Saturday, January 16, 2016

car lots as battlefields, or fair versus market

There are various degrees of hell on earth. One of them, hell-lite, is surely going shopping for a used car. We got an in your face sample of that yesterday from a used car dealership in Inglewood, run on traditional lines: the sleazy boss, the oppressed, near retirement age salesman, the attempt to pump your expressed desire (we'd like a cheap vehicle, please) into their desire (and this nearly new SUV can be yours for 18,000 dollars, cutting the price 30 percent!). And now for the part of the story that I'm not so comfortable with - as I know that those car lots are really parts of a popular culture of haggling that goes back to pre-capitalist days, and intellectually I find them interesting - but then we went to CarMax. Carmax is wonderful, I must say, for the simple reason that they sell cars as though they were commodities no different from aspirin or breakfast cereal, instead of horses being traded between nomadic tribes. So you go in, you say what you want, they show you what is on offer, you go out to see it, and that is that. 21st century, quoi! So, happily, we are replacing our car. Unhappily, the poor Greek salesman with the dyed hair in Inglewood is not getting a commission. We owe him a karmic debt.

There’s more to say about our little adventure from the Marxist point of view.  In the eighteenth century, the physiocrats and economists, as they were newly named, campaigned against the older form of market society centered on the fair – against which they proposed the market. In the fair, the exchanges were defined not simply by barter or the exchange of money for products, but by other social forces as well – tests of masculinity, alliance makinng, sexual adventure, and various non-economic pleasures. A simple way of speaking about this is to say that the products in the fair weren’t fully commoditized. In the ideal market, the products were. Transactions came down to the calculus between the utility of the consumer and the utility of the seller. In a sense, the objects were stripped of everything alien to their exchange nature.
Marx, of course, saw this logic as a social force  that would eventually sweep away all remnants of the older market society – the pre-capitalist society. As it happens, the pre-capitalist world is still all around us, even in the most capitalist of countries. Commodification meets its limits in the very nature of the nexus upon which it depends – that is, in the irresistable sociability that attends all human encouters.
Car sales in the US are strongly fair-like. Updike was shrewd, in his four Rabbit novels, to move his protagonist from a factory figure to a car salesman. Rabbit’s idea of the car lot as a place of seduction and masculine competition plugs into every car lot I’ve ever gone to. A. finds it almost unbearable, the simultaneous brazen pressure to buy and the pressure to prove one’s manhood – as she said about one of the guys we dealt with, he practically pulled down his pants and showed us his big balls. In this forum, the customer who is best adapted to haggle, to negotiate, must know about cars and must exhibit that knowledge in its ideolect. The car lot is a place for victory and defeat, not a market for economically rational transactions.

This is where Carmax is so brilliant and, from a certain perspective, so oppressive. Here, the whole culture of sociability and masculinity assembled around automobiles is calmly tossed into the garbage. There are no negotiations here, there’s no haggling, there are no victories. Just as when I buy an aspirin at the grocery store, a transaction that requires minimum knowledge of chemistry on my part and on the part of the clerk who checks me out, at CarMax, the fair like aspects of the transaction have been minimized. Interestingly, the decorations, size and layout of the place denies this simple, inhuman fact – the car lot looks much more utilitarian, with its assembled jam of cars. As the fair is condemned to death, its emblems are stolen and employed to disguise the death.    

Thursday, January 14, 2016

entertainment and art - to be or not to be

Although it is usually the end of the eighteenth century that monopolizes the discussion of aesthetics in philosophy, it is a book from the beginning of the century – Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks of Men, etc. – that shaped the terms in which art was discussed by Enlightenment philosophes. In the same sense in which an allergen shapes a sneeze, it is also these terms that shaped the massive rejection under which we still live – that reaction we call modernism, romanticism, postmodernism, etc.
Shaftesbury did not directly talk about entertainment and art, because the concepts and their hostility one to the other had not crystallized in his time. But he does give us some notion about what art was about. Or, rather, he constructs two points of view by which to look at it.
From the first point of view, art is thoroughly social.  Shaftesbury writes of how the poet’s work is an “entertainment for himself and others.” The possibility that it could only be for himself is cast into doubt, however, by the whole structure of his theory of taste.
Our … endeavor, therefore, must appear this: to show that nothing is found charming or delightful in the polite world, nothing which is adopted as pleasure or entertainment of whatever kind can any way be accounted for, supported or established wiouth the pre-establishment or supposition a a certain taste.”
The separation between pleasures and entertainment is about Shaftesbury’s recognition that much of entertainment is about the “foils and contraries” that befall human actors, whether in poetry, or theater, or song, or visuall depiction. However, for Shaftesbury, the moments of degredation, pain, grief and defeat – of, in fact, ugliness, the lineaments of unhappiness - are moments in a larger scheme to depict, in full, the “beauties of the inward soul.”
This gives us our second point of view. Shaftesbury is not a puritan by any means, but he still harks after, or at least is haunted by, the old distinction between the sacred and the profane – which is now transferred to a the duality between outward show and inward beauty. If the artist is always working with the materials of outward show, he is always motivated by the impulse of inward beauty.
The model for inward beauty comes not from art: it comes from the beauty of the human form. And not any human form – rather, the paradigm is the beautiful woman. That beauty, Shaftesbury claims, is always a symbol of inward beauty. Subtract the latter, make the woman an idiot, and the outward beauty flees.
We know how this play of comparisons arises. We’ve seen this number dialed before, over and over again.  Bit by bit, entertainment – like the beauty of women – becomes a threat if it is not moralized, or held to some standard. But for Shaftesbury, entertainment is still, in the end, the kind of outward show that art does not transcend so much as use for a transcendence beyond art – into being a wholly fit member of society.
Shaftesbury’s aesthetics of taste made a good target for those who reject the surrender to taste as an ultimately servile gesture, a relic of the system of patronage. Those, that is, who were contemporary with or came after the French revolution.
It is at this point that the plot thickens; the divide, such as it is, between entertainment and art becomes a modern project. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

entertainment and art

It was in the late sixties, I think, that most American newspapers began hosting a “business” section. Of course, most of the readers of newspapers back then were laborers, but there was never a labor section. Now business sections are universal, and the last surviving labor unions are about to get a stake through their heart as the Supreme Court, that bastion of reaction, prongs them. Those Business sections were, literally, a sign of the Times.
I am not sure when I first noticed that newspapers were putting their movie, book and music reviews in a section called Arts and Entertainment. It is now a pretty standard section heading. It begs the question, or at least I am going to beg the question, of what is meant by that conjunction. What is supposed to be the difference between art on the one side and entertainment on the other?
In the seventeenth century, entertainment was a term that possessed a lot of semantic scope. It held onto its French roots in “tenir”, to hold, and meant hosting, or supporting, or amusing. In John Donne’s sermons, one can see examples of all these things. For instance, in interpreting the passage in Genesis in which Abraham feeds some strangers who turn out to be angels, Donne writes: … the angels of the Gospel come within their distance, but if you will not receive them, they can break open no doors, nor save you against your wil: the angel does, as he that sends him. Stand at the door and knock, if the door be open, he comes in, and sups with him; What gets he by that? This; he brings his dish with him; he  feeds his host, more than his host him. This is true hospitality, and entertaiment of angels, both when thou feedest Christ , in his poor members abroad, or when thouh feedest thine own soul at hom, with the company and conversation of ture and religious Christians at thy table, for these are angels.” “Entertainment” here is not only the provision of food and drink, but also of conversation – l’entretien. It is something more than providing the bare necessities.
On the other hand, Donne can also pluck amusement out of the word. In a Lent Sermon, Donne speaks of the function of the sermon and, in general, of the service. There’s an implicit self reference here, for Donne’s own sermons were pretty well wrought – were, in a word that would not have been used in his time, artistic. He speaks here of “Gods ablest Ministers, indued with the best parts, to be but as music, as a jest, as a song, as an entertainment.”
Now, a sermon is not a secular prose piece. In this respect, the binary is between the sacred and the profane, not art and entertainment. But Donne was, of course, well aware of the fact that poetry could straddle the divide between sacred and profane. Still, he does not insert, after “song”, as poetry. Entertainment, here, is something different from the entertainment of angels. It is already show business.
Is it possible, though, that all of art is show business? Or, less pejoratively, that entertainment is art and art entertainment? And that the journalistic conjunction caters to a popular misconception, an ill-made middle or high brow hierarchy?
This question is, I think, mixed up to an extent with the old division between the sacred and the profane. In particular, the exclusion of some from the Protestant and Catholic notion of the sacred.
An act of 1572, in England, proscribed "common players in interludes and minstrils." Players had to belong to the household of a baron or an honorable personage - hence Shakespeare's membership in the "Queens men." The punishment for being a wandering player ranged from whipping, to having your ears lopped off, to being shipped out of the district.

Entertainers, like Jews and slaves, were outside the bounds of the Holy City - Augustine's City of God, Christian Europes millennial long dream. They were, one way or another, under the ban of social death. It wasnt only the Puritans who objected to the actor. Heres Bossuet, a French bishop, commenting about Moliere, who - according to legend - died right after acting in La Malade imaginaire: he "passed from the pleasantries of theater, among which he practically drew his last breath, to the judgment seat of him who said: cursed be those who laugh now, for you shall cry." 
I’ve been thinking about these things since the death of David Bowie, wondering about how to characterize him: Entertainer? Artist? Or is there a difference? Does the and stand?

Monday, January 11, 2016


“… over in Detroit Bowie’s followers were like something out of Fellini’s Satyricon: full tilt pleasure seekers devoid of anything resemlbing shame, limits, caution and moral scruples. I distinctly remember a local lesbian bike gang riding their bikes into the foyer of the concert hall and revving them loudly just prior to Bowie’s arrival onstage. This had not been pre-arranged.. Meanwhile, the toilets were literally crammed with people either having sex or necking pills. The whole building was like some epic porn film brought to twitching life. “ – Nick Kent, Apathy for the devil
The old guard, who were all in their early thirties when Bowie broke in the early seventies, hated him. Lester Bangs’s contempt for Bowie’s inauthenticity, as he saw it, was never surprised into reconsideration by anything Bowie ever did. Christgau, in a telling phrase, spoke of Bowie’s relationship to rock as “expedient”. In other words, there was always a distance, the distance of a man choosing. Bowie was always a changeling and never a convert. That put a huge bug up their asses. This was considered not the mark of higher artistry, by these guys, but the mark of a phoney. If you trawl through reviews of Bowie from the early seventies, you can come up with astonishing stuff – astonishingly stupid stuff. Martin Amis, for instance, reviewed a Bowie concert in 1973 by channeling his father, Kingsley Amis’s, voice and gags – it makes for painful reading, as though Amis were already the superannuated clubman he has since become. It is as if he listened to the concert through an ear trumpet.
Usually, when a singer dies, one goes through memory’s rolodex: I remembering hearing song x here, or song y there, or this concert, etc. The death of celebrities brings out our own narcissism in spades.
But Bowie was always a master of distances, and I’m not sure an album of fan experiences does him justice. What Kent saw, in Detroit, was a part of the same effect that repulsed the rock critics. In the underhistory of the 70s, where lesbian biker gangs are as important as Oil shocks, Bowie is onof the great monument – similar, in his mastery of the uses to which alienation could be put, to Foucault.  Foucault debated Noam Chomsky in 1971 on a Dutch talk show hosted by an anarchist. Afterwards, Chomsky said of Foucault, “ I’d never met anyone who was so totally amoral.” This, I think, comments on a style of presentation – and in that sense, Foucault and Bowie were on the same wavelength.
Of course, it was a moment, a brief throb. Disorder is all too pitiably subject to order – a sort of reverse or negative entropy. Bowie moved on. The forces unleashed in that historic moment had their effect, but the larger forces that we contend with, now, every day, either confronted and defeated them or poisoned them through all the institutions at the disposal of the establishment. But I like to think about how he had this moment.

And now he’s  shockingly dead and all.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...