Thursday, August 31, 2006

crypt for the soul

In one of his classic bits, Lenny Bruce portrays religion as a commercial enterprise and sees the persecution of atheists as a logically sound measure to protect religion's market share and brand. But blasphemy laws do more than protect religions, they protect the social order of the society that enacts them.

Blasphemy laws serve ruling elites by creating a context in which thought is so clouded that people are too intellectually inhibited to question the prevailing social order. For example, Saudi Arabia has some of the strictest blasphemy laws in the world, and its residents lack the mental agility to question whether the Saudi princes, who nominally follow a faith that insists on their brotherhood with their co-religionists, are good Moslems when they suck their nation's patrimony out of the ground and spend it on Parisian whores, Scotch liquor, and New York real estate. Blasphemy laws have pushed Saudis into such a confused intellectual frenzy that they think their inferiority complex will be cured if they spill enough Jewish blood.

In our society, commerce is, of course, the predominant religion, and intellectual property laws function much like Lenny Bruce's blasphemy laws. On a superficial level, people have ceded the emotional space traditionally occupied by religion and myth to celebrities and entertainment companies, who take their tithe one magazine and movie ticket at a time. In our service economy, the soul is studied with greater rigor than in any seminary, and is subdivided into a set of appetites that are inflamed by new and increasingly exciting entertainment products, and once a company has spent money establishing a presence inside people's psyches, it seems only fair that they should collect the rent.

However, intellectual property concepts also serve the deeper nefarious purpose as blasphemy laws, by inhibiting thought and discussion. People generally think the First Amendment was written to protect journalists, but it really protects everybody's right to clearheaded intellectual inquirty. So when the the First Amendment is being whittled down to the point where it no longer even protects journalists, restrictions are also cutting into our own brains and reducing our intellectual flexibility. In other words, as definitions of "fair use" are increasingly constrained, people will have a harder time thinking their thoughts without cryptamnesically violating a copyright, trademark, or patent.

Safest, of course, is not to think at all, and that, of course, is what the overlords want. But, in dialectical splendor, the current encroachments of intellectual property laws and diminishment of first amendment protection has accompanied a marvelous outpouring of creativity that tests the very fringes of the system. Hilarious movie-mashups, ytmnds, and genrically innovative short films have all blossomed at the same time as multi-nationals have been trying to restrict our freedom of thought and expression.

The question for people in emerging media is whether they want to become part of the problem or part of the solution. The problem is a massive entertainment complex that wants to strangle innovative thought by using dark armies of lawyers and intellectual property experts to guard their "industry". The solution is to work towards a just and fair society where robots take care of our needs and we all create beautiful and enduring works of art. It has been interesting to watch the controversey regarding the possibility that Stephen Colbert's writers "stole" a bit from Ze Frank's show. Ze Frank's partisans have been clamoring for their hero to recieve compensation for his original idea, but the entire charm of Ze Frank's project is that he has positioned himself outside the mainstream, and the thought of his getting involved in petty intellectual property wars is very sad. To his credit, he has taken the position that it was, in fact, a lame joke -- so, if he was "ripped off", it was like a person stealing a pile of finger-nail clippings in a room filled with gold-encrusted walnuts.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


The latest unintended consequence of Sarbanes-Oxley is that hedge funds and economists are saying that, when firms are taken private, the estimated 1.5% extra expenses associated with Sarbanes-Oxley and SEC compliance will go straight to the bottom line. In other words, the centralization of wealth in our society may have reached the point where public equity markets are no longer be the most efficient way to raise capital. To be fair, this trend may be bigger than a single piece of legislation, but it is interesting if the ultimate consequence of Sarbanes-Oxley is to remove genuinely profitable companies from public ownership, leaving the stock markets as a place where dubious enterprises are sold to trusting morons.

If the trend of taking units private continues, the predictive value of historical measures of performance such as Index Funds will highly misleading: management teams will cream off the better performing companies and units, leaving the laggards (at a competitive disadvantage to the private firms) in the indices.

How does the Neapolitan proverb go? If shit were valuable, they'd take away our assholes.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Stinging jellyfish

I have stopped reading Shantaram by George Roberts (the thousand page first installment of a promised four thousand pages fictionalizing the adventures of Roberts, who starts as an escaped convict who runs a free clinic in a Bombay slum, and works his way up to become an international gun-smuggler for the Indian mob). While the first couple hundred pages held my interest, by the time I reached the page five hundred, I concluded that the book is an ultimately forgettable and longwinded piece of convict literature, with unpleasant social ramifications.

Shantaram purports to show "India" to Westerners, and Roberts incessantly brags about his gift for languages, but, to take just one example, on page ten of Sukhetu Mehta's "Maximum Bombay", Mehta explains why "damn" is a superior to than "Sisterfucking" as a translation of the word "Blenchod" and its multifarious cousins the in Indian languages. Needless to say, Roberts' taxidrivers and slum friends pepper their language with "sisterfucker" this and "sisterfucking" that. It makes for a hardcore and extreme reading experience, it tells us a lot about the sort of world that Roberts thinks he lives in, but it doesn't tell us too much about India.

With that said, Shantaram does not lack a certain naive charm. It is imbued with a fundamental generosity towards the milieu that inspired its creation as people are flatteringly exaggerated almost beyond recognition. The first native that Roberts meets has the widest smile Roberts will encounter in his life, until he meets that native's father. The first attractive Western woman who Roberts encounters turns out to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Dope-hazed bull sessions among low-lifes become philosophical dialogues that would rival Plato. Roberts himself is transformed from a petty heroin-addicted thief into a hardcore serious criminal -- "Australia's Most Wanted Man". The work is almost a Danielle-Steele-class narcissistic day-dream for wanna-be tough guys in touch with their sensitive side, but, at its core, it is a boring example convict literature, where a protagonist fights a depersonalizing system by exaggerating his sense of self-worth and the value of his life.

In fact, much of the pleasure of "Shantaram" comes from peeling away Roberts' exaggerations, and imagining the hum-dream anecdotes that were spun into his outsized tale. His explanation of how "Australia's Most Wanted Criminal" was able to escape from a Maximum Security Prison involves particularly amusing narrative contortions. It turns out that, after the guards had singled him out for extreme and illegal torture, he pretended that they had broken his spirit, and was thus given a prison job very near the prison walls. Isn't it a bit more likely that he was never tortured, and, as an pseudo-literate ex-junky who fundamentally didn't belong in the justice system, he came across as a mild and pleasant fellow, and a guard wanted to give him a break by assigning him an easy job?

But those pleasures couldn't sustain me for another four hundred pages, let alone three thousand four hundred. And, once I learned that Johnny Depp had bought the movie rights, the book suddenly took on a different color. Complaints about movie adaptations usually center around the fact that the filmed realization cannot match the idealizations that readers form in their minds. My problem with this adaptation is that by turning bar-room blarney into a movie, it has the potential to accurately represent the book, but accepting the book at face value undermines any value that the book could possibly have. Johnny Depp is one of the coolest people alive, and the thought of him pretending to be someone who was pretending to be one of the coolest people alive is very sad. As daydream and bullshit, Shantaram is very amusing, but, as mythology, it is infinitely depressing.

But my problems with a potential movie adaptation run a bit deeper, and quickly spill into contemporary cultural attitudes towards crime, modernism, Ezra Pound and Francois Villon. Against the view that modernism is a sublation of classical values opposing the romanticism of the nineteenth century, a common link between the modernists and the romantics is an appreciation for criminals, but this superficial similarity has opposite causes. Romantics promoted a natural identification between artists, prostitutes and homosexuals because an artist's stock and trade is self-knowledge, and, with so many aspects of self-knowledge criminalized and marginalized, artists found themselves cast among the dregs of society. As sexual self-knowledge has become thoroughly commercialized, the criminal class has shrunk to include sociopaths and jerks. The modernists, in contrast, were more interested in the phenomenologically criminal aspects of the criminal class, the bold assertion of the will of one consciousness against social mores. Modernists admired the raw intellectual power to break with tradition, not a deeper tradition of criminality.

The legitimation for both the modernist and the romantic "cult of criminality" is not longer part of the social landscape, in fact, Artists responding to our current world are not particularly fond of criminals. The few people who are producing works of merit are, in general, moralistic blue-stockings (Philip Roth and Kurt Vonnegut come to mind) who dogmatically cling to transcendental values like respect and freedom. Kids today who are seriously interested in exploring alternative cultural approaches are usually do so in the context of Buddhist-, Bible- or Upanishad-study groups.

However, as artists and bohemians have lost interest in sociopathic criminals, the general public and the corporate elites have become fascinated by them. The transformation of "The Sopranos" from a one-season Oedipal nightmare into a long-running management parable has accompanied a deep criminalization of the outlook of the corporate elites (who have learned to follow every law as they violate every principle), while the traditional identification of artists and criminals has provided a type of intellectual cover for a general moral collapse among the social elites. The people running our corporations and financial insitutions already conceptualize themselves as social rebels, so promoting traditional values becomes the genuine act of rebellion. Interestingly, much of their self-image is tied to a modernist notion of themselves as "artists". And, in this way, a book like Shantaram, that champions a artist-criminal lifestyle, is hardly the touching example of under-talented outsider literature that it might have been twenty years ago, but rather is another nail in the coffin of our culture. Criminals are deeply uncool, and it is sad to see Edward Scissorhands tell us the opposite.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

late response

A few weeks ago, a reader replied to a posting of mine about the pleasures of Chicago beach life by saying: "If you don't like it here, why don't you go back to Russia".

At the time, I took it to be a random provocation and lapse of self-control from one of the outraged thousands who regularly visit this blog, and I summarily deleted the response. I am delighted to engage in debate, but this interlocutor did seem to hold much promise for lively discourse. In retrospect, however, it is possible that yet another reader has confused me with the original George Borrow (1803-1881) who was, as everyone knows, an ardent Russophile.

I should make it clear that while I am a big fan of the other George Borrow, and my original intention was for this blog to contain the meanderings, musings, and interesting encounters that fill Lavengro and Romany Rye, it has turned out that this blog has almost nothing to do with the original George Borrow.

Monday, August 07, 2006

retromodernist redux

The number of counter-Aristotelian theater groups in Chicago has reached the threshhold where these groups can be considered as a movement. Three major theater groups, Red Moon Theater, the Neo-Futurists and 500 Clown Theater all trace their lineage through Chicago-school audience-partipatory improvisation back to European modernism. Modernism was, of course, a machine gun blast in the face of traditionalist 19th century aestheticism but it grew from a very specific context: it's historical purpose was to shock people out of the sloppy intellectual habits of centuries of traditionalist accretion by making people question the very nature of art, to open the way for a new aesthetics. The Chicago retromodernist triad continues this tradition by staging in-your-face presentations that violate traditional theatrical expectations, but each of the three have very different goals and achieve very different effects.

As a matter of intellectual history, after a period of wild experimentalism, the story of modernism continues and basically ends with Ezra Pound and TS Eliot, who are both its culmination and its refutation: Once Pound and Eliot were able to reestablish an aesthetics based on science and truth, a new canon had been established, and there was little reason left to keep blasting away.

While modernism briefly flared up in almost all cultural disciplines, from music to sculpture to painting, it continues to survive and flourish in theater, almost a century after its first appearance. Performance Art, as a pure form, is taught in universities, more as a discipline and a craft than a cutting-edge phenomenon. Theatrical groups using modernist techniques are often mislabeled "avant-garde", even though they are occupying territory that was subjugated many years before, and use an established grammar of predictable theatrical devices. The blandly corporate "Blue Man Group" is an example of the commodification and packaging of modernist theater techniques in a way that is reminiscent of John Berger's famous critique of late period Picasso (in other words, by Berger's taxonomy, late Picasso can be thought of as his "blue man" period).

Red Moon Theater is probably the most successful and least interesting of Chicago's retro-modernist troupes and it is fitting that the Union Bank of Switzerland's Private Wealth Division is one of their biggest supporters. Straight from the Brechtian twenties, Red Moon often features stylized capitalist archetypes -- potbellied greedheads mindlessly grabbing innocent young things while shoving sausages in their own faces. The first and obvious message of UBS's support for Red Moon Theater is that inheirited wealth is civilizing and genteel, while earned money is disgusting and vulgar. On a deeper level, the cultural-social destabilization of artificially supporting a refuted aesthetic-intellectual movement creates a context where younger people believe that issues that had been clearly settled in the thirties are still up for debate -- in other words, it is too soon to think about social transformation, and please allow our PWD to continue making obscene profits from the current absurd social conjuncture. In this way, the multi-channelled chaos of our time is profoundly conservative, and those who are paid to contribute to the noise can rightly be considered servants of the ruling elite.

But Chicago's retromodernist scene goes beyond a set of costumed dupes fronting for a cabal of international Swiss financiers. Chicago's Neo-Futurists have expanded a brief flash of a movement from 1920s Italian modernism into a sixteen year open-run in Rogers Park. The Neo-Futurists turn modernism into harmless fun and a light intellectual workout -- a safe first date for a moderately adventuresome couple, a trip down memory lane for anybody nostalgic for entre-deux-guerres culture. While the neo-futurists take real risks for low pay -- one of them permamently damaged his spine during an audience participation piece where he would fall and trust that at least one audience member would spontaneously rush onstage to catch him -- these risks do not serve a broader moral or aesthetic agenda. The short works are completely contextless, and the result of seeing a large number of chaotic pieces is a systematic derangement of the senses that ultimately gives one a renewed appreciation for the virtues of a traditionally well-crafted play and a craving for moral and aesthetic agendas. In short, the Italian twenties were followed by the Italian thirties, and if you spend enough time watching the Neo-Futurists, you might find yourself following the Pound-Eliot vector and thinking like Mussellini.

500 Clown is, far and away, my favorite of Chicago's retro-modernist groups (though Adrian Danzig, one of the founders of 500 Clown, was also heavily involved with both the neo-futurists and Red Moon Theater). 500 Clown presents improvised literary adaptations, with Red Moon's self-congratulatory and smug political correctness replaced by an invitation to audience self-examination and the neo-futurist's risk-filled chaos hung on the scaffolding of an architecturally sound piece of literature and serving a broader purpose. In 500 Clown's multi-layered adaptation of Frankenstein, the physical risks taken by the actors create sympathy for the people on stage, though ultimately the audience is turned into a mob that dehumanizes and murders a sentient being. People leave the theater in a good mood, but when they contemplate the evening, they regret their complicity in the destruction of the so-called "monster". In their adaptation of A Christmas Carol, the audience is presented with the same quandary as Scrooge. As they think about the show, they realize that they are were unwilling to part with anything of value in order to save the life of a fellow human being. Rather than offering a unified and closed aesthetic experience, 500 Clown uses the openness of modernist, participatory theater to pose moral questions without presupposed answers, and to welcome people into a self-aware and open community that is perpetually seeking self-improvement.

All that, and they are really good clowns, too. So if you want a guilt-free modernist experience that encourages moral growth without subtly turning you into a fascist or making you a stooge of the gnomes of Zurich, then make space on your calendar for the 500 Clown Christmas show this coming December.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

smell any sulphur?

In the LA Times' coverage of the Mel Gibson crisis, one paragraph stands out:

Hollywood was largely founded by, and the studios are still chiefly run by, Jewish executives such as Pascal. Still, dozens of Jewish executives, producers and agents contacted Monday would not go beyond expressing their outrage in private. In typical Hollywood fashion, they refrained from publicly criticizing — and potentially alienating — a powerful star and director who could make them a lot of money.

The whole paragraph has a faint whiff of anti-Semitism. The first sentence establishes an equation between Hollywood and Jews. The second sentence moves on to the Jewish stereotype of proper external behavior masking deep internal rage. And it would almost have been unsurprising had the third sentence started, "In typical Jew fashion...".

One does not need to resort to racial stereotypes to explain the silence of the Hollywood community. It would be equally true to say that, "Hollywood executives who honor their fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders of their publicly traded companies are unwilling to publicly denounce Gibson -- a powerful star and director who could make a lot of money for those shareholders."

But while fiduciary responsibility is a sufficient explanation for the Hollywood community's silence, those of us who are not bound by fidiciary responsibility should speak out: Gibson's fiasco is a test for Christian America. Is it really the Jews' job to always stick up for themselves? The Evangelical leaders have welcomed Gibson as one of their own, so shouldn't they now warn their members about a toxic undercurrent in Gibson's thinking? Shouldn't the Catholic Church come out with a statement reminding the flock that Gibson's take on Catholicism is completely out of the mainstream, and, in fact, quite possibly hell-bound? If the public simply "voted with their wallets", it would be unnecessary to repudiate Gibson, because he would become a non-entity, rather like his father.

Of course, Gibson's insanity gives his art compelling force. I'm hoping that it tanks, but it is highly probable that, in a moment of weakness, I'll be grinning like an idiot, in the audience at an early screening of "Apocalypto".

This line of thought quickly leads to Tom Cruise: Isn't it odd that the two most bankable stars in Hollywood adhere to such wildly non-mainstream spiritual traditions? Is there something about six-sigma religiosity that makes a person more interesting to the camera? Does success make Hollywood people nuts, or does the camera respond to an implicit nuttiness lurking in their unfamous selves?

The key for the few times that I have bothered to be "photogenic" has been to pretend as though the camera were organic living tissue (I won't mention which bodily organ, it suffices to say that it is found in about 50.9% of all humans). So maybe the repeated applications of this sort of mind-trick has a cumulative deteriorating effect on sanity, and mental disintegration is as much a risk for the Hollywood acting class as black lung disease is for a coal miner.