Saturday, March 12, 2011

These Terrible Events and the Matter of their Size

I set my alarm clock late last night (early this morning, actually) to go off three hours after I went to bed. I wanted to know what was happening in Japan and I could only grant myself three hours' worth of suspended vigilance. That's because, minutes before I turned the light off, I read a report about radiation releases at the earthquake-affected nuclear plant. Expert opinion contained in the report, as well as what advertised itself as expert opinion in the appended comments section, suggested that even if there should be a 'meltdown' (a word that I understand chiefly in its vulgar form, as a sort of uncontrollable tantrum, but whose technical, scientific definition I'm enough aware of to be chilled by) there was little to fear in terms of...  What, exactly? What are the terms of fear these days?



'Senseless' Deaths-per-Minute?

Second Coming Signs?

Events that are Revelatory of Humankind's Radical Dysfunctionality and Point To A Coming Conmprehensive Trauma?

Even more than an update of the headlines, it was some answer to this question of measurement, some  sense of how to calibrate my instruments for registering calamitous news, that I went to bed apprehensively desiring. An earthquake and a tsunami within one day were a lot to take in, but nothing I wasn't equipped for; add in a technological disaster, though, and the whole combo was a bit too much. Natural catastrophes, I had a box for those. Fiery collapsing buildings too, unfortunately. And yes, because I'm old enough, I had a place to put nuclear stuff as well. But all at once? Even Hollywood has failed me here. Though a few of its omnibus CGI apocalypses have served up all of these elements and then some ('Independence Day,' '2012'), the underlying scripts were so contrived that the horrors didn't horrify, they merely impressed.

Meaning this was new, this news.

It feels like there's been a lot of new news recently.

So anyway, when the alarm clock woke me up, my laptop computer was right there by my pillow. I rolled over on my side and clicked. The building around the reactor had exploded. I watched a brief video of the accident. I watched it several times. That's how it works now: the five or ten seconds of critical footage, initially an impressionistic blur, is played and replayed until it yields its message, until its act-structure becomes perceptible. And then, once it has, you can fix a caption on it. Mine in this case was: They  Said When it Started It Probably Wouldn't Go This Far, But I Was Absolutely Sure it Would. Or, to frame it another way: What is it about reality lately that bad dreams grasp it better than informed analyses?

Now, a few hours later, things have calmed some. Certain key boundaries have held, it seems. But I still don't know how to graph what's going on. I still lack a unitized basis for comparing Japan to Haiti to Libya to Katrina to 9/11 to what might be coming in Saudi Arabia to what could happen tomorrow in, say, Los Angeles or -- as suddenly seems plausible -- in Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Oslo simultaneously. Though maybe not Oslo. Scandinavia still seems safe somehow. Nothing awful ever happens in Scandinavia.

Which, these days, probably assures that something will. And that the something will be something other than the unthinkable somethings that have preceded it.

I suppose what I'm saying is: The Richter Scale, how quaint.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What Would it Be Like to Care About Wisconsin? Imagining an Alternate Political Self

I'd have to be one of those people who think of teachers in the way that Hollywood asks us to in those hit movies where a failing school wracked by ill-discipline at every level is gradually led by a person of simple tastes, unsexy habits, and not-for-profit hair through a painful but redemptive process of acknowledging, pursuing, and satisfying its latent desire for greatness. I'd also have to be able to forget my actual teachers, who often dismissed or ridiculed my overt desire for greatness and whose unprepossessing looks and manners seemed less to suggest nobility of spirit than uncertainty of body.

I'd have to be one of those people who aren't distracted, when watching TV or browsing on the Internet, by lurid celebrity gossip; or, rather, who are distracted by such gossip but know it to be merely that, a lurid distraction, and whose intellectual compass needles reliably return (after some wiggling) to topics such as fiscal years, parliamentary procedure, and collective bargaining.

I'd have to be able to sustain aesthetic interest in Governor Scott Walker's face, a sort of embryonically indistinct contemporary male conservative visage that seems, like a stem cell, capable of growing into the faces of most of Walker's peers, but particularly Mitt Romney's. Which may be another way of saying this: Walker's face appears to be the average of the family of faces that Romney's is the ideal of.

I'd have to be able to shift cultural perspectives and take the state of Wisconsin seriously as a stage for Vital Political Dramas With Ramifications for Our National Future rather than continuing to see it as a comical repository of dated White Ethnic folkways, one of which is belonging to labor unions and others of which are eating sausage and bowling.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Uses of Charlie Sheen, A Wittgensteinian Investigation.

1. As Cautionary Tale.

Acutely problematic. Since Sheen's biography bears little relationship to the experiences of most civilians, it's hard to know how exactly he went wrong or how, under the circumstances (father a hyper-observant Roman Catholic political activist thinking-person's movie star; brother a frozen-in-pop-culture-time non-thinking person's teen-dream idol; face a peculiar demonic composite of both of them that's somehow been robbed of its individuality; ex-wife a robotic sex kitten projection deemed real only for legal and gossip purposes; TV show a fiendishly exploitative mechanism which invites the viewer to superimpose what he knows to be Sheen's degraded consciousness on a generic asshole background of a character), he might have avoided going wrong.

Yes, in theory, cocaine abuse is something human beings should avoid, but Charlie Sheen does not exist in theory. He exists in what one might call a 'problem space' that is singular, novel, and largely incommunicable. Inside of it and according to its rules 'cocaine abuse' may well resemble what we on the outside, in the consensus problem-space, think of as 'light and healthy eating' or 'preparing for the hero's journey.'  

2. As Social Media Binding Agent

Marvelously efficient and unlikely ever to be surpassed. In the endless one and a half days since Sheen shrugged off his fictional carapace as the 'star' of Two and a Half Men ( a show so majestically barren of personality, so perfectly clone-of-a-clone-of in style and affect, that it could have made a 'star' of anyone who stuck his live head in the cut-out hole it offered), and launched his new 'reality' career as a live-wire interview subject who was at first authentically unstable but is surely enough of a performer to realize now what the audience expects from him and to deliver it with all his might, meaning he's now both unstable and feigning unstable, Sheen has emerged as the consummate, perhaps defining, subject of social media conversations. He is the great Third Person Outside the Room that allows loosely associated strangers interacting on Twitter etc. to engage in synthetic confidential intimacy.

His any-guy name 'Charlie' helps immeasurably here, but what helps most is this: Charlie too treats "Charlie Sheen" as the great Third Person Outside the Room.

3. As Secret Superhero of the Id

Profoundly influential yet puzzling.

At a time when few of us know first-hand exactly what Total Self-Gratification would constitute if our means and our access to party supplies were infinite, we are left to infer from Sheen's aftermath appearance  --  from the graven lines around his mouth and the very small holes in the center of his pupils where the 'twinkle' used to go -- what it's like to do everything you want to anyone you want to do it to in a safe and luxurious environment while you're the highest you can be. It's fun to imagine what Sheen felt, that is, and what it felt like (at one time) to be Sheen. It's a way to connect with our orgiastic selves. It's a way to not have to pretend that cocaine feels bad and that meaningless sex, by meaning whatever we want it to, isn't in fact the most meaningful sex of all.

The problem, though, is that when you look at him, you get this distinct weird feeling that Charlie Sheen is the only person in the whole universe incapable of actually enjoying, actually getting off on in a deep way that really sticks to the neurons afterward, the myriad pleasures of Homo Malibu that were formerly open to Charlie Sheen.

(Describe your own uses of Sheen in the comments section and I will consider them in a future post)