Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Unexpanded Notes From Portland

Am I the person you remember?

I can't get my head around the fact that events happened before I was an adult.

They were making a movie!

A still from a surveillance video of a man standing, not moving forward, back to the camera, not even waiting, filled me with terror.

Young man with an unfortunate moustache showing off his not new car, but the one he's been working on, to his friends whose high opinion is more important than the accomplishment itself. And they, knowingly or unknowingly, had the grace to bestow it. He looked drippy, uncool, next to them, and their praise clearly meant so much. And I wanted to give him fashion tips, a few basic things to make him look sharper and, hopefully, think more highly of himself. He looked like a kid seeking the approval of his older brother's friends.

Indiana seems further away than 13 years, a greater, more unimaginable distance.

The dog chewing on the stuffed cow's face like they're kissing.

All my writing is being done in notes on my cell phone. It's not even a smart phone, which means it suits my writing.

"The work for the traveler is making the effort to understand that the place you are moving through is real and the solution to your increasingly absent problems is forgetting."-Eileen Myles

I am only broken in my dreams.

He sings songs for people who hurt.

I ride the MAX one last time to leave Portland and, sitting in front of me, is a man whose deodorant has failed if he used it at all. This is how you leave when you leave alone.

A girl in the last seat of the car in front of us is wearing large headphones and touching up her make-up. It's like something out of an ad.

He asked her to come back because he was dying and it would mean so much to him and be such a minor inconvenience to her and she said yes but she died first and it was so unfair. He was supposed to be giving her his last days, not the other way around.

We are too trusting of systems. We assume we must do things because this is the way things are done, this is what people are doing. We live in a tautology: we do what we do because this is what we do.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Alfie's Adventure

Hello. My name's Alfie. I'm a little dog. Here's a picture of me with my big sister Aisling.

I'm going on a big adventure and I'm going to write about it here. Aisling can't go, though. She has to stay behind and protect my friends from the summer (that's why I look sad in the picture). It's okay. There are people coming to take her running all over the place. Everybody's going to have fun!

Thursday, June 02, 2011

On Birds, Love, and the Technological Erotic

This Sunday, The New York Times published Jonathan Franzen's commencement address to Kenyon University. I don't know why this piece bothers me so much. Several friends have posted it to Facebook and, of course, I respect them, I think they're very smart, but this piece is so bad—infuriatingly bad—and I can't put my finger on why. I read it three times the day it was posted getting angrier each time.
Franzen opens by relating his one-sided love affair with his new Blackberry and how we describe much of new technology in terms of the erotic. Indeed, this is part of branding. Marketing seeks to inspire an emotional connection between us and the things we buy because the difference between competing products is so often vanishingly small. Consumer goods, as Franzen says, are "designed to be immensely likable."
He goes on to assert that the desire to be liked is ultimately pathetic and the reality of living lies in loving—something personal, real, and involving the risk of rejection. To go through life "liking" things in the distant and simulated way offered by Facebook is to never engage with the world and, thus, to never engage with the reality of yourself. He uses the example of how, in his youth, he liked the environment, but could not become passionate about it, could not rise to the level of trying to solve the problems facing it until he fell in love with birds. Only when he truly loved a part of the environment could he engage with the inseparable beauty and despair of the environment and the broader world.
All of which sounds good, at first, but I've given it more of a through-line and cohesion than he did. The note about marketing and its goals is absent from his speech. He puts the desire to be liked upon consumer goods themselves never speaking of the ad, the campaign, the concerted effort to induce an emotional response. Instead, he places the emotional, nay, erotic response to our technology in ourselves as though it's a natural response to what we use.
What is stunning about the speech is that it presents itself as a clarion call against the corrupting forces of narcissism while being unrelentingly narcissistic. He holds his own life up as the example of what love means and can do—he becomes the one we must emulate—and the best he can come up with is birds. What risk lies in loving birds? How can they reject you? I love my dog, am willing to suffer for her well-being, and will wreak a terrifying vengeance upon any who threaten her, but this is not poetic love, not a love that ennobles me or awakens me to the person I truly am—the very definition of love that Franzen presents in his speech. I treasure my dog, but I also bought her. While she is an essential part of my life, she's a lifestyle accessory.
If we're going to describe love as transformative and troubling, why not present an example of love that's truly harrowing? Why not turn to a great love from literature or popular culture or even from artists' personal lives? Why not cite Mary Allen driving herself to madness thinking she's in contact with her lover after his suicide in The Rooms of Heaven? Jo Ann Beard in "The Fourth State of Matter," imagining her "mother float[ing] past in a hospital gown, trailing tubes" after her friends and co-workers have been murdered by someone she thought she knew? The Mountain Goats' "Love, Love, Love" from The Sunset Tree, an album about Darnielle's step-father beating him near to death, again and again? If the majesty of love lies in its terribleness—both the terror of loss and rejection, and "terrible" in the sense of grandeur and scope—why is Franzen's example of love so small, so pathetic?
I have loved and losing those that I've loved rent me, tore from me the space I had unknowingly made for them, and while that is the kind of love Franzen talks about when he raises the issue of love, it is not the same as the love he feels for fucking birds!
Franzen consistently approaches an interesting, potentially unique idea and unfailingly steers it to the banal and cliché. Yes, there is something linguistically curious in our use of erotic terms when speaking of technology, a very real displacement of sexual energy previously utilized exclusively by the church and state—the perverse redirection of passion from your lover and family to your nation and god (thus the constant demonization/criminalization of the body and desire), but so what? What does it mean? Why does it matter? He asserts that technology seeks to be liked, not loved, so "the world of techno-consumerism is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn." Lovely thought, but how does it manifest in the speech? I'm sorry, but ads on TV do not demonstrate his point, neither does the Facebook Like button.
What he offers, ultimately, is that trying to be liked is "sort of lame, you know?"* Taking this piece seriously—and I have tried because of the esteem I have for the people who have posted it, because I assume I must be missing that kernel of worth buried in this self-important college-entry-level essay, because surely the problem lies in my lacking the key to unlock why this hasn't been posted to Reddit under the headline "Parody of Jonathan Franzen Posted to New York Times, No One Notices Difference." Here is what I saw when I read this speech:
My new Blackberry gave me a hard-on and, as I masturbated to my students' Facebook profiles, inevitably climaxed, experienced le petit mort, if I may, I realized that, despite its water-resistant and non-streak screen, this was not love. Love is something larger, something bigger than the self, bigger than a certain syndicated talk-show host, something that makes you discover the irreducible truth of yourself and expose that truth to the potential for rejection. That's why I love birds!
This is more than just bad writing, this is bad thinking, displayed and lionized for nothing, for, ironically, people to "Like" on Facebook so they can demonstrate to their friends that they themselves are profound and that they read important writers' important thoughts on important topics. Posted so that people will hopefully like them more. I think there was something in the Times about that this weekend.

*The hipster aesthetic of being cool by rejecting the cool and embracing the uncool which makes me cool suffuses the piece as well, but to try to document and criticize Franzen's self-important navel-gazing is to prompt a piece dramatically longer than this. Besides, someone already did.