BFM 89.9 is a Malaysian business radio station that produces educational podcasts. This podcast is from the program Night School and is titled “Moral Nihilism Simply Stated.”
In late June, my wife and I attended the first ever Summer Writer’s Workshop hosted by the Popular Culture Association and the American Culture Association. It was a great experience being in New York City and meeting a friendly group of scholars working in various areas of popular culture studies. I hope that the PCA/ACA decides to host many more of these sorts of events in the future.
The workshop was organized and led by Rosemarie Conforti, from Southern Connecticut University, and Joe Hancock, from Drexel University; both of whom did an outstanding job of putting together a series of meetings and visits that allowed participants to become immersed in the culture and the excitement of the City. Over the course of the week we had the opportunity to experience the offerings of New York while still having ample time to write, talk and debate. The participants were of diverse ages, interests and backgrounds, but what united us all was an enthusiatic concern with the study of popular culture and a desire to develop and work on our own particular writing projects. One of the true joys of the workshop was hearing about the various subjects being explored by the attendees, which ranged from research on video games and detective fiction to investigations into fashion and fat studies. It was inspiring – and eye-opening – to learn just how diverse the nature of popular culture studies is. The whole experience gave me hope that the image of college professors as stuffy, boring and arrogant is now a fading myth. I myself was filled with a renewed sense of confidence in, and passion for, my own somewhat unusual area of research.
My goal was to develop ideas for an essay on the nihilistic themes in the films of Darren Aronofsky. What initially attracted me to this workshop was the opportunity to spend time immersed in the atmosphere of New York City, which serves as the backdrop for many of this director’s most important films like PI and Black Swan. In Aronofsky’s work, the streets and subways of NYC often serve as visual metaphors for the human mind; and they are normally depicted as dark, mysterious and threatening. As we began wandering about, however, the actual streets of the City seemed anything but threatening and dark. The initial impression that I had was of a place bustling with activity, wealth and friendly people. This did not appear to be the hard-boiled, crime-ridden New York of days gone by! Yet, the more that we walked around, and the closer that I scrutinized my surroundings, the more I came to appreciate the significance of Aronofsky’s imagery.
Wandering about day and night, the labyrinthine quality of New York City streets and subway routes conjured a distinctive sense of nihilism in me. The streets are maze-like, turning in on themselves, leading one farther and farther into a tangled knot that ultimately goes nowhere. The subways – those dark, underground tunnels – while they convey passengers to their destinations, also ultimately terminate in dead-ends. You could travel these tubes all your life, going round and round in vast circles, never leaving New York. This is reflected in the subway map, in which the loose end of one train route becomes entangled with the various strings from other routes, forming one big jumbled knot of colored threads. Once you reach the end of the line, there is nowhere to go but to retrace your path. Whether above or below ground, people go here, there, and then back to where they started. If nihilism is a feeling provoked when, as Nietzsche claimed, a final goal is lacking, then the map of New York City offers a good metaphor of this conundrum. While superficially all is prosperity and purpose, the hamster wheel of absurdity is inscribed in the well-worn contours of the city’s infrastructure.
In the process of wandering the streets, we had the opportunity to visit some of the particular locations that serve as settings in Aronfsky’s films, also stopping by the flat in the East Village that he used to own with Rachael Weiss. This was actually quite informative, as it reinforced in my mind the proximity of Aronofsky’s home to other NYC locations that he has utilized in his films. For instance, the club from Black Swan where Nina (Natalie Portman) gets drunk and experiences a breakthrough from her moral repressions, turns out to be right around the corner from Aronfsky’s flat. Could it be that the director’s own mental topography is reflected here?
Besides having the opportunity to simply experience the streets of New York, our workshop organizers scheduled a series of visits to some key sites and exhibits. These visits, whether intentionally or unintentionally, shared an underlying theme that served both to intrigue and to disturb me. Each place that we toured exemplified how living culture can become crystalized into a product that can then be sold back to the public as a commodity.
Our first visit was to the Special Collection at the Fales Library at NYU. The curator, Marvin Taylor, has a special interest in punk culture, and consequently we were treated to an unexpectedly odd juxtaposition of artifacts. Old issues of Punk Magazine, the journals of Patti Smith, and videos of punk performances at CBGB’s are archived alongside ancient Greek texts and cuneiform tablets. This strange collection of high and low culture, housed in the very same archive, unsettled me. As someone who grew up with punk, and who still defines himself as a kind of punk outsider, seeing the traces of my own subculture enshrined in a university archive made me wonder: has the vigor and Dionysian energy of punk rock now been tamed and made safe? Is punk rock now a museum piece, no longer living, but preserved, mummy-like, under glass, only to be inspected with gloved hands? Am I, myself, now a part of a curious tradition that is of merely academic interest? I asked Marvin some of these questions, and while he acknowledged that these are relevant issues of concern, in the next moment we were back to perusing shelves of video performances by The Dead Boys that are archived in a vault along with first editions of Jane Austen.
These same questions reemerged when we visited the punk exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled Chaos to Couture. The fact that Beyonce served as the honorary chair of a benefit in support of the show immediately gave me pause. On the other hand John Lydon also was a consultant, so I thought there might be something authentic here. Upon entering the exhibition, I nonetheless fell into a state of bewilderment. Video images of Sid Vicious and clips from The Punk Rock Movie looped on huge screens, while the music of the Buzzcocks and X-Ray Specs played. A re-creation of the bathroom at CBGB’s occupied one room, next to the high fashion designs of Versace and Prada. The atmosphere that was conjured made me feel like I was in the Church of Punk Rock. Here were the holy icons of punk history juxtaposed with the creations of a high priesthood of fashion designers who were about as far from the original punks as St. Paul was from Jesus!
This intentional incongruity between “low” and “high” punk fashion was accompanied by another, perhaps less clear irony. All through the exhibit, docents enforced a “no photography” rule and signs hung everywhere commanding that patrons not touch the exhibits. This was, once again, punk rock under glass, sanitized, made safe and boring. Faux graffiti was scrawled on the walls and I found it curious that while anarchy signs were present, conspicuously absent was any appearance of a swastika, that iconically punk symbol of offensiveness. I kept thinking that to spray paint such an image in the fake bathroom or on the fake alleyway walls would have been the most “punk” gesture that anyone could have made at this exhibition; yet it would also no doubt be misunderstood and condemned by those who desire punk to be safe, unambiguous and unthreatening. My unease continued once we left the exhibit, and we found ourselves in a gift shop where patrons could buy overpriced copies of Never Mind the Bollocks, band pins, t-shirts and skateboard decks. I kept thinking of the closing scene of the film Breaking Glass, where the main character finally sells her punk-rock soul to the corporate devil. When it becomes a solidified, commoditized and sanitized museum piece, perhaps punk has finally died. Anarchy in the UK? That’ll be $25 dollars, please.
Just as we experienced punk under glass at the Fales Collection and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we also experienced sex under glass at the Museum of Sex. The exhibits here were interesting – on one floor we learned about the most common search terms for porn, while on another we learned about the kinds of non-procreative sex engaged in by animals – but the idea of viewing pornographic images in the sterile and controlled confines of a museum was, yet again, a perplexing experience. I wondered how I was supposed to feel about all of this. Is the message that it is OK to look at porn so long as you feel no sexual arousal? As always, there was a gift shop, which if it were not in a museum would simply be called a “sex shop.” It’s shelves were stocked with dildoes, vibrators and hard-bound coffee table editions of pornographic photography. Within the context of a museum it almost seemed as if these objects were not intended for use, but rather simply to be admired and contemplated, like the high fashion creations we saw at the Met. I couldn’t help but think that maybe, as with punk rock, the best place to encounter sex is not in a museum at all! There is no shortage of punk clubs or sex shops in NYC, so why do we choose museum exhibits over the real thing?
The most honest displays of commodification that we encountered during our workshop tours were at the clothing store Bergdorf-Goodman and at the New York Stock Exchange. Both locations are unapologetic icons of American excess and capitalist over-consumption, and so unlike with the punk exhibit or the sex museum, they can’t be criticized for being untrue to their core principles. We were told up front by our host at Bergdorf-Goodman that the store self-consciously cultivates an image and a clientele that is prestigious, elite and remote from the run-of-the-mill department stores and clothing boutiques that cater to everyday people. The managers here actually take steps to thin out the brands that they carry in order to become more and more exclusive as time goes on. They strive to be a store where only the rich and the powerful shop. Beyonce is one of their regular customers, we were told, and after hearing this I wasn’t surprised to see a pair of mohawk adorned skull cuff links for sale in one of the jewelery cases. Price: $7,000.00. Here again was punk rock for the rich.
The Stock Exchange was our last scheduled destination, and it served as an appropriate capstone to the week. Considered a prime terrorist target, entry into the building is tightly controlled. There are barricades in the streets around the Exchange, and visitors need to be accompanied by a host. We were photographed and issued identification tags before going through metal detectors and being allowed onto the floor. Once inside I was immediately struck by how much it truly resembles a casino. Suspended from the ceilings are blue and green glowing boxes that announce where you are: NYSE. Beneath these are scores of flat screens displaying the names of various companies and their stock activity. While the hustle and bustle is not as extreme as it appears in some movies, there are still plenty of men and women yelling at one another, running across the floor and pushing people out of their way as they rush to make trades. In the center of the floor is a news desk for MSNBC where cable broadcasts take place. At the closing bell, people cheered as if they were at some sort of sporting event.
The honesty of the NYSE was a sobering conclusion to our series of visits over the week. Here is a place that makes no excuses for what it is. It is a place where people are simply trying to make money. There are no attempts to disguise what is going on; the interior even looks like Las Vegas! The only irony here is that now that trades are made electronically and mostly by computers, the need for a building to house the Stock Exchange has passed. It is an expense that no longer needs to be maintained. Our guide told me that it is largely due to tradition that people still gather here, and that in 10 or 15 years, this building probably won’t exist anymore. Capitalism destroys its own traditions without regret. Maybe there is something punk rock about that after all.
Incidentally, the New York Stock Exchange is just a few blocks away from a couple of other buildings that have ceased to exist. These particular buildings are now memorialized by two fountains occupying the footprints in which they once stood. By their absence, these buildings have come to represent the closest thing to a holy shrine that Americans have today, and it is perhaps fitting that at the 9/11 Memorial you must stand in line with tickets among hundreds of others before entering a park where people pose for pictures, after which they exit through a gift shop. In America, this is how we show reverence: we turn things into commodities.