reviews

"Hamilton: the Musical:" Black Actors Dress Up like Slave Traders... and it's Not Halloween

“Hamilton: the Musical:” Black Actors Dress Up like Slave Traders…and It’s Not Halloween

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Establishment historians write best sellers in which some of the cruel actions of the Founding Fathers are smudged over if not ignored altogether. They’re guilty of a cover-up.

This is the case with Alexander Hamilton whose life has been scrubbed with a kind of historical Ajax until it sparkles. His reputation has been shored up as an abolitionist and someone who was opposed to slavery. Not true.

Alexander Hamilton married into the Schuylers, a slaveholding family, and participated in the bartering of slaves. One of “Hamilton’s” actors, Renee Elise Goldsberry (“The Color Purple”), who visited the Schuyler home, said the Schuyler sisters, “were the Kardashians” of 1780 — superstars, but with dignity and grace.”[1] Maybe they were able to maintain “dignity and grace” because they had 27 slaves serve them. Black women whose labor assignments left them little time to preen. Is this actor disregarding, callously, that the sisters thrived on the labor of enslaved women? No, she probably attended the same schools that I attended. A curriculum that endowed slave traders and Indian exterminators with the status of deities.

Even Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton, upon which the musical “Hamilton” is based, admits (kinda), reluctantly, that Hamilton and his wife may, [his italics], have owned two household slaves and may have negotiated the sale of slaves on behalf of his in-laws, the Schuylers. Chernow says that Hamilton may have negotiated these sales, “reluctantly?” How does he know this?

Like other founding fathers, Hamilton found slavery, an “evil,” yet was a slave trader. The creepy Thomas Jefferson also appears in “Hamilton.” He was even a bigger hypocrite in his 51haSf-ecnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_blaming King George for the slave trade, a contention that was deleted from the final version of the Declaration of Independence.

“Jefferson railed against King George III for creating and sustaining the slave trade, describing it as ‘a cruel war against human nature.’”[2] Was Lin-Manuel Miranda, who designed this show, aware that Thomas Jefferson’s solution to the Native American problem was “extermination?” He told his Secretary of War, General Henry Dearborn (who was the primary government official responsible for Indian affairs): “if we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down until that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi.”[3]

Similarly, Andrew Jackson found slavery, “barbaric,” yet owned slaves. He might have been the founder of the false police report. “He concocted stories if discipline crippled or killed a slave. Of a beaten woman, he wrote to a partner in one such cover-up: ‘You may say to Dr. Hogg, that her lament was occasioned by a stroke from Betty [another slave], or jumping over a rope, in which her feet became entangled, and she fell.”’ [4]The same 1 percent establishment critics, who gave Andrew Jackson a pass, are praising “Hamilton.” One writer even hailed Jackson as a Rock and Roll star.

Professor Michelle Duross, of the University at Albany, State University of New York, is much more direct and shows what happens when someone from a class, whose voice has been neglected, invades the all-white male country club of historians. Unlike Chernow, her treatment of Hamilton as a slave trader is not couched in equivocating qualifiers that are favorable to this founding father. She takes to task the Hamilton biographies written by his awe-struck groupies:

“Alexander Hamilton’s biographers praise Hamilton for being an abolitionist, but they have overstated Hamilton’s stance on slavery.

“Historian John C. Miller insisted, ‘He [Hamilton] advocated one of the most daring invasions of property rights that was ever made– the abolition of Negro slavery.’

“Biographer Forest McDonald maintained, ‘Hamilton was an abolitionist, and on that subject he never wavered.’”

She writes, “Hamilton’s position on slavery is more complex than his biographers’ suggest.” Some historians maintain that Hamilton’s birth on the island of Nevis and his subsequent upbringing in St. Croix instilled in him a hatred for the brutalities of slavery. Historian James Oliver Horton suggests that Hamilton’s childhood surrounded by the slave system of the West Indies “would shape Alexander’s attitudes about race and slavery for the rest of his life.’”

She writes,

“No existing documents of Hamilton’s support this claim. Hamilton never mentioned anything in his correspondence about the horrors of plantation slavery in the West Indies.

“Hamilton’s involvement in the selling of slaves suggests that his position against slavery was not absolute. Besides marrying into a slaveholding family, Hamilton conducted transactions for the purchase and transfer of slaves on behalf of his in-laws and as part of his assignment in the Continental Army.”[5]

Another historian, Alan McLane Hamilton writes to counter the claim that Hamilton never owned slaves: “[Hamilton] never owned a negro slave… is untrue. In his books, we find that there are entries showing that he purchased them for himself and for others.”[6]

In the musical, black actors play Washington and other founding fathers. Are they aware that George Washington is known for creating strategies for returning runaways? That he was into search and destroy when campaigning against Native American resistance fighters.

“By 1779, George Washington had already earned the famous moniker ‘Father of His Country.’ Among the Iroquois he was known asConotocarious, or ‘Town Destroyer.’” [7]

Historians, who serve as lackeys for famous, wealthy white men term him a “merciful slave master.” An oxymoron.

“Washington authorized the ‘total destruction and devastation’ of the Iroquois settlements across upstate New York so ‘that country may not merely be overrun but destroyed.’ Under Washington’s orders forty Iroquois villages to ashes, and left homeless many of the Indians, hundreds of whom died of exposure during the following frigid winter.

“Chief Cornplanter, who headed the Seneca tribe of the Iroquois, stressed the durability of ‘Town Destroyer’ as the commander-in-chief’s nickname. ‘And to this day when that name is heard,’ the chief said, ‘our women look behind them and turn pale, and our children cling close to the necks of their mothers. To this day, ‘Town Destroyer’ is still used as an Iroquois name for the president of the United States.”[8]

Slave trading usually involved sex trafficking, where the planters

turned their plantations into enforced and involuntary harems, an enterprise that fugitive slave writer, William Wells Brown, found disgusting. George Washington’s Sally Hemings, according to black oral tradition, was a slave named Venus. Fifty percent of the slaves at Arlington, where Robert E. Lee lived with the granddaughter of Martha Washington, were “bi-racial.”[9]

So what’s the difference between Ariel Castro who kept three women against their will and Alexander Hamilton and other founding fathers? His groupies argue that despite his flaws–they don’t include the slavet-rading parts–he was smart. Well so was Ariel Castro. He was able to evade detection by even members of his family. For years. Moreover did he work these women from sun up to sun down without paying them? Maybe Broadway will do a musical about his life.

Already, the same 1 percent critics who drooled over “Bloody Bloody, Andrew” about Andrew Jackson, the Eichmann of American Native American policy, are already embracing “Hamilton.” They must be as ignorant as the black and Latino actors who have lent their talents to “Hamilton.”

Maybe that’s why the establishment critics leave out the slave parts. The idea that Black Lives Matter is an improvement over their slavery status, where blacks were treated as objects to be bought and sold, worked, beaten, killed and fucked. Though ignorant hateful people say that the Civil War was fought to uphold “states rights,” the slaveholders of the south, who kept Africans against their will, as a result of their free labor, were the richest white people in the world.[10]Maybe the country clubs of historians and Beltway critics still feel that way about African captives.

And why would President Obama lend his prestige to this thing? First he welcomes black pathology pimp, David Simon, to the White House, where he endorsed “The Wire,” a show in which black children are singled out as degenerate drug peddlers, when all of the heroin seems to be stashed in Vermont and other states with few blacks among their population. He honors this hustler even after Prof. Karl Alexander, who did an actual study of Simon’s black Baltimore neighborhoods, found Simon’s presentation to be “one sided” as he put it, politely.

Is this the president’s view of traditional African Americans? Criminals. People who sang and danced their way through slavery under the watchful eye of merciful slave masters? He went to Harvard. Didn’t he take courses from Martin Kilson? Doesn’t the president know that Thomas Jefferson’s proposal for the Native American problem was extermination?

Now The New York Times has appointed Simon the chief interpreter of the black experience. The honorary Head-Negro-In-Charge. Al Jolson without the black face. He’s doing a miniseries about Martin Luther King, Jr. He’s already lined up a couple of black writers to be in on the project, who will be there to defend the thing if black people become upset. It’s being sponsored by Oprah Winfrey who gave a green light to Precious, the worst black movie ever made. I can understand why some young black Americans are leaving the country. I met some of them in Paris.

Now I have seen everything. Can you imagine Jewish actors in Berlin’s theaters taking roles of Goering? Goebbels? Eichmann? Hitler?

When I brought up the subject of Hamilton’s slaveholding in a Times’ comment section, a white man accused me of political correctness. If Hamilton had negotiated the sale of white people, do you think that an audience would be paying $400 per ticket to see a musical based upon his life? No, his reputation would be as tarnished as that of his assassin Aaron Burr.

Benjamin Franklin wrote a satire, called “Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim on the Slave Trade,”[11] in which he dealt with his contemporaries’ justifications for slavery only he, in order to spotlight the defenders’ hypocrisy, put these same arguments in the voice of a fictional Muslim, who justified the enslavement of white Christian slaves.

And here is the final insult: “The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is working with the producers on an effort to make it possible for large numbers of New York City schoolchildren to see the show.”

This is the best argument I know for the establishment of more Afro-Centric schools and Hispanic schools in order to balance the curriculum promoted by Euro-Centric schools, in which perpetrators of genocide and slave holders are honored. Was school integration a mistake? Were these the brainwashing schools attended by the Latino and Black actors who are performing in this thing?

The best argument that I know for the advocacy of such schools came from a Jewish professor who attended Hebrew School before public schools. When a public school teacher praised the Crusades, she was able to point out that the Crusaders set up pogroms.

In the heady times during the slave revolt of the 1960s, the rebels boasted about how they were using the enemy’s language and how they were “stealing his language.” Now things have been turned upside down. Now the masters, the producers of this profit hungry production, which has already made 30 million dollars, are using the slave’s language: Rock and Roll, Rap and Hip Hop to romanticize the careers of kidnappers, and murderers. People, who, like Jefferson, beat and fucked his slaves and spied on their fucking.

The very clever salesman for this project is Lin-Manuel Miranda. He compares Hamilton, a man who engaged in cruel practices against those who had been kidnapped from their ancestral homes, with that of a slave, Tupac Shakur. He is making profits for his investors with glib appeals such as this one. The first week’s box office take was $1,153,386.

Amiri Baraka, the master of irony, your voice is missed.

 

Notes.

[1] “Actresses in ‘Hamilton’ Take a Trip to a Family Home for a History Lesson” James Barron, New York Times, July 13,2015

[2] “Letter From Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, Dec.6, 1813.”

[3] www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2h33.html

[4] Nixon’s Piano, Presidents And Racial Politics From Washington To Clinton Kenneth O’Reilly, The Free Press, New York, 1995

[5] http://www.earlyamerica.com/early-america-review/volume-15/hamilton-and-slavery/

[6] THE INTIMATE LIFE OF ALEXANDER HAMILTON;  Allan McLane Hamilton

[7]http://www.usnews.com/news/national/articles/2008/06/27/town-destroyer-versus-the-iroquois-indians

[8] ibid.

[9]Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, Elizabeth Brown Pryor.

[10] The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Kindle Edition by Edward E. Baptist.

[11]“ Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim on the Slave Trade.” Pow Wow,Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience-Short Fiction from Then to Now, edited by Ishmael Reed with Carla Blank, Da Capo Press, 2009, New York.

"Here and Elsewhere" by Molly Oringer

Molly Oringer

Review, “Here and Elsewhere”

The New Museum 7/16/14-9/28/14

Given a tendency to categorize the contemporary Arab world as monolith, thoughtfully curating an immense exhibition of over forty-five artists without inserting a determinist perspective is a formidable challenge. The region’s recent events—not to be recounted here yet the subject of widespread speculation and curiosity—are ever-present in the multitude of frameworks employed to portray, explore, and understand the Middle East. Often reflections of past events, an image’s location in a museum conjures a sense of mortality: the viewer sees the piece of art as a relic rather than continually resonant. Rather than succumbing to a precious retrospection of the Arab world’s recent uprisings as valiant shortcomings, "Here and Elsewhere," organized by curator Massimiliano Gioni and encompassing the entire five floors the New Museum, ambles in terms of subject matter and medium, unhindered by subject-specific curation.Taking its name from a 1976 film by Jean-Luc Goddard and Anne-Marie Miéville, whose intentions to serve as a pro-Palestinian essay but expands to explore the consciousness and conducts of political representation, "Here and Elsewhere" consists of a myriad of artists differing widely in mediums but united loosely through their connection to the Arab world and, in some cases, its diaspora, and their varied and intersecting portrayals of Arab identities, places, and representations.

In its subtle disavowal of the totalities plaguing analyses of the Arab world—geographic generalizations and heavy exotification, to name a few—Here and Elsewhere does not insist on either overt political provocations or personal narratives. Instead, each artist’s work speaks in its own tenor, allowing for exploration from the mundane to the elaborate. Resulting is an expansion of the Arab world to encompass its porous diaspora, malleable borders, and numerous interactions with permeable identities. Musings on the fate of the Arab world—and, too, how to best cope with its past and present—are left to the devise of each artist, and remain unanswered on the scale of the exhibition as a whole.

The visitor becomes present in the exhibition immediately upon entering the lobby of the museum; it is not simply a viewing but an act of participation. Designed by the GCC “delegation” composed of nine artists, including some residing in London and New York, have transformed the space into a simulacrum of what one might imagine to be an Abu Dhabi hotel, complete with portraits of the delegation members in the style of Gulf royalty hanging above the main desk. The installation asks the visitor, encompassed in a physical representation, to consider connections between grandiose architectural and artistic state projects—in this case, Gulf political power and the construction of capitalist-nationalist symbols and their role as internationally broadcasted representations of the region. As in the posh hotels of Dubai, those responsible for, rather than an image of, the life of these symbolic spaces are absent: foreign laborers, domestic workers, and non-national residents remain deliberately invisible. By contrast, South Asian workers capture their own images by cell phone in artist Ahmed Mater’s videos, which turn to the stark juxtaposition of such symbols of Gulf nations and their often ignored underbellies: a portion of his film “Leaves Fall in All Seasons” shows a worker clinging to an enormous, gold-encrusted crescent as it is hoisted by cranes to the top of a minaret.  The Arab world is thus rendered, whether explicitly or not, as inclusive of those who make its representations possible, as anonymous as they often are.

The concept of an expandable Arab world is furthered in Bouchra Khalili’s video installation, in which each screen maps a journey taken by migrants, many whose sojourns originate in South Asia and Africa, as they traverse clandestinely to Europe. The viewer is shown only the narrator’s hand as they outline their travels on a map, including harsh layovers and mistreatment in parts of the Middle East ranging from the UAE to Morocco. The subjects of Khalili’s videos narrate the ways in which the geography of the Arab world seeps into the lived realities of those seeking refuge and work in other parts of the world, placing it in the scope of greater transnationalism and migration.

The theme of polished nationalism is revisited in Wafa Hourani’s sculptural interpretation of a futuristic refugee camp entitled Qalandia 2087 Sprawling at eye-level, the viewer is invited to walk amongst labyrinthine, dollhouse-like models. Situated adjacent to the largest Israeli checkpoint dividing Jerusalem from Ramallah, the current refugee camp sits near the site of the former Qalandia airport—closed by Israeli forces—and is surrounded by the Israeli separation wall. Hourani’s sculpture does not seem to assume any de-occupation of Palestine: the wall, rather than absent, is replaced by a mirrored, disco-ball façade. Though spaces for socializing and commerce abound in the model, it is unclear if the futuristic take on the landscape is a whimsical dream for a Palestinian future or a critique of the polished, glitzy attempts by the heavy presence of international NGOs and a defunct Palestinian government to normalize the occupation. Rather than abandoning the camp for a return to their villages and cities, the residents of Qalandia 2087 are left with cars lining spiffed-up streets and neon satellites stemming from concrete rooftops. Hourani leaves undecided whether the museumification of a distant Palestine is rendered alive through its futuristic additions or deemed dead through its permanence and glitter.

“Here and Elsewhere” stretches the viewer’s concept of the confines of the Arab world both geographically and temporally, reaching into both the archives and the future in its inquiries. Running until September 28th, it provides visitors with ample opportunity to consider the region as composed of active, layered social and political multitudes.

Lost in the Gallery-Industrial Complex via NYT

By HOLLAND COTTER
January 17, 2014

A new year. A new New York mayor. Old problems with art in New York. I have a collection of complaints and a few (very few) ideas for change.

Money — the grotesque amounts spent, the inequitable distribution — has dominated talk about art in the 21st century so far. It’s a basic fact of art history. Emperors, popes and robber barons set the model for the billionaire buyers of today. Of course, it is today that matters to the thousands of artists who live and work in this punitively expensive city, where the art industry is often confused with the art world.

The distinction between the two, though porous, is real. The art industry is the nexus of high-price galleries, auction houses and collectors who control an art market renowned for its funny-money practices. In numbers of personnel, the industry is a mere subset of the circle of artists, teachers, students, writers, curators and middle-range dealers spread out over five boroughs. But in terms of power, the proportions are reversed, to the degree that the art world basically functions as a labor source, supplying the industry with product, services and exotic color but, with the age of apprenticeships long gone, only uncertainly sharing in its wealth.

Do I exaggerate? A bit. The argument can be made that labor is benefiting from its ties to management, in a high-tide-floats-all-boats way. Visit art schools or galleries, and you get the impression that a substantial portion of the art world is content to serve as support staff to a global ruling class.

The scene at Christie’s during the sale of Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.”

CHRISTIE'S IMAGES, VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

The reality is that, directly or indirectly, in large ways and small, the current market system is shaping every aspect of art in the city: not just how artists live, but also what kind of art is made, and how art is presented in the media and in museums.

I got tired of money talk a while back. Rather than just sputter with indignation, I figured it would be more useful to turn in another direction, toward art that the industry wasn’t looking at, which is a whole lot of art. But reminders keep pulling you back to the bottom line. With every visit to the gallery-packed Lower East Side, I see fewer of the working-class Latinos who once called the neighborhood home. In what feels like overnight, I’ve watched Dumbo in Brooklyn go from an artist’s refuge to an economically gated community.

Recently, my attention was drawn to a controversy surrounding a large and much praised group exhibition installed at a complex of converted warehouses called Industry City in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The show, “Come Together: Surviving Sandy,” was conceived as a benefit for artists who had suffered losses in the 2012 hurricane and was promoted as evidence of art-world solidarity. Yet a widely read blog, Art F City, reported that the owners of the complex, which had for some years provided low-rent studios for artists, were now raising rents dramatically, forcing many artists to vacate. (Landlords say 25 percent of Industry City tenants are artists). The new residents seem to be an upscale clientele drawn by the artsy atmosphere.

Whatever the full facts, money is the winner, and with that comes caution and conservatism. This is almost absurdly obvious on the high-end of the market. Sales of retrograde “masterworks” can be relied on to jack up the auction charts at regular intervals; the most recent record was set last fall by a $142.4 million Francis Bacon painting of Lucian Freud, a monument to two overpraised painters for the price of one. Meanwhile, big, hugely pricey tchotchkes — new whatevers by Jeff Koons, say — roll out of fabrication shops and into personal museums being assembled by members of the international power elite.

Part of the exhibition “Come Together: Surviving Sandy” at Industry City in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

MARILYNN K. YEE / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Outside auctions, the marketing mechanics buzz on. Roughly since the end of the multicultural, postmodern 1990s, we’ve watched new art being re-Modernized and domesticated, with painting the medium of choice, abstraction the mode of preference. Together they offer significant advantages. Paintings can be assembly-line produced but still carry the aura of being hand-touched. They can be tailored to small spaces, such as fair booths. Abstraction, especially if color is involved, can establish instant eye contact from afar. If, in addition, the work’s graphic impact translates well online, where stock can be moved eBay style, so much the better.

Other traditional forms — drawing, photography, some sculpture — similarly work well in this marketing context. But an enormous range of art does not, beginning with film, performance and installation, and extending into rich realms of creative activity that defy classification as art at all. To note this dynamic is not to dismiss painting or object making, but to point to the restrictive range of art that the market supports, that dealers are encouraged to sell, and that artists are encouraged to make.

The narrowing of the market has been successful in attracting a wave of neophyte buyers who have made art shopping chic. It has also produced an epidemic of copycat collecting. To judge by the amounts of money piled up on a tiny handful of reputations, few of these collectors have the guts, or the eye or the interest, to venture far from blue-chip boilerplate. They let galleries, art advisers and the media do the choosing, and the media doesn’t particularly include art critics. What, after all, does thumbs up, thumbs down matter when winners are preselected before the critical votes are in? In this economy, it can appear that the critic’s job is to broadcast names and contribute to fame.

Conservative art can encourage conservative criticism. We’re seeing a revival — some would say a disinterment — of a describe-the-strokes style of writing popular in the formalist 1950s and again in the 1970s: basically, glorified advertising copy. Evaluative approaches that developed in the 1980s and 1990s, based on the assumption that art inevitably comments on the social and political realities that produce it, tend to be met with disparagement now, in part because they’re often couched in academic jargon, which has become yet another form of sales-speak.

The Silent Barn art space in Brooklyn’s thriving Bushwick neighborhood.

SASHA MASLOV FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

There’s no question that we need — art needs — an influx of new commentators who don’t mistake attitude for ideas, who move easily between cultures and geographies. Regular gigs in mainstream print journalism have all but dried up, but the Internet offers ambitious options in a growing number of blogazines including Art F City (edited by Paddy Johnson) and Hyperallergic (edited by Hrag Vartanian), which combine criticism, reporting, political activism and gossip on an almost-24-hour news cycle.

And although both are based in New York, they include national coverage and in a feisty mix of voices, a welcome alternative to the one-personality blog of yore. That mix would probably be even more varied, and transcultural, if a few forward-thinking, art-minded investors would infuse some serious capital into such enterprises so they could pay writers a living wage and make online freelance writing a viable way of life.

I don’t know what it would take to get a global mix of voices into some of New York’s big, rich art museums. If archaeologists of the future unearthed the Museum of Modern Art as it exists today, they would have to assume that Modernism was a purely European and North American invention. They would be wrong. Modernism was, and is, an international phenomenon, happening in different ways, on different timetables, for different reasons in Africa, Asia, Australia and South America.

Why aren’t museums telling that story? Because it doesn’t sell. Why doesn’t it sell? Because it’s unfamiliar. Why is it unfamiliar? Because museums, with their eyes glued to box office, aren’t telling the story.

Truong Tan’s “What Do We Want,” part of “No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia” at the Guggenheim Museum.

RICHARD PERRY / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Yes, MoMA and the Guggenheim have recently organized a few “non-Western” shows. MoMA’s 2012 “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde,” packed to the ceiling with art we’ve rarely if ever seen, was a revelation. But they need to take actions far more fundamental and committed. International Modernism should be fully integrated into the permanent collection, regularly, consistently.

Their job as public institutions is to change our habits of thinking and seeing. One way to do this is by bringing disparate cultures together in the same room, on the same wall, side by side. This sends two vital, accurate messages: that all these cultures are different but equally valuable; and all these cultures are also alike in essential ways, as becomes clear with exposure.

With its recently announced plans for an expansion, MoMA has an ideal chance to expand its horizons organically. The new spaces, which should certainly be devoted to the permanent collection, won’t be ready for several years, but the museum has no excuse for waiting for its long-overdue integration process to begin.

And on the subject of integration, why, in one of the most ethnically diverse cities, does the art world continue to be a bastion of whiteness? Why are African-American curators and administrators, and especially directors, all but absent from our big museums? Why are there still so few black — and Latino, and Asian-American — critics and editors?

“The Shadows Took Shape,” an exhibition of Afrofuturist works at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

SUZANNE DECHILLO / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Not long ago, these questions — of policy but also political and ethical questions — seemed to be out there on institutional tables, demanding discussion. Technically, they may be there still, but museums seem to be most interested in talking about real estate, assiduously courting oligarchs for collections, and anxiously scouting for the next “Rain Room.” Political questions, about which cultures get represented in museums and who gets to make the decisions, and how, are buried.

Political art brings me back to where I started, with artists, and one final, baffled complaint, this one about art schools, which seem, in their present form, designed to accommodate the general art economy and its competitive, caste-system values. Programs are increasingly specialized, jamming students into ever narrower and flakier disciplinary tracks. Tuitions are prodigious, leaving artists indentured to creditors for years.

How experimental can artists be under such circumstances? How confidently can they take risks in an environment that acknowledges only dollar-value success? How can they contemplate sustaining — to me this is crucial to New York’s future as an art center — long and evolving creative careers? The temptation for many artists, after a postgraduate spurt of confidence, is to look around, see what’s selling, and consider riffing on that. We’re seeing a depressing number of such riffs these days.

Again, do I exaggerate? And, again, sure, to some degree. By no means is all the news bad. Start-up galleries are opening; middle-tier galleries are holding their own, or doing better than that. Artist-intensive neighborhoods like Bushwick and Ridgewood are still affordable, companionable and fun.

But when the rents get too high, or the economy fails, or art buying falls out of fashion, and the art industry decides to liquidate its overvalued assets and leave? Artists, the first and last stakeholders, will have themselves to fall back on. They’ll learn to organize and agitate for what they need, to let City Hall know, in no uncertain terms, that they’re there. They’ll learn to share, not just on special occasions, but all the time. They’ll learn that art and politics are inseparable, and both can be anything and everything. They’ll learn to bring art back from the brink of inconsequence.

As someone long on questions and short on answers, let me ask: Why not start now?

Carl Watson reviews Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge

Clicking into the abyss

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

 

Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel,Bleeding Edge, could be described as a mixture of cyberpunk, yenta detective fiction,New York self-admiration/mockery, and good old Pynchonesque conspiracy/paranoia.Set between the 90s dotcom collapse and the September 11 aftermath, the novel portrays a kind of privileged hyper-connected Upper West Side life; it’s a techno-noir complete with ambiguous bad guys, compromised good guys, numerous facilitators and walk-ons with various agendas and a general air of what the hell is going on and who is in control?The answer to the last question may well be nobody at all. The number of characters is just large enough to make it difficult to keep track of.*  Significant people keep reappearing to re-establish their place in the plot, but due to the story’s length and complexity you often can’t remember what their role originally was. That’s okay though because what’s important may only be this confusion, that and the fact that you, the reader, remain caught up in the flowof ramifying possibilities.Pynchon piles on layers of possible meanings and branching narrative lines as the plot moves forward, promising intrigue, laughs, critical insight, etc., most of which is delivered in abundance.

It might be said that many of the characters confirm a criticism that is often leveled at Pynchon: that his novels are peopled byrather shallow cartoons,twisted stereotypesin extremis.  We might also say his characters are merelyhyper-real, overdone on the surface, even if psychologically underdone.This is not to say that Pynchon’s people don’t have real-life problems, peccadillos, fetishes, etc., but that such indications of depthoften seem to serve only as markers of authenticity in an increasingly inauthentic mediatedmilieu. It’s also true that whether you believe in them or not is probably unimportant. In Pynchon’s universe they are merely signsof the post-modern human condition, where late capitalism’s vaunted “individuals” (read “consumers”) have basically evolved into a form of the very media they have created and within which they thrive. Allthis goes along with the author’s general tendency to privilege surface over depth, i.e., there isn’t anything but surface, and depth is an illusion, a human construction, a matter of computation, either of the computational brain or some other machine, say the machine of the media brain.  All those complexities of character that people value so much inold-time literature are really nothing more than the reactions of biological bags of chemicals reacting to their chemical environment. This may seem a mordantnote, but from this reviewerit’s meant as a compliment.

That said, a partial list of important characters in Bleeding Edge goes like this:

Maxine Tarnoff is a late30ish-40ish something protagonist, living on the Upper West Side where she runs a fraud-hunting agency, called “Tail ‘em and Nail ‘em,” that often has dealings with the various overblown tech companies of the era. Maxinemight be considered a kind of Jewish Marlowe, if Marlowe knoshed at a Broadway Deli and had to escort kids to their liberal private Montessori-like school, Kugelblitz.Yes, Maxine has two sons,with the appropriate hipster names of Ziggy and Otis, and they, like all New York kids from the Upper West Side, are wise beyond their years. She also has an ex-husband Horst Loeffler, who is not exactly out of her life. Horst is a Midwestern transplant, a cliché that is used as relief to show off the cleverness and sophistication of the New Yorkers around him.He moves slower, or at least more deliberately, is less frantic than the others, and apparently likes sports and the outdoors. Described as“A fourth generation product of the US Midwest, emotional as a grain elevator, fatally alluring as a Harley knucklehead, indispensible (God help her) as an authentic Maid-rite when hunger sets in.” That last comment lets you know thatHorst also serves as practical ballast to Maxine’s frenetic life.Maxine’s sister, Brooke, is married to the LikudnikAviDeschler, who if not directly involved in the current plot of the novel may well be involved in some other bit of international intrigue.

March Kelleher, Maxine’s friend, is often an aid in her investigations, but also seems to be caught up in clichéd 20th century forms of conspiracy theory that are inadequate to her era, mostly because they depend on agents who actually have agency, and many people in this book seem to be more like puppets to a technological or capitalist mind that operates far beyond their ability to understand it. March’s daughter Tallis, happens to be in a southbound marriage to one Gabriel Ice, a Bond-like villain/mogul and the brains behind hashslingerz, a super-powerful and somewhat secretive internet company. Hashslingerz’s actual activities are foggy at best, but there is no doubt that through his corporate vehicle Ice is making a bid for internet and telecommunications dominance, both via plain thuggery and by buying up all the bandwidth and infrastructure that he can get, as hereadies his profit margins for the coming techno surge of humanity. Gabriel Ice may be apossible government fixer, but he is also an untouchable Oz, as we know about him only by rumor and hearsay. When he does show up in person, he’s kind of an arrogant dork.

There are other entertaining characters such as Igor, Misha and Grisha, a triumvirate of Russian gangsters who seem to be unallied in terms of the various competing powers. They can be dangerous and bumbling at the same time, and they are both allies and enemies of Maxine; she’s never sure which, and she may even be working for them. There is the foot fetishist, Eric Jeffrey Outfield, a super computer nerd,who Maxine masturbates with her feet after picking him up in a Queens strip bar, where she has posed as a dancer specifically to find him. Eric will be first to take her into the Deep Web. There is Conkling Speedwell, a professional nose who has built an olfactory smell detector of some small importance. Justin and Lucas are California techno-geeks who have invented the webspace called DeepArcher which lives in the Deep Web, and which plays a significant role that will be discussed later in the review. These are just some of the players in this rolling serious farcical who-dun-what.

Given the cast and temperament of the characters, there is much to suggest conspiracy, in the best Pynchon fashion. Things grow increasingly sinister as the threads seem to tighten around an actual plot or revelation. This plot, or rather Maxine’s part in it, begins with the discovery that someone has been syphoning a lot of money out of the hashslingerz revenue stream and Mr. Ice does not take kindly to such actions. A certain Lester Traipse ends up dead gazing up from beneath the pool floor of The Deseret, a ritzy, if sinister,west-side apartment building where Maxine and others take recreational swims. Maxine is sort of hired, or not, to unravel all this.Ice of course is a suspect, but he would never pull a trigger himself and one possible finger-man is Nicholas (Dust in the Wind) Windust, agovernment hit man or fixer who remains rather mysterious throughout, in fact mysterious enough to arouse Maxine’s libido, so that she ends up doing him doggie style in a ratty, west-side safe house, where they conduct a supposedly info-sharing rendezvous.Of course this leads to further intrigues, part of which have to do with a secret DVD video of anonymous individuals manipulating rocket launchers on top of that same building. The DVD is delivered by Marvin, the mystical Rastafarian messenger, who always has very significant deliveries to make to Maxine and which seem to come only from anonymous sources.

 

All this culprit-chasingplays out in the landscape of New York City, and Bleeding Edge is definitely a targeted NYC-centric novel. Everyone goes to therapists. Maxine goes to an emo-therapist named Shawn, who himself goes to a therapist that specializes in therapist therapy. Everyone in the book is also quite quick on the conversational draw,barely waiting for the end of a sentence before they fire back a knowing and pertinent response, often so larded with cultural references that you might miss the wit, were you not as clued in as they are.Indeed we all know people who do speak or attempt to speak in this way, tying themselves into the pop-cultural universe as a means of self-validation. In Bleeding Edge, people toss such references back and forth as if creating a language of exclusion against those not entranced with the product and entertainment world in which they are ensconced. It’s also true that everyone seems to know way too much for their own good, as they say, and whether or not Pynchon means this as irony, comedy, criticism, or sarcasm even,is for the reader to decide.But this again is a typical Pynchonesque surface affectation posing as depth.

I like to think the knowing banter is meant to indicate a hyper-sophistication reminiscent of those wisecracking old George Cukor movies such as The Philadelphia Story orHis Girl Friday. If you took a Cukor script and updated it to include a great deal of techno-speak and contemporary cultural/product references you would be approaching Pynchon’s style here. With lines like “I thought you loved me for my psychosexual profile,” or “Enough dress code violation to get thrown off the L train,” it makes for great reading if not necessarily realistic human portraits.It might be said that one problem with this type of dialogue is that everyone sort of sounds the same and because Pynchon often fails to provide speaker attribution in the long pages of dialogue it is easy to get lost and discover you don’t know who is talking to whom. Again, this may well be on purpose. It is worthwhile noting here, that Pynchon sometimes tries to write in dialect, or street, generally to poor effect.

While I have been claiming that New York is in some sense a character in this book (in reality no other place exists, except California—another nod to the NYC mindset), it is also important to reiterate that this is a particular New York, that of the turn of the millennium with its attendant events, includingthe dubious Wall Street machinations, the dotcom bubble and bust and the looming shadow of the yet-to-occur September 11. Silicon Alley has crashed and most of these characters are rooting around in the detritus, remembering the elaborate parties and the various highs of money, drugs and sex. Indeed, the glory days of Silicon Alley before the downfall is one of the running themes throughout the conversations of Maxine’s crowd, who were all caught up in the flow of positive futures and the endless web-based possibilities for making huge quantities of money. Web moguls and telecommunications entrepreneurs like Gabriel Ice are the kingpins of this circle, drinking and coking in the clubs with seemingly few consequences while utterly failing to see the collapse right around the corner.What accompanies this period of decline is a sinister sense of foreboding, of things being out of control. Not that the dotcom bust was engineered by mysterious powers, but that there was never any control to begin with. But there’s more to this air of menace than mere economic chaos or social decadence, and this brings us to the looming event that shadows the entire novel—9/11.

Given the time setting of autumn 2001, the reader has a particular advantage over the characters, anticipating something, which the characters can’t see. Thus so much of the suspicion/conspiracy atmosphere that surrounds the doings of Gabriel Ice, Windust, the Russians, and even to a degree the program Deep Archer plays directly to the reader’s special knowledge. To say this is a book about 9/11 though would be misleading. The actual event is emphasized less than the way it affects everyone’s life. Pynchon captures well the eeriness of the following days and weeks: the seeming distortions of time and other physical laws, along withthe disorientation many of us felt in our normal environments. 9/11 also allows the author to tie the dubious dealings of these numerous characters, the various ideas and paranoid theories into larger geo-political issues. Maxine and her friends immediately assume, of course, that there is more to know about the attack than is being told, as they circle through many of the now common conspiracy theories, all of which are put forward only to fall into a blasé pool of maybe, maybe-not, and maybe-it-doesn’t-matter.  Remember the rockets launchers on the roof of the safe house?  Is Ari, with his Mossad connections, somehow involved?The information economy is often questioned—is there just too much of it, so that the significance of every message unit is depleted and nothing means anything? Is that how this happened? At one point even 90s-style irony is blamed, Heidi, Maxine’s friend, writes in the Journal of Memespace Cartography, “As if somehow irony, as practiced by a giggling mincing fifth column, actually brought on the events of 11 September, by keeping the country insufficiently serious—weakening its grip upon ‘reality.’”

 

Critics have made note of two important pervasive qualities of Pynchon’s fiction:1) a ludic or humorous undertone that serves as a kind of reflection on, or manifestation of, the great joke of the universe, and 2) the elevation of paranoia to a creative, indeed, almost spiritual state of mind.Both are offered as solutions or perhaps palliatives to the post-modern human condition. Faced with the inscrutable complexity of the world, we humans may have no other alternative but to adopt a vaudevillian comic ethos that grants us parity with the grand laughter;we might as well join the joke, so to speak.Pynchon’s books also revolve around paranoia as a creative force, or as Reg Despard says, “paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen.” It is something capable of both intensely focusing the mind as well as providing the cutting edge by which we might endlessly divide certainty from itself or reality from desire. In that sense paranoia produces ever-increasing fragmented sub-realities thus actually enlarging our world. We can think of it as a psycho-socialprocess of atomization, and that leads us to the book’s title and underlying theme—that of the Bleeding Edge.The phrase “bleeding edge,” according to Lucas, one of the designers of Deep Archer, refers to technology that has, “No proven use, high risk, something only early adoption addicts feel comfortable with.” The bleeding edge may call into question the purpose of human endeavors, a pertinent theme within Pynchon’s oeuvre, but in this book the author is using the term in a much larger metaphysical sense, something like an infection of quotidian life and communication where information can be manipulated to mean anything, which is the same as nothing at all, which may well be liberating in the end. So I will end this review with some of the possible ways we can read the “bleeding edge” of the text.

 

One manifestation of the bleeding edge is that of social uncertainty and moral compromise. Every character of consequence has some ambiguity attached to their actions. If there appears to be a general acceptance that things are not what they seem in the event world, it is also true in the world of personality, as most of the characters are not who they seem. We never really learn who they actually are, perhaps half physical agent and half rumor self-assembled out of gossip and media. Their roles are ultimately difficult to pin down.Who works for whom? What is anyone’s real job? Their marriages are all in some state of dissolving or reforming. Their companies and jobs are all in a state of flux. Take Maxine, for instance, who may or may not still be with her husband; unlike her hard-boiled fictional brethren, who often adhered to individualistic moral codes, she is no such knight.It’s hard to say she’s in the business for money because she never seems to actually receive any. She doesn’t solicit the jobs she gets in the novel, and she is never actually contracted to do them, she just sort of ends up as everybody’s agent of discovery. While middle-class, she is definitely attracted to the bad element, especially sexually, but also intellectually. She doesn’t seem to mind humiliating herself for an alliance. She wields a gun to excellent effect when she needs to, despite seeming to have little experience with it. She knows how to be where she needs to be even though it often seems like an accident that she gets there. Gabriel Ice is another example—an internet mogul who may be working with the government or may be working against it. He is either being investigated or he is running the investigation.

The characters are all in some wayindeterminate because their environment is. Part of this is undoubtedly something to do with obscene wealth and its manipulation of public and private morality. And while money affects business and personal morals it also changes the landscape itself, as March Kelleher says: “Between the scumbag landlords and the scumbag developers, nothing in this city will ever stand at the same address for even five years, name me a building you love, someday soon it will either be a stack of high end chain stores or condos for yups with more money than brains.” Another environmental cause of indeterminacy has to do with the nature of mediated existence as it ruthlessly fragments and reproduces infinitely iterated forms of information.Bleeding Edge may be a detective novel, but for all the leads or evidence that come Maxine’s way, or anybody’s for that matter, it’s impossible to pin anything down. Facts move around like electrons through cyberspace, they can be steered into accounts of the truth or into false scenarios, just as money is steered into various bank accounts.The line between puppetry and agency is increasingly blurred. Eventually most of the characters are contentto just go home, if they can determine where that is. One is reminded of what Jack Ruby said in the aftermath of the Oswald shooting: “The world will never know the true facts of what occurred.”

 

Another of the obvious bleeding edges is the frontierthat lies between physical meatspace life and virtual webspace.Webspace, the new, superior reality, is fluid and hallucinogenic, to a degree that seems somewhat prescientgiven the time setting of 2001.Maxine is introduced at some point to what is called the Deep Web, the web under the surface web that most user/novices know. One might see the Deep Web as a possible stand-in for thesubconscious but it’s not really, although it can be quite dreamlike. Within the Deep Web runs the program or webspace or game known as Deep Archer, which can be accessed by those in the know(or ultimately by hackers). Deep Archer is a mystery wrapped in an enigma: it seems to have no goal or point to it. It’s designers claim it is a sanctuary and possibly a landscape for spiritual quest, but if it is, it is also a space subsumed to late capitalism and its unstoppable insidious crawl. After agonizing over whether to go full-blown capitalist and sell for billions, the creators, Justin and Lucas, take the nobler path of going open source, only to find that Deep Archer, once out of their control, sadly capitalizes itself, becoming a kind of Times Square buried deep in the Deep Web like a virtual Atlantis. Certainly it is the “place” where meatspace bodies become avatars and where they can interrelate in disembodied way. But it is also the location of the final bleeding edge, where even the avatars eventually find themselves standing at the lip of a digital abyss that does not, nor cannot, resolve itself into a meaningful goal, where form gives way to chaos and reality leaks out into endless plurality—either that or nothing.

Maxine goes to the Archer for answers but also for sanctuary.Out there (or rather in there) she converses with an avatar, who claims to be on a mission to the edge of the universe, but who is also pissed off about the commercialization overtaking the space:

All these know-nothings coming in, putting in, it’s as bad as the surface Web. They drive you deeper, into the deep unlighted.  Beyond anyplace they’d be comfortable.  And that’s where the origin is. The way a powerful telescope will bring you further out in physical space, closer to the moment of the big bang, so here, going deeper, you approach the border country, the edge of the un-navigable, the region of no information.

 

What she’s talking about is the fact of being driven out and to the furthest edges of her digital Eden, driven out of her sanctuary by the craven masses and that there may be some positive result to such a flight. The idea, that one can plumb the digital depths, or as one character puts it, “douse the Void,” until you reach the end of information is repeated numerous times in the novel when the subject of Deep Archer comes up. Indeed, the object of the Archer may be precisely to arrive at this ambiguous frontier of space/time. As one avatar puts it: “the edge of the great abyss . . . far from an absence, it is a darkness pulsating with whatever light was before light was invented.”  Maxine, in one of her explorations, finds herself watching, “the unfolding flow of the starscape, Kabalistic vessels smashed at the creation into all these bright drops of light, rushing out from the singular point that gave them birth, known elsewhere as the expanding universe.”It is interesting here how Pynchon has linked light to information and that there is in fact an information horizon that we can (hope to?) reach, be it via outer or inner space, a frontier where we can look over and find peace from all the enmity that definition and categorization brings.  This light could be said to be literally nothing but pure potential, but it is also a place to escape to, which is why so many of the characters seem to find themselves searching for it.  As one avatar asks herself, “how long I can stay just at the edge of the beginning before the Word, see how long I can gaze in till I get vertigo—lovesick, nauseous, whatever—and fall in.”

Pynchon seems to be saying that what awaits us is not necessarily the apocalypse of terrorism, but a kind of existential wasteland of ambiguous meanings, where we will each eventually find ourselves as if we arrived at the furthermost regions of the codeable universe, gazing into a void of reality. This may be a good thing if we arrive there by choice.  Or it may be forced upon us as a form of annihilation, because the wasteland will eventually impose itself on surface reality.  This is probably the most pertinent and possibly frightening message the book has to offer.

 

end

 

* For a guide to the characters see: http://bleedingedge.pynchonwiki.com/wiki/index.php?title=H

 

 

 

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