Archive for August, 2006

Half Life

Thursday, August 31st, 2006

Shelley Jackson‘s Half Life is a dazzling and amazing book — the first print novel by the author of the hypertext fictions Patchwork Girl and My Body, the short story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy, and the short story “Skin,” which is being tattooed one word at a time on the skin of volunteers (also see here).

Half Life is ostensibly, or overtly, about a pair of conjoined twins, Nora and Blanche Olney, who have separate heads but share a single torso and set of limbs. “Twofers,” as they are known, are common in the world of the novel (which in other respects is naturalistically depicted, and indistinguishable from our own). The twofers born in great numbers ever since the mid-20th century, they seem to be the result of mutations caused by nuclear radiation. (The novel describes the desert of Nevada, where in fact nuclear tests were frequently carried out in the 1950s and afterwards, as the “National Penitence Ground” — in this account, the US Government staged explosions, destroying simulacra of American houses and towns, as expressions of guilt and remorse for Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Twofers or conjoined twins are sufficiently present and visible that they form a distinct minority group, demanding civil rights and proclaiming pride in their identities — San Francisco, in particular, is a haven for twofers, just as it is in actuality for gays and lesbians.

Half Life is narrated (or, more accurately, written, since the process of writing the text we read is itself narrated within that text) by Nora, who feels alienated both from the twofer community, and from “singleton” (i.e. “normal,” unicephalous) society. Her twin, Blanche, has been asleep since childhood (since puberty? this is hinted but not made entirely clear), leaving Nora in sole control of their joint body. But now Blanche shows signs of awakening, and this puts Nora into a panic. She seeks out the shadowy “Unity Foundation,” an illicit organization that apparently offers to cut off one of a twofer’s heads, thereby restoring the body to singleton normativeness. The narrative follows a double track in alternating chapters: on the one hand, Nora’s account of her quest to rid herself once and forever of Blanche; on the other, the story of Nora’s and Blanche’s childhood, from an account of their conception to the traumatic moment when Blanche lapsed into silence.

Nothing quite goes the way we expect; but plot is not really the point of the novel. It is long (437 dense pages) and expansive; and I found it so absorbing that, when I was done, I only wished it were even longer. Despite the outrageous premise, the surfaces of life (both physical and social-cultural) are naturalistically depicted; the streets of San Francisco and London, and (as far as I could tell) the deserts of Nevada are all recognizably rendered, in loving detail. This is not to say, however, that Half Life in any way resembles either mainstream naturalistic fiction, or the sort of “world-building” fantasy that seeks to create an alternative world as rich and consistent as possible. Rather, Jackson creates a text in which ontological distinctions are abolished. There is no opposition here between the real and the fantastic, between actuality and mere possibility, between fact and fiction, or — most important of all — between language as a description of some extralinguistic real, and language as a dense, reflexive medium that performs and produces itself, rather than referring to anything outside itself.

That is to say, the novel is “postmodern” in the quite literal sense (rather than in the more prevalent extended senses of the word “postmodern”) that it doesn’t reject these modernist distinctions, nor take one side of them against the other, but rather subsumes them all into itself, and speaks unresolvable multiplicities with one voice — what Deleuze calls the “univocity” of being. We move, in a single paragraph, from, say, a description of London streets, or of the rocks and sparse vegetation of the desert, to a description of twofer anatomy or psychology, to pure linguistic play, to outright, florid hallucination: and none of these is marked out from the others, they all share the same degree of actuality and presence within the world or body of the text.

Half Life is filled — as indeed Jackson’s earlier writings were also — with such peculiar objects as dolls and dollhouses, automatons, prosthetic limbs (including prosthetic heads!), and “medical curiosities” and “freaks of nature” (like the two-headed animals and deformed fetuses on display in the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London, described at great length in the novel). But there is really nothing “perverse” or willfully weird and shocking (a la the “freak show” films and documentaries which seem almost timelessly popular) about all these — I hesitate even to call them obsessions on the author’s part. Because Jackson so powerfully suggests that these strange objects are not exceptions to some pre-assumed “normality,” so much as they are themselves constitutive of what we blindly take for granted as “normal.” The uncanny strangeness of dolls and automata and freaks — and, in Half Life, of twofers themselves — comes not from their being exceptional, or alien to “us” (however we use the category of we/us), but precisely from being so intimately close and recognizable to “us” — they cause the recognition that the “normal” singleton state — or the state of being heterosexual, or male, or white, or whatever else is socially dominant and thought of, by those who fit into these categories, as “normal” — is itself as much a contingency, as arbitrary and “accidental,” as inessential, as the “freaks” themselves are, or as anything else. Hierarchy unravels, not only in language (which we post-deconstructionists know to be slippery and unreliable), but in the depths of the body, in “nature,” as well.

Part of the novel’s univocity is that it theorizes its own allegories and metaphors, without these theoretical suggestions being anything like a master key to the rest of the book — the theories are on the same level as the narrated events and bodies and languages that they theorize. There is much about “transitional objects” (a psychoanalytic term originally from Winnicott — 136) that mediate the exchanges between Self and Other, or Self and World, and whose very presence ought to remind us that Self/Other or Self/World are not resolutely opposed categories, but ones that have overlaps and very leaky boundaries. Half Life also plays at great length with a quasi-poststructuralist theory based on Venn diagrams (those pictures of two overlapping circles, in which the logical relations between two realms — exclusion, inclusion, union, separation — or, the logical operators NOT, OR, AND, and XOR (exclusive or) — are mapped out. The diagrams represent the relation between the two individuals (or the two heads) of a twofer; but we are told repeatedly that such multiplicities — disunities of the self, or overlapping selves and others — are basic to all selves, those of singletons (with or without twins, with or without sibilings) as much as they are to those of conjoined twins.

In this way, Half Life‘s conjoined twins, and specifically the narrator(s) Nora and Blanche, are metaphors for selfhood or subjectivity in general — which is never unified but always sundered, and which is always somewhat fictive, but never able to be definitively discarded. “A cleft passes through the center of things, things that do not exist except in their twinship. That cleft is what we sometimes call I. It has no more substance than the slash between either and or” (433). The slash, the cleft, is barely there; but it is a material presence nonetheless, albeit a rather minimal one. This slash or cleft is something that happens in language, Jackson (or Nora) says, in the doubleness, or the gap, between actual events and their telling. But it is also something that happens in the body, in the foldings of our flesh and viscera, and in the detours and delays of chemical-electrical signals coursing through our neurons. (The subject-as-gap, located in language, sounds rather Lacanian. But this gap is also something physical and visceral, a material barrier and membrane, a physical experience and limit, rather than a “lack”).

Another way to put this is to say that, for Jackson, language and body are two sides of the same thing (two sides of a Moebius strip?). The pleasure of reading Half Life comes largely from its playful and extravagant language — a writing that couldn’t be further removed from naturalism. In a blurb on the rear jacket of the book, Jonathan Lethem (rightly) praises Jackson’s “Nabakovian verbal fireworks”; but in fact, her prose reminded me as much of Lewis Carroll as it did of Nabokov. There’s a Carrollian air of gleefully demented logic running throughout, alongside a very modernist/postmodernist metaphorical extravagance. The book is actually quite hilarious, page by page — even as its subject matter mostly involves morbidity, alienation, and a certain inexpugnable sadness.

It is important to note, therefore, that Jackson’s prose style is not just self-referential; her metaphors are not just metaphors; even as Nora and Blanche, or conjoined twins more generally, are not just metaphors for (singleton) subjectivity and self-consciousness. For Half Life determinedly literalizes its own lingustic and conceptual extravagances (“literalizes” is not quite the right word, but I cannot think of a better one). Its metaphors and its characters and its situations have to be taken as absolutely given, in the same way as the cleft of subjectivity has to be taken as something inscribed in the body, and not just in language. (“Not just” is again a wording that isn’t quite right; because language also has/is a body). And the novel’s conceptions and conceits are as powerful as they are because they also and simultaneously work on an affective level — this is the odd mixture (though “mixture” is once again not quite the right word, because it implies the combination of previously independent elements, whereas here the elements do not and cannot exist independently of their combination) — the mixture of gleefulness and melancholy that I have already mentioned. And also a mixture (with the same reservation about the word) of full-fledged delirium with a kind of reserve or detachment, a simultaneous participation and extreme distance. Half Life is all at once a mind-blowing derangement of the senses, and a cool display of carefully calibrated literary pyrotechnics. I can only describe the affective impact of the novel (which is also its style) in the terms of these inextricable pairs of gleefulness/melancholy and delirium/cool-detachment.

For all these reasons, I don’t find it in the least disappointing that Jackson has moved from “new media” like hypertext (and bodily inscription, for that matter) to the older (or supposedly “more conventional) medium of the novel. I don’t see this as in any way a “retreat,” but rather as another way to explore the same ramifying conjunction of flesh and language, or of desire and disappointment, or of connectedness and singularity, that has always been Jackson’s subject.

Play Money

Thursday, August 10th, 2006

Julian Dibbell‘s Play Money, Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot is his account of a year spent, not just on the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) Ultima Online, but actually trying to make a living buying and selling Ultima Online artifacts on sites like eBay, for “real” US dollars. Dibbell endeavors to earn as much money through virtual artifact-trading as he ever did as a freelance journalist (which is his regular day job); and, though he doesn’t quite succeed, he does enter and explore a shadowy world, having to do with money and commerce, and blurring the lines between virtual and actual, reality and fantasy. Working in these markets is as strange an experience as anything he could have encountered purely online, in Ultima or elsewhere.

Play Money is something of a sequel to Dibbell’s earlier book, My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World, which recounted his time spent, in the mid-1990s, in LambdaMOO, a text-based virtual world. (I discussed that earlier book briefly here). The difference between the two books speaks profoundly to how our experiences of “virtual reality” have changed over the last decade or so.

Much of the difference between the two books is encapsulated in their very different subtitles. Dibbell has moved from “crime and passion” to money-making schemes. My Tiny Life is mostly about what it felt like to live in a virtual, online environment, at a time when not many people had ever done so. The book has its roots in Dibbell’s celebrated 1993 Village Voice article, “A Rape in Cyberspace”, which was revised to become the book’s first chapter. This article recounted an incident on LambdaMOO in which one of the players hacked the system in such a way as to control the actions of other characters, so as to subject them to various sexual indignities. My Tiny Life went on to narrate the aftermath of the incident: how the virtual crime was sanctioned by a virtual punishment, the banishment of the offender from LambdaMOO; and further, how the whole order of things on the MOO was turned upside down, and something like an experiment in virtual democracy was born. Dibbell explored the rich texture of life on the MOO in the years following the incident. He described the social, sexual, and aesthetic aspects of virtual life, its often intense satisfactions and equally insistent annoyances. He raised questions about how virtual identities and virtual experiences related to physical ones, and about the gender fluidity, multiplication of identities, and strange emotional intensities that seemed to characterize life in cyberspace. Above all, he sought to persuade his readers — many of whom might have never experienced it first-hand — that a life lived as a made-up persona in a world composed only of bits and texts was nonetheless “real” in any way that really mattered: in terms of time and interest, emotional experience, relationships with other people, creativity, and even a sort of physical engagement.

Play Money, on the other hand, comes at a time when immersion in the Internet — whether in the form of game-playing on MMORPGs and on networked servers, or in the forms of email, chat rooms, P2P filesharing networks, blogs, social networking sites like, and personal media distribution sites like — has become a commonplace for most of the population of the United States and other industrialized countries. It is no longer a question of convincing people that an online, virtual “life” is “real,” as of tracing the ways that the “virtual” aspects of our lives intersect with other aspects. Today, there is basically a continuity between physical contact, contact over the telephone, and contact online — it no longer makes sense to oppose one of these to the others, as Rl (“real life”) used to be opposed to VR (“virtual reality”). It no stranger that people should spend much of their leisure time slaying dragons and making artifacts on Ultima Online, than it is that they should spend their leisure time going to baseball games, or watching DVDs, or knitting sweaters; and indeed, all these other activities increasingly have online components as well. So it’s not surprising that, in his new book, Dibbell writes about how an online virtual world intersects with the rest of his life, rather than how that online world is a self-enclosed place of its own.

Play Money is about the trade in virtual artifacts. The economist Edward Castronova has written about how MMORPGs have virtual economies that, translated into “real world” dollar terms, are larger than those of many developing nations. People spend much of their time in Ultima Online, and other such worlds, making virtual artifacts, like houses to live in, armor to fight better, objects that allow one to cast spells, and so on. These artifacts can be made by doing a lot of pointing and clicking. Sometimes it is purely mechanical, other times it involves real creativity (writing, or programming, new features that appear in the game’s visuals, and that have actual effects on character behavior). Within the game, these artifacts can be bought and sold for virtual gold. (You can also earn virtual gold by doing such repetitive tasks as killing monsters for a bounty). Ultima Online thus has a virtual or simulated economy, arising (as mercantile and capitalist economies do in the ‘real world’) as a result of scarcity.

But why is there scarcity in Ultima Online? The answer is, that it is programmed in. In My Tiny Life, Dibbell had already written about the “economy” of LambdaMOO. Since this virtual world ran on a single server, hard-drive space was necessarily limited. Each player was given a certain number of bits: you could use these to program, or to make virtual objects and spaces. If you wanted more hard drive space than was allocated to you, you had to present your plans to a democratically-elected review board, which decided who would get the scarce additional quota. LambdaMOO thus had a non-market, socially administered “economy” of sorts.

Ultima Online and other MMORPGs run on multiple servers, profitably funded by the players’ monthly account fees; so this sort of scarcity doesn’t need to exist. And online, as many theorists have noted, “information” is plenteous and (aside from the scarcity enforced by copyrights and the like) nearly free, because — once the system is in place — the marginal cost of generating and reproducing additional information is vanishingly small. Nonetheless, Dibbell suggests, people enjoy scarcity, enjoy the experience of struggling to overcome constraints. Online games in which anything was possible haven’t done very well. But lots of people will pay to be stimulated by the challenges of scarcity in games. “In an atmosphere of oxygen, our bodies learned to breathe; in a world of scarcity, the soul might just as likely learn to need the universal obstacle to its desires” (43). I always think of this as the Captain Kirk principle: again and again, the Enterprise comes upon what seems to be a utopian world, a world of effortless play. But Kirk always ends up destroying these worlds — in direct violation of the Prime Directive — for the worlds’ peoples own good. Since if they don’t have obstacles, if they don’t have something to strive for, they are decadent and ultimately doomed. This is the anti-utopian side of MMORPGs (in contrast to the utopianism that suffused places like LambdaMOO in its glory days, over a decade ago). There’s something weirdly perverse about all this, as Dibbell freely admits. But perversity, of course, is itself endlessly fascinating, as so-called “normality” is not.

Anyway. So scarcity is built into worlds like Ultima Online. And people willingly do a lot of what might be thought of as work — even though it is taking place voluntarily, inside a game — in order to increase their virtual wealth within the game, to have a nicer house, a more prestigious social position, cooler or more aesthetically pleasing artifacts. But what’s more — and this is really where Dibbell’s own experiences come in — there’s a spillover between the play (or simulated) economy of the game, and real-world money and economics. If you want a nice mansion in Ultima Online, but don’t have the patience to spend 800 hours of game-playing time killing monsters in order to accumulate enough virtual cash to be able to afford to buy and furnish the mansion, you can take a shortcut and buy the mansion in eBay with real US money. Thus, as Castronova explains, you can calculate an exchange rate between Ultima Online’s virtual money and real-world currencies; most of the stuff never gets sold off-world, but you can calculate its value all the same, which is how Castronova compares the virtual economies of MMORPGs to the actual economies of developing nations.

Pursuing this thread of virtual economies, Dibbell uncovers a strange world of mercantile activity related to Ultima Online and other MMORPGs. There are brokers who make a living by acting as middlemen, buying and selling Ultima Online artifacts on eBay, and pocketing the difference. There are “gold farmers” who discover loopholes in the virtual world’s programming, which allow them to produce virtually valuable articles easily; they run bots to perform the repetitive tasks necessary, exchange the virtual goods thus produced for virtual gold; and sell the virtual gold on eBay and other sites for actual US currency. There are even, apparently, entrepreneurs who set up virtual sweatshops: hiring workers in developing countries like Mexico and China to play the games eight to twelve hours a day, making virtual artifacts or earning virtual gold; the entrepreneurs pocket the difference between the (real currency) wages they pay and the (real currency) money they get for selling the virtual artifacts and gold outside the game. This last scenario is one that Dibbell spends the entire book trying to track down; he hears tantalizing reports and rumors, but is never able to verify it; finally the New York Times reports it as fact. It’s a mind-blowing scenario, really; it involves a process of production, and an extraction of surplus value, that is entirely based on virtual activity; and it suggests that leisure and play, as well as work — or more precisely leisure-as-work — can itself be exported to the Third World by corporations seeking to maximize profit.

Most of Play Money is mostly autobiographical, as Dibbell adopts the purchase and sale of virtual artifacts as his full-time profession. There’s something gripping in his narrative of profit and loss, of economic ups and downs, of profitable coups he made, and of the ones that got away. My Tiny Life was all about community and social life online. But in Play Money, as Dibbell gets more involved in these economic pursuits, he increasingly loses interest in the social, community, and networking aspects of life in Ultima Online, and indeed in the Dungeons-and-Dragons-like gaming aspects as well: “as I invested myself more and more in the economy of UO players, I could feel myself drifting further and further from their community”; he is no longer interested in “the dungeon quests, the crafting trades, the big houses and the little chunks of fame that came with owning one”; all he is interested in is the money (149).

But interwoven with the personal narrative, Dibbell offers a number of provocative theoretical asides on the relation of work to play, of the real to the virtual, and of money to the activities it makes possible, and for which it substitutes. He eventually suggests that we are entering an era of “ludocapitalism,” in which work and play merge, and Weber’s “iron cage” of the capitalist economy’s “meaningless hyperefficiency” gives way to an economy based on “contriving meaningful activity… through the mechanisms of play” (298-299). This is a prospect that I find considerably more disturbing than Dibbell does — though I cannot give good reasons for explaining why I am disturbed without lapsing into a sort of Adornoesque melancholic moralizing.

Dibbell demonstrates convincingly, in any case, just how real the virtual economy — or play economy — actually is. Of course, from a global perspective, corporations and individual entrepreneurs or arbitragers who make money from the commercial activities surrounding MMORPGs are pretty small-potatoes. But the world economy of “casino capitalism” is increasingly driven by virtual wealth, by speculation in things like derivatives, the money value of trades in which exceeds by several orders of magnitude the value of the world’s physical economic production. Such money is entirely virtual — there is way too much of it to be used in purchasing physical goods or investing in physical production — yet it has powerful effects on “real” economic conditions, as trade in derivatives can easily crash whole economies, and relegate millions of people to very real misery, through a short series of nearly instantaneous computer-mediated transactions. Something further may follow of this masquerade.

Things to look forward to.

Wednesday, August 9th, 2006

Cormac McCarthy has a new novel coming out on Septemer 26: The Road. It sounds pretty science-fictional to me: “Violence, in McCarthy’s postapocalyptic tour de force, has been visited worldwide in the form of a ‘long shear of light and then a series of low concussions’ that leaves cities and forests burned, birds and fish dead and the earth shrouded in gray clouds of ash. In this landscape, an unnamed man and his young son journey down a road to get to the sea.”

And then, Thomas Pynchon has a new novel coming out on December 5: Against the Day. “Spanning the period between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, this novel moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.” And it’s nearly a thousand pages long.

Two of my favorite living authors coming out with major works; I can’t wait.

Police Beat

Monday, August 7th, 2006

Robinson Devor’s Police Beat, with a screenplay by my old friend Charles Mudede, is a lovely and strangely disorienting film: too laid back and withdrawn to be mind-blowing, yet too jagged and disjunctive to be comforting. Despite its low budget, it was shot, not on digital video, but on 35mm film, in ultra-widescreen (though I only got to see it on DVD). Its Seattle settings — verdant, but diffusely lit under cloudy skies (I think they may have used filters as well to capture that muted Seattle lighting) — are so gorgeous that they actually made me nostalgic for Seattle, where I used to live (this is the first and only time I have felt this way, in the more than two years since I moved away from it). For Seattle is more than just a backdrop to Police Beat; it’s one of several superimposed layers whose juxtaposition drives the film.

The setting — semi-bucolic Seattle — is the first (or deepest) layer. Next, or above that, comes the series of bizarre crimes and incidents (mostly taken from actual Seattle Police reports, via Mudede’s “Police Beat” column in The Stranger). Three dudes are drinking and playing with a pistol, and one of them manages to blow his head off. A man is trimming a large hedge, and discovers a street person asleep inside. A woman complains of an assault, but the assailant turns out to be a dead tree. A man bursts into a woman’s house, masturbates in front of her pet, caged bird, then leaves without uttering a word. A man stands in his front yard sharpening his machete, which a neighbor finds threatening. And so on. This all might sound like we are entering David Lynch territory; but the incidents are so underplayed, often in dispassionate long shots that distance us from the action, that they come off seeming everyday and humdrum.

The third and top layer is the story of Z (Pape Sidy Niang), the Seattle Police officer who comes upon most of the aforementioned incidents. Z is an immigrant from Senegal, working as a uniformed bicycle cop, and yearning for promotion to a squad car. Like the camera, he only reacts dispassionately, and without much engagement, to the scenarios he comes across — he doesn’t even seem to regard them as particularly strange. Instead, he obsesses endlessly over his relationship with his girlfriend, who has gone out of town on a supposed camping trip with another man. Though there are occasional flashbacks to the girlfriend, or brief scenes in which Z imagines what she is doing, mostly this obsession is conveyed through Z’s voiceover narration, spoken largely in Wolof, his native language, with English subtitles. Niang, a professional soccer player with no previous acting experience, has a powerfully charismatic onscreen presence. This is appropriate, because Z, caught in obsession, is unable to do very much in the course of the story; he is just there to be looked at, and to be listened to. His inner monologue turns and turns around, and goes nowhere — as is always the case with romantic obsession, all the more when the love object is absent.

What makes the film work, and gives it its strange beauty, is the juxtaposition of these three layers — I was going to write “interaction”, except that the point is precisely that the layers do not interact, or redound upon, one another. They are co-present, but incapable of affecting one another. Z doesn’t see the crimes he comes upon as metaphorically related to his romantic despair (though if we wish, we are of course free to read them this way); they are just chores he has to muddle through while his mind is elsewhere. And the sordid and somewhat ridiculous Seattle whose social dysfunction is revealed through these bizarre events is only arbitrarily related to the gorgeousness of the physical city and its natural backdrop. For his part, Z doesn’t seem to notice, much less comment upon, the scenery through which he rides his bicycle, and within which he confronts or comforts people; his body may be objectified for us (the viewers) as part of that landscape, but his consciousness, his subjectivity, is elsewhere. What I am calling the film’s three layers work together precisely by the fact that they have no links, nothing in common from one to another. Their mutual non-relation, their incessant simultaneity and disjunction, is the real subject of the film. This non-relation is what Deleuze and Guattari call a “disjunctive synthesis,” the collocation of nonlocalizable connections, elements “holding together only by the absence of a link”, inextricably co-present without being related to one another — which, they point out, is how Lacan and his followers define the ultimate elements of the unconscious, and also how Spinoza and Leibniz define the ultimate attributes of the one real Substance (Anti-Oedipus 309).

Police Beat works primarily on an affective level. By this I do not mean subjective expression — since the whole point is that Z’s subjectivity, expressed in voiceover, and for the most part in a tongue that will be foreign to most viewers of the film, is continually accompanied and shadowed by visuals that do not echo it or even refer to it. The film is often comic, and its emotional tone is primarily quite cool. But the film’s very distance — or perhaps I should say the space it creates between the three planes it presents to us — is itself equivalent to a kind of free-floating, not-quite-subjective affective tone. It is rooted in space (in the specificity of the Seattle landscape, in the particularity of the grotesque and unlikely crimes depicted, and in the narrowness of Z’s longings and obsessions), but also mobile and unanchored. This affective tone is a postmodern intensity: too muted to be called anxiety, too formless and all-embracing to be called alienation (since there is nothing left to be alienated from), but nonetheless undefinably uneasy and edgy (Z’s onscreen calmness, stolidity even, doesn’t detract from or hide, but actively expresses, the sense of being adrift that we get from his voiceover).

New York Dolls

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2006

So, I listened to the new New York Dolls album, so-called: One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This. David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain are the only living members of the “original” New York Dolls, so the identification is a bit notional in any case. It might be more accurate to say that this is a New York Dolls cover band, which happens to have the original singer.

In any case, on its own terms, the album is pretty good. Albeit a bit retro, as might be expected of a revival of a band that originally played in 1973-1975. The album is skillfully played, cleanly produced, R&B-inflected hard rock, with catchy riffs (that wouldn’t be out of place in 60s pop productions) alongside churning guitars and Johansen’s mannered, ironically self-dramatizing vocals. Nice, if you like that sort of thing.

Which is just the problem. I am part of this album’s target audience. That is, I’m a “boomer” who loved the original band. (Actually, I never saw them live, or heard them when they were still playing as a band — but I became addicted shortly thereafter, in 1976-78, the early punk days, when the Dolls looked like the immediate ancestor of nearly everything exciting that was going on. I caught Johansen’s solo act several times in that period; every six months, he would further de-fang his sound and his band, making it sound less like the Dolls and more like a suburban New Jersey metal band. But I digress…).

The (original) New York Dolls were tense, intense, and sloppy. The hardcore, driving rock sound (evidently cloned off of the Rolling Stones) was both fueled and warped by the high-camp theatricality (arguably also something whose initial source was the Stones, though also post-Factory-Warhol New York). This duality was embodied by the contrast or tension between Johnny Thunders and David Johansen. Thunders clearly wanted to be Keith Richards; his devotion to pure rock ‘n’ roll was equaled or surpassed only by his love for heroin, which eventually killed him — he couldn’t sustain either Richards’ virtuosity, or his lifestyle — though arguably the former, the basicness of his guitar chops, was largely responsible for what was so great about the Dolls’ sound, a sound far more down ‘n’ dirty than the Stones ever had, with an intensity born of desperation, an energy that kept on building but never broke through into ecstasy, and was all the more impassioned for that. As for Johansen, I can’t add to what I have already written about him here. Suffice it to say that his campy excess, his over-the-top theatricality, though it channeled Jagger as much as Thunders’ performance channeled Richards, did so in an entirely different way. For (out-Jaggering Jagger’s own sense of derisive, ironic cool) it bespoke a cool irony that, while it was not above having fun, really marked the death of any sort of passionate committment. It was ultimately just a shtick — or even just a job, a way of making a living.

The synergy between Johansen and Thunders — the confluence, not of opposites, exactly, but of incompossibles, that nonetheless occupied the same stage at the same moment — is really what drove the Dolls. It’s what made them so powerful, and at the same time — how do I say this? — so devoid, even refusing, of transcendence (so unhippie-ish?); in Robert Christgau’s lovely phrase, “the Dolls’ raucous antiswing promised all the deliverance of the BMT at rush hour.” The Dolls really were (as the cliche goes) fast, cheap, and out of control. What’s more, they seemed to inhabit a place in which questions of authenticity or not, sincerity or not, committment or satire, passion or performance raucous excess or calculated effects… simply made no difference. In this respect, they were perhaps the first “postmodern” rock band. (Though far more conventional in terms of sound than the early, Warhol-associated Velvet Underground, they went places affectively and conceptually that the VU never reached). (And the impossible amalgam of Johansen and Thunders is not the complete explanation of this accomplishment, only its symbol and condensation. These two didn’t bring their already-existing differences into the band; rather, it is only retrospectively, after the band broke up, that their polarity can be said to have come into being).

Now, the initial point of this post was to say that the new, pseudo-Dolls album, for all its technical polish, and partly because of this very polish, is utterly hollow and unsatisfying compared to the “original” Dolls, as we hear them on their two albums actually recorded and released in the 1970s. The new album is an unsatisfying simulacrum. Because Thunders is dead, and instead of the tension between him and Johansen, all we have is the one-dimensionality of Johansen plus a competent backup band. Or because the attempt of someone in his fifties to recreate what he did in his twenties, in a very different world and a very different social and cultural context, is bound to come off lame. Or because, like all the other musical reunions we have witnessed lately (the Sex Pistols, the Gang of Four, etc. etc.) the new work is nothing more than a cynical attempt to cash in. And so on.

Except — and here’s where things get both difficult and interesting — that my (overly obvious) criticism of the latter-day Dolls would seem to depend precisely on the categories of originality, authenticity, etc., which I praised the original Dolls for rendering thrillingly irrelevant. (Johansen himself has made his lifelong career out of a virtuoso series of chameleonic impersonations, of which this is merely the latest). What’s more “postmodern,” after all, than cashing in on a reputation for rebellion by branding it, corporatizing it, stereotyping it, and multiplying its simulacra, in order to get money out of the pockets of 52-year-olds such as myself, who are led by this very branding to think back to when we were 22 instead of 52? I am frequently disgusted by the market-driven nostalgia our culture is filled with at the moment, most strongly of course when I find myself the very target of such nostalgia marketing. But isn’t my resistance itself a form of such nostalgia, a clinging to a mythical past in order precisely to evade the challenges of the present?

The point of this self-questioning is not to negate my initial aesthetic distinction, and to say that in fact there is no significant difference between the New York Dolls of 1974 and of 2006. I insist upon this distinction unreservedly. What’s at fault, or at least insufficient, is the way I have articulated grounds, or reasons, for making the distinction. Now, in itself, this is not surprising. Kant points out that aesthetic judgments are always singular and non-cognitive. But grounds, criteria, and arguments are always cognitive. Grounds and criteria are used (and probably need to be used) to justify aesthetic claims, but they are never the sources of such claims — they are only applied post facto — and they are never adequate to the claims in whose support they are cited. Yet we can’t avoid invoking grounds and criteria, because (as Kant also says) part of the very process of making aesthetic judgments includes wanting to share them, wanting to communicate them, wanting to convince others of them, or rather to gain the assent of others concerning them. Kant phrases it strongly: in expressing an aesthetic liking, “we require everyone to like the object,” and “we permit no one to hold a different opinion,” even though we have no cognitive or conceptual grounds for our liking. And this is why, Kant says, “one can quarrel about taste (though one cannot dispute about it).” We can’t dispute, for that would mean referring to objective grounds, which are altogether lacking here; but we can, and do, quarrel endlessly about our aesthetic likings and “preferences.”

Kantian aesthetics thus insists, on the one hand, on absolute singularity and incomparability; and on the other, on universal communicability, exchangeability, and equivalence. The paradox here is formally identical to the paradox Marx postulates as the presupposition of capitalism: singular objects must be rendered commensurable, through the equivalences established by exchange value (and hence commodity fetishism); singular acts of human effort and creativity must be rendered commensurable through the equivalences established by their translation into determinate quantities of “labor power,” which is sold and purchased as a commodity. Only under these presuppositions is capitalist exploitation possible. The pivot point, for both Kant and Marx, is the process of translation whereby things that are singular and incommensurable are nonetheless rendered universally communicable and thereby exchangeable in a common currency (whether of concepts, for Kant, or of money, for Marx). This formal identity between Kant and Marx is one of the key issues that I am trying to explore in my book in progress The Age of Aesthetics.

I seem to have drifted entirely away from The New York Dolls. The point I was trying to make was this. By any of the criteria we use to define “postmodernity” — including the rejection of myths of authenticity, the strategic recycling of already-existing cultural cliches, the cynical acknowledgement of the work’s commodified status, the placing of all emotional expression “in quotation marks,” and so on — there is no way to distinguish between the original New York Dolls and the current retread. For all these characteristics are features of both. The aesthetic difference between the 1970s Dolls and the 2006 model is non-cognitive and singular, and thus very difficult to express. Kant would have said it is a matter of genius, but this is a word that, for many reasons, some of them dubious but others of them quite good, we are reluctant to use today. If postmodernity has taught us anything, it has taught us to resist equating this sort of difference with the notions of genius, originality, authenticity, and so on. Indeed, to use these ideas or words is precisely to recuperate and efface the barely-existing, almost-nothing singularity, the nearly-inexpressible difference, that they are meant to designate. In cognitive terms, there’s nothing that differentiates the Dolls of 1973 from the Dolls of 2006; but this nothing is precisely the most important thing. It is precisely such a nothing that the early Dolls, with their rejection of transcendence and deliverance, expressed so powerfully, expressing the inexpressible, affirming the absolutely singular — and that the new album fails to express at all. It’s the very postmodern experience of non-originality and non-authenticity that the early Dolls make into a positive experience, while the new version simply takes it for granted as a negation.

I should add that it is from the point of view of this aestheticism, which is ultimately an aestheticism of nothing, that I resist and refuse the current calls, from the likes of Badiou and Zizek, for us to reject postmodern multiplicity, perspectivism, relativism, artifice, and value-negation, and instead make some sort of return to the universal. There is more than a whiff of nihilistic desperation in Badiou’s and Zizek’s universalism. Such universalism is much more Nietzsche than Hegel, with its willful invocation of the Event as the point of a life-changing affirmation. This is precisely to turn the singularity of the Event, which is aesthetic and incomparable, into an ethical imperative, thereby destroying the singularity, making it into an exchangeable standard, in the very act of supposedly affirming it. This means asserting one side of Kant’s antinomy of aesthetic judgment — the universal communicability and compulsion to extort agreement — while entirely forgetting the other side — the continuing incommensurability of the singular aesthetic experience.