This is Not an Exist: the Failures of New American Modernism and the Endgame of Late-Capitalism.

If you live in New York City, particularly below 14th Street or in Brooklyn, you’ve seen it.
If you live in Portland, OR, Austin, TX or any number of Liberal Arts or Universities-With-a-Good-Art-Program college towns you’ve seen it.
Actually, if you live in Portland you’re responsible for it and you have some explaining to do.
I’m talking about what can loosely be umbrella’d under the term Organic Modernism - a correlative sensibility of fashion and design aesthetics and lifestyle choices with a predilection for plaid, big leather boots, twee accouterments like birds, taxidermy, hewn wood furniture, filament bulbs, urban farming and pickling things; which can only be rivaled by the spectrum of Instagram filters in its desperate longing for authenticity and the nostalgia for an ever elusive mythologized moment of ‘now’ in the era of endless cyclical return.
This infantile reversion to a mythologized American ideal is one of two main strains of contemporary semiological aesthetics, the other being the hyperreal graphics of the New Aesthetic which highlight the artificiality of our current era, rather than seek to retreat from it (think the 1950’s sleekness of Lana del Ray vs. the hypercolor of Nicki Minaj if you want a soundbyte spectrum of the visuals). If you live in New York City, where much of these types of things originate, or at least where they coalesce under the scrutiny of the media, the ease with which they mingle and remix with each other bespeaks to the fact that they are born of the same impetus, and in fact have much more in common with one another than initially meets the eye.
Whereas the New Aesthetic remixes the symbols of imagery, Organic Modernism remixes the imagery of symbols - both semiotic channels spawn from the pervasive intrusion of media in our daily lives, one seeking to embrace (or at least comment on this) the other outwardly seeming to present an alternative to it.
Organic Modernism, however much it would wish otherwise, is safely ensconced within the paradigm to which it outwardly presents an alternative. Woodsmen and taxidermy do not ‘grow in Brooklyn’ and filament bulbs, while appearing to harken back to a simpler age, are in fact more wasteful and expensive than regular light bulbs (a technologic extension of their time and therefore in actuality the true tenet of Modernist ethos) - this ‘symbol’ of authenticity is a perfect microcosm of the fault at the center of this aesthetic matrix.
It is the symbolism of the real, not a natural organic extension of reality (which can be argued to have disappeared completely, but more on those psychosocial dynamics shortly) but rather the management of the symbols of authenticity, no more truly authentic than the blatant symbol management of simulacra of the New Aesthetic. It is the ‘idea’ of authenticity and reality, the presentation of it in the hyper-specification of products required for innovation in our Post-Fordist economic landscape where we no longer make ‘things’ but rather we make the ‘idea’ of things - we are not going to re-invent the axe in terms of functionality, but we can make the prettiest most expensive god damn Platonic ‘axe’ you can buy.
I grew up in Vermont chopping wood for the wood-stove in our house in the dead of winter, and I’m sorry but I would not trust anyone who needed a Wes Andersonized $300 ‘American Felling Axe’ from Best Made Company to get me through a New England winter.
I would trust them to sit in their apartment looking at that axe and taking pictures of it on Instagram, and longing for an exit to the contemporary American collective existential crisis, however.

((((‘Spring Breakers’ Forever) Forever) Forever) Forever)

“…pretend like it’s a video game”

‘Spring Breakers’ is the latest endeavor from filmmaker Harmony Korine, and outwardly it is an examination of the American ‘spring break’ culture of the Floridian coast, however in a recent interview Korine spoke about the lack of an underground in the internet age, and after a viewing of the film it is the opinion of this author that there is much more going here than meets the eye.
The film follows four early-twenty-something girls (Faith, Candy, Brit and Cotty) as they rob a diner for cash to road trip down to spring break on the Florida coast and after being bailed out of a holding cell the rapper/drug-dealer Alien (James Franco) slowly descend into a blitz of violence, pleasure and nihilistic decadence which threatens to consume them at their own invitation.
Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (with simultaneous echoes of our own post-9/11 culture) a maelstrom of violence transfers the protagonists of ‘Spring Breakers’ from the dull repetitive banality of their gray anonymous suburban tract town into the maximal neon hyper-reality of spring break in St. Petersburg, Florida.
The extremes of gray hopelessness and hyper-color indulgence are accurate reflections of the realities of contemporary American life in an age when the moderate balance of middle class existence has been gutted into a husk of its former self and the options available to a large swatch of the populace are either scraping by on the terms of those in power, or else a Bacchanalian rejection of the ethos that have resulted in the collapse of our lifestyle. In this film, it is the latter option that is investigated in this hypnotic visual poem.
The scene of transition in question, where the four female stars rob an all night diner in ski masks and bikinis and set the plot of the film in motion, is shot entirely from the point of view of the getaway car – the scene of chaos entirely mediated by multiple windows (or screens) from the viewer circling the carnage in a vehicle that is complicit in the act in what is perhaps an oblique metaphor to 9/11 or similar events which transpose meaning as catalysts for social change both positive and negative and are largely experienced through televisions, newspapers and video.
That the robbery is committed by use of realistic squirt guns that the girls use to continuously shoot liquor into their mouths (the simulacra and the pleasure principle) is one of the best metaphors for contemporary web technologies that I have seen in recent cinema.
Once the girls arrive in St. Petersburg we are confronted by a constant barrage of hyper-color, excess and artifice (numerous references are made of ‘going back to reality’ by the characters, who drop off at different points along the ride when it becomes too much in the way someone might drop off facebook) – indeed one character played by pop starlet Selena Gomez is shown as an evangelical Christian, often displayed against a primary colored stained glass window; trading one system of belief in a hyper-space of ‘other’ for another, and ultimately returning to the one where she is most comfortable.
Guns, drugs, booze and money are the symbols that are constantly utilized by the characters in various ways throughout the film; means for various ends of pleasure as McLuhan-esque extensions of the senses of man and therefore symbolic proxies of media. James Franco’s character Alien is often the source of these symbols and is shown cloaked in graphics, brands and logos living in a world of pure self-referential hedonistic fantasy.
He has a set of twins as his partners in crime and is often shown himself in reflection and mirror image, be it in the ubiquitous pool water or high gloss surfaces of the Floridian landscape. His character represents the values of this mirror-world that is an alternative to the reality Korine’s protagonists constantly seek to leave behind them.
The world of Spring Break is straight out of Society of the Spectacle and Franco’s character is its ringmaster. The Caucasian kingdom that he has created comes into conflict with an African American counterpart in the crime underbelly of St. Petersburg. The choice of the Floridian gangster lifestyle as the paradigm of investigation into the (literal) contemporary media landscape is entirely apropos on the part of Korine, as the hyperbolic symbol-management of hip hop aesthetics are the perfect metaphor for the performance-of-self pervasive in online personas and the selection of avatars on blogs and social media platforms.
This crisis of identity-conflict climaxes in a spree of violence that leaves a majority of both parties dead – an allusion to the increasing conflict with the ‘other’ that we face in an age when our lives become increasingly and inseparably interconnected. Be it Al Qaeda or the Arab Spring, the interests of once disparate groups now face increasing tension as the need for new methods of negotiation seek to catch up with our exponential inability to separate from one another, even as the unity of the internet simultaneously isolates us – indeed, the constant reiteration of ‘spring break forever’ mirrors the constant cycle without catharsis of the structure of internet-based media.
Cell phones and other media devices are rarely used or shown throughout the film (usually resigned to voice-over narrations to the characters mothers who seem to be reflections of their conscience) and I can’t recall a single iPhone, iPad or other high-end device that have come to define our epoch; if they are present in the film, they are unmemorable and might as well be absent. What literal media screens are shown are full of largely cartoon imagery and pop iconography, as symbolic metaphors of the psychosocial effects of these device extensions.
By showing us a maximal, neon, blinged-out world of artifice largely ensconced in self-referent pop iconography and repetitive cyclical imagery and reductionist mantras, removed from literal representations of contemporary technology, Harmony Korine is subtly hinting that there is no need for smart-phones or computers in Spring Breakers, because for all intents in purposes we are already inside of one.

The Twisted Inversion of the Male Gaze in ‘Toddlers & Tiaras’ as Capitalist Redemption

The show ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ is a rich vein from which to mine some essential social insights into our own contemporary historical period.’Toddlers and Tiaras’ is a well enough known cultural phenomenon that I think it will suffice to summarize it as a reality television program which chronicles the pitfalls of families in the child beauty pageant circuit.

Beauty Pageants are a sociocultural phenomenon with their origins in Atlantic City, New Jersey in the ‘Roaring ‘20s’of the 20th Century, a period which also saw the beginning of Hollywood and reckless capitalist speculation on Wall Street and the sowing of seeds a priori for an imminent decade of financial ruin in the 1930’s and the Great Depression.

The cultural period of the 1920’s mirrors the socioeconomic dynamics of the early 2000’s, a contemporary period which informs our current financial collapse and media saturated social landscape. The forces of media and deregulated capital, which spawned the Great Depression, Hollywood and cultural rituals such as beauty pageants are the same forces which have informed the reckless financial speculation and narcissistic ‘me first’ culture of the first decade of the 21st Century, exacerbated by a conservative political streak and the collapse of the news cycle into the fabric of every day existence.

The models of feminine valuation created in the former have found themselves as one of the few remaining means by which an eviscerated post-industrial American subclass can offer a large swath of its children the promise of redemptive meaning; in the absence of the explosion of the 20th Century Fordist growth which informed American greatness (itself a media creation) why not simply place your child on the altar of glittering fame and hope for the best? However with no productive sequence of achievement, it is only the simulacra of accomplishment presented through the manipulation of the symbolic structure of the reflective media imagery of womanhood. Beauty pageants are a huge financial sub-industry which feeds off of the aspirations and insecurities of lower-middle class Americans and offer, through the watered-down fashion idioms of democratic upward mobility, redemption of the world as it exists through the only means that Capitalism is able to offer which is spectacle and commodification.

This sort of endless cycle of social redemption-through-debasement of self to the demands of capital and fame-for-its-own-sake is an end in and of itself, there is no ‘end’ to the pageantry because the presentation is the point, and the stripping of the thin veneer of respectability and intellectual curiosity from beauty pageants (which used to offer scholarships and other trappings of respectability) and its subsequent secondary role to scandal, political posturing and blatant artifice and narcissistic vacuity reveals itself as a manifested correlation to the complete divorce of fame from accomplishment in contemporary American celebrity media culture.

The heightened, almost garish caricature of femininity on display on ‘Toddlers & Tiaras’ too has a simultaneous divorce from the realities of the child and the realities of womanhood - rather than ‘enhancing beauty’ in a naturalistically elegant sense these girls are made up more like Dolly Parton or a drag queen - each element of their assemblage costume is a self contained iteration; the lips are ‘hyper-lips’ the teeth are porcelain and flawless and the skin a perfect rubbed in umber stain, as banal and inoffensive as a San Diego strip mall. It is the lowest common denominator turned up to five thousand watts.

Rather than these elements of beauty adding up to a cohesive ‘image’ of that which is beautiful, however, the disparate iconography of makeup, jewelry and clothing remain isolated components, each sign a maximal bastardization of beauty competing against all the others to say as much as possible for the judges, always the judges. Each girl remains an assemblage iteration of clothes and makeup representative of no-woman manufactured like a doll on an assembly line with an algorithm - an embalmed expressionistic image of beauty with a hollow center reflected down the endless hall of mirrors of advertising spreads and Hollywood films finding at its apex only a shiny cheap trinket trophy that is in the end a referent symbol of nothing but itself, an ouroboros of immolation of self-worth for the sake of the manufacture of perpetual capitalist desire. The endless ritual of ‘show’ itself is the redemption which leads to nothing greater; the shiny empty tin toy circus is all you are left with after it has wound down.

The worst part is that this image of the no-woman is a product of the male gaze. The vein from Madison Avenue and the Atlantic City pageants, with their intrinsic symbolic patriarchal power structures, is deep and pervasive - as men tell women how they should show value within themselves we can see those very dynamics as if under a microscope in the hyper-real marginal microcosm of ‘Toddlers & Tiaras.’ These mothers are fulfilling the wish of a patriarchy unconsciously on their own children and thus perpetuating the image and cycle of displaced self-value that informed this distorted relationship with themselves and thus ultimately with their own child.

It is no coincidence that the mothers of the young girls on this show, with some exceptions, share the same personality types and issues. They are usually withdrawn with self-image issues and more often than not overweight if not morbidly obese with social anxiety and severe self-esteem issues sprung from the very advertising and media-based gender representative matrices they impose on their own children. These mothers are commonly in very strained marriages and devote themselves entirely to the pageant circuit, often spending outrageous sums of money to outfit their children into the image of everything they were ever taught to desire to be themselves but never were. Rather than develop as fully cohesive people, they have spent their lives (and developed the emotional basis of their relationship with their children) around the manifestation of this archetype of nothing, seeking self-fulfillment and validation through the mechanisms handed to them by the very forces which took it away in the first place, like some lobotomized poodle jumping through a hoop in an endless .gif.

Their relationships with their daughters are often strained if not outright hostile or violent - the girls often seem like they do not even want to be participating in these pageants, and their resentment at having to be a conduit for the psychological inversion of their parents’ insecurity ends up turning back on the mothers anyway, further driving them down into self-loathing and perpetuating the cycle because of this displacement of a direct and emotionally healthy relationship with their children and the larger society by a mediation of money, symbol and spectacle for their own subconscious wish-fulfillment fantasy.

The reason ‘Toddlers & Tiaras’ is important as a cultural object is because when examined in something as maximally dynamic as the hyperreal contained universe of child pageants we see in microcosm the psychosocial dynamics at play on perhaps a smaller or more diluted scale in our daily lives. Who among us doesn’t know someone living out the wishes of their parent or from the insecurities placed on them by advertising and media? Stage moms bring us our pop divas and starlets to consume, who crash and burn in the public eye. Identity is assembled through a construct of brand symbols in a capitalist society, just ask the queens of ‘Paris is Burning’ who knew this intrinsically in their being; and every morning we make identity-assemblage choices in our clothes and hair, and yes money makes us value each other in painful ways. Our lives are this pageant on a larger scale, and the hollow center of this television show points to the larger emptiness in contemporary American life.

There is no escape beyond the pageant, the spectacle; which leads to nothing greater than its own self-revelation. It is a spinning wheel-of-fortune of repeated symbol assemblage and an aggressively nihilistic cycle of the perpetual novelty of materialism, designed to have no end and thus no threat of the cessation of pleasure but consequently no catharsis; ensuring its own institutionalization by its intrinsic lack of ablution.

The idea of the Beauty Queen, the idea that there is one final ‘winner’ in our ruthless society is a drag-race to the death toward the un-achievable end fantasy of happiness as somewhere ‘other’ than where we already are, imposed on us by the gilded cages of our own making; it is a perpetual horizon like the American Dream itself, but then it is said the horizon is something that recedes further the closer you get to it.

Dolce & Gabbana’s Foray into the Arena of Genderqueer

this article originally appeared at

The LGBT community has made enormous strides since June 28th, 1969 and with our increasing visibility and acceptance into mainstream culture has come a greater understanding of the nuances and shades of human sexuality and gender identity. Some would like a Q added on, as Queer better describes a fluid and malleable sense of self where concepts of male/female mix freely like sample scents at the Saks perfume counters.
Of note was the recent kerfuffle around Mx. Justin Vivian Bond’s profile in New York Magazine. Admittedly New York is a publication catering toward an urbane and educated readership, but this was still quite a mainstream outlet to be addressing something as niche (even in the gay community) as a type of gender fluidity that is beyond even Trans; not being born in the wrong gender, but essentially having no gender.
My own social circle casts rather a wide net: variety being the spice of life and myself being a rather curious individual who is absolutely fascinated by people. I pride myself on having friends from all walks of life, and count many persons with no self-identified gender as intimates and associates. From boys who love heels, to girls who bind, to the explosive diversity of the (often tiresomely narcissistic) Club Kid scene, I have more than a handful of people in my life who change personalities as often as they change their jeans.
In the Downtown milieu (Downtown now also includes Brooklyn) waifish androgyny is a social cultivar and there are lots of pretty boys that look like pretty girls, and vice-versa.
So it was on a lazy Sunday after a dinner party, watching movies with my friend Jess, when I was flipping through the past two issues of Vogue when I was delighted by, among other things, a series of spreads for the Fall ’11 campaign for Dolce & Gabbana.
Initially the advertisements appeared to contain the usual multitude of heroin-chic vaguely androgynous models popularized by the likes of Calvin Klein and David Sorrenti in the mid-1990’s. In my Sunday morning THC haze there seemed to be nothing innovative about some pretty girls sitting on the laps of pretty boys in fedoras and tight black pants. I can walk down the street to a bar in my neighborhood and see the same thing on any given weeknight.
Then I looked closer and was delighted to discover they were all girls.
What looked in fact like a standard issue designer spread in an over-hyped self-important glossy rag was in fact subtly inverting that tableaux to subvert traditional gender roles. Even this second cursory glance could be brushed aside by someone with no knowledge of the concept of Gender Queer (this fact in and of itself also rather subversive) as a lark ‘oh they dressed them like boys, how darling.’ But there are a good five or six of theseads, with lithe young women in men’s clothing sitting with legs splayed and aggressively grasping the waists of the models portraying the role of the traditional female. It went beyond typical androgyny to an aggressive stance and assertion of masculinity on the part of females.
And while it is true that Japanese Vogue ran a spread of Lady Gaga as a Drag King, that was an editorial choice of that particular magazine and something that was viewed as yet another piece of her Performance-Art-Fame-Machine. I’m not undermining the fact that it was actually very provocative, and one of the more interesting iterations of Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, but it was not an unannounced well-manicured ad in Anna Wintour’s Bible for Bored Housewives With Aspirational Lifestyle Fantasies. The very lack of fanfare and the fact that it was in American Vogue is what I find to be the most intriguing elements of the campaign.
I mean, Marc Jacob managed to get his ad featuring two men kissing banned from Men’s Vogue, but again the very Under the Radar nature of D&G’s Fall 2011 Campaign is what I find most appealing about it. I almost missed it and only upon further reflection did I realize how it undermined traditional gender roles using a fairly standard and well accepted visual language for fashion advertisements.
Fashion, art, and culture bubbles up from the streets of New York on a regular basis, be it Hip Hop, Punk, or one of half-a-dozen iterations of one or the other (and yes, I know we stole Punk from the British but they stole Hip Hope from us, so I call even-Steven). With the increasing visibility of the Gender Queer community in mainstream culture (at least ‘New York mainstream’) perhaps gender-play is the next hot commodity in art and fashion?
A relatively safe glossy spread in Vogue may be a pebble in the pond, but every cultural ripple has to start somewhere.

Todd Solondz ‘Life During Wartime’ and How Trauma Transforms Us

this article originally appeared at

I am terribly, wonderfully excited about the new Todd Solondz film ‘Life During Wartime’ and its amazing cast which, can we talk about Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Ciaran Hinds, and Paul Reubens and Charlotte Rampling and Ally-fucking-Sheedy!?

Ciaran I have been watching closely since ‘Margot at the Wedding’ and I very much appreciate his low-key approach to acting; he can easily convey strength or a sinister cat-like presence (puma, not tabby) and turn from one to the other on a dime. Frankly, I am just glad to see Paul Reubens is getting his shit together, and I look forward to seeing him as Pee Wee on Broadway this fall.

And Allison Janney; well, yes. This is neither the time, nor the place. Just… yes.

In Jonah Weiner’s piece in the Times yesterday, it was interesting to hear Mr. Solondz discuss the differences between ‘Wartime’ and ‘Happiness,’ his 1998 film of which it is a sequel. There was the usual industry chitchat about ‘wider audiences’ and ‘accessibility’ and even Solondz himself expressed the view that this is probably a more mature film than he was capable of ten years ago.

But that is neither here nor there, and remains to be seen. What I found most interesting was his choice to replace the entirety of the cast of ‘Happiness’ and have the characters played, ten years later, by an entirely different troupe of actors. This was mentioned, in passing, in the Times article, but I find it to be perhaps the most telling and important aspect of the film.

In his last film ‘Storytelling’ he had one character played by multiple actresses, and a quick cynical glance might lead one to think this was just a gimmick or ploy to appeal to art-house audience, or that he wanted to use bigger names to increase his box office draw. I don’t believe this is the case.

In the article, Solondz states that one could see it as “a post-traumatic-stress-disorder movie.” Hence the titles, alluding to the symptoms of extreme mental strain and violence that many soldiers suffer upon return from war zones. Anyone who has seen a Todd Solondz film, and ‘Happiness’ in particular, knows his characters are not very kind to each other (this, being an understatement you see). Pedophilia, interracial rape, cerebral palsy, and New Jersey are the main subjects of his oeuvre; all things that can make even the hardest amongst us bat an eye.

The characters we meet in ‘Happiness’ and re-acquaint ourselves with in ‘Life During Wartime’ have been through a war, of sorts. A mental trial that broke many of them, and caused others to run for shelter and create new lives and identities for themselves far away from their troubled pasts.

It only makes sense that they would be played by different actors. Solondz is telling us that these are not the same people they were over ten years ago. They have been battered and broken and re-shaped both by their own will power and by unrelenting external cultural forces. They are radically changed both to us and themselves and to be honest to these characters and the damage and radical alteration that has been done to them, Solondz had to seek out actors who filled the traits and characteristics in the characters as he saw them ‘today,’ and not as they were ten years ago. If he had cast them using the same people, we would have probably seen a lot of the same character traits and inflections as we had prior, and the film and its characters would not have grown but rather grown stale.

Solondz has often been criticized as being cruel to his subjects, or looking at them with loathing and contempt. Watching his films I feel a certain amount of pity, and sometimes loathing – BUT HAVE YOU MET PEOPLE!? I also feel for them, they feel like real imperfect people who might (and do, I’m sure) actually exist in the real world – more real than the majority of stock characters who inhabit the multiplexes of the world. I think, by carefully selecting a new crop of actors to play characters who obviously mean something to him if he took the time to return to them, Todd Solondz is in his own way showing us that he does in fact care for his characters, and rather deeply.