which the movement of people is coercive and barely permitted. When, in a typical remark, Niemeyer says on one occasion the Brazilian engineers had taught the old world architects they had little to learn, I understood much of Niemeyer’s contrarianism. Building a city in the middle of nowhere is Faust’s own imperialist apotheosis — that’s when the devil shows up to claim Faust’s soul. It is as well, part and parcel of Brazil’s impetus to deforest the planet of the Amazonian rainforest and forcibly remove the aborigines from the site of the Belo Monte dam.

The traditional riposte of the Brazilians to world protest has as much to do with Nasser’s leadership of non-aligned Third World as it does with Brazilian nationalism. You can hear it in Niemeyer’s response to Berman, and in Lara’s 21st century playback. The U.S. old growth forests are gone, they argue, and no Yankee imperialist is going to tell us to stop the genocidal deportation of Indians or cap emissions you fail to do yourself. You can see this nationalism, or exceptionalism, in Fernando Lara’s truthful observation that Brazil is not Latin America, and its urbanism developed differently from that in former Spanish colonies. However, for Lara to assert that Brazil has no tradition of plazas, or democratic space, doesn’t mean Berman is wrong in saying Brasilia has no public space and is therefore not a city for democracy; under Berman’s Marxist rubric, it can also be seen as a tacit admission that Portuguese urban tradition is fascist. Lara’s ill-considered use of the word “organic” to describe the development of Portuguese colonial cities in Brazil can suggest the conflation by 20th century fascism of “organic” tradition — Kinder, Kirche, Kuche — with oppressive modern political tactics. Fascism is totally organic. Nothing could be more organic than genocide.

Nor is there anything more organic than pornography as kitsch. Gillo Dorfles, the pioneer scholar of kitsch — like Niemeyer, a centenarian — defined the terms of the argument in 1969.

Gillo Dorfles, the pioneer scholar of kitsch, who recently curated a show in Milan called “Kitsch”.
http://www.triennale.it/it/mostre/future/1118-gillo-dorfles-kitsch-oggi-il-kitsch

Setting aside the modernists’ problem inherent in the definition of “beauty” as a mandarin taste for elites, and “kitsch” as garbage art for the proles, Dorfles defines kitsch as bad taste. (Another awesome thing he does is finger Salvador Dali and fascist, caudillo Surrealism itself as kitsch, for which service to humanity he should be given a Nobel Peace Prize.) What’s wrong with it, Dorfles writes, is that it is a lie, a lie much more easily replicated in modern media (this would be part of Benjamin’s Marxist argument about replication), and that the cultural elite are extreme victims of it. There are a million more brain freeze zingers to live by in his 1969 masterpiece. The one which concerns the death and afterlife of Oscar Niemeyer is this one:

Bad taste in politics begins therefore with modern dictatorships, and for an obvious reason: in the past, people could accept the fact that a man was endowed — by fate or by the divinity — with super human powers….Nowadays, whenever art has to bow to politics — or generally speaking, to some sort of ideology, even a religious one — it immediately becomes kitsch.
(Dorfles, 113).

Dorfles goes on to publish the excerpt of Clement Greenberg’s 1939 essay, The Avant-Garde and Kitsch. Dorfles notes it was written during the rise of “blatantly kitsch movements in Nazism, fascism, and Zdanovian Stalinism.” Greenberg, one of modernism’s seminal art critics, scans fascist spectacle and  says Marxism is the only medium for high culture and the avant-garde:

Where today a political regime establishes an official cultural policy, it is for the sake of demagogy. If kitsch is the official tendency of culture in Germany, Italy and Russia, it is not because their respective governments are controlled by philistines, but because kitsch is the culture of the masses in these countries, as it is everywhere else….the main trouble with avant-garde art and literature, from the point of view of fascists and Stalinists, is not that they are too critical, but that they are too “innocent’, that it is too difficult to inject effective propaganda into them, that kitsch is more pliable to this end. Kitsch keeps a dictator in closer contact with the ‘soul’ of the people….Today we no longer look to socialism for a new culture — as inevitably one will appear, once we do have socialism. Today we look to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now.
(Ibid.,
126)

When Niemeyer claims Brasilia represents the people and to attack his city is to attack the people of Brazil, he is sounding very much like the fascist Greenberg describes. For the city to represent of the people of Brazil — even though Brasilia arose from no referendum more popular than the election of the president who ordered its construction, and there was no peoples’ input into either Costa’s city layout or Niemeyer’s building blueprints — its makers had to claim to represent the peoples’ desire for modernity. Whether or not the Brazilian people desired the modernity Niemeyer gave them is still — as Lara’s 2007 defense of Brasilia suggests — entirely debatable. Is a planned city organic enough for Lara’s defense of Portuguese colonial urbanism in the first place? Is planned inherently fascist and “organic” inherently democratic? The proof is in the pudding. Are there large public gathering spaces in Brasilia which are not designed to compel spectatorship of Niemeyer’s state structures? No.

Having established that kitsch is basically a lie, and basically fascist propaganda, Dorfles and his culture warriors go on to discuss porn as kitsch. This is where the Niemeyer problem of sex kitsch gets good. In the teeth of pornography, Dorfles gets down to as good a definition of kitsch as there is:

Even ethics have their kitsch, and here one should consider two fundamental facts:

1.) that kitsch is essentially the falsification of sentiments and the substitution of spurious sentiments for real ones. That is to say real feeling becomes sentimentality; this is the moral argument against kitsch.

2.) that where ethics are in evidence the aesthetic component suffers.
(Ibid., 221)

Ugo Volli goes on to define pornokitsch as “false, sickly, sugary and slightly cold-blooded pornography adapted for kitsch-man” (Dorfles, 224) — kitsch-man being Dorfles’ rubber-necking spectator of modern life, the man of bad taste as he behaves when confronted by a work of art (Dorfles, 15).

Niemeyer  insists all his designs are based on the bodies of the girls he watched from his office window on Copacabana beach. It seems macho, it seems imbued with Brazilian contrarianism, it seems, with Niemeyer’s many Iberian pronouncements on the nature of life as a sigh, as a relentless fatalistic trivialization of the aspirations of the people of Brazil. Arguably, it’s not too far away from saying all the people of Brazil aspire to is the watermelon they’re all eating in Black Orpheus. Booty and bossa nova. It adds, perhaps, some credence to the suspicion of racism on Niemeyer’s part in the negrinho comment.

One scene from the bossa nova film, Black Orpheus, which has received troubled comment. It was released in 1959, at the time Niemeyer and Costa began to design Brasilia.

It has escaped the notice of no critic that the two domes of the National Congress he built in Brasilia are either breasts or buttocks.  When Frank Gehry visited, Niemeyer showed him a photograph of women sunbathing on the beach, alternately facing up and facing down. He told Gehry it explained everything. Years later, whe the New York Times architecture critic sees the National Congress buildings, he sees the girls from Copacabana again, in Brasilia: “They are beautiful and bizarre, isolated landmarks, marooned in the antiseptic environment, which they partly humanize by their erotic and symbolic charge. There in the distance is the National Congress, smartly off axis, with its vertical slabs balanced by two domes, half-melons, like Niemeyer’s female bathers, one facing up, the other down.” The BBC interviewer told the story of spending hours with Niemeyer in his office in front of a huge abstract photograph. Only later did the interviewer realize it wasn’t sand dunes, but female buttocks.

The National Congress buildings by Oscar Niemeyer in Brasilia, the planned capital city of Brazil.

So as the congressmen who represent the people of Brazil meet in a building representing beach bunny body parts, set in an enormous empty plaza that even a defender like Lara notes is designed not for democratic gatherings but for driveby viewing, how does Niemeyer symbolize a museum? Museums are the place where nations build their own myths. How does Niemeyer design the national cathedral of Brasil? With the same kind of trivialized and syrupy kitsch symbolism with which Niemeyer sexualizes federal buildings, thus trivializing and dismissing the democratic function of public space.

The 2002 Museu Oscar Niemeyer he designed in Curitiba he called “a sculptural eye”. It has a base tiled — in a modern take on the venerable Portuguese tradition of azulejos — with a naked woman,  frolicking with an arc which literally repeats the shape of the eye looming so panoptically above her.  Foucault says the panopticon represents modern surveillance society. There’s a lot to think about here about Surrealism, the fragmentation of capitalist trophies Berman mentions, and the fascist aesthetic inherent in museumizing an amputated and abstracted body part.

Museu Oscar Niemeyer, Curitiba, Brazil

The cathedral of Brasilia is either a crown of thorns or a flower. When Kimmelman visited in 2005,  it was empty. The glass windows were broken, it was full of the humid air of the vast bog that is central Brazil, birds nested in the upper struts and “A butterfly bumped against me, and I watched it zigzag toward the ceiling, into the sunlight.”

Oscar Niemeyer’s national cathedral at Brasilia.

To the candangosthe unaccommodated people of color who built it, back in the late ’50s, it must have looked like nothing so much as a rib roast.

________________

*For more on the Portuguese colonial urban tradition in Brazil, see this:

One Brazilian architect dicusses the anti-grid, anti-plaza Portuguese influence, and goes on blithely to pitch the many gated communities her firm has designed for urban Brazilians. The market demands them, she says. They are “permeable”, she says — architect-speak meaning pedestrians can walk through them. Gated communities, qua their racist, libertarian, tax revolt, and elitist origins, are anathema to the other great American urban theorist, the Marxist Mike Davis.

(c) 2012 Jeannette Smyth

Thinking about the way housekeeping, home economics, domestic science, is the lineage of the matriarchy and many other pagan practices. Martha Stewart unapologetically credits the Polish peasant in her late mother, Martha Kostyra, for teaching her everything she knows about celebrating the seasons with appropriate house cleaning activities. Stewart dedicated one of her major philanthropic contributions, a hospital wing, to her mother, Big Martha.

There’s a good amount of control freak in it too, of the kind Mark Twain fulminates against in his misogynist materialism, objecting to the moralistic nit picking of women in his famous excoriating essay on the founder of Christian Science,  Mary Baker Eddy. Today’s equivalent of Huck Finn’s repellent, canting Miss Watson might well be the germophobe former professor and author of a 400 page book on laundry, Cheryl Mendelson. The laundry book was an excerpt expanded from her nearly 900-page 1999 best seller on cleaning house, Home Comforts.

The rise of Martha, Cheryl and what the Brits call pinny porn appears to be related to post-feminist backlash against the baby boomer mothers who did not keep house because, first, they chose to work, and second, because they then had to work as single parents. Home. Comforts. Speaks of mother love, and in Mendelson’s case, of scary tiger mom love with enemas and starched pajamas.

Not for nothing did the Brits, who do so love their nannies and what in the case of Dr. Johnson was called “cupboard love”, of the cozy and sometimes painful kind nannies dish out, perceive the erotic infantilism in all of this, and coin the immortal term pinny porn. The best book I know about the empowerment of domestic science is Laura Shapiro’s classic, Perfection Saladnewly reissued in a Modern Library edition. It deserves a place next to Anne Higonnet’s equally fascinating and dispiriting book on how — among other things — female art students were tracked into commercial art at the turn of the 20th century, and were much responsible for the development of — well, baby flesh porn. Maude Humphrey Bogart is said to have sketched her baby as the first Gerber baby.

The new edition of the Shapiro classic.

I’m for it. But scrubbing the boxspring for dust mites? Not so much.

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