Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ruin Nation: Detroit, Winnipeg, And Other Troubled States Of Mind

John Patrick Leary, a Detroit native, deconstructs the "ruin porn" that captivates the imaginations of so many outsiders — including my own. Noreen Malone, a New Yorker, is more blunt: "Stop slobbering over abandoned cityscapes!"

While Leary and Malone do make valid points about the superficial appeal of "ruin porn," their jeremiads do nothing to halt my prurient poring over the salacious photos they decry. Until there's a 12-step-recovery program for poor souls like me, photographs of ruin will continue to nudge my thoughts in all sorts of directions, some of them troubling, others potentially useful. And Detroit is neither unique nor alone in its state of Ruin Nation: Winnipeg qualifies just as easily. So does the village I currently reside in. I believe any photographer with a little sand in 'em could — and should — have a field day in every town in the atlas.

And why not? How we face the inevitability of decline and death is a common mark of wisdom, or the lack thereof. As for the photos on offer, I've already noted that the older and more arcane the structure, the more aesthetic interest it generates. Surely this says something important about our current aesthetic. Its relative instability coupled with its grievous inability to erode fittingly into the biosphere are just two characteristics that suggest our last 100 years of building activity have been, at best, a halting transition toward an architectural modality that better suits our species.

So do read and consider what these people have to say. But keep those pictures coming — and don't stop watching.

“Everybody Hates A Tourist”: Can Ayahuasca Really Save Western Consciousness?

One of the stranger curiosities to take hold of the contemporary imagination is the ayahuasca experience. What was once a fringe psychedelic trip encountered occasionally in the more obscure writings of William Burroughs or early Wade Davis now sits prominently in North American pop culture awareness. The millions who sat through Avatar have enjoyed a bit of armchair proselytizing on behalf of ayahuasca. And the internet is awash with ayahuasca testimony, of course. But even the stiffs at the BBC, the NYT and The Atlantic have been flying down to the Amazon to imbibe the Divine Vegetal.

I have difficulty knowing just what to make of it all. Claims of ayahuasca efficacy can be quite extreme. Ostensibly the experience, under the guidance of experienced shamens in their natural environment, can cure loneliness, depression and even drug addiction, while engendering a globally communal consciousness. Even if these claims are taken with a grain of salt, the romantic possibility of resolving of one's competing mythologies — “Ten years of psychotherapy in a single night,” according to one initiate — has distinct appeal. But when I encounter an appeal like this, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. If ayahuasca has the power to save us all, why couldn't it inspire James Cameron to make a better movie?

Burning off the last of our fossil fuels to get people down to South America in an effort to save our species from extinction seems a tad counterproductive. And while vegetal evangelism seems to be making some modest gains outside its geographical and anthropological boundaries (despite its contraband status), if Western curiosity continues to grow I have to wonder if and when demand mightn't outstrip if not endanger the natural supply.

“Only connect” — Forster's maxim to the citizen artist — comes to mind as I mull this over. As the comments following this plea make clear, connection remains a challenge, even for those who do take that trip in the Amazon.

UPDATE: Jeff Warren has a terrific piece covering some of the complexities of the ayahuasca experience in the current issue of Maisonneuve. It's not available on-line, but it's well worth seeking out at the newsstand.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The DK Handbook

Dorling Kindersley is one of the most innovative publishers working in print today. Even consumers who steer clear of bookstores will recognize a DK product: the unmistakable DK layout is visually striking and wholly unique, At first glance it often looks like DK's primary emphasis is on illustration (typically color photography), making it is easy to underestimate just how germane the textual content is. But whether the product in question is a travel guide, a cook book or a children's reference book the written content works in tandem with the illustrations to bring about a profoundly informative reading experience.

Several DK publications have proven invaluable to our family. We have Eyewitness travel guides that are well-worn with use (particularly the one to San Francisco). In years past the girls relied on Eyewitness Ancient Greece, Rome and Medieval Life to give them clear direction through school projects. And of all the bicycle maintenance books I own, the one I refer to most is a portable, plastic-sheathed guide from DK that fits easily in my bicycle seat bag.

This morning the daily feed from Amazon recommended The DK Handbook. At first glance it struck me as an odd project for DK to attempt: a visually intuitive composition handbook for entrance-level university students. I glanced at the content available on Amazon, then went over to the official site for the DK Handbook and looked through what they had on offer, including the videos. The longer I considered the project, the greater its potential seemed.

The Amazon user comments are interesting. The raves seem to confirm the project's promise. The dismissals, of course, are predictably huffy and old-school. “After 30 years in education,” sniffs one user, “it seemed to me that most of the first part of the book is taught in fourth grade.” Well, that might* have been true 30 years ago, but today's university profs will regale you at length about just how wretchedly prepared entrance-level students are for basic composition.

Regardless of how well it finally achieves its mandate, the DK technique is revolutionary and always worth a closer look. It could well be that DK's visual approach is exactly what today's profs and students require.

*Actually, 25 years ago Canadian universities began establishing basic rhetoric classes as a requirement for first-year students precisely because this level of comprehension was not there.

Friday, January 14, 2011

2010, The Year That Was

Wup -- meant to post some ruminations before the old year came to a close, but life kinda got in the way. So it goes. Here's the briefer "get it done" version:

Music: I'm a sucker for the concept album, and 2010 offered skids of them. On the far end of the spectrum was Plastic Beach by The Gorillaz, which enlisted every major artist with "street cred" and managed to win over every critic and their dog. I couldn't get into it, but I'm happy for the kids. Trombone Shorty's Backatown was much more my speed, and received considerable play. The stand-out concept album of the year, though, was Arcade Fire's The Suburbs, which nudged me into one of those lovely, always unexpected "a-ha moments" for which I'm grateful. The most-played album this year was Elizabeth Cook's Welder Honorable mention goes to the mid-90s album, Signify by Porcupine Tree.

Movies: I took my younger daughter to see the latest Iron Man installment, and even though I smiled through most of it I had to wonder if the powers that be in Hollywood really had to spend that much frickin' money to generate such fair-to-middlin' thrills. A week or two later my wife and I saw Inception, and the thought never crossed my mind. This movie-goer's modest request to movie-makers in these challenging times: please don't spend that kind of money if you're not going to change the game.

Books: Two months ago, as I prepared to quickly complete my reading of Mr. Darwin's Shooter by Roger McDonald, I wrote: Even if the final third of the novel were to fall flat, Mr. Darwin's Shooter would be a candidate for the most memorable novel read this year. Well ... the conclusion didn't exactly fall flat, but it did disappoint. Specifically, it resolved, which, given the subject matter, struck me as incongruous. My reaction is probably tainted by the bitter dregs of the so-called "culture wars" being waged chiefly (but by no means exclusively) to the south of us: a country that remains, for the moment, the wealthiest in the world, taking the lead in so many of the sciences, but where the predominant religious inclination is to re-fight the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in school classrooms. If the national character can ever, uh, "mature" to a nuanced, respectful, even humble acceptance of the limits of articulations both theological and scientific, perhaps the true worth of McDonald's book can be better appreciated.

To that end, I found Marilynne Robinson's Absence of Mind quite helpful. I think she's acquired the reputation of an American Chesterton (minus the sense of humor), giving those pesky "New Atheists" their proper comeuppance. Just for the record, I don't much care for the argument itself, which hasn't developed any new parameters since Epicurus (or Job). Robinson does at times come across as a bit of scold, which I find less than charming. And while I do take issue with some of her arguments I am sympathetic with her larger purpose: challenging the human (and particularly Western, and most particularly American) imagination toward its truest capacity.

Related: this essay, the most resonant I've read this year.

But my favorite book of 2010 was Nikolski, by Nicholas Dickner, which still strikes me as a delightful and uniquely Canadian confection.

As ever, feel free to comment if I've missed out on something. Hopefully it will be addressed and enjoyed in Eleven (one louder than Ten!).

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Let Us Construct Mythologies

(With apologies to Leonard Cohen)

I've been sharing food with my political friends, and the common lament from the would-be contenders for 24 Sussex is, "Despite the exponentially-increasing media platforms, we simply cannot get our message heard." They presume our politicians -- specifically Harper, Ignatieff and Layton -- have one or two ideas that can't be summed up in a tweet, but could potentially ignite voter response, if only these would-be voters made the effort to sit up and listen.

There is some truth to that observation, but not enough to fruitfully meditate on. I counter-propose that our politicians, particularly Ignatieff and Harper (Layton can't be considered a serious contender for PMO), have very clearly communicated their message to the public -- "I want power" -- and the public has responded appropriately. I suspect what they are unable to communicate is a sufficiently compelling mythology that the public can identify with and get behind.

South of the 49th, of course, we have a different story. Presidential contenders have to espouse their belief in the myth of American Exceptionalism right from the start. After that, it's a matter of identifying, then embodying which myth lies closest to the yearnings of the motivated voter. Right now the Tea Party myth is getting a face-lift. How the current manifestation differs from the earlier ones, or veers from the historical record, is part of another conversation; the important thing is that everyone who hears the words "Tea Party" has an immediate, visceral response.

Trudeau was a master at myth manipulation. He cut the secular-humanist cosmopolitan figure, occasionally canoing through the Canadian wilderness to reassert his ties of identity to our home and native land, before shaving and resuming his role as designated roué. Mulroney settled on a myth as well, albeit with a great deal less self-awareness. Alex P. Keaton (brought to life by another Canuck) was Mulroney's template; Canadian voters were assured that if they bought into the smooth-talker's Trade Agreements, they could reasonably expect to join the PM's family on their winter vacations in Malibu. Chretien might have implemented Mulroney's policies to a degree that made that great chin quiver with indignation, but he did so by bolstering the myth of Canadian exceptionalism and independence: although we were beneficiaries of US economic growth, we were decidedly not its "Ready, aye, ready" toadies.

Harper, I suspect, originally hoped to ride into office on the myth of the Pauline authority structure: kids subservient to parents, wife subservient to husband, family subservient to government, government subservient to last apostle's Christian God (and, above all, backbenchers subservient to Harper). In a population base that has become truly multicultural, that has been a hard sell, but he's tweaked the template enough to appeal to the conservative leanings of recently transplanted cultural groups hoping to keep their religious and family identities relatively intact. Alas for him, this tack only steers him over the shoals of Trudeau's Charter of Rights. The rights of the individual citizen might be so deeply assumed by the citizenry as to make arcane the notion of voting in its support; we now rely on our judges to remind the politicians to put away their caning rods, and no-one votes for a judge.

Early in the game, Ignatieff dashed off a book, a strategy that ought to have at least superficial appeal to the mythically inclined imagination. However, the only person who seemed to need reminding that Ignatieff was smart enough to write a book worth reading was Ignatieff himself. The book was a sentimental hash that virtually farted with a sense of entitlement every time a page was turned.

So here the Canadian voter sits, scrolling through tweets and watching silly cat videos while waiting for the next Knight In Shining Armour to ride up the hill, wielding Excalibur and pointing the way to Camelot. It wouldn't be such a bad predicament, if only the times were less interesting. As it stands, it is the politicians who are relying on their plebeian subjects to supply all the character, do all the sacrificing, and dutifully follow the hero's path -- while the Hockey Fan and the Poindexter wait for the moment to finally seize office and shape it in their image.