FEBRUARY 26, 2019
What brings you joy?
— Marie Kondo
Blindfolds. Prison walls. We’re warming up to the art of containment this winter. Containers.
Bird Box. Spend a night in the box. Marie Kondo’s on Netflix. Warhol’s at the Whitney. The government shuts down, but we keep things tidy.
Soup cans and the art of the pantry. When everything is too much, kiss your ugly sweater and let it go. (This, according to my favorite shows.)
Roma, Cuarón’s Cleo: the outside is a puddle you mop from the floor.
Pop forms hold us, protect us, shelter us, connect us more than any wall or web, says my TV. Turn off your socials, says my TV. (More and more I do.)
Strangely, I think of David Foster Wallace. (Wait. Not so strangely; I see in my recommended titles The End of the Tour).
He used to call me the idiot box, says my TV. They all did.
True story: After a Kondo binge, I tidy my books. I turn first to a used copy of Wallace’s Girl with Curious Hair, and read this inscription:
Happy Graduation, Chad / June 9, 2006 / Take a class with this guy! I love you! ❤Mom❤
By ‘08, of course, Wallace is gone. According to my unscientific sense of last month’s 10 year photo challenge across the socials, that’s about the time everyone starts using Facebook. Isn’t that what the challenge marked? A kind of reunion where everyone improbably looked better?
According to Kate O’Neill, author of Tech Humanist, the challenge helped to train facial recognition algorithms on age progression. Jaron Lanier makes similar points in his series of books that lead — to paraphrase T.S. Eliot — from an overwhelming question — Who Owns the Future? (2012) — to an obvious conclusion — Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018). Lanier thinks, when it comes to this kind of media, we do not ask what is it — but we should. “Behavior Modification Empires.” That’s his name for the socials, their contribution to a feeling that things are always and only darkening. If you want things darker, there is always James Bridle’s New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (2018).
Anyway, I didn’t get far cleaning.
I think of Chad and his mother, and open Wallace’s collection to its first, expressionless page: a child and his mother in a movie theatre. 1970.
“The child’s eyes enter the cartoon. Behind the woman is darkness.” Out of the darkness “a man leans forward… he plays with the woman’s hair.”
Whose hand reaches, I wonder, for the cinemother?
I think of Wallace, his ten year challenge, Mary Karr and #metoo.
Did we ever really believe in the death of the author?
I think of Warhol — born Warhola — and Julia, his mother.
She had a colostomy bag, a pantry full of soup.
Some byzantine Byzantine icons, perhaps, his soup cans: his mother an immigrant whose first child — an infant girl — died in her arms in a village in Slovakia.
We’re putting the mom back in pop.
Which is what Bird Box does, of course. Cultural pivots offer curious allegories, and ours is offering plenty: Straight-to-your-living-room blockbuster releases like Bird Box afford, most obviously, the pleasure of listening to mom. Call her Cinemama. Stop talking to strangers. Stop being social. It is a film, in Lanier’s sense (he’s pro subscriber-models like Netflix), committed to a kind of cultural deprogramming, curiously attached to the closed door, to riding the streaming service (the river) to an ultimate sanctuary: a school for the blind, a giant bird box, a shared domestic space where 80 million people watch the same thing.
If those who stream together dream together, we’re dreaming about our infrastructure: that which fails us, that which saves.
But here’s the (allegorical) thing: before the air in the tunnel kills us (socials), the canary sings (pop). It’s what the semioticians might call a curious index: not a weathervane or a footprint, but a fragile, dying index nonetheless. Its song a song of how there is no air, and that’s all that’s true, that’s all that’s real.
And the canary sings what pop always sings.
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
Pop won’t fail us, perhaps we believe, if we make it visible, appreciate it for the fragile, dying, human thing it is — a sign and measure of our search for sustenance. It’s fitting, then, that our recent turn to a pop humanism comes at a time of groping attempts at a tech humanism.
No surprise, our new Warhol is one who draws by hand. He’s like the prisoners in Ben Stiller’s Escape at Dannemora, yet another allegory about infrastructure and clear vision in the age of streaming: To see clearly behind prison walls — the escapees practice a crude hand-drawn pop art — is a means of discovering a new route (a heating pipe) to freedom. Warhol, too, provides a map of the infrastructure by which we truly come to know each other.
Of course, retrospectives tell us more about now than then. Warhol’s drawings, says Philip Kennicott, “advance the project of humanizing” the artist who said “I want to be a machine.” The Whitney calls this the “Warhol before Warhol,” but let’s call him Warhola, the immigrant’s son, his drawings — our pop culture — an index of our exile, what sustains us, where we call home.
His mother’s pantry, her insides on her outsides; the messy fact of interior matters, that interiors matter: pop traces our fragile social bonds, and we’re valuing that now, perhaps more than ever.
I make room on my shelf for Hanif Abdurraqib’s latest work in pop criticism (and love), Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest. It’s a book for our moment, in part a series of letters dedicated to making visible the pop infrastructure by which we (once?) oriented our lives. He writes here to the late rapper Phife Dawg’s mother, the poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor: “I know what it is be a son and long for a living mother.”
Ours is a moment for pop elegies, which, actually, is a sign of vitality. The elegy is the barest and best expression of a pop humanism: an act of address — an homage, a soup can, a portrait of Marilyn, a letter to Phife’s mother — to redress the slings and arrows, death’s blows. Death blows, but pop never quite admits, never quite knows. Call it childish. Call it garish. Call it faith. As Franz Wright once wrote, “[I]n my opinion you aren’t dead. / (I know dead people, and you are not dead.)”
Writing to the rapper’s living mother, Abdurraqib lets me recover hip hop and him — Phife, my boyhood hero — in a new way. I think of my old Low End Theory tape, machines with buttons that said “play.”
Infrastructure, obviously, is boring. If it weren’t it would get in the way.
I think of this as I stream Cuarón’s Roma, its slow panning shots, its undramatic domestic interiors through which (mostly) women come and go.
Pop is reclaiming its space in our lives, in our homes, and that’s a good thing. Roma marks this, commemorates where we stream together, where we are connected, and watch, and learn to see, as if for the first time.
“I consciously tried not to pay homage or do anything derivative,” says Cuarón, in yet another act of cinematic deprogramming.
Unflinching, we watch Cleo and her stillborn child. Watching, we become patient as a machine and as silent, learning from the cinemother the calculus of homage and elegy.
What are these rooms where we stream? Where we discover, like prisoners, a source of warmth, a heating pipe, a lost infrastructure that may very well connect us and save us?
Aren’t we merely watching atomized and alone, welcoming a new dark age each in our cell, as Terrance Hayes puts it, “part prison / Part panic closet, a little room in a house aflame”?
Maybe. Maybe not. I sort through books. On TV there’s crying. I can’t bear to look. Does this spark joy? Kondo asks a couple in a condo. Does this spark joy? I’m trying to ask the same. Imagine a different life. Imagine a spark. Imagine the flames.
M.I. Devine is an essayist, literary critic, and lyricist. He co-founded Famous Letter Writer, which releases W̶A̶R̶H̶O̶L̶A̶ later this year. Big Deep Records will issue the single “Warhol/Warhola” in Spring 2019.