Thursday, February 3, 2011

Art Then Technology (Part 7): Companionate Authority

Fat Bastard: end of fifth day of installation (2010).
(Return to Part 6)
I began thinking of Art as authority sometime after I moved to New York, and only began thinking of authority as a technology since reading Kevin Kelly's New book What Technology Wants. Kelly's conception of technology is far broader than most. In addition to our gadgets and industries he includes the entire universe of man-made things; everything from literature and art to abstractions like the rule of law and the scientific method. Kelly makes the case for technological (in its broad sense) Progress (with a capital "P") as inevitable. He largely avoids the cliches of his Modernist predecessors ("Better living through chemistry," "One word: Plastics," etc.), but he does unpack and and dust off the old narrative of "Every man is a King." Kelly tells how he and his daughter counted all the objects in their home (10,000 objects) and compares that with the average number of objects in homes in the developing world (127 objects), contrasting those numbers with King Henry the VIII (18,000 objects), colonial Americans and other historically representative common folk (40-75 objects). Kelly champions technological Progress in terms of Freedom, that innovation brings an increase in the number of choices we have available to us.

In a recent performance here in New York the comedian Patton Oswalt observed that the the internet has made every man his own Caligula. Everything and anything the most decadent Roman Emperor could have imagined we can now witness played out on human flesh from the comfort of our desktop computer. I am ambivalent about porn. The fascination of those who are stridently anti-pornography are as strange then those who are passionately pro-porn. The increasing "pornification" of pop-culture is a trend with an arc exactly like the other trends Kelly traces to make his case for Progress. I would not feel comfortable defending that trend in terms of Freedom, but Oswalt's joke points to something real, looking at naked girls isn't an expression of Freedom, it's an expression of Privilege. Privilege is a term I have never liked. I associate it with the cruelty of treating human beings like chattel. It brings to mind lords with the Privilege of the first night and husbands with the Privilege of disciplining their wives. But as Julianne Moore's character points out in The Kids Are All Right, "human sexuality is complicated..." 
All the objects owned by a family in Tokyo, photographed by Peter Menzel (cited by Kevin Kelly); Caligula (1979)

Freedom is complicated too. Recently I have soured on Freedom as a rhetorical device - it too often is invoked by those with Privilege. I have heard it invoked too often as a justification for violent American foreign agendas as well as miserly and stupid domestic policies. The Modernists heralded Abstract Expressionism as a manifestation of American Freedom. George W. Bush made the absurd claim that the attacks of September 11th were because "they hate our Freedom." In reality American Freedom is too often the Freedom to go hungry, the Freedom to inadequate healthcare and education, the Freedom to go without in the land of plenty. It is not at all surprising that Freedom is the bellicose cry of Tea Baggers. In the past I have characterized modern authority as a move away from domination and towards Freedom, but thinking about authority as technology has made me reconsider that characterization as inadequate, and perhaps even secondary. That what is perhaps most important about modern life is the trend away from Privilege for the few and towards Dignity for the many. I sympathize with the Tunisians, Egyptians, and Yemeni who are right now struggling to throw off the burden of Privileged kleptocracies. I fully understand why they are demanding Freedom, it is a powerful rhetorical technology, but wish they were chanting demands for Dignity, because that is the heart of modern life.

For the most part I like Kelly's narrative of inevitable technological Progress, it's a surprisingly original attempt to redeem an idea that seemed doomed to the dustbin of Modernism. But it is conventionally Modernist in one regard, the trends he is charting are justified as positive in terms of improvement and refinement. This narrative of Progress is extended to our most abstract technologies, justice is spreading, science is increasingly effective. Kelly argues that new technologies give us new choices and equates "expanding possibilities" with Freedom. Indeed our material universe is increasingly elegant, and as consumers we are barraged by choices. But while Kelly claims the all arts as technology he makes no attempt at explaining the trajectory of modern culture as a Progress of refinement, and it would be hard to do. The choices we make with our Freedom, like porn, seem to be leading to the depths of vulgarity and away from Dignity. But modern life is complicated.... Our most base and vulgar choices are made within a context of positive cultural changes, internet porn is part and parcel of an on going sexual revolution. Even if the development of cultural technologies seem to run counter to Kelly's upward trends of improvement and refinement, they are still a weird brand of Progress.
King Mycerinus and His Queen (2530 BCE); Auguste Rodin, The Kiss (1881); Constantin Brâncuşi, The Kiss (1905)

I have always felt a certain sympathy with those who ask if the Freedom of AbEx painting actually represents an improvement on Surrealism or Cubism of the mastery of nineteenth-century  neoclassicism. I felt sympathy for those who question whether or not abstract art is actually a progressive leap forward from realism in the way the Modernists argued it was. Most abstract art represents a lessening of craft, a baseness compared to the mastery and heroism of realism. "My kid could do that." is not an entirely unfair challenge to lob at most Post War art.

The same is true for modern culture across the board. Are the Ramones more advanced technologies than Bach and Beethoven? Rock and Roll music is enjoyed not for its formal sophistication, but for its proximity to chaos. But even that sort of measure is confounded by the evidence. How is Ke$ha or Kanye an improvement on the Ramones? There is a downward trend in cultural technologies that Kelly isn't addressing; which is too bad, because it is a remarkable and profound trend on par with Moore's Law for its power and inevitability (if a lot harder to quantify and chart).
The Ramones and Johann Sebastian Bach

What has been most interesting about applying Kelly's conception of inevitable technological Progress to modern cultural artifacts is how it reorders the expectation of what "getting better" means in modern life. Refinement is not the course of modern cultural innovation, vulgarity is. Vulgarity is not necessarily undignified however. Everyone balked when Kanye interrupted Tailor Swift's acceptance speech at the Grammys. It was vulgar and rude. But so was his charge that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." On both occasions Kanye went off script, said rude things, but of all the criticism that was thrown at GW, only Kanye managed to shame him.

Kanye got it exactly right when he called the press out for calling blacks "looters" while reporting whites were "looking for food." I am not at all prepared to denounce GW as a racist however. If Bush 43 was consistently guilty of not caring anyone, he was guilty of not caring for the poor. However imperfectly Kanye struck a nerve in desperate need of striking. It was clearly a vulgar act. Speaking truth to power always is. The video is painful to watch. Mike Myers and Arsenio Hall are clearly shocked, but Kanye seems the most uncomfortable of all. He is struggling with himself, forcing himself to cross a line he feels compelled to cross but knows he shouldn't. Like Antigone he had to do what was wrong because he knew what was right. I think that the key difference between the VMAs and the Katrina fundraiser, was that at the former Kanye had needlessly humiliated a peer. He was being a swaggering bully, it was undignified on the deepest level. In the case of latter he was humiliating a powerful swaggering bully and asserting the dignity of desperate people who were being dismissed as "looters." Freedom isn't much help here as metric, Dignity is.
Kanye West upstaging Taylor Swift at the VMAs and Jackson Pollock discussing a neighbors art in his LI home.

I have never defended Abstract Expressionist painting in Modernists terms. "Total Freedom" is the one of the most common justifications made for abstract art, I have always felt, however, that it is one of the weakest imaginable justifications. The Modernists inability to accept the Freedom of pop culture points to a hypocrisy as well. I am happy to acknowledge that like the Ramones, Jackson Pollack and Robert Motherwell are crass and chaotic in comparison to the formal elegance of their premodern precursors. But the elegant formality of premodern art celebrates the total Freedom that was the Privilege of a very small hereditary elite. Nor do I feel modern art is in any way a technical innovation, somehow better than the art that precedes it the way computers are better than typewriters. Modern art, like all modern culture, from AbEx to rock 'n roll, is, at it's most modern, is not about the Privilege of Freedom, it's about the sort of Dignity Kanye was asserting, one, however imperfectly, unattached to birthright.

Modern life is marked by a trend of increasing informality, vulgarity. Cultural critics constantly rail against this. I first became aware of the formalized structures of authority around me at about the same time as I became aware of sex. That twined awakening is a common one. Its not for nothing that teenagers are ground zero for hand-wringing moral arbiters on both the right and left. The would-be arbiters' perennial complaints are inevitably settle on adolescents' increasingly lax sexual mores, bad manners, and profanity; their rising hemlines and sagging pants. All these vulgarities are held up as proof positive that we are going to hell in hand-baskets (which has always sounded like a pleasant way to go to hell).
My Grandmother and her family in Greece, and again with her husband and friends in Chicago.

By the time my adolescent-self had the first opportunities to act on his growing interest in sex "going steady" had given way to much less formalized forms of dating. Exchanges of varsity jackets or class rings were nostalgic hold-outs as odd as kids who still wanted to play marbles in the school yard. My friends and I talked about "seeing" one another - as in "Are you seeing her?" "Yeah, we've been seeing each other for a while." These relationships were fleeting. I can personally remember some very painful crushes, but no long-term romances - which I remember as being rare exceptions among my friends, not at all the rule. Still, looking back, even "seeing" seems as quaint as "going steady" in comparison to the "friends with benefits" and other forms of casual "hooking up" that today's hand-wringers worry about. My own experience (as a one time teen) leads me to feel this devolution of social mores is like porn, a weirdly positive trend. It is a (admittedly counter-intuitive as well as awkward and sloppy) moment in the move away from the Freedom of destructive Privilege and towards something more in tune with our deepest natures. As vulgar and undignified as teen sex is, it is far more dignifying than the arrangements that proceeded it.

My grandmother's marriage was arranged. She knew my grandfather for 21 days before they were married and he took her from her home in Greece to Austin on Chicago's west-side. I never met my Grandfather, but by all accounts he was a wonderful, loving and generous man. Probably because I had heard their marriage was arranged and was trying to make sense of what that meant for her, I once asked my Grandmother if she loved my Grandfather. I was still in high school, she and I were alone. I had stopped to visit her on my way home unannounced. She had fed me, and we were having a nice time and talking about nothing at all, so I caught her off guard. She was not a fearsome figure. She was tiny, sweet, and the softest plump little old lady I have ever met in my entire life. She was Grandma Prime. She was also the unquestioned matriarch of a large matriarchal clan (I sometime joke that I was lost in the woods as a child and raised by women), so I had never dared to ask her anything like that before. I remember her pause. She wasn't vexed, but she was weighing her words. She told me, "He was very handsome." 
My father and his younger brother, and again celebrating his second marriage.

I never had the courage to ask my grandmother about her sex life, so I have no idea if she had romances as a girl, or how that would have been conducted in a turn-of the-century Greek village. I imagine if anything it was a high-stakes sport in which pregnancy was an almost sure bet for those who played. My Father's parents were about the same age in Buffalo NY at the time. They married after an "accident", as did his grandparents. Those were arranged marriages of a different sort. His Grandparent's marriage lasted. His parent's marriage did not. His mother left his father got a job and made a life on her own - times were already changing.

I was living with my father and stepmother when it came time to have THE TALK. One of the things we talked about a great deal was how to treat girls. He told me that when he was a boy it was common to describe having sex with a girl as "Making her" - as in making her do it. My father was describing the double standard. In her book about the women' movement, When Everything Changed, Gail Collins writes:
The country had been wedded to the old Victorian belief that women had a much lower sex drive than men and that women were the ones responsible for drawing the line. For a boy, manliness meant pressing his dates to go farther, ever farther. It was the girl's duty to call a halt... Girls with reputations got asked out on dates for only "only one thing," and most people they believed they forfeited their chance of a good marriage.
The indignity of Georgette and Tralala; Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989)

My Father described older boys crowing about "making" girls, and girls who "gave in" being dismissed as sluts as a terrible relic of his youth. He told how discouraging that had been for him as a boy, and warned me how damaging it was to a young woman's life to be labeled a "slut." I remember my stepmother, a committed second wave feminist, explaining how threatening that label had been in her youth; that to be labeled a slut doomed girls not only socially, making them fair game for gossips and smears, but also opened the door to real violence and even rape. They weren't warning me to avoid the wrong kind of girl, they were warning against being the wrong kind of boy. Their primary concern was not making me eligible for a "good marriage" it was that I become a good person. Love and sex are biological facts, but the ways we conduct ourselves are technologies. They were encouraging me to innovate.

My father was trying to help me abandon an old cultural technology, a formal moralizing one that he had experienced as damaging and demeaning, to abandon the Privileges boys had taken for granten when he was growing up. He very much wanted to protect me from the fate of his grandparents and parents and so urged that I always take precautions, but even more he was encouraging me to put aside the cautions that had ruled his childhood. Like a lot of parents at the time he was urging me to abandon the taboos he had been raised within, to join the innovators. I don't want to give the impression of myself as saint, or my peers as enlightened - we were as fucked up, cruel and turned around as any generation of teens has ever been, but we were also working with a beta version of modern romance. One definition of technology that Kelly gives, is "anything that doesn't work yet." The new technology of romantic love is still very buggy. It is an increasingly vulgar and informal device that my friends and I had to negotiate without the benefit of tradition, formalized rules or even precedence. And we were doing so as the ground was shifting under our feet.
The anxiety of show tine and the key bowl; The Ice Storm (1997)

I probably had those conversations with my parents in 1982. I became sexually active in 1984, the year Time magazine announced "The Revolution is Over." What they really meant was that the party was over. Gail Collins writes:
In fact, what was over was not the dramatic changes in women's feeling's about the double standard that had been at the heart of the sexual revolution. What had ended was to-the-nth-degree-ness of it - the group sex, the casual encounters at a rock concert of airport ticket line that led almost instantly to sex behind a tree of in a plane restroom... The legendary suburban cocktail hours where couples dropped their car keys into a hat and chose the keys of their partner for the night seemed to disappear - if many had The brief window in which people could have sex at random without any serious safety concerns had closed. There was an epidemic of chlamydia... By the mid-1980s, an estimated one-sixth of young women who were sexually active were infected...The decade also ushered in an epidemic of genital herpes, the first widespread incurable sexually transmitted disease since the invention of penicillin... AIDS was identified in 1982, but it only really hit general American consciousness in 1985, when actor Rock Hudson announced the disease that was killing him was what people were beginning to call "the gay plague." It quickly became clear that AIDS could be spread by heterosexual sex, too.
Making Happiness; Sixteen Candles (1984)

My father never encouraged me to practice "free love." He was aware that I was entering a very different environment then the one he had grown up in, and was right to think that me and my friends would start earlier and have more partners than he and his friends did as boys. He pressed me to practice safe sex ("herpes is forever" he warned), but more urgently he was advising me to be respectful in the ways I comforted myself. I can remember his expression of distaste as he talked about the boys who bragged about "making" girls - he said "they were bullies." Bully was and is a term my father reserves for individuals he holds in special contempt, the dictators in North Africa for instance. His deepest concern was that I abandon the double standard. I remember him saying he hoped I would move through the world with less guilt and confusion than he had.

Moralizers like to crow about the sureness of the traditions - the "right way" to do things. For sure, my Father, and the other parents like him who let go of the old ways and allowed me and my friends to experiment among ourselves, risked doing things wrong. But I hate when I see depictions of parenthood at that time as careless, incompetent or malignant - too much "anything goes" not enough Tiger parenting seems to be the message about that moment. The truth is, my father was not passive or overly permissive. He understood the risks, and like a lot of other parents, he make a happier place in the world for myself than he felt he was able to make for himself. When he and I discussed happiness, we didn't discuss sex, we discussed love. All three of my parents were brave. My Mother, Father and Stepmother were the anti-Tiger parents. I wasn't raised by cats, I was treated like one: fed, housed and allowed to explore as I pleased. My parents had had faith that even if I fell I would land on my feet. Holding to the double standards and creepy strictness of the old ways is simple cowardice.
The Tigerish Lisbons vs. the Swinging Fontaines, The Virgin Suicides (1999) is not a real choice.

I believe the trend, from arranged marriage, to going steady, to "seeing" and "hook ups" is a a march of Progress. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist who uses MRI scans to study the brains of people in love, says that romantic love is not an emotion - it is a drive more powerful than the sex drive. She describes three separate biological drives: lust, romantic love and long-term attachment. These three drives are linked, but more often than not they contradict one another. Her description of these three drives sounds a lot like Plato's imagination of the psyche as a charioteer struggling to control a pair of unmatched horses. Fisher's three drives are even more in conflict, they are not only pulling us with different amounts of force, they are pulling us in completely different directions. Fisher says human-beings have not evolved to be happy, we evolved to reproduce. She says it is up to us to make happiness. Happiness is a technology. Modern happiness is something we actively constructing together on the fly. According to Fisher modern courtship is increasingly dominated by a desire for intense romantic love, and that all around the world arranged marriages are on their way out. The world wide move of women into the job market is driving changes in romance, family life, and the ways women express their sexuality:
In the Western world women start sooner at sex, have more partners, express less remorse  for the partners they do, marry later, have fewer children, leave bad marriages in order to get good ones; we are seeing the rise of female sexual expression. We are moving forward to the kinds of sexual expression that we probably saw on the grasslands of Africa a Million years ago.
This is the change my father was preparing me for. Unlike those who demand a return to "family values" or call for a "defense of marriage" Fisher is no friend of tradition, she is frank about adultery, promiscuity, and romantic mobility as positives. She also acknowledges that women and men are neurological very different. We have different strengths and different weaknesses, but we are like "feet," we need to move together to get where we are going.
Peer Marriage vs Penis Envy; Helen Fisher and Sigmund Freud

My Father and stepmother were practicing psychologists when I was in high school and I can remember asking them him about Sigmund Freud's theory of "Penis Envy" after learning about it in a psychology class. I can't remember the details of the reaction it caused in class when it was discussed, but I remember the mood. It was playful. The girls were outraged and the boys were puffed up and amused, but it was mostly a confounding idea, none of us bought it. I can't imagine our teacher presented it as fact, but I'm really not sure not sure (they were still teaching us we dreamt in black and white). I asked my Dad about it because it was an idea I found as confusing (if not quite as maddening) as the girls in my class.

My father started by telling me that as a boy Freud had complained to his mother that his sisters' piano playing was disturbing his studies, so his mother had the piano removed from the house. In Freud's Vienna, his education was far more important to the family than his sisters'. I found the story stunning. I couldn't imagine wielding that sort of influence over my mother or that kind of power over my sisters. For Freud it was a given he was unable to see past as an adult. Freud's confidant and personal physician had no such limitations. Alfred Adler was a member of the Socialist Party whose platform, according to my parents, was "in 1885 was the first in history to embrace equality for women." Alder and Freud split over the question of gender equality. Adler felt "Hysteria" in women and sexual phobias in men were symptoms of a shared anxiety - Freud thought it was because men had penises and women didn't. Instead of try to reconstruct what my parents might have told me, I thought it would make more sense to quote from their Lexicon of Adlerian Psychology:
Adler argued that the presumed difference in value between the sexes, with images of men above and women below, was experienced as a damaging source of discouragement. Girls and women responded with a claim to equal dignity as if to say "Treat me like a man!" Boys and men, feeling in danger of a loss of dignity if they were to appear in any way other than superior, pressed a simular claim, as if to say "Treat me like a real man!"...Each was protesting that he or she had a right to the kind of dignity that until now was associated with superiority.
Star Wars Wedding (It's a trap?); Jaques-Louis David painting of Emperor Napoleon I crowning Empress Josephine (1805)

The "masculine protest," of both women and men was not a desire to dominate, it was an understandable demand for dignity - the dignity afforded men informally - the double standard - as well as formally - suffrage, property rights, and equal pay. The chapter that played itself out most viscerally for me when I was growing up was the spike in divorce rates of the 1970s and 80s (my parents divorced in 1977). That spike has blamed by some, on the women's liberation movement, some sort of backlash against female domination, but Gail Collins persuasively argues that divorce rates were actually returning, after an artificial low in the postwar years, to a trend that dated back a "long time." (Damn her lack of chronological line graphs.) Collins points out that alimony, "had never been awarded in a large portion of divorces" but that with the with the introduction of liberalized no-fault divorces, it "virtually vanish." The greatest part of the spike wasn't feminists abandoning their families, but instead it was the Ozzy and Harriet marriages of the 50s and 60s that crumbled as housewives were abandon to their own devices by a generation of men who were given an easy out. (So much for the Greatest Generation.)

My fathers parents were divorced at a time when divorce was still rare. He and my mother divorced in the midst of the 1970s divorce boom. Neither of those marriages were ended by adventuresome men. They were part of the long trend, not the spike. To borrow a phrase from Helen Fisher, they were ended by women who wanted to end bad marriages. I don't judge my my Mother or my Grandmother (or my Father and Grandfather for that matter). I am aware that good people can make bad marriages. My first marriage was ended because my ex wanted to end a bad marriage. I hope she was able to make a good one the second time around.

Happily the number of socially (and legally) acceptable partnerships is increasing. Single income "Ozzy and Harriet" marriages are still a part of the mix, but they just a small fraction of the many choices young people now have. But as Fisher points out, humans are a conflicted species. In his Book The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond generously describes us as "nominally monogamous." That unlike animals that group in harems ruled by a massively large bull (elephant seal bulls are almost 9 time as large as their dozens of "wives"), human enjoy near parity in body size. Fisher believes that romantic love is the most powerful drive pressing on us from below. Lust is certainly very distracting, but we want to be attached, to pair.
The nominally monogamous; The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Who in the late 1970s would have predicted that gays and lesbians would be demanding equality before the law by demanding the dignity of marriage for themselves? On the subject of gay marriage my Dad (who is also a priest) says, "it is crazy to oppose the actions of people who mean no harm to you, and do no harm to you." Like all previous episodes in the history of "masculine protest," gays and lesbians are not making a demand for Freedom, they are making a demand for dignity. Those who argue to allow gay marriage is to open the door to polygamy are comparing apples to oranges. Polygamists are in no way extending dignity. Diamond says human pairing is "more or less monogamous," but acknowledges we are "'mildly polygamous":
...most hunter-gatherer men can support only a single family, but a few powerful men have several wives. Polygamy on the scale of elephant seals, amoung which powerful men have a dozens of wives, is impossible for hunter-gatherer men, because they differ from elephant seals in having to provide child care. The big harems for which some human potentates are famouse didn't become possible until the rise of agriculture and centralized government let a few princes tax everyone in order to feed the royal harem's babies. 
The traditions of the last 10,000 years are not the way forward. Fisher believes we are moving forward into the past. That making happiness lie in comporting ourselves in ways that bring us into agreement with our deep evolutionary past, technologies of being that were subsumed by the discovery of agriculture.
Big Love is not a humane love.

Fisher says that in America, ground zero of the second wave of he feminist revolution, divorce rates are now in decline. She credits new forms of partnership for this shift in the long trend, and predicts that the 21st century will be characterized by a move towards what she calls "Symmetrical Marriages, Peer Marriages, Companionate Marriages." Fisher believes that the for last "twenty-five years," as women around the world have moved into the work force they have regained their status as equals.

She reminds us that this equality between the sexes is not new, that it was the structure of our ancient past on the African savana. Many of the choices we make in how we pair will, like gay marriage and variations on polygamy, cause upset. Like Kanye West and Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West and George Bush Freedom is not a useful ethical metric to guide us, but Dignity is. Fisher believes the modern trend of equality between the sexes has been the most profound social trend in the history of the human animal and has fostered "the rise of female sexual expression." But we are also living through the rise of male sexual expression - we are indeed like feet, however awkwardly we are all moving forward, changing, and making happiness together. Anatomy is not our destiny, it is a simply a point of departure. (Continued to Part 7.5)
Klaxons, Twin Flames (2010); The Chapman Brothers, Zygotic Acceleration (1995)

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