I’m not alone in suspecting the real unemployment rate is probably double the official number. When you take into account population growth, part-time and less than full-time workers, and those who stopped drawing jobless benefits, a rate of more than 16 percent doesn’t seem outrageous. But then came the recent data from the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University. It includes all this plus those drawing Social Security early and those in prison, yielding a de facto jobless rate that’s beyond my reckoning—more than 28 percent. Jobs are central to this year’s presidential election. Republican Mitt Romney would like the recession to last just a little bit longer so he can blame it on President Barack Obama. Obama would like to see numbers—any numbers—that suggest an improved outlook. Right now, both are getting what they want, while the rest of us are stuck with mixed signals. I’d prefer public officials see the truth and then take appropriate action. Obama knew his counter-cyclical measures were too small, but feared anything more than $800 billion would engage his political opponents. Well, he got that anyway. One wonders what would have happened if he had known what the Center for Working Class Studies knows. Then again, no politician has ever taken the working class seriously.
Dear _________, Congratulations! You have reached the last level of the hit internet game “Democracy.” Levels completed (from easiest to most difficult): i) Rejection of “elites” in politics. This year’s election will be all about how untalented and quotidian your candidate is. Take care that they do not use words like “quotidian.” ii) Rejection of “elites” in culture. As many people have pointed out, both students and real people have decided (or you have decided for them—but don’t try to think that through) that if something’s hard, it can’t be entertaining or interesting. iii) Re-institution of mob justice. It’s great that that bad white man will fry for killing that poor black kid, just as nice as it was when those bad black men were hung for raping those poor white women. Good job! Keep spreading democracy.
The Hull House Association closed in January, and Chicago lost one of its last links to an extraordinary legacy. When Jane Addams opened the Hull House Settlement in 1889, the Near West Side boasted over 24 different ethnic and racial groups. Addams believed that the residents, who themselves saw little in common but their poverty, should share in the promissory note of democracy—with its attendant economic, social and cultural rights. She set to work with a handful of wealthy female philanthropists, dozens of upper-middle class reformers, and a strong sense of solidarity. Through the Hull House Settlement, 9,000 neighbors per week were invited to share a cup of coffee, act in a Greek play, take a bath, sing together, play basketball, learn jazz, protest, recite poetry, discover birth control, make pottery, eat soup, date interracially, gain citizenship, unionize, grow a garden, learn English, dance, and be their best versions of themselves. But the shuttered Hull House Association contained only a fraction of the original Settlement vision: How could it have been more? For better and for worse, times change. Immigrants now make their homes in all corners of the city. Social work has been codified into advanced methodologies. The nonprofit industrial complex stringently limits the structure of organizations. And social welfare has ostensibly been assigned to the federal government, though it repeatedly abdicates its responsibility. While I regret the recent passing of the Hull House Association in Chicago, I also mourn a greater loss: that there is no longer a central location for the radically democratic dreams of a city on the make.
Food is now at the center of American culture. Everywhere art, music, literature and philosophy used to be, food is now. Food is how we express our values, assert our status, and communicate our morality. The new food culture is a strange mix of hedonism and virtue. This leads to some odd situations: organic cocoa beans ferried to Brooklyn from the Caribbean in a handmade sailboat; Alice Waters advising the First Lady on the White House vegetable garden; Michael Pollan establishing himself as a secular saint. Locavores and paleo diets. Mark Zuckerberg skinning a bison he just shot to uphold a vow he made to only eat food he killed himself. Bill Buford, fresh from the fiction desk at the New Yorker, drinking a bucket of blood straight from a butchered pig’s throat and calling it the best thing he’s ever tasted. Why has food become so important? Perhaps because it satisfies the contradictory desires that make us American, for conspicuous consumption and moral one-upsmanship. And as food replaces culture, it becomes the place where we live our dream life—where we’re all as upright as Puritans and as extravagant as Romans, richer than our fathers and better than our peers.
In societies where food is scarce, being fat is a mark of distinction. In the West it’s increasingly the opposite. The “fat cats” of yesteryear are today’s yoga bunnies; conspicuous consumption has been replaced by conspicuous restraint. If it’s still considered elite to be able to pull out an iPhone while waiting at traffic lights, that’s only because such gadgetry is still relatively scarce. In years to come, snobs will sneer at the masses who can’t get anywhere without consulting their GPS. Skills like orienteering, arithmetic and memorization will be prized as marks of virtue and class. Twentieth-century James Bond was cool for his gadgets; twenty-first century Jason Bourne is too cool to need any. All of which is to say, of course, that I refuse to update my phone.
The Whitney Biennial has spurned two of its more unsavory corporate sponsors: auction house Sotheby’s, citing its aggressive anti-union stance toward its New York-based art handlers at a time of record profits; and Deutsche Bank, for its alleged role in causing the subprime mortgage crisis. With this populist swerve away from the Brobdingnagian excesses of the art market, the Whitney makes a timely political gesture, despite falling short of that called for by the Arts & Labor division of the Occupy Wall Street movement—to end the Biennial in 2014, its centennial year. More interesting than its political implications, however, is the possibility of viewing the refusal of sponsorship as an artistic element within the Biennial itself, as the acclaimed museum’s Institutional Critique of the venerable auction house. This is not quite a novel critical development—artists such as Carey Young, for example, have noted the tendency of the institution of the museum, embodied in its curators and directors, to initiate such critical discourses—yet the Whitney case is unique insofar as it vividly…. Oops, the Whitney story is a fake! OWS hackers, apparently … Nevertheless, by drawing our attention to the plight of the Sotheby’s art handlers, the exploitation of artists by the secondary art market, and the ways in which pirate corporations whitewash their public image through culture industry handouts, OWS can be regarded as having ushered in a new era of relational aesthetics. Bourriaud’s initial conception of relational art was widely criticized for giving up on the utopian aspirations of the historical avant-garde; but with its Whitney piece OWS seeds a coherent vision of a happier tomorrow as a sort of Archimedean point from which the very investigation of art world relations draws its normative force. From a vision of what ought to be, OWS reveals the squalor of what is.
From the Sentimental Times: European scientists were shocked this weekend when the dog Παυλος lapsed into a coma. “Destruction of his immune system keeps unstoppably happening, despite the attempts that have been made to stop that,” a British chemist said. “He’s been denied food and exercise, but recovery continually fails to occur.” The experiment began last year, when Παυλος was found on a busy Brussels street corner. “The only way to get him back to a normal state was a kind of, how do you say, ‘shock therapy,’” the German representative said. “He’d been irresponsible, to get lost like this.” Παυλος is currently receiving nutrients via an IV drip, but the Norwegian veterinarian stated that it will be removed when he wakes up. An Italian biochemist released a statement: “I feel for Παυλος’ plight. I have a dog of my own. But my dog is under control. There’s nothing to see at my home. All dogs should be treated well. But sometimes they must be disciplined.” Many people have come forward claiming that Παυλος bit them. “You can’t just let dogs roam the street like that,” a German claimant claimed, “I mean, what next? Irresponsibility like that must be put down, yes?” A French biochemist told The Sentimental Times that “Παυλος is fighting all the necessary measures. I hope, for his sake, that he can pull through. The lab’s funding depends on it.”
George Orwell was wrong when he predicted that it would take political pressure to impoverish our language; technology has done it faster than politics ever could. Social interaction is reduced lately to a click of the “Like” button. Opinions have been cut to 140 characters, enough to tell everyone how you hate traffic jams, or to quote some other famous writer that has found better ways to express your own thoughts. Meanwhile, these social placebos reduce the need for physical proximity: a green icon is enough to make you believe that there are another 20, 30 or 100 people with the same icon keeping you company. It’s easy to criticize this lack of materiality, or we could just recognize that we’ve entered a new reality. Immersed in virtuality, we finally live in a Platonized world of ideas. Watching your girl through a web cam is real enough for modern souls. Spying pics on Facebook makes you a real stalker. Chatting with strangers a real player.
Postmodernism, John Gray once wrote, is simply the latest fad in anthropocentrism. Gray (the LSE philosopher, not the Men are from Mars guy) is sympathetic to the Gaia hypothesis, but you do not have to agree with that hypothesis (or with much else in Gray’s eclectic thought) in order to reject the idea, associated with some postmodern thinkers (perhaps, pre-eminently, Richard Rorty), that the world exists only insofar as it figures in our preferred descriptions. The last decade or so should have done a lot to diminish the appeal of the idea that truth and reality are simply artifacts of human ideology: after all, as The Daily Show and Colbert make all too clear, it is Fox and friends who now live this idea, and it is up to Jon and crew to defend reality-based policy, and up to Stephen to lampoon “truthiness.” The Right-wing’s reality-denial on the environment, on the economy, and on foreign policy (the list goes on and on) has brought home the suffocating horror of Rortian postmodernism: meanwhile the truth (even if inconvenient) of climate change has demonstrated (for those who had doubts) that there is, indeed, a world beyond the nets of language.
The weeklies all agree that Ben Flajnik is being “Tricked!” (InTouch) by “Maneater” (US Weekly) Courtney Robertson on this season of The Bachelor. The girls on the show keep wondering when he’s going to find out “who she really is.” But the evidence suggests that Ben knows exactly who Courtney is (she hardly conceals her “negative” attributes around him), and that he likes it. Which is not so difficult to explain—he would hardly be the first man to speak of true love but choose the transactional kind (he gets a model; she gets the Bachelor, at least until the cameras go dim). King Lear also chose artificial love over the real thing, and so did Matthew McConaughey in The Wedding Planner (I’ll just assume you also re-watched it during TBS’s Valentine’s Day romance marathon). The second of those is a comedy because Matthew changes his mind in time to jump ship for J-Lo. The first is a tragedy because the aging king realizes he wants honesty only after it is too late, and Cordelia is dead. One of The Bachelor’s subtle fascinations is to show how men so often, under the guise of wanting a “real” relationship, choose a false one. The drama of the last few episodes of this season will be in whether Ben goes down as a comic hero or a cautionary tale, risking love with Kacie B., or avoiding it with Courtney R. Of course Ben, unlike Lear, has time on his side, but alas his future may not be (entirely) televised.