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The Carters at the Louvre

Flanööri asked me to write about the new video by the Carters. I am not a fan of their music. I’m completely the wrong person to write about the topic, but that might make this interesting. The song sounds like it follows the common theme of bragging about how much money and stuff the artists have, which I don’t find interesting at all. Of course, all this has very little to do with music and everything to do with the video shot at the Louvre. So, I’ll put the new Death Grips album on and have a closer look at the visuals.

carters 1It begins with a very nice panning shot of the ceiling paintings in the Galerie d’Apollon. They look great in fancy lighting. We get a few close-ups of paintings I do not recognize, and then move to the Mona Lisa room with the Carters. They are dressed wonderfully throughout the video and play their part as celebrity royalty very well.

They change into white costumes and there is a wonderful shot of the Nike staircase with dancers lying on the stairs. Then, there is dancing, tilted shots of a few paintings and a bit more ceiling art. And many shots of the Carters who look very defiant in most of them.carters 2

There is more dancing and singing in front of Napoleon’s coronation, Nike and the Sphinx. There is a quick shot of David’s Sabine Women, after which the Carters take another meaningful look at the camera. I don’t know what they are trying to convey, but they look like they mean business.

carters 4Overall, there are not that many instances where our stars interact with the paintings and sculptures in a meaningful way, but I do get some of the points Sarah Huny Young writes about in her piece in Elle: that blackness is an art form in the video. There are a few shots where we see people mimicking the actions of statues, and a strange image of a man standing on a horse that somehow reproduces a Géricault painting. The latter looks interesting, because it obviously carnivalizes the original image of a Napoleonic officer. The man’s clothing mimics the stars and stripes, he’s wearing a cowboy hat, and he is standing on his horse. It would probably be my favorite image in the video were it not for another one that occurs a bit earlier.

carters 3It’s another David, his Portrait of Madame Récamier. Reclining on the floor under the painting, dressed in headgear that echoes the madame’s dress, are two women who also seem to recreate the symmetry of the strange sofa of the painting. There is a morbid parody of the painting by Magritte where the madame has been replaced by a coffin. I would have loved to have seen it in the background instead of the original. In any case, the Neoclassical dress and general setting of the image point to an idealized version of Ancient Greece, the socialite madame to contemporary ideals of beauty. The two ladies point to something else.

The Carters’s strange poses, defiance, intentional vulgarity (the song is called “Apeshit”) and all the rest of it seem to be aimed at creating a new standard of beauty through a commentary on European aesthetics. The plan still rests on the tradition it criticizes, but the critique does remind us of everything that has contributed to it, and of the fact that it’s still an ongoing tradition. The pieces in the Louvre are not preserved in the past. They are here with us in the present.

I guess that’s what I take home from this: aesthetics is never a theoretical exercise and always entangled with history. To quote Death Grips: “It’s a shitshow.”

Thought is back in style

BrummellDighton1805Beau Brummell, the famous dandy, said: “If John Bull turns around to look at you, you are not well dressed.” Brummell, a man mostly known for being looked at by John Bull who thought Brummell was splendidly dressed, said many things. Most of them don’t really matter, because he was known for one simple thing: that he dressed extremely well. After mentioning the quip, most menswear writers continue with an explanation of sprezzatura, the meticulous art of looking like you don’t really care what you look like. Few seem to think about what an obviously mad statement this was for a man lived for being seen and looked at.

George Frazier, in his well-known article “The Art of Wearing Clothes“, was one menswear writer who bothered to explain, in detail, what Brummell meant. He wrote:

Prior to Brummell, men had dressed to almost freakish excess. Thus, according to Hayden’s Dictionary of Dates, Sir Walter Raleigh wore: ‘… a white-satin-pinked vest close-sleeved to the wrist, and over the body a doublet finely flowered, and embroidered with pearls, and in the feather of his hat a large ruby and pearl drop at the bottom of the sprig in place of a button. His breeches’ etc.

Brummell’s clothes, then, were subtle in an age when people looked ridiculous. But he still wanted to be noticed for the way he dressed. That is why he dressed down in simple equestrian clothing.

The casualization of dress has continued ever since and now we are down to emulating what G. Bruce Boyer in his book True Style calls the “the male rebel proletariat as superhero.” That basically means the James Dean or young Marlon Brando look. I’m all for it, but something often goes unnoticed when people dress like this. People who habitually dress in the rebel proletariat superhero uniform like to say they don’t really think about their clothes. I’m sure they do, because Levi’s jeans, boots and leather jackets are not inexpensive. If they really don’t think about it, someone else has done the thinking for them. Probably the person trying to sell them those jeans. My attempt at a fancy way of putting it (and my point) would be that the observance of social stratification and identification are always present in the way we dress.

It is pleasant to speculate what will happen to fashions in the future. In his article “Dress Up” Boyer does just that and thinks about a number of possibilities. One of them is

the eminently sensible argument that the jettisoning of the tailored wardrobe is merely a part of the larger and ongoing “democratization” of dress that started to standardize the wardrobe with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and whereby we may all eventually be encased in the same synthetic coverall and molded plastic footwear.

That is the logical end point for dressing down, sure. But if you take a look at menswear today, you will notice that the Crocs are not happening. Rather, I find that fewer men are parroting either Brummell’s strange views or anything else. It seems that a new awareness of dress as something that cannot be overlooked or glossed over with banalities is emerging. By this I mean that there is much more discussion about dressing up or down in general in magazines, books and especially online. Laying down simple Brummellian dictums or repeating inflexible rules does not seem to cut it for the fashionable. In other words, ignorance (wilful or otherwise) does not seem to be in fashion any more. We might still be on our way to the Crocs and polyester overalls, but should we ever go there, there will be plenty of lively debate along the way.

Summer wardrobe fail

I recently noticed that I had only one pair of trousers that fit. Literally. Many of my other clothes were too small as well. This was due to a combination of time spent in the gym and the dinner table. Basically, I’m now bigger all over. Add to this the fact that most of my clothes were old and been through the washer and dryer over and over again. They were mostly a neglected mess. Because of all this, I decided I should build a new wardrobe.

I started by going back to reading about the subject. Years ago, I was a reader of menswear blogs and bought a few books on the subject as well. Since then, I have acquired even more books and studied them quite a bit. I’m even back on the blogs again. Instagram is great, too. However, watching other people wear clothes and wearing clothes are two very different things. There is a lot of trial and error involved. With summer clothes, mine have been mostly errors. Some of them expensive ones.

Midsummer is approaching and I’ve kind of given up on the idea of building a summer wardrobe this year. First of all, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m Finnish and my clothes are for warmth, not show. If it’s warm, I don’t want to buy a summer coat. I simply remove the one I normally wear. Second, the summer in Finland is very short and there aren’t that many warm days. The cost per wear ratio would not be that great. I think I will wait for autumn and worry about summer by wearing less of the same stuff I would wear in any case. Having said that, I did manage to get a pair of trousers and now I have two pairs that fit.

Small victories.

Why do I feel so bad when I’m online?

The blog has been on a hiatus for a long time. Once in a while I would have a look at the stats and feel bad about not updating it, but not bad enough to guilt me into writing again. In the meantime, I’ve been back on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. They have fulfilled my need for attention very well, but something has been missing. This blog and the many others I read when I was blogging more were virtual spaces where I could gather my thoughts and put in order all the digital effluvia we all have to deal with every day. Recently, I’ve really felt at a loss with all of it and thought it best to return to blogging.

Today, I found myself saying out loud: “I’m terribly unhappy with the Internet!” Not quite shouting, but loudly enough to startle myself. Why do I feel like this? I think I have all the boring symptoms of a social media addict and I’m online virtually all the time. Everyone is. But most people I know seem to cope very well. They have no problem with it. I feel I do. You can google why this might be the case. There is a lot of talk about the subject. Basically, it’s about altering your brain chemistry via technology. It’s a proper addiction. I should know: I’ve had a few of them before. I’ve beat a few before as well. Or at least they are in remission, however you want to look at it. Anyway, how do you beat addictions?

It varies, but I think substituting unwanted habits with new ones seems to work out fine. The clever readers will think: “Isn’t blogging an old habit you are taking up again?” The even cleverer ones will ask: “Does this not lead to a never-ending cycle of habits?” I would answer yes to both questions. Blogging was never a problem for me (at least I don’t remember it being so), but rather a pleasant and meditative activity. With other social media, I find myself staring at the screen for who knows how long and forgetting what I was supposed to be doing. It destroys attention. That’s the best way I can put it. Not attention span or ability to focus or anything like that. You can focus for hours on social media  junk, that’s the problem. It does something to the mechanism that allows you to focus on whatever you want to focus on. It messes with whatever in your mind allows you to focus on a certain thing. I’m guessing this is a higher mechanism of awareness than just focusing on something in front of you.

As for the other question, I can only answer that there are habits and then there are habits. I brush my teeth, go to work, go to the gym, etc. Many of my habits are good for me. They have been either taught to me or I have acquired them myself. Our upbringing has a great influence on these and as we get older we have to decide for ourselves how we want to spend our limited time on this planet. Writing is rarely a waste of time. I just came up with something I had trouble explaining earlier while writing this post. I would have not thought through all that stuff about attention and awareness had I not started typing a few minutes ago. It’s a pleasurable thing to come up with something like that. Even more pleasurable than getting likes on your social media account.

See where I’m going with this?

In any case, I hope I can get back in the habit of blogging more. The blog will continue to reflect my interests and I have no intention of making it a blog that is dedicated to a specific topic any time soon. It’s more fun to write that way.

Thanks if you read this far and do come back again sometime!

Making Sense of Trump with Emerson

emersonI had to give a lecture today about American Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Emerson, Thoreau and the like. This lecture is usually pretty easy and I normally enjoy it very much. Today, however, much of what I love in Emerson and even Thoreau seemed different. The can-do attitude  that, following the British Romantics, embraced the everyman and shunned the establishment, elitism and tradition had gone a bit stale. The anti-intellectualism, however intellectually stimulating in all sorts of interesting ways, seemed slightly offensive. The Yankee version of German Idealism was still fine, and it was wonderful, as always, to explore the possible implications of the universal mind we see animated into communities in Emerson’s amazing prose. His language never grows old even if some of the things he wrote seemed off today.

Transcendentalism served a need at the time. In the lecture, I illustrated this with Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s lament in The Hasheesh Eater (1857) about the narrow-mindedness of empirical science:

The Transcendentalists are, indeed, climbers over, as their name signifies, yet not over sound reasoning nor the definite principles of truth, but over that ring-fence of knowledge brought in through mere physical passages, with which a tyrannous oligarchy of reasoners would circumscribe all our wanderings in search of facts and laws.

In this passage, Ludlow was voicing the view that the world was more than a materialist perspective can assume. We do not have to revert to mysticism to see this in Transcendentalist thought. Emerson’s passionate calls for a new American culture pointed out that we are all connected by language and language, in turn, is connected to the world and spirit. In “Nature” (1836), he wrote that words are not merely linguistic codes. They send us back to nature. Nature, in turn, is not merely a pile of material. It is also spiritual. To put all this in more modern language, there is a relationship between the world, language and the human mind that is forever in motion. It is not a simple subject-object relationship. If it were, nothing would ever change. We would forever be subjects staring at objects.

What we see changes us, that changes how we see the world, which in turn changes the world as it is seen by us, and so on. The best part is that this mechanism can be reverse-engineered. We can imagine a new world, a new culture, one that is ours and ours alone, and make it happen. There is virtually nothing holding us back. No tradition or status quo can resist an idea once it becomes powerful enough. The human world, in a very real sense, is made of language. This does not mean there are magic words we can say to make the world into whatever we please. However, together we can shape it and change it – if we only have the language with which we can imagine it together. The possibilities are endless.

The language Emerson talked about was the language of the common man. It is frighteningly powerful, because it unites us all into a collection of minds that are virtually one single organism. In “History” (1841), Emerson wrote:

There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has be-fallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.

Go read Plato and you will understand him the same way Plato’s first students understood him. Think of a friend in distress and you will know his distress. We share our existence with others in a way that is almost embarrassingly intimate. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise, an Emersonian orator might want to add. You know what it is like to be the Other. It is a trippy idea and quite convincing dressed in Emerson’s beautiful rhetoric.

However, “History” ends with a passage that has caused me sleepless nights. Emerson said:

Broader and deeper we must write our annals, — from an ethical reformation, from an influx of the ever new, ever sanative conscience, — if we would trulier express our central and wide-related nature, instead of this old chronology of selfishness and pride to which we have too long lent our eyes. Already that day exists for us, shines in on us at unawares, but the path of science and of letters is not the way into nature. The idiot, the Indian, the child, and unschooled farmer’s boy, stand nearer to the light by which nature is to be read, than the dissector or the antiquary.

What he said is subversive, revolutionary and frightening. The old order has to fall and be replaced with something less and more than science and letters. With a preacher’s fervor, Emerson handed over the role of our conduit to nature to the idiot and the unschooled. I cannot reason away his anti-intellectualism here, nor do I think one should.

Is it a wonder we have seen Trump’s clumsy rhetoric win over the voters? Changes had to be made, we were told. The old status quo had to fall. The language of the common man was the vehicle which made it possible to reignite the spark in the hearts of those who still believed in the Great Experiment Emerson sketched out in his speeches and essays. As far as I can see, those who stood behind Trump did the right thing by their own traditions when the flag was flown. I do not like the way things turned out at all myself, but I can see why they turned out the way they did. The clown politician, the idiot, was the one who, in the minds of many, spoke the truth, and they followed.

In the end, it all comes down to faith, as always. But the elections have also shown the world the power of a tradition that started out as a way of destroying old traditions in favor of the new. It will turn on itself again soon enough. In the meantime, I think everyone should brush up on their rhetoric and study the tradition to end all traditions very carefully. The next turn of the wheel should not come as a surprise even if it is impossible to predict what exactly will happen when it happens.

Finishing a Book: Part 5

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There is a large construction site next to my office. The symbolism is not lost on me. If I am to finish this book, I will have to put aside more time in my schedule. It is full as it is and thanks to the crisis in funding the present government has caused in Finnish universities I have taken on more translation work. The hammer could fall at any time. Until the government figures out cutting education means cutting the competitive edge of the country and the future of its economy (which is the same as making cuts to the present economy), things will stay the same. Finland, a Protestant country where suffering is a virtue in itself, has swallowed austerity with little to no criticism.

I did receive advice that basically boils down to: sleep less! I think this is necessary sometimes and lately I have worked very late nights followed by an early morning, but it is very difficult to get used to four hours of sleep a night. At least I would suffer from lack of sleep. That’s good, right? Seriously though, in this line of work your head needs to work properly and without proper sleep it would be impossible to function. Imagine lecturing in front of a hundred people when you are just about to fall asleep — it happens sometimes and it sucks. Or trying to organize the terminology and overall structure of a technical manual or a legal text. Or writing a book. Work becomes slow and the worker unproductive. Besides, even the construction workers get to go home at night.

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Finishing a Book: Part 4

WP_20161028_16_18_05_Pro.jpgI am so busy with work that finding time for the book was as difficult today as it was yesterday. I did manage to take my whiteboard to the office. It really is a surprisingly effective tool that can help you jot down ideas quickly and develop them further in a fairly spontaneous manner. There are three ideas for three articles on mine at the moment which I will plan on the board soon. Unfortunately, only one of them is directly related to the book, but it never hurts to have a few ideas going, especially if they do not have deadlines attached to them.

WP_20161028_18_34_00_Pro.jpgAt the office, I found that I was slightly too comfortable in my new surroundings and spent a lot of my time relaxing with YouTube videos and silly articles.The Internet is wonderful, but it does eat away at your time. Like the Langoliers from that horrible Stephen King miniseries. When I left the office today I felt very drowsy, tripped on the stairs and almost fell on my face. Pulse racing, I literally stumbled upon a bizarre light show projected from what I presume used to be a guard’s shack. A light shone on one of the buildings they used to guard when there was industry in Suvilahti. Bizarrely, I tend to think that if I focus a hundred percent on a project like the one I’m in the process of starting, I will not notice these little everyday miracles. Perhaps it’s better to think that the miracles are always out there whether you notice them or not. I guess they call it faith.