Heather writes Momus from Chicago:
I know you think that cities like Berlin are now just "cities where
people live and go to work," while places like Hong Kong are the
trauma-inducing cities of this particular historical moment. I agree
that places like Hong Kong or Tokyo are probably infinitely more
post-modern, meaning fragmented and swarming with visual signs and
images, than European cities, which are probably still ruled or
immoblized by the idea of big government and ideology. So Hong Kong is
the city of the moment while Berlin might be the city of the past. All
true. But, do you really think that the city of the moment is the place
in which reality is trauma and in which dreams are more important? I
think it is the "city of the past."
The "city of the moment," such as Hong Kong, is ruled by the present.
There is no past. There are signs and packed cafes and teeming masses and
advertisements. But all of these things are very immediate. They are very
capitalist. And to me, an active mecca of capitalist media does not
inspire dreams. You said it yourself in your peice on Oasis. High
capitalism is a situation in which the dreams are stolen from people and
repackaged in a more glamorous and lurid form. As Alexander Kluge and
Oskar Negt said, "The consciousness of the proletariat is made into a
commodity." In this situation, dreams are sold, and these commodity
dreams might be prolific, but I do not believe they are real.
Real dreams exist in the cities of the past. Berlin, for example. I have
never been there, but I know that if I were, I would feel the ghosts of
Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang and Max Beckmann. Hell, I would feel the
ghosts of Blixa Bargeld, David Bowie and Nick Cave, or maybe even
Christian F. I think that the history of a place or thing, the
experiences accumulated over its long passage through society, gives it
what Walter Benjamin describes as an aura. I think that only with an aura
can something enter into the subconscious and become the fodder for
dreams. If I can think of the "person who was here once," I can
substitute my imagination for the thing, and if the thing is old and
timeworn, this is all the easier. In American places like New Orleans
and my home, Chicago (you know "old" to us is 200 years) the "use" of
these cities has passed away, New Orleans is no longer a port for slave
ships and Chicago is no longer "hog butcher for the world." So they are
functionally shells of buildings, yet people live and go to work in
them. What else is there in these places but dreams?
History is something that people invent on their own. When the history is
passed, the experiences of history linger in people's culture
and their subconscious, the entire intellectual production of the human
race. In high capitalism, this intellectual production is homogenized.
Here's Marx, "The intellectual creations of individual nations become
commen property...[The bourgeoisie] compels [nations] to introduce what
it calls civilization into their midst, i.e. to become bourgeois
themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image."
If capitalism creates a "world after its own image," then Hong Kong must
be nothing more than an image. I think that the Great Wall of China would
cause me to dream more.
thanks for an interesting letter.
I think we basically agree on what we're saying, but there's a difference of accent. You're talking about cities which feed dreams, I'm talking about cities which make dreams necessary.
The past is the stuff of dreams, of course it is, the past is all around us and yet can only live fully in our imaginings of what it must have been like. Cities like Venice, which are saturated in the past, are dream-stimulants just as powerful as Disneyland.
Hong Kong, though, is a place which is so inherently devoid of dreams, so anchored in the present moment and material reality, that it must invoke in a sensitive person the need to escape into dreams, fetishes and fantasies.
Dreams, in other words, don't live there as they do in more opulent, historical cities. They must be sought, listened for, carefully constructed. The scene I describe in Fallen Angels is so powerful because of the stark contrast between Agent girl in the foreground, desperately digging inwardly for her dreams, and the violent reality of a triad fight in the background.
And it's that contrast of a flat, utterly contemporary surface with the myriad tiny hidden dreams Hong Kong's citizens are carrying around with them that interests me.
To dream in Paris, Venice or Berlin is too easy: you sit in an air conditioned tourist coach and dream. To dream in Hong Kong is more difficult, but it's a necessity, not a luxury. It's dream under siege.
The sting in the tail of my argument is that what feeds my dreams is the city which most needs my capacity to dream... Just as 'in the end soul itself is the longing of the soul-less for redemption' (Adorno), so in the end our most sophisticated and luxurious dreams are of a place where dreaming is almost impossible, and therefore indispensible.
Capitalism tries to package dreams and sell them back. Go into a Chinese record store in any Chinatown and you'll see ranks of unfamiliar, uniform Hong Kong stars on the covers of tapes and CDs, and it's like a reflection of how shallow all capitalist entertainment industries are in their attempts to give us an inner life. Yet I don't scorn them, or the amazing efforts of their consumers to make these banal faces and banal songs meaningful. A lot of work goes into making the cynical calculations of moneymakers into something really personal, something that really speaks of an actual person's actual aspirations.
>dreams might be prolific, but I do not believe they are real.
I accept that they are made in 'bad faith', but I think they become real by virtue of being believed in and expanded by the people who consume them in good faith.
You know, after living in Paris, I begin to feel that Kafka was right when he said that 'the secret of happiness is to have a dream and never to make efforts to advance towards it'. You should never live in your dream city. Perhaps you should never visit it. It will cease from that moment to be a dream city, and you will have to find another one.
When we dream against the grain, dream to escape the place we're in (and not just to jump back to its previous incarnation), we are dreaming 'towards ourselves', or what's left of ourselves. And then the question is: what is there left of a personality, a real inner life, under modern conditions? And I was saying that Wong Kar-Wai says there are odd deformed fantasies, solitary obsessions and warped love.
It's precisely the fact that capitalism stunts and deforms the spirit of human beings, and yet is (for the moment) absolutely unavoidable and omnipresent, that makes it crucial to examine human nature in the crucible of capitalism, in an insanely commercial town like Hong Kong.
Everything else is escapism.
Philip in New York writes...
But what about the artist?
In reading your retort to Heather's volley I can't help but think you're
swimming in Semiotextland. Nothing against it really. It's all good
fun. It's true that Beaudrillard and Co. can stir a good debate, but it
can also be a case of cat chasing its tail.
I just can't agree with your statement "capitalism stunts
and deforms the spirit of human beings." Aren't artists the bastions of
life's spirit: the supreme, but very human, being? If anything,
capitalism is an oxymoron: the mantis that eats its spouse yet spews out
more fecund youngsters moment by moment. Capitalism, it seems to me, is
the incubus that paradoxically strengthens the artist's armor and
stimulates his/her mind. Warhol was a primo capitalist. Artists don't
just "live and work," do they?
I liked your idea of the traum-city. Having been to Berlin, I can
relate. In Vienna, I actually think it's even more potent (Kraus,
Schiele, Freud, and Hitler to some extent, are walking the streets in
loden coats, I swear!). But my sister visited Hong Kong in June and her
impressions, metropolis aside, were drenched with stories of her friends'
Chinese family, their babies, and very little about capitalist trappings.
It's really subjective, isn't it? Hong Kong may have awhile until traum
und werklichtkeit merge. I haven't seen Fallen Angels yet but I suspect
it is 20-something, hence, topper-most of the popper-post-modernism in
flavor - which may only show youthful dreaming. I'm not sure. In fact,
you make it seem as though Hong Kong has a giant plasticity at its core,
with nothing to penetrate. I think this is glossifying the issue.
As a pop star you see the pop. To some people pop is negligible, it's
background, fodder. It is not serious. Yet certainly, there are issues
that are "serious" to people from Hong Kong. Their lives aren't remote
controlled by some omnipotent pop force. When you said "Thinking of the
Hong Kong people I know" I immediately thought they're atypical, like the
Boston University international set which hop from club to club in their
black Mercedes and sip Dom Perignon like Pepsi. I do believe that many if
not most, Hong Kongers do have a past that didn't mutate out of Hello
Kitty and we are seeing the rich freaks of capitalism.
In effect, it's truly hard to write objectively about traum-cities from
afar since they project differing and particular cultures or lack thereof
which come out of them. Living in a city will give an altogether
different slant. Visiting may simply gel the preconceptions we already
have. Personal experiences cloud the issue, but it makes for
interesting reading and more pieces to the puzzle of what the city means.
After having read the newest Banana Yoshimoto book I immediately felt her
ideas on post-modern Japanese young adult culture were beginning to
exhaust. When I spoke of it to my friend in Tokyo, he said, "are you
still reading that trash? Everyone hates her here!" It made me think
that no matter what we think or write about a place, we never hit the
nail on the head. These cities are what they seem because of our very
>I just can't agree with your statement "capitalism stunts
>and deforms the spirit of human beings." Aren't artists the bastions of
>life's spirit: the supreme, but very human, being?
I've always thought that artists and entrepreneurs are the only categories of people who really profit from capitalism (although that in itself isn't enough of a justification for its perpetuation).
Marx's idea was that the worker should enjoy the fruits of his creativity, and avoid the three nasties: alientation, reification and commodity fetishism. A self-employed artist who lives by his work (like me) profits directly by his own creativity. I am not alienated, I work for myself at what interests me, and I eat the fruit (at the moment some clementines).
Most people, however, continue to do stupid and boring things just to pay the rent. They have no interest in what they're doing, so they feel alienated. The dreams of those people, their escapes into fetish, fantasy, revenge, violence and sex actually interest me more than the well-balanced dreams of people like me, who are, or ought to be, content. In a maladjusted world, the sickest thing of all is to be happy.
>pop star you see the pop. To some people pop is negligible, it's
>background, fodder. It is not serious. Yet certainly, there are issues
>that are "serious" to people from Hong Kong. Their lives aren't remote
>controlled by some omnipotent pop force.
I'm not talking about pop, I'm talking about the constriction that occurs in people's lives when the dollar is king. The dollar is a very tight shoe, a corset. It can never contain all our feelings and aspirations. Corns rise on our toes, our fat flesh pops out from its bindings. And a film-maker like Wong Kar-Wai documents that.
>When you said "Thinking of the
>Hong Kong people I know" I immediately thought they're atypical
Agreed. Here I'm talking about a privileged entrepreneurial class. Entrepreneurs and artists are similar, free to follow whims and back their instincts. But these people help to create the heady capitalist rush -- a rush of opportunities and excitements as well as limitations and stresses -- which pins the other, less privileged people down, as if the G force of the very speed taking them somewhere (wealth? happiness? nirvana?) also immobilises them.
In my idea of the Traum City, the idea would be never to visit. Visiting merely reveals the real: what interests me is the stereotypical.
>After having read the newest Banana Yoshimoto book I immediately felt her
>ideas on post-modern Japanese young adult culture were beginning to
I just saw a great Hong Kong film of 'Kitchen'. Kind of like Wong Kar-Wei, but more gentle and romantic. Maybe more suitable for post-MTV 30somethings!
When I spoke of it to my friend in Tokyo, he said, "are you
>still reading that trash? Everyone hates her here!
Yes, my japanese friends concur.
Philip volleys back with...
>>Here I'm talking about a privileged entrepreneurial class...a
rush of opportunities and excitements as well as limitations and stresses
-- which pins the other, less privileged people down, as if the G force of
the very speed taking them somewhere (wealth? happiness? nirvana?) also
Working in a management consulting firm for the past 15 years, I've seen
up close and personal the ugliest birthlings of the capitalist mold.
Many would sell their mother to clinch a deal. They are obsessed with
getting the upper hand on information. PointCast is on all their laptops
(IBM 560s, which Newgroponte recently told Apple to take note of). Our
firm is chiefly comprised of Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton and Brown
grads, silver-spoon fed till they arrive in the working world. They are
professional careerists (PIL!) and advance for the kill with every
Machiavellian thought. So, I agree with you that capitalism is a fucker.
Yet, what they want is only to live comfortably, also the cheif aim of
the masses. They enjoy what they do because they are surrounded by
people with the same aspirations. I hate to get too down on them all
because there are many exceptions whose simple latent goal is to be liked
by others. Not such a bad thing.
>>Most people, however, continue to do stupid and boring things just to
pay the rent. They have no interest in what they're doing, so they feel
Well, I guess that's an opinion of a cultured individual. I tend to
think they have no idea that what they do is boring. Alienation from
what? Isn't the artist the alien here? (perhaps you are talking
specifically of the HK film). Do you think the average Joe is envious of
you or pities you? Could go either way really. Probably the former
because they haven't a clue as to what they're missing or its
significance. We can laugh at the horde, but they are sometimes laughing
harder at us. Nobody is right here.
>>I just saw a great Hong Kong film of 'Kitchen'. Kind of like Wong
Kar-Wei, but more gentle and romantic. Maybe more suitable for post-MTV
I'll look for it. Boston's MFA is showcasing some young Japanese
filmmakers in October: Toichi Nakata's "Osaka Story", Takayoshi
Yamaguchi's "Breakable", Timouki Furumaya's "This Window Is Yours",
Hitoshi Yazaki's "March Comes In Like A Lion", and Tako Oshima's
"KanaKana:The Summer That Never Was". Are you familiar with any of
these? And if so, recommendations?
>>In my idea of the Traum City, the idea would be never to visit. Visiting
merely reveals the real.>>
Nope. Visiting enhances the dream. You must admit dreams are amplified
by memories. Having been to Berlin makes it more dreamy to me. Let's
face it, you desperately want to visit Hong Kong and FEEL the dream, non?
>>what interests me is the stereotypical>>
You're kooky, which is why I like you.
Before this ball goes out of play, Momus muses aloud (as if anyone was listening...)
Is it really so strange to find more significance is the stereotypical than in the actual? The actual is a blank pebble, the stereotypical is the crude carving a bad sculptor turns it into. The naturalist prefers the blank pebble, but the art sociologist prefers the bad sculpture because it's culture which interests him.
You could say we are forced to steer, like Odysseus in the presence of the sirens, between the Scylla of too little meaning (which is anomie) and the Charybdis of too much (which is cliche).
Personally I appreciate both songs. I particularily appreciate the sound halfway through the stereo image, where one can actually hear the too-meaningless becoming the too-meaningful. I think of the organised chaos of drum and bass music, at first hearing utterly strange and new, at length becoming (triumphantly) commonplace.
And is it really so hard for people -- for Americans in particular -- to grasp the idea that what one dreams of is precisely the city which forbids dreams?
The paradox can be built step by step:
I am a dreamer, I have a tendency to concentrate on what is not present.
You might think it would only take the concretisation of my dream to make me happy. (Travelling to the place I dream of, making love with my dream lover).
But no, that would be a betrayal of the otherness of the dream. What defines the true dreamer is his love, not for the things he dreams about, but for the great forbidding power that makes his dream necessary in the first place.
In other words, it is what denies his imagination that makes him imagine the most.
He dreams, not of the things he lacks, but of the thing which continues to make him lack them, and which therefore allows him to perpetuate his longing, which is more beautiful to him than its quenching satiation.
The more seriously one dreams (and I do it for a living), the more one turns the dreaming machine of one's imagination on the very things which at once negate dream and make it necessary.
Just as fear is only the fear of fear itself, sex is the desire for one's own desire, and, yes, I keep coming back to this quote from Adorno's 'Minima Moralia', 'soul itself is the longing of the soul-less for redemption'.
Love of yearning for its own sake, like love of art for art's sake, disturbs people profoundly. It is pessimistic, since it implies that the sick man is in love with the disease and does not want to be cured. It is conservative, since it cannot be squared with progress. And it is anti-consumerist, since the last thing you do in this state is take a trip to the travel agency to book a trip.
It seems to be a perversity in the Slavic-Germanic tradition. You encounter it in Dostoyevsky's 'Notes From Underground', whose hero pours water through a sieve and enjoys a toothache, you encounter it in the letters of Kafka, who wanted to love the idea of loving Felice Bauer, and you encounter it in Rilke, who speaks in the Duino Elegies about lovers who free themselves from the loved one.
I don't know, perhaps it's impossible to explain. You're either normal or you're perverse, you're appetitive or you're paradoxical.
The hungry man eats in order to be full. The bulemic gets full and then vomits in order to be hungry again.
I'm probably just a pervert. But isn't it in the very nature of desire itself? The cat chases its tail only so long as it remains out of reach. The moment it catches it, it becomes just a tail -- its own tail -- and the game stops.
The cat is in love with the absence of the tail, not the tail itself.
And, pleased with this ridiculous formula, Momus plods off to bed, singing as he goes a scrap of lyric from an old Blockheads song:
'I could have been a scholar and dazzled with my knowledge
I could have been a philosopher who taught at Birkbeck college
But I chose to play the fool in a one man band
First night nerves every one night stand
I should be glad to be so inclined
What a waste! What a waste! (Rock and roll don't mind)...'
Read Adorno's essay Princess Lizard, the source of that much-quoted line about 'soul itself...'