30 June 2014

Paradoxes of social justice activism

Freddie at L'Hôte has a rant — bullshit social climber faux-antiracism — about a paradox in contemporary social justice activism.

Nothing could be more indicative of the state of American social liberalism than the divide between the graduate classes I take and the undergraduate classes I teach. The students in the graduate classes are endlessly careful to check their privilege. That's good. Privilege is real, it's better to think about it than not to. But the obsessive focus on privilege checking is the epitome of how people misunderstand social change. People of the world, I implore you: what is privilege checking doing for anyone? Is anyone in the world going to materially benefit from someone in some grad seminar checking their privilege? Has all the privilege checking in every cultural studies class in the history of creation ever put clothes on someone's back or food in their belly? Ever stopped a single cop from beating a black man senseless? Don't mistake your purification rituals for progress, please.

Meanwhile, my undergrads are mostly good kids. But they are absolutely repulsed by what they take organized social liberalism to be. I talk about politics with them and they seem generally to be on the side of the angels. But you mention the word feminism, and they recoil. It's visceral. And the young women are even worse than the men. They aren't racist, mostly. But in large majorities, they are skeptical to outright hostile towards organized antiracism. Why? In part, because of ignorance and privilege and apathy. But in part, because they have grown into a world where social liberals are more interested in demonstrating their superiority over them than in educating them. Because they perceive, correctly, that white antiracism is dominated by people who are more interested in being right than in doing right.


The fundamental conditions on the ground are a social liberalism that speaks to and for a smaller and smaller group of self-selected people, utterly unable to create material change, but endlessly self-congratulatory and aggressive, in a way that expels precisely the people who need to be educated.

We are in a moment in which social justice culture is doing worthy things that may be strategically counterproductive, and there's neither a clear vision of a different course nor a way to make it happen if we had one.

I have no idea what to do about this.

28 June 2014


Warren Ellis' Stormwatch is a story about a superhero team which is a meditation on the whole idea of superhero teams. My favorite thing in it is this Amazon, a wonder who doesn't stick around long, I suspect because this panel is enough to make the necessary point.

Rite comes from a place where magic is a female thing, as is war.

Women have a higher pain tolerance than men, and greater stamina, and so Rite is a soldier.

Women’s dialogue with the inner and outer worlds of the human race is a more intuitive, emotionally truer thing, and so Rite is a priestess.

Her presence in the greater world is a ritual thing, her people’s magical act of salvation for the world.

She is sent out as ambassador and messiah, it its strictest literal and political definition; one anointed as liberator.

27 June 2014

Design from the outside in

I don't agree with Khoi Vinh's argument in Wearables, Fashion, and iWatch that a successful wearable device needs to somehow accommodate consumers' desire for endless variety in styling. I submit that wearables will be less a matter of fashion, which calls for variety and novelty, than they will prove to be a matter of style, which converges on classics. Recall that people were predicting not so long ago that you'd eventually have half a dozen differently-styled cellphones for different occasions.

But this little observation about the locus of design — the “inside” or the “outside” — is quite good.

When technology companies look at goods that are built from the outside in, they generally see irrationality and inefficiency, a broken market just waiting to be corrected and “disrupted.” They believe that they can engineer so much value into these items that people will be swayed to buy goods built from the inside out, that the promise that drives hardware and software—“adopt this and benefit from its utility”—will convince people to upend their sartorial habits. This is how you get products like Google Glass, which assumes that consumers prize utility so much that they’re willing to look like they have no interest whatsoever in having intimate relations with another human being.

Via John Gruber at Daring Fireball.

24 June 2014


This film of people kissing for the first time made the rounds a while back:

There was some criticism that the film was disingenuous.

A response film, with a similar premise:

A response film, with a different premise:

Director Max Landis comments, as does Tabitha Davis at Geekexchange. (And he has a wickedly silly follow-up video.

Update: The filmmakers of the first video are back with a spicier version:

This inspired me to take another look at Landis' film, which comes packaged with a “making of” video and some other clips. The description on the YouTube page for the “making of” video rambles on at length, including a telling comment which I think informs both the first kiss video and its undressing sequel.

The Kiss video is beautiful, but it doesn't ask a big question. The “question” of the video seems to be “Do you want to kiss a sexy person who conforms to your preestablished sexual interests?” The answer, I would assume for most everyone, is “yes, I would like that very much, that sounds like it would get me all horned up.”

So what's the more interesting question? There've been a lot of imitators with variations on the original; I admit I haven't watched most of them. The majority were either fake for “internet comedy” or asked an even less interesting question, like “What if it were a REAL (meaning widely considered ugly) person?” “Will these straight people hug these gay people?” Stuff like that, usually loaded with false, contrived sincerity, something I find repellent.

20 June 2014

Bicycle intersections

Even if you don't care about urban design, you may want to check out this gorgeously presented solution for intersections which support both cars and bicycles.

Protected Intersections For Bicyclists from Nick Falbo on Vimeo.

Though now it has me wondering about car/bicycle roundabouts, as I am a fan of roundabouts as an alternative to intersections with lights or stop signs. (Update: An experiment in the UK.)

And I want systems of cunning bollards and low barriers to help partition the space, as in Rio de Janeiro.

More at ProtectedIntersection.com.

Update: This video got picked up in a collection of sexy bicycle-oriented urban design ideas at io9.

16 June 2014


.... I draw attention to one very widespread controversial habit — disregard of an opponent’s motives. The key-word here is ‘objectively’.

We are told that it is only people’s objective actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance. Thus pacifists, by obstructing the war effort, are ‘objectively’ aiding the Nazis; and therefore the fact that they may be personally hostile to Fascism is irrelevant. I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once. The same argument is applied to Trotskyism. Trotskyists are often credited, at any rate by Communists, with being active and conscious agents of Hitler; but when you point out the many and obvious reasons why this is unlikely to be true, the ‘objectively’ line of talk is brought forward again. To criticize the Soviet Union helps Hitler: therefore ‘Trotskyism is Fascism’. And when this has been established, the accusation of conscious treachery is usually repeated.

This is not only dishonest; it also carries a severe penalty with it. If you disregard people’s motives, it becomes much harder to foresee their actions.

George Orwell, As I Please

15 June 2014

Frank Underwood

I'm amused that Kevin Spacey has decided that Frank Underwood should have a life beyond House of Cards.

At the White House Correspondents' Dinner:

At the Emmys:

In the dystopian future:

09 June 2014

Timothy Geithner, American Brahmin

Timothy Geithner's book Stress Test reveals some striking things about him, if Matthew Stoller's review in Vice, The Con Artist Wing Of The Democratic Party, is to be believed.

And then there’s the mystery of how he managed to climb up the career ladder so quickly. He never really explains how this happens. He wasn’t a good student. He notes, as a grad student, that he mostly played pool. “During my orals, when one professor asked which economics journals I read, I replied that I had never read any. Seriously? Yes, seriously. But not long after we returned from our honeymoon in France, Henry Kissinger’s international consulting firm hired me as an Asia analyst; my dean at SAIS had recommended me to Brent Scowcroft, one of Kissinger’s partners.”

I’m sorry, but what? How does this just happen? And it goes on ....

I found that quote through Mike The Mad Biologist, who has more choice quotes and concludes:

I don’t think there’s some ‘Smoking Man’ level conspiracy here–I disagree with Stoller. It’s much more mundane (and tawdry): Geithner rose on political skills, connections (lots of connections), hewing to the ‘company line’, and dumb luck.

It turns out that Stoller has more quotes from the book on his blog, like this one:

I never planned to follow in my father’s footsteps, and he never put any pressure on any of us to take any particular path. But Sarah and David also went to Dartmouth, and Jonathan also went to SAIS. Sarah also followed our father into a career in global development, and is now a World Bank consultant, while Jon is a military analyst at a Washington think tank.

Just running the world. The way you do.

This story reminds me of a few classic favorites about the workings of American power which I have linked before.

Digby's classic explanation of the left blogosphere expression “The Village”:

It's shorthand for the permanent DC ruling class who have managed to convince themselves that they are simple, puritanical, bourgeois burghers and farmers, even though they are actually celebrity millionaires influencing the most powerful government on earth.

A spooky little story from A Tiny Revolution:

How interesting that the DC press corps feels it's their place to make decisions for the rest of America .... How interesting that Cohen felt it was appropriate to tell all this to a small group of fresh-faced, ambitious, grotty Yale youths, but not to the outside world. And how interesting that we were being socialized into thinking this was normal.

The Good Shepherd, Robert DeNiro's film about a fictional Yale graduate who becomes a spook in the early CIA.

We have the United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.

08 June 2014


Bruce Sterling has a great little meditation on Bohemianism.

Professor Seigel's book [Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life 1830-1930] is especially useful for its thumbnail summary of what might be called the Ten Warning Signs of Bohemianism. According to Seigel, these are:
  1. Odd dress.
  2. Long hair.
  3. Living for the moment.
  4. Sexual freedom.
  5. Having no stable residence.
  6. Radical political enthusiasms.
  7. Drink.
  8. Drugs.
  9. Irregular work patterns.
  10. Addiction to nightlife.

As Seigel eloquently demonstrates, these are old qualities. They often seem to be novel and faddish, and are often denounced as horrid, unprecedented and aberrant, but that's because, for some bizarre and poorly explored reason, conventional people are simply unable to pay serious and sustained attention to this kind of behavior. Through some unacknowledged but obviously potent mechanism, industrial society has silently agreed that vast demographic segments of its population will be allowed to live in just this way, blatantly manifesting these highly objectionable attitudes. And yet this activity will never be officially recognized — it simply isn't “serious.” There exists a societal denial- mechanism here, a kind of schism or filter or screen that, to my eye at least, is one of the most intriguing qualities that our society possesses.

In reality, these Ten Warning Signs are every bit as old as industrial society. Slackers, punks, hippies, beatniks, hepcats, Dead End kids, flappers, jazz babies, fin-de-siècle aesthetes, pre-Raphaelites, Bohemians — this stuff is old. People were living a vividly countercultural life in Bohemian Paris when the house in which I'm writing these words was a stomping ground for enormous herds of bison.

This page used to be a link to an archive maintained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but that is link rotted away, so here I offer a clean copy:

CATSCAN 12 "Return to the Rue Jules Verne"

These people are not my spiritual ancestors. I know my real spiritual ancestors -- they were the Futurians and the Hydra Club. But although these people are a century and a half gone, and further distanced by language, culture and a mighty ocean, something about them -- what they did, what they felt, what they were -- takes me by the throat.

It won't let go. My first Catscan column, "Midnight on the Rue Jules Verne," made much ado of this milieu, and of one of its members, Felix Tournachon (1820-1910). Tournachon, when known at all today, is best-known as "Nadar," a pseudonym he first adopted for his Parisian newspaper work in the 1840s. Nadar was a close friend of the young Jules Verne, and he helped inspire Verne's first blockbuster period techno-thriller, FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON.

Nadar and Verne were contemporaries, both of them emigres to Paris with artistic ambitions, a taste for hard work, and a pronounced Bohemian bent. Nadar and Verne further shared an intense interest in geography, mapping, and aviation. Verne's influence on Nadar was slim, but Nadar impressed Verne mightily. Nadar even featured as the hero of one of Verne's best-known novels, FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, as the thinly anagrammed "Michael Ardan."

Thanks to the efforts of my good friend Richard Dorsett (a rare book dealer by trade) I have come into possession of a book called simply NADAR, a collection of 359 of Monsieur Tournachon's pioneering nineteenth-century photographs, assembled in 1976 by Nigel Gosling for Alfred A Knopf. I knew that Nadar had been a photographer, among his other pursuits as an aeronaut, journalist, caricaturist, author, man-about-Paris, and sometime inspiration for a prototypical science-fiction writer. But I never realized that Nadar was *this good!*

Nadar's photographic record of his Parisian contemporaries is the most potent and compelling act of social documentation that I've ever seen.

Nadar, and his studio staff, photographed nineteenth- century Parisians by the hundreds, over many decades, first as a hobby, and later as as a highly successful commercial venture. But Nadar had a very special eye for the personalities of his friends -- the notables of Paris, the literati, musicians, poets, critics, and political radicals.

These are the people who invented "la vie de Boheme." They invented the lifestyle of the urban middle-class dropout art-gypsy. They invented its terminology and its tactics. They brought us the "succes de scandale," the now time-honored tactic of shocking one's audience all the way to the bank. And the "succes d'estime," the edgy and hazardous life of the critics' darling. The doctrine of art for art's sake was theirs too (thank you, Theophile Gautier). And the ever-helpful notion of *epater les bourgeoisie,* an act of consummately modern rebellion which is nevertheless impossible without a bourgeoisie to epater, an act which the bourgeoisie itself has lavishly financed for decades in our culture's premiere example of Aldissian enantiodromia -- the transformation of things into their opposites.

The Paris Bohemians were the first genuine industrial-scale counterculture. This was the culture that created Jules Verne. It deserves a great deal of the credit or blame for origination of the genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. It has a legitimate claim on our attention and our loyalties.

Jules Verne enjoys a minor role in this book of Nadar's photographs. Verne is on page 230.

One good look at Verne's perceptive portrait by Nadar is enough to make you understand why Jules became an Amiens city councilman, rather than drinking himself to death or dying of syphilis in approved period Bohemian fashion. Verne was a science fiction writer, and a great one. Anyone reading SF EYE possesses big juicy chunks of Verne's memetics, whether you know it or not. But unlike many of Nadar's other friends -- people such as Proudhon (page 171) and Bakunin ( page 175) and Journet (page 127) -- Jules Verne was not a driven maniac. Jules Verne was clearly quite a nice guy. He projects an air of well-nigh Asimovian polymathic jollity. He's having a good time at the Nadar studio; he's had to visit his barber, and he's required to sit still quite a while in a stiff new suit, but you can tell that Verne trusts the man behind the camera, and that he's cherishing a sense of humor about this experience.

This is not a tormented soul, not a man to batter himself to death against brick walls. Jules Verne has the look of a man who has hit four or five brick walls in his past, and then bought a map and a compass and paid some sustained attention to them. He looks like someone you could trust with your car keys.

The perfect complement to Nadar's photography is Jerrold Seigel's *BOHEMIAN PARIS: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life 1830-1930* (published in 1986). Almost every individual mentioned in Professor Seigel's book had a portrait taken by Nadar. Seigel's is a fine book which I have read several times; I consider it the single most useful book I have ever seen for denizens of a counterculture.

Professor Seigel's book has quite a bit to say about Nadar and his circle, and about the theory and practice of Bohemianism generally. Professor Seigel's book is especially useful for its thumbnail summary of what might be called the Ten Warning Signs of Bohemianism. According to Seigel, these are:

1. Odd dress.

2. Long hair.

3. Living for the moment.

4. Sexual freedom.

5. Having no stable residence.

6. Radical political enthusiasms.

7. Drink.

8. Drugs.

9. Irregular work patterns.

10. Addiction to nightlife.

As Seigel eloquently demonstrates, these are old qualities. They often seem to be novel and faddish, and are often denounced as horrid, unprecedented and aberrant, but that's because, for some bizarre and poorly explored reason, conventional people are simply unable to pay serious and sustained attention to this kind of behavior. Through some unacknowledged but obviously potent mechanism, industrial society has silently agreed that vast demographic segments of its population will be allowed to live in just this way, blatantly manifesting these highly objectionable attitudes. And yet this activity will never be officially recognized -- it simply isn't "serious." There exists a societal denial- mechanism here, a kind of schism or filter or screen that, to my eye at least, is one of the most intriguing qualities that our society possesses.

In reality, these Ten Warning Signs are every bit as old as industrial society. Slackers, punks, hippies, beatniks, hepcats, Dead End kids, flappers, jazz babies, fin-de-siecle aesthetes, pre-Raphaelites, Bohemians -- this stuff is *old.* People were living a vividly countercultural life in Bohemian Paris when the house in which I'm writing these words was a stomping ground for enormous herds of bison.

Two qualities about Bohemian Paris strike me very powerfully. First, the very aggressive, expansive and ambitious nature of this counterculture. With a few exceptions, the denizens of Bohemian Paris, though small in number, were not people hiding their light under a bushel. Some of them were obscure, and deservedly so, but there was nothing deliberately hermetic about them; much of their lives took place in very public arenas such as cafes, cabarets and theatres. They feuded loudly in the newspapers and journals, and to whatever extent they could, they deliberately manipulated critics, maitresses de salon and other public tastemakers. They bent every effort to make themselves public figures, and if they achieved fame they used it, to radical ends. Many of them declared themselves ready to take to the streets and literally seize power from the authorities. And thanks to the convulsive nature of 19th-century French politics, many of them actually had the opportunity to try this.

The second remarkable quality about the vie de boheme was its high lethality. This was an era of high death- rates generally, but "living on the edge" before Pasteur was a shockingly risky enterprise. Promiscuous sex was particularly deadly. Bohemia's foremost publicity-man, Henri Murger, died at thirty-eight, complaining weakly of the rotting stench in his room, so far gone from syphilitic paresis that he didn't realize that the stench came from his own flesh. Bohemia's most gifted poet, Charles Baudelaire, was rendered mute by paresis before succumbing at 46. Jules de Goncourt, art critic, journalist, novelist, and diarist succumbed to syphilitic dementia at 40. And then there was the White Plague, tuberculosis, reaping Rachel the great tragedienne as well as the fictional "Mimi," the tragic soubrette of Puccini's opera La Boheme, which was based on the Murger stories, themselves based firmly on Murger's daily life.

If Jerrold Seigel's BOHEMIAN PARIS has a hero, it's Henri Murger, also known as "Henry Murger," who was the first to fictionally treat the Vie de Boheme -- in a series of stories for a radical Paris newspaper marvellously titled *Le Corsaire-Satan.* Nadar also wrote for *Le Corsaire-Satan,* and Nadar photographed Murger in 1854. Murger appears on page 53 as a balding, pop-eyed, bearded and much put-upon chap dressed entirely in black. Besides the syphilis that eventually killed him, Murger also suffered from an odd disease known as purpura which turned his skin quite purple "every week at a regular day and hour." The impact of Nadar's sympathetic portrait is, if anything, intensified by the fact that the collodion surface of the photographic plate has cracked along the bottom, trapping the doomed Murger in a spiderweb of decay.

Murger founded a Bohemian club called the Water- Drinkers. Jules Verne had his own circle, the Eleven Without Women. Victor Hugo led the Cenacle group, and Hugo's disciple Theophile Gautier, a great wellspring of Bohemian attitude, led a successor group called the Petite Cenacle. The Goncourt brothers founded the Magny circle and attended the salon of Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, the premiere aristo bluestocking of the Second Empire. Baudelaire, Gautier and a vicious satirist named Alphonse Karr started the Club des Hashischiens, dabbling in opium and hash in the 1850s.

Groups, clubs, salons and movements were the basic infrastructure of Bohemia. The bonds of counterculture were highly informal, highly personal, highly tribal. It was a tightly-knit society in which personality loomed large. It was almost possible to make an entire career merely through prolonged and determined hanging-out.

Nadar manifested a positive genius for this sort of activity. In his early years in the 1840s, Nadar oscillated between the literary circles of Murger and Baudelaire. But by 1865, Nadar boasted, probably quite accurately, that he knew 10,000 Parisians personally. Nadar possessed enormous personal charisma; except for his own kin, he apparently never made an enemy, and everyone who ever met him remembered him very well.

Nadar began his Parisian career as a newspaper caricaturist. His caricatures, collected in a whopping tome called NADAR DESSINS ET ECRITS (Paris 1979) show a certain inky liveliness and keen eye for the ludicrous, but he was no Daumier. His career in journalism was highly unstable. Most of the magazines Nadar wrote and cartooned for either collapsed in short order from public disinterest or were shut down by the government for radical sedition. This signally failed to discourage Nadar, however. Around 1850 he hatched a grand scheme to personally document every celebrity in Paris, in a monster project to be called "Pantheon Nadar."

Even with help, it was far beyond his ability to complete this "Pantheon," and the project eventually foundered -- but not before Nadar had met and sketched some 300 prominent literateurs, journalists, critics and tastemakers. He left knowing every last one of them by their first names.

While trying to upgrade the art of caricature to an industrial scale, Nadar, in 1853, stumbled into the dawning world of photography. He originally saw photography as a means of swiftly documenting celebrities for later caricature by hand, but he swiftly realized that he could dump the tiresome ink-work entirely and go straight for real-life portraiture in a glamorous new medium.

Nadar wrote fifteen books, including novels and memoirs, and was a prominent aviation pioneer, but photography proved to be the closest thing he had to a true metier. Though he did patent an artificial lighting system in 1861, Nadar was not a major technical pioneer in photography -- not a Daguerre or a Fox-Talbot. He had contemporary commercial rivals, as well: Antony Adam- Solomon, Pierre Petit, Etienne Cajart, and others.

Nadar's genuine pioneer status lay in his appropriation of this new technology into unexpected contexts. He was the first to take a picture from the air, the first to take a picture underground, the first to take a picture by artificial light.

And he was the first to appropriate this technical innovation and bend it to the purposes of the Bohemian art-world. This was an archetypal case of the Rue Jules Verne finding its own uses for things. Nadar stated his philosophy of photography in 1856, when he rudely sued his own younger brother for sole ownership of the (now thriving) Nadar photographic atelier trade-name.

"The theory of photography can be learnt in an hour and the elements of practicing in a day.... What cannot be learnt is the sense of light, an artistic feeling.... What can be learnt even less is the moral grasp of the subject -- that instant understanding which puts you in touch with the model, helps you to sum him up, guides you to his habits, his ideas and his character and enables you to produce, not an indifferent reproduction, a matter of routine or accident such as any laboratory assistant could achieve, but a really convincing and sympathetic likeness, an intimate portrait."

It's pleasant to see how this rhetoric works. Theory means little, practice less. Successfully shifting the terms of debate from the technical to the artistic robs actual photographic experts of all their cultural authority. In an instant, the technology's originators dwindle into the miserable nerdish status of the "laboratory assistant."

The crux of photography now becomes a matter of innate talent, a question of personal gifts. Inspiration knows no baud rate. As Nadar remarked later: "In photography as in everything else there are people who know how to see and others who don't even know how to look." This is a splendid kind of audacity, the sign of a subculture which is not beleaguered and defensive but confident, alert and aggressively omnivorous.

It's a mark of Nadar's peculiar genius that he was able to devour photography and thrive while digesting it, rather than recoiling in future shock like his contemporary and close friend Baudelaire. In 1859 Baudelaire wrote a long screed against photography, in which he decried its threat to aesthetics and the avante- garde.

"...(I)t is nonetheless obvious that this industry, by invading the territories of art, has become art's most mortal enemy.... If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude that is its natural ally."

Baudelaire nevertheless posed for Nadar's camera. In fact Baudelaire admired Nadar very much, aptly describing Nadar as an "astounding example of vitality." Baudelaire's photo is on page 67 and Nadar's portrait of the author of FLOWERS OF EVIL is without any doubt the single most remarkable image in the Nadar collection.

Despite the fact that he has stuffed one mitt into an oversized double-breasted coat in Napoleonic fashion, Baudelaire looks shockingly contemporary. It's a face that you could see tomorrow in SPY or SPIN or INTERVIEW, sharp, slightly contemptuous, utterly self-possessed. The photograph is 1855, two years before the police seizure and legal condemnation of FLOWERS OF EVIL.

The Goncourt Brothers said that Baudelaire had "the face of a maniac, a voice that cuts like steel." There is no recorded trace of his voice, but the face Nadar preserved for us is indeed maniacal -- which is to say, the face of someone not from the Goncourts' century, but rather from our own. Baudelaire looked like a maniac because he looks just like one of us.

FLOWERS OF EVIL is probably the greatest literary monument of the Paris Bohemia, a book which after 136 years remains in many ways novel, frightening and unsettling. Today it's not the frank eroticism and deliberate blasphemy which disturb -- although "Les Bijoux," a chop-licking description of Baudelaire's mistress lolling around on a divan naked under her stage jewelry, remains remarkably hot and bothersome.

It's not the period elements that sting, but that vibrant underlying mania. Just test the potency of the following lines, an invocation to Death in "Le Voyage," the last poem in Fleurs du Mal:

"O Death, old captain, it is time! Lift anchor!

This land wearies us, o Death, let us set sail!

Even though sky and sea are black as ink,

Our hearts you know are filled with light!

Pour out your poison to strengthen us!

Our brains are so scorched with flame that we want

To plunge to the depths of the abyss, what matter if it be Hell or Heaven?

-- To the bottom of the Unknown to find something *new!*

For all his pop-star world-weary aesthetic posing -- Nadar describes Baudelaire as favoring excessively flared black jackets, red scarves, pink gloves and shoulder- length curling hair -- Baudelaire clearly *meant* this. He'll immolate himself, run any mad risk to break through consensus reality, to smash the ennui of civilization and all mortal limits in the slim hope of achieving some completely unknown form of ontological novelty. This is a junkie's rhetoric, but in an odd and menacing way quite timeless. It's a declaration one might take to heart today just before eating a double-handful of untested smart-drugs, and it could serve just as well as the rhetoric of some 22nd-century posthuman deliberately tweaking his own genetics. In some profound sense, it does not bode well for humanity that we are capable of producing a work like Fleurs du Mal.

"If rape, poison, the dagger, and arson have not yet embroidered their pleasing designs on the banal canvas of our wretched destinies, it's because (alas!) we lack the courage to act otherwise." Put it this way -- this is not the guy to trust with your car keys.

Immediately after Baudelaire's amazing portrait comes another extremely striking Nadar image. It's a studio nude of Christine Roux, a cafe singer and minor-league courtesan who ran in the Murger circle and was talked out of her clothes by Nadar in 1855. She also features as "Musette" in Murger's *Scenes de la Vie de Boheme,* in which she is the mistress of "Marcel," himself said to be based partially on Nadar. Christine stands in a conventional model's art-posture, weight on one leg, torso slightly twisted, but her face is hidden in the crook of her raised right elbow, rendering her effectively anonymous, a luscious icon for the male gaze.

Murger's fictional treatment of Musette is friendly and tolerant, but more than a little contemptuous. The fictional Musette is the standard hooker with a heart of gold; but Murger's indulgence doesn't hide the fact that the Paris Bohemia was a society that specialized in treating women as hired meat. Here's Nadar himself, a man of wide tolerance, a man of unquestionable psychological insight, describing Baudelaire's favorite mistress, the small-time actress and courtesan Jeanne Duval:

"A tall, almost too tall girl. A negress, or at least a mulatto: whole packets of ricepowder could not bleach the copper of the face, neck and hands. A beautiful creature in fact, of a special beauty which owed nothing to Phidias. A special dish for the ultrarefined palate. Beneath the impetuous luxuriance of her ink-black and curling mane, her eyes, large as soup-plates, seemed blacker still; her nose was small, delicate, the nostrils chiselled with exquisite delicacy; her mouth Egyptian.... the mouth of the Isis of Pompeii, with splendid teeth between prominent and beautifully designed lips. She looked serious, proud, even a bit disdainful. Her figure was long-waisted, graceful and undulating as a snake, and especially remarkable for the exuberant, exceptional development of the breasts. And this abundance, which was not without grace, gave her the look of a branch overloaded with ripe fruit."

Jeanne Duval's sexy as hell. She's a special dish, she's a soup-plate, she's a statue, she's a snake, she's a fruit tree; she's anything but a human being. This is the rhetoric one has to emit in order to treat women the way women were treated in Bohemian Paris. In FLOWERS OF EVIL, Baudelaire gloats over Jeanne Duval with a lipsmacking contempt that is truly painful to witness, declaring her a beast, a tramp, trash, carrion, and then wallowing in her at length. One can't help but conclude that Baudelaire would like Jeanne even better if her head were severed, although that might reduce the ugly satisfaction he takes in blaming her for the existence of his own libido.

Musette, her photo placed rather too aptly on page 69, is a poisoned dish. You have to buy her, and if you catch anything from her, it's as much as your life is worth. There's no birth control to speak of, so you may well end up supporting bastard children or, worse yet, not supporting them. There will be no meeting of minds here; it's true Musette can sing a bit, but to marry her would be an utter disaster, a mesalliance reducing you to a social laughing-stock. This is skin for money, with a nice brain-eating tang of Russian roulette tossed in for spice. And by the way, it's also a mortal sin, which is no small deal in mid-nineteenth century Catholic France.

Are you really going to do this? Are you going to spend the money to buy Musette, and take that dire risk of all that potential misery and hurt, to yourselves and to her and to your parents and to the next generation, and to God Himself and the Savior and all the saints and angels for that matter, merely in order to emptily and temporarily possess the anonymous female body depicted on page 69?

Fuck yes you are. Of course you are. I mean, just *look* at it!

In the all-too-immortal words of the Brothers Goncourt: "Men like ourselves require a woman with little breeding, small education, gay and natural in spirit, to charm or please us as would an agreeable animal to which we might become attached. But if a mistress had a veneer of breeding, or art, or of literature, and wanted to talk on an equal footing with us about our thoughts and our feeling for beauty; if she were ambitious to become the companion of our taste or of the book gestating within us, she would become for us as unbearable as a piano out of tune -- and very soon antipathetic."

Nadar reports his last view of Jeanne Duval in 1870, her graceful undulating exotic tasty carcass propped on crutches from the ravages of syphilis. Musette died in a shipwreck in 1860, at age 25.

Here's Theophile Gautier on page 113. He was an extremely hip and happening guy, Gautier. There's a lot to be learned from him. He looks very much like a bouncer in a biker bar. This beefy dude is the ultrarefined escapist lily-clutching Romantic aesthete who coined the dictum "only what is useless is beautiful" in his *Mademoiselle Maupin,* one of the great indecent books of the nineteenth century. Gautier was a major pioneer of fantasy as a genre, an arty arch-Romantic who wrote about Orientalism and female vampires and mystically revived female mummies and tasty female succubi who jump off the embroidery in ancient tapestries to fuck the brains out of undergraduate XIXth-cent. lit-majors, and yet Nadar's portrait makes it utterly clear that Gautier is a guy who could swiftly kick the shit out of nine men out of ten.

At age nineteen, Gautier led the howling Romantic contingent at the premiere of Victor Hugo's *Hernani* in 1830, the public brawl that marked the end of NeoClassicism as a theatrical doctrine; and you can see from his portrait that Gautier wasn't doing anything so mild as "marking" the end of classicism, he was publicly breaking its back and was proud and happy to do it.

Gautier's table-talk is the best stuff in the famously gossipy *Journals* of the Brothers Goncourt. By the 1860s Gautier had become the most powerful critic in Paris; a man who wrote operas and ballets and plays and short stories and novels and travel books and poetry and about a million crap newspaper columns, and yet he found the time to eat hash and dominate salons and throw monster parties at the house of his common-law wife that had, among other attractions, actual Chinese people in them. Gautier was writing for the government organ *Le Moniteur* as a theatre critic and he was the lion of Mathilde Bonaparte's circle, Mathilde being Napoleon III's cousin and the Second Empire's officially sanctioned token bluestocking liberal. Having reached the height of Bohemian public acceptance Gautier ground out his copy in public and in private he lived in open scandal and bitched about the government every chance he got. The stuff he says is unbelievable, it's a cynical head-trip torrent worthy of Philip K. Dick.

Picture this: it's 1860. Civil War is just breaking out in the USA. Meanwhile, Theophile Gautier's at a literary dinner in the rue Taitbout in a sumptuous drawing-room lined with padded pigeon-blood silk. He's drinking twenty-two-year-old champagne and discussing the immortality of the soul. Gautier addresses a right-wing Catholic. "Listen, Claudin, " he says, "assume the Sun was inhabited. A man five feet tall on Earth would be seven hundred and fifty leagues high on the Sun. That is to say, the soles of your shoes, assuming you wore heels, would be two leagues long, a length equal to to the depth of the ocean at its deepest. Now listen to me, Claudin: and along with your two leagues of boot soles you would possess seventy-five leagues of masculinity in the natural state."

Claudin, shocked, babbles something eminently forgettable.

"You see," Gautier continues suavely, "the immortality of the soul, free will -- it is very pleasant to be concerned with these things before one is twenty-two years old; but afterward such subjects are no longer seemly. One ought then to be concerned to have a mistress who does not get on one's nerves; to have a decent place to live; to have a few passable pictures on the wall. And most of all, to be writing well. That is what is important: sentences that hang together... and a few metaphors. Yes, a few metaphors. They embellish life."

Gautier divided his time between the literary salons of Mathilde Bonaparte and La Paiva. La Paiva was a courtesan, a true grande horizontale, a demimondaine who had battled her way to the top through sheer chilly grit and professional self-abnegation. She scared the hell out of the Brothers Goncourt, who paint her as an aberrant harpy, but Mathilde was jealous of her nonetheless, and complained that the litterateurs made so much of bluestocking demimondaines that the Imperial princess herself felt unlucky not to have been born "a lustful drab."

In the last years of his life -- he died in 1872 -- Gautier took a sinecure as Mathilde's official librarian, something of an apology on her part for not being able to wedge him into the Academy or get him a sinecure post in the Empire's rubber-stamp Senate. Gautier was just that one shade too Bohemian to manage the conventional slate of honors; but he was not quite so Bohemian that he wasn't of real use to Mathilde. Mathilde did not have the direct social power of her cousin's wife, the Empress Eugenie, a woman Mathilde cordially despised; but if Mathilde couldn't have the court painters, the ladies-in-waiting, and the full imperial etiquette, she could nevertheless reign as Queen of Bluestockings over the literary counterculture. Mathilde liked books, she liked painters, she liked music; she was a moderately bright and cultured woman who could follow an intelligent conversation and even lead one sometimes; but she knew how to guard the interests of her family as well. The Goncourts recorded her tantrum as a salon favorite joined the staff of an opposition newspaper.

"He owes everything to me," Mathilde screamed. "And what did I ask in return? I didn't ask him to give up a single conviction. All I asked was that he keep away from those people on the *Temps.*"

The "opposition" established by Mathilde's countercultural noblesse oblige was one of the guises assumed by power itself; to pay off Theophile Gautier was to nourish the serpent to one's bosom in the hope of stroking it to sleep. It was a risky game, but their lives were risky. The cultural Entente Cordiale between the Court and Bohemia didn't have to hold together forever; it only had to hold together long enough. The entire structure of the Empire itself collapsed in 1870, crushed in the Franco-Prussian War.

The street may find its own uses for things -- but Things find their own uses for the street. The Rue Jules Verne is a two-way avenue, a place where monde and undermonde can embrace illicitly and swap infections. While Nadar rose in his balloons to document the city with his cameras, Napoleon III's Parisian prefect, Baron Haussman, demolished and rebuilt the landscape below him. It's thanks to Haussman that we know Paris today as a city of wide, straight, magnificent boulevards -- the Champ d'Elysees is one. For Nadar and his contemporaries the Haussmanization of the city was the truest sign of its modernization. Nadar's photographic studio was located in one of these new streets. He dominated the entire second floor of a new building in the latest taste.

Haussmann's streets were the Rue Jules Verne as a killing ground. Yes they were elegant, yes they aided the flow of traffic, but their true raison d'etre was as a strategic military asset. In 1789, 1830, 1848 the Parisian populace had barricaded their narrow twisting streets and foiled the Army. After Haussmann, Paris would be splayed-out on a lethal command grid where grapeshot could fly on arrow-straight lines through whole city blocks, directly through the insubordinate carcasses of any revolutionary proletariat.

The streets didn't save the regime, though. In 1870 Bismarck's Germans smashed the French armies at Sedan. Paris was blockaded.

In response, Nadar invented airmail.

In 1859, Napoleon III had offered Nadar 50,000 francs to take aerial photographs of the Italian front in his military adventure in Italy; but Nadar was a staunch radical republican and stoutly refused any bloodmoney from the imperial war-machine. The disaster of 1870 was a different matter. As Nadar explained from Paris, via balloon, to *The Times* in London, destroying the repugnant Imperial regime was one thing, and rather understandable; but killing the Parisian populace wholesale was quite another.

Nadar was normally a highly mannered, rather precious prose stylist, rarely using one word when ten elegantly sesquipedalian ones would do; but with his own people at bayonet-point Nadar apparently concluded that this wasn't the time for copping aesthetic attitudes. Things had reached such a point that Nadar's balloons, which he himself regarded mostly as publicity stunts, were in fact a last hope. He had invented, and owned, the last means by which Paris could publicize herself. Under these circumstances, Nadar addressed humanity at large with as much directness, simplicity, and clarity as he could manage. He lacked official backing -- in the blockade of 1870 there was essentially no government left in Paris -- but what he lacked in authority, he made up in simple eloquence, self-starting nerve, and headline-grabbing novelty.

Nadar's balloon corps didn't make much real military difference. Some were shot down; one was blown off to a fjord in Norway. In any case, balloon traffic could not hope to match the enormous military significance of German railroads.

And yet the balloons were there -- and they could fly. After the debacle of Sedan, Paris had no government, damn little food, no mail, no official backing, and victorious enemy guns on all sides -- but anyone in Paris could see Nadar's balloons. There wasn't much to them, really, other than straw and hot air and an attitude, but they were there, and they were flying. They were energetic, they were optimistic, and they made a bold pretense of practicality. People have died cheerfully for less. It was his finest hour.

Nadar outlived everyone in the Pantheon Nadar. His enormous vitality served him well, and he died two weeks short of his ninetieth birthday, in 1910. This man, who showed such preternatural insight into other people, was not devoid of self-knowledge. As early as 1864, he described himself well:

"A superficial intelligence which has touched on too many subjects to have allowed time to explore any in depth.... A dare-devil, always on the lookout for currents to swim against, oblivious of public opinion, irreconcileably opposed to any sign of law and order. A jack-of-all-trades who smiles out of one corner of his mouth and snarls with the other, coarse enough to call things by their real names -- and people too -- never one to miss the chance to talk of rope in the house of the hanged man."

Nadar died eighty-three years ago. We have no real right to claim him -- visionary, aesthete, polemicist, Bohemian, technologist -- as a spiritual ancestor.

But it might be a damned good idea to adopt him.

01 June 2014

Terrorism (n.)

This keeps coming up. So a quick word about terrorism.

The word “terrorism” is notoriously difficult to define. How is it different from crime, and war? How can we use it to mean something other than “things we think are very bad”?

Any useful definition of terrorism should reference terror. And the -ism suggests that it must be a system, with a philosophy.

So I submit that a useful definition of terrorism is:

  • An act of violence ...
  • ... with a political purpose ...
  • ... which pursues its aim through its psychological rather than material effects.

Thus, as an example, the 9/11 attacks are terrorism in a way that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was not. Pearl Harbor was an attempt to affect geopolitics by destroying American ships that could be used to disrupt Japanese military ambitions in Asia. 9/11, spectacular as it was, did not meaningfully affect American capacity for action — it was intended to change American thinking and motivations.

This makes terrorism a distinctively modern phenomenon, because it depends upon news media repeating the story of terrorist acts for them to be effective.