Swimming Against the Stream

Faux Pas

I noticed something yesterday as I stepped out of a local grocery store. They had sprayed something white around some of the windows to give it the look of snow on the glass. Now this kind of stuff happens all over America around this season. But, um, this is Alaska. There is no reason on earth to fake a white Christmas here. Snow isn’t in particularly in short supply. I noted this last year mockingly when I saw that the local post office in swinging with the season had smeared gobs of white synthetic fakery on their large glass doors. I pitied the poor guy who had to razor this chemical sludge off of the window in January, probably the same poor guy who had to scrape the snow and ice off the walkway for hours on end. For several feet of true snow concealed the ground all round. And the thought came, not for the first time, that Baudrillard was right about the simulacra that infest our reality.

I remember 1989, a trip, a whim, paid for by my mother, to visit Disneyworld in Florida for Thanksgiving. We stayed in a fake Victorian beach resort on a fake beach on a fake lake. We visited Mexico, Japan, Norway, even the United States, not to mention an imitation Los Angeles and several fantasy worlds. There were mechanical birds, birds with clipped wings and some of the entertained even thought the real birds migrating through the park were somehow a product of the Disney touch. I remember at one crucial juncture looking down at a large lonely cockroach crawling out of a blossoming flower garden and thinking that every insecticide spray in the park stood against him. “Be fruitful and multiply,” I said to him. It was the reality of that bug that spoke to hollowness behind our lies. For this was indeed Mecca for the contemporary American dream.

These symptoms were hardly unique to Walt’s kingdoms. Once I started to see the sham scenery I couldn’t stop seeing it. I was visiting a couple of elderly friends in that same annus mirabilis 1989. They lived outside of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. I was taken over to a Home Depot with them to buy a bookshelf. Their son, who was older than I was at the time, was given the task of getting it. A long rectangular box was placed in the car. I was assured that this was to become a sturdy wooden bookshelf. When we unpacked the thing in their garage I saw that indeed wood was a component of the structure. The “boards” were all made of some pressed wood muck, looking like the cellulose equivalent of hogshead cheese. Instructions were given in detail on how to properly screw the thing together. But there was a final step that took my breath away for sheer audacity. Accompanying the wood scrapings fashioned into timber were long panels of contact paper with photographs of real wood. These were to be dutifully laid over the headcheese to simulate the desired substance. Now the price of this monstrosity, certainly decayed and broken by now, was around sixty dollars. At that time twenty dollars worth of lumber and nails would have built a swell bookshelf exactly the same size. Aesthetically, veritably, ontologically this homely construction would have been the real thing. And like the shelves I am looking at today they would be admired and used many years hence. But for some reason this elegant solution didn’t even occur to these regular folks, just as it doesn’t to many people today.

The Imitation of “LIFE”

Why?

I’ve puzzled over that for years as I observe the strange array of materials we surround ourselves with. Why do people settle for the cheap, which ultimately costs more, and the ugly, which disguises itself as the cute, the pretty, the charming? From linoleum designed to look like tiles to vinyl siding, again as so often, aping the appearance the appearance of actual wood. It’s interesting that these things often imitate the stone, wood, glass; textures that signify authenticity. It’s like there is a craving for reality without the faintest desire to actually touch it. Maybe it’s the splinters?

And it’s not just the material world.

I remember a friend coming over to my old New York City apartment once and listening to the Cramps version of Rockabilly, later nicknamed Psychobilly. When I shifted to the real honest-to-God old school Rockabilly from the 50’s he quailed. Johnny Burnette, Link Wray, Gene Vincent were not to his liking at all he said. Why? I asked. Because he would rather hear the interpretation than the real thing, he explained. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that listening to a record can scarcely be called listening to the real thing.) Prior to this most of the people I knew who liked, say, Eric Clapton’s or Jimi Hendrix’s versions of the blues were usually quite curious to hear their influences. But in the late 80’s something was definitely shifting. Today it is much less common to find souls interested in the roots of anything.

But then again look at the swollen flow of simulacra in our own times. In the Internet age, the time of digital downloads, the presence of reality has grown thin indeed. As we move our binary abstractions around through the microwaves the concept of a stable thing has grown faint, feeble. A little over a hundred years ago to listen to music you had to make it, or listen to someone else make it. No microphones. No amplifiers. No recordings. As the Twentieth Century progressed (or at least conned itself into believing it was progressing) people collected hard disks that initially were like pottery, later made of hard vinyl. They collected these things, invested themselves in the music and artwork found in these long playing records. Other techniques evolved, wire recordings, magnetic tape, miniaturized versions of the tapes, optical soundtracks, eventually laser discs and their compact form. These compact disks contained numbers read by light. Eventually, as in science, as in art, as in statistics, the numbers, the abstractions would take on a life of their own. And the function of music would deteriorate from an art that hovered around the many meanings of human existence to personalized interior soundtracks for our own simulated mental movies.

A faux pas in French means literally a “false step” or a misstep. To a bad French student who only knows enough that the negative is often formed by the word pas it might accidentally be read as a “false not” or perhaps a “false negation”. This strange world of self-conscious simulations are perhaps best understood as false negations and missteps towards a world where human meaning is decreased and the illusions of abstraction multiply exponentially.

I hope it is not a faux pas to ask what small steps we can take to strengthen the things that remain.

Byrne Power
Haines, Alaska
12/9/10

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