On “The Lair” by Norman Manea

Toward the end of the 1990s, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was touted by Western observers as the dawn of a new age, the end of history as some stated. The liberalization of the Iron Curtain and former soviet states would result in the “universalization of Western Liberal democracy,” as Francis Fukuyama famously put it. Then the 21st century happened: September 11th, global wars on terror, and a global financial meltdown fueled by the paroxysm of imploding liberal democracies in Europe: Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Poland. The end of history became entirely something else. In the midst of this political backdrop comes Norman Manea’s beguiling novel “The Lair.” If this novel is difficult to follow, at times incoherent, it is only because modern life in the 21st century itself is incoherent. “The Lair” traces the lives of Romanian emigres as they wrestle with their recent pasts and contend with the bankruptcy of the present age of globalization. This is a novel about alienation and disillusionment in the first decade of the 21st century.

The narrative follows the stories of professor Augustin Gora, Peter Gaspar and Ludmila Gora—Gora’s ex-wife and Gaspar’s lover. When Gaspar emigrates to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship with Lu, Gora reaches out hoping to reconnect with the enigmatic Lu. These emigres, who escaped Ceausescu’s dictatorship, watch from afar as the liberalization following Ceausescu’s death implodes into a corrupt and crony capitalism In Romania. From the end of Ceausescu’s regime up until the attacks of September 11th, Manea charts the drama of a community of exiles following the transitory period between the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s.

The central drama of the novel follows Gaspar’s reckoning with historian Cosmin Dima’s undenounced Fascism. Dima, based on Mircea Eliade, is a renowned historian beloved in Romania and the United States, and whose problematic proximity to fascism went largely ignored in his life, especially by the community of Émigré’s he helped, including Gora himself.

Urged on by Gora, one of Dima’s disciples himself, Gaspar writes a scathing review of the late Dima’s memoirs, unearthing his fascist past. When Peter receives an obscure death threat in the mail, he goes into hiding with the help of University faculty. What follows is a meditation on personal history and the condition of exile, as well as searing explorations of loss and political disillusionment.

Manea’s meditations on the Odyssean travail as the condition of exile is reminiscent of St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott’s exploration of exile, although in a different context. Walcott reads the experience of transitioning to the New world as a psychic experience of loss, lived as the experience of forgetting. But Walcott’s theme here is inverted: what happens when forgetting is the only context of survival? Manea’s characters are continuously inhabiting a past they cannot shake—the fear, paranoia, and distrust that characterized live under Ceausescu’s regime incorporates itself in the relations between characters. At one juncture, he describes the exile as a snail, carrying their home with them.

The characters present is the disorientating speed of New York, at times as if they are lost in a boundless sea of speed, a disorientation that works its way into the structure of the text itself; The sentences are short, nouns are elided, the fundamental structure doesn’t give much time for processing what’s happening—a maddening tactic, but of course fully intended. One gets lost just as the characters do. The narrator jumps between past and present at a dizzying speed, without ever distinguishing between one or the other.

If life under totalitarianism is a brutal nightmare, the sweeping capitalism which conquered it has a similarly inhuman mask. This is, in some ways, the central idea at the heart of the narrative. The brutality of both systems is enabled by the systematic inhumanity of the modern project itself, diminutive to any individual or human scale: “Exploitation to the point of blood. If the boss wants you’re done in two minutes’ notice. You lose your medical coverage, then your house, car, everything. So then you are careful not to lose things. You work like a slave and slavery becomes dear to you. Where I come from, when you say something about the government, you’d say ‘the motherfucking government.’ Here they say God Bless America! The mania of work. You work like an animal, to the half-hour before they take you to the cemetery,” (263).

There is no mincing words: neither Gora nor Gaspar, despite their disillusionment with the West, feel longing to return to Romania, the brutality and paranoia of Ceasesucu’s dictatorship seeping into their American lives.

But in the absence of yearning for place, impossible under their memories of Ceausescu’s Romania, Gora and Peter Gaspar find a surrogate for longing, for nostalgia, in Lu. The beating heart of the novel, whom both characters obsessively yearn for, and whose memory anchors them to the past, itself blending into the present. Her appearances throughout occurring always through the lens of the past, itself written in the present tense.

Structurally, the novel disavows linear chronology, juxtaposing the Romanian past and the beginning of the character’s drama, with the disillusionment of the present amidst the inhumanity of the American system.

The Lair refers to Gora’s library, a human sanctuary against the cold and brutal inhumanity of late stage capitalism. Following the attacks of September 11th, Gora locates the impetus for destruction within the symbols of globalization system of inhumanity:  “propaganda and agitation for the unification of the world under a single banner! All will be admitted equally, the converts of the new, singularly valid religion. Let them accept that singular religion. Jesus addressed only his own place and tribe, without ambitions to convert anyone; he was candid and holy like the legendary idiot Mishkin and like Alyosha Karamazov and their brothers from other legends. Globalized modernity redeems itself from Paul,” (249). Manea’s gifts as a storyteller are prodigious, and there is almost too much to unpack within this taut work. “The Lair,” belongs in that tradition of European literature of ideas that runs from Dostoyevsky to Thomas Mann. Truly, a gift.

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Following Equifax Breach, United States should look at EU’s GDPR for Data Protection

This year The European Union passed the most extensive overhaul of data regulation with the passage of the General Data Regulation Protections (GDRP), which is slated to take effect in May of 2018. Following the devastating Equifax breach, which exposed sensitive personal data belonging to 144 million people, it’s time the United State follows suit, passing comprehensive data protection laws which protect consumers.

The Senate hearings following the breach show that Equifax’s security protocols were incredibly lax:  former CEO Richard Smith testified that the data had no security encryptions at all. This shows that Equifax had no concern over whether the sensitive data they were aggregating was even moderately secure. Without legal ramifications, massive data corporations will not prioritize consumer data, a frightening reality given the lack of agency this data collection entails: most people are unaware of what data is even being collected. But this exposure can ruin lives: Equifax lost Social Security numbers, license numbers, addresses, and credit card information belonging to entirely one-third of the country.

While Credit bureaus like Equifax or Experian are clear targets here, data collection is, in itself an entire industry ranging from private contractors for the military, to Facebook and therefore not limited to credit bureaus. For the sheer volume of data collected regarding their activity, Americans have little say as to how this data is safeguarded-and whether this data can be shared, leading to no legal architecture in the United States to protect consumers from corporate incompetence; According to the co-founder of Contrast Security, Jeff Williams, “The problem is that there aren’t any laws and regulations forcing companies to provide a certain level of cybersecurity.”

Since the 1990’s, The united States has opted to trust the private sector to set the terms of privacy regulations, meaning that ,” that companies should implement their own policies, develop their own technology, and individuals should self-regulate to prevent the dissemination of their private data.” However, this approach to data protection relegates the creation of security protocols and standards to the very organizations which profit from collecting them.

Contrast this with the Privacy law standards set in the 1990’s by the Data Protection Acts and updated with the GDRP. The entire law sets outsets the liabilities and requirements placed upon data collection entities and delineates the rights entitled to consumers regarding their data.  According to Matt Burgess,  “Companies covered by the GDPR will be more accountable for their handling of people’s personal information. This can include having data protection policies, data protection impact assessments and having relevant documents on how data is processed.” This type of consumer empowerment and regulation can protect consumers from the disastrous effects of mishandled data.

In the tech-driven modern world, Humans inevitably generate data: from shopping patterns, to credit card purchases, to social media, there is an abundance of data about individual behaviors which, prior to the advent of data technology, would belong to the private sphere. The European Union, in 2016 passed an updated and expanded version of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDRP)__. In fact, the United States is among only a handful of countries which has not passed any type of data protection legislation.

Before the Equifax breach fades into obscurity by the consistent onslaught of news, let’s take a crucial moment to examine the possibilities of consumer data protection regulations in the United States. The idea that entities which collect data are capable of setting protections has been completely upended by the gross irresponsibility exposed by Equifax. In an environment which is pushing in the direction of automation and increased tech integration, data protection legislation is the civil rights issue of the future.

“Nikes” and The beauty of Touch

Often reduced to pop culture ephemera, music videos have never been taken seriously as an expression of an artist’s aesthetic vision and even the recent phenomenon of “visual albums” have been greeted with a level of sneering cynicism. In terms of criticism, these multimedia projects are treated as self-indulgent gimmicks and the music is separated from the visuals. For example, both Frank Ocean’s  cryptic visual album “Endless” was passed over by a majority of critics in the wake of “Blonde” which dropped a few days later, many considering it a B-sides companion piece to the main project. This approach has left a gap in what a music video can reveal about an artist’s ideas and preoccupations, and furthermore further contextualize a song or album. Directed by Tyrone Lebone, who also directed Calvin Klein’s Fall 2016 Global campaign which featured Kate Moss, Young Thug, and Ocean himself, the video for “Nikes,” brings a lot of clarity to his aesthetic vision.

Like the album which it’s included on, the video,” tends to meander into his surreal, almost vaporwave-y dreamscapes,  teasing the boundary between the authentic and the staged, the interior and the performative by consistently placing them in juxtaposed and adjacent images through color, texture, narrative. The running theme throughout the entire video is that of artifice: frames come alive and apart as if they have been drawn, camera equipment and the act of creating are consistently presented. The consistent trope of recording, and calling attention to the act of recording and capturing is perhaps the only prominent narrative the video has to offer.

The displacement that this jarring state of constantly shifting juxtaposition creates is a genuine space for both the performative and the interior to exists side by side, annihilating the boundary between them. It opens up with a series of flashing images of Ocean on a stage, in a Balmain suit, which quickly gives way to a series of home video quality footage of different people: some black, white, showing off tattoos smiling into a mirror. Every individual presented is conscious of being seen, and is willfully complicit  in the act of exhibition.

Perhaps one of the most poetically textured images in the entire project is a segment which gives follows a nude woman as she glides through water. The frames are tightly cropped, never giving a full view of her body. The extreme angles focus on parts of her body: her shoulder, back, buttocks, as she gracefully glides through the water. The next scene gives way to the reality of the woman swimming in a small box on a film set: the visceral and textured images of the woman swimming are revealed to be an artifice, like most others which recur throughout the pastiche of images.

Recurring tropes and segments that could constitute a fractured narrative of sorts, but the main vehicle is poetic detail: flashing images which barely last more than a few seconds, which are then followed by another image. This succession of images which creates the contrasted structure by eschewing narrative works brilliantly: a scene showing a large, muscular black man pumping weights is immediately followed by a woman’s behind covered in pink glitter, which then transitions to a group of people standing in a green haze, and so on.

There is a surreal internal logic to the transitions as one magnifies or contradicts what came before it, creating an expanding network of associations and images, becoming even more pronounced in relation to the body. There is an interpolation of signifiers of masculinity and femininity which are not only juxtaposed, but also melded with each other: Frank Ocean driving an F1 racecar while wearing eyeliner and covered in glitter, or women dancing, boys smiling. At one point a young man is holding an older woman in his arms, suggesting sexual gravity. These interpolations all touch on gender, but more than anything on how the elegance of the human form play into definitions of ideas of gender.

In a sense, Ocean is reconciling the authenticity of a life which is lived in a perpetual state of performance: our meals are snapchatted, our concerts on video, relationships made public through facebook, our locations shared. To another generation the bankruptcy which characterizes millennial dependence on visual culture is also in “Nikes” the basic trauma which requires and mediates the visceral experience of flesh or drugs, or the feel of  water on skin. There is a gnawing hunger for the real and the spectacle motivates the imperative to seek the real, which can only be experienced through the extremity of the tactile itself. In this vein, this provides an actual rethinking (or perhaps, an actually honest appraisal) of the existential quandary of a generation. At the end, wearing a flame retardant suit Ocean is lit on fire: the flame is extinguished as he collapses to the floor in pain. The staged nature of the flame doesn’t make the burns any less real.

 

Neil Blomklamp’s Radical Futurism

If historical projects often pass over the periphery, annihilating local memory in favor of historical revision, then imagining a future always relies on the absence the periphery. Science Fiction rarely imagines the Caribbean, or the Indian Subcontinent, or North Africa. Outside of a literary afro-futurism, there often is an unquestioned erasure of what an alien invasion might do to a place like South Africa, or Indonesia, or Libya. This erasure is projected onto the future as a gap in understanding contemporary political realities: the process of forgetting and remembering is indispensable to the possibilities of imagining (it is not insignificant that the genre arose in the late 19th century when Western historical narratives had been effectively consolidated). Blomkamp’s oeuvre, in this sense, is a direct challenge to the imagined future from the imperium.

 

Throughout his career Blomkamp’s perspective has come to be a critique of science-fiction from the global centers, and the space he has carved out within this genre explore dystopian futures outside of a western framework: His first feature film, “District 9,” presented a Kafkaesque exploration of xenophobia and fear which has, in some sense, proved prophetic during the current political crises surrounding immigrants and the follow up, “Elysium” explored the dynamics of wealth inequality through a narrative with strong echoes of Swiftian madness. one can almost read “Elysium” as placing the Prebischian concept of “center and periphery” within this context and even “Chappie” explores dynamics of which are representative of the margins This willingness to explore these larger questions and translate them into the genre conventions of body horror and sci-fi have proved refreshingly original, placing interesting ideas onto the big screen, especially so in his new short film “Rakka,” which is available for free streaming online.

 

In this vein, his aesthetic vision maps onto his fictional worlds the more complex questions and anxieties of our time specified to a sensibility molded outside of a western standpoint. Ironically, one of his most compelling films yet, “Rakka,” clocks in at a mere 25:52. This short film is, despite its brevity, the most ambitious project he’s released to date.

 

What is most impressive is the significant level of production and visual effects for a project this short. Blomkamp’s OATS studio has placed an impressive amount of work into the project: the images are breathtaking and the set design and special effects are fully realized with a precision that gives any big studio a run for their money. Scenes of torture centers created by alien forces, and vast structures that eclipse all human scope are prevalent throughout the entire film, creating a devastating landscape. The sophistication of the visual effects apart, the ideas that Blomkamp explores further the terrain that his films have begun to carve out: allegories of structural cruelty and their dissolution.

 

The narrative follows Sigourney Weaver’s character, Sarah, who is the de facto leader of an armed resistance fighting an extra-terrestrial race which has colonized and occupied Earth. The opening sequence deftly creates the tense and desolate atmosphere of a humanity crushed by the significant power of an alien invasion with superior technology and forces, depicting the terror and brutality of the alien race.

 

Curiously, the ghost of Chris Marker’s “La Jetee” is palpable in the more structural narrative elements: Both films foreground context about an apocalyptic future through voice over narration and painstakingly, heraldic imagery: the image of bodies welded to the Eiffel Tower in “Rakka,” echoes the Eiffel Tower and other monuments destroyed in the opening sequence Marker’s film. However, where Marker’s script is controlled, Blomkamp’s feels a little forced. While the narrative moves in a much more fractured manner than “La Jetee,” foregoing narrative plot in favor of dramatic tension, Chris Marker remains a crucial touchstone throughout.

 

Thematically, “Rakka,” takes elements from body horror to explore the absolute terror and rage which characterizes the process of occupation and collective annihilation, working less by plot than by visual representations of terror which have real life echoes: a scene in which resistance members sever the head of an alien immediately echoes images of rebel groups and terrorism fighters doing the same in Iraq and Syria. Blomkamp has said in interviews that this project was inspired by the idea of foreign occupation: The German occupation of France and the American occupation of Iraq. Translating this into the language and tropes of sci-fi, divorcing it from a grounded political discourse allows Blomkamp to tap into the terror and trauma of occupation on a universal human level, imagining the rage and helplessness which constitute the nature of this experience. In the contemporary landscape of film, which is becoming ever more fractured against the hegemony of large Hollywood studios, Blomkamp is slowly inventing a film language inclusive of human experiences outside of the global centers—the controversy around Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled,” proves why this is necessary, and still radical.

Movie Review: “Salt and Fire”

For the past three decades, Werner Herzog has embodied  auteurist cinema, creating a distinctive body of work which plumbs the metaphysics of the modern world. Characteristic of his work is an intense curiosity, intelligence and a daring poetic sensibility. Unfortunately, these virtues which animated documentaries such as “Into The Abyss” and “Grizzly Man” become dead weight in his most recent film, “Salt and Fire.”

Based on a short story by Tom Bissell, the narrative  Follows the kidnap of a U.N. Delegation sent to Bolivia in order to explore an ecological disaster known only as “Diablo Blanco”. The leader of the delegation, a professor named Laura (played by Veronica Ferres)  is held captive in a private compound by Riley the CEO of “the Consortium” (played by Michael Shannon)  which is the company responsible for the ecological disaster. As the narrative unfurls, however, the entire thread of the plot becomes aimlessly lost among Michael Shannon’s and Laura’s stilted philosophical ruminations.

The dialogue in this film is an absolute punishment to witness: cliched, stilted and awkwardly formal, the conversations between the two characters  combined with mediocre acting and a complete lack of any on-screen chemistry make sitting through the entirety of this project absolutely unbearable. For example, at one point when Laura states she needs to study the ecological disaster with her science, to which the CEO yells (literally) that perhaps science does not have the answers, that there is a reality which graphs and big data cannot capture. How this applies to a man made ecological disaster is never explained, nor does it explain how a man who refuses to believe in data became the CEO of a biomedical company.

While both Michael Shannon and Veronica Ferres are gifted actors in their own right, both give uninspired performances.Veronica Ferres’ defiant professor role crumbles when the script moves towards interiority. When Riley asks about her daughter, Ferres’ overblown reaction comes across as laughable instead of dramatic. Michael Shannon’s portrayal of Riley is similarly overblown, but somehow far worse than Ferres. There seems to be no logical correlation between the facts of his character and the delivery of his ideas, which is compounded by the unconvincing delivery of every word he utters.

“Salt and Fire” feels thematically derivative from his recent projects “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World” and the Netflix original “Into the Inferno,” The latter explores the evolution and future of the internet age, probing the profound effect on humanity that modern connectivity has had, while the former documents how different cultures have conceptualized their relationship with volcanoes, whether this be through mythology or art. Both of these themes appear throughout this movie, often for no reason other than to give Michael Shannon pseudo profound ideas.

As these punishingly awkward conversations proliferate, it becomes clear that Herzog is uninterested in the plot, and is aiming for some type of applied philosophy: characters are but mouthpieces for Herzog’s curiosity, ranging from reflections on the nature of science to illusion and reality. While these conversations do have merit in an abstract sense, the obtuse execution of these, as well as the complete lack of any motivation by the characters becomes truly insufferable. By the end, it becomes clear that neither characters have any genuine motivation nor do the conditions that surround them.

What this films makes up with, however  is dynamic camerawork which brings the stunning beauty and strangeness of the Bolivian Salt flats front and center. Stretching into an almost infinite plain, the starkness of the of the white rock formations do provide a Herzog with an opportunity to meditate on the inherent strangeness of the natural world. However, this vanishes fairly quickly when Laura presses her ear to the ground and claims the salt is “almost a moving membrane.”

This is a terrible film. It is unrewarding, aimless, heavy handed and pretentious, and for a director as brilliant as Herzog disappointing. Perhaps more frustrating with a failure of this sort is that this is a conceptually fascinating film, and given a tighter script and better casting might have been among one of Herzog’s finest films. “Salt and Fire” is the most disappointing failure for a director: a missed opportunity.

Carbon Canyon Regional Park

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These photos were taken at Carbon Canyon Regional Park, in Yorba Linda. This regional park is one of the few places in Southern California that has Redwood Trees. About a mile away from the center of a park a brisk hike leads to a grove of coastal redwood trees.