Helmut Newton, Shoe, Monte Carlo, 1983, Gelatin silver print from Private Property Suite I, 1983, printed 1984 in 75 copies.
Camille Paglia follows in the tradition of Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes by producing brilliantly written pieces of high criticism of ordinary elements of contemporary popular culture.
Helmut Newton, whose superb fashion photography was suffused with the perverse world view of his native Weimar Berlin, captured the disturbing complexities of the high heel in Shoe, a picture taken in Monte Carlo in 1983. Here we see the fashionable shoe in all its florid delicacy and dynamic aggression. The stance, with shifted ankle, seems mannish. Is this a dominatrix poised to trample her delirious victim? Or is it a streetwalker defiantly defending her turf? Or a drag queen scornfully pissing in an alley? The shoe, shot from the ground, seems colossal, a pitiless totem of pagan sex cult.
The luxury high heel as status marker is directed not toward men but toward other women—both intimate confidantes and bitter rivals. The high heel in its dazzlingly heraldic permutations (as dramatized in Sex and the City) is beyond the comprehension of most men: only women and gay men can tell the difference between a Manolo Blahnik and a Jimmy Choo. In full disclosure, I never wear these shoes and indeed deplore their horrifying cost at a time of urgent social needs. Nevertheless, I acknowledge and admire the high heel as a contemporary icon and perhaps our canonical objet d’art.
At the Neiman Marcus department store at the King of Prussia Mall in suburban Philadelphia, a visitor ascending the escalator to the second floor is greeted by a vast horizon of welcoming tables, laden with designer shoes of ravishing allure but staggering price tags (now hovering between $500 and $900 a pair but soaring to $6000 for candy-colored, crystal-studded Daffodile pumps by Christian Louboutin). Despite my detestation of its decadence, this theatrical shoe array has for years provided me with far more intense aesthetic surprise and pleasure than any gallery of contemporary art, with its derivative gestures, rote ironies, and exhausted ideology.
Designer shoes represent the slow but steady triumph of the crafts over the fine arts during the past century. They are streamlined works of modern sculpture, wasteful and frivolous yet elegantly expressive of pure form, a geometric reshaping of soft and yielding nature. An upscale shoe department is a gun show for urban fashionistas, a site of ritual display where danger lurks beneath the mask of beauty.
Daniel Greenfield suggests that we look at contemporary Japan as a kind of mirror for the post-modern, totally decadent and deracinated West.
Depressed post-industrial economy, low birth rate, social disintegration and a society obsessed with pop culture and useless tech toys? A country that has embraced pacifism to the extent that it can hardly defend its own borders? A nation where materialism has strangled spirituality leaving no sense of purpose?
We are Japan. And so is Europe. Or rather Japan is the place we all reach eventually.
Japan is strange because it aggressively hurled itself into a postmodern void without knowing what was on the other side. It did this with the same dedication that its soldiers once marched into machine gun fire.
Japan had been in a race with the West, as it had been ever since Commodore Perry showed up with a fleet to open up a closed nation. It wasn’t unique in that regard. A lot of countries tried to do the same thing. Most found that they couldn’t keep up with either our technology or our decline. Japan shot past us in both areas. It beat us technologically. And then it outpaced our decline.
In the 80s, there were dire predictions that the future would belong to Japan. America would be broken up and run by a bunch of Japanese corporations. There were even predictions that after the fall of the USSR, the next war would be with Japan. Some of those predictions came from some surprisingly high profile analysts.
The future doesn’t belong to Japan. It may not, at this rate, belong to anyone. Japan hurled itself into the future, but didn’t find anything there.
Korea hurled itself into that same future and found only emptiness. Now China’s elites are rushing into that same void and are beginning to discover that technocracy and materialism are hollow. That is why China is struggling to reassert Communist values even while throwing everything into making Walmart’s next product shipment. Like Japanese and Korean leaders, Chinese leaders are realizing that their technological and material achievements have left their society with a spiritual void.
That isn’t a problem unique to Asia. Asian countries were just less prepared for a rapid transition to the modern age. Europe and America, which had more time to prepare, are still on the same track. ...
The thing we have in common with Japan, China and Europe is that we have all moved into a post-modern future while leaving our values behind and our societies have suffered for it. It is a future in which stores have robots on display but couples are hardly getting married, where there are high speed trains and a sense of lingering depression as the people who ride them don’t know where they are going, and where the values of the past have been traded for a culture of uncertainty.
Jay Nordlinger, in one of the most enthusiastically fulsome reviews I’ve ever read, quotes one of the characters in Mark Helprin’s new novel In Sunlight and in Shadow making a post-WWII prediction.
Humankind, or at least American-kind, will lose its edge as we produce more and more pipsqueaks and everyone gets nice. Whole generations of pipsqueaks will be so f***ing nice you won’t be able to tell a man from a woman. It will get worse and worse as people mistake nice for good. Hitler was nice, supposedly, most of the time. A lot of good that did. Luxury and prosperity breed pipsqueaks. A century from now the country won’t even be able to defend itself.”
Today, in proper and enlightened jurisdictions, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) could be prosecuted and convicted for failing to retreat from gunslinger Liberty Valence.
Stanley Fish, in the New York Times, tells us, once again, that the frontier has closed, and as Hollywood has testified, the old America of Gary Cooper and John Wayne, of rugged individualism and manly courage, is dead.
We are now a country more appropriately represented cinematically by Alan Alda, in which the feminine aversion to violence and dependence on the Leviathan State to handle our problems for us has triumphed. Personal honor, chivalry, and manhood are all obsolete concepts consigned without regret by our elite intelligentsia to the dust heap of History.
As civilization advances, and the law book replaces the gun… rationales for violence sound increasingly hollow, and more and more westerns are self-consciously elegiac — “High Noon,” “The Gunfighter,” “Ride the High Country,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “Lonely Are the Brave,” “The Wild Bunch,” “Monte Walsh,” “The Big Country,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” — caressing the lonely figures at their center even as they say farewell to the values they embody. Outright satirical comedies like “Cat Ballou” (1965) and “Blazing Saddles” (1974) announce loudly and without nuance what the genre as a whole had already implicitly proclaimed: the reign of what Bosley Crowther (in a review of “Shane”) called “legal killers under the frontier code” was over.
Stand Your Ground laws bring it all back. That is what President Obama meant when he said on Friday that such laws seem “designed in such a way that they encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations … that we saw in the Florida case rather than defuse potential altercations.” Do Stand Your Ground laws, he asked, really contribute to “the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see?” The answer is that not everyone wants to see them. There are some who imagine themselves as the modern-day Wyatt Earp or Will Kane or Shane — bravely seeking out malefactors, confronting them in the main street, and shooting them down to the applause and gratitude of less heroic citizens. Stand Your Ground laws are for them.
If asked to provide a list of great American achievements over the past 20 years, I would say the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the iPhone and the speech with which Jesse first talks Céline off the train in “Before Sunrise”. It had to do with time travellers, as I recall, but it was the tone that did it—a small miracle of foxy charm and open-hearted entreaty, whisked along by a Huck Finn boulevardier spirit. It turned out to be enough to power an entire movie. ...
Nobody knows anything, of course, but using the in-house time machine available only to critics on Intelligent Life magazine, I can safely report that in 50 years’ time, the Céline and Jesse films will be held up as classics of the heartfelt sequel form, up there with Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, Satyajit Ray’s Apu films and the “Toy Story” trilogy.
The Atlantic pays transgendered Thomas Page McBee to pontificate on the new meaning of masculinity.
Masculinity is not as a magical state defined by advertisers and secondary sex characteristics but, like femininity, a complex amalgamation of socialization, biology, style, and stereotype. Men aren’t in crisis, we’re in opportunity, but only if we can each look in the mirror and decide what kind of man we are. ...
What kind of man do I want to be? The kind I am. I think vulnerability is the foundation of courage; I love aesthetics; I stand up for myself; I box and lift weights; I listen. I’m the type of man I’d want to hang out with, the kind of guy who thinks masculinity is diverse and that real men don’t exist.
Despite the dinosaur machismo I encountered in the beginning of my transition, I’ve reason to believe that the old guard is falling away, and the new man taking his place. Since I’ve come out as a wine-drinking feminist with feelings, I’ve met many guys who are embracing a wider definition of masculinity. Not just the stay-at-home dads, but the elderly man who told me he’s just now told his best friend of decades that he loves him, the ex-varsity jock who works with men to redefine what masculinity means, the straight, burly artist who documents friends shotgunning beer who is matter-of-fact about the homoeroticism of male bonding, and whose skater buddies pose for his delicate homages to just that.
Daniel Dennett is a distinguished philosopher, at least, with respect to Philosophy of Mind. As a kind of philosophical sideline, however, he follows the unfortunate example of certain other contemporary professors and operates as a polemicist on behalf of bien pensant liberalism.
Dennett recently offered this supposedly well-tempered response to the horrifying militarism of the barbarous administration of George W. Bush.
Suppose that we face some horrific, terrible enemy, another Hitler or something really, really bad, and here’s two different armies that we could use to defend ourselves. I’ll call them the Gold Army and the Silver Army; same numbers, same training, same weaponry. They’re all armored and armed as well as we can do. The difference is that the Gold Army has been convinced that God is on their side and this is the cause of righteousness, and it’s as simple as that. The Silver Army is entirely composed of economists. They’re all making side insurance bets and calculating the odds of everything.
Which army do you want on the front lines? It’s very hard to say you want the economists, but think of what that means. What you’re saying is we’ll just have to hoodwink all these young people into some false beliefs for their own protection and for ours. It’s extremely hypocritical. It is a message that I recoil from, the idea that we should indoctrinate our soldiers. In the same way that we inoculate them against diseases, we should inoculate them against the economists’—or philosophers’—sort of thinking, since it might lead to them to think: am I so sure this cause is just? Am I really prepared to risk my life to protect? Do I have enough faith in my commanders that they’re doing the right thing? What if I’m clever enough and thoughtful enough to figure out a better battle plan, and I realize that this is futile? Am I still going to throw myself into the trenches? It’s a dilemma that I don’t know what to do about, although I think we should confront it at least.
I could not avoid reflecting that, philosophically speaking, Mr. Dennett is a member of the school of Analytic Philosophy founded, twice essentially, in the course of the first half of the last century by Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Wittgenstein was, indubitably, a neurasthenic and neurotic, a homosexual, a crank and a wet liberal goo-goo, hostile to wealth, prone to romanticizing the poor, indifferent or actively hostile to formality and tradition (try to find a photograph of Wittgenstein wearing a tie). But all his personal demons, all the balderdash that Ludwig Wittgenstein embraced did not prevent him from volunteering to serve as an officer in Austrian Army when WWI broke out.
Wittgenstein served as an artillery officer, fought on both the Russian and Italian fronts, and was awarded three major Imperial Austrian medals for valor. One commendation spoke of “[h]is exceptionally courageous behaviour, calmness, sang-froid, and heroism”, which had “won the total admiration of the troops.” Wittgenstein actually wrote much of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus while serving in the trenches.
What has happened to separate Dennett from Wittgenstein? Much more indoctrination in bad Moral Philosophy and religious heresy from which not even professional training and expertise in Analytic Philosophy suffices to inoculate the potential victim and secure immunity.
C.S. Lewis wrote a famous essay, titled The Abolition of Man, in which he describes the mind-and-soul-numbing impact of a typical liberal elementary school textbook (which he calls “The Green Book,” which systematically denies the objectivity of values, which —in other words—trains the young to be (sophisters, calculators, and) “economists,” i.e. liberal materialist conformists like Dennett.
The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests. It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her. Indeed it would be strange if they were: a persevering devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment which Gaius and Titius [Lewis’s fictional names of the “Green Book”’s authors] could debunk as easily as any other. It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.
And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
Dan Greenfield takes the occasion of America’s reaffirmation of the choice of Barack Obama as president to discuss how it is possible for any country to make such a choice.
Mitt Romney, a fake authentic politician of the old school, back when politicians were working with magazine covers, snapshots and a 30 second clip, couldn’t compete against the truly fake Barack Obama, who in truly modern media style doesn’t just fake 30 seconds or 30 minutes in front of the camera, but fakes his entire life going back decades.
Obama is truly fake. He is authentically unreal. There is absolutely nothing to him. If you take away all the work that was done to make him famous, there would be nothing there. And that is exactly why he is the perfect avatar for the media age. ...
America is being run by a Made in Indonesia leader whose performance is as bad as any of the Made in Indonesia, Pakistan or China crap you’ll find in Wal-Mart. And it doesn’t matter because he’s a brand. The savvier younger and urban voters don’t care what he’s made of, they care how he makes them feel. They may lose their job the next day and their prospects for paying off their college loans may be missing, but if it makes them feel good at the point of polling, then that’s what matters.
When all products are bad, then all that matters is how they feel. When everything can be deconstructed into a lie, then you embrace the lie that feels the most fakely real, even knowing that it will one day be exposed on another episode of Oprah as a lie.
Those who believe in nothing are the most gullible because they will fall for anything. Those without faith are always looking to believe in something or someone. Those who have never known value or quality are always looking to pick up a product that communicates value and quality to them, even while they retain no metric for assessing either one. Instead of learning the metric, they follow the brand, they become savvy brand-spotters, rather than knowledgeable buyers. And when they brand lets them down, then the brand apologizes, the emotions are soothed, and the low information voter turns to the big screen for another messiah.
In a culture where character no longer matters, competition loses all meaning. A lie is no longer a lie, it is not wrong in and of itself. A failure no longer matters if it makes people feel good. And the idea of leadership no longer exists, only the imitation of it. The faint media echo of the values of what was once a great civilization singing itself to sleep.
Dan Greenfield has another of his intelligent essays full of unpalatable truth.
[T]he West has been headed out of the territory of reason for some time now. Its truths have become ideological beliefs. Its goals have become the self-worship of its own symbols, size for the sake of size, and centralization for the sake of centralization. There is a mingled horror and longing for the savage and the barbaric, as civilization appears to have lost its meaning. The leadership cries “Onward to a united world” on the one hand, and “Back to the caves” on the other. That confused melange boils down to a cultural intelligence which has lost the awareness of its own contradictions. High tech environmentalism, soft wars and valueless money are all symptoms of that same intellectual degeneracy.
The rise of China is directly tied to our own irrationality. The People’s Republic of China has become rich and powerful by serving as the reservoir of our contradictions. We wanted cheap products, no pollution, high wages and generous benefits. All these things are not compatible, so we outsourced our manufacturing to China and pretended that we could have it all. But all we got were cheap products, and the country we outsourced them to got the jobs and the national prosperity. We wanted to spend money without worrying about where it came from. Again we turned to China. And like the grasshopper and the ant, we sang and played all summer, while the ants worked and prepared for the winter.
We used China to escape the limits of reality, but there is no escape. Only temporary vacations from consequences.
The election of Islamic Party municipal councilors in several towns in Belgian is provoking controversy, as the newly elected officials do not bother to conceal their intentions to use democratic means to overthrow democracy and turn Belgium into an Islamic state operating on the basis of Sharia law.
Thomas Couture, Les Romains de la décadence [Romans in the Period of Decadence], 1847, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
And even Ross Douthat begins to recognize in the distance the final stop at end of the rail line of progressive modernism.
It’s a near-universal law that modernity reduces fertility. ...
American fertility plunged with the stock market in 2008, and it hasn’t recovered. Last week, the Pew Research Center reported that U.S. birthrates hit the lowest rate ever recorded in 2011, with just 63 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. (The rate was 71 per 1,000 in 1990.) For the first time in recent memory, Americans are having fewer babies than the French or British. ...
Beneath… policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.
Betsey Woodruff, in National Review, identifies Lena Dunham’s HBO comedy Girls as a cultural canary-in-the-coal-mine which, if observed carefully, could have told you where the recent presidential election was heading.
At its core, Girls feels like a deliberate, dissective examination of a group of people who stubbornly refuse to grow up and are lucky enough to be able to pull it off. The main thing Dunham’s characters share is the idea that just because they exist, somebody else should give them stuff. In and of itself, depicting that isn’t at all a bad thing. Girls is an interesting project, it’s well executed, and it can be really, really funny. Look, I like Girls, and I’m excited about the second season.
But Dunham’s stupid little YouTube ad for the president might have ruined it all for me. That’s because she sounds like she’s channeling her character, Invasion of the Body Snatchers–style. They share the same baffling, naïvely egomaniacal understanding of justice — they both seem to think that because they exist, the universe needs to make sure that all the sex they choose to have is consequence-free.
You can almost argue that Lena Dunham sees President Obama as the perfect surrogate for everything missing in her characters’ lives: He’s their gentle lover, supportive parent, and empathetic friend. He’s special. He won’t let them down. He’s Prince Charming. And that kind of defeats the purpose of feminism.
You’d think the feminist elevation of agency would result in women who take pride in being responsible for their own bodies. You’d hope that telling women that they can do whatever they want would imply that they’re responsible for what they do. You’d think serious feminists would argue that true empowerment is something you lay claim to, not something the federal government dispenses in all its benevolence. But for Dunham, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
In fact, for all practical purposes, the patriarchy no longer decides whom American women can sleep with and when. That’s great. But if you don’t want men in Washington telling you how to use your sexuality, you shouldn’t expect them to subsidize it. But Dunham seems to actually believe they should. Dunham makes tons of money, and I’m quite confident she can afford to pay for her own birth control. But she doesn’t seem to take pride in that; it’s not what her characters aspire to, and given her foray into the delightful world of presidential-election ads, it doesn’t seem to be something she aspires to, either.
Second-wave feminists lionized the independent woman who paid her own rent and busted through glass ceilings and ran for Congress. Being totally self-sufficient was the goal. The idea was that women didn’t need men, whether those men were their fathers or husbands or boyfriends or presidents. By contrast, Dunham’s new vision of women as lady parts with ballots is infantilizing and regressive.
So Girls isn’t the eschaton, and neither is one vapid YouTube video. But if Dunham’s show were a metaphorical canary in a metaphorical coal mine, it would be struggling pretty hard right now. There’s a reason it’s called Girls, not Women.
Thomas Couture, The Thorny Path, 1873, Philadelphia Museum of Art
“The Thorny Path is Couture’s satire of decadent French society. A courtesan drives a carriage pulled not by animals but by four male captives who represent different ages and states of society. The naked old man leading the procession is flabby from indulgence; the troubadour following him, a symbol of young love, parodies the medieval ballads popular in nineteenth century France. The old soldier bends his head in self-reproach, and the young student writes as he walks, symbolizing the educated nobility’s ignorance of the realities of daily life. The thistles and thorny plants along the road suggest the painfulness of their journey. The decrepit figure seated at the rear of the carriage with a bottle of wine in her basket foreshadows the courtesan’s future. Finally, Couture signed his initials on the stone figure at center, which seems to be laughing at the entourage.”
Damien Hirst, Crematorium [a giant ashtray filled with cigarette butts and packets], Tate Gallery, London
“’Charles,’ said Cordelia, ‘Modern Art is all bosh, isn’t it?’
Not all Modern Art is bosh really, but an ever-increasing percentage certainly is. How did it come to this? Jacob Willer, in an absolutely brilliant essay in Standpoint magazine, explains how the ideology of Romantic Rousseauianism has transformed the art schools and, along with them, most artists’ abilities and goals. Today, nobody learns to draw or paint at Art School. When you mess up a print, the instructor applauds your spontaneous expression and awards your blunder top marks.
[T]he brochure of one prestigious art school reads:
The course… encourages you to test the boundaries of drawing practice… You will be asked to explore drawing as an end in itself as well as a means for exploring other modes of art practice such as sculpture, installation, performance and film … the course offers a distinct approach to drawing fine art practice.
“Test the boundaries of drawing” means to do anything but drawing. Exploring drawing “as a means for exploring other modes of art practice such as sculpture, installation, performance and film” really means dissolving drawing into everything else, and calling everything else drawing, until drawing has been redefined, and defined out of existence — till it can mean pins and strings and bus-rides. A “distinct approach to drawing” indeed, but sadly, it is “distinct” in many art schools today.
My head of painting did writing, albeit on canvas, and the head of sculpture did performances which he sometimes filmed. I remember a fellow student once “testing the boundaries” of painting, and no doubt using it to “explore other modes of art practice”, by hanging a torn blank canvas on the wall through which protruded a pink plastic vibrating penis. I found it impossible not to laugh as we were gathered to contemplate this “piece” and the head of the school pronounced that it had a certain pathos. But, comedy aside, note that paint was nowhere involved, although this was the painting term. The violated canvas was judged a sufficient reference to the accoutrements of painting, and irreverent enough to be passed as “painting” — and four full weeks’ painting at that.
Matt Feeney, in the New Yorker, takes a fresh look at Bloom’s Straussian jeremiad of 1987 and observes that the relativism of the 1960s era seems no longer to be the same kind of problem. Kids at elite universities today are not relativists. They are instead commonly hyper-engagée moral perfectionists, brainwashed from the time they were toddlers into intense preoccupation with all the ersatz moral concerns of the bien pensant haute bourgeoisie community.
[T]he moral disenchantment that Bloom called relativism is not the problem it was in 1987. Indeed, college-bound American kids now grow up in world that is almost medieval in its degree of moral enchantment. Their moral reflex is anxiously conditioned to an ever-growing list of worries and provocations: smoking, safe sex, chastity, patriotism, faith, religious freedom, bullying, diversity, drugs, crime, violence, obesity, binge drinking. Almost no problem goes un-talked about, un-taught from, un-ruled on. These lessons are convincingly yoked to real-life concerns about safety, health, and happiness, not to mention all those things that, as the song says, will go down on their permanent records.
For kids entering college fully trained in this liturgy of prudence and niceness, which I am anxiously imparting to my own young children, it’s not Bloom’s censoriousness they will resist. It’s his decadence. ...
Bloom’s esoteric project asks today’s students to estrange themselves from an identity that they, their parents, and their teachers, along with their ministers and rabbis and shrinks, their camp counselors and art tutors and soccer coaches, have been constructing since these kids were born, and with a degree of political and moral awareness that everyone involved is darned proud of. These are good kids. Try telling a college sophomore who founded his school’s anti-sweatshop movement that his enthusiasms are callow, his convictions harmful to a true education of the soul, and that he should instead join you on a freaky trip into the true mind of Thucydides.