Monday, February 8, 2016


I just realized that whenever I talk to my phone, I refer to it as “Siri” even when it is not doing Siri stuff. Like I was just listening to NPR and the reporter said something I thought was stupid and I said, “Well Siri, that's just stupid.”

So I guess that now - in my brain - “Siri” does all the things my phone does. Which means that the ghost of Steve Jobs lives in my subconscious now, which I am not crazy happy about, but even I have to admit that is some really well done brand inception-ing.

Surely I am not the only person experiencing this, right?


Creative Engagement.

One of the classes I am in requires that we write responses of some sort to everything that we are reading in class. This week we read a book called The Activist by Renee Gladman. Full disclosure: the class is seminar in prose fiction and the title is “This Is Not A Novel: Exploring the Boundaries of 21st Century Fiction.” So this is not a 19th Century lit class. We are going to be reading books that are primarily “experimental” or “avant-garde” in nature, subject matter, and/or construction. So it is the kind of stuff that I enjoy, though it is also the stuff I tend to be most critical of because often this is the kind of writing that I think is most self-indulgent.

Anyway, below is a “Creative Engagement” response I wrote to Gladman’s rather “avant-garde”. Note how I do not even mention the book. That is because I am a grad student and all FAF.


The Activist - A Creative Engagement.

Our term d’art “avant-garde” derives its meaning, oddly, from military terminology of the 15th century and, not so oddly, from the French.

The “advance guard” of “vanguard” of a military force consisted of those out in front. Or, as David Strathairn said to Joan Allen over egg white omelettes and coffee in The Bourne Ultimatum, “We are the tip of the spear now.”

He, of course, was discussing highly trained assassins and his insistence on egg white omelets was meant to make him seem effete, which is a French word that describes how Americans feel about the French.

That we have borrowed a term from European battlefields - a term which once implied death and blood and the first to witness fresh new horrors - to describe the paintings done by elephants and the occasional sea lion, tells us much about how we enjoy using words.

The French themselves are weary of our tendency to do this. They fear that on some imaginary future battlefield, some future de Gaulle (whom - rightfully, they believe - is leading the world against some imaginary future Hitler simulacrum) will call for an advance guard to lead the charge over the top and across the no-man’s-land of charred bodies and chubby rats and we will arrive, all of us, with urinals. Urinals, which we have been plundering from the towns we have rolled through - even though de Gaulle has told us not to - and we have inked our names on them with sharpies and we hold our urinals up the gray sky and we shout out to de Gaulle 2.0, “PANCAKES! SQUEEGEES! PHILIP GLASS!” And he presses his hand to the center of his forehead, looks down at the mix of mud and shit and blood caked on his boots and shakes his head slowly, almost imperceivable from side to side.

To prevent this - in the French estimation - completely plausible scenario from playing out, they established the Académie Française, which is tasked with the preservation of the French language. Across the Channel, the chums at the Oxford English Dictionary take great care in selecting new words which they will allow into the language that they granted themselves the right to police. The reality, of course, is that Urban Dictionary is real arbiter of language, but like that time there were two Catholic popes for a while, the boys at the OED just act like they are the ones who knock. Over tea they survey all of the words, all of the malapropisms and portmanteaus, and like EU border guards, only let in the cute ones.

Meanwhile, the French, over wine, smoke cigarettes - which tourists in Paris keep asking them not to do - and wonder silently to themselves where it all went so wrong for them. They all know the answer is Dechamp, but no one has ever said this out loud.

The Académie Française was established by world-renowned pussy-footed tight-ass Cardinal Richelieu in 1635. Notably, it was suspended during the French Revolution, a unique period in French history when they attempted to reboot political revolutions in the style of the Americans, but with lackluster results. “No one really understands the French Revolution,” the actor David Strathairn - who prior to his star-making role in Good Night, and Good Luck, studied the French art forms of mime and clowning at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Venice Florida - told Slate magazine in a 2005 interview, “the meaning got lost somewhere in all that bloodshed. The French Revolution might still be going on for all anyone knows,”

The Académie Française was reestablished as the “Institute de France” in 1803 and some short time later sent a letter to Marcel Duchamp asking him to just chill on all the avant-garde stuff because people down the line might get the wrong idea and that it was okay if he was only showing his stuff off in France because obviously they would all get it, but please keep it way the hell away from the Americans.

Try as he might though, Duchamp couldn’t avoid the firestorm in the American press after he and New York-based friend and artist Francis Picabia went on a graffiti rampage while on a bender one weekend in The Meatpacking District. Dragged before a judge in the Southern District of New York court and asked to explain himself, Duchamp slurred, “Art is destruction!” The following day Duchamp was released into the custody of Tristan Tzara who had mysteriously materialized in New York wearing an elegant swan dress and who posted Duchamp’s bail by handing the court clerk envelopes filled with pancakes.

The Institute de France smuggled Duchamp back across the Atlantic as quickly as possible, but the damage had already been done. The Americans knew now that there was something to this idea that art and destruction could somehow be linked. That there might be beauty in malformity. That boundaries between the made world and the sublime world were not so real as they seemed. In typical American fashion, not long after, they invented the atomic bomb.
The American Buddhist and mystic J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, once wrote in a letter to then-President Harry Truman, “You have never seen a sunrise of such terrible beauty as the one I have made in this desert.”

In the 2009 documentary film The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist was played by the American actor David Strathairn who - when once asked in a article about his friend Steve Martin’s extensive collection of abstract art - said, “Yeah, Steve has a lot of great stuff. I don’t really understand much of it, but I like looking at it.”