Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Book Selections of the Month: The Renaissance, Luddites, ACSH, and Elf Girl

This month marks the 200th anniversary of the actual Luddite riots – which, it is worth recalling, were not inspired by a conservative aversion to technological progress but by ostensibly pro-worker forces wanting to prevent competition from mechanization.  That sort of thinking is with us still, especially among unions – though present in subtler form among, for instance, those who take the financial crisis as evidence regulators should forbid all novel financial instruments (or among left-anarchist David Graeber fans who want to abolish currency – but more about him in a future entry).

I have been mocked over the years for being pro-tech in principle yet slow to adopt technology in practice, only this year getting broadband Internet at home, cable TV, Facebook, Twitter, and a cell phone, believe it or not, but, like a chimpanzee suddenly returned to the wild, except in reverse, I seem to have taken to them quite naturally and now have 400+ “friends” (almost all of them actual friends, too), 350+ followers (not necessarily actually followers, alas), and a bloody trail of 1,200+ tweets (none of which implies I’m switching to Google+).

To commemorate the grim 200th Luddite anniversary, though: here are ten notable texts related to the ongoing tension between progress and preservation of the ancient ways:

1. Four years from this month is the fictional date on which the Replicants from Blade Runner are supposedly activated – a reminder that when Ridley Scott does his planned Blade Runner prequel in 2014, it might be cool if instead of setting it vaguely in “the future” he just set it in the present, with all the postmodern and metafictional implications that would bring.  Just try to depict our world, as much as is possible, as logically of a piece with the high-tech, computerized, postmodern, dystopian, biotech-filled fictional 2019 of the original film (and maybe throw in some excuse for overnight transformation such as a revolution in nanotech, I suppose).

2. Similarly, I think the time may have come to reinvent the cyberpunk subgenre of sci-fi (big in the 90s and usually depicting near-future implications of media and computer tech) so that it is now a “retro” genre like steampunk but depicting a higher-tech version of the 1990s instead of a higher-tech version of the Victorian era.  That should confuse the future people but good.

3. Wearing elf ears and lacing one’s performance art and comedic essays with references to magic is certainly one way of harkening back to an imagined more-idyllic past – and, done ironically, that’s an element of one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, the memoir Elf Girl by my acquaintance Rev. Jen. 

About two years younger than I am, Rev. Jen in some ways sounds typical of the Gen Xers I’ve known in media circles here in NYC, except most of the others don’t have the gumption to brush themselves off after, say, art school professors dismiss their stop-motion animation films about Metallica-loving unicorns with mullets, or audiences boo their performance as fart-noise-makers wearing feces-shaped costumes, and say: I don’t need the stuffy art world’s approval because I’m going to go create my own alternate universe where art is fun and sometimes juvenile (fittingly, Hole’s lyrics “I don’t really miss God, but I sure miss Santa Claus” from “Gutless” are her opening epigram) and all my friends are in my movies and I have a Chihuahua named Rev. Jen Jr. that sort of looks like me and notoriously copious amounts of beer (and some psychedelics) are consumed and there’s occasional nudity and my apartment is turned into a Troll Museum full of plastic trolls to which I charge tourists admission.

But this, in effect, is Rev. Jen’s message to the art world elite (I’m paraphrasing), and as a bar-event-hosting man with a comic book collection, naturally I agree.  You can’t blame Gen X for wanting its art playful.  We came of age with videos like this (and I think Jen herself directed this rock video about New York by her friend Moby, with fitting guest vocals by Debbie Harry).  The more I think about it, the funnier it is that I pitted the happily-trashy Rev. Jen against the classy and poised novelist Katherine Taylor in a Lolita Bar debate a few years ago (much as I adore them both). 

Rev. Jen (who just mail-ordered her ordination, by the way) manages to be very funny by just being very uncomplicatedly concrete and matter of fact but about very odd things, such as her roommate not being impressed by the painting she did of a kitten riding a unicorn and later physically attacking her and giving her brain damage.  And she does it all without being too downbeat, pretentious, or unwarrantedly philosophical.  If you read this, you’ll also get cameos by notorious New York eccentrics who Jen’s dated, including activist, mayoral candidate, and mayor-annoyer Chris Brodeur (who once wrote me a letter calling me a “tomatohead” and apparently is sometimes far harder to deal with) and mysteriously non-aging punk filmmaker Nick Zedd. 

In the end, you’ll fall in love with Rev. Jen as well, even if you’re frightened that being around her might mean a police raid or drunken brawl of some sort is imminent.  And she’s friends with that guy who danced insanely behind Bob Dylan at a performance with the words “SOY BOMB” written on his torso. 

4. And that logically brings us to the Renaissance:
Justin Shubow suggested I read Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, which is an interesting nineteenth-century testament to the perversity and violence – but also the fecundity – of Renaissance Italy.  Nietzsche apparently admired Burckhardt, which makes sense.  Both were prone to see big-souled, creative people as too busy to be troubled about things like bad behavior – though Burckhardt was far more morally conventional, chastising the Renaissance princes and aristocrats for their murders and court intrigues and for their vast array of superstitions.

Don’t let anyone get away with the claim that skepticism about mainstream religion inevitably leads to other ad hoc superstitions, though: Burckhardt mentions that it was an admirably skeptical and scientific book by Pico della Mirandola that really put the kibosh on the Renaissance interest in astrology.  He carefully kept track of the astrologers’ predictions and showed that horoscopes fared no better than random chance in making any clear predictions – a lesson many neurotic, meaning-seeking New Yorkers have not absorbed to this day.  In the case of the Renaissance Italians, they actually took the scientific lesson to heart, and the astrology fad quickly faded.  (We need not merely choose between rival forms of stupidity – something worth keeping in mind in political debates as well.)

I do not, of course, applaud the Renaissance practice of murdering professional prophets who made particularly dire predictions about specific public figures (murders inspired more by the offense than by the inaccuracy of the predictions) – though I might be more willing than some libertarians to see bogus prophets sued for their ineptitude or in some cases prosecuted for fraud.

(Gotta wonder how much less decadent our own present-day elites are, by the way, what with things like renewed suspicion that Robert Wagner may’ve murdered Natalie Wood.  We shouldn’t leap to conclusions...though knowing that Christopher Walken was on hand doesn’t make that whole fatal evening seem less creepy, somehow.)

5. My skepticism needn’t prevent me from appreciating Renaissance art inspired by supernatural claims, of course – nor things like an amazing stained-glass window depicting the Michelin Man (seen in the photo above) that I visited at the Museum of Modern Art two decades ago, along with fellow Brown University libertarians Michael Young and Michelle Boardman, who later helped me retrieve a giant cardboard Michelin Man from the Brown Bookstore when they were done with it so that I could continue worshiping this cartoony being as is his due.  He is now but a blimpy, non-threatening cartoon character but decades ago, believe it or not, was depicted as a loin cloth-wearing, kickboxing, cigar-smoking, beer-drinking (drinking associated with driving!) titan, thus worthy of the irono-modernist giant window treatment.  

It’s a combo of new and old not so unlike the (far classier) “car-goyles” (I think I coined that) atop the Chrysler Building, which simultaneously resemble medieval gargoyles and hood ornaments.

6. Skepticism may even enhance my enjoyment of things like my friend Lilit Marcus’s religion blog, Faith Goes Pop, on the Patheos site.

7. Much as I would prefer to see Ron Paul surprise everyone and win Iowa in January (and then become president a year later), I will concede that Newt Gingrich, for all his grievous flaws, is himself an interesting combo of old-fashioned conservatism and nerdy futurism.  We could do worse.

8. Perhaps he’d listen to my old co-workers at the American Council on Science and Health, who are making a renewed effort to draw attention to the irrational chemophobia underlying pro-regulatory pushes by groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council.  I don’t know that anyone is fighting back against Luddites on a daily basis the way ACSH is (their report Chemophobia Cluster at the Natural Resources Defense Council is downloadable here, and an op-ed about it is here). 

9. Ghost towns are a neat window into the past – though the stories of how some of these ghost towns were created are a bit shameful: tales of inefficiency and plans gone awry.  The tale of the recent one in my own old home state of Connecticut is particularly infuriating. 

10. So, I read the Amazon description of a book called Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium: Hume’s Pathology of Philosophy and think, “Hey, this sounds very relevant to some of my lamentations and philosophical interests – I think I’ll order it even if the author’s some kinda Marxist professor or something.”  Only later do I read the Wikipedia entry about the author, Donald Livingston, and realize he’s obviously a paleoconservative and probably even knows some of my acquaintances.  See, I try to explore, but sometimes there is no escape. 

Do I still order it, or do I now know what his whole shtick is?  I probably do.  Really must expand my horizons.


Franklin said...

1. I was intrigued by the Rev Jen book, which has a helpful blurb by Neil Gaiman, until I saw the totally off-putting blurb by Janeane Garofalo.

2. You mean the other recommended titles at Amazon for the Donald Livingston book didn't give away that he's a paleocon?

3. Lana Wood, Natalie Wood's younger sister, played Plenty O'Toole in "Diamonds Are Forever." Plenty ends up drowned in the swimming pool of Tiffany Case, played by Jill St. John, who, a decade after Natalie's drowning, would marry Robert Wager. None of which means anything, actually.

Todd Seavey said...

Not coincidentally, I see one book he's edited is an anthology, out next month, of essays on secession as a solution for America's current political tensions...

_Rethinking the American Union for the Twenty-First Century

...a notion to which I allude in subtler, briefer fashion in my Nov. 30 blog entry today. They're crazy for these notions down there in Alabama, I hear.

(By the way, I note Grant Morrison, if memory serves, also said in his recent book that Alabama has a lot of stocky, bespectacled, funny genre-nerds, of whom he thinks Mark Waid is a typical example -- and this would explain a few people I've met, such as J.R. Taylor and Waid himself, hesitant though I am to declare anything a trend based on so few data points.)