Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Who Needs Cup o' Noodles?

Samiha alerted me to this News & Observer article about a Duke undergraduate whose extracurricular culinary pursuits have attracted the attention of foodies and health officials alike. Senior history and economics major Bryan Zupon runs Z Kitchen out of his campus apartment. Zupon serves delicious, full-course meals to friends and "like-minded foodies." He has state-of-the-art cookware and utensils which allow him to venture gourmet concoctions like poached duck breast in a foie gras butter.

A recent menu, as reported by the N&O, went something like this:
*Shrimp, Nueske bacon, avocado mosaic, tomato-cumin chutney, mustard, Sichuan peppercorn, Old Bay
*Red snapper, braised fennel, candied olive, raisins, passion fruit vinegar
*Sam Mason's pork belly, miso-butterscotch, snow peas
*Duck breast poached in foie gras butter, crispy skin, mushroom ragout, sage, black truffle-lemongrass emulsion, grains of paradise
*Beet, chevre, pistachio, green peanuts, orange blossom honey, ginger-pear, Manni olive oil, Maldon salt, grated chocolate
*Homeland Creamery blackberry ice cream, sesame chocolate, roasted-pickled apples, roasted pineapple

Word of Zupon's gourmanderie spread quickly, and soon Z Kitchen was "booked" every weekend during his junior year. This September, Zupon was the subject of a glowing New York Times story, in which the author wrote about her visit to Z Kitchen, dining on fare that "wouldn’t be out of place in New York or San Francisco." (The story includes the recipe for red snapper with braised fennel and candied olives.)

Zupon's problem now is that Durham County officials suspect him of illegally running a restaurant out of his apartment. Because Z Kitchen hasn't been inspected or taxed as a restaurant, charging his guests for the food he serves would land Zupon in some trouble. (It may not have helped that the Times write-up actually states that Zupon is "running a restaurant.") While Zupon claims never to have charged money for his work, he does accept donations or contributions to offset the cost of buying ingredients.

As of this writing, Zupon continues to cook out of Z Kitchen. His website, zkitchen.net, seems to be temporarily down. At any rate, it's a good story, and I can only hope that I'll be invited to dine at Z Kitchen before Zupon graduates this spring.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Facebook Revolutions

Marvel at the snatch-and-grab that is, and will no doubt continue to be, corporate investment in Facebook. The BBC announced today that Microsoft won a bidding war with Google to invest $240 million in the three-and-a-half year old company, in exchange for a not insignificant 1.6% share. Based on these numbers (1.6% = $240 million), the story rather speculatively calculates Facebook's worth at an astonishing $15 billion.

The BBC goes on to state 15 useful, sometimes obvious reasons why a mega-corporation like Microsoft would want to invest in the world's premier social networking website. Here are my favorites:

2. The average user spends 3.5 hours a month on Facebook - more than the average user on rival MySpace - which is increasingly attractive to advertisers.
I personally know people who spend this much time on Facebook every day. I shall not name names here, but let's just say I now know why the United Nations has a reputation for not getting anything done.

3. Facebook is the current Web 2.0 darling - popular with ordinary users and "tech heads" alike.
I don't know the lingo: 2.0, tech head, whatever. I do know I'm a half-Luddite when it comes to technology: happy with the tools, functions, and gadgets I possess and know well but averse to "new" and "innovative" commodities that I'm told I simply "must have" in order to be "cool" or "with it" or "in touch." I still resent those moments when friends had the audacity to criticize me for not having a cell phone -- as though they had to put up with some sort of unfortunate handicap on my part. I'm happy with my mobile now, but it's not like I was dying without it.

At any rate, this is an interesting point: Facebook appeals to techies and non-techies alike. For me, it's not just that Facebook's applications are efficient and easy to use; it's also that the website's text and interface are "easy on the eyes," designed with the student or working professional in mind. MySpace, by contrast, has turned into a gauche, untidy, bloated mess of advertising, videos, and "personalized" text; every page is a new adventure, and usually a new set of buttons and images and objects to navigate or avoid. MySpace has no common "language" to speak of -- it's become so "user-friendly" that any semblance of communicable text is lost between a set of five or more "friends."

4. US research reveals that Facebook users come from wealthier homes and are more likely to attend college than MySpace users - increasing that attraction for advertisers.
But of course my rant above probably boils down to this revealing fact: though by no means from a "wealthy" family, I do have the education, leisure time, and cultural capital to appreciate certain aspects of Facebook -- design, clarity, efficiency -- over and against those of MySpace. Rather than feel "guilty" about this fact, I'd like to think through the implications of Facebook's class differential and, more broadly, theorize how and to what effect capital identifies virtual spaces of consumption. These spaces are variable and differentiated; they may be porous, or they may not. However one pursues these questions, it's important that we remember Facebook's isolationist "origins": it began as a virtual complement to Harvard's freshman facebook, print copies of which had been a new student's guide to everyone's hometown, campus location, and hookup potentiality (the last based on a choice high school photo -- gah!). They had actual facebooks when I arrived at Dartmouth in the fall of 2001 -- are they still around at "elite" colleges and universities, or has Facebook replaced them too?

9. According to a report, 233 million hours of work are lost each month in the UK due to staff looking at social networks. Advertisers can now target people when at their desks.
See comment about UN workers above.

14. Facebook is the acceptable face of blogging - you can reflect your life and personality online without being seen as a "blogger", which often carries a geeky stigma.
Well, this can go both ways -- too little information on Facebook leaves you in the doldrums (see those who still have the question mark as their profile picture), but too much can make it seem as though you only knew how to communicate in spaces of virtual sociality. I've been told that my practice of posting numerous reviews of books and movies on Facebook (and Amazon.com) is odd. What makes me want to offer criticism in these virtual spaces? What do I get done here that I may or may not be able to get done in "real life"? Do I expose myself to be averse to face-to-face interaction by channeling a portion of my intellectual energy into Facebook -- or this blog even?

All good questions, the answers to which aren't forthcoming any time soon (if ever). I suppose the only thing I can say right now is that I'm aware of the existential tension between my virtual self and my Being as such. I realize that, even though virtuality is definitely a part of my Being, it doesn't exhaust or define who I am in a strict sense. I mean, have you seen my Facebook profile picture? When have I ever looked so cool in real life?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Erotic/Oblique

Read Bruce Chatwin's essay on English artist Howard Hodgkin (from the collection What Am I Doing Here) and discovered this kernel of insight at the end:

...Howard's pictures have always been, more or less, erotic -- and the more erotic for being inexplicit. He seems incapable of starting a picture without an emotionally charged subject, though his next step is to make it obscure, or at least oblique. Yet is not all erotic art -- as opposed to the merely pornographic -- oblique? Descriptions of the sexual act are as boring as descriptions of landscape seen from the air -- and as flat: whereas Flaubert's description of Emma Bovary's room in a hotel de passe in Rouen, before and after, but not during the sexual act, is surely the most erotic passage in modern literature.

My friend Lindsey and I had a conversation about erotic art in relation to her reading of Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, which she found decidedly non-erotic. Something about repetition, ritual, and the banality of it all -- Sade's directness.

If memory serves me, I think Lindsey did, in fact, mention Flaubert as a literary erotist (to cite the first English translation of Bataille's term -- erotism, not eroticism), capturing in Madame Bovary the peripheral lines of desire that tease our fascination with Emma. Flaubert, then, and not Lawrence, does this to us.

Obliquity and erotism: pulsion, torsion, and the unknowable object of drive. Attention to detail. The sensuousness of form.

I wish, in Chatwin's brilliantly meandering final passage, he had written, "whereas Flaubert's description of Emma Bovary's room in Rouen, before and after, is surely the most erotic passage in modern literature." The "r"s rolling together, a pause to note the obliquity of erotism ("before and after"), and the brave concluding statement of fact. No need to say, much less italicize, during -- we know what's come in between before and after.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Fanon and "Minor" Differences

[This is a response I wrote to Frantz Fanon's essay "The Fact of Blackness," a text assigned in the online course my friend Alexis Gumbs is teaching: "To Be a Problem: Outcast Subjectivity and Black Literary Production." In conjunction with this post, please read Alexis's very helpful introduction to Fanon, "To Be Open."]

I reread Chapter Five, “The Fact of Blackness,” in my tattered copy of Black Skin, White Masks with your words and questions in mind. One item that struck me was the variance in Fanon’s use of the term “minor.”

At first Fanon uses the word to describe the ontological security of intraracial fraternity: “As long as the black man is among his own, he will have no occasion, except in minor internal conflicts, to experience his being through others” (109). Here Fanon sets up his profound analysis of interracial angst (the black man’s being as defined through the white other) by suggesting that intraracial fraternity doesn’t produce the visual torsion or traction that’s required of the “racial epidermal schema,” a kind of degree-zero Difference in social relations.

A little later Fanon will extend the logic of this insight by making the somewhat remarkable claim that the Nazi extermination of millions of European Jews was but an instance of “little family quarrels” (115). Again, intraracial relations — even an event as disastrous as the Holocaust — doesn’t quite get at the Difference Fanon is illustrating here.

Toward the end of the essay, when Fanon launches a brilliant critique of Sartre’s prefatory remarks to Black Orpheus, the term “minor” is brought up once more. But its usage here is distinct from its previous usage: “[I]n the paroxysm of my being and my fury, [Sartre] was reminding me that my blackness was only a minor term… Without a Negro past, without a Negro future, it was impossible for me to live my Negrohood. Not yet white, no longer wholly black, I was damned” (138).

Fanon is of course objecting to Sartre’s subordination of lived, embodied blackness, or negritude, to the abstract idea(l) of the proletariat (132-33); he rejects Sartre’s dialectic of White and Black (anti)theses resolving themselves “in the night of the absolute,” or the Marxian notion of class struggle (133). White and Black are NOT coeval theses, Fanon suggests, and racial-epidermal Difference is irreducible to Hegelian-Marxian dialectics. He notes acidly, “Jean-Paul Sartre had forgotten that the Negro suffers in his body quite differently from the white man” (138).

Fanon’s critique of Sartre is astute, I think; indeed his tormented, autobiographical essay might be read as an example of precisely how embodied blackness anxiously exists (vis-a-vis the gaze of the other) in a conflictual state of self-objectification. “Consciousness of the [black] body,” Fanon writes, “is solely a negating activity. It is a third-person consciousness” (110). Whites don't suffer from such extreme psychic abjection because they needn't recognize their subjectivities through the eyes of others. Under colonial regimes of domination, whites are always already afforded a first-person ("I") consciousness.

And yet, to return to Fanon’s first usage of the term “minor,” I wonder if the concept of intraracial fraternity might not be productively critiqued. What’s obscured by referring to intraracial conflict as “little family quarrels”? Is it possible to theorize Difference intraracially?

Fanon himself would provide one answer to these questions in his 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth. There he devotes many pages deconstructing the social position of those “natives”-turned-state administrators in postcolonial African countries. This professional class of Africans — the national(ist) bourgeoisie — effectively prolongs colonial domination by securing wealth for their caste and exploiting the labor of the black masses. Reading “The Fact of Blackness” in light of this later, more explicitly “revolutionary” work, one wonders whether intraracial difference might not produce a “racial epidermal schema” of its own based on postcolonial variations in caste, color, literacy, and education.

Black feminist literary and cultural critic Hortense Spillers provides another answer to these questions with her idea of the “intramural” in black diasporic cultures. In any number of her essays, especially “Black, White, and in Color, or Learning How to Paint: Toward an Intramural Protocol of Reading,” Spillers shows how sexual difference interjects an irruptive “cut” in the black cultural imaginary. Indeed Spillers’s analytic allows us to see how race itself is differentially embodied across genders. Intraracial fraternity is thus a social fiction that papers over the very real ways in which Woman is relegated to a “minor” position within that discourse.

*****

Thank you, Alexis, for giving us the tools with which to engage critically with Fanon. My rereading of “The Fact of Blackness” is inspired by the animating spirit you display in responding to our posts.

Improper Color

My Finnish friend Lissu, who's working at the United Nations this fall, sent me this unintentionally funny website by the United States government. It guides prospective applicants to the government's Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (DIV) on how to compose an acceptable application photograph. Now the DIV is interesting in that it operates on a lottery basis; according to Wikipedia, "The Act [legislating the DIV] makes available 50,000 permanent resident visas annually to persons from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States." So clearly one of the things the program is looking for is "diversity" among immigrants themselves -- a veritable rainbow coalition of those desiring a Green Card.

But as you can see on this website, the DIV's imagining of diversity comes across as offensive in its effort to manage politically correct images. We have subjects of different hues and colors represented here, which is the liberal multiculturalist gesture. Yet the DIV's articulation of how not to compose an application photo turns these very "diverse" subjects into stereotyped caricatures of themselves.

Here's a "well-composed" photo of one applicant:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

And here's what not to do: No Retouching

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Do:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Don't do: Glare on Glasses

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

See what a slight tilt of the head can do to your photo?

And, perhaps most egregious of all, Do:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Don't do: Improper Color

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

The effect of these "do not do" images is to render the rainbow coalition into a melting pot o' ridiculousness. The DIV might have relayed the same information without using such loaded images -- so obviously pc-conscious that they become parodies of themselves when re-figured by clownish scribblings and inept lighting. Lissu probably put it best in the subject line of her e-mail when she scoffed, "Yeah, 'improper color.'"