France part Un: Le Vrai Thing

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

I’m not from here
But people tell me
It’s not like it used to be
They say I should’ve been here
Back about ten years
Before it got ruined by folks like me

—Larry McMurtry, “I’m Not From Here”

The Glorious People's Republic of Coke

Here comes a long, slightly downbeat meditation on our first dinner in Paris, in which I try to get all that “I’m a traveler, not a tourist” BS out of the way. Don’t worry, I won’t go on at this length about every single dinner we had.

The best thing L & I brought with us to France was Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, a funny and nimble memoir by a New Yorker (and a writer for the New Yorker) who lived in Paris for five years. We spent much of the trip reading bits of Gopnik aloud to one another, chuckling over his bon mots, agreeing and disagreeing with his generalizations (“American guys, they drive a car like this. French guys, they drive a car like this…”), delighting when we experienced something we had just read about, or when we read in Gopnik about something we had just seen.

AG talks a lot about Paris’ magnificent “commonplace civilization,” which stems, he says, from a very French talent for making or doing ordinary things much better than anyone needs. This includes the way packages are wrapped, both beautifully and unnecessarily; the way a French woman wears a simple scarf, just so, in a way nobody from this side of the Atlantic can quite duplicate; and all the little improvised courtesies that are the flip side of France’s official bureaucratic rudeness. And, bien sur, it includes Parisian restaurants, and French bread and coffee and wine and cheese.

“Most people who love Paris,” Gopnik writes (by which he means most Americans who love Paris, though Canadians would qualify too) “love it because the first time they came, they ate something better than they had ever eaten before.” The astonishing first meal in Paris was an experience shared by pretty much every American in France from Ben Franklin and Tom Jefferson in the 1780s through to young Adam Gopnik in the 1970s. Catherine de Medici (AG informs me) brought Italian cooks, then the best in the world, to Paris in the sixteenth century. The French Revolution forced the chefs of the great aristocratic houses to go public, opening up their cooking to the rabble or at least the bourgeoisie. And for the next two centuries, it was pretty much certain that any random meal eaten by any jet-lagged (or sea-lagged) North American traveler in any random Paris brasserie would be an order of magnitude better than anything the traveler had ever tasted back home.

But that transcendent first meal in Paris is much harder to come by today. This is not because of any great decline in French cooking—although it’s certainly true that while the Calvinism of the anti-fat (and now anti-carb) Reformation has swept every other land before it, the French remain devout and loyal to the Holy Trinity of butter, olive oil, and lard. But it’s really because of the great catching up that cooking in the rest of the world has done since the 1970s. (Let’s raise a glass to Julia Child at this point for her part in that transformation, or maybe pour a forty of Chateauneuf du Pape on the curb, as our own culinary machine entertainingly suggests. Does Pope’s Crib Nine even come in forties?)

So Gopnik writes:

The new visitor, trying out the trout baked in foil on his first night in Paris, will probably be comparing it with the trout baked in foil back home at, oh, Le Lac de Feu, in Cleveland, or at Chez Alfie, in Leeds, or Matilda Qui Danse, in Adelaide. … Even the cassis sorbet may not be quite as good as the kind he makes at home with his Sorbet-o-matic.

Matilda Qui Danse. Hee. We would, as it turned out, have many spectacular meals in France. Like our second night’s dinner, which was North African food in the Marais; or lunch in a jaw-droppingly beautiful village in Provence; or this hilarious fondue place where the wine was served in rubber-nippled baby bottles and the proprietor made all the female guests jump over the table to get to their seat; or an astonishing chocolate mousse we went back for twice in some random Montmartre bar that did in fact create just the “I was blind but now I see” religious impact all those previous travelers were talking about.

But that first meal in Paris remains the one with the pressure on it, the one with all the expectations to live up to. On our own first night in the city of lights, we staggered in a jet-lag daze, like almost every other tourist in the city, into a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys across the Seine from Notre Dame. The streets were lined with restaurants, but the throngs of American tourists and the high number of places with names like “Le Vrai Paris” (the real, or the true, Paris), hinted to us that this wasn’t, you know, le vrai Paris.

Ah, le vrai Paris. That’s what we, and all the other tourists, are looking for, right? The true Paris. Not that crappy fake Paris they roll out to dupe the tourists. Authenticity. The real thing. But I am pretty confident that the one place we will not find le vrai Paris is in a chain of restaurants actually called Le Vrai Paris. Just like the best yogurt in the entire country is not, in fact, served at a stand in the mall called “The Country’s Best Yogurt” and “The Great Canadian Bagel Experience” (a name that L, closet Canadian-basher, finds unaccountably hilarious) is not where you should go to have the greatest possible Canadian bagel experience. Whatever that might entail.

Maybe I’ll open a restaurant called “Le Vrai Boston” or “The True Boston Experience.” I’ll serve frozen pasta from Trader Joe’s and make all the diners spend nine years getting a History PhD.

So we double-checked Lonely Planet, the bible of all foreign tourists desperate to imagine they are not in fact foreign tourists, and sure enough, there was a stern warning to avoid precisely the neighborhood we were in. “Pity the foreign swine-philistines all!-gorging at these filthy troughs,” said Lonely Planet (I’m paraphrasing). “Their eyes will never look upon le vrai Paris.”

When I worked for the Let’s Go travel guides, we were instructed not to do this: given that 99% of our readers would be tourists in whatever place the book was about, it seemed unsporting to denounce them for committing the crime of being tourists. But Lonely Planet takes shots at those detestable tourists on almost every page. And I can’t help thinking that is why it’s muscled Let’s Go and Berkeley’s Rough Guide out of the top spots in the budget travel market. This is the paradox of travel writing and traveling in general. What we want when we travel is a way to avoid people like ourselves.

Lonely Planet caters directly to this desire, but of course any place the LP guide describes as unspoiled or authentic—le vrai Paris, n’est-ce pas?—will soon be overrun by tourists carrying their own copies of the LP guide. Which is why you need a new edition every year. The act of going there in some way negates the reason you came.

The definitive work on this Catch-22 is, for me, Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, which I read while I was researching for Let’s Go in 1998, and which I still rank among the great Generation X novels, whatever you may think of the movie version or of Alex Garland’s subsequent career.

Anyway, thanks to Lonely Planet, we were able to escape the dreaded Tourist Quarter. We wandered down some darkened streets and chose, basically at random, a welcoming-looking brasserie on the rue des Ecoles called the Balzar. The food was great, if not life-changing. Mostly, I remember: the green beans, so fortified with butter as to have ceased being vegetables entirely (just the sort of vegetables I can get behind); the wine (a great Bordeaux, “muscular, with nothing to prove,” let’s say); and the waiters, who like most waiters in Paris, strike you as waiters—confident old professionals rather than aspiring screenwriters and aerobics instructors.

Two days later, we read in the Gopnik book:

The Balzar, on the rue des Ecoles, in the Fifth Arrondissement of Paris, happens to be the best restaurant in the world.

Sacre bleu! Le vrai Paris, and we’d stumbled onto it entirely by accident!

Well, I had no choice but to regard our accidental discovery of the Balzar as a great personal victory. I am, for the most part, terrible at choosing restaurants, or really at choosing food of any kind. It’s not that I choose badly, it’s that I can’t choose at all. Major, life-changing decisions are never hard for me. Indeed, they never feel like decisions. I just know what’s right. But the less a choice matters to me (Indian or Chinese food tonight? do you like the green skirt or the blue? paper or plastic?), the more difficult it is for me to muster up any sort of preference. I’ve had more than enough “What do you wanna do tonight?” “I dunno. What do you wanna do?” conversations to know that I am not alone in this affliction. But I also know that my case is particularly acute. When an old girlfriend of mine broke up with me, after three years together, in my first year of grad school, I was pretty shattered, and I begged her to tell me why—to name some flaws or faults in myself that I could change to win her back. The only concrete reason she would give for dumping me was my apparently infuriating inability to decide where I wanted to go for dinner.

Here’s Gopnik on the waiters at the Balzar:

It is the waiters who give the Balzar its soul. A team of the same ten men has been in place for decades. They are courteous, warmhearted, ironic, and mildly lubricious. (They have been known to evaluate sotto voce, the size and shape of a woman’s rear even as they pull out the table to make way for it.) They work hard. By tradition at the Balzar, the plats arrive beautifully arranged on an oval platter and then are carefully transferred by the waiter to a round plate. This doubles the work but creates an effect. Whenever I am feeling blue, I like to go to the Balzar and watch a waiter gravely transfer a steak au poivre and its accompaniments from an oval platter to a plate, item by item. It reaffirms my faith in the sanity of superfluous civilization.

So. It may not have been the absolute best food ever to touch our lips, but the New Yorker called it “the best restaurant in the world.” That vrai enough for ya? What better proof could you ask for of L & my good taste, and indeed of our innate superiority to all those other tourists? We felt pretty flush for the next couple of days. L mentioned the coup in a post card home; I composed a long and self-congratulatory weblog post in my head.

But then, le dénouement. It was a week later when we read the sequel to AG’s Balzar column, farther along in the book. Turns out the Balzar was bought out, in the summer of 1998, by the Flo Group, a chain now owning virtually all the brasseries in Paris. It is no longer, Gopnik sadly reports, the best restaurant in the world. It’s just another pretty good Parisian restaurant.

O crushing blow. O cruel twist of fate. The taste of those haricots verts turned to ashes in my mouth. (Delicious, golden, buttery ashes. But ashes nonetheless.) Live by the New Yorker columnist, die by the New Yorker columnist. Le vrai Paris is a harsh mistress, and she does not give her favors away that easily, monsieur.

AG and the other Balzar regulars did fight back against the decline of the place at the time, grabbing some media attention, and staging a sit-in, which he drolly describes:

There was, I sensed, a flaw in our strategy: If you take over a restaurant as an act of protest and then order dinner at the restaurant, what you have actually done is gone to the restaurant and had dinner. … Having come to say that you just won’t take it anymore, you have to add sheepishly that you will take it, au point and with béarnaise sauce.

But despite la Resistance, the Flo Group prevailed, and things at the Balzar have never been quite the same. Rumor has it that the new management welcomes tour groups from (gasp) America. The food is still excellent, but certain showy items, like oeufs crevettes, have crept onto the menu. The waiters are still canny old professionals, but now, alas, you must eat your food on the same plate the waiter brings you. And those same waiters will, after seventy minutes, bring you your check—even if you haven’t asked for it! Zut alors! So goes the decline of civilization. Gopnik says he’s never been back to the Balzar. “I would still send visiting Americans there,” he allows. But it’s no longer, you know, le vrai Paris.

Sigh. Those green beans were pretty good, though.


Torah! Torah! Torah!

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

Today is the first day of Passover, which seems like a good opportunity to say something about Douglas Rushkoff‘s book Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism. I read it a few months ago. I think it comes out in paperback this week.

“I desire macaroni pictures! And those little shaker things where you put beans inside of paper plates that are glued together! And let us put patterns of glue on the outside of those paper plates so we can then pour glitter on them so they look nice and sparkly!”

A couple of years ago, I read a book called The Talmud and The Internet, which seemed like a painless way for a guy like me to learn a little more about his (then future) wife’s religion. There were some nifty stories in there about the Talmud and its recursive hypertextual nature. For instance, there’s a tract where the Talmudic Rabbis discuss how God spends His days. They decide that, among other things, God spends three hours each day studying the Talmud. In other words, the Talmud is so vast and complicated that even God Himself must study it daily. And—how’s this for freaky movie-within-a-movie action—this discussion of the Talmud is contained within the Talmud itself. Whoa. But I don’t really recommend that book to you if you have any more knowledge of computers than, say, my grandmother. I had the distinct impression the author got most of his information about the internet from Parade Magazine or something similar. A lot of the book was just “Computers! Are they good for the Jews?” if you know what I mean.

Douglas Rushkoff, on the other hand, knows from cyberculture and Judaism both. And Nothing Sacred, originally subtitled “The Case for Open-Source Judaism,” is a pretty cool combination of the two:

An open source religion would work the same way as open source software development: it is not kept secret or mysterious at all. Everyone contributes to the codes we use to comprehend our place in the universe. … An open source Judaism is not Judaism-lite, but a commitment to know the religion as deeply and profoundly as its original programmers.

Let me clarify that my own understanding of life, the universe, and everything is and remains entirely atheistic, secular, and non-religious. Indeed this has sparked minor arguments between L & I. She’s really not religious either, but is more likely than I am to admit that organized religion might occasionally have some small redeeming qualities. What I realized when we had those arguments, though, was that when she said “religion” and thought of Judaism and I said religion and thought of, you know, whatchamacallit, that building with the lower case ‘t’ on it, we were starting in two rather different places.

I’m not converting any time soon, but I gotta give big Sammy Davis Jr. props to the Jews. I’ve gone to High Holiday services with Lisa and I think it’s fantastic that they have a question and answer session where people debate the Rabbi’s sermon. I think the rule that you can’t even read the Torah without ten people present to discuss it is wild—it’s like a built-in inoculation against fanaticism. Think of how much less impact some idiotic TV ad has when you watch it in a group of ten or more people. Imagine a world in which it was forbidden to watch TV without at least nine friends there to discuss it.

Bart: “Rabbi, did not a great man say, and I quote, ‘The Jews are a strange bunch of people. I mean, I’ve heard of persecution but what they went through is ridiculous! But the great thing is, after thousand of years of waiting and holding on and fighting, they finally made it,’.”
Rabbi Krustofsky: “Oy, I never heard the plight of my people phrased so eloquently! Who said that, Rabbi Hillel?”
Bart: “Nope.”
Rabbi Krustofsky: “It was Judah the Pious.”
Bart: “Nope.”
Rabbi Krustofsky: “The Dead Sea Scrolls?”
Bart: “I’m afraid not, Rabbi. It’s from ‘Yes I Can’ by Sammy Davis Jr. An entertainer, like your son.”
Rabbi Krustofsky: “The Candy Man? If a performer can think that way maybe I’m completely upside down on this whole problem.”

Rushkoff basically argues that Judaism is not a religion, but rather the historical process by which humanity is evolving out of its need for religion. Which is the kind of religion I can get behind. So for him, the Exodus commemorated by Passover was not a historical event, but an allegory for the liberation of Jewish thought from the idolatrous death cults of Egypt. Each of the plagues of Egypt is a symbolic desecration of one of the old gods or religious practices of the Jews themselves. That’s the Jewish gift to the world, Rushkoff says: their millenia-long exodus away from superstition. And the point of the book is to urge Jews to keep pushing along that path: to hold on to their traditions of debate and iconoclasm (Rushkoff has described Judaism as media literacy in the guise of a religion) while abandoning their tribal or possessive instincts, indeed abandoning the whole idea of being a chosen people, to create an open-source religion available to all.

Elaine: “David, I’m going to Hell! The worst place in the world! With fires and devils! Don’t you have anything to say about that?”
Putty: “It’s gonna be rough.”

Now, the reaction to Nothing Sacred showed that my man Dougie might have underestimated the continuing appeal of tribalism. Everywhere he went to promote the book, he got called a God-killer or a Holocaust-denier or an anti-Semite. You can almost track the deflation of his optimism by reading the blog entries from his book tour last year. Even L didn’t quite accept the whole argument of the book, though she thought parts of it were pretty cool. “God loves you best,” is a pretty durable meme, I guess. At least as powerful as “You are forgiven,” “There’s a big payoff in this for you at the end,” or “You kick ass.

But whatever your religion or lack thereof, Nothing Sacred is worth a look. Rushkoff is just such a cool and optimistic thinker. I don’t always agree with him, but I always want what he’s saying to be correct. In Rushkoff’s cyberpunk Judaism, God is not a supernatural entity, but an emergent property of the religion itself. God is not to be feared or obeyed or even worshipped, but continually questioned, challenged, and revised. In fact, this very process is all that “God” is. Nothing more or less than people thinking for themselves about their duties to one another:

In a world where God is an emergent phenomenon, the entire premise of good and evil is a meaningless duality. Abstract monotheism insists that there is only one thing going on here: God. He has no antithesis, no evil twin. There is only good and the absence of good—the places where good has not yet spread. It is akin to the way a physicist understands the concept of cold. There is no such thing as cold. It is not a force of its own. Cold is not an energy. It does not exist. There is only heat. What we think of as “cold” is merely the absence of heat. Likewise, what we think of as “evil” may better be understood as the absence of good. … Just because a candle can be blown out does not mean that darkness is an energy of its own.

(Head-bending stuff. Makes me wish it was the late 1990s and I was tweaking to trance music at ‘s, clenching my jaw and gabbling to at a mile a minute.)

Masel Tov!

P.S.: I made a nice big pork roast for tonight.


Hit By A Fish

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

In French, as you may know, April Fool’s Day is called Poisson d’Avril, which literally means “April Fish.”

My Dad sometimes tells a story about when I was a little kid and I discovered a deck of Tarot cards. Immediately enchanted, I set about telling the fortunes of all my friends. Of course, I didn’t know what any of the cards or layouts meant, so my readings were both linear and extremely literal. I’d just slap the cards down one after another like I was playing War: “You will be stabbed with ten swords! Then you will be given seven coins! Then you will become a juggler! Then you will die!”

What I lacked in symbology, I made up in oracular conviction, by bellowing all of my prophesies in a booming voice (as booming as an eight-year-old can muster). It must have worked too, because, as my Dad tells it, my little chums would finish their Tarot readings quaking in fright. All the fortunes I told ended badly. I think I thought you just kept going all the way through the deck until you got to Death or one of the other clearly fatal cards. How else would you know when to stop?

(Some parents might have stepped in after the third or fourth ashen-faced eight-year-old staggered home, each convinced of their own strangely specific yet utterly unavoidable doom. But Dad obviously thought this was all a good laugh. I love my parents and the irreligious upbringing they gave me. Ours would later be the go-to house for scary Ouija board action. And if I’ve never told you my Sunday School story, I will.)

Anyway, Dad was particularly taken by the fate I prophesied for my friend Aaron McLaughlin: “You will ride on a horse! You will drink from three cups! And then… you will be hit by a fish!!” I don’t even know which Tarot card has a fish on it, but that is the line from this story that has stuck as family catchphrase #17,368: “You will be hit… by a fish!” (You’re supposed to say it booming and loud, with just a little pregnant pause before revealing the precise instrument of your subject’s frappage.)

Aaron McLaughlin and his family moved to Alberta, so I don’t know if he ever did get hit by that fish. But the saying has stayed with me, and I’ve come to think of it as my own fortune rather than his. It’s not a terrifying doom, but a warning against hubris, and a reminder of the general perversity of the cosmos. Don’t get too full of yourself. Don’t count your chickens. Just when you start thinking you’re all that—an Emperor, or a Juggler, or some fancy dude on a horse with seven coins and a cup—Fwap! You too will be hit by a fish.

Case in point: me, the last week or so. “Hey, I’m graduating soon! Hey, I got a swell job! Lookit me, big Harvard PhD with a fancy poobah fellowship! Hey, big tax refund coming our way! Wonder what we’ll spend all those coins on?” Then today: Crash of thunder. Deluge of rain. “Hey, it’s been raining steadily for 48 hours. Hey, our ceiling is leaking in seven places. Hey, should it be… bulging like that?”


Happy Poisson d’Avril, everybody. 🙂


Bowling For Geisha

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

Goddamn, you half-Japanese girls / you do it to me every time.
—Weezer, “El Scorcho”*

Last week was Lisa’s birthday. We went out with a bunch of friends to Peking Tom’s, and ran up a big bill on dumplings and tropical drinks. As a present for her, I had a couple of large prints made and framed from the photo archive of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Lisa’s worked with the PEM on a bunch of Asian history things over the years. She took some of her students to China under the museum’s auspices in 2001, and would have taken more last year if not for SARS. (They’re supposed to go this year, so we’re watching the spread of Mad Chicken Disease with alarm.) And she also ran a workshop on their photo collection last summer, which makes the prints a pretty cool present if I do say so myself.

The PEM is absolutely worth visiting if you’re ever near Salem. They’ve got a huge gorgeous new building, they’ve got Yin Yu Tang, an entire house brought over peg by peg from southeastern China and rebuilt here, and then they have great rotating exhibits on Asian history and New England maritime history. There’s an exhibit of 1920s photographs of China, Tibet, and Mongolia on now and an exhibit on geisha opens this week. You can see many of their photographs (though no bigger than these images) at something they call ARTscape.

Above are the two prints I had made. They’re both from around 1880, by a Japanese photographer named Kusakabe Kimbei. I really dig the nineteenth-century photos—actually, I really like all old photos. Kusakabe was one of the first and best-known Japanese photographers. His pictures differ from most taken by Westerners of the era, who were more likely to pose their subjects directly facing the camera. Kusakabe’s photographs are not without artifice—the samurai era had been over for twenty years when the samurai picture there was taken—but they’re just a little more alive then the formal Western pictures, a little closer to offering a window on the past, which is what makes pictures like these so compelling for history nuts like L & myself.

That’s not to say that the Westerners’ photographs in the collection aren’t cool too. Especially since the main aspects of Asia that Europeans tended to want pictures of were: 1) “exotic” clothing and costumes, 2) cool architecture, 3) nekkid ladies, 4) torture and mutilation. And who can argue with wanting to see any of that?

Here’s two more pictures from the PEM I really like. On the left is a pagoda in Fuzhou, China, photographed in 1871. On the right are three Indian soldiers serving the Maharaja of Kashmir in the 1870s. At this scale you probably just notice their funny hats, but if you see this picture full-size you can tell from their faces these dudes are BAD ASS. I’m reminded of a comment in the letters column from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen:

The depiction of Verne’s Nemo is born of dislike for the fashion by which Western media unvaryingly characterize those of Indian descent as high-voiced, wobbly-headed, timid, ineffectual shopkeepers … Clearly such people have never had several hundred wild-eyed fanatical devils over-run their cannon positions. Or wondered why [Hindu] deities possess so many arms, the great majority of which are holding something sharp.

The only depressing thing about the Peking Tom outing was how it was one of the very few times I’ve actually seen and interacted with Lisa in the last few weeks. We’ve both been busy and stressed lately, and when that happens we tend to revert to our natural biorhythms—I stay up and get up later and later, she gets up and goes to bed earlier and earlier. Eventually we’re like acquaintances who pass each other on the way to and from bed around 3 am. Lisa declared Sunday a mental health day for both of us, which meant no work, not even email or weblogs. A lot of lounging, snogging, canoodling, and we even started drinking before noon. Heaven. Lots of things to get stressed about again come Monday—medical problems in the family, the job hunt, the dissertation, her grades due, money—and oh yeah, our roof is caving in! But Sunday was a damn good day.

My Linking Technique Is Unstoppable!

  • Samurai Archives! Electric Samurai! The Samurai Code! Akira Kurosawa! Did I mention that I’m on a samurai kick?
  • I watched The Seven Samurai last week for the first time in ages. I’ve seen Ran and Rashomon, never seen Yojimbo. Besides that, what other Kurosawa movies are must-sees?
  • Lisa ran her Sengoku-inspired classroom LARP last week. This is I think the third time she’s done it, and something cool and different happens each time. This time the ninja assassin killed the daimyo, but she let him hang around as an unquiet ghost. I wish I’d had her as a teacher in high school. Except for the ickiness our being married would then create.
  • Samurai Jack just gets better and better, doesn’t it? I can’t tell how “seasons” work on Cartoon Network, but virtually all of the newer episodes (Robo Samurai versus Mondo Bot, the secret origin of Aku, the one where Jack and Aku agree to fight without sword or magic) have been priceless.
  • Anyone out there seen the movie Samurai Fiction? Worth renting? Mostly I want to hear the soundtrack and find out if everything Tomoyasu Hotei does is as cool as the song on the Kill Bill soundtrack. I’d hate to drop $40 for a import CD and have it turn out to be noodly 80s J-Pop.
  • Speaking of that, what = up with Kill Bill Part 2? Wasn’t that supposed to be coming out this month?
  • Getting away from samurai per se: Chris/Gamma Fodder had a great post on Asian junk food cinema recently. I’ve seen many of those films, mostly with him, but I’m still saving the link to fill in the ones I’ve missed. Plus here’s an RPGnet thread with more samurai movies and comics for me to go through.
  • Edit: One more link for my own benefit, from China rather than Japan: Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

*”El Scorcho” came very close to being the first dance at our wedding. As a public service I will explain for you the part of the lyrics that nobody can figure out:

I asked you to go to the Green Day concert
You said you never heard of them
How cool is that?
So I went to your room and read your diary:
“watching Grunge leg-drop New Jack through a press table”
And then my heart stopped:
“listening to Cio Cio-San”
I fall in love all over again.

The fifth line refers to wrestler Johnny Grunge putting the hurt on Nu Jack Isone in (I’m told) the old ECW wrestling league. “Cio Cio-San” is the title character in Madame Butterfly—which, like the album “Pinkerton” and this post, is about a Westerner’s infatuation with the East. A girl who shreds the cello, has never heard of Green Day (in 1996!), but writes in her diary about wrestling matches and Madame Butterfly is clearly a strange girl worth holding on to. Is it any wonder that this is “our” song?


Geek Shakes Tiny Fist on Weblog. Dozens Bored. Film at Eleven.

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

So Warren Ellis (tangent: new Planetary out! it’s a good ‘un!) enlisted a bunch of his friends to offer predictions, sermons, and manifestos for the new year. The photogenic model / writer / activiste / “erotonaut” / sycophants in Ellis’ posse (but they hate labels) replied mainly with lame Spider Jerusalem imitations. But Cory Doctorow had this gem, which I wish every computer geek would read and take to heart:

The last twenty years were about technology. The next twenty years are about policy. It’s about realizing that all the really hard problems — free expression, copyright, due process, social networking — may have technical dimensions, but they aren’t technical problems. The next twenty years are about using our technology to affirm, deny and rewrite our social contracts: all the grandiose visions of e-democracy, universal access to human knowledge and (God help us all) the Semantic Web, are dependent on changes in the law, in the policy, in the sticky, non-quantifiable elements of the world. We can’t solve them with technology: the best we can hope for is to use technology to enable the human interaction that will solve them. [more Chuck D]

If you grant him a little hyperbole (the policy choices of the last twenty years didn’t matter? the next twenty years won’t be about technology too? how can twenty years be “about” anything, anyway?), this message seems to me exactly right. In 2004 as in 1904, the technological is political. This happens to be one of the central arguments of my dissertation, so I hope you’ll forgive me a mildly hung-over rant.

The technological is political. That idea has two prongs. One, technologies are shaped above all by politics. By “political” I mean more than just elections and legislation (though those are important) I mean the exercise of power. New technologies don’t unfold by some inherent logic. There isn’t a natural or inevitable way that any given technology “wants” to be. It takes different shapes based on choices we make and battles we fight — or don’t. Two, every technology has real political effects. It confers power to some and robs the power of others. In other words, it matters. “I want my MP3” is hardly an inspiring banner to march under, I admit. And the world certainly seems to have bigger problems than electronic freedom. But what we have now is leverage. It will never again be as easy to shape the future of the internet as it will be in 2004. (It would have been easier still in 2003, or 2002 — you get the idea — but hey, spilt milk.) You all know that old chestnut about whether you would go back in time to kill Hitler if you could. Well, what if you could go back in time and make TV not suck so much? I’d do it in a second.

The upshot of those two prongs is that it’s our responsibility to make decisions about our technological environment and to push for things that matter. Decisions being made today about the kinds of topics Doctorow lists are determining whether all those “grandiose visions of e-democracy” will come true or whether we’re just building an omniscient shopping mall as pervasive as the Matrix (and as depressing as The Matrix: Reloaded).

Historians should refrain from making predictions, so instead I’ll just say “this has all happened before.” What kind of internet we’re going to have in 2024, what kind of media ownership, what kind of social-technical infrastructure — the answers to these questions aren’t predetermined, and they won’t be decided by any “natural” evolution of technology. The best systems, alas, don’t always rise to the top. Because there is no objective “best,” just “best in the eyes of who.” These questions won’t be decided by consumers either. At least I hope not, because, by definition, the only real choice consumers make is to consume. These questions will be decided by politics, which is to say, by the exercise of power.

Look into the future. Wave. The children of 2024 are looking back at us and holding us responsible for the internet we bequeathed them. Is the new boss the same as the old boss? Has the crazy science fiction world of everything that could be (like Doctorow’s own utopia of Disneyworld without the Disney Corp. — it’s easy to see the appeal but hard to imagine how we’d get there) been chipped down to into something boring and predictable? And are people being trained to think that that outcome was inevitable all along? If some combination of elitist disdain for politics and misguided libertarianism causes the geeks of the world to drop the ball, I’m sending a Terminator back from the future to bitch slap every one of us.