Secretary Clinton: Let Me Show You the World in My Eyes

Or perhaps the correct reference for that last post was Depeche Mode rather than Andy Warhol.

Let me take you on a trip
Around the world and back
And you won’t have to move
You just sit still

Now let your mind do the walking
And let my body do the talking
Let me show you the world in my eyes

Hard Truths about Concrete

Zachary Korb, Abbott Hospital Parking Garage Ramp, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1 October 2006

In 1992 the Max Protech Gallery in New York had an exhibit of the concrete furniture work of Scott Burton. Chaise Longings, the catalogue of the exhibit, included an essay, “Concrete and Burton”, by Peter Schjeldahl (at the time an art critic for The Village Voice). It came to my attention when the following section was excerpted in Harper’s Magazine (published under the title, “Hard Truths about Concrete,” vol. 287, no. 1721, October 1993, pp. 28-30).

It is really more of a prose poem, or a paean to concrete than an essay of analysis or criticism. As an enthusiast of urbanism and the human built environment, I too have a considerable eros for concrete, and often find myself reciting lines from this passage to myself as I gaze out the train window rumbling about the city (usually the eastern branch of the red line).

Wall-Ties & Forms, Inc., High Rise Concrete Construction In Venezuela, 26 August 2008

1. Concrete

Concrete is the most careless, slovenly stuff — until it is committed, when it becomes fanatically adamant. Liquid rock, concrete is born under a sign of paradox and does not care. Pour concrete out on the ground and it will start to puddle and spread, in rapture to gravity, but then will think better of it: enough spreading! It heaps up on itself in lazy glops, sensual as a frog.

Concrete takes no notice of what is done with it, flowing into any container, and the containers one makes for it, the molds and forms, must be fashioned with laborious care, strong and tight, because concrete is heavy and entirely feckless. Promiscuous, doing what anyone wants if the person is strong enough to hold it, concrete is the slut, the gigolo, of materials. Every other material — wood, clay, metal, even plastic — has self-respect, a limit to what it will suffer to have done with it, and at the same time is responsive within that limit, supple in the ways it consents to be used. Concrete is stupid and will do anything for anyone, without protest or pleasure, so long as the person indulges its mania to lie down.

Let concrete set, however, and sense the difference. Concrete hardens in the shape of whatever container received its flow, its momentary sensual abandon in thoughtless submission to half-loved gravity. Once it has set, what a difference! Concrete becomes adamant, fanatical, a Puritan, a rock, Robespierre. It declares like no other material the inevitability, the immortality — the divinity! — of the shape it comprises, be the shape a glopped heap on the ground or a concert hall, ridiculous or sublime.

Wall-Ties & Forms, Inc., Aluminum Concrete Forms in Hong Kong, 31 May 2007

Concrete that has set will have no thought, no monomaniacal obsession until the end of time, except this shape. No other material — not brick, not wood, not the very stone blocks of the Great Pyramids forgets itself to such an extent. Bricks planks of wood, and stone blocks whisper from their built configurations of their willingness to be disassembled and to become something else. Whorish but ironic plastic holds back from a lasting passion for the form it takes, murmuring of its readiness if given heat, just some lovely heat, to melt into other forms. Likewise metal and glass. Not concrete once concrete has set.

Set concrete insists, insists, insists. It insists on the rightness, permanence, godliness of the form into which it flowed so carelessly. You must smash set concrete to bits if you would shut up the voice of its insistence, and even then the smashed bits will lie around insistently piping. I was in Berlin early in 1990 and remember a thousand hammers banging away at the Wall, banging out “die, die, die!” The concrete of the awful thing was shrieking back “wall, wall, wall!” It took a long time for the hammers to win the argument, and even then the shattered corpse would not give in. I brought a handful of fragments home, and the ones that retained any flat surface still shrill “wall” in tiny voices, totalitarian for eternity.

There is something inappropriate, not quite right, about the notion of “working” concrete, finely finishing it, making its forms true, smooth, and pristine. It seems insulting to concrete’s gross strength and simplemindedness, mocking concrete as one might a rough farmworker by forcing fancy evening dress on him. Unlike the farmworker, however, concrete is unmockable because it is impervious. Go ahead and make fun of concrete. You might as well. Concrete will never notice.

Concrete has no feelings to hurt. It does have feelings, as we know, but they are adamantine, fanatic, and untouchable by anything. Concrete is solipsistic. By contrast, clay is touchy, wood is as woundable as the flesh it is, and brick has a yeoman worker’s pride, stolid and prickly. All have good reason to fear misuse and to exude sadness when misused. But kick concrete as much as you like, all you will hurt is your toe.

Concrete is among the world’s best exercise devices for unrequited loving. You may love and serve it until your heart is worn out and be assured of no responsiveness, not a quiver in return. No loathing, even. Nothing! Concrete is like Don Quixote’s Dulcinea, only colder. Coarse and stupid beyond compare, it combines these qualities with the froideur of a goddess, of Pallas Athena! It is a dominatrix, blind, deaf, and dumb, dumb beyond anything. You have to be a masochist to love concrete, enjoying the strength that your own capacity to love displays when the loved one is a pitiless idiot.

I too have a piece of the Berlin Wall, brought back for me by a friend who was visiting at the time. One side was part of the flat exterior of the wall. On the other side, two inches into the wall from the face, is an impression left by the concrete’s envelopment of a shaft of rebar.

Photographs “Aluminum Concrete Forms in Hong Kong” and “High Rise Concrete Construction In Venezuela” courtesy of Wall-Ties & Forms, Inc.; “Abbott Hospital Parking Garage Ramp, Minneapolis, MN” courtesy of Zachary Korb; used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Cryogenic Testing the James Webb Telescope Mirrors

À la three posts ago (“Tithing for Metaphysics,” 23 July 2010), I was only using the James Webb Space Telescope as a pretext for a tirade on the political economy of big science and discovery being as much a product of labor and capital — just rarified forms — as other endeavors. The James Webb Space Telescope is starting to come together now and this unusual picture from NASA is getting a lot of play. Here are six out of the eighteen mirrors that will together comprise the main reflector of the telescope about to go into cryogenic testing at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Cryogenic testing of 6 James Webb Space Telescope mirrors, Marshall Space Flight Center, November 2010

It’s worth noting here that science inadvertently results in a lot of images that could be considered as art — the various images generated by particle accelerators being a favorite here. It’s also worth noting that an independent review panel recently concluded that the project will go $1.5 billion over budget and run a year behind schedule, unless NASA comes up with $500 million more to get it back on schedule (Gupta, Sujata, “Over-Budget Telescope Threatens Other Projects,” New Scientist, 16 November 2010). That’s another $14.50 per taxpayer, bring our total contributions up to $47.40 each — a small price to pay for photographs of infinity.

How to Make a Mean Martini

Enough of all this who makes a mean martini and who doesn’t shit. It’s three (maybe four) ingredients. If you can’t make a good one it’s because you’re an unschooled lout.

Don’t get me wrong: I exceeded myself just last week hitting color, aroma and blend, but per my last post, it’s not about making a perfect one — in a pluralistic world no such thing exists — it’s only about the minimal qualification of avoiding bad ones — and not to get me wrong again, I hold this level of ineptitude against a bar, keeping in my head a running list of places who fail even this minimal standard.

Besides, most of the important decisions about good cocktails are made at the liquor store, not while attending to the bottles, shakers and glassware. What’s the right ratio of gin / vodka to vermouth? Anything from the apocryphal “glance across the room” up to four- or five-to-one. How much olive juice is tolerable in a dirty martini? Judging from the shit-talk any ol’ amount you prefer. Choose high quality ingredients, meet the minimum standard, and the rest is a matter of taste — for which it is appropriately widely known there is no accounting.

So let’s all stop posing as if mixing cocktails is like laying microchip circuitry or calculating digits of pi. It’s an improvisational art.

Millennial Spirituality

I have been saying that the fastest growing religion in the United States is not the non-denominational, evangelical mega-churches, or Mormonism or any other such easily identifiable thing, but the hazy category of “spiritual but not religious.” Today the front page of USA Today brings more grist for the mill (Grossman, Cathy Lynn, “Survey: 72% of Millennials ‘More Spiritual Than Religious’,” 27 April 2010):

Most young adults today don’t pray, don’t worship and don’t read the Bible, a major survey by a Christian research firm shows.

If the trends continue, “the Millennial generation will see churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships,” says Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources. In the group’s survey of 1,200 18- to 29-year-olds, 72% say they’re “really more spiritual than religious.”

Among the 65% who call themselves Christian, “many are either mushy Christians or Christians in name only,” Rainer says. “Most are just indifferent. The more precisely you try to measure their Christianity, the fewer you find committed to the faith.”

The line about seeing churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships was a nice gag, but more evocative for me would be to say that if the trend continues, we will soon start to see churches in the U.S. closing as quickly as they are today in Europe. Declining religious sentiment is an aspect of modernization and what’s amazing is that religion has managed to persist with such strength so long into the age of scientific reason.

In addition to the point about “spiritual but not religious”, this survey also makes Daniel Dennett’s point that belief in belief is far more widespread than actual belief. There are a significant number of people who self-identify as “Christian” when asked, but don’t attend church, don’t ever pray, don’t read the Bible, don’t think “what would Jesus do”, or “God’s watching” in their moral considerations, don’t take religious identity into consideration in forming their interpersonal associations and don’t talk about god to other people.

Some sociologists need to get on this “spiritual but not religious” category. What do people who so identify believe? I have no idea. I imagine that being so ill-defined it’s a bewildering hodge-podge of belief.

I always joke that “spiritual but not religious” means you like green tea and yoga. But maybe there’s no accident in these two tropes. The future belongs to Asia and “spiritual but not religious” might be an early manifestation of Asian culture beginning to exert the kind of global influence that Western culture used to enjoy.

Is “spiritual but not religious” a sort of scientific illiteracy? There are all these people for whom religion has no practical consequence in their life, but find the alternative unpalatable? I’ve known a number of people who believe in what I call a “prime mover” god: the whole big bang story sounds too implausible so they invoke god to get the story rolling, but then he drops out as a narratively compelling actor.

I know plenty of people who are essentially atheists but owing to the stigma of the label, simply won’t take the final step of self-identification as such.

Is it a bad faith version of Pascal’s wager, where people think of non-declaration as a hedge: If I don’t say anything, god won’t know and I may still be eligible for the afterlife should I turn out to have been wrong.

Do the “spiritual but not religious” respond to religion in politics? I imagine that to be “spiritual but not religious” means rejection of religion as ideology and dogma in favor of religious sentiment. Political invocations of religion tend to be religion as ideology and dogma at its most strident. But many of these people continue to identify as Christians. Is their identification sufficiently deep for them to respond to the identity group politics of religion?

Evolving Technology of the Psyche

The sentiment contained in the chorus of Cat Stevens’s “Wild World” is extremely nice and I want to unreservedly like the song, but crikey!, hippies are some of the most passive-aggressive people you’ll ever meet.

There is an evolving technology of the psyche — I don’t know that we’re building a permanent body of knowledge, or that there’s progress, so much as just a random walk. It is an instance of cultural learning that today even a child would see through the crass manipulations of this song — just as whatever shabby sense of superiority the Sartean existentialist may have derived from such categories as “authenticity” and “the examined life” were already superseded for the generation of the late 1960s and 70s.

Not the Virtuous Alone

Former Congressman Charlie Wilson died last week (Martin, Douglas, “Charlie Wilson, Texas Congressman Linked to Foreign Intrigue, Dies at 76,” The New York Times, 11 February 2010, p. B19). Rep. Wilson came to national attention through George Crile’s 2003 book, Charlie Wilson’s War and later the film of the same name. Mr. Crile’s book is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s full of stories that illustrate the hurly-burley of how international politics and foreign policy making really happens. But more to the point, it’s one of those “truth is stranger than fiction”-type stories.

My favorite story from the book is Rep. Wilson’s response to a reporter, incredulous at Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s appointment of Rep. Wilson to the House Ethics Committee. Rep. Wilson had already developed a considerable reputation in Washington for boozing and womanizing when he rolled from a minor scandal involving a weekend of jacuzzi hopping at Caesar’s Palace involving copious amounts of cocaine and a number of showgirls into his Congressional Ethics responsibilities. Mr. Crile reports thus:

From today’s perspective, the image of this philandering hedonist climbing out of his Las Vegas hot tub to render judgments on the conduct of his colleagues seems almost perverse. Even without knowing about the Fantasy Suite, a genuinely puzzled reporter had asked Wilson why he, of all people, had been selected for this sober assignment. Without missing a beat, Wilson had cheerfully replied, “It’s because I’m the only one of the committee who likes women and whiskey, and we need to be represented.” (p. 81)

In general it would seem that people’s personal moral conduct and public policy advocacy are inversely related. It would be good if more of us types demanded our representation.

Two Recluses on Cosmos and Psyche

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.

~ Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (1788)

The Brain — is wider than the Sky—
For — put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside—

~ Emily Dickinson, 632

Fractals: It’s What’s for Dinner

Romanesco broccoli from the Mt. Pleasant farmers' market, Washington, D.C., 10 October 2009

Ever since I read that romanesco broccoli was a fractal I’ve been on the lookout for it. It finally turned up along with all the varieties of cauliflower at the Mt. Pleasant farmer’s market, so I snatched it up and tonight I broke that fractal down into-a little-a tiny cubes and fried it in olive oil, salt and pepper and white wine.

(My picture is nowhere as cool as this New York Times picture of the day from 7 October 2009)

One Ping Only, Vasili

A few weeks ago I met up with some friends and we were walking through the busy Gallery Place / Chinatown area, all three of us heads down studying our various hand-helds (two iPhones and an Android). I joked that the app that we need is something like the range-finders from the Alien movies, only that does picture-in-picture on our phones so we can see what’s coming without having to look up from our immersion in our respective virtual worlds as we walk through heavy pedestrian traffic.

The absurd extent of the anxiety of influence: not only if you’ve had a good idea can you count on someone having already had it, but if you make a joke about something absurd, you can rest assured that someone is already doing that too. It turns out there is already a sonar app for the iPhone (Frucci, Adam, “iPhone’s Sonar Ruler App Measures Distance Using Sound,” Gizmodo, 21 August 2009).

(Jokes about iPhone apps follow the same formula as jokes about hitherto unnamed but always Johnny-on-the-spot when convenient members of the Smurf village: think of an absurd or inappropriate function, append “smurf”; e.g. Cuckolding Smurf finds life in the Smurf village paradisiacal; or sumrfs keep themselves free of tropical disease by regularly licking Quinine Smurf; In the case of iPhone apps, name an absurd function, then say “There’s an app for that.”)