A few months ago my mother (thanks to the strange combination of her love for me and her somewhat Luddite-adjacent position in relation to contemporary information technology) looked my name up using the Yahoo! search engine. She found, much to our mutual surprise, an article written about a paper I gave at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in early 2012. I had never seen it before.
The piece appeared on the conservative Accuracy in Academia* web site. It lambasts my (albeit amateurish) paper, and me. Apparently I “indignantly claimed” some things. And, what’s worse, I wasn’t all that psyched about state and/or corporate surveillance. Nor was I celebratory enough of the liberating and happiness-producing capacity of the internet for concerned citizens who love capitalism and the police, naturally. And, for God’s sake, I did not take the language of a corporation’s promotional materials as a clear and honest delivery of their political, cultural and social commitment to the common good. Oh, and I didn’t talk enough about literature. Because: disciplinary boundaries.
Accuracy in Academia “wants schools to return to their traditional mission-the quest for truth.”** And they’re worried about what young, radical intellectuals like me might mean for the future of our country. To go after this lofty goal, the organization claims to “expose political bias.”
Just so you know, I gave the paper on a panel devoted to trends in Marxist thought. And, while I take Accuracy in Academia’s scathing review of my work as a badge of honor, I think I was chosen as the target (despite being the only graduate student on the bill) because my paper was considerably lighter and more digestible to outsider audiences than the exceptionally rigorous and densely theoretical works offered by my fellow, far more seasoned and respected panelists.
If it weren’t for Yahoo! (and my mom), I’d never have seen this thing. It doesn’t show up on a Google search of my name for pages.*** I’m not sure if its existence is good or bad for my nascent academic career, but its burial deep in the internet jungle does give me some hope that conservative, anti-intellectualism veiled as civic, pro-education activism doesn’t hold as much purchase in the American political landscape (or at least its virtual info-scape) as many of us often worry that it does.
I also take from this happenstance discovery that you never really know all of the magical machinations of your public presence. Because: Interwebs!
*I love this organization’s name. I’d liken it to some of my favorite super pac titles: “Endorse Liberty,” “FreedomWorks,” and the Romney-loving “Restore Our Future.”
**Um. Yeeeah. Okay. Simple.
***Speaking of academic explorations: I’d really like to know what Lacan would think about what has to be a somewhat common compulsion, sometimes motivated by paranoia, to Google one’s own name.+
+I’m officially coining the term ‘autogoogle’ for this act. The gerund: autogoogling.
A recent article in the New York Times reported Cleveland’s apparently successful efforts of to revitalize its downtown real estate market. The theater district, Playhouse Square, is at the center of the narrative that both the Times and the local press seem to be telling about the city’s emerging renaissance. It has taken nearly 30 years and over 55 million dollars to produce the new economic and aesthetic landscape downtown. This May, the district plans to unveil the final touches on its lengthy redesign process. Among them will be the largest, permanent outdoor chandelier in the known world.* According to Cleveland.com, “This 20-foot-tall, awe-inspiring work will be adorned with 4,200 crystals in the style of the grand chandeliers in the theater lobbies. It will hang over the intersection of East 14th Street and Euclid Avenue.”
Whatever your position on the development models Cleveland has used to help recreate its urban center, it certainly was something the city required. Empty skyscrapers and deserted downtown streets do not bode well for anyone in the city. And, as exemplified by the struggles of Detroit, it could have been, well, scary.
What I wonder, though, is what sort of story the revamped Playhouse Square itself tells the broader population of Cleveland, and indeed, the world with its peculiar aesthetic. The chandelier is perhaps the most garish of its urban signs. As the language used by Cleveland.com suggests, the project gestures toward the imagined good old days of the industrial revolution. Big money was spent on art and culture in Cleveland and its surrounding cities in what was then known as the Steel belt. Clevelanders are still fond of referring to the long stretch of road through the cultural gardens as “Rockefeller’s driveway.” Because, it was. Millionaire’s Row was home to wealthy denizens of the industrial age and they helped found, fund and develop some of Cleveland’s most well-regarded cultural institutions. But Rockefeller left the city in a fly-by-night escape from taxation. And the stretch of Euclid all those millionaires once occupied has certainly changed its shape in the years since they (and many others) fled to Cleveland Heights and other suburbs.
The development corporations are, perhaps, not the best folks to offer public art that might more dynamically engage Cleveland and its history. But I do wonder why a city which was so devastated by the collapse of the industrial economy would be so excited about a public display glorifying exactly that long-gone source of wealth.
With an estimated 34.2% of the city’s residents living below the poverty line,** Cleveland’s enormous chandelier might also be read as a mask for its ongoing failure to address the needs of its working-class and working-poor citizens. It connotes a kind of luxury the vast majority of Clevelanders have no chance of attaining, and the rejuvenated downtown real estate market means, too, that such people will not be enjoying the view from city-center apartments.
I’m not saying I don’t like chandeliers, or theater, or all the perks of neighborhood redesign and gentrification.*** I am, however, suggesting that a serious critique of public art is necessary because such promotional constructions do cultural work. They function in the urban sign system to make meanings that are sold and consumed by locals and outsiders alike. Highlighting ironies, arguing for and against installations, marking the ways urban stories are told to begin with: this too can do cultural work. And perhaps it won’t do much for the real estate market, but imagine what it could do for the future of urban planning and, thus, for the future of your city, our city; the future of the city.
* I am so not kidding.
**This percentage, estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau, is for Cleveland proper. It does not include the technically separate municipality of East Cleveland where the poverty rate is estimated at nearly 40%.
***Full disclosure: I happen to have a chandelier hanging in my mudroom. It’s true. It’s also true that it’s made of plastic. I live in a gentrified neighborhood in Cleveland and I love it. I also go to Playhouse Square, a lot, to see plays and eat at the new restaurants and wander the streets. These facts do not, I think, diminish my capacity to think about the greater consequences of the sources of some of my quotidian pleasures.
Kind and gentle readers, comrades, friends!
The play of this oddly warm Midwestern day is a little bar called Now That’s Class.
Don’t let the name fool you. NTC (as I have decided to refer to it throughout this post, and in my Cleveland life more generally–unless someone stops me) is a dive. It’s a good, old, punk-rock drinking hole that sometimes hosts the last of the truly misanthropic rockers on its two small stages.
The place is covered in vulgar and political graffiti (which is awesome, though I was sad to learn that the space, a former gay bar, once had life-sized paintings of naked men on its walls now lost to visitors). There’s a make-shift half-pipe in one of its two rooms that is very clearly loved and well-used by the skater set. NTC also boasts a dilapidated back patio and a stream of rabble-rousing regulars who drink on the cheap and bring joy (or, my guess is, sometimes discomfort and possibly bodily injury) to patrons.
I showed up after a Browns game this Sunday for a beer and was wowed by the blaring Cleveland hip-hop and the welcoming if by-then meager crowd.* I was also wowed by the beer selection in the joint. And the devil-may-care aesthetics. This kind of place could not exist anywhere else quite like it does in Cleveland.
Here’s to punk-rockers, ne’er-do-wells, and ironically named dive bars. Here’s to Cleveland!
*I suspect that the gathering in this local haunt would have been considerably larger had the Browns won the game. Football, as far as I can tell, is a religion here. And, as with many, the faith inspires intense devotion and sometimes, especially in Cleveland, a lot of suffering. Its epiphanic moments, however, appear to be worth the otherwise excruciating passion Clevelanders go through for their teams.
All urban centers are filled with dwellers and visitors just about to depart. It is, partly, the constant population flux that makes cities compelling to explore, to live in, to pass through. Los Angeles has its own very particular place in the global landscape as a city of flows. People come and breath the smoggy stuff of it in. They love it or hate it or nestle into an ambivalence about it. Then life interferes and sends them meandering elsewhere. They leave. Or, sometimes, they stay. Either way these movements change the city, and in turn, make it the sort of strange and compelling ecology that transforms those who move within it.
I am, alas, quickly nearing my departure from Los Angeles. There is very little conflict in my feeling about this city. I adore it. I swoon. I am drunk with love for Los Angeles. But leave it, I must.
I’m Cleveland bound, dear readers. And that may mean for you more exciting and exploratory posts. For me, it means an adventure and a mourning. I already feel the terrible weight of this loss. Los Angeles is the city of my coming of a certain age, the city that housed my least bearable sorrows and served as harbor for my most brilliant joys.
Los Angeles is a city that must be sick with the trite, the inadequate ways I and many (and better*) writers before me could list its gifts. Those who have named its faults (and there have been many**) did so with sometimes vicious and intentional, sometimes naive myopia. The city responded to both with equal indifference. She*** will treat me as she did them. If there is any feeling that might come for her in response to my departure, it will be, at most, a negligible sorrow.
Ohio calls. And many other places call many other Angelenos, and would-be Angelenos, and passers-through and by. When those calls come, Los Angeles mocks them. Or at least she seems to for me. She glistens in the sun. She whispers about her mild winters and lets maps to her secret corners unfurl on the desk. She coyly offers a picture of just what a bitch she will be if you really do leave her. I am a sucker for her charms in just the way an itinerant urbanite would be. I’m sure that as soon as I really walk out the door I will be filled with regret that I did. I’ll pay for leaving.
But such are the manic loves offered by the lovers of cities, and such are the cities worthy of such ridiculous, impossible loves.
Los Angeles will be for me, perhaps always, the city that got away. In fact she might be such for most visitors, for most native-born, even for those still held in her particular, bizarre embrace. She is a city a heart can love until it breaks. Unknowable but familiar, she returns affection only partially. Sprawling, traffic-clogged, imperfect—magical.
I just may spend my life wanting desperately to return.
Take me back, someday, Los Angeles. Please.****
*Reyner Banham was a lover of Los Angeles, more faithful than most. To name just one.
**Nathanael West did not, it seems, really love Los Angeles. He did not suffer from the myopia to which I refer but he wrote poor Todd Hackett and Homer Simpson into being so that they seem only able to view, if lustfully, the awful, the violent, the wretched phenomenon of the city as it was.
***I struggled with choosing the gender in my anthropomorphization of the city. I settled on this particular pronoun not because I in any way support the tropes that perform in our language what translates in our culture to the asymmetrical distribution of power by gender, but because the depth and breadth of my love for Los Angeles is the sort I have felt in my life far more often for women than for men. I trust you, dear visitors, to read it thusly.
****I recognize that this post takes itself and its prose too seriously. So be it. I am serious about loving Los Angeles.
Um. So. Yeah. From this day forth, please refer to me as Dr. Itinerant Me.
That is all. For now. Allow me to recover from this milestone and the jobless abyss into which I now must wade. Posts, I promise, will follow.
In the last weeks, time seemed multiplied by a feeling of no longer being there and of living Santa Barbara each day, with its fatal charm and its blandness, as the predestined site of an eternal return. –Jean Baudrillard*
In Santa Barbara (where I have, over the past month or so, been holed up in one final push to finish my dissertation) my days are a numbered bunch. They’re not usually very kind to me either. The water along the coast is still just cold enough to make the first leap in a quick and numbing experience, though indeed refreshing. The 7-year-long trajectory of my life in and out of the city is inscribed in it and as I near the end, those markers seem unusually plump with nastiness. Cloying, unpleasant moments live on corners when I might rather see them rotting, buried in the trash heap of forgotten history. And of course, there is the morning marine layer, which makes it hard to wake at an early hour. Paradise, they say. But those who say that never really lived here. Paradise is always just for the tourists.
Many of what will likely be my last stretches of time here are spent laboring in the awkward, existentially obliterating task of begging and pleading with whatever dying muse might be left to tend to the poor, the jobless, the potentially obsolete humanities graduate student.
These sorts of things do not put one, shall we say, in the mood to celebrate a merry send-off.
But nostalgia is a real jerk. He sets traps. He lets you suffer in the present only to turn that suffering with just a little bit of time into longing and melancholy, albeit longing and melancholy tinged with a certain, desperate and (usually) false sort of pleasure. And cities, places of all sorts, are ripe sites for his dangerous play. I can see him circling now, even before the departure has taken place. He’s going to make me miss it.
Do not let any of this grimly insist that Santa Barbara is some kind of awful wasteland and that I’ll be a fool when I remember it fondly (though it can be, and I will be). I do so love the beaches, the mountains that push the city toward the water. The community of scholars with whom I’ve shared the city are a kind and glorious group. It’s just not a place to which I have ever wanted to belong.
In these last days I’m doing what I can to push away both the impending nostalgia as well as the less kind and generous voices in my head and just enjoy, in the present, the slices of Santa Barbara which still buoy a resident up and make the place inhabitable: Reading on the beach. The best restaurant in the whole of the central coast, Julienne. Handlebar Coffee. Citrus trees everywhere. And a quietness, a slowness that makes the banal tasks of life just a little bit easier.
Leaving a city is always a strange and complicated act. Like leaving a lover. Even when you know the whole thing should be over, has been over for a long time, you still ache in the send-off. Maybe because you know, in the end, despite everything, you’re going miss her.
*America. Trans. Chris Turner. (New York: Verso, 1988) 72.
…”thus, in Alton Locke: ‘They rowed her in across the rolling foam–/the cruel crawling foam.’
The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind which attributes to it these characteristics of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief.”…*
In the late afternoon yesterday I stopped into Cafecito Organico for a shot of espresso with a sparkling water back.** The barista asked me if I was enjoying the weather. I said I was (one enjoys anything alternative to 75 and sunny as ‘weather’ in Los Angeles and the last two days have been hot, muggy and overcast. The heavy air is still and breathing it in takes effort. It feels like smoking). The barista replied, “me too. But, you know, this is earthquake weather.”
I did not know, in fact.
I conferred with my friend who, once also incredulous, told me that her husband had heard the same thing from a colleague: “earthquake weather.” Shortly after this colleague finished explaining the phenomenon (and I’ve checked with the source) an earthquake did, in fact, occur. The long joke for all those present for the event had something to do with being burned at the stake. But, apparently, such a thing as earthquake weather exists. And might, at least if colloquial knowledge could tell it, be a good way to know when the next big shake is coming.
Today no major seismic activity was registered. But there were shifts in the world, as there always must be. Some of them were mine alone.*** It felt very much as though the weather served as my warning for a few rough moments I had to work my way through. And, for this reason, it occurred to me that earthquake weather, like the other very Angeleno phenomenon known as the Santa Anas, might be this city’s particular sort of metaphysics, our own cult prophet: meteorological forecast as horoscope.
I am not the first to wonder about the very specific pathetic fallacy of Los Angeles. One might characterize a good chunk of the literature that has come out of this strange metropolis as devoted to exactly that aesthetic. L.A. noir, in particular, is full of dark and stormy nights personified, made alive to match the trouble brewing in a character or two.
The world we make of this city, perhaps because so many of us believe ourselves to be the center of it in one way or another, is one in which the wind and the rain, the heat, anything that shapes the light and temperature of the vast sprawl we call home, might be an omen of our own personal disasters or triumphs.
I like this about Los Angeles. It would be nice, though, if once in a while all the good weather that we don’t notice portended better things–if the vast majority of 75 and sunny days were communally read as an indication of nicer, kinder moments to come.
*John Ruskin, Modern Painters Vol. III. 1901 (pg. 156).
**This is how espresso should always be served, by the way. And if you’re in Los Angeles and in need, Cafecito is indeed the place to have a good shot pulled.
***I would tell you all about it but, come on, this is the Internet. What kind of media scholar would I be if I really believed in privacy and ‘social’ media as unproblematically co-extant?+
+But don’t worry. I’m well. The rough moments were navigable and I escaped only slightly scathed.