Play of the day

I am currently trying to eek out the last, resistant concluding paragraphs of my dissertation at a bar called ‘The Faculty‘ in East Hollywood (this particular section of which is apparently referred to by locals as Hel Mel because of the small collection of businesses at the intersection of Heliotrope and Melrose).

It is not lost on me that cities, as much because of the way they name their neighborhoods, their streets, their addresses, offer a kind of poetic license to the wanderer. We make our own fictions just by choosing our route through their strange and glorious linguistic ecologies. So I, jobless would-be professor, work at ‘The Faculty’ though I lack, alas, work as faculty.


Of car culture and primal screams

Much has been written on the atomising nature of car culture in Los Angeles. All of us (who can afford it) ferrying ourselves to and fro on the wide network of freeways that cover the sprawl–isolated in our capsular space, shuttling forward at high speeds (or, given the traffic, at virtually no speed)–are said to be without a public space any longer, without even a notion of our neighbors. Our fellow Angelenos, so close yet still so far away from us, are themselves isolated inside, captured, really, by their cocoons of metal and steel and rubber.

I agree, for the most part. The automobile, and more-so, the automobile industry has made this city a network, has collapsed the center and spilled what remained of its guts in all directions, morphing LA into a labyrinth of commerce devoted to the isolated spender with a big trunk. Car culture has bulldozed and forgotten what was once a functional trolley system. It has, too, brought with it a near-constant cloud of cancerous pollution which weighs heavy in the air on hot days and seems always to specifically target the poor and the marginalized, the communities built up against the complex of freeways for whom car ownership is less and less possible. As ubiquitous as it is, it denies access still to exactly those who pay the largest price for its excesses.

But one hates to ignore, at least I hate to ignore, something compelling, something common in our not-so-new, ever-mobile cybernetic selves. Even when we can in the same breath critique the automobile (certainly LA’s most emblematic, if not its most common cybernetic appendage) and its impact on the production of the city, might we too find something of value in it? That human thing, as I see it, might just be the total release such strangely fashioned, such costly privacy affords us drivers in a city that belongs not to drivers but to cars.

Every once in a while I like to test this theory of mine out. Usually simply by singing, loudly, along with the music playing on my car’s quickly failing radio. But sometimes, to maximize effect and highlight in the extreme the kind of solitude a car can provide, I scream.

I roll down all of the windows and scream as loudly and for as long as my lungs allow. It’s a habit I picked up in college when I was first learning the freeways. It felt at the time like a way of marking space in a city that is under constant self-erasure. Now that I know Los Angeles well, or at least well enough that even in its continuous transformation and re-fashioning it feels like a city to which I belong, the screaming just feels good. Or if not good, it at least always feels.

That, in the end, is sublime. And it is also the stuff of connective tissues between us, post-human and machinic though we may be. Maybe no-one hears me literally screaming past at 70 miles per hour. But they don’t have to. Because once in a while I bet some other driver, in their very own strange shell, is probably screaming too.

“Traffic is Junkspace,” writes Rem Koolhaas, “from airspace to the subway; the entire highway system is Junkspace, a vast potential utopia clogged by its users, as you notice when they’ve finally disappeared on vacation …”* I think maybe the utopic on the highway is indeed clarified by a kind of absence. But even on packed highway, utopia as the someday Los Angeles comes as all no-places (which are perpetually absent, after all), all would-be places that are not yet but still might impossibly be, come. It comes as hope in the form of some kind of speech, some sign-making. Perhaps particularly in the animal universal of one long, loud, zooming primal scream.

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*Rem Koolhaas, “Junkspace,” October Vol. 100 ‘Obsolescence’ (Spring 2002) pg. 180.


On "Letter to a Young Lady in Paris"

I am teaching a course this summer on junk. I consider the term broadly. So does Thierry Bardini, whose exceptional Junkware was the inspiration for my syllabus, in a round about sort of way.

Yesterday my students and I discussed Julio Cortázar’s “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris.” And, may I say, this story is absolutely wonderful.

Cortázar is deceptively inviting to teach. His bizarre, perfectly wrought short stories beckon because you know, for the most part, that students will adore him and the dark and complex, surreal worlds he produces. But his work, because of his nearly unparalleled erudition and critical, formal radicality, can sometimes produce classroom conversations that are difficult to direct.

It’s always, though, worth the effort.

And besides, when the main character in the text you’re teaching has the peculiar problem of vomiting up baby bunnies,* you’re guaranteed to engage your students. You’re also guaranteed to take great pleasure in re-reading the work–again and again and again.

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*If this isn’t an exceptional metaphor for all kinds of things, I don’t know what is. Why it hasn’t made its way into popular lexicon is beyond me. Think about what it could offer to our thirsty ears: “Oh man, Alli sure is vomiting up the proverbial bunny.”


On quiet Berlin and the gifts and prohibitions of public space

I loved Berlin. I loved the S-bahn and U-bahn systems (as poorly mapped as they are by the city). I loved German beer and German wine, German food markets. I loved the Berlin hipsters and German typographical design. I could live, I think, forever in Berlin.

I am not sure if the city itself and its particular histories offers this experience to all who travel there, or if it was my own thinking, but it seemed a city devoted to the prohibitions and affordances of urban (and otherwise) space. There is, of course, ‘the wall’ and all it did and did not do, all its remaining traces in the city. These are visible. Where it once stood is marked on and off again throughout the city in various forms. Sometimes a piece of it still stands. Sometimes its former position is noted as would be the division between traffic lanes–a line below you that you cross with or without noticing.

There is also a relationship Berlin seems to have with space, with architecture and with urban planning, that is unusual in the travel I have done elsewhere. Such diverse building styles, so much space devoted to the public, so many ways to navigate…

The first full day I spent in the city I went to the Hamburger Bahnhof where, in addition to an incredible exhibit of the relationship between fine art and architecture (Architektonika 2) there was a large room devoted to Anthony McCall’s work, Five Minutes of Pure Sculpture. I have no interest in describing the pieces (because I could not do them justice) except to stay that you feel what they are doing to you and to the space around you in a way unlike any other sculptural works I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.

Later in the week I also spent some time wandering in the Tiergarten–a park which beats Central Park in New York City and Griffith Park in Los Angeles by epic strides.

I visited the Bauhaus Archive, a Gropius-designed building, constructed posthumously and in a space he did not intend but which none-the-less houses one of the nicest special collections I’ve come across. Klee, Maholy-Nagy, Mies Van der Rohe, Breuer–all are present in the archive as artists in process more than they are as authors, monoliths.

Finally, the biergarten. Germans, despite what must be very cold winters, know how to drink outdoors. And they know how to do it with delicious sausages. I could spend every summer afternoon in a biergarten if the company was right. We went to this one: Schleusen Krug. Next to the Zoo. We saw some idle donkeys on the way in.

All of these travels through the city, and many more I took in the five days I spent in there, were made more potent by the fact that Berlin seemed always to be functioning in a hush. Even in crowds and on main drags it felt quiet, warm.

Let me close by saying (it really has to be said): Ich bin ein Berliner!*

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*I’ve been told that this most globally known of quotations is inaccurate. JFK apparently accidentally said “I am a doughnut.” But that would work, for the purposes of this blog, too. Berliners love their doughnuts. They are, in my experience, delicious.


Play of the day

I struggle with my writerly voice, dear readers. This fact, I am sure, will surprise none of you but it is an important piece of context for the play of the day.

I sent an evite today for an anti-Valentine’s day party I am throwing. This is a somewhat trite sort of soiree, I’m aware, but a good excuse for cocktails among friends should never be wasted. The play after which this post is titled is as follows: I think there are two genres I’ve mastered, the corporate memo (I was famous for them at my pre-graduate school job in journalism. All very tongue in cheek without pissing off management*) and the evite. The ‘message from host’ section of my invitation for this February gathering may be my best work yet.

If you desire the actual copy on this and are not among those in Los Angeles invited, you’ll have to e-mail me directly. It’s morbidly funny and mildly profane and thus I hesitate to post it herein. Let it be known that it involved three footnotes, a Sartre reference, and the phrase ‘heart you.’ God bless the beautiful disaster that our socio-linguistic ecology has offered us all.

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*Such memos included corporate jargon of my own invention and, at least in one case, bear trainers at the then-visiting circus.


Of the parlance of Isla Vista

I apologize, oh comrades of mine, for the long lapse since my last post. I have been busy gathering the material for what follows, however, and hope that you will find it both edifying and thrilling.

I am currently teaching a course on what I like to call “techno-dystopias” in the literature of the Americas. I thoroughly enjoy teaching this course and you might thoroughly enjoy taking it (or at least reading the material) but the added bonus of this little endeavor has to do with a very tiny but powerful part of this particular portion of the northerly Americas, a kind of techno-dystopia all its own: Isla Vista.

Isla Vista, or ‘I.V.’ as those in the know like to call it,  is the home to some ungodly number of undergraduate students attending the University of California, Santa Barbara. This is where, as you might know, I happen to be teaching. Isla Vista is known primarily for its proximity to the beach and its bacchanalian excess (Halloween has become so fantastically debaucherous that the town is cut off by the police from traffic traveling in or out–it becomes an island of co-ed cavorting during this special holiday). It is less known, unfortunately, as the hotbed of creative linguistic production and creativity that it certainly is.

I try very hard to learn the parlance of my students and to employ their sometimes fantastic language in my discussions with them. I like to think of myself as the layman’s linguistic anthropologist. I doubt weather I command anything like ‘insider’ status in this ethnographic study of mine, but I do what I can. And just this very week a new term was brought into my ever expanding I.V. vocabulary: ‘creepin’.

My class and I were discussing Adolfo Bioy-Casares’ glorious novella, La Invención de Morel. (It is a beautiful book and I strongly recommend it.) I asked my students if they still employed the term ‘crush’ to describe amorous desires directed from afar at someone. They said that perhaps, yes, this term was still functional but that the novella’s protagonist could more accurately be described as ‘creepin” on the object of his misguided affections. ‘Creepin’,’ they explained, is when one (you guessed it) creepily behaves towards his beloved, but not quite as creepily as a stalker might. The term is used pejoratively, as far as I can tell, but offers a kind of nuance that ‘stalking’ and ‘crushing’ lack. One who ‘creeps’ is not likely engaged in any kind of criminal activity, but his or her behavior merits some critical attention. A commonly employed expression, according to my research, is ‘don’t go creepin’ on her/him/them.’

This may be my favorite of the terms I’ve picked up over the years in the presence of I.V. residents. A very close second would be ‘kick-back.’ I discovered this word two years ago when I asked my students at the time if ‘a keg-party’ was something that still went on among the co-ed set. Nope. One goes to a ‘kick-back,’ a party where people ‘hang-out’ and drink alcohol, usually but not always provided by the host. Another good one: ‘the business.’ This last term refers not to an actual organization devoted to the making of profit but rather to something good, broadly speaking. As in “that style is the business,” or “the UC regents’ decision to raise tuition while students are on summer break and thus less likely to protest is not the business.”*

I should point out of course that, as with all dynamic dialects, fluctuation is frequent. It is very hard to pinpoint the moments when expressions disappear to be replaced with newly developed terms. I wouldn’t recommend heading into Isla Vista this weekend and asking if you could ‘creep’ on a potential mate at a ‘kick-back’ somewhere. I have all too often been reminded of my age and peripheral social status when I have attempted to employ the terms of my audience.

Needless to say I have only just begun to penetrate the unimaginable linguistic depths of I.V. But I vow to continue in my labors, incomplete though they may be. You may expect future updates forthwith.

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*This, indeed, is both an example taken from my research and, very sadly, true. I was particularly pleased with the expression, however, because it seemed to point out both how horrible the state of public education is in California and because it indicated in a sort of punning way how wretched it is when what should be a state-funded public service becomes a would-be-corporation.


Of the mean streets of Santa Barbara, CA

Oh readers of mine, dearest followers of my long and lovely journeys, I shall now take you to the strange and vacuous land I’m currently calling home: Santa Barbara, California.

Jean Baudrillard once wrote of this odd place: “Santa Barbara is a paradise; Disneyland is a paradise; the U.S. is a paradise. Paradise is just paradise. Mournful, monotonous, and superficial though it may be, it is paradise. There is no other.”*

And here, in this mournful little slice of the paradise pie, I find myself.

I read somewhere that in Mexico City the streets, if you wander through them correctly, can lead you as readily through an impromptu poetry as they can through the city. In Santa Barbara, at least in the neighborhood I’m currently calling home, it’s poetry too, of the sadistic, mocking genre.

I assume it was white people who named the streets here, ignorant of the meanings of the Spanish names they chose. But it’s entirely possible that someone in the know wanted to mark some of the violent histories wrought by the makers of the American West. Either way, you have to wonder if you should heed the advice that is offered on Salsipuedes Street (in English, ‘get out if you can’). I’m also a big fan of Quarantina Steet (you guessed it, ‘quarantine’ in my native tongue). Perhaps they passed out the small-pox infested blankets on one of the now nearly deserted corners of this winding way. Then, of course, is Indio Muerto Steet. I’m not translating that one for you.

I myself live, appropriately, on the less morbidly but certainly melancholically named Soledad Street (‘solitude’ or ‘loneliness’ depending on its context).

Hard to say what any of this means but I’ve chosen to take it as the universe telling me I’d be happier in Mexico City. Or Buenos Aires. Or pretty much anywhere but here. But hey, sometimes you don’t choose your paradise. Sometimes it chooses you. And I’m happy in the knowledge that this particular utopia is on the beach, and in the knowledge that unlike a very large number of indios that once roamed in these parts, I might have a shot at escaping for weekends in L.A.

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*Baudrillard, Jean. America. London: Verso, 2010.