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Last summer The Atlantic featured “14 Biggest Ideas of the Year.” My response—as was almost everyone else’s I spoke to about that article—started out excited but quickly deflated. The “ideas” were more platitudinously ordinary than inspiring: “Wall Street: Same as it Ever Was”, or the number one choice, “The Rise of the Middle Class — Just Not Ours.”

Neal Gabler, scholar and author, wrote a response in the New York Times weeks later, extending his musings on what seems to be missing for us these days:

Ideas just aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, they could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world…If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it’s not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did. In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.

Gabler points to our post-Enlightenment times when rational discourse has been replaced by a willful disregard for rational thought (incredulously for the rest of us, most Tea Party candidates believe that the earth is only 5,000 years old.) But the primary culprit is information itself:

It may seem counterintuitive that at a time when we know more than we have ever known, we think about it less…Courtesy of the Internet, we seem to have immediate access to anything that anyone could ever want to know. We are certainly the most informed generation in history, at least quantitatively…And that’s just the point. In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful — into ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us.

While information was once the grist used to create ideas, that is no longer the standard supply chain. We are so overloaded with information that most of us don’t have the bandwidth to process it even if we would like to. And the reality is that most of us don’t really want to go that extra mile anyway.

We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value. It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to our friends and our cohort. Ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward. Few talk ideas. Everyone talks information, usually personal information…We have become information narcissists, so uninterested in anything outside ourselves and our friendship circles or in any tidbit we cannot share with those friends that if a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention, certainly not the general media, which have learned to service our narcissism.

What the future portends is more and more information — Everests of it. There won’t be anything we won’t know. But there will be no one thinking about it.

Daunting.


A poster hanging in a coffee shop window on Smith Street promotes yet another Walt Whitman event. My friend Michael, a Whitman scholar, told me there is some kind of Whitman commemoration going on in Brooklyn every month.

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In terms of square miles, Brooklyn is New York’s second-largest borough, after Queens; in terms of population, it is first. If Brooklyn were a city, it would be the fourth most populous in the United States. If Brooklyn were a country, its chief exports would include artisanal pickles, eco-friendly yoga wear, Red Hook-made Saipua soap (responsible for every store smelling like clove geranium) and books written by men named Jonathan.

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In Brooklyn, material goods matter, but other things matter more.

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Proteus Gowanus…in a former box factory, is the kind of place whose founder could get a MacArthur genius grant. Loosely speaking, it is a museum. Here are some of the things you will find in its labyrinthine rooms: an exhibit of neo-shaman art, ephemera having to do with morbid anatomy, a Reanimation Library that houses odd books (“Sex Lives of Animals Without Backbones,” “the Gun Digest of Exploded Fireworks Drawings”), and, every Thursday night, a meeting of the Fixers Collective, whose members will attempt to repair any broken thing you bring in…Proteus Gowanus has the best gift shop in the world. There are banned-book bracelets, orange glow-in-the-dark bicycle vests that say “UNINSURED,” and a CD of songs whose lyrics are taken from the journals of Lewis and Clark.

These excerpts are from “Borough Haul: Are you hip enough to shop in Brooklyn?” by Patricia Marx, a must read survey of the material world that is Brooklyn (The New Yorker, March 8, 2010.)

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Everyone says it was the art galleries and edgy performance places that were drawing the public. But I think it was the consumption spaces—the stores, bars, and cafes where you could look through plate-glass windows and see people living a kind of aspirational life, but in a low-key, affordable way. Brooklyn came to be understood as a place of creative consumption.

Sharon Zukin, author of Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places (with a chapter called “How Brooklyn Became Cool.”

Brooklyn in 2010 has more like the ambience of Lower Manhattan (Soho, Tribeca, LES) that I found so intoxicating when I arrived in the early 1970s than any other place I know. Like a bubble under the tablecloth, the best stuff just keep moving around. But for right now, it has lodged itself southeast of Manhattan.

Bill McKibben has been a longstanding writer about the environment and sustainability. His first book, The End of Nature, was published in the late 80’s. That was followed by The Age of Missing Information, published in 1992.

Missing Information explores the differences in the quality of the experience of 24 hours spent watching television versus the same amount of time spent in nature. Although it was written nearly 20 years ago, the book still feels timely, full of wisdom and thoughtful provocation.

I recently did a quick reread of the book and was struck by McKibben’s insightfulness as well as his willingness to even-handedly compare these two settings. A day spent in nature and a day spent watching television both offer a steady stream of information. The nature of the information gleaned is radically different however, and McKibben works hard to get under the obvious observations to explore the richer subterreanean layers of subtlety and innuendo. After reading his book, I’m pretty convinced we are what we eat. What we hear. What we see. What we know.

Here’s a few excerpts from the book that I found compelling:

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The great push is always away from individual skill and engagement—a horse took all sorts of information and insight to handle, and a model T a little, and a Honda Accord virtually none.

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Regarding the accumulation of knowledge and believing that we know more than our grandparents: In truth, though, we usually learn a new way of doing things at the expense of the old way. In this case we’ve traded away most of our physical sense of the world and with it a whole category of information, of understanding.

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Instead of the inward-looking self consciousness bred by the solitary reading of printed matter, the electronic urge brings oral and tribal ear-culture to the literate west, and in turn the western technology brings the revolution to the whole world, sealing the entire family into a single global tribe.

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TV itself is without doubt the most single important development of the last 40 years, and it endlessly refers to itself, which adds to the strange sense you are pickling in its juice.

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Over the last two weeks I’ve talked about Susan Boyle more than any other popular culture event in a long, long time. I’ve been discussing it at such length because the whole phenom is so layered—emotionally complex, endlessly arguable, and unabashedly wonderful.

I wasn’t the only one captivated by her performance and the global response to it. The video of her coming out song on Britain’s Got Talent has been viraled all over the world via the Web. Articles, talk shows and postings have bandied back and forth about why her singing engendered the reaction that it did.

I read a lot of this, but the best article I’ve found by far was written by Mimi Kramer-Bryk. Mimi is a critic who makes reading a review pure pleasure, whether mercilessly impugning a misfired idea or celebrating a good one. I love her honesty and waspish wit, but more than anything I love her ability to say with clarity what was inchoate and inflectional, a sense of things I couldn’t quite put into words.

That’s what she does with Susan Boyle in this essay, Susan Boyle and the Tigers of the Night on the blog she writes with her husband and writer William Bryk called City of Smoke. It was a pure aha moment. It is a can’t miss piece.

To add a small note of personal history regarding Ms Kramer-Bryk: I first met Mimi when I moved to New York City from California in the 1970s. She was a teenager living upstairs from mutual friends. Staggeringly sophisticated, urbane and witty, well read and stunningly beautiful, Mimi charmed me right from the get go, and we were thick as thieves for many years. We lost track of each other in the ensuing years, but reconnecting with her has been a reunion of the sweetest order.

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I have received quite a few emails about my earlier posting on Shepard Fairey. Seems to me that Fairey has come to embody the complexities of a whole slew of third rail issues—image appropriation, intellectual property rights, public arts by decree or default, the acceptable limits of “going commercial”, artist as deviant and miscreant, institutional co-option, freedom of expression, private property, tagging. The list goes on. But what really surprises me is that I find the conversation getting more interesting, not less.

Sebastian Smee wrote a piece about Fairey in the Sunday Boston Globe. As usual, he has some worthwhile insights, certainly a few of which are worth sharing here.

The truth is, though Fairey may have been arrested 14 . . . make that 15 . . . times for putting his work in the public domain, he is no longer a radical, if ever he was. He has a thriving business. “If you work hard and are industrious,” he has said, “you can create your own Utopian way of doing things under capitalism.”

At bottom, he is a graphic artist, in love with the graphic potential of imagery – its force, its seductiveness, its impact.

Those who see him as a sellout find his use of nostalgic images of Che Guevara, Lenin, and Martin Luther King as pathetically regressive – a surrender to clichéd imagery that has already been co-opted, aestheticized, and commercialized.

Fair enough. I also find a lot of Fairey’s posturing lame, his images overprocessed, like mass-produced cheese. But I would give him more credit than that.

You only need to look at the spheres of comics and animation, fashion, album art, Web design, and DJing to see that young people today are incredibly savvy about appropriations. Irony – a lot of it extremely intelligent irony – is at play everywhere.

In the case of political art like Fairey’s, the movement from quotation to nostalgia to commercialism is not a one-way street. What is, on the face of it, “radical chic,” or wistful nostalgia for the revolutionary spirit of, say, the Cuban revolution – can also be bracingly contemporary, gaining force from the borrowed image but adding wised-up street smarts: “No way would we be so naively idealistic, or historically dumb, as to believe the things Che believed,” such appropriations can imply, “but we still admire his ardor, and cling to the idea that meaningful change is possible.”

Fairey is so hot right now because his Obama image crystallized a moment of change in a democratic, but deeply divided, society. It helped shape, or at least reflect, a new public consciousness.

Does his image have disconcerting associations with Soviet-style graphics? Why, yes. But most people understand that such references come with a wink and a wry smile. And a smile can change everything.

Please indulge me as I shamelessly shill for my friend Eliza Dushku’s new show on Fox. Dollhouse is a collaboration with Buffy czar Joss Whedon and premieres tomorrow, Friday the 13th (you go, goblins!) at 9pm.

Here’s a funny promo piece with Eliza and Whedon.

And the “official” show site:

Dollhouse

Kick ass, Eliza!

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Eliza with our mutually adored friends, Bonnie and Gerald Horne, 2007