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15 September 2013

Deep thoughts on Brazil, romance, aspiration & buying stuff

Enjoy this portrait of Havan, the Brazilian big box chain. It was made by my friend Nadia Sussman for the New York Times. Take this video portrait of Brazilians romanticizing American iconography as a perfect intro to a set of pictures about one American’s romantic notions about Brazil reshaped by a visit to the actual place. (Mine.) I was there in April. It was interesting.

Here’s a direct link to the NYT vid if you have issues with the embed.

The typical notion of Brazilians, beautiful and free, was in evidence in Rio’s nightlife center Lapa. Unfortunately she was dancing beautiful and free to some horrible third (or fourth? or fifth?) wave jam rock with an electronic undercurrent at a teenage bar.

Poverty and sensuality exist side-by-side outside of Bar do Mineiro, a typical but well regarded boteco restaurant in the heart of Rio’s Santa Teresa neighborhood.

As the NYT’s Havan portrait proves, everywhere you go, people like to buy shit. I found this spread of kiddy shoes at the pretty fabulous Galeria do Rock in São Paulo. Though its offerings revolved around a fetishization of American pop culture, the only place in the States that compares (in my experience) is a Southern California swap meet I once visited with Kool Keith. (In LA, however, the Brazilian mall’s focus on rock culture was transposed to a focus on hip-hop.) If anything, the mall in São Paulo was more reminiscent of the pop culture shops of Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood — an interest in American culture abstracted and turned clinical in a way that has more to do with stamp collecting, MTV’s youth culture opportunism, or the Home Shopping Network than it does the vital art often pulsing behind the salable iconography created to market said art.

Finally, the truth of the matter, another shot from a nightclub in Lapa, where the technology seemed to lag at about the same distance as the nostalgia which informed Brazil’s picture of America. The sound system is driven by an IBM computer running a screensaver based on the logo for Atari, a games manufacturer whose fortunes peaked in the ’80s.

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11 January 2013

Pop culture Buddhist George Saunders on realism in fiction, working in America

Several years ago, I conducted a memorable interview with the writer George Saunders. My editors titled it “Mean Snacks and Monkey Shit,” which wasn’t a half-bad way to draw in eyes. Saunders continues to be one of my favorites. I think of him as an American Beckett. Or, as I said in the interview’s introduction “cerebral like Samuel Beckett, simple like Charles Schulz’s ‘Peanuts'” — and I think that nails it, or at least nails something otherwise difficult to articulate about his fiction (that it’s heady without ever falling into the alienating traps of abstraction), while not-quite connecting with some of the other amazing elements of his work & person, a kind of Buddhist approach to the manias of contemporary life that is only revealed when you find out that, well, yes, he’s a Buddhist who’s figured out a way to find peace with pop culture.

Anyway, I still like him — and so, apparently, does the New York Times, whose magazine printed one of those “anointing this year’s cultural meme” kind of profiles in last week’s edition, titled, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year” (well, at least that’s what it was called on the web).

Premature prognostication?

Link bait for guilty upper middle-class intellectuals?

Better that he be recipient of such praise than a ?

All those things. Here were two excerpts from the interview parts that struck me. The moment he faced down the possibility of being cubicle worker bee for the rest of his life:

“I saw the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything,” he told me. “It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes, you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home. You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonored. Suddenly the universe was laden with moral import, and I could intensely feel the limits of my own power. We didn’t have the money, and I could see that in order for me to get this much money, I would have to work for this many more years. It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort — and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.”

And this one, about the pointlessness of realism:

The lesson he learned was the thing he sensed all those years ago in Sumatra, reading but not fully grasping Vonnegut. “I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters,” Saunders wrote in an essay on Vonnegut. “He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’ — he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit. . . . In fact, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ seemed to be saying that our most profound experiences may require this artistic uncoupling from the actual. The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.”

I still suspect CivilWarLand in Bad Decline may be my favorite in his bibliography, in that way that first kisses leave the sweetest memories. But it’s all good.

Anyway, read the magazine piece, k.

Also, Saunders did an interview on Letterman once, like five years ago. He tells one story about sneaking into a Chicago Bears game, another about working on the line at a slaughter house. It’s not fantastic television, but his humanity is palpable.

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12 January 2011

Adam Purple’s garden of Eden

Recall this recent post about the ecological incongruities hidden around New York City’s edges? The presence of nature — sometimes hidden, often denied — never fails to fascinate me.

But wow, I just ran across the story of Adam Purple. His handcrafted circular garden existed in my neighborhood between the years of 1978-1985. Was he ahead of his time? Or was he just not made for these times? One or the other, I think. Not sure which. This New York Times profile of him appeared in 1998:

    ”One doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist or a doomsayer to recognize that there may be something happening to the atmospheric systems on the planet Earth,” Mr. Purple said. ”That’s why I renounce the flush toilet, renounce the internal combustion engine. As a political statement. I can live without.”

A longer excerpt from the article after the jump…
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12 September 2010

O Ludwig!

The problem for me is that if I follow this thing I believe I would never be able to say anything.

    The world is all that is the case.
    The world is the totality of facts, not things.
    Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity.
    What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.

And then what?

I’ll leave you with this internet poem and browser malfunction which I found when I visited today’s New York Times.


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6 April 2010

Quick thoughts on the iPad (from other people)

From butts to technology, never let it be said my interests are narrow. So, let’s talk about the iPad for a second.

The New York Times‘s David Pogue summarized it with the word “polarizing” — dividing his thoughts into a “Review for Techies” & a “Review for Everyone Else.” The Wall Street Journal‘s Walt Mossberg called it a “game changer.” Steve Jobs curiously and incisively (as is his way) used it as an opportunity to explain Apple’s existence “at the intersection of the Liberal Arts and Technology.” Hello, Steve Jobs — businessman and the closest thing the tech industry has to a benevolent philosopher-king (with an Orwellian tinge).

I almost assuredly will not buy one for a few years. (I still don’t have an iPhone.) But there is no question I am curious about its implications for media, for art, and for business. This talk between Charlie Rose, Mossberg and the Times’ columnist David Carr sussed out a lot of them.

Listen for key phrases like “Mouse killer” — “Goof proof computer for technophobes” — “Not good for creating stuff, great for consuming stuff.” We even get to hear Rose utter the words “What does it represent in a cosmic sense?” Trippy dude!
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