HESO Magazine

Photography, Music, Film, Hitchhiking, Craft Beer – Cultural Pugilist

Category: Books (Page 3 of 3)

Mass of the Fermenting Dregs

Time Has Come Today

“You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”

                                                        — David Byrne

“When does a fake Mohawk become a real Mohawk? Who decides? How do you know when it’s happened?”

                                                        — Rhea from A Visit From the Goon Squad

Time Has Come Today

Jennifer Egan A Visit From The Goon Squad

I believe it was in my mid-twenties when I began downgrading my artistic aspirations from “the voice of a generation” to what it has become ten years later in its more or less present incarnation, “a voice.” It’s embarrassing looking back but there was a certain point of my life when I truly believed I would be one of those authors—the few, the proud—who would survive posterity not only as one of those writers whom people wanted to read but also whom they wanted to be. Hey, there’s still time and you never know but I’ve had to adjust my expectations into a more modest outlook. Sometimes I’m okay with this. Sometimes I’m not. I’m only human.

As you roll into your thirties, you should be hitting your career stride. When you aren’t, you can’t help but observe those who have. Particularly friends and acquaintances. If you dare go there, the route is peppered with questions, like, what is it about the neighbor’s grass? What makes it so green? Is it a human folly to envy the qualities of others or is it Madison Avenue marketing that has created this general dissatisfaction? Is the difference between happiness and discontent the difference between having chosen the life we lead and the life we have having chosen us? It doesn’t seem fair, does it? The way we are compared against the way we were supposed to be?

Whoever said introspection was for weenies never took a long, hard look at the mirror. ‘What if…?’ is the worst kind of self-interrogation since it almost always consequences in regret. This self, this person that we are leading now may be hard-won but isn’t necessarily the best person we could have been. Invariably something went wrong somewhere and this life we lead is the one we got stuck with, for better, for worse.

Disheartening this is, we can self-medicate. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll are viable options (but don’t they often mislead us away from our ideal selves?). Or one can read good literature that utilizes sex, drugs, and rock and roll to frame these questions. A worthwhile book need not answer the unanswerable—it’s enough that it reminds us that failure and humanity are cut from the same cloth and that this might be a beautiful thing.

Time Has Come Today

It is certainly beautiful the way Jennifer Egan writes about it in her novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, the closest a book has ever come to the literary equivalent of a solid mixed tape, rewinding and fast forwarding across the years, or perhaps ‘skipping’ over generation gaps, as the story—it travels between New York City, San Francisco, Naples, Italy as well as from the early 1970s to the 2020s—is as much about the progress of technology as it is culture. The truth whether or not new technology is good or bad, necessary or distracting, safe or dangerous, nearly always depends on who’s asking. For those holding onto some yesteryear ideal, change is something to be despised, as Bennie Salazar, a record label owner who came of age in San Francisco’s late 1970s punk scene, wearies once the direction of his company changes after a corporate takeover:

“The problem was precision, perfection; the problem was digitalization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh. Film, photography, music: dead. An aesthetic holocaust!”

Just as our relationship to music and musicians evolves with technology (shrinking considerably from LPs to cassette tapes and CDs, disappearing totally as a tactile thing with the rise of the mp3), so does the way we communicate with one another. As Bix, an NYU student doing his postgrad in computer engineering in early 1993 tells his friends, “This computer-message-sending is going to be huge—way beyond the telephone…” But though Egan touches on facebook, google and how “the days of losing touch are almost gone,” she goes further: a preteen using Power Point slides to describe her family’s dysfunctional faults and then later to the near future when Instant Messaging has become the medium for our more difficult words as when Lulu shares with Alex on their “handsets” that she “Nvr met my dad. Dyd b4 I ws brn,” texting him this even though they are sitting across from each other in a café.

But now you’re wondering who’s Lulu? And who’s Alex? In 2021, they are working together using Internet bloggers called ‘parrots’ to word-of-mouth the upcoming concert of Scotty Hausmann, a publicity-shy, burnt-out slide guitarist who played in The Flaming Dildos, the same High School punk band Bennie played with in the 1970s. Scotty had unsuccessfully pined for Jocelyn, a girl who learned the fast life as Lou’s teenage mistress. Lou is a super successful rock and roll producer-cum-hedonist that mentors Bennie. Bennie marries Stephanie, a one-time protégée to La Doll, Lulu’s mother and a PR titan who falls from grace. Stephanie’s brother, Jules, is a journalist who goes to jail for assaulting a movie star named Kitty Jackson. Meanwhile, Bennie makes a name for himself in the music business discovering and recording a punk band named the Conduits. Around this time his factotum is Sasha, a beautiful redhead who euphemistically calls her shoplifted things, “found objects.” She survives a druggie stint in Naples and leaves New York and the music business when she reconnects with her college sweetheart, Drew, moving to Arizona to start a family. She has an autistic son obsessed with great pauses in rock and roll songs and a daughter who expresses herself with Power Point slides. If it seems very six-degrees-of-separation, it is. One story’s peripheral character is another’s hero.

And heroes they are in a very rock and roll sense of the word: interesting people making catastrophic mistakes, sometimes large, sometimes so small it is hard to know exactly where everything went wrong. Once The Flaming Dildos disbanded, why did Bennie wind up with his own record label and a corner office on Park Avenue with a fantastic view while Scotty performed janitorial functions and fished for his lunch in the East River? It doesn’t bother Scotty too much when he goes to see his old friend again because, “there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park.”

Like the incremental movement of continental plates, pressures mount in our own lives to a breaking point, in which an inevitable seismic shift leaves a trail of victims, most especially ourselves. For Jules Jones, Bennie’s brother-in-law, once a promising, young writer who had come to New York full of ideas (“Who isn’t, at twenty-four?”), his decline began when he’d become another hack celebrity journalist. This is the late 1990s now and some are getting spectacularly wealthy while most are being left behind. His feeling is common to many of us, that sense of not belonging, of having missed some boat that’s not coming back for us. In a young, ingenuous film star, Kitty Jackson, he witnesses everything he will never be: beautiful, rich, successful, loved. His sole advantage over her, the one card he can play, is the knowledge that time, though slow and deliberate, takes no prisoners:

“Because Kitty is so young and well nourished, so sheltered form the gratuitous cruelty of others, so unaware as yet that she will reach middle age and eventually die (possibly alone), because she has not yet disappointed herself, merely startled herself and the world with her own premature accomplishments, Kitty’s skin—that smooth, plump, sweetly fragrant sac upon which life scrawls the record of our failures and exhaustion—is perfect.”

In a very confessional meta-me article for Details Magazine, he describes his attempted rape of Kitty in the canny, ironic prose so typical of magazine writing today, but briefly he too considers what went wrong:

“At what precise moment did you tip just slightly out of alignment with the relatively normal life you had been enjoying theretofore, cant infinitesimally to the left or the right and thus embark upon the trajectory that ultimately delivered you to your present whereabouts—in my case, Rikers Island Correctional Facility?”

It seems no accident then that the album central to this story should be called A to B, offered up by the Conduits’ former frontman, Bosco. Bosco was once a skinny, manic redhead known for his explosive live shows but he didn’t age well. As he explains to Stephanie, Bennie’s wife and his publicist, “The album’s called A to B, right? And that’s the question I want to hit straight on: how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about?” But A to B is not a comeback album— for Bosco it’s the only dignified way out of his messy life. It is his belief that this farewell tour should be a rock and roll suicide, “I want out of this mess. But I don’t want to fade away, I want to flame away— I want my death to be an attraction, a spectacle, a mystery. A work of art.”

Bosco believes his tour will be a success because of the public’s infatuation with “Reality TV.” Reality, of course, has everything to do with authenticity and is at play in the characters’ lives. It’s extremely important, yet somehow elusive, as being real is knowing oneself. As Rhea says enviously of her friend Alice, “I can’t tell if she’s actually real, or if she’s stopped caring if she’s real or not. Or is not caring what makes a person real?”

Not all of us are lucky enough to balance self-destruction with redemption. A comeback is not always in the works. But sometimes it may be enough to learn from our mistakes and carry on the best we can. Click To Tweet

It’s not an easy question, but there might be some connection between authenticity and happiness, at least in this literary world. We are always in the act of becoming: artists, doctors, drug addicts, hookers, lovers, husbands, fathers and mothers— and some roles work better than others. It often depends on who you’re partnered with. Jules’ sister, Stephanie, knows that Bennie is unfaithful and she suffers to keep their marriage intact. Witnessing the flabby, tragic mess of Bosco, once a promising singer, now a joke on her hands, is a straw-camel’s back revelation: her life is a sham and an unhappy one at that. Helplessly she thinks of the old days: “premarriage, preparenthood, pre-money, pre-hard drug renunciation, preresponsibility of any kind…going to bed after sunrise, turning up at strangers’ apartments, having sex in quasi public, engaging in daring acts that had more than once included (for her) shooting heroin, because none of it was serious. They were young and lucky and strong….”

… And perhaps, real.

*

Time Has Come Today

The Author Jennifer Egan

Published in 2010, Jennifer Egan has already won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Two days after receiving the Pulitzer, she inked a deal with HBO to adapt A Visit From the Goon Squad into a television series. It’s no surprise. Like very few novels, it succeeds on visceral, literary, and spiritual levels. It’s bold: besides the Power Point chapter, her point-of-view shifts between the third person, close first person and even the second person in a way that the ‘you’ is not directed at the reader but at the self-critical narrator himself. Skipping around between years, places, and heroes does not feel jarring in the least bit. Each story feels self-contained, yet integral, not to the greater story, but the unifying theme, that which relates to the inevitability of personal change.

Perhaps nowhere in the novel is this exemplified better than when Sasha disappears to Naples and her stepfather sends her Uncle Ted out to search for her. Instead of looking for her, Ted, a tenured arts history professor at a minor university, spends most of his time wandering museums, the ruins of Pompeii, and labyrinthine alleyways. He is away from his family and unusually pensive. Why had he sexually disengaged himself from his wife, Susan, to the point that there could be no more true intimacy between them? From an initial rage, Susan mellows into a “sweet, eternal sunniness that was terrible in the way that life would be terrible without death to give it gravitas and shape.” What is so tragic about this turn of events is that he didn’t abandon his desire for any other reason than because he could. He had ruined her and now having found Sasha and trying to win her confidence to come back with him to America, he helplessly recalls a happy moment before everything was irrevocably ruined. Herein may be the saddest paragraph in a bittersweet book:

“On a trip to New York, riding the Staten Island Ferry for fun, because neither one of them had ever done it, Susan turned to him suddenly and said, ‘Let’s make sure it’s always like this.’ And so entwined were their thoughts at that point that Ted knew exactly why she’d said it: not because they’d made love that morning or drunk a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse at lunch—because she’d felt the passage of time. And then Ted felt it, too, in the leaping brown water, the scudding boats and wind—motion, chaos everywhere—and he’d held Susan’s hand and said, ‘Always. It will always be like this.’”

Perhaps Ted was caught up in the moment but he was certainly not disingenuous. At the time he believed it was true. As Bosco says, “Time’s a goon.” The novel’s boogeyman is as invincible and irrepressible as any villain in literature. Time sets the booby traps and we’re the ones clumsy enough to step on them— yet it might not be our fault. We can’t be so hard on ourselves as we don’t always have as many choices as it may seem.

Fucking up is a life process as universal as birth, childhood, adolescence, marriage, aging, and death. Being inevitable thus, we can only hope that when it happens to us, it a) is not lethal and b) perhaps we learn something.

Not all of us are lucky enough to balance self-destruction with redemption. A comeback is not always in the works. But sometimes it may be enough to learn from our mistakes and carry on the best we can.

Sasha speaks for the novel, if not a good percentage of the human race when comforting her friend, Rob, after a failed suicide attempt she reminds him:

“We’re the survivors.”

Genghis Khan – Man of the Millennium

Genghis Khan – Man of the Millennium

Across the barren steppe totem flags flap in the cold winds that blow from the Altai mountains beneath a bright blue sky. The world’s last wild horses run in the distance as herds of goat, sheep and cows graze on the sparse grass. A shaman’s drum beats rhythmically across the land while a woman in a sheepskin deel robe emerges from the lone white tent standing out against the blue sky to gather dried dung for the evening fire. A few hundred kilometers west of the Soviet built capital of Mongolia, Ulaan Baatar, the nomadic life continues much as it has since the time of the Great Khan. Somewhere nearby lies the Shankh Buddhist monastery, one of the oldest in the country, built by the khan’s lama descendant Zanabazar, and purportedly where for hundreds of years thousands of monks from the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism protected the great horsehair staff banner – the sulde, which represented Genghis Khan’s soul – from the weather and the harsh environment of the steppes, foreign invasion and civil wars, yet could not withstand the rising tide of Soviet Totalitarianism, and mysteriously disappeared in the early 20th century.

Religious tolerance, open markets, secular politics, paper money, playing cards, a universal alphabet: do these libertarian ideas scream Genghis Khan? Click To Tweet

This is just one more of the mysteries left to us by the founder of the Mongol Empire. What is it we know about Genghis Khan? Weren’t we taught to believe via pop-cultural stereotypes as well as formal education that the Mongols were a barbarian tribe who raped and pillaged for no knowable reason, or am I mixing them up with the Huns, their earlier ancestors? Does it matter? Religious tolerance, open markets, secular politics, paper money, playing cards, a universal alphabet: do these libertarian ideas scream Genghis Khan? What about the rise of Europe from the Dark Ages of the 13th century: the liberating Mongolian warrior army? Connecting Chinese clerical ability with Middle Eastern technical know-how: the Mongol idea of expanding a global culture and promoting free commerce?

In American terms, the accomplishment of Genghis Khan might be understood if the United States, instead of being created by a group of educated merchants or wealthy planters, had been founded by one of its illiterate slaves, who, by sheer force of personality, charisma, and determination, liberated America from foreign rule, united the people, created an alphabet, wrote the constitution, established universal religious freedom, invented a new system of warfare, marched an army from Canada to Brazil, and opened roads of commerce in a free-trade zone that stretched across the continents.”

He created Russia, united China (bringing Tibet into the fold) and established the much of the borders of Korea and India that hold to this day. When he was born China and Europe were still mysteries to one another, but before he died they had established lines of trade and communication that persist today. The Silk Road was around before him, but he modernized, organized and administered it in a way which created the first truly international free market economy.

Genghis Khan – Man of the Millennium

Genghis Khan – Man of the Millennium

The Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford (Crown, 2004)

Though Genghis Khan (pronounced Chinggis Kon) never lived to see the full shaping of the world he begun conquering- and it is largely due to his sons and grandsons constant infighting that the Mongol Empire imploded in the 15th century- he, Temutin, lowly son of the steppe-dwelling Mongol tribe, is credited by author Jack Weatherford in the thoroughly researched page-turner Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, as the man of the millennium. Rightly so, it would seem. Weatherford quotes Francis Bacon as saying that printing, gun powder and the compass were the three technological wonders – introduced to Europe by the Mongols – which changed the world forever. Yet more so, it is the change stemming from these inventions, and the Mongol ideas that more than technology itself, but rather novel thought and ways of ordering public life are what led to the Renaissance, the birth of science, and literally, to the founding of the new world.

As Weatherford travels across Mongolia searching for the khan’s birthplace and grave, he reminds us that the Mongols never invented anything, didn’t write any great novels or poetry, couldn’t farm very well nor did they even make bread, but what they could do was spread culture. Thanks to the highly organized mind of Genghis Khan, who after conquering a region would absorb the best a culture had to offer, combine it in ways previously unthought of (Chinese gunpowder, Persian flamethrowers, and European metal casting created the cannon), and spread it throughout the rest of his empire: maps, calendars, primary schools, Christianity in China and Buddhism in Persia. It’s true that we have inherited the warlike word horde from the time of the Mongolian invasions, but we also have the celebratory hurray and by extension coffee and yoghurt from Turkic, assassin, satin, algorithm from Persian, among hundreds of others from the conquered and coalesced. More than war, the Mongols brought culture, cross-pollination of ideas and fostered the beginning of what we now call the global community.

They did this with trade, via the long road from Japan, Korea and China in the far east through India, Persia and Turkey in the middle east and all the way to Hungary, France and England in the west. It was through the great Khan’s conquering of the largest empire the world has ever known that Europe rose to power. From the east, to the largely backward, religiously dominated and still feudal west, China introduced the use of paper to the Europeans who were using the complicated and time-consuming- not to mention bloody- method of writing on tanned sheep skin. Add to that creating a universal language, the use of a movable letter printing press, and the idea that people be allowed to practice whatever religion they like without persecution and ipso facto, you have Gutenberg’s printing of the bible, the coming of the information revolution and Martin Luther’s 95 theses heralding the Protestant Reformation.

Genghis Khan - Man of the Millennium

Genghis Khan - Man of the Millennium

It was not all golden ages for the golden family. Before he was known as Genghis Khan (a title, according to Weatherford, posthumously appended), Temutin’s rise to power was bloody, chaotic and a political minefield. It wasn’t until he was almost forty-five (by this age Napoleon had already been self-coronated Emperor and was well on his way to his first exile) that he had subdued the numerous warring factions within his own land: Naiman, Tatar (or Tartar), Uyghur, Khitan, Manchu, Tayichiud, Kereyid, Merkid, and the Turkic tribes and then turned outward in a flurry of blitzkrieg style invasions (likely where Hitler got the idea) to conquer more land than the Romans took four hundred years to spread over, in just twenty-five. Boldly successful throughout his lifetime in wresting control from those who lorded it over him, he became known for destroying the aristocrats and elevating professional men of talent, be they of whatever race, creed, color or religion. It was only after his death when it all went wrong. Despite the empire’s continued growth for another fifty years (which was likely just his leftover inertia), without Genghis’ astute mind for warfare tactics and organizational prowess for the spoils of war, his sons, grandsons and all those who claimed lineage following him (be they of true descent or not, i.e. Tamerlane), slowly ran his name, and with it the Mongolian culture, nationality and Asians in general, into the hard steppe ground.

Free market proponents out there will say that coercive regulation and subsidization are two of the main reasons why government should keep its inept hands off of economic markets. Paired with the utopian ethos of small government, one of Reaganomic’s main commandments goes something like,  “Let the market regulate itself.” Despite all current evidence to the contrary that this actually is how the system works, take for example the Mongolian consolidation and expansion of the Silk Road in the 14th century, and it’s not hard to see how unregulated markets can bring unwanted, and even non-monetarily-connected consequences. Much as now, the majority of goods flowed outward from China, which operated as the manufacturing hub for the Mongol empire, but when a mysterious plague began killing people along the ancient caravan route in horrible ways (much is written about the Black Plague in Europe, yet about half of China’s population -from 120 to 60 million- died, to little note) and the infectious bacterium- spreading via fleas on rats nesting in food, clothing and other shipments, it didn’t matter where you hid, how fast you ran or sailed away or which people you persecuted, the market had spoken: the Black Death was hellbent on a hostile takeover of the west.

Genghis Khan – Man of the Millennium

Mongolia then and now

Weatherford, author of the excellent History of Money (Crown, 1997), tells how the open market philosophy espoused in the Pax Mongolica was new for the largely isolated imperial systems of China, India, Persia and Europe, who benefited from reduced local taxes, more secure shipping lines, greater access to new markets, and a wider variety of technological advancements from which to choose. Coinciding with the Mongolian Postal service –the Yam– which had post offices one day’s horse ride away all throughout the route, running from the Pacific Ocean to eastern Europe, trade flourished, borders opened and everyone’s coffers were repeatedly filled. The faucet was full on and for more than one hundred years the fresh flow of trade from far east to feudal west blinded everyone to the potential dangers of not just lack of regulation, but any oversight whatsoever. Despite no one knowing what the Bubonic Plague was, let alone, how it was being transmitted, most eventually figured out that it was coming with the mail, which soon stopped, cutting off all communication and basically ending the Central Mongolian rule. Much like the Mongol invasions themselves, various superstitious European cities assumed the plague was a kind of divine punishment and looked for history’s scapegoats– killing massive amounts of the various Jewish population, who then sought refuge in other towns, taking the plague with them and altering immigration tendencies for centuries to come.

Seeing the end of their reign right around the corner, the respective Mongol reigns attempted to take steps to ensure their continued rule by converting to the local religion and appeasing the natives with conciliatory measures, but too little too late. Everywhere the local elites recognized the power vacuum left by an empire which had abandoned Genghis’ pragmatic and well-planned approach to government, now exemplified by Khubilai Khan’s often Caligulan style of rule:

Khubilai Khan awaited the flocks of cranes in the countryside, stretched out on his silk couch covered with tier skins in a beautiful gilded pavilion mounted on the backs of four elephants brought to him as part of the plunder from Burma. Too fat to ride a horse and pained by gout, he hunted from the more comfortable confines of this special and elaborately mounted chamber. The procession included hunting tigers riding in mobile cages pulled by powerful oxen, as well as leopards and lynx riding on the hind quarters of horses…When prey appeared, Khubilai dispatched one of his trained predators to bring it down. Dogs sufficed for the bears and smaller game, leopards for the deer, and tigers for the large wild asses or bulls. A phalanx of archers stood ready to shoot at whatever target their master might command…Khubilai’s processions across the countryside including a large number of astrologers, diviners, Mongol shamans, and Tibetan monks, whose work…consisted of clearing the path of clouds, rain and any other form of inclement weather…He kept a tumen (ten thousand men) spread out to his forward left, and another to his forward right, who, according to Marco Polo, spread the distance of a whole day’s journey in both directions.

Though some of the Great Khan’s descendants continued to rule for centuries (India, Moghulistan, Uzbekistan), it was via the now disparately connected Silk Road that the survivors of the largest pandemic the world has ever seen began spreading not disease but invective, recreating Genghis Khan as the uber-barbarian who disseminated destruction only for the sake of his bloodlust. To the many budding scientists of the 17 and 18th centuries, he became the figurehead of the inferior Asian races and his small steppe-based clan the namesake (Mongoloid) of the mentally disabled. Famous authors like Voltaire also further fanned the flames of purported scientific examination by erroneously claiming he was “motivated by the basic barbarian desire to ravish civilized women and destroy what he could not understand,” which gave added racist justification for materialistic western imperialistic forays into Asia.

Regardless, the Mongol civilization crumbled from within and was severely punished and ruled by their Asian brethren, specifically the Chinese, until the early part of the 20th century when, with strong Soviet influence, it declared independence from the collapsing Qing dynasty, only to fall under Stalin’s predictable pogroms and eventual Soviet rule until the 1989 freedom movement which helped to establish it, alongside Korea and Japan as the only other nation that has practiced actual democratic elections in the modern era. We don’t know where the great Genghis Khan’s spirit banner – his sulde, is, though the belief among the people persists that it is out there somewhere, amongst the centuries of herdsmen ranging their flocks over thousands of inhospitable kilometers, somewhere in the miles of rivers rushing toward the mountains decorating the horizon, where sits the wild Ibex atop his perch crooning upward, otherwise known to the Shaman as the Eternal Blue Sky, or the God of the Great Khan.

Dining With Terrorists © Phil Rees

Dining With Terrorists by Phil Rees


Freedom Fighter or terrorist?

Freedom Fighter or terrorist?

GIA, ETA, IRA, ELN, FARC, Tamil Tigers, Islamic Jihad, Abu Sayaf. What do these names mean? What do they represent? What are their goals? And especially, what makes the men who establish, recruit for and run them tick?

Phil Rees, award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker, asks all these questions and more in his first book, Dining With Terrorists (Macmillan 2005). Traveling around the globe to Algeria, Afghanistan, Israel, Columbia, Sri Lanka, Kosovo and Cambodia to name a few, Rees received access to places and people no western journalist has had before. Promising little, save to objectively report all points of view (as opposed to the popular party doctrine), Rees was able to sit down and, while unabashedly questioning theses organizations’ objectives and tactics, do what most would never dream of with so-called terrorists: break bread.

Dining With Terrorists © Phil Rees

Dining With Terrorists © Phil Rees

What Rees is shooting for he sums up well by saying, “I also wished I had met Osama bin Laden. Whether or not bin Laden was evil would not have been my starting point. I wanted to know what made him tick. Why had he become the man he was? Why were young Muslim men willing to join him in battle and die for their faith?” What makes a terrorist tick indeed.

Even more to the heart of the matter Rees asks, what is the definition of “terrorist”? Remember that once this same word was applied to Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela. Since the popular advent of the word in late 18th century France, no one political body, let alone the United Nations, has agreed on a universal definition. Rees says, “By being unable to explain exactly who is a terrorist the ‘war on terror’ can mutate into a war against any ideology that challenges America and her allies. Terror can become a code for opponents who question the status quo…the world is in danger of accepting the confused idea of an endless conflict against an undefined enemy.” In the end Rees not only wants to point out clearly and without hesitation who our enemies are, but also figure out how they became our enemies. To do that, he for one, is willing to get his hands dirty, is willing to sit down to dine worlds away with some of the world’s most dangerous in order to get the hard answers we truly need to move toward peace.

Check out Phil Rees’ series Dining With Terrorists on Al Jazeera

Vonnegut self-portrait (HESO Magazine)

Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt (Or God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut)


Vonnegut self-portrait (HESO Magazine)

Vonnegut self-portrait

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. died this past week, but it is not true to say that we suffered a terrible loss with his passing.

There can be no question that his passing will be noted. If not all of us collectively, I, at least, will certainly miss him. But Mr. Vonnegut described to us throughout his life the one true, terrible loss we all suffer without exception. His work was an obituary he wrote to us over and over to remind us of a thing we had already gone, but one that he exhorted us to become aware of. His reminders were intended to move us, finally, to take the steps in our power to gain that thing back.

Our true loss is our discarded humanity. It is our shared international cultural goal to slip out of the bonds of kindness, rationality, and responsibility to one another faster than the next human in the race. In short, our terrible loss is our missed chance to be good.

We should be bereaved to see our curmudgeonly kind man of letters pass. He treated us as a friend, and we need as many of those as we can get. But do not take off the black crepe when the customary time for mourning a man and a friend has elapsed. Mourn then that in his stead among men of letters in our day there are few but dandies. Mourn then that among men of peace there are few with influence. Mourn then that, because of this, once our selfishness has seen to it that we’ve used up the means to support everything we’ve become, once we’ve surpassed our capabilities to replenish all the clever devices that support who we are, and once our balance of mutual enmity passes into a permanent and irreconcilable surplus- our computers, our stereos, our printing presses, our guitar amplifiers, our televisions, our automobiles, our trains, our refrigerators, our airplanes, our libraries, our roads, our post offices, our museums, our clean water, our food, our stories, our poetry, our art, our love, our families, our cultures, our cities, our civilisation- all of this, even the letters that make up the words you’re reading now, will probably be irretrievably lost.

And then, Goddamnit, stop mourning. Be different. Be kind. Be good. We don’t have any more time to waste.

Thank you, Mr. Vonnegut! Would that you could have said at the end, “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” Would that it might one day be true.

April 18, 2007
New York

Junkspace by Rem Koolhas

Junkspace by Rem Koolhaas

Japan has, at least since the 1980’s, been associated with the future. Ridley Scott based the set of his sci-fi classic Blade Runner partly on Osaka. Likewise, William Gibson’s Neuromancer (and a number of his other novels), the book that popularized the term cyberspace along with the cyberpunk genre, was set in partly in Tokyo. Both artists appreciated the hyper-consumerist, apocalyptic atmosphere saturating those cities. The overflow of concrete facades fixed with neon lights screaming shop names at potential customers crowding the streets: millions of ants swarming a discarded six-pack of coke. Those artists, and many others, recognized that testament to ugliness, concrete, and shopping, as a sublime message from the future.

In the last 150 years Japan has undergone two periods of dislocating, rapid modernization. The arrival of Commodore Perry and the Meiji Era, during which the culture received “a near-lethal dose of futurity” from the West; and the period starting with the end of WWII, when it received a very lethal dose of atom bomb, was occupied by America, and then rebuilt itself into an economic superpower. Modernizing, like farting, is an invisible verb noticeable only by the nouns it produces. You hear something (maybe), smell something (definitely), and only know what happened afterward. With modernization the evidence is much more varied but usually no less offensive.

Junkspace by Rem Koolhaas

Rem Koolhaas Content (HESO Magazine)

Rem Koolhaas Content

So what is this evidence? One term, coined by architect and urban theorist Rem Koolhaas, is junkspace. Koolhaas, who is currently building a 230 meter anti-skyscraper headquarters for China’s state television, first came onto the radar in the 1970’s with his book Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto. Since then he’s published three books filled with quirky data, ill displays of Photoshop prowess, and influential essays. His latest book, Content, published in 2004, contains a 7,500 word, unparagraphed essay that would make John D’Agata drool, where Koolhaas explains what modernization sounds and smells like. He calls it junkspace.

The series of acerbic epigrams that constitutes the essay describes junkspace as, in the abstract sense, “what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout;” and in the concrete sense, as a shopping mall, the “product of air conditioning and escalators.” The connect-the-dots feel of the prose is loose enough that one can apply it with equal ease to America (the fat, slovenly, fast food-loving superpower that invented the modern shopping mall), the emirate of Dubai (the oil-drunk, Arab dictatorship that builds islands in the shape of starfish and malls containing ski slopes), and Japan (inventor of karaoke).

The calculus of junkspace has as some of its variables: the host country’s size, population, GNP, rate of modernization, and length of time since modernization began. In the case of America these factors resulted in a “country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” Arizona and New Mexico, for example, look as if the settlers, right after slaughtering the Native Americans, erected tombstones for them stretching out to the horizon in the form of cookie-cutter gated communities and strip-malls. Only a truly modern sensibility could have produced this architectural sequence: Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Greenway, Costco, McDonald’s, Barnes & Noble, Wal-mart, Greenway, Costco, Starbucks, Starbucks, Wal-mart, McDonald’s, etc., ad infinitum, a capitalist Pi in three dimensions.

Japanese Junkspace is a tacky stew of vending machines, hair salons, love hotels, karaoke equipment and pachinko parlors in a coagulate of gray concrete. Click To Tweet

Japan’s variables have different values, which have naturally led to a quite different expression. Japan’s population is about half that of America’s, at a still large 125 million. Those people are squeezed into a basically unarable landmass roughly the size of California. The start and the rate of modernization, which have already been mentioned, are both tied to getting nuked. The resultant late (compared to the West), violent, rapid modernization spawned a junkspace so rabid it is consuming all artifacts of the traditional culture (except the unrepentant male chauvinism and blatant xenophobia which are a part of so many traditional cultures). The vector of junkspace in Japan follows the trajectory of the toilet’s evolution: from squat to space age.

Junkspace by Rem Koolhas

Sake Vending Machine in Kyoto

Japanese Junkspace is a tacky stew of vending machines, hair salons, love hotels, karaoke equipment and pachinko parlors in a “coagulate” of gray concrete. Vending machines that propagate the banalities of Japanese culture: “Samuidesune! Nanmaekiteruno?” before dispensing liter-bottles of cheap gin. Elaborate Disneyland or Christmas-themed love hotels: Dress like Mickey Mouse! Fuck while crucified! Vending machines that provide white button-down shirts and power ties to salarymen who drink bottles of shochu, puke on themselves, sleep in parks. The depressing odor of stale cigarettes and old people filling multi-story, baroque buildings dedicated to the most vulgar, degenerate activities—playing pachinko. Karaoke bars with dragons or giant crabs moulded to their façades, full of people that think they’re participating in a legitimate social activity. Electronics stores that sell VHS tapes, DVDs, and memory cards, all featuring “School Girl Rape 13 with Bukkake.” The sculptural hairstyles of hostesses, the mini-skirts of schoolgirls—both of which defy the known laws of physics. The phalanxes of “freeters” that march the streets, arms at acute angles, bearing the weight of dozens of shopping bags stuffed with designer goods. Love hotels renting video cameras that feed into closed-circuit TV systems. The millions of kilowatts of electricity used to make a street full of ramen shops, low-end love hotels, hair salons, and talking vending machines, shine brighter than Times Square. Going to the only cornball club in town and meeting a nurse, a dental assistant, an OL, and an elderly-care worker, and having them all say that their hobby is shopping. Taking them to love hotels and dressing them in a rented schoolgirl uniforms; double-penetrating with the Hello Kitty vibrator and the Pokemon anal-beads, torturing with the Moomin nipple-clamps, capturing it all with the keitai’s 45 second movie feature. Junior high school students burning through their ennui by using their arms as ashtrays. Elementary school students stabbing each other with scissors. The generic skyscrapers like Fukuoka Tower, erected solely—as the publisher of this magazine put it—to sell postcards to vulgar tourists. Schoolgirls prostituting themselves to crusty salarymen in order to pay phone bills. Gullible perverts buying schoolgirls’ used underwear on keitai auctions. And so on…Until?

Anyone who has watched or read sci-fi knows that the Future is a shitty place. The corollary to this is that, since the Future is always the Now, it is always going to be kind of shitty. When we look at the Future as represented in art, it seems appallingly shitty because of all the unfamiliar junkspace depicted. This is what is meant by “future shock.” We need time to acclimate to new forms of it. To inoculate against the Future, we need maximum exposure to its weakened form, the Now. Junkspace is the “residue” of what in the West was once called Progress. It is as natural for humans to Progress as it is for them to fart; similarly, sometimes the results are funny, other times offensive, occasionally they are dangerous. Our racial instinct is an express train speeding us towards some exciting destination, and our car is populated with farting salarymen and ass-grabbing chikan. Make the best of it. Breathe deep and grab yourself some ass—you can’t get off the train.

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