Paleolithic Punk and the Venus of Marseilles

Venuses of Willendorf (30-27ky) and Marseilles (1882)

To the left, the Venus of Willendorf, a 10.8 cm high stone statuette dating from the Paleolithic era, 30-27 kyr. To the right, the first anthropomorphic design for an atmospheric diving suite built by the Carmagnolle brothers of Marseilles, France in 1882.

The Carmagnolle brothers diving suite is the stuff of steampunk fantasy, but perhaps so situating it is time-out-of-joint in the wrong direction. Instead of designating it as a paleo-future, it is more properly a parachronism: perhaps we should call it the Venus (Ares) of Marseilles (with the Venus of Willendorf as old stone punk).

Technology and the Profound, Part II: Apple’s Retort

A certain sector of nostalgic curmudgeons among us is driven to distraction by the fact that many people today are engaged in a significant amount of interpersonal communication and interaction with their environment mediated by their mobile devices and web technologies. This annoyance that the young people today don’t interact in the time-honored ways is expressed in a number of criticisms: that they are anti-social, isolated, rude, sedentary, disengaged, aesthetically foreclosed, temporally scattered, attention deficient and consumed by trite distractions. Sherry Turkle, the dean of cellular woe, was taped just last week by the New York Times to lament the presidential selfie. She goes so far as to suggest “device-free zones” as “sacred spaces” (“The Documented Life“, 16 December 2013, A25).

U.S. President Barack Obama, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron take a selfie at Nelson Mandela's funeral, Johannesburg, South Africa, 10 December 2013, by Steve Harvey

Back in June I wrote about two popular memes expressing this dismay and posed Apple’s then airing ad for the iPhone 5 as a corrective (“Technology and the Profound“, 18 June 2013). Watching the ad again now, it does address a number of these criticisms, but it is unclear whether the creators were thinking of something else and it is merely inadvertent how well the various episodes of the commercial line up with the criticisms; whether they were very subdued in their response; or whether something in between: they were generally aware of some negative perceptions of their product and attempting to show the iPhone in a sentimental, social, generative light without quite explicitly matching their critics.

With their new Christmas advertisement there’s no mistaking it: Apple it using its Madison Avenue genius to directly engage this debate. And for its emotional delicacy, it’s quite a salvo.

We are presented with exactly the teen that critics of our technological mediation obsession portray: bored, disengaged, one hand always unfree, constantly removing himself from important family events to fiddle with his device. But then, a third of the way through the commercial, the reveal: all those moments when he wouldn’t put down his phone, when he dropped out of family events, what he was actually doing was making a very personal video Christmas card to the entire family. We now rewatch all the moments from the first part of the commercial from a new perspective — in both the positioning of the camera, and in our understanding of what’s going on. As the mise en abyme — our protagonist’s video within the video — ends, he signs off with a bit of video of himself, the teenage veneer of boredom now replaced by an unselfconscious, sheepish happiness and pride. The title of the commercial is even “Misunderstood”. Not only is the teenage experience misunderstood by the adults around him, not only are his actions misunderstood, but here is the cutting edge of this soft light and sentimentality play. The title is not just descriptive of the events of the commercial: it is outwardly directed: it is an accusation against the critics of these technologies for which the events of the ad are the argument: you misunderstand what we are doing with these technologies; you mischaracterize the effects they are having on us.

I’ll add a personal story here, lest you write Apple’s commercial off as a contrivance of corporate propaganda. Toward the end of my college years I attended a birthday party. It began, as such things often do, as a late afternoon back yard cookout. But just after sunset one of the organizers brought out a slide projector and for about a half-hour told stories and played music while projecting onto the white wooden siding of the large side of the house photographs from the recent life of our celebree. It was beautiful and sentimental and poignant and really funny and just a wonderful celebration of this person — so much more so than had we just stood around in the yard eating hot dogs and getting slightly buzzed and then going through the heavily scripted song and cake ritual of birthdays. In other words, had we all only lived in the moment, it would have been just another meaningless collegiate afternoon. It was specifically the documentary consciousness and all those interruptions over the years and the need to share and the clever exhibitionism and the devices that created that evening’s sacred space with its deeply focused consciousness, its break from the ordinary, its reflection and appreciation.

This was the late 1990s, so the technologies of this presentation were the old ones: gelatin emulsion film, shoebox archives dug through over the course of weeks, order forms printed on the back of envelopes, photo developing booths isolated in the middle of the shopping plaza parking lots, cardboard mounted diapositives, that beige slide projector with the torus of black slide slots protruding from the top. So the documentary intrusions were fewer, the pace of production and archiving less frenetic, the sharing less ubiquitous. But also less of the life was available, there was no parallax view, the required bravery of the performance was greater (a slideshow!? so hipster).

This is what I really like about Steven Johnson’s response to Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (“Yes, People Still Read, but Now It’s Social“, The New York Times, 20 June 2010, p. BU3): Johnson frankly concedes that yes, we are losing something. But loss is not the entirety of the transformation. We are also gaining something. And neither the loss of the detractor, nor the gain of the enthusiast are to be weighed in isolation. The proper debate is: is what we have gained worth what we have lost?

Flaming December

Annie Leibovitz's December 2013 Vogue cover, Jennifer Chastain as Frederic Leighton's Flaming June

I love pre-Raphaelite women and I love homage, parody, covers, remix, mashup, etc., so I’m crazy for Annie Leibovitz’s photograph of Jennifer Chastain as Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June (1895) for the cover of the December 2013 Vogue. The Vogue website has a slideshow counterpoising the photo shoot with the inspirational source material.

This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about Annie Leibovitz and Vogue spoofing some vintage design. Perhaps the most popular post on this blog (not because anyone is interested in the rambling post; mostly because people are ripping off the image) is “Destroy This Mad Brute“, an analysis of the meaning of LeBron James and Gisele Bündchen mimicking an anti-old Europe First World War U.S. propaganda poster.

Technology and the Profound

There are two perennial memes, critical of web 2.0, social networking and mobile devices, that keep appearing in my various feeds (Um, kinda ironic that you’re expressing your Luddism through JPEGs). They are these two:

What's the Point of Being Afraid of the Zombie Apocalypse When You're Already a Zombie Yourself

Einstein: I Fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots

Of course as is the case with the web, the second one isn’t even true. Einstein did say something similar to this, but it was with respect to the atomic bomb — the legitimacy of which is beyond reproach — not cellular telephones.

To anyone who’s posted “the real zombie apocalypse” or this purported Einstein quote: nothing is profound or incipient on its own. We are capable of finding and making such experiences where we will. Technology is as capable of beauty and the sublime as any other experience in life.

In this respect, Apple’s recent advertising campaign serves as a wonderful reply:

Of course, this is corporate propaganda, but this is an instance where what makes this such an effective advertisement is just how well it has captured the truth of an experience. One of the things that I love about this commercial is how it is composed of a number of episodes, each of which show a aspect of this particular technological experience: noticing in greater detail textures and objects that would have warranted less attention in the past but that are uniquely beautiful (weathered wood, oil slicks), being the laggard in a group for capturing an image, the foodie thing, handing cameras to and retrieving with gratitude cameras from strangers, selfies, etc.

And before you go dismissing other people’s interests too quickly, I think your children and your pet are boring.

The Zero Effect of Archival Research

Daryl Zero Paper Headache

Now that I’m spending time doing research for my thesis at the Library of Congress Manuscript Division and the National Archive, I’m really wishing that the fictional manual / memoir that serves as Daryl Zero’s voice-over in The Zero Effect were a real book that I could consult:

Now, a few words on looking for things. When you look for something specific your chances of finding it are very bad because of all things in the world, you only want one of them. When you look for anything at all your chances of finding it are very good because of all the things in the world you’re sure to find some of them.

Daryl Zero is for me a guru on par with Yoda, Keisuke Miyagi and Ogami Itto.

Lock 18, The C&O Canal

Lock 18, the C&O Canal at Great Falls, 27 April 2013

Lock 18, the C&O Canal at Great Falls, 27 April 2013

One of the most beautiful artifacts of old D.C. is the C&O Canal (National Park Service | Wikipedia). I spent the afternoon with S. walking along the stretch of it adjacent to Great Falls. Every time I visit it, I think of this, one of my favorite poems.

Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin
Patrick Kavanagh

O commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water, preferably, so stilly
Greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
Commemorate me thus beautifully
Where by a lock niagarously roars
The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence
Of mid-July. No one will speak in prose
Who finds his way to these Parnassian islands.
A swan goes by head low with many apologies,
Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges —
And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns mythologies.
O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
Tomb — just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.

Bad Vermouth and the Myth of the Dry Martini

Okay, look, the so called dry martini with all its apocryphal lore is a pernicious myth leftover from the dark intersection of the post-prohibition loss of cocktail knowledge and America’s post-war takeover by processed food. The dry martini is a product of the fact that for decades the only vermouth widely available in the U.S. was Martini & Rossi. And Martini & Rossi is undrinkable bitter shit. Martini & Rossi is the TV dinner of vermouth. It’s the Campbell’s cream-of-mushroom soup and Hamburger Helper casserole of vermouth. It’s the Velveeta processed cheese product of vermouth. That multiple generations of bartenders and patrons were taught to make martinis extra-dry was tacit recognition that Martini & Rossi vermouth is a good way to ruin a decent glass of gin.

Another indicator here would be the dominance of the brined olive as the martini garnish of choice. The use of a bitter wine shifted the drink toward the bitter end of the taste spectrum. The olive became the logical garnish. The dirty martini became the next logical evolution of the drink (perhaps I will make a follow-up post in praise of the bitter martini, but debunking it is my mission today). In recent years, the lemon twist has returned to the martini, in some establishments even becoming the default garnish. For years I found the lemon twist confusing, wrong, incongruent with the otherwise bitter cocktail and considered it a popularizing, pandering concession to the lemon drop, cosmopolitan, appletini crowd.

It’s only taken me fifteen years to figure this out, but the key to a good martini is not dry, but wet, just not the Martini & Rossi. Use a flavorful, aromatic vermouth such as Dolin and a martini ceases to be a bitter drink suitably garnished with olives and becomes a fragrant, effervescent drink more appropriate to citrus.

Across a number of domains America is rediscovering quality and undoing the damage of generations of public tastes being formed around the requirements of corporate mass-production. It’s time for Martini & Rossi and the dry martini to go the way of the TV dinner, the casserole, the Velveeta.

To be more general about the matter, a martini should be made with a good quantity of a flavorful, robust white aperitif wine. One way to understand the martini is to realize that it is part of a family of cocktails, one close relative being the Vesper, which uses Lillet Blanc where the vermouth would be. And once you see that substitutions of various aperitif wines is a way to make variations on the martini — Cocchi Americano would be another option — then you understand dry vermouth and its proper place in the martini. Another general rule here would be that vermouth shouldn’t be some miscreant liquor, stalking the outer reaches of your bar, in the little bottle, only there for the sake of the occasional drop in a martini. Generally, if you wouldn’t drink it on its own, you shouldn’t put it in a cocktail (a more distantly related principle is that you should at least occasionally have a glass of your various components on their own, at least for the sake of discerning their place in mixtures; but also, aperitif wines are yummy and worth the occasional sip or slug on their own terms). Another way to get an appreciation for the place of vermouth in a martini is to consider the renaissance of vermouth cocktails in recent years.

What’s the proper ratio? Depends. Somewhere in the neighborhood of three-to-one. Here’s the New York Times head-to-head gin review from a few years back that made Plymouth’s current reputation. They mix their martinis at a ratio of four-to-one — because they “wanted to make sure that the gin was featured prominently.” That’s right: a four-to-one ratio was a deviation meant to foreground the gin for the sake of a gin tasting (Asimov, Eric, “No, Really, It Was Tough: 4 People, 80 Martinis,” The New York Times, 2 May 2007).

And here’s Derek Brown, royalty of D.C.’s craft cocktail revival (Wikipedia | twitter), with Kojo Nnamdi mixing a martini at a 50/50 ratio. His preparation is too fastidious for my tastes, but you get the idea regarding ratios and ingredients.

Coda: keeping me honest with myself is one of the reasons for this blog. Three years ago I had a fairly different position on martinis (“How to Make a Mean Martini,” 6 May 2010), but over the course of maybe the last six months I’ve had a few experiences that have completely changed my opinion on this matter (here’s the tweet from 12 March 2013 that’s maybe the moment of realization). Well, I guess I stand by my opposition to the pretense of “mean martini” claims and all the dogmatic and wrong-headed shit-talk. So maybe I’ll stick by my previous point that “most of the important decisions about good cocktails are made at the liquor store.”