Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Color me surprised to learn that 45 is considering a new executive order mandating that the “classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for new and upgraded federal buildings, revising the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture issued in 1962. Assuredly, 45 is hardly expected to weigh in on respectable aesthetic choices considering his taste runs toward gawdy, glitzy, ostentatious surface display (more Baroque) than restraint, dignity, poise, and balance (more Classical or Neoclassical).

Since I pay little attention to mainstream news propaganda organs, I learned of this from James Howard Kunstler’s blog Clusterfuck Nation (see blogroll) as though the order had already issued, but it’s apparently still in drafting. Twas nice to read Kunstler returning to his roots in architectural criticism. He’s never left it behind entirely; his website has a regular feature called Eyesore of the Month, which I rather enjoy reading. He provides a brief primer how architectural styles in the 20th century (all lumped together as Modernism) embody the Zeitgeist, namely, techno-narcissism. (I’m unconvinced that Modernism is a direct rebuke of 20th-century fascists who favored Classicism.) Frankly, with considerably more space at his disposal, Iain McGilchrist explores Modernist architecture better and with far greater erudition in The Master and his Emissary (2010), which I blogged through some while ago. Nonetheless, this statement by Kunstler deserves attention:

The main feature of this particular moment is that techno-industrial society has entered an epochal contraction presaging collapse due to over-investments in hyper-complexity. That hyper-complexity has come to be perfectly expressed in architecture lately in the torqued and tortured surfaces of gigantic buildings designed by computers, with very poor prospects for being maintained, or even being useful, as we reel into a new age of material scarcity and diminished expectations …

This is the life-out-of-balance statement in a nutshell. We are over-extended and wedded to an aesthetic of power that requires preposterous feats of engineering to build and continuous resource inputs to operate and maintain. (Kunstler himself avers elsewhere that an abundance of cheap, easily harvested energy enabled the Modern Era, so chalking up imminent collapse due primarily to over-investment in hyper-complexity seems like substitution of a secondary or follow-on effect for the main one.) My blogging preoccupation with skyscrapers demonstrates my judgment that the vertical dimension of the human-built world in particular is totally out of whack, an instantiation of now-commonplace stunt architecture. Should power ever fail for any sustained duration, reaching floors above, say, the 10th and delivering basic services to them, such as water for sinks and toilets, quickly becomes daunting.

However, that’s a technical hurdle, not an aesthetic consideration. The Modernist government buildings in question tend to be Brutalist designs, which often look like high-walled concrete fortresses or squat, impenetrable bunkers. (Do you own image search.) They project bureaucratic officiousness and disconcern if not open hostility toward the people they purport to serve. Basically, enter at your own risk. They share with the International Style a formal adherence to chunky geometric forms, often presented impassively (as pure abstraction) or in an exploded view (analogous to a cubist painting showing multiple perspectives simultaneously). Curiously, commentary at the links above is mostly aligned with perpetuating the Modernist project and aesthetic as described by Kunstler and McGilchrist. No interruptions, difficulties, or vulnerabilities are contemplated. Commentators must not be reading the same analyses I am, or they’re blithely supportive of progress in some vague sense, itself a myth we tell ourselves.

I was introduced to the phrase life out of balance decades ago when I saw the film Koyaanisqatsi. The film is the first of a trilogy (sequels are Powaqqatsi and Nagoyqatsi) by Godfrey Reggio, though the film is arguably more famous because of its soundtrack composed by Philip Glass. Consisting entirely of wordless montage and music, the film contrasts the majesty of nature (in slo-mo, among other camera effects) with the frenetic pace of human activity (often sped up) and the folly of the human-built world. Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi Indian word, meaning life out of balance. One might pause to consider, “out of balance with what?” The film supplies the answer, none too subtly: out of balance with nature. The two sequels are celebrations of humans at work and technology, respectively, and never gained the iconic stature of the initial film.

If history (delivering us into the 21st century) has demonstrated anything, it’s that we humans are careening out of control toward disaster, not unlike the spacecraft in the final sequence of Koyaanisqatsi that tumbles out of the atmosphere for an agonizingly long time (in slo-mo), burning all the way down. We are all witness to the event (more accurately, the process) but can do little anymore to alter the eventual tragic result. Though some counsel taking steps toward amelioration (of suffering, if nothing else), our default response is rather to deny our collective fate, and worse, to accelerate toward it. That’s how unbalanced we are as a global civilization.

The observation that we are badly out of balance is made at the species and civilizational levels but is recapitulated at all levels of social organization, from distinct societies or nationalities to regional and municipal organizations and associations on down to families and individuals. The forces, dynamics, and power laws that push us off balance are many, but none is as egregious as the corrupting influence of interrelated wealth and power. Wisdom of the ancients (especially the non-Western ones) gave us the same verdict, though we have refused intransigently (or more charitably: failed) to learn the lesson for hundreds of generations.

What I propose to do in this multipart series is explore or survey some of the manifestations of life out of balance. There is no particular organization, chronology, or schedule for subsequent entries. As an armchair social critic, I reserve the luxury of exercising my own judgment and answering to no one. Stay tuned.

From the end of Paul Street’s They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy (2014):

Those on the radical left who worry that pursuing a Green New Deal and leading with the environmental issue means giving up on the struggle against the 1% for a democratically transformed “world turned upside down” can rest easy. The green transformation required for human survival will be bright rouge. With its inherent privileging of private profit and exchange value over the common good and social use value, its intrinsic insistence on private management; its inbuilt privileging of the short-term bottom line over the long-term fate of the earth and its many species, with its deep-sunk cost investment in endless quantitative growth and the carbon-addicted way of life and death, and with its attachment to the division of the world into competing nations and empires that are incapable of common action for the global good, capitalism is simply inconsistent with the deep environmental changes required for human survival. “Green capitalism” is an oxymoron. It is naïve to think that the green transformation required for civilization’s survival can take place without an epic confrontation with — and defeat of — the concentrated wealth and power enjoyed by the capitalist elite and its profits system. [p. 197]

The Doomsday Clock moved again a few days ago, and not toward a safer margin or remove from disaster. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a rather long statement, of which I’ll provide only the first paragraph:

Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.

The mention of a threat multiplier gets my attention, though calling it “cyber-enabled information warfare” might be hyperbole. The term propaganda is still applicable. Along similar lines, I’ve heard it argued that we’re already in the midst of WWIII — Planet Earth vs. humans — and losing. Still, from my perspective, it’s hard to disagree with either assessment, which I’ve been blogging about for more than a decade. My tiny, insignificant voice means nothing amid the countervailing noise, of course. And even for those folks who believe as I do, there’s little meaningful action for individuals to take. We’re mere drops in the ocean compared to industrial civilization surrounding us.

In a couple previous blog posts pointing to the Doomsday Clock, I included the image of the clock face from the Bulletin. Happened to notice this time that the reset clock has a registered trademark symbol behind it. Seems unreasonable to claim trademark protection for such a ubiquitous image.

Not much else to say about this latest update to the Doomsday Clock except to observe that dire, urgent warnings that we must TAKE ACTION NOW! to forestall worst-case scenarios from manifesting have always fallen on deaf ears. The Bulletin gives itself almost no room for any more updates. We’ve been inside 5 minutes to midnight since 2015. Now that we’re inside 2 minutes, the Clock may have to start counting portions of a second.

One of the victims of cancel culture, coming to my attention only days ago, is Kate Smith (1907–1986), a singer of American popular song. Though Smith had a singing career spanning five decades, she is best remembered for her version(s) of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, which justifiably became a bit of Americana. The decades of Smith’s peak activity were the 1930s and 40s.

/rant on

I dunno what goes through people’s heads, performing purity rituals or character excavation on folks long dead. The controversy stems from Smith having a couple other songs in her discography: That’s Why Darkies Were Born (1931) and Pickaninny Heaven from the movie Hello, Everybody! (1933). Hate to break it anyone still living under a rock, but these dates are not far removed from minstrelsy, blackface, and The Birth of a Nation (1915) — a time when typical Americans referred to blacks with a variety of terms we now consider slurs. Such references were still used during the American civil rights movement (1960s) and are in use among some virulent white supremacists even today. I don’t know the full context of Kate Smith having sung those songs, but I suspect I don’t need to. In that era, popular entertainment had few of the sensibilities regarding race we now have (culture may have moved on, but it’s hard to say with a straight face it’s evolved or progressed humanely), and uttering commonly used terms back then was not automatic evidence of any sort of snarling racism.

I remember having heard my grandparents, nearly exact contemporaries of Kate Smith, referring to blacks (the term I grew up with, still acceptable I think) with other terms we no longer consider acceptable. It shocked me, but to them, that’s simply what blacks were called (the term(s) they grew up with). Absolutely nothing in my grandparents’ character or behavior indicated a nasty, racist intent. I suspect the same was true of Kate Smith in the 1930s.

Back when I was a librarian, I also saw plenty of sheet music published before 1920 or so with the term darkie (or darkey) in the title. See for example this. The Library of Congress still uses the subject headings “negro spirituals” (is there another kind?) and “negro songs” to refer to various subgenres of American folk song that includes slave songs, work songs, spirituals, minstrel music, protest songs, etc. Maybe we should cancel the Library of Congress. Some published music titles from back then even call them coon songs. That last one is totally unacceptable today, but it’s frankly part of our history, and like changing character names in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, sanitizing the past does not make it go away or any less discomfiting. But if you wanna bury your head in the sand, go ahead, ostrich.

Also, if some person or entity ever does some questionably racist, sexist, or malign thing (even something short of abominable) situated contextually in the past, does that mean he, she, or it must be cancelled irrevocably? If that be the case, then I guess we gotta cancel composer Richard Wagner, one of the most notorious anti-Semites of the 19th century. Also, stop watching Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars films (among others), because remember that time when Walt Disney Studios (now Walt Disney Company) made a racist musical film, Song of the South (1946)? Disney’s tainted legacy (extending well beyond that one movie) is at least as awful as, say, Kevin Spacey, and we’re certainly not about to rehabilitate him.

/rant off


Posted: January 6, 2020 in Artistry, Corporatism, Culture, Science
Tags: ,

Something I read somewhere (lost track of what and when) sparked some modest inquiry into the mathematical concept of magnitude, or more specifically, the order of magnitude. I suspect, consistent with the doomer themes of this blog, that it was a statement to the effect that the sixth extinction (or Holocene extinction if you prefer) is proceeding at some order of magnitude faster than previous mass extinction events.

Within various scientific fields, magnitude has specific and specialized meanings. For instance, the Richter Scale, used to denote the power of earthquakes, is a familiar though poorly understood measure reported in the aftermath of an event. Magnitudes of distance and time are more immediately understood in the mundane sense of how far/long to travel somewhere (via foot, bicycle, car, train, plane, etc.) and more exotically outside Earth orbit as depicted in science fiction. Perhaps the most cognitively accessible illustration of magnitude, however, is scale. Arguably, size (absolute?) and scale (comparative?) are intertwined with distance, or even more broadly, time-space. I’ll leave that discussion to someone who knows better than I do.

All that said, I recalled from boyhood a short film depicting scale in terms of Powers of Ten. Unsurprisingly, I found it on YouTube (embedded below).

Perhaps it’s just my refurbishing of memory, but this film (now video) has a sense of wonder and amazement, sort of like how Disney properties (e.g., films, TV shows, theme parks, merchandise) from the 1960s and 70s retained an innocence from the time when Walt Disney himself was in charge. Early NASA orbital missions and moonshots had that quality, too, but NASA’s wonder years dissipated around the time space shuttles went into service, demonstrating that NASA’s primary objective was neither technical innovation nor exploration anymore but rather commerce, namely, putting satellites into orbit for communications services. Just this past year, the risible U.S. Space Force, wished into existence by 45 single-handedly over all reasonable objections (not unlike the border wall with Mexico), demonstrates a similar loss of innocence. It’s essentially an attempt to patrol and/or weaponize the commons. I’d like to believe that military personnel are dutifully obeying a pointless command from the commander-in-chief and will abandon or scuttle the new military branch once 45 is out of office. Time will tell.

Loss of innocence may be inevitable in the postmodern world given our jadedness, cynicism, and oh-so-hip ironic detachment. It’s not a good look on us. For instance, once Disney went corporate, the aesthetic pioneered and guided by old Walt changed for the worse. Relatively recent acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars (among others) and expansion of theme parks and resorts reveal an entertainment behemoth geared more cynically toward money-making than artistry or inspiration. The apparent insufficiency of earlier incarnations of NASA and Disney find a parallel with an updated version of Powers of Ten (not embedded), narrated by Morgan Freeman (because … why not?) and using the same basic script but employing whiz-bang graphics considerably enhanced over their 1977 counterparts. Even the pop-culture digital network Buzzfeed (not exactly a venerated news source) gets some action with its derivative, examination-lite of cosmic scale (ignoring the microscopic and subatomic):

Going back to the idea of magnitude, I’m aware of four time-scales in common use: human history, evolutionary time, geological time, and cosmic time. Few contextualize the last 2–3 centuries this way, but human activity has had substantial effects that collapse events usually occurring over evolutionary or geological time into human history. We unwittingly launched a grand terraforming project but have yet to demonstrate overriding care for the eventual outcomes. The, um, magnitude of our error cannot be overstated.

From They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy (2014) by Paul Street, which I’m just starting to read:

The contemporary United States, I find in this volume, is neither a dictatorship nor a democracy. It is something in between or perhaps different altogether: a corporate-managed state-capitalist pseudo-democracy that sells the narrow interests of the wealthy business and financial elite as the public interest, closes off critical and independent thought, and subjects culture, politics, policy, institutions, the environment, daily life, and individual minds to the often hidden and unseen authoritarian dictates of money and profit. It is a corporate and financial plutocracy whose managers generally prefer to rule through outwardly democratic and noncoercive means since leading American corporations and their servants have worked effectively at draining and disabling democracy’s radical and progressive potential by propagandizing, dulling, pacifying, deadening, overextending, overstressing, atomizing, and demobilizing the citizenry. At the same time, American state and capitalist elites remain ready, willing, and able to maintain their power with the help from ever more sinister and sophisticated methods and tools of repression brutality, and coercive control.

I’ve grown rather tired of hearing the financial 1% to 0.01% (depending on source) being called the “elite.” There is nothing about them most would recognize as elite other than their absurd wealth. As a rule, they’re not particularly admirable men and women; they’re merely aspirational (as in everyone thinking “wish I had all that money” — the moral lesson about the corruptions of excessive wealth rarely having been learned). The manner in which such fortunes are amassed pretty much invalidates claims to moral or ethical superiority. In the typical case, “real” money is acquired by identifying one or more market opportunities and exploiting them ruthlessly. The object of exploitation might be a natural resource, labor, a product or service, or a combination.

Admittedly, effort goes into exploiting a market niche, and it often takes considerable time to develop and mature (less these days in overheated and overvalued markets), but the pattern is well established. Further, those who succeed are often mere beneficiaries of happenstance from among many competing entrepreneurs, speculators, financiers, and media types putting in similar effort. While capitalism is not as blind as rock-paper-scissors or subtly skilled as poker, both of which are designed to produce an eventual sole winner (and making everyone else losers), this economic system tends over time to pool increasing wealth in the accounts of those who have already “won” the game. Thus, wealth inequality increases until social conditions become so intolerable (e.g., tent cities across the U.S.) the masses revolt. How many resets of this deplorable game do we get?

Meanwhile — and here’s another thing I can’t grok — billionaires seem discontent (alert: intentional fallacy) to merely enjoy their wealth or heaven forfend use it to help others. Instead, they announce their ambitions to rule by campaigning for high office, typically skipping the preliminary step of developing actual political skills, because (doncha know?) everything worth having can be bought. Few sane people actually believe that a giant fortune qualifies someone for high office, except of course them who gots the fortunes and have gone off the deep end. They’re so use to being fawned over by sycophants and cozied up to by false admirers that it’s doubtful anyone is ever bold enough to tell them anything resembling truth about themselves (notably including major character deficiencies). So the notion enters the noggin that the next big project ought be to squat on high office as though it’s a right bequeathed specially to the ultrarich, whether one is Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Cuban, or (gasp!) that trailblazer who demonstrated it’s possible: 45. In a pinch, mere millions will have to suffice, as most congressfolk and senators can attest.

According to Anand Giridharadas, author of the book Winners Take All, seeking political office and practicing philanthropy is not at all the public service or “giving back” it pretends to be. Rather, it’s an attempt to maintain the status quo (funneling money upstream to those at the top), thus forestalling one of those nasty resets where the rabble overwhelms their betters with a fury known in past centuries to get quite out of hand. A few supposed elites riding herd over the great unwashed masses sounds rather passé, no? The bygone stuff of barbarian hordes and robber barons? But it describes the current day, too, and considering these folks are basically taking a giant dump on billions of other people, sorta gives a new, inverted meaning to the term squatter’s rights.

Holiday creep is observable in at least two aspects: (1) those who can (i.e., those with enviable employment benefits) use additional time off on adjacent workdays to create 4-, 5-, or 6-day holiday spans, and (2) businesses that sell to the public mount incessant sales campaigns that demand everyone’s attention and participation as good American consumers. Since I’m a Bah! Humbug! sorta fellow, these expansive regions of the calendar take on the characteristics of a black hole, sucking everything into their gravity wells and crushing the life out of any honest sentiment left to cynics and curmudgeons like me. We’re in the midst of one such holiday span, and my inclination (beyond appreciating the time off from work) is to hide away from bustle and obligation. Nonetheless, I show up and participate in some small measure.

Here in Chicago, trains and buses going to the Loop (the downtown business district) are less heavily trafficked at rush hours for several days before the actual holiday. However, I suspect the Blue Line to O’Hare and the Orange Line to Midway are both quite busy with travelers on the move. This is traditionally the holiday when people visit family for feasting and afternoon naps (or football games, I’m told). I’ve braved air travel at this time only a couple times, which is more miserable than usual due to congestion and weather-related delays. My workplace was a ghost town not only on the eve of the holiday for days in advance. Is it only my memory is that the eves of Christmas and New Year’s Day used to be the only ones that were celebrated? Now many expect to be released early from work prior to any observed holiday. Again, this is a benefit not evenly shared across the population and one I do not take for granted.

Feeding and shopping frenzies associated with holidays are well established traditions. However, subtle shifts to the shopping side are occurring that signal either welcome change or dying tradition, depending on one’s perspective. For instance, in the past few years, it’s been customary to learn of shoppers cued outside various superstores who stampede, trample, and fight like barbarians once doors are flung open. That ugly prospect is apparently disappearing, at least according to this report, as shoppers move away from brick-and-mortar venues to online shopping. Still, one acquaintance of mine relished the chance to among those multitudes and joked about trampling others to score a great deal on a comforter.

Similarly, some recognize the ecological impact of overconsumption (related to overpopulation) and have called for a ban to Black Friday sales, and presumably, other perverse incentives. This second development fits my thinking as I’ve blogged repeatedly how we’re awash in refuse and debris from our own past consumption. Still, my e-mail inbox has been positively pummeled by those few retailers in possession of my address who preview their Black Friday sales for weeks beforehand then offer forgiveness and second chances afterwards. The stink of desperation is on them, as business news organs report that holiday sales account for an impressively large percentage of annual sales but are threatened by fewer shopping days between the two anchor holidays this year (Thanksgiving falls late in the month). While that may have its effect, I daresay the larger problem is income inequality and the absence of positive bank balances among an ever-growing segment of the population. Debit balances on credit cards have already fueled about as much overconsumption as most can stomach.

Does it truly feel like the “most wonderful time of the year” on reflection and honest assessment? There is still enjoyment to be had, certainly. But unless one is an innocent child protected from the harshness of reality or otherwise living under a rock, every holiday decoration is tinged with knowledge of excess and suspicion that this year may finally be the last one we enjoy fully before things spin out of control. For a couple others of my holiday-themed blog entries (less dour perhaps than this one), see this and this.

Robots are coming; we all know it. Frankly, for some implementations, they’re already here. For example, I recently took interest in robotic vacuums. I already have an upright vacuum with the usual attachments I push around on weekends, plus brooms and dustpans for hard, uncarpeted floors. But I saw a robotic vacuum in action and found myself considering purchasing something I knew existed but never gave thought to needing. All it took was watching one scuttling along the floor aimlessly, bumping harmlessly into furniture, to think perhaps my living experience would be modestly enhanced by passive clean-up while I’m out of the house — at least I thought so until I saw the price range extends from roughly $150 to $500. Surprised me, too, to see how crowded the marketplace is with competing devices from different manufacturers. Can’t rationalize the expense as a simple labor-saving device. The effort it replaces just isn’t that arduous.

Another robotic device caught my eye: the Gita cargo robot by Piaggio Fast Forward. I will admit that a stuff carrier for those with mobility issues might be a worthwhile device, much like Segway seemed like a relatively good idea to increase range for those with limited mobility — at least before such devices branched into self-balancing hoverboards and motorized scooters that now clog the sidewalks, create unnecessary hazards, and send thousands each year to emergency rooms with broken wrists (or worse). One of those little Gita buggers following able-bodied folks around seems to me the height of foolishness, not to mention laziness. The video review I saw (sorry, no link, probably outta date and based on a prototype) indicated that the Gita is not ready for prime time and requires the user to wear a camera/belt assembly for the Gita to track and follow its owner. Its limited capacity and operating duration between charges (yeah, another thing to plug in — sigh), plus its inability to negotiate doors effectively, makes it seem like more trouble that it’s worth for the hefty price of around $3,250.

Billed as a robot butler, the Gita falls well short of a Jetsons or Star Wars upright robot that’s able, for example, to execute commands and interact verbally. Maybe the Gita represents the first baby steps toward that envisioned future (or long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), but I rather doubt it. Moreover, we’re already irritatingly besieged by people face-planted in their phones. Who wants a future were others (let’s say half of the people we come into contact with in hallways, corridors, and parking lots) are attended by a robot cargo carrier or fully functioning robot butler? In the meantime, just like the Google Glass that was never adopted widely, anyone seen with a Gita trailing behind is a tool.